Kenneth M. Quinn, the only three-time winner of an AFSA dissent award, spent 32 years in the Foreign Service and served as ambassador to Cambodia from 1996 to 1999. He has been president of the World Food Prize Foundation since 2000. In the September issue of the Foreign Service Journal, he writes about integrity and openness as requirements for an effective Foreign Service. Except below:
I can attest to the fact that challenging U.S. policy from within is never popular, no matter how good one’s reasons are for doing so. In some cases, dissent can cost you a job—or even end a career. And even when there are no repercussions, speaking out may not succeed in changing policy.
Yet as I reflect on my 32 years in the Foreign Service, I am more convinced than ever how critically important honest reporting and unvarnished recommendations are. And that being the case, ambassadors and senior policy officials should treasure those who offer different views and ensure that their input receives thoughtful consideration, no matter how much they might disagree with it.
Harry Kopp, a former FSO and international trade consultant, was deputy assistant secretary of State for international trade policy in the Carter and Reagan administrations; his foreign assignments included Warsaw and Brasilia. He is the author of Commercial Diplomacy and the National Interest (Academy of Diplomacy, 2004). He is also the coauthor of probably the best guide to life in the Foreign Service, Career Diplomacy: Life and Work in the U.S. Foreign Service (Georgetown University Press, 2011). Last May, on the 90th anniversary of AFSA and the U.S. Foreign Service he wrote the piece, Foreign Service, Civil Service: How We Got to Where We Are for the Foreign Service Journal. It deserves a good read. Excerpt:
By 2009, State employed 12,018 members of the Foreign Service and 9,487 members of the Civil Service, a ratio of just 1.3 to 1.
Throughout this period, the emphasis that AFSA and other foreign affairs organizations placed on the unique characteristics of the Foreign Service clashed repeatedly with the emphasis of the department’s leadership on teamwork and unity of purpose. AFSA and other organizations were quick to criticize Secretary Powell when he changed the annual Foreign Service Day celebration to a more inclusive Foreign Affairs Day in 2001 and renamed the Foreign Service Lounge the Employee Service Center.
More seriously, AFSA fought a long and litigious campaign to block certain high-profile assignments of Civil Service employees to Foreign Service positions overseas, and to inhibit such assignments generally. These and other efforts to defend the distinction of the Foreign Service did not reverse the Service’s diminishing prominence in the Department of State and in the conduct of the country’s foreign relations. Nor did such efforts sit well with the department’s management, which tried under successive secretaries to make (in Secretary John Kerry’s words) “each component of our workforce … work together as one cohesive and vibrant team.”
The Foreign Service Act of 1980 is now 34 years old, the age of the Foreign Service Act of 1946 when it was replaced. The drafters of the 1980 legislation had no great admiration for the dual-service system, but like Secretaries Byrnes, Acheson and Rusk, they concluded that keeping it was preferable to attempting change. With two very different personnel systems—not to mention a large and growing cohort of appointees exempt from the disciplines of either—the Department of State lacks the cohesion and vibrancy Sec. Kerry has called for.
As of April 2013, there are 13,676 Foreign Service and 10,811 Civil Service employees in the State Department. Click here (pdf) for the historical number of Foreign Service and Civil Service employees from 1970-2012. Full article republished below with permission from the Foreign Service Journal.
Eleven former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional association of the United States Foreign Service have written to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) requesting that the Committee postpone consideration of FSO Dana Shell Smith’s nomination as ambassador to Qatar until the Foreign Service Grievance Board (FSGB) has made a decision in the case related to Ms. Smith and another senior FSO, Susan Johnson. Ms. Johnson, the immediate former president of AFSA served two terms from 2009-2013.
The letter says that the former AFSA presidents, which includes seven former ambassadors, “firmly believe that Ms. Smith has not demonstrated the judgment or temperament to shoulder the responsibilities of Chief of Mission.”
It adds that “Ms. Smith’s actions are central to a formal Grievance brought against the Department of State by Ms. Susan R. Johnson, also a Senior Foreign Service Officer and President of AFSA at the time she co-authored an op-ed that stimulated negative Department reaction.”
image via cspan
Excerpt from the letter:
Ms. Smith and Ms. Valerie C. Fowler, then Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary respectively, misusing their official positions and authority over senior assignments and career advancement in order to convey personal views, authored a factually incorrect letter-petition sent through State Department e mail to other FSOs in senior positions, publicly attacking Ms. Johnson on an ad hominem basis for the op-ed she co-authored about the declining role of the Foreign Service.
Senior levels of the Department declined to acknowledge the behavior of Ms. Smith and Ms. Fowler as improper, unprofessional and unprecedented. Instead the Department condoned the impropriety and compounded the Grievance by nominating one of authors of the ad hominem letter to the senior Foreign Service promotion board which reviewed and did not recommend Ms. Johnson for promotion. This nomination, the letter-petition and the Department’s inaction may have tainted the board and denied Ms. Johnson a fair promotion review. Individually and collectively, these actions send a chilling message that speaking out about or questioning personnel policies that lead to the weakening of the Foreign Service as a professional cadre may put careers at risk.
Valerie C. Fowlernamed above is now the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs in the R Bureau. PDASes do not need Senate confirmations. As an aside, have you noticed that the R Bureau now has 15 senior officials, all non-career appointees except for five FSOs?
According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms. Johnson is currently a senior fellow at the Academy of American Diplomacy where she is working on the latest AAD study-report on strengthening Foreign Service professionalism. The April 2013 op-ed referred to in the letter to the Senate is online at WaPo (see “Presidents are breaking the U.S. Foreign Service).” That op-ed piece was authored by Ms. Johnson who was then AFSA president, Ronald E. Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, and Thomas R. Pickering, a former undersecretary of state, and chairman of the AAD board.
The Senate letter was from the following former AFSA presidents: Ambassador Thomas Boyatt, Ambassador William Harrop, Ambassador Alphonse La Porta, Ambassador Theodore Eliot, Ambassador Dennis Hays, Ambassador J. Anthony Holmes, Ambassador John Limbert, and senior FSOs F. Allen “Tex” Harris, Theodore Wilkinson, Marshall Adair, and Kenneth Bleakley. Their letter specifically requests that consideration be postponed “until the Foreign Service Grievance Board has made a decision in the case and forwarded the file to the Committee.”
State did not permit interviews with Smith and Fowler. Doug Frantz, an assistant secretary of state, said the letter asking the committee to delay action on Smith “contained errors.” He noted that Johnson’s grievance “was filed subsequent to Ms. Smith’s nomination.” He added that Johnson could have requested Fowler’s recusal from the board, but did not.
Though the letter from Smith, Fowler and the others to Johnson was sent by government e-mail, Frantz said it “was intended to be a private communication from AFSA members to the head of their association.” It’s not private now.
We should note that Douglas Frantz was appointed Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Public Affairs in 2013. Prior to Ms. Smith’s nomination as ambassador to Qatar, she was Mr. Frantz’s top deputy as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Public Affairs (2011-2014).
Also, the average time for consideration of a Foreign Service grievance from time of filing to a Board decision was 41 weeks in 2011 and 33 weeks in 2012.
