Category Archives: Questions

Death in the Foreign Service: Why we said “no” to an Embassy Information Sanitation Dude

– Domani Spero

 

In the next couple of weeks, we will try to revisit some of the topics that we have blogged about in the past but did not get a chance to follow-up.

In the last several years, we’ve covered  the deaths of State Department and Foreign Service personnel due to terrorist attacks, natural calamities, suicide, violent crime, and accidents (see In the Foreign Service: Death, Too Close An Acquaintance). Here are some of the blogposts we did,this is not an exhaustive list:

While we did receive a screaming owler one time when we were asking questions about a death in Afghanistan, not once have we ever received an email from a family member of a deceased employee asking us not to mention that their loved ones who died overseas worked for Uncle Sam, or refrain from noting the passing of loved ones who died in the service of our country. Not once.

In June this year, we blogged about a Foreign Service employee at the US Embassy in Moscow who was killed in a gas explosion there:

Two State Department sources confirmed that the employee, an OMS on official orders working at the embassy had died. After the embassy employee was heloed to a local Russian hospital, she was reportedly airlifted by the State Department soon thereafter to a special burn hospital in Linkoping, outside of Stockholm where she died a few days later.

A former co-worker at another post was concerned that there has been no public  statement about the employee’s death. “I would think the death of a diplomat would get something from AFSA or State, even if it was from an accident.”  We sent out several inquiries but no one would speak on the record.  Since the name has not been officially released, and no obit has yet been published, we will refrain from identifying the victim at this time.

This past August, a brief obituary of that employee appeared on State magazine, the official trade publication of the State Department and we blogged about it. Shortly after that, we received an email from an individual using a hotmail account:

Hi, Durron’s family did not want this information to be disclosed to the press. Please honor their request. Personally I share your view, but also honor the family’s wishes.

Moscow is hard post to serve, and the Embassy community was very shocked by this news. I personally know many people who lived in the apartment complex where she died (MFA apartment housing), and I was also shocked by this news. I can’t say any more about this unfortunately. The past year was very hard for Embassy Moscow, especially in light of the death of an FSN who was very much loved by all who worked there. 

The request, as you can see, is polite, even volunteering that the writer shares the blog writer’s view. Then the “guilty hook,” asking that we “honor the family’s wishes.” The writer did not/not present himself as a government  official, and seemed to only appear as an interested third party purporting to pass on the wishes of the deceased employee’s family.

Our correspondent, who could not get the deceased employees straight (Durron was the Consular Affairs employee who died in Florida), was in fact, an embassy official, basically asking us not to make a public connection to the death of the  USG employee who died in Sweden to the gas explosion in a USG (Russian MFA) housing in Moscow. We only knew that the individual is a USG official because of …Googles! Not sure the individual is still at post at this time.

Our gut feeling was that this is legitimate news; we blogged about the fact that an employee of the U.S. Government was injured in Moscow, and subsequently died from those injuries in Sweden. And we waited until there was an official obituary before we put the information together and named the deceased individual.  Three months after the incident.

Deceased individuals are not covered by the Privacy Act. That said, if a USG employee die overseas for whatever reason, should we be obligated to not/not report it if his/her family ask that it not be reported for privacy reasons? That’s not exactly the case here because we were only told second hand that the deceased’s family did not want it reported in the press (except that the death was reported in the publicly available State magazine). But the “what-if” was a dilemma we spent considerable time thinking about for a period of time.

How do you balance the public’s right to know with a family’s request for privacy?

We’ve consulted with a professional journalist we admire, and an authority on media ethics at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.   All agreed that 1) employees sent overseas are on official duty, and that any life-threatening mishap or death they suffer is by definition of public interest, and 2) that we ought to consider the request if it comes directly from a family member, and pull the blogpost down only if the family makes a compelling case that publication caused them or somebody else harm.  One surmised that the request received may have more to do with the State Dept’s own reasons or some fear of official embarrassment.

We did send a response to our “non-official” correspondent basically declining the request since he was not a member of the family.  We informed the writer that we would consider pulling the material down if we hear directly from the family and only if there is a compelling reason for the request. We also offered to write directly to the family if the official would provide us a contact email.  We certainly did not want to be insensitive and we understand that the incident occurred  at a challenging post, but the death of a Foreign Service person abroad is of public interest. That’s the last we’ve heard from that official via hotmail. And we would have forgotten about this except that it came to our attention  that the USG had been more aggressive about sanitizing this information than we first thought.

A journalist from a large media organization subsequently told us that he/she was privately admonished after asking publicly why the State Dept had not expressed condolences on the death of the employee in Moscow. The admonishment came from a USG official who again, cited the family’s privacy. From best we could tell, these contacts/admonishment to the journalist and to this blog came from two separate officials. How many other journalists (not just blogger in pjs, mind you) had been similarly admonished to not report about this death citing the family’s request for privacy?

In the aftermath of this incident in May 2014, we sent an email inquiry to the public affairs office of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.  Our email got lost in a sink hole and we never heard anything back. We must note that this incident occurred after the departure of then Ambassador McFaul. It also predates the arrival of John Tefft, the current ambassador to Moscow and his the new public affairs officer there.

It goes without saying — but we’ll repeat it anyway —  that we clearly understand that accidents happen. And we’re not looking for a cover-up at every post unless it has to do with the furniture!  But, because there’s always a but — accidents do not absolve the embassy or the State Department from answering questions about the circumstances surrounding an employee’s death or at a minimum, publicly acknowledging that a death of an employee occurred overseas. We will be sensitive and respectful as we have always been, but we will ask questions.

What bothered us about this?  By citing the deceased family’s purported request for privacy, the State Department and Embassy Moscow basically shut down any further questions about the incident. How is it possible to have something of an information blackout on the death of an employee we sent overseas on the country’s behalf?

Whatever happened to that promised investigation?

We understand that then chargé d’affaires (CDA) in Moscow, Sheila Gwaltney  told personnel that they will be informed of the results of the investigation, regardless of the outcome. We sent an email inquiry to the analysis division of OBO’s Office of Fire Protection (OBO/OPS/FIR) requesting for an update to the fire inspector investigation. We received the following response on October 23 from Christine Foushee, State/OBO’s Director of External Affairs:

Thanks for your inquiry.  The investigation you’ve referenced is still ongoing, so we are not in a position to comment on results.

