Why Are DS Agents Fleeing Diplomatic Security In Droves For the U.S. Marshals Service?

Posted: 2:17 am ET
Updated: 12:21 pm PT
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We’ve heard from multiple sources that some 30-40 DS agents are leaving the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (State/DS) to join the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) and that there may be other group departures for other agencies.

One DS source speaking on background told us that the USMS Director reportedly called his counterpart at Diplomatic Security to inform the latter that he would be extending job offers to over 40 agents.  Another bureau source told us that during the “huddle” involving the DS agents prior to the start of the recent UNGA event in New York, the bureau’s second highest ranking official reportedly told the assembled agents that the departing agents would not be allowed back.

Does this mean that in addition to the shortage of approximately 200 agents discussed at the worldwide RSO conference this past May, there are 40 or more agent positions that will soon go vacant?

Whoa!

Our DS source speaking on background said that “there’s an overall discontent amongst mid-level DS agents and the main reason seems to stem from the current DS leadership.”

The DS insider cited the following main complaints that have reportedly bounced around the corridors:

  • “DS promotes the “good ol’ boys” and not necessarily the smart, motivated agents who are capable of leading the bureau. This leaves us with a lot of incompetent top-level DS agents and a lot of disgruntled lower lever DS agents.”
  • “DS is incapable of managing their promotions and assignments and, as a result, agents are frustrated with the lack of transparency. Also, there’s no one to complain to as AFSA seems to disregard DS completely. Almost as if the bureau is too far gone to save.”
  • “DS agents spend most of their time domestically, but DS does not allow DS agents to homestead, or stay in one field office for longer than one tour. This creates a lot of unnecessary hardships for families.”
    (A separate source told us that those serving on domestic assignments want to stay more than one tour in cities other than the District of Columbia and estimate that this would not only serve the U.S. government money from relocation costs but also allow agents to build continuity with prosecutors and other agencies).
  • “Regardless of gender, DS leadership is not concerned with family and does not provide a healthy work/life balance for any of their agents.”

We should point out that one of the bureaucratic casualties in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack was Charlene Lamb, who was then the Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs. In that capacity, she was responsible for managing and directing all international missions and personnel.

Back in August 2013, we wrote this:

The DS bureau has been described as in a “hell of hurt” these days.  Not only because it lost three of its top officials in one messy swoop, but also because one of those officials was an important cog in the assignment wheel of about 1,900 security officers.  If the assignments of DS agents overseas have been a great big mess for the last several months, you may account that to the fact that Ms. Lamb, the person responsible for managing and directing all Bureau of Diplomatic Security programs and policies including personnel, had been put inside a deep freezer.  While planning has never been a State Department strength, succession planning is altogether a foreign object.

Note and question of the day:  “Diplomatic Security is under intense pressure following Benghazi so now all resources are put towards “high threat” areas.  Nevertheless, experienced and well regarded DS officers at overseas posts are finding it impossible to stay out – even when they are the first choice for the receiving post.  

We should note that there are only 170 embassies, 78 consulates general and 11 consulates overseas.  There are not enough positions for all DS agents to fill overseas and majority of them do serve at domestic locations.

If it is true that the bureau has been “incapable of managing their promotions and assignments” in the last three years, then we can see why this could be frustrating enough to make agents decamp to other agencies.

Of course, the bureau can replace all those who are leaving, no matter the number. There is, after all, a large pool of applicants just waiting to be called to start new classes. (Note: There’s a rumor going on that DS reportedly had difficulty filling the last two DS agent classes because they were short of people on the list. We don’t know how this could be possible if DS has always had a full roster of qualified applicants on its list.  In 2015, it claimed to have 10,000 applicants but only assessed slightly over 500 applicants.)  

But that’s not really the point. Training takes time.  Time costs money. And above all, there is no instant solution to bridging the experience gap. If people are leaving, does the bureau know why?  If it doesn’t know why, is it interested in finding out the whys?  Is it interested in fixing the causes for these departures?

That low attrition rate

We were also previously told by a spokesperson that the overall Special Agent attrition rate for 2015 was 3.66%.  We have since been informed by a bureau source that this is an inaccurate attrition stats, as the figure released did not count agents who transition to other agencies, only those who leave U.S. Government service.

We’ve been trying to get a comment from Diplomatic Security since last week on agent departures. We’ve also requested clarification on the attrition rate released to us.  As of this writing, we have not received a response.

 

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GIF of the Day: Non-Differential Posting, Explainer Please

— Domani Spero

Via Burn Bag:

“Can someone please explain to me how you get to spend your entire overseas career in non-differential postings?

