Not Going Benghazimazi But Let’s Revisit the ARB’s “Full & Unfettered Access” to State Dept Documents

Posted: 7:42 pm EST
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

Last fall, Ray Maxwell alleged that there was a Foggy Bottom operation to “separate” damaging State Department documents before they were turned over to the Accountability Review Board investigating security lapses surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. (see Former State Dept DAS Raymond Maxwell Alleges Benghazi Document Scrub Pre-ARB Investigation).

At that time, the State Department deputy spox, Marie Harf  called the allegations “a crazy conspiracy theory about people squirreling away things in some basement office and keeping them secret.” She also said this:

QUESTION: Did people involved in preparing the documents for the ARB separate documents into stuff that was just whatever and then things that they thought were – made people on the seventh floor, including the Secretary, look bad?

MS. HARF: Not to my knowledge, Matt, at all. The ARB had full and unfettered access and direct access to State Department employees and documents. The ARB’s co-chairs, Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen, have both repeated several times that they had unfettered access to all the information they needed. So the ARB had complete authority to reach out independently and directly to people. Employees had complete authority to reach out directly to the ARB. And they’ve said themselves they had unfettered access, so I have no idea what prompted this somewhat interesting accounting of what someone thinks they may have seen or is now saying they saw.

But the ARB has been clear, the ARB’s co-chairs have been clear that they had unfettered access, and I am saying that they did have full and direct access to State Department employees and documents.

Read more: State Dept on Former DAS Raymond Maxwell’s Allegations: Crazy. Conspiracy Theory. What Else?

The State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach also denied the allegations (see State Department Denies Raymond Maxwell’s Document Scrub Allegations. Peeeeriod!!!!).

“That allegation is totally without merit. It doesn’t remotely reflect the way the ARB actually obtained information,” he said in an email. He explained that an “all-points bulletin”-type request went out department-wide instructing “full and prompt cooperation” for anyone contacted by the ARB, and urging anyone with “relevant information” to contact the board. 

“So individuals with information were reaching out proactively to the Board. And, the ARB was also directly engaged with individuals and the Department’s bureaus and offices to request information and pull on whichever threads it chose to. The range of sources that the ARB’s investigation drew on would have made it impossible for anyone outside of the ARB to control its access to information,” Gerlach said. He further noted that the leaders of the ARB have claimed they had unfettered access to information and people. 

In both cases, these government officials emphasized one thing: that the Pickering-Mullen Accountability Review Board “had full and unfettered access and direct access to State Department employees and documents.”

In the September 2013 congressional hearing, the Benghazi ARB co-chair also told Congress, “We had unfettered access to State Department personnel and documents. There were no limitations.” 

Shouldn’t we now consider the absent clintonemail.com server as one such limitation?

In light of reports that Secretary Clinton exclusively used a personal email account to conduct government business as secretary of state, and that her private emails were never reportedly actual residents of Foggy Bottom, would these current and former government officials now revisit their statements on the ARB’s “unfettered” access to documents?

 * * *

 

A Perfect Case for OIG’s Office of Evaluations & Special Projects: How the Visa Waiver Sausage Gets Made

— Domani Spero
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

In 2004, Alden P. Stallings, a Foreign Service Officer pleaded guilty for writing false visa referrals. According to DOJ, Stallings was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Korea as the Deputy Public Affairs Officer when he submitted to the Consular Section 54 referrals in which he provided false information about his relationship with the applicants. DOJ charged that on each of the 54 referral forms, Stallings stated that he recommended the issuance of a non-immigrant visa to the applicant because the applicant was an “important post contact” whom he had “personally known” since a specified date. In fact, on each of the 54 occasions, Stallings knew that his statement on the referral form was false, and that he did not personally know the contact.

At the time Stallings pleaded guilty,he faced a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and that case effectively ended his career.

But hey, is it true that if you are in a senior position or a congressional representative,  a personal intervention on behalf of a rejected visa applicant — who allegedly brought foreign maids into the country under false visa pretenses, and donated money to political campaigns — is A-okay?

Via the NYT:

The Obama administration overturned a ban preventing a wealthy, politically connected Ecuadorean woman from entering the United States after her family gave tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic campaigns, according to finance records and government officials.

