Matt Armstrong: No, we do not need to revive the U.S. Information Agency

Posted: 3:55 am EDT


Matt Armstrong (@mountainrunner) is a lecturer on public diplomacy and international media. He is writing a book on how the White House, State Department, Congress, and the media fought, struggled, and ultimately collaborated in 1917-1948 to establish U.S. “public diplomacy.” In 2011, he served as executive director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. He was nominated and confirmed as a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) on August 1, 2013.  He blogs sometimes at He recently wrote, No, we do not need to revive the U.S. Information Agency for War on The Rocks.  Below is an excerpt. He says that the views expressed in this piece are his own, so don’t blame anyone else.



More than once in the past decade or more, I guarantee that you have heard — or read — someone declare the United States would be better off today if the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) were still around and how without it, the United States was robbed of the ability to properly engage in information warfare today. Some of these discussions have been in Congress and at least one bill was introduced in recent years to try to recreate a limited USIA. However, laments about USIA are really a coded way of saying that we lack a strategy, an organizing principle, and empowered individuals to execute information warfare today.
In 1999, the “peace dividend” needed more money, and either USAID or USIA was going to help fund it. While USAID’s chief fought for his agency, USIA’s did not. But why was USIA even on the chopping block? Partly because of the incomplete, or tainted, knowledge of its role (primary credit goes to Fulbright), but also partly because USIA’s narrative, its raison d’être, had failed to adapt to the new normal, which would have been a lot like its early years.

Abolishing USIA was messy. Parts went to State, mostly under the purpose-built office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, but not all. And the broadcasting portion was spun off into a separate federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors. A 2000 report on the status of the so-called merger captured part of the culture clash. While accounting at USIA served the mission and the field, at State, former USIA employees saw “accounting is an end itself.”
If we truly want to recreate USIA, the public affairs officers and their sections at our Embassies and Consulates would go to the new agency. The libraries and America’s Corners and all the similar programs would be moved, and likely moved out from behind fortress walls where some are invite-only, if they are accessible at all. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs would also leave State. The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs would be abolished, though the Bureau of Public Affairs would remain in the department. The Broadcasting Board of Governors would be merged with this new entity as well. Perhaps most important of all, the Defense Department would defer to this new agency in its public communications, as would USAID and other agencies. Obviously such a reorganization is not going to happen.

We must remember that USIA operated in a simpler time of limited information flows and limited government communications. It virtually owned access to many foreign media markets, markets where the only “competition” was local government propaganda or silence.

Perhaps State could revamp itself. It is worth noting here that the title “public affairs officer” used by State and the United States Information Service were created in 1917 by the foreign section of the Committee for Public Information because State refused to do “public diplomacy” abroad. Nelson Rockefeller’s Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs was established prior to Pearl Harbor as a USIA-like organization focused on Latin America because State refused to respond to FDR’s requests and engage the public. In 1953, State was all too eager to dump the responsibilities of engaging foreign publics directly in the interest of “streamlining.” And in 1999 through today, we see how poorly State integrates, funds, and prioritizes “public diplomacy” into its operations. Even the title of the public diplomacy chief is discordant: “Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.”

The lesson here is that each successful change followed a clearly defined and articulated requirement to fulfill a strategic purpose. Consolidation, or dis-aggregation, is not a strategy and it will not conjure up a strategy. In today’s noisy communications environment, we need coordination that comes not from a supremely empowered individual or central organization, but comes from a clear mission and purpose. USIA is held out as a symbol of our success to organize for information warfare, but it really was part of a larger effort. And ultimately, it came to reflect the segregation of “public diplomacy” from “diplomacy” that remains today. Today is not yesterday, so let’s stop looking at a mid-twentieth century solution for a 21st century problem.

Read in full here via War on The Rocks.

Click here for the end notes.


An American Ambassador’s Charm Offensive Via a TV Reality Show

Posted: 3:54 am EDT




Excerpt via Vanity Fair:

Says Richard Stengel, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy & Public Affairs, “We give ambassadors great latitude and discretion in media engagements in their host countries. Ambassador Gifford has been one of the most creative in identifying novel and innovative ways to connect with his local audience to advance the image of the U.S. and our foreign policy goals.”

His accessibility hasn’t come without his critics: some commentators in Denmark have suggested that Gifford’s celebrity status has made the Danish press less critical of the nice American man from television. The show will end its run this month, though, with no plans for a third season. Gifford’s charm offensive will continue for another year, until the next president assigns a new ambassador to Denmark.

So what does life post posting look like? “I have no idea what we’ll do next,” he says. “I say ‘we’ because Stephen is a big part of the equation [since] he’s moved around the world for me. . . . If he wants to move to Kenya and go work on saving elephants, I’ll figure out what to do, because he deserves that time.”

