Social Media Schizophrenia Continues on Background, and Oh, Stuff That Loophole, Ey?

One of our readers from a post that will remain unnamed recently wrote a note with the following heads-up, “…our Front Office has gone on an anti-social media rampage of late.”

Something about slamming worker bees for not using Facebook or Twitter responsibly?  Apparently, using our universal idiotic translator, that means anyone at post using FB or Twitter was not/not using it responsibly.

These folks have been sequestered inside the mission (before sequestration was a DC rage) due to well, reasons and are not allowed to meet their contacts outside the embassy compound. But our diplomats can continue their host country engagement despite the security hindrances in country X or Y because there now are plenty of social media tools. Except that embassies are not democracies, and when the Front Office is of the opinion that staffers who use these tools are not using it responsibly – what do you get?  What kind of work can our diplomats realistically do when they cannot travel outside the embassy compound?  What kind of host country outreach can be expected of them  when even the mere use of social media tools is considered  irresponsible use by their bosses?

And so the State Department’s social media schizophrenia continues, on background in that region over there.

This gives us an excuse to revisit the social media hubbub from last year about the change in the clearance regs, also known as the 2-day clearance for tweets scandal that gave everyone  ants in their pants —

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Anyway — rumor has it that when Condolezza Rice’s book was submitted for clearance at the State Department a year or so ago — the Executive Secretariat sent that around with very tight short fuze clearance taskers so that the 30 day timeline could be respected.   This is the book where she reportedly congratulated herself on forcing more State Department officials into the field.

Sometime last year year, we published in this blog a short piece on PTSD by an active FSO, and we understand that the clearance for that came through, shockingly enough within 24 hours.

So when the clearance system works, it rocks, but it does not always work as intended.

The current rules says that if the designated review period of 30 days run out without a response, that an employee may go ahead and publish the submitted material with a couple of caveats (no classified or protected info used).  Which is good because it makes the clearance office accountable; officials cannot just sit on the submitted material for no reason than to stall publication. There is the risk, of course, that the Dept will go after you when you take that option.  Prime example of this is retired FSO Peter Van Buren who wrote a comical and depressing account of reconstruction in Iraq in his book, We Meant Well.

That book was submitted for clearance, went beyond the 30 day timeframe and the author took the risk and published the book.  The State Dept did go after him for purported use of classified information in the book, which did not wash or perhaps more appropriately, washed with bad streaks all over it. After a lengthy semi-public battle, Mr. Van Buren retired from the State Department with full benefits.

We must note that the need to get a book cleared is not a laughing matter. The USG once purchased all copies of a book and had a book burning event (see Operation Dark Heart).  In spring last year, a US court ruled that a CIA-connected author may forfeit any future money he earns from a book (see “The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture”)

James Bruno, a retired FSO and author of political thrillers Permanent Interests, Chasm, Tribe and the latest, still waiting clearance, The Havana Queen, had to wait an average of six month for the State Department to review his books. Mr. Bruno  wrote about this in his blog:

“My book manuscripts must undergo government security review before I can even show them to a book agent or a publisher. Those I published before 2000 were cleared quickly and with little interference from the censors. The Bush-2 administration, however, tightened the process up greatly. It took almost six months to get clearance for my latest novel, “Tribe.” Upon completion of the manuscript, I phoned State to ask to whom I should send it. In return, they faxed me a letter stating, “Everything you write will be considered classified until cleared by this office.”

Ugh! In another blog post, Mr. Bruno wrote:

“This week, I shipped off to the U.S. State Department my fourth book for security review as required by nondisclosure rules binding on all active duty and retired government personnel who have held top secret security clearances. Taking an average of six months per review, my books will have sat a total of two years with the green eye-shaders in Washington. That’s two years of not being published. Two years of royalties not flowing into my bank account.”

If the 30-day timeline is to be respected for a former Secretary of State, it should be respected for all employees, active or retired, otherwise why have the rules in placed when there is selective application of the rules? Pardon me? That’s exactly why there are rules in place so exceptions can be made?

