AFSA Threatens to Sue State Department Over Ambassadors Credentials, Again

Updated on March 6, 10:13 pm PST with the “demonstrated competence” requirement in the FS Act of 1980.

— Domani Spero

Via WaPo’s Al Kamen:

The State Department employees union is demanding that the department turn over key documents on three embattled ambassadorial nominees — and all pending Obama administration nominees, both career Foreign Service and non-career folks — by Thursday evening or face a prompt lawsuit for the materials.

The documents, called “certificates of demonstrated competence,” essentially explain the rationale for nominating  each individual. The 28-member governing board of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) voted unanimously to demand the documents.

AFSA had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents in July, but it has not received them.
[…]
Although the board was very concerned about those particular three nominees, “We’re not going to be satisfied with one or two small victories,”AFSA president Robert Silverman said in an interview. “We want the system to be fixed, it’s broken.”

With the certificates in hand, the board, probably by telephone vote, is expected to deal with those three nominees. On the other hand, if AFSA needs to go to court for the documents, it may not get them before the full Senate votes on the nominations.

On AFSA’s Facebook page, the news has yet to generate a wave of response from its membership. Besides over a dozen likes and a few short “bravos,” a couple of concerns were also posted:

One wrote: “While I appreciate the broader issue, and think that it is nice that the press is focused on the service of career diplomats, I wonder how much efforts like this will go to alienate senior leadership in the Department and Administration who might later be called on to advocate for OCP or other issues of concern for the rank and file. I agree the Service would benefit if a few more Ambassadorships went to career diplomats, but I doubt that the senators who right now might applaud the sideshow generated by a lawsuit will feel similarly disposed when a Republican administration is making its appointments.”

Another comment: “While I am concerned about the quality of our Ambassadors I am even more concerned that AFSA has chosen this matter as the defining issue on which to expend its political capital.  I understand your explanation that no publicity is bad publicity but if the choice is to put our support behind an initiative that will benefit a very select few versus a different initiative that will benefit all, i.e. OCP, then I would rather we back the latter. My fellow proletarians may disagree but this seems to me a much wiser use of resources.”

In responding to one FB comment, Mr. Silverman, the AFSA president wrote in part:

“I want to assure you that we are working very closely on this Chief of Mission Guidelines initiative with the senior leadership at State, other Administration and SFRC. That has been the focus since the initiative’s genesis in August. Informally senior State leaders applaud and support this initiative. And we are collaborating closely with State on our single biggest ask of Congress: the third tranche of OCP. From my perspective as AFSA’s president, this collaboration has never been closer. The unprecedented media attention also strengthens AFSA’s voice in general. The goal is to have it help with OCP, and the most urgent issue in front of us – the Senate holds on 1,300 FS members awaiting tenure and promotion.”

Thursday night is reportedly the deadline.  It’ll be an interesting night, or maybe not.

If the State Department releases these “certificates of demonstrated competence” on “all pending Obama administration nominees,” it will, no doubt, be a media field day. We could be wrong, but we don’t think State will roll over a threat that easily.  If it does’t, AFSA will, of course, have to go to court. It won’t be for the first time.  Since we don’t have a drive-thru court, this will certainty take time winding through the federal district court. By the time a hearing is in sight or folks need to appear in court, the ambassadorial nominees potentially would already be confirmed and off to post.

We have not been able to find anything on these “certificates of demonstrated competence” — not in the FAM or anywhere else in state.gov.  Not even in history.state.gov but it is in the FS Act of 1980:(h/t to M!)

Section 304 (4)
(4) The President shall provide the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate, with each nomination for an appointment as a chief of mission, a report on the demonstrated competence of the nominee to perform the duties of the position in which he or she is to serve.

Also,  a little digging in ADST’s oral history project gave us an idea on what maybe in these “certificates.” Below is an excerpt from the ADST interview of Charles A. Schmitz who served in the State Department from 1964 to the early 1990’s. He worked in the Director General’s Office from 1976-1978 and served as AFSA Vice President in 1990 when the association took the State Department to court for these “certificates.” Excerpt below, read the full interview here (pdf).

The State Department, in a most conniving, almost criminal way, connived to keep from the public view the description of how bad a lot of these appointees were, in violation of the law. The law requires the State Department to issue a certificate of demonstrated competence for every ambassadorial appointee.
[…]
It is in the Foreign Service Act. It is much ignored, by the way. Pell required it to be written into the law, but then quit taking it seriously. Therefore, the certificate was produced in name only. It was not a certificate of competency at all. It was a brief, usually one page, description of what the person had done. A typical example was of the model…Mr. so-and-so has been a pillar of his community, a successful businessman in running his used car dealership and therefore would make an excellent ambassador of the United States to Spain. It was so bad that these things were not even carefully done. They had typos in them. In one case the last line naming the country was the wrong country.
[…]
Nobody noticed it because they classified it. There is a little operation in the State Department that produced these things. They were not really State Department people, they were White House people sent over to write these things. There were two of them. They then sent them as confidential documents to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That is why we sued him. We said that you can not classify somebody’s resume. Under the National Security Act involving classification this is a violation of the act. We, of course, argued that point until we were blue in the face for months and months with the State Department in negotiations. They refused to move on it, so AFSA sued the Secretary of State in the Federal District Court. Before the matter came to hearing, the State Department compromised and provided AFSA all of the documents which it had withheld until that point. It undertook to provide us the documents as the law should require and denied having done anything wrong.
[…]
These things turned out to be laughable in practice. They were slipshod, superficially done, just marking the boxes So we had to expose that in some fashion. And that was important that it was exposed and ultimately, as I said before, what caused a certain amount of embarrassment. This didn’t defeat any of those nominees, but it may have had some effect on other potential appointees, or the nominators anyway who realized it wasn’t going to be just a free ride to nominate anybody as ambassador.

Remember Battlestar Galactica’s “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again?”  

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