Amb. Rena Bitter to be Asst Secretary of State for Consular Affairs

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On April 21, President Biden announced his intent to nominate SFSO and former Ambassador Rena Bitter to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs. The WH released the following brief bio:
Rena Bitter, Nominee for Assistant Secretary of State, Consular Affairs, Department of State
Rena Bitter, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Minister-Counselor, is Dean of the Leadership and Management School at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.  Previously, she was the U.S. Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and chief of the consular section in Amman, Jordan.  She also served in London, Bogota, and Mexico City.  In Washington, she was Director of the State Department’s Operations Center, and a Special Assistant to the Secretary of State.  Bitter has a Bachelor’s Degree from Northwestern University, and a J.D. from Southern Methodist University.  She is a recipient of American Citizens Abroad’s Thomas Jefferson Award for outstanding service to the American community abroad.  She speaks Spanish, Arabic and Vietnamese.

CG Rena Bitter with Ambassador Ted Osius | Via FB (2016)

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (Jun 27, 1952; P.L. 82-414; 66 Stat. 174) established within the Department of State a Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs, headed by an Administrator designated by the Secretary of State with rank equal to that of an Assistant Secretary. In 1962, this position became a Presidential appointee subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. In 1977, the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1978 changed the Administrator’s title to “Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs.”
All appointees to the Consular Affairs bureau from 1953 to 1980 were non-career appointees. This trend was interrupted by the appointments of career FSOs Diego Asencio in 1980, and again in 1983 with  Joan Clark. Political appointees assumed charged of the bureau in 1989 when Elizabeth Tamposi was appointed, and more recently in 2017 with Carl Risch’s appointment. If confirmed Ambassador Bitter would only be the seventh career FSO to lead the most public facing bureau of the State Department.

Related posts:

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Snapshot: Visas Issued at Foreign Service Posts (FY 2016-2020)

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Via state.gov

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Ex-FSO Indicted For Concealing Information in Background Investigation

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On April 2, the Department of Justice announced the indictment of a former State Department employee, a Foreign Service officer for “intentionally concealing information on his SF-86 background investigation questionnaires and in interviews with State Department background investigators.”
Congressional record indicates that a Paul M. Guertin of RI was confirmed by the U.S. Senate by voice vote on October 21, 2011  for his appointment as Foreign Service Officer of Class Four, Consular Officer and Secretary in the Diplomatic Service of the United States of America.
 Via USDOJ: Former State Department Employee Indicted for Concealing Information in Background Investigation

Paul Michael Guertin (“Guertin”), 40, of Arizona and former resident of Washington, DC, was indicted on March 29, 2021 by a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia for wire fraud and obstructing an official proceeding. The indictment was announced by Acting U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips and Special Agent in Charge Elisabeth Heller, of the U.S. Department of State, Office of Inspector General.

Guertin was a Foreign Service Officer who served on multiple State Department assignments, including overseas postings to U.S. diplomatic missions in Shanghai, China and Islamabad, Pakistan, and a posting to the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at State Department headquarters in Washington, DC. As a condition of his employment, Guertin was required to apply for and maintain a Top Secret security clearance.  According to the indictment, Guertin intentionally concealed information on his SF-86 background investigation questionnaires and in interviews with State Department background investigators. He withheld information about several categories of conduct, including an undisclosed sexual relationship with a Chinese national, whose U.S. visa application was adjudicated by Guertin while he was serving as a consular officer in Shanghai, China; undisclosed gambling debts; and an undisclosed $225,000 loan from two Chinese nationals, who were directed by Guertin to provide $45,000 of the initial disbursement in the form of cash in $100 bills.

An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence of guilt.  A defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty.

This matter was investigated by the U.S. Department of State, Office of Inspector General and is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Christopher Brown and Thomas Gillice, with assistance from Paralegal Specialist Chad Byron.

