FSO Recalls Lockerbie

Garden of Remembrance, LockerbieImage by amandabhslater via Flickr

Last December marked the 20th anniversary of the downing of Pan Am 103 in Lockerbie, Scotland. Because I kept no diaries and took no photographs, I have only impressionistic memories of the scene. But they are still vivid even now.

I remember observing on my first visit to Lockerbie, as one of several junior officers who would play a part, that the houses appeared to have been sliced at the very angle of the giant plane’s path to earth.


Afterward, I remember feeling that I had absorbed so much sadness, often in cold and darkness. I asked for time to decompress, but could be spared for only one day. Instead of a direct train to London, I decided to detour to the Lake District, where some of my favorite poets had lived, and where I hoped my spirits could revive.

At Lake Grasmere, perhaps the most picturesque spot in Great Britain, signs of spring had started to appear: sparkling sun, bright green grass, innumerable white clouds. There, on a gently sloping hillside, I wept. Images, conversations, interactions and procedures all ran through my mind. But nothing really answered the question of “Why?” As the sun went down, I arose, dried my tears, picked up my bag and headed back to town, the bus station and London.

Excerpt from Recalling Lockerbie

By Mitchell Cohn

Mr. Cohn, a Foreign Service officer since 1985, is currently a cultural affairs officer in Rabat. Previous assignments include Mexico City, London, Istanbul, Jakarta, Tunis and Washington, D.C. This is excerpted from a longer piece solicited by the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs in honor of the Lockerbie victims’ families.

Foreign Service Journal | Read in full see p.68
| April 2009

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Crowdsourcing the Elections in Afghanistan

A Joint Electoral Management Body employee, ri...Image via Wikipedia

Remember Ushahidi (Erik Hersman, Video of the Week, July 25)? Ushahidi is a GoogleMap mashup that allowed Kenyans to report and track violence via cell phone texts following the 2008 elections.

Now Ushahidi is powering Alive in Afghanistan, and is crowdsourcing today’s election.

About Alive in Afghanistan:

Alive in Afghanistan is an independent, non-partisan project, formed in response to the huge success of Alive in Baghdad and Alive in Gaza and the result of the hard work and collaboration of many partners and individuals. Alive in Afghanistan empowers Afghan citizens to participate in society by reporting on their political process. Alive in Afghanistan is launching in time for the August 20th presidential elections so that people across Afghanistan can report fairly on the elections and related events through SMS, email, and the web.

We recognize that, given limitations of access to technology, it may be a limited subset of the privileged who will be able to use Alive in Afghanistan’s open system to report on the election. Despite the limitation we feel that, as long as recognition is given, the potential impact of the project is still such that we should go forward, doing our best to provide access to all.

We have partnered with Pajhwok Afghan News in order to combine citizen reporting with focused, concise reports from professional journalists throughout Afghanistan.

There are reportedly 15.6 million registered voters, roughly half of the country’s population; 35 to 38 percent of registered voters are women. The Taliban has threatened to cut off the fingers of voters. The Government of Afghanistan has ordered a media blackout.

Sample of the Alive in Afghanistan user feed stream:

Explosion kills 2 police
Explosion kills 2 police in Khoqyani district, Nangahar

Injuries from Taliban attack on polls
3 men 1 woman voter injured by Taliban attacks on polls in Laghman

Reporters Harrassed
ALERT – Paktika reporter – had his camera taken away by intelligence services. He was shooting photos of men using women’s voter cards. UPDATE – Several reporters did have their cameras confiscated in Kabul, but not a reporter with Pahjwok.

Taliban radio issues threats
Taliban radio Shariat Paktia warn of cutting voters’ fingers

Taliban radio issues threats
Taliban radio Shariat in Ghazni warn of cutting voters’ fingers

Fraud and Mischief in Faryab villages
A voter in Faryab province reported from two villages, telling us that in Gaqhato village, the nephew of General Farooq used a woman’s voter card, and in another village Karghaitu, one person named Said Amin threatened people to make them vote for him in provincial council elections. (via phone)

Men using women’s ID
Men using women’s voter cards in Paktia province

US Embassy Cashier Gets 72 Months for Stealing US$488,954

US Dollar BillImage by SqueakyMarmot via Flickr

In Singapore

This one from Sujin Thomas of The Straits Times, Singapore | August 19:

“A FORMER consular cashier at the US Embassy wanted money to renovate her flat, cover her partying expenses and other extravagances.

