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Conversation with Self About Serial Blog Killers and the 21st Century Statecraft

And I’ll let you listen if you have nothing better to do.

Back in January, I wrote about the State Department’s Wild, Wild Web Chat on 21st Century Statecraft:

[L]et’s pretend for a moment that I am a State employee with a blog that is getting some flack from my boss in say, the CA bureau. I give Mr. Ross my boss’ name.  Mr. Ross may take up my issue with the top honcho of Consular Affairs. If that does not work, he may take it up with the boss of the CA boss, which would be, yes, the Under Secretary for Management, pretty high up the chain.  I imagine that those bosses, whether they agree or not would listen to Secretary Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation; that’s a given.  So I’ll happily blog along, problem solved. Until, of course, Mr. Ross moves on to his next adventure and exits Foggy Bottom.  I, presumably would still continue working for the bureaucracy.  My boss, and his/her boss’ boss would  still continue working for the bureaucracy.  And they would remember me as the blogger somebody who rat on them to the 7th floor using the super fast elevator.  Under this scenario, Mr. Ross’ solution to “take it up” directly with the bosses is like the career equivalent of taking rat poison.

And it got some Alec Ross attention who posted a comment in this blog:

If you have suggestions (that won’t require people to take rat poison), suggest them to me. (I’m in the GAL and will preserve you anonymity). Take me at my word – I want to institutionalize the practice of 21st century statecraft. You are correct that I would “go to the bosses” — these are the folks I know. My internal interlocutors. Also working on the FAM and through other formal mechanisms, but I’m open to additional suggestions. Thanks for your attention to these issues.

I appreciate his offer of anonymity preservation, a nice gesture although not something really necessary.  I was going to write him back with suggestions but then on February 13 one of my blog pals disappeared.  She was not the first and of course, will not be the last.  So I’ve been thinking about these State Department tigers who can safely maul bloggers or their FSOs behind closed doors and wonder what Mr. Ross can really do about them. (Oh, the blog has now reappeared!).

I really should stop calling them tigers.  Despite the sharp teeth, real tigers are still darn cute. And these State Department tigers are not.   I should start calling them by their real names. With dead blogs in their wake, they should be appropriately called Serial Blog Killers. Because that’s what they do. They kill blogs in an almost random fashion. And so far, they have been successful in evading capture and not leaving any marks, precious bodily fluids, fingerprints or paper trail.  My CSI team is like, seriously confused. The cause of death, as always, is undetermined cause.  For some reason, the blog just goes DEYD, like deceased poets, dead and quickly extinct as mastodons, lifeless as Jupiter’s moons and no more of this world.

Mr. Ross said not too long ago that “the 21st century is a lousy time to be a control freak.” If that is really so, there are a lot of folks within the State Department who are having a pretty lousy time right now.  The fact of the matter is that in the last several years we have witnessed the State Department’s organizational schizophrenia manifest in its handling of social media use by employees and family members. These are private blogs written by employees and family members in their private capacity and on their own time.

If I have to send a tweet about the State Department’s promotion of social media and the way it handles some FS members using social media, I think I’ll borrow a phrase from a blog pal:

Dear State Department: Your actions speak so loudly I can hardly hear what you’re saying.

A side note here — when Matt Armstrong was hired as Executive Director for the now defunct Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, I had it in good authority that a condition to his hiring was to stop/stop blogging.  The condition was not set by DGHR or Public Affairs but apparently by — tada!– the office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs aka “R”.

Anyhow, below is a perspective from an FSO published in the Foreign Service Journal:

Anyone who has been called on the carpet for blogging — especially those who have been summoned more than once — can tell you that the only consistent aspect of the department’s feedback is inconsistency.  Blogging is encouraged by some elements within the department and is even discussed on the official page, www.careers.state.gov, complete with a substantial set of links to popular Foreign Service-related blogs. Yet even bloggers listed there are sometimes targeted for official harassment by other elements within the department for having a blog in the first place.

