Fraudsters in Costa Rica VOIP Scheme Plead Guilty to $9 million “Sweepstakes Fraud”

Posted: 1:29 am ET

 

Via USDOJ: Owner of Costa Rican Call Center and Two Others Plead Guilty to Defrauding Elderly through Offshore Sweepstakes Scheme

Two U.S. citizens and a Canadian citizen have pleaded guilty for their roles in a $9 million “sweepstakes fraud” scheme to defraud hundreds of U.S. residents, many of them elderly, announced Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose of the Western District of North Carolina.

Jeffrey Robert Bonner, 37, of Sacramento, California; Cody Trevor Burgsteiner, 33, of Houston; and Darra Lee Shephard, 57, of Calgary, Alberta, pleaded guilty this week before U.S. Magistrate Judge David Keesler of the Western District of North Carolina to various counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and international money laundering, all in connection with a Costa Rican telemarketing fraud scheme.  Sentencing dates have not been set.

As part of their guilty pleas, Bonner, Burgsteiner and Shephard each admitted that from approximately 2007 through November 2012, they worked in a call center located in Costa Rica, which Bonner owned, where they placed telephone calls to U.S. residents, falsely informing them that they had won a substantial cash prize in a “sweepstakes.”  The victims, many of whom were elderly, were told that in order to receive the prize, they had to pay for a purported “refundable insurance fee,” the defendants admitted.  Bonner, Burgsteiner and Shephard admitted that once they received the money, they contacted the victims again to tell them that their prize amount had increased, due to either a clerical error or because other winners had been disqualified.  The victims were then told to send additional money to pay for new purported fees, duties and insurance to receive the now larger sweepstakes prize, the defendants admitted.  The defendants further admitted that they and their co-conspirators continued their attempts to collect additional money from the victims until an individual either ran out of money or discovered the fraudulent nature of the scheme.  To mask that they were calling from Costa Rica, the conspirators utilized voice over internet protocol (VoIP) phones that displayed a 202 area code, giving the false impression that they were calling from Washington, D.C., they admitted.  According to admissions made in connections with their pleas, the defendants and their co-conspirators often falsely claimed that they were calling on behalf of a U.S. federal agency to lure victims into a false sense of security.

Bonner, Burgsteiner, Shephard and their co-conspirators were responsible for causing approximately $9 million in losses to hundreds of U.S. citizens.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service, FBI, Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation, Federal Trade Commission and Department of Homeland Security investigated the case, and the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section supervised the investigation.  Senior Litigation Counsel Patrick Donley and Trial Attorneys William Bowne and Gustav Eyler of the Fraud Section are prosecuting the case.

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Americans Targeted in South Sudan, a Country That Gets $1.5B in American Humanitarian Aid

Posted: 3:36 am ET

 

The AP report says that “the attack on the Terrain hotel compound in Juba last month shows the hostility toward foreigners and aid workers by troops under the command of South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, who has been fighting supporters of rebel leader Riek Machar since civil war erupted in December 2013.”  (See How the World’s Youngest Nation Descended Into Bloody Civil War).  The State Department’s official spox declined to say whether Americans were targeted but the Daily Beast piece includes the beating of an American “with belts and rifle butts for about an hour, accusing him of hiding rebels. “You tell your embassy how we treated you,” one soldier told him as he fled to a nearby UN compound.”  During the attack on the Terrain, several survivors also told the AP that soldiers specifically asked if they were Americans.

The attack on the Terrain compound occurred on July 11.  On July 17, the Special Envoy to South Sudan tweeted that the U.S. is not going to take “offensive action” against South Sudan.

On August 15, over a month after this horrific incident, USUN Ambassador Samantha Power released a statement that the United States is “outraged of the assaults and rapes of civilians … last month.” The US Embassy in Juba received distressed calls, so officials knew this happened before it became  front page news. Still, it took the US over a month to publicly acknowledge this outrage.

