Burn Bag: Dissent Awards — How low can we go?

Via Burn Bag:

 

Well, how about this:  Dissent Awards without any real dissent.  In fact, three out of four don’t have any and it’s a reach for the entry-level one! How low can we go?

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Insider Quote: Integrity and Openness – Requirements for an Effective Foreign Service

Kenneth M. Quinn, the only three-time winner of an AFSA dissent award, spent 32 years in the Foreign Service and served as ambassador to Cambodia from 1996 to 1999. He has been president of the World Food Prize Foundation since 2000. In the September issue of the Foreign Service Journal, he writes about integrity and openness as requirements for an effective Foreign Service. Except below:

I can attest to the fact that challenging U.S. policy from within is never popular, no matter how good one’s reasons are for doing so. In some cases, dissent can cost you a job—or even end a career. And even when there are no repercussions, speaking out may not succeed in changing policy.

Yet as I reflect on my 32 years in the Foreign Service, I am more convinced than ever how critically important honest reporting and unvarnished recommendations are. And that being the case, ambassadors and senior policy officials should treasure those who offer different views and ensure that their input receives thoughtful consideration, no matter how much they might disagree with it.

Read in full here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a Year of Serious Roars and Growls, State Dept Officially Retires FSO-Non Grata Peter Van Buren

And so it has come to this.

Last year, the State Department was up in arms with the publication of Peter Van Buren’s book, We Meant Well, because well — as its Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State of the Bureau of Public Affairs  Dana Shell Smith (of the How to Have an Insanely Demanding Job and 2 Happy Children minor fame) told the book publisher, Macmillan, the Department has “recently concluded that two pages of the book manuscript we have seen contain unauthorized disclosures of classified information.”

I counted the words; there are some 30 words that were deemed classified information according to the letter sent to the publisher, including a place called, “Mogadishu.”  See “Classified” Information Contained in We Meant Well – It’s a Slam Dunk, Baby!

Five months after his book was published, the State Department moved to fire, Mr. Van Buren.  He was charged with eight violations including  linking in his blog to documents on WikiLeaks  (one confidential cable from 2009, and one unclas/sensitive/noforn cable also from 2009); failing to clear each blog posting with his bosses; displaying a “lack of candor” during interviews with diplomatic security officers;using “bad judgement’ by criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and one time presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann on his blog.

The eight charges did not include the allegation of leaking “classified” content from his book. Which is rather funny, in a twisted sort of way, yeah?   So, why …

Oh, dahrlings, let’s take the long cut on this, shall we?

There were lots of roars and growls, of course … employees at State even got to work on additional areas their supervisors deemed appropriate  — such as looking under dumb rocks to see if anything would come out, monitoring Mr. Van Buren’s media appearances and blog posts, etc. etc..  The guy was practically a cottage industry sprouting “taskers” all over Foggy Bottom (except maybe the cafeteria).  Those who got Meritorious Honor Awards for the Van Buren Affair, raise your left hand.  Oh dear, that’s a bunch!  Let us not be shocked, also if Mr. Van Buren was quite useful for the spring’s Employee Evaluation Reports (EER) for multiple folks.  Everybody gets credit for work well done, or otherwise.

And because life is about changes, the Director General of the Foreign Service Nancy Powell (top HR person in the Foreign Service) was promoted to do yet another stint as US Ambassador, this time to India; leaving the “Peter Headache” to her successor as DGHR, former Ambassador to Liberia, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.   The top boss of all management affairs at State, Patrick Kennedy, as far as we know did not have to swap chairs and is still top boss.  Mr. Van Buren himself did not go quietly into the night.  Instead he kept on popping up for interviews on radios and teevees, and here and there and his blog posts, angry or not, did not skip a single beat.

Meanwhile, the book which the NYT called “One diplomat’s darkly humorous and ultimately scathing assault on just about everything the military and State Department have done—or tried to do—since the invasion of Iraq”  went into second printing.

And so a year after We Meant Well was published, and after numerous investigations ending in a whimper, the State Department officially retired Mr. Van Buren on September 30, 2012. No, the agency did not fire him despite all sorts of allegations.  And yes, he gets his full retirement.

Congratulations everyone, all that work for nothing! So totally, totally 🙄 exhausting!

If Mr. Van Buren were a project, you would have had your Gantt chart with the work break down structure. As well, the project manager would have the time allocation, cost and scope for every detail of this project. Unfortunately for the American public, we may never know how much time, money and effort went into the 12 month Project Hounding of Mr. Van Buren.