With the exception of Peter Van Buren who is in a public fistfight with the State Department, we don’t really hear much from FSOs talking about blogging, and there is a good reason for that. I wonder if anyone is brave enough to write a dissent cable on this subject? A dissent cable that the public cannot read and that which management can pretend to pay attention to. Oh, I’m not against dissent cables. Frankly, I think it’s great for morale and perpetuates the notion that the organization is open to dissent. As long as it is respectful, of course, goes through the correct “channel” and is properly formatted.

Cultural Learnings of the State Department to Benefit the Internets

The State Department is an old, traditional hierarchy with power concentrated at the top. I remember Mr. Ross saying, “[W]hat social media tends to do, is it redistributes power. It redistributes power from hierarchies to citizens, from large institutions and the nation-state to individuals and networks of individuals.”

I don’t know about that. There was People Power before there was social media.  But let’s just say that what Mr. Ross said is true — redistributing power is pretty much like redistributing wealth, the people at the top usually do not like giving it away. And they’re the ones who write or clear what’s written in the FAM.  Even as the Secretary promotes 21st Century Statecraft and Internet Freedom and even as the first of the Internet generation join the ranks of Foreign Service officers, the sand people in the middle who do not want this and do not get this, remains perplexed as to why anyone would aspire to change anything at all and even put such things in the FAM. After all, isn’t diplomacy what you do behind closed doors because if everyone is looking in nothing gets done? Which is not to under estimate the power of networks and connections but I doubt that affairs of the state will ever become crowd-source.

Alec Ross.  I was thinking of Alec Ross. I don’t know how much they liked him over there.  When I told a blog pal I am writing some suggestions for Mr. Ross, she snorted and asked where was Mr. Ross when so and so’s blog was waterboarded behind closed doors on C. Street?  I have no answer, of course.  We’re not chatty or friends or anything like that and we don’t know where he was during the blogs’ waterboarding.  But I must say, that since we’ve been talking “rat poison” he has been the only one to reach out to us to solicit suggestions. There are already suggestions from an FSO here, and from spouses here and here.

Teaching the State Department cultural learnings to benefit the internets is not going to be a walk in the park. I certainly do not envy Mr. Ross’ job of institutionalizing the 21st Century Statecraft. Remember what happened to Transformational Diplomacy a term ago?  Yep, he will need more than luck. What was it Jeff Stibel said — that once the human mind has set out to do something and has gotten in the habit of doing something, changing it is very hard. Add group dynamics and it is extremely hard. Resistance will find a way.

Anyway, I’m thinking — how can you promote 21st Century Statecraft and sit back when bloggers and social media practitioners are penalized by other parts of the organization?  Is the organization so messed up that its various arms (more than two arms obviously) are more tangled than Rapunzel’s hair? Still, there was something different with this last blog disappearance.  I’d like to imagine that somebody picked up the phone and barked, “Give me Beijing!” Whoever picked up that phone deserves thanks. At least when I make a movie about all this, that’s how it will be. Which is not to say that we won’t hear stories about silenced blogs ever again. Or that the blogger’s FSO is not on somebody’s headache list somewhere.

As one blogger who had a near blog death experience tells it:

They can be anyone anywhere at State who can leverage any authority or have any influence over an employee.  They’re not just one department or one bureau or one piece of State or whatever.  Sure, they can be that employee’s boss, of course… but they can also be their boss’s boss, or boss’s boss’s boss, or anyone at post, or anyone in that section of the world, or anyone anywhere high enough to have any say over what happens to that employee, or anyone in any lateral piece or department who doesn’t like blogging in general or that blog in particular.

A few blogs have run afoul with Diplomatic Security, but it is not/not unheard of to have a run in with regional bureaus, or specific functional bureaus like Consular Affairs, or with post management overseas. The thing is with very few exceptions, no one is willing to come on the record to say why. And that in itself is not a healthy sign.  People are not being taught lessons in responsible use of social media, they are taught that crossing the line can put your career on ice and that there are no second chances.

