Press Corps to State Dept: What are the numbers … will we ever know? Jacha-cha-cha-cha! What does the fox say?

— By Domani Spero

Another day, another State Department briefing with a diplomatic press corps “obsessed” with numbers.  The agency’s deputy spokesperson Marie Harf remains unable to provide furlough numbers for the department. The “this is a very large department going through and making sure we have completely accurate numbers” response is not really cutting it, anymore.

We’re hearing that as of 1715 today, word went out that there is “appropriations for next week.”  So presumably that covers the work week until Friday next week.  Employees reportedly were also “guaranteed” that they would get a 5 day notice before a furlough. Not sure how much work will Congress do this weekend but if State pinkie-swore a 5-day notice, the furlough letters potentially could start going out this Monday.

Ms. Harf says it’s “not that anyone’s trying to hide anything.” The press corps and this blog wonders … will we ever know?  So below is our send off for the weekend with Ylvis, the Norwegian comedy duo Bård and Vegard Ylvisåker, and their song, ‘What does the fox say?” We’re making it fit the occasion, because why not, it’s been a long week and we loved these guys!

QUESTION: What effects though – what new updates do you have on the effects of the —

MS. HARF: No new updates. Like I said, every day we’re continuing to look at the numbers. We haven’t had to undertake massive furloughs like we’ve seen, unfortunately, elsewhere. But no new updates on our posture today.

QUESTION: And we don’t have any numbers yet on furloughs?

MS. HARF: No numbers.

QUESTION: Why don’t we have any numbers on furloughs?

MS. HARF: We just don’t have any to provide at this point. We’ve said it’s a very small number in these offices. If we have numbers to share, we will.

QUESTION: Well, it’s small, like what – like under 10 or 50 or —

MS. HARF: I know you ask the same question every day, and we just don’t have numbers for you at this point.

QUESTION: Why not?

QUESTION: My question is: Why.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MS. HARF: Why?

QUESTION: Why are you unwilling to provide the numbers?

MS. HARF: Right. Well, we – I just don’t have those numbers in front of me. I know our folks are looking at them now.

QUESTION: How long does it take? It’s been going on for days.

QUESTION: But I didn’t ask you whether you had them in front of you. I asked why, and Deb asked why.

MS. HARF: Well, I said that’s why I can’t provide them, because they’re not in front of me.

QUESTION: Why? No, but that’s – look, tautologies like this don’t help anybody. There’s got to be a reason why you’re unwilling to provide the numbers. What is it?

MS. HARF: The answer – I’ve said it’s a very small number. I can endeavor to get a specific number for you on it.

QUESTION: But – yeah. We’ve been asking now for days. So when —

MS. HARF: Okay. I will keep endeavoring to get you one.

QUESTION: Well, what do you think the problem is?

MS. HARF: I don’t know that there’s a problem. I just don’t have the number in front of me, and I will see if we can get one.

QUESTION: Would you say that the numbers are increasing with every passing day, from Tuesday until today?

MS. HARF: The numbers of what?

QUESTION: The numbers of people —

MS. HARF: Of furloughs?

QUESTION: — being furloughed. Yes.

MS. HARF: No. So —

QUESTION: So the number is static. Whatever was furloughed —

MS. HARF: Correct.

QUESTION: — were furloughed on Tuesday —

MS. HARF: That small number – yes. That’s correct.

QUESTION: Yeah. It has not increased, not likely to increase?

MS. HARF: That’s my understanding, Said. That’s my understanding. Again, at some point, we will no longer have funds to operate, and at that point we will undertake —

QUESTION: — all be furloughed.

MS. HARF: We will undertake – unfortunately have to undertake much bigger furloughs than we’ve had to at this point.

QUESTION: So the small number of furloughs, though, are they in with the OIG —

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — and the Boundary Waters Commission —

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — or whatever it is?

MS. HARF: And some of the offices I spoke about the other day.

QUESTION: So —

MS. HARF: Yeah. The people – the offices that are funded on one-year funding.

QUESTION: Okay. So those were examples, or those were the list?

MS. HARF: I – those were examples; I don’t know if it’s the totality —

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: — of the list. I think that’s one thing people are doing right now is – this is a very large department going through and making sure we have completely accurate numbers about who’s in what offices, who’s under one-year funding.

Now if there’s someone who’s an employee of an office that’s one-year funded but they’re detailed somewhere else, are they furloughed – this isn’t super simple to calculate. So I’ll see what I can do on numbers.

