Oh ARB China, Where Art Thou?

We’ve recently written about the Accountability Review Board (ARB) report on Cuba here: ARB on Havana Syndrome Response: Pray Tell, Who Was in Charge?.  The State Department told us that The U.S. Government is working to determine what happened to our staff and their families and to ensure the well-being and health of our officials going forward. That investigation is ongoing and is a high priority.”
The ARB Cuba report mentions similar incidents in Guangzhou, China and Tashkent, Uzbekistan. As far as we know, no Accountability Review Board was convened for China or Uzbekistan.  We understand that at least 41 officers (26 Cuba, 15 China) have been officially diagnosed by USG with brain injury symptoms. One source told us that if/when there is an ARB China for the attacks in Guangzhou, it will make the Cuba response look professional by comparison. “ARB for China will be much, much worse.”
Last year, a Foreign Service employee filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) alleging that employees at the U.S. Department of State (State Department), Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), Washington, D.C., may have engaged in conduct that constitutes an abuse of authority.
The complainant told OSC that State Department employees and their families, previously stationed in Guangzhou, China, and Havana, Cuba, “experienced environmental incidents whereby microwaves” caused them to “suffer traumatic brain injuries.” The complainant “asserted that State Department leadership has attempted to minimize the severity of or suppress information related to the environmental incidents as well as the agency’s response to its employees’ resulting injuries.” The complainant also asserted that since approximately 2018, DSS management has prevented the individual “from providing the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which is investigating the incidents, relevant classified reports, emails, and other documentary information.”
In April 2020, the complainant was notified by OSC that it requested the Secretary of State to conduct an investigation into these allegations and report back to OSC pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 1213(c). The OSC gave then Secretary of State Pompeo 60 days to conduct the investigation and submit the report to OSC.
The OSC informed the complainant that “while OSC has found a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing based on the information you submitted in support of your allegations, our referral to the Secretary of State for investigation is not a final determination that the allegations are substantiated. This remains an open matter under investigation until the agency’s final report is forwarded to the President and Congress.”
In May 2020, State/OIG Linick was fired under cover of darkness for doing his job. Acting State/OIGs were appointed here, then here, and here. Diana Shaw who assumed charged as Acting IG after Akard, and again after Klimow’s departure is the Deputy Inspector General  currently “performing the duties of the Inspector General.”
State/OIG reportedly finally opened an investigation into this case as requested by OSC, seven months after the request.
So we wait for the result of that investigation; as well as the one reportedly being conducted by the GAO.
But most of all, we are waiting for the Accountability Review Board for China.
Why?
ARB Cuba determined that the resulting injuries in Havana were security-related. Why wasn’t there an ARB for the security incident in Guangzhou, where employees were similarly attacked and had brain injuries just like in Havana? We don’t know why Pompeo never convened one for China, or convened an ARB that would look into the three places where these incidents occurred. We do know we don’t want this swept under the rug especially given what we now know about the botched response in Havana.
We’re counting on Secretary Blinken to convene an ARB for China because it’s the right thing to do.
ARB Cuba was an interim report; an expanded ARB authority that includes an investigation into the State Department response not just in Havana but also in Guangzhou and Tashkent seem appropriate. What do we know now three years after ARB Cuba was convened?
We know there were 15 cases in China, but how many spouses were also injured in the attacks?
We understand that State also didn’t want to talk about foreign nationals that were injured in China. How many cases were here? ARB Havana made no mention of foreign nationals. Were there FSN injuries in Cuba? If they occurred in China, were there similar cases in Cuba that affected local nationals?
Also something really interesting. Which top Diplomatic Security official (current or former) told employees that he knew the country that did this and purportedly said it wasn’t China or Cuba? Which country? How did he know?  What did he know? And how come ARB Cuba says “we don’t know what happened, when it happened, who did it , or why.”
Shouldn’t we hear the answers before a congressional hearing?

 


 

 

 

ARB on Havana Syndrome Response: Pray Tell, Who Was in Charge?