This could take a whole tour …
Or … maybe not.
Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) cleared Ms. Smith’s nomination for the Senate’s full vote. Unless a Senate hold suddenly materialize, we anticipate that this nominee and a whole slew of ambassadorial nominees will be confirmed as Congress runs off to its summer vacation in August.
The Independent Panel (Sullivan Panel, 2013) tasked with looking into the Best Practices on security after ARB Benghazi (2012) has again recommended the creation of an Under Secretary for Diplomatic Security.
The previous recommendation in 2000 was for the creation of a new position for Under Secretary for Security, Law Enforcement & Counter Terrorism. This to us, appears to make the most sense, instead of having just one for security as the Sullivan Panel recommended. That said, we are not optimistic this would happen anytime soon. An expanded bureaucracy is, of course, a legitimate concern. But to a certain extent, that has already happened with the creation of the DAS for High Threat Posts, except that the internal shuffles only happened within Diplomatic Security, and had not remedied the U/S for Management’s span of control over thirteen bureaus.
About HTP, we understand that it now stands for ‘High Threat Programs’? Here’s an explanation from a blog pal in the know (Thanks T!) on HTP and danger posts:
“That term “High Threat Posts” was a very poor choice for the name of the new DS office, since it seems to say that high threat levels alone are enough to qualify a post for special security interest. They’ve now changed the name to “High Threat Programs,” but that’s just as bad. It’s actually a combination of high threat levels, low host government willingness and/or capability to provide security support, and a really bad mission physical security platform that puts a post on the list. That’s why the HTP list doesn’t correlate with the danger pay list, and why it doesn’t include even some posts that have a history of attacks. “
Diplomatic Security Great Seal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In any case, we’ve invited readers to send us their thoughts for or against the creation of an Under Secretary for Security. Below is a selection of the feedback we received:
▶︎ As an active DS Agent, I fully support the creation of the U/S position. DS should have a preeminent role in the security decisions facing our diplomats. It is a complete travesty that this recommendation was made 14 years ago and still hasn’t been implemented.
▶︎ I support an U/S for Security position. It signals that the Department actually takes the safety and security of our foreign service personnel seriously. An organization chart reflects the priorities of the organization. The senior security professional should be place as high as possible within the organization and should report directly to the senior executive in the organization. The DoS currently shows they don’t take security seriously when the head of security for the organization reports to the U/S for Management instead of reporting directly to the Secretary.
▶︎ A DS U/S would be a dedicated security and law enforcement professional with the ability to ensure that security considerations are given fair discussion.
▶︎ AFSA and the Department hold FSOs up as the main decision makers on everything even though they usually aren’t the best qualified. Could you imagine the uproar if we created a working group of DS Agents to decide our political or economic policies? Yet, they convene a panel of FSOs to decide security policy and no one bats an eyelash.
▶︎ I’m worried that if the U/S for Security becomes a reality the Department would fill it with a political appointee or someone outside of DS which I think would be completely unfair. Could you imagine the FBI or Secret Service filling their top position with someone outside their respective agency?
▶︎ While I can think of several good reasons to have, I think all will be outweighed by the fact that this will end up being a political appointee position that would have no insight into State Department operations, no knowledge or understanding of DS operations and no true experience in security operations on the global scale within which DS operates.
▶︎ Our FSO colleagues can write and they can move US policy forward. But most are completely clueless when it comes to security and law enforcement. I see it every day. ‘Nobody would hurt me. I’m here to help. ‘ A DS U/S would mirror the overseas environment where other sections partner with RSOs to get things done. I always tell my colleagues that you tell me what you want/need to do and I’ll figure out a way to do it. It may not be exactly as they were thinking (sometimes the ideas are simply wacky), but we’ll get the work done.
▶︎ Why shouldn’t there be an U/S for DS? Start with the Finding on page 17 of the “Green Report.” (Like the Sullivan Report, not distributed within or outside the Department, but — also like the Sullivan Report — available on Al-Jazeera’s website.) Then read the rest of the report.
▶︎ In support of a U/S for DS, INR and CT, the Secretary would be in a position to nominate an experienced, credible and respected leader such as retired Generals John R. Allen or Stan McCrystal. This type of person would be influential and provide advise on how to best mesh security with diplomatic engagement, along with oversight for DS, INR and CT = a true model for how to break the shackles of DS under the M paradigm.
And then here’s this one from an FSO:
▶︎ As someone who has recently served in one of the most dangerous posts in the world, I fully support the Foreign Service union’s message. I, along with many of my colleagues, often felt extremely frustrated by the security restrictions that the Regional Security Office imposed on us diplomats. We only rarely left our compound. And after the fallout from Banghazi, we often couldn’t even go to other Embassies for social functions. However – other embassy personnel – the ones who carried guns – didn’t have to follow the same rules. As a result, they became the faces of the embassy to both the public and to the rest of the international community while we – the diplomats – stayed cloistered in our compound. Often we felt like mere fig leaves or window dressing, present in a country only for cover to the military and security types, even though many of us would have willingly accepted the same risks that they did for the sake of our mission. I strongly believe that the work we diplomats do abroad is equally important to the national interest as the work done by the military and other agencies. Why then, should we not take the same risks as they do?
We’ve done away with the comments section in this blog for a while now, but it’s open today if you have additional thoughts to share.
In early April, AFSA announced that it was given the documents but declined to make them public until the State Department did so. Below is an excerpt from the announcement:
We concluded that more transparency would benefit all: publication of the certificates of demonstrated competence – prior to a nominee’s hearing – together with an effort to write the certificates to specifically address the criteria in the AFSA Guidelines, would open up the process to the public and address directly the issues of qualifications for all nominees. We proposed this to the White House. They agreed that, going forward – as part of the Transparency in Government initiative and a forward looking legacy – the State Department will publish more detailed certificates on state.gov in real time. These revised documents will use the AFSA Guidelines to illustrate nominees’ experience in the four key areas:
Leadership, Character and Proven Interpersonal Skills
Understanding of High Level Policy and Operations
Understanding of Host Country or Relevant International Experience
Media response to AFSA’s Chiefs of Mission initiative has been very favorable, and has helped raise our public profile.
Updated 5/9/14 1:14 pm PST: AFSA has now posted the certificates released by the State Department under FOIA.
“Under the Foreign Service Act of 1980, Certificates of Competency must be presented to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for each candidate nominated by the President to serve as a bilateral Ambassador overseas and for the candidates for Ambassador to the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).”
As of this writing, there are only two files online.
On May 1, President Obama announced the following nominees:
Gentry O. Smith – Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, with the rank of Ambassador during his tenure of service, Department of State
George Albert Krol – Ambassador to the Republic of Kazakhstan, Department of State
Mark William Lippert – Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Department of State
James D. Nealon – Ambassador to the Republic of Honduras, Department of State
Dana Shell Smith – Ambassador to the State of Qatar, Department of State
We don’t quite know what “real time” means anymore.
