Category Archives: People

State Dept refused to name its SGEs because of reasons #1, #2, #3, #4 and … oh right, the Privacy Act of 1974

– Domani Spero

Last week, ProPublica posted this: Who Are State Dept’s 100 “Special Government Employees”? It Won’t Say.  We blogged about it here: Who Are State Dept’s 100 “Special Government Employees”? Dunno But Is Non-Disclosure For Public Good? Today, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has more on the subject. And after months of giving one reason or another to the reporters pursuing this case, the State Department is down to its Captain America shield  — the Privacy Act of 1974.

Below excerpted from POGO: State Dept. Won’t Name Advisers Already in Government’s Public Database:

They’ve all been selected to advise the State Department on foreign policy issues. Their names are listed on the State Department’s website.

So why won’t the Department disclose that these individuals are special government employees (SGEs)?

For four months, State has refused to name its SGEs, ProPublica reported last week, leaving the public to guess which outside experts are advising the Department on matters that affect the public’s interest.

Yet, the Project On Government Oversight was able to find more than 100 of the advisers identified as SGEs in an online government database. In other words, some of the information that State has been refusing to provide is hiding in plain sight.
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State has refused to identify any of its special employees, even though most agencies contacted by ProPublica were easily able to provide a list of their SGEs.

First, a State spokeswoman told ProPublica her agency “does not disclose employee information of this nature.”

When ProPublica filed a request seeking the list of names under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), it was told the agency doesn’t keep such a list, and State’s FOIA office refused to track down the information because it would require “extensive research.”

In September, ProPublica told State it planned to report that the Department was refusing to provide a list of names. In response, State said the FOIA request “was being reopened” and that the records would be provided “in a few weeks,” according to ProPublica.

“The State Department has since pushed back the delivery date three times and still hasn’t provided any list,” ProPublica reported last week. “It has been four months since we filed the original request.”

On Friday, a State official told The Washington Post that the Department is “diligently working to resolve” the FOIA request. The official cited concerns about “maintaining employee protections of privacy.”

State’s posture over the past several months is at odds with POGO’s finding: why can’t the Department give the press the same information it already supplied to a public database?

“Disclosure of certain employee information is subject to the Privacy Act of 1974,” Alec Gerlach, a State spokesperson, told POGO. “That some information may already be publicly available does not absolve the Department of Privacy Act requirements. Whether someone is an SGE is Privacy Act-protected information that we would not release except through the FOIA process.”

However, one of the authors of ProPublica’s story questioned why State hasn’t turned over the requested records. “I think anytime a government agency won’t reveal information, it raises questions about why they aren’t,” Liz Day, ProPublica’s Director of Research, told POGO.

Holy mother of god of distraught spoxes!  Okay, please, try not to laugh. It is disturbing to watch this type of contortion, and it seems to be coming regularly these days from Foggy Bottom.

Seriously.  If this is about the Privacy Act of 1974, why wasn’t ProPublica told of this restriction four months ago? And does that mean that all other agencies who released their SGE names were in violation of the Privacy Act of 1974?

Also, State/OIG was told that “The number of special government employee filers was given as 100.”  A State Department spokeswoman told ProPublica that there are “about 100” such employees.  But what do you know?  The Project On Government Oversight was able to find more than 100 of the advisers (excel download file) identified as SGEs in an online government database. Are there more? How many more?

The list does not include the more famous SGEs of the State Department previously identified in news report.

New message from Mission Command:  “Good morning, Mr. Hunt (or whoever is available). Your mission, should you choose to accept it, involves the retrieval of very Special Government Employee (SGE) names. There are more than a hundred names but no one knows how many more.  They are padlocked in the Privacy Act of 1974 vault, guarded by a monstrous fire-breathing creature from Asia Minor. PA1974 vault location is currently in Foggy Bottom.  As always, should you or any member of your team be caught or killed, everybody with a badge will disavow all knowledge of your actions. This message will self-destruct in five seconds.  If not, well, find a match and burn.”

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Filed under Huh? News, Leaks|Controversies, People, Privacy, ProPublica, Public Service, Questions, State Department

Who Are State Dept’s 100 “Special Government Employees”? Dunno But Is Non-Disclosure For Public Good?

