Category Archives: Staffing the FS

Foreign Service 2013 Promotion Results — Gender, Ethnicity, Race Stats Still Behind the Great Firewall

– Domani Spero

 

The State Department’s trade publication State Magazine publishes annually the promotion results from the Foreign Service Selection Board. Here is an excerpt from the June 2014 issue:

The Bureau of Human Resources compiled the 2013 Foreign Service Selection Board results by class for generalists and specialists, placing the data into tables that show promotion numbers, promotion rates, average time in class and average time in service for each competition group. The bureau also analyzed and compared certain 2013 promotion rates and levels to the 2012 results and the five-year averages. While the Department promoted more generalists and specialists in 2013 than in 2012, the total number of employees eligible for promotion increased at a faster rate. The overall 2013 promotion rate for all eligible Foreign Service employees was 22 percent, slightly lower than the 2012 rate of 23 percent and the five-year average of 24 percent.

In June 2012, State Magazine said it published the promotion statistics by gender, ethnicity and race for the first time. We were hoping it would make the data public this year. Unfortunately, the 2013 promotion results, the statistics that offer detailed breakouts by grade level for each generalist cone and specialist skill group can only still be found behind the Great Firewall at http://intranet.hr.state.sbu/offices/rma/Pages/DiversityStats.aspx.

The State Department has an Office of Civil Rights. Apparently, it is the first cabinet-level agency to appoint a Chief Diversity Officer with oversight authority to integrate and transform diversity principles into practices in the Department’s operations. The office touts diversity as not just a worthy cause:

At the Department of State, diversity is not just a worthy cause: it is a business necessity. Diversity of experience and background helps Department employees in the work of diplomacy. The Secretary believes that diversity is extremely important in making the State Department an employer of choice.

We’re curious — if indeed, diversity is a business necessity for the agency,and we have folks who are proponents of diversity management issues there, why is the promotion composition of the Foreign Service by gender, race and ethnicity  considered “sensitive but unclassified” (SBU) and still behind the Great Firewall?  And if State Magazine won’t make this data available publicly, why isn’t this information available on the website of the  Office of Civil Rights?

State Mag is under State/HR but S/OCR — whoa! —  reports directly to Secretary Kerry’s office.  So, well, let’s go ahead and ask them why it should not be made available to the general public: Office of Civil Rights, S/OCR, Room 7428, Department of State, Washington, DC 20520, Email: socr_direct@state.gov;  Tel: (202) 647-9295 or (202) 647-9294; Fax: (202) 647-4969.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The State of Foreign Service Family Member Employment 2014 – Which Bureau Tops for Jobs?

– Domani Spero

 

Last year, we posted about the  family member employment in the Foreign Service (see The State of Foreign Service Family Member Employment 2013 — Where Are the Jobs?).  We’ve extracted the following from State/FLO’s April 2014 (pdf) numbers and put them next to last year’s numbers. The female/male numbers for overseas family members remain at 78%/22%.  Family members working inside the mission increased from 24% in 2013 to 25% in 2014.  Those working outside the mission increased from 12% to 13%.  Family members who are not working went from 64% in 2013 to 62% in 2014. A pretty slim change with over 7200 family members still not working either by choice or due to severely limited employment opportunities overseas. We should note that  the FLO data is dated November 2013,which is after the summer transfer season and April 2014, which is before the summer rotation.

Family Member Population Overseas

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fam pop 2013

Employment Status – Overseas Family Members

2014

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2013

FAM 2013

 

Family Member Employment Overseas – Inside the Mission

By Regional Bureau

2014

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2013

fam reg 2013

SCA –  where 63% of family members at post are working

The FLO employment data does not include details of full-time or part-time work or job shares, or the types of jobs inside or outside the mission. But if you want to work, the chance of getting a job is higher in the Bureau of South Central Asian Affairs (SCA) where 50% of family members are employed with the embassy and 13% are employed outside the U.S. mission. At 63%, SCA has the most number of family members working at post, however, the bureau also has the smallest number of family members located at posts. In the AF bureau, 50% of over 1500 family members at post were able to find jobs inside the mission (35%) and outside the mission (15%).

SCA_Bureau_400_1

 

WHA/EUR – where most number of positions located

Posts in the Western Hemisphere and Europe have the most number of approved positions for overseas family members.  These positions more than double the number of positions approved in each of the SCA and NEA bureaus. However, you will also note that only about 1/5 of family members in those respective bureaus (EUR-21%, WHA-22%) are able to  working inside the mission in April 2014. Last year, EUR had 19% while WHA had 23% working inside the mission.  This is not surprising since EUR and WHA have the most number of family members at post. The larger the family member population, the less jobs available to go around.

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Employment Outside the Mission

2014

Where are the jobs?

The FLO’s break down of outside the mission jobs are perhaps too broad to be useful. For instance, 30% of outside the mission jobs are in the field of education but we cannot tell if these are local teaching jobs, online teaching, or something else. There are 199 family members engaged in telework, but we can’t tell in what fields from looking at this graphic.The same goes for working in the local economy, home business and freelancing.  If this is meant to be more than a snapshot of family member employment overseas, to actually help folks plan career-wise when moving overseas, we’d suggest that this annual report be beef up with additional details.

