A blog mistake hounds an FSO: Despite a good reputation for work, “there was the blog thing.”

Posted: 3:43 am EDT

 

There are over 500 Foreign Service blogs by State Department employees and family members. Long-time readers of this blog may remember the tigers who bite bloggers (see Foreign Service Blogging: Tigers Have Teeth, Rather Sharp … Rawr!!!).

When I wrote that Rawr piece in 2011, I wrote this:

I have not seen or heard of Tigers actually yanking anybody’s clearance due to an offending blog. I am aware of private sessions of discouragements, issues with onward assignments, and of course, threats of various colors and stripes among directed at FS bloggers.  And as far as I know, they have not technically kicked out anyone who blogs either —  unless you call the “push” to retirement a payback kick.

Well, State did yank Peter Van Buren‘s clearance afterwards, but it was for more than just a blog.  Occasionally, I get a request to cite a case where identified individuals got into real trouble due to blogging in the Foreign Service. Except for a small number of cases (PVB, ADA and MLC), I’ve refrained from writing about the blog troubles out of concern that writing about them makes it worse for the individual bloggers. In many cases, the bloggers themselves quietly remove their blogs online without official prompting. Out of the abundance of caution.

A recent FSGB case decided in January 2015 shows a charge of “Poor Judgment” against an FSO based on a post in her personal blog written in October 2008.  That’s right. The blog post was online for barely a day and was taken down in 2008. To be clear, the poor judgment charge related to the blog is just half the charges filed against this employee.  But in January 2013, State proposed a five day suspension for the FSO. Excerpt from the FSGB record of proceeding available online:

The Improper Personal Conduct charges are based on grievant’s personal relationships in the summer of 2008 with two individuals to whom she had previously issued non-immigrant visas, and the Poor Judgment charge is based on a post in her personal Internet blog in October of 2008.
[…]
During a flight to the United States during the spring of 2008, grievant unexpectedly encountered another citizen of Country X (Citizen B) for whom she had issued a visa, fell into conversation with him, and exchanged contact information. Upon her return to Country X, grievant was hospitalized in June 2008. While in the hospital, she received a call from Citizen B, who said he would ask his family members to visit her. They did so. Soon after Citizen B returned to Country X, grievant invited him to lunch. Thereafter, the two conducted an intimate relationship for about three weeks.

Later, Citizen A contacted grievant requesting her assistance in issuing a visa to his new wife. Grievant told him she could not be involved in his wife’s visa application process because she knew him. Consequently, another Consular Officer adjudicated and issued the visa for Citizen A’s new wife. Shortly thereafter, grievant posted on her personal blog (using Citizen A’s initials) a comment saying, in effect, that sharing a bottle of wine with someone could be disastrous, especially when that person shows up at your workplace seeking a visa for his new bride. Within a day of this blog posting, grievant was warned by a colleague to take it down, and grievant did so.
[…]
In a letter issued on January 31, 2013, the Department of State proposed to suspend grievant for five workdays, based on three charges that arose from conduct occurring in 2008. Ultimately, the suspension was reduced to three workdays. Grievant’s appeal raised issues of timeliness as well as challenges to the substance of the charges. Grievant is a class FS- 04 Consular Officer who was serving abroad in 2008. In May 2009, a co-worker at her Embassy complained to the RSO that grievant had become too close to some visa applicants and their attorneys and was maintaining improper personal relationships with them. The Office of the RSO investigated the allegations and eventually referred the matter to the Consular Integrity Division (CID). In its report of October 2009, CID found no wrongdoing and returned the matter to post. Nonetheless, the RSO referred the complaint of the co-worker to DS for investigation, but did not do so until January 2011. DS, for no articulated reason, did not assign the case to a field agent until September 28, 2011. DS then did not complete its investigation and forward the matter to HR until late October or early November 2012.

The Board concluded that there was no fact-based excuse for the delay at the RSO level and that there was no evidence of necessity for the length of time engulfed in the DS investigation. The Board found that the grievant had been harmed by the overall delay, caused by two different bureaucracies in the Department. The Board identified the harm as the statistically diminished promotability of this particular officer, given her combination of time-in-service and time-in- class.