– Domani Spero

Via ProPublica:

So who else is a special government employee at the State Department? The department won’t say — even as eight other federal agencies readily sent us lists of their own special government employees.

A State Department spokeswoman did confirm that there are “about 100” such employees. But asked for a list, she added that, “As general policy, [the department] does not disclose employee information of this nature.”

Meanwhile, after we filed a Freedom of Information Act request in July for the same information, State responded in September that no such list actually exists: The human resources department “does not compile lists of personnel or positions in the category of ‘special government employee.’”

Creating such a list would require “extensive research” and thus the agency is not required to respond under FOIA, said a letter responding to our request.

In late September, after we told State we were going to publish a story on its refusal to provide the list, the agency said our FOIA request was being reopened. The agency said it would provide the records in a few weeks.

The State Department has since pushed back the delivery date three times and still hasn’t provided any list. It has been four months since we filed the original request.

Continue reading, Who Are State Dept’s 100 “Special Government Employees”? It Won’t Say

ProPublica notes that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, ex-chief of staff Cheryl Mills, and Maggie Williams have been identified previously in news reports as SGEs.  That means the State Department only needs to track down 97 other SGEs. Unless, of course, it wishes to provide a fullsome list and include previous SGEs during the Clinton and Rice tenures at the State Department. Oh, but wait a minute — if State is not tracking how many SGEs it has working there, how did it come up with the round figure of 100?

Anyway, another great mystery of the hour is this: How come other agencies are able to disclose this information but not the State Department?  That has not been properly explained.  Special Government Employees maybe special but they are still public employees.

Very special ones, of course.  According to U.S. Office of Government Ethics, an SGE’s agency can use special waiver provisions to resolve financial conflicts of interest arising under 18 U.S.C. § 208 (a criminal conflict of interest statute prohibiting an employee from participating in any particular Government matter affecting personal or “imputed” financial interests). An SGE is not covered by 5 U.S.C. app. 4 §§ 501 or 502 (civil statutes limiting outside earned income and restricting certain outside employment and affiliations). 5 C.F.R. § 2635.807 (a regulatory provision concerning the acceptance of compensation for certain teaching, speaking and writing) also applies differently to SGEs.

The USOGE explains why this category of government employees is different:

Some ethics provisions that apply to executive branch employees apply differently to an employee who qualifies as a “special Government employee” (SGE), or do not apply at all.

Congress created the SGE category in 1962 when it revised the criminal conflict of interest statutes. Congress recognized the need to apply appropriate conflict of interest restrictions to experts, consultants, and other advisers who serve the Government on a temporary basis. On the other hand, Congress also determined that the Government cannot obtain the expertise it needs if it requires experts to forego their private professional lives as a condition of temporary service. Since 1962, the SGE category has been used in a number of statutes and regulations as a means of tailoring the applicability of some restrictions.

As defined in 18 U.S.C. § 202, an SGE is an officer or employee who is retained, designated, appointed, or employed to perform temporary duties, with or without compensation, for not more than 130 days during any period of 365 consecutive days. The SGE category should be distinguished from other categories of individuals who serve executive branch agencies but who are not employees, such as independent contractors (who are generally not covered by the ethics laws and regulations at all).

State/OIG released its Review of the Department of State Ethics Program in September 2013.  That report indicates that “The number of special government employee filers was given as 100.”  These are “filers” of  OGE Form 450, Confidential Financial Disclosure Report and OGE Form 278, Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Report. Unfortunately, no list of SGE names.  But the fortunate thing about the bureaucracy is paperwork!  While HR may not “compile” a list of this category of employees, surely its Designated Agency Ethics Official have access to this information? If not, where are the paper trails of OGE Form 450s and 278s. Would tracking those require “extensive research”?

