Tag Archives: Peter Van Buren

State Dept on Former DAS Raymond Maxwell’s Allegations: Crazy. Conspiracy Theory. What Else?

– Domani Spero

 

AP’s Matt Lee revisited the question of Raymond Maxwell’s Benghazi-related allegations during the September 16 Daily Press Briefing with State Department deputy spox, Marie Harf.

Here is the short version:

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Below is the video clip followed by an excerpt from the transcript where the official spox of the State Department called the allegations of one of its former top officials “a crazy conspiracy theory about people squirreling away things in some basement office and keeping them secret.” Crazy. Conspiracy. Of course!  Now stop asking silly questions and go home.

Over 20 years of service in the Navy and the diplomatic service and his allegation is reduced to a sound bite.  Mr. Maxwell is lucky he’s retired, or he would have been made to work, what was it, as a telecommuter?  Pay attention, there’s a lesson here somewhere.

In The American Conservative today, Peter Van Buren writes:

Maxwell impresses as a State Department archetype, dedicated to the insular institution, apolitical to the point of frustration to an outsider, but shocked when he found his loyalty was not returned.

He has revealed what he knows only two years after the fact. People will say he is out for revenge. But I don’t think that’s the case. As a State Department whistleblower who experienced how the Department treats such people, I know it’s not a position anyone wants to be in.
[…]
You don’t just wake up one morning and decide to turn your own life, and that of your family, upside down, risking financial ruin, public shaming, and possibly jail time. It is a process, not an event.

 

 

 

QUESTION: You wouldn’t – you would probably disagree, but anyway, this has to do with what Ray Maxwell said about the AR – the preparation to the documents for the – for submission to the ARB. You said yesterday that his claims as published were without merit and showed a – I think you said lack of understanding of the process, how it functioned.

MS. HARF: How the ARB functioned, a complete lack of understanding, I think I said.

QUESTION: Complete lack of understanding, okay.

MS. HARF: Not just a partial lack of understanding.

QUESTION: Okay. So what was it that – presuming he’s not making this story up about coming into the jogger’s entrance and going to this room where – I mean, I presume there’s nothing really sinister about collecting documents for the – for whatever purpose, but it –

MS. HARF: There may have been a room with documents –

QUESTION: Right.

MS. HARF: — being collected and – yes.

QUESTION: Okay. So what did he see if he did not see –

MS. HARF: I have no idea what he saw.

QUESTION: Was there, that you’re aware of – and I recognize that you were not here at the time and this was a previous Secretary and a previous Secretary’s staff, likely all of them previous although I don’t know that to be true, so you may not know. But I would expect that you have asked them for their account of what happened.

MS. HARF: Okay.

QUESTION: So was there some kind of an effort by member – that you’re aware of or – let me start again. Was there some kind of effort by State Department officials to separate out or scrub down documents related to the – to Benghazi into piles that were – did not – piles into – into piles that were separated by whether they made the seventh floor look – appear in a bad light or not? I’m sorry. I’m not – asking this in a very roundabout way. Were there –

MS. HARF: It’s okay, and we’re – and he was referring, I think, to the ARB process. Is that right?

QUESTION: Correct.

MS. HARF: Yeah.

QUESTION: Did people involved in preparing the documents for the ARB separate documents into stuff that was just whatever and then things that they thought were – made people on the seventh floor, including the Secretary, look bad?

MS. HARF: Not to my knowledge, Matt, at all. The ARB had full and unfettered access and direct access to State Department employees and documents. The ARB’s co-chairs, Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen, have both repeated several times that they had unfettered access to all the information they needed. So the ARB had complete authority to reach out independently and directly to people. Employees had complete authority to reach out directly to the ARB. And they’ve said themselves they had unfettered access, so I have no idea what prompted this somewhat interesting accounting of what someone thinks they may have seen or is now saying they saw.

But the ARB has been clear, the ARB’s co-chairs have been clear that they had unfettered access, and I am saying that they did have full and direct access to State Department employees and documents.

QUESTION: Could they – could a group of people operating in this room in preparing for the ARB to look at the documents – could a group of people have been able to segregate some documents and keep the ARB from knowing about them –

MS. HARF: No.

QUESTION: — or seeing them?

MS. HARF: Not to my knowledge.

QUESTION: So it’s –

MS. HARF: The ARB, again, has said – and everything I’ve talked to everybody about – that they had unfettered access to what they needed.

QUESTION: Well, yeah, but you can’t need what you don’t know about, kind of, right? Do you understand what – see what –

MS. HARF: The ARB had full and direct access –

QUESTION: So they got to see –

MS. HARF: — to State Department employees and documents.

QUESTION: So there were no documents that were separated out and kept from the ARB that you – but you –

MS. HARF: Not that I’ve ever heard of, not that I know of. I know what I know about the ARB’s access. We have talked about this repeatedly.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: And I don’t know how much clearer I can make this. I think, as there often are with Benghazi, a number of conspiracy theories out there being perpetrated by certain people. Who knows why, but I know the facts as I know them, and I will keep repeating them every day until I stop getting asked.

QUESTION: Okay. And does this apply to documents that were being collected in response to requests from Congress?

MS. HARF: Well, it’s a different process, right. It was a different process. And obviously, we’ve produced documents to Congress on a rolling basis. Part of that – because it’s for a different purpose.

QUESTION: Well, who – what was this group – well, this group of people in the – at the jogger’s entrance –

MS. HARF: In the – I love this – sounds like some sort of movie. Yes.

QUESTION: Well, whatever it sounds like, I don’t know, but I mean, we happen to know that there was an office that was set up to deal with this, understandably so because it required a lot of effort.

MS. HARF: Correct.

QUESTION: But that room or whatever it was, that office was only dealing with stuff for the ARB?

MS. HARF: I can check if people sat in the same office, but there are two different processes. There’s the ARB process for how they got their documents. There’s the Congressional process –we’ve been producing documents to them on a rolling basis –

QUESTION: I understand.

MS. HARF: — part of which in that process is coordinating with other agencies who may have equities in the documents, who may have employees who are on the documents. So that’s just a separate process.

QUESTION: Okay. So the people in that office were not doing anything with the Congress; they were focused mainly on the ARB?

MS. HARF: I can see who actually sat in that office. I don’t know. But what we’re focused on is the process, right, and the ARB had full and direct access to State Department employees and documents. The congressional process – as you know, we have been producing documents to Congress on a rolling basis –

QUESTION: Well, I guess that this mainly relates to the –

MS. HARF: — and there’s just different equities there.

QUESTION: This – the allegation, I think, applies to the ARB. But you are saying –

MS. HARF: Right, and I’m talking about the ARB.

