Moderation may be the most challenging and rewarding virtue

By Aurelian Craiutu

He is a professor of political science and adjunct professor of American studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. His most recent book is Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes (2016). He lives in Bloomington.

Three centuries ago, the French political philosopher Montesquieu claimed that human beings accommodate themselves better to the middle than to the extremes. Only a few decades later, George Washington begged to differ. In his Farewell Address (1796), the first president of the United States sounded a warning signal against the pernicious effects of the spirit of party and faction. The latter, he argued, has its roots in the strongest passions of the human mind and can be seen in ‘its greatest rankness’ in popular government where the competition and rivalry between factions are ‘sharpened by the spirit of revenge’ and immoderation.

If one looks at our world today, we might be tempted to side with Washington over Montesquieu. Our political scene offers a clear sign of the little faith we seem to have in this virtue without which, as John Adams memorably put it in 1776, ‘every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey’. Although our democratic institutions depend on political actors exercising common sense, self-restraint and moderation, we live in a world dominated by hyperbole and ideological intransigence in which moderates have become a sort of endangered species in dire need of protection. Can we do something about that to save them from extinction? To answer this question, we should take a new look at moderation, which Edmund Burke regarded as a difficult virtue, proper only to noble and courageous minds. What does it mean to be a moderate voice in political and public life? What are the principles underlying moderation? What do moderates seek to achieve in society, and how do they differ from more radical or extremist minds?

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Massimo Pigliucci: To be happier, focus on what’s within your control

by Massimo Pigliucci
(This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons)

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

This is the Serenity Prayer, originally written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr around 1934, and commonly used by Alcoholics Anonymous and similar organisations. It is not just a key step toward recovery from addiction, it is a recipe for a happy life, meaning a life of serenity arrived at by consciously taking what life throws at us with equanimity.

The sentiment behind the prayer is very old, found in 8th-century Buddhist manuscripts, as well as in 11th-century Jewish philosophy. The oldest version I can think of, however, goes back to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Active in the 2nd century in Rome and then Nicopolis, in western Greece, Epictetus argued that:

We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible. The former include our judgment, our impulse, our desire, aversion and our mental faculties in general; the latter include the body, material possessions, our reputation, status – in a word, anything not in our power to control. … [I]f you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not, you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will never blame or criticise anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly. You won’t have a single rival, no one to hurt you, because you will be proof against harm of any kind.

I call this Epictetus’ promise: if you truly understand the difference between what is and what is not under your control, and act accordingly, you will become psychologically invincible, impervious to the ups and downs of fortune.

Of course, this is far easier said than done. It requires a lot of mindful practice. But I can assure you from personal experience that it works. For instance, last year I was in Rome, working, as it happened, on a book on Stoicism. One late afternoon I headed to the subway stop near the Colosseum. As soon as I entered the crowded subway car, I felt an unusually strong resistance to moving forward. A young fellow right in front of me was blocking my way, and I couldn’t understand why. Then the realisation hit, a second too late. While my attention was focused on him, his confederate had slipped his hand in my left front pocket, seized my wallet, and was now stepping outside of the car, immediately followed by his accomplice. The doors closed, the train moved on, and I found myself with no cash, no driver’s licence, and a couple of credit cards to cancel and replace.

Before I started practising Stoicism, this would have been a pretty bad experience, and I would not have reacted well. I would have been upset, irritated and angry. This foul mood would have spilled over the rest of the evening. Moreover, the shock of the episode, as relatively mild as the attack had been, would have probably lasted for days, with a destructive alternation of anger and regret.

But I had been practicing Stoicism for a couple of years. So my first thought was of Epictetus’ promise. I couldn’t control the thieves in Rome, and I couldn’t go back and change what had happened. I could, however, accept what had happened and file it away for future reference, focusing instead on having a nice time during the rest of my stay. After all, nothing tragic had happened. I thought about this. And it worked. I joined my evening company, related what happened, and proceeded to enjoy the movie, the dinner, and the conversation. My brother was amazed that I took things with such equanimity and that I was so calm about it. But that’s precisely the power of internalising the Stoic dichotomy of control.

And its efficacy is not limited to minor life inconveniences, as in the episode just described. James Stockdale, a fighter-jet pilot during the Vietnam War, was shot down and spent seven and a half years in Hoa Lo prison, where he was tortured and often put in isolation. He credits Epictetus for surviving the ordeal by immediately applying the dichotomy of control to his extreme situation as a captive, which not only saved his life, but also allowed him to coordinate the resistance from inside the prison, in his position as senior ranking officer.

Most of us don’t find ourselves in Stockdale’s predicament, but once you begin paying attention, the dichotomy of control has countless applications to everyday life, and all of them have to do with one crucial move: shifting your goals from external outcomes to internal achievements.

For example, let’s say that you are preparing your résumé for a possible job promotion. If your goal is to get the promotion, you are setting yourself up for a possible disappointment. There is no guarantee that you will get it, because the outcome is not (entirely) under your control. Sure, you can influence it, but it also depends on a number of variables that are independent of your efforts, including possible competition from other employees, or perhaps the fact that your boss, for whatever unfathomable reason, really doesn’t like you.