The FSGB explains in the footnotes that 1) “She [grievant] was unmarried and remained unmarried through at least the date of her suspension. We mention her marital status only because in other disciplinary cases, an officer’s married status has been deemed a risk for coercion if someone knowing of the sexual misconduct threatened to reveal it to the officer’s spouse. Here, however, it does not appear that the grievant’s marital status was relevant to the selection of penalty or the choice of the charges. Noting grievant’s marital status may obviate confusion, if anyone examining other grievances or appeals should consider this case for comparison purposes.” 2) “Because of sensitivity surrounding the country in which grievant served her first tour, both parties refer to it as “Country X…”

In its decision last January, the FSGB held (pdf) that “grievant had shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the Department’s delay of over three years in proposing grievant’s suspension was unexcused and unreasonable and that grievant’s promotional opportunities had been harmed as a result of the delay. Grievant is entitled to reversal of the three-day suspension for charges of Improper Personal Conduct and Poor Judgment, as well as removal of the suspension letter from her OPF. Grievant is entitled to promotion to the FS-03 level, as recommended by the 2013 Selection Boards, retroactive to 2013.”

While this case was resolved on the FSO’s favor, I’m taking note of this case here for several reasons:

1) According to the redacted report published online, the misconduct was reported to the agency by one of grievant’s co-workers on May 20, 2009.  An embassy is a fishbowl.  Anyone at post familiar with one’s activities, in real life or online can file an allegation. If you write a blog specific to your post, people at post inevitably will connect you to it. A single blogpost, even if taken down, can reach back and bite. Across many years.  State’s position is that grievant’s argument that the Department had no regulations or guidelines about personal blogs in 2008 “does not make her posting any less wrong.” Interestingly, that official line doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to the former secretary of state’s use of private email.

2)  Even if an allegation is dismissed by the Consular Integrity Division (CID), it does not mean the end of it, as this case clearly shows.  After the case was dismissed by CID, the case was forwarded to Diplomatic Security for another investigation.  “Counting from the date on which the behavior was reported (as specific misconduct) to the agency to the date of proposal of the five-day suspension, the period of delay in dispute is three (3) years and eight months.” While I can understand what might have prompted the initial complaint, I’m curious about the second referral.  I’d be interested to see comparable cases to this. I’m wondering if this case would have been referred to a second investigation if she were a male officer? Absolutely, yes, no? But why a duplicate investigation?

3) When grievant departed Country X for a new post,  her continued blogging activity prompted other Consular (CID) investigations.  Since there are no public records of these incidents until the cases end up in the FSGB, it is impossible to tell how many FS employees have been referred to CID or DS for their blogging activities. Or for that matter, what kind of topics got them in trouble.  I am aware of cases where FS bloggers had difficulties with onward assignment, but those were never officially tied to their blogging activities; that is, there were no paper trail pointing directly at their blogs.  This is the first case where we’re seeing on paper what happens:

Grievant states in the ROP that “while in [REDACTED] she did not receive any of the initial positions she bid on. Eventually, she was told that even though she had a good reputation for her work, “there was the blog thing.” Also, she recalls that a “handshake” offer of a Consular Chief position in [REDACTED] was rescinded. She attributes this to an unnamed official’s claim that “Embassy decided they did not want me after CID told them about my history (presumably the blog, and my time in Country X).”

4) Beyond the consequences of not getting onward assignments, here’s the larger impact:  “In 2015, the first year her file would be reviewed without any discipline letter, grievant would have been in the Foreign Service for nine years and in class FS-04 for seven years. In point of fact, these lengths of time in service and time in class fall far above the average promotion times for officers moving from grade FS-04 to FS-03.[…]  We conclude, under the totality of circumstances, that the untimely suspension prejudiced her chances for promotion to FS-03 in the years 2015-2018.”

5) Beyond the blog thing — the FSO in this grievance case was an untenured officer serving her first tour at a “sensitive” country the FSGB would only refer to as Country X. When the FSO argue that she was never counseled at post regarding these relationships (other half of charges is for Improper Personal Conduct), the State Department contends that “any lack of counseling “does not erase the perception of impropriety [grievant’s] actions could create if made public, nor does it serve as an implicit concession that [grievant’s] actions were somehow appropriate.”   \

Well, okay, but ….. 3 FAM 4100 is the rules for the road when it comes to  employee responsibility and conduct. Which part of the current A100 or leadership and management classes are these FAM sections incorporated?  While I can understand the  department’s contention above, it also does not absolve the agency from its responsibility to provide appropriate counsel and training, most especially for entry level officers. Or is this a gap in the training of new employees?  When a new, inexperienced officer is first posted overseas, who can he/she ask about delicate issues like this? Is there a Dear Abby newbies can write to or call for counsel at the State Department without the question trailing the employee down every corridor?