QUESTION: — that it is impossible for a group of people to collect a stack of documents that say something that they don’t like and secret them away or destroy them somehow so that the ARB couldn’t get to them? Is that what you’re saying? It’s impossible for that to happen?

MS. HARF: I’m saying I wasn’t here then. What I know from talking to people here who were is that the ARB had full and direct access to State Department employees and documents.

QUESTION: Okay, but that doesn’t answer the question of whether there wasn’t –

MS. HARF: It does answer the question. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well – no, no, no, no. No, no, no. One of his allegations is that there were people who were separating out documents that would make the Secretary and others –

MS. HARF: So that the ARB didn’t have access to them.

QUESTION: Right, but – that put them in a bad light.

MS. HARF: But I’m saying they had access to everything.

QUESTION: Okay. But –

MS. HARF: So –

QUESTION: — do you know even –

MS. HARF: — I’m responding.

QUESTION: But even if it would’ve been impossible for them to keep these things secret, was there a collection of –

MS. HARF: This is a crazy conspiracy theory about people squirreling away things in some basement office and keeping them secret. The ARB had unfettered access.

QUESTION: Okay. I mean, Marie, I appreciate the fact that you’re taking that line. But I mean, there is a select committee investigating it.

MS. HARF: Well, it happens to be true. And tomorrow there will be an open hearing on ARB implementation, where I’m sure all of this will be discussed with Assistant Secretary Greg Starr.

QUESTION: Okay. And they will have – they will get the same answers that you’ve just given here?

MS. HARF: Let’s all hope so.

QUESTION: All right.

MS. HARF: Yes, of course.

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FSO-Author Writes About Publishing in the Foreign Service; Update to 3 FAM 4170 Coming Soon?

– Domani Spero

 

The June 2014 issue of the Foreign Service Journal includes an article, Publishing in the Foreign Service by FSO Yaniv Barzilai, who is serving in Baku on his first overseas posting. He is the author of 102 Days of War—How Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda & the Taliban Survived 2001 (Potomac Books, 2013).  Below is an excerpt from that article with a prescription for the improvement of the pre-publication clearance process in the State Department.

There is plenty of room for improvement in the pre-publication clearance process. First and foremost, State must do a better job of adhering to the regulations it has set forth in the Foreign Affairs Manual. Anything short of that standard is unfair to everyone involved. 

Second, the department should establish clear guidelines on how it distributes material internally and across the interagency community. That threshold should have nothing to do with terms as vague as “equities.” Instead, offices and agencies should have the opportunity to clear on material only if that material is the result of “privileged information”: information that employees acquire during the discharge of their duties that is not otherwise available.

Third, State needs to ensure that former employees receive treatment comparable to current employees. A significant gap exists between the attention given to current employees by PA and that former employees receive from A/GIS/IPS/PP/LA. 

As that lengthy acronym suggests, former employees are relegated to an obscure office in the Bureau of Administration when they seek pre-publication clearance. In contrast, the PA leadership is often engaged and provides consistent oversight of the review process for current employees. This bifurcation not only creates unnecessary bureaucratic layers and redundancies, but places additional burdens on former employees trying to do the right thing by clearing their manuscripts. This discrepancy should be rectified.

These short-term fixes would go a long way toward improving the pre-publication clearance process for employees. In the long term, however, the State Department should consider establishing a publication review board modeled on the CIA’s Publication Review Board. 

A State Department PRB would codify a transparent, objective and fair process that minimizes the need for interagency clearance, ensures proper and consistent determinations on what material should be classified, and reduces the strain on the State Department at large, and its employees in particular.

Ultimately, State needs to strike a better balance between protecting information and encouraging activities in the public domain. The pre-publication review process remains too arbitrary, lengthy and disjointed for most government professionals to share their unique experiences and expertise with the American public.

Read in full here.

We totally agree that a publication review board is needed for State. Instead of parcelling out the work to different parts of the bureaucracy, a review board would best serve the agency.  We have some related posts on this topic on the Peter Van Buren case as well as the following items:

The rules and regulations for publishing in the Foreign Service can be found in the infamous Foreign Affairs Manual 3 FAM 4170 (pdf).  Last June, AFSA told its members that for more than a year it has been negotiating a revision to the current Foreign Affairs Manual regulations governing public speaking and writing (3 FAM 4170).

“As mentioned in our 2013 Annual Report, our focus has been to accommodate the rise of social media and protect the employee’s ability to publish. We have emphasized the importance of a State Department response to clearance requests within a defined period of time (30 days or less). For those items requiring interagency review, our goal is to increase transparency, communication and oversight.  We look forward to finalizing the negotiations on the FAM chapter soon—stay tuned for its release.”

This long awaited update to 3 FAM 4170 has been in draft mode since 2012 (see State Dept to Rewrite Media Engagement Rules for Employees in Wake of Van Buren Affair. We’ll have to wait and see if 3 FAM 4172.1-7  also known as the Peter Van Buren clause survives the new version.

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We’re Sending This ‘We Meant Well’ Career Diplomat as Ambassador to Qatar

– Domani Spero

 

This week, we blogged about the former AFSA presidents asking the Senate to 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 Susan Johnson, another senior FSO and the immediate past president of the organization (see Former AFSA Presidents to SFRC: Delay Approval for FSO Dana Smith as Qatar Ambassador).

On the same day, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) cleared Ms. Smith’s nomination for the Senate’s full vote.  We’ve covered these nominations long enough to understand that the Senate seldom ever listen to the concerns of constituents unless they are aligned to the senators’ self-interest or their pet items.

  • In 2012, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) announced his intent to oppose the nominees for WHA, including the nominee for Ecuador, Adam Namm due to what he called this Administration’s policy towards Latin America defined by “appeasement, weakness and the alienation of our allies.”  He was eventually confirmed.
  • On December 15, 2011, 36 conservative foreign policy experts have written to ranking senators to plead for the confirmation of Matthew Bryza as ambassador to Azerbaijan to no avail. WaPo  nominated two senators, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) who placed a hold on the Bryza nomination with the Most Craven Election-Year Pandering at the Expense of the National Interest Award.  Ambassador Bryza eventually quit the Foreign Service and became the Director of the International Centre for Defence Studies in Tallinn, Estonia.
  • In April this year, fifteen former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA)wrote a letter to Senate leaders calling for the rejection of three nominees for ambassadorships: George Tsunis (Norway); Colleen Bell (Hungary) and Noah Mamet (Argentina).  All these nominees have now been endorsed by the SFRC and are awaiting full Senate vote. The only nomination that could potentially be in real trouble is Tsunis. Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken have said they oppose his nomination.  Apparently, every member of the Minnesota U.S. House delegation signed  a letter to President Obama asking him to rescind his nomination of GeorgeTsunis as ambassador to Norway.  Why Minnesota? It is home to the largest Norwegian-American population in the United States.So is this nomination dead?  Nope. If the Democrats in the Senate vote for Tsunis without the Klobuchar and Franken votes, he could still get a simple majority, all that’s required for the confirmation. Correction (h/t Mike D:  Senators Tim Johnson (D-SD) is on the record here opposing the Tsunis nomination.  Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) said she, too, will not support the Tsunis nomination. So if all the Democrats in the Senate  minus the four senators vote in favor of the Tsunis nomination, that’ll be 49 votes, two vote short of a simple majority.  Let’s see what happens.

