IamA United States Diplomat: Anonymous FSO Gets on Reddit and He’s a Riot!

— Domani Spero

On February 14, an anonymous Foreign Service officer got on Reddit, the “front page of the Internet” and did an AMAA  (Ask Me Almost Anything). We don’t know if this is the first AMA ever by a U.S. diplomat on Reddit, but we have not seen or heard about any AMA done by the State Department. We know from the AMA exchange that the FSO is in his 40’s serving overseas with eight posts under his belt, he has a family who moves around with him, and is bidding for a western European post.  And he did not vote for President Obama.

Via imgur.com

Via imgur.com

This AMAA has 3,452 comments so far.  The anonymous FSO who calls himself “anFSO” on Reddit comes across as smart, witty, and somebody with a sense of humor.  Seems like a guy you want to hang out with.  The State Department via careers.state.gov ought to pay this guy’s overtime.

Here is his intro via Reddit:

Hi. I’m a US diplomat currently serving overseas. Here is my well-worn diplomatic passport with a personal note for you all. AMAA – I will be as open as I can.

The opinions I express here are my own, and are not representative of the views of the US government. They should not be misconstrued as official statements by any means.

Edit: A few FAQs:

• I didn’t donate anything to get my position, as I am not an appointee.

• If you are interested in becoming a Foreign Service Officer, head over to careers.state.gov. You can read about the process to join there, which starts with the FSOT. There are no formal education requirements to join, and you don’t need prior language skills.

• I’ve never had to use my diplomatic immunity, and I don’t know anyone who has had to use it. Sorry – boring, I know.

Thanks to everyone who was reasonable in their comments. To those whose constructive comments & questions I did not get to today I will do my best to get to them tomorrow. Keep them coming!

Edit2: I went through and responded to most of the questions earlier today. Those comments I didn’t respond to were either trolls (gotta love Reddit) or things I can’t discuss. This was fun and hopefully I’ll do it again sometime – I didn’t expect this big of a response. Safe travels and don’t forget to vote! ~anFso

Reddit has over 100 million unique visitors a month. It has a 5.4 billion page views a month with over 700 active communities.  You want to know what the American public wants to know about you, read the AMA.  We have culled some of the more amusing, amazing, and interesting exchange below:

Reddit user: Diplomatically, tell me to fuck off
anFSO: “Sorry, that’s not something the United States can support.”

Reddit user: Which country throws the best national day party?
anFSO: France.

Reddit user: Telegrams……are they delivered by a hundred year old dude in old-timey clothes?
anFSO: No. It’s all electronic now – basically just an e-mail with a bunch of funny headers.

Reddit user: What is one interesting fact about your work that many people may not know?
anFSO: It’s not all parties and schmoozing. Working in an embassy is actually fairly mundane.

Reddit user: Why is the Peace Corps in China? Really. Why?
anFSO: I don’t really know. The Peace Corps is in some strange places.

Reddit user: How many different nationalities of strange have you planted “Old Glory” in?
anFSO: If I told you, I’d probably be accused of being an imperialist.

Reddit user: What was your most proud to be American moment?
anFSO: Every time there’s a change of administration it’s a good feeling. I have had contacts ask me how it’s possible to change leaders so peacefully.

Reddit user: So you couldn’t use “Diplomatic Immunity” like the dude in Lethal Weapon II did?
anFSO: No. Shockingly real life is not like the movies.

Reddit user: I think you need to fill out a Visa form and give us a 2 x 3 x 3 photograph to enter reddit.
anFSO: I’ll make sure I don’t smile…

Reddit user: What if a child of a Diplomat is born in the current country the person is serving in?
anFSO: Then the diplomat is a proud new parent!

Reddit user: How does it feel working for the devil? Just kidding please don’t drone strike me.
anFSO: I’ve never felt that way, and don’t worry – I won’t.

Reddit user: Are prostitutes a primary source of entertainment for most international diplomats?
anFSO: No

Reddit user: any facepalm moments about your country’s behaviour you can share that made your job at the time a lot harder?
anFSO: Wikileaks made things difficult, but only because candid opinions were out in the open for the first time in such quantity. I don’t think the reporting officers had anything to be ashamed of – they reported honestly and with integrity. As a diplomat should.

