Image by _DaniloRamos via FlickrIn 2004, Nicholas Kralev wrote a pretty good 8-part series on the diplomatic service for the Washington Times called Foreign Service: America’s Other Army. That project lasted, as I understand it, some six months and was made possible in part through a grant from the Una Chapman Cox Foundation. Mr. Kralev conducted interviews with five past and present secretaries of state and almost 300 other diplomats, both in Washington and at some 30 U.S. missions on five continents.
In one post that Mr. Kralev visited, my then boss was not only frantic but stressed to impress to make a good impression and hopeful to make it on paper. And no wonder. Then Spokesman Richard Boucher had sent a cable to the missions on Mr. Kralev’s schedule urging them to cooperate. According to this, the press officer at every post had already lined up a series of interviews by the time he arrived. You just knew that everyone inside the big house would be reading the series.
It was not an embed arrangement, but one of the few isolated times when the State Department actually was not skittish of media attention.
FSO Peter Van Buren of We Meant Well has a lengthy piece in TomDispatch entitled, The War Lovers | Why It Feels So Good to Be Embedded with the U.S. Military. You may have to read the whole thing at home since apparently, TomDispatch is blocked from the State Department due to WikiLeaks materials. I am excerpting below the parts about dealing with the media and career suicide.
As a State Department Foreign Service Officer embedded with the military in Iraq, I walked in… er, deployed, unprepared. I had never served in the military and had rarely fired a weapon (and never at anything bigger than a beer can on a rock ledge). The last time I punched someone was in ninth grade. Yet over the course of a year, I found myself living and working with the 82nd Airborne, followed by the 10th Mountain Division, and finally the 3rd Infantry Division, three of the most can-do units in the Army. It was… seductive.
Other than preserving OpSec (Operational Security for those of you who have never had The Experience) and not giving away positions and plans to the bad guys, journalists were free to see and report on anything. No restrictions, no holding back.
Growing up professionally within the State Department, I had been raised to fear the media. “Don’t end up on the front page of the Washington Post,” was an often-repeated warning within the State Department, and many a boss now advises young Foreign Service Officers to “re-read that email again, imagining it on the Internet, and see if you still want to send it.” And that’s when we’re deciding what office supplies to recommend to the ambassador, not anything close to the life-and-death stuff a military embed might witness.
When I started my career, the boogieman was syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, then Washington Post columnist Al Kamen. Now, it’s Jon Stewart and Wikileaks. A mention by name in any of those places is career suicide. Officially, State suggests we avoid “unscripted interactions” with the media. Indeed, in his book on Iraq and Afghan nation-building, Armed Humanitarians, Nathan Hodge brags about how he did get a few State Department people to talk to him anonymously in a 300-page book with first-person military quotes on nearly every page.
I saw it myself in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commander of all troops in Iraq, would routinely arrive at some desert dump where I happened to be, reporters in tow. I saw for myself that they would be free to speak about anything to anyone on that Forward Operating Base (which, in acronym-mad Iraq, we all just called a FOB, rhymes with “cob”). The only exception would be me: State had a long-standing policy that on-the-record interviews with its officials had to be pre-approved by the Embassy or often by the Washington Mothership itself.
Getting such an approval before a typical reporter’s deadline ran out was invariably near impossible, which assumedly was the whole point of the system. In fact, the rules got even tougher over the course of my year in the desert. When I arrived, the SOP (standard operating procedure) allowed Provincial Reconstruction Team leaders to talk to foreign media without preapproval (on the assumption that no one in Washington read their pieces in other languages anyway and thus no one in the field could get into trouble). This was soon rescinded countrywide and preapproval was required even for these media interactions.
Not too long ago dealing with the media was a double-edge sword. You get a mention in the right places, your career’s life force goes up, you get a mention in the wrong places, its called career suicide. These days, of course, with social media, the double edge sword is a multi-edge sharp object that can cut many ways. You tweet the wrong 140 characters, you post the wrong photos, you forget to adjust for FB privacy settings and things could go south quickly.
It may be worth noting that the State Dept still read Al Kamen. But just so you know,the man has joined Twitter @AlKamenWP.