Watch Out! Hatch Act Snares HUD Secretary Julián Castro, Other Federal Employees

Posted: 3:38 am ET

 

On July 18, 2016, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) announced its finding that Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro violated the Hatch Act during a Yahoo News interview on April 4, 2016. According to OSC’s report, Secretary Castro’s statements during the interview “impermissibly mixed his personal political views with official agency business despite his efforts to clarify that some answers were being given in his personal capacity.”

OSC apparently conducted an investigation after receiving a complaint about the interview. The OSC stresses that “federal employees are permitted to make partisan remarks when speaking in their personal capacity, but not when using their official title or when speaking about agency business.” The investigation concludes:

While the Hatch Act allows federal employees, including cabinet secretaries, to express their personal views about candidates and political issues as private citizens, it restricts employees from using their official government positions for partisan political purposes. In passing this law, Congress intended to promote public confidence in the Executive branch by ensuring that the federal government is working for all Americans without regard to their political views. Despite his efforts to clarify that he was speaking only for himself and not as a HUD official when answering political questions, Secretary Castro’s statements impermissibly mixed his personal political views with official government agency business.

OSC’s report can be found here (PDF) or read it below.  Secretary Castro’s response can be found here (PDF).

Take note of these other cases:

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CIA Officer Declared as @StateDept Officer at Consulate Milan Faces Extradition to Italy

Posted: 1:33 pm ET

 

Via WaPo:

More than 13 years after an Egyptian cleric was kidnapped off the streets of Milan by CIA operatives, one former agency officer now living in Portugal faces extradition to Italy and the possibility of a four-year prison sentence for the abduction — an outcome that a former agency historian describes as “unprecedented.”

Sabrina De Sousa, 60, was one of 26 Americans convicted in absentia by Italian courts for her alleged role in the February 2003 rendition of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar.
[…]
De Sousa’s extradition and potential imprisonment would be an astonishing turn of events for a case that raises major questions about how much diplomatic protection CIA case officers abroad possess when carrying out operations sanctioned by their superiors. During her CIA tenure, De Sousa was registered in Italy as a State Department officer at the U.S. consulate in Milan. She did not work as a “NOC” — a non-official cover operative.

“Those of us who were convicted were accredited diplomats and declared to the Italian government,” De Sousa said. “We instead find ourselves treated like NOCs with our U.S. government affiliation disavowed. I would have never joined the CIA if I was told there was a remote possibility that I would never see my mother in Goa again and not travel abroad. This has set a terrible precedent. This rendition was funded by Congress with approval of senior government officials in the U.S., Italy and Egypt.”

It all began on Feb. 17, 2003, when two men snatched Omar while he was walking to a mosque in Milan and stuffed him into a van. The cleric was flown to Egypt where he was beaten and subjected to electric shock , but eventually released. It wasn’t until early 2005 when reports surfaced that Italian authorities were investigating the CIA officers for breaking local laws against detaining terrorist suspects in Europe.
[…]
In early 2009, De Sousa resigned from the CIA, after failed bids to persuade the State Department to grant her immunity.

 

 

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Sherman Funk: This story sounds incredible, but it is absolutely true (Via ADST)

Posted: 12:17 am EDT

 

The Foreign Relations Authorization Act for fiscal years 1986 and 1987 (P.L. 99-93) amended the IG Act to include the Department of State and the Foreign Service. The Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986, (P.L. 99-399) required the establishment of an independent OIG at State by October 1, 1986. The OIG was established on August 27, 1986.  Sherman M. Funk was the State Department Inspector General from 1987–1994 . He served under four secretaries of state (Schultz, Baker, Eagleburger and Christopher).

Below is an excerpt from Mr. Funk’s oral history via ADST.

There’s a story which nobody believes that is absolutely true and people are still in jail as a result of it, the Japanese. This story sounds incredible, but it is absolutely true. When they built the new embassy in Tokyo, and a compound, the specifications called for two manholes on access points in the rear courtyard where the oil tank was buried. Nobody thought of asking why you needed two. And the embassy opened, and shortly after it opened the truck appeared, a big oil tank truck, guys wearing uniforms driving it. And the night before the security called in and said that they were getting oil, and they went through and opened up one of the manholes, put a hose down and they filled the tank. A couple days later another truck appeared in the morning, also a call to come through saying we were getting a delivery. Nobody thought of asking why deliveries so close. The truck came in, opened up the other manhole and put a thing down and it was true half of the oil had been pumped in a couple days before.

