Don’t Forget the @StateDept Redesign, But Get Ready For “New Carpool Karaoke With S”

Posted: 12:43 am ET
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Politico’s Nahal Toosi has a leaked State Department document reportedly alarming diplomats and others who say it shows the accumulation of power among a small and unaccountable group of senior aides to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

The chart, obtained by POLITICO, illustrates the growing influence of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, which traditionally has served as an in-house think tank but which Tillerson heavily relies upon for day-to-day decision making. Critics already complain that the office — led by Brian Hook, a powerful Tillerson aide not subject to Senate confirmation — accepts too little input from career diplomats, and the chart, which lays out a method to craft foreign policy, shows no explicit role for them.
[…]
“This says to me that they are developing a new foreign policy structure that is designed to largely ignore those who know these regions and who know these issues,” said Brett Bruen, a former State Department official who served under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

Folks, this is Foggy Bottom’s version of Carpool Karaoke where there are extremely limited seats available in the car, but in this version, no one tell each other they’re singing out of tune. Why not? The passengers  don’t know what they don’t know and they all think they have great singing voices. Right.

That “Review Slides with S” is indeed “amazeballs.”  But where are the effing charts and the laugh machine?

AND NOW THIS — it looks like there’s a red on red campaign against S/P’s Brian Hook, who is publicly identified as a “de facto deputy” for the State Department by no less than one of the louder voices in Trump’s orbit. This same campaign is also directed against Tillerson sidekick Margaret Peterlin.

Mick Cernovich who has been called an alt-right provocateur and Trump loyalist has tweeted about Tilleron’s aides Hook and Peterlin going back months.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE – Mr. Tillerson who came to Washington with an aversion for the press has now given multiple interviews to several media outlets presumably to help … um with what now appears to be a prevailing public’s view of his poor stewardship of the State Department. One of the latest interviews, this one with Bloomberg News:

—he doesn’t know what to make of news reports that morale is low at his agency and that he’s not doing a good job running it. “I walk the halls, people smile,” he says in a recent interview in his spacious office in Washington. “If it’s as bad as it seems to be described, I’m not seeing it, I’m not getting it.”

The former U.S. ambassador to Qatar gave the secretary of state a suggestion on how he can “communicate better” and also “get” what the problem is at the State Department.  Is that a quiet applause we’re hearing?

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Confirmations: Douglas Silliman (Kuwait), Dana Shell Smith (Qatar), Darci Vetter (USTR)

— Domani Spero
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Today, the U.S. Senate confirmed by voice vote President Obama’s nominees for Kuwait and Qatar:

  • Douglas Alan Silliman, Texas, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the State of Kuwait
  • Dana Shell Smith, Texas, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the State of Qatar

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate also confirmed the nomination of  Darci L. Vetter, of Nebraska, to be Chief Agricultural Negotiator, Office of the United States Trade Representative, with the rank of Ambassador.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re Sending This ‘We Meant Well’ Career Diplomat as Ambassador to Qatar

— Domani Spero
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This week, we blogged about the former AFSA presidents asking the Senate to postpone consideration of FSO Dana Shell Smith’s nomination as ambassador to Qatar until the Foreign Service Grievance Board (FSGB) has made a decision in the case related to Ms. Smith and Susan Johnson, another senior FSO and the immediate past president of the organization (see Former AFSA Presidents to SFRC: Delay Approval for FSO Dana Smith as Qatar Ambassador).

On the same day, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) cleared Ms. Smith’s nomination for the Senate’s full vote.  We’ve covered these nominations long enough to understand that the Senate seldom ever listen to the concerns of constituents unless they are aligned to the senators’ self-interest or their pet items.