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What if Congress grants the State Dept the Suspension Without Pay (SWOP) hammer?

Posted: 1:44  pm EDT

 

According to the Foreign Affairs Manual, the Act of August 26, 1950 (64 Stat. 476), codified at 5 U.S.C. 7532, “confers upon the Secretary of State the authority, in the Secretary’s absolute discretion, to suspend without pay any civilian officer or employee of the Department (including the Foreign Service of the United States) when deemed necessary in the interest of the national security (see 12 FAM 235.2).”

So when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Fiscal Year 2016 Department of State Operations Authorization and Embassy Security Act which contains a similar language on security clearance suspension without work and no pay for Foreign Service employees, we were wondering what’s up with that (see S.1635: DOS Operations Authorization and Embassy Security Act, Fiscal Year 2016 – Security Clearance).

Section 610 (2)(c)(1) of S.1635 says that in order to promote the efficiency of the Service, the Secretary may suspend a member of the Service without pay when—

(A) the member’s security clearance is suspended; or

(B) there is reasonable cause to believe that the member has committed a crime for which a sentence of imprisonment may be imposed.

The new language indicates suspension without pay (SWOP) whenever the security clearance is suspended for whatever reason. Not just for national security reasons anymore, folks.

The most widely reported FSO with a suspended clearance in recent memory is Peter Van Buren whose TS clearance was suspended for about a year. Under this proposed bill, PVB would not have been assigned to a telework position or paid for the duration of his fight with the State Department. Which means he and others like him would have to quit and find a paying job or starve unless he/she has a savings account that can sustain the investigation for a year or years.

Any FS employee who might dissent or engage in whistleblowing activity, any perceived troublemaker for that matter, can be put on SWOP, and that would be it.  An FSO who experienced first hand the suspension of a security clearance put this in very stark terms:

In practical terms they can remove the employee instantly, without telling anyone why until much later, by which time the employee will have resigned unless they can afford to go for months or years without a salary. And once the employee has resigned, the case is closed, the former employee loses their clearance because they resigned, and with it any right to know the reasons for the suspension. If the employee quits, the Department does not have to justify itself to anyone, and if the Department doesn’t have to pay them, 99.9 percent will quit.

We want to look at the numbers of suspension and revocation, unfortunately, this is something that is not publicly available from Diplomatic Security.  A source speaking on background put the numbers very low at less than 30 suspensions a year and of those probably less than 5 are revocations. Another source long familiar with this issue guesstimate the number as closer to 70-80 suspension per year, and the number of revocations probably at15-20 per year. We are unable to verify these numbers independently.  The higher numbers may be due to greater hiring, as well as to the use of “Scattered Castles,” a computer database that lists all prior security clearance determinations by other agencies which may prompt a suspension and re-investigation of the clearance.  But even if we take the higher numbers of 80 suspensions, that is still a small number compared to the total FS workforce.

A source not authorized to speak on this subject told us that the bulk of security clearance suspensions and revocations involve personal behavior issues ranging from alleged sexual misconduct to alcohol abuse, to failure to report on time a relationship that should be reported. Very few security clearance cases involve a matter that is criminal, so very few result in prosecution.

The question then becomes why? Why would Congress want this? And just as important, why does the State Department support this?

The long history of this section of the bill reportedly dates back to Condoleezza Rice’s term at the State Department. It was allegedly intended to create parity between Foreign Service (FS) and Civil Service (CS) employees.

State can indeed put CS employees on SWOP as soon as clearance is suspended, but the rules also gives CS employees appeal rights to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). We understand that MSPB records and procedures are public and that it is specifically granted authority to review security clearance cases. The FS employees do not have the same protection with the Foreign Service Grievance Board. The final review adjudicative body, the Security Appeals Panel, not part of FSGB, allegedly does not even keep records of its deliberative process or set precedent for future cases. Currently, the rules on the FAM says: “If the individual is represented by counsel or other representative, the representative does not have a right to have access to or to review any material. However, to the extent authorized by the individual and the Department, the representative may review material that the individual has access to pursuant to subsection (b) above if he or she is properly cleared.”

The numbers of suspension/revocation are low but Congress doesn’t have to talk about the numbers. The members can talk about getting rid of bad apples in the government, which is always popular. In doing so, Congress can look tough on security, tough on the State Department and tough on keeping tabs on government money.