I kind of think that this would be interesting to Congress who holds the budget purse-strings. See — if the State Department is so understaffed, how come it has enough people to monitor and go after the private blogs of its employees? Surely, they have better things to do than monitor, investigate and write reports about the goings on in private blogs?  Or perhaps the Office of Professional Responsibility in Participatory Media (PR/PM) is now real and acutely staffed?

But there are rules! Ah, the RULES!

Blogging Rules Now With More Ingredients Than Mongolian Grill

The Social Media rules for the State Department in 5 FAM 790 has more ingredients than Mongolian barbeque. Lordy, every time I read it, I get hungry.  It claims authorities from 5 FAM 712 and 27 other federal authorities.  One of the 27 authorities it cites is 3 FAM 4125, Outside Employment and Activities by Spouses and Family Members Abroad.  According to 5 FAM 790, f. Family members of Department personnel working abroad who create and/or use social media cites must adhere to the policies contained in 3 FAM 4125.   3 FAM 4125 says:

a. A spouse or family member of a U.S. citizen employee may accept any outside employment or undertake other outside activity as described in section 3 FAM 4123 (refers to teaching, business activities inside the embassy, authorized political activities related to US elections, involvement in private organizations) working in a foreign country unless such employment:
(1) Would violate any law of such country;
(2) Could require a waiver of diplomatic immunity deemed
unacceptably broad by the Chief of Mission; or
(3) Could otherwise damage the interests of the United States as
determined by the Chief of Mission in that country.

Really, now. Blogging for diplomatic spouses is certainly not in the category of “outside employment” but I think Management is stretching this section of the FAM to include blogging under the gigantic umbrella of “outside activity.” Nowhere is writing, blogging or social media activities even mentioned in 3 FAM 4123.  This needs to be clarified so there is no misunderstanding. Or so that this is not used as a catch-all reason by post management when its runs after spouses’ blogs.

Diplomatic spouses have been declared their own persons since the 1972 Spouse Directive.  Yet, the USG treats them on paper and in real life as if it owns them by dictating what outside activity is permissible overseas.  Perhaps the rationale behind this is hey, the USG pays for you to be overseas with your FSO, including housing, it has a say on what you can do or say while abroad.  [Note that the regs cited above only covers spouses who are abroad and make no mention or claim to spouses living in the United States]. If so, make that trade off clear.

We have not/not seen any spouse blog approaching anywhere near controversial. And yet, blogging for some have become a dangerous activity even if they are not/not writing about secrets, policy, security related issues or potential data for counter-intel scrappers.  Should diplomatic spouses suffer harassment for blogging just because the Principal Officer, or Management Counselor have nightmares about blogs?  Or because senior officers are uncomfortable with blogs containing toucans, bad furniture, baby pictures, etc? Or because the blogger may occasionally be a tad emotional online and it does not fit the Saint EFM’s sparkly halo?

The spouses’ freedom to write, speak, blog, tweet, should not be dependent on the good graces of senior officers and post management overseas. But — under the current regulation, it looks like it is.  That being the case, diplomatic spouses who are expressly told to shut down their blogs should get that takedown notice in writing including an explanation as to how the offending blog is “damaging” to the interest of the United States.  If they have to give up their right to free speech, would it be too much to ask to inform them what they are giving it up for?  Of course, if State wants to be really democratic about it, there should be a way for bloggers to appeal that takedown notice without penalizing the spouse or the FSO. Yeah, I know, too much work, and easier said than done.

Of course, it would be nice to have a list of what might be considered “damaging”  subjects to start with. As one blogger puts it, spouses are not looking to cross the lines, but that’s a hard thing to do if there are no clear lines or if the lines are constantly moving.

For as smart cookies everywhere already know:

DS [Diplomatic Security], and State in general, don’t seem to understand blogging very well,  and seem, lately, to be resorting to intimidation rather than guidance in too many cases.  We need someone who “does” social media at State.  An office that is staffed by people who actually blog, use Facebook, tweet, etc.  And we need practical, common-sense guidelines written by people who understand that the blogging train has already left the station and they’d better learn to drive it. Finally, that guidance needs to be written up in plain language for both officers and family members, and made available to both.