In the end, the State Department can claim success in getting Mr. Van Buren out the door (and helping him sell those books also).  No one needs to pretend anymore that he is paid to work as a “telecommuter” when in truth they just did not want his shadow in that building. He is now officially a retired Foreign Service Officer. Like all soon to retire officers, he even got into the Foreign Service Institute’s job search program.  But of course, they have yanked away his security clearance, so that’s really helpful in the job search, too.

Do you get the feeling that this isn’t really about this book anymore but about that next book?

Back in July, former FSO Dave Seminara who writes for Gadling and is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat did an interview with Mr. Van Buren .  In one part of the interview, Mr. Van Buren said that he gets anonymous hate mail and people telling him to “shut up and do your service like everyone else did; half a million people have gone through Iraq and they didn’t have to bitch about everything like you did.” I read that and I thought, oh, dear me!

Excerpts:

Q: But surely you can understand that if lots of FSOs decided to write critical books like yours while still on active duty it would create chaos?

A: I can understand that argument. But this is part of living in a free society. As Donald Rumsfeld said, “Democracy is messy.” The State Department promotes the rights of people to speak back to their governments. The Arab Spring — we want people in Syria to shout back at their government, but we won’t let our own employees do that.

Q: It seems as though the State Department objects to some FSO blogs, but not to others — is that right?

A: It’s vindictive prosecution. The State Department links to dozens of Foreign Service blogs and those people aren’t getting clearance on everything they post — they can’t. But those blogs are about how the food in Venezuela is great or we love the secretary.

The idea — we’re going to pick on you because we don’t like what you’re writing — that scrapes up against the First Amendment. If the State Department wants to police my blog, they have to police all of them.

Q: And how do you think your peers perceive you now?
A: A lot of State Department people are under the mistaken impression that I didn’t clear the book but they’ve dropped that. People thought I went rogue, which I did not. I am not a popular person right now. Someone in an organization that is designed to help FSOs told me, “Most people in this building hate you.”

Some people worried that they’d have privileges in Baghdad taken away from them. That someone in Congress might wonder why we have a tennis court in Baghdad. I got de-friended by colleagues on Facebook. Most of them didn’t read the book. One embassy book club refused to buy the book. Lots of anonymous hate mail. [People telling me] shut up and do your service like everyone else did; half a million people have gone through Iraq and they didn’t have to bitch about everything like you did. I’ve also been harassed by Diplomatic Security people.

Q: Do you feel like diplomats have a right to publish?
A: We do have a constitution which still has the First Amendment attached to it. The rules say: No classified or personal information can be released, you can’t talk about contracting and procurement stuff that would give anyone an advantage in bidding, and the last thing you can’t do is speak on behalf of the department. That’s it. They don’t have to agree with what I’ve written. I have disclaimers in my book and on the blog explaining that my views are my own and don’t represent those of the U.S. government.

Read in full, U.S. Foreign Service Officer Blacklisted for Scathing Exposé.

The more insidious question really is — how did we end up with so much waste in Iraq and Afghanistan? The answer that folks just did their jobs and did not bitch about anything is certainly part of what ails the effort. Not that other folks have not complained, or even blogged about the reconstruction problems in the warzones, the complaints were just not as loud.  People were aware of serious issues in these reconstruction projects, talked about it, complained about it among themselves, but for one reason or another did not feel right about calling public attention to the fire slowly burning the house down.  What I have a hard time understanding is — why are people so mad at the man who shouted fire and had the balls to write about it?

This should be a great case study for the State Department’s Leadership and Management School. Because what exactly does this teach the next generation of Foreign Service Officers in terms of leadership and management? About misguided institutional loyalty? About the utility of shooting the messenger of bad news, so no news is good news?  And about courage when it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and all your friends have bailed out and locked the door, to keep you out?

See something. Say something. Or not.  But if you do, be prepared to be hounded and ostracized by the institution you once called home, by people you once called friends.

In any case, the one headed dragon that roars gotta be slayed before its other heads wake up and roar louder. Another officer was writing the Afghanistan edition of We Meant Well when the State Department went mud fishing on Mr. Van Buren. Not sure if that book is ever coming out but just one more line item on success in the State Department. The less stories told unofficially, the more successful the effort officially.

Um, pardon me?  Oh, you mean the State Department’s Dissent Channel and AFSA’s Dissent Awards? Those things are utterly amazing good stuff.  On paper.