Per 15 FAM 825:

a. As soon as possible after being notified of a fire, OBO/OPS/FIR, will dispatch a team of trained fire/arson investigators to fires that resulted in serious injury or death; those where the cause is arson or is of a suspicious nature; those causing extensive damage or significant disruption to official activities; or those deemed to be of special interest to the Department of State.

b. Fire-related mishaps involving injury, illness, or death that meet criteria for Class A or B mishaps under Department of State policy will be investigated and reported using 15 FAM 964 requirements. An Office of Fire Protection official, in OBO/OPS/FIR, will be assigned to any Class A or B board conducted by OBO’s Office of Safety, Health, and Environmental Management, in the Directorate for Operations, (OBO/OPS/SHEM). In addition to addressing the root causes of the fire event, the mishap board report must evaluate the impact of Department of State organizational systems, procedures, or policies on the fire event. The report also could contain recommendations for specific modifications to such procedures and policies. Both OBO/OPS/FIR and OBO/OPS/SHEM receive copies of the report, and OBO/OPS/SHEM coordinates with the Department of State’s Designated Agency Safety and Health Official (DASHO) to meet 15 FAM 964 requirements. OBO/OPS/FIR reports findings and recommendations for corrective action to the Director of OBO, who informs the Accountability Review Board’s Permanent Coordinating Committee. (See 12 FAM 032.)

We sent another follow up email this week to State/OBO.  The explosion happened in May 2014. Here we are at the end of the year and we don’t know what happened to that investigation. Is this length of time typical of these types of investigations? We will update this blogpost if we hear from the fire people with something to say.

We think this a good opportunity as any to call on the State Department to voluntarily release an annual report of deaths of official Americans overseas.  DOD identifies its casualties — name, rank, age, state of residence, date and place of death, and cause of death — why not the State Department?  At a minimum there ought to be  an annual reporting of all deaths from unnatural causes of USG personnel and family members on government orders under Chief of Mission authority. Diplomatic Security already publishes an annual report,would it be too much to ask that they be allowed to include this information?

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Benghazi Select Committee Invites DS Greg Starr (Again) and IG Steve Linick to Hearing #2

– Domani Spero

 

The House Select Committee on Benghazi had its inaugural hearing on September 17 (see Battle For Benghazi in WashDC:  Vroom Vroom Your Search Engines Now or Just Drink Gin). That hearing’s topic was “Implementation of the Accountability Review Board Recommendations” and the committee had as witnesses, DS Greg Starr, the Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security, and Mark J. Sullivan and Todd Keil, chairman and member respectively of the The Independent Panel on Best Practices. The Accountability Review Board Recommendations were issued for the State Department and not a task just for Diplomatic Security. For whatever reason, Mr. Starr, one bureau’s assistant secretary was invited to answer agency implementation questions from the Select Committee. No deputy secretary or under secretary was available to answer questions from the Hill?

On November 21, the House Intel Committee released its final Benghazi Report.

 

The Select Committee on Benghazi issued the following statement on the declassification of the House Intelligence Committee’s Benghazi Report:

“The Select Committee on Benghazi received the Intelligence Committee’s report on the Benghazi terrorist attack months ago, and has reviewed it along with other Committee reports and materials as the investigation proceeds. It will aid the Select Committee’s comprehensive investigation to determine the full facts of what happened in Benghazi, Libya before, during and after the attack and contribute toward our final, definitive accounting of the attack on behalf of Congress.”

 

Some fellow over there said that the report is full of crap.

 

Also, apparently, other GOP lawmakers, and Benghazi survivors were fuming over the House report and were not happy with the Intel Committee’s chairman, Republican Rep. Mike Rogers. Uh-oh.

So crap or not, the Benghazi Select Committee is charging on.  The Committee will have a second hearing on “Reviewing Efforts to Secure U.S. Diplomatic Facilities and Personnel.” This time, the Committee will appropriately hear from Assistant Secretary Starr. By the way, where can we place bets on how many times A/S Starr will be invited to speak to the Committee before this is over in 2017?  Because you know this won’t be over until after the 2016 elections; poor fellow was not even working at the State Department when the Benghazi attack happened.

A/S Starr will be joined by State Department Inspector General Steve Linick for this hearing.  We think this is Mr. Linick’s first appearance before Congress following his confirmation.

Wed, 12/10/2014 – 10:00am
HVC-210

Topic: Reviewing Efforts to Secure U.S. Diplomatic Facilities and Personnel

Witnesses:

  • Greg Starr, Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security
  • Steve Linick, Inspector General, Department of State

The hearing page is here.

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US Ambassador Gets on Reddit, Not/Not Nearly as Funny as Anonymous FSO

– Domani Spero

 

In February this year, we had an anonymous Foreign Service Officer who did an AMA on Reddit (see IamA United States Diplomat: Anonymous FSO Gets on Reddit and He’s a Riot!).  Last June, USCG Toronto also did an AMA on consular issues (see U.S. Consulate General Toronto Joins ‘Ask Me Anything’ on Reddit). Yesterday, the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein Suzi LeVine joined Reddit for what we think is the first “Ask Me Anything” session conducted by a chief of mission.  Unlike the anonymous FSO’s AMA, this one is official and done on your dime; no need to report her to the FBI or Diplomatic Security.

