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The State Dept’s Sexual Assault Reporting Procedure Appears to Be a Black Hole of Grief

Posted: 2:02 am ET
Updated: Sept 24, 4:08 pm PST | This piece was edited to use the more neutral word “report” instead of “allegation.” The guide on reporting sexual violence is teaching us that the use of the word “allegation” reinforces the disbelief that a crime actually occurred.

 

Last month, we received an anonymous allegation report of sexual assaults in the Foreign Service. It is alleged We were told that DS and MED “hide” the assaults “under pretense” that it is “the victim’s wish to keep it a secret.”

No specific case was cited only that there were incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We were also asked if we know what is the reporting process for sexual assault in the Foreign Service.

We told our correspondent that we will look into the reporting process because we actually had no idea. We were then warned: “On the off chance you get a response, it will probably be something along the lines of, “any victim of crime under chief of mission authority should report to their RSO; the Department takes such allegations extremely seriously.” 

 

Looking at public records

We started looking at publicly available records. We found one assault in 2009 which is only publicly available becase the case became an EEOC case (see Sexual Assault at a State Dept-Leased Apartment: If This Isn’t Abysmal Failure, What Is It?). In 2011, there was the case of a former CIA station chief to Algeria who received 65 months in jail for sexual assault on embassy property. In 2012, there was a case of an FS couple accused of slavery and rape of a housekeeper, In 2013, there was an FS specialist who was sentenced to 5 years in prison; the case was about the sex abuse of an adopted child. Also in 2013, CBS News reported on  several allegations including one about a regional security officer (RSO) in Lebanon who “engaged in sexual assaults” of the local guards.  A subsequent OIG investigation indicates that the alleged sexual misconduct of this security official spanned 10 years and 7 posts.

These are cases that we’ve written in this blog after they’ve become public.

We’ve poured over the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) and Foreign Affairs Handbook (FAH) and have reached out to the State Department and other contacts within its orbit to help us find the specific guidance for the reporting process on sexual assault. We have not been successful. For the record, it is not/not 3 FAM 1525, not 3 FAM 4428, not 3 FAM 1800 and not 7 FAM 1940.

 

Questions for the State Department

We sent some questions to the State Department, the blue italics below is the response from an agency’s spokesperson.

We asked: How does the State Department/Diplomatic Security handle sexual assault among members of the Foreign Service community overseas? The only thing I can find in the FAM is sexual assault relating to private American citizens, and services via the Consular Section.  

–What is the reporting process if the victim/perpetrator is under chief of mission authority?

–What is the reporting process if the alleged perpetrator is from the Regional Security Office or a senior Foreign Service official who oversees the RSO?

–Where is the FAM/FAH guidance for sexual assault?

The State Department response: “The State Department/Diplomatic Security handles sexual assault among members of the foreign service community overseas by adhering to Department guidelines. These guidelines are made available to all members of the foreign service community in Department cables and in the FAM. The Department guidelines outlined in these documents address the contingencies included in your questions.”

No specific cables were cited.  However, the FAM cited by the State Department in its response above is 1 FAM 260, specifically, 1 FAM 262.4-5 which only notes that the Office of Special Investigation (DS/DO/OSI) within Diplomatic Security is tasked with investigating extraterritorial criminal investigations including assault, sexual assault, domestic violence, etc. Go ahead and read it.  It does not/does not include nor describe the reporting process.

We asked: If a sexual assault occurs overseas to an employee/family member of USG employees, who are the officials informed about the incident?

–How is the information transmitted? Telegram, telephone, email?

–Is the communication done via secure or encrypted channels?

In response to the above question, a State Department’s spokesman said: “The reporting process calls for the regional security officer to contact the State Department’s Office of Special Investigations. This office is outside the regional security officer’s chain of command.”

The response is only partly responsive and only names the RSO and DS/OSI.  Even if DS/OSI is outside the RSO’s chain of command, this tells us that an alleged victim overseas has to go through post’s Regional Security Office; the RSO in that office must then contact DS/OSI located in Washington, D.C. for an investigation to be initiated.

You probably can already guess our next question.

What if the perpetrator is from the security office or the Front Office who oversees the RSO? How would that work? Also both the RSO overseas and DS/OSI back in DC are part of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. When we made these follow-up questions, the State Department simply repeated its original response:  “The reporting process calls for the regional security officer to contact the State Department’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI). This office is outside the regional security officer’s chain of command.  On your question on the Fam (sic): Sexual assault is a crime investigated by the Office of Special Investigations as outlined in 1 FAM 262.4-5.”

