Diplomats hit by suspected Havana Syndrome in Germany are the first cases of the apparent attacks to be reported in a @NATO country that hosts U.S. troops and nuclear weapons. Other EU capitals have also been affected. Via @WSJ https://t.co/ydi0Lu6NXl
— Bojan Pancevski (@bopanc) August 18, 2021
New: Blinken sent a note to State Dept employees today about the “unexplained health incidents” known as Havana Syndrome. Comes days after CNN reported about diplomats’ frustrations with Blinken’s handling of the issue. Full text of the email below: pic.twitter.com/Wjb2XPBwt5
— Natasha Bertrand (@NatashaBertrand) August 5, 2021
'Havana Syndrome stokes fear and frustration among diplomats over response from State Department'…"For the most part we don't know anything other than what is in the press," said one US diplomat. @kylieatwood @NatashaBertrand @KatieBoWillCNN https://t.co/FzV9d6bDCq
— Alexander Marquardt (@MarquardtA) August 2, 2021
About two dozen U.S. government officials in Vienna have reported Havana Syndrome-like symptoms. What is happening in the Austrian capital? https://t.co/tTnxARCOkE
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) August 12, 2021
- @NewYorker: Vienna Is the New Havana Syndrome Hotspot July 2021
- Havana Syndrome Questions @StateDept Refuses to Answer April 2021
- @StateDept Designates Amb. Pamela Spratlen as Senior Advisor to the Havana Syndrome Task Force March 2021
- Inbox: Are there treatments that work? #HavanaSyndrome March 2021
- @StateDept Updates FAM For Individuals Serving as Designated Chiefs of Mission March 2021
- Mystery Illness: “a much larger scale and widespread attack against our diplomatic corps, and our families” March 2021
- Oh ARB China, Where Art Thou? Feb 2021
- Havana Syndrome: @StateDept Says Investigation “Ongoing and Is a High Priority” Feb 2021
- ARB on Havana Syndrome Response: Pray Tell, Who Was in Charge? Feb 2021
- @StateDept’s Mystery Illness: The “It Depends” Treatment of Injured Personnel Oct 2020
- @StateDept Updates Regulations to Include New Compensation For Certain Injuries #MysteryIllness #TheThing July 2020
- Wait, they want an employee to “prove causation” for a mystery illness? July 2019
- The Havana Syndrome in the News, and Some Questions For Foggy Bottom’s New “M” June 2019
- Mystery Illness: @StateDept Raising Doubt About 14 China Cases #TheThing March 2019
- Yo! The Thing. Still Going on in China? Dec 2018
- Is @StateDept Working to Minimize the Health Attacks in China? #Cuba #MissingARBs Oct 2018
- What did we miss? USCG Guangzhou Security Engineering Officer Mark Lenzi Disputes State Department Statement on Mystery Illness July 2018
- U.S. Consulate General Guangzhou – What’s Going On? May 2018
- Can sound be used as a weapon? 4 questions answered #USEmbassyHavana March 2018
- Dusting Off the Moscow Microwave Biostatistical Study, Have a Read Sept 2017
- U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Sonic Attacks: As Serious as Mild TBI/Central Nervous System Damage? August 24, 2017
- 16 USG Employees in “Sonic Attack” and More on The Secret History of Diplomats and Invisible Weapons August 28, 2017)
- Microwaving U.S. Embassy Moscow: Oral History From FSOs James Schumaker and William A. Brown August 29, 2017
An insider previously pointed out to us that there are very few visitors in Foggy Bottom these days and those few are always accompanied by someone from State. There are also cameras everywhere. So unless a gremlin etched the Nazi symbol in the elevator and somehow escaped the cameras, we should know the culprit soon, shouldn’t we? It is true that the HST building is a large place; it has 1,400,000 square feet of floor space but the Pentagon has 6,500,000 square feet of office space and their door to door sweep almost found Yuri! So, c’mon!
By the way, Diplomatic Security just got a new assistant secretary. The Senate, just this week, confirmed Gentry O. Smith as Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security. We’re sure his plate will get full pretty quickly as soon as he is sworn-in but this is not just a simple case of vandalism. Did somebody just walked in and etched a hateful sign inside the building then walked out? No? Given the reaction of the State Department leadership and the WH on this incident, our assumption is that this investigation would be on top of Mr. Smith’s list as he assumes charge of the diplomatic security bureau.
Below via State Department Briefing | August 10, 2021:
QUESTION: Just in time. I have a – one housekeeping item that I want to start with and then go to Afghanistan. It’s now been a little bit over two weeks – 15 days, I think – since the swastika was discovered in the elevator. Secretary came out, obviously condemned it, said there would be an investigation into it. What’s the result of the investigation?
MR PRICE: Well, Matt, as you know, shortly after the swastika was discovered, the Secretary sent a note to the entire workforce. And he made clear in that note that hate has no home here. And nowhere is that tolerated, everywhere is it abhorrent, but here in this department, the – a department that stands for defending human rights, human dignity, the values of pluralism and inclusion around the world, that symbol is especially repugnant, and repugnant to the women and men of the department and to everyone who works here.
In the days after – and you heard directly from Secretary Blinken, I guess it was a week ago yesterday, on this – of course, President Biden has put forward a nominee for a special envoy to combat anti-Semitism, put forward a nominee for – to be an envoy for international religious freedom. And as Secretary Blinken noted in his message to the workforce, there is an investigation underway. I know this is a priority on the part of the investigators who are looking closely into this. I don’t have an update that I’m able to provide at the time, but if and when we do, I will certainly be able give you that.
