Senators Perdue and Kaine Sponsor Improving Department of State Oversight Act of 2015

Posted: 12:27 am  EDT

 

Last month, Sen. Perdue, David [R-GA] and Sen. Kaine, Tim [D-VA] introduced S.1527 – Improving Department of State Oversight Act of 2015.  Read the full text of the bill here.  Here is a summary via CRS:

This bill grants competitive status for appointment to a position in the competitive service for which the employee is qualified to any employee of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) who was not terminated for cause, and who completes at least 12 months of service at any time before the termination of the SIGIR on October 5, 2013.

The Secretary of State shall certify to Congress that the Department of State has made reasonable efforts to ensure the integrity and independence of the Office of the Inspector General Information Technology systems.

Each Department entity under the Foreign Service Act of 1980 shall report within five business days to the Inspector General (IG) any allegations of:

  • program waste, fraud, or abuse;
  • criminal or serious misconduct on the part of a Department employee at the FS-1, GS-15, GM-15 level or higher;
  • criminal misconduct on the part of any Department employee; and
  • serious, noncriminal misconduct on the part of any individual who is authorized to carry a weapon, make arrests, or conduct searches (such as conduct that would constitute perjury or material dishonesty, warrant suspension as discipline for a first offense, or result in loss of law enforcement authority).

The IG may investigate such matters.

No Department entity with concurrent jurisdiction over such matters, including the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, may initiate an investigation without first reporting the allegations to the IG.

A Department entity that initiates an investigation of such a matter must fully cooperate with the IG, unless the IG authorizes an exception.

Temporary relaxation of such restrictions may occur in exigent circumstances.

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This bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations which will consider it before sending it to the Senate floor for consideration.  According to govtrack.us, there are 5,343 bills and resolutions currently before the United States Congress. Of those, only about 5% will become law. They must be enacted before the end of the 2015-2017 session (the “114th Congress”).

 

OPM Announces Temporary Suspension of the E-QIP System For Background Investigation

Posted: 12:19 am EDT

 

On June 29, OPM announced the temporary suspension of the online system used to submit background investigation forms.  The system could be offline from 4-6 weeks.  Below via opm.gov:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Office of Personnel Management today announced the temporary suspension of the E-QIP system, a web-based platform used to complete and submit background investigation forms.

Director Katherine Archuleta recently ordered a comprehensive review of the security of OPM’s IT systems. During this ongoing review, OPM and its interagency partners identified a vulnerability in the e-QIP system. As a result, OPM has temporarily taken the E-QIP system offline for security enhancements. The actions OPM has taken are not the direct result of malicious activity on this network, and there is no evidence that the vulnerability in question has been exploited. Rather, OPM is taking this step proactively, as a result of its comprehensive security assessment, to ensure the ongoing security of its network.

OPM expects e-QIP could be offline for four to six weeks while these security enhancements are implemented. OPM recognizes and regrets the impact on both users and agencies and is committed to resuming this service as soon as it is safe to do so.  In the interim, OPM remains committed to working with its interagency partners on alternative approaches to address agencies’ requirements.

“The security of OPM’s networks remains my top priority as we continue the work outlined in my IT Strategic Plan, including the continuing implementation of modern security controls,” said OPM Director Archuleta. “This proactive, temporary suspension of the e-QIP system will ensure our network is as secure as possible for the sensitive data with which OPM is entrusted.”

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Meanwhile, on June 22, AFSA sent a letter to OPM Director Katherine Archuleta with the following requests:

Screen Shot 2015-06-29

via afsa.org (click for larger view)

 

On June 25, AFSA is one of the 27 federal-postal employee coalition groups who urge President Obama to “immediately appoint a task force of leading agency, defense/intelligence, and private-sector IT experts, with a short deadline, to assist in the ongoing investigation, apply more forceful measures to protect federal personnel IT systems, and assure adequate notice to the federal workforce and the American public.”  (read letter here: AFSA Letter sent in conjunction with the Federal-Postal Coalition |June 25, 2015 | pdf)

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June Is PTSD Awareness Month — Let’s Talk Mental Health, Join Us at the Forum

Posted: 11:13 pm  EDT

Join us at the forum today at http://forums.diplopundit.net, noon – 2pm, EST

I’ve blogged about mental health in the State Department for years now (see links below). I know that a mental health issue affecting one person is not a story of just one person.  It affects parents, spouses, children, siblings, friends; it affects the home and the workplace. It is a story of families and communities. While there is extensive support in the military community, that’s not always the case when it comes to members of the Foreign Service.

I once wrote about a former Foreign Service kid and his dad with severe PTSD. A few of you took the time to write and/or send books to the ex-FS employee incarcerated in Colorado, thank you.

I’ve written about Ron CappsRachel SchnellerCandace Faber, FSOs who came forward to share their brave struggles with all of us. There was also a senior diplomat disciplined for volatile behavior who cited PTSD, I’ve also written about Michael C. Dempsey, USAID’s first war-zone related suicide, and railed about suicide prevention resources.  The 2014 Foreign Service Grievance Board 2014 annual report says that eight of the new cases filed involved a claim that a disability, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or other medical condition affected the employee performance or conduct that resulted in a separation recommendation.