So, back to Ms. Smith, the State Department nominee as ambassador to Qatar. We think she will eventually be confirmed.  Her ‘Certificate of Competency” posted online says:

Dana Shell Smith, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Minister-Counselor, currently serves as Senior Advisor to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the Department of State. Known as a linguistic, cultural and policy expert on the Middle East, she understands the region well and can effectively present major U.S. policy issues to diverse audiences. Her leadership, management and public affairs expertise, as well as her interpersonal skills and creativity, will enable her to advance bilateral relations with the Government of Qatar, an important U.S. partner in managing the problems of the Middle East.

Dang! That is impressive but it missed an important accomplishment.

Until her nomination as Ambassador to Qatar, Dana Smith Ms. Smith served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Public Affairs (2011-2014).  Does that ring a bell?  Oh, how quickly we forget. Ms. Smith was the PA official who told Peter Van Buren’s book publisher, Macmillan, that the Department has “recently concluded that two pages of the book manuscript we have seen contain unauthorized disclosures of classified information” in We Meant Well. (See “Classified” Information Contained in We Meant Well – It’s a Slam Dunk, Baby!).

What did she actually tell MacMillan?  Let’s take a look:

 

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click here to see entire letter (pdf)

 

This boo! strategy may be creative but also oh, so…. so… amateurish. Who thought Macmillan would buy this scaredy tactic?  Perhaps they should have threatened to buy all the copies and burn them all.  The really funny ha!ha! part about this is despite the charge that the book contained “unauthorized disclosures of classified information” the formal State Department charges filed against Mr. Van Buren did not mention this and he was officially retired with full benefits. (See  After a Year of Serious Roars and Growls, State Dept Officially Retires FSO-Non Grata Peter Van Buren).

We Meant Well is now on second edition on paperback and hardback.  We understand that the book is also used as a text at colleges and at various US military schools but not/not at the Foreign Service Institute.  This past April, Mr. Van Buren also published his new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. As Iraq falls apart, we thought we’d check on Mr. Van Buren. He told us there is no truth to the rumor that he will retitle WMW to “I Told You So.”

This is an old story, of course, that folks would like to forget.  Dirty laundry aired so publicly, ugh!  So most people have moved on, got awards, promotions, moved houses, new jobs, and sometimes, they may even end up as ambassador to places where people express dissent only in whispers and always off the record.

Perfection in the universe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Monday Inbox: US Embassy Baghdad’s Conrad Turner Recites a Russian Poem, And ….

– Domani Spero

Updated on 3/24 at 11:24 pm PST: The YouTube description now indicates that this is “One of four videos celebrating international poetry during the visit to Iraq of poets from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop.”

The video below was published by U.S. Embassy Baghdad on March 4, 2014 on YouTube. The video includes the English and Arabic text translation of a Russian poem.  The speaker is the embassy’s Public Affairs Counselor in Baghdad reciting a poem by Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin in Baghdad. The embassy’s AIO also recited a poem last February; can’t say whose work he is reciting here, can you?

Oh, please don’t get us wrong, we love poetry.  We love Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese and  Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Underwear“and Keats, and Yeats, and Billy Collins, too.  But somebody from that building sent us an email asking if this is “really clever use of PD time and money?” So we went and look.  The YouTube post is 1:40 min in length, has 256 views, and does not include any context as to why our U.S. diplomat in Baghdad is reciting a Russian poem. What’s the purpose why this video is up, anyways? Was this part of a larger event? Nothing on the embassy’s website indicate that it is.  Was he just feeling it?  We can’t say, no explainer with the vid.  This could, of course, be part of celebrating poetry month, but the National Poetry Month in the U.S. has been celebrated in April since 1996.

In related news, according to iraqbodycount.org, the March civilian casualties in Iraq is currently at 749; the year-to-date count is 2,755 deaths.

Well, what do you think –  is this “really clever use of PD time and money?” or is this Reality Detachment, a chapter in Peter Van Buren’s future novel?

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Quote of the Day: “Take responsible risks…Don’t take a big crazy risk … Mm…hmm

– Domani Spero

Here is Doug Frantz, the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs via nextgov.com:

“Social media is an interactive platform, so if you wait to come back to the State Department to get clearance on how to respond to a question over Twitter it will take days if not weeks and the conversation will be over,” Frantz said. “So you want people to be engaged. You want them to be willing and able to take responsible risks…Don’t take a big crazy risk and try to change our policy on Iran, but if you’re behaving responsibly, we can expect small mistakes.”

In many ways, the department is vulnerable to those risks whether or not officials are actively engaging on social media.

Frantz cited the case of a diplomatic security officer and his wife who were expelled from India after making derogatory comments about the country on their personal Facebook pages. “I tell people never tweet anything you don’t want to see on the front page of the Washington Post,” Frantz said.

We should be impressed at this enlightened approach of employees being allowed to afford small mistakes.  Except that elements of the State Department continue to harass Foreign Service bloggers who write in their private capacity on blogs and other social media sites.  Remember my Conversation with Self About Serial Blog Killers and the 21st Century Statecraft?  Different folks get on and off the bus, but this is just as real today.

Harassment, as always, is conducted without a paper trail unless, it’s a PR nightmare like Peter Van Buren, in which case, there is a paper trail.  So an FSO-blogger’s difficulties in obtaining an onward assignment has nothing to do with his/her blog, or his/her tweets. Just bad luck of the draw, see?  Oh, stop doing that winky wink stuff with your eyes!

Anybody know if there is an SOP on how to intimidate diplo-bloggers into going back into writing in their diaries and hiding those under their pillows until the year 2065? Dammit! No SOP needed?

So, no witnesses, no paper trail and  no bruises, just nasty impressive stuff done under the table.  Baby, we need a hero –

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US Embassy Yemen: Revocation of U.S. Passports, a Growing Trend?

