Office of Legal Adviser’s Doctored Video Report Nets an “E” For Empty (Updated With OIG Comment)

Posted: 3:17 am ET
Updated: 2:06 PT — Comments from State/OIG
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UpdateOIG conducted an independent preliminary assessment of issues surrounding missing footage from the Department’s December 2, 2013, daily press briefing (DPB). Specifically, OIG examined whether sufficient evidence is available for review and whether the issues in question are suitable for any further work. As part of this effort, OIG interviewed relevant staff; reviewed relevant emails, documents, and Department policies; and consulted with the Office of the Legal Adviser and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

The results of our preliminary assessment show that limited evidence exists surrounding the December 2 DPB and that the available facts are inconclusive. However, the identification of the missing footage prompted the Department to improve its video policies. Specifically, the Department explicitly prohibited DPB content edits and is currently working with NARA to schedule the DPBs for disposition as federal records.

No further work by OIG would add clarity to the events surrounding the missing footage or effect any additional change at the Department. End Update


So, we got a copy of the Office of Legal Adviser’s (OLA) report on that video editing controversy. Lots more words, but the result mirrors the preliminary report announced back in June  — we don’t know who was responsible for it and we still don’t know why the video was purposely edited. To recap:

  • On May 9,2016, Fox News reporter James Rosen informed the Department that footage was missing from the Department’s daily press briefing video from December 2, 2013. The footage concerned Iran.
  • The Bureau of Public Affairs (PA) looked into the matter and confirmed that approximately nine minutes of footage were missing from the versions of the briefing video posted on YouTube and on
  • On May 11, a technician in PA’s Office of Digital Engagement reported a recollection of making an edit to a video of that daily press briefing in response to a request over the phone from elsewhere in Public Affairs. The technician could not, however, remember who made the request.
  • The preliminary inquiry concluded that no rules had been broken in posting the edited video. Moreover, the DVIDS video and the full written transcript was always publicly available.
  • At the request of Secretary Kerry, the Department subsequently conducted “a broader review of the matter.”

According to OLA’s report, the Department interviewed 34 individuals and conducted email searches in this “broader review” as follows:

  • Nine of these individuals were senior officials in relevant positions from the relevant time period, including the then Department Spokesperson and Deputy Spokesperson, and numerous others within the Public Affairs bureau (no names are included in the report)
  • Fifteen of the interviewees were in positions in which they might have known who requested an edit or might have been in a position to relay a request for an edit from someone with the perceived authority  (names are not included in the report)
  • The final 10 individuals (including the technician who recalled making the edit) were involved in or familiar with the video production and editing processes in the Department as of December 2013, and might have been involved with the particular video in question or could explain those processes in greater detail. Individuals in this category also provided available records from programs and tools involved in the video production process. (names are not included in the report)

The report also says that the Department does not have records of phone calls made to the video technician that day. It looks like the  Department did meet with the staff from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) twice “during the course of the factfinding to brief them on process and findings.”

The report emphasized that the full record transcript and full video (via DOD’s DVIDS) were always available.  It concludes that there was evidence of purposeful editing and that there was evidence that the video was missing the footage in question soon after the briefing (we already know this from the briefings in June). So the details are as follows:

  • A PA technician recalled having received a request to edit the video over the phone
  • A female caller from elsewhere in Public Affairs “who could credibly assert that an edit should be made” made the request
  • The PA technician did not recall the identity of the caller (and the Department has been unable to ascertain it independently through interviews or document review).
  • The PA technician did not believe the call had come from the Spokesperson
  • The PA technician did not recall a reason being given for the edit request, but did believe that the requester had mentioned in the course of the call a Fox network reporter and Iran
  • The PA technician indicated that the requester may also have provided the start and end times for an edit, though the technician also recalls consulting the written transcript to locate the exchange
  • The PA technician recalled seeking approval from a supervisor, when interviewed the supervisor did not recall that exchange or anything else about the video.
  • The PA technician also recalled adding a white flash in order to make clear that footage had been removed
  • The PA technician does not usually engage in any editing, and is usually not involved in the daily press briefing video processing until several steps into the process of preparing the video for web distribution.

OLA’s report concludes that “Despite 34 interviews and follow-ups, email reviews, and cross-checks of those records still available from the editing and processing of the press briefmg video in question, the Department’s factfinding has not revealed who may have requested an edit or why the request may have been made.”

So maybe what — 45 days from that preliminary report, and we’re back to the same conclusion.