With very few exceptions, people who write to this blog about mental health and PTSD do so only on background. Here are a few:

  • A State Department employee with PTSD recently told this blog that “Anyone outside of our little insular community would be appalled at the way we treat our mentally ill.”  The individual concludes with clear frustration that it “seems sometimes the only unofficially sanctioned treatment plan encouraged is to keep the commissaries well stocked with the adult beverage of your choice.” 
  • Another one whose PTSD claim from service at a PRT in Iraq languished at OWCP said, “I can assure you that OER and State Med have been nothing but obstructions… as a vet, I have been treated at VA for the past ten months, else I would have killed myself long ago.”
  • Still another one writes: “VA indicates the average time between trauma and treatment-seeking is eight years. The longer it is undiagnosed and treated, the more difficult to ameliorate. I have a formal diagnosis from VA but could not even get the name of a competent psychiatrist from DoS. The bulk of DoS PTSD claims are still a few years away (2008/2009 PLUS 8), with no competent preparation or process.”
  • A friend of a State employee wrote that her DOS friend was “deployed/assigned to a  war-torn country not too long ago for a year. Came back with PTSD and  was forced by superiors to return to very stressful/high pressure work  duties while also seeking medical attention for an undiagnosed then, but eventually diagnosed (took about 6 months) disease  triggered by environmental conditions where s/he was last posted.”
  • Another FSO said, “I actually thought State did a decent job with my PTSD. After I was subject to an attack in Kabul, the social worker at post was readily available and helpful. He indicated I could depart post immediately if I needed to (and many did after the attack). When I departed post I was screened for PTSD and referred to MED here in DC. After a few sessions here with MED, I was referred to a private psychologist who fixed things up in a few months.”
  • One FSO who suffered from PTSD assured us that “State has come a very long way since 2005″ and that it has made remarkable progress for an institution. Her concerns is that PTSD is widespread in the Department in the sense that people develop it in a wide range of posts and assignments. She cited consular officers in particular, who evacuate people from natural disasters and civil wars and deal with death cases on a regular basis, and are particularly at risk.

 

Screen Shot 2015-06-03

June is PTSD Awareness Month. We are hosting a forum at http://forums.diplopundit.net for an open discussion on PTSD.

It’s not everyday that we get a chance to ask questions from somebody with post traumatic stress disorder. On Monday, June 29, FSO Rachel Schneller will join the forum and answer readers’ questions  based on her personal experience with PTSD.  She will be at this blog’s forum from noon to 2 pm EST. She will join the forum in her personal capacity, with her own views and not as a representative of the State Department or the U.S. Government.  She’s doing this as a volunteer, and we appreciate her time and effort in obtaining official permission and  joining us to help spread PTSD awareness. Please feel free to post your questions here.

Rachel Schneller joined the Foreign Service in 2001. Following a tour in Iraq 2005-6, she was diagnosed with PTSD. Her efforts to highlight the needs of Foreign Service Officers returning from tours in war zones helped prompt a number of changes in the State Department, for which she was awarded the 2008 Rivkin Award for Constructive Dissent.

Prior to joining the U.S. Department of State, Rachel served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali from 1996-98. She earned her MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in 2001. We have previously featured Rachel in this blog here, and here.

The forum, specifically created for PTSD discussion is setup as an “open” forum at this time; readers may post questions without registration.  We’re hosting, same Privacy Policy apply.

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Below are some of our previous blog posts on mental health, PTSD, security clearance and the State Department’s programs:

What to do when different voices start delivering multiple démarches in your head?]

USAID’s First War-Zone Related Suicide – Michael C. Dempsey, Rest in Peace

State Dept’s Suicide Prevention Resources — A Topic So Secret No One Wants to Talk About It

Former Foreign Service Kid Writes About Dad With Severe PTSD  (Many thanks to readers who took the time to write and send books to Tony Gooch! We appreciate your kindness).

Ron Capps | Back From The Brink: War, Suicide, And PTSD

Rachel Schneller | PTSD: The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me

Senior Diplomat Disciplined for Volatile Behavior Cites PTSD in Grievance Case, Fails

Pick the Long or Short Form, But Take the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Screening

On the Infamous Q21, PTSD (Again) and High Threat Unaccompanied Assignments

Ambassador Crocker Arrested for Hit and Run and DUI in Spokane

Quickie | Running Amok: Mental Health in the U.S. Foreign Service

Former FSO William Anthony Gooch: No Mercy for Broken Men?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The Ticking Bomb in the Foreign Service

Clinton issues note on mental health; seeking help a sign of maturity and professionalism

EFM shouldn’t have to see three RMOs, do a PPT presentation and wait 352 days for help

Join the Petition: Revised Q21 for the Foreign Service

State Dept’s WarZone Deployment Incentives, Programs, Training and Medical Support

DMW: Mental Health Treatment Still a Security Clearance Issue at State Department

Insider Quote: Returning to the Real World

What’s State Doing with Question 21?

 

Burn Bag: Ding! Ding! Ding! This Is Your ‘More Than Just Stupid’ Warning!

Via Burn Bag:

“A director of a regional diplomatic courier office has openly expressed he does not want to hire “women of childbearing age”. He achieves this by carefully examining candidates’ resumes when hiring to fill an EFM position. BBag, can you stop this stupidity, considering it’s from an FS-1?”

