Category Archives: Peter Van Buren

Monday Inbox: US Embassy Baghdad’s Conrad Turner Recites a Russian Poem, And ….

– Domani Spero

Updated on 3/24 at 11:24 pm PST: The YouTube description now indicates that this is “One of four videos celebrating international poetry during the visit to Iraq of poets from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop.”

The video below was published by U.S. Embassy Baghdad on March 4, 2014 on YouTube. The video includes the English and Arabic text translation of a Russian poem.  The speaker is the embassy’s Public Affairs Counselor in Baghdad reciting a poem by Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin in Baghdad. The embassy’s AIO also recited a poem last February; can’t say whose work he is reciting here, can you?

Oh, please don’t get us wrong, we love poetry.  We love Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese and  Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Underwear“and Keats, and Yeats, and Billy Collins, too.  But somebody from that building sent us an email asking if this is “really clever use of PD time and money?” So we went and look.  The YouTube post is 1:40 min in length, has 256 views, and does not include any context as to why our U.S. diplomat in Baghdad is reciting a Russian poem. What’s the purpose why this video is up, anyways? Was this part of a larger event? Nothing on the embassy’s website indicate that it is.  Was he just feeling it?  We can’t say, no explainer with the vid.  This could, of course, be part of celebrating poetry month, but the National Poetry Month in the U.S. has been celebrated in April since 1996.

In related news, according to iraqbodycount.org, the March civilian casualties in Iraq is currently at 749; the year-to-date count is 2,755 deaths.

Well, what do you think –  is this “really clever use of PD time and money?” or is this Reality Detachment, a chapter in Peter Van Buren’s future novel?

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Filed under Digital Diplomacy, Foreign Service, FSOs, Iraq, Peter Van Buren, Public Diplomacy, Social Media, U.S. Missions, US Embassy Baghdad

US Embassy Yemen: Revocation of U.S. Passports, a Growing Trend?

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– Domani Spero

Back in August 2013, Yemen Post reported of “more than 20 known cases” of U.S. passports revoked by U.S. Embassy Sana’a in Yemen:

More than 20 known cases of Yemeni-Americans who have tried to renew their passports in Yemen have surfaced in the last four months. The Yemeni American News has learned that the usual scenario is that American citizens of Yemeni descent have had their passports taken away when they go to the American Embassy in Sana’a to either renew their passports or get a visa for an immediate relative. Not only is it common for the embassy to decline a passport renewal or disallow a visa but, in addition, citizens are having their passports confiscated.

Peter Van Buren previously blogged about the U.S. passport revocations at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen here and here. WaPo’s  In the Loop has a Jan.9  item about the rights groups’ warning to U.S. passports applicants visiting the embassy.

Here is what state.gov says about passport revocation:

Passport revocation may be effected when the person obtained the passport fraudulently, when the passport was issued in error, when the person’s certificate of naturalization was cancelled by a federal court, or when the person would not be entitled to a new passport under 22 C.F.R. §§ 51.60, 51.61, or 51.62.

The State Department revokes passports in accordance with Title 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) sections 51.60-62, and 51.65. There are also several statutes under which passports may be revoked and that are incorporated into DOS’s regulations, including: 8 U.S.C. 1504 (the passport was illegally, fraudulently or erroneously obtained); 42 U.S.C. 652(k) (for non-payment of child support); 22 U.S.C. 2714 (for certain drug traffickers); 22 U.S.C. 2671(d)(3) (non-repayment of repatriation loan); and 22 U.S.C. 212a (adds authority to revoke passports of persons convicted of sex tourism). Via

You may click here for 22 CFR on the denial and restriction of passports.

There had been talks alleging “500 seized/revoked passport cases.” Our own inside source who is not authorized to speak about this matter tells us that “at least 100 passports were taken” so far in Sana’a.  We were told that most of the individuals concerned were naturalized U.S. citizens.  According to State Department rules which are not published online, individuals remain eligible for U.S. passports until their Certificate of Naturalizations are revoked.

Naturalization certificates are supposed to stand on its own and cannot be questioned.  If the State Department has negative information, it is supposed to send the information to DHS/USCIS for action. But unlike most other immigration proceedings that USCIS handles in an administrative setting, revocation of naturalization can only occur in federal court.

Here is what USCIS says on revocation of naturalization:

If a court revokes a person’s U.S. citizenship obtained through naturalization, the court enters an order revoking the persons naturalization and cancelling the person’s Certificate of Naturalization. In such cases, the person must surrender his or her Certificate of Naturalization. Once USCIS obtains the court’s order revoking citizenship and cancelling the certificate, USCIS updates its records, including electronic records, and notifies the Department of State of the person’s revocation of naturalization. 

So — if true that most of the revocation cases concerned naturalized Yemeni-Americans, is the US Embassy in Yemen performing passport revocations without prior action from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS)?  Is this a case of a new policy?  Or is this a case of a Consular Section running “wild” with “minimal supervision” an allegation made by a State Department insider to this blog?

We asked around for an official comment and could only get one from a State Department official speaking on background:

“This Department is aware of the reports concerning these passports, and the situation has been reviewed.  Regarding the Department’s policy for passport revocation, the Department may revoke a passport, regardless of location, for reasons set forth in federal law and in federal regulations.  U.S. passports are the property of the United States Government and upon revocation must be returned to the Department of State.  A passport bearer is notified of the revocation and the reasons for revocation and must surrender the passport.  Depending upon the circumstances, the bearer may be provided with a limited validity passport for a direct return to the United States.”

The State Department refused to confirm or deny the number of passport revocations to date.

In response to reports that the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa has been taking U.S. passports away from a large number of U.S. citizens in Yemen, civil rights and community organizations like the ACLU, ALC, AROC, CAIR and CLEAR have published a booklet to raise awareness about the constitutional rights of people whose passports have been taken away, or who are interviewed or “interrogated” at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa.

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Click on image to view the PDF document

A little more digging around indicates a few court cases involving the US Embassy in Sana’a.

Abdo Hizam v. Hillary Clinton

Plaintiff Abdo Hizam brought action against defendants Hillary Clinton, the United States Department of State, and the United States of America (collectively the “State Department”) seeking a judgment declaring that he is a citizen of the United States and an order compelling the defendants to re-issue his Consular Report of Birth Abroad for a Citizen of the United States (“CRBA”) and passport.

On April 18, 2011, the State Department informed Mr. Hizam by letter of its opinion that it had committed an error in calculating the physical presence requirement for his acquisition of citizenship at birth. Subsequently, the State Department informed Mr. Hizam that his CRBA had been canceled and his passport revoked and requested the return of those documents. On May 19, 2011, he complied.

The July 27 Order found that the State Department did not have the authority to revoke Mr. Hizam’s citizenship documents and ordered the return of Mr. Hizam’s CRBA. The State Department contended that absent a stay it will suffer irreparable injury because the July 27 Order undermines its “sole discretion” to withhold passports. The Court says that “being required to comply with a court order is insufficient in and of itself to constitute irreparable harm.” In September 2012, the Court ruled that the stay is denied on the condition that Mr. Hizam not seek derivative status for his family members until an appeal, if lodged, is resolved.” The appeal is ongoing on this case.

The Hizam case was covered by NYT in 2012 here. This case bears watching as no fraud is alleged here; instead, the CRBA was issued due to the error of the adjudicating officer.