No one knows who was responsible for it. No one knows why.

The report states that “If an effort was made-however clumsy and ineffective-to scrub the public record of an already-public exchange with the press, no documentary evidence or memory of such an effort remains. If such an effort was undertaken, it was not comprehensive (in light of the unedited transcript and DVIDS video) and it was undertaken through a technician who would not normally be involved in the video editing process.”

At the same time, the report refused to let go of its alternative culprit —  “a glitch in the December 2,2013, briefing video may have resulted in the corruption of nine minutes from the YouTube and versions of the press briefing videos. The glitch was identified late in the day and the video technician was asked to address it since the normal editing team was gone for the day. Because the technician was not a normal editor, and in an effort to be transparent about the missing footage, the technician added a white flash to the video.”

In a message to colleagues, official spokesperson John Kirby — who was not working at State when this video was purposely doctored but now had to clean up the mess — writes that the report “presents the facts as we have been able to determine them, and we are committed to learn from them.”

OK. But that alternative culprit in the report is laughable, folks. A specific phone call was made, and it looks like a specific timeframe in the video was targeted for editing. The technician was not asked to “address” the glitch, she was asked to perform a snip!

This all started because Fox’s James Rosen asked then spox, Toria Nuland on Feb. 6, 2013 if the Obama administration was in direct nuclear talks with Iran.

QUESTION: One final question on this subject: There have been reports that intermittently, and outside of the formal P-5+1 mechanisms the Obama Administration, or members of it, have conducted direct, secret, bilateral talks with Iran. Is that true or false?

MS. NULAND: We have made clear, as the Vice President did at Munich, that in the context of the larger P-5+1 framework, we would be prepared to talk to Iran bilaterally. But with regard to the kind of thing that you’re talking about on a government-to-government level, no.

On December 2, 2013, Rosen asked then new official spox, Jen Psaki about that prior exchange with Toria Nuland:

QUESTION: Do you stand by the accuracy of what Ms. Nuland told me, that there had been no government-to-government contacts, no secret direct bilateral talks with Iran as of the date of that briefing, February 6th? Do you stand by the accuracy of that?

MS. PSAKI: James, I have no new information for you today on the timing of when there were any discussions with any Iranian officials.
 Is it the policy of the State Department, where the preservation or the secrecy of secret negotiations is concerned, to lie in order to achieve that goal?

MS. PSAKI: James, I think there are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress. This is a good example of that. Obviously, we have made clear and laid out a number of details in recent weeks about discussions and about a bilateral channel that fed into the P5+1 negotiations, and we’ve answered questions on it, we’ve confirmed details. We’re happy to continue to do that, but clearly, this was an important component leading up to the agreement that was reached a week ago.

QUESTION: Since you, standing at that podium last week, did confirm that there were such talks, at least as far back as March of this year, I don’t see what would prohibit you from addressing directly this question: Were there secret direct bilateral talks between the United States and Iranian officials in 2011?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything more for you today. We’ve long had ways to speak with the Iranians through a range of channels, some of which you talked – you mentioned, but I don’t have any other specifics for you today.

In July 2012, Jake Sullivan, a close aide to Secretary Clinton, traveled to Muscat, Oman, for the first meeting with the Iranians, taking a message from the White House. […] In March 2013, a full three months before the elections that elevated Hassan Rouhani to the office of president, Sullivan and Burns finalized their proposal for an interim agreement, which became the basis for the J.C.P.O.A. (see The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru, May 5, 2016).

Would a “no comment” response really be so terrible instead of Ms. Psaki’s word cloud there?


Related posts:





Tweet of the Day: Admiral John Kirby as Next Foggy Bottom Spokesman

Posted: 3:01 pm EDT
Updated: 4:08 pm EDT
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State Department vs. Bill O’Reilly — Volleys Fired But Nothing to Do With Foreign Policy!

Domani Spero
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Apparently, there is a war going on between the State Department and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News and it has nothing to do with foreign policy or Benghazi! It all started with the following segment of the O’Reilly Factor. At the 2:04 mark, Bill O’Reilly says this:

“With all due respect, and you don’t have to comment on this,” O’Reilly told Rosen. “That woman looks way out of her depth over there. Just the way she delivers … it doesn’t look like she has the gravitas for that job.”


That did not sit well with Marie Harf, the deputy spokeswoman of the State Department, who fired a verbal projectile via Twitter:


On September 4, Ms. Harf also said this from the podium (mark 3:16 on this video clip):

“I think that when the anchor of a leading cable news show uses quite frankly sexist, personally offensive language that I actually don’t think they would ever use about a man, against the person that shares this podium with me, I think I have an obligation and I think it’s important to step up and say that’s not OK.”