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– Domani Spero

Back in August 2013, Yemen Post reported of “more than 20 known cases” of U.S. passports revoked by U.S. Embassy Sana’a in Yemen:

More than 20 known cases of Yemeni-Americans who have tried to renew their passports in Yemen have surfaced in the last four months. The Yemeni American News has learned that the usual scenario is that American citizens of Yemeni descent have had their passports taken away when they go to the American Embassy in Sana’a to either renew their passports or get a visa for an immediate relative. Not only is it common for the embassy to decline a passport renewal or disallow a visa but, in addition, citizens are having their passports confiscated.

Peter Van Buren previously blogged about the U.S. passport revocations at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen here and here. WaPo’s  In the Loop has a Jan.9  item about the rights groups’ warning to U.S. passports applicants visiting the embassy.

Here is what state.gov says about passport revocation:

Passport revocation may be effected when the person obtained the passport fraudulently, when the passport was issued in error, when the person’s certificate of naturalization was cancelled by a federal court, or when the person would not be entitled to a new passport under 22 C.F.R. §§ 51.60, 51.61, or 51.62.

The State Department revokes passports in accordance with Title 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) sections 51.60-62, and 51.65. There are also several statutes under which passports may be revoked and that are incorporated into DOS’s regulations, including: 8 U.S.C. 1504 (the passport was illegally, fraudulently or erroneously obtained); 42 U.S.C. 652(k) (for non-payment of child support); 22 U.S.C. 2714 (for certain drug traffickers); 22 U.S.C. 2671(d)(3) (non-repayment of repatriation loan); and 22 U.S.C. 212a (adds authority to revoke passports of persons convicted of sex tourism). Via

You may click here for 22 CFR on the denial and restriction of passports.

There had been talks alleging “500 seized/revoked passport cases.” Our own inside source who is not authorized to speak about this matter tells us that “at least 100 passports were taken” so far in Sana’a.  We were told that most of the individuals concerned were naturalized U.S. citizens.  According to State Department rules which are not published online, individuals remain eligible for U.S. passports until their Certificate of Naturalizations are revoked.

Naturalization certificates are supposed to stand on its own and cannot be questioned.  If the State Department has negative information, it is supposed to send the information to DHS/USCIS for action. But unlike most other immigration proceedings that USCIS handles in an administrative setting, revocation of naturalization can only occur in federal court.

Here is what USCIS says on revocation of naturalization:

If a court revokes a person’s U.S. citizenship obtained through naturalization, the court enters an order revoking the persons naturalization and cancelling the person’s Certificate of Naturalization. In such cases, the person must surrender his or her Certificate of Naturalization. Once USCIS obtains the court’s order revoking citizenship and cancelling the certificate, USCIS updates its records, including electronic records, and notifies the Department of State of the person’s revocation of naturalization. 

So — if true that most of the revocation cases concerned naturalized Yemeni-Americans, is the US Embassy in Yemen performing passport revocations without prior action from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS)?  Is this a case of a new policy?  Or is this a case of a Consular Section running “wild” with “minimal supervision” an allegation made by a State Department insider to this blog?

We asked around for an official comment and could only get one from a State Department official speaking on background:

“This Department is aware of the reports concerning these passports, and the situation has been reviewed.  Regarding the Department’s policy for passport revocation, the Department may revoke a passport, regardless of location, for reasons set forth in federal law and in federal regulations.  U.S. passports are the property of the United States Government and upon revocation must be returned to the Department of State.  A passport bearer is notified of the revocation and the reasons for revocation and must surrender the passport.  Depending upon the circumstances, the bearer may be provided with a limited validity passport for a direct return to the United States.”

The State Department refused to confirm or deny the number of passport revocations to date.

In response to reports that the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa has been taking U.S. passports away from a large number of U.S. citizens in Yemen, civil rights and community organizations like the ACLU, ALC, AROC, CAIR and CLEAR have published a booklet to raise awareness about the constitutional rights of people whose passports have been taken away, or who are interviewed or “interrogated” at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa.

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Click on image to view the PDF document

A little more digging around indicates a few court cases involving the US Embassy in Sana’a.

Abdo Hizam v. Hillary Clinton

Plaintiff Abdo Hizam brought action against defendants Hillary Clinton, the United States Department of State, and the United States of America (collectively the “State Department”) seeking a judgment declaring that he is a citizen of the United States and an order compelling the defendants to re-issue his Consular Report of Birth Abroad for a Citizen of the United States (“CRBA”) and passport.

On April 18, 2011, the State Department informed Mr. Hizam by letter of its opinion that it had committed an error in calculating the physical presence requirement for his acquisition of citizenship at birth. Subsequently, the State Department informed Mr. Hizam that his CRBA had been canceled and his passport revoked and requested the return of those documents. On May 19, 2011, he complied.

The July 27 Order found that the State Department did not have the authority to revoke Mr. Hizam’s citizenship documents and ordered the return of Mr. Hizam’s CRBA. The State Department contended that absent a stay it will suffer irreparable injury because the July 27 Order undermines its “sole discretion” to withhold passports. The Court says that “being required to comply with a court order is insufficient in and of itself to constitute irreparable harm.” In September 2012, the Court ruled that the stay is denied on the condition that Mr. Hizam not seek derivative status for his family members until an appeal, if lodged, is resolved.” The appeal is ongoing on this case.

The Hizam case was covered by NYT in 2012 here. This case bears watching as no fraud is alleged here; instead, the CRBA was issued due to the error of the adjudicating officer.

 Nashwan Ahmed Qassem v. Holder et. al. | CIVIL DOCKET FOR CASE #: 6:13-cv-06041-DGL

Complaint for writ of mandamus & declaratory judgment against Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Consular General, US Embassy, Sana’a Yemen, and Chief, Immigrant Visa Branch, US Embassy, Sana’a Yemen, Eric Holder, The United States Department of Justice, filed by Nashwan Ahmed Qassem. In October 2013, the Clerk of the Court was directed to close the case by Hon. David G. Larimer.  This case reportedly involved Embassy Sana’as  revocation of a passport and was settled by issuing the passport.

All documents sealed except for order granting motion to withdraw.

Alarir et al v. Holder et al.|  CIVIL DOCKET FOR CASE #: 1:12-cv-07781-AKH

Complaint in the nature of mandamus against Gerald Michael Feierstein, Eric H. Holder, Janice L. Jacobs, Alejandro Mayorkas, Janet Napolitano, Hillary Rodham Clinton by Abdallah Alarir aka Aiyahs, Nasser A. On or about October 18, 2012, seeks order compelling Defendants to (a) issue an immigrant visa to plaintiff Abdallah Alarir and (b) issue United States passports and Consular Records of Birth Abroad to plaintiffs Alaa AJarir and Rawan Alarir.  After a sixth request for an extension, on 10/31/2013, the Clerk was directed to close the case by Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein. The case endorsement says “A suggestion of settlement having been made, this case is dismissed, subject to restoration by either party within 30 days on notice. All pending court dates are cancelled.”

