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

Posted: 1:56 am  EDT

 

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Via travel.state.gov, June 25 update:

Visa Systems Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Q: How did you restore service?

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

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

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

The equipment was acquired by the Department of State.

Q: How many people were affected by this outage?

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

Q: How are cases being prioritized?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more here.

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

Posted: 1:23 am  EDT

 

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

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

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

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

Top Nonimmigrant (Temporary) Visa Issuance Posts | FY2014

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

Update below via travel.state.gov:

Visa Systems Issues

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

Q: How long before you restore full system functionality?

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

Q: How many travelers are affected by this outage?

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

Q: Once operational, how will cases be prioritized?

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

Q: What about domestic passports?

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

Q: What about overseas passports?

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

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

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

Related posts:

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

State Dept’s Consular Database Problems Dash Plans, Dreams … Also Cost Up to $1M/Day in California

Posted: 4:46 pm  EDT

 

On June 12, we posted about the technical problems with the State Department’s overseas passport and visa systems.  Passport applications accepted overseas on or after May 26, 2015 are affected but emergency passports are available.  A hardware failure on June 9 halted the flow of biometric clearance requests from posts to the State Department’s Consular Consolidated Database (CCD). Individuals who submitted online applications or were interviewed for visas on or after June 9 are affected and are asked to reschedule appointments . No emergency visas available. See State Dept’s Overseas Passport and Visa Systems Hit By Glitch Again, Suspends Issuance.

On June 15, the Bureau of Consular Affairs posted the following update on its Facebook page but not on its travel.state.gov news page:

We continue to experience technical problems with our visa systems. This issue is not specific to any particular country or visa category. We apologize for the inconvenience and we are working around the clock to correct the problem. Currently, we are unable to print most immigrant and nonimmigrant visas approved after June 8, 2015. In addition, U.S. embassies and consulates are unable to process new applications submitted on or after June 9, 2015. If you have a visa interview appointment scheduled for June 14-20, 2015, and you submitted your DS-160 online application **after June 9, 2015,** you should reschedule your appointment. If you submitted your DS-160 online application prior to June 9, 2015, you should plan to attend your scheduled visa interview appointment. Our embassies and consulates will be posting location-specific information on their websites, so please check the website of the location where you applied for your visa for more information. 

The technical issues also affected the Department of State’s ability to adjudicate applications for U.S. passports accepted overseas between May 26 and June 14, 2015. If you applied for a U.S. passport overseas during this time frame and have travel plans within the next 10 business days, please consider requesting an emergency passport at the U.S. embassy or consulate at which you originally applied. Information about how to apply for an emergency passport is available on the embassy/consulate website.

The previous time the CCD crashed big time was last summer (see State Dept’s Critical National Security Database Crashes, Melts Global Travelers’ Patience).  It could just be a coincidence (or not!) but the crash has now happened twice during the peak travel season. During the meltdown last summer, CA said that CCD was going to have an upgrade at the end of 2014. It also  said at that time that the upgrade plan included two redundant systems. If this glitch started on May 26th, we’re approaching the three week-mark. And so far, those redundant systems are missing in action.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs on its FAQ states that “This is not the same issue as last year.” But we learned from an unofficial source that “All line officers know that last summer’s CCD glitch was never completely fixed.” 

So, which is it?

On June 15, the Wall Street Journal reported that the CCD glitch has left agricultural workers stranded at the border just as the summer harvest gets under way. Jason Resnick, the general counsel for the Western Growers Association, which represents farmers in California, Arizona and Colorado calls this glitch, “a crisis.” Apparently, more than 1,000 workers who expected H-2A agricultural visas are stuck on the Mexican side of the border, where motels are overflowing.

“The workers are overdue to start harvesting berries and other crops on U.S. farms. Mr. Resnick estimated that California agriculture, already stressed by drought, is losing $500,000 to $1 million for each day of delay.”

.

The State Department’s consular operation is an enormous one with many parts and affects a large number of travelers.  The State Department issued 9,932,480 nonimmigrant/temporary visas in FY2014. It issued 467,370 immigrant/permanent visas in FY2014. During the same period, domestic and overseas passport offices issued 14,087,341 U.S. passports (including 1,463,191 passport cards).