Well, dammit, that hurts our head!

Lost in noise of the 2-day clearance for tweets (which reportedly ain’t gonna happen!) is the central point that under the proposed rules, the State Dept endeavors to control much more firmly its employees speaking, writing, and media engagement, particularly on matters considered “of official concern,” that is, all matters of concern to the State Department.  To put it bluntly, the gag works but did not work as well as evidenced by the Van Buren case.  So an update is needed to make sure it works perfectly, silly.

While Alec Ross put his own spin on this, you might check out this flowchart on the review of State employees public communication whether done in their official or private capacity (h/t to John Brown’s Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review and We Meant Well.

Mary Jeffers, a senior State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy currently detailed outside Foggy Bottom had a piece on this in the takefiveblog. She writes:

Right now, if you are an Ambassador or PAO (public affairs officer) overseas you are cleared to tweet or post to social media (as well as talk to local journalists, do interviews with local media, etc.) as you see fit — and it doesn’t look like these new rules would change that.  And if you are in Washington in an office that needs to communicate publicly about something, you can work with the PA staff in your own bureau to get near-instant clearance.

(Plus, employees can always use language that’s already been cleared, e.g. text from previous official speeches and statements — and frankly, a lot of language gets recycled this way because it’s efficient and ensures consistency, which is necessarily valued in this business).

And you can always pick up the phone to follow-up clearance requests to multiple offices, email them or if needed, walk your text to the clearance office.  So what’s the real hubbub here? Ms. Jeffers with her pulse on the ground writes:

  • … in situations where the reason people might read your blog article or listen to your speech is that you work for State, but you want to use your own words and speak your own thoughts.  And of course there’s a broad spectrum of such situations, ranging from invitational speaking that all State officers ought to do as part of their work (on one end) to whistle-blowing (at the other); and,
  • Close a loophole that indicated if State PA doesn’t respond to a request for clearance within a certain deadline, one is free to publish.

Those two items sit right at the heart of the matter.

The 3 FAM 4170 current rules applies to “all public speaking, writing and teaching materials of “official concern” whether done in official or private capacity.  We suspect that the greatest impact on the proposed rules would be felt by employees speaking, writing, teaching and doing any sort of public engagement in their private capacity.

So all FB, Twitter, Blogger, WordPress, Ning, other social media platforms users who are State people, talking online about bidding, Iraq, assignments, promotions, housing, officially issued furniture, etc. etc. the proposed new rules are not going to be any better or easier despite official speechifying to the contrary.  So you better stick with toucans.  Look, the 30- day clearance will be shrunk to 2-5 days for social media posts.  Apparently, the public thinks that’s unacceptable for official communication. Does that mean it is also unacceptable for employees communicating in their private capacity? Stay tuned.

Also as we’ve have blogged previously, the catch all language of the proposed new rules is troubling particularly on not violating “standards of character, integrity, and conduct expected of all Department employees as defined in 3 FAM 1216” — those standards are not even spelled out in the cited regulation!  Oh, hey, did we hear right that this draft regulation was done by an intern?

In any case —  all that and the proposed closure of the loophole contained in 3 FAM 4172.1-7 makes us think that tighter control of employee speech, particularly those done in a private capacity, is the main goal of the proposed new rules. It does not matter that there is now a new secretary of state. The building marches at its own tune. If the FAM update is not yet out (it’s not), it’s only because too much public attention probably made it suddenly shy.

As to the complaint overheard down that corridor that we should not be commenting on a draft reg — sorry folks, we could not help it.  Once the regulation is finalized, it does not get any further hearing for a couple years or so.  That’s way too long.  This particular piece of the FAM has potentially significant repercussions to employees speaking in their private capacity. The mere fact that it leaked means others inside the building have significant concerns about it.  Had management posted it in the spirit of true collaboration on the Sounding Board for comments, we probably would not have heard about it.

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