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U.S. Relocates More Baghdad/Erbil Staff to Basrah and Amman (Jordan), Updates Aug. 8 Travel Warning

– Domani Spero

 

On June 15, 2014, the State Department went on partial “temporary relocation” of USG personnel in Embassy Baghdad to Basrah, Erbil and Amman, Jordan (see US Mission Iraq: Now on Partial “Temporary Relocation” To Basra, Erbil & Amman (Jordan)).

Today, the State Department issued an update to its August 8 Travel Warning for Iraq noting the departure of  a “limited” number of staff from our posts in Baghdad and Erbil to the Consulate General in Basrah and Amman, Jordan.

CIA map

Map via CIA.gov (click on image to see larger view)

The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Iraq.  Travel within Iraq remains dangerous given the security situation. The Embassy in Baghdad and the Consulate General in Erbil remain open and operating, but the Department of State has relocated a limited number of staff members from the Embassy in Baghdad and the Consulate General in Erbil to the Consulate General in Basrah and the Iraq Support Unit in Amman. The Embassy in Baghdad and the Consulate General in Erbil remain open and operating. This Travel Warning supersedes the Travel Warning dated August 8, 2014, to note the departure of some staff from the Consulate General in Erbil. The ability of the Embassy to respond to situations in which U.S. citizens face difficulty, including arrests, is extremely limited.

U.S. citizens in Iraq remain at high risk for kidnapping and terrorist violence.  Methods of attack have included roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs), including explosively formed penetrators (EFPs); magnetic IEDs placed on vehicles; human and vehicle-borne IEDs; mines placed on or concealed near roads; mortars and rockets; and shootings using various direct fire weapons.  These and other attacks frequently occur in public gathering places, such as cafes, markets and other public venues.

Numerous insurgent groups, including ISIL, previously known as al-Qa’ida in Iraq, remain active and terrorist activity and violence persist in many areas of the country.  ISIL and its allies control Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and have captured significant territory across central Iraq and continue to engage with Iraqi security forces in that region.  In early August, the threat to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) increased considerably with the advance of ISIL towards Kurdish areas.

Due to the potential of political protests and demonstrations to become violent, U.S. citizens in Iraq are strongly urged to avoid protests and large gatherings.

Read in full here.

Three days ago, President Obama ordered U.S. aircraft to drop humanitarian supplies to tens of thousands of Yezidi refugees fleeing the terrorists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in northern Iraq. The president also ordered U.S. combat aircraft to be ready to launch airstrikes to protect Americans in Erbil, Iraq.

On August 8, the Pentagon announced that at approximately 6:45 a.m. EDT, the U.S. military conducted a targeted airstrike against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terrorists.

Two F/A-18 aircraft dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near Erbil. ISIL was using this artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Erbil where U.S. personnel are located. The decision to strike was made by the U.S. Central Command commander under authorization granted him by the commander in chief. As the president made clear, the United States military will continue to take direct action against ISIL when they threaten our personnel and facilities. 

Pentagon releases indicate that to date, U.S. military aircraft have delivered more than 52,000 meals and more than 10,600 gallons of fresh drinking water to the displaced Yezidis seeking refuge from ISIL on the mountain.

USCG Erbil which remains open is headed by Joseph Pennington, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service who assumed his duties as Consul General in Erbil in July 2013.  Prior to his arrival in Erbil, Mr. Pennington served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Prague, Czech Republic (2010-13) and held the same position in Yerevan, Armenia (2007-10).

USCG Basrah is headed by Matthias Mitman, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service who assumed post as Consul General in Basrah in September 2013.  He previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras from 2011-2013 and as the Minister Counselor for Economic Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 2009-2011. He was the Director for Iraq at the National Security Council from 2006-2008 with responsibility for U.S. economic policy in Iraq and international engagement.  Before joining the NSC staff, Mr. Matthias was assigned to U.S. Embassy Baghdad as Senior Economic Advisor.

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U.S. Embassy Liberia Now on Ordered Departure For Family Members, New Travel Warning Issued

– Domani Spero

 

On August 7, the State Department ordered the departure of all family members not employed at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, Liberia.  The new Travel Warning issued today says that the U.S. government employees in Liberia will remain on active duty at the Embassy and additional staff are being deployed to assist the Government of Liberia in addressing the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak.  This follows the departure of  the U.S. Peace Corps from Liberia on July 30 as a result of the current outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease in the region. Yesterday, the CDC also issued a Level 3 warning urging all US residents to avoid nonessential travel to Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.  

Full State Department statement below:

At the recommendation of the U.S. Embassy in Liberia, the State Department today ordered the departure from Monrovia of all eligible family members (EFMs) not employed by post in the coming days. The Embassy recommended this step out of an abundance of caution, following the determination by the Department’s Medical Office that there is a lack of options for routine health care services at major medical facilities due to the Ebola outbreak. We are reconfiguring the Embassy staff to be more responsive to the current situation. Our entire effort is currently focused on assisting U.S. citizens in the country, the Government of Liberia, international health organizations, local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the Liberian people to deal with this unprecedented Ebola outbreak.

We remain deeply committed to supporting Liberia and regional and international efforts to strengthen the capacity of the Liberian health care infrastructure and system – specifically, their capacity to contain and control the transmission of the Ebola virus, and deliver health care. Additional staff from various government agencies including 12 disease prevention specialists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a 13-member Disaster Assistance Response Team from USAID are deploying to Liberia to assist the Liberian Government in addressing the Ebola outbreak.