This went on for sixteen years, and in the sixteen years only one person, a young assistant GSO, ever inquired why we were buying so much oil. One person. And the admin counselor called in the senior FSN, the GSO type, and said make a study of why we’re spending so much money. The guy came back with the report that the weather is so volatile here, we have equipment which needs the oil. The person who did that report was the guy in charge of the scam. Toward the end one of the workers got disgruntled, that he wasn’t getting enough money on the scam, and went to the assistant security officer, our assistant regional officer, and said that, “You’re being robbed.” The assistant legal security officer went to the same FSN and asked him to look at it. The guy came back and said no problem. That went on for another year.

Now people who listen to that story say it’s not possible. Sixteen years we used enormous volumes of oil. In fact, we prosecuted. One of my lawyers and two of my investigators went out, we went to Tokyo, worked with the courts. It was hideously embarrassing for the Japanese by the way, and they were very tough on these people involved. We’re getting back most of the money, we’re suing the companies because they should have had controls to prevent that. But one of their biggest arguments, and if that were argued in the States, they would win, was you guys are so stupid why didn’t you guys know something was wrong. We just deliver for your requirements. To me, I find that so incredible, and it went on for sixteen damn years, but we’re getting millions of dollars back now. But we had to sue for it.

What kind of naiveté is it to ask somebody who would benefit from it? And if the thing was going on, he would certainly know what was going on. How much management moxie does it take? How much common sense does it take? Twice they went back to the same person who was the contact point in the embassy, who would make the telephone calls to have the deliveries come in the next morning. Incredible.

Read the full oral history interview here (PDF) conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on July 14, 1994.

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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.

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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).

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@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:

Screen Shot

 

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Another Federal Data Breach: Hacker Dumps FBI and DHS Employee Information Online

Posted: 2:56 am EDT

 

Via motherboard.vice.com:

The data was obtained, the hacker told Motherboard, by first compromising the email account of a DoJ employee, although he would not elaborate on how that account was accessed in the first place. (On Monday, the hacker used the DoJ email account to contact this reporter).  From there, he tried logging into a DoJ web portal, but when that didn’t work, he phoned up the relevant department.

“So I called up, told them I was new and I didn’t understand how to get past [the portal],” the hacker told Motherboard. “They asked if I had a token code, I said no, they said that’s fine—just use our one.”

If that’s true, then it took just one employee and elementary social engineering to start the ball rolling in this newest data breach.

 

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What happens when you contravene the worldwide nonimmigrant visa referral policy? It depends.

Posted: 4:08  am EDT
Updated: 2:29 pm EDT

 

Our State Department friends have a favorite response to most questions. “It depends.”

About 10 years ago, State/OIG conducted a review of the Visa Referral Process in Nonimmigrant Visa Adjudication.

By law neither an ambassador nor a DCM can direct a consular officer to issue a particular visa. Even the Secretary of State has no authority to override a consular officer’s deci­ sion, pursuant to the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 USC 1104. Recognizing the importance of the visa process both as a bilateral diplomatic issue and as a legitimate diplomatic tool for achieving U.S. aims, and considering the importance of providing as much information as possible to consular officers, the Department has long understood the need for a policy and system to allow all elements of the mission to benefit from the visa system and to protect consular officers from inappropriate pressure. After September 11, 2001, this system has been signifi­ cantly strengthened.
[…]
Based on the results of the survey, observations in the field, and discussions in Washington, OIG concluded that most ambassadors and DCMs appear to under­ stand the importance of their personal oversight of the referral system and that there are serious repercussions, including removal from post, in the most egregious cases of abuse. While Department oversight of referral systems is important, entrusting chiefs of mission with local supervision and responsibility is still appro­ priate and necessary, just as the Department entrusts chiefs of mission with the lives of all employees and dependents in their missions, the management of top secret information, and the conduct of key bilateral relations with the host country.
[…]
Clearly most missions’ front offices are overseeing the referral system as intended by the Department, sometimes after a little persuasion. For example, an officer at a post that was having problems said, “Our recent OIG inspection was helpful in making the front office realize the impact of their interventions with us and the appearance of undue influence. Despite our education of the front office, they have been incredulous that their good causes may pose us problems under the law.” One of the areas of emphasis for OIG inspection teams is border security readiness, which includes oversight of the referral program.