QUESTION: Okay. But the furloughs are in those – in those – in these programs?

MS. HARF: That’s my understanding, yes. The people that are operating under one-year funding, those offices are closed, and that’s my understanding where the furloughs reside.

QUESTION: And again, on the embassies abroad and the consulates and the passports —

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — and all that just remains, correct?

MS. HARF: It remains. It continues. Yes.

QUESTION: And if you have to furlough anybody in the embassies out abroad, then does that affect the passports? Or it doesn’t affect them at all, ever?

MS. HARF: So I don’t want to get ahead of where we are here. It’s my understanding that if we have to undertake further furloughs, we will still be able to provide visa and passport services because they’re fee-funded services.

QUESTION: And as we were talking about yesterday, those people who do those jobs are fee-funded?

MS. HARF: That’s my understanding. I can check on the specifics, but obviously, I think we focused a lot on furloughs because that’s a hugely important part of this, but the reason I started yesterday talking about some of the programs, the reason I started today talking about some of the negative press we’ve been getting around the world is because it’s about more than just furloughs. It’s about our ability to go out and represent our values and interests, and that’s much harder right now because we don’t have any FY 2014 money.

QUESTION: Can I ask —

QUESTION: How much of a heads-up will these people get?

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm. Yep.

QUESTION: So —

MS. HARF: Go ahead. What?

QUESTION: How much heads-up will the people who work in this building get? They just get told, “Don’t show up for work tomorrow,” or – how much leave time?

MS. HARF: It’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer to it. Obviously, if we get to that point – and we don’t want to have to get to that point – we would encourage Congress to not let us get to that point, but we would take every step to make sure that people are given notice and all the process that we’ve gone through in other agencies as well. But again, I hope we don’t have to get to that point.

QUESTION: You said that in a short period of time you might have to start making some tougher decisions and increasing the number of furloughs. Do you have a – are we talking about two or three days, or two or three weeks, or —

MS. HARF: I don’t have a specific timeframe for you. One thing we’ve done is we’ve scaled back a lot of our programs, travel, a lot of other things that we do that costs money prior to furloughing, of course. So we’ve been doing that throughout this week.

So a lot of travel that had been scheduled, events, other things that cost money, have been scaled back. So —

QUESTION: Can you give us an example of something that’s been scaled back?

MS. HARF: Well, a lot of travel that’s not the Secretary or some of our other senior —

QUESTION: Such as?

MS. HARF: I can try and get you some examples.

QUESTION: I mean, it would be useful —

MS. HARF: Yeah – no —

QUESTION: — which conferences you haven’t been able to go to as a result of this.

MS. HARF: Completely. I agree. And I think there are actually some fairly illustrative ones of key foreign policy priorities that we haven’t been able to do. So I will endeavor to get you a list after the briefing. I know there’s – quite frankly, a lot of our travel has been curtailed that really hurts our ability to advance some of these priorities.

But going forward, every single day, our number crunchers are looking at what we have and what we can do with it, and what we can’t do with it, and every single day, that conversation gets harder. But I don’t have a timeline because the budgets are complicated and people obviously are looking at it every day.

QUESTION: Sure, and I appreciate that, but at the same time, as – in answer to Margaret’s question, you were saying that you were going to try to give people a heads-up.

MS. HARF: Of course.

QUESTION: You must have somewhere – or your budget crunchers must have somewhere – a kind of – a tipping point, at which point you’re then going to have to start bringing in more sharper and deeper cuts within the Department.

MS. HARF: I’m sure that they have a bunch of different scenarios they’re looking at right now. Again, I don’t have a timeline for you on that. I don’t think it’s – obviously, nothing’s happened at this point this week, but if we have any more clarity to provide on that, I can attempt to pry that from them as well.

QUESTION: Can we go to (inaudible)?

MS. HARF: Hold on. We’ll go to Egypt. Is it shutdown?

QUESTION: Before the – no, on the furlough.

MS. HARF: Okay.

QUESTION: Just very quickly, because there seems to be such a great deal of confusion among foreign government. They don’t understand this business of shut – the government shutting down. Did you issue —

MS. HARF: I think the American people also don’t understand this business of shutting down, but that’s a different question. Go ahead.

QUESTION: I’m saying – yeah, exactly – did you issue, like, a standard statement to foreign governments saying that this is what is happening and that’s what’s expected?