 

 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The Ticking Bomb in the Foreign Service

Rachel Schneller joined the Foreign Service in 2001, serving in Skopje, Conakry and Basrah, where she was a Provincial Action Officer from 2005 to 2006. In the January 2008 issue of the Foreign Service Journal, she wrote a piece about her personal struggle with PTSD  (See Recovery: When  Surviving Isn’t Enough, FSJ, p. 35). That same year, she was awarded the William R. Rivkin Award for Dissent. The excerpt below is from her 2008 FSJ article:

Since returning from Iraq over a year ago and being diagnosed with the disorder, I’ve gotten a crash-course on the subject. So perhaps I can contribute to the dialog in a way others cannot, by describing what it is like to recover from PTSD.

My PTSD came about due to the conditions I endured while on assignment with the State Department, but State left me to fend for myself when it came to seeking treatment. In June 2006, after having worked in Basrah for several months, I took leave to return to Washington for a few weeks. A Foreign Service National employee in my office had been murdered, and I’d dreamed of hanging myself from my office light fixture.

During leave, I asked the Medical Services Bureau for help and they referred me to an in-house social worker. While telling him about the whole horrible situation, including the dream about killing myself, I broke down in sobs. The social worker was nice but offered me no actual treatment. He did not refer me to a psychiatrist for an evaluation; he did not offer me medication for my depression; and he did not address my thoughts of suicide. Disappointed, but fearful of being labeled a “quitter” or worse, I chose to return to Iraq.

When I think about how poorly State treated me when I sought help, I am outraged. After all, I was in no condition to make decisions about my own well being, any more than an alcoholic can make a well informed decision in a liquor store. Any competent, qualified mental health care provider would have known this. I had requested help but found only more danger. It was as if the ambulance coming for me in my elevator dream not only did not stop for me, but ran over me in the process. I — and everyone else  serving our country in a war zone — deserve much better.
[…]
In any war zone, some people going through the experience will likely come out of it with PTSD. But if the State Department is going to post its employees to war zones, it should be prepared to deal with the mental health aftermath and offer treatment to those who need it.

I completed my Iraq tour at the end of July 2006 and returned to Washington, where I began my next assignment, long-term training at the Foreign Service Institute. After all I’d been through, I was grateful  to be home alive and in one piece, reunited with family and friends. But soon I just stopped functioning normally. I was unable to sleep. I started getting lost on my way home from work, waking up in a sort of fugue state blocks away from my apartment in Georgetown. I don’t remember precisely how, but I burned myself several times so badly that I scarred — yet I didn’t feel it. I only noticed the burns the next day. Rage overwhelmed me. I nearly attacked another person in one of my FSI training classes, but walked out of the class in time and had a meltdown in the bathroom. (That poor woman had no idea how close she came to being strangled by me for making a completely innocent comment.) I couldn’t keep up the  pretense of being normal any longer.

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress.
National Institutes of Health

Last week, I posted about a grievance case by a Senior Foreign Service Officer who claimed PTSD and whose suspension was affirmed by the Foreign Service Grievance Board. In its FSGB filing, the State Department contends the following:

“Grievant served approximately one year in [REDACTED], [REDACTED] and returned to the U.S. on August 11, [REDACTED].  He served nearly seven months at the [REDACTED] without incident, and then, on March 2, [REDACTED] was assigned as Office Director to the Bureau of [REDACTED] and his misconduct began. Grievant waited until almost six months after he was removed from [REDACTED] to seek any medical advice.”

The Foreign Service Grievance Board in affirming the suspension writes:

“The year and a half referred to by the social worker encompasses the first seven months after his return to the U.S. from [REDACTED] when grievant served at the [REDACTED] apparently without incident. Grievant has not stated what he did in {REDACTED]  or what experiences he had that could have caused PSTD. He has presented no testimonials from others at the [REDACTED] or prior to his service in [REDACTED] to support his claim that PTSD accounted for his “out of character” behavior afterwards. There was no evidence that the claimed PTSD impacted any other aspects of the grievant’s life beyond the threatening and demeaning and bullying behavior that formed the basis for the discipline in this case.”

See, nothing happened in seven months, so how could he possibly have PTSD?