Other notable items from the report:

  • In a 2012 report, the Office of Government Ethics was critical of the Department of State’s Ethics Program, noting backlogs in processing financial disclosure reports and ethics agreements, problems with ethics training, and insufficient staff. The Office of Ethics and Financial Disclosure, a division within the Office of the Legal Adviser, had largely eliminated the backlogs by the end of 2012. However, the Office of Government Ethics report expressed concern about the Office of Ethics and Financial Disclosure’s limited resources to process a workload that is consistently higher than that of other agencies.
  • In 2012 the Department of State provided annual ethics training to less than 70 percent of those employees required to complete it. The Office of Ethics and Financial Disclosure implemented an online training module in late 2012 that will make ethics training more easily available to employees, but the Department of State does not have a definitive plan to increase the percentage of employees taking the training.
  • The Office of Ethics and Financial Disclosure is not systematically tracking ethics agreements to ensure that employees comply with the provisions.1 The database used by the office is incomplete and does not include important relevant information.
  • The Department of State does not have a consistent definition of who is required to file confidential financial disclosure reports. This shortcoming has a negative impact on the entire ethics program.

Screen Shot 2013-11-13

PAS – Presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed

The same OIG report also says “Other personnel, such as Schedule C employees and some special government employees, must also file public financial disclosure reports. These individuals are usually readily identifiable from their employment mechanisms and documents.”

Well, darn it, back to HR. Unless, of course, the State Department’s HR Bureau knows nothing about such “employment mechanisms and documents”?

Special Government Employee is a category created by Congress. It is perfectly legal to have SGEs working at government offices.   Other agencies like Treasury, Energy  and Commerce have their own SGEs and were forthcoming (well, after FOIA) with the information. Look, the Energy Department has 8 pages of SGEs. The Securities and Exchange Commission even included the annual salary of its sole SGE.  And  the State Department says with a straight face “As general policy, [the department] does not disclose employee information of this nature.”  

Blink.  C’mon.  Really?

Please don’t make this another case of It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Not Superman On a Nantucket Boat!

The State Department’s SGEs, presumably approved by the agency and its legal and/or ethics office ought to withstand public scrutiny.   Sharper bulbs at State should counsel, whoever is making these decisions, to disclose the agency’s SGE list.  Otherwise, the State Department need to explain why,the non-disclosure of its very special government employees is for the public good.

Yes, we’d like to know why “not knowing” is for our own good, and then we’ll call it quits.

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The Other Benghazi Four: Lengthy Administrative Circus Ended Today; Another Circus Heats Up

– By Domani Spero

They were the bureaucratic casualties of Benghazi.  Diplomatic Security officials Eric Boswell, Charlene Lamb, Steve Bultrowicz and NEA official, Raymond Maxwell were placed on paid administrative leave on December 19, 2012 following the release of the ARB Benghazi Report (See Issa — Kerry Paper Shuffling Saga: What’s With the 7-Month Administrative Leave?).

Today, eight months to the exact day when the four officials were put on ice,  the State Department has reportedly decided to end their administrative leave status.  All  four officials have reportedly been ordered to return to duty tomorrow, August 20 at 9:00 a.m. It is not yet clear what positions they will go back to when they return to Foggy Bottom.   At least one of them, Mr. Boswell already has a successor awaiting Senate confirmation as Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security.

Putting these four back to work, of course, does not answer why they were put on paid admin leave in the first place. But don’t worry. We are confident that the State Department’s spokesman will be able to explain this whole circus to the inquiring public by citing issues of employee confidentiality.

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Meanwhile, the Human Abedin circus appears to heat up without any help from sexting scandal magnet, Carlos Danger.  We should note that we do not believe Ms. Abedin is a Muslim Brotherhood princess sent to infiltrate the United States.  However, we are interested on her special employment arrangement at the State Department following the birth of her child.  The NYT recently reported that the senior Senator from Iowa Chuck Grassley has been asking questions about Huma Abedin’s employment arrangement with the State Department.  The NYT is also curious and fielded its own questions.  The State Department, of course, cited employee confidentiality issues and declined to answer these questions. And that, of course, makes this case even more interesting.

The questions Mr. Grassley and his staff are still seeking answers to include: who in the department specifically authorized the arrangement for Ms. Abedin; who in the department was aware of her outside consulting activities; copies of contracts Ms. Abedin signed with private clients; and the amount she earned from those contracts.

In addition, The New York Times asked the State Department to provide the titles and job descriptions of other individuals the department has permitted to serve in the capacity of special government employee, and whether any of Mrs. Clinton’s other political appointees were given the special designation.

The department has declined to do so, citing issues of employee confidentiality.