The case was settled with issuance of an immigrant visa to Abdallah Alarir and United States passports and Consular Records of Birth Abroad to Alaa Alarir and Rawan Alarir according to the dismissal order dated November 2013.

Mousa v. United States of America et. al.| CIVIL DOCKET FOR CASE #: 3:13-cv-05958-BHS

COMPLAINT filed (sealed) on November 2013 against defendant(s) United States of America, U.S. Consulate for the Country of Yemen, David Doe, John Doe by Hashed Naji Mohamed Mousa, Fekriah Abdulwahab and minor children, A.H.M., B.H.M. As of 12/05/2013, this case reportedly involving the passport applications of minor children is ongoing. Some files are sealed.

Passport Applications Pending at Post

According to 7 FAM 1368 — “If the passport applicant does not have sufficient evidence to establish a claim to U.S. citizenship, post must provide the applicant with written notification that his/her application has been denied, but will be held by post for 90 days pending submission of additional evidence. If an applicant requests additional time to submit evidence within the 90 day period, posts may grant an additional 90 days or other reasonable period of time based upon the circumstances. In general, passport applications may not remain pending at a post for more than six months.”

If passport applications have been pending at post for six months or even longer (WaPo says that some cases are pending for two years), and American citizens had to get lawyers, and go to court to compel the embassy to decide on their cases, then there is something problematic with the process. Absent an official explanation from the CA Bureau, we can only speculate on what is going on here: 1) Is there is a new policy on passport applications/revocations that the State Department is using without appropriate announcement? 2)  Is there is a new policy on passport applications/revocation that State is using specific to Yemeni-American passport applications? 3) Are there Citizenship/Passport/Fraud staffing issues at Embassy Sana’a that impacts this trend? 4) Is the lengthy waiting time and backlog due to fraud overload at post?

Isolated Cases or a New Trend?

We could not locate any new guidance publicly available on U.S. passport revocations. Is there one available  that supersedes 7 FAM 1368?  If there is one, it would have been published in the Federal Register, not just the changes but the propose changes to the rules. There appears to be several proposals for information collection related to passport applications published on the Federal Register but nothing on passport revocations.

If true that over 100 passports were taken away, revoked or pending revocation, these are no longer isolated cases but  may now constitute a trend.  In 2010, a State/OIG report on Yemen includes this:

“The failed attempt by a Yemeni-trained Nigerian terrorist to blow up a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas Eve 2009 and the Yemeni links to the U.S. Army major who, in November 2009, allegedly killed 13 of his countrymen in Fort Hood, Texas, have raised the public consciousness of Yemen as a center for terrorism. This awareness has underscored the importance to homeland security of all consular activities. Issuing a passport or visa to a terrorist is a real risk, and Embassy Sanaa works hard to make sure that their product is free of fraud.”

But if that’s the basis for this “new” trend in passport processing at post, how about  the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and the UAE?  Are U.S. embassies in those countries also revoking passports of Americans of local origins? The Times Square plot involved Faisal Shahzad, an American of Pakistani origin. Shoe bomber and self-proclaimed Al Qaeda member Richard Reid is a British citizen. If there is a new passport policy, is it universally applied to every country where there were terrorist plots hatched or where the attackers trained or originated?  (A side note — A couple of years ago, the UK stripped British citizenship from 16 individuals who had dual nationality because they were considered to pose a threat to the UK. In 2011, more than 50 Australians have had their passports revoked or refused to prevent them from going overseas for “terrorist training holidays).”

But — that does not seem to be the case here or we would have heard more about this. So what is it? Why Yemen in particular? And how come this appears to be happening only in the last year or so?

Fraud Overload?

In 2010, the State Department estimated the number of U.S. citizens in Yemen at  over 55,000. According to State/OIG, U.S. citizenship is highly valued in Yemen. “Fathers can receive up to $50,000 (45 times the per capita Gross Domestic Product) as a bride price for a U.S.-citizen daughter. As a result, parents often claim children as their own who are in fact from other families, in order to fraudulently document the children as U.S. citizens and use them as a potential source of income.”

A 2009 Fraud Summary floating around the net describes Yemen as having a “pervasive fraud environment.” At that time, the embassy estimated that two-thirds of  its immigrant visa cases (IV) were fraudulent and  that the embassy considered all cases fraudulent until proven otherwise.  Post also used DNA testing and bone age testing to ensure that only qualified children of U.S.citizens receive passport benefits.  So is the passport processing time, lengthly and complicated in Yemen exacerbated by fraud overload?

Muckrock.com, by the way, has filed an FOIA of the Fraud Summary for Sanaa last year and we’re still waiting for that to show up online.

Staffing Shortages?

The American Citizen Services Unit of an embassy handles among other things Emergency Services to U.S. Citizens Abroad, and Citizenship and Nationality cases.  Due to the more complicated nature of these cases, the unit is typically staff by a mid-level officer and local employees.  The unit, almost always, depending on the workload include one entry level officer who is typically on a 3-6 month job rotation in the ACS unit.  Another component of the consular operation is the Fraud Manager, who often times, is also a first or second tour officer, complemented by local staff and in some cases a Regional Security Officer-Investigator (RSO-I). At the time of the IG inspection, the Fraud Unit was staffed by two LE staff members, a part time ARSO-I, a part-time, first-tour vice consul, and no full-time Fraud Manager.

The State/OIG 2010 report on Yemen especially noted that “staffing shortages and backlogs increase the risk to U.S. homeland security caused by pervasive fraud and the threat of terrorism.” Subsequent to the inspection, we understand that the embassy hired an eligible family member as a Fraud Manager and also hired a local fraud analyst.  The situation in Yemen has progressively become more difficult in the last several years. Sana’a has been designated a 30% danger post since 2008.  In 2013, it became a 30% hardship post.  Under the circumstances, can you imagine the staffing shortages improving significantly?

Anyway, we don’t know exactly what’s going on here except that the “situation has been reviewed.” It is doubtful that the Bureau of Consular Affairs will provide some clarity on what’s going on with passport revocations in Yemen but we think it should.  It ought to also provide guidance on how to file an appeal in revocation cases.  Embassy Yemen does not provide any instruction online on this regard.  If limited staffing at post has exascerbated  the processing backlog, perhaps CA who has tons of consular funds should consider additional temporary staffing at a nearby post to help address the problem.

