State Dept Releases New 3 FAM 4170 aka: The “Stop The Next Peter Van Buren” Regulation

Posted: 3:41 am EDT

Congratulations!  This is almost three years in the making!

We’ve previously covered the Peter Van Buren case quite extensively in this blog (see After a Year of Serious Roars and Growls, State Dept Officially Retires FSO-Non Grata Peter Van Buren). The State Department officially retired Mr. Van Buren on September 30, 2012. He left with full retirement. In December 2012, we were informed by inside the building sources that the Department was rewriting its 3 FAM 4170 rules on official clearance for speaking, writing, and teaching. (see State Dept to Rewrite Media Engagement Rules for Employees in Wake of Van Buren Affair).

On July 27, 2015, two months short of Year 3 since Mr. Van Buren retired, the State Department without much fanfare released its new 3 FAM 4170 rules in 19 pages. For the FAM is not a regulation; it’s recommendations” crowd, we hope you folks have great lawyers.

My! Look who’s covered!

The updated FAM, same as the old FAM, is divided into two meaty parts — official capacity public communication and personal capacity public appearances and communications.  The new version of 3 FAM 4170 is all encompassing, covering the following (not exhaustive list):

— all personnel in the United States and abroad who are currently employed (even if in Leave Without Pay status) by the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), including but not limited to Foreign Service (FS) employees, Civil Service (CS) employees (including schedule C appointees and annuitants returning to work on temporary appointments on an intermittent basis, commonly referred to as “While Actually Employed (WAE)” personnel), locally employed staff (LE Staff), personal service contractors (PSCs), employees assigned to fellowships or details elsewhere and detailees or fellows from other entities assigned to the Department, externs/interns, and special government employees (SGEs).

— Former Department of State employees (including former interns and externs) must seek guidance from A/GIS/IPS for applicable review process information. Former USAID employees (including former interns and externs) must consult the Bureau for Legislative and Public Affairs for applicable review process information.

— Employee testimony, whether in an official capacity or in a personal capacity on a matter of Departmental concern, may be subject to the review requirements of this subchapter. Employees should consult with the Department of State’s Office of the Legal Adviser or USAID’s Office of the General Counsel, as appropriate, to determine applicable procedures.

In practical terms, we think this means that if you get summoned to appear before the House Select Benghazi Committee and is testifying in your personal capacity as a former or retired employee of the State Department, these new regulations may still apply to you, and you may still need clearance before your testimony.

Convince us that we’re reading this wrong, otherwise, somebody poke Congress, please.

Also, does this mean that all retired FSOs who contribute to ADST’s Oral History project are similarly required to obtain clearance since by its definition, “online forums such as blogs” and “a person or entity engaged in disseminating information to the general public” are considered media organizations under these new rules?

Institutional interest vs. public interest

We are particularly interested in the personal capacity publication/communication rules because that’s the one that can get people in big trouble, as shown in the Van Buren case. Here’s the equivalent of our bold Sharpie.

3 FAM 4176.4 says:  “A principal goal of the review process for personal capacity public communications is to ensure that no classified or other protected information will be disclosed without authorization. In addition, the Final Review Office will evaluate whether the employee’s public communication is highly likely to result in serious adverse consequences to the efficiency or mission of the Department, such that preventing those consequences outweighs the employee’s presumptively high interest in communicating and the public’s interest in receiving the communication.”

 

Institutional interest trumps public interest? Where do you draw the line? You can still write a dissent cable as the “3 FAM 4172.1-3(D). No Review of Dissent Channel Communications” included in the 2009 version of the FAM survives as 3 FAM 4171 (e) in the current rules:

Views on matters of Departmental concern communicated through methods of internal communication (including, for example, the Department’s internal dissent channel) or disclosures made pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 2302(b)(8)(B) are not subject to the review requirements of this subchapter.

Which is fine and all, except — who the heck gets to read your dissent cable except the folks at Policy Planning? The State Department is not obligated to share with Congress or with the American public any dissenting opinions from its diplomats. One might argue that this is appropriate, after all, you can’t have diplomats second guessing in public every foreign policy decision of every administration. So, the American public typically only hears about it when a diplomat quits.  But given the two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the American public best served by this policy?  And by the way, candid opinion like the case of the six-page memo, entitled “The Perfect Storm,” in the lead up to the Iraq War, is still classified. Why is that?

The new regs also say this:

“To the extent time and resources allow, reviewers may assist the employee in identifying possible modifications or other adjustments to avoid the inclusion of non-classified but otherwise protected information, or the potential for adverse consequences to the Department’s mission or efficiency (including the employee’s ability to perform his or her duties effectively in the future).”

If we weigh the Van Buren book against these parameters, how much of the book’s 288 pages would survive such “modifications” or “adjustments.”

There goes the book, We Meant Well in Afghanistan, Also.

The Peter Van Buren Clause

We’ve come to call “3 FAM 4172.1-7 Use or Publication of Materials Prepared in an Employee’s Private Capacity That Have Been Submitted for Review as the Peter Van Buren clause. Below is the original language from the 2009 version of the FAM:

An employee may use, issue, or publish materials on matters of official concern that have been submitted for review, and for which the presumption of private capacity has not been overcome, upon expiration of the designated period of comment and review regardless of the final content of such materials so long as they do not contain information that is classified or otherwise exempt from disclosure as described in 3 FAM 4172.1-6(A).

That section of the FAM appears to survive under the current 3 FAM 4174.3 Final Review Offices, underlined for emphasis below.

c. To ensure that no classified information is improperly disclosed, an employee must not take any steps to proceed with a public communication (including making commitments to publishers or other parties) until he or she receives written notice to proceed from the Final Review Office, except as described below. If, upon expiration of the relevant timeframes below, the Final Review Office has not provided an employee with either a final response or an indication that a public communication involves equities of another U.S. Government entity (including a list of the entity or entities with equities), the employee may use, issue, or publish materials on matters of Departmental concern that have been submitted for review so long as such materials do not contain information described in 3 FAM 4176.2(a) and taking into account the principles in 4176.2(b). When an employee has been informed by the Final Review Office that his or her public communication involves equities of another U.S. Government entity or entities, the employee should not proceed without written notice to proceed from the Final Review Office. Upon the employee’s request, the Final Review Office will provide the employee with an update on the status of the review of his or her public communication, including, if applicable, the date(s) on which the Department submitted the employee’s communication to another entity or entities for review. Ultimately, employees remain responsible for their personal capacity public communications whether or not such communications are on topics of Departmental concern.