You might also remember her as the first U.S. ambassador to be sworn-in on a Kindle this past June. Below is her intro on Reddit:

Hi Reddit! I’m Suzi LeVine, the American Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein. I am also a former technology exec and a mom to two amazing kids. It’s an honor to serve the American people as an Ambassador and I can personally attest to the critical role Ambassadors play in U.S. foreign policy making. Right now there are 60 Ambassadorial nominees who are still awaiting confirmation by Congress – that’s 60 countries where the U.S. isn’t representing its foreign policy interests as well as it could. Fun fact: My first trip to Switzerland was when I kicked off a solo 6 week backpacking trip from Zurich. I was 18 and, after buying my first Swiss Army knife, promptly learned how sharp they are when I cut straight through an apple into my hand. Let’s just say that I learned how excellent the Swiss healthcare system is. Verification: https://www.flickr.com/photos/statephotos/15302277727/

UPDATE: Merci viel mal. What terrific questions! Let’s do this again sometime! And, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @AmbSuzi.

photo via state.gov

photo via state.gov

 

Here are some of the questions Ambassador LeVine answered:

Reddit user: Do you think your background which lacks diplomatic experience prior to your appointment as ambassador is a handicap or do you see it as a positive thing to bring another perspective? Or something totally different?  Where do you see issues in the relations between the USA and Switzerland? Where do the countries work well together?
AmbSuzi:  Diplomatic experience does not just derive from work in the Foreign Service. Let me tell you about team oasys from Jordan or team onebuzz from New Zealand. These were two teams and two groups of students with whom I had the honor of working in my capacity at Microsoft to shine a spotlight on innovators using technology to change the world. That’s diplomacy.

Reddit user: It’s always been a dream of mine to work for an embassy–or in the foreign service. I’m fluent in French, 24 years old, and I love America. How do I go about making this dream a reality? EDIT: I forgot to say I am an American…and of course I love it.
AmbSuzi: First off, go for it! http://careers.state.gov (In fact, I think the deadline for summer internships is next week, and that’s a great way to get a taste of this career. Stop wasting time on Reddit and go apply. :-)

Reddit user: Do you have to deal with a lot of people revoking their US citizenship nowadays? Because it isn’t exactly easy being a dual citizen these days ever since FATCA came around.
AmbSuzi:  I have deep empathy for those who are wrestling with this decision and situation right now. My team and I are actively working to alleviate some of the concerns.

Reddit user: What do you think of the common criticism that too many ambassadors are appointed because they were fundraisers for the President & the Democratic/Republican party? You can look up individual donations here and it appears that you’ve donated quite a bit to the President & the Democratic Party? Do you think that more ambassadors should be career diplomats or is there value in having individuals close to the President serve as ambassadors?
AmbSuzi:  Fair question. I believe that there is tremendous value in a blend. The answer is not “or.” It is “and.” Different skill sets are appropriate in different situations and places around the globe. For example, my professional and volunteer experience as someone who has created partnerships, organized communities, led teams, initiated start-ups, etc., is a terrific match for Switzerland where I work with the likes of Nestle, Novartis, and ABB. Alternatively, someone like my friend, Michael Hoza, the new U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon, brings decades of foreign service experience and is equipped to take on the likes of Boko Haram.

Reddit user: What is the most challenging moment of your Career thus far, and how did you overcome it
AmbSuzi:  I tend to approach challenges as opportunities. What can I learn? How can I grow? With whom can I learn from their mistakes? The hardest element of this ambassadorial job so far was frankly, waiting to get confirmed. In my overall very nonlinear career, the hardest moment was going back to work in 2009 after four and a half years home with my kids and hearing people say that I was no longer qualified.

Reddit user: Ambassador, you were the first in such a position to be sworn in with your hand on an e-reader instead of a book. That made the news on some tech sites, but the news reports lacked some kind of background. Whose idea was it, and what was the thought behind it?
AmbSuzi:  Great question! (By the way, what is the plural of octopus?) As for the e-reader, I wrote about this in my blog post here: http://go.usa.gov/wnBz. After reading, let me know if you have any additional questions.

Reddit user:  How regularly do you speak with State Department officials back in Washington DC? Who is your immediate superior? Wendy Sherman? How much of the day to day operations of an embassy come from officials in DC?
AmbSuzi:  We have regular communications, and it’s important to share what’s happening in Switzerland with D.C. My technical, immediate superior is the President. That said, we do a lot of coordination within the European and Eurasian Bureau, which is run by the awesome Toria Nuland.

Here are the some other interesting questions from Reddit users that the ambassador did not respond to:

  • Do you think that presidents should continue to appoint plush state dept posts to their highest donors? I do realize this goes both ways, and both parties are involved in this practice.
  • Do you have a Swiss bank account, and are they all they’re cracked up to be?
  • Do you get paid double?
  • Among the other ambassadors in Switzerland, who are the best to party with?
  • Can I move in with you? I’m tired of this shit country!
  • How many push ups can you do?
  • Anyway to hook me up with a trip?
  • How did you get the gig? Did you have to go to a special college, was it more about who you knew than what you knew?
  • How much did you have to “donate” to get the Ambassador position????
  • What advice would you give somebody interested in becoming an Ambassador (or at least working abroad for the State Department)?
  • Does it get boring being the ambassador to a neutral country while we are on the brink of WW3?

We were sorely disappointed there were no questions about Jason Bourne, TP, prostitutes, crashed UFOs, Argo, or Benghazi.  Maybe next time?

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US Embassy Ghana’s Errant Tweet Sparks Social Media Rumpus, Demo on July 25

– Domani Spero

 

 

Close to 300 Ghanians have now waded in on the US Embassy Accra’s FB page where there appears to be a competition between those who were offended (“It’s shameful to meddle in our domestic politics.”) and those who applauded the errant tweet.  One FB commenter writes, “I was very happy when I saw your reply to the president… Ghanaians support what you mistakenly posted on Twitter.” Another one added, “Why are [you] apologising? That question was legitimate and pls ask him again.”

SpyGhana.com reports that senior Ghanaian government officials including the National Youth Co-ordinator, Ras Mubarak and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hannah SerwaTetteh have reportedly demanded “an unqualified apology” from the Embassy. It also reports that on July 25, “hundreds of Ghanaians will stage a peaceful protest march on behalf of their government against the American Embassy in the country for launching an attack on a social media post by President John DramaniMahama.”

Apparently, some in the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) are now even calling for sanctions against Ambassador Gene A. Cretz and the embassy staff over that spectacular, albeit errant tweet containing 73 explosive characters:

“@JDMahama and what sacrifices are you making? Don’t tell me that pay cut.”

According to SpyGhana.com, the response was in reference to a much criticized decision by the Dramani administration of slashing the President and his ministers’ salaries by 10% to demonstrate their sacrifices as the country faces economic hardships while ignoring “other huge unconventional sources of funds.”