The woman, Estefanía Isaías, had been barred from coming to the United States after being caught fraudulently obtaining visas for her maids. But the ban was lifted at the request of the State Department under former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton so that Ms. Isaías could work for an Obama fund-raiser with close ties to the administration.

It was one of several favorable decisions the Obama administration made in recent years involving the Isaías family, which the government of Ecuadoraccuses of buying protection from Washington and living comfortably in Miami off the profits of a looted bank in Ecuador.
[…]
In the spring of 2011, Ms. Isaías, a television executive, was in a difficult situation.

Her father and uncle were Ecuadorean fugitives living in Miami, but she was barred from entering the United States after she brought maids into the country under false visa pretenses and left them at her parents’ Miami home while she traveled.

“Alien smuggling” is what American consular officials in Ecuador called it.

American diplomats began enforcing the ban against Ms. Isaías, blocking her from coming to Miami for a job with a communications strategist who had raised up to $500,000 for President Obama.
[…]
Over the course of the next year, as various members of the Isaías family donated to Mr. Menendez’s re-election campaign, the senator and his staff repeatedly made calls, sent emails and wrote letters about Ms. Isaías’s case to Mrs. Clinton, Ms. Mills, the consulate in Ecuador, and the departments of State and Homeland Security.

After months of resistance from State Department offices in Ecuador and Washington, the senator lobbied Ms. Mills himself, and the ban against Ms. Isaías was eventually overturned.
[…]
David A. Duckenfield, a partner at the company who is now on leave for a position as deputy assistant secretary of public affairs at the State Department, said Ms. Isaías worked for the firm but declined to comment further. Another senior executive at the firm said she must work outside the office because he had never heard of her.
[…]
“There are rigorous processes in place for matters such as these, and they were followed,” said the spokesman, Nick Merrill. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

A White House spokesman, Eric Schultz, declined to comment, saying that visas are issued free from political interference by other federal agencies.

Mr. Boehm, the former Pennsylvania prosecutor, said Senate ethics rules allowed members of Congress to reach out to the administration on behalf of a constituent. “Members of Congress do a lot for their constituents,” Mr. Boehm said.

“These folks are not his constituents,” he added, referring to Mr. Menendez.

See the whole report here: Ecuador Family Wins Favors After Donations to Democrats. 

Pardon me? Ah, yes, the vomitorium is next door to the right, please don’t make a mess.

Continue reading

State Dept refused to name its SGEs because of reasons #1, #2, #3, #4 and … oh right, the Privacy Act of 1974

— Domani Spero

Last week, ProPublica posted this: Who Are State Dept’s 100 “Special Government Employees”? It Won’t Say.  We blogged about it here: Who Are State Dept’s 100 “Special Government Employees”? Dunno But Is Non-Disclosure For Public Good? Today, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has more on the subject. And after months of giving one reason or another to the reporters pursuing this case, the State Department is down to its Captain America shield  — the Privacy Act of 1974.

Below excerpted from POGO: State Dept. Won’t Name Advisers Already in Government’s Public Database:

They’ve all been selected to advise the State Department on foreign policy issues. Their names are listed on the State Department’s website.

So why won’t the Department disclose that these individuals are special government employees (SGEs)?

For four months, State has refused to name its SGEs, ProPublica reported last week, leaving the public to guess which outside experts are advising the Department on matters that affect the public’s interest.

Yet, the Project On Government Oversight was able to find more than 100 of the advisers identified as SGEs in an online government database. In other words, some of the information that State has been refusing to provide is hiding in plain sight.
[…]
State has refused to identify any of its special employees, even though most agencies contacted by ProPublica were easily able to provide a list of their SGEs.

First, a State spokeswoman told ProPublica her agency “does not disclose employee information of this nature.”

When ProPublica filed a request seeking the list of names under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), it was told the agency doesn’t keep such a list, and State’s FOIA office refused to track down the information because it would require “extensive research.”

In September, ProPublica told State it planned to report that the Department was refusing to provide a list of names. In response, State said the FOIA request “was being reopened” and that the records would be provided “in a few weeks,” according to ProPublica.

“The State Department has since pushed back the delivery date three times and still hasn’t provided any list,” ProPublica reported last week. “It has been four months since we filed the original request.”

On Friday, a State official told The Washington Post that the Department is “diligently working to resolve” the FOIA request. The official cited concerns about “maintaining employee protections of privacy.”

