“Dissent Channel” Message on Syria Policy Signed by 51 @StateDept Officers Leaks

Posted: 2:52 am ET
Updated: 3:55 pm ET


The State Department’s Dissent Channel was created “to allow its users the opportunity to bring dissenting or alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues, when such views cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels or procedures, to the attention of the Secretary of State and other senior State Department officials in a manner which protects the author from any penalty, reprisal, or recrimination.”  Note that management, administrative, or personnel issues that are not significantly related to matters of substantive foreign policy may not be communicated through the Dissent Channel according to the Foreign Affairs Manual.

There is a reason we don’t hear often about the messages sent through the “dissent channel”:

Freedom from reprisal for Dissent Channel users is strictly enforced; officers or employees found to have engaged in retaliation or reprisal against Dissent Channel users, or to have divulged to unauthorized personnel the source or contents of Dissent Channel messages, will be subject to disciplinary action.  Dissent Channel messages, including the identity of the authors, are a most sensitive element in the internal deliberative process and are to be protected accordingly.

Neither the identity of a Dissent Channel user nor the contents of any Dissent Channel message may be shared with anyone outside of the procedures as outlined in 2 FAM 074.1paragraph (b)

We understand that in 1977, the Executive Secretariat logged in some 32 Dissent Channel messages. By contrast, in 2005, you apparently could count by the fingers of one hand the number of Foreign Service professionals who used the Dissent Channel.

In 2009, USA TODAY (October 12, 2009) publicly reported the use of the dissent channel on a USAID program in Pakistan (see Dissent Channel: USAID/Pakistan Program.

Probably, one of the more famous use of the dissent channel was one signed by 20 diplomats on the U.S. policy toward East Pakistan, also known as the Blood Telegram, the subject of the book by Gary Bass.  Archer Blood was our top diplomat in Bangladesh.  He was the Consul General to Dhaka, East Pakistan and was famous for sending the strongly-worded dissent telegram protesting against the atrocities committed in the Bangladesh Liberation War. [See cable: Dissent From U.S. Policy Toward East Pakistan Cable (PDF); Also see Wanted: Patron Saint for Dissenting Diplomats).

On June 16,  NYT’s Mark Lander reports that dozens of diplomats have signed a dissent memo over the administration’s Syria policy, and that a State Department official provided a draft of the dissent memo to the newspaper:

More than 50 State Department diplomats have signed an internal memo sharply critical of the Obama administration’s policy in Syria, urging the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad to stop its persistent violations of a cease-fire in the country’s five-year-old civil war.

The memo, a draft of which was provided to The New York Times by a State Department official, says American policy has been “overwhelmed” by the unrelenting violence in Syria. It calls for “a judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.”

So, what happens next?

According to the regs, the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff (S/P) is responsible for management of the Dissent Channel, including receipt, storage, distribution, and acknowledgment of all Dissent Channel messages received, and drafting, clearance, and timely transmission of all Dissent Channel responses.  Note that Jon Finer, is Secretary Kerry’s Chief of Staff and also the Director of Policy Planning

Immediately upon receipt of all incoming Dissent Channel messages, S/P distributes copies to the Secretary, the Deputy Secretary (Blinken), the Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources (Higginbottom), the Under Secretary for Political Affairs (Shannon), the Executive Secretary, and the Chair of the Secretary’s Open Forum (who is not identified on the state.gov website). The director of S/P may distribute the dissent message to other senior officials in the Department, both for information purposes and for help in drafting a response.  No additional distribution may be made without the authorization of the S/P director.

The Director of Policy Planning is also responsible for acknowledging receipt of a Dissent message within 2 working days and for providing a substantive reply, normally within 30-60 working days.  At the discretion of the Director of the Policy Planning, S/P may also clear replies with other senior Department of State officials.

Will this change the policy on Syria? Don’t count on it.

According to Kal Bird in Dissent in the Foreign Service, the first dissent cable was filed by Jack Perry, protesting the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, on the eve of the Nixon-Brezhnev summit. Perry’s arguments had no impact on the Nixon-Kissinger Vietnam policy. Also this:

The first major test of the dissent channel as a means of not only venting views, but changing policy, came in Cyprus in 1974. In that year of the CIA-sponsored coup d’etat in Nicosia, Thomas Boyatt filed a dissent cable protesting Kissinger’s interventionist policy. Within days Boyatt was fired from his position as director of the Office of Cypriot Affairs. His dissent cable was not answered for five months, and even then, the response was merely an acknowledgment of receipt.

(Note: The Blood telegram is dated April 6, 1971, so while we do not have a date for the Perry cable protesting the 1972 bombing of North Vietnam, the Blood dissent appears to predates the Perry dissent).

Mr. Bird’s article notes that “precisely because few dissent cables have ever changed policy, use of the dissent channel is considered a desperate last resort.”