That’s why your goal should be internal: if you adopt the Stoic way, you would conscientiously put together the best résumé that you can, and then mentally prepare to accept whatever outcome with equanimity, knowing that sometimes the universe will favour you, and other times it will not. What do you gain by being anxious over something you don’t control? Or angry at a result that was not your doing? You are simply adding a self-inflicted injury to the situation, compromising your happiness and serenity.

This is no counsel for passive acceptance of whatever happens. After all, I just said that your goal should be to put together the best résumé possible! But it is the mark of a wise person to realise that things don’t always go the way we wish. If they don’t, the best counsel is to pick up the pieces, and move on.

Do you want to win that tennis match? It is outside of your control. But to play the best game you can is under your control. Do you want your partner to love you? It is outside of your control. But there are plenty of ways you can choose to show your love to your partner – and that is under your control. Do you want a particular political party to win the election? It is outside of your control (unless you’re Vladimir Putin!) But you can choose to engage in political activism, and you can vote. These aspects of your life are under your control. If you succeed in shifting your goals internally, you will never blame or criticise anyone, and you won’t have a single rival, because what other people do is largely beyond your control and therefore not something to get worked up about. The result will be an attitude of equanimity toward life’s ups and downs, leading to a more serene life.Aeon counter – do not remove

Massimo Pigliucci  is professor of philosophy at City College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living (May, 2017). He lives in New York.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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What know-it-alls don’t know, or the illusion of competence

by Kate Fehlhaber (This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons).

 

One day in 1995, a large, heavy middle-aged man robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight. He didn’t wear a mask or any sort of disguise. And he smiled at surveillance cameras before walking out of each bank. Later that night, police arrested a surprised McArthur Wheeler. When they showed him the surveillance tapes, Wheeler stared in disbelief. ‘But I wore the juice,’ he mumbled. Apparently, Wheeler thought that rubbing lemon juice on his skin would render him invisible to videotape cameras. After all, lemon juice is used as invisible ink so, as long as he didn’t come near a heat source, he should have been completely invisible.

Police concluded that Wheeler was not crazy or on drugs – just incredibly mistaken.

The saga caught the eye of the psychologist David Dunning at Cornell University, who enlisted his graduate student, Justin Kruger, to see what was going on. They reasoned that, while almost everyone holds favourable views of their abilities in various social and intellectual domains, some people mistakenly assess their abilities as being much higher than they actually are. This ‘illusion of confidence’ is now called the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’, and describes the cognitive bias to inflate self-assessment.

To investigate this phenomenon in the lab, Dunning and Kruger designed some clever experiments. In one study, they asked undergraduate students a series of questions about grammar, logic and jokes, and then asked each student to estimate his or her score overall, as well as their relative rank compared to the other students. Interestingly, students who scored the lowest in these cognitive tasks always overestimated how well they did – by a lot. Students who scored in the bottom quartile estimated that they had performed better than two-thirds of the other students!

This ‘illusion of confidence’ extends beyond the classroom and permeates everyday life. In a follow-up study, Dunning and Kruger left the lab and went to a gun range, where they quizzed gun hobbyists about gun safety. Similar to their previous findings, those who answered the fewest questions correctly wildly overestimated their knowledge about firearms. Outside of factual knowledge, though, the Dunning-Kruger effect can also be observed in people’s self-assessment of a myriad of other personal abilities. If you watch any talent show on television today, you will see the shock on the faces of contestants who don’t make it past auditions and are rejected by the judges. While it is almost comical to us, these people are genuinely unaware of how much they have been misled by their illusory superiority.

Sure, it’s typical for people to overestimate their abilities. One study found that 80 per cent of drivers rate themselves as above average – a statistical impossibility. And similar trends have been found when people rate their relative popularity and cognitive abilities. The problem is that when people are incompetent, not only do they reach wrong conclusions and make unfortunate choices but, also, they are robbed of the ability to realise their mistakes. In a semester-long study of college students, good students could better predict their performance on future exams given feedback about their scores and relative percentile. However, the poorest performers showed no recognition, despite clear and repeated feedback that they were doing badly. Instead of being confused, perplexed or thoughtful about their erroneous ways, incompetent people insist that their ways are correct. As Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man (1871): ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.’

Interestingly, really smart people also fail to accurately self-assess their abilities. As much as D- and F-grade students overestimate their abilities, A-grade students underestimate theirs. In their classic study, Dunning and Kruger found that high-performing students, whose cognitive scores were in the top quartile, underestimated their relative competence. These students presumed that if these cognitive tasks were easy for them, then they must be just as easy or even easier for everyone else. This so-called ‘imposter syndrome’ can be likened to the inverse of the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby high achievers fail to recognise their talents and think that others are equally competent. The difference is that competent people can and do adjust their self-assessment given appropriate feedback, while incompetent individuals cannot.