 Nashwan Ahmed Qassem v. Holder et. al. | CIVIL DOCKET FOR CASE #: 6:13-cv-06041-DGL

Complaint for writ of mandamus & declaratory judgment against Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Consular General, US Embassy, Sana’a Yemen, and Chief, Immigrant Visa Branch, US Embassy, Sana’a Yemen, Eric Holder, The United States Department of Justice, filed by Nashwan Ahmed Qassem. In October 2013, the Clerk of the Court was directed to close the case by Hon. David G. Larimer.  This case reportedly involved Embassy Sana’as  revocation of a passport and was settled by issuing the passport.

All documents sealed except for order granting motion to withdraw.

Alarir et al v. Holder et al.|  CIVIL DOCKET FOR CASE #: 1:12-cv-07781-AKH

Complaint in the nature of mandamus against Gerald Michael Feierstein, Eric H. Holder, Janice L. Jacobs, Alejandro Mayorkas, Janet Napolitano, Hillary Rodham Clinton by Abdallah Alarir aka Aiyahs, Nasser A. On or about October 18, 2012, seeks order compelling Defendants to (a) issue an immigrant visa to plaintiff Abdallah Alarir and (b) issue United States passports and Consular Records of Birth Abroad to plaintiffs Alaa AJarir and Rawan Alarir.  After a sixth request for an extension, on 10/31/2013, the Clerk was directed to close the case by Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein. The case endorsement says “A suggestion of settlement having been made, this case is dismissed, subject to restoration by either party within 30 days on notice. All pending court dates are cancelled.”

The case was settled with issuance of an immigrant visa to Abdallah Alarir and United States passports and Consular Records of Birth Abroad to Alaa Alarir and Rawan Alarir according to the dismissal order dated November 2013.

Mousa v. United States of America et. al.| CIVIL DOCKET FOR CASE #: 3:13-cv-05958-BHS

COMPLAINT filed (sealed) on November 2013 against defendant(s) United States of America, U.S. Consulate for the Country of Yemen, David Doe, John Doe by Hashed Naji Mohamed Mousa, Fekriah Abdulwahab and minor children, A.H.M., B.H.M. As of 12/05/2013, this case reportedly involving the passport applications of minor children is ongoing. Some files are sealed.

Passport Applications Pending at Post

According to 7 FAM 1368 — “If the passport applicant does not have sufficient evidence to establish a claim to U.S. citizenship, post must provide the applicant with written notification that his/her application has been denied, but will be held by post for 90 days pending submission of additional evidence. If an applicant requests additional time to submit evidence within the 90 day period, posts may grant an additional 90 days or other reasonable period of time based upon the circumstances. In general, passport applications may not remain pending at a post for more than six months.”

If passport applications have been pending at post for six months or even longer (WaPo says that some cases are pending for two years), and American citizens had to get lawyers, and go to court to compel the embassy to decide on their cases, then there is something problematic with the process. Absent an official explanation from the CA Bureau, we can only speculate on what is going on here: 1) Is there is a new policy on passport applications/revocations that the State Department is using without appropriate announcement? 2)  Is there is a new policy on passport applications/revocation that State is using specific to Yemeni-American passport applications? 3) Are there Citizenship/Passport/Fraud staffing issues at Embassy Sana’a that impacts this trend? 4) Is the lengthy waiting time and backlog due to fraud overload at post?

Isolated Cases or a New Trend?

We could not locate any new guidance publicly available on U.S. passport revocations. Is there one available  that supersedes 7 FAM 1368?  If there is one, it would have been published in the Federal Register, not just the changes but the propose changes to the rules. There appears to be several proposals for information collection related to passport applications published on the Federal Register but nothing on passport revocations.

If true that over 100 passports were taken away, revoked or pending revocation, these are no longer isolated cases but  may now constitute a trend.  In 2010, a State/OIG report on Yemen includes this:

“The failed attempt by a Yemeni-trained Nigerian terrorist to blow up a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas Eve 2009 and the Yemeni links to the U.S. Army major who, in November 2009, allegedly killed 13 of his countrymen in Fort Hood, Texas, have raised the public consciousness of Yemen as a center for terrorism. This awareness has underscored the importance to homeland security of all consular activities. Issuing a passport or visa to a terrorist is a real risk, and Embassy Sanaa works hard to make sure that their product is free of fraud.”

But if that’s the basis for this “new” trend in passport processing at post, how about  the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and the UAE?  Are U.S. embassies in those countries also revoking passports of Americans of local origins? The Times Square plot involved Faisal Shahzad, an American of Pakistani origin. Shoe bomber and self-proclaimed Al Qaeda member Richard Reid is a British citizen. If there is a new passport policy, is it universally applied to every country where there were terrorist plots hatched or where the attackers trained or originated?  (A side note — A couple of years ago, the UK stripped British citizenship from 16 individuals who had dual nationality because they were considered to pose a threat to the UK. In 2011, more than 50 Australians have had their passports revoked or refused to prevent them from going overseas for “terrorist training holidays).”

But — that does not seem to be the case here or we would have heard more about this. So what is it? Why Yemen in particular? And how come this appears to be happening only in the last year or so?

Fraud Overload?

In 2010, the State Department estimated the number of U.S. citizens in Yemen at  over 55,000. According to State/OIG, U.S. citizenship is highly valued in Yemen. “Fathers can receive up to $50,000 (45 times the per capita Gross Domestic Product) as a bride price for a U.S.-citizen daughter. As a result, parents often claim children as their own who are in fact from other families, in order to fraudulently document the children as U.S. citizens and use them as a potential source of income.”

A 2009 Fraud Summary floating around the net describes Yemen as having a “pervasive fraud environment.” At that time, the embassy estimated that two-thirds of  its immigrant visa cases (IV) were fraudulent and  that the embassy considered all cases fraudulent until proven otherwise.  Post also used DNA testing and bone age testing to ensure that only qualified children of U.S.citizens receive passport benefits.  So is the passport processing time, lengthly and complicated in Yemen exacerbated by fraud overload?

Muckrock.com, by the way, has filed an FOIA of the Fraud Summary for Sanaa last year and we’re still waiting for that to show up online.

Staffing Shortages?

The American Citizen Services Unit of an embassy handles among other things Emergency Services to U.S. Citizens Abroad, and Citizenship and Nationality cases.  Due to the more complicated nature of these cases, the unit is typically staff by a mid-level officer and local employees.  The unit, almost always, depending on the workload include one entry level officer who is typically on a 3-6 month job rotation in the ACS unit.  Another component of the consular operation is the Fraud Manager, who often times, is also a first or second tour officer, complemented by local staff and in some cases a Regional Security Officer-Investigator (RSO-I). At the time of the IG inspection, the Fraud Unit was staffed by two LE staff members, a part time ARSO-I, a part-time, first-tour vice consul, and no full-time Fraud Manager.

The State/OIG 2010 report on Yemen especially noted that “staffing shortages and backlogs increase the risk to U.S. homeland security caused by pervasive fraud and the threat of terrorism.” Subsequent to the inspection, we understand that the embassy hired an eligible family member as a Fraud Manager and also hired a local fraud analyst.  The situation in Yemen has progressively become more difficult in the last several years. Sana’a has been designated a 30% danger post since 2008.  In 2013, it became a 30% hardship post.  Under the circumstances, can you imagine the staffing shortages improving significantly?