MS. HARF: I don’t know —

QUESTION: Or you don’t see a need for that?

MS. HARF: I don’t know if we’ve issued a standard statement. Of course our ambassadors and our diplomats on the ground are having tough conversations with our partners around the world. If there are things we’ve committed to do that we then can no longer do – conferences we’re supposed to participate in, multilateral engagements we’re supposed to participate in – clearly, those are tough conversations. And our folks around the world are having those with partner governments right now.

I don’t know if there’s one message we sent to all of them, but I think the overall general message we’re sending through our diplomats is that we’re committed to the relationships, we’re committed to the work we have to do together, we will do everything in our power to continue this work, but that right now, we have some budgetary and financial limitations, and so we will do everything we can to try to move these relationships forward, but quite frankly, it’s really tough right now.

QUESTION: Yes, please, about the shutdown.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Maybe I will try to phrase it in a way that you may find an answer for, but what I am asking about is about the number, because as it was published today in New York Times, a detailed story about how many people are not working at the State – at the White House.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And a few days ago, there was something, a hint about the number – numbers means numerical value, not many or little – number.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: All these things were mentioned, whether it’s the Pentagon or in White House. So what is your philosophy or justification of not saying numbers, although you are concerned about the image of United States abroad?

MS. HARF: Well, I don’t think this is a philosophical discussion about a number.

QUESTION: I’m not saying thing – I mean, I’m trying to – I’m not – philosophical discussion. I’m asking —

MS. HARF: Yeah, right.

QUESTION: — we are asking —

MS. HARF: You asked what my philosophy was behind it, and I don’t think that there’s —

QUESTION: If you have a philosophy or justification or —

MS. HARF: — a big philosophy behind it.

QUESTION: — anything.

MS. HARF: No, it’s a good question, and I know this is – we’ve all been kind of obsessed with the number here, and I will attempt to get a specific one for you. I think for us, it’s that this is about more than a number of furloughs in an office. This is about how it affects our mission all around the world and what we’re doing on the ground. Obviously, every agency has the ability to put out numbers about who’s furloughed and who’s not. So we’ll keep having this discussion, and if I can get a number that I can share, I will do so.

QUESTION: So —

QUESTION: I mean, it is because if you give us a number, then it undercuts the argument that it is preventing you from doing all this abroad, or —

MS. HARF: No, not at all.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: I just don’t have a number in front of me.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: Look, what I’ve said – we have not hidden the fact that we have not had to do massive furloughs. I’ve also been very clear that the people we have are in a very small number of offices, so nobody’s hiding that fact. And I think the point I’ve tried to make repeatedly is that it’s more – it’s about more than that number. It’s about what we can and can’t do overseas. So it’s not that anyone’s trying to hide anything. It’s that I just – I don’t have a number for you. I’m happy to keep looking to get it for you.

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Dear State Department, Can You Please Keep Your Deputy Spokesperson In The Loop!

— By Domani Spero

We are on Day 4 of the shutdown.   Except for the employees from the Inspector General Office (and the International Water Boundary Commission) who were furloughed on the first day of the shutdown, the State Department is open and operational.  Naturally, folks are interested on two things: 1) how long can the State Department sustain its worldwide operation without new funding and 2) how many people had been furloughed.

The State Department is full of smart people. We imagine that they know exactly how long the carryover funds would last before Congress shut down the government, and they know exactly how many employees will be furloughed immediately after the lapse in appropriation.  To say that we are still crunching the numbers the day after the shutdown doesn’t make a lot of sense. Everybody knew this was coming.  And for the spokesperson not to have funding and furlough numbers four days into the shutdown is simply absurd.

We should note that the spokesperson only talks about what The Building allows him/her to talk about. Once he/she says it on the podium, it is official. So if they sound like broken records, at times, that’s because they are repeating their talking points. They do not talk beyond the chalk marks around the talking points.  Their value is in their ability to stick to their talking points without antagonizing the press even if the press runs around the room after them half a dozen times.

On Day 3 of the shutdown, it went like this:

QUESTION: Today’s Washington Post editorial was referring to the issue of the securities of the – let’s say, the embassies.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And in the same time, the policy – or at least now the policy is to keep the embassies open. How you justify this? Is it a risk to leave it open or not?