  • In 2012, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) announced his intent to oppose the nominees for WHA, including the nominee for Ecuador, Adam Namm due to what he called this Administration’s policy towards Latin America defined by “appeasement, weakness and the alienation of our allies.”  He was eventually confirmed.
  • On December 15, 2011, 36 conservative foreign policy experts have written to ranking senators to plead for the confirmation of Matthew Bryza as ambassador to Azerbaijan to no avail. WaPo  nominated two senators, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) who placed a hold on the Bryza nomination with the Most Craven Election-Year Pandering at the Expense of the National Interest Award.  Ambassador Bryza eventually quit the Foreign Service and became the Director of the International Centre for Defence Studies in Tallinn, Estonia.
  • In April this year, fifteen former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA)wrote a letter to Senate leaders calling for the rejection of three nominees for ambassadorships: George Tsunis (Norway); Colleen Bell (Hungary) and Noah Mamet (Argentina).  All these nominees have now been endorsed by the SFRC and are awaiting full Senate vote. The only nomination that could potentially be in real trouble is Tsunis. Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken have said they oppose his nomination.  Apparently, every member of the Minnesota U.S. House delegation signed  a letter to President Obama asking him to rescind his nomination of GeorgeTsunis as ambassador to Norway.  Why Minnesota? It is home to the largest Norwegian-American population in the United States.So is this nomination dead?  Nope. If the Democrats in the Senate vote for Tsunis without the Klobuchar and Franken votes, he could still get a simple majority, all that’s required for the confirmation. Correction (h/t Mike D:  Senators Tim Johnson (D-SD) is on the record here opposing the Tsunis nomination.  Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) said she, too, will not support the Tsunis nomination. So if all the Democrats in the Senate  minus the four senators vote in favor of the Tsunis nomination, that’ll be 49 votes, two vote short of a simple majority.  Let’s see what happens.

So, back to Ms. Smith, the State Department nominee as ambassador to Qatar. We think she will eventually be confirmed.  Her ‘Certificate of Competency” posted online says:

Dana Shell Smith, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Minister-Counselor, currently serves as Senior Advisor to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the Department of State. Known as a linguistic, cultural and policy expert on the Middle East, she understands the region well and can effectively present major U.S. policy issues to diverse audiences. Her leadership, management and public affairs expertise, as well as her interpersonal skills and creativity, will enable her to advance bilateral relations with the Government of Qatar, an important U.S. partner in managing the problems of the Middle East.

Dang! That is impressive but it missed an important accomplishment.

Until her nomination as Ambassador to Qatar, Dana Smith Ms. Smith served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Public Affairs (2011-2014).  Does that ring a bell?  Oh, how quickly we forget. Ms. Smith was the PA official who told Peter Van Buren’s book publisher, Macmillan, that the Department has “recently concluded that two pages of the book manuscript we have seen contain unauthorized disclosures of classified information” in We Meant Well. (See “Classified” Information Contained in We Meant Well – It’s a Slam Dunk, Baby!).

What did she actually tell MacMillan?  Let’s take a look:

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-25

click here to see entire letter (pdf)

 

This boo! strategy may be creative but also oh, so…. so… amateurish. Who thought Macmillan would buy this scaredy tactic?  Perhaps they should have threatened to buy all the copies and burn them all.  The really funny ha!ha! part about this is despite the charge that the book contained “unauthorized disclosures of classified information” the formal State Department charges filed against Mr. Van Buren did not mention this and he was officially retired with full benefits. (See  After a Year of Serious Roars and Growls, State Dept Officially Retires FSO-Non Grata Peter Van Buren).

We Meant Well is now on second edition on paperback and hardback.  We understand that the book is also used as a text at colleges and at various US military schools but not/not at the Foreign Service Institute.  This past April, Mr. Van Buren also published his new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. As Iraq falls apart, we thought we’d check on Mr. Van Buren. He told us there is no truth to the rumor that he will retitle WMW to “I Told You So.”

This is an old story, of course, that folks would like to forget.  Dirty laundry aired so publicly, ugh!  So most people have moved on, got awards, promotions, moved houses, new jobs, and sometimes, they may even end up as ambassador to places where people express dissent only in whispers and always off the record.

Perfection in the universe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SFRC Clears Ambassadorial Nominees for South Korea, Honduras, Qatar, Egypt, Iraq, Vietnam, Algeria

— Domani Spero
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On June 24, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) cleared the nominations of the following nominees as ambassadors to South Korea, Honduras, Qatar, Egypt, Iraq, Vietnam, and Algeria. It also cleared the nomination for the next Director of the Office of Foreign Missions.  The nominees will now join the long list of Obama nominees awaiting their confirmation.

