Anonymous FSO on Kojo Nnamdi: "the Foreign Service today is a rather broken organization"

Kojo Nnamdi recently hosted Diplomacy Post-9/11: Life in the U.S. Foreign Service. His guests were Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association who previously served in Cuba, USUN,  Mauritius, Pakistan, Russia, Central Asia, Romania, Iraq and Bosnia; AFSA rep, Matthew Asada, a Foreign Service officer who has served in Iraq, Pakistan, Germany, India and Washington, D.C.; and Cameron Munter, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and previous U.S. Ambassador to Serbia who spent 20 years in Central Europe and served two tours in Iraq before his posting in Pakistan.

You can listen to the entire show here.

There were a few call in questions and one email read on the air by the host:

NNAMDI 12:44:07

We have this email from S, who says, “I’ve been in the Foreign Service for 11 years and, thus, must remain anonymous. I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a whiner. I know your guests will try to sound rosy, but, truth is, the Foreign Service today is a rather broken organization. Like a body adapting to a tumor, the Foreign Services need to repeatedly fill one year unaccompanied hardship slots in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.[…]  “AIP service, as we call it, has caused the organization to wrap itself around this need. All other priorities have become second or third tier.” Cameron Munter, what would you say to that?

MUNTER 12:44:47

It’s a very tough question. I mean, I feel the pain that he expresses because it’s something that all of us have to deal with. No one likes the idea of an unaccompanied post. And yet I think what we’re doing here is — I take issue with the idea that we’re a broken organization. We’re an organization that has chosen priorities.

MUNTER 12:45:04

We’re making priorities, and we’re doing the best to be professional to maintain our idealism and our practical ability and to address those things that our president wants us to do, that our secretary of state wants us to do. These are tough assignments. They must be done. And if that means that we’re going to spend time without our loved ones and spend time in situations that we might not have thought we’d be in, that’s the way it’s going to be because, after all, it is Foreign Service.

MUNTER 12:45:34

We have to be self-critical and say, how can we do this better? We always have to learn from these experiences. And if I had my way, I would talk people into longer assignments. I think one year is very short, very difficult to do the work you need to do. But, nonetheless, we will make this work. We’re here to serve, and these are tough days. And we’ve got to get through this period successfully.

Some interesting stuff in the conversation mostly from Ambassador Munter. You can read the entire transcript here.

The host did ask how well has the Foreign Service adapted the way it screens applicants and promotes people. And Ambassador Munter made some points about the Foreign Service struggling whether it is a traditional or expeditionary service but did not really address the question about promotion.

One thing that the callers and the guests did not talk about is how the “AIP” service has changed the Foreign Service. To get a promotion in the Foreign Service, I am told that one must served in the priority posts of Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Those are not the only hardship posts, mind you, but I’m hearing that promotions are going to AIP vets.

Isn’t it entirely conceivable that in the not too far away future, the top ranking officials (political appointees excepted, of course) at the bureaus, offices, chanceries under the State Department would be made up of career officials who came from those three priority countries? 

What would that mean in terms of leadership and management styles — good? bad? won’t mean a thing? What would that mean in terms of perspective and experience limited to a specific geographic area? A WHA ambassador who has served in AIP posts but had never served in the western hemisphere? It’s not that this would be so totally uncommon given that political appointees with no language and most of the time no host country experience still get the top jobs at a good portion of our embassies. Still, this is the career service we are talking about.   

If one take consecutive tours at AIP posts, then repeat it once more for a total of six years, how fast can one get into the senior ranks? I’ve seen a few officers with 15 years get into the Senior FS but I think those are the exceptional ones. Most folks have to slog many more years than that. What does it mean to folks who serve in hardship but non-warzone assignments and do a good job just as well if they can’t get promoted?  Why would anyone go to unaccompanied, hardship posts outside of AIP (Africa, for instance) if you can’t get promoted out of there no matter how hard you work or how great you are? Since just about everyone will be expected to serve their tours in AIP, I wonder why do they continue calling it an “open assignment?”

So many questions, so little time …. but some food for thought….

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Peter Van Buren: How the State Department Came After Me

Seal of the United States Department of State....Image via Wikipedia

The State Dept probably need FSI to create a training module later on how to deal with FSO-Os with funny bones, sharp pens, acerbic tongues; particularly those who
also have the talent for
pillar and punch and bright red boxing gloves in the wordy world.

Peter Van Buren may be the first, but he won’t be the last. The Afghanistan-PRT Experience Project is a book just waiting to happen. And it’s not because the State Department has adopted DHS’ “If You See Something, Say Something™” campaign.  It will happen, it’s just a matter of time, because folks can only tolerate beings hamsters on wheels for so long.  The PRT model started in Afghanistan and was exported to Iraq. Now that the Iraq-PRT Experience has turned into a book, the Afghanistan book is bound to happen. It’s only a matter of time, and we’ve got time between now and 2014 and between 2014 and who knows when …

As I was getting ready to post this, I also received a
note from a Diplopundit reader and long-time State insider who pointed out that this is not
the first time that Peter Van Buren has put himself in the crosshairs. 
Remember the 2007 passport fiasco that
got everybody all up in arms?  Apparently, back in late 2006, Mr. Van
Buren sounded the alarm to his top boss in Consular Affairs that “she
was going to need a lot of extra bodies to handle the coming surge in
passport applications.”  According to my source, Mr. Van Buren’s “reward” was to be transferred from the Consular Bureau to Public Affairs. That is obviously fine and good if you’re a PD officer, but not so good if you are a Consular Officer. So, perhaps the April Foolly-press guidance is not too off the mark after all. I am republishing the piece below in full. It seems like an important thing to share with others. I am sympathetic with Mr. Van Buren’s plight but not sure the Big House will be as sympathetic; pies are hard to clean up.