Read in full here.


Q&A With QDDR’s Tom Perriello, Wait, What’s That? Whyohwhyohwhy?

Posted: 4:36 pm EDT


The State Department says that the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR): provides a blueprint for advancing America’s interests in global security, inclusive economic growth, climate change, accountable governance and freedom for all.

-04/28/15  Remarks Announcing the Release of the 2015 QDDR Report;  Secretary of State John Kerry; Briefing Room; Washington, DC
-04/28/15  Briefing on the 2015 QDDR Report;  Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Heather Higginbottom; Washington, DC
-04/27/15  Secretary Kerry to Announce Release of 2015 QDDR Report; Office of the Spokesperson; Washington, DC

On May 19, Tom Perriello, the QDDR Special Representative asked if this blog might be interested in doing a Q&A on the QDDR.  On May 26, we sent him the following eight questions via email. By end of June, his QDDR office was still wrestling with the State Department’s clearance process.

On July 6, Mr. Perriello was appointed Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa. He assured us that he’s still “pushing hard” to get the Q&A cleared and appreciate the patience.  On July 10, he moved office and told us it is  unlikely that he’ll get clearance before he leaves his office but that “they’re moving.” He gave us a senior advisor as a contact person and we’ve checked in with the QDDR office about once a week since then.  On August 3, the senior advisor told us that the office has just been informed that given its leadership transition, “folks here would like our new Director to be able to respond to the questions that Tom answered. (Our new Deputy Director has just come on board this week, and a new Director for the office is starting in a couple of weeks.) This means that we will be delayed for a few more weeks.”

Whyohwhyohwhy?  So folks, here are the questions we wanted answered. And apparently, Mr. Perriello and his staffer did try to get us some answers, and we appreciate that, but the Q&A is still snared in some cauldron in the bureaucracy as of this writing.  If/When the hybrid answers get to us, we will post it here.

#1. QDDR/CSO: The 2010 QDDR transformed the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) into the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) to enhance efforts to prevent conflict, violent extremism, and mass atrocities. The 2015 QDDR says that “Some progress has been made in this area.”  I understand that CSO no longer has any mission element about stabilization and stabilization operations. It also remains heavy with contractors. One could argue that the current CSO is not what was envisioned in QDDR I, so why should it continue to exists if it only duplicates other functions in the government? Can you elaborate more on what is CSOs new role going forward, and what makes it unique and distinct from the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs’ Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives?


#2. Innovation and Risks: The QDDR talks about “promoting innovation.” Innovation typically requires risk. Somebody quoted you saying something like the gotcha attitude of press and Congress contributes to risk aversion from State and USAID. But risks and risk aversion also comes from within the system. I would point out as example the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications previously headed by Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, and its controversial campaign “Think Again Turn Away” which afforded the USG a new way to disrupt the enemy online. Ambassador Fernandez was recently replaced by a political appointee with minimal comparable experience. It also looks like CSCC will be folded into a new entity. So how do you encourage State/USAID employees “to err on the side of engagement and experimentation, rather than risk avoidance” when there are clear bureaucratic casualties for taking on risks?


#3. Engagement with American Public: The QDDR says: “Make citizen engagement part of the job. Every Foreign Service employee in the Department and USAID will be required to spend time engaging directly with the American people.” Are you aware that there are over 500 blogs run by Foreign Service employees and family members that could potentially help with engagement with the American public? Isn’t it time for these blogs to be formally adopted so that they remain authentic voices of experience without their existence subjected to the good graces of their superiors here or there?


#4. Eligible Family Members:  The State Department has talked about expanding opportunities for eligible family members for a long time now and I regret that I have not seen this promise go very far. There are a couple of things that could help eligible family members — 1) portability of security clearance, so that they need not have to wait for 6-12 months just to get clearances reinstated; and 2) internship to gain experience from functional bureaus or section overseas. Why are we not doing these? And by the way, we’re now in the 21st century and FS spouses still do not have online access to State Department resources that assist them in researching assignments and bids overseas. Employees are already afforded remote access, why is that not possible for family members? Wouldn’t taking care of people start with affording family members access to information that would help them plan their lives every three years?


#5. Foreign Assistance: One of the criticisms I’ve heard about QDDR is how it did not even address the reality that the United States has far too many foreign assistance programs — “an uncoordinated diaspora of offices and agencies scattered around the bureaucratic universe in D.C. from the Justice Department to the DoD to the Commerce Department to the Export-Import Bank to the Treasury Department and beyond, to the bewilderment of anyone the United States does business with overseas.” What do you say to that?


#6. Data Collection: Somebody called the second set of “three Ds” — data, diagnostics, and design as the “most revolutionary, disruptive element of QDDR II.” I can see development subjected to these three Ds, but how do you propose to do this with diplomacy where successful engagements are based on national interests and the human element and not necessarily data driven? Also data is only as good as its collector. How will data be collected?


