The View From Barbados: George Gaines Case, “the matter is more than a little troubling”

We’ve blogged about the passing of RSO George Gaines in Barbados recently.  Read US Embassy Barbados: Death of the Regional Security Officer and US Embassy Barbados: Death of RSO George Gaines “Unnatural” Investigation Ongoing.

On May 18, Barbados Nation reported that there will be no local autopsy or coroner’s inquest into the death of the embassy’s Regional Security Officer:

“In an unusual twist, the body of the 51-year-old security official was flown to his United States homeland Wednesday, following high-level talks between United States Embassy and Government officials. The United States Consulate had reportedly made a request for Gaines’ body to be sent to his homeland for forensic investigations to determine the cause of death.”

The following day, Barbados’ Nation News articulated its concerns about the handling of the death case in an editorial titled, Diplomacy vs sovereignty, and questioned why the body was “flown home with dispatch.”  See below, the original piece is posted here.

Sat, May 19, 2012 – 12:00 AM
WE TEND TO THINK that diplomatic immunity should not be tantamount to a host country’s loss of national sovereignty.

With that in mind, we are more than a little concerned about the handling of the case of well known United States Embassy official George Gaines, who died recently on these shores as a result of an apparent suicide but whose body has been flown home with dispatch, without the lawful and routine coroner’s inquest or even an autopsy, which would have taken less than a day.

Has expertise

Even if the autopsy had to be executed in the strict presence of American officials, it is obvious that Barbados has the requisite expertise to carry out such a procedure, if only for the record.

The circumstances of this matter have been extreme, to say the least: a man has died in unnatural circumstances, not within the confines of the United States Embassy or even its environs, but on a public beach at Dover, Christ Church. Following this, the Embassy’s counsellor for public affairs Rebecca Ross merely added to the mystery by saying officials were treating the death as a “private matter”, and asking the local media to “respect the privacy of the family”.

Does diplomatic immunity mean privacy about a death on a public beach in our own country? Had Gaines’ body not been found in a public place, would Barbadians have been informed at all then?

The Embassy’s position, even in the face of a high-level security official’s death, pushes us to wonder about the United States of America’s view of Barbados.

We ask, without prejudice, whether that country’s respect for anyone’s sovereignty is merely convenient, and whether countries like ours are seen as mere assets rather than the “partners” we and our CARICOM sister states are often touted to be.

Since no one in Barbados could officially touch Gaines’ body, how could Barbados exonerate itself in the event of any finding other than apparent suicide? And if the Barbados Government has indeed satisfied itself that there has been absolutely no need for a local autopsy, where is the official record to satisfy the people of Barbados, who deserve to know – after all, he died in our midst.

Investigation

While we pride ourselves on having a free Press and access to information, this matter begs for investigation at the highest level.

We shouldn’t have to wait to hear its details on CNN or FOX NEWS. We can’t help but say the matter is more than a little troubling – in terms of both diplomacy and sovereignty.

The dead have no use for diplomatic immunity and if the Barbadians are confused at this turn of events, our embassy in Bridgetown with its social media arms failed in its embrace of people to people outreach.

It is worth noting that this is not the first tragedy that befall a US mission overseas in recent years. In 2007, Colonel Thomas Mooney went missing, then was found dead in Cyprus. In 2010, Vice Consul James Hogan went missing, and was never found in the Netherlands Antilles. Here now is another tragedy in Barbados.

In this incident in Barbados, the editorial expressed a quiet affront to national pride — perhaps even a slight resentment on three things: 1) we have the expertise, why did they not trust us; 2) if we are partners, they must not think very much of us, and 3) how can we defend ourselves if this is foul play when we have no idea what happened here?

And their concern is understandable.  While one can argue that the privacy of the family at this difficult time be protected, the deceased, like all public officials serving at our embassies and consulates abroad are just that, officials with public lives. Presumably, they have friends in the local community, and professional contacts in and out of the host country government who cares about what happened to them. Incidents like this will generate interests and questions even from non-embassy friends. In this case, perhaps even to seek confirmation that the host country did not have anything to do with the death of its diplomatic guest. To respond to these incidents as if there’s a news blackout is not going to make the tragic news go away, or make rumors disappear but it will sure make a mystery out of a personal tragedy.

