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Dusting Off the Moscow Microwave Biostatistical Study, Have a Read

Posted: 2:40 am ET

 

CBS News Radio broke the story last month on the mysterious attacks against U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Cuba. Those evaluated reportedly were diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury, and with likely damage to the central nervous system. On September 18, CBS News citing “two sources who are familiar with the incidents” said that a top official in charge of security for the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, is among at least 21 Americans affected by mysterious attacks that have triggered a range of injuries. In a follow-up report on September 20, CBS News says this:

An internal Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs document obtained by CBS News shows the State Department was fully aware of the extent of the attacks on its diplomats in Havana, Cuba, long before it was forced to acknowledge them.

State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert only admitted the attacks were occurring after CBS News Radio first reported them August 9. The diplomats complained about symptoms ranging from hearing loss and nausea to headaches and balance disorders after the State Department said “incidents” began affecting them beginning in late 2016. A source familiar with these incidents says officials are investigating whether the diplomats were targets of a type of sonic attack directed at their homes, which were provided by the Cuban government. The source says reports of more attacks affecting U.S. embassy workers on the island continue.
[…]
At the time, Nauert said she didn’t believe the number of Americans injured was in the tens or dozens. But a source says that by the time the State Department first publicly acknowledged the attacks, it knew the reports of Americans injured had reached double-digits.

Read in full: As number of injured diplomats soared, State Dept. kept Cuba attacks secret.

Related to these mysterious attacks, also see Microwaving U.S. Embassy Moscow: Oral History From FSOs James Schumaker and William A. Brown.

For those interested in the Moscow incidents, we’ve dug up the John Hopkins and subsequent technical reports on the Moscow microwave study (abstract and links below). We understand that there is also an AFSA report prepared on the Moscow incidents but we have not been able to locate a copy.

PB288163 | Evaluation of Health Status of Foreign Service and other Employees from Selected Eastern European Posts, Abraham M. Lilienfeld, M.D., Department of Epidemiology, School of Hygiene and Public Health The Johns Hopkins University (1978): This is a biostatistical study of 1827 Department of State employees and their dependents at the Moscow Embassy and 2561 employees and their dependents from other Eastern European Embassies. Health records, health questionnaires and death certificates were the basic information sources. The study is the impact of the Moscow environment including microwave exposure on the health status and mortality of the employees·. It was concluded that personnel working at the American Embassy in Moscow from 1953 to 1976 suffered no ill effects from the microwaves beamed at the Chancery. Excerpt:

A relatively high proportion of cancer deaths in both female employee groups was noted–8 out of 11 deaths among the Moscow and 14 out of 31 deaths among the Comparison group. However, it was not possible to find any satisfactory explanation for this, due mainly to the small numbers of deaths involved and the absence of information on many epidemiological characteristics that influence the occurrence of various types of malignant neoplasms. To summarize the mortality experience observed in the employees’ groups: there is no evidence that the Moscow group has experienced any higher total mortality or for any specific causes of death up to this time. It should be noted, however, that the population studied was relatively young and it is too early to have been able to detect long term mortality effects except for those who had served in the earliest period of the study. (p.243)
[…]
The results of this study may well be interpreted as indicating that exposure to microwave radiation at the levels experienced at the Moscow embassy has not produced any deleterious health effects thus far. It should be clear however, that with the limitations previously discussed, any generalizations should be cautiously made. All that can be said at present is that no deleterious effects have been noted in the study population, based on the data that have been collected and analyzed. Since the group with the highest exposure to microwaves, those who were present at the Moscow embassy during the period from June 1975 to February 1976, has had only a short time for any effects to appear, it would seem desirable that this particular study population should be contacted at periodic intervals of 2 to 3 years, within the next several years in order to ascertain if any health effects would appear. Furthermore, it would be important to develop a surveillance system for deaths in the entire study population to be certain that no mortality differences occur in the future and to monitor the proportion of deaths due to malignancies, especially among the women.

There is also a need for an authoritative biophysical analysis of the microwave field that has been illuminating the Moscow embassy during the past 25 years with assessments based on theoretical considerations of the likelihood of any biological effects.