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Anonymous FSO: AIP Posts Not the Only Places Where FSOs Are At Risk

On June 4, we posted an excerpt from a USIP interview of an FSO who served at an Iraq PRT (read Insider Quote: AIP Fatigue and a Little Hostility). That post generated the following comment, which I am reposting up front because the writer brings up important issues about the realities of service in the Foreign Service, particularly in the post 9/11 world.

Maybe there should be a little resentment from some quarters. The AIP posts aren’t the only places where FSOs put, or have put, themselves at risk to serve their country. Yes, we should honor and reward the service of FS personnel serving in AIP. But let’s not forget those who serve, or served, in other war zones.

Not to be morbid, but has anyone compared the mortality rate for USG personnel in stationed in Ciudad Juarez to those in Kabul and Baghdad? What “incentives” do we give people currently in the Mexican border posts or Yemen (where its so dangerous that Embassy personnel are not allowed to sleep in their homes)? Or until recently in Libya and Syria?

How about officers who’ve served in Angola, Congo, DROC, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Mali, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe etc. Sierra Leone and Liberia were particular garden spots. Remember when President Taylor’s troops strafed Embassy Monrovia? How about the 50 mm shells embedded in the Ambassador’s desk in Freetown after the AFRC coup (or was it the Nigerian invasion, or the RUF coup, or the Strasser coup)? We had FS personnel staffing a makeshift Embassy in Sierra Leone when DOD would not let its people visit on TDY because it was too dangerous.

Bosnia. (Just the word is enough.)

When I was in Angola, our DOD colleagues were getting combat pay; that wasn’t too long after UNITA attacked the Embassy compound. When we hitched rides into the interior on 40 year old C-130s chartered to WFP, the pilots corkscrewed into landings to make it harder for anyone with a SAM to take aim.

And what about the FS personnel who’ve lost family members, including children, because of medical, safety, traffic conditions in third world posts. When we honor service at AIP above all else, we diminish the sacrifice of those who put themselves, and sometimes their families, at risk to serve the USA in other dangerous places.

Folks might remember that State’s personnel system fell into a crisis in the post Vietnam years. At the height of the CORDS program, more than 400 FSOs were in the field with the CORDS (Civil Operations and Rural Development Support) program with over a hundred more were in language training.  According to Kopp and Gillespie, a number of those officers were “thoroughly dismayed” and left the service; those who remained with their operational skills received rapid advancement in their careers. But as they moved up the ranks, there were not enough positions to accommodate them all.  The up or out system had grown lax and midlevel officers resented the senior officers glut which frustrated the officers’ (many of them veterans of CORDS) chances for promotion.

A former FSO who recently wrote about the CORDS program (which he calls the Civil Operations and Revolutionary
Development Support) for the May 2012 issue of State Magazine, and who calls it as a success had the following tidbit:

At the FSO pre-employment oral exam, male applicants were told they stood every chance of going to war if accepted. Midcareer and senior FSOs were also sent to the front.[…] “You had a simple option,” he recalled. “If you were assigned to Vietnam and didn’t take it, you resigned your commission and left the service. It was as simple as that.”

It seems to me that early on in the Iraq War junior officers were sent to Baghdad straight out of FSI but that did not last long.  The vacancies in Iraq and Afghanistan and later Pakistan, as other assignments in the Foreign Service continued to be filled with volunteers (first tours excepted, of course).  There was that threat for “directed assignment” in 2007 with the accompanying brouhaha but that did not materialized. There was that “prime candidate” exercise, too, with letters sent out, but later died a natural bureaucratic death.

I’m tired digging up my yard to put up an edible garden today so I may be going around this in a convoluted way.  But what I think is a concern is the fracturing of the Foreign Service.  There have always been hardship and dangerous assignments in the Foreign Service.  But in the past, members of the FS can point to that collective experience of serving in places that were great, not so great, and really gadawful places on earth.  But in the years following our war of choice in Iraq, and our war of necessity in Afghanistan (I don’t know what you’d call what we’re doing in Pakistan, or Yemen, etc.), folks would be hard pressed to point to  one collective experience for all the Foreign Service.  Some FSOs with less than five years in the Foreign Service have already done two tours in the war zones. Some are heading to non war zones posts that are as perilous as any red zone.  Before too long, they will come back to a normal embassy operation, reporting in some cases to midlevel or senior officers who may have served in difficult assignments but have never done a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan where as one FSO calls it like “everything is rushing at you at 110 miles an hour.” How will that organizational relationship pans out?
Just a quick point while I’m thinking about this.  There is a distinction that is being made in the Foreign Service today: there are those who went to the war zones and there are those who did not. In a perfect world, one is either an effective officer or one is not. But we do not live in a perfect world.  Should a so-s0 Political Officer who goes to the war zone on a Hail Mary pass to get a promotion get all the carrots as opposed to a stellar Political Officer in say, the Marshall Islands?  Never mind asking why a stellar PolOff is in the Marshall Islands.  But — how does the system weigh mediocre performance in a war zone as opposed to a solid performance elsewhere in the worldwide available universe?
Then there’s this other thing.  The State Dept provides a lot of carrots to get people to go to the war zones and also hardship assignments. But the pool of volunteers is drying up. The world is getting more dangerous every day. The number of hardship and danger assignments is going up exponentially. The interviewee who talked about AIP fatigue and hostility has some unhappiness about getting the follow on or linked assignments nailed down.  Presumably, he is not the only one.
There won’t be enough carrots to go around, period.  And that will divide the Foreign Service as much as the war zone assignments.
Domani Spero