Maybe State’s ace in a hole is  Haig v. Agee, (1981) which upheld the right of the executive branch to revoke a citizen’s passport for reasons of national security and the foreign policy interests of the U.S. under the Passport Act of 1926.  But — if these revocation are only happening in Yemen, might not all this end up in court as individual lawsuits or as a potential class action depending on actual number of people impacted?  

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“This Week With George Stephanopoulos” Features Former Embassy Tripoli DCM Gregory Hicks

– By Domani Spero

FSO Gregory Hicks, the former Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Tripoli (July 2012-October 2012) was one of George Stephanopoulos’s Sunday morning guests on “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” on September 8.  Below is an excerpt from the transcript:

Via ABC News

Via ABC News

via ABC News

via ABC News

Read the full transcript here.

Asked for a response by ABC News, a spokesman said the State Department has “not punished Mr. Hicks in any way” and that “the circumstances that led to his departure from Libya was entirely unrelated to any statements he may have made relating to the attack in Benghazi.” Full statement below:

State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach’s statement to ABC News:

The State Department has not punished Mr. Hicks in any way. We appreciate his exemplary service on the evening of September 11 and his long career as a member of the Foreign Service.

Although the State Department ordinarily does not discuss the details of personnel matters publicly, because he has alleged mistreatment, we will state generally that the circumstances that led to his departure from Libya was entirely unrelated to any statements he may have made relating to the attack in Benghazi. When Mr. Hicks voluntarily curtailed his assignment, he was in the position of finding another assignment in between standard assignment cycles. The Department made significant efforts to find him a new position at his level, including identifying an overseas position which he declined and succeeded in finding him a short-tour assignment in the Office of the Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs, pending the next assignment cycle. We continue to value his service and are working with him through the normal personnel process and assignment timetable to identify his next permanent assignment.

The State Department is deeply committed to meeting its obligation to protect employees and the State Department does not tolerate or sanction retaliation against whistleblowers on ANY ISSUE, including Benghazi.

 

Of course, it would be a lot easier to believe Mr. Gerlach’s statement but for Peter Van Buren.  And let’s not even start with a gag order as a condition for a resolution within the State Department.  (By the way, speaking of gag orders, FSO Russell Sveda who was gay and went through a 14-year bureaucratic battle with State got around the media gag order by speaking to ADST’s Oral History Project, a non-media entity who published the interview online.  Smart.  You may read his account here).

Back to the Hicks affair — in May this year after Mr. Hicks appearance in Congress, a couple of unnamed US Embassy Tripoli employees dished to Hayes Brown of ThinkProgress about Mr. Hicks performance as deputy chief of mission in Tripoli (see EXCLUSIVE: Embassy Staff Undercut ‘Whistleblower’ Testimony On Benghazi).  Apparently, this includes “a lack of diplomatic protocol” by “going to a meeting with the Libyan Prime Minister Mohammed Magarief in a t-shirt, cargo pants, and baseball cap” and allegedly being “too upset to wear a suit.”  I don’t know about you, but “several troubling incidents” criticizing a senior officer’s performance at post ought to include more than simple bad choice in clothes.

What did he do that necessitates a curtailment?  We’ll never know.

Mr. Hicks on his May 8 testimony before the Oversight Committee also said this:

“After I arrived in Tripoli as Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) on July 31, 2012, I fast became known as the Ambassador’s “bulldog,” because of my decisive management style.”

But why would anyone need a “bulldog” in a collegial embassy setting?

The American Bulldogs is one of the Top 10 Banned Dog Breeds (banned in Denmark, Singapore and various municipalities, the dog’s specialty is catching feral hogs and it is known for its very high pain threshold).  Meanwhile, the American Kennel Club (AKC) also says that a Bulldog’s “disposition should be equable and kind, resolute and courageous (not vicious or aggressive), and demeanor should be pacific and dignified.” Take your pick.

Voluntold Curtailment

We don’t know Mr. Hicks and we’ve never meet him.  We have previously sent him a couple of emails but those were never acknowledged, so we’re not e-pals either.  We know that Tripoli was his first assignment as a DCM, so there is no paper trail on OIG inspections that we can locate.  The folks who worked for him (at least those who talked to the press) could only point to a bad choice in wardrobe as an example of bad performance. By his own admission, he “voluntary curtailed” from his assignment in Tripoli barely three months into his tour. Following the Benghazi attack, the Libya mission went on ordered departure. Curtailment during OD is widely viewed as a “no fault” curtailment, which in turn means, there would be no career repercussions.

But people inside the building also know that if you say “no” to management’s suggestion of voluntary curtailment, you risk incurring a “loss of confidence.”  Even if you say “no,” the chief of mission can still request the Director General of the Foreign Service for curtailment. Except in this case, management will be required to: (1) Include background information on any incidents that support the request(2) Confirm that the employee has been informed of the request and the reasons therefore; and (3) Confirm that the employee has been advised that he or she may submit comments separately.  In short, the bosses will need to do the work to justify an involuntary curtailment.

So when your leadership suggest that you take a “voluntary” curtailment, you can either say “yes” even if you don’t want to shorten your assignment, or you can say “no” and still be curtailed anyway.

Perhaps when people sign their names to a “voluntary” curtailment request that they don’t want, it should be appropriately called “voluntold”curtailment?

How will this end?

Assignments in the Foreign Service are typically handed out a year before the actual job rotation. So if one curtails from an assignment, one does not have a lot of jobs to choose from and may have to take what is normally called a “bridge” assignment.  An assignment between your previous job and the next assignment with a start date in the foreseeable future.  We don’t know what happened in this case but — paging –

Rep. Jackie “I think this committee will help you get a good onward assignment” Speier — where are you?

This Week’s interview did not indicate Mr. Hicks’ current assignment.  But a couple of things we should note:

1) Mr. Hicks ran for State-VP in the 2013 AFSA election and failed in his quest to represent the Foreign Service. (see AFSA Elections 2013: Unofficial Results, Asada Defeats Hicks2013 AFSA Election Results: 3,505 Out of 16,000+ Members Voted, Plus Vote Count By Candidate).  His congressional testimony occurred just prior to the AFSA elections where he ran in the slate of the IAFSA Coalition.  It was a typical low turn out election.   If there were sympathy votes, there were not enough to overcome  his closest opponent; he lost by about a hundred votes.

2) If Mr. Hicks was not in trouble before, he could be in trouble now for going on “This Week…” without prior clearance under FAM 4170 Official Clearance of Speaking, Writing, and Teaching.  This is something that similarly “got” Mr. Van Buren in hot water during his very public battle with the State Department bureaucracy (After a Year of Serious Roars and Growls, State Dept Officially Retires FSO-Non Grata Peter Van Buren).