QUESTION: Well, far be it from me to say that something is taking a long time or not taking a long time, because I – but an elevator is a pretty small place, right? This building has got controlled access. It would seem to me that two weeks is more than enough to come up with a – to come up with some kind of explanation. And while you’re correct in saying that this kind of hate has no place and that the Secretary said that, this building also stands for accountability and transparency. So —
MR PRICE: Absolutely. Absolutely. And —
QUESTION: So are you really telling me that two weeks after the fact, they can’t – they got no leads —
MR PRICE: The elevator is a small place. This building, as you know, is a large place.
QUESTION: I —
MR PRICE: So —
QUESTION: Yeah, but it’s not that big, Ned. Come on. It’s not that big. All right. If you don’t have anything, you don’t have anything.
MR PRICE: I don’t have anything to offer now, but we —
QUESTION: All right, let’s go on —
MR PRICE: — of course, do believe in the value of transparency. That’s why we’re out here every day.
MR PRICE: And, of course, as soon as we have an update, we’ll be able to share that.
— Deirdre Shesgreen (@dshesgreen) July 27, 2021
Someone carved a swastika in a State Dept elevator. See my reporting on this kind of thing of several weeks ago: "Does the U.S. State Department Have a Far-Right Extremist Problem?" https://t.co/7RM3CIhhT0 pic.twitter.com/StJzWKeMKg
— James L Bruno (@JamesLBruno) July 27, 2021
Following reports that a swastika was found etched into the wall of an elevator in Foggy Bottom, the State Department has reportedly opened an investigation into the incident. Axios which broke the news of the incident writes:
“The defacement raises troubling questions about security inside the nation’s foreign policy nerve center, and the potential for antisemitism within an outward-facing element of the United States government.”
While the State Department has over 76,000 employees worldwide, the latest June 2021 data from State/GTM indicates that there are some 15,279 Foreign Service and Civil Service Domestic Employees. There are also various federal contractors working in Foggy Bottom but we do not have a good estimate for those type of employees.
Axios points out that most employees are working from home and that “All of elevators within “Main State” are within a secure perimeter, and security cameras — and, in many cases, uniformed guards – cover entrances to all secure areas.” The investigation including the availability of camera footage would be under Diplomatic Security’s responsibility.
One unintended consequence of this incident is it has raised further awareness among the State leadership and the general workforce that this scourge exists and should not be tolerated. And that, as one employee told us, “when it’s detected anywhere – domestic or overseas — within our midst and work environments, there needs to be tangible and swift consequences.” It has also been pointed out to us that State has an “occasional propensity” to sweep things under the rug because it’s embarrassing and/or inconvenient.
Well, hopefully, not this time. Too many people are paying attention for that to happen.
When the culprit is caught, what might be the penalty? Where would this offense be in the penalty list for 3 FAM 4540? Or 3 FAM 4370?
There is also 18 U.S. Code § 1361 which says “If the damage or attempted damage to such property exceeds the sum of $1,000, by a fine under this title or imprisonment for not more than ten years, or both; if the damage or attempted damage to such property does not exceed the sum of $1,000, by a fine under this title or by imprisonment for not more than one year, or both.”
And of course, there is always notoriously disgraceful conduct.
Let’s pay close attention to what happens next.
Let me be clear: Anti-Semitism has no place in the State Department, in my Administration, or anywhere in the world. It’s up to all of us to give hate no safe harbor and stand up to bigotry wherever we find it. https://t.co/RCkwArRjL2
— President Biden (@POTUS) July 28, 2021
.@axios: "A swastika was found on Monday etched into the wall of a State Department elevator near the office of its special envoy to monitor and combat anti-semitism"
State Department officials sent an agency-wide notice condemning the vandalismhttps://t.co/TPwfnPjcef
— Robbie Gramer (@RobbieGramer) July 27, 2021
— Tom Namako (@TomNamako) July 28, 2021
Here is Secretary Blinken’s note:
Thank you to over 500 readers and supporters who made our continued operation possible this year. Raising funds for a small outlet that is already open and free for all to read has often been the most challenging part of running this blog. We are grateful for your continued support and well wishes. Thanks — DS
Via DPB July 12, 2021:
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. In addition – on Afghanistan, in addition to the change in command that happened earlier today, the embassy announced overnight that it’s going to resume immigrant visa processing. And I am just wondering, is this resumption going to make a dent in the backlog, or how much of a dent will it make in the backlog? Does it affect the relocation plans or the option for relocation, and is anything – has anything been decided on that front?
MR PRICE: Well, you are correct that the embassy has announced over Twitter that it will resume immigrant visa interviews this week, and that does include the SIV process. As you know, the SIV process is written into law. It was designed by Congress and involves more than a dozen steps, and that includes both a role for the Department of State as well as for the Department of Homeland Security. As we’ve said before, there are approximately 18,000 Afghan principal applicants at some stage of this process as of May of 2021.
Approximately half of those applicants are at some stage of the process pending applicant action, so in other words, approximately 9,000 or half of these applicants need to take action before the U.S. Government can begin processing their case. About 30 percent of these applicants are awaiting a decision at the chief of mission stage and the final 20 percent were approved by the chief of mission stage and they’re moving through the application process, either in the petition or the visa processing stages.
You are also right in your question that we have mobilized significant resources to do all we can to make a dent in the applicants. As you know, we have been very clear and consistent that we have – the United States has – a special responsibility to those who have assisted us in different ways over the years, often at great risk to themselves, sometimes to their families as well. That is also why we have identified a group of SIV applicants – that is to say, individuals who were already somewhere in that SIV processing chain – whom at the right time before the military withdrawal is complete later this year relocate or at least offer to relocate to a third country as they go through their SIV application processing. We have been in conversations, diplomatic discussions with a number of countries around the world. These have – discussions have occurred at any number of levels, to include senior levels, but we don’t have any updates for you regarding that.
The other point I would make is that throughout this process, we have prioritized the safety and the security of those who, often at great risk to themselves, have helped the United States over the years. And so we will be in some cases constrained in terms of what we can say publicly about relocation, about numbers, about certain details. But as soon as we have more to share on that front, we will do so.