And therein lies the key to not ending up like the witless bank robber. Sometimes we try things that lead to favourable outcomes, but other times – like the lemon juice idea – our approaches are imperfect, irrational, inept or just plain stupid. The trick is to not be fooled by illusions of superiority and to learn to accurately reevaluate our competence. After all, as Confucius reportedly said, real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance.Aeon counter – do not remove

Kate Fehlhaber is the editor in chief of Knowing Neurons and a PhD candidate in neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles. She lives in Los Angeles.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Growing Body of Work on Rex Tillerson’s Stewardship of the State Department

Posted: 1:10 am ET
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During his welcome remarks at the State Department on February 2, Secretary Tillerson talked about three core principles Foggy Bottom should adopt: accountability, honesty, and respect.  Secretary Tillerson said, “What I ask of you and what I demand of myself – I will embrace accountability, honesty, and respect no less than anyone.”

Six months into his tenure, with bad press coming almost daily, he is in for some rough reality check.  Morale is rock bottom. √ Most of his top lieutenants are making things worse not better. √ And folks with tons of expertise are leaving in droves. √ Sure he can replace all of them if he wants to, but he cannot replace their expertise overnight. People typically do not leave in droves even when they disagree with official policies. People do not leave over a reorganization even if it’s touted as get this, “employee-led.” But people leave when they’re treated poorly. Who knew?

In any case, below are some collected clips on Mr. Tillerson’s stewardship of the 228-year old agency. Unfortunately, we don’t have the Oral History collection yet. Oh, and please pardon the clip from Baghdad Bob.

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What every dictator knows: young men are natural fanatics

 

by Joe Herbert, emeritus professor of neuroscience at the Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair at the University of Cambridge. His latest book is Testosterone: Sex, Power, and the Will to Win (2015). This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Young men are particularly liable to become fanatics. Every dictator, every guru, every religious leader, knows this. Fanatics have an overwhelming sense of identity based on a cause (a religion) or a community (gang, team), and a tight and exclusive bond with other members of that group. They will risk injury, loss or even death for the sake of their group. They regard everyone else as outsiders, or even enemies. But why are so many of them young males?

In a world of nation-states, young men fought the wars that formed most countries. The same goes for tribes, villages and factions. Young males have qualities that specialize them for this essential function. They readily identify with their group. They form close bonds with its other members. They are prone to follow a strong leader. This is why young males are so vulnerable to environmental influences, such as the prevailing culture in which they happen to live, and why they are so easily attracted by charismatic leaders or lifestyles that promise membership of restricted groups with sharply defined objectives and values. They like taking risks on behalf of their group – and they usually underestimate the danger that such risks represent. If they didn’t have these properties, they would be less willing to go to war, and therefore less able to fulfil one of their essential sociobiological roles.

Why are young men like this? Part of it seems to depend on testosterone, acting on their brain during early foetal life. Exposure in the womb ‘masculinises’ the brain – giving it certain properties, including sexual identity as a male, as well as a preference for play patterns that involve physical contact and even play fights. We know this because girls exposed to abnormal levels of testosterone during this time show similar behaviour, but much less otherwise. At puberty, there is another surge of testosterone acting on this already-prepared brain: this not only awakens sexuality, but encourages various strategies for competing for a mate – including the use of aggression and risk-taking behaviour. But testosterone is far from the only factor in making a fanatic.

Testosterone acts on an ancient part of the brain, the limbic system. The human limbic system looks very like that in other primates, such as chimpanzees, and is even easily recognisable in rats. But this part of the human brain is regulated by a more recent addition: the frontal lobes, which lie behind your forehead. Folk usage recognises their importance: in a hangover from the age of physiognomy, we call bright people ‘highbrow’, reflecting their tall foreheads (and thus their assumed larger frontal lobes). Among their other functions, the frontal lobes are important for personality, social interactions ­– and restraint. Damage to them results in impaired and inappropriate social behaviour, as well as lack of judgment.

Crucially, males’ frontal lobes don’t fully mature until their late 20s, whereas those of women mature earlier. This part of the brain is highly reactive to social cues and the behaviour of other people. The stereotyped young man – loud, risky, unreasonable, aggressive (but also non-conformist and thus innovative) – might be one result. So while it’s an evolutionary advantage to the group as a whole, a combination of rampant testosterone and an immature frontal lobe also explains why young men like taking risks and why they are liable to fanaticism.

Of course, not all young men, even the fanatics, become terrorists. Young men are not all the same. Different outcomes might be due to different social factors. Many terrorists come from criminal or deprived backgrounds. We know that a neglected or abusive childhood can result in antisocial or deviant behaviour later in life. An individual’s social environment, particularly early in life, can have long-lasting behavioural implications. We are beginning to learn something about how these conditions can result in persistent or even permanent changes to the brain, but so far we cannot do much about undoing them. We call people who have disregard for normal human relationships ‘psychopaths’, implying that they have abnormal (pathological) events in their ‘psyche’ (mind). We also know that there are people who develop genetically abnormal social traits (autism is one example) irrespective of upbringing. We do not know the precise defects in the brain that are responsible. Nevertheless, their nature – abnormal social behaviour and inter-personal relationships – points towards the frontal lobes, though other areas of the brain can also be involved.

Social status is prized by the males of many animal species, including humans. Several non-human primates maintain clear-cut dominance rankings. Higher status gives increased access to food, shelter and mates. It’s mostly based on physical prowess, and males fight or threaten each other to determine their relative position.