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EFM – eligible family member
FS01 – the highest rank in the regular Foreign Service, last step before the Senior Foreign Service; equivalent to a full Colonel in the military

Why this is more than just stupid? SCOTUS:

The Supreme Court decides International Union, UAW v. Johnson Controls and addresses the issue of fetal hazards. In this case, the employer barred women of childbearing age from certain jobs due to potential harm that could occur to a fetus. The Court rules that the employer’s restriction against fertile women performing “dangerous jobs” constitutes sex discrimination under Title VII. The Court further rules that the employer’s fetal protection policy could be justified only if being able to bear children was a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) for the job. The fact that the job posed risk to fertile women does not justify barring all fertile women from the position.

The Supreme Court in Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp. holds that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination means that employers cannot discriminate on the basis of sex plus other factors such as having school age children. In practical terms, EEOC’s policy forbids employers from using one hiring policy for women with small children and a different policy for males with children of a similar age.

In Gibson v. West, the Supreme Court endorses EEOC’s position that it has the legal authority to require that federal agencies pay compensatory damages when EEOC has ruled during the administrative process that the federal agency has unlawfully discriminated in violation of Title VII.

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“M” Writes Update to State Department Employees Regarding OPM Breach

Posted: 1:36 pm EDT

 

It took 18 days before I got my OPM notification on the PII breach. Nothing still on the reported background investigation breach. OPM says it will notify those individuals whose BI information may have been compromised “as soon as practicable.”  That might not happen until the end of July! The hub who previously worked for State and another agency has yet to get a single notification from OPM. We have gone ahead and put a fraud alert for everyone in the family. What’s next? At the rate this is going, will we soon need fraud alerts for the pets in our household? They have names and passports, and could be targeted for kidnapping, you guys!!

And yes, I’ve watched the multiple OPM hearings now, and no, I could not generate confidence for the OPM people handling this, no matter how hard I try. Click here for the timeline of the various breaches via nextgov.com, some never disclosed to the public.

Still waiting for the White House to do a Tina Fey:

you're all fired

via giphy.com

On June 25, the Under Secretary for Management, Patrick Kennedy sent a message to State Department employees regarding the OPM breach. There’s nothing new on this latest State update that we have not seen or heard previously except the detail from the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) at http://www.ncsc.gov (pdf) on how to protect personal information from exploitation (a tad late for that, but anyways …) because Foreign Intelligence Services and/or cybercriminals could exploit the information and target you.

Wait, what did OPM say about families? “[W]e have no evidence to suggest that family members of employees were affected by the breach of personnel data.” 

Via the NCSC:

Screen Shot 2015-06-26

no kidding!

Screen Shot 2015-06-26

you don’t say!

Here is M’s message from June 25, 2015 to State employees. As far as we know, this is the first notification posted publicly online on this subject, which is  good as these incidents potentially affect not just current employees but prospective employees, former employees, retirees and family members.

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to provide you an update on the recent cyber incidents at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) which has just been received.

As we have recently shared, on June 4th, OPM announced an intrusion impacting personnel information of approximately four million current and former Federal employees. OPM is offering affected individuals credit monitoring services and identity theft insurance with CSID, a company that specializes in identity theft protection and fraud resolution. Additional information is available on the company’s website, https://www.csid.com/opm/ and by calling toll-free 844-777-2743 (international callers: call collect 512-327-0705). More information can also be found on OPM’s website: www.opm.gov.

Notifications to individuals affected by this incident began on June 8th on a rolling basis through June 19th. However, it may take several days beyond June 19 for a notification to arrive by email or mail. If you have any questions about whether you were among those affected by the incident announced on June 4, you may call the toll free number above.

On June 12th, OPM announced a separate cyber intrusion affecting systems that contain information related to background investigations of current, former, and prospective Federal Government employees from across all branches of government, as well as other individuals for whom a Federal background investigation was conducted, including contractors. This incident remains under investigation by OPM, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The investigators are working to determine the exact number and list of potentially affected individuals. We understand that many of you are concerned about this intrusion. As this is an ongoing investigation, please know that OPM is working to notify potentially affected individuals as soon as possible. The Department is working extensively with our interagency colleagues to determine the specific impact on State Department employees.

It is an important reminder that OPM discovered this incident as a result of the agency’s concerted and aggressive efforts to strengthen its cybersecurity capabilities and protect the security and integrity of the information entrusted to the agency. In addition, OPM continues to work with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and other elements of the Federal Government to enhance the security of its systems and to detect and thwart evolving and persistent cyber threats. As a result of the work by the interagency incident response team, we have confidence in the integrity of the OPM systems and continue to use them in the performance of OPM’s mission. OPM continues to process background investigations and carry out other functions on its networks.

Additionally, OMB has instructed Federal agencies to immediately take a number of steps to further protect Federal information and assets and improve the resilience of Federal networks. We are working with OMB to ensure we are enforcing the latest standards and tools to protect the security and interests of the State Department workforce.

We will continue to update you as we learn more about the cyber incidents at OPM. OPM is the definitive source for information on the recent cyber incidents. Please visit OPM’s website for regular updates on both incidents and for answers to frequently asked questions: www.opm.gov/cybersecurity. We are also interested in your feedback and questions on the incident and our communications. You can reach out to us at DG DIRECT (DGDirect@state.gov) with these comments.

State Department employees who want to learn additional information about the measures they can take to ensure the safety of their personal information can find resources at the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) at http://www.ncsc.gov. The following are also some key reminders of the seriousness of cyber threats and of the importance of vigilance in protecting our systems and data.