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Did US Embassy Tripoli Go on “Sort of a Drawdown” Without Going on Evacuation Status?

– Domani Spero

 

On May 27, the State Department issued a new Travel Warning for Libya. In part, the warning says, “Due to security concerns, the Department of State has limited staffing at Embassy Tripoli and is only able to offer very limited emergency services to U.S. citizens in Libya.” (see  New Libya Travel Warning, Amphibious Assault Ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) Sails Closer. On the May 30th, Daily Press Briefing the State Department spokesperson Jennifer Psaki was asked to confirm about U.S. Special Forces operating in Libya (which she denied), and addressed the reduction in staffing in Tripoli:

QUESTION: I have a very quick question. The London Times is claiming that U.S. special forces and in particular CIA forces, French forces, and Algerian forces are inside Libya chasing after Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who apparently survived. I mean, reports of his death were erroneous. Could you confirm to us whether there is actually a role for the U.S. in Libya or a military presence?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything more than what we’ve already announced.

QUESTION: Could you – okay. Could you comment on the presence or the deployment of theUSS Bataan with some 2,000 Marines at the shores of Libya?

QUESTION: Is there anything new on this?

MS. PSAKI: There’s nothing new, and it was announced, I believe, two days ago.

QUESTION: Okay, but – yeah.

MS. PSAKI: But I’m happy to confirm for you –

QUESTION: Are we to assume that maybe Americans citizens are ready to leave the country? That’s the question.

MS. PSAKI: Well, Said, I would say we – last Friday, I believe it was, I think, or maybe it was Monday – sorry – we put out a new Travel Warning. We have – as a result of the ongoing instability and violence, we reduced – and in that Travel Warning we reduced that we – we announced that we reduced – sorry, tongue-twister – the number of U.S. Government personnel at its Embassy – at our Embassy in Tripoli, and we are taking prudent steps to assure the security of our personnel given the instability. We are in constant contact with our Embassy, we are constantly evaluating the security needs, but I have nothing new to report on on that front.

QUESTION: I just – before everyone gets all excited, this is not an evacuation, right?

MS. PSAKI: Correct.

QUESTION: These people left on regularly scheduled commercial aircraft. There was no panic. There was no attack, anything like that. They –

MS. PSAKI: There is no plan for a U.S. Government-sponsored evacuation at this time. This is a temporary reduction in staffing.

We should note that the May 27 Travel Warning did not announced that “we reduced – the number of U.S. Government personnel – at our Embassy in Tripoli,” it only announced that there exist limited staffing.  AmEmbassy Tripoli was already on limited staffing since May 8, 2013, when the Department of State ordered the departure of a number of U.S. government personnel from Libya.

So how was this current reduction of staffing done without the “authorized” or “ordered” departure of personnel?

It could be that TDYs were cancelled, and replacements were not brought in when PCS staff went on leave. But when personnel are pulled out from post (we don’t know how many) due to the security situation, it is typically done by declaring an “authorized” or “ordered” departure.  A Travel Warning is also issued by the Bureau of Consular Affairs whenever a post goes to authorized or ordered departure. The warning routinely urges private U.S. citizens to consider leaving or avoiding travel to countries where authorized or ordered departure is in effect.

Under the “no double standard policy,” if the Department shares information with the official U.S. community, it should also make the same or similar information available to the non-official U.S. community if the underlying threat applies to both official and non-official U.S. citizens/nationals. So if the embassy went on authorized or ordered departure, the State Department has an obligation to publicly share that information.

What is the difference between an authorized departure and an ordered departure?

While some folks make a distinction between authorized/ordered departures and evacuations, in reality they are the same. The Under Secretary of State for Management (“M”) approves the evacuation status for post—either authorized or ordered—the 180-day clock “begins ticking” (by law, an evacuation cannot last longer than 180 days).   The Subsistence Expense Allowance (SEA) benefits for evacuees then commence from the day following arrival at the safe haven location.

An “authorized departure” is an evacuation procedure, short of ordered departure, by which post employees and/or eligible family members are permitted to leave post in advance of normal rotation when U.S. national interests or imminent threat to life requires it. Departure is requested by the Chief of Mission (COM) and approved by the Under Secretary for Management (M).   It allows the Chief of Mission greater flexibility in determining which employees or groups of employees may depart, and “avoids any negative connotation” that might be attached to the use of the term “evacuation.” Typically, in an authorized departure, airports are still open and personnel depart post via regularly scheduled commercial aircraft.

An “ordered departure” is an evacuation procedure by which the number of U.S. Government employees, eligible family members, or both, at a Foreign Service post is reduced. Ordered departure is mandatory and may be initiated by the Chief of Mission or the Secretary of State. Some ordered departure may still be done through commercial flights, but more often than not, this involves chartered USG flights from post to the designated safe haven in the region or back to the United States.  While an ordered departure may be followed with temporary post closure, what typically happens is that post remains open with mission essential emergency staffing.

Last February, the State Department issued a Travel Warning for Ukraine that includes the following:

On February 20, 2014, the Department of State authorized the departure of all family members of U.S. government personnel from Ukraine.  While the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv’s Consular Section is open for public services, the Embassy’s ability to respond to emergencies involving U.S. citizens throughout Ukraine is limited.

In April, the State Department issued a Travel Warning for South Sudan:

The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all travel to the Republic of South Sudan and recommends that U.S. citizens currently in South Sudan depart immediately.  As a result of the deteriorating security situation, the Department of State ordered the departure of most remaining U.S. government personnel from South Sudan on January 3, 2014.

So the question now is —  did US Embassy Tripoli went on a reduction of staff, “sort of a drawdown,“without officially calling it an authorized or ordered evacuation?

Of course, if you curtail staffers from post, that is, shorten the employees’ tours of duty from their assignments, or urge them to voluntarily curtail their assignments, that would not constitute an evacuation either, yes? Or if post management strongly suggests that people take their R&Rs earlier over the summer during a heightened threat, that would just be a regular movement of personnel and not at all an “ordered” departure.

So — you still get a reduction of staffing  without the negative connotation of an evacuation.