Reddit user: how many people have u killed so far ?
anFSO: None that I know of.

Reddit user: Have all Embassies been upgraded since the infamous Jason Bourne incident in 2002 when he scaled the walls and escaped?
anFSO: If I told you I’d probably have to … report it :-\

Reddit user: Do you get tailor made clothes as work clothes or do you have to foot the bill yourself?anFSO: All work clothing is the employee’s responsibility.

Reddit user: Ever had to deal with a crashed UFO in whatever country you were working in?
anFSO: No – the UFO landed safely.

There was an elevated conversation concerning the use of toilet paper. Dear god, yesterday Venezuela and then TP on Reddit, our day’s complete!

Reddit user: As a toilet paper enthusiast polling American poopers, prior to wiping, do you fold your TP in a neat square or do you crumple it into a ball shape and then wipe?
anFSO: Crumple it.

Vigorous discussion on crumpling versus wiping followed, of course. There were questions whether diplomats get a special rate if they stay at the Embassy Suites and whether anyone will get a sniper bullet for taking a picture of an embassy.  After a Reddit user called him a “handsomely paid PR-guy” and he denied it, there was a discussion whether anFSO is paid well, handsome, a guy, not a guy, or a reptilian overlord. Very enlightening.

Questions about money and ambassadors were asked and answered:

Reddit user: Are you doing this while on my dime?
anFSO: No

Reddit user: What do you do that I should consider worth my tax dollars? That’s an actual benefit to most Americans?
anFSO: We keep you from having to spend a lot more tax dollars in a shooting war.

Reddit user: How much did you pay to be a diplomat? I hear you can pay $500,000 and be confirmed as an ambassador to a country. And, you don’t even have to know anything about the country you’re “ambassadoring” to.
anFSO: $0. Anyone who pays any amount of money for my job is an idiot. At least if you get an Ambassadorship you get the title for life and an embassy to lord over for a few years.

Reddit user: Are you a rich person who is friends with someone in the federal government or did you legitimately earn your assignment?
anFSO: If I was rich, I wouldn’t be working for the government.

Reddit user: I don’t know why you’re being down voted. That’s how you get these positions. It may not have been Obama, but it was someone he raised money for that got him the job.
anFSO: My position is not politically appointed. Most Foreign Service positions are not politically appointed.

Reddit user: How much did that gig cost you?
anFSO: More than 10 years and less than 25 away from family members, in places without reliable electricity or a safe water supply, countless hours on airplanes/in airports, missed birthdays, school plays, family reunions, and major events in our friends’ lives. Other than that, nothing.

Reddit user: Do you agree with the current Spoils system used to appoint US ambassadors? Should there me a more rigorous set of requirements to hold such positions?
anFSO: No. The Constitution gives the power to appoint Ambassadors to the President.

Reddit user: What do you mean by diplomat? Ambassador?
anFSO: I am not an Ambassador.

Reddit user: How much did you know about your host country before you went? Had you been there? I ask in relation to recent ambassadorial nominations and their seemingly complete lack of knowledge about their nominated posts.
anFSO: My first few tours I went in cold. As my career has progressed I find myself dealing with issues and countries I am more familiar with.

Reddit user: The Daily Show did a bit two (three?) days ago about how allegedly, ambassadors who might not be best for the job …. Have you experienced this? Where top diplomats and/or ambassadors seem completely incompetent and seem to have bought their way in? Or did Jon Stewart only find a few rare exceptions?
anFSO: “Best for the job” is highly subjective. If a nominee for an ambassadorship was a campaign donor and that gives them access to the President, is that a bad thing? It’s the President’s decision and the President is specifically empowered to appoint Ambassadors by the Constitution. I’m not really one to second-guess.