A “desperate last resort” and might just be the reason why this dissent channel memo was leaked to the New York Times.


What a dissent cable looks like — read Dissent From U.S. Policy Toward East Pakistan Cable via National Security Archive/GWU:



Why did the State Dept add Albright, Powell, and Rice to email saga — for dramatic tension?

Posted: 2:53 am EDT


Last August, we did a timeline of the Clinton email controversy (See Clinton Email Controversy Needs Its Own Cable Channel, For Now, a Timeline).  Also @StateDept Officials on Clinton Private Email Debacle: Yo! Had Been Caught Off Guard? Ay, Caramba!

To recall, this report from WaPo:

But State Department officials provided new information Tuesday that undercuts Clinton’s characterization. They said the request was not simply about general rec­ord-keeping but was prompted entirely by the discovery that Clinton had exclusively used a private e-mail system. They also said they *first contacted her in the summer of 2014, at least three months before **the agency asked Clinton and three of her predecessors to provide their e-mails.

At that time, we wrote this:

If the State Department had first contacted her in the summer of 2014, we have yet to see that correspondence. It was potentially sent sometime in August 2014, three months before the letters to Clinton and predecessors went out in November 12, 2014 from “M” (see below).  Three months is an early call?  C’mon! Secretary Clinton left State in February 2013.
It took six months for three senior State Department officials to tell WaPo that they “had been caught off guard” by the secretary of state’s exclusive use of a private account?  These officials “were concerned by the practice”, so much so that they issued a three month-“early call” in the summer of 2014, 1 year and 6 months after the end of the Clinton tenure.  And we’re only hearing about this concern now, 2 years and 7 months after Secretary Clinton left office?

Well, now we have an email (released via Judicial Watch due to FOIA litigation) from Cheryl Mills to Secretary Kerry’s Chief of Staff David Wade dated August 22, 2014 citing a request made in July 2014 about getting hard copies of the Clinton emails to/from accounts ending in .gov during her tenure at the State Department.  The email was cc’ed to Philippe Raines (former Public Affairs DAS), and Deputy Legal Adviser Richard Visek.

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So it looks like four months after the original request for the emails was made by Secretary Kerry’s chief of staff, the Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy sent a Letter to Hilary Clinton’s representative, Cheryl Mills re: the Federal Records Act of 1950, dated November 12, 2014; to Colin Powell, to Condoleezza Rice; to Madeleine Albright saying in part:

The Department of State has a longstanding and continujng commitment to preserving the history of U.S. diplomacy, established in authorities under the Federal Records Act of 1950. l am writing to you, the representative of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as to representatives of other fonner Secretaries (principals), to request your assistance in further meeting this requirement.


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses for photo at the groundbreaking ceremony for the U.S. Diplomacy Center with former Secretaries of State Henry A. Kissinger, James A. Baker, III, Madeleine K. Albright, Colin L. Powell, and Hillary Rodham Clinton at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC on September 3, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

On March 3, 2015, four months after the Kennedy letter was sent to Mills and eight months after the original request was made by Kerry’s chief of staff to Mills, then deputy spokesperson of the State Department, Marie Harf also said this from the podium:

MS. HARF: … When in the process of updating our records management – this is something that’s sort of ongoing given technology and the changes – we reached out to all of the former secretaries of state to ask them to provide any records they had. Secretary Clinton sent back 55,000 pages of documents to the State Department very shortly after we sent the letter to her. She was the only former Secretary of State who sent documents back in to this request. These 55,000 pages covered her time, the breadth of her time at the State Department.

No mention that the original request was specific to Secretary Clinton.

And the three previous secretaries of state were added here to what … enhance dramatic tension? Oy!

The letter asks for “any records.” Why did they stop at Colin Powell and did not include James Baker, heck why not go all the way to Henry Kissinger, which by the way, would have made the National Security Archive really happy (see The State Department Kissinger Telcons: The Story of a FOIA Request).


@StateDept Process From Document Production to FOIA Website Needs a Flowchart, Please

Posted: 12″25 am EDT


This is from the Civil Action No. 15-cv-123 (RC), Leopold v. U.S. State Department (PDF) related to the Clinton email production mandated by the court. The declaration is by Eric F. Stein who says he serve as a senior advisor and deputy to the Deputy Assistant Secretary on all issues related to GIS offices and programs. “I oversee all aspects of State’s effort to review, process, and produce the non-exempt portions of the emails provided to State by former Secretary Clinton, including the review and referral of documents to appropriate offices and agencies, and the posting of the documents on the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) website every month. I make the following statements based upon my personal knowledge, which in turn is based upon information furnished to me in the course of my official duties.”  Below is an excerpt of the declaration describing the steps  the documents must go through before they are posted on the foia.state.gov website.