Not a trick question — how many staffers do you have to pull out from post before you call it an evacuation?

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Related item:

3 FAM 3770 Travel to Post Under Authorized or Ordered Departure (pdf)

 

 

 

 

 

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US Embassy Libya: Decision to Evacuate Grows By the Minute, Satterfield as Libya Envoy

– Domani Spero

CNN’s Barbara Starr reports that the U.S. military has doubled the number of aircraft standing by in Italy if needed to evacuate Americans from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya. The violence in country appeared to be some of the worst since the 2011 revolution.

A decision to evacuate as violence in the Libyan capital grows is “minute by minute, hour by hour,” a defense official told CNN on Monday.
[…]

Four additional U.S. V-22 Osprey aircraft “arrived overnight” at the naval base in Sigonella, Italy, to join four V-22s and 200 Marines that had been moved there last week, a U.S. defense source said.

The V-22 Ospreys, which can take off and land vertically with at least two dozen passengers, are ready to be in the air on six hours notice, the official said. The additional aircraft should give the military the capability to evacuate more than 200 people from the embassy.

The aircraft and Marines are part of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response team, stationed in Moron, Spain. The force was formed after the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi in 2012 to provide closer standby military capability in a crisis.

On May 15, Algeria sent a team of special forces to evacuate its ambassador and some 50 embassy staff from Libya after an attempted raid on the ambassador’s residence according to Libya Herald. The Lebanese diplomats are said to have left and the UAE diplomats reportedly left the country by car to Tunisia.  Today, Saudi Arabia also closed its diplomatic mission in Libya and withdrew all of its diplomatic staff due to security concerns. The Turkish Consulate in Benghazi was also closed today “after a specific threat” according to Tanju Bilgic, spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

Meanwhile, at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli where we reportedly have about 200 personnel, the last Twitter update was on May 15 about a job opening at the PA shop.  On Sunday afternoon, Ambassador Deborah Jones tweeted:

We are assuming that the ambassador is not in country and David C. McFarland who is posted in Tripoli through August 2014 as DCM is currently acting as charge.  Mr. McFarland previously served in Cairo, Baghdad, Washington, DC, Yerevan and Ankara. But most notably, he was the Political Section chief  in Tripoli during the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Stevens.

Now, here’s the interesting part –ABC News’ Ali Weinberg is reporting that the U.S. is sending a high-level official to help the political process in Libya according to a State Department official. 

Ambassador David Satterfield, who also directs the international monitoring force in the Sinai Peninsula, will keep that role even as he goes to Libya.

“Secretary of State Kerry requested that Ambassador David Satterfield travel to Libya to offer to help build political consensus at this challenging time in Libya’s transition.  He will continue to fulfill his duties as Director General of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO),” the official said.

It appeared that Satterfield was to get this additional assignment before the events of this weekend, in which forces loyal to retired Gen. Khalifa Hifter stormed the parliament building in Tripoli.

 

So Ambassador Satterfield is still seconded to MFO and how is the State Department going to task him to do things officially?

Ambassador Satterfield previously served as Ambassador to Lebanon (September 1998 to June 2001), and was confirmed as Ambassador to Jordan (2004) but never served in that capacity as he was soon designated as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs (NEA). He was also Coordinator for Iraq and Senior Adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006.  According to his Wikipedia entry, Ambassador Satterfield retired from the Foreign Service in 2009. He was nominated by the US, then appointed Director General of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai Peninsula, an independent international organization, by the Arab Republic of Egypt and State of Israel, and assumed office on July 1, 2009. In August 2013, he took a leave of absence from his MFO position and was designated by Secretary Kerry to serve temporarily as Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo until January this year.

He is a well respected diplomat but …. here’s what we don’t get. And apparently, we’re not the only one perplexed about this; there’s a whole floor of folks in Foggy Bottom asking each other why.

We’re not recalling our Senate-confirmed ambassador from her personal travel and sending her back to Tripoli “to help build political consensus.” We’re not giving the current DCM/charge his marching orders. Instead we’re recalling an ambassador who’s been retired since 2009 to midwife this “challenging time in Libya’s transition.” Does that make sense?

We’re hearing that Ambassador Satterfield will reportedly be a special envoy for reconciliation.  Because it makes perfect sense to send a stranger to facilitate reconciliation in a country where cultivating personal relationships is needed before business is conducted. This “request” by Secretary Kerry comes in addition to apparently, the appointment of a former senior advisor  for MEK Resettlement to the Libya portfolio. What about the president’s personal representative?  

 

 

No word yet if Ambassador Jones is heading back to Tripoli or if post is going on evac.

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Zabul Attack: Spox Says State Dept Did Its Own Review, It’s Classified, and There’s Now a Checklist! 

– Domani Spero

 

As can be expected, the Chicago Tribune report citing an army investigation into the death of FSO Anne Smedinghoff and four others in Zabul, Afghanistan in April 2013 made it to the Daily Press Briefing.

State Spokesperson Jennifer Psaki says that “No State Department officials, civilian personnel were interviewed for the military report.” Since State had concluded its “classified internal review,” how many military personnel did it interview for its report on that Zabul attack?

One, two, ten, the entire unit …how many?

We don’t know since the internal review is classified.

According to the Tribune, the army report says that the security platoon already had other missions planned for that day; that the soldiers did not know how many people they were going to escort, making their job harder; also that the civilians were not wearing the proper protective gear.  

What does State’s internal review say about this? We don’t know since the review is classified.

The initial blast was cause by detonation from “a remote-controlled bomb hidden under a pallet that was leaned up against the base’s southern wall.” On PRT Zabul base’s wall. The report also slams the “failure of the State Department team to properly coordinate this trip with military leadership.”

What does State’s internal review say about this? We don’t know since the review is classified.

The report says that the State Department shared too much information with Afghan officials, and the group may have been targeted because specifics on the event’s exact time and who would attend “had leaked out.”

Um….we don’t know since the internal review is classified.

An embassy email referenced to in the report said that Qalat was picked because “we think the visuals would be nice” and it is a “the perfect place for a media tour.”