This also occurs in humans, of course. And yet the human brain has developed other ranking systems, including those based on money, birth or technical ability. The development of projectile weapons has reduced our dependence on muscular strength, but emphasised other traits, such as ruthlessness, bravery and leadership. Within fanatical groups, there is much competition to show qualities that increase a member’s standing with others in the group. This might be particularly attractive to those who, in the rest of life, have little cause to think they rank highly.

Terrorist or aggressive acts, therefore, can be carried out to prove a member’s worth, and attract the kind of attention that seems otherwise unattainable. It’s a modern way to satisfy an ancient biological need, for the respect that individual males crave. In summary, the propensity of the masculine brain is to form bonds with other males (eg street gangs), to recognise and identify with groups, to defend those groups against others, and compete with them for assets. A young male’s hormonal constitution and the way his brain matures together increase his susceptibility to fanaticism, an extreme instance of bonding, and make him prone to taking risk-laden actions on behalf of his group.

The human brain has invented additional categories of identity seemingly unknown in other species, including those based on common beliefs or ethical points of view. Today, identity is increasingly based on beliefs. The huge human brain has enabled the invention of weapons; these have given fanatics increasingly effective means of achieving the primitive aim of dominance by terrorising others. The path to fanaticism will be influenced by a male’s genes, his early experiences, his hormones, the maturity or otherwise of his brain, and the social context in which he finds himself. All these can result in a brain state we label fanaticism, a dangerous mutation of a role that is biologically essential for young men. Our task is to recognise what that brain state might be, how it arises and, if possible, to counter it.Aeon counter – do not remove

Joe Herbert

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

 

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Stupefied: How the best and the brightest learn to switch off their brains at the office door

Posted: 11:57 am ET
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André Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School at City, University of London, where he specialises in political dynamics, organisational culture and employee identity. His latest book, together with Mats Alvesson, is The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work (2016). The following is an excerpt from his piece Stupefied on how organisations enshrine collective stupidity and how employees are rewarded for checking their brains at the office door.  The article was originally published in Aeon [http://aeon.co].

Organisations hire smart people, but then positively encourage them not to use their intelligence. Asking difficult questions or thinking in greater depth is seen as a dangerous waste. Talented employees quickly learn to use their significant intellectual gifts only in the most narrow and myopic ways.

Those who learn how to switch off their brains are rewarded. By avoiding thinking too much, they are able to focus on getting things done. Escaping the kind of uncomfortable questions that thinking brings to light also allows employees to side-step conflict with co-workers. By toeing the corporate line, thoughtless employees get seen as ‘leadership material’ and promoted. Smart people quickly learn that getting ahead means switching off their brains as soon as they step into the office.

Sounds familiar?  For those interested in further reading, the author co-published a study on a A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations with Mats Alvesson in the Journal of Management Studies in 2012.  The abstract is here; the full article is available for a fee here.

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Matt Armstrong: No, we do not need to revive the U.S. Information Agency

Posted: 3:55 am EDT
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Matt Armstrong (@mountainrunner) is a lecturer on public diplomacy and international media. He is writing a book on how the White House, State Department, Congress, and the media fought, struggled, and ultimately collaborated in 1917-1948 to establish U.S. “public diplomacy.” In 2011, he served as executive director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. He was nominated and confirmed as a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) on August 1, 2013.  He blogs sometimes at mountainrunner.us. He recently wrote, No, we do not need to revive the U.S. Information Agency for War on The Rocks.  Below is an excerpt. He says that the views expressed in this piece are his own, so don’t blame anyone else.

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More than once in the past decade or more, I guarantee that you have heard — or read — someone declare the United States would be better off today if the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) were still around and how without it, the United States was robbed of the ability to properly engage in information warfare today. Some of these discussions have been in Congress and at least one bill was introduced in recent years to try to recreate a limited USIA. However, laments about USIA are really a coded way of saying that we lack a strategy, an organizing principle, and empowered individuals to execute information warfare today.
[…]
In 1999, the “peace dividend” needed more money, and either USAID or USIA was going to help fund it. While USAID’s chief fought for his agency, USIA’s did not. But why was USIA even on the chopping block? Partly because of the incomplete, or tainted, knowledge of its role (primary credit goes to Fulbright), but also partly because USIA’s narrative, its raison d’être, had failed to adapt to the new normal, which would have been a lot like its early years.

Abolishing USIA was messy. Parts went to State, mostly under the purpose-built office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, but not all. And the broadcasting portion was spun off into a separate federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors. A 2000 report on the status of the so-called merger captured part of the culture clash. While accounting at USIA served the mission and the field, at State, former USIA employees saw “accounting is an end itself.”
[…]
If we truly want to recreate USIA, the public affairs officers and their sections at our Embassies and Consulates would go to the new agency. The libraries and America’s Corners and all the similar programs would be moved, and likely moved out from behind fortress walls where some are invite-only, if they are accessible at all. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs would also leave State. The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs would be abolished, though the Bureau of Public Affairs would remain in the department. The Broadcasting Board of Governors would be merged with this new entity as well. Perhaps most important of all, the Defense Department would defer to this new agency in its public communications, as would USAID and other agencies. Obviously such a reorganization is not going to happen.