Reddit user: Jon Stewart recently talked about new US ambassadors being chosen for the job because they raised money for the election ….. What is your opinion on this?
anFSO: My opinion is that access to the President, no matter how it is obtained, is a valuable thing for any Ambassador. It really doesn’t bother me if they know nothing about the country they are in or have never worked in the Department before. Some of those turn out to be the best Ambassadors.

Reddit user: Can you give an example of someone who got their Ambassadorship in this manner and turned out to be one of the “best”, as you put it?
anFSO: Amb. Charles Rivkin.

There were a few questions about Benghazi and Argo, as if those were the only attacks that occurred at our overseas posts.  The questions show they are the only ones that stuck in the public’s memory.

Reddit user: Have you ever feared that you would be trapped in an Argo-like situation?
anFSO: Yes. There are a few seminal events that all diplomats talk about from a security standpoint – Tehran, East Africa, and now Benghazi. Each resulted in major changes to embassy security.

Reddit user: What’s your take on the Benghazi incident? How have you and your counterparts reacted as a whole?
anFSO: I think it’s shameful how the political firestorm overshadowed the memory of the 4 who gave their lives for their country.

Reddit user: What are your thoughts on the events at Benghazi? Is there concern about other attacks on US diplomatic outposts among people like yourself? What can you tell us about security measures before and after that event?
anFSO: I never went to Benghazi, but the men & women of Diplomatic Security generally do an excellent job of keeping us safe. From what I’ve heard, everyone there was willing to accept a great amount of personal risk to complete the US Mission to Libya’s goals. Tragically they paid the ultimate price. Even more tragically, the memory of those who lost their lives were overshadowed by the political firestorm that followed.

Reddit user: Are you worried about being abandoned by the current administration and left to die like the four diplomats murdered in Benghazi?
anFSO: No

Lots of questions on hiring/applications, all referred to careers.state.gov website. Some diplobrats and possibly DOS-connected Reddit users showed up during the AMA. One posted that he/she is “a Foreign Service brat for the past decade or so, Dad is currently on a leave of tour to work in Iraq, nice to see FSOs get some attention on here!”

Another user asked, “Are you insane doing an AMA? Either you will say something and get fired or you can’t answer anything.”

Yet another complained: “You’re not really a diplomat, you describe yourself as an FSO but you haven’t mentioned any specific posts or jobs you’ve held. Both my parents served a combined 50 years in the Foreign Service and never have I met a single person in the service who answers questions the way you do even if in a casual online setting.”

And because no good deed goes unpunished, another Reddit user armed with the FAM rages: “Have you read 5 FAM 777, 3 FAM 4170, or 3 FAM 4172.1-3(A)? The reason you should not be doing this without clearance isn’t because it might damage your corridor reputation but because of how your numerous downvoted comments can make the USG, FSOs, and other USG officials appear.” The discussion on this thread includes  how to report anFSO to the Feds. Two users said they reported him to the FBI, one suggested reporting him to Diplomatic Security. Somebody supplied the email for DS.

We’re not sure what they reported — one of your diplomats is on Reddit explaining what you do, get a duct tape?

We thought anFSO responded to questions appropriately and then very politely disengaged when necessary. Some Reddit were suspicious and wanted to make sure anFSO was “confirmed by the moderators.” Some were convinced he was “either a troll, or some intern who’s biggest responsibility is making coffee and zeroxing.”

And then there’s this comment:

“This Diplomat does not appear shady enough for a truly entertaining AMA.”

Four years of 21st century statecraft and for the American public, our diplomats still might as well be aliens from Mars.

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Dear Future D/MR Heather Higginbottom — Your Third Priority Up Close With Prospective Savings

— Domani Spero

We would guess from the kind of email we get that a good number of our readers are not newbies or prospective employees of the State Department.  But every now and then, we’d hear from folks interested in joining the Foreign Service.  Recently, we heard from a prospective employee informing us that there are 600 individuals currently waiting on the State Department “Register.”

“Some have even lost their jobs after having Diplomatic Security show up to interview their supervisors and coworkers, only to be timed off the register for lack of hiring.”