Read the full report here: PB288163. (PDF)

NTIA-SP-81-12 | The Microwave Radiation at U.S. Embassy Moscow and Its Biological Implications: An Assessment
(by NTIA/ERMAC, US Dept. of Commerce; US Dept. of State; and Applied Physics Laboratory, The Johns Hopkins University) 1981:  This report presents the results of an assessment of the likelihood of biological effects from the microwave environment within the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, USSR, based on a retrospective analysis of that environment. It contains a description of the microwave fields and models power density distribution within the Embassy from 1966 to 1977; estimated personnel exposures as a function of work and living locations in the Embassy; and the results of an assessment of the biological implications of the type and levels of exposure described. In summary, it was concluded that no deleterious biological effects to personnel would be anticipated from the micro- wave exposures as described. Read the full report here PB83155804 (PDF).

 

Related posted:

 

 

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@StateDept “Consolidates” Regulations for Official Communication Using Social Media

Posted: 3:19 am ET

 

We previously blogged about the use of social media in State Department official communication back in February (see @StateDept Issues Guidance For Official Communication Using Social Media, What’s Missing?). On August 24, the State Department updated its guidance for official communication using social media. “To engage on social media in an official capacity, personnel must use an account created specifically for official use that is separate from an account used for private, personal use.”  The guidance also notes that “all Department social media sites used for official public communications must be registered by visiting the Social Media Account Registry on Diplopedia.”  The change transmittal notes that this change “consolidates regulations concerning social media for official public diplomacy and public affairs purposes.”

Per Foreign Affairs Manual 10 FAM 180:

a. Senior officials and other employees whose positions make it appropriate for them to engage in official communications on behalf of the Department over social media (“Department social media spokespersons”) must not use personal social media accounts to do so.  They must use official social media accounts, created and owned by the Department.

(1)  Department social media spokespersons must be instructed before they begin their positions that they will not be able to use their personal social media accounts for official communications, and that content on personal social media accounts must comply with 3 FAM 4176.  Forwarding, linking to, or otherwise reposting official content on a personal social media account will not ordinarily constitute official communications if the content was first released on an official platform, provided that it is clear from the circumstances that the personal social media account is not being used to communicate on behalf of the Department.

(2)  When Department social media spokespersons begin their positions, they are provided access to official social media accounts, and they will lose access to those accounts when they leave that position.  Whenever possible, the same account is passed from one incumbent in a position to the next.  As such, account names include only the office or position (e.g., @USEmbConsularManila, @USAmbManila); they do not include personal names.

(3)  Missions, bureaus, or offices must maintain a list of their authorized official social media accounts and the credentials for those accounts.  Accounts are created in accordance with 5 FAM 793.

b. In order to put a “human face” on the Department’s social media presence, Department social media spokespersons are authorized, but not required, to post certain kinds of personal content to their official accounts (e.g., posts about family news, pictures of pets, discussions of hobbies).  This personal content may be considered official communications and must comply with, among other things, restrictions on partisan political activities, endorsements of commercial goods or services, fundraising and solicitations, official actions affecting financial interests, and the publication of information that could compromise the security of the individual or others.  See 3 FAM 4175.2, Content of Official Capacity Public Communications, for additional guidance on content of official communications.

c.  All accounts that have been used for official communications are considered Department accounts, and are either retained by the Department for use by the next incumbent or retired in accordance with applicable records disposition schedules, as appropriate.  The content of such accounts is also retired in accordance with applicable records disposition schedules.

The new guidance also include a section on impersonations on social media; the regs make a distinction with parody accounts (good news Rexxon Drillerson (@RexxonDrill), but have the 10 FAM 184 handy).

a. Impersonations, or the creation of an account that is intended to be mistaken for another account, are not permitted on most major U.S.-based social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter.  International Information Programs’ (IIP’s) Digital Support and Training Division is responsible for coordinating with U.S.-based third-party social media platforms to assist Department personnel in addressing situations where sites or accounts are impersonating official U.S. Government sites or accounts, including seeking removal of imposter accounts in an expedited manner.  Impersonation accounts are not the same as parody accounts.  Parody accounts pretend to be another account but for humor, satire, or other reasons that rely upon the viewer’s ability to tell that the account is not real, and they are generally permitted under platforms’ Terms of Service.

b. If you determine that there is an impersonation account on Facebook, you must file a ticket with Facebook and then email IIP’s Digital Support and Training Division at IIPSMS@state.gov with relevant details for documentation so that the ticket may be elevated with Facebook.

c.  If you determine that there is an impersonation account on Twitter, you must report the imposter to Twitter using this form and forward the autoreply email from Twitter, including the ticket number, to IIPSMS@state.gov to expedite the removal process with Twitter.

d. If you determine there is an impersonation account on another platform, you must follow that platform’s reporting guidelines and notify IIPSMS@state.gov.

e. You must not interact with or acknowledge the impersonator to avoid encouraging further activity.