On February 10, 2021, the GWU’s National Security Archive published the report of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) for Havana, Cuba dated June 2018. The ARB document was classified SECRET/NOFORN with declassification date of June 7, 2043. It was released via a Freedom of Information Act request. 
The report includes a timeline from the Bureau of Western Hemisphere compiled at the request of the Cuba Accountability Review Board.  We are working on merging that timeline with the personnel churn that occurred around the same time at the State Department. We should also note that the report includes other attachments like an unclassified 2-page Memorandum dated, April 11, 2018 from Deputy Legal Adviser Joshua L. Dorosin to ARB Chair Ambassador Peter Bodde entitled, “ARB Questions Related to the Exercise of M Authorities from January 21, 2017 to present. This memorandum was redacted under B(5). A 2-page document labeled (SBU) Department of State’s High Treat High Risk Post Review Process effective, January 2, 2018 was released with the ARB report but also redacted under B7(F)
Take aways from the ARB-Cuba Report:
—. ARB

The Cuba Accountability Review Board was convened on February 8, 2018, some thirteen months after individuals first visited Embassy Havana’s MED unit reporting of various symptoms including headache, ear pain, dizziness, and hearing problems in late December 2016. The ARB report is an interim response/findings. The ARB says, “a final review should be undertaken.” (Also see Coming Soon – Accountability Review Board Havana For Mysterious Attacks in Cuba)

—. WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

According to the ARB, the last Havana incidents resulting in medically confirmed injury took place at the end of August 2017. As of June 2018, the date of the report, the ARB writes “We do know that USG and Canadian diplomatic community members were injured, but we do not know how. We do not know what happened, when it happened, who did it, or why.”

—. CLOSE IT AND FORGET IT?

According to the Bureau of Western Hemisphere’s (WHA) timeline, Secretary Tillerson ordered the Departure of Non-Emergency Personnel from Havana on September 29, 2017. OD can be initiated by chief of mission or the Secretary of State. But. According to the ARB, “the decision to draw down the staff in Havana does not appear to have followed standard Department of State procedures and was neither preceded nor followed by any formal analysis of the risks and benefits of continued physical presence of U.S. government employees in Havana. After six months of ordered departure, Havana was designated an unaccompanied post in March 2018.” (Also see US Embassy #Cuba Now on Ordered Departure Over “Attacks of an Unknown Nature”).

(Can we revisit this for another blogpost? Reach out if you have some thoughts about our continuing presence in Havana).

The ARB adds, “Neither the Department’s High Threat High Risk Post Review (HTHR) Process nor the former Vital Presence Validation (VP2) Process were enacted.” No risk benefit analysis has been done for Cuba as of June 7, 2018. “Many Department leaders interviewed by the Board, no one could explain why this has not happened, except to suggest that [REDACTED].

—. LACK OF SENIOR LEADERSHIP AND ALL THAT

“The Department of State’s response to these incidents was characterized by a lack of senior leadership, ineffective communication, and systemic disorganization. No senior official was ever designated as having overall responsibility, which resulted in many of the other issues this reports presents. The interagency response was stove-piped and largely ad hoc. In our report, the Board makes recommendations on accountability, interagency coordination, communication and information sharing, medical issues, risk benefit calculations, and security operations.”

—. SERIOUS DEFICIENCIES

“For the period after February 15, 2017, the Board found serious deficiencies in the Department’s response in areas of accountability, interagency coordination, and communication, at all levels, both at Post and in Washington. These deficiencies contributed to the confusion surrounding the events, and delayed effective, coordinated action. The Board finds the lack of a designated official at the Under Secretary level to manage the response to be the single most significant deficiency in the Department’s response.

—. NO ONE IN CHAAAARGE, WHHHHY?

The ARB report says, “To this day no senior official at the Department has been assigned responsibility for leading and coordinating efforts to assess past incidents and prevent/mitigate future events. No Department of State task force was formed. There was no interagency working group [REDACTED].” Nor was a dedicated, internal State Department group was created.

—. EMERGENCY ACTION COMMITTEE (EAC)

The WHA Timeline indicates that Embassy Havana held an Emergency Action Committee (EAC) meeting (17 HAVANA31) on April 3, 2017 to assess the threat and holds an all hands meeting for cleared Americans. First Post EAC Meeting conducted more than 4 months after individuals believed they were first impacted. Wait, and it was over 6 weeks after officials at Post and in Washington had the first (unverified) information of injury?

