The U.S. Embassy of Curtailments — Hurry! Nominations Now Open

Posted: 12:44 am  EDT
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One political ambassador went though five DCMs during his tenure as President George W. Bush’s ambassador in paradise. The whole two Bush terms. We even wrote a tanka about it.  Another political ambassador went through seven permanent and temporary DCMs in less than one term at US Embassy Luxembourg under President Obama.

There is no shortage of criticisms when it comes to the appointments of political ambassadors, of course. But let us point out to something good here. The political ambassadors know when to exit the stage, and that’s a good thing. Even if we’ll never know for sure how hard or how lightly they’re pushed to exit right, we know that they will not be candidates in the State Department’s well-oiled recycling program.

So, what should we make about news of curtailments from an embassy headed by a career ambassador when the official report is handled with such a, um… soft touch?

  • Embassy Tallinn’s single-officer consular section suffered successive curtailments of assigned officers in the 20 months between February 2013 and September 2014. During that period, eight temporary duty officers provided approximately 10 months of management coverage.
  • Management operations at Embassy Tallinn were recently disrupted for a 6-month period because of curtailments in the management and general services officer positions.

Wait — that’s three positions, aren’t we missing a few more? The consular section had successive curtailments? Like — how many? There was a year-long gap in the political officer position; was that gap a result of another curtailment?

The IG report on Embassy Tallinn does not answer those questions and does not elaborate the reasons for these personnel gaps and curtailments, which we are told are “old news.”

But see — people do not take voluntary curtailments lightly. Not only do they need to unpack, repack, unpack again their entire household, kids have to be pulled out of schools, pets have to be shipped and there may be spouses jobs that get interrupted.  And most of all, in a system where assignments are made typically a year before the transfer season, curtailments mean the selection for the employee’s next assignment back in DC or elsewhere contains pretty slim pickings.   The employee may even be stuck in a “bridge” assignment that no one wants. So, no, curtailments are not easy fixes, they cause personal and office upheavals, and people generally avoid doing them unless things get to a point of being intolerable.

In any case, we like poking into “old news” … for instance, we are super curious if the curtailed personnel from Tallinn similarly decamped to Baghdad or Kabul like those curtailments cited in the OIG report for US Embassy Luxembourg? No? Well, where did they go … to Yekaterinburg?

Did they curtail for medical reasons, that is, was post the cause of their ailments? And no, we have it in excelent authority that no one has microwaved Embassy Tallinn like the good old days in Moscow.

The report says there were curtailments and that “stronger leadership from the Ambassador and his greater adherence to Department of State rules and regulations are necessary.”

Also that the “most significant findings concern the need for stronger leadership from the Ambassador and his greater adherence to ethics principles, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) guidelines, and security policies.”

Wow!  This report is mighty short on details, what happened?

We take special note on the use of the following words: Strong-er. Great-er.  Both comparative adjectives, see? Suggesting that chief of mission (COM) already has strong leadership and great adherence to principles and policies.

And this is the report’s most significant findings? That the COM just need to move the dial a notch up?

Are the fine details on  ethics, EEO, security flushed out to the Classified Annex of this report, to entertain a limited readership with “need to know” badges? And their inclusion in the annex is for national security reasons?

Strong-er. Great-er.  Sorry folks, but it must be said, a heck of a crap-per. Additional post to follow.


The Luxembourg Affair: Rebuttal received, responded to and more headline bait for lots of fish

The front office blow out at the US Embassy in Luxembourg is not the first, nor will it be the last. When a Bush appointee in Trinidad and Tobago went through five deputy ambassadors during two terms of George W., there was barely a ripple in the news. (Read That Did Not Work Out Very Well, Did It? US Embassy Port of Spain Sets Record/s). That was two years ago.

So, anyway, we read NPR’s coverage recently: “Sometimes after a situation like this, however, an administration will go with a State Department professional in order to bring some much needed stability to an embassy. So it’s not a foregone conclusion that she’ll be replaced with another big political donor type.”

Sorry, did we laugh out loud? No such luck for US Embassy Dysfunctional in sunny Trinidad and Tobago, which got another political appointee for needed stability.

 Today it may be US Embassy Luxembourg, but tomorrow, it’ll be another embassy. Sometimes the review is good, sometimes it’s bad. But the buck always stops at the front office of every chancery. Unless, it’s a political appointee, in which case, the buck stops at the appointing authority, the WH. After all, the President’s personal representative in a foreign country is responsible not just for the affairs of the state but ultimately, the entire mission including people and leaking faucets. Who says it’s all glamor and gowns?