We must remember that USIA operated in a simpler time of limited information flows and limited government communications. It virtually owned access to many foreign media markets, markets where the only “competition” was local government propaganda or silence.

Perhaps State could revamp itself. It is worth noting here that the title “public affairs officer” used by State and the United States Information Service were created in 1917 by the foreign section of the Committee for Public Information because State refused to do “public diplomacy” abroad. Nelson Rockefeller’s Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs was established prior to Pearl Harbor as a USIA-like organization focused on Latin America because State refused to respond to FDR’s requests and engage the public. In 1953, State was all too eager to dump the responsibilities of engaging foreign publics directly in the interest of “streamlining.” And in 1999 through today, we see how poorly State integrates, funds, and prioritizes “public diplomacy” into its operations. Even the title of the public diplomacy chief is discordant: “Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.”

The lesson here is that each successful change followed a clearly defined and articulated requirement to fulfill a strategic purpose. Consolidation, or dis-aggregation, is not a strategy and it will not conjure up a strategy. In today’s noisy communications environment, we need coordination that comes not from a supremely empowered individual or central organization, but comes from a clear mission and purpose. USIA is held out as a symbol of our success to organize for information warfare, but it really was part of a larger effort. And ultimately, it came to reflect the segregation of “public diplomacy” from “diplomacy” that remains today. Today is not yesterday, so let’s stop looking at a mid-twentieth century solution for a 21st century problem.

Read in full here via War on The Rocks.

Click here for the end notes.

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Reading Tips: Recent Reports From State/OIG, USAID/OIG, SIGAR, GAO, CRS

Posted: 12:40 pm EDT
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State/OIG

Management Assistance Report: Action Still Needed to Update the Department’s Standards of Conduct as They Relate to Trafficking in Persons and to Comply with a Related Recommendation Posted On: September 17, 2015

Audit of Selected Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund Management Control Posted On: September 14, 2015

Audit of Department of State Management and Oversight of Non-Lethal Assistance Provided for the Syrian Crisis Posted On: September 14, 2015

 

USAID/OIG

09/16/2015Management Letter Regarding Environmental Concerns Identified During the Survey of Selected USAID/Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance Programs in Iraq

09/15/20158-OPC-15-002-P Audit of Overseas Private Investment Corporation Projects in Jordan and Turkey

09/11/2015A-IAF-15-008-P Audit of the Inter-American Foundation’s Fiscal Year 2015 Compliance with the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002, as Amended

09/10/20159-000-15-004-P Audit of USAID’s Evaluation Policy Implementation

09/03/20155-482-15-007-P | Audit of USAID/Burma’s Shae THOT (The Way Forward) Program

09/01/2015 4-000-15-001-S | Survey of USAID’s Development Leadership Initiative in Southern and Eastern Africa

 

SIGAR

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by Special Inspector General John F. Sopko at Georgetown University, Washington, DC Thursday, September 10, 2015

Afghan Refugees and Returnees: Corruption and Lack of Afghan Ministerial Capacity Have Prevented Implementation of a Long-term Refugee Strategy Thursday, August 27, 2015

Power Grid Project at the Counter Narcotics Strip Mall in Kabul: Construction Met Contract Requirements but Electrical System Was Not Deemed Operable Until More Than 18 Months After Project Completion Monday, August 3, 2015

 

GAO

Diplomatic Security: Options for Locating a Consolidated Training Facility  GAO-15-808R: Published: Sep 9, 2015. Publicly Released: Sep 16, 2015.

Regionally Aligned Forces: DOD Could Enhance Army Brigades’ Efforts in Africa by Improving Activity Coordination and Mission-Specific Preparation  GAO-15-568: Published: Aug 26, 2015. Publicly Released: Aug 26, 2015.

SEC Conflict Minerals Rule: Initial Disclosures Indicate Most Companies Were Unable to Determine the Source of Their Conflict Minerals  GAO-15-561: Published: Aug 18, 2015. Publicly Released: Aug 18, 2015.

International Food Assistance: USAID Should Systematically Assess the Effectiveness of Key Conditional Food Aid Activities  GAO-15-732: Published: Sep 10, 2015. Publicly Released: Sep 10, 2015.

 

CRS Reports via Steven Aftergood/Secrecy News

The FY2014 Government Shutdown: Economic Effects, updated September 11, 2015

Procedures for Congressional Action in Relation to a Nuclear Agreement with Iran: In Brief, Updated September 11, 2015

The United Arab Emirates (UAE): Issues for U.S. Policy, Updated September 14, 2015

Syrian Refugee Admissions to the United StatesCRS Insight, September 10, 2015

Cyprus: Reunification Proving Elusive, Updated September 10, 2015

Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations, Updated September 8, 2015

Jordan: Background and U.S. Relations, Updated September 10, 2015

Iran Nuclear Agreement, Updated September 9, 2015

Statutory Qualifications for Executive Branch Positions, Updated September 9, 2015

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State Dept Releases New 3 FAM 4170 aka: The “Stop The Next Peter Van Buren” Regulation

Posted: 3:41 am EDT
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Congratulations!  This is almost three years in the making!

