Category Archives: Security

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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Academy of Diplomacy’s Pickering and Neumann Warns Secretary Kerry About Risk Avoidance At All Cost

– Domani Spero

 

The American Academy of Diplomacy’s chairman, Ambassador  Thomas Pickering and its president, Ambassador Ronald Neuman wrote a letter last week to Secretary Kerry urging his “support to get America’s diplomats into the field and back into contact with local societies.” The group is concerned that the demand that civilian officers operate “at or near zero risk” undermines the effectiveness of American diplomacy and America’s national security interests.

Excerpt below:

As terrorist attacks have grown, security restrictions have become more intense. This has been necessary but is now too dominant in decision making. Many of us have run critical threat posts. We have no illusions about the need to calculate and mitigate risk. But ultimately we must all judge the relative risks of any action against its benefits to the national interest. What we see happening in far too many places are decisions reflecting Washington guidance to avoid risk at all cost. This approach is spreading from critical threat posts to other less threatened posts and personnel, creating a chilling effect for our diplomats attempting to carry out their missions through travel and contacts across a wider range of security environments.

The demand that civilian officers operate at or near zero risk undermines the effectiveness of American diplomacy and, by extension, America’s national security interests. Engaging with the local population and its leaders is crucial to the knowledge essential to sound policy. Failure to do so adequately is a short-term loss for the conduct of diplomacy and a long-term loss for policy formulation. We support the view taken by senior Department officials who have acknowledged the need for accepting prudent risk in the conduct of diplomacy. However, we believe that your own leadership must be engaged to reinforce these statements and the concrete actions need to convey to the field some acceptance of measured risk taking.

The Academy urge more training on risk management not just for officers but also for Chiefs of Mission:

Foreign Service Officers accept worldwide assignment and that includes a measure of risk; that idea needs reinforcement. More tradecraft training for officers borrowing from the best the US government has to offer may be useful. Greater education in risk management certainly is needed for Chiefs of Mission who must be empowered to make critical decisions. Chiefs of Mission are already charged with securing their staffs but need much more training in how to make security judgments. More resources need to be devoted to all these areas. Security officers need to believe that their task is to enable mission performance as safely as possible but not to avoid all risk.

The group believes that “a focused conversation with Congress is required to gain acceptance for the realities of the decisions needed” and tells Secretary Kerry that it is prepared to help in a dialogue with Congress but needs a “specific direction” from the secretary of state for current practices to change.

The American Academy of Diplomacy is currently working on a major study of what is needed to improve the professionalism of American diplomacy and the capacity of Foreign Service Officers.

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Revisiting the Mustafa Akarsu Local Guard Force Support Act

– Domani Spero

 

In December last year, we urged your support for a bill in Congress intended to provide Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to a surviving spouse or child of an employee of the United States Government killed overseas in the line of duty (see Please Ask Congress to Support the Mustafa Akarsu Local Guard Force Support Act).

This Act may be cited as the “Mustafa Akarsu Local Guard Force Support Act”.

SEC. 2. SPECIAL IMMIGRANT STATUS FOR CERTAIN SURVIVING SPOUSES AND CHILDREN.

In General.–Section 101(a)(27) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(27)) is amended in subparagraph (D)– (1) by inserting “(i)” before “an immigrant who is an employee”; and (2) by inserting the following: “(ii) an immigrant who is the surviving spouse or child of an employee of the United States Government abroad killed in the line of duty, provided that the employee had performed faithful service for a total of fifteen years, or more, and that the principal officer of a Foreign Service establishment (or, in the case of the American Institute of Taiwan, the Director thereof) in his discretion, recommends the granting of special immigrant status to the spouse and children and the Secretary of State approves such recommendation and find that it is in the national interest to grant such status;”. (b) Effective Date.–This Act and the amendments made by this Act shall take effect beginning on January 31, 2013, and shall have retroactive effect.

Check out this page showing support for H.R. 1781. Warning, reading the comments posted against this bill will melt your brain and make you want to throw your shoes at somebody.