What this consolidated guidance still does not include is what happens when “senior officials and other employees”, both career and political appointees do not comply with 10 FAM 180.  What if they refuse to switch from a personal account to an official account? Who will compel them?  And if State can’t compel them, how do you archive official communication from their personal social media account?

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Microwaving U.S. Embassy Moscow: Oral History From FSOs James Schumaker and William A. Brown

Posted: 12:40 am  ET

 

We recently blogged about the attacks on American diplomats in Havana (see U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Sonic Attacks: As Serious as Mild TBI/Central Nervous System Damage? 16 USG Employees in “Sonic Attack” and More on The Secret History of Diplomats and Invisible Weapons 

Via the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) Oral History:

U.S. relations with Moscow through the decades have been problematic at best while the embassy itself has been the subject of spy scandals, eavesdropping and other Cold War intrigue. One of the strangest episodes was revealed in the 1970s, when the U.S. confirmed that the USSR had been beaming microwaves at the embassy for the past 15 years. One concern was that the Soviets were trying to inflict physical harm on the Americans working there.

Moscow, US Embassy and Chalyapin house

Old U.S. Embassy Moscow — By NVO (Own work by the original uploader) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Microwaving Embassy Moscow brought back a flood of memories to James Schumaker, who served most of his career in the USSR and later Russia and Ukraine. In this account, he describes how U.S. Ambassador to the USSR Walter Stoessel threatened to resign, the widespread concern many Americans posted at the embassy had regarding potential health problems, especially when two ambassadors died of cancer, and his own experience with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia.

James Schumaker:  The existence of the microwave problem had been kept under wraps for years, first because no one knew that there might be health consequences, and later, according to unconfirmed reports, because Henry Kissinger wanted to avoid damaging chances for détente.  When Ambassador Stoessel (seen at left) learned about the problem, he threatened to resign unless the Embassy community was told.  As a result, the microwave story was finally made public in a press conference called by the Ambassador.

In the wake of Ambassador Stoessel’s announcement, many in the Embassy community felt betrayed about being kept in the dark for so long, and still more were anxious about the effect the microwaves might be having.  Some thought that the microwaves were used by the Soviets to activate the numerous listening devices they had emplaced in the building prior to American occupancy.

Others believed that they were a jamming signal designed to foil our own electronic snooping devices (a highly classified report that came out in the 1970s leaned to this interpretation, and this is what the Soviets told us as well).  Still others thought that the Soviets, who apparently knew a lot more about microwaves than we did, were using them to affect the mental states of Embassy employees.
[…]
For the most part, I was blissfully unconcerned about the microwave controversy.  At the time, it seemed to me that it was an issue taken more seriously by Embassy spouses, who were afraid for their children, than by the Embassy leadership, which in fact was in the crosshairs of whatever the microwaves might be doing.

Periodically, I would see Soviet technicians standing side by side with American techs on the upper floors of the Chancery.  They were measuring ambient levels of microwave radiation.  Naturally, the Soviet equipment didn’t find anything, while ours did.  I thought it was funny at the time.  Screens were put up on the Chancery windows, which were said to diminish the amount of microwave emanations getting into the Embassy.  I didn’t think much about that, either.  I just continued to do my work and not think about the possible consequences.

Microwaves continued to be beamed at the Embassy throughout my tour, and, though the levels went up and down over the years, emanating first from one, and then two locations, the microwaving of the Embassy continued until at least 1988.  Over the years, thousands of Americans were exposed.