Steps for Monitoring Your Identity and Financial Information

  • Monitor financial account statements and immediately report any suspicious or unusual activity to financial institutions.
  • Request a free credit report at www.AnnualCreditReport.com or by calling 1-877-322-8228. Consumers are entitled by law to one free credit report per year from each of the three major credit bureaus – Equifax®, Experian®, and TransUnion® – for a total of three reports every year. Contact information for the credit bureaus can be found on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website, www.ftc.gov.
  • Review resources provided on the FTC identity theft website, www.Identitytheft.gov. The FTC maintains a variety of consumer publications providing comprehensive information on computer intrusions and identity theft.
  • You may place a fraud alert on your credit file to let creditors know to contact you before opening a new account in your name. Simply call TransUnion® at 1-800-680-7289 to place this alert. TransUnion® will then notify the other two credit bureaus on your behalf.

Read in full here.

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SCOTUS Rules Same-Sex Marriage Is a Right, See Round-Up of US Embassies on LGBT Pride Month

Posted: 9:27 am PDT

 

SCOTUS ruled today in a 5-4 decision that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. Justice Kennedy said gay and lesbian couples had a fundamental right to marry. Excerpt from the majority opinion written by Justice Kennedy (via NYT):

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” he wrote. “In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”

“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage,” Justice Kennedy said of the couples challenging state bans on same-sex marriage. “Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

The case is Obergefell v. Hodges.  Read the SCOTUS opinion here (pdf). Sending hugs to our friends in the LGBT community this beautiful and historic summer day!

Below is a round-up of U.S. embassies marking LGBT Pride Month this year:

Nicosia, Cyprus

Wellington, New Zealand


Manila , Philippines

Ankara, Turkey

Tel Aviv, Israel

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Buenos Aires, Argentina


Luxembourg

 

Tokyo, Japan 

 

London, United Kingdom

Meanwhile, in Amman, Jordan

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State Department’s Visa Systems Now Operational at 165 of 220 Posts Worldwide

Posted: 1:56 am  EDT

 

The State Department’s Consular Consolidated Database problems that affected travelers globally is is now back online at 165 of 220 visa issuance posts worldwide.  The latest update does not explain in details the cause of the glitch except to cite the hardware issue.  It also says that service was restored “using a redundant, secondary backup system and other sources.”  It does not explain what “other sources” mean but if it took at least 9 days to get that redundant, secondary back-up system to kick in, that’s not a very good system.

The Consular Affairs-issued FAQ asks how many people were affected by this outage? The answer it provides to this question is neither here nor there.  Folks, if you can’t answer your own question, please don’t include it.

According to travel.state.gov, the average visa applications processed every day worldwide is 50,000 x 9 days (June 9-19)=450,000 + 25,000 (half the average daily applications) x 4 days (June 22-25) = 100,000. Total number potentially affected 550,000.  Is that close enough?

The June 25 update says that if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 540,000 visas since the outage started. Whoa! Help us out here. What kind of refusal/approval rates are we looking at here? That 540,000 figure is a little hinky because not all applicants who apply are issued visas. If it would have issued 540,000  visas, what would have been the total number of applicants?  Note that all of them must pay the visa fees. We estimate that the USG loss from this latest glitch is between $72 to $84 million (average daily applications globally x no. of days x $160 visa fee). Is that too low?

Meanwhile, StarrFMonline.com reported that the US Embassy in Accra, has “dismissed reports that it is ripping Ghanaians off by accepting visa fees in spite of the visa issuance imbroglio that has hit US embassies across the world.” The consular section chief  had to explain that “if anybody was refused a visa, that was because of the case and has nothing to do with our technical issues.”

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On June 24, the Bureau of Consular Affairs reports that 50 posts, representing nearly 73 percent of its  nonimmigrant visa demand worldwide, are back online and issuing visas.  It also says that “posts overseas have issued more than 150,000 non-immigrant visas since June 9.” And that for context, if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 450,000 visas during the June 9-23 timeframe.

On June 25, the Bureau of Consular Affairs reports that 165 posts, representing more than 85 percent of nonimmigrant visa demand worldwide, are now online and issuing visas.  The update says that if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 540,000 visas since the outage started.

Via travel.state.gov, June 25 update:

Visa Systems Issues

  • The Bureau of Consular Affairs reports that 165 posts, representing more than 85 percent of our nonimmigrant visa demand worldwide, are now online and issuing visas. 

  • Posts overseas issued more than 82,000 visas on June 24. 

  • Posts overseas have issued more than 238,000 non-immigrant visas this week. For context, if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 540,000 visas since the outage started. 

  • We will continue to bring additional posts online until connectivity with all posts is restored. All posts worldwide are now scheduling interviews with applicants, including with those who applied after the systems problems began on June 9.

  • We deeply regret the inconvenience to travelers who are waiting for visas, as well as their families and U.S. businesses that have been affected.

  • We continue to post updates to our website, travel.state.gov.

 

Q: Reports indicate that your backlog is 700,000 visas. Is this accurate?

No. While there is a large backlog of cases to clear, it never approached that level, and we have already made good progress issuing those visas. Many posts are working overtime this week and during the upcoming weekend, and we expect to eliminate the backlog in a week or less.


Q: How old is this equipment? And does the age of the equipment and the need to have so many repairs to the hardware mean that this equipment should have been replaced? Is this a funding issue at the base of it?

The hardware that impacted the biometrics system is several years old. The Department was working to move the biometrics system off of this hardware.