Career ambassadors, unfortunately, are not exempt from similar leadership deficiencies, like this one who was posted in an African post. The OIG says that “the Ambassador’s leadership is authoritarian, and staff believes dissent is unwelcome.” Sounds like an awful boss, too, but for some reason they don’t make quite a similar splash in the news. And even when some do, they can get recycled to other missions or get kicked upstairs (so hello, again). Or there is always retirement. 

In any case, if Luxembourg turns out to be the OIG’s most requested report in years, then that’s a good learning opportunity for taxpayers. The OIG’s review of our embassies is about all the publicly available report we’re going to read about our diplomatic missions in far away lands.

L’affaire Luxembourg is all over the news now. We are, of course, still quite amazed how a 61-page report can generate all sorts of headlines.

We have to admit that our current favorite is …At Luxembourg Embassy, Staff Begged to Be Sent to Baghdad from Slate Magazine’s blog.

Begged! Is that beg as in please, please take me I’m yours?!

Seriously, we’d like to know if any of the Iraq/Af/Pak recruiters wrote a thank you note.

Then there’s The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in Is It Possible To Screw Up as US Ambassador to Luxembourg?

Um…you are welcome to answer that question.

Michael Beckel of the Center for Responsive Politics reports that Democratic Financier Cynthia Stroum Flames Out After Brief Stint as Barack Obama’s Ambassador to Luxembourg…
Flames out, okay … very good recap there on the money angle.

The AtlanticWire’s Elspeth Reeve writes Why Giving Donors Ambassadorships Is a Bad Idea

Well — not always, of course. Some have been known to fly their own plane (140 official trips out of pocket in the eastern Caribbean) when Uncle Sam had severely limited travel money, or known to restore the ambassador’s residence when there was no repair money or build a wine cellar when there …well, Uncle Sam has not been known to fork out money for wine cellars.

Wall Street Journal’s Robert Frank wanted to know — Do Rich People Make Good Ambassadors?

What’s money gotta do with it?

Anyway, there’s more below; quite a competition for your eyeballs ….

Ex-Ambassador Left Luxembourg Embassy in ‘State of Dysfunction,’ Watchdog Finds Fox News – William Lajeunesse

US Ambassador Exits Europe Post Before Scathing Report About Her NPR (blog) – Frank James

Obama mega-donor resigns plum ambassador post in Luxembourg amid scathing …Los Angeles Times – Matthew Lee

Cynthia Stroum: 5 Facts on the Former Ambassador to Luxembourg Now Under Fire | AOL News

From Weasel Zippers: Obama Bundler Turns Into Diplomatic Blunder

In American Thinker, Rick Moran writes, Obama’s Luxemburg Ambassador an epic disaster

Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire concludes that Luxembourg Is No Paradise for Embassy Staff.

Bad ambassador: Political appointee blasted for dragging down US embassy screams the San Francisco Examiner.

In US Crisis In Luxembourg? Ambassador Cynthia Stroum Resigns NowPublic writes, “the IG’s report makes Stroum sound like a diplomatic Leona Helmsley.”

Across the pond, the Independent’s Guy Adams: writes, ‘Bullying’ ambassador loses Obama’s favour.

Not to be outdone, the UK’s Daily Mail blares, U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg quits after year dogged by ‘leadership deficiencies, personality conflicts and dodgy expenses’

And of course, political ambassadors being what they are — this is also politics and local. Seattle Times’s Jim Brunner remembers something about a certain Washington State senator — Cantwell vouched for “disaster” Stroum as ambassador.

Not sure we’re going to hear from either of the WA senators on this one.

Then there’s Calvin Eaves of (satire) who writes about Obama Looking for Smaller Diplomatic Post: “Perhaps if we just find her the right sized mattress, she will be able to get a good night’s sleep and be able to better perform the duties required of her post,” said President Obama.

We bet that’s not at all amusing over in Seattle. Patti Payne of Puget Sound has more in Stroum, envoy under fire, counters.

A couple of days ago, TPMMuckraker reported this: Ambassador: ‘Caught Off Guard’ Over Criticisms Of Management Style.

The Associated Press also says that Seattle native rebuts abuse charges during ambassadorship.