4. This declaration describes the steps that these documents must go through in order to be posted on the FOIA website, and, roughly, how much time those steps take, as of the time of the signing of this declaration, in support of State’s proposal to make this interim production on its website on February 13, as of the time of the signing of this declaration. The time estimates in this declaration depend on several variables, but most importantly on the need to continue devoting sufficient resources to completing the remaining 86% of the project by February 29.

5. Posting documents on State’s FOIA website involves several steps, and State’s ability to efficiently carry out these steps is sometimes limited by the available technology and by the availability of personnel who are sufficiently familiar with the technology. The FOIA system where the documents reside, named FREEDOMS, can be extremely rigid and slow, making the necessary steps in the process more time-consuming than one might otherwise expect. For example, as described herein, most steps must be applied document-by-document, as opposed to in an automated or batch fashion.

6. Where, as with the documents that are the subject of this declaration, feedback from the legal review has been provided to the FOIA office, and FOIA staff has modified redactions in FREEDOMS in accordance with that feedback, the final quality control process and posting begins. This process, which cannot be automated, starts with the manual, document-by- document process of removing internal markings that are used for tracking purposes during the review process. It could take anywhere from two to four hours1 to complete this task for the documents that are the subject of this declaration, depending on the availability of staff to do this work.

7. Once this process of removing internal control markings is completed, copies of the documents must be prepared for production. This posting process is an involved one, particularly because the review software resides solely on State’s classified network, and several steps are involved in transferring documents from that system to a public-facing website while still protecting sensitive national security information.

8. The first step of the posting process for the documents is to finalize the redactions on those documents. This is known as “burning” the document. Before any document can be produced, the proposed redactions, which appear in grayscale during the review process, need to be fully “burned” to the document so that the redacted information does not appear in the version produced to the public. It will take about an hour to burn this volume of documents.

9. After “burning” occurs, a system developer works to migrate a copy of the burned document out of FREEDOMS onto another review site on the classified network. It is on this classified review site that FOIA staff performs the final quality control checks. It would take approximately two hours to migrate this volume of documents.

10. Once this migration is complete, the documents must go through a final quality control check, during which State looks for several things. This check ensures that redactions to each document are consistent with redactions made in other documents. For example, many messages appear multiple times as part of longer email chains, and some emails that are not part of the same chain contain similar or identical information. The quality control check also helps ensure that redactions are marked with the proper exemptions. If there is information that is being redacted using the B1 exemption, further administrative steps are required to ensure that information requiring classification is properly marked as such. This includes the application of classification stamps which identify the level of classification of the information in the document; these stamps are checked to ensure that they show the appropriate level of classification. Based on my prior experience managing this process, I estimate that about four hours of quality control check time would be needed for the documents that are the subject of this declaration. If any changes are needed to the documents, another hour or two may be needed since documents would need to be unburned so that they can be changed, and then they would need to be burned again. For any documents on which changes were made, State would need to spend anywhere from one to several minutes reviewing that document and ensuring that those changes were now properly reflected. Thus, the total potential time needed for this process could be upwards of six hours.

11. After the documents have completed this final quality control check, the FOIA office then begins the process of transferring them from the classified system to the unclassified system. This is a manual process, requiring a person to do the transferring, and cannot be automated. The specific details of how this is accomplished implicate systems security concerns, and are not appropriate for discussion in a public filing. This migration process is estimated to take approximately one hour.

12. Once the documents have been transferred to the unclassified system, they must be copied to servers where they will reside when they are posted on State’s public-facing FOIA website. This will take another two hours to complete for these documents.

13. Prior to the website being made “live” and accessible to the public, a web developer works to test for and troubleshoot any problems that may have arisen during the transfer process as well as any issues that may occur when the documents become publicly available. This will require approximately an additional hour to complete. 14. Accordingly, the total amount of time required for the team to complete the posting of the interim production could be upwards of 16 hours, approximately two 8-hour days. State believes that its proposal of making the interim production on Saturday, February 13, provides time to address any additional problems that may arise, as have occurred in the past at this final stage in the process.

Thank heavens this guy is not writing a recipe, or we’d all be in thrown out of the test kitchen already.

Frankly, we’ve read this declaration several times and we are getting a headache trying to understanding how FREEDOMS works. FREEDOMS stands for Freedom of Information Document Management System which apparently tracks all case FOIA opening, processing, and closing (see performance goal from FY2005 that we’ve been able to dig up). The system is not listed on the State Department’s Privacy Impact Assessments nor its System of Record Notices.  With one exception, we have not been able to find anything more on its public website or the foia.state.gov website.  The Federal IT Dashboard lists IT Spending in FY 2015 for A/GIS/IPS FREEDOMS/FREEDOMS2 (014-000000322) at $2.1million.