A brief backgrounder here — South Sudan gained independence on July 9, 2011, after being at war with Sudan for nearly 40 of the past 57 years. USCG Juba became the US Embassy at the same time.  In early 2013, State/OIG conducted an inspection of the USG’s newest embassy in the world.  One of the OIG’s key findings at that time is the Department inability to staff Embassy Juba adequately, “preventing the embassy from functioning as effectively as it should.”  The embassy operates out of a small chancery deemed too small to accommodate additional staff and the new embassy is not scheduled for construction until 2018. The report warns that the current facility puts embassy employees at risk. The inability to add more staff also leaves assistance programs vulnerable to failure or misuse of funds. The report indicates that the Department has decided to keep the mission with its current footprint until construction of a new embassy, which won’t happen until 2018. It will be a number of years, however, until the new embassy is ready. The OIG concludes that personnel and the integrity of our programs will remain at risk.  (see US Embassy Juba: Dear Congress, This Facility Puts Employees “At Risk” But Hey, Waivers) and US Embassy Juba: An All-in-One Consular Officer on First Rodeo Works Out of a Storage Closet.

The US Embassy in Juba has a small U.S. force guarding it but its ability to function as an embassy is only possible with the protection of the host country.  With South Sudan government troops targeting Americans, how is it that the US Embassy in Juba is still open?

Below is an excerpt from the Daily Press Briefing with the spox addressing what Embassy Juba did during and following the attack. It also show the limits of what the US Government can do despite being the largest donor in South Sudan.

Via DPB on August 15, 2016:

MS TRUDEAU: Yes. And I’m glad for this. Please.

QUESTION: There was a fairly disturbing account put out today of the July 11th attack on the Terrain hotel compound. And as part of it, survivors are saying that they waited for hours after calling for help from the U.S. embassy as well as other embassies in the area, with no one responding. Do you dispute that, and do you have any timeline that you can share with us about what occurred during the time of the assault?

MS TRUDEAU: Okay. So I think we’ve all seen those horrific reports. I want to say at the top that privacy considerations will prevent me from talking about any specific part of this in detail. But as I go through this, I do not in any way want to minimize in any way, shape, or form what people might have gone through during that crisis in South Sudan.

So in terms of the timeline: In the midst of the ongoing fighting throughout the city between government and opposition forces, Embassy Juba actively responded to the July 11 assault on a private compound hosting U.S. citizens, among others. Upon learning about the attacks at Terrain camp, Ambassador Phee immediately – herself – immediately contacted South Sudanese government officials, including officials in the presidential guard and National Security Service. National Security Service sent a response force to the site and put a stop to the attack. Presidential guard forces also went to the scene, but they arrived after the National Security Service.

Following the attack and in the midst of ongoing fighting and violence throughout Juba, including in the immediate vicinity of the embassy, the U.S. embassy ensured that U.S. citizens and foreign nationals affected by the attack were moved to safety and provided emergency medical assistance. The U.S. embassy also facilitated the rapid departure of those involved from South Sudan by air ambulance.

As part of its response to the crisis in South Sudan, the U.S. embassy provided emergency services for those in need and assisted in the departure of more than 80 U.S. citizens during last month’s crisis.

We’ve stated we condemn these attacks. We have called for accountability for those who are involved in the violence.

Anything more on South Sudan?

QUESTION: So you can’t confirm that Americans were singled out and were specifically assaulted due to the fact that they were American in the course of the assault?

MS TRUDEAU: I’m not in a position to say that any particular nationality was singled out.

QUESTION: And as part of the report, it suggests that it was South Sudanese soldiers who were in fact committing this assault. So how was the U.S. embassy – how could they be assured that the people that they were calling were the ones who were actually going to help rather than contributing to the ongoing —

MS TRUDEAU: So what I can say is that the attackers in this incident wore uniforms and they were armed. There were both opposition and government troops in Juba at that time. Armed clashes were occurring throughout the city. The area where Terrain is located was controlled by the SPLA on July 10th and 11th.

Matt.

QUESTION: Yeah, I just wanted – you said that the – in the midst of the ongoing attack at Terrain, you said Embassy Juba actively responded.

MS TRUDEAU: We did.

QUESTION: So the active response, though, as far as I can tell from what you said, was that the ambassador made a phone call. Is that —

MS TRUDEAU: The ambassador made several phone calls.

QUESTION: Several phone calls?

MS TRUDEAU: When we were assured that people would go out and bring people in, then we actively ensured that those people were safe. So yeah.

QUESTION: But in the midst of – while it was going – I understand what —

MS TRUDEAU: Yeah.

QUESTION: — you’re saying after it was over what you did, but during it, was there —

MS TRUDEAU: When we received reports, we called the people who are best poised to go out and make it stop, which was the National Security Services as well as the presidential guard.