The NYT report points out that Ms. Abedin, in addition to being a “special government employee” at the State Department also worked for three other entities:

Ms. Abedin, 37, a confidante of Mrs. Clinton’s, was made a “special government employee” in June 2012. That allowed her to continue her employment at State but also work for Teneo, a consulting firm, founded in part by a former aide to President Bill Clinton, that has a number of corporate clients, including Coca-Cola. In addition, Ms. Abedin worked privately for the Clinton Foundation and for Mrs. Clinton personally.

While Senator Grassley maybe accused of playing politics here, we totally agree with him when he says that “basic information about a special category of employees who earn a government salary shouldn’t be a state secret.”   Further, he also said, “Disclosure of information builds accountability from the government to the taxpaying public. Agencies that lose sight of transparency also lose public trust.”

In a statement to The Times on Sunday, a State Department spokesman said: “Ms. Abedin was invaluable to the secretary and her entire operation, providing a breadth of broad-based and specific expertise from her years in the White House and at the department that was irreplaceable.”

These folks are talking about a special government employee or SGE. The Office of Government Ethics explains:

Congress created the SGE category in 1962 when it revised the criminal conflict of interest statutes. Congress recognized the need to apply appropriate conflict of interest restrictions to experts, consultants, and other advisers who serve the Government on a temporary basis. On the other hand, Congress also determined that the Government cannot obtain the expertise it needs if it requires experts to forego their private professional lives as a condition of temporary service. Since 1962, the SGE category has been used in a number of statutes and regulations as a means of tailoring the applicability of some restrictions.

As defined in 18 U.S.C. § 202, an SGE is an officer or employee who is retained, designated, appointed, or employed to perform temporary duties, with or without compensation, for not more than 130 days during any period of 365 consecutive days. The SGE category should be distinguished from other categories of individuals who serve executive branch agencies but who are not employees, such as independent contractors (who are generally not covered by the ethics laws and regulations at all). Also, although many SGEs serve as advisory committee members, not all members of advisory committees are SGEs.

According to AFSA, the State Department had 104 Schedule C employees in 2012.  However, the personnel statistics we’ve looked at does not specify how many SGEs work at the State Department.  It would be interesting to see how many Schedule C employees also became SGEs and had similar employment arrangements to Ms. Abedin who resigned from State on Feb. 1. If Ms. Abedin became an SGE in June 2012 as reported, and resigned in February 2013, that’s more than 130 days.  It would be shocking, of course, if there are no exemptions to that 130-day rule since Congress made the rule.

The NYT report also cited Ms. Abedin’s response:  “Ms. Abedin, in a letter she wrote last month in response to Mr. Grassley’s inquiry, said she had sought the special status because she had recently given birth to her son and wanted to remain in New York while continuing to work for the department.”

How many other new moms at the State Department wanted that opportunity, too, we wonder?

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Video of the Week: Can we please borrow Australia’s Lt. Gen. David Morrison for a bit?

—By Domani Spero

The State Department spokesman said,  “We hold all employees to the highest standards.”  Her top boss also said, “all employees of this department are held to the highest standards, now and always.” Of course, they are held to the highest standards. They are all public servants representing the United States overseas, we hold them to the highest expectation. But what we want to hear from the Secretary of State is what is he going to do if these allegations of manipulation and interference of DSS investigations are proven true?

Since we haven’t heard anything about that, we’re just going to borrow this guy talking about standing up for others, morale moral courage and legacy.

This is the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, AO, to the Australian Army following the announcement on Thursday, 13 June 2013 of civilian police and Defence investigations into allegations of unacceptable behaviour by Army members.

“If we are a great national institution – if we care about the legacy left to us by those who have served before us, if we care about the legacy we leave to those who, in turn, will protect and secure Australia – then it is up to us to make a difference.

Yeah, that.

(‘_’)

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“Conservative Estimate” of Proceeds from Alleged Visas for Sale Scheme “At Least $10 Million”

McClatchy ’s Michael Doyle has a follow up report on Michael T. Sestak, the Foreign Service officer accused of selling hundreds of visas to residents of Vietnam.  Mr. Sestak made his first appearance in D.C. court on Tuesday according to McClatchy. Excerpt below:

 In a 10-minute session Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson informed Sestak that he faces up to 20 years in prison on charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and bribery. For now, Robinson declined to release Sestak from jail and held him without bond.

