A blog mistake hounds an FSO: Despite a good reputation for work, “there was the blog thing.”

Posted: 3:43 am EDT

 

There are over 500 Foreign Service blogs by State Department employees and family members. Long-time readers of this blog may remember the tigers who bite bloggers (see Foreign Service Blogging: Tigers Have Teeth, Rather Sharp … Rawr!!!).

When I wrote that Rawr piece in 2011, I wrote this:

I have not seen or heard of Tigers actually yanking anybody’s clearance due to an offending blog. I am aware of private sessions of discouragements, issues with onward assignments, and of course, threats of various colors and stripes among directed at FS bloggers.  And as far as I know, they have not technically kicked out anyone who blogs either —  unless you call the “push” to retirement a payback kick.

Well, State did yank Peter Van Buren‘s clearance afterwards, but it was for more than just a blog.  Occasionally, I get a request to cite a case where identified individuals got into real trouble due to blogging in the Foreign Service. Except for a small number of cases (PVB, ADA and MLC), I’ve refrained from writing about the blog troubles out of concern that writing about them makes it worse for the individual bloggers. In many cases, the bloggers themselves quietly remove their blogs online without official prompting. Out of the abundance of caution.

A recent FSGB case decided in January 2015 shows a charge of “Poor Judgment” against an FSO based on a post in her personal blog written in October 2008.  That’s right. The blog post was online for barely a day and was taken down in 2008. To be clear, the poor judgment charge related to the blog is just half the charges filed against this employee.  But in January 2013, State proposed a five day suspension for the FSO. Excerpt from the FSGB record of proceeding available online:

The Improper Personal Conduct charges are based on grievant’s personal relationships in the summer of 2008 with two individuals to whom she had previously issued non-immigrant visas, and the Poor Judgment charge is based on a post in her personal Internet blog in October of 2008.
[…]
During a flight to the United States during the spring of 2008, grievant unexpectedly encountered another citizen of Country X (Citizen B) for whom she had issued a visa, fell into conversation with him, and exchanged contact information. Upon her return to Country X, grievant was hospitalized in June 2008. While in the hospital, she received a call from Citizen B, who said he would ask his family members to visit her. They did so. Soon after Citizen B returned to Country X, grievant invited him to lunch. Thereafter, the two conducted an intimate relationship for about three weeks.

Later, Citizen A contacted grievant requesting her assistance in issuing a visa to his new wife. Grievant told him she could not be involved in his wife’s visa application process because she knew him. Consequently, another Consular Officer adjudicated and issued the visa for Citizen A’s new wife. Shortly thereafter, grievant posted on her personal blog (using Citizen A’s initials) a comment saying, in effect, that sharing a bottle of wine with someone could be disastrous, especially when that person shows up at your workplace seeking a visa for his new bride. Within a day of this blog posting, grievant was warned by a colleague to take it down, and grievant did so.
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In a letter issued on January 31, 2013, the Department of State proposed to suspend grievant for five workdays, based on three charges that arose from conduct occurring in 2008. Ultimately, the suspension was reduced to three workdays. Grievant’s appeal raised issues of timeliness as well as challenges to the substance of the charges. Grievant is a class FS- 04 Consular Officer who was serving abroad in 2008. In May 2009, a co-worker at her Embassy complained to the RSO that grievant had become too close to some visa applicants and their attorneys and was maintaining improper personal relationships with them. The Office of the RSO investigated the allegations and eventually referred the matter to the Consular Integrity Division (CID). In its report of October 2009, CID found no wrongdoing and returned the matter to post. Nonetheless, the RSO referred the complaint of the co-worker to DS for investigation, but did not do so until January 2011. DS, for no articulated reason, did not assign the case to a field agent until September 28, 2011. DS then did not complete its investigation and forward the matter to HR until late October or early November 2012.

The Board concluded that there was no fact-based excuse for the delay at the RSO level and that there was no evidence of necessity for the length of time engulfed in the DS investigation. The Board found that the grievant had been harmed by the overall delay, caused by two different bureaucracies in the Department. The Board identified the harm as the statistically diminished promotability of this particular officer, given her combination of time-in-service and time-in- class.

The FSGB explains in the footnotes that 1) “She [grievant] was unmarried and remained unmarried through at least the date of her suspension. We mention her marital status only because in other disciplinary cases, an officer’s married status has been deemed a risk for coercion if someone knowing of the sexual misconduct threatened to reveal it to the officer’s spouse. Here, however, it does not appear that the grievant’s marital status was relevant to the selection of penalty or the choice of the charges. Noting grievant’s marital status may obviate confusion, if anyone examining other grievances or appeals should consider this case for comparison purposes.” 2) “Because of sensitivity surrounding the country in which grievant served her first tour, both parties refer to it as “Country X…”

In its decision last January, the FSGB held (pdf) that “grievant had shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the Department’s delay of over three years in proposing grievant’s suspension was unexcused and unreasonable and that grievant’s promotional opportunities had been harmed as a result of the delay. Grievant is entitled to reversal of the three-day suspension for charges of Improper Personal Conduct and Poor Judgment, as well as removal of the suspension letter from her OPF. Grievant is entitled to promotion to the FS-03 level, as recommended by the 2013 Selection Boards, retroactive to 2013.”