This is not a good idea. If only a quarter of all suspensions end in revocation, isn’t the USG throwing money and lives away? In addition to our concern that this could be use by the State Department to shut-up dissenters or potential whistleblowers, we also have the following concerns:

  • Costs in hiring/training

The USG has a lengthy hiring process for FS employees and typically trains them before sending them to posts overseas. The cost of that investment does not come cheap. Members of the FS also go through language training and spends most of their careers in overseas assignments.The length of time to replace/train/deploy an FS employee is significantly longer than the time to replace a CS employee.

  • FS family logistics

FS members overseas with suspended clearance are normally sent home to a desk job that does not require a clearance or their expertise. Not all FS members have houses to come home to in the WashDC area. They’ll have to pull kids out of schools, and move their entire household. What happens to them in DC if the employee is without work and without pay under this proposal? A suspension in this case would technically be a firing as the FS employee will be forced to find an alternate job that pays. So what happens when the case is resolved without a revocation, will the employee be able to come back? Since the investigation ends when the employee leaves, there is no win here for the employee.

  • Prime targets of hostile intel service

FS employees spends most of their career overseas. By virtue of their positions, they are prime targets of any hostile intel service. They can be subject of a security investigation though no fault of their own.  This is even more concerning with the OPM hack purportedly conducted by a foreign government.  If true that a foreign government now has the personal details of over 20 million security clearance holders, including those in the State Department who used OPM’s e-Qip system, how does one even protect oneself from the potential misuse of that information that can lead to a clearance suspension?

What can you do?

As we have posted earlier, the State Authorization bill was offered as an amendment when the NDAA was debated in the Senate in June but it was not voted on when the NDAA passed on June 18 (That would be H.R. 1735 which passed 215 (71-25)  We understand that both chambers are now starting the process to bring the bill to conference in order to resolve differences.  The State Authorization bill, we are told, will not be part of those discussions.  In order for this to move forward, it will either need to be brought to the floor as a stand alone vote or Corker/Cardin could try again to attach it to another piece of legislation. Given that this is the first authorization bill passed by the SFRC in 5 years, and made it through the committee with bi-partisan support, we suspect that this might not be the end of this bill.

We’re hoping that employees’ fundamental rights and due process do not become casualties particularly in gaining concessions from Congress on the overseas comparability pay (CP) fight. That would be a terrible bargain.  Educate your elected representative on the consequences of this section of the bill. See that AFSA is tracking this matter and talking to Congress.

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What About American Ambassadors? The Next President Will Not Nominate a Super PAC as Ambassador

Posted: 1:53 am EDT

 

The 2016 presidential election is some 18 months away. Some folks who are hoping to land a gig at some of our European embassies are expecting to get busy just about now. About 2/3 of all ambassadorial appointments will go to career diplomats but about a third will still go to top supporters of the winning candidate, most of them heavy lifters when it comes to rounding up funds to help get their candidate elected.  That’s not going to end anytime soon. See list of Obama Bundlers via OpenSecrets. Click here for Obama’s ambassadors during his first term, click here for the current appointees.  Click here for George W. Bush’s Pioneer Fundraisers who got similar appointments.  @PhilipArsenault has the breakdown of appointments for both presidents, both terms here.

In any case — apparently, the not quite so rich has a new lament this election cycle. “Who needs a bundler when you have a billionaire?” One fundraiser interviewed on WaPo says“Bundlers felt they were part of the process and made a difference, and therefore were delighted to participate. But when you look at super-PAC money and the large donations that we’re seeing, the regular bundlers feel a little disenfranchised.” All that money is moving the ground under their feet, and disrupting the status of the new incarnation of rangers, pioneers, and bundlers.

It is highly unlikely that the next President of the United States will appoint Super-PACs as ambassadors to Paris, London, Madrid or Brussels, etc.. So folks, calm down! While waiting for the call, folks should gear up learning about what American ambassadors do.  Oh, interested individuals also need to figure out which posts to avoid for various reasons.  It could be that the official ambassador residence is too small, or smaller than the house the appointee is accustomed to, or too old, or needs a new roof, or new paint, or new floors, or has bad toilets (and new appointee ends up supervising repairs and all that).  So put that on the to-do list but for now, an excellent book to read is Ambassador Dennis C. Jett’s book, American Ambassadors, The Past, Present and Future of American Diplomats, because it’s delightful and informative and everyone should know what he/she is getting into.  Also mark your calendars; the author will be giving a talk on the book at AFSA on June 11th from 2:00 to 3:30 pm.  Many thanks to Ambassador Jett and Palgrave Macmillan’s Claire Smith for permission to share an excerpt from the book with our readers.