Anyway, we don’t know exactly what’s going on here except that the “situation has been reviewed.” It is doubtful that the Bureau of Consular Affairs will provide some clarity on what’s going on with passport revocations in Yemen but we think it should.  It ought to also provide guidance on how to file an appeal in revocation cases.  Embassy Yemen does not provide any instruction online on this regard.  If limited staffing at post has exascerbated  the processing backlog, perhaps CA who has tons of consular funds should consider additional temporary staffing at a nearby post to help address the problem.

Maybe State’s ace in a hole is  Haig v. Agee, (1981) which upheld the right of the executive branch to revoke a citizen’s passport for reasons of national security and the foreign policy interests of the U.S. under the Passport Act of 1926.  But – if these revocation are only happening in Yemen, might not all this end up in court as individual lawsuits or as a potential class action depending on actual number of people impacted?  

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Filed under Americans Abroad, Consular Work, Court Cases, Foreign Service, Govt Reports/Documents, Peter Van Buren, Staffing the FS, State Department, Trends, U.S. Missions

“This Week With George Stephanopoulos” Features Former Embassy Tripoli DCM Gregory Hicks

– By Domani Spero

FSO Gregory Hicks, the former Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Tripoli (July 2012-October 2012) was one of George Stephanopoulos’s Sunday morning guests on “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” on September 8.  Below is an excerpt from the transcript:

Via ABC News

Via ABC News

via ABC News

via ABC News

Read the full transcript here.

Asked for a response by ABC News, a spokesman said the State Department has “not punished Mr. Hicks in any way” and that “the circumstances that led to his departure from Libya was entirely unrelated to any statements he may have made relating to the attack in Benghazi.” Full statement below:

State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach’s statement to ABC News:

The State Department has not punished Mr. Hicks in any way. We appreciate his exemplary service on the evening of September 11 and his long career as a member of the Foreign Service.

Although the State Department ordinarily does not discuss the details of personnel matters publicly, because he has alleged mistreatment, we will state generally that the circumstances that led to his departure from Libya was entirely unrelated to any statements he may have made relating to the attack in Benghazi. When Mr. Hicks voluntarily curtailed his assignment, he was in the position of finding another assignment in between standard assignment cycles. The Department made significant efforts to find him a new position at his level, including identifying an overseas position which he declined and succeeded in finding him a short-tour assignment in the Office of the Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs, pending the next assignment cycle. We continue to value his service and are working with him through the normal personnel process and assignment timetable to identify his next permanent assignment.

The State Department is deeply committed to meeting its obligation to protect employees and the State Department does not tolerate or sanction retaliation against whistleblowers on ANY ISSUE, including Benghazi.

 

Of course, it would be a lot easier to believe Mr. Gerlach’s statement but for Peter Van Buren.  And let’s not even start with a gag order as a condition for a resolution within the State Department.  (By the way, speaking of gag orders, FSO Russell Sveda who was gay and went through a 14-year bureaucratic battle with State got around the media gag order by speaking to ADST’s Oral History Project, a non-media entity who published the interview online.  Smart.  You may read his account here).

Back to the Hicks affair — in May this year after Mr. Hicks appearance in Congress, a couple of unnamed US Embassy Tripoli employees dished to Hayes Brown of ThinkProgress about Mr. Hicks performance as deputy chief of mission in Tripoli (see EXCLUSIVE: Embassy Staff Undercut ‘Whistleblower’ Testimony On Benghazi).  Apparently, this includes “a lack of diplomatic protocol” by “going to a meeting with the Libyan Prime Minister Mohammed Magarief in a t-shirt, cargo pants, and baseball cap” and allegedly being “too upset to wear a suit.”  I don’t know about you, but “several troubling incidents” criticizing a senior officer’s performance at post ought to include more than simple bad choice in clothes.

What did he do that necessitates a curtailment?  We’ll never know.

Mr. Hicks on his May 8 testimony before the Oversight Committee also said this:

“After I arrived in Tripoli as Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) on July 31, 2012, I fast became known as the Ambassador’s “bulldog,” because of my decisive management style.”

But why would anyone need a “bulldog” in a collegial embassy setting?

The American Bulldogs is one of the Top 10 Banned Dog Breeds (banned in Denmark, Singapore and various municipalities, the dog’s specialty is catching feral hogs and it is known for its very high pain threshold).  Meanwhile, the American Kennel Club (AKC) also says that a Bulldog’s “disposition should be equable and kind, resolute and courageous (not vicious or aggressive), and demeanor should be pacific and dignified.” Take your pick.

Voluntold Curtailment

We don’t know Mr. Hicks and we’ve never meet him.  We have previously sent him a couple of emails but those were never acknowledged, so we’re not e-pals either.  We know that Tripoli was his first assignment as a DCM, so there is no paper trail on OIG inspections that we can locate.  The folks who worked for him (at least those who talked to the press) could only point to a bad choice in wardrobe as an example of bad performance. By his own admission, he “voluntary curtailed” from his assignment in Tripoli barely three months into his tour. Following the Benghazi attack, the Libya mission went on ordered departure. Curtailment during OD is widely viewed as a “no fault” curtailment, which in turn means, there would be no career repercussions.

But people inside the building also know that if you say “no” to management’s suggestion of voluntary curtailment, you risk incurring a “loss of confidence.”  Even if you say “no,” the chief of mission can still request the Director General of the Foreign Service for curtailment. Except in this case, management will be required to: (1) Include background information on any incidents that support the request(2) Confirm that the employee has been informed of the request and the reasons therefore; and (3) Confirm that the employee has been advised that he or she may submit comments separately.  In short, the bosses will need to do the work to justify an involuntary curtailment.

So when your leadership suggest that you take a “voluntary” curtailment, you can either say “yes” even if you don’t want to shorten your assignment, or you can say “no” and still be curtailed anyway.

Perhaps when people sign their names to a “voluntary” curtailment request that they don’t want, it should be appropriately called “voluntold”curtailment?

How will this end?

Assignments in the Foreign Service are typically handed out a year before the actual job rotation. So if one curtails from an assignment, one does not have a lot of jobs to choose from and may have to take what is normally called a “bridge” assignment.  An assignment between your previous job and the next assignment with a start date in the foreseeable future.  We don’t know what happened in this case but — paging –

Rep. Jackie “I think this committee will help you get a good onward assignment” Speier — where are you?

This Week’s interview did not indicate Mr. Hicks’ current assignment.  But a couple of things we should note:

1) Mr. Hicks ran for State-VP in the 2013 AFSA election and failed in his quest to represent the Foreign Service. (see AFSA Elections 2013: Unofficial Results, Asada Defeats Hicks2013 AFSA Election Results: 3,505 Out of 16,000+ Members Voted, Plus Vote Count By Candidate).  His congressional testimony occurred just prior to the AFSA elections where he ran in the slate of the IAFSA Coalition.  It was a typical low turn out election.   If there were sympathy votes, there were not enough to overcome  his closest opponent; he lost by about a hundred votes.

2) If Mr. Hicks was not in trouble before, he could be in trouble now for going on “This Week…” without prior clearance under FAM 4170 Official Clearance of Speaking, Writing, and Teaching.  This is something that similarly “got” Mr. Van Buren in hot water during his very public battle with the State Department bureaucracy (After a Year of Serious Roars and Growls, State Dept Officially Retires FSO-Non Grata Peter Van Buren).

