The Mystery of the State Department’s “Blue Balls” Email Leak, Datelined Iraq

Yesterday, The Common Ills blog has an interesting post on the US Ambassadors to Iraq – Crocker, Hill, Jeffrey, the latest nominee for that post, Brett McGurk and the broken system of the confirmation process. Excerpt:

Tuesday, June 5, 2012.  Chaos and violence continue,  Brett McGurk intends to take himself and his self-admitted “blue balls” before the Senate Foreign Policy Committee tomorrow, whether he will be asked by the senators whether it was appropriate to engage in an affair with a reporter while stationed in Iraq or to conceal it from his supervisors remains an unknown, Moqtada says they have enough signatures to call for a no-confidence vote on Nouri al-Maliki, poverty and sanitation rates released by an Iraqi ministry do not demonstrate progress, and more.
[…]
Iraq is supposedly a major issue to the US.  It should be.  US taxpayers saw trillions go into that illegal war.  The world saw millions of Iraqis die,  4488 US service members die (DoD count), ‘coalition’ partners losses, an unknown number of contractors, reporters and many more.  And you’d think with all that blood, with all those lives lost, with all that money wasted, that the US government would take the post of Ambassador to Iraq seriously.  One president having three nominees in one term — an ongoing term — does not indicate that serious work has been done either by the White House or the Senate.

All of the above would be for any person nominated today to that post.  In addition to the above, McGurk is woefully unsuited for the job.  He should be asked to explain his administrative experience.  He’s not heading a desk in a vacation getaway.  If confirmed, he would be heading the most expensive US embassy project.  That’s even with talk of staffing cuts and talk of this and talk of that.  Even now the US diplomatic presence in Iraq is the big ticket item in the US State Dept’s budget.  What in his record says to the American people, “Your tax dollars are not about to AGAIN be wasted?”

Iraq is highly unstable.  The US should not be sending Ambassador Number 3 since 2009.  But it’s in that position now because people trusted to do the work — vetting the nominee, confirming the nominee — didn’t do their jobs.

Read the whole thing here plus a new post today here.

We would like to see the Senate vet the ambassadorial nominees scrupulously, whether they are career diplomats or political appointees. What we have seen happen, of course, if far from that.  Sometimes, the confirmation hearing is just like a bad piece of theater, with softball questions. And when they do exercise their Senate holds,  it is rarely for questions about the expertise of the nominees, but more often than not for political reasons. And both parties are  equally at fault on this.

Mr. McGurk is scheduled to have his confirmation hearing at the SFRC today. We’ve been tied up with something else so have yet to see the video of the hearing.  (Note:  @5:12 EST, no videos or testimonies were posted at the SFRC). If he is confirmed, he would be the 6th US Ambassador appointed to Iraq post 2003 invasion.   The average ambassadorial tenure since 2004 is about a year and a half.

Now about the “blue balls” email (what’s that? nothing to do with blue Christmas) — they are of a personal nature conducted in what appears to be the unclassified system of the State Department from June and December of 2008.  Quick thoughts on this:  1) there is no way to tell if the email exchange is authentic or not; 2) the leaker must not like Mr. McGurk very much, the emails went online the week of his confirmation hearing; and 3) anyone who has not gone through A-100 class escaped from the much repeated admonition/reminder given to career diplomats not/not to write anything that you don’t want to see on the front pages of NYT or WaPo, and now, of course, Cryptome.

It appears that the original email leak was posted as images in the photo sharing site, Flickr.  Nine images of purported emails between Brett McGurk and Wall Street Journal reporter, Gina Chon were up on Flickr on June 4 from a user named, DiploJoke.  No user profile is available on the site.  The images are large sizes 1024 (819 x 541) but given that these are text, they are a tad small to read.

On June 5th, the same emails appeared in Cryptome with the following note from the sender published on site:

A sends:

I rec’d this and thought you might post the details. McGurk is the Ambassadorial Nominee to represent the US in Iraq. His confirmation hearing is June 6.

At the height of the war and during the SOFA negotiations while countless American troops and Iraqi civilians were being slaughtered, it appears that Brett McGurk was engaged in an affair with Wall Street Journal reporter Gina Chon. He bragged endlessly about senior-level dinners, the secret SOFA negotiations, and “self-healing” exercises to cure his blue balls.

In a tribute to his professionalism and discretion, see emails: http://www.flickr.com/photos/80005642@N02/

The email images were posted enlarged in Cryptome, so they read a little fuzzy, but readable, nonetheless.

Jeff Stein of SpyTalk has this on Twitter with a link to Cryptome.