State’s posture over the past several months is at odds with POGO’s finding: why can’t the Department give the press the same information it already supplied to a public database?

“Disclosure of certain employee information is subject to the Privacy Act of 1974,” Alec Gerlach, a State spokesperson, told POGO. “That some information may already be publicly available does not absolve the Department of Privacy Act requirements. Whether someone is an SGE is Privacy Act-protected information that we would not release except through the FOIA process.”

However, one of the authors of ProPublica’s story questioned why State hasn’t turned over the requested records. “I think anytime a government agency won’t reveal information, it raises questions about why they aren’t,” Liz Day, ProPublica’s Director of Research, told POGO.

Holy mother of god of distraught spoxes!  Okay, please, try not to laugh. It is disturbing to watch this type of contortion, and it seems to be coming regularly these days from Foggy Bottom.

Seriously.  If this is about the Privacy Act of 1974, why wasn’t ProPublica told of this restriction four months ago? And does that mean that all other agencies who released their SGE names were in violation of the Privacy Act of 1974?

Also, State/OIG was told that “The number of special government employee filers was given as 100.”  A State Department spokeswoman told ProPublica that there are “about 100” such employees.  But what do you know?  The Project On Government Oversight was able to find more than 100 of the advisers (excel download file) identified as SGEs in an online government database. Are there more? How many more?

The list does not include the more famous SGEs of the State Department previously identified in news report.

New message from Mission Command:  “Good morning, Mr. Hunt (or whoever is available). Your mission, should you choose to accept it, involves the retrieval of very Special Government Employee (SGE) names. There are more than a hundred names but no one knows how many more.  They are padlocked in the Privacy Act of 1974 vault, guarded by a monstrous fire-breathing creature from Asia Minor. PA1974 vault location is currently in Foggy Bottom.  As always, should you or any member of your team be caught or killed, everybody with a badge will disavow all knowledge of your actions. This message will self-destruct in five seconds.  If not, well, find a match and burn.”

* * *

 

 

 

 

“This Week With George Stephanopoulos” Features Former Embassy Tripoli DCM Gregory Hicks

— By Domani Spero

FSO Gregory Hicks, the former Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Tripoli (July 2012-October 2012) was one of George Stephanopoulos’s Sunday morning guests on “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” on September 8.  Below is an excerpt from the transcript:

Via ABC News

Via ABC News

via ABC News

via ABC News

Read the full transcript here.

Asked for a response by ABC News, a spokesman said the State Department has “not punished Mr. Hicks in any way” and that “the circumstances that led to his departure from Libya was entirely unrelated to any statements he may have made relating to the attack in Benghazi.” Full statement below:

State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach’s statement to ABC News:

The State Department has not punished Mr. Hicks in any way. We appreciate his exemplary service on the evening of September 11 and his long career as a member of the Foreign Service.

Although the State Department ordinarily does not discuss the details of personnel matters publicly, because he has alleged mistreatment, we will state generally that the circumstances that led to his departure from Libya was entirely unrelated to any statements he may have made relating to the attack in Benghazi. When Mr. Hicks voluntarily curtailed his assignment, he was in the position of finding another assignment in between standard assignment cycles. The Department made significant efforts to find him a new position at his level, including identifying an overseas position which he declined and succeeded in finding him a short-tour assignment in the Office of the Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs, pending the next assignment cycle. We continue to value his service and are working with him through the normal personnel process and assignment timetable to identify his next permanent assignment.

The State Department is deeply committed to meeting its obligation to protect employees and the State Department does not tolerate or sanction retaliation against whistleblowers on ANY ISSUE, including Benghazi.

 

Of course, it would be a lot easier to believe Mr. Gerlach’s statement but for Peter Van Buren.  And let’s not even start with a gag order as a condition for a resolution within the State Department.  (By the way, speaking of gag orders, FSO Russell Sveda who was gay and went through a 14-year bureaucratic battle with State got around the media gag order by speaking to ADST’s Oral History Project, a non-media entity who published the interview online.  Smart.  You may read his account here).