I don’t know how knowledgeable is the FSGB about PTSD, including an occurrence described as Delayed Onset PTSD, which can happen anywhere after six months to four years of the traumatic event. Or much longer than four years in some cases.  In fact, according to the LA Times, just a few weeks ago, Tech Sgt. Stanley Friedman, 92 was finally compensated for PTSD by Veterans Affairs (it was called shell shock or battle fatigue when he served nearly 70 years ago) for his service during World War II.  Our Foreign Service folks have not only served in war zones but have been subjected to  terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other traumatic events overseas.  I fully expect that the FSGB will be called on many more times in the foreseeable future to adjudicate cases relating to PTSD in the Foreign Service.

There is no question that the State Department needs to do a better job at screening for PTSD in the Service rather than its “cursory 3 hour High Stress Debrief session” plus handouts or one-day High Stress Assignment Outbrief Program, MQ-950 (which appears to be available only to employees and not/not to family members).  And by the way, spouses/partners who may be working in high-stress posts will not necessarily be working when they are back in the U.S., so they would presumably fall under the Non State Employee category.  The tuition rate for that category for taking MQ-950 is $260.

Rachel commented about the grievance/PTSD blog post, which I am highlighting below.

My heart goes out to everyone involved in this case. The employee having served in a PRT in what must have been extraordinarily difficult circumstances. The bewildered employees who felt threatened by the disturbing behavior of their boss. The State Department system, which has so little capacity for dealing with situations like this, which will only become more prevalent as more and more of us serve in combat zones. And come back.

A couple of things- a diagnosis of PTSD is your best defense, and can only be made by a qualified professional. A social worker cannot diagnose. If you have served in a combat zone and come back acting weird, please do everyone a favor and go see a psychiatrist or psychologist who can actually give you a diagnosis. You will not know you have a PTSD when you come back. You will just feel different and angry all the time. Trust me, get diagnosed. It is the only way to get good treatment.

Second, PTSD is a ticking time bomb. It is completely to be expected that someone with PTSD will come back from their service in a combat zone and be able to hold it together for a while. Luckily for me, I lost it only a few weeks after coming back and so was able to get treatment quickly. But in many cases, someone will not “lose it” for months or years afterward. You get triggered by something and BAM! You are right back in the war zone. That trigger may happen soon or it may not happen for a long time.

Third, you are an adult and so even if you have PTSD, you still are responsible for not attacking people or otherwise breaking the law, and you can and will be held responsible. PTSD is not a license to break the law. It does not make yelling at people OK. The soldier who “lost it” and killed all those innocent Afghani civilians a few months back? He probably had major PTSD, but he also killed a bunch of innocent people. Getting suspended from State is a good thing, because if you have PTSD you need to get treated, and this is your wake-up call.

And State, this sort of situation is going to keep happening. We need to do a better job of handling this sort of PTSD situation. It is only a matter of time before someone comes back and instead of yelling at their employees, actually does someone, or themselves, physical harm.

While I do believe that the State Department has the responsibility for conducting more effective PTSD screening for returnees, I also agree with Rachel’s point that mental health is an individual responsibility.  As she puts it plainly, “if you wait for State to get its act together on PTSD, you will be crazy for a long time.”

Wednesday, June 27 is PTSD Awareness Day. DiploPundit will be blogging about this topic the whole week.

Domani Spero

Foreign Service Dissent Award Snubs Most Vocal Foreign Service Dissenter of the Year

The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional association of the United States Foreign Service presents an annual set of awards for “intellectual courage and creative dissent.

It has four dissent awards:

  • F. Allen “Tex” Harris Award for a Foreign Service Specialist
  • W. Averell Harriman Award for a junior officer (FS 7-FS 4)
  • William R. Rivkin Award for a mid-level officer, (FS 3-FS 1)
  • Christian A. Herter Award for a member of the Senior Foreign Service (FE OC-FE CA)

Here is AFSA’s Criteria for its Dissent Awards:

The 2012 Dissent Awards via AFSA (excerpt):

This year’s AFSA awards for intellectual courage, initiative and integrity in the context of constructive dissent will be presented to the following Foreign Service employees, who challenged the system despite the possible consequences.  The winner will receive a small globe with their name and a framed certificate.

The winner of the 2012 William R. Rivkin Award for constructive dissent by a mid-level Foreign Service officer is Joshua Polacheck. Mr. Polacheck consistently and over some time made well-reasoned arguments against the U.S. security posture as it related to U.S. embassies, consulates and missions abroad. He submitted a highly cogent dissent channel cable, raising concerns that “consistently erring on the side of caution” when it comes to security choices sends “a message of distrust to the people of our host nations” and makes it difficult to roll back enhanced security measures should the need arise. Mr. Polacheck came to this conclusion after serving in Iraq, Pakistan and Lebanon. The judges were impressed with his willingness to raise a well-argued concern on an issue that often complicates U.S. policy and the carrying out of diplomatic and development work abroad.

