Diplomatic Bloggers: No Blanket Ban but Better Guidelines Needed

That “Official Concern” Thingy/3

As far as I know, there is no blanket ban on blogging by diplomats writing in their private capacity. But there may be soft and hard pressures exerted on employees or their family members not to blog by various characters in the bureaucracy. This is probably one of those many things in the FS that fall into the “it depends” category. This is probably one of those things in the FS that is having a hard time trying to catch up with the real world without a hard push (remember those Wang computers that you had to put up with until Colin Powell said ’nuff already?).

Besides the stated purpose under this guideline for such reviews “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,” I think there is also the unarticulated position of limiting public exposure for inside deliberations (e.g. Historian’s Office management dust-up) or having a “sanitized” version of what is placed in the public sphere. Not because the agency is evil or evasive but because the bureaucracy is simply used to getting people to work within the chalked lines. And of course, it is less messy …

And it’s understandable because – well, you read something like this post below, and you’d want to cover your eyes. PA material this is not:

“Gonzo Diplomacy – What we do here in Iraq, especially in the PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams out in the provinces), i.e. making things up as we go along. Usually we use the BIBB Rule to back up our decisions. After all, there IS no place like Baghdad.” More here.

I am not familiar with the BIBB Rule but apparently it means “Because it’s Baghdad, Baby!”

Or that helpful terminology on dating in the IZ.

TDY (normally it means “Temporary Duty”) but here it can also mean “Temporarily Divorced for a Year.”

Walk of Shame – the walk from the hootch where you spent the previous night (not your own), wearing the clothes you wore the night before. Of course, I asked if only women walk the “Walk of Shame” and then we universally decided that for men, it would be “The Walk of Fame.”

Locationship – A relationship based on being here, now. The relationship usually doesn’t last beyind time in Iraq.

Queen for a Year – Yup; all women are beautiful in Iraq. We are all indeed “Queen for a Year.”

Under this 3 FAM 4172.1-4 (Use of Disclaimer), employees writing in their private capacity must also include a clear disclaimer that they are not speaking in their official capacity. And yet, at least one has added a Caveat instead of the required disclaimer: “I must explain to non-State Department people that I am a Foreign Service Officer – a diplomat. I lived and worked in the International (Green) Zone (the “IZ”)… Special note to Foreign Service Personnel: If you’re thinking of bidding on Iraq, please be sure to read my message just for you . If you decide you’re interested, let your CDO know.” (CDO would be career development officer).

Apparently this blog above is linked to in the Intranet from HR, which may not be official endorsement, but certainly could be considered an “un-official” plug for service in Iraq. And of course, Matel-in-Iraq (where I described my year of service as ePRT leader deployed with the U.S. Marines in Western Iraq) was in DipNote’s blogroll since late 2007 until most of last year.

These two blogs were written by FS personnel assigned in Iraq, about life in Baghdad in 2006 as a Senior HR Officer and in an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in Al Al Asad, Al Anbar Province, Iraq from 2007-2008. Iraq, in the often repeated mantra is our most important foreign policy engagement. If this does not fall under “official concern…” well then …

One might say that well – no wonder State wants to clear what its employees write even in their private capacity. But then you read The Hegemonist, for instance, which is a great read for anyone interested in FS careers or those starting out, and you’d starting thinking – hey , wait a minute. TH has done the research, the writing and the posting in his own time; heck – HR/REE/REC, should be happy he is lending a free hand, and he’s not even claiming overtime! He has also dutifully observed the disclaimer requirement. This other one talks about FS tips and tricks, which should also make Ask Admin happier! They’re helpful resources and they’re free.

Logic dictates that if senior officials do not have time to clear materials written in your private capacity in Timor-Liste or in London, they absolutely won’t have time to clear your random thoughts and musings in a war zone.

But what to make of all these?

Are we to understand that although these guidelines have been in the books forever — that State will look the other way, as long as your blog is not controversial and remains obscure? (John Matel was controversial at some point when he wrote his To My Overwrought Colleagues, but he did not put State in a bad light), or as long as the New York Times has not come calling for that interview? Or could it simply be that State is trying to catch up with the times, but has not quite made up its mind on how to change the rules?

I’d like to think its the latter. I understand why it is needed and I don’t disagree that some guidelines are necessary, except that I don’t like having everything swept under the one carpet of “official concern.” Diplomats are the country’s representatives 24/7, 365 days, whether on duty, off duty, or on travel. But the world is much more connected than we can imagine. Keeping control of information these days is like erecting an 8-ft dike to protect against the onslaught of a 25-ft tsunami. There has to be a smarter way around this without getting choked under the limitations of the muse of “official concern.” Less restrictive guidelines are needed.

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