While this case was resolved on the FSO’s favor, I’m taking note of this case here for several reasons:

1) According to the redacted report published online, the misconduct was reported to the agency by one of grievant’s co-workers on May 20, 2009.  An embassy is a fishbowl.  Anyone at post familiar with one’s activities, in real life or online can file an allegation. If you write a blog specific to your post, people at post inevitably will connect you to it. A single blogpost, even if taken down, can reach back and bite. Across many years.  State’s position is that grievant’s argument that the Department had no regulations or guidelines about personal blogs in 2008 “does not make her posting any less wrong.” Interestingly, that official line doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to the former secretary of state’s use of private email.

2)  Even if an allegation is dismissed by the Consular Integrity Division (CID), it does not mean the end of it, as this case clearly shows.  After the case was dismissed by CID, the case was forwarded to Diplomatic Security for another investigation.  “Counting from the date on which the behavior was reported (as specific misconduct) to the agency to the date of proposal of the five-day suspension, the period of delay in dispute is three (3) years and eight months.” While I can understand what might have prompted the initial complaint, I’m curious about the second referral.  I’d be interested to see comparable cases to this. I’m wondering if this case would have been referred to a second investigation if she were a male officer? Absolutely, yes, no? But why a duplicate investigation?

3) When grievant departed Country X for a new post,  her continued blogging activity prompted other Consular (CID) investigations.  Since there are no public records of these incidents until the cases end up in the FSGB, it is impossible to tell how many FS employees have been referred to CID or DS for their blogging activities. Or for that matter, what kind of topics got them in trouble.  I am aware of cases where FS bloggers had difficulties with onward assignment, but those were never officially tied to their blogging activities; that is, there were no paper trail pointing directly at their blogs.  This is the first case where we’re seeing on paper what happens:

Grievant states in the ROP that “while in [REDACTED] she did not receive any of the initial positions she bid on. Eventually, she was told that even though she had a good reputation for her work, “there was the blog thing.” Also, she recalls that a “handshake” offer of a Consular Chief position in [REDACTED] was rescinded. She attributes this to an unnamed official’s claim that “Embassy decided they did not want me after CID told them about my history (presumably the blog, and my time in Country X).”

4) Beyond the consequences of not getting onward assignments, here’s the larger impact:  “In 2015, the first year her file would be reviewed without any discipline letter, grievant would have been in the Foreign Service for nine years and in class FS-04 for seven years. In point of fact, these lengths of time in service and time in class fall far above the average promotion times for officers moving from grade FS-04 to FS-03.[…]  We conclude, under the totality of circumstances, that the untimely suspension prejudiced her chances for promotion to FS-03 in the years 2015-2018.”

5) Beyond the blog thing — the FSO in this grievance case was an untenured officer serving her first tour at a “sensitive” country the FSGB would only refer to as Country X. When the FSO argue that she was never counseled at post regarding these relationships (other half of charges is for Improper Personal Conduct), the State Department contends that “any lack of counseling “does not erase the perception of impropriety [grievant’s] actions could create if made public, nor does it serve as an implicit concession that [grievant’s] actions were somehow appropriate.”   \

Well, okay, but ….. 3 FAM 4100 is the rules for the road when it comes to  employee responsibility and conduct. Which part of the current A100 or leadership and management classes are these FAM sections incorporated?  While I can understand the  department’s contention above, it also does not absolve the agency from its responsibility to provide appropriate counsel and training, most especially for entry level officers. Or is this a gap in the training of new employees?  When a new, inexperienced officer is first posted overseas, who can he/she ask about delicate issues like this? Is there a Dear Abby newbies can write to or call for counsel at the State Department without the question trailing the employee down every corridor?

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Snapshot: Foreign Service Regional Medical Officers/Psychiatrists

Posted: 2:06 am EDT

According to a job announcement posted earlier this year, there are Foreign Service Regional Medical Officers/Psychiatrists assigned at the following locations:

  • Accra
  • Amman
  • Athens
  • Bangkok
  • Beijing
  • Bogota
  • Cairo
  • Dakar
  • Frankfurt
  • Jakarta
  • Lima
  • London
  • Manama
  • Mexico City
  • Moscow
  • Nairobi
  • New Delhi
  • Pretoria
  • Tokyo
  • Vienna
  • District of Columbia

RMO/Ps also serve on temporary duty in high threat locations (e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and Yemen etc.) and in post-disaster environments (e.g., post-earthquake Haiti, etc).  The U.S. embassies in Libya and Yemen are currently on suspended operations, and temporarily located in Tunisia and Saudi Arabia respectively.

The latest available data on FS skills group published via afsa.org in 2013 indicates that the State Department has 24 psychiatrists and 4 mental health specialists. There are 275 overseas posts. As of 2014, there are 13,801 employees (FSOs – 8,042; Specialist – 5,759) and 11,701 adult family members overseas according to an April 2015 FLO data; a total FS population overseas of 25,202.  If we include the Civil Service employees and the locally employed staff, the State Department has a total workforce of 71,782. Let’s try and do the math.

— That’s one psychiatrist/mental health specialist for every 492 Foreign Service employees.

— Or one psychiatrist/mental health specialist for every 900 FS employees and family members.

— Or one psychiatrist/mental health specialist covering at least nine diplomatic/consular posts overseas.

— Or one psychiatrist/mental health specialist for every 2,562 State Department employees domestic and overseas.