We did find a description of it from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as follows:

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@StateDept “Looking Good” Sausage Gets Made With “Muscular” Assist From Journalists

Posted: 2:43 am EDT
Updated:1:10 pm EDT


In October last year, Gawker reported this:

Attorneys for the U.S. Department of State have just notified Gawker Media that the agency is once again upgrading its estimate of the number of emails exchanged between news reporters and Philippe Reines, the former State Department spokesperson and multi-purpose consigliere of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As you may recall: In 2013, in response to our Freedom of Information Act request seeking those emails, State officials asserted, bizarrely, that no such emails existed. In August of this year—five months after Gawker filed a lawsuit against State—that estimate increased to 17,855 emails.

… however, the State Department revealed a much larger number in a scheduled hearing before the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.: The department now has in its possession at least 90,000 documents that pertain to correspondence between Reines and other journalists, and would thus be releasable under the Freedom of Information Act.

Yesterday, Gawker says that emails it received in an FOIA litigation “offer a case study” in how Clinton’s “prodigious and sophisticated press operation manipulates reporters into amplifying her desired message—in this case, down to the very word that The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder used to describe an important policy speech.” Philippe Reines was a senior advisor to HRC and a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the State Department during the Clinton tenure.





Ambassador Chas Freeman on Diplomatic Amateurism and Its Consequences

Posted: 3:02 am EDT


Ambassador Chas Freeman did a speech on Diplomatic Amateurism and Its Consequences at Foggy Bottom’s Ralph Bunche Library earlier this month. He also recently spoke about America’s Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East.  We need more people like Ambassador Freeman telling it like it is; unfortunately that often puts people like him in the outs with people who do not want to hear what needs to be said. More often than not, the top ranks have large rooms for obedient groupies and not much room for anyone else.

Below is an excerpt from his diplomatic amateurism speech:

In other countries, diplomacy is a prestigious career in which one spends a lifetime, culminating in senior positions commensurate with one’s talents as one has demonstrated them over the years.  But, in the United States, these days more than ever, the upper reaches of diplomacy are reserved for wealthy dilettantes and celebrities with no prior experience in the conduct of relations with foreign states and peoples, national security policy, or the limitations of the use of force.  Policy positions in our government dealing with such issues are now largely staffed by individuals selected for their interest-group affiliation, identity, or sizable campaign contributions.  These diplomatic neophytes are appointed for the good of the political party with which they are affiliated and to reward their loyal service during political campaigns, not for their ability to do the jobs they are given.  It is assumed that they can learn on the job, then move on after a while to give others a chance at government employment.  But whatever they learn, they take with them when they leave, adding nothing to the diplomatic capacity of our government.

If you tried to staff and run a business or a sports team like this, you’d get creamed by the competition.  If you organized our armed forces this way, you’d be courting certain defeat.  You can judge for yourself how staffing and running a foreign policy establishment through the spoils system is working out for our country now that our margin for error has been reduced by “the rise of the rest” since the end of the Cold War.  Staffing national security policy positions and ambassadorships with people whose ambition greatly outstrips their knowledge and experience is a bit like putting teenagers in charge of risk management while entrusting lifeguard positions to people with no proven ability to swim.  Hit and run statecraft and diplomacy were never wise, but they didn’t matter much when America was isolated from the world or so powerful that it could succeed without really trying.  Neither is the case anymore

The United States is now the only great power not to have professionalized our diplomatic service.  As the trove of diplomatic reporting spewed out by WikiLeaks shows, our career people remain very bright and able. But their supervisors are less prepared to carry out their duties than their counterparts in the diplomatic services of other great and lesser powers.  One of the 20th century’s greatest diplomats, Abba Eban put it this way

“The word ‘ambassador’ would normally have a professional connotation but for the American tradition of ‘political appointees.’ The bizarre notion that any citizen, especially if he is rich, is fit for the representation of his country abroad has taken some hard blows through empirical evidence, but it has not been discarded, nor should the idea of diluting a rigid professionalism with manpower from less detached sectors of society be dismissed out of hand. Nevertheless, when the strongest nation in the world appoints a tycoon or a wealthy hostess to head an embassy, the discredit and frustration is spread throughout the entire diplomatic corps in the country concerned.”

That was in 1983. Quite a bit before that, about 130 years before that, demonstrating that this is indeed a lengthy American tradition, the New York Herald Tribune observed, “Diplomacy is the sewer through which flows the scum and refuse of the political puddle. A man not fit to stay at home is just the man to send abroad.”

These American observations, or observations about American diplomacy, contrast quite strikingly with the views expressed by the classic writer on diplomatic practice, François de Callières. Writing now almost exactly three centuries ago, in 1716, he said:

“Diplomacy is a profession by itself, which deserves the same preparation and assiduity of attention that men give to other recognized professions. The qualities of the diplomatist and the knowledge necessary to him cannot indeed all be acquired. The diplomatic genius is born, not made. But there are many qualities which may be developed with practice, and the greater part of the necessary knowledge can only be acquired by constant application to the subject.