 

 

Insider Quote: AIP Fatigue and a Little Hostility

The following is an extract from an interview conducted by the U.S. Institute of Peace for its lessons learned project from the PRTs in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The previous years, USIP did similar interviews as part of its oral history project. The interviewee, a State Department Foreign Service Officer, was the team leader of PRT Wasit, Iraq, from March 2010 to March 2011. The interview notes say “He understood the PRT mission to be one of serving as a mini-consulate while pursuing capacity building in governance, rule of law and agricultural development. He was the last team leader as the PRT was closing out soon after his departure.”

Q. In closing let ask you if there any other comments you want to make? Any ideas that you want to share about your experience with the PRT, how it worked and how it could have been made more effective or how other PRTs in other countries could be made more effective?

Senior Agricultural Advisor for the Wasit, Iraq Provincial Reconstruction Team George Stickels from Arlington, Va., surveys a field in the Al Abara village in the Badra District of Wasit, Iraq to see where a center pivot irrigation system should be placed into the field to help in the growing of crops, Nov. 20, 2010. The Wasit PRT and 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment are in Iraq in support of Operation New Dawn.
(Photo by Spc. Charles Willingham via dvidshub.net)

A. What a great management/leadership experience! [But] our system is bad when it comes to vetting people for assignments like this. I think that old adage about playing nicely with others is particularly important in a high pressure, kind of “out there” assignment like a PRT. It’s not a place to send screw-ups, it’s not a place to send people looking to rehabilitate bad careers. I think it’s important to be choosy even when there are assignments where you are maybe a little desperate about “will I get this job filled?” So I think that is important, I think the people who can deal with the pressure, who have got a good sense of humor, who are versatile, who like working with the military, who can function well in a environment where State is a tiny minority, all of that is important and I think that improves the effectiveness of your PRT.

I don’t know whether this is what you are after, but I thought the financial incentives were quite good and certainly worthwhile. I thought the system did a horrendously poor job of taking care of many of us with follow on assignments. I’m very happy with my follow on, ultimately, but I spent an inordinate amount of time during my tour chasing a follow on assignment. I mean time that was robbed from me focusing on PRT-related stuff. That is not something specific to Iraq tours; I think that speaks more to the general breakdown in our assignments process.

A more general observation, not PRT specific – I think we are at a real crossroads in these sorts of assignments. I think there are those of us — a third or a quarter of the Foreign Service — who have done them. And I think there are a lot of people who haven’t, don’t want to, don’t want to be reminded that there are those of us out there who’ve done them, don’t feel like they should be disadvantaged in any way because they haven’t done them, or don’t want to do them. I sense there is a what I like to call AIP (Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan) fatigue out there and even a little hostility towards those of us who have done these assignments. I’m not necessarily advocating — because I know there are some people who aren’t that good at doing these assignments and I don’t want to advocate that we should all be given our absolute priority assignments and our top two choice assignments and instant promotion—but I think this is a stated top priority goal of the Secretary of State and reiterated by the DG (Director General) and that is not always reflected in the way the system reacted to those of us who’ve done these assignments.

— Foreign Service Officer (Interview #152)
Team Leader of PRT Wasit, Iraq (2010-2011)
Excerpt from Iraq/Afghanistan Provincial Reconstruction Teams: Lessons Learned, USIP
Interview date: April 15, 2011

We certainly can understand the AIP fatigue but have you heard about that “little hostility” he’s talking about?  You’d think that if there is some kind of hostility or resentment, it would come from those who have been pressed for more than one tours to Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan, instead of the other way around.  All assignments are voluntary, of course, even those who are left with no other option on their lists but Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. Or the reverse hostility is for getting first dibs on assignments (AIP assignments have its own cycle), getting priority/onward assignments, breaking current assignments to relocate to any AIP posts, etc.etc.?

Are there really folks who “don’t feel like they should be disadvantaged in any way because they haven’t done” the war zone tours?

Domani Spero