Category Archives: Politics

The Odd Story of “Vetting/Scrubbing” the Tenure/Promotion of 1,800 Foreign Service Employees in the U.S. Senate

– Domani Spero

We recently blogged about the hold on the commission, tenure and promotion of 1,705 career Foreign Service employees at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (See Is the U.S. Senate Gonna Wreck, Wreck, Wreck, the Upcoming Bidding Season in the Foreign Service?).

We wondered then if this was one more  unintended consequence from the Senate’s “nuclear” option.

Here’s what we were told by AFSA:

“FYI – this has nothing to do with the nuclear option – its strictly about State’s vetting process.”

AFSA then sent us a link of its April 1 notice to its membership: Ask the Senate to Support Foreign Service Employees!

After reading that, we were struck by the following line:

“We urge the SFRC to address issues regarding vetting of names for criminal background checks collaboratively. Simultaneously we ask the SFRC to grant these men and women the commissioning, tenure and promotions for which they’ve been recommended.”

Huh?

We asked AFSA again — what sort of vetting are we talking about here? All these nominees pending on the SFRC have Top Secret clearances and have been vetted by Diplomatic Security.

We got the following response:

“There are some differences in what the State Department does and what DoD does both in substance and information provided to oversight committees. […] it does NOT have to do with DS vetting and TS clearances.  There may be some periods of time and activity that are not being captured by current vetting process and I think State is amenable to working with committee to resolve.”

We did the underline there.  We don’t know what the heck that means!

So nothing to do with the nuclear option.

Nothing to do with Diplomatic Security vetting.

And nothing to do with TS clearances.

Wow!

What a strange mess! Anybody know what this is really all about?

Again from your elected AFSA official:

“Both the State Department and DoD vet/scrub the lists with internal and external agencies before they send the list to the Senate and its respective committees – SFRC, SASC.  This vetting/scrub is what is being discussed.”

Arghhh! Arff! Arff!

AFSA’s letter to the SFRC Chairman Bob Menendez and Ranking Member Bob Corker does not explain how this mess started in December 2013 but provides some details on the groups impacted by the Senate hold:

Now 1800 FS Employees Stuck at the SFRC

“[W]e are writing to convey our deep concerns about the impact that the delayed confirmations of tenure and promotions for career Foreign Service employees is having on U.S. diplomatic operations and U.S. national interests. When we raised this matter back in December 2013, nearly 1,300 individuals were affected by the holds. As of this time, there are approximately 1,800 members of the Foreign Service from four foreign affairs agencies (Department of State, USAID, Foreign Agricultural Service, and Foreign Commercial Service) who await Senate confirmation of appointment, tenure, or promotion.”

200 FS Employees Waiting to Officially Join the SFS

“Of these, over 200 employees of all four agencies are awaiting confirmation of their promotions into or within the Senior Foreign Service. These members are affected financially in two distinct ways. First, the pay increases earned as a result of their promotions cannot be paid until attestation by the president, nor can the promotions be back-dated so as to overcome this loss of remuneration. Second, unless the promotions are confirmed and attested before April 15, 2014, they are not eligible to be reviewed for, or to receive, performance pay. In addition, uncertainty besets the onward assignments of these 200 members. Failure to confirm these officers as members of the Senior Foreign Service affects the ability of consulates, embassies and USAID missions to conduct the business of the United States overseas.”

Over 900 Waiting for FSO Commissions

“Over 900 of the remaining officers are awaiting commissioning as Foreign Service officers and secretaries in the diplomatic service, almost half of whom have been waiting close to a year. Several of them are approaching the limit of their 5-year Limited Career Appointments. If that expires without their being commissioned, they are supposed to leave the Foreign Service in accordance with Section 309 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 (22 USC §3949.) Moreover, as untenured officers, they are ineligible to receive some pay differentials for positions, which they currently encumber. Overall, this is having a severe effect on their morale and their eligibility for onward assignments. Unfortunately, this prolonged wait and uncertainty is coloring their impressions of public service at the beginning of their careers.”

Over 600 FSOs Without Consular Commissions

“Finally, over 600 new Foreign Service officers, just starting their Limited Career Appointments, have not yet received commissions as consular officers. Without a Consular Commission, these entry-level officers are technically not authorized to adjudicate visas and perform other consular work. In addition, the possession of a Consular Commission is generally a prerequisite to the granting by a host nation of all necessary diplomatic privileges and immunities under the Vienna Convention.”

 

So, when we read this, our immediate reaction was where is the State Department leadership in all this? We know that Secretary Kerry and his top officials are often traveling but  there’s a whole lot of ranking officials in Foggy Bottom who could interface with the leadership and staff of the SFRC. Where is the Under Secretary for Management? Where is the Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources?

But see – what we heard from insiders is that the State Department reportedly said: “AFSA had the lead on fixing this.” 

Well, that’s terribly odd, isn’t it?

Secretary Kerry was at the SFRC on April 8, and made passing mention of the nominations, but we sorta think he’s talking about the top ranking nominees.  We don’t even know if he’s aware that 1,800 of his employees are stuck in the committee:

“I also want to thank everybody on the committee for working so hard to move the nominations, which obviously is critical. I think our – it’s not the fault of the committee, but with a combination of vetting process and public process and so forth and the combination of the slowdown on the floor of the Senate, I think we’re averaging something like 220-some days and some people at 300 days and some over 365 days. So I have literally only in the last month gotten my top team in place one year in, and I’m very grateful to the committee.”

The Secretary did not specifically mention that  Ambassador Carlos Pascual who was nominated to be Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources on February 17, 2012 has been stuck in committee with Super Glue for 760 days.