The survey, however, did reveal some disillusionment with the available recourses in those instances when the front office was itself exerting undue influ­ence. One officer at a post in the Near East said, “In general the consular section feels pressure to act simply as a rubber stamp to visa referrals by chiefs of section and above.” Another stated,“The front office is the only section that has ever tried to influence decisions in referral cases. If I were to refuse the case, then I would be hurt in the employee evaluation report (EER) process as my rater is the DCM and the Ambassador is the reviewing officer.”

It’s an instructive read from 2005, see in full here (PDF).

Let’s fast forward to two cases in 2015 specifically mentioned by State/OIG. The following is from the State/OIG inspection report of the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan (PDF). The IG report lists Susan M. Elliott as COM, and Robert G. Burgess as DCM.

The Offices of Visa Services and Fraud Prevention Programs, the Consular Integrity Division, and the front office of the Bureau of Consular Affairs all expressed concern about the embassy’s contravention of the worldwide visa referral policy. In the latter half of 2013, the Ambassador in seven cases and the DCM in two cases contravened the worldwide nonimmigrant visa referral policy by submitting noncompliant referrals and improperly advocating for issuance.

Complications arising from noncompliance with the policy led to deteriorating relations between the consular officer and other embassy offices, perceptions of intimidation and isolation, and increased involvement of and intervention by various offices in the Bureau of Consular Affairs. In response to revised guidance from the Bureau of Consular Affairs on referral policy, dated January 13, 2014, Embassy Dushanbe issued a management notice on January 17, 2014. On October 15 and 17, 2014, the embassy conducted briefings for referring officers and obtained current compliance agreements reflecting the revised policy guidance. The OIG team met with the front office and the consular officer, and they confirm that they understand and are committed to continuing to comply with the policy going forward.

How is it that this consular officer did not get the Barbara Watson Award for demonstrating courage?

C’mon!

The “Worldwide Visa Referral Policy Problems” below is from the State/OIG report of the U.S. Embassy in Armenia (see PDF). According to the IG report, the ambassador at that time was John Heffern:

In at least 15 documented cases, the Ambassador contravened the worldwide nonimmigrant visa referral policy (9 FAM Appendix K, Exhibit I) by contacting the consular chief to communicate information about visa applicants instead of providing referral forms for the applicants. The referral policy states, “Referrals are the only allowed mechanism to advocate for or assist visa applicants prior to visa adjudication.” Some of the cases involved previously refused applicants. Referral policy permits requesting assistance via referral on behalf of previously refused applicants only in extremely limited circumstances. Few, if any, of the violations involved applicants who would have been eligible for visa referrals. The consular chief did not take adequate steps to stop the Ambassador’s inappropriate communications or to report them to the Department, as required by Department referral polices.
[…]
The embassy provides no formal, detailed briefing (“referral school”) as recommended in the worldwide policy. The consular chief gives informal referral briefings on an individual basis to new arrivals at the embassy. Lack of a formal understanding of the referral policy and process can cause misunderstanding or abuse.

Wow! And the consular section chief got harshly treated by the … the um alphabet, which did not quite line up to say he/she was at fault but you get the idea.

It is not clear what kind of repercussions are suffered by chiefs of mission who contraven the worldwide nonimmigrant visa referral policy.   According to a FAM update last November 2015, Consular Affairs has now added a NIV Referral Program Ombudsman (see 9 FAM 601.8-8(C).

Oh, wait, there’s more.

There’s an FSGB case where an FP-03 Diplomatic Security (DS) Special Agent (SA) with the Department of State (Department) was warned that there were strict prohibitions against anyone attempting to influence the visa process. The State Department later proposed to suspend him for four days on a charge of Misuse of Position. The proposal was sustained by the Grievance Board on March 3, 2015.

On October 5, 2010, a family friend of his (REDACTED), a (REDACTED) national, applied for a B1/B2 non-immigrant visa at the U.S. Embassy in REDACTED. His stated purpose for the visa request was to visit with grievant in the U.S.  When the application was denied, grievant sent an email on that same date from his State Department account to REDACTED, the Deputy Consular Section Chief in REDACTED voicing his disappointment that his friend’s visa application had been turned down. In the email, grievant asked for assistance, provided additional information on behalf of his friend and cited his own experience as a DS officer who had collaborated with consular officials investigating fraud cases. All of grievant’s emails contained his electronic signature and identified him as “Special Agent, REDACTED, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security.” In response to this email, re-interviewed and approved his visa application. REDACTED subsequently visited grievant in the US.

