Death in the Foreign Service: Why we said “no” to an Embassy Information Sanitation Dude

— Domani Spero
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In the next couple of weeks, we will try to revisit some of the topics that we have blogged about in the past but did not get a chance to follow-up.

In the last several years, we’ve covered  the deaths of State Department and Foreign Service personnel due to terrorist attacks, natural calamities, suicide, violent crime, and accidents (see In the Foreign Service: Death, Too Close An Acquaintance). Here are some of the blogposts we did,this is not an exhaustive list:

While we did receive a screaming owler one time when we were asking questions about a death in Afghanistan, not once have we ever received an email from a family member of a deceased employee asking us not to mention that their loved ones who died overseas worked for Uncle Sam, or refrain from noting the passing of loved ones who died in the service of our country. Not once.

In June this year, we blogged about a Foreign Service employee at the US Embassy in Moscow who was killed in a gas explosion there:

Two State Department sources confirmed that the employee, an OMS on official orders working at the embassy had died. After the embassy employee was heloed to a local Russian hospital, she was reportedly airlifted by the State Department soon thereafter to a special burn hospital in Linkoping, outside of Stockholm where she died a few days later.

A former co-worker at another post was concerned that there has been no public  statement about the employee’s death. “I would think the death of a diplomat would get something from AFSA or State, even if it was from an accident.”  We sent out several inquiries but no one would speak on the record.  Since the name has not been officially released, and no obit has yet been published, we will refrain from identifying the victim at this time.

This past August, a brief obituary of that employee appeared on State magazine, the official trade publication of the State Department and we blogged about it. Shortly after that, we received an email from an individual using a hotmail account:

Hi, Durron’s family did not want this information to be disclosed to the press. Please honor their request. Personally I share your view, but also honor the family’s wishes.

Moscow is hard post to serve, and the Embassy community was very shocked by this news. I personally know many people who lived in the apartment complex where she died (MFA apartment housing), and I was also shocked by this news. I can’t say any more about this unfortunately. The past year was very hard for Embassy Moscow, especially in light of the death of an FSN who was very much loved by all who worked there. 

The request, as you can see, is polite, even volunteering that the writer shares the blog writer’s view. Then the “guilty hook,” asking that we “honor the family’s wishes.” The writer did not/not present himself as a government  official, and seemed to only appear as an interested third party purporting to pass on the wishes of the deceased employee’s family.

Our correspondent, who could not get the deceased employees straight (Durron was the Consular Affairs employee who died in Florida), was in fact, an embassy official, basically asking us not to make a public connection to the death of the  USG employee who died in Sweden to the gas explosion in a USG (Russian MFA) housing in Moscow. We only knew that the individual is a USG official because of …Googles! Not sure the individual is still at post at this time.

Our gut feeling was that this is legitimate news; we blogged about the fact that an employee of the U.S. Government was injured in Moscow, and subsequently died from those injuries in Sweden. And we waited until there was an official obituary before we put the information together and named the deceased individual.  Three months after the incident.

Deceased individuals are not covered by the Privacy Act. That said, if a USG employee die overseas for whatever reason, should we be obligated to not/not report it if his/her family ask that it not be reported for privacy reasons? That’s not exactly the case here because we were only told second hand that the deceased’s family did not want it reported in the press (except that the death was reported in the publicly available State magazine). But the “what-if” was a dilemma we spent considerable time thinking about for a period of time.

How do you balance the public’s right to know with a family’s request for privacy?

We’ve consulted with a professional journalist we admire, and an authority on media ethics at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.   All agreed that 1) employees sent overseas are on official duty, and that any life-threatening mishap or death they suffer is by definition of public interest, and 2) that we ought to consider the request if it comes directly from a family member, and pull the blogpost down only if the family makes a compelling case that publication caused them or somebody else harm.  One surmised that the request received may have more to do with the State Dept’s own reasons or some fear of official embarrassment.

We did send a response to our “non-official” correspondent basically declining the request since he was not a member of the family.  We informed the writer that we would consider pulling the material down if we hear directly from the family and only if there is a compelling reason for the request. We also offered to write directly to the family if the official would provide us a contact email.  We certainly did not want to be insensitive and we understand that the incident occurred  at a challenging post, but the death of a Foreign Service person abroad is of public interest. That’s the last we’ve heard from that official via hotmail. And we would have forgotten about this except that it came to our attention  that the USG had been more aggressive about sanitizing this information than we first thought.