QUESTION: Okay, but how much of a – once the interviews resume, how many can they do? How many can – how much of a dent do you think you can make in the backlog?
MR PRICE: Well, look, we are moving just as quickly as we can. The —
QUESTION: You can’t say – just say that so I don’t keep – because I’m going to keep asking the question until you – if you don’t know, that’s fine. But I’m just – that’s my question.
MR PRICE: Matt, we have already made significant progress in shortening the period it requires for an applicant to go from the start of the process to – through the visa provision stage. We have shortened that by a number of months and we have done that by surging individuals, by – through operations in Kabul, but the other important point is that much of this adjudication and processing that takes place at the chief of mission stage need not and does not take place in Kabul. This is a point that we have made in terms of our embassy staffing posture in Kabul. We are able to process individuals at the chief of mission stage from here in Washington.
And the other point I would make – again, this program is defined in statute. It was passed by Congress, designed by Congress. We will continue to work with Congress to find ways that we could potentially streamline these operations, knowing that there are to date more than 18,000 people who have – who are somewhere in that process. Again, our goal is to shorten that process as much as we can in a way that is pursuant to the safety and security needs of these individuals but also responsible in the way that we are processing the individuals.
QUESTION: So since the President’s announcement that all troops would be gone by the end – by September 11th and now August 31st – but since the initial announcement back in May, how many SIV applicants – applications have been approved, and how many of those approved visa holders have been admitted to the United States? May, June, July – that’s three months.
MR PRICE: We can see if we can provide a snapshot of that three-month period. I don’t have that —
QUESTION: Well, is it more than zero? I don’t know. I’m —
MR PRICE: We’ll see if we can provide specific numbers.
CDA Ross Wilson did post on Twitter that Embassy Kabul has “assisted over 15,000 Afghans relocate to the U.S.”
Not clear what is the time frame of that relocated to US number? He also noted that post is “working hard to process SIV applicants and have interviewed more than 1600 along with their family members since April.”
Note that “interviewed” does not mean the case was approved or that the visa was issued.
If there are “approximately 18,000 Afghan principal applicants at some stage of this process as of May of 2021” — that 18,000 figure is not the final number needing visas as that does not include the count for family members who may qualify for derivative status based on the principal applicants.
Also if all US troops must be gone by August 31st, and Embassy Kabul did interview 1,600 SIV applicants for the last three months, how is it going to tackle the rest of the backlog before time’s up? We really want to now how many visas were also issued during the last three months.
But let’s just say there are 18,000 applicants waiting to be processed — 1,600 interviews in three months means 6,400 cases a year. That means, they won’t get anywhere near 18,000 – well, 17,600 until the first quarter of 2024, if we go by that number. And that’s just the interviews. What’s the refusal rate for this type of visas?
Another scenario, of course, is that Embassy Kabul may have a larger processing capacity for SIVs that was impacted by COVID, and that post can actually process more than 1,600 interviews in three months. But we won’t know what’s that going to be like until the operation returns to normal. Given the recent COVID outbreak at post, what’s normal going to be like?
We should note that for FY2020, the State Department issued a total of 8,722 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs); this includes 7,878 SIVs for Afghanistan. In FY2019, 11,384 SIVs were issued worldwide, including 9,805 for Afghanistan. In FY2016, 16,176 SIVs were issued including 2,270 for Iraq, and 12,298 for Afghanistan.
(3/3) We are working hard to process SIV applications and have interviewed more than 1,600 along with their family members since April. Now that immigrant visa interviews have restarted, we look forward to seeing many more applicants in our Embassy.
— Chargé d’Affaires Ross Wilson (@USAmbKabul) July 12, 2021
13 Going on 14 — GFM: https://gofund.me/32671a27
On May 24, the Justice Department unsealed charges against two diplomats from Chad who were previously assigned to WashDC and Canada for international bribery and money laundering scheme.
Excerpt from DOJ’s announcement:
An indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C. was unsealed on May 20, 2021, charging the Republic of Chad’s former Ambassador to the United States and Canada and Chad’s former Deputy Chief of Mission for the United States and Canada with soliciting and accepting a $2 million bribe from a Canadian start-up energy company, and conspiring to launder the bribe payment in order to conceal its true nature.
According to court documents, Mahamoud Adam Bechir and Youssouf Hamid Takane engaged in this scheme between August 2009 and July 2014, while serving as diplomats based out of the Embassy of Chad located in Washington, D.C. According to the indictment, Bechir and Takane demanded the bribe from the Canadian start-up energy company in exchange for a promise to misuse their official positions and their influence with the government of Chad to assist the start-up energy company in obtaining oil rights in Chad. Naeem Tyab, a citizen of Canada and founding shareholder of the start-up energy company, who served as a director of the company from 2009 through 2011, is also charged in the indictment for allegedly arranging for the bribe to be paid to Bechir’s wife, co-defendant Nouracham Bechir Niam, via a sham contract for consulting services that she never actually provided. In addition to the $2 million bribe payment, the start-up energy company also issued shares in the company to Niam, to Takane’s wife, and to a third Chadian individual, as part of the bribe, according to the indictment.
All four defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, and Bechir, Takane, and Niam are also charged with money laundering, each of which carries a maximum potential penalty of 20 years in prison. Niam and Tyab are also charged with conspiracy to violate the FCPA, which carries a maximum potential penalty of five years in prison. The indictment in this case was returned by the grand jury in February 2019. Tyab was arrested in the Southern District of New York on Feb. 9, 2019, and subsequently, on April 30, 2019, he entered a guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA. As part of his guilty plea, Tyab agreed to forfeit criminal proceeds of approximately $27 million. The Honorable Richard J. Leon will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors. The remaining three defendants remain at large.
