Posted: 3:41 am EDT
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Congratulations! This is almost three years in the making!
We’ve previously covered the Peter Van Buren case quite extensively in this blog (see After a Year of Serious Roars and Growls, State Dept Officially Retires FSO-Non Grata Peter Van Buren). The State Department officially retired Mr. Van Buren on September 30, 2012. He left with full retirement. In December 2012, we were informed by inside the building sources that the Department was rewriting its 3 FAM 4170 rules on official clearance for speaking, writing, and teaching. (see State Dept to Rewrite Media Engagement Rules for Employees in Wake of Van Buren Affair).
On July 27, 2015, two months short of Year 3 since Mr. Van Buren retired, the State Department without much fanfare released its new 3 FAM 4170 rules in 19 pages. For the “FAM is not a regulation; it’s recommendations” crowd, we hope you folks have great lawyers.
My! Look who’s covered!
The updated FAM, same as the old FAM, is divided into two meaty parts — official capacity public communication and personal capacity public appearances and communications. The new version of 3 FAM 4170 is all encompassing, covering the following (not exhaustive list):
— all personnel in the United States and abroad who are currently employed (even if in Leave Without Pay status) by the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), including but not limited to Foreign Service (FS) employees, Civil Service (CS) employees (including schedule C appointees and annuitants returning to work on temporary appointments on an intermittent basis, commonly referred to as “While Actually Employed (WAE)” personnel), locally employed staff (LE Staff), personal service contractors (PSCs), employees assigned to fellowships or details elsewhere and detailees or fellows from other entities assigned to the Department, externs/interns, and special government employees (SGEs).
— Former Department of State employees (including former interns and externs) must seek guidance from A/GIS/IPS for applicable review process information. Former USAID employees (including former interns and externs) must consult the Bureau for Legislative and Public Affairs for applicable review process information.
— Employee testimony, whether in an official capacity or in a personal capacity on a matter of Departmental concern, may be subject to the review requirements of this subchapter. Employees should consult with the Department of State’s Office of the Legal Adviser or USAID’s Office of the General Counsel, as appropriate, to determine applicable procedures.
In practical terms, we think this means that if you get summoned to appear before the House Select Benghazi Committee and is testifying in your personal capacity as a former or retired employee of the State Department, these new regulations may still apply to you, and you may still need clearance before your testimony.
Convince us that we’re reading this wrong, otherwise, somebody poke Congress, please.
Also, does this mean that all retired FSOs who contribute to ADST’s Oral History project are similarly required to obtain clearance since by its definition, “online forums such as blogs” and “a person or entity engaged in disseminating information to the general public” are considered media organizations under these new rules?
Institutional interest vs. public interest
We are particularly interested in the personal capacity publication/communication rules because that’s the one that can get people in big trouble, as shown in the Van Buren case. Here’s the equivalent of our bold Sharpie.
3 FAM 4176.4 says: “A principal goal of the review process for personal capacity public communications is to ensure that no classified or other protected information will be disclosed without authorization. In addition, the Final Review Office will evaluate whether the employee’s public communication is highly likely to result in serious adverse consequences to the efficiency or mission of the Department, such that preventing those consequences outweighs the employee’s presumptively high interest in communicating and the public’s interest in receiving the communication.”
Institutional interest trumps public interest? Where do you draw the line? You can still write a dissent cable as the “3 FAM 4172.1-3(D). No Review of Dissent Channel Communications” included in the 2009 version of the FAM survives as 3 FAM 4171 (e) in the current rules:
Views on matters of Departmental concern communicated through methods of internal communication (including, for example, the Department’s internal dissent channel) or disclosures made pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 2302(b)(8)(B) are not subject to the review requirements of this subchapter.
Which is fine and all, except — who the heck gets to read your dissent cable except the folks at Policy Planning? The State Department is not obligated to share with Congress or with the American public any dissenting opinions from its diplomats. One might argue that this is appropriate, after all, you can’t have diplomats second guessing in public every foreign policy decision of every administration. So, the American public typically only hears about it when a diplomat quits. But given the two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the American public best served by this policy? And by the way, candid opinion like the case of the six-page memo, entitled “The Perfect Storm,” in the lead up to the Iraq War, is still classified. Why is that?
The new regs also say this:
“To the extent time and resources allow, reviewers may assist the employee in identifying possible modifications or other adjustments to avoid the inclusion of non-classified but otherwise protected information, or the potential for adverse consequences to the Department’s mission or efficiency (including the employee’s ability to perform his or her duties effectively in the future).”
If we weigh the Van Buren book against these parameters, how much of the book’s 288 pages would survive such “modifications” or “adjustments.”