The operational requirements to keep this database running for domestic and overseas passport and visa issuances caused delays in upgrading the database according to our planned maintenance schedule.

We have been working to upgrade our systems over the past year.

We will move ahead with planned migration and systems upgrades as soon as we fully restore service.

Q: How did you restore service?

We restored service using a redundant, secondary backup system and other sources. That data allowed us to begin to re-connect posts to the affected portion of the system and synchronize biometric data. This system is running on newer hardware, and has a synchronized standby system in a different Department data center.

In parallel, we are continuing to restore data from backups and overseas post databases. This process is ongoing.

Q: Do you know whether this is equipment that was acquired directly by the State Department, or was this acquired through a third-party contractor?

The equipment was acquired by the Department of State.

Q: How many people were affected by this outage?

During the past two weeks, consular sections have continued to interview travelers who applied June 8 or earlier. Those posts reconnected to our system are now issuing visas for those applicants.

Q: How are cases being prioritized?

We continue to facilitate urgent cases for those individuals who need to travel imminently, and will continue to do so until the systems are normal.

We apologize to travelers and recognize that this has caused hardship to some individuals waiting for visas as well as families and employers.

Q: What about the foreign agricultural workers (H2A visa holders?)

More than 2,500 temporary or seasonal workers have been issued new visas in Mexico since last week.

We will continue to prioritize H-2 applicants as our systems return to normal, and issue as many approved cases as possible. However, we will not be able to process these as quickly as we typically do until our systems are functioning normally. We continue to ask that any employers with urgent needs contact the post which is processing their applicants and we will do everything we can to facilitate the cases.

We are no longer asking CBP to provide Port of Entry waivers, as we have now begun issuing visas at border posts.

Visa applicants, including agricultural workers, who have not received a visa should not report to the border. Please contact the nearest embassy or consulate.

Read more here.

State/OIG Report on US Embassy Estonia Gets a “D” For Um … Dazzle?

Posted: 2:09 am  EDT

 

The Office of the Inspector General inspected the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn, Estonia from October 3–22, 2014.  It released its inspection report  on June 18, 2015.

Inspection of Embassy Tallinn, Estonia
Posted On: June 18, 2015 Report Date: June 2015
Report Number: ISP-I-15-23A
Report: application/pdf icon isp-i-15-23a.pdf

Quick look at post fro the IG report:

Missionwide staffing is 42 U.S. direct-hire employees, including 27 Department U.S. direct-hire employees. The FY 2014 missionwide budget was $8.9 million. Other agencies represented at the mission include elements of the U.S. Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security. A small number of U.S. military personnel on rotation to Estonia fall under chief of mission authority. The mission has no consulates. The mission’s FY 2015 request for foreign assistance funds totaled $3.6 million for Estonian military stabilization operations and security sector reform ($2.4 million for foreign military funding and $1.2 million for international military education and training). Embassy Tallinn’s missionwide budget for FY 2014 was approximately $8.9 million. Department staffing was 27 U.S. direct-hire employees and 85 locally employed (LE) staff members.

Excerpt from key findings:

  • The Ambassador and the deputy chief of mission provide appropriate oversight to the country team, and U.S. Department of State sections, in accordance with Section 207(a) of the Foreign Service Act of 1980. However, stronger leadership from the Ambassador and his greater adherence to Department of State rules and regulations are necessary.
  • The political/economic section is staffed adequately to carry out its policy advocacy and reporting responsibilities but needs to adjust local staff portfolios and the language requirements of its U.S. officers to maximize resources.
  • The public affairs section is central to mission efforts to carry out Integrated Country Strategy objectives, using traditional public diplomacy tools, media engagement, social media, and regional outreach to amplify policy messages.
  • The embassy’s consular warden system has not been reviewed, activated, or tested since at least 2011. Worldwide tensions increase the need for an effective warden system with the flexibility to meet multiple contingencies, including the potential interruption of electronic messaging capability.
  • The aging chancery does not meet—and cannot be retrofitted to meet—even the most basic security standards, and numerous infrastructure deficiencies need to be addressed if the embassy is to remain at its present location.
  • The telecommunications and power cabling infrastructure throughout the chancery is disorganized and largely undocumented, which limits the ability of information management staff to carry out their duties.
  • The embassy needs a comprehensive training plan for locally employed staff that reflects priority training needs.
  • Internal management controls need to be strengthened, with particular attention to separation of duties, documenting processes and standard operating procedures, clarifying backup duties, and reassessing organization structure.

Here is what Section 207(a) of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 says:

excerpt from Foreign Service Act of 1980

 

Quite impressive, yo!

The ambassador is popular with the Estonian public, helped sold Javelin missiles worth $50–$60 million, met so infrequently with senior Estonian Government officials but succeeded, nonetheless, to get Estonia to accept one Gitmo detainee. This report reminds us of those evaluation reports where the drafter attempts walking on water. Excerpts:

  • The Ambassador’s interpersonal skills have enabled him to participate effectively in public affairs and other programing in several parts of the country and have garnered him personal popularity with the Estonian public.
  • His support for the military includes advocacy for U.S. military sales. His efforts have helped secure a sale to the Estonian Government of U.S. Javelin missiles worth $50–$60 million.
  • The Ambassador, however, has not established strong relationships at the Government of Estonia’s ministerial level. In his 2 years as Chief of Mission, he has met infrequently with the Prime Minister or other ministers in the cabinet (less than 12 times during his 24 months in the embassy, in addition to initial courtesy calls or accompanying visitors and at public events). … Despite the infrequency of his meetings with senior Estonian Government officials, the Ambassador successfully led the effort to obtain the government’s acceptance of a Guantanamo detainee—an impressive achievement given the small size of the country and the government’s reluctance.