A new Travel Warning for Liberia also came out today indicating that the ordered departure of USG family members will begin tomorrow, August 8. The new warning also advised travelers that some airlines have discontinued service and flights to Liberia and that air carriers chartered by medical evacuation insurance companies may not be able to provide timely services in Liberia or the region. Excerpt below:

In May 2014, a case of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) was confirmed in Liberia, marking the first case in a second wave of the EVD outbreak. Since then, EVD has continued to spread and intensify. The latest wave of the outbreak has overwhelmed Liberia’s health system and most health facilities lack sufficient staff or resources to address the continuing transmission of EVD.  Options for obtaining routine medical care are severely limited.  For more information concerning EVD, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.  Please direct inquiries regarding U.S. citizens in Liberia to EbolaEmergencyUSC@state.gov. Callers in the United States and Canada may dial the toll free number 1-888-407-4747.  Callers outside the United States and Canada may dial 1-202-501-4444.

If you arrive in Liberia and subsequently need routine or emergency medical care, you should expect limited, if any, options.  Travelers are advised that air carriers chartered by medical evacuation insurance companies may not be able to provide timely services in Liberia or the region.  Policyholders should confirm the availability of medical evacuation services prior to travel.  While commercial flights are still available from Monrovia, some airlines have discontinued service and flights may become more difficult to obtain.  If you plan to visit Liberia despite this warning, you should purchase travel insurance that includes medical evacuation, and confirm that the coverage applies to the circumstances in Liberia.

According to USAID , the deployed staff came from the Agency’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA)  and will be overseeing critical areas of the response, such as planning, operations, logistics in coordination with other federal agencies, including the U.S. Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services. Members of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are also on the DART to lead on public health and medical response activities.

USAID has already provided $2.1 million to the UN World Health Organization and UNICEF for the deployment of more than 30 technical experts and other Ebola response efforts.

Two days ago, USAID also announced an additional $5 million in assistance to help ramp up the international community’s Ebola response efforts. This new funding will support outreach campaigns via radio, text messages, and through local media as well as the expansion of Ebola outbreak programs the Agency is already supporting in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. These programs help trace people who may be infected with the disease, as well as provide health clinics and households with hygiene kits, soap, bleach, gloves, masks, and other supplies to help prevent the spread of disease.

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OIG to State: Here’s How to Save $4.3 Million Annually

– Domani Spero

 

State/OIG reviewed the remote voucher processing of the State Department early this year and concluded that the agency can save an estimated $4.3 million annually if embassies with the highest voucher processing costs processed 50 percent of their vouchers remotely. While the remote processing unit (Post Support Unit (PSU) currently charges embassies $12 per voucher, it costs significantly higher overseas. For instance, it cost $71.40 to process a voucher in Paris, $57.59 in Kuwait, and $41.77 in Conakry.  The PSU reports that it is able to keep voucher processing costs low by operating in locations with low labor costs, like Thailand, Bulgaria, South Carolina, and soon the Philippines.

The OIG report says that vouchering costs at large and medium-sized embassies totaled $32 million in FY 2013 but that only 13 percent of embassy-funded vouchers were processed remotely in 2013.  According to the inspectors, the resistance to processing vouchers remotely stems from bureaus’ and embassies’ reluctance to reduce embassy-based voucher examiner positions and associated funding.

The OIG recommends that the Under Secretary for Management “mandate that the 20 embassies with the highest potential cost savings through Post Support Unit use increase the percentage of vouchers they process remotely to 50 percent by the end of 2016 to allow for $4.3 million in savings annually.”

 

via State/OIG

via State/OIG

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Related item:

Review of Remote Voucher Processing (ISP-I-14-21)  [304 Kb]  Posted on July 30, 2014

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U.S. Embassy Burundi — Sacrificing Free Time Is Worthwhile, Rinse, Repeat

– Domani Spero

 

State/OIG has just posted its inspection report of the U.S. Embassy in Bujumbura, Burundi. Post is headed by career diplomat, Dawn Liberi who was appointed to post in 2012 and assumed office in January 2013, plus a revolving door of DCMs since late last year.

Below are the key findings:

  • The Ambassador’s vision of growing the size of the embassy is not supported by available resources.
  • Political and economic reporting lacks classified analysis, and the volume is limited.
  • The embassy does not prioritize its personnel and resources, especially in the area of public diplomacy, and its workload level is not sustainable.
  • American staff morale is low, in part a result of work pressure and travel restrictions.
  • The embassy is not reimbursed for all the costs of supporting military personnel assigned to the embassy by the regional combatant command.
  • Funding and staffing levels are adequate for embassy operations.
  • The management section provides good administrative support services.
US Embassy Burundi/FB

US Embassy Burundi/FB

 

Below are additional details extracted from the OIG report. About that New Embassy Compound Bujumbura, here is what the inspectors say:

In October 2012, the embassy occupied the new embassy compound. In addition to the Department of State (Department), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of Defense (DOD) are represented in the embassy. The mission has a total staff of 186, with 33 authorized U.S. direct-hire positions. The embassy occupies a modern compound with an electrical generating capacity equal to that of the entire national grid. The capital cost of the new embassy compound, $137 million, is 25 percent of the national government’s annual budget.