A small fraction of those frustrated travelers have taken to Facebook to connect with Consular Affairs.

One who is stuck in Canada and could not return to her 14th month old baby writes:

Hi, do you have any timeline to fix the issues? I live in Boston, US & visited Vancouver, BC consulate on June 10th for my visa interview. visa officer told me that your visa is approved and you will get your passport back in 3 days. However, since June 10th, there is no update on my visa. I also inquired with Vancouver Consulate and they are ready to give me passport back without visa. As a matter of fact, I can’t enter into US legally until and unless I got printed Visa. My 14th month baby is waiting in Boston,MA and I got stuck here. Can’t do anything.

Here’s one waiting to be reunited with a loved one after a long wait:

Waiting is excruciating my husband was approved on june 10th and my mother has passed away. We need him home please get this fixed our application has been in since 2013.

Somebody who is pregnant, stuck in Mexico writes:

I am currently 8 months pregnant and have been waiting for my TD visa renewal since mid May. Since I will soon have travel restrictions to fly back home, does this qualify as an urgent humanitarian situation where I should contact the embassy in Mexico directly?

One who missed grandma’s funeral makes a plea:”

Can you tell us a estimated time??? My case was expedited and I miss my Grandmother funeral. Me and my wife were supposed to travel yesterday. Please get this fixed.please

A family stuck in Mexico:

Do you have an ETA in order for ys to plan accordingly? I had my appointment on friday june 12th and I am stuck in Mexico (H1B renewal) without passport and without the ability to get back to work in Boston. Flight fees, hotel fees and a family of 4 that needs to get back to Boston.

Some people missing a convention:

My wife and I have a flight to ny tom. Our visa were approved on 9th. We are part of 100+ group attending a convention. Do we expect to get our passports with visas today?

Somebody stuck in Guatemala, fears loss of a job:

All my documents were in order and approved June 1st. my husband and I are in a dire situation stuck in Guatemala. I’m at risk of losing my job if I don’t return to USA.

A frustrated somebody who calls out other technical issues:

There’s always something wrong. There are already technical issues with payment of IV fees, DS260 and DS261. This system needs to be revamped. What’s the government doing about this?!

A Romanian group who worked and saved to attend the Genius Olympiad:

We are desperate. We have a plane ticker for tomorrow and we were supposed to go to an international competition (Genius Olympiad) in Oswego, NYC. Apart from the part that we lost thousands of dollars, our hopes got crashed because we worked for a year at our projects and invested a lot of time and monney… For… Nothing?!?!?! How come you have no plan B for solving this issue? We tried making an appointment more than one month ago and they said on the 9th on june will be our interview, we said it s too late for us but they said that the visa will be delivered within 2 days maximum. And here we are 5 days later with no visas, with crashed hopes, tons of lost monney, wasted time… Should i go on??

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State Dept’s Overseas Passport and Visa Systems Hit By Glitch Again, Suspends Issuance

Posted: 11:09 pm EDT

 

Somebody sent us a note on June 11 asking, “Do you think the Chinese hackers could fix the Consular Consolidated Database?” Fix, how, we asked the white, empty space of the burn bag email.

Today, this pops up:

.

Here is the information provided by the State Department to the public:

Passport/Visa Systems Errors

  • The Bureau of Consular Affairs is currently experiencing technical problems with our overseas passport and visa systems.
  • This issue is not specific to any particular country, citizenship document, or visa category.
  • The Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) problems we are experiencing are not the same challenges we overcame last summer. We are working urgently to correct the problems and restore our system to full operational status as soon as possible.
  • We apologize to applicants who are experiencing delays or are unable to obtain a passport overseas, Consular Report of Birth Abroad, or U.S. visa at this time. Domestic passport issuances are not affected at this time. We are able to issue emergency passports to U.S. citizens overseas for urgent travel.
  • We are seeking to assist non-immigrant visa applicants with urgent humanitarian travel. Travelers with an urgent humanitarian need for travel should contact their nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
  • We are aware of pending overseas adoption cases, including in China. We are prioritizing these cases and seek to issue these visas with few delays.
  • We regret the inconvenience to travelers, and remain committed to facilitating legitimate travel while protecting our borders. We are working urgently to correct the problem and expect our system to be fully operational again soon.
  • We will post updates to Travel.State.Gov as more information becomes available.