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SF-86 form clearly states under Penalties for Inaccurate or False Statements that “the U.S. Criminal Code (title 18, section 1001) provides that knowingly falsifying or concealing a material fact is a felony which may result in fines and/or up to five (5) years imprisonment.”
According to the indictment, the Grand Jury was sworn in on January 28, 2021. The indictment includes two offenses: Count One: 18 U.S.C. § 1343: (Wire fraud); Count Two: 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2) (Obstructing an official proceeding) plus Forfeiture: 18 U.S.C. § 981(a)(1)(C); 28 U.S.C. § 2461(c); 21 U.S.C. § 853(p) according to the court filing. Grand juries are composed of 16 to 23 citizens, who hear a wide range of criminal cases and decide whether there is evidence to justify indictments sought by federal prosecutors. To return an indictment, a minimum of 12 members of a grand jury must find probable cause.
Excerpts below from the indictment filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia:

3. During his tenure as a Foreign Service Officer, GUERTIN served on multiple State Department assignments abroad, including postings to diplomatic missions in Shanghai, China and Islamabad, Pakistan. GUERTIN also served at State Department headquarters in the District of
Columbia in the Bureau of Intelligence & Research (“INR”), the State Department’s intelligence office. GUERTIN was later assigned to language training in Taipei, Taiwan.

9. In connection with his initial employment with the State Department and periodic re-investigations, GUERTIN signed and submitted SF-86 forms on or about September 27, 2005; November 19, 2010; and April 3, 2016.

The indictment cites Guertin’s “undisclosed conduct” that includes Undisclosed Romantic Relationship with Chinese National Whose U.S. Visa Application GUERTIN Adjudicated; Undisclosed Financial Problems Due to Gambling; and Undisclosed $225,000 Loan Agreement with Two Chinese Nationals, Collateralized by GUERTIN’s House. The indictment also cites some electronic communication.

15. In or about June 2008, GUERTIN conducted a visa application interview with CHINESE NATIONAL 1 in his capacity as a consular officer at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, China. On or about June 11, 2008, GUERTIN favorably adjudicated CHINESE NATIONAL 1’s application for a U.S. visa.

16. Two days later, on or about June 13, 2008, GUERTIN sent CHINESE NATIONAL1 an e-mail stating: “I gave you an interview a few days ago here in Shanghai, and thought you were very cute and interesting! 🙂 Was wondering if you’d be interested in going out for dinner or a bite to eat sometime.” GUERTIN initiated a personal and sexual relationship with CHINESE NATIONAL 1 that lasted through at least in or about July 2009.

26. On or about July 13, 2015, GUERTIN sent an e-mail to an associate requesting an emergency loan of $10,000 in order to pay down his gambling debts in advance of his security clearance re-investigation. GUERTIN stated: “I desperately need 10 dimes to get my [stuff] in order and pass a security clearance review to hold onto my job.” GUERTIN further explained: “Every 5 years the State Dept. does a security clearance re-investigation, and mine is coming up in 3 months, and they’re for sure going to see that my credit score dropped hard from the last time they checked. That will cause them to get suspicious, and then they’ll search my bank account transactions and find all the gambling related [stuff]. . . . [t]hey’1l send me home from Taiwan and if they revoke my security clearance I’Il lose my job within 6 months.”

30. On or about April 15, 2015, GUERTIN directed CHINESE NATIONAL 2 and CHINESE NATIONAL 3 to meet him at a location in the District of Columbia for the purpose of withdrawing $45,000 in cash from their bank account for a further disbursement of the $225,000 loan. GUERTIN instructed them: “Also please ask the bank manager to give you as much as possible of the money in $100 bills so it’s not so ridiculously bulky to carry around and deposit, thx!”

The indictment does not indicate what happened in August 2017 when his employment apparently ended. It is also not clear when and for how long was he posted at INR.
The indictment does not explain Guertin’s relationship with the two Chinese nationals only referred to as Chinese National 2 and Chinese National 3.  Guertin was posted in Shanghai in 2008 which would have been a two-year tour. The loan agreement with the two Chinese nationals allegedly occurred in April 2015. We should learn more if  this case progresses in court.
USA v. Guertin was assigned to Judge Trevor N. McFadden in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. As this article notes, an indictment is not a statement of guilt — it is only a determination that enough evidence exists to move forward with charges. The defendant will have an opportunity to enter a plea. As of this writing, no initial appearance has been noted in court, and no plea has been entered.