The Van Buren clause appears to survive, until you take a closer look; italicized below for emphasis:

3 FAM 4176.2 (a) Content of Personal Capacity Public Communications

a. When engaging in personal capacity public communications, employees must not:

(1) Claim to represent the Department or its policies, or those of the U.S. Government, or use Department or other U.S. Government seals or logos; or

(2) Disclose, or in any way allow the public to access, classified information, even if it is already publicly available due to a previous unauthorized disclosure.

3 FAM 4176.2 (b) Content of Personal Capacity Public Communications

b. As stated in 3 FAM 4174.2(c)(1), a purpose of this review process is to determine whether the communication would disclose classified or other protected information without authorization. Other protected information that is or may be subject to public disclosure restrictions includes, but is not limited to: 

(1) Material that meets one or more of the criteria for exemption from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. 552(b), including internal pre-decisional deliberative material; 

(2) Information that reasonably could be expected to interfere with law enforcement proceedings or operations;

(3) Information pertaining to procurement in violation of 41 U.S.C. 2101-2107;

(4) Sensitive personally identifiable information as defined in 5 FAM 795.1(f); or

(5) Other nonpublic information, when used in a manner as prohibited by 5 CFR 2635.703.

Can one make the case that the conversations between the writer and his boss in the Van Buren book are “internal pre-decisional deliberative material?” Or that any conversation between two FSOs are deliberative? Of course. State can make a case about anything and everything.  Remember, it did try to make the case that the book contained classified information. (see “Classified” Information Contained in We Meant Well – It’s a Slam Dunk, Baby!). Also, we should note that documents marked SBU or sensitive but unclassified are typically considered nonpublic information.  Under these new rules, it’s not just classified information anymore, anything the agency considers deliberative material or any nonpublic material may be subject to disclosure restrictions.

 

3 FAM 4174.2 Overview (2015): Waving the ‘suitability for continued employment’ flag

c. Employees’ personal capacity public communications must be reviewed if they are on a topic “of Departmental concern” (see 3 FAM 4173). Personal capacity public communications that clearly do not address matters of Departmental concern need not be submitted for review.

(1) The personal capacity public communications review requirement is intended to serve three purposes: to determine whether the communication would disclose classified or other protected information without authorization; to allow the Department to prepare to handle any potential ramifications for its mission or employees that could result from the proposed public communication; or, in rare cases, to identify public communications that are highly likely to result in serious adverse consequences to the mission or efficiency of the Department, such that the Secretary or Deputy Secretary must be afforded the opportunity to decide whether it is necessary to prohibit the communication (see 3 FAM 4176.4).

(2) The purposes of the review are limited to those described in paragraph (1); the review is not meant to insulate employees from discipline or other administrative action related to their communications, or otherwise provide assurances to employees on matters such as suitability for continued employment (see, e.g., 3 FAM 4130 for foreign service personnel and 5 CFR 731 for civil service personnel). Ultimately, employees remain responsible for their personal capacity public communications whether or not such communications are on topics of Departmental concern.

 

More 3 FAM 4170 Fun: Not meant to insulate employees from discipline or other administrative action

3 FAM 4176.1(e) General

e. As stated in 3 FAM 4174.2(c)(1), the review process is limited to three purposes. (See also 3 FAM 4176.4.) Therefore, completion of the review process is not a Department “clearance” or “approval” of the planned communication, and is not meant to insulate employees from discipline or other administrative action related to their communications, including for conducting personal capacity public communications that interfere with the Department’s ability to effectively and efficiently carry out its mission and responsibilities, by, for example, disrupting operations, impairing working relationships, or impeding the employee from carrying out his or her duties. Ultimately, employees remain responsible for their personal communications whether or not the communications are on topics of Departmental concern.

 

3 FAM 4176.3 Employee must disclose his/her identity to Department reviewers

a. PA reviews all personal capacity public communications on matters of Departmental concern by senior officials at the Assistant Secretary level and above, including Chiefs of Mission. For all other employees wishing to communicate publicly in their personal capacity on matters of Departmental concern, there are two review processes available:

(1) Individuals may, as a first step, submit their requests for review to the Final Review Office (as described in 3 FAM 4174.3(a)). For employees submitting a request to PA, such requests should be submitted via PAReviews@state.gov. The Final Review Office will then consult with the employee’s immediate supervisor(s) and any other offices concerned with the subject matter in accordance with 3 FAM 4176.4(c). The Final Review Office will then make the final determination; and

(2) Alternatively, employees may initially submit their requests for review to their immediate supervisor(s), the Public Affairs Office in their bureaus or posts, and any other Department offices concerned with the subject matter. The materials must then be submitted to the Final Review Office, noting all such reviewers and any comments received. The Final Review Office will then verify those reviews, assess whether other reviews are needed, and make the final determination.

b. Supervisors, Public Affairs Offices, or any other offices involved in the review process must flag for the Final Review Office any view that the proposed public communication may:

(1) Contain classified or other protected information;

(2) Result in serious adverse consequences to the efficiency or mission of the Department; or

(3) Be or become high impact or high profile, for example communication that is controversial, or otherwise involves a sensitive Department priority; and

(4) The Final Review Office will then apply the standard described in 3 FAM 4176.4(a).

c. In all cases, an employee must disclose his or her identity to the relevant Department reviewers.

d. If another U.S. Government entity seeks Department review of a personal capacity public communication by that entity’s employee, the Department office in receipt of such request must coordinate with PA.

 

3 FAM 4177 Noncompliance may result in disciplinary action, criminal prosecution and/or civil liability.

a. Failure to follow the provisions of this subchapter, including failure to seek advance reviews where required, may result in disciplinary or other administrative action up to and including separation. Violations by USAID employees may be referred to the Deputy Administrator for Human Resources or USAID’s Office of the Inspector General (see 3 FAM 4320). Disciplinary action will be pursued consistent with applicable law, including 5 U.S.C. 2302

b. Publication or dissemination of classified or other protected information may result in disciplinary action, criminal prosecution and/or civil liability.