The question now is how far will this escalate.

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US Mission Iraq: Shrinking to 5,500 Personnel by End of Year, Never Mind the Missing Details

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, we were greeted with news about a wave of bombings in Iraq which killed 65 people and wounded over 200.

Then CNN came out with this piece on Iraq war for oil.

And retired FSO Peter Van Buren went on Fox News to talk about $15 million a day spent on  projects in Iraq (did you think he was going away?).  We heard from a nosy source that a former US ambassador to Iraq was reportedly on the phone to offer a, what do you call it — a counter-point, during the segment but the line went dead as a door nail when informed that Mr. Van Buren was the guest. Them phone signals can get occasionally wacky, must be that dry western climate.

Oh, and Mr. Rumsfeld made a serious tweet (can you hear Tehran celebrating the 10th anniversary with a roar?).

Screen Shot 2013-03-20

He got grandly pummeled over in Twitterland. Except that if he did not care what people think ten years ago, would he really care what folks think today? Of course, he is now an octogenarian on Twitter. Hopefully, he’s occupied enough not to plan on liberating any more countries between now and going forward.

Another news doing the rounds is the reported shrinking of US Mission Iraq – from a Gigantosaurus of embassies (projected at 17,000 in 2011 by Ambassador Jeffrey during a SFRC hearing) to hopefully something like a smaller, more agile Postosuchus.

Via the Middle East Online

The US mission in Iraq — the biggest in the world — will slash its numbers by two-thirds by the end of this year from its peak figure of over 16,000, the American ambassador to Baghdad said.

Overall staffing levels at the US’s embassy in Baghdad and its consulates in the southern port city of Basra, the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil and the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, will drop to around 5,500, including contractors, by the end of the year.

“A year ago, we were well above 16,000, now we’re at 10,500,” Ambassador Stephen Beecroft told reporters. “By the end of this year, we’ll be at 5,500, including contractors.”

As a prospective 5,500-person mission, it would probably still be one of the largest embassies in the world, if not still the largest (anyone knows what is the personnel-complement of US Mission Afghanistan?).

We’ve asked the Press Office of the US Embassy in Baghdad how many career Foreign Service personnel will be expected in Baghdad and constituent posts by end of year and what they are planning to do with all that space that will soon be vacated. We forgot to ask but we also are curious on what they’ll do with the Air Embassy planes (and pilots) and district embassy hospitals and equipment (embassy auction?).  Or how many ambassadorial rank senior officers they will have by end of the year.

Unfortunately, we haven’t got any response to our inquiry. Obviously the folks at the embassy’s Public Affairs shop are professionals who always respond to inquiries from the public even from the pajama-wearing sector who wants to know what’s going on.  Unless, of course, they are overwhelmed with drafting their performance evaluations (we understand it’s EER time).  It is also  entirely possible they were not read in on what they actually are doing by end of this year.  That is, besides the simple math announced on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the invasion.  Poor sods.

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Silenced: Civic Courage on Film, Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

“Allowing ourselves to become a nation of silent, secretive, timid citizens is likely to result in a system of democracy and justice that is neither very democratic nor very just.” 
― Dahlia Lithwick

James Spione’s new film SILENCED follows a group of high-profile former feds who questioned official national security policy in post 9-11 America, and have endured harsh consequences. It features former NSA senior executive Tom Drake, former CIA officer John Kiriakou, former Justice Department lawyer Jesselyn Radack and former State Department diplomat Peter Van Buren.

John Kiriakou is currently serving a 30 month prison term at a  Federal correctional facility in Loretto, Pennsylvania.

Here is a short blurb:

Over the past several years, an arcane WWI era law called The Espionage Act has been used six times to bring charges against whistleblowers, not for revealing information to a foreign government, but for talking to the press. In fact, the current administration invoked this law more times than all previous administrations combined.
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The targeting of whistleblowers raises profound questions that have implications far beyond the fates of the individuals profiled in this film. In an age where the spectre of terrorism is deemed an appropriate reason for the Executive branch to claim greater and greater powers, can the United States government maintain a commitment to the rule of law? How can a democracy that purports to champion human rights simultaneously attempt to quash criticism from within its ranks? What is the effect on our First Amendment right to dissent–and on the whole idea of a free press–when those in power single out whistleblowers for prosecution?

More on The Espionage Act here.

James Spione  teamed up with producer Daniel Chalfen and executive producer Jim Butterworth of Naked Edge Films to make this new documentary.  The group has reached their funding goal of $35,000 with 300 funders via Kickstarter.  The funds will be used for post production and  the film is expected to be finished by end of the year.

From now until March 14th, you can still support them on Kickstarter here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1…. The group states that additional Kickstarter funds raised in the final days will be put to good use– “some critical upgrades to editing equipment, beginning work with composer Emile Menasché, and spending more time in the edit room assembling all of these individual stories into a powerful narrative about the importance of whistleblowers to American democracy.”

Read more here.

Peter Van Buren wrote:

While all of us in this important film have given interviews before, none of us has opened up, in depth, the way we did with Jim. It is also important to note that none of us are profiting from this film or the Kickstarter campaign, unless you consider the telling of truth on a large and public scale to be our reward.

Mission accomplished “M”!  If you have not done it yet, you may now give meritorious and superior awards to the Van Buren Project hounders from DS and DGHR.
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Social Media Schizophrenia Continues on Background, and Oh, Stuff That Loophole, Ey?

One of our readers from a post that will remain unnamed recently wrote a note with the following heads-up, “…our Front Office has gone on an anti-social media rampage of late.”

Something about slamming worker bees for not using Facebook or Twitter responsibly?  Apparently, using our universal idiotic translator, that means anyone at post using FB or Twitter was not/not using it responsibly.

These folks have been sequestered inside the mission (before sequestration was a DC rage) due to well, reasons and are not allowed to meet their contacts outside the embassy compound. But our diplomats can continue their host country engagement despite the security hindrances in country X or Y because there now are plenty of social media tools. Except that embassies are not democracies, and when the Front Office is of the opinion that staffers who use these tools are not using it responsibly – what do you get?  What kind of work can our diplomats realistically do when they cannot travel outside the embassy compound?  What kind of host country outreach can be expected of them  when even the mere use of social media tools is considered  irresponsible use by their bosses?

And so the State Department’s social media schizophrenia continues, on background in that region over there.