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Dennis C. Jett, American Ambassadors, Published 2014. Copyright© Dennis C. Jett, 2014 [First Published in 2014 by Palgrave Macmillan ®] reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.

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On the face of it, the first ambassador for whom I worked seemed perfect for the job. If the director of a movie called up central casting and told them to send over actors to audition for a role as an ambassador, he would have been a shoo-in for the part. He had, in fact, been an actor, costarring in movies with Marlene Dietrich and Shirley Temple. He had also been a successful politician, elected to Congress twice and as governor of Connecticut. The Connecticut Turnpike is named after him.

He came from a wealthy and illustrious lineage—his family included a senator, an admiral, and another ambassador. They could trace their roots back to the pilgrims. Tall, handsome, and silver-haired, he was fluent in several languages. According to one expert on style, he was “one of the most polished gentlemen in America” for more than half a century. He was also named ambassador three times by three different presidents. In referring to him, a journalist once wrote: “If the United States could be represented around the world the way it is represented in Argentina, it would be loved by the peoples of all nations.”

In reality, the ambassador was a disaster—and a dangerous one at that. Although he seemed to some to be the perfect diplomat, those who knew him better considered him, in effect, a threat to national security. The reason for such a divergence of opinion is that there is more to being an ambassador than simply glitz and glamour.

And when it came to John Davis Lodge, there was little else.

I did not know all of that when I was assigned to Buenos Aires as my first diplomatic posting. In early 1973, I had only been in the Foreign Service for a few weeks. All newly minted Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) are introduced to the State Department through a six-week course, a kind of boot camp for bureaucrats. There the raw recruits get basic training about the government they are to represent. Toward the end of the course, the fledgling FSOs are given a list of all the postings in the world that are available for their first tour of duty. They have to decide on their preferences and then hope that the personnel system answers their prayers.

Having grown up and been educated mainly in New Mexico, where the Hispanic and Native American cultures had an influence on even a transplanted Northeasterner like me, I decided Latin America would be my first choice. Because Argentina seemed the most exotic of the possibilities in the southern hemisphere, that country was at the top of my list. As luck would have it, none of my peers ranked it as high, so the job was mine. But first I had to take additional training, including learning Spanish.

It was then that I came across an article in the Washington Post about Lodge written by Lewis Diuguid, the paper’s Latin American correspondent. In essence, the article said that Lodge was all style and no substance; dinners at the elegant ambassadorial residence inevitably dissolved into songfests, with Lodge belting out his favorite tunes from Broadway shows. The article claimed that Lodge kept four staff members in the embassy’s information section engaged full time in trying to get the local press to run photos and articles about his latest social activities.

Diuguid implied that Lodge’s desire to appear in the newspapers did not extend beyond photographs and the society pages. The article went on to quote anonymous sources, who said a serious conversation with Lodge was impossible and that if anyone had any real business to conduct with the embassy, they went to see the deputy chief of mission, the number two person in any embassy and one who is always a career diplomat.

As I read the article, I found it hard to believe it was not grossly exaggerated. I wondered how someone in such an exalted position could be such an apparent lightweight. A few weeks after arriving in Buenos Aires, I had the opportunity to witness Lodge in action. He gave a large formal dinner at the residence for a visiting official from Washington. It was not a social occasion but rather an important opportunity to gather impressions on how the new government would conduct itself. One big question was whether Peronist officials would even come to the dinner. It was feared they might not if hostility toward the United States was going to again be one of Peron’s policies.

The evening unfolded, however, as if the Diuguid article had scripted the event. At the end of the sumptuous meal, as coffee and dessert were being served, Lodge called over an accordionist who had been providing soft background music. With this accompaniment, he burst into song while still seated at the table and rolled off a number of tunes. We all then adjourned to the ballroom, where he continued the entertainment. Among his favorite Argentine guests was a couple whom he summoned to join him at the grand piano. While the husband played, the wife and Lodge sang duets from Porgy and Bess and other Broadway hits.