In any case, President Obama announced the nomination of Alice Wells, to be the next ambassador to the Kingdom of Jordan on April 10, 2014. The WH released the following brief bio:
Alice G. Wells, Nominee for Ambassador to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Department of State
Alice G. Wells, a career member of the Foreign Service, Class of Minister-Counselor, is currently Senior Advisor in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the Department of State. Ms. Wells served as an assessor at the Foreign Service Board of Examiners in 2013. She was Special Assistant to the President for Russia and Central Asia in the White House from 2012 to 2013 and Executive Assistant to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton from 2011 to 2012. She served as Executive Assistant to the Under Secretary for Political Affairs William J. Burns from 2009 to 2011, and previously served as Minister Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia from 2006 to 2009. Ms. Wells was Director of Maghreb Affairs and Acting Director of Egypt and North African Affairs in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs from 2003 to 2005. She served as Senior Desk Officer for Egyptian Affairs from 2002 to 2003, Deputy Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India from 2001 to 2003, and Deputy Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan from 1998 to 2000. Prior to that, Ms. Wells served as a Political Officer and a Political-Military Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as well as a Political and Economic Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Ms. Wells received a B.A. from Stanford University and a joint M.A. from the University of California at Los Angeles/Rand Corporation.
Below is Ms. Wells’ “Certificate of Demonstrated Competency” available here via state.gov.
The certificate for the nominee for Djibouti is here.
The “revised documents” were touted as “more detailed certificates” that will use the “AFSA Guidelines to illustrate nominees’ experience in the four key areas.”
By coincidence and some would say perfect timing, Yahoo News has just published the competency certificate of President Obama’s nominee for Norway, George Tsunis.
Via Yahoo News
It looks like Yahoo News has also obtained the certificates for the nominees to Hungary (Bell) and Argentina (Mamet) and who knows how many more.
Folks, you know who won this round, right? Okay, that’s it, enjoy the new format!
The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the Foreign Service union recently released its Security Recommendations from its QDDR Security Working Group.
The recommendations available here includes the following number one item:
“We are opposed to the creation of a new Under Secretary for Security. Cross cutting decisions involving security and achieving other national priorities need to be consolidated, not further divided.”
Whaaaaat? Here is how the AFSA Security Working Group explains it:
Non-concurrence with Decision to Create new Under Secretary for Security
The Benghazi ARB, the Report of the Independent Panel on Best Practices, and the OIG Special Review of the Accountability Review Board Process all focus on the need to tighten and better focus responsibility for security at senior levels. The independent panel report recommends the creation of a new undersecretary level position for security. We disagree.
The problem is not just security but finding the balance between risk, resources, and the accomplishment of national foreign policy objectives. The result, as the OIG report notes (pg. 4), is that contrary positions tend to be “represented respectively by the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and the Under Secretary of State for Management.” Creating a new undersecretary for security will do nothing to resolve this problem and, in fact, is likely to prioritize security over our reason for being in risky locations in the first place. The need is for a single location to reconcile the two perspectives and take responsibility for the resulting decisions. This could either be in the U/S for political affairs or, as the IG recommends, at the level of the Deputy Secretary level but it should not be in a new U/S devoted exclusively to security.
All three reports note the 14-year failure at consistent implementation of similar recommendations made previously. A significant challenge for Department leadership will be to put in place and maintain effective implementation mechanisms. Almost as important will be to convince its personnel that it continues to pay attention once the political heat dies down.
Can we just say that we disagree with AFSA’s disagreement? You really want the policy folks to have the last say on security? Really?
Mr. Starr’s response to the question on elevating Diplomatic Security to an under secretary position is perhaps not totally surprising. In the org structure DS reports to M; M being one of the six under secretaries in the State Department. Can you imagine how it would have been received in Foggy Bottom had he publicly supported the creation of the U/S for Diplomatic Security at the start of his tenure?
Meanwhile, Congress which is now on its 4,487th hearing on Benghazi and counting, has also not been a fan of elevating DS to the under secretary level. Last year, this is what the HFAC chairman said:
“I won’t endorse a new undersecretary position until the State Department provides the committee with a compelling rationale,” Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said. “More bureaucracy is not synonymous with effective security.”
Mr. Starr talks about access to the Secretary and his deputies, Congressman Royce talks about an expanding bureaucracy, and AFSA talks about “consolidation” at “P” or the Deputy Secretary level. The Dems think Pfftt and the GOP is basically still talking about those darn “talking points.”
No one is talking about fixing the “span of control” or the “organizational structure” that needs work.
We’re afraid that we’ll be back talking about this again, unfortunately, at some future heartbreak.
Diplomatic Security: Things were a changin’ in the 1980s
According to history.state.gov, the Department of State, by administrative action, established a Bureau of Diplomatic Security headed by a Director holding a rank equivalent to an Assistant Secretary of State on Nov 4, 1985. The creation of the new Bureau followed recommendations of the Advisory Panel on Overseas Security (the Inman Panel), which studied means of protecting Department personnel and facilities from terrorist attacks. Congress authorized the Bureau, to be headed by an Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security, in the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Anti-terrorism Act of Aug 27, 1986 (P.L. 99-399; 100 Stat. 856).
What state.gov does not specifically say on its history page is that the creation of the DS bureau was a direct result of the bombing of the Embassy and Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983.
President Ronald Reagan (far left) and First Lady Nancy Reagan pay their respects to the caskets of the 17 US victims of the 18 April 1983 attack on the United States Embassy in Beirut. (Photo via Wikipedia from the Reagan Library)
In the short history of the bureau, there had been four FSOs appointed as assistant secretary and three non-career appointees. The current assistant secretary, Mr. Starr is the first career security official to lead the DS bureau. Since its inception, the bureau has been relegated to the administrative and management bureaus. FSO Robert Lamb who was Administration A/S in 1985 assumed duties as Coordinator of the Office of Security. He was designated Director of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Nov 4, 1985 and appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Securityon March 12, 1987.
According to this, Diplomatic Security is responsible for this:
Diplomatic Security protects the lives of approximately 35,000 U.S. employees under Secretary of State and Chief of Mission authority worldwide, as well as the lives of approximately 70,000 family members of these employees. An additional 40-45,000 locally engaged staff (LES) are also protected during working hours. In sum, with 2,000 special agents, and its network of engineers, couriers, civil service personnel and other critical staff, DS successfully protects almost 150,000 employees and family members during business hours, and about 100,000 U.S. employees and family members around the clock. Approximately 275 foreign service posts abroad, comprising thousands of buildings and residences, also fall under the Department’s responsibility and the DS protective security purview.
Currently, the DS bureau is one of thirteen bureaus including Budget and Planning, Human Resources, Overseas Buildings Operations under the “M” family of offices in the Under Secretary for Management. In essence, the top security official at State is not a security official but a management official.
Badda bing badda boom – Reorganization Sorta Done
The State Department has now created a DAS for High Threat Posts. The State Department could argue that it has done “DS reorganization” with the creation of a new DAS for High Threat Posts.
The new DAS position for High Threat Posts was announced in November 2012, even before ARB Benghazi issued its report. Did it show the State Department’s quick response ahead of the curve? Absolutely. The ARB report would later call the creation of the DAS HTP as a “positive first step.”
Congress was partially mollified, something was being done.