QUESTION: But – yeah, I understand that, but I mean – but was it just the ambassador or did other people – did other staffers do anything? I mean, I’m just trying to get an idea of what the active response was.

MS TRUDEAU: Yeah, in terms of sequence, it was – it was reaching out to the government officials who were in a position at that place to intervene.

QUESTION: So I think that the point that at least the survivors of this or some of the survivors of the attack is, is there wasn’t any kind – any attempt to intervene. Is that not appropriate or —

MS TRUDEAU: I – it’s – again, there was an immediate response from the U.S. embassy to identify and dispatch the people who could intervene immediately in the attack.

QUESTION: Right. But the embassy itself was not in a position to do anything?

MS TRUDEAU: Was not in a position to do that.

 

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A Joke That Wasn’t, and a State Department Dialogue That Is Long Overdue

Posted: 2:41 am ET

Apparently, there was a recent Sounding Board (SB) post about how “a DS agent made a rape joke in front of a whole class (60+) without thinking anything of the joke.”

It took us a while but we finally got the SB post dug up what was said during the Security Overseas Seminar (SOS), which is designed to meet the security awareness needs of U.S. Government personnel and their families going overseas.

An employee posted on the Secretary’s Sounding Board that she first attended the SOS seminar five years ago and felt that the “Sexual Assault  & Rape” session was “both incomplete and demeaning to sexual assault victims (who the instructor largely assumed were always female).” During her most recent attendance, she writes that she was “disappointed by the same message: there are ways to prevent sexual assault/rape, no mention of what the Regional Security Officer can/will do,” and “no mention of the Health Unit’s, etc. involvement.”

The majority of the course is said to be focused on what employees and family members can do to prevent sexual assault: institute the “buddy system,” avoid isolated areas, dress like a local, etc.  The employee asks what about the 84% of all reported sexual assault/rapes being committed by someone that the victim trusted, or women who were raped in an open and crowded area in Germany or “are we saying that women from cultures where they are required to cover from head to toe never get raped because they are entirely hidden?” The SB post says that the employee asked the instructor “why were we not discussing the main cause of sexual assault/rape: gender socialization, particularly focusing on male privilege and entitlement to women’s bodies?”   The instructor reportedly responded that “we cannot change an entire culture in an hour” to which the employee agreed but urge that “we nevertheless begin a dialogue on this topic.”

That’s not, of course, the end of this story.  The following is from the same SB writer sent to us by a Foggy Bottom nightingale:

“The next day, I overheard four people (3 men and 1 woman) exchanging pejorative comments about what I had said. One of the men (a DS [Diplomatic Security] agent who as RSO [regional security officer] will be a victim’s first recourse in the event of a crisis) exclaimed that he would like to “see how I do in Port Moresby.” Allow me to break down this hurtful comment: he wants to see how I do in a country where women can still be tortured to death on charges of witchcraft when a natural death occurs in the family; a country where the Australian health attach showed up at a diplomatic reception after abandoning her car when she was randomly targeted in a mob rush while driving. Because I wanted to begin a dialogue on male privilege, its effects on rape culture, and how I found “tips” on “sexual assault/rape prevention” to be a covert form of victim-shaming, this man, this Diplomatic Security agent, commented on how he wanted to see me, a woman, fare in a country that is known for its hight incidents of rape against ex-pat women. And this gentleman is my colleague, not an obnoxious drunk man at a local dive bar. When I turned around and asked if they wanted to discuss what I had said, one said he didn’t see the point, the other told me how my comment was inappropriate in an one-hour session. No further comments made. How is this dialogue not overdue? (Note: I am not seeking to shame or put-down my colleagues for saying what they assumed was far and away from my hearing range. This is more to highlight the amount of tension surrounding this topic.”

Hey — if one cannot talk about this topic in an SOS session, where are you supposed to discuss this?

We wrote to the Office of Civil Rights under Secretary Kerry’s office (S/OCR) asking what response it made (if any) to the Sounding Board post. That was, oh, weeks ago so we figure we’re not going to hear from S/OCR.

The nightingale also said that “any time a female coworker brings up EEO, rape culture, or feminism in general,” DS agents the employee worked with allegedly make comments like “Ugh, don’t work with her, she’ll EEO you.” or “She probably has a ton of files on men”.   Our correspondent told us that she could think of a number of situations “with bullying, harrasment, and such” that were all documented by supervisors but nothing was done about them.  Our writer also alleged that “a good portion joke about rape or sexual assault on a daily basis.”

