US Embassy Egypt: PAO Larry Schwartz Thrown Under the Bus Over “Inappropriate Apology”

There was that clip of a badly made obscure movie posted in YouTube which roiled the mob in Cairo on September 11. (AP on Sept. 12, said its search for those behind the film led to a Coptic Christian in California who had been convicted of financial crimes). The US Embassy in Egypt released the following statement:

U.S. Embassy Condemns Religious Incitement
September 11, 2012

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.

GOP Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney waded in with a statement here, calling “disgraceful” an early response to the assault in Cairo and saying it sympathized with the attackers.  The embassy statement, an apparent reference to the video clip in YouTube, was posted hours before the official death in Libya was reported.

Politifact consulted three apology experts who all agreed that the statement from the US Embassy in Cairo was not an apology because one expert says, 1) it did not use the word “apology” or said “we’re sorry”; 2) the statement condemns the actions of a third party and 3) it does not apologize for the right of free speech. Another expert says “To say that someone who deliberately insults others in the name of religion has acted wrongly isn’t an apology — it’s simply a recognition that those insults go too far.” Still another of Politifact’s experts says “it is a condemnation of ‘abuse’ of the universal value of free speech. A condemnation is not an apology. … The Embassy statement also reaffirms two American values: the American value of respect for religious beliefs and the American value of democracy.”

No matter, that condemnation statement from the US Embassy Cairo has now entered the twilight zone of presidential politics and The Cable’s Josh Rogin has the scoop inside this public relations disaster at our Cairo embassy. Two responsible officials were named in the article — the Deputy Chief of Mission Marc Sievers, who was the acting charge d’affairs and the embassy’s senior public affairs officer Larry Schwartz. Mr. Schwartz was previously Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and a seasoned public diplomacy officer. He, presently, just got thrown under the bus over the apology controversy. And run over twice once more for good measure.

Here is an excerpt:

“In an effort to cool the situation down, it didn’t come from me, it didn’t come from Secretary Clinton. It came from people on the ground who are potentially in danger,” Obama said. “And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they’re in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office.”

But Obama’s remarks belie the enormous frustration of top officials at the State Department and White House with the actions of the man behind the statement, Cairo senior public affairs officer Larry Schwartz, who wrote the release and oversees the embassy’s Twitter feed, according to a detailed account of the Tuesday’s events.
Before issuing the press release, Schwartz cleared it with just one person senior to himself, Deputy Chief of Mission Marc Sievers, who was the acting charge d’affairs at the embassy on Tuesday because Ambassador Anne Patterson was in Washington at the time, the official said.

Schwartz sent the statement to the State Department in Washington before publishing and the State Department directed him not to post it without changes, but Schwartz posted it anyway.

“The statement was not cleared with anyone in Washington. It was sent as ‘This is what we are putting out,'” the official said. “We replied and said this was not a good statement and that it needed major revisions. The next email we received from Embassy Cairo was ‘We just put this out.'”
“People at the highest levels both at the State Department and at the White House were not happy with the way the statement went down. There was a lot of anger both about the process and the content,” the official said. “Frankly, people here did not understand it. The statement was just tone deaf. It didn’t provide adequate balance. We thought the references to the 9/11 attacks were inappropriate, and we strongly advised against the kind of language that talked about ‘continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.'”

Despite being aware of Washington’s objections, the embassy continued to defend the statement for several hours, fueling the controversy over it, a decision the official again attributed to Schwartz.

Perhaps it is telling that The Cable’s source are “one U.S. official close to the issue” and “two additional administration officials”, all unnamed.  If this went down as detailed in the report, shouldn’t we at least know who’s pointing fingers?  Considering that one congressman, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) is already calling for the State Department to “issue an immediate apology to the American people and fire those officials responsible for the initial statement” — that seems only fair.

Who would have thought that Twitter is such a dangerous sinkhole.

Anyway here’s the thing — Foreign Service officers are really, really excellent at following the chalked lines. You don’t see a lot of rogue and old diplomats for very good reasons. And they, certainly, do not suddenly forget their clearance procedures because they were confronted with a badly made, badly written and badly acted movie clip in YouTube; much less, defy a direct order from the State Department when it comes to an official statement for public consumption. Unless, of course, the officer is looking to commit a career suicide. And I’m not convinced that is the case with man of the hour, Larry Schwartz.