“In this sense, diplomacy is certainly a profession, itself capable of occupying a man’s whole career, and those who think to embark upon a diplomatic mission as a pleasant diversion from their common task only prepare disappointment for themselves and disaster for the cause that they serve. The veriest fool would not entrust the command of an army to a man whose sole badge of merit was his eloquence in a court of law or his adroit practice of the courtier’s art in the palace. All are agreed that military command must be earned by long service in the army. In the same manner, it must be regarded as folly to entrust the conduct of negotiations to an untrained amateur.”

There is indeed every reason for diplomacy to be a learned profession in the United States, like the law, medicine, or the military.  But it isn’t.  When top positions are reserved for people who have not come up through the ranks, it’s difficult to sustain diplomacy as a career, let alone establish and nurture it as a profession.  Professions are human memory banks.  They are composed of individuals who profess a unique combination of specialized knowledge, experience, and technique.  They distill their expertise into doctrine – constantly refreshed – based on what their experience has taught them about what works and what doesn’t.  Their skills are inculcated through case studies, periodic training, and on-the-job mentoring.  This professional knowledge is constantly improved by the critical introspection inherent in after-action reviews.

In the course of one’s time as a foreign service officer, one acquires languages and a hodgepodge of other skills relevant to the conduct of foreign relations.  If one is inclined to reflect on one’s experience, one begins to understand the principles that undergird effective diplomacy, that is the arts of persuading others to do things our way, and to get steadily better at practicing these arts.  But, in the U.S. foreign service, by contrast with – let’s say – the military, there is no systematic professional development process, no education in grand strategy or history, no training in tactics or operational technique derived from experience, no habit of reviewing successes and failures to improve future performance, no literature devoted to the development of operational doctrine and technique, and no real program or commitment to the mentoring of new entrants to the career.  If one’s lucky, one is called to participate in the making of history.  If one is not, there is yet a great deal to learn from the success or failure of the diplomatic tasks to which one is assigned.

As an aside, I also don’t believe that, as an institution, the Department of State now understands the difference between bureaucrats and professionals.  (I’m not sure it ever did.)   Both have their place in foreign affairs but the two are quite different.  Bureaucrats are trained to assure uniform decisions and predictable outcomes through the consistent interpretation and application of laws, regulations, and administrative procedures.  Professionals, by contrast, are educated to exercise individual, ad hoc judgments, take actions, and seek outcomes autonomously on the basis of principles and canons of behavior derived from experience.  They are expected to be creative, not consistent, in their approach to the matters in their charge.


There is an obvious alternative to this bleak scenario.  That is that the secretary of state – this secretary of state, who is the son of a foreign service office and who has personally demonstrated the power of diplomacy to solve problems bequeathed to him by his predecessors – will recognize the need for the U.S. diplomatic service to match our military in professionalism and seek to make this his legacy.  In the end, this would demand enlisting the support of Congress but much could be done internally.

Read in full here:  http://chasfreeman.net/diplomatic-amateurism-and-its-consequences/

AFSA’s media digest failed to include Ambassador Freeman’s event in its daily digest for members. But AFSA members got a nice treat with the inclusion of Taylor Swift: America’s Best Public Diplomat? as reading fare.



Related posts:

Too Quick on the Draw: Militarism and the Malpractice of Diplomacy in America

Lessons from America’s Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East


@StateDept’s Problematic Information Security Program and Colin Powell’s Wired Diplomatic Corps

Posted: 2:10 am EDT



Via the AP:

Clinton approved significant increases in the State Department’ information technology budgets while she was secretary, but senior State Department officials say she did not spend much time on the department’s cyber vulnerabilities. Her emails show she was aware of State’s technological shortcomings, but was focused more on diplomacy.
Emails released by the State Department from her private server show Clinton and her top aides viewed the department’s information technology systems as substandard and worked to avoid them.

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click here to view pdf file

The report does not include specific details on the “significant increases” in the IT budget. Where did it go? Why did the Clinton senior staff suffer through the State Department’s antiquated technology without any fixes?

In contrast, here is Colin Powell’s Wired Diplomatic Corps:

Another disturbing aspect of State Department life prior to 2001 was the poor condition of its information technology (IT). Independent commissions warned the organization’s computer networks were “perilously close to the point of system failure” and “the weakest in the U.S. government.” Inadequate funding, concerns over IT security, and simple bureaucratic inertia were all contributing factors. Powell came to an institution in which his employees relied on an antiquated cable messaging system, slow, outdated computers and as many as three separate networks to do their daily work. At several posts diplomats did not enjoy full access to the Internet or the department’s classified network. Such realities were troubling for a new secretary of state, who had served on American Online’s board of directors and considered Internet access an indispensable resource in his own daily life. Powell believed effective twenty-first diplomacy necessitated a modern communications system at State and made its establishment a top priority.