#7. Institutional Weaknesses: Some quarters look at the State Department and points at several institutional weaknesses today: 1) the predominance of domestic 9-5 HQ staff with little or no real field experience, foreign language and other cultural insight, and 2) the rampant politicization and bureaucratic layering by short term office holders with little or no knowledge of the State Department and less interest in its relevance as a national institution. How does the QDDR address these weaknesses? How does the QDDR propose to recreate a national diplomatic service based on a common core of shared capabilities and understanding of 21st century strategic geopolitical challenges and appropriate longer term responses?


#8: QDDR Operation: I remember that you sent out a solicitation of ideas and suggestions for QDDR II and I’m curious at the kind of response you got. Can you also elaborate the process of putting together QDDR II? Finally, the success of QDDR II will be on implementation. Who’s leading the effort and what role will you and the QDDR office have on that? Unless I’m mistaken, the QDDR implementers are also not career officials, what happens when they depart their positions? Who will shepherd these changes to their expected completion?


We should note that the senior advisor who has been trying to get this Q&A cleared is also moving on and has now handed this task over to a PD advisor who assured us that they “are committed to responding as soon as possible in the midst of this transition, and we will not start from scratch.”

Folks, you don’t think there’s anything wrong with this entire clearance process, do you? Or the fact that the State Department’s office tasked with developing “a blueprint for advancing America’s interests in global security, inclusive economic growth, climate change, accountable governance and freedom for all” is actually unable to answer eight simple questions without the answers being pushed through a wringer, twice for good measure?


Obama Admin Official Leaks Dismal Stengel-Kerry Memo on ISIS Counter Messaging

Posted: 2:08 am EDT


An internal State Department memo paints a dreary view of the Obama administration’s efforts to counter messaging by the Islamic State. And somebody leaked it to the New York Times.






Why, indeed?

The internal memo, dated June 9 is marked SBU or “sensitive but unclassified.” It was drafted and approved by Richard A. Stengel, the State Department’s under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs (State/R) and a former managing editor of Time magazine.  The memo addressed to Secretary Kerry is cleared only by one person, Susan Stevenson, from Stengel’s own Front Office; there are no other addressee.  It’s hard to say how far this memo traveled in 4-5 days before it was leaked but the source could not be too far away from Stengel and Kerry’s offices.

The question now is motive. Who leaked that memo and why? Is it to garner support from higher ups like those in the WH or is it to torpedo Stengel’s “big proposal and immediate improvement” before it get legs. Who gains, who losses from this leak?

The memo is made available online by the NYT.

Pardon me, you’re waiting for the SBU leaker to get caught? We’ll, we’re also waiting for the trap doors for the leakers of the 2010 secret cables sent by then Ambassador Eikenberry on the Afghanistan strategy, and the 2012 top secret cable by then Ambassador Crocker on Pakistani havens.  To-date, none of those leakers have been caught. So, catch the SBU leaker? Good luck!


US Embassy Madagascar: A Post Far From Heaven With a $700K Imaginary American Center

Posted: 1:02 am EDT


Last week, State/OIG released its inspection report of the U.S. Embassy Antananarivo in Madagascar. It’s one of those report that you read and you want to pull your hair in frustration. By the time the OIG came for a visit, there’s a new chargé d’affaires, a new staff rotated in and a new team is tasked with correcting the mess left by the previous officials assigned to post.  The previous CDA identified fuel as a management control deficiency but did not see the rest of the good stuff.  The OIG report notes that other vulnerabilities discussed in the report “would have been apparent if embassy leadership had conducted a comprehensive, office-by-office review of all activities with management control implications.”

The report highlights non-use of record email to effectively track important exchanges on policy and programs, use of social media to reach a mainly urban, youthful, and elite audience where only 2 percent of the Madagascar population has access to the Internet, and Meritorious Honor Awards without proper documentation. Beyond the more problematic public affairs grants and purchases discussed below, post also spent more than $10,000 on computer equipment for use in Comoros, even if — get this —  there is no U.S. Government office space in Comoros in which to place that equipment.

And here’s one that’s going to make you unfriend this fella on Facebook: “The previous chargé d’affaires departed the embassy without completing six interim evaluation reports for American employees he supervised, as required for periods of 120 days or more under 3 FAM 2813.4. He did not respond to email reminders from the embassy human resources office and the Bureau of African Affairs. ” 

A quick look at US Embassy Antananarivo:

The mission has a total staff of 296, with 57 U.S. direct-hire positions. In April 2010, the embassy occupied a new embassy compound (site acquisition was $3.6 million, and construction was $102.3 million), consisting of a chancery, a warehouse/shops facility, a Marine security guard quarters, and a swimming pool. Embassy housing consists of 38 leased and 2 government-owned residences, 1 of which is the Ambassador’s residence.