Which is why we wanted to hear from the State Department office tasked as the main contact point for questions or concerns about sexual harassment and EEO matters.

But hey, nada. Yok.

What’s even more troubling is when we see these reviews for the State Department over at InHerSight.com:

“I, and a lot of other females, are considering leaving, or have left, because of the misogyny. Diplomatic Security is the absolute worst.” – See more at: https://www.inhersight.com/company/us-department-of-state#sthash.5rVrFJHX.dpuf

“Working in a predominately male field means tacky and disrespectful jokes regardless if the two females (who are of equal or higher grade) are in earshot or not. 50% of the men who work in this office are prior military folks who have a disrespectful attitude towards females and men without military experience. Despite being the “State Department” which is usually more liberal and tolerant, the Bureau that I work in is the exact opposite. It shows through upper management all the way down to the bullpen workers.” – See more at: https://www.inhersight.com/company/us-department-of-state#sthash.5rVrFJHX.dpuf

We asked the State Department about the gender composition of DSS agents in Diplomatic Security: 90.18% male and 9.82% female.  We also asked about the attrition rate by gender at the bureau. Below is what we’re officially told:

DS reports that they do not have information related to special agent attrition rate by gender. They do not keep those statistics, but note that the overall Special Agent attrition rate for 2015 was 3.66%.

The State Department’s DGHR should be able to run these numbers. That’s a very low attrition rate but — don’t you want to know who and why these employees are leaving?  If a bureau is overwhelmingly male, and if the entire attrition rate is, for instance, composed of all female employees, aren’t you going to wonder why?

But how would you know if you’re not even looking?

The InHerSight reviews are pretty broad but are troubling nonetheless. The first step in fixing a problem is recognizing that there is a problem.  Is there?

Who’s going to volunteer to look into this if we can’t even get S/OCR to respond to a public inquiry?

 

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US Mission Russia Issues Alert on Confirmed Anthrax Cases in Siberia

Posted:1:23 am ET

Last week, the US Embassy in Moscow issued a message alerting U.S. citizens of confirmed anthrax cases in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District:

U.S. citizens residing in or traveling to the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District should be aware of reported cases of anthrax affecting humans and animals in the region.

As of August 3, local media sources report 20 confirmed cases of anthrax in humans, resulting in the death of one child.  In total, more than 70 people have been hospitalized.  Between 1,500 and 2,300 animals have died or been killed in conjunction with efforts to combat spread of the disease.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anthrax is spread by ingesting spores in the air, food, and drink, and is not transmitted by direct human-to-human contact.

Local media outlets report that the governor has declared a quarantine in the district, and the area immediately surrounding the site of the outbreak has been evacuated.  Authorities have also banned the export of animals, furs, antlers, or meat, as well as mushrooms and berries, from the affected area.  At this time, there have been no reports of the disease in neighboring regions.

U.S. citizens are encouraged to avoid travel to affected areas.  U.S. citizens in or transiting through the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District should exercise caution, comply with local authorities’ instructions on quarantined areas, and follow local media for the latest information.  Any U.S. citizens who believe they may have been exposed to infected animals or animal products should seek medical attention.

The Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District is under the consular district of USCG Yekaterinburg.

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US Embassy Addis Ababa Restricts Personal Travel of USG Personnel in Ethiopia

Posted:12:09 am ET

On August 9, the US Embassy in Ethiopia issued an emergency message informing U.S. citizens in the country of the restrictions on personal travel by USG personnel:

The U.S. Embassy wishes to inform U.S. citizens that protests in Ethiopia have resulted in violent clashes between demonstrators and government security forces.  As such, Embassy personnel have been restricted from personal travel to areas in the Amhara and Oromia region states.  Restrictions of future travel by Embassy personnel are being reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

While U.S. citizens have not been specifically targeted in the demonstrations, the unpredictability of protests presents significant risks for travelers to the affected regions.  Everyone should increase their level of situational awareness, continuously assess their surroundings, and evaluate their personal level of safety and avoid demonstrations or large gatherings.

Also on Addis Ababa:

 

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Community Liaison Officers: The Glue That Helps Keep Embassy Communities Together

Posted: 1:14 am ET

 

The M. Juanita Guess Award is conferred by AFSA on a Community Liaison Officer who has demonstrated outstanding leadership, dedication, initiative or imagination in assisting the families of Americans serving at an overseas post.  Since 1995, Clements Worldwide has sponsored the M. Juanita Guess Award (named after Clements’ co-founder).