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US Embassy El Salvador Warns of Increased Frequency and Intensity of Security Incidents

Posted: 1:45 am EDT

The 2015 Crime and Safety Report from the Regional Security Office released in May this year, notes that crime in El Salvador can run the gamut from credit card skimming to homicide and is unpredictable, gang-centric, and characterized by violence directed against both known victims and targets of opportunity. The effect and threat of violent crime in the capital city of San Salvador, including the neighborhoods in which many U.S. citizens live and work, leads to greater isolation and the curtailment of recreational opportunities. Crimes of every type routinely occur. U.S. citizens are advised to avoid travel into the downtown area of San Salvador “unless absolutely necessary” and travel outside the cities and to Guatemala or Honduras should only be done during daylight hours and with multiple vehicle convoys for safety. Excerpt:

The threat from transnational criminal organizations is prevalent throughout Central America. There is some evidence that the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas may have infiltrated El Salvador, although only in extremely low numbers. El Salvador has hundreds of gang “cliques,” with more than 20,000 members. Violent, well-armed, U.S.-style street gang growth continues, with the 18th Street (Barrio 18) and MS-13 (“Mara Salvatrucha”) gangs being the largest. Gangs concentrate on narcotics and arms trafficking, murder for hire, carjacking, extortion, and violent street crime. The gangs have collaborated with Mexican drug cartels to carry out murders and have sold the cartels weapons and explosives left over from the war and/or from the military. Recognizing the threat posed by MS-13, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated the MS-13 a Transnational Criminal Organization (TCO) in their list of Specially Designated Nationals. Gangs and other criminal elements roam freely, targeting affluent areas for burglaries, and gang members are quick to engage in violence when resisted. Many of the gangs are comprised of unemployed youth who do not hesitate to use deadly force when perpetrating crimes.

A contributing factor to crime is the presence of impoverished shanty communities in the midst of high-income residential and higher-end commercial areas in the capital. There are few if any areas immune from violent crime. However, the presence of armed security and the use of security features at homes have proven to be successful in combating home invasions. In 2014, armed robberies continued to be the greatest security threat facing diplomats, tourists, and business persons. Home invasions/burglaries during daylight continue to be prevalent in residential neighborhoods in San Salvador. Some home invasions occur when individuals posing as delivery men or police officers gain access to a home.

Extortion persists as a very common, effective criminal enterprise. Hitting a peak in 2009, the number of extortions has dropped from 4,528 reported cases of extortion in 2006 to 2,480 reported cases in 2014. Many of the extortion calls originate from prisons.

There were 2,480 car thefts and 1,331 carjackings reported in 2014. Not tracked however, are the significant numbers of smash-and-grab-type of auto burglaries pervasive throughout the urban areas of El Salvador.

El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and the Department of State updated the Travel Warning for El Salvador in November 2014 to notify U.S. citizens about travel safety concerns and challenges. Police statistics show an increase in annual homicides during 2014, attributed primarily to the cessation of a controversial 2012 truce between local gangs. Crime statistics showed that the 2014 annual homicide rate — 68.6 per 100,000 inhabitants — was significantly higher than the previous year’s 43.7 per 100,000 rate. In 2014, authorities recorded 3,912 homicides, a 55.7 percent increase from the 2,513 in 2013.

Rape remains a serious concern; in 2013 and 2014, an average of 376 rapes per year were reported. Services for victims of rape are very limited, and many victims choose not to participate in the investigation and prosecution of the crime for fear of not being treated respectfully by the authorities. Many murder victims show signs of rape, and survivors of rape may not report the crime for fear of retaliation.

El Salvador is not a danger post for allowances purposes. It is a 15% COLA and 15% hardship differential  post according to the latest bi-weekly update from state.gov.

The Crime and Safety Report is an annual product of the Regional Security Office (RSO) of every U.S. embassy. Read the full report here.

elsalvador_map_2010worldfactbook_300_1

Image from CIA World Factbook 2010

 

On July 29, the US Embassy in El Salvador issued a security message to American citizens residing in El Salvador on the increased risk of crime and violence in the country:

In recent weeks, there has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of security incidents in El Salvador, including multiple attacks on transportation workers and security forces.  The U.S. Embassy is aware that criminal elements in El Salvador have threatened to escalate the level of violence by attacking hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and other public venues.  The grenade attack at a major hotel on July 25 demonstrates both a will and a capability to carry out such plans.

The Embassy is not aware of any threat specifically directed against U.S. citizens in El Salvador.  However, the violence of recent weeks, coupled with this new information, demonstrates the need for sustained caution and high security awareness at all times. Review your personal security plans, avoid outdoor seating (as at restaurants and bars), and monitor local news stations for updates.  Take appropriate steps to enhance your personal security. Please see the below excerpt from the Travel Warning for El Salvador:

U.S. citizens should remain alert to their surroundings, especially when entering or exiting their homes or hotels, cars, garages, schools, and workplaces.  Whenever possible, travel in groups.  U.S. Embassy security officials advise all U.S. government personnel not to walk, run, or cycle in unguarded streets and parks, even in groups, and recommend exercising only in gyms and fitness centers.  Avoid wearing expensive jewelry, and do not carry large sums of money or display cash, ATM/credit cards, or other valuables.  Avoid walking at night in most areas of El Salvador. Incidents of crime along roads, including carjacking, are common in El Salvador.  Motorists should avoid traveling at night and always drive with their doors locked to deter potential robberies at traffic lights and on congested downtown streets.  Travel on public transportation, especially buses, both within and outside the capital, is risky and not recommended.  The Embassy advises official visitors and personnel to avoid using mini-buses and regular buses and to use only radio-dispatched taxis or those stationed in front of major hotels.