As with embassy construction and security, Powell successfully garnered the financial resources to make substantial quantitative and qualitative improvements in the organization’s information technology. For instance, a secure unclassified computer network with full Internet access was extended to 43,500 desktops during his tenure, making the State Department a fully wired bureaucracy for the first time in its history. This goal was reached in May 2003, under budget and ahead of schedule. Shortly thereafter a modernized classified network was installed at 224 embassies and consulates — every post that the Bureau of Diplomatic Security deemed eligible for such technology. In addition, a Global IT Modernization (GIT-M) program was launched to ensure that all computer hardware is kept state-of-the-art through an aggressive, four-year replacement cycle. Other changes equipped the institution with cutting-edge mainframes, updated secure telephones, and wireless emergency communication systems. Most recently, the State Department began under Powell’s leadership to replace its decades old cable and e-mail systems with one modern, secure, and fully integrated messaging and retrieval system.

These impressive technological changes were complemented by the creation of a new 10-person office for e-Diplomacy in 2002. The unit was established to support State’s information revolution by finding ways to increase organizational efficiency through information technology, making the newly installed systems user-friendly, and continuing to identify new ways to send, store and access information. Furthermore, IT security was enhanced considerably. One department report indicated that by August 2004, 90.4 percent of State’s operational systems had been fully authorized and certified, earning the department OMB’s highest rating for IT improvement under the President’s Management Agenda (PMA). In part, achievements of this type were facilitated through Powell’s hiring of 530 new IT specialists (while controlling for attrition). Through an aggressive recruitment and retention program based on incentives and bonuses, the department’s vacancy rate for such positions, which was “over 30 percent five years ago, [was] essentially eliminated.” As with congressional relations and embassy construction and security, State’s information technology was enhanced significantly under Powell’s leadership.

Read in full here via American Diplomacy — The Other Side of Powell’s Record by Christopher Jones.

So, among the more recent secretaries of state, one stayed home more than most. Secretary Powell knew the IT systems were substandard and he went about making the fixes a priority; he did not hand it off to “H” to lobby Congress or simply talked about the State Department’s “woeful state of civilian technology.” 

Below is a clip from OIG Steve Linick’s Management Alert for recurring information system weaknesses spanning FY2011-FY2013.  The actual FISMA reports do not seem to be publicly available at this time:

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The FISMA audit dated October 2014 says:

[T]he Chief Information Security Officer stated that the Bureau of Information Resource Management, Office of Information Assurance (IRM/IA), received a budget of $14 million in FY 2014, an increase from $7 million in FY 2013.6 A majority of the budget was used for contractor support to improve FISMA compliance efforts.

We identified control deficiencies in all [Redacted] (b) (5)  of the information security program areas used to evaluate the Department’s information security program. Although we recognize that the Department has made progress in the areas of risk management, configuration management, and POA&M since FY 2013, we concluded that the Department is not in compliance with FISMA, OMB, and NIST requirements. Collectively, the control deficiencies we identified during this audit represent a significant deficiency to enterprise-wide security, as defined by OMB Memorandum M-14-04.

We have been unable to find the FISMA reports during all of Rice, Clinton and Kerry tenures. We’ll keep looking.



We Meant Well, Afghanistan Edition: Ghost Students, Ghost Teachers, Ghost Schools, Ugh!

Posted: 1:16 am  PDT




Over and over, the United States has touted education — for which it has spent more than $1 billion — as one of its premier successes in Afghanistan, a signature achievement that helped win over ordinary Afghans and dissuade a future generation of Taliban recruits. As the American mission faltered, U.S. officials repeatedly trumpeted impressive statistics — the number of schools built, girls enrolled, textbooks distributed, teachers trained, and dollars spent — to help justify the 13 years and more than 2,000 Americans killed since the United States invaded.

But a BuzzFeed News investigation — the first comprehensive journalistic reckoning, based on visits to schools across the country, internal U.S. and Afghan databases and documents, and more than 150 interviews — has found those claims to be massively exaggerated, riddled with ghost schools, teachers, and students that exist only on paper. The American effort to educate Afghanistan’s children was hollowed out by corruption and by short-term political and military goals that, time and again, took precedence over building a viable school system. And the U.S. government has known for years that it has been peddling hype.
USAID program reports obtained by BuzzFeed News indicate the agency knew as far back as 2006 that enrollment figures were inflated, but American officials continued to cite them to Congress and the American public.

As for schools it actually constructed, USAID claimed for years that it had built or refurbished more than 680, a figure Hillary Clinton cited to Congress in 2010 when she was secretary of state. By 2014, that number had dropped to “more than 605.” After months of pressing for an exact figure, the agency told BuzzFeed News the number was 563, a drop of at least 117 schools from what it had long claimed.

Last week, we were looking for clinics.

What’s next … ghost soldiers? Oops, that’s already an old story?


OPM Director Writes Investigation “Update” on Data Breach on July 4th, 8 p.m. Yawn. Rumble Burble CYA

Posted: 3:14 am  EDT


Katherine Archuleta who remains OPM director following the drip, drip, drip reports on the OPM data breach wrote a blog post at 8 pm on Saturday, July 4th, updating the “hardworking Federal workforce” on the “Cyberintrustion Investigation.”