Just pause for a moment and digest that — “equal to that of the entire national grid” of Burundi.

Perhaps the more disturbing part of the report, which is not uncommon in the last few reports issued, has been the deficient leadership at the top of the mission.  This is the kind of ‘taking care of the troops’ that impairs the mission, demoralized employees, impacts the future of the Service and one more reason why we think scrutiny of chief of mission candidates should not be solely focused on political appointees.

The Ambassador as Hub of Embassy Operations?

The embassy staff respects the Ambassador for her achievements, vision, and indefatigable energy in advancing U.S. interests in Burundi but is hard pressed to keep up with expectations. The Ambassador has made herself the hub of embassy operations, with section and agency heads reporting directly to her. This hub-and-spoke organizational structure results in the Ambassador making decisions on issues such as leave requests for U.S. direct hires. She monitors coverage plans for individual absences and occasionally withholds approval, if she deems them inadequate. A revolving door of temporary DCMs, including the embassy’s third-tour political officer, assisted the Ambassador for the 3 months prior to the inspection. The presence of three short-term, acting DCMs—who lacked sufficient time on the ground to gain the Ambassador’s confidence and an understanding of embassy operations—reinforced the Ambassador’s tendency to micromanage.

Multiple interviews of staff members and responses to OIG surveys revealed staff members’ concern that the Ambassador has an occasionally harsh leadership style. This assessment was based on incidents when she scolded individuals in a group setting over performance shortcomings. As a result, staff members have told the OIG team they are less willing to show initiative or take chances, because they are concerned about failing to meet the Ambassador’s high expectations. The arrival of a permanent DCM in April 2014 represents an opportunity for the Ambassador to delegate operational authority.

But why should anyone have weekends?

Despite her self-assessment to the OIG team that the pace and volume of current work at her embassy is unsustainable, the Ambassador either has accepted or initiated many new activities over the past 6 months, such as preparing a quarterly assessment of Burundian conditions indicating a risk of political violence. Embassy staff strains to keep up with work demands; many U.S. direct hires routinely work extra hours to accommodate the Ambassador’s demands on staff to organize special events, draft speeches, and coordinate media coverage. The staff manages these demands by working weekends and staying late in the office on weekdays.

Of course, sacrificing free time is worthwhile, silly!

The Ambassador, whose position allows her to work from home while others cannot, has not succeeded in convincing her overworked staff that sustaining a high operations tempo and sacrificing free time are worthwhile. She conveys the impression that this kind of 24/7 work rhythm is normal. Personal questionnaires indicate that the embassy’s operating tempo has eroded morale and has also undermined the embassy’s ability to surge should events require. The OIG team counseled the Ambassador on the need to apply, in a disciplined fashion and within existing resources, the embassy’s ICS priorities to its operational activities. Staff morale at the embassy is below average, according to the OIG survey and interviews with personnel. This low morale is due to two sets of factors: the hardship associated with Burundi’s isolation and lack of free-time amenities, compounded by restrictions on travel. Further contributing to the situation are the country’s extreme poverty and uneven availability of ordinary consumer items, the tropical environment, and overtime work to keep up with the Ambassador’s high expectations and operations tempo. The effect is that the U.S. staff is wearing down. This is especially noticeable among the first- and second-tour officers, though as a group they continue to perform at high levels. The arrival of a new permanent DCM is an opportunity to reset the embassy’s operational pace and address morale problems.

Overexposed? Is there a press release for that?

The Ambassador is overexposed in the Burundian media. She has diluted the impact of the small public diplomacy staff with demands for outreach at every opportunity, without regard to prioritizing resources on high-yield activities more likely to receive media attention. In a 1-week period during the inspection, the embassy issued four press releases on the Ambassador’s outside events, but these received scant local media coverage. The OIG team counseled the Ambassador on ways to improve embassy media coverage.

No More Facebook and YouTube?

Burundi has a miniscule audience for digital products. Only 1.7 percent of the public has access to the Internet, and only 17 percent of that audience accesses the Internet for news. Facebook statistics show it has a penetration rate of 0.4 percent. The embassy posted two videos to YouTube, which, at the time of the inspection 9 months later, had combined total views of only 322. Because social media demands regular interaction with users, neither the staffing in the section nor the audience in Burundi can justify this activity. The public affairs officer agreed to focus staff time on the embassy Web site, which needs attention. At the time of the inspection, it featured an announcement for a recruiting effort that had ended more than a month earlier.

Recommendation 14: Embassy Bujumbura should close its Facebook and YouTube pages. (Action: Embassy Bujumbura)

 Professional development and experience gaps?

The embassy does not have a formal, structured program for the professional development of first- and second-tour (FAST) officers. Embassy Bujumbura has eight FAST officers, three of whom are specialists. FAST officers comprise half the Department’s U.S. direct-hire employees at the embassy. Every section has a FAST officer, with the exception of public affairs. Only one Department employee in the embassy has had more than three assignments overseas.
[...]
Consular Training and Backup. The officer who will replace the current consular chief in summer 2014 has no previous consular experience. To ensure an adequate level of performance and compliance with regulations, the new consular chief will need embassy-specific training and clear, detailed guidance, in addition to standard consular training in Washington, to help her fulfill the many obligations she will face as the new consular chief.