A comment from a Maine voter says it all:

Some of the ignorant comments I have seen regarding this case make me ashamed. We have an obligation to the families of these guards who make the ultimate sacrifice, and a few nice words and a flag just don’t cut it. We need to do the right thing here.

So, on June 14, 2013, this bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.  As of 12/13/2014 no related bill information has been received for H.R.1781 – the Mustafa Akarsu Local Guard Force Support Act.  The majority of the bills die in committee, and that apparently happened to this one, too.

The 114th Congress will be seated on January 3, 2015 and will run until January 3, 2017.  The GOP has taken control of both the Senate and the House. It is a worthwhile cause to urge our congressional representatives to revisit this bill again when they return in January, with great hope that it will pass this time.

We think it is important to emphasize that this bill, hopefully reintroduced in the 114th Congress, has a very narrow coverage — only for a spouse or child of a USG employee killed in the line of duty, and only if the employee has performed faithful service for at least fifteen years. It also needs the recommendation of the principal officer at post and the approval of the Secretary of State.

If Congress can allocate 50,000 permanent resident visas annually to persons from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States (see “Lottery” Diversity Visas), we can find no reason why it cannot allocate visas to the next of kin of persons who actually died while protecting United States government officials and properties.

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Contact Congress: http://www.usa.gov/Contact/US-Congress.shtml

We believe this site will also update when the 114th Congress is seated and can be used to contact congressional representatives next year: http://www.contactingthecongress.org

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Impending Release of CIA Torture Report Prompts Embassy Security Review (Again)

– Domani Spero

 

Via LAT

The most extensive review of U.S. intelligence-gathering tactics in generations is set to be made public Tuesday, reigniting a post-9/11 public debate over the use of torture to combat terrorism.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s much-anticipated report comes after a years-long review of CIA practices and subsequent wrangling with the spy agency and the White House over whether its contents should be made public and, if so, which parts should be redacted.
[…]
As Feinstein finalized plans to release part of the report, Secretary of State John F. Kerry phoned her Friday to warn of the potential consequences of releasing the report at this time. The State Department called for a review of security measures at overseas missions as a precaution against possible demonstrations, and White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that the administration has taken “prudent steps to ensure that the proper security precautions are in place” at U.S. facilities around the world.

The Guardian reported yesterday that the chairman of the House intelligence committee said the release of the Senate report examining the use of torture by the CIA a decade ago will cause violence and deaths abroad. The same report quoted the State Department spox:

Spokeswoman Marie Harf said the State Department has “directed all of our posts overseas to review their security posture in light of … a release of this report, to ensure that our personnel, our facilities and our interests are prepared for the range of reactions that might occur.”

This has been a long delayed report, although it looks like it will finally come out tomorrow.

Back in August 2014:

Also in August 2014:

Back in September 2014:

Then today:

NPR notes that the Senate Intelligence Committee voted in April to release the 480-page executive summary of the report on the CIA’s interrogation policies during the presidency of George W. Bush. The entire report is 6,000 pages long but only the executive summary is expected to be released.

There could be violent responses in many expected and unexpected places:

There’s more:

Potentially violent reactions to the report could be directed not just on official Americans overseas but also American citizens in the wrong place at the wrong time. No security message or travel warning has been posted on travel.state.gov or via OSAC as of this writing. You all be careful out there!

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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 Embassy Abu Dhabi: American Kindergarten Teacher Stabbed to Death in UAE Shopping Mall

– Domani Spero

 

On October 29, the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates issued a security message concerning potential threats against teachers at American and international schools in the Middle East:

The Embassy/Consulate wishes to notify the U.S. citizen community of a recent anonymous posting on a Jihadist website that encouraged attacks against teachers at American and other international schools in the Middle East. The Mission is unaware of any specific, credible threat against any American or other school or individual in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Nonetheless, the Mission is working with local schools identified with the United States to review their security posture. U.S. citizens residing in or visiting the UAE should remain vigilant regarding their personal security and be alert to local security developments.