The good news: A recently arrived chargé d’affaires

Stephen Anderson arrived in August 2014, about two months before the OIG inspection.  The OIG inspectors write:

The recently arrived chargé d’affaires has made a good start in leading the embassy during a period of profound change in the political situation in Madagascar and the subsequent restart of the bilateral relationship between Madagascar and the United States. … The chargé d’affaires, working with a collegial country team, has also demonstrated interpersonal engagement within the embassy…..The chargé d’affaires has also demonstrated his commitment to management controls within the embassy. He directed that each Department section conduct a self-assessment of its management deficiencies. At the time of the inspection, the mission had completed corrective action on 73 of the 122 action items identified and was working to close the others.

Some other good news:

1) The information management office is led by a seasoned information management officer. The section received good scores on ICASS customer surveys and OIG questionnaires, as well as A+ ratings from the Department’s network and systems monitoring software. 2) Community liaison office operations received high marks, exceeding both regional and worldwide scores in the 2014 ICASS customer satisfaction survey.  3) OIG surveys noted that parents are satisfied with the quality of education; and 4) The health unit’s ICASS customer satisfaction scores are above worldwide averages.

Now for that American Center boondoggle: 

According to State/OIG, the American Center was funded with embassy public affairs funds (approximately $116,328) and by two large allotments provided in June 2012 by the Office of American Spaces in the Bureau of International Information Programs (totaling $559,062).  The OIG report is careful to point out that though current staff members will play a key role in identifying a path forward on this project, they are not responsible for the existing situation.  But all those responsible and accountable for this project are left unnamed in the OIG report presumably because they are no longer at post and have been successfully recycled to other posts. And since IERs (inspector’s evaluation reports) are no longer in season, none of the details from this report will ever make it anywhere near a promotion board.

A former embassy public affairs officer in 2011 proposed an American Center for the capital on the basis of a public-private partnership model. The concept initially envisioned a partnership of the English Teaching Program (ETP), a restaurant, Voice of America, a telecommunications company, and a publisher of a free entertainment monthly. A memorandum of understanding was drafted and signed by some of the prospective partners in June 2013 after lengthy delays. However, two prospective partners failed to sign on and a final partnership memorandum never entered into force.
Disregard of policies and procedures concerning grants and cooperative agreements have put at risk the embassy’s approximately $700,000 project to establish an American Center in Antananarivo. The OIG team noted that the decisions and actions that led to the American Center problems predate the arrival of the employees presently assigned to the embassy.
The embassy initiated a massive public relations campaign and announced the start of construction at a press conference in April 2012 attended by the former chargé d’affaires and the deputy coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs.

Image via US Embassy Antananarivo/FB, April 2012

Image via US Embassy Antananarivo/FB, April 2012

We were able to locate the embassy announcement of the new American Center from April 2012.

Welcome to the new American Center.  In a few months time this space will be transformed into the most modern and technologically advanced space that Madagascar has ever seen.  It will be a place to learn, to explore, and to connect.   It will not be your traditional cultural center.  This initiative is an innovative collaboration between the American Embassy, our private sector partners, and the English Teaching Program.   It is this ambitious vision for a cultural center based entirely on the model of a public-private partnership that has brought the person in charge of American centers worldwide for the State Department to Madagascar.  I would like to acknowledge Michelle Logsdon, the Deputy Coordinator for International Information Programs who has joined us today to learn more about this important initiative.
As you will see in the presentations that each partner will be delivering shortly, they have not only embraced the potential of this center, they have developed it in ways we would have never dreamed possible.  VIMA plans to put on some of the most spectacular shows Antananarivo will have ever seen.  Orange and Teknet will make the latest technology accessible to a new generation of Malagasy, while the Cookie Shop will create a new environment for learning, exchanging, and of course some great brownies.
We will organize trainings, cultural programs, and conferences with our partners that connect them and their clients to individuals, information, and opportunities from around the globe.  We will also have a team dedicated to finding the latest information, technology, and developments for the Center.  While many of the services at the Center will be fee-based, just like at an internet café or a theatre, the Embassy will ensure that there will be more resources and events than ever that are available to the public for free. 

This is going to be a fee-based center in a country where the per capita gross domestic product is only $1,000 (2013 est.), with 92 percent of the population living on less than $2 a day. Who’s going to be the audience for these programs? The same urban, youthful, and elite audience that belongs to the  2 percent of the Madagascar population with access to the Internet?

