Category Archives: Quotes

Quote of the Day: “Take responsible risks…Don’t take a big crazy risk … Mm…hmm

– Domani Spero

Here is Doug Frantz, the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs via nextgov.com:

“Social media is an interactive platform, so if you wait to come back to the State Department to get clearance on how to respond to a question over Twitter it will take days if not weeks and the conversation will be over,” Frantz said. “So you want people to be engaged. You want them to be willing and able to take responsible risks…Don’t take a big crazy risk and try to change our policy on Iran, but if you’re behaving responsibly, we can expect small mistakes.”

In many ways, the department is vulnerable to those risks whether or not officials are actively engaging on social media.

Frantz cited the case of a diplomatic security officer and his wife who were expelled from India after making derogatory comments about the country on their personal Facebook pages. “I tell people never tweet anything you don’t want to see on the front page of the Washington Post,” Frantz said.

We should be impressed at this enlightened approach of employees being allowed to afford small mistakes.  Except that elements of the State Department continue to harass Foreign Service bloggers who write in their private capacity on blogs and other social media sites.  Remember my Conversation with Self About Serial Blog Killers and the 21st Century Statecraft?  Different folks get on and off the bus, but this is just as real today.

Harassment, as always, is conducted without a paper trail unless, it’s a PR nightmare like Peter Van Buren, in which case, there is a paper trail.  So an FSO-blogger’s difficulties in obtaining an onward assignment has nothing to do with his/her blog, or his/her tweets. Just bad luck of the draw, see?  Oh, stop doing that winky wink stuff with your eyes!

Anybody know if there is an SOP on how to intimidate diplo-bloggers into going back into writing in their diaries and hiding those under their pillows until the year 2065? Dammit! No SOP needed?

So, no witnesses, no paper trail and  no bruises, just nasty impressive stuff done under the table.  Baby, we need a hero –

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Insider Quote: there is absolutely no point in worrying about what is going to happen ….

Prudence Bushnell | U.S. Ambassador—Nairobi 1998 via:

“I would advise anyone going overseas to take our security training very seriously, to participate in the crises management exercises that are held at post every two years and if possible to volunteer, if you’re in Washington, to serve on a crisis task force, so that you get a sense of what happens from a Washington perspective – as you can get a sense of what happens overseas from participating in crisis management exercises.  I would then say, “Go out and enjoy yourself, because there is absolutely no point in worrying about what is going to happen to you – because what is going to happen is going to happen.”  Worrying doesn’t make any difference.  And if you have joined a community and if you have put your energies into participating in a community, and if you have gone through training about what to do during a crisis, just depend on yourself and one another, and you can get through it.”

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Ding! Ding! Ding! We can use whatever definition of “transparent” we want? Please, nooooo….

– By Domani Spero

The State Department’s Daily Press Briefing remains the best reality show online, hands down.  Today, we bring you, Marie Harf, State’s Deputy Spokesperson and Matt Lee, the Associated Press correspondent at the State Department for over six years. The two sparred over the word “transparent.”  Ms. Harf says that “we” can use  “whatever definition of transparent we want.”  Mr. Lee disagreed pointing out that he thinks that word only has one definition. Reminds us of the utter confusion  and rhetorical gymnastics employed on whether or not there was a coup d’état in Egypt last July.  Sounds bad to our ears, you, too?

 

 

Below is an excerpt from the DPB transcript:

QUESTION: So then my last one is: When this current President came into office, he and his first Secretary of State spent a lot of time doing what they said was trying to repair what they said was damage done to the U.S. image and reputation abroad during the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. Are you concerned at all that the weight of these revelations, coming as they are with increasing – seemingly increasing frequency, is negating the – that effort to improve your – the image of the United States abroad? Because it certainly appears that many countries, whether they’re warranted and are justified in feeling this or not, are looking at the United States now as some kind of Orwellian big brother-type outfit.

MS. HARF: Well, I think I’d make a few points. The first is that whether it’s on these alleged intelligence activities, on counterterrorism operations, on a number of issues, this Administration has taken steps to increase the transparency, not as much as I’m sure everybody would like in this room, but certainly whether it’s the President giving speeches about counterterrorism, giving speeches just recently about our intelligence gathering and how we’re reviewing that. We’ve actually taken steps to be more transparent, both to our people but to other countries around the world. So I think that people do look at that as a positive step in the right direction.

But when it comes to specific intelligence matters, we also, I would underscore here, share intelligence with a number of our partners and allies. Intelligence is collected, broadly speaking, to protect our citizens, to protect their citizens as well. So people understand the value of intelligence gathering around the world, right? It’s where the balance lies between privacy and security, and those are the conversations we’re having right now.

