Diplomatic Bloggers: That “Official Concern” Thingy – The Rules

If you speak in a conference, public meetings or write an op-ed piece in your official capacity as an employee of State, your materials must be approved by the agency pursuant to applicable guidelines, standards, and procedures. In short, some official/s must read it and sign off on its fitness for public consumption. As you might imagine that takes time, depending on how many folks have to sign off on what you have to say. And even when all that is done, things may still get messy as in the case of Ambassador John Evans and the Word That Must Not Be Uttered.

3 FAM 4170 is the governing regulations on “Official Clearance of Speaking, Writing and Teaching.”

These regulations are applicable to all public speeches, writings and teaching materials prepared by employees. Public speeches, writings and teaching materials on matters of “official concern” must be submitted to the appropriate office for review before publication or use. The purpose of such review is to ensure that classified material and other material protected by law are not improperly disclosed, and that the views of employees are not improperly attributed to the U.S. Government. Materials that do not address matters of official concern need not be submitted for review.

But under this FAM series, materials prepared in the employee’s private capacity must also be reviewed for approval. 3 FAM 4172.1-3(A) refers to “Materials on Matters of Official Concern:

An employee who has prepared public speaking, writing, or teaching materials in his or her private capacity must submit them for review by the employee’s agency, if such materials are on matters of “official concern.” Employees are reminded that communications in a private capacity over the Internet that are publicly available (e.g. blogs, bulletin boards) and are on matters of official concern come within this requirement. Materials are on matters of official concern if they relate to any policy, program, or operation of the employee’s agency or to current U.S. foreign policies, or reasonably may be expected to affect the foreign relations of the United States.

Accordingly, if an employee submits materials written in his/her private capacity, the review must not exceed 30 days per 3 FAM 4172.1-3

All public speaking, writing, or teaching materials on matters of official concern prepared in an employee’s private capacity must also be submitted for a reasonable period of review, not to exceed thirty days, to the office specified in 3 FAM 4172.1-3(C). In the case of time-sensitive materials of reasonably brief length, the period of review should be abbreviated in an effort to accommodate the interests of employees.

You may blog, start a wiki, etc. but according to 5 FAM 777(6):

Employees, acting in their private capacity, may establish personal blogs, wikis, or any other collaborative forum; however, the provisions of 3 FAM 4172.1-3 must be followed. Any posting to a wiki or blog that contains information “of official concern” to the Department must be cleared through PA (for domestic employees) or Chief of Mission (for employees serving abroad), unless being referenced from existing publicly available information.

So the good news is there appears to be no official ban on blogging; the bad news is — but there are hoops to jump.

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