On getting the Estonians to “yes,” how did he do it? The IG report did not say, which would have been really helpful given how many Gitmo detainees we still need to place elsewhere.

On leadership, the IG report says:

The most significant findings concern the need for stronger leadership from the Ambassador and his greater adherence to ethics principles, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) guidelines, and security policies.

Buried in the report is this:

[T]he embassy staff rated the Ambassador below average in leadership categories, including vision, engagement, fairness, and ethics. Segments of the mission community, including some U.S. direct-hire and LE female employees told the OIG team that they feel undervalued. .. Some American and LE staff members gave examples of preferential treatment that the Ambassador afforded to specific employees and interns. It is imperative that the Ambassador reverse these perceptions; he indicated that he is willing to work hard to do so, and he began the process by apologizing to his staff before the inspection team’s departure.

On the EEO program, the report says, “The EEO program at Embassy Tallinn requires attention by embassy leadership.” Oy! What happened?

Non-review of visa issuances/refusals:

The DCM has not met requirements in 9 FAM 41.113 and 9 FAM 41.121 to review nonimmigrant visa issuances and refusals. The most recent regional consular officer report for Tallinn, dated January 2014, states that “[t]he DCM did not meet adjudication review standards…since the last regional officer report visit [in May 2013].” A Bureau of Consular Affairs preinspection report found that standards had also not been met between May 1 and July 30, 2014. The DCM’s review of visa adjudications at single officer embassies is especially important, as no other person provides required oversight and quality control.

Things that happen just before the OIG starts work, or leave post:

  • The Ambassador’s efforts to establish an overall strategic vision, in accordance with 3 Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) 1214, have not been successful. Few of Embassy Tallinn’s senior leaders can articulate the Ambassador’s overall strategic vision or identify the top priorities contained therein, despite an off-site planning session held just days before the start of the inspection. The Ambassador held the previous planning off site almost 2 years earlier—too long ago to enable employees to have a lasting awareness of his goals and direction. A clear shared vision—key to coordinated team work and productivity—is missing. Greater communication is needed. No structured effort exists to inform the mission employees, including LE staff members, of the outcome of the planning session, which has left a large part of the embassy team uninformed.
  • At the start of the inspection no program was in place for mentoring the mission’s two first- and second-tour (FAST) employees, and some mid-level officers stated that they would welcome mentoring on career development issues. The DCM structured a FAST program and scheduled initial mentoring sessions prior to the inspection team’s departure.

Counsel from EUR/Office of the Legal Adviser?

Elsewhere on the report, it says that “the OIG team identified instances in which the Ambassador did not appear to adhere to established Department rules and regulations. Each instance was small, but collectively they suggest his disregard for adherence to the rules.” It recommends that EUR, in coordination with the Office of the Legal Adviser, should counsel the Embassy Tallinn Ambassador concerning ways to avoid breaches of Department of State rules and regulations.


What the hey?  

[T] he Ambassador has been involved only marginally in efforts that would identify potential opportunities in Estonia for U.S. businesses, as outlined in 18 FAM 015. He agreed to increase efforts in that area, as well as not to pursue Estonian export interests that would not directly result in U.S. jobs.

The IG inspectors cited Section 207(a) of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 on its key findings but forgot Section 207 (c) of the Act?


Oh darn, we almost forgot —  whatabout curtailments?  

Read more about that in U.S. Embassy of Curtailments.


Recusals, anyone?

Embassy Tallinn’s chief of mission is Jeffrey Levine. Prior to his appointment  as ambassador to Estonia, he was the State Department’s director of Recruitment, Examination and Employment from 2010-2012 (HR/REE).

The OIG team who inspected the mission was headed by Marianne Myles who was previously Ambassador to Cape Verde (2008-2010). Prior to her appointment to Cape Verde, she, too was the director of the State Department’s Office of Recruitment, Examination and Employment (HR/REE). She was also Director of Policy Coordination for the Foreign Service’s Director General (DG/HR).

A side note here, HR/REE had three directors spanning at least  six years who went directly from HR to an ambassadorship. (Luis Arreaga, the HR/REE director from 2008-2010 was appointed Ambassador to Iceland from 2010-2013).  This is an extremely small club to belong to.

So we asked Mr. Linick’s office about its recusal policy. Wasn’t IG Linick concerned about potential conflict of interest in this instance? We also asked if there has ever been an instance when OIG inspectors who are/were FS members recused themselves when there is potential or appearance of conflict of interest?

Over the weekend, we received the OIG’s response to our inquiry.  Repeated below in its entirety:

OIG strictly follows the  independence standards established by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE).    In order to ensure each inspector is free, both in fact and appearance, from personal, external, and organizational impairments to independence, OIG has a rigorous conflict review within the Office of Inspections (ISP).

Pursuant to this policy, prior to an inspection, every member of the inspection team must review a staffing chart with every employee of the inspected entity, and report, in writing, all prior professional and personal relationships with any such individual.  ISP management  and the Office of General Counsel carefully review this information to ensure that all ISP teams’ members are independent and free from real or apparent conflicts of interest.  This process happens  early in the inspection process as ISP assigns staff to individual teams.   If any such conflicts are identified, ISP takes action to mitigate the conflict, which could include removing a team member from a team.  OIG  provides training to all inspectors on CIGIE independence standards and how to avoid conflicts of interest.