Months or years from now when the media and the public have forgotten about this — are we going to find out that the U.S. Army conducted its investigation without talking to State Department personnel, and that the State Department, as well, came up with an internal review without interviewing any of the military personnel in Zabul?

The spox brought up two items that made us — whisley-tango-foxtrot!

“Afghanistan is a war zone.”

Because we all need a reminder!

“[P]eople responsible for this tragedy were the extremists.”

Holy moly guacamole! Is that the best response we’ve got every time a sapling falls in a forest?

We have excerpted the exchange below.

QUESTION: So quickly on that Chicago paper report citing the army military unit investigation of the death of Anne Smedinghoff and other injuries there linked to State Department. The report makes a lot of accusations that point back to the State Department. “State says that there was coordination with DOD in advance of the mission.”

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: The Pentagon says Ambassador Addleton was a last-minute addition to the group, that this was a scramble, that while there had been planning in advance, there was a change to the established plan, a late add, and new requirements that required them to bring in additional military resources.

So when State says there was coordination in advance, was there additional coordination after the addition of this higher-level diplomat, Ambassador Addleton?

MS. PSAKI: Well, at every stage in the process, as you know, the decisions about whether movement takes place rests with the military commander at the base. I don’t have the level of detail about the specifics here, but we were closely coordinated at every point in the process. The State Department did our own review of the events that happened, and we have instituted since then a checklist in order to be as coordinated as possible at every step in the process. But from our own looking at the events and our team that was on the ground, we – every step taken, no rules or regulations were broken. Every step that was needed to be taken in that regard was taken.

And let me say first of all too, of course, that regardless of that piece, the attack on – that took the life of Anne Smedinghoff, an Afghan American translator, and three members of the U.S. military and severely injured several others was a terrible tragedy, and one that, as you all know, people across this building and across the world who work at the State Department remember every day. The only people responsible for this tragedy were the extremists opposed to the many brave Afghans and Americans who have sacrificed so much to help build a stronger, more stable Afghanistan. And what they were doing that day was participating in an outreach event that was part of a nationwide public diplomacy initiative highlighting cooperation between the United States and Afghans in a number of areas. And that’s a program that we’ve been proud of and was underway for weeks there.

QUESTION: The Pentagon says that the senior military commander – they agree with you that they were in charge, but say that they did call in additional resources. So when you’re saying that it’s really up to the military to make the call – go or don’t go – what you’re saying is while the commander was choosing to bring in more resources, he shouldn’t have chosen to go ahead with this at all? That’s where the fault lies?

MS. PSAKI: Well, again, Margaret, I think where we are – we’re not about placing fault here. We’re about looking at this, as we have, and determining, with any event that happens around the world, what we should do moving forward. We work closely with the Department of Defense, with military commanders on the ground, whether it’s ISAF or otherwise, to make sure we take every step to keep our people safe. That doesn’t mean that tragic events don’t happen. Afghanistan is a war zone and we, of course, can honor the memory of Anne and the others who died that day by not only learning from it and what we do moving forward, but by continuing to do many of the programs that they were undertaking that day.

QUESTION: Can I ask you, now that the military unit on the ground has finished its review, will the State Department reconsider its initial review? Because per the State Department, the investigation of the incident happened immediately afterwards, before the military unit submitted its review and its account of what they saw happen on the ground. So –

MS. PSAKI: Well, just to be clear, Margaret –

QUESTION: And that’s why it didn’t go to an ARB.

MS. PSAKI: — this was an army field after action report that happened on the ground. And typically, what happens with these is that these reports are done by an investigating officer in the field. We understand that under DOD procedures, this field report would be transmitted through the military chain-of-command to be ratified and modified and further distributed. I’m not aware of that happening at this point. No State Department officials, civilian personnel were interviewed for the military report. We have done – the Department as well, through Embassy Kabul – has done our own review to determine what occurred and whether security procedures required adjustment. That review is classified. But there have been multiple investigations in this case, and we undertook our own review here.

QUESTION: But given that the Army’s review now is done and that they have pointed to fault in this building –

MS. PSAKI: Well, to be clear, again, this is important –

QUESTION: — is it worth reconsidering?

MS. PSAKI: This is important because this is – again, this was a report done by an Army unit, an Army unit field report. It has to work its way through the chain of command. I’m not aware of that happening yet. I would, of course, point to the Department of Defense, and they can all take a look at that when that happens. But we’ve done our own review.

QUESTION: Yeah. They’ve said they’re not probing it further at this point, at the Pentagon level because (inaudible) –

MS. PSAKI: Well, but there’s still a process that it goes through regardless.

QUESTION: And – but at this point, is it fair to say the State Department is not moving ahead since, in Afghanistan and Iraq, they are exempted from going to the ARB level of investigation? And there was a decision not to go to that level because they didn’t have –

MS. PSAKI: Well, but we did our own review regardless –

QUESTION: — when they had the meeting, they decided not to there –

MS. PSAKI: Regardless of that, we did our own review. Yes, Afghanistan is a war zone, so it falls under different requirements, but we still did our own review regardless of that.

QUESTION: But at this point, it is a closed matter? Is that correct?

MS. PSAKI: It’s never a closed matter in the sense that you’re still remembering the memory of the people who lost their lives.

QUESTION: Of course.

MS. PSAKI: And you’re still learning from the experience, and I mentioned a checklist we’ve put in place. And we’ll continue to evaluate on that basis. But again, our efforts now are focused on continuing to coordinate with the military at the operational and tactical level in these situations, and if for some reason the military unit is unable to meet the provisions of our checklist, our personnel will not participate. So you do take what you’ve learned, you adapt it moving forward, and you do everything you can to honor the memory of the lives that have been lost.

But there’s more.

On April 10, 2013, McClatchy  filed a lengthy report: Witness: Anne Smedinghoff, other Americans killed in Afghan bombing were on foot, lost.  Five days later, then State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell denied that Smedinghoff’s party was lost:

“Media reports suggesting that the group was lost are simply incorrect. They were going to a compound across the street from the PRT,” he said in written responses to emailed questions.
[…]

Ventrell said the purpose of what he called the “mission” that led to Smedinghoff’s death was a news conference featuring the senior U.S. official in southern Afghanistan and the Zabul governor to promote a book donation project and the “growth of literacy.”