On December 3, ABC News reports that an American kindergarten teacher who is the mother of twins was stabbed to death in the bathroom of an Abu Dhabi shopping mall by a robed figure dubbed the “Reem Island Ghost.”  “The injured woman was immediately rushed to Sheikh Khalifa Medical City where she succumbed to the wounds she sustained in the attack,” Abu Dhabi police said in a statement cited by ABC News.

Via Daily Mail:

An American teacher and mother of twins was stabbed to death in a shopping centre toilet in Abu Dhabi by a suspect in a Muslim veil, police said Wednesday.

It was unclear what the motive was for Monday’s attack in the upmarket Boutik Mall on Al Reem Island, which is popular with expats.

Police said the 37-year-old victim, who worked at a nursery school in Abu Dhabi, was stabbed by a person wearing a black robe, black gloves and a niqab — a Muslim veil that conceals the face except for the eyes.
[…]
Her 11-year-old twins were taken into police care until their father arrived from abroad.
[…]
The stabbing took place on the same day as a recording attributed to IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani urged Muslims to attack Westerners by any means, even if only to “spit on their faces”.

The Daily Mail report notes that an assailant also stabbed and wounded a Canadian while he shopped at a mall in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, this past weekend.

Embassy Abu Dhabi has just released the following security message:

On December 1, a U.S. citizen was killed in a public restroom at a shopping mall on Reem Island in Abu Dhabi. The U.S. Embassy is working with all the appropriate authorities to seek further information. While there is no information available at this time about the nature of this crime, we use this opportunity to remind U.S. citizens of the following standing security guidance:

It is always advisable to keep your security and situational awareness levels high.

Please follow these good personal security practices:

  • Avoid large crowds or gatherings of unknown origin or circumstances when traveling in public;
  • Know where you are going and have a plan of what to do in the event you encounter demonstrations or violence;
  • Identify safe areas (for example police stations, hospitals) in your area and how to get to them quickly;
  • Tell co-workers or neighbors where you’re going and when you intend to return;
  • Minimize your profile while in public;
  • Always carry a cell phone and make sure you have emergency numbers pre-programmed into your phone such as the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi (02-414-2200), and U.S. Consulate General in Dubai (04-309-4000). The emergency number for the Abu Dhabi Police, Fire, and Rescue is 999;
  • Be prepared to postpone or cancel activities for personal safety concerns;
  • Report concerns you may have to the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi or the U.S. Consulate General in Dubai.

 

Abu Dhabi police released the following surveillance video that shows the suspect — wearing a traditional black robe, gloves and having a covered face.  The UAE Police reportedly said an investigation is underway into “the cause of the fight and the suspect’s motive, identity and gender.”

How?

Video via YouTube/Abu Dhabi Police:

The Abu Dhabi Police also released the following statement regarding this attack. Excerpt below:

Colonel Dr. Borshid also revealed that the Community Police began taking care of the victim’s 11-year-old twins, “The Community Police will be providing the children with shelter and other needs pending the arrival of their father (the victim’s ex-husband) from abroad. The father will be received by the Community Police, who will also cater to the needs of the victim’s family,” he said.

Colonel Dr. Rashid Mohammad Borshid condemned the hideous crime and expressed his profound regret for such an objectionable phenomenon that is alien to the Emirati society and its deep-rooted traditions. “The Abu Dhabi Police will spare no effort in order to unveil this heinous crime and bring the culprit to justice,” he stressed.

The Ministry of Interior urged the public to call 8002626 to provide any information related to the circumstances and details of the case that may help the investigation efforts.

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US Embassy Yemen: How to Catch the Visa Malfeasance Pokemons? Very Quietly.

– Domani Spero

 

 

Via NY Daily News:

An employee at the embassy may have given out more than 50 sham visas to people who falsely claimed they needed to enter the U.S. to attend an oil industry conference in Texas, according to unsealed papers in Brooklyn Federal Court. The feds learned the Yemeni citizens never went to the conference. It was not clear if the fraudulent visas were connected to terrorism. The feds have uncovered a breach of security inside the U.S. Embassy in Yemen that led to bogus visas being issued, the Daily News has learned.