Seldom looking up from the table, and dressed in tan pants and a gray T-shirt, Sestak sat silently next to his attorney during the session. In addition to agreeing on a preliminary hearing date of June 14, Sestak’s legal counsel, J. Michael Hannon, filed a bond review motion to be heard Thursday.

Prosecutors said in a May 22 court document that “a conservative estimate” of the proceeds from the alleged conspiracy was “at least $10 million,” although officials added that “approximately $5 million in proceeds remains unaccounted for” and is thought to be in Vietnam.

McClatchy also reports that officials have arrested a 29-year-old Vietnamese citizen, Truc Tranh Huynh in Washington, as one of the alleged co-conspirators.   In addition, Diplomatic Security Service has reportedly filed a warrant to seize money in a brokerage account of another alleged co-conspirators, Anhdao Thuy Nguyen, also known as Alice Nguyen claiming it came from visa fraud.

The name of that alleged co-conspirator may actually be Nguyen Thuy Anh Dao, already reported in Vietnamese press as the spouse of co-conspirator #1.

Continue reading, Michael T. Sestak, accused of selling visas, held without bond.

We have previously blogged about this in Sestak Criminal Complaint Details Alleged Visa For Dollars Scheme: Refusal Rates, Emails, and Money Trails.  Tuoi Tre News in Vietnam has covered this case with great zeal (see links below).

(o_O)

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

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House Oversight Committee Subpoenas Benghazi-Related Documents To/From Ten State Dept Officials

On May 28, 2013, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) announced the issuance of a subpoena for  “documents and communications referring or relating to the Benghazi talking points” from ten current and former State Department officials.

Ah, yes – the irresistible talking points.

The letter and subpoena sets a deadline of Friday, June 7, 2013, for Secretary Kerry to provide all documents and communications referring or relating to the Benghazi talking points, to or from the following current and former State Department personnel:

  1. William Burns, Deputy Secretary of State;
  2. Elizabeth Dibble, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs;
  3. Beth Jones, Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs;
  4. Patrick Kennedy, Under Secretary for Management;
  5. Cheryl Mills, Counselor and Chief of Staff to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (departed post)
  6. Thomas Nides, Deputy Secretary for Management (departed post)
  7. Victoria Nuland, Spokesperson (nominee for Assistant Secretary of EUR)
  8. Philippe Reines, Deputy Assistant Secretary (departed post)
  9. Jake Sullivan, Director of Policy Planning (departed post, currently VPOTUS National Security Advisor)
  10. David Adams, Assistant Secretary for State for Legislative Affairs (departed post)

 

Click here to read Chairman Issa’s letter to Secretary Kerry.

Stock up on popcorn folks.  “Talking Points” will not have a season finale for the foreseeable future.

 

– DS

 

 

 

 

 

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Tom and Mary Beth Smedinghoff’s Statement on Daughter Anne Killed in Afghanistan

Via WaPo’s Ernesto Londoño:

 The American diplomat killed Saturday was identified as Anne Smedinghoff by her parents. Smedinghoff was recently tasked with assisting Secretary of State John F. Kerry on his trip to Kabul.

Four other State Department officials who were with her, traveling to a school in the southern province of Zabul, were injured in the same bombing, one critically.

Read in full here.

Mr. Londoño also shared the statement from Ms. Smedinghoff’s parents, Tom and Mary Beth Smedinghoff e-mailed to the Washington Post:

Screen Shot 2013-04-06 at 9.27.24 PM

Statement from Tom & Mary Beth Smedinghoff 

The world lost a truly beautiful soul today. Our daughter, Anne, a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, died in the service of her country as she was traveling with a group to deliver books to a local school in the Zabul Province of Afghanistan. She joined the Foreign Service three years ago right out of college and there was no better place for her.

Anne absolutely loved the work she was doing. Her first assignment was in Caracas, Venezuela. She then volunteered for an assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which she began in July, 2012. Working as a public diplomacy officer, she particularly enjoyed the opportunity to work directly with the Afghan people and was always looking for opportunities to reach out and help to make a difference in the lives of those living in a country ravaged by war. We are consoled knowing that she was doing what she loved, and that she was serving her country by helping to make a positive difference in the world. She was such a wonderful woman–strong, intelligent, independent, and loving. Annie, you left us too soon; we love you and we’re going to miss you so much.