A journalist from a large media organization subsequently told us that he/she was privately admonished after asking publicly why the State Dept had not expressed condolences on the death of the employee in Moscow. The admonishment came from a USG official who again, cited the family’s privacy. From best we could tell, these contacts/admonishment to the journalist and to this blog came from two separate officials. How many other journalists (not just blogger in pjs, mind you) had been similarly admonished to not report about this death citing the family’s request for privacy?

In the aftermath of this incident in May 2014, we sent an email inquiry to the public affairs office of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.  Our email got lost in a sink hole and we never heard anything back. We must note that this incident occurred after the departure of then Ambassador McFaul. It also predates the arrival of John Tefft, the current ambassador to Moscow and his the new public affairs officer there.

It goes without saying — but we’ll repeat it anyway —  that we clearly understand that accidents happen. And we’re not looking for a cover-up at every post unless it has to do with the furniture!  But, because there’s always a but — accidents do not absolve the embassy or the State Department from answering questions about the circumstances surrounding an employee’s death or at a minimum, publicly acknowledging that a death of an employee occurred overseas. We will be sensitive and respectful as we have always been, but we will ask questions.

What bothered us about this?  By citing the deceased family’s purported request for privacy, the State Department and Embassy Moscow basically shut down any further questions about the incident. How is it possible to have something of an information blackout on the death of an employee we sent overseas on the country’s behalf?

Whatever happened to that promised investigation?

We understand that then chargé d’affaires (CDA) in Moscow, Sheila Gwaltney  told personnel that they will be informed of the results of the investigation, regardless of the outcome. We sent an email inquiry to the analysis division of OBO’s Office of Fire Protection (OBO/OPS/FIR) requesting for an update to the fire inspector investigation. We received the following response on October 23 from Christine Foushee, State/OBO’s Director of External Affairs:

Thanks for your inquiry.  The investigation you’ve referenced is still ongoing, so we are not in a position to comment on results.

Per 15 FAM 825:

a. As soon as possible after being notified of a fire, OBO/OPS/FIR, will dispatch a team of trained fire/arson investigators to fires that resulted in serious injury or death; those where the cause is arson or is of a suspicious nature; those causing extensive damage or significant disruption to official activities; or those deemed to be of special interest to the Department of State.

b. Fire-related mishaps involving injury, illness, or death that meet criteria for Class A or B mishaps under Department of State policy will be investigated and reported using 15 FAM 964 requirements. An Office of Fire Protection official, in OBO/OPS/FIR, will be assigned to any Class A or B board conducted by OBO’s Office of Safety, Health, and Environmental Management, in the Directorate for Operations, (OBO/OPS/SHEM). In addition to addressing the root causes of the fire event, the mishap board report must evaluate the impact of Department of State organizational systems, procedures, or policies on the fire event. The report also could contain recommendations for specific modifications to such procedures and policies. Both OBO/OPS/FIR and OBO/OPS/SHEM receive copies of the report, and OBO/OPS/SHEM coordinates with the Department of State’s Designated Agency Safety and Health Official (DASHO) to meet 15 FAM 964 requirements. OBO/OPS/FIR reports findings and recommendations for corrective action to the Director of OBO, who informs the Accountability Review Board’s Permanent Coordinating Committee. (See 12 FAM 032.)

We sent another follow up email this week to State/OBO.  The explosion happened in May 2014. Here we are at the end of the year and we don’t know what happened to that investigation. Is this length of time typical of these types of investigations? We will update this blogpost if we hear from the fire people with something to say.

We think this a good opportunity as any to call on the State Department to voluntarily release an annual report of deaths of official Americans overseas.  DOD identifies its casualties — name, rank, age, state of residence, date and place of death, and cause of death — why not the State Department?  At a minimum there ought to be  an annual reporting of all deaths from unnatural causes of USG personnel and family members on government orders under Chief of Mission authority. Diplomatic Security already publishes an annual report,would it be too much to ask that they be allowed to include this information?

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