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SFRC Clears 11 Ambassador Nominees and 1 Foreign Service List (181 Names)

Posted: 1:54 am EDT

 

On July 29th, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) cleared 11 ambassador nominees for  the State Department,  and two nominees for USAID, including Gayle Smith, nominated as Rajiv Shah’s successor as USAID administrator.  It also cleared 1 Foreign Service list with 181 names.

Sheila Gwaltney, of California, 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 Kyrgyz Republic.

Perry L. Holloway, of South Carolina, 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 Co-operative Republic of Guyana.

Kathleen Ann Doherty, of New York, 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 Republic of Cyprus.

Hans G. Klemm, of Michigan, 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 Romania.

James Desmond Melville, Jr., of New Jersey, 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 Republic of Estonia.

Peter F. Mulrean, of Massachusetts, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Counselor, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Haiti.

Laura Farnsworth Dogu, of Texas, 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 Republic of Nicaragua.

Samuel D. Heins, of Minnesota, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Kingdom of Norway.

Paul Wayne Jones, of Maryland, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Career Minister, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Poland.

Michele Thoren Bond, of the District of Columbia, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister-Counselor, to be an Assistant Secretary of State (Consular Affairs), vice Janice L. Jacobs, resigned.

UNITED NATIONS

Sarah Elizabeth Mendelson, of the District of Columbia, to be Representative of the United States of America on the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, with the rank of Ambassador.

Sarah Elizabeth Mendelson, of the District of Columbia, to be an Alternate Representative of the United States of America to the Sessions of the General Assembly of the United Nations, during her tenure of service as Representative of the United States of America on the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

UNITED STATES AGENCY FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT

Gayle Smith, of Ohio, to be Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, vice Rajiv J. Shah, resigned.

Thomas O. Melia, of Maryland, to be an Assistant Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, vice Paige Eve Alexander, resigned.

PN573 – 1 FOREIGN SERVICE nominations (181) beginning Maura Barry Boyle, and ending Anthony Wolak, which nominations were received by the Senate and appeared in the Congressional Record of June 10, 2015.

The above ambassador nominees will join nine (9) other nominees previously cleared by the SFRC who are currently waiting for a vote in the full Senate. If these ambassador nominees are not confirmed before the Senate takes its August recess next week, they will be stuck in D.C. until after the Senate returns in early September.

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Daniel Rosen, State Dept Official Pleads Guilty to Stalking and Voyeurism Charges

Posted: 1:31 am EDT

 

In February 2015, we wrote about the arrest of a State/CT employee for alleged solicitation of a minor (see  State Dept’s Counterterrorism Official Arrested For Allegedly Soliciting Minor Online.

On March 16, WaPo reported that the same employee was arrested in the District and charged with taking videos of women through the windows of their homes.  According to the same report, Daniel Rosen’s security clearance had been revoked.  Before it was taken down, he indicated on his LinkedIn profile that he was the Director of Counterterrorism Plans, Programs and Policy at the State Department for over six years. As of February 25, the State Department telephone directly lists the Bureau of Counterterrorism’s Director for the Office of Programs and Policy located at 2509 as “vacant.”

On July 29, WUSA has the following update:

Daniel Rosen, 45, pleaded guilty to 11 charges of stalking and voyeurism on Wednesday in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia for incidents that happened between 2012 and 2014. According to law enforcement, he used his cell phone to record women in various stages of undress by aiming his cellular phone through their apartment windows in the areas of Mount Pleasant, the U Street Corridor, and Adams Morgan in Northwest D.C.
[…]
His attorney Bernard Grimm says Rosen is undergoing therapy and showed police the locations after they discovered the videos.

“Beyond shame, talk about a fall from grace here’s a guy who used to work at the State Department has a master’s degree and his life just spiraled out of control,” he said.

Rosen faces up to 11 years or a $11,000 fine when he is sentenced on October 9. Each of the counts of voyeurism and stalking carries a maximum penalty of one year and potential fines. He will be released and under home confinement, which will be very restricted, until his sentencing date.

WaPo citing an assistant U.S. attorney reports that Rosen’s filming stretched over a nearly three-year period, from early 2012 to late 2014, and that “he returned to some women’s homes as many as five times to film videos that, in some cases, lasted minutes.”

His case on soliciting a minor,  a separate charge,  continues in September.
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State Dept Appoints Senior Diplomat Michael Ratney as New U.S. Special Envoy for Syria

Posted: 12:58  am EDT

 

On July 27, Secretary Kerry announced the appointment of career diplomat Michael Ratney as the new U.S. Special Envoy for Syria.

I am pleased to announce the appointment of Michael Ratney as the new U.S. Special Envoy for Syria. I have come to know Michael well in his most recent role as U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem, and am impressed by his keen intellect, deep knowledge of the region, and policy judgment.