To re-phrase the bard …

Take her and cut her out in little stars, 

And she will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

– DS

 

 

 

 

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Canadian Caper’s John Sheardown Who Sheltered U.S. Diplomats During Hostage Crisis Dies at 88

John Sheardown, a Canadian diplomat in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis who sheltered four of the six Americans who evaded capture during the US Embassy takeover in 1979, died   Sunday, December 30 at The Ottawa Hospital. He was 88.

john sheardown

John Sheardown. 1980.  Photo via screen capture from YouTube

The six Americans escaped out of Iran in what was originally known as the Canadian Caper in January 1980.  Click the video here of the PBS piece made in 1980 describing their escape from Iran.  That escape, recently dramatized in the 2012 Ben Affleck movie Argo would not have been possible without the help of Canadian friends like John Sheardown who took care of their American “house guests” at great personal peril.

John Sheardown was a World War II bomber pilot and an Order of Canada recipient.  The order recognizes the achievement of outstanding merit or distinguished service by Canadians who made a major difference to Canada through lifelong contributions in every field of endeavour, as well as the efforts made by non-Canadians who have made the world better by their actions. According to The Star, Mr. Sheardown was offered the keys to New York by then mayor Edward Koch but he apparently declined, saying Ambassador Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Tehran during the crisis had received them on behalf of all who were involved.  His home city of Windsor, Ontario honored him this year by declaring November 10 the John Sheardown Day.

Requiescat in pace, John Sheardown.

domani spero sig

 

 

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Will McCants’ Lost in Cyberspace and the State Dept’s Missing Balls

On December 4, we wrote about the State Dept rewriting the media engagement rules for employees in the wake of the Peter Van Buren affair.

A blog pal wrote, asking if we knew that we caused a stir in the Truman building.  Like “State did not have their talking points or justifications in order.”

Talking points need clearance, too.  Oh dear.

The piece was  picked up by Charles Cooper of C|Net on December 5, and he actually got an official email response from State’s deputy spokesman Mark Toner of the Bureau of Public Affairs.

Provisions in the Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual are constantly under review. We are in the process of updating the regulations governing publication — both traditional and digital — to recognize the dynamic and decentralized nature of the 21st century information environment. The updates are still in progress and not final. They will be public, like all of our regulations, when they are final.

Not  a bad response.  But it probably means, it gets updated every time something hits the fan.

3 FAM 4170 for Official Clearance of Speaking, Writing, and Teaching  was last updated in 2009. All except one of the sub-rules date back to 2005.

The rules for Using Social Media in the State Department are listed in 5 FAM 790 and released in June 2010.  One of State’s self-identified media gurus once told us that this reg is not perfect; but so far we have not seen any effort to improved it.

Once the rules are in the books, it’ll take sometime before the regs gets another update.

A few days after the WaPo and C|Net articles, Will McCants, an analyst at CNA and a former senior adviser for countering violent extremism at the State Department as well as the author of a DoD-commissioned study of how to communicate with foreign audiences using social media, wrote Lost in Cyberspace in Foreign Policy. Excerpt below:

Although the review began before the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted controversial denunciations of the anti-Mohamed YouTube clip that sparked riots in September, friends at State tell me that Embassy Cairo’s tweets — which were not approved by Washington — gave added urgency to the effort to draft new guidelines for online behavior. State’s contemplated restrictions on its employees’ use of Twitter do not arise from a misunderstanding of a medium; some of Twitter’s most prominent members, including Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, work or have worked at State. Rather, State worries that the freewheeling, uncontrollable environment of Twitter could lead the public interpret the tweets of its employees as representing the official U.S. position on sensitive issues.
[...]
“The more State allows its employees to tweet during periods of calm, the more likely it will be that the institution can weed out problem tweeters and elevate those who have done a good job cultivating a community of interest.”

There is also something to be said for creating a little distance between the official U.S. position declared by a State spokesperson and tweets from embassy spokespeople and employees. State can take a long time formulating messages in response to crises because it has to vet them in many offices and, often, with the national security staff in the White House. By allowing embassy tweeters to message on their own, State will get early indications of what works and what doesn’t for the various audiences it is trying to reach.