I Dreamed a Dream … a Cookie Shop and Some Great Brownies

The OIG team inspected Embassy Antananarivo from October 7–29, 2014.  At that time, the team visited the proposed American Center site in a shopping mall and observed the following:

[A]fter almost 2 years of construction, the site, covering 1,200 square meters (or 12,917 square feet), was a shell. Rooms were laid out, but lighting, flooring, doors, and other infrastructure were absent. A small bathroom shared with the rest of the mall was located at some distance from the site on the other side of the mall. Other problems included the lack of storage space, ceilings below standard height on the mezzanine level, and inadequate provision for air conditioning. On a weekday afternoon, some minor construction work was underway. However, no agreement had been reached on a final design or construction plan, including where the U.S. Government portion of the facility might be located.

Storage in seven 40-ft container for nearly two years?

As the American Center is not ready for occupancy, much of the furniture and equipment ordered for it has been stored in seven 40-foot containers located in the embassy parking lot, some of it for nearly 2 years. The OIG team spot-checked the contents of the containers and did not observe water or insect damage.

The embassy did not have a plan (which details needed resources, deadlines, partners, and costs) that could lead to a decision whether to close or salvage this project. Without such a plan, the embassy runs the risk of repeating past mistakes and failing to make the best use of funds already expended.

No Bona Fide Need for Much of Equipment Procured for American Center

According to information the embassy provided the OIG team, the embassy has expended approximately $400,000 to date on furniture and equipment for the American Center project. However, the embassy failed to establish a bona fide need for many of these procurements. This failure—and the subsequent misuse of some of the furniture and equipment—constitutes a management control weakness.

A notable example of a questionable procurement is a $47,938 telescopic theater-style seating system, which the embassy purchased even though the prevailing wage of workers who could set up and remove chairs is $10 a day. The shipping cost for this item alone was estimated at $19,175.

Other examples of questionable procurements abound and include the following (costs are rounded and do not include shipping):

  • Twenty-five 46-inch televisions ($21,500) and six 70-inch televisions ($24,600).
  • A motorized theater curtain system ($7,150).
  • Twenty iMacs ($22,935), 16 HP TouchSmarts ($14,247), 20 Wii stations ($4,230), 20 Apple TVs ($1,920), and 10 iPods ($1,790).
  • Fifty home theater chairs ($26,600).
  • A replica of the Seattle Space Needle, painted wall mural, and totem pole ($4,810).
  • Decorations, including more than a dozen fish and turtle sculptures ($5,400).

Whatsadoing with a $5,500 coffee grinder/espresso maker?

The OIG report says that records the team reviewed indicate that the public affairs section recommended specific vendors to the procurement unit, most often identified through Looks like no one bothered to make a distinction between government shopping and personal shopping, and folks were in a hurry to spend end-of fiscal year funds:

No documentation in the procurement files shows that procurements greater than $3,000 were properly competed, as required. A number of the items ordered were not part of the original equipment lists submitted in support of the request for funds. For example, the original request did not include any food preparation equipment, yet the embassy purchased items such as a wine cooler, a $650 residential blender, grills, a $5,500 coffee grinder and commercial espresso maker, refrigerators, and other kitchen items.

Property Control Does Not Comply with Regulations, No Kidding

The amazing thing here is there is no discussion why USG properties were lent to two private businesses without documentation.  Who signed them out? Who approved these loans?  What did the USG get for this sweet arrangement? Did those companies just come by the embassy, pick up the USG properties and the embassy guards just waved “bye, come back soon?”

As the American Center was (and still is) not ready for occupancy, much of the furniture and equipment has been stored in seven 40-foot containers located in the embassy parking lot, some of it for nearly 2 years.

Other furniture and equipment was loaned to two private businesses for their use without any documentation. The embassy loaned at least $42,000 of computers and office equipment to one telecommunications firm alone. These items included 12 iPads, 16 iMacs, and 2 70-inch and 3 46-inch televisions. The embassy purchased a $6,700 eBoard from this company and then lent the item back to it. The embassy told the OIG team that these items were retrieved from the firm in February 2014 after a year or so in use, though the lack of documentation makes the timing unclear. The other firm, a restaurant chain, was lent at least $5,000 worth of U.S. Government property. The embassy warehouse unit retrieved these items, including a refrigerator installed in the restaurant owner’s private residence, on September 15, 2014—3 weeks prior to the OIG team’s arrival. These deficiencies were not, but should have been, included in the 2014 chief of mission statement of assurance signed by the previous chargé d’affaires on August 11, 2014.

Who Bears Responsibility For This Project, Anyways?