 

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Via U.S. Consulate Amsterdam

Via U.S. Consulate Amsterdam

If these visas were issued at the embassy, these are authentic visas, using real foils –issued under fraudulent reasons. What are the typical types of visa fraud? Below according to state.gov:

  • Presenting false documents to apply for a visa
  • Concealing facts that would disqualify one from getting a visa, like a criminal history in the alien’s home country
  • The sale, trafficking, or transfer of otherwise legitimate visas
  • Misrepresenting the reasons for requiring a visa
  • Counterfeiting, forgery, or alteration of a visa

We must also add, procurement of authentic visa by malfeasance — bribing a consular employee.  For more on visa security, read Fred Burton’s Getting Back to the Basics here.

DSS Special Agent Bert Seay’s filed a court statement at the Eastern District of New York supporting probable cause to arrest one of those 50 individuals issued visas in Yemen:

In August 2014, DSS received information from the Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General (“DHS-OIG”) that DHS-OIG had received an anonymous tip that Yemeni national employees working in the non-immigrant visa unit of the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen were helping other Yemeni nationals to fraudulently procure non—immigrant visas in exchange for money. Based on information provided by DHS-OIG, DSS identified one specific Yemeni employee at the U.S. Embassy who submitted over 50 suspicious Bl/B2 visa referrals for Yemeni citizens.

DSS identified the visa applications as suspicious because, in the applications, the Yemeni visa applicants purported to be employed by Yemeni oil companies and stated that their reason for traveling to the United States was to attend an oil industry conference called the “Offshore Technology Conference” in Houston, Texas.  However, investigation by DSS determined that, in most instances, the Yemeni oil companies listed as employers on the visa applications were fictitious and, further, that the visa applicants did not, in fact, attend the “Offshore Technology Conference” after traveling to the United States.

The DS agent statement includes a caveat that the “complaint is to set forth only those facts necessary to establish probable cause to arrest,” but does not include “all the relevant facts and circumstances.” The complaint also notes that “DSS identified one specific Yemeni employee at the U.S. Embassy who submitted over 50 suspicious Bl/B2 visa referrals for Yemeni citizens.”

The allegations involved Yemeni national employees,more than one. Suspicious cases involved over 50 visas, and law enforcement got one arrest. Alert is now broadcasted on all channels. So, how do you catch the Visa Malfeasance and Visa Fraudster Pokemons? It’s not like you can now pretend to send a local employee to FSI for training then arrest him or her upon arrival at Dulles like this or this.

Also, for non-State readers, here is what the regs say about visa referrals:

“A referral is a written request, maintained permanently, to advocate for, or otherwise assist, your contacts at post in the visa application process. Referrals are the only allowed mechanism to advocate for or assist visa applicants prior to visa adjudication.” (See 9 FAM, Appendix K, Exhibit I – pdf).

The news report actually gave us more questions than answers. Visa issuance is a specific responsibility of a Consular Officer; it cannot be issued by just any embassy official or any embassy employee. The processing and issuance process is now automated and requires specific login credentials; it’s not like anyone can just stamp a visa foil on a passport with a stamp pad.

And when did foreign national embassy employees started issuing visa referrals? Only qualified and approved individuals may make visa referrals. But here’s the thing – the regs are clear, to qualify as a visa referring officer you must:

(1) Be a U.S. citizen, direct hire, encumbering an NSDD-38 authorized position or serving in a long-term TDY role (of more than 121 days) in place of a permanently stationed direct hire who falls under Chief of Mission (COM) authority and encumbers an NSDD-38 position as defined by the Human Resources section at post;

(2) Attend a referral briefing with the consular section; and

(3) Submit a signed and dated Worldwide NIV Referral Policy Compliance Agreement to the consular section.