Ventrell called “highlighting Afghanistan’s ongoing progress for both national and international media” an “integral part of our work.”

“This is what we do, and we believe in it,” he said. “Our diplomats believe in getting out beyond the wire to reach people. In this case we were engaging with the people of Afghanistan AND the local government.”

According to the State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell, reports suggesting that the group was lost are “simply incorrect.”

The Army report now confirmed that the party “had the wrong location for the school.” 

That official word from the State Department was never retracted.

So the Smedinghoff party was not/not lost, but they had the wrong location for the school? What kind of story is this?  Is there another meaning for the word “lost” that we have yet to learn?  We know about “get lost!” so no need to email us.  Mr. Ventrell is now the Director of Communications for the National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
On April 24, 2014, McClatchy’s Mark Seibel writes:

“It’s unclear whether there’s been much soul searching at the State Department. In the Tribune story, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki sounds unrepentant. “The only people responsible for this tragedy were the extremists opposed to the mission,” the Tribune quotes her as saying, then adds that “a classified internal review of the day was conducted, . . . and the department determined no State rules were broken.”

We have folks who complained to us — either that the State Department or Embassy Kabul was thrown under the bus in this army report. Well, we only have the army report to go on.

Army report excepted, we know three things from the State Department: 1) they named a courtyard after Ms. Smedinghoff at Embassy Kabul; 2) there is a new checklist in place; and 3) the internal review of the Zabul incident is still classified.

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State Dept Responds to an FOIA Two Years After Request — Confusion and Hilarity Follows

– Domani Spero

One of our blog readers asked us about the Freedom of Information Act  (FOIA). Nope, we don’t know much about it except the (b)(6) exemptions which resulted on the redactions of OIG inspectors names from publicly available reports posted online.  In  October 2013, State/OIG finally started disclosing the names of inspectors in publicly available reports, so yay for that.

But because we’re a curious cat, we wanted to know why he was asking us about the FOIA. It turned out, our reader submitted a FOIA request to the State Department in 2012.  He wanted to know about “Meetings between Jeff Gorsky and the AILA.”  Mr. Gorsky is the Chief of the Legal Advisory Opinion Section of the Visa Office of the Bureau of Consular Affairs and AILA is the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the national association of more than 13,000 attorneys and law professors who practice and teach immigration law. Our reader, Mr. Requester, shared the confirmation of his FOIA request from 2012:

Screen Shot 2014-04-20

After repeated inquiries and prodding, and after almost two years of waiting, a response finally arrived in Mr. Requester’s mail box this year. Note that the subject of the FOIA request is “Jeff Gorsky and the AILA” and the official State Department response to the FOIA request came from Mr. Gorsky himself. Take a look:

Screen Shot 2014-04-21

What the hey?

Is it normal or routine that the subject of the FOIA request is also the signatory of the letter that basically says we found 42 documents but they all contain information that is “personal in nature?”

I don’t know, is it?  Help me out here.  These are presumably from work emails, how can they all be “personal in nature?”

Screen Shot 2014-04-20

Note: FOIA Exemption (b)(6) – permits the government to withhold all information about individuals in “personnel and medical files and similar files” when the disclosure of such information “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Is it bizarre or is it just totally expected that the responding office (b)(6)’ed just about every name that appears on the documents released?  In handwritten notations that look messy and all?  What’s the use of filing an FOIA if all you get are these scrawny (b)(6)s?  The email above concerns a meeting request on “L1 Visas in Singapore.” So, the names of all  pertinent parties to that meeting are also “personal in nature?”

Processing … processing ….screeeccch bang kaplunga!  Ugh! I don’t get it; I must be, like… like….like, a malfunctioned magnet*.

Folks, the White House publishes online its Visitor Access Records, and heavens help them, there are lots of names listed there; some even include middle names!

On March 16, 2009, just as the new president came to office, the State Department’s Bureau of Administration released an FOIA Guidance from the Secretary of State to the department employees.  In says in part:

On his first full day in office, President Barack Obama signed two memoranda on openness in government – one ushering in a new era of transparency in government, the other ordering a presumption of disclosure in the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The State Department will be at the forefront of making this commitment a reality.
[…]
As a Department, we should respond to requests in a timely manner, resolve doubts in favor of openness, and not withhold information based on speculative or abstract fears.
[…]
We need every Department employee to manage the challenge of informing the public and protecting information in a way that fulfills the President’s strong commitment to transparency.

Well, what about that, huh?

In any case, the Department of Justice FOIA Guide on Exemption 6 notes that “Personal privacy interests are protected by two provisions of the FOIA, Exemptions 6 and 7(C). … Exemption 6 permits the government to withhold all information about individuals in “personnel and medical files and similar files” when the disclosure of such information “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” (1)

The Guide also says that “In some instances, the disclosure of information might involve no invasion of privacy because, fundamentally, the information is of such a nature that no expectation of privacy exists. (49) For example, civilian federal employees generally have no expectation of privacy regarding their names, titles, grades, salaries, and duty stations as employees (50) or regarding the parts of their successful employment applications that show their qualifications for their positions.” (51)

Also this: “if the information at issue is particularly well known or is widely available within the public domain, there generally is no expectation of privacy. “

You should know that we have no expertise on FOIAs. But the State Department on this FOIA case managed to use the (b)(6) exemption to redact the names of the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Consular and that “Desk Officer for Singapore Visa matters.”

Here’s a person of the street question: Why would anyone think that disclosing Janice J. Jacobs‘ name as Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Consulate Consular Affairs (she is on Wikipedia, by the way) would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy?” 

C’mon, folks, you gotta admit, this is totally hilarious!

 

Screen Shot 2014-04-20

Let’s compare this to the  emails released under FOIA on the Keystone XL meetings. Also redacted but as you can see on the emails here, the State Department did not use the (b)(6) exemption and instead used (b)(5) which protects “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.” But look how this is marked:

Screen Shot 2014-04-22

Click on image to read the released emails.

The FOIA super ninja we consulted (thanks J!) suggested that an immediate appeal be filed.  Mr. Requester told us he already sent in an appeal.  We just hope the response to his appeal would not take two years, and would not include scrawny (b)(6)s for decorations.