There goes the book, We Meant Well in Afghanistan, Also.
The Peter Van Buren Clause
We’ve come to call “3 FAM 4172.1-7 Use or Publication of Materials Prepared in an Employee’s Private Capacity That Have Been Submitted for Review“ as the Peter Van Buren clause. Below is the original language from the 2009 version of the FAM:
An employee may use, issue, or publish materials on matters of official concern that have been submitted for review, and for which the presumption of private capacity has not been overcome, upon expiration of the designated period of comment and review regardless of the final content of such materials so long as they do not contain information that is classified or otherwise exempt from disclosure as described in 3 FAM 4172.1-6(A).
That section of the FAM appears to survive under the current 3 FAM 4174.3 Final Review Offices, underlined for emphasis below.
c. To ensure that no classified information is improperly disclosed, an employee must not take any steps to proceed with a public communication (including making commitments to publishers or other parties) until he or she receives written notice to proceed from the Final Review Office, except as described below. If, upon expiration of the relevant timeframes below, the Final Review Office has not provided an employee with either a final response or an indication that a public communication involves equities of another U.S. Government entity (including a list of the entity or entities with equities), the employee may use, issue, or publish materials on matters of Departmental concern that have been submitted for review so long as such materials do not contain information described in 3 FAM 4176.2(a) and taking into account the principles in 4176.2(b). When an employee has been informed by the Final Review Office that his or her public communication involves equities of another U.S. Government entity or entities, the employee should not proceed without written notice to proceed from the Final Review Office. Upon the employee’s request, the Final Review Office will provide the employee with an update on the status of the review of his or her public communication, including, if applicable, the date(s) on which the Department submitted the employee’s communication to another entity or entities for review. Ultimately, employees remain responsible for their personal capacity public communications whether or not such communications are on topics of Departmental concern.
The Van Buren clause appears to survive, until you take a closer look; italicized below for emphasis:
3 FAM 4176.2 (a) Content of Personal Capacity Public Communications
a. When engaging in personal capacity public communications, employees must not:
(1) Claim to represent the Department or its policies, or those of the U.S. Government, or use Department or other U.S. Government seals or logos; or
(2) Disclose, or in any way allow the public to access, classified information, even if it is already publicly available due to a previous unauthorized disclosure.
3 FAM 4176.2 (b) Content of Personal Capacity Public Communications
b. As stated in 3 FAM 4174.2(c)(1), a purpose of this review process is to determine whether the communication would disclose classified or other protected information without authorization. Other protected information that is or may be subject to public disclosure restrictions includes, but is not limited to:
(1) Material that meets one or more of the criteria for exemption from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. 552(b), including internal pre-decisional deliberative material;
(2) Information that reasonably could be expected to interfere with law enforcement proceedings or operations;
(3) Information pertaining to procurement in violation of 41 U.S.C. 2101-2107;
(4) Sensitive personally identifiable information as defined in 5 FAM 795.1(f); or
(5) Other nonpublic information, when used in a manner as prohibited by 5 CFR 2635.703.
3 FAM 4174.2 Overview (2015): Waving the ‘suitability for continued employment’ flag
c. Employees’ personal capacity public communications must be reviewed if they are on a topic “of Departmental concern” (see 3 FAM 4173). Personal capacity public communications that clearly do not address matters of Departmental concern need not be submitted for review.
(1) The personal capacity public communications review requirement is intended to serve three purposes: to determine whether the communication would disclose classified or other protected information without authorization; to allow the Department to prepare to handle any potential ramifications for its mission or employees that could result from the proposed public communication; or, in rare cases, to identify public communications that are highly likely to result in serious adverse consequences to the mission or efficiency of the Department, such that the Secretary or Deputy Secretary must be afforded the opportunity to decide whether it is necessary to prohibit the communication (see 3 FAM 4176.4).
(2) The purposes of the review are limited to those described in paragraph (1); the review is not meant to insulate employees from discipline or other administrative action related to their communications, or otherwise provide assurances to employees on matters such as suitability for continued employment (see, e.g., 3 FAM 4130 for foreign service personnel and 5 CFR 731 for civil service personnel). Ultimately, employees remain responsible for their personal capacity public communications whether or not such communications are on topics of Departmental concern.
More 3 FAM 4170 Fun: Not meant to insulate employees from discipline or other administrative action
3 FAM 4176.1(e) General
e. As stated in 3 FAM 4174.2(c)(1), the review process is limited to three purposes. (See also 3 FAM 4176.4.) Therefore, completion of the review process is not a Department “clearance” or “approval” of the planned communication, and is not meant to insulate employees from discipline or other administrative action related to their communications, including for conducting personal capacity public communications that interfere with the Department’s ability to effectively and efficiently carry out its mission and responsibilities, by, for example, disrupting operations, impairing working relationships, or impeding the employee from carrying out his or her duties. Ultimately, employees remain responsible for their personal communications whether or not the communications are on topics of Departmental concern.