Michael is a Senior Foreign Service officer who is fluent in Arabic and whose distinguished career has spanned Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, and beyond. I am confident he will continue the important work led by his predecessor, Daniel Rubinstein, to shape our response to the complex and devastating conflict in Syria.

Michael’s leadership and counsel will be critical as we confront the significant challenges posed by more than four years of suffering, bloodshed, and destruction in Syria. We remain committed to reaching a negotiated political transition away from Bashar al-Assad, working to counter the shared threat of terrorism, supporting the moderate opposition, and addressing the humanitarian disaster and its impact on Syria’s neighbors.

Special Envoy Ratney will soon travel to the region to begin consultations with Syrians and other stakeholders seeking an end to the violence and a future of freedom and dignity for all Syrian people.

Mr. Ratney was the Consul General in Jerusalem from July 2012 until this appointment. Below is a quick bio:

Prior to assuming his duties in Jerusalem, Mr. Ratney was Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Media, leading efforts in the Bureau of Public Affairs focused on foreign communications and media engagement. From 2010 to 2011, he established and served as the first Director of the Office of International Media Engagement, where he managed State Department initiatives to ensure accurate and positive coverage of U.S. policy by foreign media. In this capacity, Mr. Ratney oversaw the State Department’s six Media Hubs in London, Brussels, Dubai, Johannesburg, Tokyo, and Miami.

From 2009 to 2010, Mr. Ratney served as Spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

Prior to returning to Washington in 2009, Mr. Ratney served from 2006 to 2009 as Deputy Chief of Mission at the American Embassy in Doha, Qatar. Mr. Ratney was the Deputy Economic Counselor at the American Embassy in Mexico City from 2003 to 2006. In 2004, he served in Iraq, first as a Political Advisor for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, and then as the first Regional Coordinator at the Regional Embassy Office in Basrah.

Mr. Ratney has a B.S. in Mass Communication from Boston University and an M.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University. His languages are Arabic, French, and Spanish.

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State Dept to Release 5,000 Pages to Benghazi Panel, No Hearing With Kerry Top Aide For Now

Posted: 12:40  am EDT

 

On July 22, The Hill reported that the Gowdy committee investigating the 2012 Benghazi attacks announced it has called on one of Secretary of State John Kerry’s top aides to appear this week. The panel apparently wanted Jon Finer, Kerry’s chief of staff, to appear on July 29th to discuss the State Department’s compliance with the panel’s investigation.

Late on July 27, The Hill reported that the State Department has agreed to release 5,000 pages of documents to the House Select Committee on Benghazi tomorrow, July 28. This document release temporarily cancels Mr. Finer’s appearance before the panel but chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) has not ruled out any future appearance.

The new document dump comes after a standoff between the State Department and the House panel, which had previously ordered a top aide to Secretary of State John Kerry to testify on Wednesday.

After the department committed to releasing the 5,000 new pages to the committee, the hearing with that aide — Kerry’s chief of staff, Jon Finer — will be postponed until after Kerry has completed a marathon string of briefings and hearings to sell the international nuclear deal with Iran.
[…]
“If the State Department does not fulfill this production, or if production continues to be anemic and underwhelming, we will move forward with scheduling a compliance hearing before the committee,” he added.

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What if Congress grants the State Dept the Suspension Without Pay (SWOP) hammer?

Posted: 1:44  pm EDT

 

According to the Foreign Affairs Manual, the Act of August 26, 1950 (64 Stat. 476), codified at 5 U.S.C. 7532, “confers upon the Secretary of State the authority, in the Secretary’s absolute discretion, to suspend without pay any civilian officer or employee of the Department (including the Foreign Service of the United States) when deemed necessary in the interest of the national security (see 12 FAM 235.2).”

So when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Fiscal Year 2016 Department of State Operations Authorization and Embassy Security Act which contains a similar language on security clearance suspension without work and no pay for Foreign Service employees, we were wondering what’s up with that (see S.1635: DOS Operations Authorization and Embassy Security Act, Fiscal Year 2016 – Security Clearance).

Section 610 (2)(c)(1) of S.1635 says that in order to promote the efficiency of the Service, the Secretary may suspend a member of the Service without pay when—

(A) the member’s security clearance is suspended; or

(B) there is reasonable cause to believe that the member has committed a crime for which a sentence of imprisonment may be imposed.

The new language indicates suspension without pay (SWOP) whenever the security clearance is suspended for whatever reason. Not just for national security reasons anymore, folks.

The most widely reported FSO with a suspended clearance in recent memory is Peter Van Buren whose TS clearance was suspended for about a year. Under this proposed bill, PVB would not have been assigned to a telework position or paid for the duration of his fight with the State Department. Which means he and others like him would have to quit and find a paying job or starve unless he/she has a savings account that can sustain the investigation for a year or years.

Any FS employee who might dissent or engage in whistleblowing activity, any perceived troublemaker for that matter, can be put on SWOP, and that would be it.  An FSO who experienced first hand the suspension of a security clearance put this in very stark terms:

In practical terms they can remove the employee instantly, without telling anyone why until much later, by which time the employee will have resigned unless they can afford to go for months or years without a salary. And once the employee has resigned, the case is closed, the former employee loses their clearance because they resigned, and with it any right to know the reasons for the suspension. If the employee quits, the Department does not have to justify itself to anyone, and if the Department doesn’t have to pay them, 99.9 percent will quit.