Just because something is being done doesn’t mean what is being done is what is needed or necessary.
We’ve learned in the Nairobi and Tanzania bombings that those missions were not even high threat posts when they were attacked. Also, in the August 2013 closure of posts in the Middle East and North Africa due to the potential for terrorist attacks, only four of 19 were designated as high threat posts. And when we last blogged about this, six of the 17 reported new high threat posts have zero danger pay.
So why an office and a new DAS for HTP?
We think that the creation of a new DAS for HTP was a band-aid solution that everyone could get behind. It did not encroach on anyone’s turf, no one had to give up anyone or anything, it did not require new money from Congress, it’s a new desk in the same shop, under the same old structure. It could be done cheaply and fast. Add a well-respected DS agent as A/S and tadaaaa — badda bing badda boom – reorganization sort of done!
Elevating Diplomatic Security — A 14-Year Old Idea Comes Back
Elevating Diplomatic Security in placement and reporting within the State Department is not a new idea. The Accountability Review Board following the twin bombings of the the US Embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania recommended in January 1999 that “a single high-ranking officer [be] accountable for all protective security matters.”
13. First and foremost, the Secretary of State should take a personal and active role in carrying out the responsibility of ensuring the security of US diplomatic personnel abroad. It is essential to convey to the entire Department that security is one of the highest priorities. In the process, the Secretary should reexamine the present organizational structure with the objective of clarifying responsibilities, encouraging better coordination, and assuring that a single high-ranking officer is accountable for all protective security matters and has the authority necessary to coordinate on the Secretary’s behalf such activities within the Department of State and with all foreign affairs USG agencies.
The ARB Nairobi/Tanzania was not talking about an assistant secretary, since that position was already in existence since 1985. It clearly was talking about a higher ranking official accountable for security.
August 1998: The U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the aftermath of the August 7, 1998, al-Qaida suicide bombing. Eleven Tanzanians, including 7 Foreign Service Nationals, died in the blast, and 72 others were wounded. The same day, al-Qaida suicide bombers launched another near-simultaneous attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, which killed 218 and wounded nearly 5,000 others. (Source: DS Records)
In fact, in the aftermath of the East Africa twin bombings, there was a move to consolidate security and threat intelligence functions under one entity, the Under Secretary for Security, Law Enforcement & Counter Terrorism and having Diplomatic Security report directly to the Secretary of State.
The Cohen-Albright memo proposed combining pertinent security and threat intelligence units into one single unit within the new DS (operational threat intelligence functions of Intelligence & Research (INR), DS Intelligence and Threat Analysis (DS/ITA), and the threat analysis unit of Counter—Terrorism (S/CT). The rationale for this? That “this will ensure that we have one single entity within the Department responsible for all operational security and threat intelligence, and it also establishes clear, formalized lines of communication and accountability on threat matters with the IC and the Department.”Currently, INR continues to reports directly to the Secretary, CT reports to (J) and ITA remains at DS.
One change that did happen as a result of the twin bombings was the relocation of RSOs reporting authority from Management Counselors to the Principal Officers at overseas posts. The (M) at that time, Bonnie Cohen instructed posts that RSOs must now report to, and be evaluated by, DCMS or Principal Officers, rather than their current reporting relationship to administrative counselors. In her memo to Secretary Albright, she wrote: “This will elevate the role of security at posts, ensure that senior post management are engaged in the decision making process of security/threat issues, and establish clear lines of accountability, responsibility and communication. This will correct a number of problems that have arisen by having DS personnel part of the administrative section at post.” See the Cohen to Albright memo here (pdf).
The May 5, 2000 action memo from DS which was approved by Secretary Albright called for placement of the Bureaus of Diplomatic Security (DS) , International Narcotics and Law Enforcement(INL) and the then Office of the Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism (CT) under this newly created Under Secretary. INL and CT currently reports to the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights (J). The new under secretary position proposed and approved in 2000, an election year, never materialized. Secretary Albright was in office until January 19, 2001. A new administration came into office and in January 20, 2001, Colin L. Powell was appointed Secretary of State by George W. Bush.See the Carpenter to Albright memo here(pdf).
2. The Board recommends that the Department re-examine DS organization and management, with a particular emphasis on span of control for security policy planning for all overseas U.S. diplomatic facilities. In this context, the recent creation of a new Diplomatic Security Deputy Assistant Secretary for High Threat Posts could be a positive first step if integrated into a sound strategy for DS reorganization.
At the Transfer of Remains Ceremony to Honor Those Lost in Attacks in Benghazi, Libya. September 14, 2012. State Department photo by Michael Gross
The Independent Panel on Best Practices was the result of the ARB Benghazi recommendation that the State Department established a Panel of outside independent experts with experience in high threat, high risk areas to support the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, identify best practices from other agencies and countries and regularly evaluate security platforms in high risk, high threat posts. The panel headed by former USSS Director Mark Sullivan made one thing clear:
“One clear and overarching recommendation, crucial to the successful and sustainable implementation of all of the recommendations in this report, is the creation of an Under Secretary for Diplomatic Security.”
Aaand, we’re back exactly where we were in the late 1990s when Booz Allen was asked to look under the rocks on all security concerns about the Department cited in the Inman Panel Report and Admiral Crowe’s Accountability Review Boards and tasked with providing recommendations and best practices to the State Department.
Do you get a feeling that we’ve been going round and round in circle here?
Under Secretary for Diplomatic Security – Signed, Sealed, Delivered – and Ignored?
We should note here that the Independent Panel on Best Practices (IPoBP) report is not locatable at the State Department’s website. The August 2013 report is available here via Al Jazeera. U.S. taxpayers paid for the Panel members to go look under the rocks, interview hundreds of people, write up their report, and the report is only retrievable from AJAM? Seven months after the report was issued, the State Department’s Deputy Secretary Heather Higginbottom met with members of the Best Practices Panel on March 26, 2014.
These two items tell us the clear importance placed by the bureaucracy on the recommendations of outside independent experts. It’s like — it’s done, now go away.
We suspect that had the Independent Panel on Best Practices report did not make it to AJAM, we may not have been able to read it. A copy was also given to The New York Times by someone who felt it was important to publicize the panel’s findings on diplomatic security.
The Best Practices report says that “crucial to the successful and sustainable implementation of all of the recommendations in this report, is the creation of an Under Secretary for Diplomatic Security.”
If this position is created, it would be the seventh under secretary position at the State Department. It would join two other “Security” bureaus: Arms Control and International Security (T) and Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights (J). It would be at par with its previous home, Management (M). It would be on equal footing with Political Affairs (P). It would control a significant security budget and about 2,000 special agents, and its network of engineers, couriers, civil service personnel , other critical staff and contractors. It could draw bureaus from other under secretaries, similar to the ones approved in 1999 and never implemented, into the DS orbit. Most importantly, it would report directly to the Secretary of State: one accountable security official with the authority necessary to manage on the Secretary’s behalf security matters within the Department of State and with all foreign affairs USG agencies.
That’s a lot of change. There will be tooth and nail fights on lots of corridors. The new Deputy Secretary Higginbottom will have lots of friends who will borrow her ears. And the bureaucracy will go on self-preservation mode.