This is the part where we must remind you that what the former State Department spokesperson said about the FAM being recommendations is a serious bunch of hooey!

Oh, hey, remember the 2-day clearance for tweets …’er scandal?

We wrote about it here and here, and the “ain’t gonna happen 2-day clearance” for social media posting is now part of the Foreign Affairs Manual.  Apologies if the 2-working day review timeframe below for social media postings is too shocking for 21st century statecraft innovation purists. These are the rules, unless you can get the current State Department spokesperson to say from the podium that these are merely recommendations that employees/retirees/interns/charforce are free to ignore. We must add that the 2009 version of these rules, required that materials of official concern submitted in the employee’s private capacity must “be submitted for a reasonable period of review, not to exceed thirty days.” The old rules made no distinction whether the submitted material is a book manuscript, an article, a blogpost or a tweet.
screen grab from 3 FAM 4172

screen grab from 3 FAM 4170

Yo! What’s Missing?

The new regs emphasized the need for official clearance for official and private communication “to ensure that no classified information is improperly disclosed.” It however, does not include any guidance on the use of a private server for emails and social media postings where classified information could be improperly disclosed.

A Much Better FAM Version, Hey?

From the organizational perspective, some folks would say that this is a “much better” version of the FAM.  We’d call this a much better plug. An insider could argue that this is a “very fine sieve.”

Okeedokee, but what do you think will be its consequences for the rank and file? No one will officially admit this as the intent, but after reading this new version of 3 FAM 4170, this is what we think it really says:

The updated regs also says that “In light of the rapid pace with which many social media platforms are used, all offices, sections, or employees who routinely post to such platforms in their official capacity are encouraged to seek advance blanket authorization to engage for their social media communications, in accordance with 3 FAM 4175.1(c).”

The blanket authorization as far as we can tell only applies to those who are engaged in social media platforms in their official capacities, it makes no similar provision for employees in social media platforms in their private capacities.

Fun With Fido or Grumpy Cat

The new regs helpfully notes that “Employees who, in their personal capacity, wish to communicate publicly on matters that are clearly not “of Departmental concern” (see 3 FAM 4173) need not seek Department review under the procedures outlined herein, and need not use the personal capacity disclaimer discussed below in paragraph (b).”

So, basically, if you blog, tweet or write a book about Kitty Kat or Fidodog, or about their travels and adventures in Baghdad, Kabul, Sanaa, and all the garden spots, you don’t need to seek Department review. That is, as long as Kitty Kat is not secretly arming the rodent insurgents and tweeting about it and Fidodog is not flushing government money down the toilet and blogging about it.

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Related items:

Read the new 3 FAM 4170 July 27, 2015 | REVIEW OF PUBLIC SPEAKING, TEACHING, WRITING, AND MEDIA ENGAGEMENT

Download it here (pdf).

 

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.
[…]
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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Ghost of Tom Joad: Peter Van Buren’s Book Readings in the DC Area

— Domani Spero


Retired FSO Peter Van Buren is back in the DC area this week with a couple of book readings from his new work, the Ghost of Tom Joad, A Story of the 99 Percent.

 

 

Washington DC

Visit Busboys and Poets for an evening of reading, signing, and possibly some drinking.

The event is May 20, from 6:30pm, at the Busboys and Poets store at 5th & K Streets. The full address is 1025 5th Street NW, Washington, DC 20001, Tel. 202-789-2227. Nearest Metro stations are Gallery Place/Chinatown and Mt. Vernon Square/7th Street-Convention Center. More event info http://www.busboysandpoets.com/events/event/author-event-with-peter-van-buren

Arlington, Virginia

Visit One More Page Books  for reading, signing, and more drinking (they sell wine and chocolates).

The event is May 21, from 7:00 pm, at One More Page Books, 2200 N Westmoreland Street #101 Arlington, VA  22213, 703.300.9746. The nearest Metro is East Falls Church. More event info http://www.onemorepagebooks.com/events.html.

 

* * *

State Dept OIG Reports: Oh, Redactions, Is Double Standard Thy True Name?

On June 21, 2012, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) posted the following report: Compliance Followup Review of Embassy Islamabad and Constituent Posts, Pakistan (ISP-C-12-28A)  [563 Kb] dated 05/31/12.

It made the news cycle for a couple of days because it contains the following:

Official Pakistani obstructionism and harassment, an endemic problem in Pakistan, has increased to the point where it is significantly impairing mission operations and program implementation [(b) (5) REDACTED] The issue of harassment must be made an integral part of high-level policy discussions with the Pakistani Government regarding the future of the bilateral relationship.

That’s about all that was reported in the mainstream press.  But enough to rile everyone up.  Our officials being harassed by officials in Pakistan, the same country which is the recipient of one of the largest aid bucket in recent years.  That’s just really offensive.  Of course, the extra fine details of that official harassment had been extensively redacted in the published report. Which is understandable. With both countries trying to hold on to this extremely difficult marriage, do we really need to pour more fuel to what is already a raging fire.  So we’ll even accept that the redactions were necessary.

We’re slowly catching up with our reading and noticed one other key judgement in that report, as follows:

In the management section, a highly centralized and controlling management style, coupled with the lack of focus and effective oversight from the front office, has had a detrimental impact on the functioning of the mission and the timely delivery of administrative services.

Okay, that doesn’t sound good, particularly because the management section holds almost all the keys to the proper and effective functioning of any overseas mission. An effective management section can help mitigate the fall out from a dysfunctional front office. But a dysfunctional management section can undermine even the best front office; although if it’s really the best, the management section should not be dysfunctional for long.

And then there’s this:

click on image for larger view

Um, excuse me, but why should a delegation of authority from the Front Office of the US Embassy in Islamabad (Ambassadors Munter and DCM Hoagland) to the Management Counselor require the redaction above?