How is this affecting consular operations?

      Passports

  • Passport applications accepted overseas on or after May 26, 2015 are affected. If you applied for a U.S. passport during this time frame and have travel plans within the next 10 business days, please consider requesting an emergency passport at the U.S. embassy or consulate at which you originally applied. Information about how to apply for an emergency passport is available on the website of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

      Visas

  • A hardware failure on June 9 halted the flow of biometric clearance requests from posts to the Consular Consolidated Database (CCD). Individuals who submitted online applications or were interviewed for visas on or after June 9 may experience a delay in the processing.
  • The systems in place to perform required national security checks before we issue visas are experiencing technical difficulties. As a result, we are unable to print visas, regular passports overseas, and other travel documents.
  • We cannot bypass the legal requirements necessary to screen visa applicants before we issue visas for travel.
  • As a result, there is a backlog of visas waiting to be processed. We are working as quickly as possible to resolve the issue and to clear the backlog.
  • The technical issues we are experiencing have disrupted or prevented some of the Department’s primary data-share partners from accessing visa records.

The public notice notes that visas cannot be printed without using the CCD system as security measures prevent consular officers from printing a passport, report of birth abroad, or visa until the case completes the required national security checks.visas

On the CA Q&A whether this was a malicious action or hack, the public response only says that the State Department is “working urgently to correct the problem and expect the system to be fully operational again soon.”  There is currently no available timeline on when full system functionality may be restored.

Read the full notice here.

We should note that the person in charge of the CA Bureau’s response the last time the CCD had a meltdown was  Greg Ambrose, a career IT official who was the chief of consular systems and technology (State/CA/CST). FCW previously reported this:

He has been working on a modernization project at State that involves taking the Consular Consolidated Database, a massive system of 12 databases used to process passport and visa applications, from Windows 2003 to Linux. He is also moving the data warehouse to the more powerful Oracle 11g platform. The goal is to give the stovepiped legacy systems a single look and feel.

Not this time around.

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Citing internal State Department email, FCW says that Mr. Ambrose is scheduled to leave his CST job on June 11.  As of today, Kenneth Reynolds, Ambrose’s deputy reportedly replaced him on an acting capacity.

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Related posts:

 

 

Dear Consular Affairs, This Is Giving Us Sorta Kinda Nightmares

Posted: 12:24 am EDT

 

An assistant secretary of the Bureau of Consular Affairs told Congress in 2003 that “the Department of State’s visa work abroad constitutes the “forward based defense” of the United States against terrorists and criminals who seek to enter the country to harm us.” 

In 2012, the deputy assistant secretary for visa services told Congress, “We are the first line of defense in border security because the Department is often the first government agency to have contact with foreign nationals wishing to visit the United States” (pdf).

We get that, and then you read about embassy officials who all had full-time duties elsewhere in the embassy serving as consular officers.  Some of them who apparently had no experience with consular work performed consular functions according to the OIG inspectors.  No consular experience? We wonder if that means first tour officers who went through the consular course but serving in a non-consular function at post, or does that mean embassy officials with no prior experience but hopefully, at least, with Con-Gen light training? Folks might read this and scream like … but that is such a small consular operation.  Well, that’s true enough.  But like they say, the bad guys only have to succeed once, and we know that they are trying mighty hard every day.