Shortly after my tour was over, I found out that my cavalier attitude toward the microwave issue was not at all justified, at least in my own personal case.  Med informed me in late 1979 that my own white cell count was much higher than normal, and advised me to continue testing.  In 1985, my white cell count got high enough for MED to recommend that I see a hematologist, so I went to a local doctor in San Clemente, Dr. Tsang P. Fong.

He did a bone marrow test (the one where they hammer a spike into the pelvic bone – very uncomfortable).  The test confirmed that I had Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) stage zero, but that chemotherapy was not advisable, since I had no symptoms and the cure would be worse than the disease.
[…]
I determined to fight the disease as best I could by leading a healthy lifestyle, although, paradoxically, I then volunteered for a high-risk assignment to Kabul in 1988.  Perhaps in the back of my mind I had this feeling that I could take more risks, since I didn’t have very long to live anyway — a kind of “who cares?” illogical approach that has gotten me through many crises in life.  State Medical knew about the CLL diagnosis and downgraded me to a “2” Medical clearance, but didn’t stop me from going overseas, mainly because the jobs I was volunteering for often had no takers.

Read in full James Schumaker’s account here.

William Andreas Brown discusses the widespread concern among Americans working at the embassy at the time and their anger at the State Department for its lack of transparency on the issue. Excerpted from his Oral History interview conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in November 1998.

William Andreas Brown: I have to tell you what a shock it was in about 1972 or 1973 to wake up to the great, microwave scandal and to find that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his associates had kept from us the fact that for years we had been bombarded by microwave apparatuses, directed straight at the embassy in Moscow. I remember being one of a small group of officers in 1972 or 1973 when news of this development broke. We raised our voices in despair, dissent, and so forth.

We were finally ushered into a room where Larry Eagleburger, Kissinger’s Special Assistant at the time, briefed us and made some sort of presentation, assuring us that steps would be taken, and so forth. He said that medical studies were under way, and the evidence thus far was that these microwaves had not been deleterious to our health.

This was somewhat reassuring until, at the end of the meeting, Larry Eagleburger said, “Now, rip up all of your notes and give them to me. Nobody can leave with notes on this discussion.” One said to oneself: “What in the hell is going on here?”

It turned out that the Soviets had been bombarding us with microwaves, beginning in about 1964 or 1965. Why they had done this remained a mystery. How they had bombarded our embassy remained somewhat of a mystery, as well as why they had done so. Also a mystery was what was the response. We were furious. We felt betrayed by the leadership of the Department of State and by the Secretary of State himself…I’m speaking now of the microwave radiation scandal, as I would call it, of the early 1970s, which harked back to the early 1960s.

Many of us who had served in the embassy felt betrayed as people who had put so much into our efforts and who had volunteered to serve in Moscow. We probably would have volunteered anyway to serve in Moscow, even if we had known about this. However, we learned only years later that this had happened and that information on it had been kept from us. Foreign Service physical examinations routinely include a blood test.

Unbeknownst to us, the Department of State was testing our blood to see what, if anything had happened to us as a result of the microwave radiation. This was a pretty jolting realization.

Q: Before we leave that matter, was consideration ever given to our saying to the Soviets: “If you keep up this nonsense, we will close our embassy in Moscow?” 

BROWN: Or, we could say, if the Soviets kept up this nonsense, we would do exactly the same thing to the Soviet Embassy in Washington. But, oh, no, that would have been nasty, and nothing like that was done. We felt pretty strongly about this. It affected morale and assignments to positions in the embassy.

Q: What was the purpose of what has to be regarded as this campaign by Soviet authorities against the health of members of the staff of the American embassy in Moscow

BROWN: This takes you into realms that I’m really not qualified to discuss. I was aware of various theories and of measures and countermeasures that might be taken. However, the point is that microwave emissions were being beamed at us. This point came home to me particularly one day when a visiting technician from the State Department came with equipment and said, “Do you mind if I set this up in your office?”

I said, “Okay, but why here? Why in my office?” He said, “Because actually there are at least two beams being directed at the embassy. One comes in from the front of the embassy building, and one comes in from that great, white building over there, which is called the ‘White House.’  You know, where the Russian Parliament meets.”…

“One beam comes this way, and the two beams intersect right here at your desk. So I’d like to set this up.” I thought: “My God! It makes you think.” But the Soviets weren’t turning these beams off. This was a disturbing development. As I said, it affected assignments to positions in the embassy in Moscow, as well as other things.