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@StateDept Expands Interview Waiver Eligibility For Visas

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On March 11, the State Department announced in a brief statement the expansion of visa interview waiver eligibility:
Secretary Blinken, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, has temporarily expanded the ability of consular officers to waive the in-person interview requirement for individuals applying for a nonimmigrant visa in the same classification.  Previously, only those applicants whose nonimmigrant visa expired within 24 months were eligible for an interview waiver.  The Secretary has temporarily extended the expiration period to 48 months.  This policy is in effect until December 31, 2021.  This change will allow consular officers to continue processing certain nonimmigrant visa applications while limiting the number of applicants who must appear at a consular section, thereby reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission to other applicants and consular staff.  Travelers are encouraged to review the website of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for detailed information on what services are currently available as well as eligibility information and instructions on applying for a visa without an interview. 
The original announcement is available here.

via travel.state.gov

 


 

@StateDept Projects Over $1.4Billion Loss in Consular Fees This Fiscal Year, Plus Comparable Losses Next FYs

HFAC/Oversight and Investigations Committee
July 212020 10:00 AM
Witnesses

Ian Brownlee
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Consular Affairs
U.S. Department of State

Karin King
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Overseas Citizen Services
U.S. Department of State

The State Department projected a $1.4 billion loss which is about 50 percent of Consular Affair’s revenue this fiscal year (ending September 30, 2020). It is also facing comparable losses in FY2021 and FY2022.
This is a big deal.
PDAS Brownlee told the committee that CA is looking at $359M savings from FY2020  — he talked about significant reduction in this year’s spending but only cited contractors in visa waiting rooms, and a number other unspecified projects domestic and overseas that would be impacted. He did say that services for American citizens “will not be put out of business.”
Where are we going to see funding cuts?
The reality though is consular fees do not just fund visa operations overseas but also passport operations domestic and overseas. It also funds various parts of the State Department. And most notably, it funds 4,859 U.S. Direct Hire personnel under Consular Affairs and “partner bureau positions.” A $1.4 billion loss this fiscal year and in each of FY2021 and FY2022 will have a cascading effect in various parts of the organization.
Revenues from Department-retained consular fees and surcharges fund Consular and Border Security Program (CBSP) activities. The State Department’s congressional justification in FY 2020 for CBSP funding includes the following:
  • Consular Systems and Technology: $453.4 million
  • Domestic Executive Support: $34.3 million
  • Fraud Prevention Programs: $5.4 million
  • Visa Processing: $237.5 million
  • Passport Directorate: $810.3 million
  • American Citizen Services: $16.2 million
  • Consular Affairs Overseas Support: $964.6 million
  • FSN Separation Liability Trust Fund: $4.9 million

CBSP SUPPORT/DEPARTMENT OF STATE PARTNERS: $524.3 million

  • Bureau of Administration: $53.8 million
  • Bureau of Diplomatic Security: $66.3 million
  • Foreign Service Institute: $25.9 million
  • Bureau of Information Resource Management: $58.3 million
  • Office of the Legal Advisor: $0.3 million
  • Bureau of Overseas Building Operations: $264.4 million
  • Repatriation Loans: $0.8 million
  • Comptroller and Global Financial Services (CGFS): $1.0 million
  • Confidential Investigations: $0.2 million
  • Post Assignment Travel: $39.1 million
  • Bureau of Human Resources: $13.9 million
CBSP STAFF / AMERICAN SALARIES: $703.5 million

Human resources are a vital component of CBSP activities. The Department devotes a significant amount of effort and resources towards increasing efficiency and capacity in the visa and passport processes, ensuring adequate staffing levels both domestically and overseas. The FY 2020 Request of $703.5 million, a $58.7 million increase from the FY 2019 Request, supports 4,859 U.S. Direct Hire personnel. These positions are primarily in the Bureau of Consular Affairs but also include CBSP-funded partner bureau positions. This increase restores the eight percent reduction included in the FY 2019 President’s Budget Request and annualizes costs associated with the Department’s FY 2018 and proposed FY 2019 Strategic Hiring Plans.

 

 

 

Guatemala Gets a New Health Alert System, Movement Restrictions, Suspension of Services, Mandatory Masks, Curfew

 

The US Embassy in Guatemala issued a new Message for U.S. Citizens Regarding New Restrictions and Updates by Government of Guatemala in Response to COVID-19 on 14 July, 2020.

