How to Cover Your Ass When Handling the State Dept "Clearance" Mailbox

In the NYT profile of Mr. Van Buren, the writer notes: “As the Foreign Service requires, Mr. Van Buren submitted his manuscript for review in September 2010, shortly after he returned from Iraq. The rules state that the review must be completed within 30 days. When he heard nothing, he took that as assent.”

A State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to NYT also said that “publishing without awaiting the required review amounted to a violation.” 

I bet that official did not have time to read the darn FAM 4170.

As you can imagine this just cracks me up.  And makes me dammit, tantrumy (like stormy and such).

Given the reactions from the State Department, it seems to me that this manuscript dived into the cracks, head first, and the agency realized it too late. In short, no one may have actually read this manuscript before it went to press. But instead of somebody owning up to the snafu (it was after all submitted for clearance), the organization is going after the author. Why didn’t they fire the guy who messed up in clearing this book? If he/she did his/her job — who knows what could have happened?  This case could have ended up litigated in court. And you know how long court cases travel through that system. Entirely possible that by the time the court decides on the case, we would already have been out of Iraq  and the book would have been OBE as they say; as in overtaken by events = no buzz.

But here’s what I think happened with that controversial 30-day clearance process. You are welcome to take this with a dash of salt since obviously I did not do the monitoring of that mailbox in the Big House:

Step 1: Employee sends request for clearance to the “Clearances” mailbox. Manuscript attached.

Step 2: “Clearances” mailbox acknowledged receipt of manuscript

Step 3: 30-days later, employee sends follow up inquiry about requested clearance per timeline specified in the FAM

Step 4: “Clearance” mailbox mails out the following response:

Dear You:

Your email inquiry referred to “I replied to your message.” I just want to clarify that Jane Doe who works at “Clearances” mailbox was the one who replied to you in that message and she has been ill.  I and other colleagues are covering the “Clearances” mailbox in Ms. Doe’s absence in addition to our regular jobs.

Such being the case, we will have to begin from the beginning with this clearance request of yours, or forego review/clearance due to our delay in responding to you.  I recommend doing the former, not the latter. Also please note that the 30 day review period = business days and does not include weekends or holidays.

Step 5
: Employee ignores the recommendation and publishes the book … [A recommendation by its definition is not an order but an advice that the recipient is free to ignore, see?].

Step 6: BAM! Just like that. Days before the book lands in bookstores, the Front Office SCREAMS: How did that manuscript get clearance?

Step 7: What happened? Do you know what happened? I don’t know, do you? What happened? She doesn’t know. He doesn’t know. Does anybody know? Somebody please tell me WHAT HAPPENED! Nobody knows what happened? Well, for sure that man is evil for publishing that book! Get your pitchforks!

Okay, okay … evil and pitchforks are all made up. Pardon my active imagination; I was born this way.

And that dear readers is how a manuscript submitted for clearance can fall into those famous cracks.  Can our friends over at Public Affairs confirm or deny more or less if this was how it went down with Peter Van Buren’s book? What, I don’t have friends left there anymore?  Okay…so, really — which one of the very Special Assistants at the Front Office dropped this ball?

Accountability Jane – they don’t make them like they used to anymore.

While I was writing this down I remember Harrison Ford in Clear and Present Danger. Remember that scene between Jack Ryan and Ritter?

Jack Ryan: If I go down you’re coming with me.

Ritter: Wrong again. I have an *autographed get-out-of-jail-free card*! “The President of the United States authorizes Deputy Director of the CIA Robert Ritter to conduct ‘Operation Reciprocity’ including all necessary funding and support. This action is deemed important to the national security of the United States etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.” You don’t *have* one of these, do you Jack?

You will note that in our brief imagined response above, the most important component is CYA. Yes, as in Cover Your Ass even on a paper trail.  It wasn’t me.

That’s an institutionalized part of bureaucratic life. In fact, there ought to be a Cover Your Ass Lessons Learned Center. Except that Congress would never go for that. 

Anywho – I’d like to know who dropped the ball on this … c’mon fess up.

And stop squeezing the guy about a three-year old taxi receipt in Peru, and elsewhere. If you keep at it, he may have to send you a thank you note and Godiva chocolates for helping him break into Amazon’s Top 50 books. Pardon me?  Um, he is already in the Top 100. Can you imagine what happens if he actually gets fired? Um, hello bestseller?

While I’m on the subject of this book, Mr. Van Buren will do his only Washington DC area book signing today, October 11, at 6:30 pm, at the Washington flagship Barnes and Noble store, 555 12th St NW.  I understand that the first three in line buying a book will receive a special “Classified” carry bag.*

When pressed about the carry bag, the author emphasized that “*No
actual classified material was used or injured in the production of
this bag.” Also that “offer is void where patrolled by drones or tigers.”

Alrighty then, that settles it. See you there?!