QUESTION: Yeah, but people don’t like – when you say that you’re being more transparent, people don’t like what they see when they are being – so just being more – coming out and saying –

MS. HARF: Well, I would disagree a little bit with your notion there. I think people appreciate when the President or the Secretary or other folks come out and say: I know there have been a lot of allegations out there. Here’s what we can say we’re doing, here’s how we’re looking at it. And when we have a path forward, we’ll let you know that as well.

QUESTION: Okay. But you claim to be being more transparent, but in fact you’re not. You’re not at all being transparent. You’re saying that –

MS. HARF: Well, I would take issue with your characterization.

QUESTION: Oh, really? Well, you’re not confirming any of these reports, whether they’re true or not.

MS. HARF: That –

QUESTION: How is that transparent?

MS. HARF: Well, I think we can use whatever definition of transparent we want –

QUESTION: I think there’s only one definition.

MS. HARF: What I would say is that the President has gotten – has stood up. Whether it’s on counterterrorism, he stood at the National Defense University and said: I’m going to talk to you about how we make decisions on counterterrorism operations –

QUESTION: Yeah, but –

MS. HARF: — for the first time.

QUESTION: — it’s either transparent or it’s not. It’s either transparent or it’s opaque.

MS. HARF: Matt, that’s –

QUESTION: Right?

MS. HARF: No, this isn’t a black-and-white issue.

QUESTION: You can’t have –

MS. HARF: That’s not – that’s absolutely not the case.

 

Perhaps Ms. Harf is referring to the use of “transparent” in computing, where it means  “(of a process or interface) functioning without the user being aware of its presence.” Which actually kind of fits given the subject of the tussle.

We’re filing this in our  “Huh? News” folder as It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Not Superman On a Nantucket Boat Or How to Make a Non-News Into Big News.

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Raymond Maxwell: A happy ending … despite the fact that the “system” does not work

Following our publication of Raymond Maxwell’s poem in this blog, we received an unsolicited note from  a veteran FSO we know from Post X.  The FSO knows Raymond Maxwell well, all the way back to A-100 and notes that Mr. Maxwell spent 14 years in the United States Navy before joining the Foreign Service.  The FSO added that Mr. Maxwell was “definitely the first one to become a DAS” [deputy assistant secretary] from his A-100 class, and the first one to make it to Senior Foreign Service. Excerpt below:

For years, I have told a story about Ray to junior officers that I thought showed that there was justice in the “system,” and which I thought had a happy ending (until now).  Ray has always been a stand-up guy.  On his first tour, he went as a General Services Officer to a small West African post.  He had a boss (Admin Officer) who did not play by the rules, and Ray refused to go along with unethical or illegal practices in the execution of his duties.  He hadn’t left the Navy just to sell out his principles in the Foreign Service.  For a first tour officer, that put him in a precarious position and made tenure (and a career) less than a sure thing.  Fortunately, Ray’s next tour went well, as did every tour after that.  Not only did he set the standard in every position he ever held, he also took the hardest jobs — a couple of them in Iraq back when nobody else wanted to go there.

When I first learned that Ray was going to be a scapegoat for our most recent 9/11, I felt that this story no longer had a happy ending.  He was a victim of “damage control,” which in government tries to push accountability down to the lowest level possible.  But in a sense, the happy ending is that Ray remained the stand-up guy, the man of principle that he has always been, in service to our country for over 35 years in the United States Navy and in the Foreign Service of the United States, despite the fact that the “system” does not work.  His service has been a great gift to our nation.

I do hope that a generation of officers who worked with Ray, were mentored by Ray, or who hear the stories about him, are themselves inspired to a higher standard of public service than is currently the accepted norm in our beloved Department of State.  Is there hope for the future?  Actually, I don’t know.

The FSO who wrote this is in active service, so there will be no other details on that.  Mr. Maxwell remains in administrative leave status and defers all press inquiries to the State Department spokesperson and State Department Public Affairs.
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Earth Embassy Ganymede – Administrative Notice #04-011300

Been working on a draft of a fictional story set at Earth Embassy Ganymede. It’ll be like any diplomatic mission complete with intrigues, gossip, romance, and all the deadly sins.  Anyway, this is part of the story where the embassy in Ganymede is suffering from some bad press and low morale. So the embassy’s senior management adviser released the following admin notice.

English: Image of Jupiter and Ganymede

English: Image of Jupiter and Ganymede (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Earth Embassy Ganymede
Administrative Notice #05-011300: Morale

It has come to management’s attention that there has been a lot of chatter and hyperspace email about morale and safety at this outpost.  This notice serves as a reminder to everyone under Ganymede outpost authority that discussion about morale is an unproductive use of work time. Morale is self-esteem in action; individuals who perceived that morale is lacking may need help in improving their self-esteem. Please make every effort to schedule an appointment to see the quadrant psychiatrist.