The Criminal Division’s Fraud Section is responsible for investigating and prosecuting all FCPA matters. Additional information about the Justice Department’s FCPA enforcement efforts can be found at www.justice.gov/criminal/fraud/fcpa.
An indictment is merely an allegation and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
Read here in full.
🇷🇺🇹🇩 Le 19 mai, Mikhaïl Bogdanov, Représentant spécial du Président de la Russie pour le Moyen-Orient et les pays d'Afrique, Vice-Ministre russe des Affaires étrangères, a reçu en audience Mahamoud Adam Bechir, Ambassadeur du Tchad à Moscou.
— Russie au Bénin et Togo 🇷🇺 (@AmbRusBen) May 21, 2021
Chad's new ambassador to #Russia Mahamoud Adam Bechir has been formally charged by US prosecutors with accepting a $2 million bribe from a Canadian start-up energy company, and conspiring to launder the bribe payment in order to conceal its true nature. https://t.co/HnOAGu9wSt
— Fred Muvunyi (@MuvunyiF) May 25, 2021
— Michel Arseneault (@miko75011) January 27, 2013
13 Going on 14 — GFM: https://gofund.me/32671a27
Below from Sender A:
State is forcing teenage EFMs 14 and up to forcibly quarantine separately from their families in China. Imagine PCS’ing to a new post and being told the 14 year old child had to quarantine for two weeks alone in a hotel room separated from their parents. How did L sign off on this? This is a legal nightmare waiting to unfold. What 14 year old should be locked alone in a room for two weeks and have all their food brought to them…. no food delivery allowed. What if the child struggles from 14 days of isolation?
- EFMs (Eligible Family Members) — an individual related to a US Government employee, listed on the travel orders of a direct-hire Foreign, Civil, or uniformed service member assigned to or stationed abroad with a USG agency that is under COM authority
- PCS – Permanent Change of Station
- L – Office of Legal Adviser, currently with an Acting Legal Adviser
We’ve learned previously from a separate source that the Department is requiring employees to fulfill local quarantine rules on arrival in a country, as they apply to diplomats. That’s expected. It would not want the perception of skirting local rules amidst a global pandemic. Back in March, when Mainland China news alleged that the US staffers claimed diplomatic immunity to avoid quarantine in Hong Kong, the State Department pushed back and called it “absolutely false.”
A former ambassador pointed out that Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations states that “Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State.” The former official noted that under the normal course of events, an undertaking to quarantine within the embassy premises would normally be agreeable to the local authorities.
We understand that some countries have even waived them for diplomats or allowed diplomats to do it at their embassy quarters. We’re talking about quarantine at entry as opposed to an isolation required due to illness. But not China. One source called its entry requirements, the “most onerous.” The quarantine is reportedly for all “regardless of test status.” We were informed that this involves “something like 14 days in a hotel in the arrival city and then a stay at home for another 7 days in your destination city, with multiple tests along the way.”
The EAP bureau and Mission China were supposedly communicating to FS people relocating to China what the requirements are and what they should expect. The rules are “rigid and exacting” we were told. We understand that a particularly egregious requirement is that couples have to quarantine separately. We were, however, told that the United States had supposedly “received earlier assurances” from the Chinese that in situation where kids are involved, at least one parent would be able to stay with the children.
So, if teens are now being quarantined alone, and separate from the parent/parents — what happened?
- 1) Is this a case of arbitrary enforcement of local laws?
- 2) If they’re separating 14 year olds from their parents for the quarantine, why is 14 the magic number?
- 3) So the host country just now decided not to follow through with its prior assurances, why?
- 4) Was this so unexpected EAP and Mission China did not get a chance to forewarn incoming FS families?
- 5) Did State/L sign off on this? If yes, why?If not, what is it going to do about it – just let families bear it?
- 6) USG and China must have exchanged Diplomatic Notes, what’s in it?
Excerpt from US Mission China’s COVID-19 Information updated on April 20, 2021:
All travelers, including U.S. citizens who enter China, are screened upon arrival and subject to a minimum 14-day quarantine. While restrictions around domestic travel within China have eased, local quarantine requirements can vary significantly between cities, and regulations can change very quickly. All international arrivals should be prepared to complete quarantine at a government-selected facility or hotel at their own expense, with no control over the amenities, even if they maintain a residence in China. Cities and provinces within China may also require quarantine for domestic travelers, regardless of nationality.
The US Consulate General in Hong Kong has an update dated May 10:
Starting May 12, 2012, fully vaccinated individuals will be able to reduce their quarantine by 7 days. Fully vaccinated travelers from the United States will complete 14 days in a designated quarantine hotel and then self-monitor the remaining 7 days. For full information about reduced quarantine, please see the Hong Kong government’s press release.
When we previously blogged about quarantine, the former ambassador also pointed out that our relations with the Chinese “have involved scapegoating them for their failure instantly to recognize and act to control the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, coupled with all sorts of conspiracy theories and uncouth accusations by our former secretary of state and others. So, it would not be surprising that they would not cut us much slack.”
What else is going on between US and China the last couple of months?
On April 8, 2021, the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) added seven Chinese supercomputing entities to the Entity List for conducting activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.
On May 10, the SFRC approved S. 1169 Strategic Competition Act of 2021 signaling bipartisan support in “laying out a strategic approach towards Beijing – and assuring that the United States is positioned to compete with China across all dimensions of national and international power for decades to come”.