In 2016,  the award went to Sara Locke of U.S. Embassy Beirut, Lebanon with Berna Keen of U.S. Embassy Dhaka, Bangladesh as runner-up. Below via afsa.org:

Sara Locke | U.S. Embassy Beirut – 2016 M. Juanita Guess Award for Exemplary Performance by a Community Liaison Officer

Sara E. Locke is the recipient of this year’s M. Juanita Guess Award for Exemplary Performance by a Community Liaison Officer for her outstanding leadership, dedication, initiative and imagination in assisting the employees and family members of U.S. Embassy Beirut.

Embassy Beirut enthusiastically nominated Ms. Locke, stating: “There is probably no other person in the mission who receives as much unanimous, universal praise as Sara for her efforts in turning around the rapidly deteriorating morale at Embassy Beirut.” Working with members throughout the community, her leadership has dramatically improved morale through innovative programs and activities, re-establishing U.S. Embassy Beirut as a post actively sought by Foreign Service bidders. Her tireless efforts on behalf of employees and family members are absolutely impressive.

When Ms. Locke arrived at post in 2014, morale among embassy staff was plummeting and curtailments were increasing at an alarming rate. She recommended to the ambassador that post conduct a morale survey, and then coordinated closely with him and the regional psychiatrist (RMO/P) to figure out how the downward spiral could be reversed. She not only designed and conducted the first survey, but after a very insightful analysis, which she presented to the ambassador and deputy chief of mission, Ms. Locke created an “Action Committee” to respond to the complaints and suggestions.

As a result, many policies and practices on the compound were changed, and new innovative ideas were brought forward and implemented. Thanks to Ms. Locke’s efforts, the situation has improved so much that employees are now requesting extensions to their assignments, and positive responses to a recent morale survey are at an all-time high. The fact that community members now feel they are being heard has had a profoundly beneficial impact on life on a small compound at a high-threat post with very restrictive security requirements.

Ms. Locke has continued doing surveys every six months to measure changes and to solicit ideas on how to continue improving morale, but her influence extends beyond Beirut. Former U.S. Ambassador to Beirut David Hale (who had been in Beirut when Ms. Locke created the survey) wrote to Ms. Locke from his new post: “I owe you such a debt of gratitude and would appreciate any advice on how to maximize this product here,” he said, requesting that she share her thoughts and recommendations with his deputy chief of mission and management section.

Beirut is a challenging place in the best of circumstances: terrorist threats are real, security restrictions limit off-compound movements and permanent employees live and work in cramped, dilapidated facilities. The role of the CLO as an advocate for community members is absolutely critical, and Sara truly embraces it. She lobbies hard on behalf of family members to find rewarding jobs in the mission. She includes spouses in all aspects of embassy life, from social events to emergency preparations. She recently hosted a series of seminars on evacuation planning and community resources for the mission. She is the person many individuals turn to for support and guidance.

Just one example: immediately after a suicide bombing in downtown Beirut in November 2015, just a few miles from the embassy compound, Ms. Locke reached out to the embassy community to ensure accountability and reassure colleagues. When things quieted down, she developed a variety of innovative programs, trips and activities to allow employees to experience Beirut, always working closely with the embassy’s regional security section to stay within the constraints of strict security parameters. She helped increase the number of trips off compound to grocery stores, and then helped put in place a very popular weekend shopping shuttle. This change alone significantly improved morale and gave embassy employees a whole new perspective on life here; previously, only one trip off the compound per week was permitted.

Ms. Locke is extremely creative, constantly seeking out new entertainment venues and cultural events (concerts, museums, restaurants, wine tastings, food festivals), always coordinating well in advance with the regional security officer. She put together a long list of embassy recreational events, including scuba diving, hiking, skiing and snowshoeing. She also organizes a multitude of events for embassy families on the compound. She is an invaluable resource to everyone in the mission.