Ganymede management fully believes, like the 34th American President Dwight Eisenhower, that the best morale exist when you never hear the word mentioned. In that sprit, management formally informs all departments and employees that morale is not/not an issue and is not/not a subject to be discussed in hypermail, text, video, radio, verbal or any alternate manner of communication within and outside the mission.  Anyone caught peddling these stories will be subject to disciplinary action, including but not limited to curtailment of current assignment or a lengthy TDY to the outermost prograde moon of Carpo.

In an effort to be responsive to all concerns, below are some FAQs that the section  had the pleasure of addressing the last 12 moons. We hope that the answers are useful to you and your families and help alleviate persistent concerns.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
EaEmbassy Ganymede

Is Ganymede a family-friendly post?

Absolutely. It is the most family-friendly assignment in the quadrant with excellent schools and some of the best apartments available in the sector. Living conditions are approximated to be similar to the home planet and the quality of life is super-excellent.  Consistent demand for assignments to this outpost has repeatedly resulted in a long wait list at every rotation cycle.

I’ve been thinking of asking for a transfer to Ganymede.  But I heard that life there is a big joke … I don’t get what’s the joke.

Life in Ganymede is not/not a big joke. Once you understand that Ganymede is too big to fail, you’ll find your groove. This is the place where you want to be.  No other outpost will afford you the challenges and opportunities to excel and earn a fast-tracked promotion.

How safe is Ganymede given that riots are breaking out in all parts of the hostplanet:

Safe. Very safe, if you’re careful.

Ganymedeans breached the outpost walls, they can do it again, should I worry?

There’s no reason to worry.  Ganymedeans are not/not anti-Earthlings, anti-humans or what have you.  They were blowing off steam. Period. Now that they have, things should return to normal. If you think things have not returned to normal, give it time; things should return to normal. Soon.

There are assaults reported daily, it sounds like traveling around the hostplanet has become extremely dangerous. Is that perception correct?

Ganymede is the largest moon in this sector. Like any large, densely inhabited city on Earth (e.g. New York City, New Delhi, Bogota, Buenos Aires), crime is ever present. This is not/not unique to this outpost.  Travel in pairs if needed, and bring your stun gun, if necessary.

The Manager for Planetary Services reportedly quit over extreme bureaucratic bullying, is this true?

Absolutely not. The manager quit because the official got too old for the job. Other employers in this sector throw old officials out the airlock. Fortunately, EaEmbassy Ganymede has a generous separation package specifically for older workers traveling back to the home planet.

There are rumors and allegations that some of the top Ganymede officials have, on several occasions, pushed and bossed around subordinates and threatened them with penalties. How accurate are these stories?

Have you ever heard of American poet, Robert Frost?  He said that the reason why worry kills more people than work is that more people worry than work.  Isn’t that an excellent point?  Stop listening to rumors. Stop worrying. All our top Ganymede officials were handpicked and subjected to a battery of reviews and 360 feedbacks from friends, peers, and colleagues. All with spectacular results. They are all as lovable and huggable as Alaskan polar bears.

I used to have an open mind, then I got to Ganymede and my brains kept falling out. What am I doing wrong?

To keep an open mind, a person needs only two tools: WD-40 and duct tape. If it doesn’t move and it should, use WD-40. If it moves and shouldn’t, use the tape. This works even in Ganymede.

I am terribly upset that my concerns have not been taken seriously.  How do I set a laser printer to stun?

The management office works hard to address all of your concerns and aims to make every assignment to Ganymede a satisfying one.   Unfortunately, all laser printer at post at this time do not have a stun setting.  However, the procurement section is exploring the possibility of adding a stun setting to all laser printers with end of year funding.

Note that this is from a work in progress.  Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Morale is self-esteem in action,  is a quote by Avery Weisman; WD-40 and laser printer quips are found items around the net.

I was, by the way, thinking of writing a complete set of Space Affairs Manual (SAM) and Space Affairs Handbook (SAH) for my fictional diplomatic service, but that sounded crazy, even to me.   So I may stick with writing a collection of admin notices and cables that can be interspersed with the story. Hey, if I write a story using admin notices alone, would that fall under an epistolary novel category?

Ugh! Just saw that the Russians are interested on Ganymede, now.  Well, dammit, I am not changing my fictional embassy’s name again, so don’t write to complain about that.

– DS

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Zabul Attack: Were They Walking in a Red Zone?