Secretary Kerry also did not specifically mentioned the blanket senate hold during the April 8 hearing that affects about 10% of his agency’s workforce. And really — what do you do with 600 consular officers without their Consular Commissions? Have they been adjudicating visas without their Consular Commissions, and if so, what kind of immunity and diplomatic privileges are afforded these officials overseas?

But wait, like on teevee — there’s more!

We are now also hearing disturbing allegations that the genesis of this mess started long before December 2013, even going back to 2012.

It is alleged that this all started with one name on the promotion list. The original initiator (who apparently is not/not a stranger to AFSA and the State Department) allegedly brought a specific name on the promotion list to the attention of a Senate staffer. It is alleged that the action was taken using personal connections cultivated in the Senate. The key question at that time allegedly revolved around the security clearance of one — one specific individual and resulted in the removal of  this individual’s name from the promotion list.

Now, why would anyone do that?

If we could hire Veronica Mars, she’d definitely bug this  Mr. Initiator guy then we’d have the full story.

It is further alleged that  subsequent to the removal of that one name from the promotion list, the same SFRC staffer also identified several other FSOs who were subjects of “investigations” at some point in their careers. In most cases, these investigations reportedly were in the medium to distant past (as much as 10 or 15 years ago). Our source, clearly frustrated says that the fact that these investigations occurred in the past has not deterred the senator’s office pursuit of these FSOs.

This year’s senate hold reportedly started with an assertion by one senator’s office that the military vets people better than State does, and that the State Department list is “riddled with people” whose actions had been questioned “by OIG and others.”  We don’t know who consists of “others.” Our source familiar with this matter but speaking on background said that one senator reportedly vowed “not to approve any FS name until the matter was resolved.” The same SFRC staffer allegedly involved in the initial promotion list snafu works for this one senator. Senior State Department officials have reportedly demonstrated that, unlike the military, all State employees have TS clearances which include name checks. We’re told that at the senate’s request, the SOP on vetting at the State Department now goes “further” than what is required by the military. We do not know what “further” or additional layers of vetting were added.

The following areas were supposedly contentious:

#1. The automatic exclusion of any employees with criminal convictions.
#2. The separate nomination of any employees with “problems.”

Say, wait — how many State Department employees with criminal convictions have been able to hold on to their Top Secret clearance? One, two, a hundred, five hundred?

The number is .. wait for it …. ZERO.

How many State Department employees under investigation or with criminal convictions have been able to keep their names on the promotion list? Hey, don’t they yank your name from that promotion list as soon as there is an investigation with your name on it?

Employees who previously faced investigations and have successfully prevailed/survived the investigations will now be singled out on the promotion list? Why? Should they also be required to wear  “NOT GUILTY BUT” t-shirts to work?

If these employees have been cleared of wrongdoing, why is the Senate hardballing them?

We do not know the full story about this Senate hold involving some 1,800 FS employees but AFSA and the State Department should know who were the names targeted from the promotion lists and why. And if they don’t know the why, then they should find out, of course. If a Senate staffer who has worked in Congress for years just got out of bed one day and decided he/she wants to put a hold on 1,800 names because the “vetting” and “scrubbing” of names have been unsatisfactory all this time — we should all ask why.

Because.  Motive, motive, motive.

Let’s start at the very beginning… oh, where is Sherlock when you need him?

If  the allegation is true, that this whole merry go round mess was initiated by one Foreign Service insider and got out of hand … now then, you’ve got a mess, Houston. One FS person was initially targeted by another FS person using contacts in the Senate. That’s pretty personal.

It looks like you’ve got a petty little beaver who never left hight  high school …

And he’s representing the United States of America.

On Friday, April 11, AFSA released this: Senate Confirms Tenure and Promotion!

 

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Donor Ambassadors Are Here to Stay Because — #2 Like ABBA Sings It, Winner Takes It All, Still

– Domani Spero

Donor Ambassadors Are Here to Stay Because — #1 Elections Cost Money, Money, Honey (With ABBA).  The #2 excuse should be –

Winner Takes It All — Still

Article II. Section 2: The President shall be Commander in Chief …He shall have the power , by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law…”

Sometime back, Georgetown professor Clyde Wilcox, who studies campaign finance said, “Rewarding your political supporters is as old as the republic.”

Did you know that when Simon Cameron, who helped Abraham Lincoln clinched the the Republican nomination in the 1860 convention, proved not up to the task as Secretary of War, he was shipped off to Russia  by President Lincoln? After first making him Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary in 1862, of course.

Coupled with the presidential authority to nominate ambassadors  is the “Advice  and Concent of the Senate.” And yet the process is mostly pro forma, even after the lawmakers themselves wrote the Foreign Service Act of 1980 (22 USC 3944) dealing with ambassadorial appointments. The Senators recognize that the authority to nominate his representatives is a presidential prerogative under the Constitution and that the president, therefore, should be able to pick his own team and representatives.  But perhaps, the Senators pro forma advice and consent is to also ensure that when their party’s candidate get to the WH, that he/she, too, would have the latitude to appoint his/her own people.

We had a laugh out loud moment when we saw the GOP released its Ambassadors for Dummies How to Guide. How easily we forget.  Let’s refresh our memories with this gem from 2005,  The Oval: The Price of an Ambassadorship.  How about this 2007 nugget from Scholars and Rogues on Bush’s patronage appointments to ambassador exceed father’s, Clinton’s?

Our  diplomatic spoils system plays out every four years. In the landmark election of hope and change, there was concern that the Envoy Convoy may screech to a halt , but we were just kidding ourselves.

In 2014, the spoils system is alive and thriving. And the winner still takes it all. The system is not going to change because the very people who can change the system will not lift a finger, as they may be next in line to benefit from the same system.