- US Consulate General Hong Kong Staffers and Kids in HK Quarantine Center March 2021
- @StateDept’s Vaccination Efforts For Overseas Posts Under Fire, a Test for @SecBlinken Feb 2021
- U.S. Mission China Bids Farewell to U.S. Consulate General Chengdu July 2020
- China Orders US Consulate Chengdu Closed in Response to Chinese Consulate Houston Closure July 2020
- @StateDept Evacuation Flights From China Heads to Military Bases in CA, CO, TX For 14-Day Quarantine Feb 2020
- U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong and Macau on ‘Voluntary Departure’ Over Covid19 Outbreak Feb 2020
The fundraising campaign is closer to its goal today than yesterday, but it’s not quite there yet. We are grateful to the more than 450 donors who have supported our annual fundraising to-date. We will not run an indefinite campaign, just a few weeks out of the year. Help us meet our goal so we can get back to our regular blogging programming without plugging our fundraising. If you are able to help, please pitch in at GFM: https://gofund.me/32671a27. Thanks – DS
According to the Foreign Affairs Manual, a ‘Service Need Differential’ [SND] is an allowance of 15 percent of base salary for employees serving in Historically-Difficult-to-Staff (HDS) posts with an at least 20 percent hardship differential and a standard two-year tour of duty, when the employee agrees to serve for a third year. Some of the “at least 20 percent” hardship differential posts includes Albania, Azerbaijan, Egypt, a couple posts in China, and more. Djibouti, Ghana, Haiti, Afghanistan, CAR, Cuba, DRC, and some posts in India are in the 25 percent category. Afghanistan, Somalia, Bangladesh, Chad, Iraq, Pakistan are some of the 35 percent hardship posts. The hardship considered includes physical and social isolation; political violence, terrorism and harassment; medical and hospital availability; environmental conditions and sanitation; crime; climate; housing and infrastructure to name some. See more here.
The grievance case below concerns SND payments to a DS agent who served at one of these “historically-difficult-to-staff” posts. Instead of the State Department just acknowledging that a mistake had been made in this case, the State Department made the argument that the grievant, “as a mid-level employee with several years of experience and facing his third overseas assignment” should have known better to ask the right questions. Whoa! The agency is saying, it’s his fault, hey?
Footnote indicates that “with respect to the AO’s [Assignments Officer] indication of the candidate’s SND election in the assignment panel notes, the record indicates that the assignment panel notes did in fact include a comment that grievant’s SND decision was “pending.” However, grievant denies that he made that (or any) SND-related election, or that he communicated to his AO that he had elected to defer his decision until after arrival at post.”
The FSGB decided that the grievance appeal was sustained. The Department was ordered to reimburse grievant for SND he would have received from the date of his arrival at post, consistent with the provisions of the Back Pay Act. 5 U.S. Code § 5596.
Via FSGB Case No. 2020-050
HELD – The Foreign Service Grievance Board found that grievant met his burden to show that the Department failed to implement its Standard Operating Procedure SOP B-22 in the process of assigning him to a Service Need Differential (SND) post, a procedural error that resulted in harmful denial to him of SND payments for a period of time. The grievance was sustained.
CASE SUMMARY – Grievant accepted a handshake for assignment to an SND-designated post. He argued that in the process of assigning him to post, the Department failed to implement any of the “Assignment Procedures” specified in its relevant Standard Operating Procedure, SOP B-22. These included provisions that the Assignment Officer should contact grievant by email, provide information regarding the SND Program (including a specified “standard disclosure” covering SND options and the consequences of each), request the employee to indicate which SND option he/she elects, and relay that election to the assignment panel. The SOP advises that an assignment to an SND-designated post should not be made unless the foregoing provisions are carried out. The assignment panel, on the basis of notes of unspecified origin to the effect that grievant’s SND decision was “pending,” assigned him for a two-year tour-of-duty which made him ineligible for SND unless he should later request, and be granted, an extension of his tour to three years’ duration.
The agency denied that grievant had carried his burden of proving that his Assignment Officer (AO) failed to implement SOP B-22, but that even if the AO had failed to do so, grievant as an experienced, mid-level bidder, should not be absolved of any and all responsibility to understand the SND assignment procedures as they applied to him and to seek clarification and/or assistance if he were confused or concerned about the process. Further, the Department argued that in the agency-level grievance, it had provided to grievant (albeit on different grounds, which are abandoned in the instant grievance appeal), all relief to which he is entitled.
The Board found factually that the provisions of SOP B-22 had not been implemented by the Department in grievant’s case. The Board found further that the language of the Assignment Procedures of SOP B-22 is particularly directive, going as far as to advise that assignment to an SND post should not be made unless its stipulated provisions have been carried out. On the issue of harm, the Board found that the agency’s failure to implement the SOP constituted a significant procedural error which denied grievant the opportunity to receive information, counseling, and assistance stipulated in the policy before the panel assigned him to a two-year non-SND assignment which record evidence established he did not elect. The Board ordered payment of SND from the date of grievant’s arrival at post.
Grievant is an FP-03 Special Agent with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (“DS”) who has worked for the Department since 2012. He is currently serving as an Assistant Regional Security Officer (“ARSO”) at post, his third assignment. The matters grieved in the instant action concern the manner of grievant’s assignment to, and extension at, post, as they impacted his receipt of SND payments.
On January 23, 2019, the Department issued cable , captioned “(PII) TMONE – ASSIGNMENT NOTIFICATION – PERSONNEL ASSIGNMENT ([grievant’s name and social security number redacted] FP-03, 2501, Special Agent) (“TM-1,” “the assignment cable”).3 Among other information pertaining to the position, the TM-1 noted that the assignment was for a 24-month tour with an estimated arrival date at post of August 2019. The cable contained the names of grievant’s Assignment/Training Officer [sic], Assignment Technician, and CDO as points of contact. The TM-1 did not identify the post as an SND- designated post, nor did it provide any information on the SND Program or how to participate therein.