So Hasrinah Hassan, 35, pocketed various sums of money over six years, totalling US$488,954 ($709,935.67) through fraudulent refunds of consular fees which were paid to the US government. These fees were for the settlement of visas, passports and other services and Hasrinah’s job was to ensure that they were properly accounted for.

An embassy staff member made a police report on April 2 when discrepancies on processed refunds emerged. On Wednesday, Hasrinah, 35, was jailed six years in a district court for three charges of criminal breach of trust.

Read the whole thing here.

Back in June this year, a former employee at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing more than $800,000 from the Department of State. That one was an embassy cashier; this one in Singapore was a consular cashier. The culprit in Haiti was running his scheme for almost five years (2003-2008) before he got caught. The one in Singapore pocketed money for over six years (2003-2009) before she was reported to the police. Why?

In the case of the embassy cashier in Haiti, he would have been supervised by the Financial Management Officer (if there was one). If the absence of an FMO, the embassy’s financial management operation would have come under the Management Officer’s responsibility. The Courthouse News Service says that the disbursement of funds from Washington into the Haitian bank accounts functioned with so little oversight that Jean Saint-Joy was able to pursue his simple scheme for five years before he was found out. It also provided the following details:

Saint-Joy admitted that from 2003 until 2008, while working at the embassy, he submitted documents to Citibank and Haitian-based Sogebank, falsely claiming he needed cash advances to pay the embassy’s vendors for legitimate expenses. Saint-Joy said the embassy needed cash because during political unrest vendors accepted only cash payments. The banks advanced the money without requiring a written agreement from the embassy.

Citibank and Sogebank deposited U.S. dollars and Haitian Gourdes into Saint-Joy’s cash advance account but Saint-Joy never recorded the transactions in the embassy’s accounting system. Saint-Joy submitted more than 100 fraudulent replenishment requests to the Global Finance Services division of the State Department for the Citibank and Sogebank accounts.

In the case of the consular cashier in Singapore, she would have been supervised by the Accountable Consular Officer; ideally a mid-level officer. However, it would not be totally uncommon to see an entry level officer with ACO duties.

The OIG inspected US Embassy Singapore in 2005 and wrote:

Embassy Singapore’s management controls are effective. Duties are appropriately separated and spot checks of staff work generally performed. The competency of American and FSN staff and the absence of endemic corruption in Singapore reduce control environment risks. These factors, however, should not lead American managers to become complacent. OIG counseled embassy management on the continued importance of management control procedures. OIG found that some duties were not assigned to individuals at a senior enough level, and the embassy was quick to correct these designations during the inspection. Full report here.

The Singapore case makes two just in 2009. Makes you wonder how this could have happened.

#1. Were there systemic holes in the management controls that have not been previously identified? Daily reconciliations, check; spot checks, check; magic wand ???

#2. Was an
at cone, at grade Consular Officer tasked with ACO duties failed to do his/her job?

#3. Did the mid-level staffing deficit made it necessary to appoint an entry-level officer as ACO? Having no prior experience, and/or in the absence of local standard operating procedures (SOP) on ACO work, the officer might not have fully recognized the ins and outs of his/her duties. (My favorite Consular Officer never gets home before 6 pm. He’s out there accounting for consular stuff. Every single work day).

#4. Were entry level officers placed on rotational ACO duties? No matter how smart those ELOs may be, the culprit is often more knowledgeable and has more experience. Short-term officer rotation program ranging from 3-6 months in various consular sections including collateral duties also makes it hard for officers to get into the nitty-gritty of their jobs. If it takes you at least 3-6 months to learn your job, how do you really learn it if your entire unit assignment encompasses exactly 6 months? By the time you’ve learn enough to do your job reasonably well, you’re on to the next rung in the consular obstacle course.

The court records for either case, appears unavailable online as far as I could tell. If you know more, let me know.

Finally this — the US Embassy consular cashier in Singapore used the money to renovate her Woodlands flat and to pay for trips to Bangkok, Australia, Japan and the United States with her family. She also spent on car accessories, high-end cosmetics, perfumes, branded handbags and mobile phones. Police seized – besides cash and other items – a Prada bag and a Louis Vuitton wristlet bag.

Can you really afford a Prada bag on an FSN$$ salary? Red flags! One must not only be present but be also attentive to red flags. And to paraphrase Holmes badly — When you have checked out the red flags, whatever red remains, however badly that red bleeds, must be the truth.

Okay, while you’re thinking about management controls, see Madam Le Consul’s list of Consular Requirements That We Might Miss (check out side bar).