We want to look at the numbers of suspension and revocation, unfortunately, this is something that is not publicly available from Diplomatic Security.  A source speaking on background put the numbers very low at less than 30 suspensions a year and of those probably less than 5 are revocations. Another source long familiar with this issue guesstimate the number as closer to 70-80 suspension per year, and the number of revocations probably at15-20 per year. We are unable to verify these numbers independently.  The higher numbers may be due to greater hiring, as well as to the use of “Scattered Castles,” a computer database that lists all prior security clearance determinations by other agencies which may prompt a suspension and re-investigation of the clearance.  But even if we take the higher numbers of 80 suspensions, that is still a small number compared to the total FS workforce.

A source not authorized to speak on this subject told us that the bulk of security clearance suspensions and revocations involve personal behavior issues ranging from alleged sexual misconduct to alcohol abuse, to failure to report on time a relationship that should be reported. Very few security clearance cases involve a matter that is criminal, so very few result in prosecution.

The question then becomes why? Why would Congress want this? And just as important, why does the State Department support this?

The long history of this section of the bill reportedly dates back to Condoleezza Rice’s term at the State Department. It was allegedly intended to create parity between Foreign Service (FS) and Civil Service (CS) employees.

State can indeed put CS employees on SWOP as soon as clearance is suspended, but the rules also gives CS employees appeal rights to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). We understand that MSPB records and procedures are public and that it is specifically granted authority to review security clearance cases. The FS employees do not have the same protection with the Foreign Service Grievance Board. The final review adjudicative body, the Security Appeals Panel, not part of FSGB, allegedly does not even keep records of its deliberative process or set precedent for future cases. Currently, the rules on the FAM says: “If the individual is represented by counsel or other representative, the representative does not have a right to have access to or to review any material. However, to the extent authorized by the individual and the Department, the representative may review material that the individual has access to pursuant to subsection (b) above if he or she is properly cleared.”

The numbers of suspension/revocation are low but Congress doesn’t have to talk about the numbers. The members can talk about getting rid of bad apples in the government, which is always popular. In doing so, Congress can look tough on security, tough on the State Department and tough on keeping tabs on government money.

This is not a good idea. If only a quarter of all suspensions end in revocation, isn’t the USG throwing money and lives away? In addition to our concern that this could be use by the State Department to shut-up dissenters or potential whistleblowers, we also have the following concerns:

  • Costs in hiring/training

The USG has a lengthy hiring process for FS employees and typically trains them before sending them to posts overseas. The cost of that investment does not come cheap. Members of the FS also go through language training and spends most of their careers in overseas assignments.The length of time to replace/train/deploy an FS employee is significantly longer than the time to replace a CS employee.

  • FS family logistics

FS members overseas with suspended clearance are normally sent home to a desk job that does not require a clearance or their expertise. Not all FS members have houses to come home to in the WashDC area. They’ll have to pull kids out of schools, and move their entire household. What happens to them in DC if the employee is without work and without pay under this proposal? A suspension in this case would technically be a firing as the FS employee will be forced to find an alternate job that pays. So what happens when the case is resolved without a revocation, will the employee be able to come back? Since the investigation ends when the employee leaves, there is no win here for the employee.

  • Prime targets of hostile intel service

FS employees spends most of their career overseas. By virtue of their positions, they are prime targets of any hostile intel service. They can be subject of a security investigation though no fault of their own.  This is even more concerning with the OPM hack purportedly conducted by a foreign government.  If true that a foreign government now has the personal details of over 20 million security clearance holders, including those in the State Department who used OPM’s e-Qip system, how does one even protect oneself from the potential misuse of that information that can lead to a clearance suspension?

What can you do?

As we have posted earlier, the State Authorization bill was offered as an amendment when the NDAA was debated in the Senate in June but it was not voted on when the NDAA passed on June 18 (That would be H.R. 1735 which passed 215 (71-25)  We understand that both chambers are now starting the process to bring the bill to conference in order to resolve differences.  The State Authorization bill, we are told, will not be part of those discussions.  In order for this to move forward, it will either need to be brought to the floor as a stand alone vote or Corker/Cardin could try again to attach it to another piece of legislation. Given that this is the first authorization bill passed by the SFRC in 5 years, and made it through the committee with bi-partisan support, we suspect that this might not be the end of this bill.

We’re hoping that employees’ fundamental rights and due process do not become casualties particularly in gaining concessions from Congress on the overseas comparability pay (CP) fight. That would be a terrible bargain.  Educate your elected representative on the consequences of this section of the bill. See that AFSA is tracking this matter and talking to Congress.

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Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct: Is it only the little people who are taken to task?

Posted: 12:48 am EDT
Updated: 3:07 pm EDT

 

In March 2012, AFSA’s General Counsel Sharon Papp reported about a State Department proposal related to the “state of affairs” in the Foreign Service ….no, the other kind of affairs:

In 2011, the State Department proposed disciplinary action against a handful of employees for off-duty conduct that it had not sought to regulate in the past (i.e., extramarital affairs between consenting adults). 