After being informed, in a general manner, of the SND program by colleagues, grievant reached out on November 25, 2019, to post’s human resources officer (“HRO”) by email and requested “procedures to extend for one year and activate SND[.]”5
After repeated attempts by grievant to obtain a decision on his extension request and SND, on June 11, 2020, the Department finally issued a cable approving his extension for a third year at post. The extension approval cable noted that his election of a 36-month tour made him eligible for SND but did not provide further specifics such as what the effective date of SND eligibility was. Grievant subsequently was informed that the SND payments would commence as of the date of the extension approval cable, i.e., June 11, 2020.
On July 20, 2020, grievant filed an agency-level grievance, arguing that the Department’s failure to follow its pre-assignment SOP procedures for SND posts, compounded by subsequent delays in processing his extension request, improperly deprived him of a financial benefit (i.e., timely commencement of SND payments). As a remedy, he sought retroactive payment of SND (with interest) starting from the date of his arrival at post.
On September 24, 2020, the Department issued an agency-level decision, granting the grievance in part, and denying it in part. The deciding official (“DO”) stated that she was not persuaded that grievant had shown that the Department had failed to follow SOP B-22, finding further that grievant should not be “absolve[d] … of any and all responsibility regarding initiation of the SND process.” Grievance Appeal Submission (“Appeal”), Attachment 2 at 5. She therefore denied that part of the grievance. However, while noting grievant’s delay of over six months in initiating his extension request, the deciding official found that the Department had also let the request sit “idly” for three months. She consequently granted partial relief, directing that SND should be paid effective March 10, 2020, the date on which post issued its extension request cable.
State Department’s Oh, Dear/Even If Argument
The Department argues that record evidence shows that when the panel initially assigned grievant to post, the notes on which it relied stated that grievant’s SND decision was pending. This is consistent with the portion of the SOP “which outlines the employee’s right to delay his/her SND decision until after their [sic] arrival at post . . . .” Response at 5. According to the Department, grievant has failed to offer any evidence that the AO did not discuss the SND program with him or inform him about the elections. The absence of any comments in the “Remarks” section of his TM-1 assignment cable (which grievant advances as evidence that he was not properly advised of SND options before he was assigned to post) is not dispositive of a failure by the AO or CDO to implement the SOP.
The Department also argues that even if the AO and/or CDO had failed to implement the SOP (which the Department denies), “[grievant] should not be absolved of any and all responsibility regarding the initiation of his own SND process, especially if he sought to enjoy the benefit of receiving payments as soon as he arrived at post.”13
Also, if you’re going to a post no one wants to go, you should know more than your Assignments Officer?
The Department further argues that grievant, as a mid-level employee with several years of experience and facing his third overseas assignment, should have recognized that he was bidding on an SND post, and if he had any questions about SND bidding procedures, he knew or should have known to contact his AO and/or CDO for guidance and assistance. However, we find the details of the SND program are sufficiently arcane that the Department felt the need to emphasize the special responsibilities of human resources personnel. The language of SOP B-22, which grievant could not have been expected to know as it is not a familiar Department FAM or FAH provision, is quite particular. It bears repeating that the principal provisions of the Assignment Process fall to the AO and that the language is uniformly directive, not permissive. The SOP directs the AO to contact the employee by email, and one practical consequence of this requirement is to ensure that there be an official record of the communication. The SOP states that the purpose of the email is to explain the SND program, and to ask that he/she make an election among the various SND options (including no-SND and deferral of decision). The AO is further directed to “use the following standard disclosure when contacting the employee.” Half a page of stipulated language explaining the three SND options, the implications of each, and the FAM authority follow. As noted supra, the SOP states in bold typeface that “No assignment for an SND-designated post should be made” unless the AO has advised the employee of the SND options and their implications. The totality of the Assignment Procedures language bespeaks a particular intent that it be implemented to ensure that bidders such as grievant, regardless of experience, be informed uniformly of the program and its details. Accordingly, we find that grievant should not have been expected to be aware of the requirements of the SND program but should have been able to rely on the unique expertise of his AO and the requirements assigned to the AO to provide the information needed to make a choice before his assignment began. Having considered all of the resources to which the Department has pointed, we find that absent the AO’s briefing and support mandated by the SOP, the information in the other Department sources would not necessarily be sufficient, and might even have been meaningless, without the provision of that required context.
The Grievance Board Finds “Harm”
The Department argues that grievant has failed to prove harm resulting from any violation of the SOP, as he has not presented any evidence that he wished to elect, or would have elected, a three-year SND tour. Our considered view is that the language of the Assignment Procedures of SOP B-22 is of a particular character that bespeaks a concern that the procedures be implemented. That is understandable, inasmuch as the SND Program exists to incentivize candidates to bid on historically difficult-to-staff posts, and the SOP seems obviously formulated to ensure that candidates make informed choices among the unique options of the SND Program within a transparent process. In the instant case, the Department’s failure to implement the particularly directive provisions of the SOP denied grievant an opportunity that he would have otherwise had, and which the SOP seems clearly crafted to provide, to be contacted in writing (email), counseled on the basis of prescribed standard language regarding the SND options and implications, and to have his election solicited and transmitted to the panel as the basis for assignment; failing the foregoing, the SOP says that an assignment should not be made. The harm then to grievant was the lost opportunity.
We would like to make an observation about this finding. In finding that failure to implement the SOP deprived grievant of the opportunity to elect a three-year SND tour under the SOP Assignment Procedures, we do not seek to supply an answer to the counterfactual- hypothetical question of whether grievant would have elected a three-year tour if the AO had in fact implemented the SOP. We acknowledge that there is no contemporaneous evidence that he would have made that election prior to his arrival at post. Nonetheless, the harm we find is not that grievant was denied SND payments in accord with an inferred election to be paneled for three years, but rather that he was denied a procedural opportunity pointedly stipulated in the SOP when the AO failed to inform him about the SND Program and solicit his election after he accepted the handshake and prior to paneling him to a two-year non-SND tour. We see no alternative remedy to compensate grievant for this harm other than to order SND to be paid from the date of grievant’s arrival at post.