One good news if this happens? There will be no pointing fingers at each other when something horrible happens. We’ll have one accountable official to drag before Congress.
Speaking of “T” and “J”, a diplomatic security agent asked, “Does that mean we give more importance to ‘international security’ and ‘civilian security’ than we give to our own personnel?”
DS Doesn’t Need to be in the Room?
At posts overseas, the Regional Security Officer reports to the Ambassador not the Management Counselor (see the Cohen to Albright memo here). The Best Practices report notes that this “direct line of authority from the Ambassador to the RSO, utilizing the Country Team and Emergency Action Committee when necessary, was seen as critical to effective post security management and responding to dynamic threats.”In part, the report says:
[A]t the headquarters level, the same clear lines of authority and understanding of responsibilities are not as well deﬁned or understood. This has led to stove-piped support to posts and lack of understanding of security related coordination requirements among DS, the Under Secretary for Management, and the Regional Bureaus, as noted by the Benghazi ARB. In fact, some senior Foreign Service ofﬁcers and DS Agents who met with the Panel identiﬁed the Under Secretary for Management (M) as the senior security official in the Department responsible for ﬁnal decision making regarding critical security requirements.
Among various Department bureaus and personnel in the ﬁeld, there appeared to be very real confusion over who, ultimately, was responsible and empowered to make decisions based both on policy and security considerations. “
Diplomatic Security is only one of eleven diverse support and administrative functions reporting to the Under Secretary for Management. This is a signiﬁcant span of control issue and, if unaddressed, could contribute to future security management failures, such as those that occurred in Benghazi.
So moving DS into an under secretary position under S simply mirrors what is already happening at posts overseas. Except that like everything else in a bureaucracy, it’s complicated.
AFSA says that creating a new under secretary for security will not resolve the contrary positions that typically resides betweenManagement (M) and Political Affairs (P) and would “likely result in prioritizing security” over the reason for being in risky locations in the first place.
A DS agent who supports the creation of a U/S for DS explained it to us this way:
“What they really mean is that security considerations raised by a DS U/S would have to be given equal weight to the other reasons for being in a risky location.”
What we’re told is that all the other under secretaries and assistant secretaries have to do right now is convinced “M” that they need to be at location X. They do not need to work with DS at all. “When D is getting briefed, DS doesn’t even have to be in the room.”
Now, that might explain why DS professionals have very strong feelings about this.
So what if it’s going to be a three-way bureaucratic shootout?
You might have heard that Benghazi has flared up once more. Take a look at this screen grab from one of the emails recently released via FOIA by the State Department to Judicial Watch. Who’s missing from this email?
A Staff Assistant to the Secretary, received an update from the A/S NEA about Benghazi and passed on the update to the senior officials in Foggy Bottom. You’d expect an update from a diplomatic security official, but as you can see in the email header, neither the sender nor the source of this email is even Diplomatic Security.
One more thing –we have occasionally heard what goes on at posts before it goes on evacuation. At one post, the Front Office did not want to go on evac because it was concerned it would become an “unaccompanied post” and thereafter limit the quality of bidders it would get during the assignment season. The decision whether post should go on authorized or ordered departure does not reside with the security professionals but with management and geographic officials.
So basically, if this U/S for Security position becomes a reality, instead of a bureaucratic shootout between P and M, there would be a three-way shootout between P, M and DS. In addition to policy and resource consideration, the bureaucracy will be expected to give security considerations equal weight when standing up a presence in a risky location or on any matter with a security component. If the three could not sort it out, the Deputy Secretary or the Secretary would have the last say.
The Best Practices Panel says that “An effective security function must be co-equal to the other organizational components and have a “seat at the table” to ensure strategic accountability, common understanding of risk, and corresponding mitigation options and costs.”
Frankly, we cannot find a reason to argue with that, can you?
Are we doing this again in 2025?
Here is a blast from the past:
The Under Secretary would coordinate on your behalf all operational threat intelligence and security issues with other USG agencies.[…] This reorganization offers better command, control and accountability of Departmental security functions and responsibilities; streamlines the flow of security and threat intelligence information with DS as the focal point for the intelligence agencies; sends a strong signal to the Hill and others that we are taking security seriously by this reorganization; addresses the ARBs‘ findings; and institutionalizes the security apparatus at State to reflect a robust, progressive and disciplined approach to security, which is unaffected by political or personal preferences.
That reorganization was never implemented. And here we are back to where we were some 14 years ago.
Are we going to do this again in 2025?
* * *
P.S. We’d be happy to put together the top ten reasons for and against the creation of an Under Secretary of for Security. Send your contributions here by this Friday. The names of contributors, for obvious reasons, will not be published. If we get enough submissions, we’ll blogit.
After reading that, we were struck by the following line:
“We urge the SFRC to address issues regarding vetting of names for criminal background checks collaboratively. Simultaneously we ask the SFRC to grant these men and women the commissioning, tenure and promotions for which they’ve been recommended.”
We asked AFSA again — what sort of vetting are we talking about here? All these nominees pending on the SFRC have Top Secret clearances and have been vetted by Diplomatic Security.
We got the following response:
“There are some differences in what the State Department does and what DoD does both in substance and information provided to oversight committees. […] it does NOT have to do with DS vetting and TS clearances. There may be some periods of time and activity that are not being captured by current vetting process and I think State is amenable to working with committee to resolve.”
We did the underline there. We don’t know what the heck that means!
So nothing to do with the nuclear option.
Nothing to do with Diplomatic Security vetting.
And nothing to do with TS clearances.
What a strange mess! Anybody know what this is really all about?
Again from your elected AFSA official:
“Both the State Department and DoD vet/scrub the lists with internal and external agencies before they send the list to the Senate and its respective committees – SFRC, SASC. This vetting/scrub is what is being discussed.”
Arghhh! Arff! Arff!
AFSA’s letter to the SFRC Chairman Bob Menendez and Ranking Member Bob Corker does not explain how this mess started in December 2013 but provides some details on the groups impacted by the Senate hold:
Now 1800 FS Employees Stuck at the SFRC
“[W]e are writing to convey our deep concerns about the impact that the delayed conﬁrmations of tenure and promotions for career Foreign Service employees is having on U.S. diplomatic operations and U.S. national interests. When we raised this matter back in December 2013, nearly 1,300 individuals were affected by the holds. As of this time, there are approximately 1,800 members of the Foreign Service from four foreign affairs agencies (Department of State, USAID, Foreign Agricultural Service, and Foreign Commercial Service) who await Senate confirmation of appointment, tenure, or promotion.”
200 FS Employees Waiting to Officially Join the SFS
“Of these, over 200 employees of all four agencies are awaiting conﬁrmation of their promotions into or within the Senior Foreign Service. These members are affected ﬁnancially in two distinct ways. First, the pay increases earned as a result of their promotions cannot be paid until attestation by the president, nor can the promotions be back-dated so as to overcome this loss of remuneration. Second, unless the promotions are conﬁrmed and attested before April 15, 2014, they are not eligible to be reviewed for, or to receive, performance pay. In addition, uncertainty besets the onward assignments of these 200 members. Failure to conﬁrm these ofﬁcers as members of the Senior Foreign Service affects the ability of consulates, embassies and USAID missions to conduct the business of the United States overseas.”