We are not a devotee of Mr. O’Reilly, but when the deputy spox picks a fight with the the most watched cable news program in the United States, we’ve got to ask — what was she thinking?  The deputy spokeswoman of the oldest executive agency ever, cannot have a disclaimer saying “tweets are my own.” What she says from the podium and what she tweets are as official as it gets. So this verbal tussle with Mr. O’Reilly is not between her and the cable anchor. None of the headlines says Marie Harf vs. Bill O’Reilly.  It is officially between the State Department and the cable anchor.  Some people may even infer that this is a fight that the Secretary of State signed on. Whether that is true or not, we don’t know. What we know is if it’s from the podium, it represents the official view of the agency and the U.S. government.

And because the other person in the ring is a cable anchor, this is what you get. Watch starting at mark 1:13


Mr. O’Reilly called the WH spox, Mr. Earnest “befuddled,” saying “he doesn’t have a lot of credibility.” Mr. O’Reilly, of course, did not say “that man looks uncertain to me.”  We hope Mr. Earnest doesn’t take it upon himself to fire his own objectiles from the White House podium.

Meanwhile, WaPo’s Erik Wemple makes an important point:

“As a housekeeping measure, let’s toss the “personally offensive” claim right in the trash heap. In slighting Psaki, O’Reilly stuck strictly to her performance as a professional, something that is well within his ambit as a cable news anchor. If a SPOKESWOMAN cannot be evaluated on the basis of how she presents herself to the public, then nothing is fair game.”


Mr. O’Reilly did used the term “that woman” as opposed to saying , Ms. Psaki “looks way out of her depth over there.That Woman” is the title of the book on Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, one of the most vilified women in the 20th century. It is the title of a comedy drama movies in 1966 and in 2012.  “That woman” reminds us of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,“in the 1998 chapter of presidential history.  We can understand why that phrase may be objectionable, but the professional person at the podium does not have the luxury of becoming personally upset in public.

One commenter over in WaPo makes a lot of sense:

[N]o State Department spokesperson should wade into a verbal conflict with an American opinion show host (O’Reilly is NOT a “Fox News anchor”) …not on Twitter, and certainly not from the SD press room podium. […] Had Ms. Harf not tweeted and her initial comments about his opinions had been in response to a press briefing question (unlikely), she could have just said, “We at State do not concern ourselves with the comments of an opinion show host. We have more important matters to attend to.” End of story; Harf looks like a pro. At this point, she looks like a teenage girl in a Facebook cat fight, and that reflects poorly on the State Department, the Obama Administration and our nation.


The official spokeswoman, Jen Psaki and her deputy Marie Harf came to the State Department from the Obama campaign.  Previously, Ms. Psaki was the deputy press secretary for John Kerry‘s 2004 presidential campaign and press secretary for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.  Ms. Harf also worked on the 2012 Obama campaign.

People on the inside know that access means a great deal. It is not a given that assistant secretaries of public affairs and/or spokespersons see the secretaries they serve as often as they want.  The most notable exception may be Margaret Tutwiler who was Secretary Baker’s spokesperson and was famously quoted as saying, “If you’re a Ph.D. and have 17 degrees, the press doesn’t care,” she says. “They like to know that you have a fair idea of the person on whose behalf you are speaking. And I do know this President and this Secretary of State very well.”

Ms. Tutwiler later contributed to ADST’s Oral History project and here is part of what she said (pdf):

“I have said before, and I firmly believe it, that podium was not my podium, I was not elected to anything, I am staff and serve at the President’s pleasure as a political appointee and the Secretary of State. …. I believed that part of the spokesman’s job is how you come through that TV screen. If you don’t look convincing and are just mouthing words, then you are not doing your job.”


We understand that there are folks in the building who yearn for “spokesmen and [spokes]women that used to be — the class acts that they were” — presumably, an assistant secretary-rank spokesperson speaking on behalf of the United States. Some of Ms. Psaki’s predecessors include Ambassador Victoria Nuland, Philip J. Crowley, FSO Sean McCormack , Ambassador Richard Boucher , James Rubin, and Margaret D. Tutwiler. We do recognize that a spokesperson is only as good as his/her access to the Secretary.  What good is an ambassador or AS-rank spokesman or spokeswoman if the Secretary does not trust him or her?   Secretary Kerry picked these individuals as his spokespersons, that’s his prerogative.  But they also represent the voice of the State Department and the U.S. Government, and sometimes, we fell like the spoxes never got off the campaign trail.