The life of a blog has no certainty. In most cases, a blog has a lifespan better than that of a mayfly. A day. But most blogs do not make it longer than winter bees (six months). We have to-date survived through 26 winter bee seasons! So that’s amazing! Whatever is in the horizon, we are thankful to all of you who made these seasons possible. We are on the last few days of our eight-week annual fundraising. We are grateful to over 400 readers who pitched in since we launched a few weeks ago. If you care what we do here, and you are able to help, please see GFM: https://gofund.me/32671a27. We could use your support. ❤️❤️❤️ D!
On May 2, 2021, Secretary Tony Blinken released a statement for World Press Freedom Day. Excerpt below:
Tomorrow, the United States joins the international community in celebrating World Press Freedom Day. Information and knowledge are powerful tools, and a free and independent press is the core institution connecting publics to the information they need to advocate for themselves, make informed decisions, and hold governmental officials accountable. The United States advocates for press freedom online and offline, and for the safety of journalists and media workers worldwide.
Freedom of expression and access to factual and accurate information provided by independent media are foundational to prosperous and secure democratic societies. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of expression includes the right of all individuals “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The United States is committed to working in partnership with members of the media, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and other concerned governments to support access to information and defend freedom of expression and the brave journalists who face intimidation, harassment, arrest, and violence in exercising their rights.
Regardless of frontier. Well, now, let me tell you a story.
On March 12, 2021, the State Department announced the appointment of former Ambassador Pamela Spratlen as the Senior Advisor to the Health Incident Response Task Force (HIRTF), aka the Havana Syndrome task force reporting directly to the Department’s senior leadership. (See Ambassador Pamela Spratlen Designated as Senior Advisor to Department Health Incident Response Task Force).
On March 13, I sent an email to the State Department asking if I may submit emailed questions for Ambassador Spratlen to respond regarding the Havana Syndrome and the Task Force.
On Monday, March 15, I got a response from the State Department: “Sure you can send along your questions.”
On Tuesday, March 16, I got another email from the State Department: “Yes, you can forward your questions.”
Late on March 16, I forwarded sixteen questions via email for Ambassador Spratlen. See the questions here.
On Wednesday, March 17, the State Department acknowledged receipt of questions sent via email: “Thank you for sending this along.”
Then crickets. Then some more crickets.
On April 5, 2021, I sent a follow-up inquiry.
On April 8, I sent a follow-up to my follow-up.
There was just radio silence.
As often the case, we get an unofficial chirping cricket. Maybe it was the middle of the night, who knows?
No response was forthcoming. Now apparently, “traditionally State has not engaged with anonymous bloggers.”
Whoops! That was so funny I almost died laughing. This blog has been running almost uninterrupted as a pseudonymous blog since 2008. We can tell you for a fact that the State Department has traditionally engaged with this blogger.
Via the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
Anonymous communications have an important place in our political and social discourse. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment. A frequently cited 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission reads:
Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.
These long-standing rights to anonymity and the protections it affords are critically important for the Internet. As the Supreme Court has recognized the Internet offers a new and powerful democratic forum in which anyone can become a “pamphleteer” or “a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.”
The State Department at another time has respected these rights, and has traditionally responded to our inquiries through the years. We’ve covered Foggy Bottom at the tail end of Rice’s tenure, and through Clinton, Kerry, Tillerson, and Pompeo’s tenures. We’ve been around so long, we have a headful of gray follicles to show for it.
In 2017 during Tillerson’s tenure, State suddenly stopped responding to this blog’s inquiries or request for comments. What happened in 2017? Tillerson and his crew caused quite a mess in Foggy Bottom. On April 1, 2017, we wrote Inside @StateDept: Leaked Cable Provides Guidance For ‘America First’ Cost Savings Initiatives to celebrate the time honored tradition of April Fools’ Day. Back in those days, we still had some humor left.
Apparently, the State Department’s leadership at that time not only got really pissed but also lost its damn mind over a joke. This blog was sent a take down email which we published. See Aww, @StateDept Sends Official Take Down Request For April Fools’ Day Cable.
And that was the end of our exciting relationship with the nameless “Senior State Department Officials” who all held office at the Public Affairs bureau. No one from Foggy Bottom’s PA shop ever wrote back to say, we can’t engage with you anymore because my gosh! you’re an anonymous blogger! (For the record, we’re not anonymous, we have a pen name!).
One contact from another bureau eventually told us … so sorry, we’re not allowed to respond to you.
Fast forward to 2021, the new administration came to office. We got exactly one response from the PA shop before the somebodies shut it down and put our emails back in the “do not respond” lock box.
Truth to tell, a non-responsive State Department was not the end of the world. We are not short of unofficial sources, and typically, what we get from our unofficial sources are better information than the carefully crafted PA talking points. Still, there are times when we do need to have the official word of the State Department. There are occasions when we need to have its officials on record on specific issues, or to be accountable for the government’s actions. As Secretary Blinken message for this year’s World Press Freedom say, “Information and knowledge are powerful tools, and a free and independent press is the core institution connecting publics to the information they need to advocate for themselves, make informed decisions, and hold governmental officials accountable.”
And here we are, whether Foggy Bottom likes it or not, we’ve been connecting information with the public since 2008. To the 7th floor folks reading this blog — we may not be the newspaper of record but the Havana Syndrome questions are for this blog’s readers who needed answers to these questions just the same. Why? Because there are no answers from inside the building. Or worse, folks fear retaliation when pursuing answers to questions like these.
So just one last question. Is the State Department, our great defender of First Amendment Rights and World Press Freedom around the world using this blogger’s pseudonymity as an excuse not to answer questions about its own handling of attacks which resulted in injuries among its employees, and god knows who else? See Havana Syndrome Questions @StateDept Refuses to Answer.