This gives us an excuse to revisit the social media hubbub from last year about the change in the clearance regs, also known as the 2-day clearance for tweets scandal that gave everyone  ants in their pants —

Screen Shot 2013-02-28

Anyway — rumor has it that when Condolezza Rice’s book was submitted for clearance at the State Department a year or so ago — the Executive Secretariat sent that around with very tight short fuze clearance taskers so that the 30 day timeline could be respected.   This is the book where she reportedly congratulated herself on forcing more State Department officials into the field.

Sometime last year year, we published in this blog a short piece on PTSD by an active FSO, and we understand that the clearance for that came through, shockingly enough within 24 hours.

So when the clearance system works, it rocks, but it does not always work as intended.

The current rules says that if the designated review period of 30 days run out without a response, that an employee may go ahead and publish the submitted material with a couple of caveats (no classified or protected info used).  Which is good because it makes the clearance office accountable; officials cannot just sit on the submitted material for no reason than to stall publication. There is the risk, of course, that the Dept will go after you when you take that option.  Prime example of this is retired FSO Peter Van Buren who wrote a comical and depressing account of reconstruction in Iraq in his book, We Meant Well.

That book was submitted for clearance, went beyond the 30 day timeframe and the author took the risk and published the book.  The State Dept did go after him for purported use of classified information in the book, which did not wash or perhaps more appropriately, washed with bad streaks all over it. After a lengthy semi-public battle, Mr. Van Buren retired from the State Department with full benefits.

We must note that the need to get a book cleared is not a laughing matter. The USG once purchased all copies of a book and had a book burning event (see Operation Dark Heart).  In spring last year, a US court ruled that a CIA-connected author may forfeit any future money he earns from a book (see “The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture”)

James Bruno, a retired FSO and author of political thrillers Permanent Interests, Chasm, Tribe and the latest, still waiting clearance, The Havana Queen, had to wait an average of six month for the State Department to review his books. Mr. Bruno  wrote about this in his blog:

“My book manuscripts must undergo government security review before I can even show them to a book agent or a publisher. Those I published before 2000 were cleared quickly and with little interference from the censors. The Bush-2 administration, however, tightened the process up greatly. It took almost six months to get clearance for my latest novel, “Tribe.” Upon completion of the manuscript, I phoned State to ask to whom I should send it. In return, they faxed me a letter stating, “Everything you write will be considered classified until cleared by this office.”

Ugh! In another blog post, Mr. Bruno wrote:

“This week, I shipped off to the U.S. State Department my fourth book for security review as required by nondisclosure rules binding on all active duty and retired government personnel who have held top secret security clearances. Taking an average of six months per review, my books will have sat a total of two years with the green eye-shaders in Washington. That’s two years of not being published. Two years of royalties not flowing into my bank account.”

If the 30-day timeline is to be respected for a former Secretary of State, it should be respected for all employees, active or retired, otherwise why have the rules in placed when there is selective application of the rules? Pardon me? That’s exactly why there are rules in place so exceptions can be made?

Well, dammit, that hurts our head!

Lost in noise of the 2-day clearance for tweets (which reportedly ain’t gonna happen!) is the central point that under the proposed rules, the State Dept endeavors to control much more firmly its employees speaking, writing, and media engagement, particularly on matters considered “of official concern,” that is, all matters of concern to the State Department.  To put it bluntly, the gag works but did not work as well as evidenced by the Van Buren case.  So an update is needed to make sure it works perfectly, silly.

While Alec Ross put his own spin on this, you might check out this flowchart on the review of State employees public communication whether done in their official or private capacity (h/t to John Brown’s Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review and We Meant Well.

Mary Jeffers, a senior State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy currently detailed outside Foggy Bottom had a piece on this in the takefiveblog. She writes:

Right now, if you are an Ambassador or PAO (public affairs officer) overseas you are cleared to tweet or post to social media (as well as talk to local journalists, do interviews with local media, etc.) as you see fit — and it doesn’t look like these new rules would change that.  And if you are in Washington in an office that needs to communicate publicly about something, you can work with the PA staff in your own bureau to get near-instant clearance.

(Plus, employees can always use language that’s already been cleared, e.g. text from previous official speeches and statements — and frankly, a lot of language gets recycled this way because it’s efficient and ensures consistency, which is necessarily valued in this business).

And you can always pick up the phone to follow-up clearance requests to multiple offices, email them or if needed, walk your text to the clearance office.  So what’s the real hubbub here? Ms. Jeffers with her pulse on the ground writes:

  • … in situations where the reason people might read your blog article or listen to your speech is that you work for State, but you want to use your own words and speak your own thoughts.  And of course there’s a broad spectrum of such situations, ranging from invitational speaking that all State officers ought to do as part of their work (on one end) to whistle-blowing (at the other); and,
  • Close a loophole that indicated if State PA doesn’t respond to a request for clearance within a certain deadline, one is free to publish.

Those two items sit right at the heart of the matter.

The 3 FAM 4170 current rules applies to “all public speaking, writing and teaching materials of “official concern” whether done in official or private capacity.  We suspect that the greatest impact on the proposed rules would be felt by employees speaking, writing, teaching and doing any sort of public engagement in their private capacity.

So all FB, Twitter, Blogger, WordPress, Ning, other social media platforms users who are State people, talking online about bidding, Iraq, assignments, promotions, housing, officially issued furniture, etc. etc. the proposed new rules are not going to be any better or easier despite official speechifying to the contrary.  So you better stick with toucans.  Look, the 30- day clearance will be shrunk to 2-5 days for social media posts.  Apparently, the public thinks that’s unacceptable for official communication. Does that mean it is also unacceptable for employees communicating in their private capacity? Stay tuned.

Also as we’ve have blogged previously, the catch all language of the proposed new rules is troubling particularly on not violating “standards of character, integrity, and conduct expected of all Department employees as defined in 3 FAM 1216” — those standards are not even spelled out in the cited regulation!  Oh, hey, did we hear right that this draft regulation was done by an intern?

In any case —  all that and the proposed closure of the loophole contained in 3 FAM 4172.1-7 makes us think that tighter control of employee speech, particularly those done in a private capacity, is the main goal of the proposed new rules. It does not matter that there is now a new secretary of state. The building marches at its own tune. If the FAM update is not yet out (it’s not), it’s only because too much public attention probably made it suddenly shy.

As to the complaint overheard down that corridor that we should not be commenting on a draft reg — sorry folks, we could not help it.  Once the regulation is finalized, it does not get any further hearing for a couple years or so.  That’s way too long.  This particular piece of the FAM has potentially significant repercussions to employees speaking in their private capacity. The mere fact that it leaked means others inside the building have significant concerns about it.  Had management posted it in the spirit of true collaboration on the Sounding Board for comments, we probably would not have heard about it.

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