This is a disturbing response particularly in light of a previous CBS News report alleging that a regional security officer sexually assaulted local guards under his supervision and was accused of similar assaults in Baghdad, Khartoum and Monrovia. Okay, never mind CBS News, but the OIG investigation indicates that the same security officer’s alleged sexual misconduct spanned 10 years and 7 posts.  How many local guards were assaulted within those 10 years and in those 7 posts?  Perhaps it doesn’t or didn’t matter because it happened so long ago. Or it is because the alleged victims were non-U.S. citizens?

The other part of the question on how reports are transmitted is equally important. Are they sent via unclassified email? The perpetrator could be easily tipped off, and that potentially places the safety of the victim in jeopardy.

The third question we asked is a twofer. We wanted to know the statistics on sexual assault in the Foreign Service, specifically in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003. The second part of our question is overall statistics on sexual assault in the Foreign Service worldwide, during the last 10 years. Note that we are not asking for names. We’re asking for numbers. We’re only asking for an accounting of sexual assault reports reported allegations since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the present, and the worldwide number of allegations reports spanning over 280 overseas posts in the last 10 years. Surely those are available?

This is the State Department’s official response:

“The Office of Special Investigations receives and catalogues allegations and complaints. Allegations are neither categorized by location nor by alleged offense.”

Wh–aat? We actually fell off the darn chair when we read the above response.  If the allegations and complaints are not catalogued by location or alleged offense, how would the State Department  know if there is a trend, or a red flag they should be aware of?

Wouldn’t this constitute willful ignorance?

In our follow-up question, we asked who is responsible for the care and support of a Foreign Service victim? This is the response from a State Department spokesperson:

“The Department takes seriously the safety and well-being of its employees and their family members. The post health unit, Employee Consultation Services and the Regional psychiatrist are all available to assist a victim of sexual assault. MED would also assist if, for example, a medical evacuation to a third country or the United States is required. 

Generally MED does not provide direct clinical services in the States but has extensive resources to provide referrals for ongoing treatment.

Additionally, the Victim’s Resource Advocacy Program (VRAP) is available to provide advocacy services so the individual understands the judicial process and has support lines, plus resources applicable to the person’s goals to rebuild and heal.”

 

In a follow-on response, the State Department cites the Victim’s Resource Advocacy Program (VRAP). We had to dig around the net to see what is VRAP.  According to the State Department’s outline on divorce:

VRAP was created in November 2010 by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) “to empower those who have been victimized by crimes that are under DS investigation. A representative of this office also sits on the Department’s Family Advocacy Committee (chaired by the Director of MED/MHS), based in Washington DC. The VRAP is committed to assisting aggrieved individuals in overcoming difficulties that result from victimization by providing resources to deal with the realities that follow traumatic experiences and an understanding of the judicial processes surrounding criminal offenses. Contact VRAP at vrap@state.gov.”

Okay, but.  All that still does not give us a clear idea on the procedure for reporting sexual assault in the Foreign Service, does it? And most of the info is not even codified in the FAM or the FAH.

What happens in the space between “calling the RSO” and VRAP “empowering” those victimized by crimes — remains a black hole. It is not clear what kind of support or advocacy services and resources are provided to victims of sexual assault. We’ve asked; we haven’t heard anything back.

Since we could not find any guidance from the State Department, we went and look at what the reporting procedure is like at USAID, the Department of Defense, and Peace Corps.  As of this writing, we’ve received an acknowledgment from USAID but have not received an answer to our inquiry. Below is a quick summary for DOD and the Peace Corps:

 

DOD Sexual Assault Reporting Guidance

You may or may not know this but the Department of Defense actually has a separate website for sexual assault which makes it clear that sexual assault is a crime. Defined “as intentional sexual contact,” sexual assault is characterized by “use of force, threats, intimidation or abuse of authority, or when the victim does not or cannot consent.” It explains that sexual assault includes rape, forcible sodomy (oral or anal sex), and other unwanted sexual contact that is aggravated, abusive, or wrongful (including unwanted and inappropriate sexual contact) or attempts to commits these acts. It also notes the difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment. Its website is not just an explainer, it also provides information for assault victims:

If I am sexually assaulted, what should I do?
First, get to a safe place. If you are in need of urgent medical attention, call 911. If you are not injured, you still need medical assistance to protect your health. The medical treatment facility (MTF) offers you a safe and caring environment. To protect evidence, it is important that you do not shower, brush your teeth, put on make-up, eat, drink, or change your clothes until advised to do so. You or the MTF may report the crime to law enforcement, criminal investigation agencies, or to your chain of command. If you feel uncomfortable reporting the crime, consider calling a confidential counseling resource available to you.