Read in full over at FP – Lost in Cyberspace.

Attracted lots of eyeballs. Fun twittersation follows the FP article.

twittersation updated fam

Even @NickKristof  waded in and then others, too.

@NickKristof If the State Dept is really thinking about 2-day vetting of tweets, that’s the dumbest idea ever.

@AlecJRoss “@Diplopundit @emilcDC @thenewdiplomats @tomistweeting My team involved in drafting/approving. Not even close to what has been blogged.”

 

Whoops! Cushy tushy hurts! But teh-heh!

Here is a curious thing.  The Public Affairs guy responded to C|Net earlier on, and then Mr. Ross took to the spin floor later on.  Note that Alec J. Ross may be the senior advisor at the Office of the Secretary of State, but the clearing office for all matters in the Big House is located within the Bureau of Public Affairs, an office in the Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. How involved is his team in “drafting/approving” the regs we may never know. But there are multiple offices involved in the drafting and clearance of the regs not just one.

Perhaps somebody should get in touch?

So then, Alec J. Ross whose actual title if you don’t know it yet is senior advisor for innovation at the Office of the Secretary of State, responded to Will McCants’s piece with:

Updating our social-media guidelines will help make the State Dept MORE open and social media-centric, not less open. It will also make us faster.

EXISTING guidelines allow a 30-day review period for all forms of public communication, including those intended for online publications and social media, though in practice review and response is much quicker. That means that the policy we have in place NOW allows us a 30-day review period. If the DRAFT guidelines go into effect as they are (and they’re still draft), that would shrink from 30 days to two days for a small subset of content. It doesn’t mean that we would take the two days or that it would increase the number of social media posts that are reviewed. We just want to provide an outside window by which employees are promised a response. “

Somebody walked that statement to the PA clearance office, huh?  And since Mr. Ross is practically a Twitter national, he also tweeted the author and got an immediate response.

@will_mccants
oops, should have submitted my article 4 review RT @AlecJRoss: @will_mccants In future please get in touch before publishing on this topic.

So cute!

Okay, then, Mr. Ross’s response sounds good.  Looking forward to a fantastic “MORE open and social media-centric” final rule.  But hey, don’t forget, 5 FAM 790on Using Social Media needs a good scrubbing, too.  We’ll have a separate post on how well the 30 day clearance rule rocks outside the studio.

But on social media, the demand for almost immediate response carries an inherent risk.  The question is how much are you willing to risk? And what about those who are “engaging” in the the public sphere in their personal capacity? How tolerant is your organization to perceived mistakes that will inevitably happen?

We remember that Mr. Ross said once, “We”re willing to make mistakes of commission rather than omission.”

Just because he said it, does not make it so.

Anyway, wasn’t US Embassy Egypt’s Larry Schwartz thrown under the bus because of those ‘er “mistakes of commission?” Recalled anyone  with balls from State’s 21st century statecraft shop who went online to defend our man in Cairo?

We don’t recall Mr. Ross or anyone at State with a Twitter handle defending the poor sod at the US Embassy in Cairo in the aftermath of that controversial statement and tweets following the mob attack there in September. The statement and the tweets could have only been approved by the Chief of Mission in Cairo because that’s where the clearance authority is delegated per FAM regulations.

See more here. The notion that the embassy statement was sent to Main State for clearance when there was a senior PA officer at post, or that the PAO was specifically told not to use it and he went ahead and did it anyway is just way too ludicrous. That’s not how careers are built at State.

And really dudes — if the mob is going over your walls, and the police is not coming, you want to try and diffuse the situation rather than throw petrol bombs at the crowd. So …

President Obama, who does not hold office at the State Department did offer muted support which is better than nothing: “And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they’re in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office.”

Secretary Clinton said what? Sorry, can’t hear you.

Still, in October, unnamed State Dept officials told the WSJ that Mr. Schwartz had been on temporary assignment in Cairo and has been given a new “permanent position” in Washington.  They made the relocation sounds like a promotion.  While a TDY assignment to Cairo is not unheard of, Egypt is not/not a Hard to Fill post. Which means assignments are formalized a year before an FSO is actually assigned there.  Prior to Cairo, Mr. Schwartz was the Director for Planning, Policy, and Resources at the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.  As to Mr. Schwartz being given a new permanent position, he is not listed anywhere on the State Dept’s current directory.  Anyone know if he even has a real desk there?

