US Embassy Algiers: Diplomatic Kerfuffle Over DCM’s “Rare Candor”

Steven Livingston of WaPo had a piece on Tuesday about the US taking issue with an author’s account of his visit at the US Embassy in Algiers. A bureau spokesman contends that the talk was off the record; the author contends that no government official ever told him directly or suggested that his conversation with the embassy’s #2 official was off the record.  I’m not sure if State took issue with mention of Mylar doors or security guards or if the issue has more to do with sensitive bilateral relations. Take a guess.  Excerpt below:

Michael Mewshaw did a dangerous and perhaps foolhardy thing for his 65th birthday: He embarked on a 4,000-mile overland journey through the terrorist-ridden lands of North Africa. But now that his firsthand account has hit the bookstores, he says his roughest experience has come at the hands of the U.S. State Department.
The department is in a snit over Mewshaw’s portrayal of his visit to the U.S. Embassy in Algiers. Mewshaw, who has written 19 books — fiction and nonfiction — popped in on Thomas Daughton, the deputy chief of mission, after an exchange of e-mails in which Daughton welcomed the writer’s visit. Their conversation was candid and jovial.
Mewshaw says that Daughton seemed a bit lonely — stuck as he was in an inhospitable environment and grouped with a fairly small contingent at the embassy. “He doesn’t leave the embassy much,” Mewshaw says. “I don’t think he gets a chance to talk to people very much.”

In his new book, “Between Terror and Tourism: An Overland Journey Across North Africa,” Mewshaw describes Daughton as being in his late 30s and as having a “wry, wisecracking style.” It was a welcome change from what he experienced in his previous sit-down with a U.S. official. Pat Kabra, the U.S. public affairs officer in Tunis, was a by-the-book type. When Mewshaw asked her about the recent al-Qaeda kidnapping of two Austrians in the country, she recited what was in the newspapers. “She was like a recorded announcement, very cagey,” Mewshaw says.

Not so, Daughton. He gave a frank portrait of Algeria’s woes. He compared the country to Zimbabwe: “The need for regime and leadership change is similar in both,” he said. He reminded Mewshaw that the men running Algeria in official positions or behind the scenes have been in power for nearly 50 years: “The government is sclerotic and self-serving.” And he said these are backward and authoritarian leaders who disregard human rights: “We’ve been trying . . . to drag them into the 20th century,” Daughton said. “Forget about the 21st.”

Daughton conveyed that the country is rife with violence that goes unpublicized: “Here you have 50 to a hundred killed each month and you don’t hear about it.”

Read the whole thing here.

Apparently, in a Middle East publication, the U.S. Ambassador to Algeria David D. Pearce denies that Daughton ever said such things. The WaPo report also says that the State Department claims the conversation was off the record and “is attempting to cast doubt on Mewshaw’s reporting.”

Below is part of what UNCHR/
Human Rights Watch, World Report 2010 says on  Algeria:

Under a state of emergency imposed in 1992, and with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika easily winning reelection to a third term, Algeria continued to experience widespread human rights violations. These included restrictions on freedom of the media and assembly, police abuse of terrorism suspects under interrogation, impunity afforded to members of the security forces and armed groups for past crimes, and continued failure to account for persons forcibly disappeared by state agents during the civil conflict in the 1990s. On a lesser scale than in previous years, militant groups continued their deadly attacks, mostly targeting the security forces.

The State Department’s own 2009 Human Rights Report for Algeria is here, in case you want to take a look. 

You might also want to read the Algeria 2009 Crime and Safety Report issued by the Regional Security Office in Algiers. Of course, it’s different when you read it in government reports like the Crime and Safety Report and when you hear a high ranking official actually say it.  The 2009 report did say:
  • Since August 2006, security forces have taken the initiative in hunting down terrorists who continue to fight and an average of 20-30 people are still killed monthly country-wide.
  • The al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) group committed a number of spectacular suicide attacks, kidnappings, roadside bombs, and assassination attempts throughout the country as well as in Algiers.
  • With the perceived success of the kidnapping of two Austrian tourists in Tunisia, terrorist groups increasingly appear to regard such activity as a means of obtaining revenue.  While the predominant targets remain wealthy local businessmen, the potential for a western target of opportunity exists.

The DCM at the center of the “storm” is no longer in Algiers.  Thomas F. Daughton arrived in Beirut in August 2009 as the embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission.  Below is a quick bio posted in US Embassy Beirut’s website:

He joined the U. S. Foreign Service in 1989 and has served in Kingston, Jamaica (vice consul, 1989-91); Rabat, Morocco (political officer, 1991-93); and Thessaloniki, Greece (consul, 1997-2000) as well as in the Department of State in Washington, D.C. (1993-1997).  From 2000-2003, Mr. Daughton was Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’Affaires, a.i. (2001-2002) in Libreville, Gabon.  That assignment was followed by a posting as Counselor for Political Affairs at the American Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  Prior to arriving in Beirut, Mr. Daughton served for three years as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Algiers, Algeria.  Mr. Daughton is a graduate of Amherst College and the University of Virginia School of Law.  Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was an associate at a law firm in New York. He speaks French and Greek.

In any case —

Had Mr. Daughton just recited the Crime and Safety Report and the HR Report for Algeria and avoided calling those folks, reportedly “
backward and authoritarian leaders who disregard human rights,” perhaps this kerfuffle could have been avoided?   

And oh, please don’t call an ally “sclerotic and self-serving,” that doesn’t sound nice; they might take offense if they hear the truth.
Between Terror and Tourism: An Overland Journey Across North Africa,” was published by Counterpoint (February 16, 2010; 384 pages).  You probably can find Tom Daughton in the index.
The author, Michael Mewshaw was called “an intrepid travel writer and prolific novelist” by the Library Journal. The San Francisco Chronicle says he is “perhaps the best American writer you never heard of.” His book is also the National Geographic Traveler’s Book of the Month. The magazine calls it a riveting, good old-fashioned travel narrative that “transports you to a region you’re not likely to visit.” Also this: “Mewshaw is an exemplary guide. Learned in literature, art, and history, he is adventurous, curious, and open-minded as a traveler, and daring and driven enough as a reporter to meet with fundamentalists in Egypt, venture to refugee camps in Morocco, and interview a repentant terrorist responsible for five thousand deaths in Algeria.”
See — now I have to buy the book; wouldn’t have heard about it had the State Department not complained about it.