Regarding the Tallin inspection, OIG followed its standard procedure in reviewing input from Ambassador Myles regarding any relationships with employees in Embassy Tallinn and concluded her participation in the inspection was appropriate under CIGIE standards and OIG policy.

So there you go.

We must note that for years, the names of the OIG inspection team members were redacted from these publicly released OIG reports. We have railed about those redactions for various reasons. In 2013, when Steve Linick assumed charge of the OIG — the first Senate-confirmed IG since the 2007 resignation of Howard J. Krongard —  one of his first actions was to release the names of the inspectors with the publicly available reports. We have not forgotten that.

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CCD Visa Update: 22 Posts Accounting For About Half of the Global Visa Volume Now Reconnected

Posted: 1:23 am  EDT

 

On June 19, the Capital Press covering agriculture news in the western states reported that after a nine-day delay, the State Department began issuing visas again for Mexican farmworkers stranded at the U.S.-Mexican border wanting to head north for jobs. Visas were reportedly issued June 17 for a majority of some 200 people headed to Washington state to work in cherry harvest and other tree fruit work, according to Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association in Olympia. The WAFLA posted its request for waiver of the visa requirement online here (pdf).

The update on the CCD glitch late last week said that 750 seasonal workers were issued visas as well as 1500 individuals with humanitarian cases. We asked CA about this since even us found this a tad confusing.  The earlier announcement said that the hardware glitch made it impossible to issue visas at this time. We requested confirmation that the seasonal workers and humanitarian cases who were “issued visas” were actually issued visa waivers. And if that was not the case, how was it possible to issue visas to these applicants if the hardware issues had yet to be fixed?

The Bureau of Consular Affairs has posted a June 22 update on the Consular Consolidated Database problems.  The update below does not specifically answer our questions but it indicates some development.  Note that the 22 posts are not identified in the update (which appears frustrating for consular clients venting on Facebook).  Visa applications affected are those submitted  on or after June 9.  With average global applications at 50,000 a day, this latest CCD glitch potentially affected about 450,000 visa applicants worldwide from June 9 – June 19. Whoa! Is that like $72 million in the last two weeks alone?

Here are the top 10 NIV issuance posts from FY2014. So these ten posts presumably have already been reconnected. We’re missing the next 12 posts that are also back online; hopefully, all 172 posts will be back online before too long.

Top Nonimmigrant (Temporary) Visa Issuance Posts | FY2014

Top Nonimmigrant (Temporary) Visa Issuance Posts | FY2014 (click for larger view)

Update below via travel.state.gov:

Visa Systems Issues

  • The Bureau of Consular Affairs is in the process of resolving technical problems with our visa systems. Though some progress has been made, biometric data processing has not been fully restored.
  • Our team continues to work on this 24/7 to restore the systems to full functionality.
  • As of noon today, 22 posts have been reconnected, representing about half of the global nonimmigrant visa volume.
  • We will continue to bring additional posts online until connectivity with all posts is restored.
  • Last week, nearly 1,250 temporary or seasonal workers who had been issued visas in the past were issued new visas in Mexico, and we have issued more than 3,000 visas globally for urgent and humanitarian travel.
  • We deeply regret the inconvenience to travelers and recognize the hardship to those waiting for visas, and in some cases, their family members or employers in the United States.
  • We continue to post updates to our website, travel.state.gov.

Q: How long before you restore full system functionality?

  • Public and private sector experts are making progress in correcting the visa problem, and we are striving to have the system fully reconnected sometime this week.
  • As of noon today, 22 posts have been reconnected, representing about half of the global nonimmigrant visa volume. All our servers appear to be stable. There is a large backlog of cases to clear, but we have already made good progress. We will continue to bring additional posts online until connectivity with all posts is restored.
  • Overseas and domestic passports are being issued.

Q: How many travelers are affected by this outage?

  • Most posts were able to handle visa interviews and some visa printing as usual through the end of last week. This week, many posts have rescheduled visa appointments.
  • We handle an average of 50,000 applications daily worldwide. Many applicants do not have immediate travel plans, and will receive visas in time for planned trips. We are prioritizing urgent medical and other humanitarian cases.

Q: Once operational, how will cases be prioritized?

  • We are already prioritizing urgent humanitarian cases and temporary agricultural workers. Once the systems are fully operational, we will work as quickly as possible to clear the backlog of pending visa cases.
  • We apologize to travelers and recognize that this has caused hardship to some individuals waiting for visas.

Q: What about domestic passports?

  • Domestic passport operations are functioning, with some processing delays. These technical problems have affected the intake of some mailed applications and same-day service at our passport agencies; however, we continue to issue routine and expedited passports to U.S. citizens for all overseas travel needs.

Q: What about overseas passports?

  • Overseas passport applications are being processed. There have been delays in some cases, but posts overseas are able to issue emergency passports in urgent cases.

Q: What about the foreign agricultural workers (H2A visa holders?)