Perhaps State is learning.  Last November when @USEmbassyCairo made another splash on Twitter, at least the Near Eastern Affairs bureau spokesman showed up for some sort of “we’ve got your back” moment.

That’s a good thing.  And it should help, too if you stop throwing your guys under the bus.

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Filed under Digital Diplomacy, People, Regulations, Social Media, State Department, Technology and Work

Consular Work Enters 21st Century: US Citizen John McAfee Blogs from Guatemala Jail

Perhaps you’ve heard by now about the anti-virus software tycoon John McAfee who fled Belize to seek asylum in Guatemala. If not,  read Wired magazine’s piece, John McAfee, Unhinged: His Bizarre Breaks From Reality.

Anyway, Mr. McAfee has now been arrested in Guate, was refused asylum and will reportedly be sent back to Belize where authorities were looking to question him about the shooting death of American expatriate Greg Faull.

But because the Internet is the now public space, Mr. McAfee has an official blog (The Hinterland, the official blog of John McAfee) which is updated often.  He is on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.  His tweets @officialmcafee has over 11,000 followers, about the same number of followers as @usembassyguate, the official Twitter feed of US Embassy Guatemala.

mcafee
And he’s blogging even in jail! About this being a “groundbreaking” activity and about speaking to a Duty Officer at the US Embassy in Guatemala.

Blogging from jail
Date: December 6, 2012 at 5:24 am- by John McAfee- Comment(s): 84    

I am in jail in Guatemala.  Vastly superior to Belize jails.  I asked for a computer and one magically appeared.  The coffee is also excellent. Only time will tell what will happen.  No one has a crystal ball.  However, I would be truly shocked if I did not conduct the press conference tomorrow as I had originally planned. Stay tuned. I believe, by the way, that blogging from a jail cell might be a groundbreaking activity.

The American Embassy Guatemala
Date: December 6, 2012 at 6:11 am- by John McAfee- Comment(s): 30    

I just spoke with the duty officer at the Embassy who said there is nothing that they can do.  I asked to be returned to the States, and again … nothing they can do.  So I will wait and see. P.S.  Anybody have friends in the State Department?

Late afternoon of December 6, Mr. McAfee made a plea to his supporters to email or tweet the President of Guatemala to “beg him to allow the court system to proceed, to determine my status in Guatemala, and please support the political asylum that I am asking for.”

Shortly after that, reports says he was taken to a hospital. But it was not a heart attack, just high stress.  ABC News who has a reporter in Guate writes that John McAfee has been returned to an immigration detention cell in Guatemala after being rushed to a Guatemala City hospital via ambulance and that he may soon be deported back to Belize.

We can’t remember a case of a US citizen arrested overseas who is, in the words of one journalist covering the State Department, “a walking television show.” And this one has a Twitter and blog account and is actively using them.  ABC News details the reported heart attack:

McAfee, 67 [...] was reportedly found prostrate on the floor of his cell and unresponsive.  He was wheeled into the hospital on a gurney. Photographers followed in pursuit right into the emergency room, but as emergency workers eased McAfee’s limp body from the gurney and onto a bed and began to remove his suit, he suddenly spoke up, saying, “Please, not in front of the press.”

Please don’t laugh, this is actually quite sad.

* * *

If you are the American Citizen Services Officer in Guate or Belize, our thoughts are also with you.  We’ve never seen any training material or murder boards for a walking/talking teevee show. But you’ll do fine, take a deep breath and swim, don’t sink.

If you are a Consular Officer somewhere in the Western Hemisphere, get ready; if he gets out of Guate, he may show up at your window.  If you follow him on Twitter, he might give a heads up.

If you are the Bureau of Consular Affairs, this is potentially, as Mr. McAfee says, “groundbreaking.” How should your Consular Officers deal with a detained citizen blogging/tweeting from jail?  This is the first one, but this may not be the last.  Is it time to update your ConGen training on the Republic of Z?

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Filed under Americans Abroad, Consular Work, People, Social Media, State Department, Technology and Work, Training, U.S. Missions