Cryptome which is run by  John Young publishes documents “that are prohibited by governments worldwide, in particular material on freedom of expression, privacy, cryptology, dual-use technologies, national security, intelligence, and secret governance — open, secret and classified documents — but not limited to those.”   It is also noted for not removing documents from its server unless ordered directly by a US court.

If these purported emails are authentic, they reside in the unclassified system/archives of the State Department. The leaker could only be one of over 60,000 personnel with access to that worldwide system.  So there is the question of who leak these, but also why.  Was this a wink, wink leak or was this a rogue’s leak?

But one of the authors of the leaked emails writes, “I am so f*cking smooth!”

Ay! Caramba! It could be that the leaker has no appreciation for f*cking smooth people or it could be for an altogether different thing. Who knows what’s hiding in the hearts of email leakers?

Besides the obvious content of the real or not emails about healthy people having healthy appetites even in a war zone, one of the purported parties here is reportedly a married person.  As an aside, the Military Times reported yesterday that a US Army colonel who has at one time, war-zone command of the esteemed 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team is under court martial for six counts of violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and 27 specifications including bigamy, fraud and charges of adultery. Anyway, that’s the military. The other purported party in this email chain is a member of the press, what folks like to call, the fourth estate. Wikipedia cites Thomas Carlyle in his book On Heroes and Hero Worship: “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

So there’s the press.  Perhaps a relevant question here might be — what happens if when a member of the three estates is in a cozy personal relationship with a member of the fourth estate?

What kind of objective reporting from the war zone might we all expect? That would be an interesting research topic, yes?

In any case, if Mr. McGurk is confirmed, the State Department presumably will be in a rather tight bind. First, it has to investigate if these emails are real. That’s easy enough, it can dig through its email archives. Second, if these emails are genuine, the State Department must decide if its 2011 proposed disciplinary action against “a handful” of employees for their off-duty conduct, which included extra-marital affairs, also applies retroactively to special assistants under chief of mission authority and ambassadorial appointees. That would be most interesting to watch.

Updated  2:11 pm PST

Update 6/7/12 @ 11:11 PST
The Washington Free Beacon reports that their source on Capitol Hill with knowledge of the nomination confirmed that the State Department had acknowledged the emails came from their system.  The report also says that Mr. McGurk is now married to Ms. Chon. Unfortunately, there was only an NYT wedding announcement for #1.

The Cable’s Josh Rogin also has this:

“Multiple sources told The Cable the State Department has investigated the allegation about McGurk’s activity on top of the palace but was unable to find any evidence of that incident. It’s unclear whether State is investigating the circumstances surrounding McGurk’s affair with Chon.”

What did he do on top of the palace? Oh, dear. Expect the podium to say ahem, “this is a personal matter and we have no comment.”

The blue balls email are breaking online now, with comment threads lighting up. One of the most person of the street sensible comment we’ve seen:

“But wanting to have sex with a woman is not remotely a crime now is it? He eventually divorced his wife and he married his mistress. He’s a cad. OK. I don’t care about that. The question here, why was this guy so incredibly stupid as send these love notes on the State Department email network? Isn’t that disqualifying for someone who will oversee a $4 billion dollar budget?”

That sounds familiar …. oh, Newt!

In related news, AP reported today that suicides are surging among America’s troops, averaging nearly one a day this year – the fastest pace in the nation’s decade of war.  The 2012 active-duty suicide total of 154 through June 3 compares to 130 in the same period last year, an 18 percent increase. That’s more than the war zone casualties in Afghanistan as of June 2012 which is 139 dead.
Domani Spero

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Anonymous FSO: AIP Posts Not the Only Places Where FSOs Are At Risk

On June 4, we posted an excerpt from a USIP interview of an FSO who served at an Iraq PRT (read Insider Quote: AIP Fatigue and a Little Hostility). That post generated the following comment, which I am reposting up front because the writer brings up important issues about the realities of service in the Foreign Service, particularly in the post 9/11 world.

Maybe there should be a little resentment from some quarters. The AIP posts aren’t the only places where FSOs put, or have put, themselves at risk to serve their country. Yes, we should honor and reward the service of FS personnel serving in AIP. But let’s not forget those who serve, or served, in other war zones.

Not to be morbid, but has anyone compared the mortality rate for USG personnel in stationed in Ciudad Juarez to those in Kabul and Baghdad? What “incentives” do we give people currently in the Mexican border posts or Yemen (where its so dangerous that Embassy personnel are not allowed to sleep in their homes)? Or until recently in Libya and Syria?