The update does not provide any real update on the investigation, except to say they hope to have something this week. Two sentences on the investigation from an eight para message. Oy!

The purpose of the message appears to be — to show that the director is working on a Federal holiday. At 8 pm, too. While you all are celebrating the Fourth of July, the OPM director who is “as concerned about these incidents as you are,” is writing a blog post, and talking about the “tireless efforts” of her team. She wants folks to know that she “shares your anger,” and that she remains “committed to improving the IT issues that have plagued OPM for decades.” She also writes that she is “committed to finishing the important work outlined” in her Strategic IT Plan.

Hey, no one is personally responsible for this breach except the hackers, and it looks like Ms. Archuleta is committed enough that she won’t be going anywhere. No, not even to go back in time.

Here’s the part of her message that gave me a nasty headache. She writes, “I encourage you to take some time to learn about the ways you can help protect your own personal information.” 

Ay, holy molly guacamole!

May I also encourage OPM to take some time to learn about the ways it can help protect the personal information of Federal employees, job applicants, retirees and contractors, and their family members, because why not? See this timeline:


Cybersecurity is already a priority in our lives and work. We’re all in this great mess because it wasn’t a priority for OPM.  I certainly welcome more substantive details of this breach but these updates that are nothing more than rumble burble CYA are mighty useless, and they don’t do  anything to improve my perception of OPM or its leadership.

Dear White House. Please.Make.Her.Stop.


Via opm.gov

As our hardworking Federal workforce enjoys a much-deserved holiday weekend, I want to share a quick update on the ongoing investigation into the recent theft of information from OPM’s networks.

For those individuals whose data may have been compromised in the intrusion affecting personnel records, we are providing credit monitoring and identity protection services. My team has worked with our identity protection contractor to increase staff to handle the large volume of calls, and to dramatically reduce wait times for people seeking services. As of Friday, our average wait time was about 2 minutes with the longest wait time being about 15 minutes.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of my team at OPM and our inter-agency partners, we also have made progress in the investigation into the attacks on OPM’s background information systems. We hope to be able to share more on the scope of that intrusion next week, and in the coming weeks, we will be working hard to issue notifications to those affected.

I want you to know that I am as concerned about these incidents as you are. I share your anger that adversaries targeted OPM data. And I remain committed to improving the IT issues that have plagued OPM for decades.

One of my first priorities upon being honored with the responsibility of leading OPM was the development of a comprehensive IT strategic plan, which identified security vulnerabilities in OPM’s aging legacy systems, and, beginning in February 2014, embarked our agency on an aggressive modernization and security overhaul of our network and its systems. It was only because of OPM’s aggressive efforts to update our cybersecurity posture, adding numerous tools and capabilities to our networks, that the recent cybersecurity incidents were discovered.

I am committed to finishing the important work outlined in my Strategic IT Plan and together with our inter-agency partners, OPM will continue to evaluate and improve our security systems to make sure our sensitive data is protected to the greatest extent possible, across all of our networks.

We are living in an era where cybersecurity must be a priority in our lives at work and at home. I encourage you to take some time to learn about the ways you can help protect your own personal information. There are many helpful resources available on our website.

I’m wishing you a safe and relaxing 4th of July weekend.


State Department’s Visa Systems Now Operational at 165 of 220 Posts Worldwide

Posted: 1:56 am  EDT


The State Department’s Consular Consolidated Database problems that affected travelers globally is is now back online at 165 of 220 visa issuance posts worldwide.  The latest update does not explain in details the cause of the glitch except to cite the hardware issue.  It also says that service was restored “using a redundant, secondary backup system and other sources.”  It does not explain what “other sources” mean but if it took at least 9 days to get that redundant, secondary back-up system to kick in, that’s not a very good system.

The Consular Affairs-issued FAQ asks how many people were affected by this outage? The answer it provides to this question is neither here nor there.  Folks, if you can’t answer your own question, please don’t include it.

According to travel.state.gov, the average visa applications processed every day worldwide is 50,000 x 9 days (June 9-19)=450,000 + 25,000 (half the average daily applications) x 4 days (June 22-25) = 100,000. Total number potentially affected 550,000.  Is that close enough?

The June 25 update says that if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 540,000 visas since the outage started. Whoa! Help us out here. What kind of refusal/approval rates are we looking at here? That 540,000 figure is a little hinky because not all applicants who apply are issued visas. If it would have issued 540,000  visas, what would have been the total number of applicants?  Note that all of them must pay the visa fees. We estimate that the USG loss from this latest glitch is between $72 to $84 million (average daily applications globally x no. of days x $160 visa fee). Is that too low?