Of course, being on the Register does not guarantee that you will be given a firm offer of employment.  But it means that 600 people have taken and passed the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), have submitted their Personal Narratives, have passed the QEP and taken the Oral Assessment, have completed the required clearances: Medical and Security, have gone through the  Final Review Panel and are waiting on The Register, the rank-ordered list of successful candidates, sorted by career track.

Here is careers.state.gov:

“You should be aware that your placement on the Register does not guarantee an appointment as a Foreign Service Officer, for the number of appointments depends on the needs of the Foreign Service. Your rank-order on the Register is dynamic. People with higher scores will be placed above you regardless of when they are placed on the Register. Likewise, you will be placed above candidates with lower scores, regardless of how long they have been on the Register. Your name may stay in the Register for a maximum of 18 months. After that, your name will be removed. You may decline the first offer of employment. If you decline a second offer, your name will be removed from the Register. “

Screen Shot 2013-12-08

But … but… the State Department makes no mention that invitation to join the Foreign Service not only depends on the “needs of the Foreign Service” it also depends on funding from Congress.

Below is an extract from FY2014 State and Foreign Operations Budget Request:

The Administration’s FY2014 request seeks to grow its Human Resources account (under Diplomatic & Consular Programs) by 5% over its FY2012 level, to a total of $2.60 billion. While the Administration’s FY2014 request indicates that it plans 186 new positions at the Department of State altogether, 151 of these would be funded by consular fees and devoted to meeting increasing visa demand. The remaining 35 new positions (30 Foreign Service, 5 Civil Service) for which State seeks appropriated funding would be focused on the high priorities of the “rebalance” to Asia, and to staffing the Secretary’s Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues. As a point of comparison, the State Department requested appropriated funding for 121 new positions in its FY2013 request, and for 133 in its FY2012 request.

It is not clear from the justification above if the 186 new positions are FSOs or Limited Career Appointees (LNAs) tasked to handle visa work in selected places around the globe (Brazil, China, Mexico).  But what is clear is given the budget constraints, officials at the State Department know that their authority to hire new employees is severely restricted.

And yet, the FSOT continue to be administered multiple times a year.  Interviews continue to be conducted. The selection process continue to chug along as usual resulting in a glut of candidates waiting on the Register.  A good number of these individuals will most probably time out after 18 months.

So we asked a former State Department official who previously worked at BEX if this makes sense.  And got a royal scolding. Like, “what planet are you living in, girl?” Apparently, it’s what they do “free from reality” according to our source.

“It means little if there are 10 or 10,000 on the register. Also, all those people in HR and DS have to be kept busy, so they march on.”

That’s a little harsh, right?

But look,  if 600 people are sitting on the Register, that’s 600 candidates ready to hire.  Which also means the State Department had already paid for the medical examination of these individuals.  In addition, it had already conducted “a comprehensive background investigation, in cooperation with other federal, state, and local agencies, and has determined each candidate’s suitability for appointment to the Foreign Service and for a Top Secret security clearance.”

According to the GAO, the fiscal year 2012 base price for a top secret clearance investigation conducted by OPM is $4,005 and the periodic reinvestigation is $2,711.  For the State Department, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Office of Personnel Security and Suitability, conducts all national agency and credit history checks in support of their investigations. Diplomatic Security investigators located worldwide also conduct all other investigative leads, which includes local law enforcement checks. While there is no readily available data on the TS clearance adjudications for State, it has been suggested elsewhere that the the average cost to process a TS clearance is between $3,000 and about $15,000, depending upon individual factors.

If we take the lower figure, $6,700 X 600 = $4,020,000.

If we take the upper figure, $15,000 X = $9,000,000.

The actual cost of processing the TS clearance for 600 candidates sitting on the Register is probably somewhere in the middle.  Add the medical clearance cost for the candidates and family members and you got quite a pile of money there.

If we only hire a third from that pool of candidates, how much money have we wasted?

President Obama recently announced the nomination of Heather Higginbottom, the new Counselor in the Office of the Secretary of State to be the third Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources. During her November confirmation hearing, Ms. Higginbottom told the Senate that her third priority, if confirmed, will be management, reform, and innovation.

Well, here’s one place to start.

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