Berna Keen | U.S. Embassy Dhaka – 2016 M. Juanita Guess Award for Exemplary Performance by a Community Liaison Officer Runner-Up

Berna Keen, runner-up for this year’s M. Juanita Guess Award for Exemplary Performance by a Community Liaison Officer, is recognized as an exemplary CLO by her colleagues at U.S. Embassy Dhaka during what has been a turbulent period of terrorism and violence in Bangladesh. Her conscientious and compassionate approach to each and every member of the mission, the creativity she employs in bringing people together and her exceptional talent for organization has substantially increased morale at post.

A rash of “hartals,” violent political demonstrations, in 2015 crippled embassy operations in Dhaka. Ms. Keen experienced this violence firsthand when a vehicle she was riding in was hit with an explosive device. Incredibly, this only strengthened her commitment to her work. She communicated with everyone in the mission on shelter-in-place days, sending out ideas for activities to do with kids stuck indoors. She became a key voice on the Emergency Action Committee and created an EFM email list, subsequently added to the Global Address List, ensuring that security messages were received by everyone in the mission simultaneously.

With all of Dhaka on edge after a series of murders committed by Al-Qaida-allied fanatics and members of the so-called Islamic State group, embassy personnel were restricted to a two-square-mile area, could not walk outside and had a 10 o’clock curfew. School buses ridden by embassy children were accompanied by an armed police escort. Outside entertainment was off-limits to embassy personnel. In this tense environment, Ms. Keen brought the embassy community together, planning a staggering number of events—nearly 90 in 150 days—despite the fact that her office was understaffed.

Ranging from wine and cheese parties to pet playdates, she successfully provided people with an outlet for normal social activity. She brought the local market to the embassy, snagging pearl vendors, antique dealers and rug and clothing sellers to sell to the embassy community. Her continual reminders to the EAC on the importance of communication has kept the community well-informed and engaged during this trying time.

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@StateDept Restricts Travel of USG Personnel/Family Members in Saudi Arabia, Issues New Travel Warning

Posted: 3:29 am ET

The State Department issued a new Travel Warning for Saudi Arabia on July 27. It cites continuing security threats in the country including a “high potential” for spill over violence from Yemen. The new warning also notes the travel restrictions for USG personnel and family members in the country. Excerpt:

The Department of State recommends that U.S. citizens carefully consider the risks of travel to Saudi Arabia due to continuing ISIL (Da’esh) directed or inspired attacks across the Kingdom. Furthermore, continuing violence in neighboring countries such as Yemen has a high potential to spill over into Saudi Arabia. This replaces the Travel Warning issued April 11, 2016.

Security threats continue. Terrorist groups, some affiliated with ISIL or Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have targeted both Saudi and Western interests, including the U.S. Consulate General in Jeddah, mosques and significant religious sites (both Sunni and Shia), and places where members of the Shia-Muslim minority gather. Possible targets include mosques, pilgrimage locations, and Saudi government facilities, as well as housing compounds, hotels, restaurants, shopping areas, international schools, Western consulates and embassies, and other facilities where Westerners congregate.

sa-map

Over the past year, there have been multiple attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia, some resulting in significant loss of life. On July 4, 2016 suicide bombers launched attacks near:

  • U.S. Consulate General Jeddah
  • the Prophet’s Mosque (also known as Al-Masjid an-Nabawi) in Medina
  • a mosque in Qatif

On February 8, 2016, ISIL claimed responsibility for an explosion targeting a Saudi citizen in the Al-Azizia district of Riyadh. Media reports indicate that Saudi authorities thwarted plans to attack the Al-Janadriah festival in Riyadh, which took place in February 2016. In January 2016 a Shia mosque in Al-Ahsa in Eastern Province was attacked, as was a Shia mosque in Najran in October 2015. On October 16, 2015, a mass shooting took place at a gathering in Saihat. On August 6, 2015, a mosque in the city of Abha was bombed.  Most of the victims in that attack were members of the Saudi security forces.

U.S. government personnel and their families are restricted from travel in the following areas:

  • within 50 miles of the Yemeni border
  • the city of Jizan
  • the city of Najran
  • Qatif in the Eastern Province and its suburbs, including Awamiyah
  • Hofuf and its suburbs in the Al Hasa Governorate

Read in full here.