Please, more of everything here!

In the embassy’s ICS and Mission Resource Request, as well as in OIG interviews, the Ambassador has made clear her ambitions to grow the embassy from a Class 2 to a Class 3 mission.1 In her view, more personnel resources are needed for the embassy to carry out its mission. Since the 2007 OIG inspection report, the mission’s U.S. direct-hire staffing has grown by 9 positions: 3 from the Department and 6 from other agencies. LE staffing increased by 59 positions: 52 from the Department and 7 from other agencies. At the same time, the total Department operating budget increased by $1.82 million. By 2018, the embassy predicts a net increase of 23 positions: 7 U.S. direct hires, 1 eligible family member, and 15 LE staff members. In its 2013 analysis, the Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing, and Innovation predicts modest increases of only 1 U.S direct hire and 9 LE staff members. The OIG team found no evidence of the Department’s willingness to fund the embassy’s projected growth. The embassy’s rightsizing review does not reflect realistic goals and objectives. The Bureau of African Affairs did not respond to the embassy’s most recent Mission Resource Request concerning plans for embassy growth.

 

This OIG report has a classified annex.  The inspection took place in Washington, DC, between January 6 and 30, 2014, and in Bujumbura, Burundi, between February 18 and 28, 2014. Ambassador Lawrence Butler (team leader), Kenneth Hillas (deputy team leader), Paul Cantrell, Ellen Engels, James Norton, John Philibin, Lavon Sajona, Scott Thayer, Ken Moskowitz, and Timothy Wildy conducted the inspection.

-07/31/14   Inspection of Embassy Bujumbura, Burundi (ISP-I-14-20A)  [301 Kb]  Posted on July 30, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photo of the Day: Secretary Kerry in Traditional Scarf Ceremony in India

– Domani Spero

Via state.gov

Secretary Kerry Participates in Traditional Scarf Ceremony Upon Arriving in India For Strategic and Economic Dialogue U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry bows to receive a scarf during a traditional arrival ceremony at his hotel in New Delhi, India, on July 30, 2014, after he traveled for a Strategic Dialogue with Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzer. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Secretary Kerry Participates in Traditional Scarf Ceremony Upon Arriving in India For Strategic and Economic Dialogue
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry bows to receive a scarf during a traditional arrival ceremony at his hotel in New Delhi, India, on July 30, 2014, after he traveled for a Strategic Dialogue with Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzer. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Secretary Kerry is in New Delhi for the 5th U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue,and is accompanied by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. Other members of the interagency trip include Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman, Department of Homeland Security Under Secretary Francis Taylor, and NASA Associate Administrator Michael O’Brien. The State Department’s does not have a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary for its Bureau of Energy Resources. Ambassador Carlos Pascual who announced he was stepping down as special envoy and coordinator for energy affairs has been succeeded by Amos Hochstein as acting special envoy and coordinator and Mr. Hochstein is accompanying Secretary Kerry to New Delhi.

Additional details of the trip available here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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State Dept’s Critical National Security Database Crashes, Melts Global Travelers’ Patience

– Domani Spero

 

The first announcement about the troubled Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) went out on Wednesday, July 23:

The Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs is currently experiencing technical problems with our passport/visa system.  This issue is worldwide and is not specific to any particular country, citizenship document, or visa category.  We apologize to applicants who are experiencing delays or are unable to obtain a passport, Consular Report of Birth Abroad, or visa at this time. We are working urgently to correct the problem and expect our system to be fully operational again soon.

The AP reported on July 23 that unspecified glitches have resulted in performance issues since Saturday, which would be July 19.

On July 25, CA announced:” Our visa and passport processing systems are now operational, however they are working at limited capacity. We are still working to correct the problem and expect to be fully operational soon.”

A State Department official speaking on background told us the same day that this issue was not/not caused by  hackers. We were told that the CCD crashed shortly after maintenance was performed and that the root cause of the problem is not yet known.

On July 27, CA released an update:

As of July 27, the Department of State has made continued progress on restoring our system to full functionality. As we restore our ability to print visas, we are prioritizing immigrant cases, including adoptions visas. System engineers are performing maintenance to address the problems we encountered. As system performance improves, we will continue to process visas at U.S. Embassies and Consulates worldwide. We are committed to resolving the problem as soon as possible. Additional updates will be posted to travel.state.gov as more information becomes available.

On July 29, CA posted this on FB:

The Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs continues to make progress restoring our nonimmigrant visa system to full functionality. Over the weekend, the Department of State implemented system changes aimed at optimizing performance and addressing the challenges we have faced. We are now testing our system capacity to ensure stability. Processing of immigrant visas cases, including adoptions, remains a high priority. Some Embassies and Consulates may temporarily limit or reschedule nonimmigrant visa interview appointments until more system resources become available to process these new applications. We sincerely regret the inconvenience to travelers, and are committed to resolving the problem as soon as possible. Additional updates will be posted to travel.state.gov as more information becomes available.

 

The CA Bureau’s Facebook page has been inundated with comments. There were complaints that at one post the visas were printing fine and then they were not. There were complains from people waiting for visas for adopted kids, for fiancees, for family members, for family waiting at the border, for students anxious to get to their schools, people worried about time running out for diversity visas, applicants with flights already booked, and many more.  One FB commenter writes, “I feel that the problem most people have is not that the system broke, but the lack of clear, meaningful information so people can make appropriate plans.