Short answer from OIG: Bureau of African Affairs, Bureau of International Information Programs, and Embassy Bear Responsibility. Here is the longer answer:

The lack of accountability for the American Center project extends beyond the embassy because additional management controls exist for projects of this scale. The Bureau of International Information Programs and its regional information resources office in Nairobi approved two large American Spaces funding requests despite warning signs. These included the requests’ hyperbolic language (“the possibilities are endless”) and the questionable suitability of such a large, public-private project in a very poor country, especially when the project would be managed by a public affairs officer and section lacking the necessary business and accounting acumen and grants management experience. The Bureau of African Affairs approved the project despite the fact that it had not received the necessary project details from the embassy and despite the many flaws in the grants documents that they did receive. The embassy did not caution the Department that the project’s prospective partners had never cooperated in such a joint venture, had no understanding of its public purpose, and had no record of such cooperation with the embassy in the past. The Department should have drawn on its technical and regional expertise and understanding of public-private partnerships to identify flaws in the initial plan before it was approved and funds were allotted.

Note that the new Ambassador to Madagascar Robert Yamate was only confirmed by the Senate in November 2014, and did not get to post until December 2014, five months after his nomination was announced and two months after this OIG inspection.  The previous ambassador appointed to Madagascar was R. Niels Marquardt who departed post in June 2010.



Related item:

ISP-I-15-20A Inspection of Embassy Antananarivo, Madagascar | May 15, 2015  


Photo of the Day: Amb. Bell With Team USA at the U.S.-Hungary Water Polo Match

Posted: 00:54 EST


Via US Embassy Budapest:

Ambassador Colleen Bell at the U.S.-Hungary Water Polo Match. See related story over at the USA Water Polo website.

US Embassy Hungary| Amb Bell and US team 2015

Dr. Dénes Kemény of the Hungarian Water Polo Federation (, invited Ambassador Colleen Bell to be his guest during last night’s match between the U.S. and Hungary at the 2015 Volvo Cup. The American team ( lost to their Hungarian hosts, but they played a great game according to the US Embassy! Photo by US Embassy Budapest/FB

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Video Round-Up: Do You Hear What I Hear? Introducing the New Ambassadors

— Domani Spero


These ambassador introduction videos are the product of State/IIP, under the umbrella of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. From best we could tell, these videos started slowly in 2010 but has now become standard fare for almost all chiefs of mission before the ambassadors get to post. They more or less come from one script — a thank you to President O, a greeting in the foreign language, include spouse, kids (or other relevant relatives) and/or pets, a mention of any prior visit to host country in college or any connection to the host country, a visit to some Washington,D.C. memorials, and say you look forward to meeting everyone in your host country.

If you feel bad about these videos, you’re not alone. One ambassador has choice words to say about these videos: “The Youtube videos newly minted ambassadors make are downright embarrassing.  They give an impression of proconsular self-regard which is in bad taste.  Diplomacy is premised on a world of sovereign states.  The State Department’s  fascination with social media suggests that it no longer thinks that is the world we live in, a strange notion for a foreign ministry.”

And the band marches on. These videos we must say are looking better than the previous ones but they still come across as somewhat artificial and forced at times. And that holding hands and picnic scene in the bottom clip below cracked us up. The best ones are those where the COM delivers the entire intro in the language of his/her host country, and appears naturally before the camera. Take a look and see!


Michael Hoza, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Cameroon.
In French.


Ted Osius III, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam.
In Vietnamese.


Kevin Whitaker, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia.
In Spanish.

* * *

John Bass, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey


Scott Rauland, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires to Belarus


Douglas Silliman, U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait


Tom Kelly, U S Ambassador to Djibouti.
Subtitled in French.


Alice Wells, U.S. Ambassador to Jordan.
Subtitled in Arabic.


Joan Polaschik, U.S. Ambassador to Algeria.
Subtitled in Arabic and French.


Andrew Schapiro, U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic


Jane Hartley, U.S. Ambassador to France and Monaco


Bruce Heyman, U.S. Ambassador to Canada


Kevin O’Malley, U.S. Ambassador to Ireland


Suzi Levine, U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland & Liechtenstein


Robert Sherman, U.S. Ambassador to Portugal


One ambassador is not in this video series.  Ambassador John Tefft, our current ambassador to Moscow, who was previously ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania (was also chargé d’affaires in Moscow from 1996-1997) did not jump into the bandwagon. Newsweek notes that he has been “handed diplomacy’s version of “cleanup on aisle 6!” Ambassador Tefft’s operating style as a “traditional” diplomat with old-school, low-key professionalism,” is considered “a huge asset in Moscow, and perhaps the only style that can work” in the current situation, according to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.  The embassy confirmed that Ambassador Tefft did not cut an intro video, but with four ambassadorships under his belt, he’s not a stranger.


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Twitter Is a Cocktail Party, Not a Press Conference – But What Happened to 3 FAM 4170?