Seriously. Do you realize  that if the State Department continue to slap (b)(6)s on FOIA’ed docs so thoughtlessly like this, that the agency will be at the forefront of making President Obama’s commitment to “transparency in government” and “presumption of disclosure” a laughing matter? Pardon me, it is already a laughing matter?  Well, a  competition then on who will be at the forefront.  

Folks, you need to fix this or we may be forced to start a rock band called Twisted Hilarity.    

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US Embassy Cairo FSN Ahmed Alaiba Detained Since 1/25–State Dept Still Seeking “Clarity”

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– Domani Spero

Cairo Post reported on February 11 that Egyptian National Security arrested a local employee on Jan. 25 who works for the U.S. embassy in Cairo.  On February 12, NYT’s David Kirkpatrick has additional details:

Security forces have detained an Egyptian employee of the United States Embassy who worked as a liaison to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian news reports said Wednesday, stirring fears of pressure on Western diplomats who communicate with the Islamist opposition.

Embassy officials said the employee, Ahmed Alaiba, was detained on Jan. 25, the third anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising here, and he has been held without charges since then.
[…]
An Egyptian government official briefed on the case said Mr. Alaiba was under investigation for both participating in an illegal demonstration and “communicating with an outlawed group.”
[…]
Mr. Alaiba, an Egyptian citizen, has no diplomatic immunities. But some Western diplomats said that the leaks to the Egyptian news media about his arrest appeared to convey a message to them as well. Many diplomats were already wrestling with fears of possible retribution from the military-backed government if they continued meeting with Brotherhood officials as they did before the takeover.

Questions about Mr. Alaiba’s arrest made it to the State Department’s Daily Press Briefing with Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf. This FSN has been detained since January 25. Besides repeating what has already been reported in the news media, Ms. Harf could only promise to “see if we have more clarity on this.” Eighteen days after the embassy employee was detained, Ms. Harf could not even say what was this employee’s job at the embassy?!

Typically, the local employees who do work overseas like Mr. Alaiba’s are political assistants or political specialists. These are fairly common jobs in diplomatic missions.  We do want to know what the former DCM, now  Chargé d’Affaires Markc Sievers is doing about the detention of a member of his embassy’s staff?  Yes, he’s Egyptian, and a local employee, and he’s one of ours.  If uncorrected, this could become a dangerous precedent. Anyone who works for the U.S. government in Egypt who talks to MB officials or supporters or other opposition figures could just be thrown into jail without charges or some spurious ones.

In some dark corners of the net, the conspiracy theorists are already busy. This is apparently proof of President Obama’s secret support for the Muslim Brotherhood.  Which just shows how little people know about what our official representatives do overseas.  Our diplomats and local employees talk to host country governments and opposition parties/figures around the globe.  What they learn help inform the decisions that our government makes.  This happens whether there’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. Some of the folks our officials talk to are not very nice, some are corrupt, some would not even think twice about stabbing us in the back. But that’s the world we lived in.  To expect that our government officials should only talk to the government in power is idiotic, that gives us only half the story. It also makes it impossible for our people to do substantial work when the levers of power change hands.  So, do think about that when you hear about these nutty stuff.

Now, can we please have somebody at the podium who wears a hat or sash that says, “Clarity is my name” whether it snows or not?

Excerpt below from the greatest mid-day show in town:

QUESTION: I wanted to start by asking about the Embassy employee in Cairo who was arrested for his liaison with the Muslim Brotherhood. First off, what is the reaction of the State Department? What’s being done, I assume, to have him released, if he hasn’t been released already? And then if you could talk a little more broadly about whether or not the State Department or the Administration believes that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization, and what this says about dealing with a government in Cairo that is refusing to recognize such a significant part of the population in Egypt.

MS. HARF: Absolutely. So we can confirm that a locally employed staff member of the U.S. Embassy was detained on January 25th and that, as far as we understand, he has been held without charges since then. We have been in touch with the Government of Egypt and have requested additional information about his case. The locally employed staff member was detained, I think, over a weekend on January 25th while off-duty, as I think maybe you mentioned.

The United States does not – has not designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. We have been very clear in Egypt that we will work with all sides and all parties to help move an inclusive process forward. We’ve also repeatedly, both publicly and privately, called on the interim government to move forward in an inclusive manner. That means talking to all parties, bringing them into the process. We’re not saying what the future government should look like specifically other than that it should be inclusive. That, of course, includes the Muslim Brotherhood. We will continue talking to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as part of our broad outreach to the different parties and groups there.

QUESTION: So if he was arrested or detained anyways off-duty, is it your understanding he was – he is being detained because of his liaison with the Muslim Brotherhood, or was there another reason to your understanding?

MS. HARF: Let me see if we have more clarity on this. I’m not sure we have entire clarity about the reasons for his continued detention. Let me check with our folks and see. Again, I’m not sure if we know exactly why he’s being detained.

QUESTION: Because otherwise, I mean I’m sure other employees at the Embassy are – would be reluctant to liaise with the Muslim Brotherhood or any opposition groups that the current government in Cairo seems to not look upon favorably. And –

MS. HARF: Let me see – oh, sorry, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. No, and so I just wonder, as you say, how the Obama Administration and the State Department is going to continue reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood. How will they do that if employees are being arrested and there’s certain penalties that people have to face in doing so.

MS. HARF: Well – yeah. No, it’s – to be clear, I’m not saying that that was the reason for his detention. I would need to confirm that with folks.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: I actually haven’t heard that, so let me check and see that.

Again, he was a locally employed staff member. Our folks that are on the ground there have been talking to the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups as well. So let me see two things if I can get a little more clarity about the reason for his detention and also what his job was at the Embassy. I just don’t have all that clarity.

QUESTION: Okay. So would an American official at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo be able to liaise with the Muslim Brotherhood? I assume they have been.

MS. HARF: Well, they certainly have been. Absolutely.

QUESTION: Right.

MS. HARF: And again, I’m not sure that was the reason for his detention. So before we sort of take this – I’m happy to check and see if we just have some more clarity on that.

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

– Domani Spero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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