Not only that, the chief of section/agency head of the referring officer’s section or agency must approve each referral (and must attend the briefing and sign the compliance document in order to do so). In the absence of a section/agency head or acting head, the Principal Officer (PO) (if at a consulate), or Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM), or Ambassador must approve the referral.

So, how is it possible for a Yemeni employee in this case (who has not been identified publicly or charged), to submit 50 visa referrals is seriously perplexing.

The complaint identified one defendant as ABDULMALEK MUSLEH ABDULLAH ALZOBAIDI. He allegedly submitted a visa application dated March 8, 2014 presented to an in-person interview with “a Consular Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa,Yemen on April 14, 2014.”  In his visa application, the defendant allegedly stated, among other things, that he was a “manager” of “Jaber Oil Company.” The defendant allegedly further provided the Consular Officer with a business card for Jaber Oil Company. The defendant also allegedly stated in his visa application that the purpose of his trip to the United States was to attend the “Offshore Technology Conference” in Houston, Texas for approximately 15 days.

According to court docs, in September 2014, DSS agents received information from the Yemeni Ministry of Commerce and Information confirming that the Jaber Oil Company is not a registered or legitimate company in Yemen. That Houston conference is an annual event.

Since this individual has now been charged, he will have his day in a New York court but this brings up an even troubling scenario.

According to 2009 unclassified cable published by WikiLeaks, Yemen security conditions prevent the embassy’s Fraud Prevention Unit (FPU) from performing field investigations so post rely almost exclusively on telephone investigations to combat fraud.  So, if there’s a universe with 50 suspicious cases, how many were investigated by FPU prior to visa issuance? This would have been a pretty standard practice in a high fraud post like Yemen.

In a 2010 inspection review of US Embassy Sana’a, OIG inspectors noted (pdf) that “Because of staffing limitations, Embassy Sanaa is not doing the required annual reviews of its visa referral system. This important internal control is mandated by 9 FAM Appendix K 105(d). Not regularly reviewing referrals deprives consular management of important information on the adjudication process and potentially improper behavior.”

That report, although old, also noted at that time that nonimmigrant visa processing is “a relatively small part of the post’s consular workload, and it is managed successfully by one part-time officer.”

Embassy Sana’a has suffered from staffing and security limitations for many years. We can’t imagine that the staffing situation at post has grown any better since that 2010 report. Has it?

And this makes one wonder — if Sanaa is under “ordered departure”and has limited staff, why do we insist on processing visas there?  Embassy Sana’a did not respond to our inquiry on this case but says on its website that “requests for U.S. tourist and business visa appointments continues to grow.”  Also that “Visa services are an important Embassy function, and the robust demand for tourist and business visas reflects the strong continuing relationship between Yemen and the United States.”

The continuing relationship is so strong that no one has been arrested for the multiple attacks of the U.S. mission in Yemen.

According to AQAP, it has targeted US interests in Yemen three times in the last 60 days alone: shelling of compound on September 27, targeting Ambassador Tueller with IEDs on November 6, and the detonation of two IEDs on post’s northern gate on November 27. The attack last week reportedly resulted in embassy guard death/s; this has not been mentioned, confirmed, or denied by the State Department. This news has not made it to the front pages, so you know they will try again.

via UKFCO

via UKFCO

On a related note, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is now advising against all travel to Yemen and strongly urge British nationals to leave the country.

Is this what we should call expeditionary consular diplomacy now?

 


 

 

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U.S. Embassy Mexico Bars Personnel From Non-Essential Travel to Acapulco

– Domani Spero

 

 

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The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City recently released the following emergency message to U.S. citizens in the country:

This message is to inform U.S. citizens that protests and violent incidents continue in Guerrero state in response to the disappearance of 43 students there.  Embassy personnel have been instructed to defer non-essential travel to Acapulco, by air or land, to include the federal toll road (“cuota”) 95D to/from Mexico City and Acapulco.  Furthermore, road travel in all other parts of the state remains prohibited.  Travel by air to and from Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo is still permitted.  The Embassy cautions U.S. citizens to follow the same guidelines.