And this one is not a headline, but striking still the same — 352 Lux Mag out of Luxembourg cites a French newspaper L’essential, and writes that “there are rumours that Stroum is currently working in Baghdad.” Oh, dear…. apparently, this magazine has never heard of the Googles.

At the Daily Press Brief on February 7, 2011, the State Dept’s spokesman was asked about the reported rebuttal from Ambassador Stroum:

QUESTION: Are you aware of any contact that the Department has had with your former ambassador to Luxemburg in the last – since Thursday?

MR. CROWLEY: She resigned. Beyond that, I’m not – what kind of contact would you be —

QUESTION: Well, she says that she’s written a rebuttal or – to the IG report.


QUESTION: And I’m just wondering if you’re aware of that.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, if her rebuttal has been received by the IG, I’m sure the IG is aware of that.

QUESTION: Well, but you’re not?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, I – she resigned from her office. She has returned to the United States, and she’s resumed her private life.

Well, sure enough, as PJ Crowley said, the OIG is aware of it. When we inquired about Ambassador Stroum’s rebuttal, Douglas Welty, the Congressional & Public Affairs Officer of the Office of Inspector General sent us the following response:

“[T]he Office of Inspector General (OIG) received rebuttal comments from Ambassador Stroum on January 10. This was well after our inspection team had departed post in November 2010, and her opportunity to discuss the findings in person had passed. However, after receiving her comments, part of the team was reassembled, and they reconciled her comments with the inspection work papers. OIG found sufficient support for the judgments and conclusions in the report, and OIG responded to her, as such, on January 14.”

So rebuttal sent according to Ambassador Stroum, received and responded to according to the OIG.  Also that the “OIG does not share its work papers, Inspection Evaluation Review responses or other material other than our published report.

WaPo’s Al Kamen has more of this in Even Obama mega-bundlers must play nice:

[T]he inspector general also does what’s called the Inspector’s Evaluation Report (IER), a “report card” on the ambassador and the No. 2 official, the deputy chief of mission. These are not made public.

Career employees complain that, for many years, negative evaluations sent to the White House for the 50 or so political ambassadors most often seem to disappear into the void. But this time the State Department – presumably with White House sign-off – moved with dispatch.

Department officials called her in shortly after the IG’s assessment circulated internally in December, we were told. Stroum flew back to attend a meeting at Foggy Bottom with her attorney and senior department officials. About three weeks later, on Jan. 13, she publicly announced, “with some regret,” her resignation, saying she needed “to focus on my family and personal business.”

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) reports are posted on OIG’s Web sites in accordance with section 8L of The Inspector General Act of 1978. It is extremely rare to see revised reports posted there.

Of course, this is a free country. And anyone can write a book and sell it on teevee like the Known and Unknown Rummy. And by the way, the former US Ambassador to Barbados recently launched her book “More Than a Walk on the Beach: Confessions of an Unlikely Diplomat.”  No, she’s not the most recent one in Barbados with a plane.

Ex-Ambassador to Luxembourg Cynthia Stroum, Mum … Until After DC Lawyers Talk

Last week, columnist Patti Payne of the Puget Sound Business Journal wrote that she called Ambassador Stroum, a Seattle philanthropist, at home, and “found her hesitant to speak out about her side of the story,” in the aftermath of that scathing report from the Office of the Inspector General about the US Embassy in Luxembourg.  Excerpt below:

Stroum says she is not going to shrink from comment in the future. “There is much more to this story,” she insists. “And,” she adds, “I am more than willing to tell my side of it, but not now. Let me just say I’ve gotten huge and amazing support from the government of Luxembourg.” She says she is receiving a stream of calls from supportive friends as well.

More here

Additional details from the columnist appeared over the weekend in Stroum, envoy under fire, counters

Stroum says her formal, detailed rebuttal was filed with the Office of the Inspector General, the same office which issued the report.

Stroum, who resigned her post just days before the State Department report was made public, says, of what information has been released: “They chose to put in what they wanted to. … They chose not to publish the rebuttal.”

While she won’t say much more at this time, until her D.C. lawyers confer with her this coming week, she does say that she is hearing from an increasing number of people who are sympathetic to her. 

Ms. Payne also republished in full the emailed statement from Ambassador Stroum; also cited by AP/Seattle Times:

“For me personally, serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg has been a true privilege. I have new found respect for the hard work done by the diplomatic corps around the world and applaud all of those who serve their country. During my 14 months at Post, I have developed a great admiration for the people of Luxembourg, their government officials and the Grand Ducal family. The initiatives that I chose to focus on were what I believed to be in the best interest of the relationship between Luxembourg and the United States and I’m proud of the links connected especially with businesses here in my home state of Washington. The circumstances of my departure from Luxembourg were unfortunate, but I am glad to be back home in Seattle with family and friends. As to the OIG (Office of the Inspector General) report specifically, I have responded and filed my rebuttal through the proper State Department channels.”

We’d be interested in reading that rebuttal, too.

Oh, alright! Go ahead and read the US Embassy Luxembourg report here

US State Dept | Office of Inspector General | Report on US Embassy Luxembourg ISP-I-11-17A Jan 2011

State/OIG Issues Mgt Horror Report of the Year for US Embassy Luxembourg

For the last several months, we have see seen an uptick on the search for the OIG report on the US Embassy in Luxembourg in our blog. Alternatively, a search on Luxembourg’s DCMs.

That would get you curious, right? One of our hottest searches. Then the ambassador quit last month citing the need to focus on her family and personal business.

Today, fresh out of the oven …. the Office of the Inspector General’s report on US Embassy Luxembourg finally made it online ….

The two are not necessarily connected, of course.

But the report looks mighty harsh, scathing … scorchingly blunt for a political appointee with less than about a year in tenure …

First about Luxembourg:

“One of the world’s smallest and wealthiest nations, Luxembourg plays a role in international relations, finance, media, and other areas that is disproportionate to its size. Slightly smaller than Rhode Island, with fewer than 500,000 residents, Luxembourg’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of $79,600 in 2009 trailed only Liechtenstein and Qatar in the entire world.”

So rich country, rich people, one of those much talked about “cushy” assignments in Europe. Should be paradise, right?

Whoever said that even paradise can be hell got it right on this one. Some embassy staff according to the report curtailed from their 3-year assignments in Luxembourg to volunteer for assignments in the war zones.

Extracted from the report’s summary:

The Ambassador’s confrontational management style, chronic gaps in senior and other staffing caused by curtailments, and the absence of a sense of direction have brought major elements of Embassy Luxembourg to a state of dysfunction. These curtailments entail considerable costs to the U.S. Government. Morale among Americans and local staff is very low, and stress levels are high. Most employees describe the Ambassador as aggressive, bullying, hostile, and intimidating, which has resulted in an extremely difficult, unhappy, and uncertain work environment. [REDACTED]

Poor management of the front office has aggravated communication within and outside the office and has led to serious inefficiencies. Taskings are arbitrary and erratic, the flow of information is excessively restricted, and the work of embassy staff members is not properly channeled or coordinated.

The public affairs section is stretched to the breaking point. Tactical, short term support to the front office consumes available time and resources, preventing the embassy from developing a strategic approach to public diplomacy in support of policy objectives.

The small and underresourced management section has been absorbed with issues surrounding the official residence, and a move to a temporary residence, resulting in insufficient time to devote to management controls and customer support. [REDACTED]

The inspection took place in Washington, DC, between September 7 and 29, 2010, and in Luxembourg, Luxembourg, between October 25 and November 5, 2010.

Okay, so leadership and management, anyone?

The current Ambassador is not responsible for the management cuts in 2008 that crippled general services operations before her arrival. However, the bulk of the mission’s internal problems are linked to her leadership deficiencies, the most damaging of which is an abusive management style. She has followed a pattern of public criticism of colleagues, including DCMs, who have not performed to her satisfaction. The team believes that a climate of acute stress exists in the mission, which is especially evident among officers and local staff who have been here more than 3 or 4 months. Those who have questioned or challenged some of the Ambassador’s actions state that they have paid a heavy price in the form of verbal abuse and been threatened with dismissal.

This appraisal will not be news to the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs (EUR), which has been forthcoming about its concerns regarding management issues at Embassy Luxembourg. [REDACTED] It is unfortunate that an impression is being created among officers and local employees at this mission that this kind of behavior may be routinely tolerated by Department of State (Department) leadership, particularly for noncareer ambassadors.

Curtailments: from paradise to the war zones:

Since the Ambassador’s confirmation, most of the senior staff, including two deputy chiefs of mission (DCM) and two section chiefs, has either curtailed or volunteered for service in Kabul and Baghdad. Other U.S. staff members have also departed early. At the time of the inspection, additional members of staff were contemplating curtailing. The OIG team believes and in some cases knows for certain that these early departures are because of the Ambassador’s management style. The mission does not provide an environment that nurtures, supports, or trains entry-level or recently tenured officers. Management resources have been skewed toward front office priorities to the detriment of the performance of core responsibilities and the fulfillment of Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) policies and requirements.

Whew! And there’s more ….

  • Chronic communications problem between the front office and the rest of the mission.
  • No permanent DCM at the mission. Of the seven permanent and temporary staff  who served in this position since the Ambassador’s confirmation in November 2009, only one has remained for longer than 6 months.
  • The Ambassador decided to replace a DCM who had been in the job for only 4 months weeks before her arrival at the embassy
  • The [Ambassador’s] residence manager retired and the CMR’s cook was fired
  • Ambassador maintains total control over her own calendar
  • An even bigger problem is the Ambassador’s lack of confidence – or perhaps trust – in her staff, which leads to a near total absence of regular guidance and advance planning.
  • After learning about a professional school in Switzerland that trained employees to work in places such as Buckingham Palace, the Ambassador and then-general services officer flew to the school to interview candidates.
  • The OIG team was told that the Ambassador was not pleased with the condition of the CMR mattress, and preferred a queen bed to the king-size bed already provided.
  • During one 6-week period earlier in 2010, he [one local procurement staff] spent 80 to 90 percent of his time searching for a temporary CMR [Chief of Mission Residence]. In late summer, he and several other staff members, as well as the management officer, spent several days locating and purchasing an umbrella for the CMR patio.
  • The [OIG] team believes that too many of the limited resources of this embassy have been allocated to issues related to her personal support.

And here we thought who could possibly top Embassy Port of Spain’s five DCMs under George W’s political appointee?

At Embassy Port
Of Spain, it rained with migraine,

Complaints and hard rain;

And five DCMs stayed sane
Changing zip codes and domains.

Now, we may have to come up with a Luxembourg Tanka….ugh!


Related item:

OIG Report No. ISP-I-11-17A – Inspection of Embassy Luxembourg, Luxembourg – January 2011

Related posts:
That Did Not Work Out Very Well, Did It? | Friday, September 25, 2009

Sunday Tanka: At Embassy Port of Spain | Sunday, October 25, 2009

Appointment Letter from President Obama Gave Ambassador the Right to Read Any Email Messages from Embassy? Noooooooooo!

This is part one in the series that could keep us busy for awhile.

The OIG team learned during the inspection that the Ambassador had brought to the staff’s attention that her appointment letter from the President gave her the right to read any email messages that originated at Embassy Luxembourg. In the psychological atmosphere of the embassy, some interpreted this as a direct warning that she would have access to messages to OIG or other Department offices.

At the exit briefing, the OIG team confirmed to the Ambassador and the country team that Department employees can have no expectation of privacy in their electronic communications on U.S. Government equipment. This is reconfirmed each time an employee logs in on U.S. Government computers, and the policy is expressly spelled out in 5 FAM 723. However, the FAM is equally clear that neither Department nor embassy management has limitless access to employees’ email accounts just by virtue of their positions. Department regulation 5 FAM 724 c. states that auditing of an employee’s network activity or workstation use, which includes but is not limited to electronic communication, Internet access, local disk files, and server files, may be performed only when there is suspicion that improper use of U.S. Government equipment has occurred. Even then, a supervisor must obtain the concurrence of a reviewing official; at an embassy, that official is the DCM. A supervisor must also explain why review of a subordinate’s emails is needed, and the DCM must approve, in writing, an audit of the employee’s email accounts. The results of that review must be returned to the DCM for further action, if needed. Since not all embassy staff was present at the exit briefing, there is a need to clarify this policy within the mission.

Recommendation 6: Embassy Luxembourg should issue a formal policy that explains Department of State rules and regulations concerning access to employee electronic records and the circumstances under which embassy management may access these records. (Action: Embassy Luxembourg)

Active links added and items underlined for emphasis.

Okay, we have to say that this is not the worst part in the list of management/leadership shortcomings enumerated by the State Department’s Inspector General report, but it strike us as extremely poor taste – bringing up the President’s name, like propping up the president’s life-size image behind when you make a speech.

There’s a whole lot of material in the IG report that we could just blog about this until the next presidential election or when US Embassy Luxembourg gets another deep pocket political appointee as chief of mission! Whichever comes first. Okay, we’ll wait…..

Phuey! As Rick Stout’s Nero Wolfe would say, phuey!   

More later ….