For instance, last year, Ms. Psaki was caught in a lie and had to release another statement acknowledging that her boss “was briefly on his boat.”  (see It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Not Superman On a Nantucket Boat Or How to Make a Non-News Into Big News). Asked where Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power was at one point, she was unable to answer a very simple question.  The point is, even on topics, where we, the public expect a straight-forward answer, the podium is unable to do so. Did Egypt had a coup?  Transparency, anyone?  Just a very brief one on the QDDR at the top of your head?  Folks, over in YouTube, the Jen Psaki Greatest Hits is now on Episode 24. It is not/not fun to watch.

We’d like to think that they’re doing the best they can at these jobs.  Whether we approve of their performance or not, we imagine this can’t be easy work; some days it’s a tour of the world’s ever growing hotspots and spitholes of miseries.  The reporters will push to get their stories, that’s their job; and hey, that’s expected, no need to accuse them of “buying into Russian propaganda.” Of course, the spokespersons will not always have the answers that the press want.  But that’s an old story.  Perhaps, the most important point worth noting here is no matter how shitty the days may be, the official spokesperson or deputy spokesperson of the U.S. Department of State cannot, and should not be the story of the day.


If nobody is listening to them because people are talking about them, then the spoxes are not doing their real jobs, which is spoxplaining the administration’s policies.

Well … okay then, back to watching the lighthouse. Here’s Johnny Nash’s Sun-Shiny day:

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US Embassy Libya: “…almost nothing more important than the safety and security of our staff”

— Domani Spero
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry uncorks a bottle of champagne en route from Andrews Air Force Base to Stockholm, Sweden as he celebrates the first press briefing at the U.S. Department of State Department by his new Spokesperson, Jen Psaki, on May 13, 2013. [State Department photo / Public Domain]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry uncorks a bottle of champagne en route from Andrews Air Force Base to Stockholm, Sweden as he celebrates the first press briefing at the U.S. Department of State Department by his new Spokesperson, Jen Psaki, on May 13, 2013. [State Department photo / Public Domain]

Via state/gov/DPB/July 15, 2014:

QUESTION: Can I ask one about Libya?

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: It does seem as if – well, that the airport is – continue to be shelled, most of the planes even are damaged, I don’t – and the Embassy is near the airport, I mean, and it doesn’t seem as if there’s been any movement on any type of evacuation. So I’m just wondering what’s going on.

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re obviously deeply concerned about the level of violence in Libya and some of the incidents you referred to. Every day, we make assessments about the level of violence and the impact on our personnel there, but I don’t have anything to predict for you or outline in terms of any changes to our security posture or level of staffing on the ground.

QUESTION: I mean, it seems as if there wouldn’t be any way for those employees to get out unless you had some kind of airlift because the airport is inoperable right now.

MS. PSAKI: Well, again, Elise, I think it’s safe to say that we evaluate every single factor when we’re making determinations about our staff. There’s nothing more important than the safety, almost nothing more important than the safety and security of our staff, but we do that in private and I have nothing to outline for you here from – publicly.

QUESTION: Is Ambassador Satterfield in Libya now or here?

MS. PSAKI: I know – I’m not sure, actually, where he is. We can check and see if we can get that information to you.

Meanwhile in the “why are we still in Tripoli edition?”our ambassador tweets this:


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US Embassy Libya: Post Drawdown Soon, Marine Air-to-Ground Task Force At The Ready

— Domani Spero
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We understand that US Embassy Tripoli will soon be on drawdown. We don’t know yet if this will be an authorized or ordered departure for personnel or temporary post closure.

On May 19, we blogged about the U.S. Embassy in Libya. (See US Embassy Libya: Decision to Evacuate Grows By the Minute, Satterfield as Libya Envoy. Amidst reports in the couple of days that the US Embassy in Tripoli is poised to be evacuated, the State Department spokesperson yesterday said that those reports are inaccurate.  “We have not made decisions to move any of our personnel out of Libya. We continue to review the situation. It’s incredibly fluid, and obviously we can make decisions quickly to address embassy security needs. But those reports are inaccurate at this point,” said Jen Psaki.

Ms. Psaki also indicated that Ambassador Deborah Jones, who on May 21 participated in the speakers series at the Stimson Center in D.C. (see the c-span coverage here) will be “returning to Tripoli in the near future.”