To make the long story short, grievant was investigated (PDF) by DS for his efforts to procure visa approvals for his friend.

The Department reviewed the DS report of investigation (ROI) and determined that between 2010 and 2012, grievant used official communication channels to contact consular officials in the U.S. Embassy in and identified himself as a DS Special Agent in order to influence favorable decisions on visa applications submitted by his friend. On December 2, 2014, grievant received notice of the Department’s proposal to suspend him for four days on a charge of Misuse of Position. The proposal was sustained on March 3, 2015.

So. Right.

It depends.

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@StateDept Launches Center for the Study of the Conduct of Diplomacy at FSI

Posted: 1:35 am EDT

 

Excerpt from D/Secretary Antony J. Blinken on “American Diplomacy: Preparing for the Challenges of Tomorrow,” February 2, 2016:

Every day, our team here at State works towards big goals like this that benefit from the leadership and creativity of the innovation community.

And every day, our team tackles issues at the intersection of technology and foreign policy—from modernizing arms control agreements to negotiating norms of behavior in cyberspace or outer space.

Despite this focus, we need to create more bridges that allow our diplomats to tap into the energy and ingenuity of American education, innovation, and entrepreneurship—and enable our foreign policy priorities to spark or accelerate new ideas.

Developed under Deputy Secretary Burns’ leadership, the Foreign Service Institute’s Center for the Study of the Conduct of Diplomacy is one such bridge—ensuring that we apply the lessons of the past to our conduct and actions in the future.

We are also developing a new core curriculum at FSI, to ensure that everyone starts their careers with foundational knowledge and skills relevant to this century. Through new and experiential training, we will prepare our officers to better understand unstated assumptions that shape conflict and collaboration, apply future forecasting to the geopolitical world of tomorrow, and tap into unconscious drivers of behavior that will help us effectively conduct and advance our foreign policy.

To help build another of these bridges, Secretary Kerry recently established the Innovation Forum in order to enable our foreign policy leaders to be able to see around the innovation corner—to ask important questions like: “What does the revolution in robotics mean for warfighting? What do advances in artificial intelligence mean for our labor markets? What does the advent of digital currency mean for the dollar?”

Read in full here.

 

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When You’re Out of the Loop, Don’t Forget That Secrecy Is the Soul of Diplomacy

Posted: 1:26 am EDT

 

As the media reported on the Iran prisoner swap this weekend, HuffPo’s Ryan Grim wrote Here’s Why We Held The Story On The U.S.-Iranian Prisoner Exchange, on January 16. It deserves a good reading because there’s a lesson here somewhere:

One of the four men was Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter who had covered the Iran nuclear talks. Rezaian was being held on baseless charges of espionage in order to try to extract concessions from the Americans. Our source, State’s Chase Foster, was upset that the U.S. had failed to secure the Americans’ release as part of the nuclear deal, and it was his understanding that the talks had since collapsed. But as we reported out the tip, we discovered that, unbeknownst to Foster, the talks had never really stopped.
[…]
What added an extra wrinkle to this ethical dilemma was the State Department official, Foster, Schulberg’s on-the-record source. To describe such a situation as unusual wouldn’t do it justice: State Department officials with specific knowledge of prisoner negotiations don’t talk publicly about them. It just doesn’t happen. Yet to Schulberg’s credit as a reporter, Foster was doing so in this case. His frustration motivated him to speak out — and, eventually, to quit his job, which he did late last year.

Any public official willing to air grievances on the record, whether those grievances are legitimate or not, should be thought of as a whistleblower. And if a whistleblower is willing to risk his career and reputation to share information he thinks the public needs to have, a news outlet needs to have an awfully good reason not to run his story. On the other hand, we never asked him not to talk to other outlets or to take his concerns public on his own, which was always an option, but one he didn’t take. And had he known the talks were once again going on, that may have changed his calculus about going public, which in turn was something we had to keep in mind. And it wasn’t something we could share with him.
[…]
When we reached out to the administration, the frontline press folks there were extremely aggressive and served up a bunch of garbage we later confirmed to be garbage. But when we approached administration officials higher up the chain, they told us what was actually happening. They told us that reporters for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal were withholding details of the talks as well, though neither knew of Foster, whose identity we never revealed to the government. They did not put hard pressure on us to hold our story, but instead calmly laid out their analysis of the possible consequences of publishing, and offered confidence that the talks were moving forward and headed toward a resolution.