 

Argentina: Noah Bryson Mamet, of California, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Argentine Republic.
Mamet, Noah – Republic of Argentina (pdf via State/FOIA)

South Korea: Mark William Lippert, of Ohio, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Korea

Lippert, Mark – Republic of Korea – 05-2014

Honduras: James D. Nealon, of New Hampshire, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister-Counselor, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Honduras.
Nealon, James D – Republic of Honduras – 05-2014

Qatar: Dana Shell Smith, of Virginia, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister-Counselor, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the State of Qatar.
Smith, Dana S – State of Qatar – 05-2014

Egypt: Robert Stephen Beecroft, of California, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister-Counselor, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Arab Republic of Egypt
Beecroft, Robert S – Arab Republic of Egypt – 05-2014

Iraq: Stuart E. Jones, of Virginia, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Career Minister, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Iraq.
Jones, Stuart E – Republic of Iraq – 05-2014

Vietnam: Theodore G. Osius III, of Maryland, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister-Counselor, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Osius, George O, III – Socialist Republic of Vietnam – 05-2014

Algeria: Joan A. Polaschik, of Virginia, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Counselor, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria.
Polaschik, Joan A – Democratic Republic of Algeria – 05-2014

Gentry O. Smith, of North Carolina, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister-Counselor, to be Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, and to have the rank of Ambassador during his tenure of service, vice Eric J. Boswell, resigned.
President Obama Announces More Key Administration Posts – May 1, 2014

 

We imagine that Ambassador Jones (to Iraq) and Ambassador Beecroft (Egypt) could get their full Senate vote ahead of a very large pack of nominees. But the Senate being what it is these days, it’s hard to even guess how fast the Senators could tie their shoes. In any case, Ambassador Beecroft is apparently back in Baghdad after  a short stop in D.C. for his  confirmation hearing.  We are hoping that the nominees will not have to wait 300 days for their confirmation. To-date, the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Lesotho, a career FSO has waited 315 days for Senate confirmation. The nominees slated as chiefs of mission to Niger, Cameroon, Timor-Leste and Palau, all career FSOs have waited 326 days for their full Senate vote.

The clock appears to be broken in the Senate, but everywhere else, the world marches on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Former AFSA Presidents to SFRC: Delay Approval for FSO Dana Smith as Qatar Ambassador

— Domani Spero
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Eleven former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional association of the United States Foreign Service have written to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) requesting that the Committee postpone consideration of FSO Dana Shell Smith’s nomination as ambassador to Qatar until the Foreign Service Grievance Board (FSGB) has made a decision in the case related to Ms. Smith and another senior FSO, Susan Johnson.  Ms. Johnson, the immediate former president of AFSA served two terms from 2009-2013.

The letter says that the former AFSA presidents, which includes seven former ambassadors, “firmly believe that Ms. Smith  has not demonstrated the judgment or temperament to shoulder the responsibilities of Chief of Mission.” 

Ouchy!

It adds that “Ms. Smith’s actions are central to a formal Grievance brought against the Department of State by Ms. Susan R. Johnson, also a Senior Foreign Service Officer and President of AFSA at the time she co-authored an op-ed that stimulated negative Department reaction.

image via cspan

Excerpt from the letter:

 Ms. Smith and Ms. Valerie C. Fowler, then Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary respectively, misusing their official positions and authority over senior assignments and career advancement in order to convey personal views, authored a factually incorrect letter-petition sent through State Department e mail to other FSOs in senior positions, publicly attacking Ms. Johnson on an ad hominem basis for the op-ed she co-authored about the declining role of the Foreign Service.