The Acapulco Consular Agency remains open.

The Mexican Constitution prohibits political activities by foreigners; such actions may result in detention and/or deportation.  Travelers should avoid political demonstrations and other activities that might be deemed political by the Mexican authorities.  Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence.  Demonstrators in Mexico may block traffic on roads, including major arteries, or take control of toll booths on highways.  U.S. citizens are urged to avoid areas of demonstrations, and to exercise caution if in the vicinity of any protests.

Read the full announcement here.

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State Dept Re-attached to the Internet, and About Those “Unrelated” Embassy Outages

– Domani Spero

 

A few hours ago, we posted this: State Dept Spox on outages at embassies: “separate”, “unconnected”, “unrelated” — wowie zowie!

It looks like the State Department was re-attached to the Internet sometime this morning. Although as of this writing, go.state.gov is still down for “temporary maintenance.”

Screen Shot 2014-11

Screen capture of http://go.state.gov, still current as of 11/19/2014

Here’s what we’ve learned about the embassy outages:

The Consular Consolidated Database is apparently unaffected, as are visa and passport services.

EXCEPT that Consular Sections were unable to accept credit card payments because those are connected to the Internet, which was unavailable from the State Department’s OpenNet.

Here’s how OpenNet is described in the FAM:

OpenNet is a physical and logical Internet Protocol (IP)-based global network that links the Department of State’s Local Area Networks (LANs) domestically and abroad. The physical aspect of the network uses DTS circuits for posts abroad, FTS-2001-provided circuits, leased lines, and dial-up public switch networks. This includes interconnected hubs, routers, bridges, switches, and cables. The logical aspect of the network uses Integrated Enterprise Management System (NMS) and TCP/IP software, and other operational network applications. OpenNet is a Sensitive But Unclassified (SBU) network, which supports e-mail and data applications.

We understand that the American Citizen Services (ACS) Units, in particular, were not able to process payments by credit cards. Since the Internet connection issue had been reportedly resolved earlier today, we hope that this has resolved itself, too.

As to visa services, those are connected to the Global Support Strategy (GSS) contract, and 99% of fees would have been collected through the GSS contractor, not at post.

EXCEPT that most GSS contractors do scheduling via their own 3rd party websites, which would not be able to be accessed from OpenNet. If visa scheduling had delays, that would be because posts had to find a non-OpenNet Internet connection to update scheduling slots, as necessary.

A note on the GSS:  The GSS contracts provide support services for nonimmigrant and immigrant visa operations at United States consulates and embassies abroad, including but not limited to public inquiry services, appointment services, fee collection services, biometric enrollment services, document delivery services and data collection services.

So when the State Department spox said that these outages were not connected and were unrelated, well –

Congratulations! You sound nice at the podium but what the heck were you talking about?

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Oops! What’s this? Updated at 1552 PST Nov 19:

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 3.44.20 PM

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State Dept Spox on outages at embassies: “separate”, “unconnected”, “unrelated” — wowie zowie!

– Domani Spero

 

We’ve blogged about the outages at overseas posts yesterday (see State Department’s “Technical Difficulties” Continue Worldwide, So What About the CCD?).  On November 17, US Embassy Albania’s internet connection was down and US Embassy London could not accept credit card payments and its online forms for visa and passport inquiries were not working. US embassies in Moscow, Madrid, Manila, Beirut, Ankara, Cameroon, Oslo and Astana tweeted that they were “experiencing technical difficulties that may result in delays in visa processing.”

Unofficial sources tell us that State Department employees are now able to send email outside the Dept but still no Internet access. The Department’s mobile access site GO (go.state.gov) and Web PASS  (Web Post Administrative Software Suite Explorer) are both still offline.