In the early morning this past Sunday, a day after Anne Smedinghoff and four others were killed in Zabul, Afghanistan, I received an untraceable anonymous note that she was walking, and was not in a vehicle when she was killed.  The four-sentence tip alleged that she was with Ambassador Jonathan Addleton, the American Senior Civilian Representative (RC-South) in Kandahar and asked a rhetorical question, “Will anyone be held accountable?  doubtful.”

Ambassador Addelton was formerly the U.S. ambassador to Mongolia.  The Senior Civilian Representative, in the embassy’s view is  “the co-equal of the military commander of that region rather than a member of his staff” (for more of that, see this).

So, what do you do with something like that? Do you ignore it or chase it down the rabbit hole? Does it really matter whether they were walking in a red zone or were inside a vehicle?  They’re still dead.

But it’s been bugging me quite a bit.

So I sent out emails asking questions. On Sunday, I sent an email to the top accountable civilian official in Afghanistan, Ambassador James Cunningham, and another to the embassy press office for comment. I never heard anything back.

But one email did come back.  One source in Kabul would not confirm or deny the circumstances surrounding Ms. Smedinghoff’s death.  The individual declined to provide details of the the attack (which may or may not mean anything, of course).  There was a concern that this could become political given what happened in Benghazi.  But more telling perhaps was what my source pointed out — that Ms. Smedinghoff  would not have had the authority to make the decision about her movements.  No one gets to make those decisions unilaterally at US Mission Afghanistan.

While I could not confirmed that she was walking in a red zone when the attacked occurred, she was a second tour junior officer with three years under her belt. I can’t imagine a JO telling the MRAP team to let her out because she’s going to walk, can you?


What we know from news report:

  • The attack occurred on Saturday, April 6 at around 11:00 in the morning in Qalat, in the Zabul province of Afghanistan.
  • The attack was carried out by a suicide bomber in a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) and one bomber with a suicide vest.
  • Three U.S. service members killed:  Staff Sgt. Christopher M. Ward, 24, of Oak Ridge, Tenn., Spc. Wilbel A. Robles-Santa, 25, of Juncos, Puerto Rico, and Spc. Deflin M. Santos Jr., 24, of San Jose, Calif.
  • Two U.S civilians killed: Anne Smedinghoff, FSO, a still unidentified DOD civilian
  • Four State Department staff wounded, one critically: Kelly Hunt, FSO (assigned in Kandahar) three still unidentified staffer.
  • Smedinghoff and Ward’s remains arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Monday afternoon.


The official story:

Via The Guardian: The attacker detonated a vehicle full of explosives in the centre of Qalat just as a US military convoy passed the provincial governor and his entourage. The blast killed and seriously injured several people from both groups.

Via WSJ: A senior provincial official in Zabul said insurgents targeted a convoy carrying Gov. Ashraf Nasari, who was on his way to the ceremony at the local school. Zabul provincial police chief Ghulam Sakhi Rogh Liwanai said a bomb-laden Suzuki automobile was parked outside the provincial hospital to target the governor’s convoy. Around the same time the car bomb went off, the police chief said, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest.

Via USAToday:  Officials said the explosion Saturday came just as a coalition convoy drove past a caravan of vehicles carrying the governor of Zabul province to the event at the school.

Via WaPo: There is no greater contradiction, Kerry said, between Smedinghoff’s zeal to “change the world” and help others and a bomber who he said drove a car into their vehicle.

Via State Department – Secretary Kerry:

“And someone somehow persuaded that taking her – his life was a wiser course and somehow constructive, drives into their vehicle and we lose five lives – two Foreign Service, three military, large number wounded, one Foreign Service officer still in critical condition in the Kandahar hospital because they’re trying to provide people with a future and with opportunity.”

A retired FSO quoted in WaPo says:

“She was well-protected, so the lesson here is there is no ‘zero risk,’ ” said Daniel P. Serwer, a retired Foreign Service officer in Bosnia and Kosovo and now a professor of conflict management at SAIS.

But what if she wasn’t well-protected? Now, I understand this is a war zone and they must make calculated risks. But …


What we don’t know:

Was she walking with others when they were hit? No one in an official capacity is willing to answer that question (I missed this one – but, knoxnews.com reported that ” Family members have said [Kelly] Hunt was walking with Smedinghoff when the bomb went off.” – thanks TSB!)

Why is the State Department saying that they were killed when their vehicle was hit if they were not inside the vehicle?

If true that they were walking, who gave the order that they should walked in a red zone?

What is considered acceptable risk in a red zone if you’re conducting public diplomacy work?

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What happened to the Afghan journalists who were reportedly being escorted to Qalat?