Senior levels of the Department declined to acknowledge the behavior of Ms. Smith and Ms. Fowler as improper, unprofessional and unprecedented.    Instead the Department condoned the impropriety and compounded the Grievance by nominating one of authors of the ad hominem letter to the senior Foreign Service promotion board which reviewed and did not recommend Ms. Johnson for promotion.   This nomination, the letter-petition and the Department’s inaction may have tainted the board and denied Ms. Johnson a fair promotion review.  Individually and collectively, these actions send a chilling message that speaking out about or questioning personnel policies that lead to the weakening of the Foreign Service as a professional cadre may put careers at risk.

Valerie C. Fowler named above is now the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs in the R Bureau. PDASes do not need Senate confirmations. As an aside, have you noticed that the R Bureau now has 15 senior officials, all non-career appointees except for five FSOs?

According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms. Johnson is currently a senior fellow at the Academy of American Diplomacy where she is working on the latest AAD study-report on strengthening Foreign Service professionalism. The April 2013 op-ed referred to in the letter to the Senate is online at WaPo (see “Presidents are breaking the U.S. Foreign Service).” That op-ed piece was authored by Ms. Johnson who was then AFSA president, Ronald E. Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, and  Thomas R. Pickering, a former undersecretary of state, and chairman of the AAD board.

The Senate letter was from the following former AFSA presidents: Ambassador Thomas Boyatt, Ambassador William Harrop, Ambassador Alphonse La Porta, Ambassador Theodore Eliot, Ambassador Dennis Hays,  Ambassador J. Anthony Holmes, Ambassador John Limbert, and senior  FSOs F. Allen “Tex” Harris, Theodore Wilkinson, Marshall Adair, and Kenneth Bleakley. Their letter specifically requests that consideration be postponed “until the Foreign Service Grievance Board has made a decision in the case and forwarded the file to the Committee.”

WaPo’s Federal Eye has additional details of this “family” feud:

State did not permit interviews with Smith and Fowler. Doug Frantz,  an assistant secretary of state, said the letter asking the committee to delay action on Smith “contained errors.”  He noted that Johnson’s grievance “was filed subsequent to Ms. Smith’s nomination.” He added that Johnson could have requested Fowler’s recusal from the board, but did not.

Though the letter from Smith, Fowler and the others to Johnson was sent by government e-mail, Frantz said it “was intended to be a private communication from AFSA members to the head of their association.” It’s not private now.

We should note that Douglas Frantz was appointed Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Public Affairs in 2013. Prior to Ms. Smith’s nomination as ambassador to Qatar, she was Mr. Frantz’s top deputy as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Public Affairs (2011-2014).

Also, the average time for consideration of a Foreign Service grievance from time of  filing to a Board decision was 41 weeks in 2011 and 33 weeks in 2012.

This could take a whole tour …

Or … maybe not.

Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) cleared Ms. Smith’s nomination for the Senate’s full vote.  Unless a Senate hold suddenly materialize, we anticipate that this nominee and a whole slew of ambassadorial nominees will be confirmed as Congress runs off to its summer vacation in August.

* * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

State Dept Throws Sink + All Fixtures But One at FSO-Non Grata, Peter Van Buren

Some State Department folks are now one step closer to unwrapping themselves around the axle over Peter Van Buren.  Last week, WaPo reported that the State Department is moving to fire him based on eight charges, ranging from linking on his blog to documents on the whistleblowing site WikiLeaks to using “bad judgement’ for criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann (see he labeled her, R-Pluto). Excerpt below:

With his book, based on a year he spent in the Iraqi desert in 2009-2010, and an unauthorized blog (wemeantwell.com) he started in 2011 that frequently skewers American foreign policy, Van Buren has tested the First Amendment almost daily.

He and his attorneys maintain that his right to free speech has been trampled, and they say he is a victim of retaliation for whistleblowing— not only because his account of the reconstruction effort alleges unqualified staff, corruption and billions of dollars in wasted programs.

A State Department spokesman said the diplomat’s claims of retaliation are “without merit.”“There are protections within the government for freedom of expression and for whistleblowers,” spokesman Mark C. Toner said. “The State Department has followed process and acted in accordance with the law.”