On Sunday, July 12, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei announced the following updates to restrictions in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

New health alert system: Guatemala will launch a tiered system of health alerts on July 27, providing updated information on levels of health risk in the country based on locality and time.  The threat ranking will be as follows:

TYPE OF ALERT   THREAT LEVEL
Green                     Normal
Yellow                    Moderate
Orange                   High
Red                         Maximum

The Embassy advises U.S. citizens in Guatemala to familiarize themselves with changes to the threat level in their areas.  For the next two weeks before the official launch, these alerts are meant to be informational only.  Following the official launch, Guatemalan authorities may impose specific restrictions to travel or activities in a given area based on its threat level.  Current health alerts and additional information can be found on the Ministry of Health’s website, via the following link: https://mspas.gob.gt.

Restrictions on Vehicular Mobility: In the departments of Guatemala, Escuintla, Sacatepequez, Suchitepequez, Izabal, El Progreso, Zacapa, Santa Rosa and Quetzaltenango, all personal vehicles with license plates that end in an odd number (for example P001AAA) are permitted to circulate Monday, July 13; Wednesday, July 15, Friday, July 17; Tuesday, July 21; Thursday, July 23, and Saturday, July 25.  All personal vehicles with license plates that end in an even number (for example P002AAA) are permitted to circulate on Tuesday, July 14; Thursday, July 16; Saturday, July 18; Monday, July 20; Wednesday, July 22; and Friday, July 24.  Motorcycles, pedestrians, and other modes of non-vehicular transportation are exempt from these restrictions.  All private vehicular mobility will be restricted on Sunday, July 19 and Sunday, July 26. 

Curfew Hours: Guatemala’s national mandatory curfew remains in place, running from 6:00 p.m. each evening through 5:00 a.m. the following day.  In addition, an extended curfew will be in place on weekends, beginning Saturday, July 18 and Saturday, July 25 at 2 p.m., and extending through 5:00 a.m. the following Monday.  This means that a full 24-hour curfew will be in place on Sunday, July 19 and Sunday, July 26.  Every individual in Guatemala — including U.S. citizens — is required to remain inside their domicile during curfew hours (with exceptions for health and security, restaurant delivery services, certain media and legal personnel in pursuit of their duties, and patients receiving urgent treatment for chronic conditions). 

Guidance on Inter-Department Travel: The suspension on inter-departmental travel has been lifted, but government of Guatemala the urges individuals to avoid travel into, out of, or between the departments of Guatemala, Escuintla, Sacatepequez, Suchitepequez, Izabal, El Progreso, Zacapa, Santa Rosa and Quetzaltenango.

Operating Hours for Essential Businesses: Supermarkets, grocers, other markets, and essential businesses are permitted to operate from 6:00 a.m. through 4:00 p.m.  Shopping malls and large commercial centers remain closed.

Mandatory Use of Masks in Public: All individuals must wear masks in public spaces, including in grocery stores and on the street, to prevent the further spread of the COVID-19 virus.  Failure to comply with this requirement will result in fines of up to 150,000 quetzales.

Closing of Borders: The Guatemalan government is currently barring entry to most non-Guatemalans (with specific exceptions for accredited diplomatic personnel, health and security personnel, and exceptional cases as designated by the Guatemalan government) – by its land, sea, and air borders.  Airport operations and routine commercial flights out of Guatemala have been suspended.  The U.S. Embassy continues to work with Guatemalan authorities to allow passengers manifested on outgoing commercial flights to travel to the airport in Guatemala City.  These passengers will receive letters requesting safe passage from their commercial carrier. 

Suspension of Public Transportation: Public transportation within Guatemala is suspended. 

Suspension of Public and Private Sector Labor Activities: Public and private sector labor is suspended, with the exceptions for certain essential government and health personnel, and for specific industries and utilities whose activities are essential to Guatemala’s security, food production, sanitation or infrastructure.  

Prohibitions on Alcohol: The sale and purchase of alcohol is permitted only during limited hours.   Consumption of alcohol in public areas is prohibited. 

Other Restricted Activities:  All beaches, lakes, rivers, and other tourist sites in Guatemala remain closed.  Public religious gatherings and celebrations of any size are prohibited.  Visits to individuals in hospitals or prisons are prohibited.  Academic activities at all levels are suspended until further notice.  

Additional Department and Municipality-Level Restrictions: Beyond the national-level restrictions mentioned above, different municipalities within the country may adopt additional restrictive measures on travel and outdoor activities.  Please monitor local news reports to receive the latest information. 