When we reviewed several sex-related grievance cases in 2012, we came to the conclusion that from the agency’s view, widespread notoriety is not required to demonstrate an adverse effect on the efficiency of the Service. Further, the potential for embarrassment and damaged to U.S. interests seems as weighty as actual embarrassment and damage. See: Sex, Lies, and No Videotapes, Just Cases for the Grievance Board

We recently received the following in our mailbox (edited to remove the most identifying details):

The married DCM at the embassy of a major Middle East ally slept with a married ELO whose husband worked for him. He blamed his alcoholism. As “punishment,” he was assigned as DCM at a significant high risk/high threat post. Next up? One of the top jobs at an embassy located in a Western European country.  Where’s the accountability at State? Is it only the little people that are taken to task? 

Well, that is an excellent question given another allegation we’ve received about another front office occupant involved in domestic violence overseas (another story we hope to write another day).

Extra-marital affairs, of course, are not mentioned anywhere in the Foreign Affairs Manual but below is what the regs say on sexual activity (pdf) and what constitutes, “notoriously disgraceful conduct.” Both sections were last updated in 2012, and applies to Foreign Service employees at State and USAID:

3 FAM 4139.1 Sexual Activity
(CT:PER-673; 04-27-2012) (Uniform State/USAID) (Applies to Foreign Service Employees) 

The agencies recognize that, in our society, there are considerable differences of opinion in matters of sexual conduct, and that there are some matters which are of no concern to the U.S. Government. However, serious suitability concerns are raised by sexual activity by an individual which reasonably may be expected to hamper the effective fulfillment by the agencies of any of their duties and responsibilities, or which may impair the individual’s position performance by reason of, for example, the possibility of blackmail, coercion, or improper influence. The standards of conduct enumerated in 3 FAM 4138 are of particular relevance in determining whether the conduct in question threatens the mission of the employing agency or the individual’s effectiveness.

3 FAM 4139.14 Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct
(CT:PER-673; 04-27-2012) (Uniform State/USAID) (Applies to Foreign Service Employees) 

Notoriously disgraceful conduct is that conduct which, were it to become widely known, would embarrass, discredit, or subject to opprobrium the perpetrator, the Foreign Service, and the United States. Examples of such conduct include but are not limited to the frequenting of prostitutes, engaging in public or promiscuous sexual relations, spousal abuse, neglect or abuse of children, manufacturing or distributing pornography, entering into debts the employee could not pay, or making use of one’s position or immunity to profit or to provide favor to another (see also 5 CFR 2635) or to create the impression of gaining or giving improper favor. Disqualification of a candidate or discipline of an employee, including separation for cause, is warranted when the potential for opprobrium or contempt should the conduct become public knowledge could be reasonably expected to affect adversely the person’s ability to perform his or her own job or the agency’s ability to carry out its responsibilities. Evaluators must be careful to avoid letting personal disapproval of such conduct influence their decisions.

One might argue that an extra-marital affair between two consenting adults is a private matter.  And in most cases, it is; who wants to be the sex police?  But. If the allegations are true, can you really consider it private, particularly in a case that involves the second highest ranking public official at an embassy and an entry level officer (ELO) assigned under his command? Even if the DCM is not the ELO’s rating or reviewing officer —  how does this not affect the proper functioning of the mission? Can anyone exclude undue influence, potential favoritism or preferential treatment?  Which section chief would give a bad performance review to a junior officer who slept with the section chief’s own reviewing officer? Even if not widely known outside the Foreign Service, can anyone make a case that this is not disgraceful or notorious?  For real life consequences when a junior officer has a “special relationship” and “unrestricted access” to an embassy’s front office occupant, read the walking calamity illustrated in this case FSGBNo.2004-061 (pdf).

Look … if widespread notoriety is not required to demonstrate an adverse effect on the efficiency of the Service for the lower ranks, why should it be a requirement for the upper ranks?  It’s not? Well, how else can we explain a good number of senior officials who allegedly looked the other way?


Can’t you see I’m busy? Besides I did not/did not see anything!

 

We went and looked up the Foreign Service Grievance Board cases related extra-marital affairs or related to notoriously disgraceful conduct. Here are some quick summaries.

  • In 2011, the State Department handed down a 30-day suspension to a junior officer for “off-color and offensive emails about women he dated, which were widely disseminated” after his private email account was hacked.  State said this constituted “notoriously disgraceful conduct.” (pdf)
  • Another case in 2011 involves an FSO who was told by the State Department: “Given the nature of Foreign Service life, you are aware that you are on duty 24/7. These multiple extramarital affairs involving sexual relations with an estimated 13 women during two separate assignments overseas without your spouse’s knowledge show poor judgment for a Foreign Service Officer.” (pdf) (note: two separate assignments could mean 4-6 years; untenured tours at 2 years, tenured tours typically at 3 years).
  • A Diplomatic Security (DS) Special Agent was suspended for three days for Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct arising from a domestic violence incident with his spouse. (pdf)
  • A married FP-04 Information Management Specialist (IMS), received a 20-day suspension, subsequently reduced to 10 days, for improper personal conduct and failure to follow regulations. The employee served at a critical threat post, and admitted having an extramarital relationship with a local embassy employee as well as engaging in sexual relations with two “massage techs.” (pdf)
  • An untenured FP-04 Diplomatic Security (DS) agent was disciplined for poor judgment and improper personal conduct. The employee brought a  woman to his hotel room and engaged in sex with her. Although the employee voluntarily disclosed the incident and asserted that the woman was not a prostitute, the Department contends that the incident at a minimum gave the appearance of engaging in prostitution and as such violated 3 FAM 4139.14 or Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct. (pdf)
  • A married FS-02 Information Management Officer (IMO) with seventeen years in the Department, with numerous awards and no disciplinary record, was found in his personal vehicle that was parked in an isolated area, and in a dazed condition with injuries suggesting he had been assaulted. He stated that during the prior night he had picked up a woman unknown to him, shared wine with her while driving, pulled over to the side of the road and then had no recollection of what followed, presumably because she had introduced a substance into his drink. During the ensuing investigation, the employee revealed he had picked up four or five women on previous occasions over a four-month period and had sex with them without the knowledge of his wife.  As a result, the Department proposed a ten-day suspension based on the charges of Poor Judgment and Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct. (pdf)
  • An FP-04 Diplomatic Security (DS) agent was given a five-day suspension without pay on the charge of Improper Personal Conduct. The charge is based on an incident in a criterion country in which employee (an unmarried person) engaged in consensual sex with a local woman and gave her $60.00 after the sexual activity had concluded. There was no evidence that the woman was a prostitute and there were no witnesses to their encounter. The employee self-reported the incident immediately to his supervisors, who took no disciplinary action. Eighteen months later, the Department opened an investigation and eventually suspended the employee. The deciding official concluded that employee’s conduct had violated two regulations governing behavior subject to discipline: 3 FAM 4139.1 (Sexual Activity) and 3 FAM 4139.14 (Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct). (pdf)