Van Buren’s termination letter came within days of a decision by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that investigates government wrongdoing and complaints of retaliation by those who report it, to look into his case.
[…[
He was charged with eight violations of State Department policy. They include linking in his blog to documents on WikiLeaks; failing to clear each blog posting with his bosses; displaying a “lack of candor” during interviews with diplomatic security officers; leaking allegedly sensitive and classified information in his book; and using “bad judgement’ by criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann on his blog.

Read in full here.

Actually, we have confirmation that the eight violations include the charge of improper handling of classified information, citing links from his blog to WikiLeaks (one confidential cable from 2009, and one unclas/sensitive/noforn cable also from 2009) but does not/not include the allegation of leaking “classified” content from his book. Which is just terribly odd.

Readers of this blog might remember that last fall, Dana Shell Smith, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (PDAS) of the Bureau of Public Affairs wrote to Mr. Van Buren’s publisher, Macmillan, requesting some 30 word redactions of “classified” information contained in the book purportedly “to avoid possible harm to U.S. national security.” (read “Classified” Information Contained in We Meant Well – It’s a Slam Dunk, Baby!)

So — what happened? Testing time folks, multiple choice below:

  1. The folks over at HR forgot to include the allegation from PDAS Smith; even smart people sometimes forget, you know.
  2. Somebody finally discovered that “Mogadishu” is not/not a “classified” item and the government lawyers did not want to be laughed at all the way to court.
  3. The letter to the publisher was a scaredy tactic that did not work, and on 2nd 3rd nth thought should not have been sent.
  4. All of the above.

Anyway, back to Peter Van Buren — he is reportedly facing eight charges, including profiting from the sale of his book, We Meant Well.  He will be given a chance to respond, of course, because this is America, but the ultimate intent is to separate him from the Foreign Service for cause.

We dug up 3 FAM 4360 on separation for cause which says that “if the agency recommends separation for cause, the employee must be placed in a leave-without-pay status or remain in an absence-without-leave (AWOL) status pending final resolution.” He has 15 days from the date of notification to respond to these charges. Response time if employee is assigned overseas is bumped up to 30 days.

A whole bunch of folks at State must be relieved; they can do their real jobs now instead of monitoring Mr. Van Buren’s blog posts, interviews, twitterspeak, etc. The boss must also be relieved on not having to write about Mr. Van Buren’s telecommuting performance for the later’s EER come April.


The Hunt for Leakers of Classified Materials, a Bad Reality Show

Perhaps it is comforting to some to hear that the State Department will finally get to penalize Mr. Van Buren for linking to two non-secret cables on WikiLeaks.  But we gotta ask — whatever happened to the 2010 Diplomatic Security investigation on the leak of two secret 2009 Eikenberry cables to the NYT in 2010?

Or for that matter, is anyone investigating the leak of Ambassador Crocker’s top-secret cable to Washington in January this year, warning that the persistence of enemy havens in Pakistan was placing the success of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in jeopardy.

Somebody really should check out the status of these investigations and see if anyone has been prosecuted yet. The public may get the wrong impression that linking to non-secret cables in a blog is more dangerous than the actual leaks of secret and top secret materials to the newspaper of record.


What folks are saying

POGO writes, “Given the fact that waste, fraud and abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq has been well-documented by the Commission on Wartime Contracting, it seems misguided that the State Department is emphasizing throwing its manpower into investigating a whistleblower—rather than his actual claims.”

The democraticunderground.com headline says State Dept. Seeks Firing of Peter Van Buren, Whistleblower who Exposed Wasteful Iraq Projects. Post includes video interview with Democracy Now.

Mother Jones says: “Talking back certainly isn’t a crime. One thing the Wikileaks cables show is that diplomats don’t always have to be diplomatic: They can be critical of world leaders, policies, and events, but evidently only if they have achieved sufficient rank and subtlety—and only if they do it behind State-approved firewalls.”