Read in full William Andreas Brown’s interview here.

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Tillerson to Shut Down @StateDept’s Sounding Board, Erase 7 Years of Institutional Collaboration

Posted: 5:11 am ET

 

On August 17, the State Department released an eDepartment Notice that the Sounding Board will be “retired” as of August 31st. A red banner reportedly went up on the Sounding Board site only on August 23 reminding users that the site will close on August 31 and that they should save any content they want to preserve in their local files before August 31st.  None of the contents in the Sounding Board will be archived.

The Sounding Board is an employee internal forum for ideas and collaboration launched in 2009 by then Secretary Clinton, and maintained throughout Secretary Kerry’s tenure.  Together with Communities and Corridor, they were all created and maintained to “enhance diplomatic initiatives by providing effective employee collaboration and information sharing capabilities.”

Some employees think of the Sounding Board as part of the agency’s process improvement and see it as a valuable feedback loop.  It is also a central repository of employee opinions and suggestions. In the last seven years, the Sounding Board was reportedly used by over 120,000 users, generating 4,000 ideas. It also resulted in the implementation of some 130 suggestions/requests. We understand that some of the implemented ideas include the creation of pedestrian walk signals outside the Harry S. Truman building which increased employee safety, the creation of ePerformance guides, improvements in the female bathrooms in HST and others that helped with employee engagement and morale.

The State Department did inform employees that it is planning on establishing a “new forum for employee suggestions and responses,” but apparently it did not explain what was wrong with the current Sounding Board, and why a new forum is considered necessary.  There is also no timeframe when the new forum will be operational and employees were instructed to use the Redesign Portal to provide their ideas to management in the meantime.

So after August 31, stuff will just go to some kind of “digital suggestion box” in the Portal and no one can see (presumably with the exception of those designated to watch the suggestion box) what topics are under discussion or what subjects are important to employees. Also — we have no way to verify this since we have no access to the portal —  apparently the ideas accepted in the Redesign Portal are restricted to topics related to the redesign effort only.  So how’s that going to work?  Does anyone know?

Employees were informed that they can still share their concerns with the Director General through the DGDirect email, and collaborate with others using Communities@State, an internal blogging program; and Corridor, an internal professional networking application. Those platforms, of course, are not suited for a community back and forth discussion that is unique in a forum setup.

So the State Department basically gave employees a 2-week notice that it is shutting down the Sounding Board, that the contents will not be archived or be available for viewing, and that the replacement forum will not be ready when the current forum shuts down next week.

Look, given that the State Department is already suffering from abysmal morale, this is one way of just digging a deeper hole. While we can understand why Secretary Tillerson and his circle might want to start from scratch with a new employee forum, this is not the way nor the time to do it.

Cost Savings

What savings do you get with a Sounding Board 2.0?  And seriously, what is wrong with the current Sounding Board? What is the justification for shutting it down? How much money does the State Department generate in savings in building a new forum vs. maintaining the old forum? For an agency with a 30% projected cut in funding, the questions “how much” and “why” deserve some answers.

Options

We expect that it would be objectively trivial in cost and time to preserve the Sounding Board. Some suggestions floating around:

1) Keep the Sounding Board “as-is” until the new forum is operational. Archive the Sounding Board when the new forum is activated.

2) Keep the Sounding Board “read-only” until the new forum is operational.  This would curtail the submission of new ideas but allow employees to read/view the archive as needed until the replacement forum is activated.

3) Hybrid Sounding Board/Redesign Portal, except that the “redesign” has a lifespan. If State bundles the Sounding Board with the Redesign Portal, what happens after the reorganization is completed? Bundling them together requires unbundling them later on, which we imagine could require more work than if it were a stand alone forum.

4) The Sounding Board is government record, is it not? Does the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the nation’s record keeper has anything to say about this planned destruction of government record?

Demolition

The State Department may call this the Sounding Board’s “retirement”but in fact, since its archive will not be retrievable/viewable, this is actually a demolition. And it’s not just the demolition of the employee forum itself, but a demolition of the employees’ collective ideas, contributions, and memories.  In reality, it would erased the last seven years of the institution’s collective work.