It would be nice to know who in the State Department “directed” Mr. Schwartz not/not to post the statement without changes, wouldn’t it? Was it somebody in the Bureau of Public Affairs? Was it somebody in the regional bureau? Did anyone also tell him that if this sh*t blows up we’ll make sure Foreign Policy knows how to spell your name?

This is what you’d call the bureaucratic duck and cover. It looks like the poor sod under the bus did not get a lot warning.  If he did get some warning, we’d be interested to know if he got a special phone call telling him to take one for the team before they throw him to the sharks on a feeding frenzy.

Update: WaPo’s The Fact Checker has a long item on this here in An embassy statement, a tweet, and a major misunderstanding.



13 responses

  1. No urban bus system in the world could run a competent on-time service if it pulled over for every Tom, Dick and Harriet standing or walking in the vicinity of a bus stop or sitting on the seat of a bus shelter.

  2. This cannot be the first Twitter ever posted without proper State clearance. The rest of the world continues to exist after 6 pm Eastern standard time. At 6:30 am, when Cairo was boiling outside the front gates of the Embassy, who was going to clear back at the Department? If State were well staffed and well resourced we might have had people on duty qualified to draft exactly the right toned statement and translate it into Arabic.

    • It would be shocking if all posts around the world gets clearance from Main State for everything they post in their Twitter feed. Foggy Bottom would grind to a halt. That’s why we have a PAO who reports to the DCM or the Chief of Mission. I do not know Larry Schwartz but it does not seem right to me to throw this person under the bus for this. True leadership means the mission’s top officials own up to this. The person that sits at the top is responsible. Throwing a lower level person to the whirlpool seems spineless.

  3. The spin on this issue is baffling, but one thought for your man of the hour, a man whose reputation precedes him: karma’s a bitch, ain’t it?

      • He is not a good human being. Anyone who has worked for him can tell you. Those who have worked with him may not have had the pleasure of experiencing both sides.

        • Manhattan, I did not have the good fortune to meet or work with this guy so I have nothing to add. But even so, I still look at this as a leadership issue. The person who sits at the top of the US mission is accountable. I do not want a lower rank employee, whether it’s him or you thrown under the bus for something that had been cleared by the leadership. A true leader has a ready umbrella to keep the shit from hitting his/her staff. In this case, it seems like the umbrella was pointed to someone else instead. It wasn’t me, it’s him. Should be an excellent case study for FSI’s Leadership & Management School.

  4. A comment from Lisa:

    I am appalled that the State Dept would allow Mr. Schwartz to be “tossed under the bus.” This is clearly not the best way to engender loyalty in career diplomats or to encourage young people to take this career path. I am embarrassed for our country that we don’t support our people and am very disappointed with the Administration.

  5. Unless the statements are provably false there is no limit on free speech. At one time saying the Earth was round was considered offensive. Offensive or contentious speech is exactly what is supposed to be protected. While the experts may be correct that it does not fit the legal definition of an apology, I doubt very much you would be able to find more than 5 people out of 100 from any street in any city in the USA that would agree. I agree with your analysis that Schwartz is being tossed under the bus, and would like to point out a key phrase that underscores that conclusion. “Before issuing the press release, Schwartz cleared it with JUST ONE PERSON senior to himself…”. (Emphasis added) Exactly how many people senior to yourself are you supposed to clear it with? In my experience with the Government (Civilian and Military) you always report to only one person, and that person reports to just one other person, etc. Once you get the go ahead from your immediate supervisor your done, if it’s a mistake it’s the supervisors fault for authorizing it. So did Deputy Chief of Mission Marc Sievers should be in the hot seat, not Schwartz. Since we know Sievers did call someone and we don’t have their name I’m guessing that it was approved at that level too, they just don’t want to admit it.

    • Thanks James. The DCM was acting as charge, which means he was the acting as the Chief of Mission during Ambassador Patterson’s absence from post. So I think you got it right, he should be on the hot seat, not a lower level official. But then again, it is easier to throw a lower level official under the bus. I also do not think that most statements from the embassies get clearance from Main State, and certainly not the thousands of tweets embassies generates every day. That’s the reason why there is a professional PAO at post who reports to the chief of mission of an embassy. If this were a travel warning or a warden message, then this would have gone back for clearance from the mothership. But this was not.

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