We’ve previously covered the Peter Van Buren case quite extensively in this blog (see After a Year of Serious Roars and Growls, State Dept Officially Retires FSO-Non Grata Peter Van Buren). The State Department officially retired Mr. Van Buren on September 30, 2012. He left with full retirement. In December 2012, we were informed by inside the building sources that the Department was rewriting its 3 FAM 4170 rules on official clearance for speaking, writing, and teaching. (see State Dept to Rewrite Media Engagement Rules for Employees in Wake of Van Buren Affair).

On July 27, 2015, two months short of Year 3 since Mr. Van Buren retired, the State Department without much fanfare released its new 3 FAM 4170 rules in 19 pages. For the FAM is not a regulation; it’s recommendations” crowd, we hope you folks have great lawyers.

My! Look who’s covered!

The updated FAM, same as the old FAM, is divided into two meaty parts — official capacity public communication and personal capacity public appearances and communications.  The new version of 3 FAM 4170 is all encompassing, covering the following (not exhaustive list):

— all personnel in the United States and abroad who are currently employed (even if in Leave Without Pay status) by the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), including but not limited to Foreign Service (FS) employees, Civil Service (CS) employees (including schedule C appointees and annuitants returning to work on temporary appointments on an intermittent basis, commonly referred to as “While Actually Employed (WAE)” personnel), locally employed staff (LE Staff), personal service contractors (PSCs), employees assigned to fellowships or details elsewhere and detailees or fellows from other entities assigned to the Department, externs/interns, and special government employees (SGEs).

— Former Department of State employees (including former interns and externs) must seek guidance from A/GIS/IPS for applicable review process information. Former USAID employees (including former interns and externs) must consult the Bureau for Legislative and Public Affairs for applicable review process information.

— Employee testimony, whether in an official capacity or in a personal capacity on a matter of Departmental concern, may be subject to the review requirements of this subchapter. Employees should consult with the Department of State’s Office of the Legal Adviser or USAID’s Office of the General Counsel, as appropriate, to determine applicable procedures.

In practical terms, we think this means that if you get summoned to appear before the House Select Benghazi Committee and is testifying in your personal capacity as a former or retired employee of the State Department, these new regulations may still apply to you, and you may still need clearance before your testimony.

Convince us that we’re reading this wrong, otherwise, somebody poke Congress, please.

Also, does this mean that all retired FSOs who contribute to ADST’s Oral History project are similarly required to obtain clearance since by its definition, “online forums such as blogs” and “a person or entity engaged in disseminating information to the general public” are considered media organizations under these new rules?

Institutional interest vs. public interest

We are particularly interested in the personal capacity publication/communication rules because that’s the one that can get people in big trouble, as shown in the Van Buren case. Here’s the equivalent of our bold Sharpie.

3 FAM 4176.4 says:  “A principal goal of the review process for personal capacity public communications is to ensure that no classified or other protected information will be disclosed without authorization. In addition, the Final Review Office will evaluate whether the employee’s public communication is highly likely to result in serious adverse consequences to the efficiency or mission of the Department, such that preventing those consequences outweighs the employee’s presumptively high interest in communicating and the public’s interest in receiving the communication.”

 

Institutional interest trumps public interest? Where do you draw the line? You can still write a dissent cable as the “3 FAM 4172.1-3(D). No Review of Dissent Channel Communications” included in the 2009 version of the FAM survives as 3 FAM 4171 (e) in the current rules:

Views on matters of Departmental concern communicated through methods of internal communication (including, for example, the Department’s internal dissent channel) or disclosures made pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 2302(b)(8)(B) are not subject to the review requirements of this subchapter.

Which is fine and all, except — who the heck gets to read your dissent cable except the folks at Policy Planning? The State Department is not obligated to share with Congress or with the American public any dissenting opinions from its diplomats. One might argue that this is appropriate, after all, you can’t have diplomats second guessing in public every foreign policy decision of every administration. So, the American public typically only hears about it when a diplomat quits.  But given the two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the American public best served by this policy?  And by the way, candid opinion like the case of the six-page memo, entitled “The Perfect Storm,” in the lead up to the Iraq War, is still classified. Why is that?

The new regs also say this:

“To the extent time and resources allow, reviewers may assist the employee in identifying possible modifications or other adjustments to avoid the inclusion of non-classified but otherwise protected information, or the potential for adverse consequences to the Department’s mission or efficiency (including the employee’s ability to perform his or her duties effectively in the future).”

If we weigh the Van Buren book against these parameters, how much of the book’s 288 pages would survive such “modifications” or “adjustments.”

There goes the book, We Meant Well in Afghanistan, Also.

The Peter Van Buren Clause

We’ve come to call “3 FAM 4172.1-7 Use or Publication of Materials Prepared in an Employee’s Private Capacity That Have Been Submitted for Review as the Peter Van Buren clause. Below is the original language from the 2009 version of the FAM:

An employee may use, issue, or publish materials on matters of official concern that have been submitted for review, and for which the presumption of private capacity has not been overcome, upon expiration of the designated period of comment and review regardless of the final content of such materials so long as they do not contain information that is classified or otherwise exempt from disclosure as described in 3 FAM 4172.1-6(A).