Other than what the CA Bureau chose to tell us, we cannot pry any substantial detail from official sources.  We, however, understand from sources familiar with the system but not authorized to speak for the bureau that the CCD has been having problems for sometime but it got worse in the last couple weeks.   If you’re familiar with the highs and lows of visa operation, this will not be altogether surprising.  Whatever problems already existed in the system prior to this “glitch” could have easily been exacerbated in July, which is the middle of the peak travel season worldwide. A source working in one of our consular posts confirmed to us that the system is back running, but not at the normal level and that the backlogs are building up. Another source told us that Beijing already had a 15k NIV backlog over the weekend.  We haven’t yet heard what are the backlogs like in mega visa-issuing posts like Brazil, Mexico and India.

We understand that everyone is currently doing all they can to get the process moving, but that some cases are getting through the system, while some are not. No one seems to know why this is happening. These machine readable visas are tied to the system and there are no manual back-ups for processing these cases (more of that below).

 

So who owns CCD?

The Consular Systems and Technology (CA/CST) manages the CCD.  We have previously blogged about its troubled past:

CST is currently headed by a new Director, Greg D Ambrose who reports to the CA Bureau’s Assistant Secretary.  It looks like despite the 2011 OIG recommendation, the CST deputy position remains vacant. We should also note that the  Asst Secretary for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs retired this past April.  No replacement has been nominated to-date and Michele T. Bond has been Acting Assistant Secretary since Ms. Jacobs’ departure.

Last September, Mr. Ambrose was with FedScoopTV and talked about Consular One, the future of consular IT.

 

CST Just Got a New Data Engineering Contract

In Many 2014, ActioNet, Inc., headquartered in Vienna, Virginia,announced a 5-year task order for data engineering, supporting CST.

ActioNet, Inc. announced today the award of a five (5)-year task order entitled Data Engineering (DE) in support of Department of State (DOS). This task order will provide data engineering and database infrastructure support services necessary for planning, analysis, design, and implementation services for the Bureau of Consular Affairs.  These service also include contract and program management support to ensure that innovation, efficiency, and cost control practices are built into the program. [...] The Office of Consular Systems and Technology (CST) within the Bureau develops, deploys and maintains the unclassified and classified IT infrastructures that help execute these missions. The Bureau currently manages over 800 servers worldwide, in order to comply with the fast paced changes inherent to data processing and telecommunications, CST requires that contractor services provide for rapid provisioning of highly experienced and trained individuals with the IT (information technology) backgrounds and the security clearances required of CA’s environment of workstation-based local and wide-area network infrastructures.

Due to limited information available, we don’t know if the new Consular One and/or the new DE contract are related to ongoing issues or if there are hardware issues, given the multiple legacy systems, but we do know that CST has both an impressive and troubled history. Let’s take a look.


Records Growing by the Day

The 2010 Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) describes (pdf) the CCD as “one of the largest Oracle based data warehouses in the world that holds current and archived data from the Consular Affairs (CA) domestic and post databases around the world.”  According to the PIA, in December 2009, the CCD contained over 100 million visa cases and 75 million photographs, utilizing billions of rows of data, and has a current growth rate of approximately 35 thousand visa cases every day. The 2011 OIG report says that in 2010, the CCD contained over 137 million American and foreign case records and over 130 million photographs and is growing at approximately 40,000 visa and passport cases every day.

That was almost four years ago.


A Critical Operational and National Security Database with No Back-Up System?

According to publicly available information, the CCD’s chief functions are 1) to support data delivery to approved applications via industry-standard Web Service queries, 2) provide users with easy-to-use data entry interfaces to CCD, and 3) allow emergency recovery of post databases.  The CCD also serves as a gateway to IDENT and IAFIS fingerprint checking databases, the Department of State Facial Recognition system, and the NameCheck system. It  provides access to passport data in Travel Document Issuance System (TDIS), Passport Lookout Tracking System (PLOTS), and Passport Information Electronic Records System (PIERS).  The OIG says that the CCD serves 11,000 users in the Department and more than 19,000 users in other agencies, primarily the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and various law enforcement elements, and is accessed more than 120 million times every month.

Given that the CCD is considered “a critical operational and national security database,” there is surprisingly no redundancies or any back-up system.


Resurrect the Standard Register protectograph aka: `Burroughs visas’?

No one is actually suggesting that but when the CCD system is down, there is no manual way to issue a visa. No post can  handprint visas  because security measures prevent consular officers from printing a visa unless it is approved through the database system. Here is a quick history of the handprinted ‘Burroughs visas’ and the machine readable visas via the GPO:

November 18, 1988, mandated the development of a machine-readable travel and identity document to improve border entry and departure control using an automated data-capture system. As a result, the Department developed the Machine Readable Visa, a durable, long-lasting adhesive foil made out of Teslin.

Before MRVs, nonimmigrant visas were issued using a device called a Standard Register protectograph, otherwise known as a Burroughs certifier machine. It produced what was colloquially known as a “Burroughs visa,” an indelible ink impression mechanically stamped directly onto a page in the alien’s passport. Over time, Burroughs machines were gradually replaced by MRV technology, which is now used exclusively by all nonimmigrant visa issuing posts throughout the world.