Read in full here. After reading that, you might also want to read The New Yorker’s Prisoner Swap: Obama’s Secret Second Channel to Iran by . She writes in part:

More than a year of informal discussions between Sherman and her counterpart, Majid Takht Ravanchi, the Iranian Foreign Ministry official in charge of American and European affairs, led to an agreement, in late 2014, that the issue should be handled separately—but officially—through a second channel. After debate within the Administration, Obama approved the initiative. But it was so tightly held that most of the American team engaged in tortuous negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program were not told about it.[…] Brett McGurk, a senior State Department official, headed the small American team, which also included officials from the Department of Justice, the F.B.I., and the intelligence community.

According to NYT, Mr. McGurk’s team sat down with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva for the first time in November 2014, according to an account by several American officials on the condition of anonymity.

HuffPo’s source Chase Foster, a Foreign Affairs officer at the State Department since 2012, was reportedly upset that the U.S. had failed to secure the Americans’ release as part of the nuclear deal according to the Huffington Post.  FAOs are civil service positions at the State Department that typically requires regional or functional expertise.  His LinkedIn profile says that he had an advanced degree in Professional Studies in Persian and speaks Persian. It does not say which bureau he works in.  But by the time he quit the State Department in frustration late last year, the negotiations for the prisoners release has been going on for about 13 months.

Foster was willing to risk his career by speaking on the record. That’s not something we often see these days. His heart was in the the right place, and we won’t blame him for it.  But he may have also forgotten what François de Callières said about secrecy as being “the very soul of diplomacy.”  

If mentorship works at State as it should have, somebody could have counseled him quietly that absence of apparent action does not mean lack of action.  The American team working the nuke negotiations was not even told about the second channel secret negotiations. We would not be surprise if the top honchos at the NEA bureau with decades of USG service were also out of the loop. And no one has even mentioned James O’Brien, the newly appointed Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

This could have easily gone the other way. We’re glad that it didn’t, that senior administration officials did not dish more garbage, that the journalists listened, and the negotiations worked out in the end.

 

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Former Iran Prisoner: “Oman initiated our release, not the State Department”

Posted: 12:29 am EDT

 

Shane Bauer is one of the three Americans who were hiking in a mountainous region of Turkey near Iran in June 2009 when they were seized by Iranian border guards. He and his friend Joshua Fattal were detained in Evin prison in Tehran for more than two years. He was charged on August 21, 2011 with espionage and illegal entry and given an eight year sentence. On September 21, 2011, one month after his sentence, Mr. Bauer (and Mr. Fattal) was released and allowed to return to the United States.

He is now a senior reporter at Mother Jones, covering criminal justice and human rights. As news broke this weekend about the Iran prisoner swap, Politico reported that he called Clinton’s appeal for more sanctions “totally irresponsible” and accused her of constantly inflaming tensions with Iran. Read Politico’s story here. He also tweeted this:

In October 2011, the NYT had this item about the passing of FSO Philo Dibble. He died on October 1, 2011, 10 days after Fattal and Bauer were released:

Philo Dibble, a career Foreign Service officer who played a central role in the release of two American hikers who had been held in an Iranian prison for more than two years, died at his home in McLean, Va., on Oct. 1, 10 days after the hikers were freed. He was 60.

The cause was a heart attack, said his wife, Elizabeth Link Dibble, who is also a State Department official. Both worked in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, where he was deputy assistant secretary of state for Iranand she is the bureau’s principal deputy secretary.

“Philo really was the lead in the State Department for coordinating all U.S. government efforts regarding the release of the hikers,” Jeffrey D. Feltman, the Near Eastern bureau’s assistant secretary, said Thursday.

While explaining that he could not provide details because “it’s pretty sensitive,” Mr. Feltman said Mr. Dibble had coordinated efforts with diplomats from other nations, including Oman and Switzerland, in trying to free the hikers. (Switzerland has represented American interests in Iran since the hostage crisis of 1979-81.)

We may not know the full story how the release of the hikers went down until somebody from State writes a book about it or do an ADST oral history but some random Internet person actually tweeted what we were thinking:

Emails about the hikers were part of the latest Clinton email dump. Below is a selection of the emails:

Bauer’s letter to D/S Bill Burns with a redacted request – PDF
Statement of Facts issued by the State Department for Mr. Bauer – PDF
The hikers’ parents letter to President Obama copied to State – PDF
OpsAlert updates during release of two hikers – PDF
Bauer and Fattal statements after release (transcript) PDF

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