 

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Photo of the Day: The Room Numbers on His Arm

Posted: 3:25 am ET

Via State/DS:

A Diplomatic Security Assistant Regional Security Officer who responded to the attack checks his weapon. Scrawled in ink on his arm are the room numbers of Americans trapped inside the hotel. The DSS-led team entered the building a second time to rescue them. (U.S. Department of State photo)

A Diplomatic Security Assistant Regional Security Officer who responded to Bamako’s Radisson Blu Hotel attack in Mali checks his weapon. Scrawled in ink on his arm are the room numbers of Americans trapped inside the hotel. The DSS-led team entered the building a second time to rescue them. (U.S. Department of State photo)

 

Yemen Non-Evacuation: Court Refuses to Second-Guess Discretionary Foreign Policy Decisions

Posted: 4:38 am ET

The State Department’s Yemen Crisis page notes that due to deteriorating situation, it suspended embassy operations on February 11, 2015, and U.S. Embassy Sana’a American staff were relocated out of the country.  “All consular services, routine and emergency, continue to be suspended until further notice. The Department notified the public of this move, and its impact on consular services, and urged U.S. citizens in Yemen to depart while commercial transportation was available.”

The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa went on mandatory evacuation in May 2011 (see US Embassy Yemen Now on Ordered Departure), and again in August 2013 (see US Embassy Yemen Now on Ordered Departure) and November 2014 (see US Embassy Yemen on Ordered Departure Once Again). In July 2014, the State Department issued a Travel Warning, see New Travel Warning for Yemen — Don’t Come; If In Country, Leave! But Some Can’t Leave).

See our other posts:

The case below was filed on April 9, 2015 by a Nora Ali Mobarez, a United States citizen residing in Yemen.  She was joined by “25 other people, all of whom are U.S. citizens or permanent residents with Yemeni connections” in filing a cases against the Secretaries of State and Defense and seeking a court order to “compel Defendants to comply with an alleged duty of the Executive Branch to provide a means of evacuation from Yemen for them or their relatives.”

Excerpt from the Memorandum of Opinion dated May 17, 2016 by Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia:

Plaintiff Nora Ali Mobarez, a United States citizen, is currently residing in the war-torn and conflict-ridden Republic of Yemen. (See Compl., ECF No. 2, ¶¶ 4, 55– 59.) Mobarez has joined with 25 other people, all of whom are U.S. citizens or permanent residents with Yemeni connections, to file the instant official-capacity complaint against the Secretary of the Department of State (“State”) and the Secretary of the Department of Defense (“DOD” and, collectively, “Defendants”). These plaintiffs seek a court order to compel Defendants to comply with an alleged duty of the Executive Branch to provide a means of evacuation from Yemen for them or their relatives. (See id. ¶¶ 3–24, 29–77.) Specifically, their complaint asserts that the United States has closed its embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, has evacuated embassy staff, and has removed Marines from the country, but that the U.S. government has yet to execute any plan to secure the safe removal of private American citizens. (See id. ¶¶ 34–36, 77.) According to Plaintiffs, Defendants’ forbearance violates the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), 5 U.S.C. §§ 701–06, insofar as Defendants “have failed to provide through direct military assistance or contracting with commercial entities the necessary equipment, ships, airplanes, and other items that are available to Defendants to [e]nsure the security, safety, and well-being of United States citizens[,]” and have therefore “unlawfully withheld and/or unreasonably delayed agency action to which the Plaintiffs are entitled” and/or “have taken action that is arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with law[.]” (Id. ¶ 81.)

Before this Court at present is Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss the instant complaint. (See Defs.’ Mot. to Dismiss (“Defs.’ Mot.”), ECF No. 8.) Defendants contend that Plaintiffs are wrong about the existence of any duty to evacuate them. (See Defs.’ Reply in Supp. of Defs.’ Mot. (“Reply”), ECF No. 12, at 6–8.)1 Furthermore, as a threshold matter, Defendants insist that legal claims such as the ones Plaintiffs bring here require the judiciary to second-guess the discretionary foreign- policy decisions of the Executive Branch, and thus, are nonjusticiable under the political-question doctrine. (See Defs.’ Mem. in Supp. of Defs.’ Mot. (“Defs.’ Mem.”), ECF No. 8-1, at 12–14.)