If the State Department goes through with this, it could only re-enforce employees perception that its new leadership does not walk the talk. You cannot say that the “Secretary values and wants employee feedback” and expect people to believe that if at the same time, you’re demolishing the system that affords employees the ability to provide feedback.

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PSA: If You’re Using Gmail, Consider Getting a U2F Security Key to Secure Your Account

Posted: 1:38 am ET

 

The private email of a State Department official working in the Office of Analysis for Russia and Eurasia (INR/REA) was reportedly hacked. FP reported a few days ago that the throve of emails include at least two years’ worth of personal emails from the private Gmail account, as well as personal information.

Whether you’ve been using Gmail for years, or have recently moved from Hotmail to Gmail, you need to consider getting a Universal 2nd Factor (U2F) security key to secure your private email account. You can start with FIDO U2F from Yubico if you want to check it out. It is  pretty straightforward to set-up. Note that you can only use the key with Gmail when using the Chrome browser (or Opera) at this time. We’re not on FB or Dropbox but you can reportedly use this key to secure those accounts, too.

For folks who must regularly update wills and prepare “go-bags” (pdf), here is one more thing to consider:

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Trump EO Also Suspends Visa Interview Waivers – Expect Long Visa Wait Times, Again

Posted: 10:28 am  PT

 

In 2012, then President Obama issued an Executive Order on Establishing Visa and Foreign Visitor Processing Goals and the Task Force on Travel and Competitiveness, which among other things, “ensure that 80 percent of nonimmigrant visa applicants are interviewed within 3 weeks of receipt of application, recognizing that resource and security considerations and the need to ensure provision of consular services to U.S. citizens may dictate specific exceptions”.  The Obama EO directed a plan that “should also identify other appropriate measures that will enhance and expedite travel to and arrival in the United States by foreign nationals, consistent with national security requirements.” In 2012, an Interview Waiver Pilot Program (IWPP) was introduced for for low-risk visa applicants. It became was made permanent in 2014, and became the Visa Interview Waiver Program (VIWP).

According to congressional testimonies, there are 222 visa-issuing embassies and consulates where “highly-trained corps of consular officers and support staff process millions of visa applications each year, facilitating legitimate travel while protecting our borders.”  In FY2015, overseas posts issued over 10.8 million nonimmigrant visas. That number is only a partial picture of the workload as it does not include visa refusals, a number that is significantly higher than visa issuances.

Section 8 of President Trump’s Executive Order: Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States refers to the immediate suspension of visa interview waivers specifically, the VIWP, and imposes a requirement that all nonimmigrant visa applicants, with exceptions, undergo in-person interviews.

Sec . 8 . Visa Interview Security

(a) The Secretary of State shall immediately suspend the Visa Interview Waiver Program and ensure compliance with section 222 of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1222, which requires that all individuals seeking a nonimmigrant visa undergo an in-person interview, subject to specific statutory exceptions.

(b)  To the extent permitted by law and subject to the availability of appropriations, the Secretary of State shall immediately expand the Consular Fellows Program, including by substantially increasing the number of Fellows, lengthening or making permanent the period of service, and making language training at the Foreign Service Institute available to Fellows for assignment to posts outside of their area of core linguistic ability, to ensure that non-immigrant visa-interview wait times are not unduly affected.

We understand that the current Visa Interview Waiver Program (VIWP) was “carefully crafted”, and rolled out in consultation with the Congress. It was designed not/not to go back to pre-911 situation but to facilitate travel in cases of no discernable risk.

Here is what the Consular Affairs bureau told Congress:

Since 9/11, a risk-based approach grounded on greater and more effective domestic and international information sharing has become a key principle of visa processing policy.  This approach enables the United States to channel more resources toward the prevention of high-risk travel while simultaneously increasing the number of legitimate visitors arriving by land, air, and sea.  The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prescreening process for Visa Waiver Program (VWP) travelers, international information sharing arrangements, Global Entry, which expedites the movement of low-risk, frequent travelers who proceed directly to automated kiosks upon arrival in the United States, and interagency counterterrorism and eligibility checks are examples of how U.S. agencies can use information collected from visitors and/or governments in advance of travel to accomplish complimentary and mutually re-enforcing goals of preventing terrorists and serious criminals from traveling to the United States while facilitating the entry of legitimate visitors.