3 FAM 4176.3 Employee must disclose his/her identity to Department reviewers
a. PA reviews all personal capacity public communications on matters of Departmental concern by senior officials at the Assistant Secretary level and above, including Chiefs of Mission. For all other employees wishing to communicate publicly in their personal capacity on matters of Departmental concern, there are two review processes available:
(1) Individuals may, as a first step, submit their requests for review to the Final Review Office (as described in 3 FAM 4174.3(a)). For employees submitting a request to PA, such requests should be submitted via PAReviews@state.gov. The Final Review Office will then consult with the employee’s immediate supervisor(s) and any other offices concerned with the subject matter in accordance with 3 FAM 4176.4(c). The Final Review Office will then make the final determination; and
(2) Alternatively, employees may initially submit their requests for review to their immediate supervisor(s), the Public Affairs Office in their bureaus or posts, and any other Department offices concerned with the subject matter. The materials must then be submitted to the Final Review Office, noting all such reviewers and any comments received. The Final Review Office will then verify those reviews, assess whether other reviews are needed, and make the final determination.
b. Supervisors, Public Affairs Offices, or any other offices involved in the review process must flag for the Final Review Office any view that the proposed public communication may:
(1) Contain classified or other protected information;
(2) Result in serious adverse consequences to the efficiency or mission of the Department; or
(3) Be or become high impact or high profile, for example communication that is controversial, or otherwise involves a sensitive Department priority; and
(4) The Final Review Office will then apply the standard described in 3 FAM 4176.4(a).
c. In all cases, an employee must disclose his or her identity to the relevant Department reviewers.
d. If another U.S. Government entity seeks Department review of a personal capacity public communication by that entity’s employee, the Department office in receipt of such request must coordinate with PA.
3 FAM 4177 Noncompliance may result in disciplinary action, criminal prosecution and/or civil liability.
a. Failure to follow the provisions of this subchapter, including failure to seek advance reviews where required, may result in disciplinary or other administrative action up to and including separation. Violations by USAID employees may be referred to the Deputy Administrator for Human Resources or USAID’s Office of the Inspector General (see 3 FAM 4320). Disciplinary action will be pursued consistent with applicable law, including 5 U.S.C. 2302
b. Publication or dissemination of classified or other protected information may result in disciplinary action, criminal prosecution and/or civil liability.
This is the part where we must remind you that what the former State Department spokesperson said about the FAM being recommendations is a serious bunch of hooey!
Oh, hey, remember the 2-day clearance for tweets …’er scandal?
Yo! What’s Missing?
The new regs emphasized the need for official clearance for official and private communication “to ensure that no classified information is improperly disclosed.” It however, does not include any guidance on the use of a private server for emails and social media postings where classified information could be improperly disclosed.
A Much Better FAM Version, Hey?
From the organizational perspective, some folks would say that this is a “much better” version of the FAM. We’d call this a much better plug. An insider could argue that this is a “very fine sieve.”
Okeedokee, but what do you think will be its consequences for the rank and file? No one will officially admit this as the intent, but after reading this new version of 3 FAM 4170, this is what we think it really says:
The updated regs also says that “In light of the rapid pace with which many social media platforms are used, all offices, sections, or employees who routinely post to such platforms in their official capacity are encouraged to seek advance blanket authorization to engage for their social media communications, in accordance with 3 FAM 4175.1(c).”
The blanket authorization as far as we can tell only applies to those who are engaged in social media platforms in their official capacities, it makes no similar provision for employees in social media platforms in their private capacities.
Fun With Fido or Grumpy Cat
The new regs helpfully notes that “Employees who, in their personal capacity, wish to communicate publicly on matters that are clearly not “of Departmental concern” (see 3 FAM 4173) need not seek Department review under the procedures outlined herein, and need not use the personal capacity disclaimer discussed below in paragraph (b).”
So, basically, if you blog, tweet or write a book about Kitty Kat or Fidodog, or about their travels and adventures in Baghdad, Kabul, Sanaa, and all the garden spots, you don’t need to seek Department review. That is, as long as Kitty Kat is not secretly arming the rodent insurgents and tweeting about it and Fidodog is not flushing government money down the toilet and blogging about it.
Read the new 3 FAM 4170 July 27, 2015 | REVIEW OF PUBLIC SPEAKING, TEACHING, WRITING, AND MEDIA ENGAGEMENT
Download it here (pdf).