On March 31, 2016, this Court issued an order GRANTING Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs’ complaint. (See Order, ECF No. 13.) The instant Memorandum Opinion explains the Court’s reasons for that order. In short, the Court agrees with Defendants’ justiciability argument, and has therefore concluded that it lacks jurisdiction to entertain Plaintiffs’ complaint.
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Plaintiffs have asked this Court, in no uncertain terms, to issue an order that compels the Executive Branch to conduct an evacuation of American citizens in Yemen. Not surprisingly, Defendants insist that any such order would impermissibly encroach upon the discretion that the Constitution affords to the political branches to conduct foreign affairs; therefore, prior to considering Defendants’ contention that Plaintiffs’ complaint fails to state a claim under the APA, this Court must first determine whether or not it has the authority to traverse the thicket of thorny foreign-policy issues that encompasses Plaintiffs’ allegations. Precedent in this area makes it crystal clear that federal courts cannot answer “political questions” that are presented to them in the guise of legal issues, see infra Part III.A., but identifying which claims qualify as nonjusticiable political questions—and which do not—can sometimes be a substantially less lucid endeavor. Not so here: as explained below, after considering the parties’ arguments and the applicable law regarding the boundaries of the political-question doctrine, this Court is confident that Plaintiffs’ claims fit well within the scope of the nonjusticiability principles that the Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit have long articulated. Accordingly, in its Order of March 31, 2016, the Court granted Defendants’ motion and dismissed Plaintiffs’ case.
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It cannot be seriously disputed that “decision-making in the fields of foreign policy and national security is textually committed to the political branches of government.” Schneider, 412 F.3d at 194; see also id. at 194–95 (collecting the various explicit “[d]irect allocation[s]” in the Constitution of those responsibilities to the legislative and executive branches). And, indeed, Plaintiffs seek to have this Court question the Executive Branch’s discretionary decision to refrain from using military force to implement an evacuation under the circumstances described in the complaint, despite the fact that, per the Constitution, it is the President who, as head of the Executive Branch and “Commander in Chief[,]” U.S. Const. Art. II, § 2, decides whether and when to deploy military forces, not this Court. See El-Shifa, 607 F.3d at 842 (explaining that a claim “requiring [the court] to decide whether taking military action was wise” is a nonjusticiable “policy choice[] and value determination[]” (second and third alterations in original) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)).

Plaintiffs’ suggestion that the court-ordered remedy they seek could very well stop short of a direct mandate for military intervention (see Pls.’ Opp’n at 15 (asserting that “[t]his Court can order Defendants to [effectuate the evacuation] by simply directing the evacuation to happen and leaving it to Defendants to determine the means”)) makes no difference, as far as the political-question doctrine is concerned. Regardless, the clear basis for the complaint’s assertion that Plaintiffs are entitled to any relief at all is the contention that the Executive Branch has abused its discretion— in APA terms—in refusing to evacuate U.S. citizens from Yemen thus far (see, e.g., Compl. ¶ 81), and the Court’s evaluation of that contention would necessarily involve second-guessing the “wisdom” of these agencies’ discretionary determinations.
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[T]he “strategic choices directing the nation’s foreign affairs are constitutionally committed to the political branches[,]” and once it becomes clear that a plaintiff wishes the courts to “reconsider the wisdom of discretionary foreign policy decisions[,]” the judicial inquiry must end.

Read the Memorandum of Opinion here (PDF) or read below:

 

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@StateDept Extends “Ordered Departure” Status for Consulate Adana/Izmir Prov Through July 26, 2016

Posted: 4:33 am ET

 

The State Department issued a new Travel Warning for Turkey:

  • The Department of State extended its March 29, 2016 ordered departure of family members of U.S. Government personnel posted to the U.S. Consulate in Adana and family members of U.S. Government civilians in Izmir province through July 26, 2016.  The Department of State terminated its March 29, 2016 ordered departure declaration for Mugla province. The U.S. Consulate in Adana remains open and will continue to provide all routine consular services.
  • U.S. Government personnel in Turkey remain subject to travel restrictions in the southeastern provinces of Hatay, Kilis, Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Sirnak, Diyarbakir, Van, Siirt, Mus, Mardin, Batman, Bingol, Tunceli, Hakkari, Bitlis, and Elazig.  U.S. citizens should avoid areas in close proximity to the Syrian border.
  • U.S. government employees in Turkey are permitted to leave their residences and hotels, but advised to do so during daylight hours given calls for sustained pro-government rallies in public spaces and the possibility that demonstrations and protests could ensue or turn violent with little notice.
  • The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens of increased threats from terrorist groups throughout Turkey and to avoid travel to southeastern Turkey.    In light of the July 15 coup attempt and its aftermath, we suggest U.S. citizens reconsider travel to Turkey at this time.

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