— Domani Spero


 Updated 12/16/14 at 9:45 pm: We understand from the “R” shop that 3 FAM 4170 is in clearance now and something about “third time’s a charm!” What’s that about?

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The December issue of the Foreign Service Journal includes a Speaking Out piece by FSO Wren Elhai, Twitter Is a Cocktail Party, Not a Press Conference (or, Social Media for Reporting Officers). The author is currently serving in the political-economic section of Consulate General Karachi. Prior to joining the State Department, he worked at the Center for Global Development, a D.C.-based think-tank, as a policy analyst where he also ran the Center’s Twitter and Facebook pages. Excerpt below:

Current Foreign Affairs Manual regulations require any State Department employee posting anything to a social media site that relates to a matter “of official concern” to go through the same clearance process that would govern a media appearance or a published op-ed.

This is a shockingly vague rule, one that I have been told in training covers even posting quotes from official State Department statements or links to articles that support U.S. policy. It is a rule so vague that any diplomat with a Facebook account will confirm that nearly every one of us violates it on a daily basis.

If you think of Twitter as the digital equivalent of a newspaper, then it makes sense to try to maintain control over what diplomats say there. However, if Twitter is a digital cocktail party, that’s an untenable position. No one would even consider asking diplomats to pre-clear everything they say to people they meet at public events—let alone to seek press office clearance before starting a conversation with a potential contact.

We are paid to know U.S. foreign policy, to present and defend our positions, and to not embarrass ourselves when we open our mouths in public. We are trusted to speak tactfully and to know what topics are best discussed in other settings.

Our policy should treat our interactions online and in the real world on an even footing. Yes, there will be rare occasions when diplomats speak undiplomatically and, just as when this happens in the real world, those diplomats should face consequences.

But just as we don’t limit ourselves to talking about the weather at receptions, we should be able to present U.S. policy and engage with contacts online. To meet people, we need to show up for the party.

Read in full via FSJ here.

On the topic of consequences, Sir James Bevan KCMG, UK High Commissioner to India recently gave a speech to a group of journalists that’s related to this, particularly on how one might be a bit boring on Twitter, and for good reasons:

And we diplomats sometimes have to behave a bit differently from you journalists, or at least have to pretend that we do. There are things which you can do and say which we diplomats cannot, lest we provide you with copy that is good for you but bad for us. 

Some of you have said that my Twitter account @HCJamesBevan is a little bit boring. There’s a reason for that: I like my job and I want to keep it. For a diplomat, being too interesting on Twitter is the quickest way to get sacked. I like India and I want to stay here.


Back to the article, the author of the FSJ piece has cited 5 FAM 790 Using Social Media (pdf) on his article, the guidance first issued in June 2010. You might, however, want to check out 3 FAM 4172.1-3 (pdf) Review of Materials Prepared in an Employee’s Private Capacity, which includes matters of “official concern.”  It does look like 3 FAM 4170, the regs for Official Clearance of Speaking, Writing, and Teaching (pdf) has not been updated since 2009, but right now, that’s the official rules.

This past June, AFSA told its members that for more than a year it has been negotiating a revision to the current Foreign Affairs Manual regulations governing public speaking and writing (3 FAM 4170).

“As mentioned in our 2013 Annual Report, our focus has been to accommodate the rise of social media and protect the employee’s ability to publish. We have emphasized the importance of a State Department response to clearance requests within a defined period of time (30 days or less). For those items requiring interagency review, our goal is to increase transparency, communication and oversight.  We look forward to finalizing the negotiations on the FAM chapter soon—stay tuned for its release.”

This long awaited update to 3 FAM 4170 has been in draft mode since 2012 (see State Dept to Rewrite Media Engagement Rules for Employees in Wake of Van Buren Affair. Also check out a related piece we did in February 2013 (see Social Media Schizophrenia Continues on Background, and Oh, Stuff That Loophole, Ey?).

Hey, is it true that 3 FAM 4172.1-7  also known as the Peter Van Buren clause is nowhere to be found in the new version?

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Related post:


US Embassy Armenia Has a ‘Happy Yerevan’ Video — Hey @Montel_Williams

— Domani Spero


Earworm ALERT!  The US Embassy in Armenia funded this video produced in collaboration with the US Alumni Association of Armenia back in April.  The video is directed by Artyom Abovyan and features US ambassador John A. Heffern as well as several Armenian celebrities who were alumni of U.S. programs in the country.  The embassy is trying to get to 300K views and here is Ambassador Heffern trying to get Montel Williams‘ attention.



You may also watch it directly via YouTube below:


There are several ‘Happy Yerevan’ videos on YouTube and a whole series of Happy (fill in the blank) videos based on Pharrell Williams’ hit. Last March, the musician partnered with the United Nations Foundation to celebrate International Day of Happiness. There is Happy Astana, Happy Abu Dhabi,  Happy Istanbul, Happy Egypt, Happy Beijing, Happy Singapore, Happy Dakar, and there’s even a Happy Star Wars Edition.  The website keeps track of the Happy videos. To-date, there are 1,950 videos from  153 countries.