Via State/OIG inspection report of US Embassy Antananarivo (pdf):

The small consular section provides the full range of consular services, and Department end users express satisfaction with the work of the section. The embassy processed 1,579 nonimmigrant visas in FY 2014. Demand for immigration from Madagascar and Comoros to the United States has been low historically. Between FYs 2009 and 2014, the embassy issued on average fewer than 35 immigrant visas each year. The consular staff noted that few citizens of Madagascar and Comoros have taken advantage of the Diversity Visa Program that Congress created to diversify the sources of immigration to the United States. In 2013, the consular staff started publicizing the Diversity Visa Program in Madagascar and Comoros. More than 21,400 Malagasy submitted entries for the program in 2013, three times the number who applied in 2012.

The consular section chief position experienced a gap of 8 months from December 2011 to August 2012 because of a voluntary curtailment by the previous consular officer. The embassy assured the Department that backup officers at the embassy could cover the gap. Several different officers served as consular officers during that period, but all had full-time duties elsewhere in the embassy and some had no experience doing consular work. Because the amount of consular work in Antananarivo was low, the Department accepted the backup assurances as acceptable and decided not to send any officers on temporary duty assignment during the 8-month gap.

When the current consular section chief arrived, he discovered several problems with consular management controls. The backup officers had not done the daily accounting for consular cash receipts from April to August 2012, a management control vulnerability that the consular section chief reported to the Bureau of Consular Affairs. The consular section chief also learned that one of the backup officers was attempting to use consular funds to pay for a nonconsular trip to Comoros and to purchase equipment, such as iPads and four flat-screen televisions, that were ostensibly for use in the consular section but in fact were meant for use elsewhere in the embassy. The current consular section chief stopped those inappropriate expenditures of consular funds and reconstructed the consular cash records for the 8-month period. He did not find any discrepancies in accounting for the consular cash. However, this incident highlights the fact that consular management controls can go awry even in small consular operations, especially when no full-time consular manager is present. The embassy gave assurances to the Department that an officer who headed another section could serve concurrently as consular section chief for 8 months. The Department needs to consider carefully the credibility of such assurances when evaluating options for filling staffing gaps.

The consular section chief has had discussions with the Bureau of Consular Affairs about the fact that his consular workload does not require a full 40 hours per week. Officials in the Bureau of Consular Affairs suggested that the consular section chief could volunteer to take on other duties in the embassy. During the inspection, in consultation with the OIG inspection team, the chargé d’affaires designated him as the backup Comoros reporting officer.

We doubt that these gaps or occasionally, the temporary closures of consular section when the sole consular officers are away from their posts had to do with money, since the CA bureau certainly has tons of that. So we’re wondering if this has more to do with poor planning.  If not, well, what is it?
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Well, now …

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U.S. Diplomatic Posts in Saudi Arabia Cancel All Consular Services For March 15/16 Due to Security Concerns

Posted: 4:28 pm PDT
Updated: 4:34 pm PDT with posts phone numbers

 

The U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia announced today the cancellation of all consular services in Riyadh, and the consulates in Dhahran and Jeddah due to security concerns. Below is part of the announcement:

Due to heightened security concerns at U.S. diplomatic facilities in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Embassy and Consulates have cancelled all consular services in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dhahran for Sunday, March 15 and Monday, March 16, 2015. Telephone lines to the Consular sections will not be open during these two days. In an emergency, please use the emergency contact numbers provided below.

All U.S. citizens are encouraged to be aware of their surroundings, and take extra precautions when travelling throughout the country. The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Saudi Arabia and limit non-essential travel within the country.
[…]
Always carry a cell phone and make sure you have emergency numbers pre-programmed into your phone such as the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh (011-488-3800), U.S. Consulate General in Jeddah (012-667-0080), and U.S. Consulate General in Dhahran (013-330-3200). The emergency number for the Saudi Police, Fire, and Rescue is 999. Please keep in mind that most emergency dispatchers and personnel do not speak English.

CIA Map

Original Map Source – CIA

 

On March 7, Embassy Riyadh notified U.S. citizens in Saudi Arabia that it had been made aware of information stating that” individuals associated with a terrorist organization are targeting employees of Chevron in Saudi Arabia for a possible attack. There is no further information on the timing, target, location, or method of any planned attacks.”