As the show dragged on, the Peronist officials signaled they wanted to talk to the visiting official and the deputy chief of mission privately, so they all slipped off to the library. The Peronists made it clear that the new government would be open to a constructive and productive relationship with the United States, unlike in the past. This was a significant shift in policy that would be welcomed in Washington.

Finally, after the songfest, the guests began bidding the Lodges good night and thanking them profusely for the evening. The embassy staff members were always the last to leave; it was customary to stay until dismissed by the ambassador. As we waited for this to happen, Lodge learned of the discussion that had taken place in the library while he was singing in the ballroom. He became furious at his deputy, ranting that he had been stabbed in the back before but never in his own home. Unmoved by the success of the discussions, Lodge continued to berate the poor man in front of all of us. That evening I learned an important lesson: a country is not well served by an ambassador who thinks entertaining is the most important of his duties.

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Also read Selling Ambassadorships Is as American as Apple Pie (HuffPo)U.S. Embassies Have Always Been for Sale (Daily Beast) and Peter Van Buren’s review, American Ambassadors, The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Diplomats (HuffPo).

Peter Van Buren Writes An Embassy Evacuation Explainer For DipNote No, Reuters

Posted: 01:04 EST

 

On February 11, the State Department  suspended US Embassy operations in Yemen and relocated its remaining skeleton staff outside of the country until further notice.  News report says that more than 25 vehicles were taken by Houthi rebels after the American staff departed Sanaa’s airport.  According to WaPo, Abdulmalek al-Ajri, a member of the Houthis’ political bureau, said that the seized vehicles would be returned to local staff at the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday evening, with a U.N. official observing the handover.

Ajri said the U.S. Embassy was being guarded by Yemeni security forces, which have fallen under the Houthis’ control. The security forces have not entered the embassy compound, which is still being managed by the facility’s local Yemeni staff, he said.
[…]
Ajri said he did not know how many embassy vehicles the group had seized at the airport. He claimed that a fight broke out over the vehicles between local embassy staffers, forcing Houthi fighters to intervene and seize them.

We haven’t heard anything about the return of those vehicles to Embassy Sana’a. As to this purported fight between local embassy staffers over the embassy vehicles, that is simply ridiculous — what, like the local employees are fighting over who could take which armored vehicle home? That’s silly.

What is not silly is that we still have local employees at Embassy Sana’a. They, typically, are not evacuated when post suspends operations.  In 2003, Ghulam Sakhi Ahmadzai, the building maintenance supervisor at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul was  the Foreign Service National Employee of the Year. He was recognized for his exceptional efforts in Afghanistan during the 13-year absence of American employees and following the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in December 2001. His loyalty to the U.S. government and to maintaining the integrity of the embassy during that absence, despite personal risk, could not be repaid by that one award. No doubt there are other Ghulams in Tripoli and Sana’a and in other posts where we have suspended operations in the past. Please keep them in your thoughts.

Reading the newsclips and the tweets in the lead up to this latest evacuation, one cannot help but note that most folks do not really know what happens in an evacuation. Former FSO Peter Van Buren wrote a helpful explainer about embassy evacuations for Reuters.  This is an explainer that should have been on DipNote.  For folks who might be upset with this evac explainer, go find those anonymous officials who talked about this evacuation while we still had people on the ground.

The mechanics of closing an embassy follow an established process; the only variable is the speed of the evacuation. Sometimes it happens with weeks of preparation, sometimes with just hours.

Every American embassy has standing evacuation procedures, or an Emergency Action Plan. In each embassy’s emergency plan are built-in, highly classified “trip wires,” or specific thresholds that trigger scripted responses. For example, if the rebels advance past the river, take steps “A through C.” Or if the host government’s military is deserting, implement steps “D through E,” and so forth, until the evacuation is complete.

Early steps include moving embassy dependents, such as spouses and children, out of the country on commercial flights. Next is the evacuation of non-essential personnel, like the trade attaché, who won’t be doing much business if a coup is underway. While these departures are underway, the State Department issues a public advisory notifying private American citizens of the threat. The public alert is required by the U.S.’s “No Double Standard” rule, which grew out of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am flight. In that case, threat info was made available to embassy families, but kept from the general public.

These embassy drawdown steps are seen as low-cost moves, both because they use commercial transportation, and because they usually attract minimal public attention.

Continue reading, Who gets out when a U.S. embassy closes, and who gets left behind?

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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:

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-25

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Screen Shot 2014-01-04

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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