The FSGB Annual Report for 2021 mentions a disciplinary case where the Board affirmed the agency’s decision in a case concerning an information security violation (FSGB Case No. 2018-030). So we went and looked up the case which includes Charge 1 for failure to follow proper security procedures:
12 FAM 625.2-2 Removal of Microcomputers, Media and Software
Personnel are prohibited from removing U.S. Government microcomputers or media from Department premises without the prior written approval of the [Information Systems Security Officer] ISSO and additionally, if abroad, the RSO or [Post Security Officer] PSO.
And Charge 2 for failure to safeguard government property:
12 FAM 622.1-7 Protection of Media and Output
… (b)(2) Abroad: Media shipped between posts must be sent at a minimum by controlled shipment.
( c) The data center manager and the system manager must label removable media either UNCLASSIFIED or SBU.
Overview via ROP:
Held – The Department of State (Department, agency) has established via preponderant evidence that grievant violated Department regulation both in removing a Sensitive But Unclassified hard drive from his computer and taking it with him to his next post, and in failing to comply with the requirement to use a controlled shipment in returning it to post. On review, the Board finds that the proposed penalty is reasonable.
Case Summary – Grievant, a removed the Sensitive But Unclassified hard drive from his computer when leaving post in and took it on to his next post without reporting his action or seeking permission from the Information Systems Security Officer or the Regional Security Officer at post. When the RSO in asked him to return the hard drive, grievant mailed it back to post via an uncontrolled shipment, but it never arrived. The Department charged him with Failing to Follow Proper Security Procedures for removing the hard drive without permission, and Failure to Safeguard Government Property, for failing to return the hard drive in conformity with regulatory requirements for a controlled shipment.
Grievant appealed to this Board on the grounds that the Department had failed to prove by preponderant evidence that his stated method of shipment of the hard drive was not, as he contended, compliant with the rules for a controlled shipment; that the Department had failed to take into account the mitigating circumstances of a toxic atmosphere and widespread wrongdoing at post; that the Department had misapplied the appropriate penalty considerations (Douglas factors) and chosen inapposite comparator cases; and that the penalty was disproportionate, as the hard drive was only SBU, in contrast with classified documents involved in the comparator cases.
The Board determined that the Department met its burden of proving the charges of Failure to Follow Proper Security Procedures and Failure to Safeguard Government Property, that the penalty imposed was not inconsistent with comparator cases, and that the Douglas factors were properly applied.
Background via ROP:
Grievant is an FO-02 REDACTED who began his Foreign Service career as an REDACTED in 2001. At the time of the initial event giving rise to this grievance, he was serving as head of the management section in REDACTED a position he held from October 2012 until his voluntary curtailment in September 2013.
During the course of his assignment to REDACTED by his own account, a number of conflicts developed between grievant and the Chargé d’Affaires (Chargé), the General Services Officer (GSO), who reported to grievant, the Regional Security Officer (RSO) and other individuals at post. Grievant became frustrated that officials in Washington were not investigating or otherwise responding adequately, in his view, to his allegations of malfeasance, mismanagement and child abuse against various individuals serving in REDACTED Grievant decided to volunteer for an assignment at REDACTED , that required immediate voluntary curtailment from REDACTED.
Just before his departure from post in September 2013, grievant became concerned that a colleague or colleagues would attempt to retaliate against him for his claimed knowledge of irregularities in post management and individual malfeasance, or that a subordinate would file a grievance based on a negative EER written by grievant. He stated that he wished, in his own defense and to expose mismanagement, to bring with him numerous documents and emails proving his allegations, but was unable to “download” or print them, as they were too big. (The documents he stated he would need for this purpose included a .pst file of all emails he had sent or received in his time at post, as well as a number of other unspecified documents.) He therefore decided, under pressure of time, to remove the SBU hard drive from his computer and take it with him.1
Grievant states that he received oral permission to take the hard drive from a local employee in the IT section, whose name he did not know or remember. He chose not to inform or request permission from the Regional Security Officer (RSO) and the Information Systems Security Officer (ISSO) in REDACTED as required by the FAM, because the ISSO was away from post and grievant thought the RSO would refuse him permission because the documents grievant wanted to preserve implicated the RSO in wrongdoing. He stated that he needed to physically take the hard drive in order to “preserve the data” to potentially present to investigating authorities in Washington, and “my thought was to take everything I could should something come up.”2 He then took the hard drive with him upon departing post. After removing the hard drive and leaving post, grievant took no further action to report to any investigating body the alleged irregularities and malfeasance in REDACTED. He explained to the Deputy Assistant Secretary reviewing the proposed penalty that “since no one seemed to care, I didn’t.”3
A local employee subsequently reported his removal of the hard drive to the RSO. At some unspecified point after grievant’s arrival in REDACTED , the Regional Security Officer in REDACTED contacted him to request return of the hard drive.4 However, despite grievant’s assertions that he attempted to return it, the hard drive never arrived back in REDACTED. At some later point, the RSO reported the incident to Diplomatic Security (DS); in a subsequent DS interview on July 15, 2016, grievant stated that he had “attempted to return the drive via packaging sent back to the [REDACTED Embassy [diplomatic] pouch office on board a post support flight [a supply flight between REDACTED and REDACTED operated by a U.S. contracting company], ….”5 He had no further information during that interview about exactly how or when he had done so, or the current whereabouts of the hard drive.
In its decision, the FSGB concluded:
We therefore find that the Department’s choice of penalty, in a case involving both unauthorized removal of a sensitive item of media, and subsequent failure to return it, as required, via a controlled shipment, resulting in loss of the item and potential compromise of personally identifiable information pertaining to the U.S. diplomats serving abroad, is reasonable.64 The Department has a legitimate interest in ensuring the safeguarding and preservation of sensitive agency materials. As such, there is a clear nexus between the proven charges and the efficiency of the Service.