On the appointment of Ambassador David Satterfield, Ms. Psaki was asked in what capacity was he doing this contact with the Libyans. Here is the official response:

MS. PSAKI: Well, the Secretary asked him to travel with him last week, and he has obviously – as you know, has an extensive background as a foreign diplomat. And so he traveled to Libya in – as a private citizen to help build political consensus at this challenging time. And obviously, he sat in with him during the meeting with the Quint last week.

More on the Libya hands — no special envoy but there is a Special Coordinator for Libya.

QUESTION: Is he [Satterfield] a special envoy to Libya now?

MS. PSAKI: No, I’m not giving him a title. He was there – as you know, his specific position is as Director-General of the Multinational Force and Observers, the MFO. So he’ll continue to fulfill his duties in that capacity. Jonathan Winer, who you also may know, visited Tripoli in February in his role as Special Coordinator for Libya and met with a variety of Libyan and international partners, and he’s working closely with Ambassador Satterfield and our NEA team.

QUESTION: So Ambassador Satterfield is actually not at the moment a State Department employee —

MS. PSAKI: Correct.

QUESTION: — or a U.S. diplomat. He works with the Multinational Force, which is a UN —

MS. PSAKI: Correct.

QUESTION: — organization.

QUESTION: Yes, please. Just to —


QUESTION: Yeah. Just to clarify this point – I mean, still U.S. Ambassador is there, right?

MS. PSAKI: Yes, Deborah Jones. She was out of the country – out of Libya for some prior scheduled travel, and so —

Jonathan Winer, the new Special Coordinator for Libya was previously appointed by the State Department as Senior Advisor for MEK Resettlement in 2013.  In that capacity, he was tasked with overseeing USG efforts to help resettle the residents of Camp Hurriya to permanent, and secure locations outside of Iraq. He also previously served as chief counsel and principal legislative assistant to then Senator Kerry for 10 years and was a DAS at INL.

Where are the Marines?

Over at the Pentagon spokesman Read Admiral Kirby said that “There’s been no request for military operations or assistance in Libya. And that’s — obviously, that’s going to be a State Department call. And I think you heard the State Department speak very clearly that there’s been no change to their embassy operations there in Tripoli.”

The press briefing was on May 20, so possibly OBE already. 

The first ever landing (touch and go) of a V-22 Osprey aboard the USS Ashland (LSD-48), underway in the Leyte Gulf, Philippines. Boatswain's Mate Third Class Brian Sherlock, of Tucson, Arizona, directs the first-ever landing of this type aircraft aboard. BM3 Sherlock is the Landing Signalman Enlisted member chosen to direct this operation. (Courtesy Photo by Navy Media Content Services)

The first ever landing (touch and go) of a V-22 Osprey aboard the USS Ashland (LSD-48), underway in the Leyte Gulf, Philippines. Boatswain’s Mate Third Class Brian Sherlock, of Tucson, Arizona, directs the first-ever landing of this type aircraft aboard. BM3 Sherlock is the Landing Signalman Enlisted member chosen to direct this operation.
(Courtesy Photo by Navy Media Content Services)

Calling it a prudent precautionary measure, the Pentagon has moved elements of a Marine air-to-ground task force from their base in Moron, Spain to Sigonella, Sicily.  Apparently, there’s a total of about 250 Marines on Sicily; seven Ospreys; three C-130s as part of this air-to-ground task force. “This was a prudent measure taken by General Rodriguez in consultation with General Breedlove, the European Command commander, and of course, the State Department, to be able to be in a posture and in a location that should they be needed in North Africa, specifically, yes, specifically Libya, that they would be — that they would be ready to do so.”

Today, Wayne White, a former Deputy Director of the State Department’s Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA) writes on on why the U.S. should evacuate Libya:

 “There were always those who opposed withdrawing (regardless of the risk of staying), arguing that leaving the countries in question would reduce the US’ ability to influence events on the ground. Of course, in this case, for quite some time now the US and other Western diplomatic missions have had precious little impact on what has been unfolding in Libya.”

The man of the hour, called Libya’s enigmatic General Khalifa Haftar by the BBC apparently has been on different sides of almost every power struggle in Libya since the 1960s.  Since coming to the United States in the early 1990s, he apparently lived in suburban Virginia. According to WaPo, he also became a U.S. citizen — and voted in Virginia in elections in 2008 and 2009.