We asked the State Department about the suspension of the VIWP and its impact on visa operations. We were interested in the number of applicants who used the Visa Interview Visa Program for the last fiscal year.  In trying to get a sense of the impact of the new EO on visa operations, we also were interested on number of consular officers in visa sections worldwide.

Our question is in general staffing terms not specific to any posts, nonetheless, a State Department official on background declined to discuss staffing levels or the number of officers working at any embassy or consulate.  However, the SDO  did provided the following information:

The Executive Order suspends previously authorized portions of the Interview Waiver Program. The Interview Waiver Program will continue for certain diplomatic and official visa applicants from foreign governments and international organizations (categories: A-1, A-2, G-1, G-2, G-3, G-4, NATO-1 through -6, C-2 and C-3) applicants under the age of 14, or over the age of 79; and applicants who previously held a visa in the same category that expired less than 12 months prior to the new application. As always, a consular officer must require that any applicant appear for an in-person interview in any situation where information provided on the application or during the screening process indicates any reason for further questioning. All visa applications, including those cases above, for which the visa interview is waived, are subject to the same rigorous security screening.

Previously, applicants renewing their visas in the same category within 48 months of expiration were eligible for their interview to be waived, as were first-time Brazilian and Argentine applicants ages 14-15 and 66-79.

We don’t know what is the current number but in 2013, Brazilian visitors contributed $10.5 billion to the U.S. economy, a 13 percent increase from the prior year.

Background of the Visa Interview Waiver Program (VIWP)

In January 2012, the Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initiated the two-year Interview Waiver Pilot Program (IWPP) to streamline processing for low-risk visa applicants.  The worldwide pilot program allows consular officers to waive in-person interviews for certain nonimmigrant visa applicants who were previously interviewed and thoroughly screened in conjunction with a prior visa application, and who are renewing a previous visa within four years of its expiration.  The pilot program also allows consular officers to waive interviews for qualified Brazilian applicants falling into specific age ranges, even when applying for visas for the first time.

All IWPP applications are thoroughly reviewed by a commissioned consular officer, with the applicant’s fingerprints, photograph, and biodata undergoing extensive database checks.  Consular officers have been directed to require an interview for any applicant who might otherwise qualify for the IWPP, if the application is not immediately approvable upon paper review, including if database checks reveal potential grounds of inadmissibility or other possible concerns.  State concluded an August 2013 validation study of the IWPP, which showed that B1/B2 visa issuances under the IWPP present no greater risk of overstay than interview-based B1/B2 visa issuances.

In 2013, State/CA’s congressional testimony indicates that “more than 90 percent of applicants worldwide were interviewed within three weeks of submitting their applications.”  This includes key markets such as China where consular officers were able to keep interview wait times to an average of five days while managing an average annual workload increase of 23 percent over the past three years.  In Brazil, consular officers were able to bring down wait times by 98 percent, from a high of 140 days in São Paulo, to just two days in September 2013, while also managing an eleven percent jump in annual workload between 2011 and 2013. These results were partially attributed to the VIWP:

The Department’s success is partially attributable to the introduction of secure, streamlined processes such as the Interview Waiver Pilot Program (IWPP), which allows consular officers to waive in-person interviews for certain nonimmigrant visa applicants who are renewing their visas, and whose biometric data we have on file.  IWPP is operational at more than 90 visa processing posts in more than 50 countries, and consular officers have already waived interviews for more than 500,000 of these low-risk visa applicants.  The pilot has been particularly successful in China, where it constitutes 30 percent of Mission China’s visa renewal workload.  Of course, these applicants are subject to all of the security checks conducted for any interviewed applicant.  State also concluded an August 2013 validation study of the IWPP, which showed that B1/B2 visa issuances under the IWPP present no greater risk of overstay than interview-based B1/B2 visa issuances.

One of the most effective ways we have to improve the efficiency of visa operations is to eliminate in-person interviews for low-risk travelers, while retaining all of the security checks that apply to every visa applicant.  Although the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) requires our consular officers to interview in-person all visa applicants aged 14 through 79, it also provides limited authority to waive interviews, including authority to waive for diplomatic and official applicants from foreign governments and for some repeat applicants.  We are utilizing technology and advanced fraud detection techniques to help us expand the pool of applicants for whom interviews can be waived under the Interview Waiver Program.  This allows us to focus resources on higher-risk visa applicants while facilitating travel for low-risk applicants.

We are working with our colleagues across the government to expand this successful program, which became permanent in January 2014.  In fiscal year 2013, we waived over 380,000 interviews, and a recent study showed that tourist and business visitor visa holders whose interviews were waived, all of whom were subject to the full scope of security checks, posed no greater risk for an overstay than those who were interviewed.  We are interested in explicit legislative authority to supplement the existing Interview Waiver Program by adding additional low-risk applicant groups such as citizens of Visa Waiver Program members applying for other types of visas such as student or work visas; continuing students moving to a higher level of education; non-U.S. citizen Global Entry and NEXUS trusted traveler program members; and holders of visas in other categories, such as students and workers, who wish to travel for tourism or business.  The Department is interested in working with Congress on legislation specifically authorizing the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security to enhance our interview waiver programs.

Since the VIWP is available in China and India, and many other countries with high visa demand, and includes visitor/business (B1-B2) visas, student (F) visas, and temporary worker’s (H1-B) visas, the workload impact on consular sections will be significant.  As more applicants require interviews, more interview windows will be needed, more consular officers will be needed, and larger facilities would become necessary.

By shutting down the IVWP, the Trump EO immediately expands the number of applicants that require in-person interviews. Section 8 (b) of the Trump EO also “immediately expand” the Consular Fellows Program, while a separate EO imposed a federal hiring freeze. Even if hiring is allowed under the Consular Fellows program, training new limited noncareer employees cannot occur overnight.

According to CA official’s congressional testimony, in 2014, 75 million international visitors traveled to the United States, a seven percent increase over 2013; they spent over $220 billion.  “Tourism is America’s largest services export and one that can’t be outsourced.” See current key numbers on US tourism in infographic below.

In FY 2014, Consular Affairs also generated $3.6 billion in revenue, which supports all consular operations in the Department and provides border security-related funding to some interagency partners. The CA bureau is probably the only fully fee-funded operation in the State Department.  It collects and retains fees for certain visa and passport services pursuant to specific statutory authority.  According to congressional testimony, the current fee statutes allow the bureau to retain approximately 80 percent of the fees it collects, with the balance going to the Treasury, which then help fund 12 other arms of the USG supporting border protection/national security.

 

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The Voice of America Deals With White House’s False Claim of ‘Largest Audience to Ever Witness an Inauguration’

Posted: 1:26 am ET

 

The VOA Charter signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976 provides that VOA serves “as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.” The Charter says that VOA news “will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.”  VOA broadcasts about 1,800 hours of radio and television programming each week to an estimated global audience of 236.6 million people. It is broadcasts in 47 languages.

On the White House Press Secretary’s first briefing of January 21, The Voice of America initially repeated Mr. Spicer’s false claim about the inauguration crowd but took down the tweet after being called out in public for it. A couple of hours later, The Voice of America posted and tweeted its AP-written Factcheck: Trump and Spicer’s Statements on Inaugural Crowd Size.

Screen Shot

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Trump’s Twittersation: Will FSI Soon Teach The Art of the Walk Back?

Posted: 1:10 am ET
Updated: Jan 15, 11:27 am PT

 

If the President-elect continues to tweet after January 20, and every indication says that he will, how does that affect the work of diplomats? How does that impact bilateral and multilateral relationships? This is a whole new different ball game.  Will foreign governments and foreign publics learn to take Trump’s tweets “seriously, but not literally?” And how is the Foreign Service Institute now preparing public affairs officials for overseas assignments? Our officials will soon be tasked with explaining the Trump policies and pronouncements at over 275 missions abroad. Is the school now or will soon be teaching the Art of the Walk Back?  What does the Magic 8 ball look like from your desktop?  We are entertaining predictions in our comment section or contact us here.

Here’s inspiration all the way from Asia —

 

 

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Activists Missing in #Zimbabwe, Also the U.S. Ambassador Tweets About Mickey Mouse

Posted: 4:01 pm ET

 

In case deleted, the tweet is here: https://cloudup.com/cVV4BmxzhOj

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