The question now is how far will this escalate.

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US Mission Iraq: Shrinking to 5,500 Personnel by End of Year, Never Mind the Missing Details

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, we were greeted with news about a wave of bombings in Iraq which killed 65 people and wounded over 200.

Then CNN came out with this piece on Iraq war for oil.

And retired FSO Peter Van Buren went on Fox News to talk about $15 million a day spent on  projects in Iraq (did you think he was going away?).  We heard from a nosy source that a former US ambassador to Iraq was reportedly on the phone to offer a, what do you call it — a counter-point, during the segment but the line went dead as a door nail when informed that Mr. Van Buren was the guest. Them phone signals can get occasionally wacky, must be that dry western climate.

Oh, and Mr. Rumsfeld made a serious tweet (can you hear Tehran celebrating the 10th anniversary with a roar?).

Screen Shot 2013-03-20

He got grandly pummeled over in Twitterland. Except that if he did not care what people think ten years ago, would he really care what folks think today? Of course, he is now an octogenarian on Twitter. Hopefully, he’s occupied enough not to plan on liberating any more countries between now and going forward.

Another news doing the rounds is the reported shrinking of US Mission Iraq – from a Gigantosaurus of embassies (projected at 17,000 in 2011 by Ambassador Jeffrey during a SFRC hearing) to hopefully something like a smaller, more agile Postosuchus.

Via the Middle East Online

The US mission in Iraq — the biggest in the world — will slash its numbers by two-thirds by the end of this year from its peak figure of over 16,000, the American ambassador to Baghdad said.

Overall staffing levels at the US’s embassy in Baghdad and its consulates in the southern port city of Basra, the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil and the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, will drop to around 5,500, including contractors, by the end of the year.

“A year ago, we were well above 16,000, now we’re at 10,500,” Ambassador Stephen Beecroft told reporters. “By the end of this year, we’ll be at 5,500, including contractors.”

As a prospective 5,500-person mission, it would probably still be one of the largest embassies in the world, if not still the largest (anyone knows what is the personnel-complement of US Mission Afghanistan?).

We’ve asked the Press Office of the US Embassy in Baghdad how many career Foreign Service personnel will be expected in Baghdad and constituent posts by end of year and what they are planning to do with all that space that will soon be vacated. We forgot to ask but we also are curious on what they’ll do with the Air Embassy planes (and pilots) and district embassy hospitals and equipment (embassy auction?).  Or how many ambassadorial rank senior officers they will have by end of the year.

Unfortunately, we haven’t got any response to our inquiry. Obviously the folks at the embassy’s Public Affairs shop are professionals who always respond to inquiries from the public even from the pajama-wearing sector who wants to know what’s going on.  Unless, of course, they are overwhelmed with drafting their performance evaluations (we understand it’s EER time).  It is also  entirely possible they were not read in on what they actually are doing by end of this year.  That is, besides the simple math announced on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the invasion.  Poor sods.

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Filed under Ambassadors, Counting Beans, Follow the Money, Foreign Service, Huh? News, Iraq, Peter Van Buren, Public Diplomacy, State Department, U.S. Missions, Uncategorized, US Embassy Baghdad

Silenced: Civic Courage on Film, Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

“Allowing ourselves to become a nation of silent, secretive, timid citizens is likely to result in a system of democracy and justice that is neither very democratic nor very just.” 
― Dahlia Lithwick

James Spione’s new film SILENCED follows a group of high-profile former feds who questioned official national security policy in post 9-11 America, and have endured harsh consequences. It features former NSA senior executive Tom Drake, former CIA officer John Kiriakou, former Justice Department lawyer Jesselyn Radack and former State Department diplomat Peter Van Buren.

John Kiriakou is currently serving a 30 month prison term at a  Federal correctional facility in Loretto, Pennsylvania.

Here is a short blurb:

Over the past several years, an arcane WWI era law called The Espionage Act has been used six times to bring charges against whistleblowers, not for revealing information to a foreign government, but for talking to the press. In fact, the current administration invoked this law more times than all previous administrations combined.
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The targeting of whistleblowers raises profound questions that have implications far beyond the fates of the individuals profiled in this film. In an age where the spectre of terrorism is deemed an appropriate reason for the Executive branch to claim greater and greater powers, can the United States government maintain a commitment to the rule of law? How can a democracy that purports to champion human rights simultaneously attempt to quash criticism from within its ranks? What is the effect on our First Amendment right to dissent–and on the whole idea of a free press–when those in power single out whistleblowers for prosecution?

More on The Espionage Act here.

James Spione  teamed up with producer Daniel Chalfen and executive producer Jim Butterworth of Naked Edge Films to make this new documentary.  The group has reached their funding goal of $35,000 with 300 funders via Kickstarter.  The funds will be used for post production and  the film is expected to be finished by end of the year.

From now until March 14th, you can still support them on Kickstarter here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1…. The group states that additional Kickstarter funds raised in the final days will be put to good use– “some critical upgrades to editing equipment, beginning work with composer Emile Menasché, and spending more time in the edit room assembling all of these individual stories into a powerful narrative about the importance of whistleblowers to American democracy.”

Read more here.

Peter Van Buren wrote:

While all of us in this important film have given interviews before, none of us has opened up, in depth, the way we did with Jim. It is also important to note that none of us are profiting from this film or the Kickstarter campaign, unless you consider the telling of truth on a large and public scale to be our reward.

Mission accomplished “M”!  If you have not done it yet, you may now give meritorious and superior awards to the Van Buren Project hounders from DS and DGHR.
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Filed under CIA, Courage, Federal Agencies, FSOs, Leaks|Controversies, Lessons, Obama, Peter Van Buren, State Department

Next Secretary of State John Kerry’s Full Plate of Management Issues, and That’s Just For Starters

A few weeks ago, Gordon Adams, professor of international relations at the School of International Service at American University and Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center argued why senators shouldn’t head the Pentagon or Foggy Bottom. (see FP, Running Hills, December 20). His piece was published in December before Senator Kerry’s nomination was officially announced (Kerry was officially nominated December 21) and as Chuck Hagel went through the ignomious process of being made a piñata before actually being officially nominated for the SecDef position (his official nomation is expected to be announced on January 7).

Excerpt below:

The departing secretaries have done many good things, but neither has truly tackled the requirements of waning resources. DOD hates and fears a drawdown — it means choices have to be made and priorities set. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has started that process, somewhat reluctantly, in his relatively short tenure, but has not acknowledged the reality that real cuts are coming and that the budget will not hold at the growth with inflation level he currently projects. As for Hillary Clinton over in Foggy Bottom, she peered over the edge of State’s (and USAID’s) internal problems in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) but made few fundamental changes. There is little State or USAID planning for the decline in resources that is coming.

We are at an inflection point in both agencies, and the budgetary piper is calling the policy and management tune. The question is whether either Hagel or Kerry have internalized that reality and are prepared for the tough internal leadership both institutions will need over the next four years. There are hard decisions to be made about personnel, acquisitions, and future strategy — decisions that will require taking on baronies and fiefdoms while minding the management store.
[...]
The problem at State goes deeper. Management has never been Foggy Bottom’s strong suit, and its shrinking reputation for effectiveness bears witness to that reality. The only secretaries who truly focused on how the department worked were Larry Eagleburger and Colin Powell; the rest have hunkered down on the seventh floor and let the building grind on with minimal attention. Clinton has been there long enough to try to make a dent in the reform of State Department management. QDDR notwithstanding, it was not much of a dent; most of the challenges remain for the next incumbent.
[...]
State’s management issues are even more serious, because the building has given short shrift to management for decades.