So —

We have so far been unable to locate FSGB cases of “notoriously disgraceful conduct” involving senior Foreign Service officials; certainly nothing at the DCM or COM level. It could be that 1) our search function is broken; 2) the folks are so risk-aversed and discreet that there are no cases involving a single one of them, or 3) potential such cases were swept under the rug, nothing makes it to the public records of the Foreign Service Grievance Board.

Which.Is.It? Will accept breadcrumbs …

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Clinton Email Challenge Now a Sharknado, and Secretary Kerry Is Right to be “Concerned”

Posted: 2:13  pm PDT

 

This happened Thursday night. We drafted this post early morning but waited for a piece of information we wanted to see. So yup, overtaken by events.  In any case, you may now read the inspector generals memos referenced to in the NYT report here. See NYT: Criminal Inquiry Sought Over Clinton Emails? Read the Inspector Generals Memos.  We’re also waiting for the OIG to issue a clarification on the DOJ referral the NYT reported.

The memos went possibly from two IG offices — State Department Steve Linick and Intelligence Community Inspector General I. Charles McCullough, III — to the Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy. The IGs memos are also cc’ed to one of the State Department’s deputy secretaries. It looks like, the memos or contents/snippets of it were shared with DOJ, as a DOJ official appears to be the NYT’s source for this story (see tweets below).

Here are the tweets from July 24:

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The report from the NYT includes the following:

— 1.  The memos were provided to The New York Times by a senior government official.

— 2.  The inspectors general also criticized the State Department for its handling of sensitive information, particularly its reliance on retired senior Foreign Service officers to decide if information should be classified, and for not consulting with the intelligence agencies about its determinations.

— 3.  The revelations about how Mrs. Clinton handled her email have been an embarrassment for the State Department, which has been repeatedly criticized over its handling of documents related to Mrs. Clinton and her advisers.

— 4.  Some State Department officials said they believe many senior officials did not initially take the House committee seriously, which slowed document production and created an appearance of stonewalling.

— 5.  State Department officials also said that Mr. Kerry is concerned about the toll the criticism has had on the department and has urged his deputies to comply with the requests quickly.

Today:

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On this whole email debacle at the State Department, it must be said that this might not have happened if not enabled by senior bureaucrats in the agency. We do not believe for a moment that senior officials were not aware about the email practices of then Secretary Clinton or the record retention requirement. But hey, if the practice was done for four years over the protests and dissent of officials at “M”, “A”, the Legal Adviser or the CIO, we’d like to see that email trail.

By the way, this NYT report follows a July 20 Politico report about a contentious hearing where U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon demanded explanations for why some of the Associated Press’ FOIA requests received no reply for four years or more before the wire service filed suit in March.

“The State Department’s not going to have the luxury of saying, because we’re focusing on Hillary’s emails, we’re doing so at the cost and expense of four-year-old requests. So, that’s not going to be an excuse,” the judge said. “In my judgment, a four-year-old request gets a priority over a recent request.”

On Mr. Kerry’s concern about the toll the criticism has had on the department … the secretary is right to be concerned. Senior officials did not take Congress seriously?  Even if senior bureaucrats do not agree or approve of the conduct of the Select Committee, even if they think this is a sideshow seeking to derail a presidential campaign, the required document production is still part of their jobs. In my view, the most serious consequence on the appearance of stonewalling is it also gives the appearance that bureaucrats are picking sides in this political shitstorm.

This can potentially undermine the expectation of the State Department as an impartial and non-political entity. The perception, right or wrong, that this impartiality is compromised, will not serve it or its employees well in the long run.

You might like to read a couple previous posts on FOIA personnel, costs and the “persistent neglect of fundamental leadership responsibilities” that made this the Clinton email debacle a challenge of Sharknado proportion for the agency. (see Snapshot: State Dept FY2014 FOIA Personnel and Costs and State Dept FOIA Requests: Agency Ranks Second in Highest Backlog and Here’s Why).

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