Meanwhile, StarrFMonline.com reported that the US Embassy in Accra, has “dismissed reports that it is ripping Ghanaians off by accepting visa fees in spite of the visa issuance imbroglio that has hit US embassies across the world.” The consular section chief  had to explain that “if anybody was refused a visa, that was because of the case and has nothing to do with our technical issues.”


On June 24, the Bureau of Consular Affairs reports that 50 posts, representing nearly 73 percent of its  nonimmigrant visa demand worldwide, are back online and issuing visas.  It also says that “posts overseas have issued more than 150,000 non-immigrant visas since June 9.” And that for context, if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 450,000 visas during the June 9-23 timeframe.

On June 25, the Bureau of Consular Affairs reports that 165 posts, representing more than 85 percent of nonimmigrant visa demand worldwide, are now online and issuing visas.  The update says that if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 540,000 visas since the outage started.

Via travel.state.gov, June 25 update:

Visa Systems Issues

  • The Bureau of Consular Affairs reports that 165 posts, representing more than 85 percent of our nonimmigrant visa demand worldwide, are now online and issuing visas. 

  • Posts overseas issued more than 82,000 visas on June 24. 

  • Posts overseas have issued more than 238,000 non-immigrant visas this week. For context, if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 540,000 visas since the outage started. 

  • We will continue to bring additional posts online until connectivity with all posts is restored. All posts worldwide are now scheduling interviews with applicants, including with those who applied after the systems problems began on June 9.

  • We deeply regret the inconvenience to travelers who are waiting for visas, as well as their families and U.S. businesses that have been affected.

  • We continue to post updates to our website, travel.state.gov.


Q: Reports indicate that your backlog is 700,000 visas. Is this accurate?

No. While there is a large backlog of cases to clear, it never approached that level, and we have already made good progress issuing those visas. Many posts are working overtime this week and during the upcoming weekend, and we expect to eliminate the backlog in a week or less.

Q: How old is this equipment? And does the age of the equipment and the need to have so many repairs to the hardware mean that this equipment should have been replaced? Is this a funding issue at the base of it?

The hardware that impacted the biometrics system is several years old. The Department was working to move the biometrics system off of this hardware.

The operational requirements to keep this database running for domestic and overseas passport and visa issuances caused delays in upgrading the database according to our planned maintenance schedule.

We have been working to upgrade our systems over the past year.

We will move ahead with planned migration and systems upgrades as soon as we fully restore service.

Q: How did you restore service?

We restored service using a redundant, secondary backup system and other sources. That data allowed us to begin to re-connect posts to the affected portion of the system and synchronize biometric data. This system is running on newer hardware, and has a synchronized standby system in a different Department data center.

In parallel, we are continuing to restore data from backups and overseas post databases. This process is ongoing.

Q: Do you know whether this is equipment that was acquired directly by the State Department, or was this acquired through a third-party contractor?

The equipment was acquired by the Department of State.

Q: How many people were affected by this outage?

During the past two weeks, consular sections have continued to interview travelers who applied June 8 or earlier. Those posts reconnected to our system are now issuing visas for those applicants.

Q: How are cases being prioritized?

We continue to facilitate urgent cases for those individuals who need to travel imminently, and will continue to do so until the systems are normal.

We apologize to travelers and recognize that this has caused hardship to some individuals waiting for visas as well as families and employers.

Q: What about the foreign agricultural workers (H2A visa holders?)

More than 2,500 temporary or seasonal workers have been issued new visas in Mexico since last week.

We will continue to prioritize H-2 applicants as our systems return to normal, and issue as many approved cases as possible. However, we will not be able to process these as quickly as we typically do until our systems are functioning normally. We continue to ask that any employers with urgent needs contact the post which is processing their applicants and we will do everything we can to facilitate the cases.

We are no longer asking CBP to provide Port of Entry waivers, as we have now begun issuing visas at border posts.

Visa applicants, including agricultural workers, who have not received a visa should not report to the border. Please contact the nearest embassy or consulate.

Read more here.

Tweet of the Day: The Truth Behind The Afghanistan ‘Success Story’

Posted: 1:32 am EDT



Looking at an American intervention that’s going to end, not with a bang, but on a deadline, it can be tough to find the silver lining.

This week Forbes contributor Loren Thompson tried to do that in a piece called “Five Signs Afghanistan Is Becoming An American Success Story,” making the case that staying the course in Afghanistan is “paying off.” His premise that Americans can hold their head high on Afghanistan is based on five points: the solid performance of Afghan forces, the country’s improved political climate, Islamabad’s renewed interest in cooperating with Kabul, a booming Afghan economy, and popular support for Afghanistan’s national institutions. It’s a concise, readable assessment, with one problem: The country Thompson describes doesn’t exist.

Gary Owen is a veteran, development worker, and blogger at “Sunny in Kabul.” He is also a regular contributor to the Afghan Analysts Network and Vice News. Gary Owen is a pseudonym. Follow Gary Owen on Twitter @elsnarkistani.