Yesterday, another security message released said that “individuals associated with a terrorist organization could be targeting Western oil workers, possibly to include those U.S. citizens working for oil companies in the Eastern Province, for an attack(s) and/or kidnapping(s). There is no further information on the timing, target, location, or method of any planned attacks.”

In February, the State Department updated its Travel Warning for Saudi Arabia urging U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Saudi Arabia.  The warning noted the recent attacks on U.S. citizens and other Western expatriates, an attack on Shi’ite Muslims outside a community center in the Eastern Province on November 3, 2014, and continuing reports of threats against U.S. citizens and other Westerners in the Kingdom.

All three Saudi Arabian posts are 15% danger pay posts as of March 8, 2015.

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Security Messages

 

U.S. Embassy Caracas Issues Security Message on Recent Detention of Several U.S. Citizens in Venezuela

Posted: 00:53 EST

 

We saw this the other night:

 

On March 4, the US Embassy in Caracas issued the following security message on the recent detention of U.S. citizens in Venezuela:

The U.S. Embassy wishes to call to the attention of U.S. citizens traveling to or living in Venezuela the Government of Venezuela’s recent detention of several U.S. citizens in Venezuela. Under the Vienna Convention, if you are arrested overseas, you have the option to request that the police, prison officials, or other authorities alert the nearest U.S. embassy of your arrest and to have communications from you forwarded to the nearest U.S. embassy. In practice, the Venezuelan government frequently fails to notify the U.S. Embassy when U.S. citizens are arrested or detained, and/or delays or denies to U.S. detainees. Please ask friends or family to notify the U.S. Embassy immediately on your behalf should you be detained by government authorities.

This announcement is available on the U.S. embassy website, but is not/not available on the embassy’s Facebook or Twitter feed.  When we inquired from the embassy’s Public Affairs Office, we were told to direct our inquiry to the Consular Section. Like whaaat?

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This can’t possibly be an easy time for what is already a challenging environment, so let that slide for now.  The American Citizen Service at Embassy Caracas did not respond to our inquiry.  A related note, the Diplomatic Security’s Crime and Safety report on Venezuela in 2014 says:

Harassment of U.S. citizens by airport authorities and some segments of the police are limited but do occur. Any incident should be reported to American Citizen Services (ACS) Unit at the U.S. Embassy. The ACS Unit can be reached by telephone at +58 (212) 907-8365 or by e-mail at ACSVenezuela@state.gov.

The recent detention of U.S. citizens in Venezuela is clearly an escalation beyond simple harassment.

The United States does not appear to have a bilateral agreement with Venezuela concerning mandatory notification when it comes to the arrest of U.S. nationals in Venezuela.

However, Venezuela is a party to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR), a multilateral treaty to which the United States and more than 170 other countries are party. This is the same treaty that President Maduro cited in announcing the reduction of U.S. Embassy staff in Caracas (see Venezuela: Nicolas Maduro’s Theory of Everything — Blame The Yanquis!).

Venezuela is also a party to Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Navigation and Commerce with the United States of America, Jan. 20, 1836, 12 Bevans 1038 (entered into force May 31, 1836), a bilateral agreement addressing consular issues with the U.S. since 1836 (see Consular Notification and Access-pdf).

Let’s stop here for a moment and look at Texas. As in Medellin v. Texas. The United States has been cited for failing to provide consular notification in cases brought by Paraguay in 1998, by Germany in 1999,and by Mexico in 2003 before the International Court of Justice.

State Department officials have travelled since 1997 but more extensively since 2003, throughout the United States to give classes and seminars about consular notification and access to federal, state, and local law enforcement, corrections and criminal justice officials.

The obligations of consular notification and access apply to U.S. citizens in foreign countries just as they apply to foreign nationals in the United States. The State Department’s guidance to the arrest of foreigners in the United States is to “treat a foreign national as you would want a U.S. citizen to be treated in a similar situation in a foreign country.”

Because when we don’t, it’s hard to make a  case that other countries should abide by their obligation for consular notification and access when U.S. citizens are arrested overseas.

And as if things are not strange enough in the U.S.-Venezuela relations, take this one:
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