And then there’s this:

The management section is led by an experienced and highly motivated management counselor, serving in her third successive hardship tour. She supervises a cadre of well-qualified and experienced unit chiefs, many recruited by her personally. This team has worked hard to improve management controls and strengthen delivery of ICASS to all mission elements, and the effect of its efforts is palpable in every aspect of management at this mission.

The DCM, as he has with other senior counselors, delegated significant responsibilities to the management counselor.

click on image for larger view

Jeez! Even the recommendation had been redacted!

The meat in the OIG’s teaser  of a “highly centralized and controlling management style, coupled with the lack of focus and effective oversight” was effectively erased for public consumption. Because, obviously, the American public cannot handle the truth about bad leadership and management.

We heard talks and separate unconfirmed rumors that the draft report actually included a rather serious recommendation.  The Under Secretary for Management‘s name had been mentioned as well as something about the officer with the redacted name having “a stellar reputation in D.C.”

 

 

我的媽和她的瘋狂的外甥都 Holy mother of goat and all her crazy nephews! Don’t you just hate that? No wonder these bad managers get recycled more often than bottle caps.

US Embassy Beirut Inspection Report: Similar Redactions on DCM:

This is, of course, not the first time that we’ve seen such redactions particularly in reference to the performance of career diplomats. Early this year, the OIG released its inspection report of the US Embassy in Lebanon. The section on the embassy’s deputy chief of mission (or deputy ambassador, if you will) was also extensively redacted. According to the IG report, the US Embassy in Beirut is encumbered by US Ambassador Maura Connelly who arrived in September 2010 and DCM E. Candace Putnam who arrived in June 2011. Wait, it looks like Richard M. Mills arrived in March 2012 as the new DCM at the US Embassy in Beirut, the same month the IG report was released online.

Here is the key item:

Embassy Beirut performs its core policy and operational missions well. However, its substantive strengths are undercut by front office leadership shortcomings [REDACTED].

That’s not the only redaction. Here are a few more:

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And below is one of our favorite portions, because it shows how artfully the inspectors can understate somebody’s micromanagement skill; intense front office attention almost sounds like a talent.

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Frankly, we can’t help but feel sorry for this poor sod working as the management counselor at the US Embassy in Beirut. And unlike the embassy’s CLO (an eligible family member) who called it quits, the management officer is a career employee and must sucked it up if he/she wants to continue his/her career with the State Department.

Because Bureaucratic Life Just Isn’t Fair …

Given the harsh OIG report on the management style of then US Ambassador to Luxembourg Cynthia Stroum (a report that obviously needs more redactions were it not a European post) we asked the OIG about the Lebanon redactions on the DCM’s performance and received the following response:

Whereas the Embassy Luxembourg report dealt with many of the same issues, the geopolitical situation in Lebanon is quite different from that in Luxembourg, and our Freedom of Information Act analysis led to more extensive redactions.

A couple other political ambassadors have also received crazy red ratings here and here.

O-kay! So technically, you can be an ass at any of the priority and hardship posts and the OIG will cover up your performance in blackouts under the guise of something called a “geopolitical situation”?

We want to make sure we got this thing right. So last night, we sent off another email to the OIG asking about the redactions specific to the Pakistan report. We haven’t heard anything; we will update this post if we get a response.

Our main concern about this is twofold: 1) the appearance of a double standard and 2) recycling FSOs with problematic leadership and management skills is not going to make another embassy greener or healthier nor make for better FSOs.  Without effective intervention, they’re just going to make another post as miserable as the last one and impairs the embassy mission and operation. Can’t fix the faulty bottle caps if you just recycle the faulty bottle caps, simple as that.

The OIG slams hard the performance of political appointees and puts it all out to hang for the pundits and their neighbors. And yet when it comes to career appointees, the OIG slams them somehow less hard? Don’t know, maybe the OIG slams career diplomats just as hard in their reports (we want to believe that) but that is hard to know since the details are effectively removed from the reading consumption of the American public with thick, black Sharpies.  As if somehow, we need to be protected from such grainy details.

Oh wait, it’s not really us they  are protecting … but dammit, who …?

Domani Spero

Chinese Tigers Eat US Consulate Shanghai’s Blog? Noooooooooooo!

Via VOA News:

A social media account run by the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai has mysteriously disappeared from the Internet in China, prompting many to wonder if it is the work of government censors.

The Shanghai consulate’s account on Sina Weibo, a popular Twitter-like microblog service owned by SINA Corporation, was known for its sometimes witty commentary, often on Chinese political and social issues.

But as of Friday, the consulate’s account was still inaccessible, replaced by an error message that reads “temporarily unavailable” — a message similar to those seen when accounts are deleted by government censors.
[…]
Beijing defends its online censorship, dubbed the Great Firewall of China, by saying it is aimed at maintaining social stability, preventing the spread of false rumors, and blocking inappropriate material.

Read in full here.

This is just so sad, right?  Mysterious disappearances are quite common among Foreign Service blogs, ya know, and now an official blog has been eaten?  They’re there one day, they’re gone the next. We have not been able to catch the tail of the offending tiger despite tracking the blood spots.

The WSJ reports that “U.S. diplomatic staff in Shanghai woke up that morning to discover that the consulate’s Weibo account had disappeared, according to a spokeswoman. The spokeswoman said no reason was given and it was unclear whether a particular post had caused problems.”

Well! Imagine that. Doesn’t that sound awfully familiar?  What were they writing over there?

WaPo cites a post responding to a senior environmental official which criticized its popular Twitter feed that tracks pollution in smoggy Beijing, a shushing emoticon: “Keep your voice low. People are still sleeping,”

See, harmless as toucans.  May be the State Department will have better luck finding out how and why the Chinese tigers really ate the consulate’s blog?

Domani Spero

 

 

Deadly Contagion Hits Foreign Service Blogosphere

We cannot say if the contagion that killed almost two dozen Foreign Service blogs was cause by a rogue virus, or if this is the “Peter Van Buren” effect on the FS blogosphere.  But what we know for sure is there are way too many dead blogs by Foreign Service Officers in recent months. We have no idea on the exact date of demise of each blog but they are all dead now.  It’s not even that they just stopped blogging, there are no goodbyes and the archives are gone.  Some blogs were scrubbed clean. Some blogs have become online parking lots. And some have been totally deleted from the cyber-verse.  This is not an exhaustive list, and this does not include the family members’ blogs that have been shuttered.

SD Dispatches (FSO)http://sddispatches.blogspot.com/: Blog not found

Scott At State (FSO)http://scottatstate.blogspot.com/: Blog not found

At Your Service in Switzerland – Aaron Martz (FSO): http://aaronmartz.com/ : online parking lot

Destination Diplomacyhttp://leslieabitz.blogspot.com/ : Blog not found

Diplochickhttp://diplochick.wordpress.com/ : diplochick.wordpress.com is no longer available. The authors have deleted this blog.

Diplomatic Incidentshttp://www.diplomaticincidents.blogspot.com/ : Blog not found

Diplotettehttp://diplotette.wordpress.com/ : diplotette.wordpress.com is no longer available. The authors have deleted this blog.

DipNomadhttp://dipnomad.blogspot.com/ : Blog not found

Hick/Hitchhiker/…Diplomat (!?)  http://4brianhall.blogspot.com/ : posts all gone except for disclaimer that says: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent those of the Department of State of the United States of America.

Luffmans.comhttp://news.luffmans.com/index.php : The requested URL /index.php was not found on this server. That’s all we know.

My New Lifehttp://diploadventures.blogspot.com/ : Blog not found

New L’attitudeshttp://ronwardwine.blogspot.com/ : no posts.

Seltzer Water and Other Things (FSS)http://awesomelikeseltzerwater.blogspot.com/http:// :
Blog not found

The Last 3 Feethttp://www.thelast3ft.com/ : 404. That’s an error. The requested URL / was not found on this server. That’s all we know.

The Navigator (FSO)http://traviscoberly.blogspot.com/ : Blog has been removed

The Vegan Diplomat (female FSO)http://vegandiplomat.blogspot.com/ : Blog not found

Two Red Marys and a Yellow Rose (female FSO)http://tworedmarysandayellowrose.wordpress.com/http:/ : Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.

You Can’t Get There From Here (FSO)http://www.valdysses.com/ : online parking lot

It is a sad state of things.  We don’t know if they were all eaten by tigers, or if they were just being prudent. We cannot blame anyone, of course, for being prudent.

We will find time to expand our blog cemetery, we may have to build a new cemetery….

Domani Spero

AFSA Guidance on the Personal Use of Social Media

I just saw this guidance on the personal use of social media from the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional association of the United States Foreign Service. The organization has close to 16,000 dues-paying members and represents over 28,000 active and retired Foreign Service employees of the Department of State, Agency for International Development (AID), Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), Foreign Commercial Service (FCS), and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). I believe this is the first guidance issued by AFSA on this subject. Republished below in full:

We are fortunate to live in a world where innovative technology allows us to communicate in new and wondrous ways.  Social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs now allow us to communicate instantaneously with potentially thousands of “fans” and “followers.”  Just as the State Department and the other foreign affairs agencies have embraced these new communication tools, many of our members are using innovative ways to connect with audiences in their private and professional capacities.

AFSA supports the use of social media.  But any form of communication – via social media, telephone, e-mail, or just old-fashioned conversations – is governed by social norms and etiquette, and requires good judgment and common sense. Anyone who has ever said something they wish they hadn’t, tried to recall an e-mail sent in haste, or deleted a comment on Facebook understands the impact that the spoken and written word can have in our personal and professional lives. Electronic media – particularly anything broadcast over the internet – presents its own unique perils and challenges.  As the saying goes, “What happens on the internet, stays on the internet.”

AFSA is currently examining the evolving issue of the use of social media by Foreign Service employees.  In the meantime, we offer these words of advice to any of our members who are currently or planning to use social media, particularly blogs:

Read the Existing Regulations.  The current regulations regarding the use of social media can be found in 5 FAM 790 “Using Social Media (pdf).  Although we understand that some of these rules with their cross-references to other FAM cites are confusing, we strongly recommend that any AFSA member using social media – especially where the lines between professional, personal and private use may be blurred – read them and if you don’t understand something – ask.

Avoid Divulging Private and Confidential Information.  Here is where many people run afoul of the regulations.  Be sure not to divulge any information that includes confidential or personally identifiable information.  Examples of these include but are not limited to visa cases, information about other individuals, or classified information (for example, linking to WikiLeaks.)

Remember that you are a Foreign Service USG employee.  Even though you may have the required disclaimer on your blog, be aware that the public still may not differentiate between your official and private views.  You should be mindful of the weight of your expressed views as a U.S. government official, particularly when your blog uses the “hook” of your Foreign Service connections to attract readers.

Review Your Privacy Settings.  Make sure you are aware of the privacy settings of the social media platform you are using and how to adjust them.  Platforms such as Facebook often change these settings without informing users.  Periodic review of these settings is important, and we recommend having them set to the highest levels.  For blogs, you may even want to consider restricting access so that only your family, friends and colleagues have access.

Use Good Judgment.  We can’t emphasize this enough.  As we noted above, all forms of human communication require good judgment, tact, etc.  And what happens on the internet, stays on the internet.  When in doubt, leave it out.

Contact Us If You Have Problems.  If you are an AFSA member and are approached by management or Diplomatic Security regarding your use of social media, be sure to contact us so that we can assist you with any legal or other issues.

We hope the above information is useful.  We do want to hear from our members regarding this evolving issue.  If you have a concern or opinion regarding the use of social media, please let us know via www.afsa.org or call us at 202-338-4045.  For assistance with issues related to social media, please contact our labor management office at 202-647-8160 or e-mail AFSA’s lead attorney on the issue, Raeka Safai, at SafaiR@state.gov.

If you are a blogger in the FS community, I encourage you to take this opportunity to reach out to AFSA. Although “AFSA is currently examining the evolving issue of the use of social media by Foreign Service employees,” family members of Foreign Service employees are similarly affected.  AFSA should hear the voices of family members so they have a fuller view of this issue.  AFSA need to hear the stories and concerns of FSOs as well as family members so it can effectively craft a more comprehensive guidance in the future.

Domani Spero

Conversation with Self About Serial Blog Killers and the 21st Century Statecraft

And I’ll let you listen if you have nothing better to do.

Back in January, I wrote about the State Department’s Wild, Wild Web Chat on 21st Century Statecraft:

[L]et’s pretend for a moment that I am a State employee with a blog that is getting some flack from my boss in say, the CA bureau. I give Mr. Ross my boss’ name.  Mr. Ross may take up my issue with the top honcho of Consular Affairs. If that does not work, he may take it up with the boss of the CA boss, which would be, yes, the Under Secretary for Management, pretty high up the chain.  I imagine that those bosses, whether they agree or not would listen to Secretary Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation; that’s a given.  So I’ll happily blog along, problem solved. Until, of course, Mr. Ross moves on to his next adventure and exits Foggy Bottom.  I, presumably would still continue working for the bureaucracy.  My boss, and his/her boss’ boss would  still continue working for the bureaucracy.  And they would remember me as the blogger somebody who rat on them to the 7th floor using the super fast elevator.  Under this scenario, Mr. Ross’ solution to “take it up” directly with the bosses is like the career equivalent of taking rat poison.

And it got some Alec Ross attention who posted a comment in this blog:

If you have suggestions (that won’t require people to take rat poison), suggest them to me. (I’m in the GAL and will preserve you anonymity). Take me at my word – I want to institutionalize the practice of 21st century statecraft. You are correct that I would “go to the bosses” — these are the folks I know. My internal interlocutors. Also working on the FAM and through other formal mechanisms, but I’m open to additional suggestions. Thanks for your attention to these issues.

I appreciate his offer of anonymity preservation, a nice gesture although not something really necessary.  I was going to write him back with suggestions but then on February 13 one of my blog pals disappeared.  She was not the first and of course, will not be the last.  So I’ve been thinking about these State Department tigers who can safely maul bloggers or their FSOs behind closed doors and wonder what Mr. Ross can really do about them. (Oh, the blog has now reappeared!).

I really should stop calling them tigers.  Despite the sharp teeth, real tigers are still darn cute. And these State Department tigers are not.   I should start calling them by their real names. With dead blogs in their wake, they should be appropriately called Serial Blog Killers. Because that’s what they do. They kill blogs in an almost random fashion. And so far, they have been successful in evading capture and not leaving any marks, precious bodily fluids, fingerprints or paper trail.  My CSI team is like, seriously confused. The cause of death, as always, is undetermined cause.  For some reason, the blog just goes DEYD, like deceased poets, dead and quickly extinct as mastodons, lifeless as Jupiter’s moons and no more of this world.

Mr. Ross said not too long ago that “the 21st century is a lousy time to be a control freak.” If that is really so, there are a lot of folks within the State Department who are having a pretty lousy time right now.  The fact of the matter is that in the last several years we have witnessed the State Department’s organizational schizophrenia manifest in its handling of social media use by employees and family members. These are private blogs written by employees and family members in their private capacity and on their own time.

If I have to send a tweet about the State Department’s promotion of social media and the way it handles some FS members using social media, I think I’ll borrow a phrase from a blog pal:

Dear State Department: Your actions speak so loudly I can hardly hear what you’re saying.

A side note here — when Matt Armstrong was hired as Executive Director for the now defunct Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, I had it in good authority that a condition to his hiring was to stop/stop blogging.  The condition was not set by DGHR or Public Affairs but apparently by — tada!– the office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs aka “R”.

Anyhow, below is a perspective from an FSO published in the Foreign Service Journal:

Anyone who has been called on the carpet for blogging — especially those who have been summoned more than once — can tell you that the only consistent aspect of the department’s feedback is inconsistency.  Blogging is encouraged by some elements within the department and is even discussed on the official page, www.careers.state.gov, complete with a substantial set of links to popular Foreign Service-related blogs. Yet even bloggers listed there are sometimes targeted for official harassment by other elements within the department for having a blog in the first place.

With the exception of Peter Van Buren who is in a public fistfight with the State Department, we don’t really hear much from FSOs talking about blogging, and there is a good reason for that. I wonder if anyone is brave enough to write a dissent cable on this subject? A dissent cable that the public cannot read and that which management can pretend to pay attention to. Oh, I’m not against dissent cables. Frankly, I think it’s great for morale and perpetuates the notion that the organization is open to dissent. As long as it is respectful, of course, goes through the correct “channel” and is properly formatted.

Cultural Learnings of the State Department to Benefit the Internets

The State Department is an old, traditional hierarchy with power concentrated at the top. I remember Mr. Ross saying, “[W]hat social media tends to do, is it redistributes power. It redistributes power from hierarchies to citizens, from large institutions and the nation-state to individuals and networks of individuals.”

I don’t know about that. There was People Power before there was social media.  But let’s just say that what Mr. Ross said is true — redistributing power is pretty much like redistributing wealth, the people at the top usually do not like giving it away. And they’re the ones who write or clear what’s written in the FAM.  Even as the Secretary promotes 21st Century Statecraft and Internet Freedom and even as the first of the Internet generation join the ranks of Foreign Service officers, the sand people in the middle who do not want this and do not get this, remains perplexed as to why anyone would aspire to change anything at all and even put such things in the FAM. After all, isn’t diplomacy what you do behind closed doors because if everyone is looking in nothing gets done? Which is not to under estimate the power of networks and connections but I doubt that affairs of the state will ever become crowd-source.

Alec Ross.  I was thinking of Alec Ross. I don’t know how much they liked him over there.  When I told a blog pal I am writing some suggestions for Mr. Ross, she snorted and asked where was Mr. Ross when so and so’s blog was waterboarded behind closed doors on C. Street?  I have no answer, of course.  We’re not chatty or friends or anything like that and we don’t know where he was during the blogs’ waterboarding.  But I must say, that since we’ve been talking “rat poison” he has been the only one to reach out to us to solicit suggestions. There are already suggestions from an FSO here, and from spouses here and here.

Teaching the State Department cultural learnings to benefit the internets is not going to be a walk in the park. I certainly do not envy Mr. Ross’ job of institutionalizing the 21st Century Statecraft. Remember what happened to Transformational Diplomacy a term ago?  Yep, he will need more than luck. What was it Jeff Stibel said — that once the human mind has set out to do something and has gotten in the habit of doing something, changing it is very hard. Add group dynamics and it is extremely hard. Resistance will find a way.