First, the budget and planning system at State has only barely begun to be created. Foggy Bottom still cannot do long-term planning, meaning it still struggles with accurately forecasting the costs of its programs and projects. A budget office was created in 2005 and has struggled for seven years to gain control over a sprawling bureaucracy, devoid of budget and resource planners. Moreover, that budget office only has responsibility for programs, like Economic Support Funds, Foreign Military Financing, and counternarcotics operations, not for State’s management or for personnel budgets; those belong to the undersecretary for management. In other words, the undersecretary (and the director general of the Foreign Service) oversee things like building security, training, and promotions, while the planning for programs is handled over at the budget office. The two are not connected in any official way, so putting programs and people needs together is almost impossible. The new secretary badly needs to back up and strengthen this budget and planning capability. Senators like Kerry, who have not been appropriators or passed full budget bills will be challenged, but the budget and planning system will not get better without secretary-level support.

Second, U.S. foreign-policy institutions are a diaspora of organizations. State only owns a bit; its relationship with USAID is strained, even though USAID reports its budget through State (and Clinton’s QDDR strengthened USAID’s semi-autonomous capability — needed, but it poses a continuing coordination challenge). Treasury owns the international development banks programs; the Millennium Challenge Corporation splits the foreign aid portfolio; Peace Corps, EXIM Bank, OPIC, TDA — this alphabet soup of independent agencies further fragments the portfolio and weakens America’s civilian statecraft. Will a senator have the skills to work the kinks out of this system?

Third, in the 21st century, America’s civilian statecraft needs a makeover. This is a human resources issue. For centuries, the task of a diplomat has been to represent, report, negotiate, and advise. Today, all those things are needed — and U.S. diplomats are the best at this — but also much, much more. They have to run programs (foreign assistance, counternarcotics, anti-terrorism), support stronger governance through the embassies (nation-building), help prevent and resolve conflicts, carry out public diplomacy, manage budgets, and persuade Congress to keep the taps open. The Foreign Service is only at the edge of this revolution in competence; the department lacks a comprehensive training program, especially as a career progresses, and officers who serve in non-traditional billets (political-military affairs, development, public diplomacy, management) find they are still sidelined for promotion. This is nitty-gritty personnel stuff, but critical to the long-term sustainability of America’s diplomacy. It is not the normal grist for the senatorial mill.

These are only a few of the management challenges the next two secretaries will face. But as resources shrink in both departments, there will be a crying need for tough, smart, experienced leadership at the top. We can get a drawdown right, but we will need leaders who understand these needs, even more than we do leaders who understand policy issues. The task of running huge, complex bureaucracies like the State Department and the Pentagon is about much more than just showing up and making policy — now more than ever. If they want these positions, Kerry and Hagel are going to have to prove that they are ready manage, roll up their sleeves, put on their green eyeshades, and get to work inside their respective buildings.

Read in full here.

Click here to read on revamping the Foreign Service from 27-year FS veteran, Dr. Jon P. Dorschner.
Click here to read Political Officer Tyler Sparks’ piece on Overhauling the EER Process, FSJ Sept 2012, p.17
Click here to read 
Ambassador John Price on why The State Department Culture Needs to Change via Diplomatic Courier

Given the smoke signals coming from the Hill, it is almost certain that Senator Kerry will sail through his nomination painlessly.

So the challenge then becomes not only how to manage The Building, but also bringing in the right senior people into the Kerry bus to deal — with the secretary’s full support — the management challenges within the State Department.

For all the reasons that Mr. Adams described above and more, the new secretary of State will need an effective Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources (D/MR).  We presume that Senator Kerry will have some leeway on his picks for his deputies.  This position currently incumbered by Thomas Nides, and previously occupied by Jack Lew (rumored to be the next Treasury secretary) is the Chief Operating Officer of the Department. Somebody told me recently, “Jack Lew did a great job, but got sideswiped by Afghanistan.” With the drawdown in Afghanistan looming large, the next D/MR could get sideswiped again by the same culprit.

The COO is not only the principal adviser to the Secretary on overall supervision and direction of resource allocation and management activities he/she also has  responsibility for the overall direction, coordination and supervision of operational programs of the State Department, including foreign aid and civilian response programs.

As an aside — whatever happened to the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources (F) which supposedly ensures the strategic and effective allocation, management, and use of foreign assistance resources?  Who knows?! It lost its teeth and for the last four years has been on D/MR’s orbit.  Meanwhile, USAID hangs on trying hard not to get swallowed by State.  How many agencies and offices are doing foreign aid again?

Another crucial office is the Under Secretary for Management (M).  The Under Secretary for Management leads the bureaus of Administration, Consular Affairs, Diplomatic Security, Director General of the Foreign Service/Human Resources, Information Resource Management, and Overseas Buildings Operations, the Foreign Service Institute, the Office of Medical Services, the Office of Management Policy, the Office of Rightsizing the U.S. Government’s Overseas Presence, and the White House Liaison.

The cogs in the the domestic and global wheels of the Foreign Service tightens or comes apart under this bureau. The incumbent Patrick Kennedy has been on this job since 2007. Remains to be seen if he will be asked to stay on or if he’ll ship out to an overseas assignment.  Retired FSO, Peter Van Buren, who is not/not a fan of Mr. Kennedy notes in his blog that the later’s last overseas posting with the exception of a Chief of Staff stint with the CPA in Baghdad 2003-2004, was in 1991 in Egypt.

For those who might argue that State does not have a management problem, all you need to do is look at its performance evaluation process. By one FSO’s account, an extremely conservative estimate on the number of hours spent on one Employee Evaluation Report (EER) is 15 hours. Multiply that with 12,000 members of the Foreign Service who are rated each year, and you get 180,000 hours; an equivalent of 22,500 workdays, 61 calendar years or 90 working years.

The FSO writes that “The entire process derails so much of our work, and results in such a poor product, that it would surely shame our institution if its excesses were truly known by the general public.”

If your staff spends the equivalent of ninety years of work just to complete their own performance reviews, then Houston, you got a real problem.

And that brings us to the one other office that we fell feel definitely needs to be filled asap in Obama 2.0, that of the Office of the Inspector General. This is, of course, not a Kerry call but President Obama’s call.  The State Department has not had an Inspector General since January 16, 2008. The last time we looked, the Project on Government Oversight’s Watchdog Tracker still ranks the State Department  #1 in number of days the position has been vacant — 1,817 days and counting.

domani spero sig

 

 

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Filed under 68, Foreign Service, FSOs, Leadership and Management, Nominations, Obama, Peter Van Buren, Realities of the FS, Reform, Secretary of State, State Department

State Dept to Rewrite Media Engagement Rules for Employees in Wake of Van Buren Affair

Inside the building sources told this blog that the State Department is preparing to rewrite its 3 FAM 4170 rules for employees on official clearance for speaking, writing, and teaching.  The drafted new rules apparently will cover public speaking, teaching, writing and media engagement. While it appears the new version is yet in a draft stage, it sounds like a tighter institutional CYA version.

The drafted new rules will reportedly say that the State Department and USAID encourage the participation of their employees in “responsible activities devoted to increasing public study and understanding of the nation’s foreign relations.” And that such activities may be performed in an official or private capacity.

Here are a few details that we’ve heard about the draft 3 FAM 4170 rules:

It covers all “agency personnel” in various employment categories including local employees overseas, contractors, special employees and “any other personnel who serve in a capacity as if employed by State and USAID.”  We don’t know if non-Agency employees like FCS, IRS, SSA, CDC, FBI, VA, etc. etc under Chief of Mission authority overseas are considered part of these “as if employed by State” category.

The new rules will reportedly cover real-time or live presentation of views or ideas, whether physically before an audience, over a text-only or visual online forum, in-person, online, or over the phone interviews, other real-time communication and oh, teaching. It will cover written submissions for newspaper, magazine, TV, radio, or other media organizations, including blogs and online forums.

We understand that it covers just about everything except sign language.

The good news?  The draft new rules do not appear to include, at least for the moment, restrictions on tweeting with extra-terrestrials or subspace interviews originating from Mars or any unnamed planet or galaxy.

Now don’t laugh – we were once covered by the “Extra-Terrestrial Exposure Law” which made it illegal to come in contact with extra-terrestrials or their vehicles (Title 14, Section 1211 of the Code of Federal Regulations). Wikipedia says NASA revoked this rule in 1977 but that it was not formally removed from the Code of Federal Regulations until 1991.

In any case, personal entries on social media sites will reportedly “be allowed” but must not “violate standards of character, integrity, and conduct expected of all Department employees as defined in 3 FAM 1216.”

We thought — heeeey! Wait a minute – we dug up 3 FAM 1216 and here is what it says in its entirety:

“Employees at all levels are expected to exhibit at all times the highest standards of character, integrity, and conduct, and to maintain a high level of efficiency and productivity.”

We think that catch all language is a blazing red flag that is worrisome.

Materials will reportedly require a preliminary review and a final review (whew! who drafted this stuff, an intern?) which seems excessive for an organization with plenty of smart people.  The new rules will also propose the following timeframe: 2 working days for clearance on social media postings; 5 working days for blog posts; 5 working days for speeches, live events notes, talking points; 10 working days for articles, papers including online publications and 30 working days for books, manuscripts and other lengthy publications.

The timeframe for social media/blog postings at 2-5 working days is equivalent to @2000-@5000 .beat in internet time; which is like an eternity in cyberverse.

Especially to the 140 characters waiting to exhale online.

We’ve also learned that the drafted new rules will propose to ditch the saving grace of 3 FAM 4170, the section that we’ve come to call the PVB clause since we believed this is the section that gave ammunition to Peter Van Buren in his public battle with State Department management.

3 FAM 4172.1-7 Use or Publication of Materials Prepared in an Employee’s Private Capacity That Have Been Submitted for Review

An employee may use, issue, or publish materials on matters of official concern that have been submitted for review, and for which the presumption of private capacity has not been overcome, upon expiration of the designated period of comment and review regardless of the final content of such materials so long as they do not contain information that is classified or otherwise exempt from disclosure as described in 3 FAM 4172.1-6(A).

Unless some reasonable higher up with powerful fingers undo the [CTRLl]+[DELETE], the section above will go away for good. You can check with your AFSA rep on this but our understanding is that this is part of those things that are apparently “non-negotiable.”

While the principal goal of the review process is reportedly to ensure that “no protected information is disclosed” (note that it’s no longer protection of classified information or personally identifiable information), the review process other goal apparently is to evaluate the potential that the employee activity could “hurt” or “damage the Department.”

We don’t know if a list of what is considered “protected information” will be made available with the new rules. The current rules are clearer – protection of classified info and PII although in practice, this can also get muddy fuzzy.  The draft new rules can potentially cover even unclassified agency information if they are considered “protected.”

It’ll be interesting to see what the final new rules look like. And how many additional State Department troops will be made available just for clearing blogposts and tweets.

And this you gotta ask — are media savvy clearance-bots and automated clearance machines (ACMs) in your future?

Update @12/7:

Alec Ross over on Twitter tells us that his team is involved in drafting/approving. “Not even close to what has been blogged.” 

Teh-heh! Plenty draft versions are there?  But the good news is this:

@AlecJRoss: @Diplopundit Suffice to say, I would not be okay with a 2 day clearance process per tweet.

You folks may just have found your top hat with powerful fingers. @AlecJRoss – you need to keep 3 FAM 4172.1-7 in the regs.  My! We are Twitter chatty today!

domani spero sig

 

 

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Filed under Foreign Service, Media, Peter Van Buren, Realities of the FS, Regulations, Social Media, State Department

After a Year of Serious Roars and Growls, State Dept Officially Retires FSO-Non Grata Peter Van Buren

And so it has come to this.

Last year, the State Department was up in arms with the publication of Peter Van Buren’s book, We Meant Well, because well — as its Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State of the Bureau of Public Affairs  Dana Shell Smith (of the How to Have an Insanely Demanding Job and 2 Happy Children minor fame) told the book publisher, Macmillan, the Department has “recently concluded that two pages of the book manuscript we have seen contain unauthorized disclosures of classified information.”

I counted the words; there are some 30 words that were deemed classified information according to the letter sent to the publisher, including a place called, “Mogadishu.”  See “Classified” Information Contained in We Meant Well – It’s a Slam Dunk, Baby!

Five months after his book was published, the State Department moved to fire, Mr. Van Buren.  He was charged with eight violations including  linking in his blog to documents on WikiLeaks  (one confidential cable from 2009, and one unclas/sensitive/noforn cable also from 2009); failing to clear each blog posting with his bosses; displaying a “lack of candor” during interviews with diplomatic security officers;using “bad judgement’ by criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and one time presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann on his blog.

The eight charges did not include the allegation of leaking “classified” content from his book. Which is rather funny, in a twisted sort of way, yeah?   So, why …

Oh, dahrlings, let’s take the long cut on this, shall we?

There were lots of roars and growls, of course … employees at State even got to work on additional areas their supervisors deemed appropriate  — such as looking under dumb rocks to see if anything would come out, monitoring Mr. Van Buren’s media appearances and blog posts, etc. etc..  The guy was practically a cottage industry sprouting “taskers” all over Foggy Bottom (except maybe the cafeteria).  Those who got Meritorious Honor Awards for the Van Buren Affair, raise your left hand.  Oh dear, that’s a bunch!  Let us not be shocked, also if Mr. Van Buren was quite useful for the spring’s Employee Evaluation Reports (EER) for multiple folks.  Everybody gets credit for work well done, or otherwise.

And because life is about changes, the Director General of the Foreign Service Nancy Powell (top HR person in the Foreign Service) was promoted to do yet another stint as US Ambassador, this time to India; leaving the “Peter Headache” to her successor as DGHR, former Ambassador to Liberia, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.   The top boss of all management affairs at State, Patrick Kennedy, as far as we know did not have to swap chairs and is still top boss.  Mr. Van Buren himself did not go quietly into the night.  Instead he kept on popping up for interviews on radios and teevees, and here and there and his blog posts, angry or not, did not skip a single beat.

Meanwhile, the book which the NYT called “One diplomat’s darkly humorous and ultimately scathing assault on just about everything the military and State Department have done—or tried to do—since the invasion of Iraq”  went into second printing.

And so a year after We Meant Well was published, and after numerous investigations ending in a whimper, the State Department officially retired Mr. Van Buren on September 30, 2012. No, the agency did not fire him despite all sorts of allegations.  And yes, he gets his full retirement.

Congratulations everyone, all that work for nothing! So totally, totally :roll: exhausting!

If Mr. Van Buren were a project, you would have had your Gantt chart with the work break down structure. As well, the project manager would have the time allocation, cost and scope for every detail of this project. Unfortunately for the American public, we may never know how much time, money and effort went into the 12 month Project Hounding of Mr. Van Buren.

In the end, the State Department can claim success in getting Mr. Van Buren out the door (and helping him sell those books also).  No one needs to pretend anymore that he is paid to work as a “telecommuter” when in truth they just did not want his shadow in that building. He is now officially a retired Foreign Service Officer. Like all soon to retire officers, he even got into the Foreign Service Institute’s job search program.  But of course, they have yanked away his security clearance, so that’s really helpful in the job search, too.

Do you get the feeling that this isn’t really about this book anymore but about that next book?

Back in July, former FSO Dave Seminara who writes for Gadling and is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat did an interview with Mr. Van Buren .  In one part of the interview, Mr. Van Buren said that he gets anonymous hate mail and people telling him to “shut up and do your service like everyone else did; half a million people have gone through Iraq and they didn’t have to bitch about everything like you did.” I read that and I thought, oh, dear me!

Excerpts:

Q: But surely you can understand that if lots of FSOs decided to write critical books like yours while still on active duty it would create chaos?

A: I can understand that argument. But this is part of living in a free society. As Donald Rumsfeld said, “Democracy is messy.” The State Department promotes the rights of people to speak back to their governments. The Arab Spring — we want people in Syria to shout back at their government, but we won’t let our own employees do that.

Q: It seems as though the State Department objects to some FSO blogs, but not to others — is that right?

A: It’s vindictive prosecution. The State Department links to dozens of Foreign Service blogs and those people aren’t getting clearance on everything they post — they can’t. But those blogs are about how the food in Venezuela is great or we love the secretary.

The idea — we’re going to pick on you because we don’t like what you’re writing — that scrapes up against the First Amendment. If the State Department wants to police my blog, they have to police all of them.

Q: And how do you think your peers perceive you now?
A: A lot of State Department people are under the mistaken impression that I didn’t clear the book but they’ve dropped that. People thought I went rogue, which I did not. I am not a popular person right now. Someone in an organization that is designed to help FSOs told me, “Most people in this building hate you.”

Some people worried that they’d have privileges in Baghdad taken away from them. That someone in Congress might wonder why we have a tennis court in Baghdad. I got de-friended by colleagues on Facebook. Most of them didn’t read the book. One embassy book club refused to buy the book. Lots of anonymous hate mail. [People telling me] shut up and do your service like everyone else did; half a million people have gone through Iraq and they didn’t have to bitch about everything like you did. I’ve also been harassed by Diplomatic Security people.

Q: Do you feel like diplomats have a right to publish?
A: We do have a constitution which still has the First Amendment attached to it. The rules say: No classified or personal information can be released, you can’t talk about contracting and procurement stuff that would give anyone an advantage in bidding, and the last thing you can’t do is speak on behalf of the department. That’s it. They don’t have to agree with what I’ve written. I have disclaimers in my book and on the blog explaining that my views are my own and don’t represent those of the U.S. government.

Read in full, U.S. Foreign Service Officer Blacklisted for Scathing Exposé.

The more insidious question really is — how did we end up with so much waste in Iraq and Afghanistan? The answer that folks just did their jobs and did not bitch about anything is certainly part of what ails the effort. Not that other folks have not complained, or even blogged about the reconstruction problems in the warzones, the complaints were just not as loud.  People were aware of serious issues in these reconstruction projects, talked about it, complained about it among themselves, but for one reason or another did not feel right about calling public attention to the fire slowly burning the house down.  What I have a hard time understanding is — why are people so mad at the man who shouted fire and had the balls to write about it?

This should be a great case study for the State Department’s Leadership and Management School. Because what exactly does this teach the next generation of Foreign Service Officers in terms of leadership and management? About misguided institutional loyalty? About the utility of shooting the messenger of bad news, so no news is good news?  And about courage when it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and all your friends have bailed out and locked the door, to keep you out?

See something. Say something. Or not.  But if you do, be prepared to be hounded and ostracized by the institution you once called home, by people you once called friends.

In any case, the one headed dragon that roars gotta be slayed before its other heads wake up and roar louder. Another officer was writing the Afghanistan edition of We Meant Well when the State Department went mud fishing on Mr. Van Buren. Not sure if that book is ever coming out but just one more line item on success in the State Department. The less stories told unofficially, the more successful the effort officially.

Um, pardon me?  Oh, you mean the State Department’s Dissent Channel and AFSA’s Dissent Awards? Those things are utterly amazing good stuff.  On paper.

 

 

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Filed under Disasters, Dissent, Foreign Service, FS Blogs, FSOs, Leadership and Management, Persona Non Grata, Peter Van Buren, State Department

State, USAID Must Learn From Afghanistan Errors. Whatabout Iraq?

Below is an excerpt from Andrew Exum’s piece in Abu Muqawama: State, USAID Must Learn From Afghanistan Errors.

The State Department rarely garners similar praise from the American people or its elected leaders. Republican congressmen on Capitol Hill talk a big game on national security and vow never to cut the military’s budget, while at the same time threatening to slash the International Affairs budget by 20 percent. U.S. military officers and troops are held up as the best of what America has to offer, while diplomats . . . well, few Americans are quite sure of what diplomats even do.
[..]
Unfortunately, the State Department is not very good at telling its story to either the U.S. Congress or the American people. When people effectively stand up for the budget of the State Department and make the case for a larger International Affairs budget, it is too often either U.S. military officers or conservative, “pro-military” defense intellectuals.  The State Department and its foreign service officers deserve some of the blame here. I recently finished John Lewis Gaddis’ biography of George F. Kennan, and Kennan’s life is a reminder that those Americans who are most knowledgeable about other cultures can often be the most contemptuous and ignorant of U.S. domestic political culture. Foreign service officers who do not hesitate to spend endless afternoons drinking chai with Central Asian warlords somehow can’t, by and large, stomach the occasional coffee with a junior congressman from Nebraska.

The result is that the State Department as an organization constantly feels that it is under pressure and underappreciated by its appropriators. We should not wonder, then, why such an organization fails to be introspective or critical of itself. That shortchanges both America and the State Department, though, because as Chandrasekaran’s book details, much of the civilian effort promised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Afghanistan has been an embarrassment.

Actually he’s quite nice about this even when he called the Afghanistan civilian effort by HRC “an embarrassment.” He could have written something a lot worse, like — did you not learn anything from Iraq?

The State Department has been doing stuff in Iraq. Is the Baghdafication of Kabul really any better?  Did State learn anything from what went down in Iraq? And if it did, how come we’re now reading  Chandrasekaran’s Afghanistan edition of Imperial Life in the Emerald City?