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U.S. Consulate General Toronto Joins ‘Ask Me Anything’ on Reddit

— Domani Spero

Oh, the stuff you can do these days with energy and imagination.  The U.S.Consulate General in Toronto did a Reddit AMA last week, answering questions on visas and Amcit services. While the AMA response was modest, we believe this is the first time a consular post did an AMA on Reddit. USCG Toronto processes over 500 nonimmigrant visas a day. In 2008, Consulate General Toronto already had the largest NIV section in Canada.  The inspection report at that time noted that about half of all new immigrants to Canada chose the greater Toronto area for their place of residence.

USCG Toronto, Canada Photo via US Mission Ottawa/FB

USCG Toronto, Canada
Photo via US Mission Ottawa/FB

Below is an excerpt from the  AMA conducted by  FSOs, Nausher Ali, Visas Chief  and Kathryn Porter,American Citizen Services Unit Chief at U.S. Consulate Toronto:

Greetings Reddit!
We are U.S. Foreign Service Officers from the Consular Section of U.S. Consulate Toronto, and we want to answer your questions about non-immigrant visas and U.S. citizen services! We’ll give as much information as we can in order to help you understand how we work. Hopefully, this conversation will help you be better prepared for a visa interview and/or allow us to help you more efficiently if you are a U.S. citizen living or traveling abroad.

Please note, we are UNABLE to talk in detail about specific cases or “pre-adjudicate” your specific case. We also cannot answer questions on immigrant visas for this particular thread. Any questions that deal more with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will either not be answered or we will link you to their relevant websites for more information. Finally, we cannot answer questions about life in the U.S. Foreign Service for this thread either. There are already a few other threads that do that quite well! That said, we’ll try to respond to as many of your questions as possible!

Our team that is answering your questions consists of the following people:

•Nausher Ali, Consul and Visas Chief at U.S. Consulate Toronto

•Kathryn Porter, American Citizen Services Unit Chief at U.S. Consulate Toronto

Victoria from reddit will be here with us today as well. Ask Us Anything!

Edit: Thank you everybody for your questions. We really enjoyed this today. Sadly, we have to take off. Happy travels!


Questions include topics such as H1Bs, asylum, discrimination, moving, immunity, moving to Canada, Spain vs Chile. Somebody wanted to know the officers’ favorite snacks!  Answer:”Poutine! Mission Canada! How could you NOT like Poutine? I like sautéed mushrooms on mine” and “timbits.” No, timbits are  not/not doughnut holes!

Here are some of the Qs asked and answered:

Q: What’s the actual intention for visa interview? I mean it hardly last for not even a minute.

Nausher: Visa interviews do usually last a few minutes because the consular officers are well-trained in quickly determining whether or not the applicant is eligible for a visa. Once they’ve determined that, there’s no reason to continue the interview. Here in Toronto we interview more than 500 people a day.

Q: Questions: How can a person aged 18-19 get an internship with an office like this? Sounds interesting for the experience and Can you explain what you guys/gals do there all day?

Nausher: we actually have an intern program for both American interns and Canadian residents. Most US Embassies and Consulates have a page that talks about their internship program, including ours. And here’s the link. The work depends on what section the internship is in. But typically a lot of interns will get to experience a lot of variety during their internship because a lot of what we do varies from day to day. For example, today we’re conducting an “Ask me Anything.”

Kathryn: And what we do all day depends. Every embassy has multiple sections, including political, economic, consular, public diplomacy, and management. Officers in each section do various activities to advance US interest and work together with the host country towards shared goals.  And for our internships, it’s all over the place. We are more likely to get people from international relations, political science.

Nausher: but we are always looking for different backgrounds. Most of our interns are local kids – we have 4 Canadian interns across 3 separate units. We are just looking for enthusiasm and interest in working at a diplomatic mission.

Q: I heard law of land does not apply inside the embassy. Is that true?

Nausher: It’s very complicated and really a question for a lawyer, but we are still on Canadian territory, but consulates and embassies are guaranteed certain immunities and protections under the relevant Vienna Conventions.

Q: If you were a character in George R R Martin’s books, what house would you choose to belong to, and why?

Kathryn: I feel like in Canada, it has to be House Stark! Winter is always coming! This is specific to Mission Canada. Here in Mission Canada we would be House Stark.

Q:  What’s your opinion on Mayor Ford?

Nausher: Mayor Ford has gotten a lot of attention here and internationally. But as foreign diplomats in Canada, it’s not our role to comment on domestic politicians.

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