Back to the Hicks affair — in May this year after Mr. Hicks appearance in Congress, a couple of unnamed US Embassy Tripoli employees dished to Hayes Brown of ThinkProgress about Mr. Hicks performance as deputy chief of mission in Tripoli (see EXCLUSIVE: Embassy Staff Undercut ‘Whistleblower’ Testimony On Benghazi).  Apparently, this includes “a lack of diplomatic protocol” by “going to a meeting with the Libyan Prime Minister Mohammed Magarief in a t-shirt, cargo pants, and baseball cap” and allegedly being “too upset to wear a suit.”  I don’t know about you, but “several troubling incidents” criticizing a senior officer’s performance at post ought to include more than simple bad choice in clothes.

What did he do that necessitates a curtailment?  We’ll never know.

Mr. Hicks on his May 8 testimony before the Oversight Committee also said this:

“After I arrived in Tripoli as Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) on July 31, 2012, I fast became known as the Ambassador’s “bulldog,” because of my decisive management style.”

But why would anyone need a “bulldog” in a collegial embassy setting?

The American Bulldogs is one of the Top 10 Banned Dog Breeds (banned in Denmark, Singapore and various municipalities, the dog’s specialty is catching feral hogs and it is known for its very high pain threshold).  Meanwhile, the American Kennel Club (AKC) also says that a Bulldog’s “disposition should be equable and kind, resolute and courageous (not vicious or aggressive), and demeanor should be pacific and dignified.” Take your pick.

Voluntold Curtailment

We don’t know Mr. Hicks and we’ve never meet him.  We have previously sent him a couple of emails but those were never acknowledged, so we’re not e-pals either.  We know that Tripoli was his first assignment as a DCM, so there is no paper trail on OIG inspections that we can locate.  The folks who worked for him (at least those who talked to the press) could only point to a bad choice in wardrobe as an example of bad performance. By his own admission, he “voluntary curtailed” from his assignment in Tripoli barely three months into his tour. Following the Benghazi attack, the Libya mission went on ordered departure. Curtailment during OD is widely viewed as a “no fault” curtailment, which in turn means, there would be no career repercussions.

But people inside the building also know that if you say “no” to management’s suggestion of voluntary curtailment, you risk incurring a “loss of confidence.”  Even if you say “no,” the chief of mission can still request the Director General of the Foreign Service for curtailment. Except in this case, management will be required to: (1) Include background information on any incidents that support the request(2) Confirm that the employee has been informed of the request and the reasons therefore; and (3) Confirm that the employee has been advised that he or she may submit comments separately.  In short, the bosses will need to do the work to justify an involuntary curtailment.

So when your leadership suggest that you take a “voluntary” curtailment, you can either say “yes” even if you don’t want to shorten your assignment, or you can say “no” and still be curtailed anyway.

Perhaps when people sign their names to a “voluntary” curtailment request that they don’t want, it should be appropriately called “voluntold”curtailment?

How will this end?

Assignments in the Foreign Service are typically handed out a year before the actual job rotation. So if one curtails from an assignment, one does not have a lot of jobs to choose from and may have to take what is normally called a “bridge” assignment.  An assignment between your previous job and the next assignment with a start date in the foreseeable future.  We don’t know what happened in this case but — paging —

Rep. Jackie “I think this committee will help you get a good onward assignment” Speier — where are you?

This Week’s interview did not indicate Mr. Hicks’ current assignment.  But a couple of things we should note:

1) Mr. Hicks ran for State-VP in the 2013 AFSA election and failed in his quest to represent the Foreign Service. (see AFSA Elections 2013: Unofficial Results, Asada Defeats Hicks2013 AFSA Election Results: 3,505 Out of 16,000+ Members Voted, Plus Vote Count By Candidate).  His congressional testimony occurred just prior to the AFSA elections where he ran in the slate of the IAFSA Coalition.  It was a typical low turn out election.   If there were sympathy votes, there were not enough to overcome  his closest opponent; he lost by about a hundred votes.

2) If Mr. Hicks was not in trouble before, he could be in trouble now for going on “This Week…” without prior clearance under FAM 4170 Official Clearance of Speaking, Writing, and Teaching.  This is something that similarly “got” Mr. Van Buren in hot water during his very public battle with the State Department bureaucracy (After a Year of Serious Roars and Growls, State Dept Officially Retires FSO-Non Grata Peter Van Buren).

The question now is how far will this escalate.

👀

%d bloggers like this: