USCG Milan rolled out its “burger diplomacy” with Chef Spike Mendelsohn and his signature “Prez Obama” and “Michelle Melt” burgers from Tizzy’s N.Y. Bar & Grill. Milan is also the site of @Expo2015Milano and on 4th of July, @USAPavilion2015 must have quite a spread.
Let’s start our roundup at the National Archives where there is a host of free activities on July 4 for those in the WashDC area. Hey, you can sign a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence and share your #ISignedTheDeclaration on social media! There will be a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence, a presentation of colors and performance by the Continental Color Guard and the Fife and Drum Corps from the U.S. 3rd Infantry, the Old Guard. You can even take a ColonialSelfie w/ @Thos_Jefferson@portia1776 or @Lysander1776 on #July4th! Check it out here: http://go.usa.gov/3vTrT.
Ambassador and Mrs. Heyman hosted 4,000 guests at Lornado, with representatives from 70 countries in attendance. The embassy’s Motor City Rising theme includes bagpipers, drums, bands and Motwon music.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and “Game of Thrones” actress Emilia Clarke arrived in Seoul to promote the fifth installment in the “Terminator” franchise, “Terminator Genisys“ directed by Alan Taylor. They visited Ambassador Lippert, at the COM residence, and Grigsby got a kiss from Terminator man.
Hollywood’s efforts to win political clout have always stretched across the country, from glitzy campaign fundraisers in Beverly Hills to cocktail parties with power brokers in Washington.
Last year, the film industry staked out another zone of influence: U.S. embassies. Its lobbying arm paid to renovate screening rooms in at least four overseas outposts, hoping the new theaters would help ambassadors and their foreign guests “keep U.S. cultural interests top of mind,” according to an internal email.
That was the same year that the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents the six biggest studios, reported it was lobbying the State Department on issues including piracy and online content distribution. Hollywood’s interests 2013 including its push for tougher copyright rules in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact 2013 often put the industry at odds with Silicon Valley.
The only public indication of the embassy-theater initiative was a February 2015 press release from American officials in Madrid, titled “U.S. Embassy Launches State-of-the-Art Screening Room.” It credited “a generous donation” from the MPAA.
Asked about its gifts to the State Department, the lobby group declined to say how many embassies got donations or how much they were worth.
“Because film is a great ambassador for U.S. culture around the world, MPAA assisted with the upgrade of some embassy theater facilities,” said spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield. “All gifts complied with the law as well as with State Department ethics guidelines.”
Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokeswoman, said at least three embassies besides Madrid received between $20,000 and $50,000 in entertainment upgrades last year 2013 London, Paris and Rome. The revamped screening rooms, she said, aren’t intended to entertain U.S. officials, but rather to help them host screenings to promote an American industry and sow goodwill.
Thompson said the donations were proper and that all gifts to the department are reviewed to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. “The department has explicit authorities to accept gifts made for its benefit or for carrying out any of its functions,” she said.
The State Department routinely accepts gifts from outside groups, Thompson said. She couldn’t provide any other examples of major gifts from groups that simultaneously lobby the agency. Thompson declined to list the items given by the MPAA or their total value, and wouldn’t say whether the group had made similar gifts in the past.
There was at least one precedent. A spokesman for Warner Bros. Entertainment said the studio helped pay for the refurbishment of the screening room at the U.S. ambassador’s home in Paris in 2011. “This donation was coordinated with the State Department and complied with all appropriate rules and regulations,” the spokesman said.
State Department policies posted online specifically permit gifts from individuals, groups or corporations for “embassy refurbishment, ” provided that the donors are vetted to ensure there’s no conflict or possible “embarrassment or harm” to the agency. The posted policies include no caps on the value of donations, nor any requirements for public disclosure of foreign or American donors. The rules also say that the donations can’t come with a promise or expectation of “any advantage or preference from the U.S. Government.”
Obtaining an advantage, albeit a nonspecific one, sounded like the goal when a Sony Pictures Entertainment official wrote to the studio’s chief executive officer, Michael Lynton, to relay a request to fund the screening rooms from Chris Dodd, the former U.S. senator who heads the MPAA. The executive writing the note 2013 Keith Weaver 2013 sought to assure the CEO that such a donation wouldn’t be improper.
“The rationale being that key Ambassadors will keep U.S. cultural interests top of mind, as they screen American movies for high level officials where they are stationed,” reads the message, included in a cache of emails hacked from Sony and which were posted online by the website WikiLeaks.
“The cost implication is estimated to be $165k (aggregate of $$$/in-kind) per embassy/per studio. Apparently, donations of this kind are permissible.”
Besides Sony, the MPAA represents Disney, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Studios and Warner Bros. Entertainment. The e-mails suggest that Sony executives decided against contributing to the project for budget reasons.
The MPAA has long been a powerful presence in the nation’s capital, spending $1.34 million on federal lobbying last year, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. One of its flashier tools has been to host exclusive gatherings at its Washington screening room, two blocks from the White House, where lawmakers get to watch blockbuster films, rub elbows with celebrities, and up until several years ago, enjoy dinner 2013 a perk scuttled because of stricter rules on congressional lobbying.
Hollywood studios depend on foreign markets for much of their profit but the MPAA’s interests don’t always align with those of other major American constituencies. For example, Hollywood studios have moved some film production to Canada to cut costs. American film workers have tried to get the federal government to stop the outsourcing of jobs, but have been met with resistance from the MPAA.
The trade group has also pushed federal officials to pressure foreign governments into adopting stricter copyright laws. An MPAA-funded study found that in 2005 worldwide piracy cost American studios $6.1 billion in revenue. That number has been disputed by digital rights advocates.
For the TPP trade deal, the MPAA has discouraged the American government from exporting “fair use” protections to other countries. In a hacked message from Dodd to the U.S. Trade Representative, the MPAA chief warned that including such provisions, which in American law allow limited use of copyrighted materials without permission, would be “extremely controversial and divisive.” Digital rights activists have characterized the efforts as overzealous.
“They’re basically encouraging other countries to adopt the most draconian parts of U.S. copyright law and even to reinterpret U.S. copyright law to make it more stringent,” said Mitch Stoltz, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Broadly speaking broadening copyright law harms free speech in many cases by creating a mechanism for censorship.”
The state-of-the-art screening rooms are a relatively minimal investment by Hollywood as it works to strengthen connections abroad.
This spring, the U.S. ambassador to Spain, James Costos, brought a group of foreign officials to Los Angeles for a meeting hosted by the MPAA. Among them were representatives from the Canary Islands, who came prepared to discuss filming opportunities and tax incentives for American studios in the Spanish territory. The State Department touted the trip as an opportunity to “expand bilateral trade and investment, including through ties between the entertainment industries.”
It’s not known whether the path to that particular meeting was eased by the new screening room in Madrid. At the theater’s debut in February, the ambassador’s guests were treated to a dark tale of corruption, lobbying and double-dealing in Washington 2013 the Netflix series “House of Cards.”
According to history.state.gov, the United States remained in Cuba as an occupying power until the Republic of Cuba was formally installed on May 19, 1902 following the defeat of Spain in 1898. On May 20, 1902, the United States relinquished its occupation authority over Cuba, but claimed a continuing right to intervene in Cuba. Diplomatic relations and the U.S. Legation in Havana were established on May 27, 1902, when U.S. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary Herbert Goldsmith Squiers presented his credentials to the Government of the Republic of Cuba. Following an act of Congress, the U.S. Legation in Havana, Cuba, was raised to Embassy status on February 10, 1923, when General Enoch H. Crowder was appointed Ambassador. The United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba on January 3, 1961, citing unwarranted action by the Government of Cuba that placed crippling limitations on the ability of the United States Mission to carry on its normal diplomatic and consular functions.
Today, after over 50 years, a new day. For once, instead of boots on the ground, diplomatic negotiations and engagement made this day possible. It appears that we have rediscovered the non-coercive instruments of statecraft (as Ambassador Chas Freeman spoke about so eloquently), that persuaded the Cubans that they can benefit by working with us rather than against us. A big shout-out to our diplomats who labored so hard to get us here!
Terrorists attacked sites in France, Tunisia and Kuwait today. At least 37 people including British, Belgian and German nationals were killed by gunmen at a beach resort in Tunisia, one person was reportedly decapitated in France at a US-owned factory, and at least 25 people were killed at a suicide bombing at a mosque in Kuwait. Three countries, three continents and all soft targets.
The US Embassy Paris released the following security message on 6/26/2015
The U.S. Embassy in Paris informs U.S. citizens that a terrorist attack took place at approximately 10 AM today at a U.S.-owned factory in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, Isere, France, southeast of Lyon, at a large industrial park. One person was killed and two others were reported injured. None of the deceased or injured was a U.S. citizen. The motivation for the attack is unknown, and one suspect is in French government custody. The Government of France maintains a threat rating system, known locally as “Vigipirate,” similar to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Advisory System. Following the January 2015 terrorist attacks, the Government of France raised the “Vigipirate” level and continues to evaluate its security posture on a regular basis. Up-to-date information is available on the “Vigipirate” website in French.
Under this system, the government routinely augments police with armed forces and increases visibility at airports, train and metro stations, and other high-profile locations such as schools, major tourist attractions, and government installations. Over the last few years, there have been arrests of suspected militant extremists allegedly involved in terrorist plots. French authorities have spoken publicly about the heightened threat conditions for terrorist attacks in Europe.
U.S. citizens in France are encouraged to remain vigilant. Immediately report unattended packages observed in public places, or any other suspicious activities, to French law enforcement authorities. French authorities are proactive and will respond immediately. If there is a security incident or suspicious package, do not linger in the area to observe.
The US Embassy in Tunis released the following 6/26/2015 message:
The U.S. Embassy wishes to alert U.S. citizens to a terrorist attack in Tunisia around the Kantaoui area at the Imperial Riu Marhaba and Soviva hotels in Sousse. The U.S. Embassy urges U.S. citizens to avoid the Kantaoui area and surrounding vicinity. The U.S. Embassy reiterates our standing guidance that U.S. citizens in Tunisia should exercise caution when frequenting public venues that are visited by large numbers of foreigners, such as hotels, shopping centers, and tourist sites and restaurants.
U.S. citizens should also be alert to the possibility of kidnapping. U.S. citizens are reminded to exercise caution and avoid areas where large gatherings may occur. Even demonstrations or events intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence. U.S. citizens should monitor local events, report suspicious activity to the local police, and take appropriate steps to bolster their own security.
Travelers contemplating trips to the interior of the country should assess local conditions and routes when making travel plans. In particular, all travel south of the designated military zone in the south must be coordinated in advance with Tunisian authorities. Also, travel to either border should be avoided if possible given the periodic security incidents along the border regions.
The US Embassy in Kuwait issued this: Explosion at Mosque in Al-Sawaber neighborhood of Kuwait City – Security Notice for U.S. Citizens 2015
There has been an explosion at a mosque in the Al Sawaber neighborhood of Kuwait. There have been reports of deaths and injuries. U.S. citizens should avoid the area. Please stay current with media coverage of local and regional events. U.S. Mission personnel have been advised to continue to practice personal security awareness and we advise the U.S. citizen community to do the same.
The embassy also released a statement calling the explosion “a senseless terrorist attack on worshipers in the Al-Imam Al-Sadiq Mosque”, condemning the attack and says that “the United States stands ready to assist our friend and ally Kuwait in any way possible.”
SCOTUS ruled today in a 5-4 decision that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. Justice Kennedy said gay and lesbian couples had a fundamental right to marry. Excerpt from the majority opinion written by Justice Kennedy (via NYT):
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” he wrote. “In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”
“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage,” Justice Kennedy said of the couples challenging state bans on same-sex marriage. “Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
The case is Obergefell v. Hodges. Read the SCOTUS opinion here (pdf). Sending hugs to our friends in the LGBT community this beautiful and historic summer day!
Below is a round-up of U.S. embassies marking LGBT Pride Month this year:
Update via US Embassy Bujumbura on the students who entered the embassy compound:
After the Burundian National Police broke down the student camp at the construction site yesterday, the university student who sought refuge at the U.S.Embassy were allowed to stay for the afternoon and provided with water. The students remained in the Embassy parking lot until approximately 7:30 pm when they departed of their own free will after speaking with Ambassador Dawn Liberi. There was no effort to forcibly remove them.
The students relocated to a refuge run by a religious entity. The U.S. Embassy continues to work with the Government of Burundi to fully resolve this issue and has also been in contact with humanitarian organizations on behalf of the students.
The US Embassy released the following statement on June 25:
At approximately 1:15 pm Burundian National Police entered a construction site adjacent to the U.S. Embassy where university students set up camp seeking refuge when violence broke out in Bujumbura at the end of April and the national university was closed. The students dispersed from the site in an orderly manner and some entered the Embassy parking lot. Approximately 100 students peacefully remain in the visitor parking lot of the U.S. Embassy.
The police and students had no physical confrontation. The police officers did not resort to violence; no shots were fired and tear gas was not used. Four people suffered minor injuries during the movement. All embassy staff members are safe and accounted for.
The U.S. Embassy has contacted the Government of Burundi and urged them to find a peaceful resolution to the situation.
We understand that the students went into a lot that is outside the real embassy perimeter (as per standard embassy design). We’re also told that the gap below the gate is probably due to ground settling over the years since construction.
We should note that the embassy occupied the new embassy compound in October 2012. According to the OIG report, the embassy occupies a modern compound with an electrical generating capacity equal to that of the entire national grid. The capital cost of the new embassy compound, $137 million, is 25 percent of the national government’s annual budget.
The State Department’s Consular Consolidated Database problems that affected travelers globally is is now back online at 165 of 220 visa issuance posts worldwide. The latest update does not explain in details the cause of the glitch except to cite the hardware issue. It also says that service was restored “using a redundant, secondary backup system and other sources.” It does not explain what “other sources” mean but if it took at least 9 days to get that redundant, secondary back-up system to kick in, that’s not a very good system.
The Consular Affairs-issued FAQ asks how many people were affected by this outage? The answer it provides to this question is neither here nor there. Folks, if you can’t answer your own question, please don’t include it.
According to travel.state.gov, the average visa applications processed every day worldwide is 50,000 x 9 days (June 9-19)=450,000 + 25,000 (half the average daily applications) x 4 days (June 22-25) = 100,000. Total number potentially affected 550,000. Is that close enough?
The June 25 update says that if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 540,000 visas since the outage started. Whoa! Help us out here. What kind of refusal/approval rates are we looking at here? That 540,000 figure is a little hinky because not all applicants who apply are issued visas. If it would have issued 540,000 visas, what would have been the total number of applicants? Note that all of them must pay the visa fees. We estimate that the USG loss from this latest glitch is between $72 to $84 million (average daily applications globally x no. of days x $160 visa fee). Is that too low?
Meanwhile, StarrFMonline.comreported that the US Embassy in Accra, has “dismissed reports that it is ripping Ghanaians off by accepting visa fees in spite of the visa issuance imbroglio that has hit US embassies across the world.” The consular section chief had to explain that “if anybody was refused a visa, that was because of the case and has nothing to do with our technical issues.”
On June 24, the Bureau of Consular Affairs reports that 50 posts, representing nearly 73 percent of its nonimmigrant visa demand worldwide, are back online and issuing visas. It also says that “posts overseas have issued more than 150,000 non-immigrant visas since June 9.” And that for context, if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 450,000 visas during the June 9-23 timeframe.
On June 25, the Bureau of Consular Affairs reports that 165 posts, representing more than 85 percent of nonimmigrant visa demand worldwide, are now online and issuing visas. The update says that if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 540,000 visas since the outage started.
Via travel.state.gov, June 25 update:
Visa Systems Issues
The Bureau of Consular Affairs reports that 165 posts, representing more than 85 percent of our nonimmigrant visa demand worldwide, are now online and issuing visas.
Posts overseas issued more than 82,000 visas on June 24.
Posts overseas have issued more than 238,000 non-immigrant visas this week. For context, if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 540,000 visas since the outage started.
We will continue to bring additional posts online until connectivity with all posts is restored. All posts worldwide are now scheduling interviews with applicants, including with those who applied after the systems problems began on June 9.
We deeply regret the inconvenience to travelers who are waiting for visas, as well as their families and U.S. businesses that have been affected.
We continue to post updates to our website, travel.state.gov.
Q: Reports indicate that your backlog is 700,000 visas. Is this accurate?
No. While there is a large backlog of cases to clear, it never approached that level, and we have already made good progress issuing those visas. Many posts are working overtime this week and during the upcoming weekend, and we expect to eliminate the backlog in a week or less.
Q: How old is this equipment? And does the age of the equipment and the need to have so many repairs to the hardware mean that this equipment should have been replaced? Is this a funding issue at the base of it?
The hardware that impacted the biometrics system is several years old. The Department was working to move the biometrics system off of this hardware.
The operational requirements to keep this database running for domestic and overseas passport and visa issuances caused delays in upgrading the database according to our planned maintenance schedule.
We have been working to upgrade our systems over the past year.
We will move ahead with planned migration and systems upgrades as soon as we fully restore service.
Q: How did you restore service?
We restored service using a redundant, secondary backup system and other sources. That data allowed us to begin to re-connect posts to the affected portion of the system and synchronize biometric data. This system is running on newer hardware, and has a synchronized standby system in a different Department data center.
In parallel, we are continuing to restore data from backups and overseas post databases. This process is ongoing.
Q: Do you know whether this is equipment that was acquired directly by the State Department, or was this acquired through a third-party contractor?
The equipment was acquired by the Department of State.
Q: How many people were affected by this outage?
During the past two weeks, consular sections have continued to interview travelers who applied June 8 or earlier. Those posts reconnected to our system are now issuing visas for those applicants.
Q: How are cases being prioritized?
We continue to facilitate urgent cases for those individuals who need to travel imminently, and will continue to do so until the systems are normal.
We apologize to travelers and recognize that this has caused hardship to some individuals waiting for visas as well as families and employers.
Q: What about the foreign agricultural workers (H2A visa holders?)
More than 2,500 temporary or seasonal workers have been issued new visas in Mexico since last week.
We will continue to prioritize H-2 applicants as our systems return to normal, and issue as many approved cases as possible. However, we will not be able to process these as quickly as we typically do until our systems are functioning normally. We continue to ask that any employers with urgent needs contact the post which is processing their applicants and we will do everything we can to facilitate the cases.
We are no longer asking CBP to provide Port of Entry waivers, as we have now begun issuing visas at border posts.
Visa applicants, including agricultural workers, who have not received a visa should not report to the border. Please contact the nearest embassy or consulate.