Cynical much?  Oh, absolutely, though mumsie said we were not born this way.

We teach our kids that the golden rationalization, or “everybody does it” excuse is not acceptable; that the number of people who performs an act, does not improve the ethical nature of that act.  But then adulthood happens, and early onset amnesia sometime occurs.  Yeah, it’s a practice as old as the republic; yow, everybody does it, or maybe the next administration will really do better  … sigh.

We recognize that this is a  presidential prerogative. We agree that the President, whether a Republican or a Democrat should be able to pick his/her own representatives and advisers.  But we also believe that the WH should be attentive and judicious with its nominees to represent the United States abroad.  There ought to be one selection panel for ambassadors, not one at the WH for political appointees and another one at the State Department for career diplomats. One panel ought to be tasked with shortlisting potential candidates, no more than three for each country for recommendation to the president.  To help ensure that political contributions will not be the main consideration in the nominations, campaign operatives ought to be firewalled from that selection panel (written by a true blooded resident of Planet Pluto).

Of course, this can only happen if our political leadership has the balls to clean up the system. But who got ‘em balls?

So can we agree that this practice will go on like the Celine Dion song?  Okay …. now, while we’re on this subject,why don’t we bring back the OIG report cards for ambassadors and senior embassy officials, hey?! (see IERs: We’re Not Doing ‘Em Anymore, We’re Doing Something Better — Oh, Smashing, Groovy! and State/OIG: No More Ambassador Report Cards Cuz They’re Not as Sexy as Debarments?).

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Donor Ambassadors Are Here to Stay Because — #1 Elections Cost Money, Money, Honey (With ABBA)

– Domani Spero

On February 14, WaPo did the top 10 reasons to keep political ambassadors. It wasn’t terribly funny. The 10th item on the list, “The system is unlikely to change anytime soon” drove our friends insane.  They haven’t recovered yet from that shock and awe. Meanwhile, the uproar over the nominees who bungled their confirmation hearings continue to make waves.  Despite all that, former Senator Max “I’m no real expert” Baucus was confirmed as our next ambassador to China.  The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had also cleared the way for the full Senate vote for  the other nominees who did their made for Comedy Central moments at the SFRC.

For those who are shocked that an Obama nominee has never been to Argentina, might they also be awed that a George W. Bush ambassador had only visited Canada once–more than 30 years ago on a trip to Niagara Falls, prior to his appointment and subsequent confirmation?  Another George W. Bush ambassador was out of the country 37 percent of the time. (WaPo reported that the nominee’s mortgage company was investigated by 30 state regulators so that may have something to do with the absences.) Not to be outdone, an Obama ambassador to the Bahamas was also absent from post for 276 days during a 670-day period.

These are not the cringe-worthy parts.  But the thing is, this controversy over the nominations of political donors to cushy ambassadorships is a story that regularly repeats itself every few years.  They are typically followed by quite a rumpus ruckus, only to settle down after a short while, and to reappear after a few years.  We do think that political ambassadors, particularly the sub-group of wealthy donors and bundlers who gets appointed as chiefs of missions to our embassies will not go away anytime soon. We’re going to chop down the top reasons why … well, this piece kept getting longer so we’re posting this in parts.

Donor ambassadors are here to stay because –

#1. Elections Cost Money, Money, Honey

If we were a band, we’d write the song,  Money, Money, Money — ohw, but ABBA did it already!

In 2004, President George W. Bush won his second term over John Kerry with 286 of the electoral votes. That presidential election cost $1,910,230,862.  In 2008, President Obama won against John McCain with 365 electoral votes. That presidential race cost $2,799,728,146. In 2012, President Obama won reelection over Mitt Romney with 332 electoral votes.  That race cost slightly cheaper than the previous election at only $2,621,415,792 but there is no reason to believe that we’re on a downward spiral when it comes to big money in politics.

Here is Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics last year:  “You do not wage a financially viable campaign without hundreds of millions of dollars,” she said. “There is far greater reliance on the bundling operation, and I don’t see any evidence or reason to be hopeful that the donor rewards that are attendant to this system will diminish anytime soon. They go hand in hand.”

We imagine that the cost of the 2016 presidential election will be for the records book. All that money will not come from a money tree.

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Peter Spiro: Donor diplomats are embarrassing. Let’s get rid of them — Wait, What?

– Domani Spero

In 2009, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton deputy under secretary of commerce for international trade policy asked: “If a job is meaningless enough to be entrusted to someone who is unqualified to do it, do we really need to fill that post?”  Mr. Rothkopf is currently the CEO and Editor of the FP Group.  In an interview with NBC then, Mr. Rothkopf gave a two-pronged argument for nixing these posts: “First, if you can appoint someone who has no experience for the job, you can’t really value that job —someone else, who knows what’s going on, is doing the real work of the embassy; and Second, the job is outdated, created hundreds of years ago to bring sealed missives from one country to another.”

Now, Peter Spiro has written an op-ed against ambassadors.  He’s not even asking, he’s just giving it to you straight up — donor diplomats are embarrassing, get rid of them. Excerpt below:

For anyone looking to take a cheap shot at Washington, ambassadors are the gift that keeps on giving. In every administration — Republican or Democrat — individuals of no particular talent beyond their prodigious fundraising skills are picked and sent off to represent the United States in posh locales. Inevitably, some of them will manage to embarrass themselves, either before they leave or, worse, after they arrive.
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Embassy appointments will be decoupled from patronage only after they are turned into less appealing prizes. And in many places, we don’t need ambassadors anymore at all. So here’s a modest proposal: Let’s just get rid of them.
[….]
So, how do we get rid of ambassadors? The drawdown should start with the posts coveted by incompetent fundraisers: Paris, London, Rome. Embassies in key friendly states do have visas to process and play some continuing role coordinating run-of-the-mine policy at the staff level. But the largely ceremonial function of the ambassador has become dispensable. Would our relationship with countries like the United Kingdom, France and Canada be damaged if no ambassador were in residence? Probably not. Ambassadors in those cushy posts are more in the business of cutting ribbons and hosting cocktail parties than toughing it out on the diplomatic front lines. Political ambassadors are like minor royalty — harmless, until they do something silly.