What’s WebPASS?   via WebPASS Privacy Impact Assessment (2009):

WebPASS Explorer (“WebPASS”) is a suite of business applications used by overseas posts to administer a variety of internal activities. Some but not all applications under WebPASS collect and maintain personally identifiable information (PII) about post employees, their family members, and visitors. WebPASS is web-enabled and operates within the confines of OpenNet, the Department’s sensitive but unclassified (SBU) network.

The main application is Web Post Personnel (Web.PS), which is a database of the American employees (AEs), their dependents, and Locally Employed Staff (LES). Whereas the official record for an AE employee is maintained in Washington, DC, the Web.PS database supports local personnel-related tasks. Its LES-related features support personnel actions for LES staff directly hired at the post such as intake, assignments, transfers, grade increases, and terminations.

After an AE or LES staff is established in Web.PS, some of their basic identifiers (e.g., name, employee type, office) may be pulled electronically into other WebPASS applications that support separate functions such as motor pool operations, residency in government-held real property, and distribution of pharmaceutical medications.

The most sensitive unique identifier in WebPASS is the record subject’s SSN, which is stored in Web.PS.

 

Hey, if Professor Boyd, the American ambassador’s husband in Homeland had access to WebPASS, he could have saved himself some sneaking around just to discover (and tamper) with Carrie’s medication!

In any case, on November 18, the State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke was asked about the recent reported hacking and the outages at our embassies. The official word seems to be that these outages at ten posts (maybe more, but those posts have not tweeted their technical difficulties) are separate, unconnected, unrelated or [insert preferred synonym]  to the “technical difficulties” at Main State. Simply put, you folks stop racking your brains with suspicions, these outages are simply, and purely  coincidental.

Of course, coincidences happen every day, but the more I watch these official press briefings, the less I trust coincidences.

Excerpt:

QUESTION: Hacking?

MR. RATHKE: Yes, Lara, please.

QUESTION: Everybody’s favorite topic. You had talked yesterday from the podium about how the – it’s only the unclassified email systems at the State Department that was affected by this most recent data breach that prompted the suspension of – sorry, I’ve got suspended on my mind – (laughter) – but that prompted the shutdown over the weekend. But there’s been some suggestions that some of the missions and embassies and consulates have had some problems or could have some problems with processing passports or visas.

MR. RATHKE: No.

QUESTION: No? Not at all?

MR. RATHKE: No, no. These are unconnected. I mean, we have a separate system that deals with those types of consular issues – passports, visas, and so forth. Now there may be other technical issues that have arisen in one place or another. Is there a specific –

QUESTION: Yeah. Embassy Beirut, I think, had to –

MR. RATHKE: Yeah. No, that’s unrelated to the outage that we’ve had here.

QUESTION: Well, what’s going on in Embassy Beirut, then?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t have the specifics, but it’s a separate issue. And I – from what I understand, they were able to continue doing their operations today, so it was not any major impediment.

I can give you an update, though, on the outage. I can report that our external email services from our main unclassified system are now operating normally, and for those who feel they are tethered to their Blackberries, they are once again, because the Blackberry service is working. So our unclassified external email traffic is now normal, so we’ve had some progress since yesterday’s discussion. So much of it is now operational. Much of our systems that had connectivity to the internet are now operational. We have a few more steps that’ll be taken soon to reach full restoration of our connectivity.

QUESTION: But just to clarify, no consular services, no client-based services –

MR. RATHKE: That’s a separate –

QUESTION: — have been affected by this outage?

MR. RATHKE: No, not to my knowledge. That’s – those are separate.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Do you have internet access from the unclassified system now?

MR. RATHKE: No, we are not – we do not have internet access at this stage. That will be restored soon, we expect. Sorry, yes?

QUESTION: Anything else major that you don’t have now?

MR. RATHKE: No. No, I think that’s mainly it. But it – this has not stopped us from doing our work, so –

QUESTION: The classified system never went down, correct?

MR. RATHKE: No, it was never affected at any point. So as mentioned yesterday, that hasn’t changed. It was not affected.

 

Congress remains more than interested:

 

And now the FBI is wading into the breaches:

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