Practical common-sense guidelines is better than the current Mongolian Grill.

On a related note, I’ve also been thinking about Peter Van Buren.  I cannot separate these blog shut downs from Peter Van Buren’s case for one simple reason. If the State Department plays hardball with Mr. Van Buren when he has a large megaphone, what do you think it does behind close doors to the small fries’ blogs? Or to less known FSOs who blog outside the moving lines?

I think the State Department is wrong in letting the Peter Van Buren case fester this long. If there is a poster child for the consequences of 21st Century Statecraft in real life, that is Peter Van Buren.  If there is Exhibit A on a PR debacle under the 21st Century Statecraft, that is Peter Van Buren. And the Serial Blog Killer cannot even blow him a kiss.  I wish the State Department folks would stop wrapping themselves around the axle over him.  It is in their best interest to settle this case as expeditiously as possible, because I can’t imagine them winning points over this one.  Cooler and more sensible heads needed over there ASAP, yesterday.

As always, folks will wonder if this type of harassment, even nuclear option of silencing blogs are really true. Couldn’t this just be rumors?  After all, the State Department has been voted one of the best places to work in the Federal Government.  How could things be that bad?  And would it really do something so contrary to what it preaches to the rest of the world about Internet Freedom and the 21st Century Statecraft?

All I can say is that I did not imagine the dead blogs in the blogmetery. But the stories of the silenced blogs, the threats received, the career blowbacks, and the circumstances of their deaths are not really mine to tell.  So unless there is congressional action or a class action lawsuit, the public may never hear their stories.

On class action lawsuits, I’ve copied the following section to my notepad from US Diplomacy:

In 1968, Foreign Service Officer Alison Palmer filed a sex discrimination case that she won three years later.  Her victory resulted in an order from management barring all discrimination in assignments.  In 1975, when Palmer filed a class action suit on behalf of women Foreign Service Officers, WAO became a silent partner in the suit.  The lawsuit dragged on for many years but ultimately achieved success.  Though controversial within the Foreign Service, the Palmer lawsuit helped pave the way for new opportunities and improved conditions for women FSOs.  A similar sex discrimination class action suit, filed by Carolee Brady Hartman in 1977 against the U.S. Information Agency and the Voice of America, resulted in a settlement in 2000 that paid $532,000 to each of the nearly 1,100 women involved in the case.

What that shows is that change really does not come easy to the State Department. It had to be dragged screaming into gender equality in its hiring and personnel practices until it was beaten up black and blue and had to come to a settlement.  I think the Palmer case concluded after 20 years. The 1977 Hartman case was not settled until 2000, 23 years later.

Change, of course, does not come easy even to the best of organizations. Every change has its gainers and losers. Those with the most to gain will push for change, those with the most to loose will defend the status quo. Senior folks probably are not terribly happy with the prospect of a flatter hierarchy and less control after they’ve spent their careers climbing to the top.  I mean, would you?  But like an FS blogger said, this train has left the station, State better learn to drive it.  The risk of not doing this right is huge – like driving into a ditch. With the bystanders having a good laugh.

Conversation with self can get rather long, and boring after a while. Switch off in two minutes.

Domani Spero

http://emailfromtheembassy.blogspot.com/2011/09/busy-oh-but-im-thinking-lot-about.html

http://wellthatwasdifferent.wordpress.com/2011/09/14/we-interrupt-our-regularly-scheduled-programming/

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3 responses

  1. Pingback: AFSA Guidance on the Personal Use of Social Media | Diplopundit

  2. Speaking of class action lawsuits, here’s a link (http://www.bryanschwartzlaw.com/) to a lawyer who actually won an historic class action lawsuit against the venerable and powerful State Department on behalf of Doering Meyer, who had passed the Foreign Service exams and was denied employment solely based on her medical condition. Yes, it can be done, but best to hire someone far, far away from Washington.

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