The top job in our European delegations could be rebranded as a minister position, a lower-ranked diplomatic status also recognized under international law. That’s what U.S. envoys were called until 1893, when Congress first authorized the appointment of ambassadors. Ambassador, on the other hand, is a title for life.

This is a tad extreme but would a rich car dealer be happy with a title for life that says “minister” instead of “ambassador?”  Maybe not, doesn’t come with the same dazzle dazzle. Read in full here.

Peter Spiro is the Charles R. Weiner Professor of Law at Temple University.   A former law clerk to Justice David H. Souter of the U.S. Supreme Court, Mr. Spiro specializes in international, immigration, and constitutional law. He is the author of “Beyond Citizenship: American Identity After Globalization.” (Oxford University Press 2008).  In the 1990’s, he was an attorney-adviser in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Legal Adviser.

We must note that any downgrade in positions for the political ambassadors, would similarly downgrade it for the career diplomats.  We imagine that this would not be a popular proposal for the professional diplomatic service.  It’s like, look this bathwater is dirty, let’s throw away the bath and the baby, too.  Of course, in Congress, there where things occasionally gets done, and where our politicians are already lining up for 2016, this would be double dead on arrival.

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15 Former AFSA Presidents Urge Senators to Oppose Confirmation of Ambassadorial Nominees to Norway, Hungary, and Argentina

– Domani Spero

On March 5, 2014, the AFSA Governing Board resolution says that “AFSA will send letters to the Senate and the White House expressing concern that the recent nominations for chief of mission positions in Norway, Hungary and Argentina appear to be based primarily on their status as financial contributors to political campaigns, which is in violation of the Foreign Service Act of 1980.” 

On Friday, March 7, fifteen former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) wrote to Senators Reid, McConnell, Menendez, Corker, Franken, Klobuchar, McCain, Cardin, Mikulski, Warner, Kaine, Whitehouse  and others, urging the non-confirmation of President Obama’s nominees for ambassadors to Norway, Hungary and Argentina.

Screen Shot 2014-03-09

Below is an excerpt from their letter:

Among the nominees for ambassadorships currently under consideration by the Senate, three have generated considerable public controversy: George Tsunis (Norway), Colleen Bell (Hungary), and Noah Mamet (Argentina). The nominations of Mr. Tsunis and Ms. Bell have been forwarded to the full Senate by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

As former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association, the professional association and trade union of career members of the Foreign Service, we urge you to oppose granting Senate consent to these three candidates. Although we have no reason to doubt that the nominees are conscientious and worthy Americans, the fact that they appear to have been chosen on the basis of their service in raising money for electoral campaigns, with minimal demonstrated qualifications for their posts, has subjected them to widespread public ridicule, not only in the U.S. but also abroad. As a result, their effectiveness as U.S. representatives in their host countries would be severely impaired from the start. Their nominations also convey a disrespectful message, that relations with the host country are not significant enough to demand a chief of mission with relevant expertise.

These three nominations represent a continuation of an increasingly unsavory and unwise practice by both parties.  In the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, “The spoils or patronage theory is that public office is primarily designed for partisan plunder.”  Sadly it has persisted, even after President Nixon’s acknowledged rewarding of ambassadorial nominations to major campaign donors was exposed.
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During his 2008 election campaign, President Obama recognized the appropriateness of these guidelines, and promised to respect them. The time for the Senate to begin enforcing its own guidelines set forth in law for U.S. diplomatic chiefs of mission is now.  The nation cannot afford otherwise.

The signatories of the letter are Marshall Adair, Thomas Boyatt, Kenneth Bleakley, Theodore Eliot, Franklyn A Harris, William Harrop, Dennis Hays, J. Anthony Holmes, Lars Hydle, Susan Johnson, Alphonse La Porta, John Limbert, John Naland, Lannon Walker, and Theodore Wilkinson.

One scenario where this might get off  the hot topics column is if the nominees themselves recognize that their confirmation hearing performance and subsequent public ridicule would have an impact on their effectiveness as President Obama’s top representatives in their prospective host countries, and withdraw their names for consideration. This would be the less messy route, but we do not anticipate this happening or it would have happened already.

Another scenario is if we get to see more Senate confirmation hearings bungled under similar circumstances, with the accompanying public uproar, and more mockery from cable news and comedians day in and day out — which might, just might make President Obama think, “enough already.” If that happens, it might also forced him to  revisit his promise that “the days of Michael Brown, Arabian Horse Judge, are over.”  Well, that’s a lot of ifs and mights, so we’re not holding our breath.

There is, of course, the ultimate scenario that we have seen before, and no doubt, we’ll see again — Senators’ offices will acknowledge the former AFSA presidents’ letter and others like it, and then proceed to confirm the nominees (Senate holds for ambassadorial nominees seem reserved for nutty reasons like the case of an ancient boyfriend or the ethnic origin of the nominee’s wife). It is just a coincidence that some nominees are also contributors to the Senate Majority PAC, the party’s Senatorial Campaign, the party’s victory fund or even to the guys from the other party.  Oh, but we are extraordinarily special and exceptional that way — watch.