  • We issued nearly 1,250 H-2 visas for agricultural and temporary workers last week. These are applicants whose biometric data was captured before the systems went down.
  • Additionally over the weekend we worked with DHS/CBP to facilitate the entry of more than 250 H-2 workers to travel to their places of employment in the United States.
  • CBP has agreed to give cases processed through the U.S. Department of State due consideration. However, no visa applicant, including agricultural workers, should report to the border without first having applied for a visa and having been processed through an embassy or consulate.
  • Based on this weekend’s systems progress, we are currently rescheduling more than 1,500 H-2 visa applicants who were unable to be interviewed last week because of systems problems.

Related posts:

State Dept’s Overseas Passport and Visa Systems Hit By Glitch Again, Suspends Issuance.
State Dept’s Consular Database Problems Dash Plans, Dreams … Also Cost Up to $1M/Day in California

State Department to Get a Holodeck to Train U.S. Diplomats, Star Trek Replicator Not Included

Posted: 2:17 am  EDT

 

The Foreign Service Institute will soon have an  Immersive Virtual Environment to train our diplomats.  The solicitation calls it a “Holodeck Projection Solution” and it is an intended addition to the school’s Innovation Lab.

Really, something like this?

 

In early 2014, Wired reported that the Army Contracting Command issued a Sources Sought notice for companies interested in demonstrating “mature technologies” for military training.  The report noted that Northrop Grumman thinks its Virtual Immersive Portable Environment (VIPE) Holodeck just may be the answer.  The VIPE Holodeck 360 degree virtual training system provides users with a high-fidelity immersive environment with a variety of mission-centric applications, including simulation and training, mission rehearsal and data visualization. The VIPE Holodeck can support live, virtual and constructive simulation and training exercises including team training, cultural and language training and support for ground, air and remote platform training.

The U.S. Army required  white paper and demo from interested companies with the requirement spelled out here.

The announcement said that the Army lacked the capability to rapidly assess, adapt and replicate the complex nature of the operational environment and applicable Joint, Interagency, International, Multinational (JIIM) enablers to conduct realistic training and develop adaptive Leaders at Home Station. Associated Areas of interest for NIE 15.1 Include:

Provide an Augmented Reality (AR) capability that can be utilized by individual Soldiers or Small units (Company & below) to integrate (simulated) Joint and other combined arms enablers (e.g., indirect/FA fires, aerial delivery of supplies, CAS) during live training events, (with the ability to support multi-echelon training at Home Station when required).

It looks like, the U.S. Army was actually looking not only into the capability gaps, it also knows what that immersive virtual environment will be used for.

We can’t say the same for the State/FSI solicitation for a holodeck.

FSI will have an  Immersive Virtual Environment to train our diplomats but it does not say what kind of immersive training it will be used for. It requires vendor to “provide any necessary training” but does not identify what training content is required.  Is this for an immersive congressional hearing environment?  Language training? Death notification simulations for non-consular officers working as duty officers? Will our diplomats be doing intergalactic diplomatic negotiations on alien planets?  The solicitation does not say.  What’s next?  A follow-up solicitation for vendors to write virtual environment simulations for diplomats? A solicitation for the script for those simulations?

Here’s a clip from The Void, a company that says “you will walk into new dimensions and experience worlds without limits. From fighting intergalactic wars on alien planets, to casting spells in the darkest of dungeons, THE VOID presents the future of entertainment. Only limited by imagination, our advanced Virtual-Reality technologies allow you to see, move, and feel our digital worlds in a completely immersive and realistic way.”

Folks, please let us know when the FSI cafeteria gets a replicator.

 

Via fedbiz:

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is the Federal Government’s primary training institution for officers and support personnel of the U.S. foreign affairs community, preparing American diplomats and other professionals to advance U.S. foreign affairs interests overseas and in Washington. At the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center (NFATC), the FSI provides more than 450 courses, including some 70 foreign languages, to more than 50,000 enrollees a year from the State Department and more than 40 other government agencies and the military service branches.

The NFATC is seeking to have an Immersive Virtual Environment display capability added to its Innovation Lab classroom.

Holodeck Projection Solution

FSI has a space that has three walls arranged in a U-shape with 90° angles between each wall. Each wall is approximately 15ft long by 8ft in height. The vendor will provide a solution to project images on three walls (surfaces) in order to produce an immersive space for training.

The solution must include the following:

• A source computer capable of processing, rendering, and outputting high-end digital video and graphics.

• The source computer must have the ability to have a WiFi network connection, run on latest version of its operating system, and be capable of outputting four (4) video feeds each 1920×1080 or greater; three for the walls/surfaces and one for local monitoring.

• Video processing must…

* Accommodate to the angles in the U shape layout and adjust for the perspective change (i.e. a “wrapped” image). The system must display images from the perspective of a viewer standing in the center of the U as they look around them.

* Be able to show content independently and in a variety of combinations. (i.e. a separate image on each surface simultaneously; two images split between the three surfaces; and other combinations.)

• An audio solution for the immersive space driven from the controlling PC.

• The walls painted or finished with a suitable projection surface.

• Projectors placed so as to minimize shadows from people standing in the immersive environment.

•Projectors with a native resolution of 1920×1080 or greater and a contrast ratio of 2000 to 1 or greater.

This requirement will include all necessary projection equipment, mounts, PC, installation, cabling, wall plates, video processing and wall surface paint/material for a turnkey room.

• Vendor will document all cabling & design and present to FSI in an editable electronic & printed format when the work is completed.

• Vendor will document all equipment serial information and present to FSI in an electronic format (MS Excel or equivalent) when work is completed.

•  Vendor shall provide any necessary training.

Paging Starfleet, is this all you need for a holodeck?

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