Reporting Options: 
Restricted | Sexual assault victims who want to confidentially disclose a sexual assault without triggering an official investigation can contact a SARC/SHARP Specialist, VA/SHARP Specialist, or a healthcare provider. By filing a restricted report with a SARC/SHARP Specialist, VA/SHARP Specialist, or a healthcare provider, a victim can disclose the sexual assault without triggering an official investigation AND receive medical treatment, advocacy services, legal assistance, and counseling.

Unrestricted | This option is for victims of sexual assault who desire medical treatment, counseling, legal assistance, SARC/SHARP Specialist and VA/SHARP Specialist assistance, and an official investigation of the crime. When selecting unrestricted reporting, you may report the incident to the SARC/SHARP Specialist or VA/SHARP Specialist, request healthcare providers to notify law enforcement, contact law enforcement yourself, or use current reporting channels, e.g., chain of command. Upon notification of a reported sexual assault, the SARC/SHARP Specialist will immediately assign a VA/SHARP Specialist. You will also be advised of your right to access to legal assistance that is separate from prosecution resources. At the victim’s discretion/request, the healthcare provider shall conduct a sexual assault forensic examination (SAFE), which may include the collection of evidence. Details regarding the incident will be limited to only those personnel who have a legitimate need to know.


Peace Corps Sexual Assault Reporting Guidance

The Peace Corps says it provides “sexual assault risk-reduction and response training to both Volunteers and staff. Volunteers worldwide learn risk-reduction strategies such as bystander intervention training, and each post has two sexual assault response liaisons trained to directly assist Volunteers who are victims of sexual assault throughout the in-country response process.” It also provides around the clock, anonymous sexual assault hotline accessible to Volunteers by phone, text, or online chat that is staffed by external crisis counselors at pcsaveshelpline.org.

In addition, it provides volunteers who experience sexual assault the option to report the incident as restricted or as standard reporting. This is similar to DOD’s:

Restricted reporting limits the number of staff members with access to information about an assault to only those involved in providing support services requested by the Volunteer. This gives Volunteers access to critical support services while protecting their privacy and confidentiality, and allows the Peace Corps to provide support services to Volunteers who otherwise may not seek support.

Standard reporting provides Volunteers with the same support services along with the opportunity to initiate an official investigation, while maintaining confidentiality.

There’s no 911 in the Foreign Service

For Foreign Service employees and family members assigned overseas, there is no 911 to call. You get in trouble overseas, you call the security office of the embassy. If you are in a small post, you may have to deal with another officer who is assigned collateral duty as post security officer.  Post may or may not have a health unit or a regional medical officer. If there is a health unit, it may or may not be equipped or trained with gathering forensic evidence.  Above all, if you’re overseas as part of the Foreign Service, you are under chief of mission authority. What you do, what you say, where you live — basically, your life 24/7 is governed by federal regulations and the decision of the Front Office.

 

So to the question — if I am sexually assaulted, what should I do?

The State Department says that the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) and associated Foreign Affairs Handbooks (FAHs) are a single, comprehensive, and authoritative source for the Department’s organization structures, policies, and procedures that govern the operations of the State Department, the Foreign Service and, when applicable, other federal agencies. The FAM (generally policy) and the FAHs (generally procedures) together convey codified information to Department staff and contractors so they can carry out their responsibilities in accordance with statutory, executive and Department mandates.

Every time the FAM is updated, a Change Transmittal documents it.  All transmittals includes the following reminder: Officers are reminded that Department-issued materials not codified in the Foreign Affairs Manual or its supplemental Foreign Affairs Handbook series generally have no regulatory validity (see 2 FAM 1115.2).

Since there is no FAM or FAH specifically addressing sexual assault, we end up with a pretty uncomfortable question: Is the State Department saying that sexual assault does not happen in the Foreign Service — that’s why there’s no regs covering it?

If it’s not that, then — what is the reason sexual assault procedure is absent from its single, comprehensive, and authoritative source of policies, and procedures?

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Sexual Assault Related posts:

Sexual Harassment related posts:

 

 

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