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AFSA Threatens to Sue State Department Over Ambassadors Credentials, Again

Updated on March 6, 10:13 pm PST with the “demonstrated competence” requirement in the FS Act of 1980.

– Domani Spero

Via WaPo’s Al Kamen:

The State Department employees union is demanding that the department turn over key documents on three embattled ambassadorial nominees — and all pending Obama administration nominees, both career Foreign Service and non-career folks — by Thursday evening or face a prompt lawsuit for the materials.

The documents, called “certificates of demonstrated competence,” essentially explain the rationale for nominating  each individual. The 28-member governing board of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) voted unanimously to demand the documents.

AFSA had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents in July, but it has not received them.
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Although the board was very concerned about those particular three nominees, “We’re not going to be satisfied with one or two small victories,”AFSA president Robert Silverman said in an interview. “We want the system to be fixed, it’s broken.”

With the certificates in hand, the board, probably by telephone vote, is expected to deal with those three nominees. On the other hand, if AFSA needs to go to court for the documents, it may not get them before the full Senate votes on the nominations.

On AFSA’s Facebook page, the news has yet to generate a wave of response from its membership. Besides over a dozen likes and a few short “bravos,” a couple of concerns were also posted:

One wrote: “While I appreciate the broader issue, and think that it is nice that the press is focused on the service of career diplomats, I wonder how much efforts like this will go to alienate senior leadership in the Department and Administration who might later be called on to advocate for OCP or other issues of concern for the rank and file. I agree the Service would benefit if a few more Ambassadorships went to career diplomats, but I doubt that the senators who right now might applaud the sideshow generated by a lawsuit will feel similarly disposed when a Republican administration is making its appointments.”

Another comment: “While I am concerned about the quality of our Ambassadors I am even more concerned that AFSA has chosen this matter as the defining issue on which to expend its political capital.  I understand your explanation that no publicity is bad publicity but if the choice is to put our support behind an initiative that will benefit a very select few versus a different initiative that will benefit all, i.e. OCP, then I would rather we back the latter. My fellow proletarians may disagree but this seems to me a much wiser use of resources.”

In responding to one FB comment, Mr. Silverman, the AFSA president wrote in part:

“I want to assure you that we are working very closely on this Chief of Mission Guidelines initiative with the senior leadership at State, other Administration and SFRC. That has been the focus since the initiative’s genesis in August. Informally senior State leaders applaud and support this initiative. And we are collaborating closely with State on our single biggest ask of Congress: the third tranche of OCP. From my perspective as AFSA’s president, this collaboration has never been closer. The unprecedented media attention also strengthens AFSA’s voice in general. The goal is to have it help with OCP, and the most urgent issue in front of us – the Senate holds on 1,300 FS members awaiting tenure and promotion.”

Thursday night is reportedly the deadline.  It’ll be an interesting night, or maybe not.

If the State Department releases these “certificates of demonstrated competence” on “all pending Obama administration nominees,” it will, no doubt, be a media field day. We could be wrong, but we don’t think State will roll over a threat that easily.  If it does’t, AFSA will, of course, have to go to court. It won’t be for the first time.  Since we don’t have a drive-thru court, this will certainty take time winding through the federal district court. By the time a hearing is in sight or folks need to appear in court, the ambassadorial nominees potentially would already be confirmed and off to post.

We have not been able to find anything on these “certificates of demonstrated competence” – not in the FAM or anywhere else in state.gov.  Not even in history.state.gov but it is in the FS Act of 1980:(h/t to M!)

Section 304 (4)
(4) The President shall provide the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate, with each nomination for an appointment as a chief of mission, a report on the demonstrated competence of the nominee to perform the duties of the position in which he or she is to serve.

Also,  a little digging in ADST’s oral history project gave us an idea on what maybe in these “certificates.” Below is an excerpt from the ADST interview of Charles A. Schmitz who served in the State Department from 1964 to the early 1990′s. He worked in the Director General’s Office from 1976-1978 and served as AFSA Vice President in 1990 when the association took the State Department to court for these “certificates.” Excerpt below, read the full interview here (pdf).

The State Department, in a most conniving, almost criminal way, connived to keep from the public view the description of how bad a lot of these appointees were, in violation of the law. The law requires the State Department to issue a certificate of demonstrated competence for every ambassadorial appointee.
[...]
It is in the Foreign Service Act. It is much ignored, by the way. Pell required it to be written into the law, but then quit taking it seriously. Therefore, the certificate was produced in name only. It was not a certificate of competency at all. It was a brief, usually one page, description of what the person had done. A typical example was of the model…Mr. so-and-so has been a pillar of his community, a successful businessman in running his used car dealership and therefore would make an excellent ambassador of the United States to Spain. It was so bad that these things were not even carefully done. They had typos in them. In one case the last line naming the country was the wrong country.
[...]
Nobody noticed it because they classified it. There is a little operation in the State Department that produced these things. They were not really State Department people, they were White House people sent over to write these things. There were two of them. They then sent them as confidential documents to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That is why we sued him. We said that you can not classify somebody’s resume. Under the National Security Act involving classification this is a violation of the act. We, of course, argued that point until we were blue in the face for months and months with the State Department in negotiations. They refused to move on it, so AFSA sued the Secretary of State in the Federal District Court. Before the matter came to hearing, the State Department compromised and provided AFSA all of the documents which it had withheld until that point. It undertook to provide us the documents as the law should require and denied having done anything wrong.
[...]
These things turned out to be laughable in practice. They were slipshod, superficially done, just marking the boxes So we had to expose that in some fashion. And that was important that it was exposed and ultimately, as I said before, what caused a certain amount of embarrassment. This didn’t defeat any of those nominees, but it may have had some effect on other potential appointees, or the nominators anyway who realized it wasn’t going to be just a free ride to nominate anybody as ambassador.