If they were inside an MRAP when they were attacked — does that mean an MRAP and a suicide vest together can kill  a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) which apparently is the vehicle of choice in Qalat? I’m sure somebody who knows more than I do about the types of MRAPs used in the south will pipe in.  Here is one type, not sure this is the kind used in Qalat on April 6.

Screen Shot 2013-04-09

Were there debris of the convoy in the immediate aftermath of the attack?  The AP had a brief video online, and pics — how many disabled MRAPs can you see there?

Wired Magazine once had this piece about the MRAP talking about its virtues:

One of the main virtues of the MRAP lies in its hull. Shaped like the letter V, it disperses the blast from homemade bombs that other trucks absorb — and which kill and wound the troops inside. Soldiers and Marines who rode in them in Iraq and Afghanistan reported that sometimes they didn’t even realize they had rolled over one of the bombs.

And do you remember General Frank Helmick?

According to Military Times, on August 24, 2008 Helmick survived a suicide bombing of the MRAP vehicle he was riding in near Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul. The suicide car bomb attack killed the attacker and damaged the International MaxxPro Plus vehicle, but Helmick, Brigadier General Raymond “Tony” Thomas, an Iraqi general and others inside the vehicle were not seriously injured.

Something doesn’t add up, see?

Screen Shot 2013-04-09

So, is there a story here somewhere or should we ignore it because anonymous sources don’t count,  and because people die in the war zone all the time?

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Filed under Afghanistan, Foreign Service, FSOs, Media, Public Diplomacy, Quotes, Realities of the FS, Secretary of State, State Department, U.S. Missions, War

Mystery of the Day: Did we almost lose another ambassador and not know about it?

“A large part of a diplomatic mission’s work does not involve or require elaborate secrecy. Diplomacy, after all, is not a conspiracy. The best diplomacy is the one that involves the fewest, not the most, secrets.”

George Kennan

Quote via JB

[INSERT PHOTO]

Are people being quiet because they want to be kind?  Are they being quiet out of fear that they’ll get swept out to a Stormy Sea in Étretat except that it’s no longer winter? No, it’s a serious question.

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RIP Anne Smedinghoff: Older men declare war. But it is youth that must fight and die.

I don’t know why I was bothered when Secretary Kerry refrained Saturday from naming Ms. Smedinghoff in his statement on her passing (if it did not bother you, that’s okay).  Perhaps I should blame it on OC, perhaps not. But one only die once … I was looking for an appropriate acknowledgement of the sacrificed made in Zabul on Saturday.

The attack occurred on Saturday, April 6 at around 11:00 in the morning in Afghanistan. That’s about 2:30 am in Washington, D.C.  About ten hours after the attack, around noon in WashDC, the State Department released a statement from Secretary Kerry without naming the diplomat killed in Zabul Province of Afghanistan.

How do you properly acknowledge in public the sacrifice of somebody when she is but a third person singular pronoun?

She was everything a Foreign Service officer should be: smart, capable, eager to serve, and deeply committed to our country and the difference she was making for the Afghan people. She tragically gave her young life working to give young Afghans the opportunity to have a better future.

An older version of the WaPo report, no longer online says that the State Department did not identify the deceased to give the family time to notify other family members.  But if that were so, why did State release a statement in a rush instead of waiting until the following day? Was the need to put out a statement ten hours after her death so urgent that it was deemed acceptable to reduced her to a pronoun?

State could have waited until Sunday to released a complete official statement, but it did not. The last time a civilian employee was killed in Afghanistan was on August 8, 2012.  On August 9, then Secretary Clinton released a statement on USAID Foreign Service Officer Ragaei Abdelfattah.  When four Americans died in Benghazi, the official statement which identified Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith came a day after the attack, but two casualties were not identified until much later.

Ms. Smedinghoff’s parents released a statement about their daughter late Saturday.

Secretary Kerry was in Istanbul on Sunday when he publicly identified Ms. Smedinghoff for the first time:

“And I think there are no words for anybody to describe the extraordinary harsh contradiction of a young 25-year-old woman with all of the future ahead of her, believing in the possibilities of diplomacy, of changing people’s lives, of making a difference, having an impact, who was taking knowledge in books to deliver them to a school. And someone somehow persuaded that taking her – his life was a wiser course and somehow constructive, drives into their vehicle and we lose five lives – two Foreign Service, three military, large number wounded, one Foreign Service officer still in critical condition in the Kandahar hospital because they’re trying to provide people with a future and with opportunity.”
[...]
It is a confrontation with modernity, with possibilities, and everything that our country stands for, everything we stand for, is embodied in what Anne Smedinghoff stood for, a 25-year-old young woman, second tour of duty, been a vice consul in Caracas, Venezuela and then off to an exciting, challenging, unbelievable undertaking in one of the toughest places on earth.

I’ll come back to that in a separate post later.

