Who’s Banning "Bad News" Reporting Cables?

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Nicholas Kralev of The Washington Times has an exclusive on U.S. embassies discouraging or suppressing negative reports to Washington about U.S. allies (Envoys hesitate to report bad news | September 16, 2009).

Kralev reports on an unnamed Foreign Service officer who has “decided to resign in part because of frustration with “rampant self-censorship” by Foreign Service officers and their superiors that has gone so far as to ban “bad news” cables from countries that are friendly with the United States.” Excerpts below:

The diplomat, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retribution against himself and colleagues, said that, in one instance under the George W. Bush administration, an embassy in the Middle East did not report local government interference in elections. Senior management censored accounts of low morale at another Middle East mission that had been the target of terrorist attacks, he said.
More than a dozen diplomats serving in Washington and abroad told The Times that they agreed with most of the officer’s critique, and that the censorship has continued to a lesser extent in the Obama administration. All asked not to be named to avoid retribution.
Current and former Foreign Service officers said the censorship reached a peak during the Bush administration. They attributed its continuation to a risk-averse institutional culture.

Ambassador Pickering
who was previously chief of mission to seven countries and was “P” from 1997-2001 is quoted in the article as saying that the criticism is “well worth paying attention to.” He also said: “What worries me – and I have heard it before – is the expectation that reporting has to be tempered to fit the expectations and not the realities. This is dangerous and unprofessional and worse.”

Deputy Ambassador to Afghanistan, Francis J. Ricciardone is also quoted in the article saying that his 31-year experience in the Foreign Service “may be unusual, but in any case it has not resembled what” the resigning officer described. “Self-censorship most often is precisely that – self-imposed, from within oneself, not the larger organization,” Mr. Ricciardone said according to Kralev.

Whoops!! Sorry, I just feel fell off my chair.

Three things I’m chewing on:

One — the State Department has a dissent channel that appears to have less and less traffic as the years go by. AFSA who gives out three annual dissent awards seems to be having problems finding nominees for these awards. Few people are talking; that is, few are willing to articulate and write down their policy disagreements using the official channel. Which means one or all of the following – a) there is fear that doing so could result in a career suicide; b) that doing so would have no effect whatsoever to the final outcome, thus, an exercise in futility and, c) that the dissent channel is nothing more than a prop and nobody in the 7th floor really cares about policy disagreements from the ground. There is also the possibility that a good number of people have lost their belief that one person, that one singular voice can make a difference in a bureaucracy that seeks to change the world for the better. Isn’t this the most troubling of all?

Two – two US embassies in the Middle East are mentioned in this article. Both not identified. The culprit in the censorship of information is attributed to a risk-averse culture. But organizational culture does not exist in a vacuum. At State, especially in large sections where the most number of junior officers work, you can tell exactly the point when most of them learn that rocking the boat is bad (and they did not learn it from thin air). The last time I paid attention, it took less than six months. SecDef Gates says that, “the culture of any large organization takes a long time to change. The really tough part is preserving those elements of the culture that strengthen the institution and motivate the people in it, while shedding those elements of the culture that are barriers to progress and achieving the mission.” I would only slightly disagree. There is a tougher part — knowing which elements of the culture to preserve and nurture and which ones to shed.

Three— What is most telling is in the article itself. Apparently more than a dozen diplomats spoke to Kralev. All asked not to be named to avoid retribution. Even the officer who is resigning did not want to be identified. What does that say about this universe?

The only ones willing to be named in the article is a retired ambassador who says this is worth paying attention to (and I happen to agree with him), and a current deputy ambassador with two prior ambassadorships who says his experience did not resembled that of the resigning officer who complained about “rampant self-censorship.”

I wonder if there is anyone among our chiefs of mission and senior diplomats who would readily admit to suffering from clientitis, anyway? Clientitis for those not in the know is the affliction suffered by some diplomats when they cross the fine line separating explanation and advocacy in diplomatic reporting. How many times have you heard your boss says something like “There are enough (insert name of country)-bashers out there; we don’t need to be one, too.” Certainly, our reporting officers need not have to “bash” their host countries, but reporting is their job. Even when the news they report is not welcome at home, they must be brutally honest and forthright; otherwise, our policy makers get a lopsided view of world.

AFSA President Susan Johnson is also quoted in the article saying that one of her missions will be “revitalizing dissent.”

A good thought, for sure. But no superman or superwoman can revitalize dissent in the FS without the men and women of the Service themselves deciding that bearing bad news is a necessary function; and that rocking the boat is in fact a duty.

Easier said than done, of course, because there are consequences to such actions.

Kralev quotes State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley as saying that a cable “represents the view of the chief of mission” who signs it, and that he or she therefore has ultimate responsibility for its content. And that this gives the top diplomat the power to edit a draft written by a lower-ranking officer.

In reality, a lower ranking officer drafts the cable, submits it to his/her supervisor or section chief for clearance, at times also to other section chiefs when appropriate, then it goes to the Front Office for final approval before it proceeds to Washington. The opportunity to edit the draft does not just happen at the ambassador’s desk and is not just done by the chief of mission.

Let’s say that the mission position in Agony-stan is that things are going swell. What do you do if you’re a low level political officer who learn that things are not swell, a position that contradicts the conviction of your DCM or ambassador? What do you do if you are the section chief reviewing your officer’s draft cable that reports the contrary position of the mission? What do you do if you are the approving officer of a draft cable that contradicts your own conviction about your host country?

Let’s try a live exercise – how about starting with a real Agony-stan?

And so this starts at the top — with senior leaders and managers willing to take that “to be or to do” fork in the road – to shield the messenger of bad news, at all times (if we shoot the messenger every time he/she delivers bad news, there won’t be any messenger before long); to protect the dissenters in the ranks and the outside-the-box thinkers (they keep things real); to protect the stubborn, brilliant sheep who refuses to readily follow the herd.