That section of the FAM appears to survive under the current 3 FAM 4174.3 Final Review Offices, underlined for emphasis below.

c. To ensure that no classified information is improperly disclosed, an employee must not take any steps to proceed with a public communication (including making commitments to publishers or other parties) until he or she receives written notice to proceed from the Final Review Office, except as described below. If, upon expiration of the relevant timeframes below, the Final Review Office has not provided an employee with either a final response or an indication that a public communication involves equities of another U.S. Government entity (including a list of the entity or entities with equities), the employee may use, issue, or publish materials on matters of Departmental concern that have been submitted for review so long as such materials do not contain information described in 3 FAM 4176.2(a) and taking into account the principles in 4176.2(b). When an employee has been informed by the Final Review Office that his or her public communication involves equities of another U.S. Government entity or entities, the employee should not proceed without written notice to proceed from the Final Review Office. Upon the employee’s request, the Final Review Office will provide the employee with an update on the status of the review of his or her public communication, including, if applicable, the date(s) on which the Department submitted the employee’s communication to another entity or entities for review. Ultimately, employees remain responsible for their personal capacity public communications whether or not such communications are on topics of Departmental concern.

The Van Buren clause appears to survive, until you take a closer look; italicized below for emphasis:

3 FAM 4176.2 (a) Content of Personal Capacity Public Communications

a. When engaging in personal capacity public communications, employees must not:

(1) Claim to represent the Department or its policies, or those of the U.S. Government, or use Department or other U.S. Government seals or logos; or

(2) Disclose, or in any way allow the public to access, classified information, even if it is already publicly available due to a previous unauthorized disclosure.

3 FAM 4176.2 (b) Content of Personal Capacity Public Communications

b. As stated in 3 FAM 4174.2(c)(1), a purpose of this review process is to determine whether the communication would disclose classified or other protected information without authorization. Other protected information that is or may be subject to public disclosure restrictions includes, but is not limited to: 

(1) Material that meets one or more of the criteria for exemption from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. 552(b), including internal pre-decisional deliberative material; 

(2) Information that reasonably could be expected to interfere with law enforcement proceedings or operations;

(3) Information pertaining to procurement in violation of 41 U.S.C. 2101-2107;

(4) Sensitive personally identifiable information as defined in 5 FAM 795.1(f); or

(5) Other nonpublic information, when used in a manner as prohibited by 5 CFR 2635.703.

Can one make the case that the conversations between the writer and his boss in the Van Buren book are “internal pre-decisional deliberative material?” Or that any conversation between two FSOs are deliberative? Of course. State can make a case about anything and everything.  Remember, it did try to make the case that the book contained classified information. (see “Classified” Information Contained in We Meant Well – It’s a Slam Dunk, Baby!). Also, we should note that documents marked SBU or sensitive but unclassified are typically considered nonpublic information.  Under these new rules, it’s not just classified information anymore, anything the agency considers deliberative material or any nonpublic material may be subject to disclosure restrictions.

 

3 FAM 4174.2 Overview (2015): Waving the ‘suitability for continued employment’ flag

c. Employees’ personal capacity public communications must be reviewed if they are on a topic “of Departmental concern” (see 3 FAM 4173). Personal capacity public communications that clearly do not address matters of Departmental concern need not be submitted for review.

(1) The personal capacity public communications review requirement is intended to serve three purposes: to determine whether the communication would disclose classified or other protected information without authorization; to allow the Department to prepare to handle any potential ramifications for its mission or employees that could result from the proposed public communication; or, in rare cases, to identify public communications that are highly likely to result in serious adverse consequences to the mission or efficiency of the Department, such that the Secretary or Deputy Secretary must be afforded the opportunity to decide whether it is necessary to prohibit the communication (see 3 FAM 4176.4).

(2) The purposes of the review are limited to those described in paragraph (1); the review is not meant to insulate employees from discipline or other administrative action related to their communications, or otherwise provide assurances to employees on matters such as suitability for continued employment (see, e.g., 3 FAM 4130 for foreign service personnel and 5 CFR 731 for civil service personnel). Ultimately, employees remain responsible for their personal capacity public communications whether or not such communications are on topics of Departmental concern.

 

More 3 FAM 4170 Fun: Not meant to insulate employees from discipline or other administrative action

3 FAM 4176.1(e) General

e. As stated in 3 FAM 4174.2(c)(1), the review process is limited to three purposes. (See also 3 FAM 4176.4.) Therefore, completion of the review process is not a Department “clearance” or “approval” of the planned communication, and is not meant to insulate employees from discipline or other administrative action related to their communications, including for conducting personal capacity public communications that interfere with the Department’s ability to effectively and efficiently carry out its mission and responsibilities, by, for example, disrupting operations, impairing working relationships, or impeding the employee from carrying out his or her duties. Ultimately, employees remain responsible for their personal communications whether or not the communications are on topics of Departmental concern.