Ms. Smedinghoff was on Twitter, on LinkedIn, also on Facebook. I was tempted to use her photo for this post, but it doesn’t seem right to use the photographs  from her social media accounts now that she’s dead and couldn’t object. Perhaps she wouldn’t have minded .. but what if she did mind … the dead cannot speak up … so I walked away from the photos.

Do you remember when you were 25?  When you were young and brave and full of wonder and hope about conquering the world of possibilities?

Death is never far away in the small Foreign Service community (see In the Foreign Service:  Death, Too Close An Acquaintance). Even if you and I do not personally know Anne Smedinghoff, as Cormac McCarthy writes, “The closest bonds we will ever know are bonds of grief. The deepest community one of sorrow.”

Since the beginning of 2013, excluding this latest attack, 24 Americans have died in Afghanistan, the highest total among coalition forces. The average age of those killed is 28.  Since 2001, there had been 3,279 deaths in Afghanistan. Of that 2,198 were  Americans.  On the same day that Ms. Smedinghoff was killed, a DOD civilian employee also was killed. And, in a remote corner of eastern Afghanistan, a battle and airstrike left nearly 20 people dead, including 11 Afghan children and a U.S. advisor.

Herbert Hoover said that “Older men declare war. But it is youth that must fight and die.”  Sometimes you’re not even fighting, but still you die. And old men give speeches and get lost on the road to ending wars.

Then you read something like this: Leaving Corruptistan: Washington Favors Exit over Fight with Karzai. And you want to throw all your shoes at the somebodies. Is that infantile reaction? Well, probably yes, but you’ll do it anyway because not doing anything, anything at all, no matter how pointless just seem worse. And no, you’re not throwing your shoes because we’re leaving the sinkhole kingdom, er, republic …

 

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Below are some blog posts collected from around the Foreign Service on the passing of Ms. Smedinghoff.

 

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Filed under Afghanistan, Defense Department, Foreign Service, FS Blogs, FSOs, Quotes, Secretary of State, Social Media, State Department, U.S. Missions, War

Benghazi Hearing: Looking for Truth Amidst a Partisan Divide, Outing OGA, Zingers

The Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Security Failures of Benghazi was predictable in many ways. The members of the committee started off beckering about the conduct of the investigation. Elijah Cummings, top Democrat on the committee accused committee chairman Darrell Issa of excluding the Democrats from the investigation by witholding documents, non-access to key witness Colonel Wood (“We could not even get his phone number.”) and says Issa “effectively excluded Democrats from a congressional delegation to Libya this past weekend.” The Republican members lined up to hammer the State Department (and President Obama).

The predictability of bi-partisanship

Cuts to embassy security funding was also brought up. And it turns out this is one of the few bipartisan issue in the House. According to the Oversight Committee, Rep Cummings and other Democrats reportedly helped 147 Republicans slashed that embassy security funding. Oy! Is that right?

It is predictable that the Republicans grilled the witnesses and the Democrats played defense. I’m sure that if this were a Republican administration, the Democrats would have played offense and the Republicans defense. Which sucks when looking for the truth is a seriously possibility and folks have already made up their minds.

Strangely enough, I don’t think anyone during the hearing asked the question as to why we had that office in Benghazi. But U/S Kennedy went on an gave an answer to the unasked question anyway using Ambassador Steven’s words in his prepared testimony.

Not a single representative asked the State Dept reps on the impact of running gigantic diplomatic missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and how these missions siphoned not only funds, but more importantly staffing resources from the rest of the Foreign Service.

How come no one wanna to listen to Dennis?

Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) says:

It is easy to blame someone else — like a civil servant at the State Department. We all know the game. It is harder to acknowledge that decades of American foreign policy have directly contributed to regional instability and to the rise of armed militias around the world. It is even harder to acknowledge Congress’ role in the failure to stop the war in Libya, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Pakistan, the war in Yemen, the war in Somalia and who knows where else. It is harder to recognize Congress’ role in the failure to stop the drone attacks that are still killing innocent civilians and strengthening radical elements abroad. We want to stop the attacks on embassies? Let’s stop trying to overthrow governments.

Go Dennis Go! Oops! Everyone had their ear plugs on.

Point of order — while OGA got outed?

Sometime during the four hour hearing, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) called out “Point of order! Point of order!” as DAS Charlene Lamb  described the chaotic night of the attack.  Rep. Chaffetz objected to the aerial photo of the U.S. facilities in Benghazi saying, “I was told specifically while I was in Libya I could not and should not ever talk about what you’re showing here today.”