As to being not particularly “very good at telling its story,” the State Department has no one else to blame for this. It insists on telling only the happy talk stories. The real world is not all happy talk. 21st century information consumers will not just swallow hook, line and sinker, everything that the 21st century statecraft machine puts out. Oh, wait, that’s the same 21st century statecraft message machine that is all confused and eating crap statistics anyway. You should hear the back story about that multimillion, excuse me, $16.5 million multi-year Kindle acquisition.  Secretary Clinton and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos were supposed to hold hands on the 7th floor, but it never happened.  I bet you want to know how come that’s indefinitely postponed. No, it’s not because she was traveling, silly!

The State Department, by the way, has some quite talented storytellers — authentic and even pee in your pants funny writers. But State is in such a schizo mess when it comes to social media that it runs after bloggers (well, not all of them, just some of them).  Sometimes it wields a large hammer, and whacks a mole or two just so everyone can appreciate its whack-a-mole ability and the “friendly” warning to those who potentially can be whacked also.

How can one help but … you know …. :roll:

Finally, introspection and self criticism, like innovation, (oh, that favorite 21st century statecraft word) are all by-products of an organizational culture that positively recognize the value of mistakes in the learning process.

Kipling writes in If -

         If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same

Except that no one makes mistakes at State. Triumph is always crowned king and no one has ever heard of Disaster — except in one’s nightmares, or in very few instances, in OIG reports. But wait, those are redacted. Right. So technically, we are only acquainted with Triumph.

Domani Spero

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Filed under Lessons, Media, Org Culture, Peter Van Buren, State Department, USAID

Foreign Service Dissent Award Snubs Most Vocal Foreign Service Dissenter of the Year

The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional association of the United States Foreign Service presents an annual set of awards for “intellectual courage and creative dissent.

It has four dissent awards:

  • F. Allen “Tex” Harris Award for a Foreign Service Specialist
  • W. Averell Harriman Award for a junior officer (FS 7-FS 4)
  • William R. Rivkin Award for a mid-level officer, (FS 3-FS 1)
  • Christian A. Herter Award for a member of the Senior Foreign Service (FE OC-FE CA)

Here is AFSA’s Criteria for its Dissent Awards:

The 2012 Dissent Awards via AFSA (excerpt):

This year’s AFSA awards for intellectual courage, initiative and integrity in the context of constructive dissent will be presented to the following Foreign Service employees, who challenged the system despite the possible consequences.  The winner will receive a small globe with their name and a framed certificate.

The winner of the 2012 William R. Rivkin Award for constructive dissent by a mid-level Foreign Service officer is Joshua Polacheck. Mr. Polacheck consistently and over some time made well-reasoned arguments against the U.S. security posture as it related to U.S. embassies, consulates and missions abroad. He submitted a highly cogent dissent channel cable, raising concerns that “consistently erring on the side of caution” when it comes to security choices sends “a message of distrust to the people of our host nations” and makes it difficult to roll back enhanced security measures should the need arise. Mr. Polacheck came to this conclusion after serving in Iraq, Pakistan and Lebanon. The judges were impressed with his willingness to raise a well-argued concern on an issue that often complicates U.S. policy and the carrying out of diplomatic and development work abroad.

The AFSA Awards and Plaques Committee did not select any winners this year for AFSA’s other dissent awards: The F. Allen “Tex” Harris Award for Foreign Service specialists, the W. Averell Harriman Award for constructive dissent by an entry-level Foreign Service officer, or the Christian A. Herter Award for Senior Foreign Service members.

So there — this year, there are no winners for three of AFSA’s four dissent awards.  The only one with a declared winner is the Rivkin Award for a mid-level officer (FS 3-FS 1). The award is named after William Rivkin, a US Army officer and former US Ambassador to Luxembourg and Senegal, who is also the father Charles H. Rivkin, the current US Ambassador to France.

We understand that two nominations were submitted for the Rivkin Award for FSO Peter Van Buren, but since he did not get the award, AFSA’s panel must think that he did not “go out on a limb” enough, or “stick his neck out in a way” that involves some risk.  Which is kind of sorta funny since the last we heard, Van Buren’s neck is definitely on the chopping block.  Revenge of the chickens for writing about chicken crap.  But seriously, he sure did challenge the system from within by not resigning, didn’t he?

The word backstage is that folks were reportedly “not happy” about the Van Buren nominations since the nominee did not follow proper channels, or dissent was not constructive, or something along those lines.  Our guesstimate is that “challenging the system from within” does not really mean that you are within the system when you’re doing the challenging, it simply means that that you’re challenging the system with proper punctuation marks observed without offending too many folks and not rattling too many cages.

Or wait — maybe if he quit … and wasn’t so loud, and did not give so many interviews, and did not call people names,  you think, they might have given him the award for demonstrating nicely and quietly, “the intellectual courage to challenge the system from within, to question the status quo and take a stand, no matter the sensitivity of the issue or the consequences of their actions.”  

The book was done nicely though, it wasn’t distasteful or anything, and it wasn’t in ALL CAPS, so he wasn’t really shouting.

Oh, let’s sleep on this. Maybe tomorrow we’ll wake up and find that Fulbright’s quote is really a joke gone bad.

Here we thought dissent is a dying tradition in the Foreign Service … ahnd, it might just be.

Why? Well, we didn’t hear too much non-official dissent around here, and if AFSA’s candidates’ pool  is running empty, it could only mean that not too many people are using the official Dissent Channel. Or whoever used it in the recent past were deemed not worthy of these awards.

But — before you jump into wrongheaded conclusions, be reminded that not too very long ago, Ambassador Alfred Atherton, then Director General of the Foreign Service, was quoted saying: “it is possible that the decline in the use of the dissent channel you’ve cited represents the success of the system …rather than a deliberate effort to squelch differing views.”

And we don’t think he was kidding then when he said what he said.

Just to be clear, AFSA is a dues-collecting non-government membership organization. It sure can set its own criteria for its awards, the dissent awards included. But perhaps, it should amplify its own rules for rewarding dissent — that it’s only good for the nice form not the long form, hair on fire kind. These awards are for the special kind of dissent, the “constructive kind only” — the ones that do not topple the chairs.  So contrary to Fulbright’s words, the test of dissent’s value is really in its taste?

“For over forty years AFSA has sponsored a program to recognize and encourage constructive dissent and risk-taking in the Foreign Service. This is unique within the U.S. Government. The Director General of the Foreign Service is a co-sponsor of the annual ceremony where the dissent awards are conferred. AFSA is proud to have upheld the tradition of constructive dissent for these many years, and we look forward to our ongoing role in recognizing those who have the courage to buck the system to stand up for their beliefs.”

Hey, stop laughing over there!

Oh, where were we? So this is just as well. Imagine if Van Buren got the dissent award? The Director General of the Foreign Service whose office is pursuing Mr. Van Buren’s dismissal would have been in a twilightzoney spot of handing an award to the State Department’s top ranking FSO-non grata. Of course, that pix would have been something to pin on Pinterest.

Anyway, this got us thinking — which can sometimes get problematic.

If dissent is one important index of political integrity within the Foreign Service, what does it mean, that 1) the tide pool is so shallow AFSA could only find one winner in this year’s awards and 2) that it has ignored the most vocal Foreign Service dissenter of the year?

We don’t know the answer but it is disturbing that bucking the system and standing for one’s beliefs have asterisks.

Domani Spero

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Filed under AFSA, Awards, Dissent, Foreign Service, FSOs, Peter Van Buren, Quotes