Burroughs visas contained a space in which a consular employee was required to write the name of the alien to whom the visa was being issued. An alien’s passport might also include family members, such as a spouse, or children, who also had to be listed on the visa. In March 1983, in order to expedite the issuance of nonimmigrant visas and to improve operational efficiency, the Department authorized the use of a “bearer(s)” stamp for certain countries so that consular officers would not have to spend time writing in the applicant’s name (and those of accompanying family members). MRVs, however, must be issued individually to qualified aliens. Consequently, the “bearer”annotation has become obsolete.

The problem with the old Burroughs machine, besides the obvious, was maybe — you run out of ink, the plates are ruined/broken or you need it oiled. We could not remember those breaking down. With the MRV technology, all posts are connected to a central database, and the new machines by themselves cannot issue visas.  Which brings us to the security of that system.

 

Management Alert on Information System Security Program

The State Department PIA says that “To appropriately safeguard the information, numerous management, operational, and technical security controls are in place in accordance with the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) of 2002 and information assurance standards published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).” Must be why in November 2013, the Office of the Inspector General issued a Management Alert  for significant and recurring weaknesses found in the State Department’s Information System Security Program over the past three fiscal years (FY 2011-2013).

In 2011, State/OIG also issued a report on CA’s CST division and has, what appears to be a lengthy discussion of the CCD, but almost all of it but a paragraph had been redacted:

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 8.40.37 AM

That OIG report also includes a discussion of the Systems Development Life Cycle Process and notes that decision control gates within CST’s SDLC process are weak. It cites a couple of examples where this manifested: 1) the development of the Consular report of Birth Abroad (CRBA) system. “The ownership of development and deployment shifted throughout the process, and the business unit’s requirements were not clearly communicated to the development team. As a result, CST designed and tested the CRBA for a printer that did not match the printer model identified and procured by the business unit;” 2)  the Crisis Task Force application, for which CST was tasked to enhance its Web-facing interaction. “The deployment of this application has been challenged by the lack of project ownership and decision controls, as well as by the incomplete requirements definition. The use of incorrect scripts that were provided by the CM group has further delayed the Crisis Task Force application’s deployment.”

 

If there’s somethin’ strange in your CCD, who ya gonna call? (Glitchbusters!)

The Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) is central to all consular operations. It is run by CST where according to the OIG, “the smooth functioning of every part of the office depends on its contractors.” And because it runs such an important element of U.S. national security systems, if all CST’s contractors, all 850 of them quit, this critical consular data delivery to the State Department and other Federal agencies would screech to a a halt.

To carry out its mandate, CST must provide uninterrupted support to 233 overseas posts, 21 passport agencies, 2 passport processing centers, and other domestic facilities, for a total of 30,000 end users across 16 Federal agencies and in nearly every country. CST faces 24/7/365 service requirements, as any disruption in automated support brings operations to an immediate halt, with very serious implications for travelers and the U.S. image.
[...]
CST is led by a director and is staffed by 68 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees (62 Civil Service and 6 Foreign Service). There are 12 positions (3 Foreign Service and 9 Civil Service) currently vacant. CA recently authorized CST 19 additional FTE positions. There are also more than 850 contractors operating under nearly 30 different contracts. In FY 2010, CST’s annual operating budget was approximately $266 million.

If CCD is compromised for a lengthy period such as the last couple of weeks, what is the back up plan to keep the operation going?  Obviously, none. It’s either down or running under limited or full capacity.  No one we know remember CCD problems persist this long.  Right now, we know from a reliable source that the system is not down, and some cases and going through but — what if the CCD is completely down for two weeks … four weeks … wouldn’t international travel come to a slow stop?

What if CCD goes down indefinitely whether by hardware or software glitch or through malicious penetration by foreign hackers, what happens then?

Currently, it appears nothing can be done but for folks to be patient and wait until the fixes are in.  We know they’re working hard at it but there’s got to be a better way.   Perhaps we can also agree that this has very serious national security implications on top of disgruntled travelers and a grave impact on the U.S. image overseas.

 

 Related items:

May 2011 |  Inspection of The Bureau of Consular Affairs, Office of Consular Systems and Technology (CST) Report Number ISP-I-11-51

-11/30/13   Audit of Department of State Information Security Program (FISMA) (AUD-IT-14-03)  [3610 Kb]  Posted January 29th, 2014

-01/13/14   Management Alert on OIG Findings of Significant, Recurring Weaknesses in Dept of State Info System Security Program (MA-A-0001)  [6298 Kb]  Posted on January 16, 2014

 

 Related articles

 

 

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SFRC Clears 13 More State Dept Nominees — Will They Get Confirmation Before August Recess?

– Domani Spero

 

On July 29, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee cleared thirteen ambassadorial nominations making way for their full vote in the U.S. Senate before the August recess in Congress. These newly endorsed nominees will, of course, join over three dozen other State Department nominees who have been waiting for a full Senate vote for many months (see the names of nominees here: The Fault in Our Skies: Senator to Deploy Blanket Senate Hold Over DOS Nominees Cuz FAA). That’s a lot of people waiting for the Senate’s nod before the August recess.