MS. HARF: No. So we’re not taking risks with our security at our embassies overseas right now. Clearly, that posture hasn’t changed. We always take security as the highest priority overseas with our embassies and our people. What I had mentioned at the beginning is it will be harder for us to continue to augment that security. So the longer we go on, the longer the shutdown goes on, we can’t get new DS agents up and trained to go overseas and continue augmenting our security, as we’ve talked about for a long time.

But our security posture remains the same, and the reason the embassies and consulates are open is because that’s really the forefront of the diplomatic work we do every day. We process visas. We get American citizens passports. We have American citizen services all over the world. We just saw a few weeks ago, when we had to shut some embassies temporarily because of a terrorist threat, all the questions and the concerns around that. Our goal is always to have them open. That’s why we’re there in a lot of places around the world.

Yes, Deb, and then I’ll go to you, Scott.

QUESTION: Shutdown?

MS. HARF: Shutdown, yeah.

QUESTION: You mentioned a few furloughs, okay. So that begs the question: How many?

MS. HARF: I know. Everyone wants specific numbers. I don’t have a specific number for you.

QUESTION: Why is it so hard to get a number?

MS. HARF: It’s just – I don’t have it. These are complicated things. We’re talking to the offices about what we can get you in terms of numbers. We just don’t have it right now.

QUESTION: You mean fewer than 10 or —

MS. HARF: It’s a small number. I just don’t have the actual number for you.

QUESTION: Fifty or less?

MS. HARF: I’ll see if I can – I will see if I can do something for you.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: I’m not trying to be too cute by half here; I just don’t have a number.

Then today this happened:

Screen Shot 2013-10-04

There are three possibilities we can think of here: 1) no one in Foggy Bottom knows how to count; 2) the State Department leadership does not want the numbers released for whatever reason; 3) the spokesperson is purposely kept out of the loop, so these numbers are not on her briefing book.

Seriously folks.

We don’t want to beat up @marieharf.  We do think it undermines the credibility of the agency’s public face when she is unable to answer fairly simple questions.  These are not “complicated things” unless they have been made purposely so.  To what end, we do not know.

Can you imagine Ambassador Richard Boucher the longest-serving Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and spokesman in the U.S. Department of State’s history unable to answer these simple questions?  We can’t either.

In related news, we are starting to see tweets from official State Department accounts saying: “Due to the lapse in appropriations this Twitter feed will not be updated regularly. Please visit @StateDept for updates.” And this:

Screen Shot 2013-10-04

Still waiting for an answer to the “why” question. It’s not coming? Okay.

Wait, here’s one answer:

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 3.13.52 PM

What we’re seriously wondering is if the State Department’s twitteratis have been asked to “consider the perception” of “business as usual” on Twitter during a shutdown.  We’re full of serious, today — have they?

Just now we received word from a political nightingale, “We’ve also been told, even though we are working, that we are NOT to give speeches. At all.” 

Okay, that probably also means, all official receptions at posts are off including receptions for new ambassadors just getting to post – because. Optics. 

Updated at 7:07 EST with Ambassador Warlick’s response, and update on no speeches allowed. 

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Photo of the Day: Secretary Kerry Escapes Bonkerstown, Arrives in Indonesia for APEC

— By Domani Spero

Secretary Kerry is on foreign travel to Tokyo, Japan, Bali, Indonesia; Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Manila, Philippines from October 1-12, 2013.  In Tokyo on October 2-3, Secretary Kerry joined Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel for the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee (SCC) meeting.  On October 4, Secretary Kerry arrived in Bali, Indonesia for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Ministerial Meeting (AMM) and other APEC-related meetings.  He is accompanied by Assistant Secretary Danny Russel, Spokesperson Jennifer Psaki, NSS Director for Japan and Asian Economic Affairs Robert Koepcke and Vice Admiral Kurt Tidd, JCS. After Bali, Secretary Kerry is scheduled to proceed to Malaysia from October 10-11 and the Philippines from October 11-12.

Photo via state.gov

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is greeted by Embassy Jakarta’s Charge d’Affaires Kristen Bauer upon arriving in Bali, Indonesia, on October 4, 2013, to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Ministerial Meeting. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
Photo via state.gov

Ambassador Scot Marciel departed post on July 18. The Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy to Indonesia, Kristen Bauer is currently the Chargé d’Affaires a.i. She will serve in this capacity as the acting Ambassador until the arrival of  Ambassador-designate Joseph Y. Yun as the next Ambassador to Malaysia.  ambasador-designate, Ambassador Robert Blake, Jr. to Jakarta. (apologies, thanks P!).

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