At the height of the disappearance of James Hogan in the Netherlands Antilles, our email inquiries sent to to the US Consulate General in Curacao and to Timothy J. Dunn, the Chief of Mission/Consul General were never acknowledged or responded to.  Nothing on its website indicates that one of its three officers has gone missing or that there was a search going on. There was no official statement from the mission. About a year later, a James Hogan Missing flyer was posted on its website, with no further explanation.

In this latest incident, emails to the press office of US Embassy Bridgetown, its front office and ASKPRI@state.gov have so far all gone unanswered. A request to the Consular Section for the embassy’s latest Disposition of Remains Report for Barbados will reportedly be responded to in 72 hours. And while the press officer of the embassy was quoted as saying this is a “private matter” the embassy did not release any official statement to the local press or on its website. There’s nothing on its Facebook page, or in its mission blog, or in its Twitter account. It’s like business as usual and there’s no death in the family. Or if there is one, it’s none of your business.

By contrast, when the US Defense Attaché, Thomas Mooney disappeared from the US Embassy in Cyprus on June 28, 2007, the U.S. Embassy there issued a public appeal for information on his whereabouts. And at the sad conclusion of Col. Mooney’s disappearance, then Ambassador Ronald Schlicher released an official statement also posted on the embassy’s website.

The message bears repeating below because we feel this is how it is done by a class act:

After the notification of next of kin, with deep sadness, I announce that LTC Thomas Mooney, who served his nation with distinction as our Defense Attaché, was found dead by Cypriot authorities on Monday.

At this point in the investigation, it is now clear that LTC Thomas Mooney’s death was a personal tragedy with no political or security implications.  We wish to thank the Cypriot authorities and people once again for the extraordinary level of support and the messages of sympathy they extended to the Embassy throughout this difficult and trying time.

Please remember LTC Mooney and his family in your thoughts and prayers.

Ambassador Ronald L. Schlicher

Ambassador Schlicher’s message is comforting in its simplicity. It confirmed the death of the official member of the embassy family, thanked the folks that needed thanking, and it made the embassy come across as more than just a building, but a real community. More importantly, it acknowledged the mission as part of a larger community of human beings who grieve as part of life.

We don’t know this for sure but since Col.Mooney was in the military, his remains was probably sent to Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner (OAFME) at Dover Port Mortuary for an autopsy. But not once did we uncover a press account or editorial questioning the disposition of his remains.

Update @1314 PST, May 25:

Christopher J. Sandrolini, who until recently was US Embassy Bridgetown’s chargé d’affaires, a.i. and currently its Deputy Chief of Mission, responded to our email requesting comment over the editorial with the following note:

I have no official comment. Personally, I can say that George Gaines was a good friend of mine and of the entire Embassy; we miss him greatly. Many of us came up from Bridgetown for the funeral and to be with his wife and daughter.  George was an outstanding officer and widely known and respected everywhere he served.

While we understand that our embassy officials are not always able to provide an official statement, we appreciate the note from Mr. Sandrolini.
Domani Spero

 

 

2 responses

  1. I’ll bet the Embassy has to wait for approved text from the Department before any one can say anything on the record. Likely the official response is sitting in someone’s inbox or something like that. As you know, the whole State Department clearance process can be a nightmare. Doesn’t look like anything’s changed.

    • Patricia,
      I got more than a few emails about the no comment from Barbados, mostly from people who knew the deceased. Perhaps it’s one or the other reasons you cited in your blog post, No Comment. But when James Hogan disappeared in the Antilles, it was the same no comment strategery. Post in both cases could have simply acknowledged that a member of the embassy family passed away or is missing and investigations are ongoing. When nothing official comes out of the building, it comes across as if it’s business as usual. I’m sure that is not the case in both of these incidents but perception is reality for a lot of people, particularly for those outside the embassy walls. An official condolence statement would not have been out of place nor intrude in the family’s privacy. I’ve cross-posted this comment in my blog. Thanks!