Anyway, I’m thinking — how can you promote 21st Century Statecraft and sit back when bloggers and social media practitioners are penalized by other parts of the organization?  Is the organization so messed up that its various arms (more than two arms obviously) are more tangled than Rapunzel’s hair? Still, there was something different with this last blog disappearance.  I’d like to imagine that somebody picked up the phone and barked, “Give me Beijing!” Whoever picked up that phone deserves thanks. At least when I make a movie about all this, that’s how it will be. Which is not to say that we won’t hear stories about silenced blogs ever again. Or that the blogger’s FSO is not on somebody’s headache list somewhere.

As one blogger who had a near blog death experience tells it:

They can be anyone anywhere at State who can leverage any authority or have any influence over an employee.  They’re not just one department or one bureau or one piece of State or whatever.  Sure, they can be that employee’s boss, of course… but they can also be their boss’s boss, or boss’s boss’s boss, or anyone at post, or anyone in that section of the world, or anyone anywhere high enough to have any say over what happens to that employee, or anyone in any lateral piece or department who doesn’t like blogging in general or that blog in particular.

A few blogs have run afoul with Diplomatic Security, but it is not/not unheard of to have a run in with regional bureaus, or specific functional bureaus like Consular Affairs, or with post management overseas. The thing is with very few exceptions, no one is willing to come on the record to say why. And that in itself is not a healthy sign.  People are not being taught lessons in responsible use of social media, they are taught that crossing the line can put your career on ice and that there are no second chances.

I kind of think that this would be interesting to Congress who holds the budget purse-strings. See — if the State Department is so understaffed, how come it has enough people to monitor and go after the private blogs of its employees? Surely, they have better things to do than monitor, investigate and write reports about the goings on in private blogs?  Or perhaps the Office of Professional Responsibility in Participatory Media (PR/PM) is now real and acutely staffed?

But there are rules! Ah, the RULES!

Blogging Rules Now With More Ingredients Than Mongolian Grill

The Social Media rules for the State Department in 5 FAM 790 has more ingredients than Mongolian barbeque. Lordy, every time I read it, I get hungry.  It claims authorities from 5 FAM 712 and 27 other federal authorities.  One of the 27 authorities it cites is 3 FAM 4125, Outside Employment and Activities by Spouses and Family Members Abroad.  According to 5 FAM 790, f. Family members of Department personnel working abroad who create and/or use social media cites must adhere to the policies contained in 3 FAM 4125.   3 FAM 4125 says:

a. A spouse or family member of a U.S. citizen employee may accept any outside employment or undertake other outside activity as described in section 3 FAM 4123 (refers to teaching, business activities inside the embassy, authorized political activities related to US elections, involvement in private organizations) working in a foreign country unless such employment:
(1) Would violate any law of such country;
(2) Could require a waiver of diplomatic immunity deemed
unacceptably broad by the Chief of Mission; or
(3) Could otherwise damage the interests of the United States as
determined by the Chief of Mission in that country.

Really, now. Blogging for diplomatic spouses is certainly not in the category of “outside employment” but I think Management is stretching this section of the FAM to include blogging under the gigantic umbrella of “outside activity.” Nowhere is writing, blogging or social media activities even mentioned in 3 FAM 4123.  This needs to be clarified so there is no misunderstanding. Or so that this is not used as a catch-all reason by post management when its runs after spouses’ blogs.

Diplomatic spouses have been declared their own persons since the 1972 Spouse Directive.  Yet, the USG treats them on paper and in real life as if it owns them by dictating what outside activity is permissible overseas.  Perhaps the rationale behind this is hey, the USG pays for you to be overseas with your FSO, including housing, it has a say on what you can do or say while abroad.  [Note that the regs cited above only covers spouses who are abroad and make no mention or claim to spouses living in the United States]. If so, make that trade off clear.

We have not/not seen any spouse blog approaching anywhere near controversial. And yet, blogging for some have become a dangerous activity even if they are not/not writing about secrets, policy, security related issues or potential data for counter-intel scrappers.  Should diplomatic spouses suffer harassment for blogging just because the Principal Officer, or Management Counselor have nightmares about blogs?  Or because senior officers are uncomfortable with blogs containing toucans, bad furniture, baby pictures, etc? Or because the blogger may occasionally be a tad emotional online and it does not fit the Saint EFM’s sparkly halo?

The spouses’ freedom to write, speak, blog, tweet, should not be dependent on the good graces of senior officers and post management overseas. But — under the current regulation, it looks like it is.  That being the case, diplomatic spouses who are expressly told to shut down their blogs should get that takedown notice in writing including an explanation as to how the offending blog is “damaging” to the interest of the United States.  If they have to give up their right to free speech, would it be too much to ask to inform them what they are giving it up for?  Of course, if State wants to be really democratic about it, there should be a way for bloggers to appeal that takedown notice without penalizing the spouse or the FSO. Yeah, I know, too much work, and easier said than done.

Of course, it would be nice to have a list of what might be considered “damaging”  subjects to start with. As one blogger puts it, spouses are not looking to cross the lines, but that’s a hard thing to do if there are no clear lines or if the lines are constantly moving.

For as smart cookies everywhere already know:

DS [Diplomatic Security], and State in general, don’t seem to understand blogging very well,  and seem, lately, to be resorting to intimidation rather than guidance in too many cases.  We need someone who “does” social media at State.  An office that is staffed by people who actually blog, use Facebook, tweet, etc.  And we need practical, common-sense guidelines written by people who understand that the blogging train has already left the station and they’d better learn to drive it. Finally, that guidance needs to be written up in plain language for both officers and family members, and made available to both.

Practical common-sense guidelines is better than the current Mongolian Grill.

On a related note, I’ve also been thinking about Peter Van Buren.  I cannot separate these blog shut downs from Peter Van Buren’s case for one simple reason. If the State Department plays hardball with Mr. Van Buren when he has a large megaphone, what do you think it does behind close doors to the small fries’ blogs? Or to less known FSOs who blog outside the moving lines?