In case you missed it, yesterday, Senator Cruz announced that he lifted his hold on State Department nominees following what his press release says was “an extensive briefing” with senior Federal Aviation Authority officials.  WaPo also noted today that Secretary Kerry suggested to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in late June that nominations of career Foreign Service ambassadors be confirmed “en bloc,” like military promotions. The report seems to think that there is little prospect of this happening given the couple of days remaining until Congress recesses.

Note that Ambassadors Tefft and Sison, nominated respectively for the Russian Federation  and the United Nations had their confirmation hearing today, but were quickly endorse by the SFRC for the full Senate vote.  The nominees cleared by the SFRC on July 29 are as follows:

 

  • GUATEMALA | Todd D. Robinson, of New Jersey, to be Ambassador of the United States of America to the Republic of Guatemala
  • MONACO | Jane D. Hartley, of New York, to be Ambassador of the United States of America to the French Republic and to serve concurrently as Ambassador of the United States of America to the Principality of Monaco
  • FRANCE |  Jane D. Hartley, of New York, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the French Republic.
  • IRELAND | Kevin F. O’Malley, of Missouri, to be Ambassador of the United States of America to Ireland
  • MOLDOVA | James D. Pettit, of Virginia, to be Ambassador of the United States of America to the Republic of Moldova
  • SLOVENIA | Brent Robert Hartley, of Oregon, to be Ambassador of the United States of America to the Republic of Slovenia
  • BANGLADESH | Marcia Stephens Bloom Bernicat, of New Jersey, to be Ambassador of the United States of America to the People’s Republic of Bangladesh
  • USUN | David Pressman, of New York, to be Alternate Representative of the United States of America for Special Political Affairs in the United Nations, with the rank of Ambassador; Alternate Representative of the United States of America to the Sessions of the General Assembly of the United Nations, during his tenure of service as Alternate Representative of the United States of America for Special Political Affairs in the United Nations
  • KAZAKHSTAN | George Albert Krol, of New Jersey, to be Ambassador of the United States of America to the Republic of Kazakhstan
  • TURKMENISTAN | Allan P. Mustard, of Washington, to be Ambassador of the United States of America to Turkmenistan
  • RWANDA | Erica J. Barks Ruggles, of Minnesota, to be Ambassador of the United States of America to the Republic of Rwanda
  • TURKEY | John R. Bass, of New York, to be Ambassador of the United States of America to the Republic of Turkey
  • USUN | Michele Jeanne Sison, of Maryland, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Career Minister, to be the Deputy Representative of the United States of America to the United Nations, with the rank and status of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, and the Deputy Representative of the United States of America in the Security Council of the United Nations.
  • UNGA |  Michele Jeanne Sison, of Maryland, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Career Minister, to be Representative of the United States of America to the Sessions of the General Assembly of the United Nations, during her tenure of service as Deputy Representative of the United States of America to the United Nations.
  • RUSSIAN FEDERATION | John Francis Tefft, of Virginia, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister-Counselor, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Russian Federation.

 

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Senate Confirmation by Crisis Continues: Hoza (Cameroon), Polaschik (Algeria), Andre (Mauritania),

– Domani Spero

 

The U.S. Senate appears to continue its trend of headline-triggered confirmations. Today, the Senate confirmed by voice votes the following ambassador to three African posts.

If you missed it, on July 27, WaPo reported that Nigerian Boko Haram militants kidnapped the wife of Cameroon’s vice prime minister. Premium Times citing BBC Hausa reported today that Security Forces in the Cameroun Republic have rescued the wife of the country’s Deputy Prime Minister, Amadou Ali, who was abducted on Sunday by suspected members of the extremist Boko Haram sect.  If that’s not enough bad news, VOA also reported that an outbreak of Cholera has killed 200 in Northern Cameroon and that there are fears that this may be a repeat of the 2010 epidemic, when the country had to deal with 10,000 cases.

Ambassador-Designate Hoza also made the news recently when he was featured and quoted in WaPo’s piece, At Falls Church apartments, would-be ambassadors and families live in limbo. The three other nominees cited in that article, Donald Lu (Albania), Eric Schultz (Zambia), and Amy Hyatt (Palau) are not currently scheduled for a Senate vote.

We have previously blogged about Ambassador-Designate Polaschik when she was the deputy chief of mission who ran the Embassy Libya after Ambassador Cretz left the country due to Wikileaks.  She also led the evacuation of personnel/American citizens in February 2011 and lead the team back into Tripoli when it reopened in September 2011. A few days ago, Algeria was in the news.  Its national airline Air Algerie on a flight from Burkina Faso’s capital of Ouagadougou to Algiers had crashed in Mali. Did that prompt the confirmation?

What about Mauritania, what’s going on there?  Issues of interest include al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Mali refugees. Mauritania just had its presidential election last June. The United States “looks forward to continuing to work with President-elect Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and the Government of Mauritania to promote prosperity and regional security” but that’s going to be difficult without an ambassador there.  Oops! The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is coming up next week, perhaps the U.S. Senate did note Mauritania’s Chairmanship of the African Union, and so we’ve got Ambassador-Designate Larry Andre ready to beam over to Nouakchott, so he could beam back to D.C. for the Summit next week.

Three days to go before Congress breaks for the summer!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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