Over 900 Waiting for FSO Commissions
“Over 900 of the remaining ofﬁcers are awaiting commissioning as Foreign Service ofﬁcers and secretaries in the diplomatic service, almost half of whom have been waiting close to a year. Several of them are approaching the limit of their 5-year Limited Career Appointments. If that expires without their being commissioned, they are supposed to leave the Foreign Service in accordance with Section 309 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 (22 USC §3949.) Moreover, as untenured officers, they are ineligible to receive some pay differentials for positions, which they currently encumber. Overall, this is having a severe effect on their morale and their eligibility for onward assignments. Unfortunately, this prolonged wait and uncertainty is coloring their impressions of public service at the beginning of their careers.”
Over 600 FSOs Without Consular Commissions
“Finally, over 600 new Foreign Service ofﬁcers, just starting their Limited Career Appointments, have not yet received commissions as consular officers. Without a Consular Commission, these entry-level ofﬁcers are technically not authorized to adjudicate visas and perform other consular work. In addition, the possession of a Consular Commission is generally a prerequisite to the granting by a host nation of all necessary diplomatic privileges and immunities under the Vienna Convention.”
So, when we read this, our immediate reaction was where is the State Department leadership in all this? We know that Secretary Kerry and his top officials are often traveling but there’s a whole lot of ranking officials in Foggy Bottom who could interface with the leadership and staff of the SFRC. Where is the Under Secretary for Management? Where is the Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources?
But see – what we heard from insiders is that the State Department reportedly said: “AFSA had the lead on fixing this.”
Well, that’s terribly odd, isn’t it?
Secretary Kerry was at the SFRC on April 8, and made passing mention of the nominations, but we sorta think he’s talking about the top ranking nominees. We don’t even know if he’s aware that 1,800 of his employees are stuck in the committee:
“I also want to thank everybody on the committee for working so hard to move the nominations, which obviously is critical. I think our – it’s not the fault of the committee, but with a combination of vetting process and public process and so forth and the combination of the slowdown on the floor of the Senate, I think we’re averaging something like 220-some days and some people at 300 days and some over 365 days. So I have literally only in the last month gotten my top team in place one year in, and I’m very grateful to the committee.”
The Secretary did not specifically mention that Ambassador Carlos Pascual who was nominated to be Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources on February 17, 2012 has been stuck in committee with Super Glue for 760 days.
Secretary Kerry also did not specifically mentioned the blanket senate hold during the April 8 hearing that affects about 10% of his agency’s workforce. And really — what do you do with 600 consular officers without their Consular Commissions? Have they been adjudicating visas without their Consular Commissions, and if so, what kind of immunity and diplomatic privileges are afforded these officials overseas?
But wait, like on teevee — there’s more!
We are now also hearing disturbing allegations that the genesis of this mess started long before December 2013, even going back to 2012.
It is alleged that this all started with one name on the promotion list. The original initiator (who apparently is not/not a stranger to AFSA and the State Department) allegedly brought a specific name on the promotion list to the attention of a Senate staffer. It is alleged that the action was taken using personal connections cultivated in the Senate. The key question at that time allegedly revolved around the security clearance of one — one specific individual and resulted in the removal of this individual’s name from the promotion list.
Now, why would anyone do that?
If we could hire Veronica Mars, she’d definitely bug this Mr. Initiator guy then we’d have the full story.
It is further alleged that subsequent to the removal of that one name from the promotion list, the same SFRC staffer also identified several other FSOs who were subjects of “investigations” at some point in their careers. In most cases, these investigations reportedly were in the medium to distant past (as much as 10 or 15 years ago). Our source, clearly frustrated says that the fact that these investigations occurred in the past has not deterred the senator’s office pursuit of these FSOs.
This year’s senate hold reportedly started with an assertion by one senator’s office that the military vets people better than State does, and that the State Department list is “riddled with people” whose actions had been questioned “by OIG and others.” We don’t know who consists of “others.” Our source familiar with this matter but speaking on background said that one senator reportedly vowed “not to approve any FS name until the matter was resolved.” The same SFRC staffer allegedly involved in the initial promotion list snafu works for this one senator. Senior State Department officials have reportedly demonstrated that, unlike the military, all State employees have TS clearances which include name checks. We’re told that at the senate’s request, the SOP on vetting at the State Department now goes “further” than what is required by the military. We do not know what “further” or additional layers of vetting were added.
The following areas were supposedly contentious:
#1. The automatic exclusion of any employees with criminal convictions.
#2. The separate nomination of any employees with “problems.”
Say, wait — how many State Department employees with criminal convictions have been able to hold on to their Top Secret clearance? One, two, a hundred, five hundred?
The number is .. wait for it …. ZERO.
How many State Department employees under investigation or with criminal convictions have been able to keep their names on the promotion list? Hey, don’t they yank your name from that promotion list as soon as there is an investigation with your name on it?
Employees who previously faced investigations and have successfully prevailed/survived the investigations will now be singled out on the promotion list? Why? Should they also be required to wear “NOT GUILTY BUT” t-shirts to work?
If these employees have been cleared of wrongdoing, why is the Senate hardballing them?
We do not know the full story about this Senate hold involving some 1,800 FS employees but AFSA and the State Department should know who were the names targeted from the promotion lists and why. And if they don’t know the why, then they should find out, of course. If a Senate staffer who has worked in Congress for years just got out of bed one day and decided he/she wants to put a hold on 1,800 names because the “vetting” and “scrubbing” of names have been unsatisfactory all this time — we should all ask why.
Because. Motive, motive, motive.
Let’s start at the very beginning… oh, where is Sherlock when you need him?
If the allegation is true, that this whole merry go round mess was initiated by one Foreign Service insider and got out of hand … now then, you’ve got a mess, Houston. One FS person was initially targeted by another FS person using contacts in the Senate. That’s pretty personal.
It looks like you’ve got a petty little beaver who never left hight high school …
And he’s representing the United States of America.
According to AFSA, a generous bequest from retired Foreign Service officer Mathilda W. Sinclaire established a program since 1982 honoring Foreign Service employees who excel in the study of hard languages. The purpose of Ms. Sinclaire’s bequest was to “promote and reward superior achievement by career officers of the Foreign Service […] while studying one of the Category III or IV languages under the auspices of the Foreign Service Institute.” The guidelines were reportedly amended and updated in October 2001 to expand eligibility for the awards to any career and career-conditional member of the Foreign Service from the Department of State, USAID, FCS, FAS, BBG and APHIS. The 10 winners of the 2013 Mathilda W. Sinclaire Language Awards are as follows:
Miriam R. Asnes – Arabic
Sonnet A. Frisbee – Czech
Paul F. Narain – Greek
Jacob M. Rocca – Hebrew
Timothy Shriver – Hungarian
Robert Silberstein – Lithuanian
Alan J. Smith – Russian
Adam T. Stevens – Vietnamese
Matthew Wilson – Bulgarian
Bryan G. Wockley – Persian/Dari/Afghan
We received an email on this noting … “all but one of whom appear to be men. What’s with that?” We looked at the list of winners from the previous four years and must note that in 2012 seven of the ten awardees were female.