I think the State Department is wrong in letting the Peter Van Buren case fester this long. If there is a poster child for the consequences of 21st Century Statecraft in real life, that is Peter Van Buren.  If there is Exhibit A on a PR debacle under the 21st Century Statecraft, that is Peter Van Buren. And the Serial Blog Killer cannot even blow him a kiss.  I wish the State Department folks would stop wrapping themselves around the axle over him.  It is in their best interest to settle this case as expeditiously as possible, because I can’t imagine them winning points over this one.  Cooler and more sensible heads needed over there ASAP, yesterday.

As always, folks will wonder if this type of harassment, even nuclear option of silencing blogs are really true. Couldn’t this just be rumors?  After all, the State Department has been voted one of the best places to work in the Federal Government.  How could things be that bad?  And would it really do something so contrary to what it preaches to the rest of the world about Internet Freedom and the 21st Century Statecraft?

All I can say is that I did not imagine the dead blogs in the blogmetery. But the stories of the silenced blogs, the threats received, the career blowbacks, and the circumstances of their deaths are not really mine to tell.  So unless there is congressional action or a class action lawsuit, the public may never hear their stories.

On class action lawsuits, I’ve copied the following section to my notepad from US Diplomacy:

In 1968, Foreign Service Officer Alison Palmer filed a sex discrimination case that she won three years later.  Her victory resulted in an order from management barring all discrimination in assignments.  In 1975, when Palmer filed a class action suit on behalf of women Foreign Service Officers, WAO became a silent partner in the suit.  The lawsuit dragged on for many years but ultimately achieved success.  Though controversial within the Foreign Service, the Palmer lawsuit helped pave the way for new opportunities and improved conditions for women FSOs.  A similar sex discrimination class action suit, filed by Carolee Brady Hartman in 1977 against the U.S. Information Agency and the Voice of America, resulted in a settlement in 2000 that paid $532,000 to each of the nearly 1,100 women involved in the case.

What that shows is that change really does not come easy to the State Department. It had to be dragged screaming into gender equality in its hiring and personnel practices until it was beaten up black and blue and had to come to a settlement.  I think the Palmer case concluded after 20 years. The 1977 Hartman case was not settled until 2000, 23 years later.

Change, of course, does not come easy even to the best of organizations. Every change has its gainers and losers. Those with the most to gain will push for change, those with the most to loose will defend the status quo. Senior folks probably are not terribly happy with the prospect of a flatter hierarchy and less control after they’ve spent their careers climbing to the top.  I mean, would you?  But like an FS blogger said, this train has left the station, State better learn to drive it.  The risk of not doing this right is huge – like driving into a ditch. With the bystanders having a good laugh.

Conversation with self can get rather long, and boring after a while. Switch off in two minutes.

Domani Spero

http://emailfromtheembassy.blogspot.com/2011/09/busy-oh-but-im-thinking-lot-about.html

http://wellthatwasdifferent.wordpress.com/2011/09/14/we-interrupt-our-regularly-scheduled-programming/

Who Wants to Be Known as a Serial Blog Killer, Anyway?

English: Serial Killers Gallery at the Nationa...

Image via Wikipedia

And so it goes.

And Kolbi’s blog is resurrected a second time. Which is almost as shocking as Newt Gingrich’s come back after his Aegean cruise.

Anyway, she disappeared on February 13, and we moved the blog to the blogmetery. We spent most of February 14 rounding up the usual suspects on paper. Why? Because that’s what we do when somebody disappears or when a 2010 victim of a Serial Blog Killer is victimized once again. Think Criminal Minds for blogs searching for a Serial Blog Killer’s “signature.”

So on our whiteboard we have listed the possible “suspects” below:

  • The blogger-spouse’s FSO’s section chief at post
  • FSO’s section chief’s boss at post, the Principal Officer
  • Principal Officer’s boss in Beijing, usually the DCM
  • DCM’s boss in Beijing, that’s the Ambassador
  • Ambassador’s boss in DC besides President Obama, the EAP bureau
  • EAP’s boss in DC, that would be “P” (way up on the 7th Floor, tsk! tsk!)

On our side column, we listed the following who may have been offended by the blog or other people of interest we should talk to:

  • the UNSUB or “unknown subject” – could be the janitor or secretary, who knows?
  • DGHR – because human resources has hands in almost all the embassy pies
  • Alec J. Ross, because he is the 21st Century Statecraft guru at State

We were just in the middle of collecting photos to go with the names of the usual suspects when we were told that Kolbi’s blog is back up talking up a storm about Professionals in the Mouth, spicy duck tongues and Helen Keller brand eyeglasses in Chengdu.

我的媽和她的瘋狂的外甥都

Wuh duh ma huh tah duh fong kwong duh wai shuuuung!

We are happy, of course, to move her out of the blogmetery (admittedly, one depressing sidebar).  But the blog was gone slightly more than 24 hours. And very few, if ever, make it back. That she escaped the certainty of a blog death a second time around is nothing short of a miracle.

Is the Serial Blog Killer now playing a different game?  Or is there a lesson here, somehow? We don’t know yet. We’re studying the victimology in the hope that it would help others survive similar attacks. We’re asking questions such as: What did she write about? Who did she piss? What interest of the United States did she jeopardize?

Wait – you think it’s because nobody wants to be known as the Serial Blog Killer?

Don’t know. But to paraphrase Shepherd Book, “If you can’t do something right, do something smart.”

Well, getting off the news before it hits the frontpage is definitely smart, boys!

Domani Spero

Dammit! Which State Dept Tiger Ate This Diplomatic Spouse Blogger for Dinner?

Folks, and paging Alec J. Ross –

— Dudes, this is getting old and making me um throw up! After a quick and sweet goodbye, she’s gone.

A Daring Adventure

— Is this a demonstration of the State Department’s 21st Century Statecraft at work? 

— Wow! 

— Now I have to add this blog to the Foreign Service Blogmetery. See the lower left hand sidebar of this blog, please.  Yes, unfortunately, the blogmetery is growing. Most of them died under suspicious circumstances. There’s a serial blog killer around, and I think there is more than one.

— Say, who are you folks going to eat for lunch, tomorrow?

Domani Spero