Remember Battlestar Galactica’s “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again?”  

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Norwegian-Americans Petition For Withdrawal of Tsunis Nomination as Ambassador to Norway

– Domani Spero

We didn’t know that  Minnesota has the largest Norwegian-American population in the United States. Apparently, it is also home to major Norwegian groups like the Sons of Norway International.  According to MinnPost, days after George Tsunis, the nominee to be ambassador to Norway bungled his appearance at his SFRC confirmation hearing, a group of Minnesotans took up the cause of preventing the hotel magnate from getting the assignment. Twin Cities attorney T. Michael Davis has organized a campaign to either win Norway a new nominee, or, if that does not work, see that the Senate votes down Tsunis’ appointment.

We want the American citizens to have a qualified ambassador in Oslo, and we want the government in Oslo to be dealing with a qualified ambassador,” said Davis, a member of the state’s Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce. “This is just basic common sense.”

Davis and his allies have penned a Star Tribune op-ed on February 12, pushing for the Senate not to approve this nominee (See Obama-Tsunis: Selection for ambassador to Norway cannot stand):

“In a time of hyperpartisanship in Congress — and extreme voter fatigue with respect to party-line loyalties, a bipartisan Nordic community has always had greater hopes and expectations. We, thus, ask our senators to encourage President Obama to withdraw the Tsunis nomination or, barring such, we ask them to work hard in coming days to convince key Senate colleagues to act in the nonpartisan interests of the United States and its taxpayers, and in the interest of our valued ties with Norway, and unanimously reject the nomination of George J. Tsunis.”

Mr. Davis reportedly also wrote White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough directly about the nomination, and he and his allies have been making lots of noises in the Senate.

An online petition at charge.org has also been launched by Tom Lundquist asking for President Obama “to withdraw the Tsunis nomination or, alternatively, that the Senate act in the interests of the U.S., taxpayers, and ties with Norway, thus, rejecting the nomination.” The petition has 308 supporters as of this writing with 192 signatures still needed.

It’s hard to say if these efforts would derail the confirmation of Mr. Tsunis as the next ambassador to Norway.  On February 4, Mr. Tsunis got one step closer to becoming ambassador when the SFRC endorsed his nomination.  The last step in the process is the final vote by the full Senate.

There is, of course, a logjam of nominees over there.  Some have been waiting since January for their confirmation votes.  Given that the votes for these nominations are going in stops and spurts these days, it is likely that Mr. Tsunis’ nomination will be in the waiting line for a while. However, we are guessing that the nomination will squeak by quietly in late spring or early summer when we’re all busy with summer vacations and whatnots.

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Senate Intel Committee Benghazi Report — “Additional Views” Make Special Mentions

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– Domani Spero

On January 15, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) released its 85-page report on Benghazi.  As we noted previously, the report itself is 42 pages long with its findings and recommendations. As well, there are “Additional Views” attached to the report:  a 5-page one from the Democrats on the SSIC (Senators Feinstein, Rockefeller IV, Wyden, Mikulski, Udall, Warner, Heinrich and Maine Senator Angus King);  a 16-page one from the GOP members of the Committee namely, Vice-Chairman Chambliss and Senators Burr, Risch, Coats, Rubio and Coburn and a 4-page statement by Maine Senator Susan Collins who co-authored with then Senator Joe Lieberman the HSGAC 2012 report, “Flashing Red: A Special Report on the Terrorist Attack at Benghazi.

The appended 5-page “additional views” from the Democrats talks about — talking points, terrorists vs. extremists, dropping the term “Al-Qa ‘ida”,  no protest, and talking points, again going through the interagency process. It concludes with this:

“The Majority agrees that the process to create the talking points was not without problems, so we join our Republican colleagues in recommending-as we do in the report-that in responding to future requests for unclassified talking points from Congress, the IC should simply tell Congress which facts are unclassified and let Members of Congress provide additional context for the public. However, we sincerely hope that the public release of the emails on May 15, 2013, that describe the creation of the talking points, and the evidence presented in this report, will end the misinformed and unhelpful talking points controversy once and for all.”

The appended “additional views” from the Republicans is 16-page long, almost a report in itself. It complains of “Disturbing Lack of Cooperation by the State Department”

As the Committee attempted to piece together key events before, during, and after the attacks, we faced the most significant and sustained resistance from the State Department in obtaining documents, access to witnesses, and responses to questions.”

We’re sure the State Department sees it differently. The same day the SSCI report came out, it released its Fact Sheet on the Benghazi ARB Implementation.

The GOP’s “additional views” mentions former Secretary Clinton just once, saying  that “Ultimately, however, the final responsibility for security at diplomatic facilities lies with the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.”  It also point fingers at senior officials at the State Department. Who gets a special mention?

Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy

“We believe the background of one senior State Department official made him uniquely situated to anticipate the potential for a terrorist attack on the Benghazi facilities. Prior to the 1998 East Africa Embassy bombings which killed 12 Americans, Under Secretary Kennedy was serving as the Assistant Secretary of State for Administration, and concurrently served as the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security. Coincidentally, some of the same failures identified by the report of the Accountability Review Board following the 1998 Embassy bombings were noted by the Benghazi Accountability Review Board. Mr. Kennedy later served in key positions in Iraq, in the immediate aftermath of the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and in the IC. The threat of terrorism, including against U.S. facilities, was not new to him, and given the security situation in Benghazi, the attacks could have been foreseen. Given the threat environment, Mr. Kennedy should have used better judgment and should be held accountable.”

Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs – Charlene Lamb

“While many individuals with information relevant to our review were more than forthcoming with the Committee, we are particularly disappointed that Charlene Lamb, who was the Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs, has refused to explain to the Committee why certain decisions were made concerning enhanced security at the Temporary Mission Facility and who ultimately was responsible for those decisions. The Committee extended invitations to Ms. Lamb on three occasions prior to and after her reinstatement each time, she refused to meet with the Committee.154 Unfortunately, even after Ms. Lamb was returned to full duty, the State Department did not make her available to the Committee, something we believe should have been a priority for both Ms. Lamb and the State Department. Based on what we have learned during the Committee’s review, we believe Ms. Lamb’s testimony is critical to determining why the leadership failures in the State Department occurred and the specific extent to which these failures reached into its highest levels.”

If the Committee really “believe” that Ms. Lamb’s testimony is “critical to determining why the leadership failures in the State Department occurred” how come it did not subpoena her to appear before the Committee?  Well, maybe just half the Committee believe that? Or maybe they had other issues to squabble about? Or like most of the American public, did they all get Benghazi’ed out?

GOP Senator Susan Collins, not noted for her extreme views or for presidential ambition, also appended a 4-page statement to the SSCI report:

The SSCI report, while adding considerably to our knowledge, would have been strengthened if it had placed greater emphasis on the lack of accountability for the broader management failures at the State Department. It would have been premature for earlier reports published in the months immediately following the attack, such as the Accountability Review Board and the “Flashing Red” report, to reach final judgments with respect to the State Department’s personnel actions because the contributing factors to the vulnerability of the facility were still being pieced together. This report could have more fully evaluated the accountability issues because sufficient time had elapsed for the State Department to demonstrate whether or not decision-makers would be held accountable for poor judgments, refusals to tighten security, and misinformation.
[...]
A broken system overseen by senior leadership contributed to the vulnerability of U.S. diplomats and other American personnel in one of the most dangerous cities in the world. This is unacceptable, and yet the Secretary of State has not held anyone responsible for the system’s failings. This leads to a perception that senior State Department officials are exempt from accountability because the Secretary of State has failed to hold anyone accountable for the systemic failures and management deficiencies that contributed to the grossly inadequate security for the Benghazi facility.
[...]
While I support the SSCI report and appreciate its thorough analysis of much of what went wrong, I believe that more emphasis should have been placed on the three issues I have discussed: (1) the Administration’s initial misleading of the American people about the terrorist nature of the attack, (2) the failure of the Administration to hold anyone at the State Department, particularly Under Secretary Kennedy, fully accountable for the security lapses, and (3) the unfulfilled promises of President Obama that he would bring the terrorists to justice.

The SSCI report does not include details about the Benghazi fallout at the State Department. Except for one mention of Charlene Lamb, none of the other three officials put on administrative leave by the State Department made it to the report.

And life goes on. Perhaps in time, history.state.gov will afford us a view of the memcons during the internal deliberations at Foggy Bottom during and after this crisis — who said what and when, and who did what, where and when.  We still haven’t seen all the Kissinger telcons so, this may take a few decades, too.

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Balwinder Singh aka ‘Happy’ Charged with Conspiring to Provide Material Support to Terrorism Groups in India and Pakistan

– Domani Spero

The day after Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced the arrest of  Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade for visa fraud and false statements and caused a diplomatic row, another arrest in Reno, Nevada of Indian national  and U.S. legal resident, Balwinder Singh for conspiring to provide material support to terrorism groups in India and Pakistan barely made the news.

Below via USDOJ:

Reno Man Charged with Conspiring to Provide Material Support to Terrorism Groups in India and Pakistan | December 13, 2013

A Reno, Nev. man has been charged with providing material support to terrorism groups in India and Pakistan in order to intimidate the Indian government and to harm persons that were not supporting their cause, announced John Carlin, Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security, Daniel G. Bogden, U.S. Attorney for the District of Nevada, and Laura A. Bucheit, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI for Nevada.

“A thorough investigation and cooperation among agencies led to these charges,” said U.S. Attorney Bogden.  “Investigating and prosecuting matters of national security is the top priority of the U.S. Department of Justice.”

Balwinder Singh, aka Jhajj, aka, Happy, aka Possi, aka Baljit Singh, 39, of Reno, is charged in an indictment with one count of conspiracy to murder, kidnap, and maim persons in a foreign country, one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, one count of making a false statement on an immigration document, two counts of use of an immigration document procured by fraud, and one count of unlawful production of an identification document.   Singh was arrested on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, in Reno, and is scheduled to appear before a U.S. Magistrate Judge on Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, for an initial appearance and arraignment.

“After an extensive investigation, the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) of Northern Nevada has disrupted an individual’s involvement in facilitation activities in support of a foreign terrorist organization, targeting an ally of the United States,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Bucheit. “We will continue to work with our international partners to prevent acts of terrorism on U.S. soil or, as in this case, on that of an ally. This investigation demonstrates the importance of law enforcement coordination and collaboration here and around the world.”

According to the indictment, Singh was a citizen of India who fled to the United States and claimed asylum.  Singh lived in the United States where he eventually obtained a permanent resident card from the United States.  The indictment alleges that Singh is a member of two terrorist organizations, Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) and Khalistan Zindabad Force (KZF), whose members aim to establish an independent Sikh state in part of the Punjab region of India known as Khalistan. These groups engage in bombings, kidnappings and murders in India to intimidate and compel the Indian government to create the state of Khalistan.  These groups also target for assassination persons they consider traitors to the Sikh religion and government officials who they consider responsible for atrocities against the Sikhs.