The ARB says that “The Emergency Action Committee (EAC), an Embassy Front Office responsibility, is an essential element of security policy infrastructure REDACTED.” Still, “once the EAC cable was received, the Department’s response tempo increased, although in a stove-piped and inadequately coordinated manner in the absence of an Under Secretary for Management or a designated responsible Department official.”

—. FIRST BRIEFING DELAY AND EXCLUSION OF FAMILY MEMBERS

The ARB report says, “The Board finds the delay of almost six weeks between first knowledge of injury and the first briefing of Embassy staff to be unfortunate and the exclusion of family members from this knowledge to be unjustified, given the incidents were taking place at residences. According to the WHA timeline, on April 17, 2017, Embassy Havana held its first meeting with Embassy spouses [REDACTED].

–. UGH! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING, PEOPLE?

That Eligible Family Members, occasionally known as “just spouses” have no need to know anything that may turn their brains to mush?

-—. DOMESTIC MEDEVAC AUTHORITY, WHO DIS?

The ARB report says that “The lack of standing authority for the Department of State Medical Director to approve medical evacuations between domestic locations when required added additional steps and bureaucratic time requirements to the medevac process.” It also says that “To accomplish these medevacs the Medical Director was required to request special authority which was then granted specific only to the Cuba events. In the future when another event occurs which requires domestic medevacs State MED will need to repeat the same administrative process specific to that event.”

Required by whom? Request special authority from where?
—. DELEGATION OF AUTHORITY FIASCO.
In July 2017, this was posted on the blog: Tillerson Rescinds Delegated Authorities Department-Wide, Further Gums Up Foggy Bottom. Yep, remember that? Also Making Sense of Tillerson’s Rescinded Delegations of Authority @StateDept
Now, we’re reading about that decision in the ARB report: 

“The July 2017 decision rescinding many delegated State Department authorities by the then-Secretary of State, followed by the limited and poorly documented re-delegation of some of those authorities created widespread confusion about authorities. It resulted in understandable concern and hesitation on the part of persons in acting positions who feared exceeding their authorities.”

“Vacant senior positions and lack of clarity regarding delegated authorities delayed an effective response.”

“Individuals filling Under Secretary and Assistant Secretary Positions in an acting capacity during an extraordinarily prolonged transition were hampered by the rescinding of delegated authorities and the ensuing confusion regarding those authorities that were eventually re­-delegated.”

—. NSDD-38 PROCESS

One of ARB-Cuba’s recommendations says that “The Department should convene a high level review of the NSDD-38 process as it is currently implemented. Following the review, the Department should issue guidance to all employees and agencies regarding requirements and should hold agencies accountable.. In another recommendation, it says “The Department should ensure that the NSDD-38 processes are followed [REDACTED]”

Per 6 FAH-5 H-350, the National Security Decision Directive–38 (NSDD-38) process is the mechanism by which a COM exercises his or her authority to determine the size, composition, and mandate of U.S. Government executive branch agencies at his or her mission.

— WAITING FOR THE TICK TOCK

The ARB report says that “Given that this is an unprecedented event, it would be helpful to have an accurate record of what was done, by whom, when, and why. In order to learn the right lessons from this incident, it is essential to have an accurate written record.” 

Also that “WHA and S staff should create a timeline (tick tock) of communication, decisions, and actions taken to date (June 7, 2018) in response to the incidents. The investigation into the incidents and Department’s response should remain open until the Department determines what happened. This timeline is a critical part of the discussion and lessons-learned process.” 

—. CHIEF OF MISSION

The ARB report reveals: “In exploring the guidance given to the COM regarding his responsibility for the security of all executive branch employees, the Board learned the COM did not have a letter of instruction. Presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed ambassadors all receive a letter of instruction from the President detailing their responsibilities. Typically the responsibility for the safety and security of American citizens and U.S. government employees features prominently in these letters. In other posts where a COM is not Senate confirmed, the Department sometimes issues a letter of instruction from the Secretary of State which serves a similar purpose.”