The Atlantic Wire is not too sympathetic, writing:

“It’s worth pointing out that Van Buren agreed to a certain code of conduct when he took his job at the government; what the government is saying now is that he broke that code. In addition to linking to the WikiLeaks document, they say that Van Buren is guilty, to borrow Reins’ phrasing, of “failing to clear each blog posting with his bosses; displaying a ‘lack of candor’ during interviews with diplomatic security officers; leaking allegedly sensitive and classified information in his book; and using ‘bad judgment’ by criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann on his blog.” Indeed, some of these offenses sound serious. And Van Buren’s only been more outspoken about his disdain for the department since trouble started brewing last year. But is this a simple case of an employee breaking the rules at work or, as Van Buren would have us believe, a violation of an American citizen’s First Amendment rights?”

Out there on the Fed page of WaPo are multiple comments including the following:

wmbrent | 3/16/2012 5:00 AM PDT

“I wouldn’t bet that Van Buren is conservative. After all, the billions we threw away in Iraq were mostly programmed by the Neocons. There are plenty of very liberal Foreign Service officers like me who were disgusted by the diversion of resources from worthy development efforts elsewhere to hoist the development “flag” and civilian “step-up-to-the-plated-ness” in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

cbl55 | 3/14/2012 2:00 PM PDT

“[…] But part of the deal – as any of us know who have worked at State or the foreign affairs agencies – is that the deal is incredibly screwed up. As Daniel Ellsberg once wrote in the Pentagon Papers decades ago, the ‘establishment’s line was that ‘if you only knew what we knew, you wouldn’t be demonstrating in the streets.’ To which Ellsberg replied, ‘if we really knew what they knew, we wouldn’t have waited so long’ to save hundreds of thousands of lives in unnecessary, stupid wars. So let’s forgive Van Buren his juvenile descriptions of the Secretary’s naughty bits and focus on the content of his message. If I were GAO, I’d hire him on the spot.”

From overseas, the Voice of Russia, the Russian government’s international radio broadcasting service gleefully calls the case a “human rights thriller” and notes that “even the Soviet bureaucrats did not have to “clear” their letters with their superiors.” We have no way of verifying that of course, but clearly, you can see that VoR has developed some sense of humor!

And we have yet to hear anything from Xinhua, but the Chinese probably think Mr. Van Buren had it easy here. In China, dissenters and troublemakers are sent on forced psychiatric hospitalization with accompanying sedation.


So how should you get off the bus?

The comment that we often hear is that, he should have done the honorable thing and resigned from his job before writing this book or before skewering his employer in his blog.

And we understand that sentiment; for the bureaucracy to “function,” it must have order. For order to exist, employees must follow the line and not be going off every which way. If employees disagree with a policy, there is what they call the “Dissent Channel,” to register one’s disagreement with official policy.  As an aside, AFSA even gives out awards for what it calls “constructive dissent.”  We have it in good authority, by the way, that Mr. Van Buren has been nominated by more than one person for AFSA’s William R. Rivkin Award for midlevel officials. Let’s see if AFSA can find an excuse not to give out the award this year.

In any case, it is worth noting that the State Department is not obligated to share the dissent received with the American public, nor is it obligated to report what action it takes in response to such a dissent. If that fails, resignation from one’s job has been the accepted course of action, a norm drilled into the heads of our State Department folks.

John Brady Kiesling was the first of three U.S. foreign service officers to resign, on February 25, 2003, to protest the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In 2006, he authored the book, “Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower” (Potomac Books 2006).

Kevin Maher, the former Director of the Japan Desk at the Department of State was removed from his post a day before the historic 9.0-magnitude earthquake after  stirring outrage in Japan for reportedly belittling Okinawans (he stayed on for another month to coordinate the US disaster response). He retired instead of accepting a post in Australia, then wrote the book, “The Japan That Can’t Decide,” on how Japan’s indecisiveness hindered the initial response to the March 2011 natural and nuclear disasters and impacted Tokyo’s security relationship with Washington. AFP reported that the book, written in Japanese sold more than 100,000 copies and for weeks topped the country’s best-seller list for non-fiction paperbacks. In the AFP piece, he criticized the two officials he said were behind his dismissal — then deputy secretary of state Jim Steinberg and Ambassador to Japan John Roos.

“They just wanted to get this out of the press and decided that the best thing was not to address whether these press reports were actually true or not but just to remove me from my position,” Maher said.