The indictment alleges that the object of the conspiracy was to advance the goals of BKI and KZF by raising money and obtaining weapons to support acts of terrorism in India.  It is alleged that the conspiracy began on a date unknown but no later than Nov. 30, 1997.  It is alleged that Singh used a false identity and obtained false identification documents in the United States so that he could travel back to India without being apprehended by the Indian authorities.  It is alleged that Singh communicated with other coconspirators by telephone while he was in the United States to discuss acts of terrorism to be carried out in India.  It is alleged that Singh sent money from Reno, Nev., to co-conspirators in India for the purchase of weapons that would be provided to members of the BKI and KZF to support acts of terrorism in India. It is alleged that Singh traveled from the United States to Pakistan, India, and other countries to meet with coconspirators to assist in the planning of terrorism in India, and that Singh provided advice to coconspirators about how to carry out acts of terrorism.

If convicted, Singh faces up to life in prison and fines of up to $250,000 on each count.

The case is being investigated by the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force in northern Nevada, and prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sue Fahami and Brian L. Sullivan, and Trial Attorney Mara M. Kohn of the U.S. Department of Justice Counterterrorism Section.

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In related news, on December 18, in a widely reported retaliation for the treatment of its diplomat in New York, the Indian government removed the security barriers at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

On December 25, Hindustan Times  writes about the “rumblings” in the U.S. Congress over the removal of the security barriers:  “We can understand the anger and the other measures,” said a senior congressional aide on condition of anonymity, “but removing the barriers has raised security concerns.

On December 29, the Times of India says that Indian officials speaking on background refuted “the US suggestion that they were being vengeful towards the US diplomatic corps and endangering the US embassy.” Seriously.  That’s why there was full press court and cameras when it took the muscular response of dismantling the concrete security barricades and spike strips around Embassy Delhi.  So apparently, the security barriers now have its own mini-drama. The TOI report says  that “A decision to remove the barriers was taken several weeks back when the US side removed a diplomatic parking lane in front of the Indian embassy in Washington DC (that also served as security perimeter) and turned it into public parking.”

Coincidences bumping into each other on the dark side of the moon.

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Senate “Nuclear” Fallout Snares State Department Nominees

– Domani Spero

CNN reports that the partisan battle over presidential nominations is heating up again and threatens to dominate the remaining days before the winter recess.  The Senate Republicans, reportedly are still angry over filibuster changes Democrats made last month, and have blocked “a series of largely non-controversial nominations Democrats tried to clear.”

On December 9, 2013, Senator Harry Reid asked for unanimous consent to confirm all Executive and Judicial nominations on the Executive Calendar. Senator Lamar Alexander objected to the request.

We can’t say how long long or how intense this battle is going to be. What we know is it has already snared dozens of State Department nominees.  Senator Reid filed cloture on 10 executive nominations.  Under the rule, the first cloture vote will occur one hour after the Senate convenes on Wednesday, December 11th. Among the 10 nominees are Heather Anne Higginbottom, of the District of Columbia, to be Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources and Anne W. Patterson, of Virginia, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Career Ambassador, to be an Assistant Secretary of State (Near Eastern Affairs).  

Below is a list of nominees for State, Peace Corps, Ex-Import Bank submitted by Senator Reid for unanimous consent:

STATE DEPARTMENT

#403 Frank A. Rose – to be an Assistant Secretary of State (Verification and Compliance)

#404 Tomasz P. Malinowski – to be Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

#406 Anne W. Patterson – to be an Assistant Secretary of State (NearEastern Affairs)

#407 Rose Eilene Gottemoeller – to be Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security

#408 Crystal Nix-Hines – for the rank of Ambassador during her tenure of service as the United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization

#409 Pamela K. Hamamoto – to be Representative of the United States of America to the Office of the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva, with the rank of Ambassador

#410 Adam M. Scheinman – to be Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation, with the rank of Ambassador

#412 Brian A. Nichols – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Peru

#413 Mark Bradley Childress – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the United Republic of Tanzania

#414 Carlos Roberto Moreno – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to Belize

#415 John Hoover – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Sierra Leone

#416 Timothy M. Broas – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Kingdom of the Netherlands

#417 Donald Lu, of California – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Albania

#418 Robert A. Sherman – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Portuguese Republic

#420 Thomas Frederick Daughton – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Namibia

#422 Michael Stephen Hoza – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Cameroon

#423 Eunice S. Reddick – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Niger

#424 Karen Clark Stanton – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste

#425 Matthew T. Harrington – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Kingdom of Lesotho

#426 Dwight L. Bush, Sr. – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Kingdom of Morocco

#440 Daniel W. Yohannes – to be Representative of the United States of America to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, with the rank of Ambassador

#441 Elizabeth Frawley Bagley – to be an Alternate Representative of the United States of America to the Sixty-eighth Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations

#442 Theodore Strickland – to be an Alternate Representative of the United States of America to the Sixty-eighth Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations

#443 Stephen N. Zack – to be an Alternate Representative of the United States of America to the Sixty-eighth Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations

#444 Heather Anne Higginbottom – to be Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources

#445 Sarah Sewall – to be an Under Secretary of State (Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights)

#446 Richard Stengel – to be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy

#448 Anthony Luzzatto Gardner – to be Representative of the United States of America to the European Union, with the rank and status of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary

#449 Amy Jane Hyatt – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Palau

PEACE CORPS

#447 Carolyn Hessler Radelet – to be Director of the Peace Corps

EXPORT-IMPORT BANK OF THE UNITED STATES

#388 Wanda Felton – to be First Vice President of the Export-Import Bank of the United States for a term expiring January 20, 2017 (Reappointment)

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