How the State Department Came After Me
For telling the truth about what I saw in Iraq


by Peter Van Buren
[Reprinted with the author’s permission.  The original is here. Also cross-posted in Foreign Policy here]

I
never intended to create this much trouble. 

Two
years ago I served 12 months in Iraq as a Foreign Service Officer, leading a
Provincial Reconstruction Team. I had been with the State Department for some
21 years at that point, serving mostly in Asia, but after what I saw in the
desert — the waste, the lack of guidance, the failure to really do anything
positive for the country we had invaded in 2003 — I started writing a book.
One year ago I followed the required procedures with State for preclearance (no
classified documents, that sort of thing), received clearance, and found a
publisher. Six months ago the publisher asked me to start a blog to support the book.

And
then, toward the end of the summer, the wrath of Mesopotamia fell on me. The Huffington Post picked up one of my blog
posts
, which was seen by someone at State, who told someone else and before
you know it I had morphed into public enemy number one — as if I had started
an al Qaeda franchise in the Foggy Bottom cafeteria. My old travel vouchers
were studied forensically, and a minor incident from my time in Iraq was blown
up into an international affair
. One blog
post
from late August that referenced a Wikileaks document already online
elsewhere got me called
in for interrogation
by Diplomatic Security and accused of disclosing
classified information. I was told by Human Resources I might lose my job and
my security clearance, and I was ordered to pre-clear every article, blog post,
Facebook update, and Tweet from that point out. A Principal Deputy Assistant
Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs wrote, without informing me,
directly to my publisher, accusing me in writing of new security violations
that had apparently escaped the sharp eyes at Diplomatic Security, and demanded
redactions. The publisher refused, citing both the silliness of the actual
redactions (everything was already online; one requested redaction came from
the movie Black Hawk Down, and another from George Tenet’s memoirs) and the
First Amendment.

It
seemed kind of sad, kind of desperate, and maybe a little bit unfair. I always
took my obligation to protect information seriously, and all my material went
through a careful vetting process with the publisher as well as with State to
make sure nothing had slipped through.

I
wrote about all this on the blog TomDispatch,
and before I knew it, the story went viral. I found myself returning calls to
the New York Times, the ACLU,
Reporters Without Borders, CBS, NPR, and about a million blogs and radio
stations. I had hoped to promote the book I had written, which came out
yesterday
, but the story ended up being about me and the State Department
instead.

I
never intended this to be a fight against my employer of 23 years, and I never
intended to become a poster child for the First Amendment. However, I’m not one
to back down when bullied, and I am afraid that in their anger and angst, the
Department of State has acted like a bully. In addition to false accusations of
security violations, State has used its own internal clearance requirements as
a blunt weapon.

The
State Department, on paper, does
not prohibit blogs, tweets or whatever is invented next. On paper, again, responsible
use is called for — a reasonable demand. But this rule must cut both ways —
responsible writing on my part, responsible control on State’s part.

And
responsible standards for clearance. The department’s “pre-clearance”
requirements are totally out of date. Originally designed for a 19th-century
publishing model, its leisurely 30-day examination period is incompatible with
the requirements of online work, blogs, Facebook, and tweets. But the department
has refused to update its rules for the 21st century, preferring instead to use
the 30 days to kill anything of a timely nature. What blog post is of value a
month after it is written, never mind a tweet?

In
addition, the pre-clearance rules are supposed to be specific in their goals: to
prevent classified or privacy protected information from going out, stopping
info on contracts and procurement, and blocking private writing that seeks to
pass itself off as an official statement from the Department. In my case,
however, any attempts to pre-clear blog posts ran into the Department of Silly
Walks. My bland statements about the military in Iraq made using easily
Googleable data were labeled “security risks.” When even those were
clipped out, everything I wrote was labeled as possibly being confused with an
official statement, even though my writing is peppered with profanity, sarcasm,
humor, and funny photos. Say what you want about my writing, but I can’t
imagine anyone is confusing it with official State Department public
statements. As required, I always include a disclaimer, but the pre-clearance
people simply tell me that is not enough, without explaining what might be
enough other than just shutting up.

So
instead of using pre-clearance as it is on paper, a tool to guard only against
improper disclosure with which I have no disagreement, it is used as a form of
prior restraint against speech that offends State. Me, in this instance.

We
have been battered to death with public statements from the Secretary of State
on down demanding the rights of bloggers and journalists in China, Burma and
the Middle East be respected. While the State Department does not lock its
naughty bloggers in basement prison cells, it does purposefully, willfully, and
in an organized way seek to chill the responsible exercise of free speech by its
employees. It does this selectively; blogs that promote an on-message theme are
left alone (or even linked to
by the Department) while blogs that say things that are troublesome or
offensive to the Department are bullied out of existence. This is not
consistent with the values the State Department seeks to promote abroad. It is
not the best of us, and it undermines our message and our mission in every
country where we work where people can still read this.

I
have a job now at State that has nothing to do with Iraq, something I enjoy and
something I am competent at. To me, there is no conflict here. I’d like to keep
my job if I can, and in the meantime, I’ll continue to write. I have no need to
resign in protest, as I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong absent throwing a
few pies at some clowns and bringing to daylight a story that needed to be
told, albeit at the cost of some embarrassment to the Department of State. That
seems to me compatible with my oath of office, as well as my obligations as a
citizen. I hope State comes to agree with me. After all, State asks the same
thing of governments abroad, right?