2012: Anne Casper (Kinyarwanda), Vanna Chan (Lithuanian), Rebecca Danis (Pashto), Spencer Fields (Albanian), Christina Le (Greek), Dan McCandless (Dari), Robert Mearkle (Arabic), Nina Murray (Lithuanian), Roshni Nirody (Japanese), Kristen Pisani (Greek) M/F -3/7
2011: Nancy Abella (Dari), Eric Collings (Uzbek), Sarah Grow (Persian/Farsi), James Hallock (Mandarin), Rebecca Hunter (Albanian), Theresa Mangione (Vietnamese), E. Jerome Ryan, Jr. (Japanese), David Vincent Salvo (Serbian/Croatian). M/F-4/4
2010: Daniel Heath Bailey (Latvian), Eric M. Frater (Vietnamese), Melanie Harris Higgins (Indonesian), Bradley Hurst (Hungarian), Andrew J. Partin (Georgian), Daniel Rakove (Mongolian), Stuart Madgett Smith (Greek), Thomas Venner (Tagalog), Vaida Vidugiris (Greek). M/F-7/2
2009: Joshua Baker (Arabic), Laura Brown (Arabic), Zachary Harkenride (Dari), Vincent Traverso (Dari), Meredith Rubin (Icelandic), William M. Coleman (Japanese), Alan Clark (Mandarin Chinese), Scott Hansen (Mandarin Chinese), Denise Shen (Mandarin Chinese), Alfred Boll (Serbian), Adam Hantman (Thai). (Laura Brown was a previous winner for Bosnian in 2003.) M/F-8/2
Arabic as official language (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It looks like candidates to the Sinclaire Language Awards may be nominated by the language-training supervisors at the FSI School of Language, the language instructors at field schools, or post language officers. According to AFSA’s website, winners are selected by a committee comprising the Dean of the FSI School of Language Studies (or designee), members of the AFSA Governing Board, AFSA Awards Committee and general AFSA membership. Each winner receives a check for $1,000 and a certificate of recognition signed by the AFSA President and the chair of the AFSA Awards committee.
The nomination requires the submission of DS‐651 Language Training Report or DS ‐1354 Language Proficiency Report if appropriate. In addition to the submission of the S/R (speaking/reading) scores, it also requires a nominating statement (not to exceed one page); and, of course, somebody who’s willing to write up and submit the nomination.
On March 5, 2014, the AFSA Governing Board resolution saysthat “AFSA will send letters to the Senate and the White House expressing concern that the recent nominations for chief of mission positions in Norway, Hungary and Argentina appear to be based primarily on their status as financial contributors to political campaigns, which is in violation of the Foreign Service Act of 1980.”
On Friday, March 7, fifteen former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) wrote to Senators Reid, McConnell, Menendez, Corker, Franken, Klobuchar, McCain, Cardin, Mikulski, Warner, Kaine, Whitehouse and others, urging the non-confirmation of President Obama’s nominees for ambassadors to Norway, Hungary and Argentina.
Below is an excerpt from their letter:
Among the nominees for ambassadorships currently under consideration by the Senate, three have generated considerable public controversy: George Tsunis (Norway), Colleen Bell (Hungary), and Noah Mamet (Argentina). The nominations of Mr. Tsunis and Ms. Bell have been forwarded to the full Senate by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
As former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association, the professional association and trade union of career members of the Foreign Service, we urge you to oppose granting Senate consent to these three candidates. Although we have no reason to doubt that the nominees are conscientious and worthy Americans, the fact that they appear to have been chosen on the basis of their service in raising money for electoral campaigns, with minimal demonstrated qualifications for their posts, has subjected them to widespread public ridicule, not only in the U.S. but also abroad. As a result, their effectiveness as U.S. representatives in their host countries would be severely impaired from the start. Their nominations also convey a disrespectful message, that relations with the host country are not significant enough to demand a chief of mission with relevant expertise.
These three nominations represent a continuation of an increasingly unsavory and unwise practice by both parties. In the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, “The spoils or patronage theory is that public office is primarily designed for partisan plunder.” Sadly it has persisted, even after President Nixon’s acknowledged rewarding of ambassadorial nominations to major campaign donors was exposed.
During his 2008 election campaign, President Obama recognized the appropriateness of these guidelines, and promised to respect them. The time for the Senate to begin enforcing its own guidelines set forth in law for U.S. diplomatic chiefs of mission is now. The nation cannot afford otherwise.
The signatories of the letter are Marshall Adair, Thomas Boyatt, Kenneth Bleakley, Theodore Eliot, Franklyn A Harris, William Harrop, Dennis Hays, J. Anthony Holmes, Lars Hydle, Susan Johnson, Alphonse La Porta, John Limbert, John Naland, Lannon Walker, and Theodore Wilkinson.
One scenario where this might get off the hot topics column is if the nominees themselves recognize that their confirmation hearing performance and subsequent public ridicule would have an impact on their effectiveness as President Obama’s top representatives in their prospective host countries, and withdraw their names for consideration. This would be the less messy route, but we do not anticipate this happening or it would have happened already.
Another scenario is if we get to see more Senate confirmation hearings bungled under similar circumstances, with the accompanying public uproar, and more mockery from cable news and comedians day in and day out — which might, just might make President Obama think, “enough already.” If that happens, it might also forced him to revisit his promise that “the days of Michael Brown, Arabian Horse Judge, are over.” Well, that’s a lot of ifs and mights, so we’re not holding our breath.
There is, of course, the ultimate scenario that we have seen before, and no doubt, we’ll see again — Senators’ offices will acknowledge the former AFSA presidents’ letter and others like it, and then proceed to confirm the nominees (Senate holds for ambassadorial nominees seem reserved for nutty reasons like the case of an ancient boyfriend or the ethnic origin of the nominee’s wife). It is just a coincidence that some nominees are also contributors to the Senate Majority PAC, the party’s Senatorial Campaign, the party’s victory fund or even to the guys from the other party. Oh, but we are extraordinarily special and exceptional that way — watch.
The topic made it to today’s Daily Press Briefing with the State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki answering questions about AFSA’s FOIA requests for these documents which were reportedly filed on July 29, 2013 and a second request filed on February 28, 2014. Ms. Psaki refused to make a prediction of whether State would respond to AFSA’s request by the close of business today.
At about 3pm EST, ABC News tweeted that AFSA is giving the State Department until tomorrow morning to furnish the requested “Certificates of Documented Competency” for ambassador nominees.
When you look at that AFSA FOIA request delay of 7 months and a week, it might be useful to note that in FY2012, the State Department’s total requests in backlog is 10,464. In fact, according to foia.gov, State has one of the highest backlogs, second only to DHS. In FY 2011, the average number of days to process a simple case was 156; for complex cases, 342. Some cases have been pending for 5 or 6 years (see State Dept FOIA Requests: Agency Ranks Second in Highest Backlog and Here’s Why). The oldest pending request, as you can see below is 1,922 days.