State of Prevention: The government of Guatemala has announced an extension of the State of Prevention, until July 30, 2020, for the municipalities of Nahualá, Santa Lucía Utatlán, and Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, of the Department of Sololá. The State of Prevention is due to the ongoing security situation in the area caused by territorial disputes. Increased military and police presence can be expected in the area throughout the State of Prevention period.

We missed this, but the US Embassy in Guatemala previously suspended its routine consular services for U.S. citizens on June 22, 2020 until further notice  “due to COVID-19-related health and safety measures.”

While this suspension is in effect, the Embassy will provide passport services on an emergency basis only.  U.S. citizens with expired or soon-to-expire passports who have imminent travel plans to the United States may request an emergency appointment at the Embassy through the following email address: amcitsguatemala@state.gov.  The Embassy urges U.S. citizens to communicate all requests and confirm all appointment times through this e-mail; for health and safety reasons, the Embassy may not be able to accommodate walk-in requests.

The Embassy continues to accept adult passport renewal applications by mail. For more information on this process, please click here.  

Due to reduced operations at U.S. domestic facilities, U.S. citizens who have previously applied for routine passport or Consular Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA) services may expect delays in receiving their documents.  Applicants with documents in transit who have imminent travel plans to the United States may apply for emergency passports by scheduling an emergency appointment through the email address listed below.  As a reminder, U.S. citizen children do not require a CRBA to qualify for an emergency passport.

Also these:

@StateDept Announces “National Interest Exceptions” for Certain Travelers from the Schengen Area, United Kingdom, and Ireland

Via State/CA:
National Interest Exceptions for Certain Travelers from the Schengen Area, United Kingdom, and Ireland
Last Updated: July 16, 2020

Certain business travelers, investors, treaty traders, academics, and students may qualify for National Interest Exceptions under Presidential Proclamations (PPs) 9993 (Schengen Area) and 9996 (United Kingdom and Ireland). Qualified business and student travelers who are applying for or have valid visas or ESTA authorization may travel to the United States even as PPs 9993 and 9996 remain in effect.

Students traveling from the Schengen Area, the UK, and Ireland with valid F-1 and M-1 visas, do not need to seek a national interest exception to travel. Students from those areas who are traveling on a J-1 may contact the nearest embassy or consulate to initiate an exception request.The Department of State also continues to grant National Interest Exceptions for qualified travelers seeking to enter the United States for purposes related to humanitarian travel, public health response, and national security.

Granting national interest exceptions for this travel to the United States from the Schengen area, UK, and Ireland, will assist with the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and bolster key components of our transatlantic relationship.

We appreciate the transparency and concerted efforts of our European partners and allies to combat this pandemic and welcome the EU’s reciprocal action to allow key categories of essential travel to continue.

Also see: Exceptions to Presidential Proclamations (10014 & 10052) Suspending the Entry of Immigrants and Nonimmigrants Presenting a Risk to the United States Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the 2019 Novel Coronavirus Outbreak
Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants and Nonimmigrants Who Present Risk to the U.S. Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak

@StateDept Reactions: Americans Convicted in Moscow (Outrage) and Manila (Silence Now Concern)

Updated: 10:45 am PST

 

Madam Is Back With “Your Mother Taught You Better Than This”

Via The Consuls’ Files: Your Mother Taught You Better Than This
It figures, sadly but unfortunately also predictably, that when Madam steps out for a leisurely lunch and glass of wine, the mice come out to play.
Or rather, even more sadly, the larger variety of a different species.
Consider if you will, and if you can stomach it, this recent IG comment on certain conoffs’ behavior:
“OIG found that Consular Section managers’ failure to address adequately improper conduct by two officers had a negative effect on LE staff morale. Several months before the inspection, LE staff complained to consular managers about the officers’ conduct, which involved use of abrasive language and tone with visa applicants and frequent pressure on LE staff to translate the rude comments.
“Although consular managers attempted to address the officers’ conduct and had kept the previous DCM fully informed, the officers’ conduct continued to be a problem even during the inspection. After OIG questioned their handling of the situation, consular managers worked with the Front Office and the Human Resources Officer to take further action. As a result, OIG did not make a recommendation to address this issue.”
Continue reading here: http://theconsulsfiles.blogspot.com/2020/06/your-mother-taught-you-better-than-this.html
Folks who’ve been with us for over a decade may remember that MLC went missing way back when (The Hunt for Madam le Consul).  Now says she’s over 21 and “I can write anything I feel like writing.”
Welcome back, MLC!