Wait, Secretary Tillerson’s top notch advisers did not know enough to advise the issuance of the letter of instruction?
—. BUREAU DE-FACTO LEADERSHIP

The ARB report says, “The Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs was frequently cited by those interviewed as the “de facto” lead bureau within the State Department. WHA leaders attempted to fill some of the gap created by the lengthy vacancies at the Under Secretary level, and convened a number of meetings for the purpose of sharing information. They were largely unsuccessful at actual coordination, in part because they did not have the authority to direct action on the part of other bureaus. They were almost invariably in a reactive mode and never put forward a cohesive plan of action for the future. They were also hampered by their very limited access to the senior leadership of the Department.”

—. EXCESSIVE SECRECY!

Ah, the ARB report says that “Both at Post and in Washington, response to the incidents was characterized by excessive secrecy that contributed to a delayed response.”

Also that “WHA’s reliance on informal consultation with the Department’s leadership made it difficult for the Board to develop an accurate picture of decision making regarding the incident.”

The report says, “Informal communication between WHA and the senior leadership of the State Department contributed to the lack of coherence in the response. Normal Department reporting channels and methods were routinely disregarded in the response to the Cuba incidents. WHA officials were instructed to limit distribution of information to a select group of officials. As a result, accountability was never clearly established and there was no coordination within the Department. The most frequent communication with the senior leadership was to the Secretary of State’s chief of staff via email. Contemporaneous documentation of these interactions is scant.”

Now, don’t we all want to know who kept this very, very quiet? Why would WHA rely on “informal consultations”?  Who gave instruction to WHA to limit distribution of information to a select group of officials? State.gov emails are government records. How is it that the ARB had no access to the most frequent communication on this matter with senior leadership at State? What about Tillerson’s chief of staff’s emails? Wait, are these state.gov emails? Why are contemporaneous documentation of these interactions scant? What happened to memcons? Were there instructions not to put anything about these interactions in writing? If so, who gave those instructions? Who were the officials who downplayed these attacks?  Curious minds would like to know. 

 


 

 

 

Fifteen Asia-Pacific Countries Sign World’s Largest Free Trade Deal

 

 

U.S. Mission China Bids Farewell to U.S. Consulate General Chengdu

 

A press release from the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced the closure of the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu, China at 10 o’clock in the morning on Monday, July 27, 2020).
“At 10am July 27, as required by the Chinese side, the US Consulate General in Chengdu was closed. China’s competent authorities then entered through the front entrance and took over the premises.”
As of this writing, there was no announcement from Foggy Bottom.
On Sunday, July 26, US Mission China did post a video saying “Today, we bid farewell to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. We will miss you forever.”

 

Related posts:
Related item:

 

China Orders US Consulate Chengdu Closed in Response to Chinese Consulate Houston Closure

 

On July 23, 2020, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that it has informed the United States that it withdrew “its consent for the establishment and operation of the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu.” The announcement only says that “The Ministry also made specific requirements on the ceasing of all operations and events by the Consulate General” but did not indicate a time window. Reports on the ordered closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston notes that the US asked that the consulate stop events and move employees out by Friday, July 24. (see China Says US Ordered Closure of Its Houston Consulate By July 24).
Update 1:25 am PDT: WSJ is reporting that China is giving the U.S. 72 hours to close the Chengdu consulate. American diplomats in Chengdu have 30 days to leave China.
The US Consulate General Chengdu’s consular district is made up of the Provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou, as well as the Tibet Autonomous Region and Chongqing City Municipality.
Via US Mission China:

Photo from US Mission China website

The U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu was established in 1985 and was originally located on the first floor of the west wing of the Jinjiang Hotel.  The Consulate started with only six American officers and approximately 20 local employees.  It was made up of an Executive Office (a Consul General and administrative assistant); a small office handling political, economic and commercial issues; a Consular Section; a Management Section and what was then known as the U.S. Information Service.

In 1985, each of the offices was covered by one American officer. The Consulate today has grown tremendously by comparison, with almost 200 total staff. Approximately 150 of these are locally hired professional Chinese staff who are the heart of our daily operations and many of whom have served for many years.