While we understand what appears to be a prevailing collective desire that the employee who disagrees with policy leave in polite terms, we are wondering if the time has come to rethink that.  Getting off the bus quietly is encouraged in that culture, and presumably from the perspective of the organization that’s the best course of action. It avoids controversy and the parties can pretend the separation is like a marriage that no longer works, etc — but is this necessarily good for the paying public?  Should the employees ought to just be thankful they have a job and keep quiet? And for those who can’t keep quiet for whatever reason, must they give up their livelihood for pointing out the stinky elephant in the room?

Tomdispatch calls it, “as an act of personal “reconstruction,” as a method of occupying yourself in a new way, even as it may also be deconstructing your career.  Such acts are favors to the rest of us in what we still claim is a “democracy,” even if the money of the truly wealthy rules the day and your state, the national security one, has moved beyond all accountability into a post-legal era.”

And that’s some food for thought…

In the long history of the State Department, Peter Van Buren is probably the only one who has written a book on matters of official concern, a critical one at that, who has refused to leave quietly.  The book came out shortly before we pulled out our military forces from Iraq. But US Embassy Iraq is still 16,000 people strong.  And the baghdafication of Afghanistan is still a work in progress.

Had Mr. Van Buren, a midlevel FS-01 quit after his return from Baghdad Iraq, then wrote his book, we probably would be talking about his book for like, 15 minutes, then forget about it.   But that’s not how it happens.  He got his 15 minutes of fame plus more.  Along the way, we learned a bit more not only about how we spent $44.6 billion in taxpayer funds on rebuilding Iraq but also on the the shallowness of our convictions– from our tolerance to dissenting views, to our much touted push for Internet Freedom and 21st Century Statecraft, as long as they’re not our guys, that is.

Instead of taking this case seriously as a good excuse to look inward and review the policy of reconstruction in war zones, and absent a change of direction, develop more effective metrics and accountability for these projects, the State Department took its fight to the messenger.  And wasted time and resources there. Meanwhile, our Afghanistan nation building project is going down in flames.  The civilian surge is now without fizz, and President Karzai had just called all Americans in Afghanistan, “demons.” Is it possible that we are once more repeating our mistakes in Iraq in our nation-building efforts in Afghanistan but our leaders are too wimpy to acknowledge it?  We seem to be saying, it’s possible, but we can’t say for sure, because we’re afraid to look.


The C. Street Billboard Now with a New Warning

The State Department spends much money and effort to recruit and train the “best and the brightest” to represent America overseas, then proceeds to hammer and shape them into, I’m sorry to say, drones, who follow directions, not create waves and most importantly, whose stingers are without barbs.

A recently retired FSO who blogs at Diplomad 2.0 writes:

“The State Department bureaucracy is very much a mental bee hive: independent thought is not encouraged. You must conform to the hive. The hive does not respond to the President or to the national interest; the hive takes care of itself.”

How can we cultivate leaders, risk takers, innovators and independent thinkers for the 21st century in an environment that penalizes such traits? Um, pardon me?  The answer is in the QDDR? Good luck looking it up.

No matter how Peter Van Buren’s case turns out, the signal had been sent loud and clear. A Director General of the Foreign Service once testified in the case of a  DS agent dismissed for “notoriously disgraceful conduct” and  said, “I think it’s important to send a message to the entire State Department that. . . you cannot do this.”

That’s the same message broadcasted now in Foggy Bottom’s billboard.

For FSOs serving in our other war in Afghanistan who may be thinking about writing a book, this is the large neon sign saying, “forgettaboutit” or “look out, this could happen to you!” And here I was hoping for We Meant Well in Afghanistan, Too.

I’m sure the State Department can argue that “enforcing” the rules, however selectively, is done to promote the proper functioning of the Service. But should the proper functioning of the Service trumps everything else?  Whether you agree with Mr. Van Buren’s message or not, his method of delivery or not, his case has created a precedent. Throwing the sink and all fixtures at him would help ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.  I suspect that would be good for the State Department. Order restored.  Life goes on.

But are we, the American public better served?

Domani Spero