The AFSA Awards and Plaques Committee did not select any winners this year for AFSA’s other dissent awards: The F. Allen “Tex” Harris Award for Foreign Service specialists, the W. Averell Harriman Award for constructive dissent by an entry-level Foreign Service officer, or the Christian A. Herter Award for Senior Foreign Service members.

So there — this year, there are no winners for three of AFSA’s four dissent awards.  The only one with a declared winner is the Rivkin Award for a mid-level officer (FS 3-FS 1). The award is named after William Rivkin, a US Army officer and former US Ambassador to Luxembourg and Senegal, who is also the father Charles H. Rivkin, the current US Ambassador to France.

We understand that two nominations were submitted for the Rivkin Award for FSO Peter Van Buren, but since he did not get the award, AFSA’s panel must think that he did not “go out on a limb” enough, or “stick his neck out in a way” that involves some risk.  Which is kind of sorta funny since the last we heard, Van Buren’s neck is definitely on the chopping block.  Revenge of the chickens for writing about chicken crap.  But seriously, he sure did challenge the system from within by not resigning, didn’t he?

The word backstage is that folks were reportedly “not happy” about the Van Buren nominations since the nominee did not follow proper channels, or dissent was not constructive, or something along those lines.  Our guesstimate is that “challenging the system from within” does not really mean that you are within the system when you’re doing the challenging, it simply means that that you’re challenging the system with proper punctuation marks observed without offending too many folks and not rattling too many cages.

Or wait — maybe if he quit … and wasn’t so loud, and did not give so many interviews, and did not call people names,  you think, they might have given him the award for demonstrating nicely and quietly, “the intellectual courage to challenge the system from within, to question the status quo and take a stand, no matter the sensitivity of the issue or the consequences of their actions.”  

The book was done nicely though, it wasn’t distasteful or anything, and it wasn’t in ALL CAPS, so he wasn’t really shouting.

Oh, let’s sleep on this. Maybe tomorrow we’ll wake up and find that Fulbright’s quote is really a joke gone bad.

Here we thought dissent is a dying tradition in the Foreign Service … ahnd, it might just be.

Why? Well, we didn’t hear too much non-official dissent around here, and if AFSA’s candidates’ pool  is running empty, it could only mean that not too many people are using the official Dissent Channel. Or whoever used it in the recent past were deemed not worthy of these awards.

But — before you jump into wrongheaded conclusions, be reminded that not too very long ago, Ambassador Alfred Atherton, then Director General of the Foreign Service, was quoted saying: “it is possible that the decline in the use of the dissent channel you’ve cited represents the success of the system …rather than a deliberate effort to squelch differing views.”

And we don’t think he was kidding then when he said what he said.

Just to be clear, AFSA is a dues-collecting non-government membership organization. It sure can set its own criteria for its awards, the dissent awards included. But perhaps, it should amplify its own rules for rewarding dissent — that it’s only good for the nice form not the long form, hair on fire kind. These awards are for the special kind of dissent, the “constructive kind only” — the ones that do not topple the chairs.  So contrary to Fulbright’s words, the test of dissent’s value is really in its taste?

“For over forty years AFSA has sponsored a program to recognize and encourage constructive dissent and risk-taking in the Foreign Service. This is unique within the U.S. Government. The Director General of the Foreign Service is a co-sponsor of the annual ceremony where the dissent awards are conferred. AFSA is proud to have upheld the tradition of constructive dissent for these many years, and we look forward to our ongoing role in recognizing those who have the courage to buck the system to stand up for their beliefs.”

Hey, stop laughing over there!

Oh, where were we? So this is just as well. Imagine if Van Buren got the dissent award? The Director General of the Foreign Service whose office is pursuing Mr. Van Buren’s dismissal would have been in a twilightzoney spot of handing an award to the State Department’s top ranking FSO-non grata. Of course, that pix would have been something to pin on Pinterest.

Anyway, this got us thinking — which can sometimes get problematic.

If dissent is one important index of political integrity within the Foreign Service, what does it mean, that 1) the tide pool is so shallow AFSA could only find one winner in this year’s awards and 2) that it has ignored the most vocal Foreign Service dissenter of the year?

We don’t know the answer but it is disturbing that bucking the system and standing for one’s beliefs have asterisks.

Domani Spero