Here is the short version of the March 6, 2014 DPB:
via Word It Out
Below is the long version from the March 6, 2014 DPB:
QUESTION: The American Foreign Service Association said yesterday that they were going to be filing suit against the State Department if, by end of business today, you don’t provide certificates of demonstrated competence for ambassadorial nominees. So I just wanted to know if you had any reaction to that.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, AFSA submitted a FOIA request on July 29th 2013 to our website – this is just some details for all of you to be aware of – seeking certificates of a demonstrated competence for every ambassador from January 1st 2013 to the present. We receive, as many of you know, about 18,000 FOIA requests per year. Generally – we generally process requests on a first in, first out basis. So we’re currently actively processing the request in accordance with the statute and the Department’s regulations, which applies to the specific release they put out yesterday.
In terms of broadly speaking, obviously, in nominating ambassadors, we look – the Administration looks for qualified candidates who represent Americans from all walks of life and who show true zeal for serving their country, and we’ve received interest and recruited talented people from all across the country and all kinds of professional backgrounds, whether they are Foreign Service – well, that’s – they proceed through a different process, there, of course, but political appointees who may be from the business sector, who may be from a public service sector. We feel that this kind of diversity helps represent who we are and the United States around the world.
So long story short, we are reviewing their request. We process requests as they come in. Certainly we welcome the comments of anyone and views of anyone on these sorts of issues, but I think it’s important to remind everyone of what we look at when it comes to ambassadorial nominees.
QUESTION: Jen, they submitted this request in July? How many months ago?
QUESTION: No, July 29th, she said.
QUESTION: I thought you said January.
MS. PSAKI: For every ambassador from January 20 —
QUESTION: Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry.
QUESTION: So how long should they expect to wait until you finish processing your request? And why should they even have to submit a FOIA request for this? Why wouldn’t you just – if they asked for it, why wouldn’t you just turn them over?
MS. PSAKI: They were asking for specific documents that are —
QUESTION: Right. But this is not an organization that has a questionable interest in this. It’s an organization that, in fact, represents – I mean, it is the – basically the union for Foreign Service officers, so it’s not really an outside party.
MS. PSAKI: Well, oftentimes, Matt, there’s a processing aspect that needs to take place with these requests, so —
QUESTION: Right, I’m sure that – I’m sure everyone is thrilled, everyone who’s ever filed a FOIA request to the State Department or any other government agency is thrilled, but I think that —
MS. PSAKI: There are many people who do. That’s part of the challenge in processing them.
QUESTION: Right. Okay, so you just threw this in the big pile, in the in-box with every single other request, even though they clearly have some – they have demonstrated interest in this subject. I don’t understand —
MS. PSAKI: I didn’t say we threw it in a pile, Matt.
QUESTION: Yeah, you did. You said you get 18,000 requests a year, so – and —
MS. PSAKI: We do. We process them.
QUESTION: So when they —
MS. PSAKI: But obviously, we’re working to review their request and see how we can meet it as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: But specifically they asked for it to be by the close of business tonight. Otherwise, they’re going to take their – take this to legal action.
MS. PSAKI: I understand that.
QUESTION: Are you saying that you will not be able to get it to them by end of day tonight?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to make a prediction of that. We’ll see what happens.
QUESTION: Just – can I have one —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: Where – you are now processing this specific request, correct?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: You’re actually looking at it and trying to satisfy it?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Okay. If you get 18,000 FOIA requests a year, what is the typical time lag for processing a request? Is it, as in this case, I guess, eight months or – is that typical or is it less, is it more?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any specific time breakdown for you. I’m happy to see if there’s anything like that we can provide.
QUESTION: And was this one —
MS. PSAKI: We’re – they’re about to start the press avail, but go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. Was this one jumped to the front of the queue for any reason or no? It was processed —
MS. PSAKI: Well, there are cases where – and they asked for expedited processing, and some cases that question is asked. This didn’t satisfy the specific laid out standards for that, but we’re still working to see if we can process this as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: But it was not – was it jumped ahead or no? Or it —
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re still working to see if we can process it as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: No, no, that’s not my question, though. My question is whether it got – I understand that they may have requested expedited processing —
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: — and did not – denied it because they don’t meet the standards, which happens to a lot of people.
MS. PSAKI: And at the same time, we’re still working to expedite – to process this as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: Right. Right. Right. No, but I’m sure you’re doing that with the other 17,199, right? I mean, the question is whether you are doing this faster.
MS. PSAKI: Specifically with this one, we are —
MS. PSAKI: — working to process it as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: But quicker than everything – others’ stuff?
MS. PSAKI: It doesn’t work in that exact way, but we’re working to process it as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: And Jen, they said that – AFSA said that they also filed a second FOIA request on February 28th.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: So did they express to you their – because I know there was discussion between counsels.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: So was that part of the aspect, that they didn’t feel that the July request had been processed or addressed within a – expeditiously enough so that —
MS. PSAKI: You’d have to ask them that question. I’m not sure if they are basically about the same thing or not. So I’m happy to check, and you may want to check with them and see what the reason was for the second one.
QUESTION: These documents are – what they’re seeking or these certificates are not classified, are they?
MS. PSAKI: No, but they’re still internal files, and so obviously we go through a process —
QUESTION: Fair enough. But they’re for a very small number of people, 50. Do you have any idea how many pages one of these things is?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s every ambassadorial nominee for the last 14 months.
MS. PSAKI: So —
QUESTION: And how many – well, actually, it wouldn’t have been originally —
MS. PSAKI: 15?
QUESTION: No, because they filed it in July asking for every one that went back to January. So —
MS. PSAKI: But when you meet it, you’re abiding by what the FOIA request —
QUESTION: Fair enough. How many pages is one of these things?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have a specific number of pages for you.
QUESTION: It seems to me like this is a very limited request from an organization that’s got a very, very important interest in this subject, and that frankly, they should, if they ask, should be allowed to see – without having to go to through the FOIA processing. Was there any – did – do you know – are you aware if they asked outside of FOIA to get this – to get these documents?
MS. PSAKI: They are closely engaged with our chief of staff and deputy secretary of state, and have a range of meetings. So I know that all of these issues have been discussed. In terms of this specific request, I can check if there’s anything we can share on that.
QUESTION: So in other words, you said no. They asked, you said no, you have to submit a FOIA? Is that —
MS. PSAKI: I’m not saying that’s how it all went down. I’m saying they have many channels for having discussions with people in the Administration. And if there’s more to share on whether they made this specific request outside of the FOIA request process, I’m happy to check into that.
QUESTION: Do you have any idea if there is a chance, even a remote chance, that the processing will be finished by 5 o’clock this afternoon?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to predict when it will be finished.
QUESTION: Well, I know, but —
MS. PSAKI: Obviously, we’re working to process it as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: I understand that. But is there a possibility that it could be done by 5 o’clock?
MS. PSAKI: There’s always a possibility.
QUESTION: There is. Okay.
QUESTION: How many nominees are we talking about? Have you got a figure?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have a figure.
Well, then, tomorrow, maybe — or we’ll wonder who’ll stop the rain …