 

3 FAM 4176.3 Employee must disclose his/her identity to Department reviewers

a. PA reviews all personal capacity public communications on matters of Departmental concern by senior officials at the Assistant Secretary level and above, including Chiefs of Mission. For all other employees wishing to communicate publicly in their personal capacity on matters of Departmental concern, there are two review processes available:

(1) Individuals may, as a first step, submit their requests for review to the Final Review Office (as described in 3 FAM 4174.3(a)). For employees submitting a request to PA, such requests should be submitted via PAReviews@state.gov. The Final Review Office will then consult with the employee’s immediate supervisor(s) and any other offices concerned with the subject matter in accordance with 3 FAM 4176.4(c). The Final Review Office will then make the final determination; and

(2) Alternatively, employees may initially submit their requests for review to their immediate supervisor(s), the Public Affairs Office in their bureaus or posts, and any other Department offices concerned with the subject matter. The materials must then be submitted to the Final Review Office, noting all such reviewers and any comments received. The Final Review Office will then verify those reviews, assess whether other reviews are needed, and make the final determination.

b. Supervisors, Public Affairs Offices, or any other offices involved in the review process must flag for the Final Review Office any view that the proposed public communication may:

(1) Contain classified or other protected information;

(2) Result in serious adverse consequences to the efficiency or mission of the Department; or

(3) Be or become high impact or high profile, for example communication that is controversial, or otherwise involves a sensitive Department priority; and

(4) The Final Review Office will then apply the standard described in 3 FAM 4176.4(a).

c. In all cases, an employee must disclose his or her identity to the relevant Department reviewers.

d. If another U.S. Government entity seeks Department review of a personal capacity public communication by that entity’s employee, the Department office in receipt of such request must coordinate with PA.

 

3 FAM 4177 Noncompliance may result in disciplinary action, criminal prosecution and/or civil liability.

a. Failure to follow the provisions of this subchapter, including failure to seek advance reviews where required, may result in disciplinary or other administrative action up to and including separation. Violations by USAID employees may be referred to the Deputy Administrator for Human Resources or USAID’s Office of the Inspector General (see 3 FAM 4320). Disciplinary action will be pursued consistent with applicable law, including 5 U.S.C. 2302

b. Publication or dissemination of classified or other protected information may result in disciplinary action, criminal prosecution and/or civil liability.

This is the part where we must remind you that what the former State Department spokesperson said about the FAM being recommendations is a serious bunch of hooey!

Oh, hey, remember the 2-day clearance for tweets …’er scandal?

We wrote about it here and here, and the “ain’t gonna happen 2-day clearance” for social media posting is now part of the Foreign Affairs Manual.  Apologies if the 2-working day review timeframe below for social media postings is too shocking for 21st century statecraft innovation purists. These are the rules, unless you can get the current State Department spokesperson to say from the podium that these are merely recommendations that employees/retirees/interns/charforce are free to ignore. We must add that the 2009 version of these rules, required that materials of official concern submitted in the employee’s private capacity must “be submitted for a reasonable period of review, not to exceed thirty days.” The old rules made no distinction whether the submitted material is a book manuscript, an article, a blogpost or a tweet.
screen grab from 3 FAM 4172

screen grab from 3 FAM 4170

Yo! What’s Missing?

The new regs emphasized the need for official clearance for official and private communication “to ensure that no classified information is improperly disclosed.” It however, does not include any guidance on the use of a private server for emails and social media postings where classified information could be improperly disclosed.

A Much Better FAM Version, Hey?

From the organizational perspective, some folks would say that this is a “much better” version of the FAM.  We’d call this a much better plug. An insider could argue that this is a “very fine sieve.”

Okeedokee, but what do you think will be its consequences for the rank and file? No one will officially admit this as the intent, but after reading this new version of 3 FAM 4170, this is what we think it really says:

The updated regs also says that “In light of the rapid pace with which many social media platforms are used, all offices, sections, or employees who routinely post to such platforms in their official capacity are encouraged to seek advance blanket authorization to engage for their social media communications, in accordance with 3 FAM 4175.1(c).”

The blanket authorization as far as we can tell only applies to those who are engaged in social media platforms in their official capacities, it makes no similar provision for employees in social media platforms in their private capacities.

Fun With Fido or Grumpy Cat

The new regs helpfully notes that “Employees who, in their personal capacity, wish to communicate publicly on matters that are clearly not “of Departmental concern” (see 3 FAM 4173) need not seek Department review under the procedures outlined herein, and need not use the personal capacity disclaimer discussed below in paragraph (b).”

So, basically, if you blog, tweet or write a book about Kitty Kat or Fidodog, or about their travels and adventures in Baghdad, Kabul, Sanaa, and all the garden spots, you don’t need to seek Department review. That is, as long as Kitty Kat is not secretly arming the rodent insurgents and tweeting about it and Fidodog is not flushing government money down the toilet and blogging about it.

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Related items:

Read the new 3 FAM 4170 July 27, 2015 | REVIEW OF PUBLIC SPEAKING, TEACHING, WRITING, AND MEDIA ENGAGEMENT

Download it here (pdf).

 

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

Posted: 1:32 am EDT
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

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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.

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