 

China Says US Ordered Closure of Its Houston Consulate By July 24

 

 

@StateDept Announces the Passing of U.S. Ambassador to Brunei Matthew J. Matthews

On May 20, 2020, the State Department announced the passing of  the U.S. Ambassador to Brunei Darussalam Matthew J. Matthews.

Via US Embassy BSB:

Matthew J. Matthews was sworn in as the U.S. Ambassador to Brunei Darussalam on March 29, 2019. Matt was most recently U.S. Ambassador for APEC and concurrently the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands from June 2015 to March 2019. From 2013 to 2015, he served as the Foreign Policy Advisor to Admiral Locklear, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, and as the Deputy Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong from 2010 to 2013. Matt focused on multilateral trade agreements as the Counselor for Economic Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2007-10), and at the U.S. Embassy in Canberra, Australia (2004-07). His earlier postings include two tours in Beijing, two tours in Taipei, Islamabad, Hong Kong, and Washington, DC. He speaks fluent Mandarin.

Matt grew up in Portland, Oregon. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon, attended the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies in Taipei, and earned a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is married to Rachel Lin Matthews and has two adult children who reside in the United States.

Ambassador Matthews is a career diplomat and a member of the Senior Foreign Service.  His deputy at the US Embassy in Brunei Darussalam is Scott E. Woodard who arrived in Brunei in August 2017 to take up his current position as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Bandar Seri Begawan.

Surviving the Outbreak, Reflections on ConGen Wuhan’s Evacuation and Life in Quarantine (Via @StateMag)

 

Featured in the  April 2020 issue of State Magazine (published by the State Department’s Bureau of Human Resources) is an article by Russell J. Westergard, the deputy consular chief at the U.S. Consulate General in Wuhan, China.
Surviving the Outbreak, Reflections on ConGen Wuhan’s evacuation and life in quarantine

By mid-October 2019, the dedicated team at the U.S. Consulate General in Wuhan knew that the city had been struck by what was thought to be an unusually vicious flu season. The disease worsened in November. When city officials began to close public schools in mid-December to control the spread of the disease, the team passed the word to Embassy Beijing and continued monitoring. The possibility of a new viral outbreak was always on the consulate’s radar. Still, the working assumption in every scenario had always been that, as in past outbreaks like H1N1 (known as swine flu), it would appear in rural areas first and then spread to major urban centers across China. 

When the Chinese government announced on December 29th that the new and novel coronavirus (COVID-19) had been identified and traced to a live animal market near the U.S. consulate, it caught the team’s attention. Four hectic weeks later, ConGen Wuhan closed under ordered departure with the consulate team pulling off what some people involved have since described as a minor miracle. Consulate staff found themselves at the airport of a paralyzed city preparing to evacuate family members and other U.S. citizens from what would turn out to be ground zero of a deadly global pandemic.

Fast forward to the second week in February. As the ConGen Wuhan team, family members, and the rest of the 195 passengers on board that first flight from Wuhan concluded their 14-day quarantine at the March Air Reserve Base (ARB) in Southern California, the joy and a collective sigh of relief were audible.

Read in full here.

 

Two Charter Flights From #DiamondPrincess Depart Tokyo, Few “High Risk” Patients Now in Nebraska

 

The U.S.  Embassy in Tokyo announced that on February 17 at 0705 JST, two charter flights carrying passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship departed Tokyo en route to the United States.
This letter was sent to American passengers and crew on Sunday morning. It includes details on the repatriation operation as well as information for those who opts not to board. Letter in part says “Based on the high number of COVID-19 cases identified onboard the Diamond Princess, the Department of Health and Human Services made an assessment that passengers and crew members onboard are at high risk of exposure. Given this assessment, the U.S. Government is chartering these flights to minimize the risks to your health going forward.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also released a statement on repatriation of American passengers and crew.
The letter further notes that passengers on the chartered aircraft will be quarantined in the United States at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California or Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas for 14 days upon arrival. However, it looks like the two flights initially landed in California and Texas, then proceeded to Nebraska with a few patients considered “high risk.”. One local report says that “13 Americans who were on the cruise ship in Japan arrived in Omaha today.”