How about officers who’ve served in Angola, Congo, DROC, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Mali, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe etc. Sierra Leone and Liberia were particular garden spots. Remember when President Taylor’s troops strafed Embassy Monrovia? How about the 50 mm shells embedded in the Ambassador’s desk in Freetown after the AFRC coup (or was it the Nigerian invasion, or the RUF coup, or the Strasser coup)? We had FS personnel staffing a makeshift Embassy in Sierra Leone when DOD would not let its people visit on TDY because it was too dangerous.

Bosnia. (Just the word is enough.)

When I was in Angola, our DOD colleagues were getting combat pay; that wasn’t too long after UNITA attacked the Embassy compound. When we hitched rides into the interior on 40 year old C-130s chartered to WFP, the pilots corkscrewed into landings to make it harder for anyone with a SAM to take aim.

And what about the FS personnel who’ve lost family members, including children, because of medical, safety, traffic conditions in third world posts. When we honor service at AIP above all else, we diminish the sacrifice of those who put themselves, and sometimes their families, at risk to serve the USA in other dangerous places.

Folks might remember that State’s personnel system fell into a crisis in the post Vietnam years. At the height of the CORDS program, more than 400 FSOs were in the field with the CORDS (Civil Operations and Rural Development Support) program with over a hundred more were in language training.  According to Kopp and Gillespie, a number of those officers were “thoroughly dismayed” and left the service; those who remained with their operational skills received rapid advancement in their careers. But as they moved up the ranks, there were not enough positions to accommodate them all.  The up or out system had grown lax and midlevel officers resented the senior officers glut which frustrated the officers’ (many of them veterans of CORDS) chances for promotion.

A former FSO who recently wrote about the CORDS program (which he calls the Civil Operations and Revolutionary
Development Support) for the May 2012 issue of State Magazine, and who calls it as a success had the following tidbit:

At the FSO pre-employment oral exam, male applicants were told they stood every chance of going to war if accepted. Midcareer and senior FSOs were also sent to the front.[…] “You had a simple option,” he recalled. “If you were assigned to Vietnam and didn’t take it, you resigned your commission and left the service. It was as simple as that.”

It seems to me that early on in the Iraq War junior officers were sent to Baghdad straight out of FSI but that did not last long.  The vacancies in Iraq and Afghanistan and later Pakistan, as other assignments in the Foreign Service continued to be filled with volunteers (first tours excepted, of course).  There was that threat for “directed assignment” in 2007 with the accompanying brouhaha but that did not materialized. There was that “prime candidate” exercise, too, with letters sent out, but later died a natural bureaucratic death.

I’m tired digging up my yard to put up an edible garden today so I may be going around this in a convoluted way.  But what I think is a concern is the fracturing of the Foreign Service.  There have always been hardship and dangerous assignments in the Foreign Service.  But in the past, members of the FS can point to that collective experience of serving in places that were great, not so great, and really gadawful places on earth.  But in the years following our war of choice in Iraq, and our war of necessity in Afghanistan (I don’t know what you’d call what we’re doing in Pakistan, or Yemen, etc.), folks would be hard pressed to point to  one collective experience for all the Foreign Service.  Some FSOs with less than five years in the Foreign Service have already done two tours in the war zones. Some are heading to non war zones posts that are as perilous as any red zone.  Before too long, they will come back to a normal embassy operation, reporting in some cases to midlevel or senior officers who may have served in difficult assignments but have never done a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan where as one FSO calls it like “everything is rushing at you at 110 miles an hour.” How will that organizational relationship pans out?
Just a quick point while I’m thinking about this.  There is a distinction that is being made in the Foreign Service today: there are those who went to the war zones and there are those who did not. In a perfect world, one is either an effective officer or one is not. But we do not live in a perfect world.  Should a so-s0 Political Officer who goes to the war zone on a Hail Mary pass to get a promotion get all the carrots as opposed to a stellar Political Officer in say, the Marshall Islands?  Never mind asking why a stellar PolOff is in the Marshall Islands.  But — how does the system weigh mediocre performance in a war zone as opposed to a solid performance elsewhere in the worldwide available universe?
Then there’s this other thing.  The State Dept provides a lot of carrots to get people to go to the war zones and also hardship assignments. But the pool of volunteers is drying up. The world is getting more dangerous every day. The number of hardship and danger assignments is going up exponentially. The interviewee who talked about AIP fatigue and hostility has some unhappiness about getting the follow on or linked assignments nailed down.  Presumably, he is not the only one.
There won’t be enough carrots to go around, period.  And that will divide the Foreign Service as much as the war zone assignments.
Domani Spero