If you did not know it, Rep. Chaffetz  went to Libya over the weekend to get “an on-the-ground assessment of the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.”  This report says that “Specifically, he wanted to probe whether claims for more security were denied by the U.S. government.” He did not go to Benghazi, where the deaths actually occurred, but Tripoli is on the ground enough.  He spent a grand total of five hours in Tripoli.

Five hours in Tripoli via miljet? Don’t raise your voice. That’s exactly 300 minutes on the ground in Libya.  Five hours more than either DAS Lamb and U/S Kennedy as neither have ever been to Libya.  There were reportedly five RSOs in Benghazi at the time of the attack, none were sitting before the committee yesterday.   The five includes David Ubben who is currently recuperating at Walter Reed for his wounds; none of these RSOs were called in talk about what happened that night.  Presumably they are talking to the FBI and will talk to the ARB.

Anyway, about that point of order, here is  WaPo’s take on how the Other Government Agency or OGA got outed:

In their questioning and in the public testimony they invited, the lawmakers managed to disclose, without ever mentioning Langley directly, that there was a seven-member “rapid response force” in the compound the State Department was calling an annex. One of the State Department security officials was forced to acknowledge that “not necessarily all of the security people” at the Benghazi compounds “fell under my direct operational control.”
[...]
The Republican lawmakers, in their outbursts, alternated between scolding the State Department officials for hiding behind classified material and blaming them for disclosing information that should have been classified. But the lawmakers created the situation by ordering a public hearing on a matter that belonged behind closed doors.

Republicans were aiming to embarrass the Obama administration over State Department security lapses. But they inadvertently caused a different picture to emerge than the one that has been publicly known: that the victims may have been let down not by the State Department but by the CIA. If the CIA was playing such a major role in these events, which was the unmistakable impression left by Wednesday’s hearing, having a televised probe of the matter was absurd.

Oops, too?  The NYT reported that among the over two dozens employees evacuated from Benghazi the morning of September 12 were a dozen of apparently CIA operatives and contractors.

This makes me wonder if the CIA is also the owner of the 50-minute video of the attack whose existence was confirmed by State; and which Rep. Issa said is not FBI’s. Well, whose video is it – the Department of Commerce?

Best and Worst Witnesses?

The best witness among the four witnesses hauled up before the committee is no doubt, RSO Eric Nordstrom. He was prepared, straightforward and articulate. He spoke in a commanding manner, was respectful but also forceful in his testimony.  If I were overseas, I would want him as my Regional Security Officer, too. Pardon me? You love him to pieces because he does not hold his punches? Well, he sure didn’t hold his punches yesterday.

He also talked about a “new security-reality” in his prepared statement which, frankly was lost during the hearing. No one bothered to ask him what we should be doing differently in this new reality or how Congress might best support addressing this new reality. The reps were busy listening to themselves talk. But here is what he said:

“The ferocity and intensity of the attack was nothing that we had seen in Libya, or that I had seen in my time in the Diplomatic Security Service. Having an extra foot of wall, or an extra-half dozen guards or agents would not have enabled us to respond to that kind of assault. I’m concerned that this attack will signal a new security-reality, just as the 1984 Beirut attack did for the Marines; the 1998 East Africa bombings did for the State Department, and 9/11 for the whole country. It is critical that we balance the risk-mitigation with the needs of our diplomats to do their job, in dangerous and uncertain places. The answer cannot be to operate from a bunker.”

The other issue that RSO Nordstrom had in his prepared statement was the persistent matter of staff turnover, which is not a reality just in Libya but in other posts around the world, particularly in hardship posts.

“This brings me to the issue of staff turnover. At traditional posts most staff are assigned for periods of one to three years. In re-establishing our presence in Libya after the revolution, we needed to rely on a high number of staff who could serve temporarily (what we call TDY), so that we could adjust staffing quickly in the event that the security situation drastically changed. In the short term, that can and did work very well. However, what I found is that having only TDY DS agents made re-establishing and developing security procedures, policies and relationships more difficult. I understood it was also difficult for my colleagues in Washington to fill constant staffing requirements from a limited pool of available agents with high-threat tactical training. As the sole permanent RSO for the first seven months I was in Libya, I was unable to focus resources on developing traditional RSO programs as much as I would have wished, and instead spent a significant amount of time training new TDY staff, who were often set to leave eight weeks after they arrived. Nowhere was this more evident than in Benghazi, which had no permanent staff assigned to provide continuity, oversight and leadership to post’s programs.”

RSO Nordstrom, blessed his heart also has the best zingers.

“We were not going to get resources until the aftermath of an incident.”

“How thin does the ice have to get before someone falls through.”

“For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building.”

Man, oh, man. That last one is a keeper and will zinged just about everyone up his chain of command and the regionals.

To me the worst witness among the four is without a doubt, Deputy Assistant Secretary Charlene Lamb who told the panel, quote, “We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11.”

In fairness, we have  over 270 posts around the world. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan are the exceptions when it comes to the number of RSOs. Apprently, US Mission Baghdad has something like 88 DS agents. It is important to note that posts normally have one RSO and one ARSO or Assistant Regional Security Officer. Some consulates and smaller posts like the American Presence Posts would be lucky to have one RSO. In most cases, an FSO has collateral duty as Post Security Officer if there is no RSO at post.

And – if you were testifying before Congress next to your boss, three layers up, you probably would squirm, too. I watched her sit there with the three men and she looked nervous as a sitting duck who knew what’s coming but was unable to leave. Even her introduction was dull. This is a woman who in 1989 volunteered for duty in Beirut, where she managed a 500-person guard force at the height of the civil war in Lebanon. But you wouldn’t know that listening to her.

But — four Americans died in the attack, and to say that we have “the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11″ is like disconnected wifi. I’m sorry to say this but — how socially intelligent are you to say something like that? The Cable’s top article after the hearing was Lamb to the slaughter, and it was not talking about Roald Dahl’s book.

Post-hearing and language

As if the four-hour Oversight hearing wasn’t enough, U/S Kennedy went back to Foggy Bottom and gave an On-The-Record Briefing. He mentioned the RSOs who were in Benghazi that night:

And we know that David (Ubben) was so badly injured that at this very moment he still remains in serious condition at Walter Reed Hospital. And we know that Alec and Zack and Scott and Renaldo and Dave went in and out of the burning building again and again, trying to find both Chris and Sean.
[...]
Let me say a little bit about the process and how things work as well. We have security professionals in Washington – many, many, if not all of them who have many years of experience in the field. And then we have the field professionals, our Regional Security Officers. This is not a matter of rejecting requests. This is a matter of a dialogue that goes back and forth between our professionals in the field and our professionals in Washington looking for the right solution. We make sure that they do that, and they do it all the time. And one of the ways that happens, because this is a dialogue, someone says, “I need A, B, and C.” The professionals in Washington, with all the experience they have, say, “I see your point. Functionally, isn’t this what you’re asking for? What about if we send you B, C, and D instead?” We arrive at a solution. We arrived at solutions for Benghazi.

In short, as the familiar goes in Foggy Bottom, “it depends.”

The first question the press asked was about one of RSO Nordstrom’s zingers, the clip that made it to prime time news:

QUESTION: [...] I want to concentrate on something else he said towards the end, and he seemed to make a point, or was given the opportunity to make the point of saying that, “For me” – this is the quote: “For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building.” And as a career Foreign Service officer, I’m wondering what your reaction to that is, if you’ve talked to anyone else in the building about that comment, and what they think about it –

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: No. I mean –

QUESTION: — and what it says about Mr. Nordstrom, if anything.

UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: I’ve just gotten back, after being on the Hill. I am extremely, extraordinarily proud of the Diplomatic Security Service. These are individuals I’ve worked with for almost 40 years. They are the best of the best. They’re extraordinary professionals. And I was simply surprised to hear language like that used.

It looks like even the best of the best gets pissed.

And since language is always evolving, I’ll end with a new word my blog pal, Kolbi came up with as the hearing was unfolding:

Nordstrom, \nord-struhm\, verb;

1.)  To document your position so effectively and completely that, in the event of a very public Congressional hearing, if there are rear ends left flapping about in the breeze at the end of it, yours sure isn’t one of them.

Examples of Usage:

- “…So I made sure I Nordstromed the hell out of it…”

- “…And I told them that I would be Nordstroming that up one side and down the other, just so we were all clear on where I stood…”

That’s a free lesson right there, no need for FSI’s distance learning.

 

 

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When Life Imitates Art — The Man Who Would Be King

From The Man Who Would Be King (1975) based on a story by Rudyard Kipling. Daniel Dravot [Lecturing his Er-Heb recruits while Billy Fish translates:]

“Now listen to me, you benighted mockers! We’re going to teach you soldiering, The world’s noblest profession! When we’re done with you, you’ll be able to stand up and slaughter your foes like civilized men! But first, you will have to learn to march in step. And do the manual of arms without even having to think! Good soldiers don’t think, they just obey! Do you suppose that if a man thought twice, he’d give his life for Queen and Country? Not bloody likely! He wouldn’t go near the battlefield! One look at your foolish faces tells me that you’re going to be crack troops. Ohhh him there with the five-and-a-half hat size has the makings of a bloody hero!”

Slaughter your foes like civilized men … that seems instructive, even for a movie that’s from 1975 based on a book novella from 1888.

Domani Spero

 

 

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