A possible expatriation case (pdf)? Maybe or maybe not. That depends on whether the  U.S. citizen who serves as a commissioned or noncommissioned officer of a foreign state is engaged/not engaged in hostilities against the United States.


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State Dept’s Selfie Diplomacy: #UnitedForUkraine; Now Waiting For Selfie From the Russian Bear …

— Domani Spero

In the last 48 hours, we’ve been seeing a bunch of selfies from the State Department with the hashtag #UnitedForUkraine.  The NYPost writes:

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was mocked Thursday after posting a photo of herself on Twitter holding a sign that read #United­For­Ukraine @State­Dept­Spox.
Psaki defended her photo.

“The people of Ukraine are fighting to have their voices heard and the benefit of communicating over social media is it sends a direct message to the people that we are with them, we support their fight, their voice and their future,” she said.

Now stop picking on Ms. Psaki, she’s not alone on this and at least she’s no longer using the hashtag #RussiaIsolated. The UK is set to start buying gas directly from Russia this fall despite threats  of  further sanctions against Moscow over the crisis in Ukraine.

In any case, here is the Selfie Collection, a work in progress:


Jen Psaki, State Department Spokesperson


Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel, and Ms. Psaki’s boss’s boss

Selfie Missing:  Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Douglas Frantz, Ms. Psaki’s boss.


Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Evan Ryan


Coordinator for International Information Programs Macon Phillips

Selfie Missing: Coordinator for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications Alberto Fernandez


Michelle Kwan, State Department Senior Advisor


Embassy Selfie:  Ambassador Pyatt with US Embassy Kyiv staff


Then our man in London, Ambassador Matthew Barzun ruined the fun and raised the bar with a Winfield House selfie via Vine:


Now we just need a selfie from the Russian bear.

Oops, wait … what’s this?  The Russian bear, missing a hashtag…


Google'd Putin riding a bear


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State Dept Releases Part of FOIA’ed Ambo Credentials — Showing Soon Online? Mm-hmm.

— Domani Spero

On March 7, the State Department released the “certificates of demonstrated competence” requested by AFSA on July 29, 2013. The fulfilled request did not include the second FOIA request filed on February 28, 2014.  The DPB extract below also has brief FOIA data for FY2013, which we did not have when we blogged about this case yesterday (State Dept on Ambo Nominees’ “Certificates of Documented Competency” — Working On It.

Two sources confirmed to us that AFSA has these documents and is reviewing them. These “certificates” or “reports” are typically a page long, as previously described in our post here (AFSA Threatens to Sue State Department Over Ambassadors Credentials, Again).  It is our understanding that these docs released today are just bio data and are not confidential.  We’ll have to wait and see whether AFSA would share these “certificates” with their members, and the public by posting them as a subsection of the ambassadors page on its website.

Via DPB, March 7, 2014:

QUESTION: Do you have any update on whether you’ve given the certificates of demonstrated competence to the AFSA representatives?

MS. PSAKI: I do. We have – as I mentioned yesterday, there were two different FOIA requests. So we have fulfilled the requests meeting the July FOIA. That was from – requested from January – January 1st, 2013 to the present time, meaning to when it was – when the process of looking at it began, which means it’s through November. So that is a request we’ve met. The February request is separate. We just received it last week. As I said yesterday, and as is the case in any FOIA, we’re working to process that.

QUESTION: Now, when you say fulfilled, does that mean that you agreed and handed over those certificates —

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — unredacted?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any details on that, but just to – and I know somebody asked this question yesterday, but it’s an important note here because I looked into this. These documents that they’re asking for are about a page or two pages long.


MS. PSAKI: They are certainly not reflective of the qualifications or even that extensive of a background or any – of any of the individuals.

QUESTION: Right, which kind of begs the question as to why it took so – if they’re only a page or two long, why it takes so long to go – anyway. But —

MS. PSAKI: Well, they only —

QUESTION: — when was —

MS. PSAKI: To answer another one of your questions, Matt —


MS. PSAKI: — because I aim to please here —

QUESTION: Uh-huh, yeah.

MS. PSAKI: — the request was not made informally or through any other channels —


MS. PSAKI: — but through the FOIA. Correct, through the FOIA process.

QUESTION: Would they – oh, I suppose this is a hypothetical question, but would – does it – are – could they have gotten it through an informal request? Or do you – would you have demanded that they go through the FOIA route to get them?

MS. PSAKI: I can’t answer that question. I mean, it’s impossible to answer.

QUESTION: Right. And then —

MS. PSAKI: But we do try to provide information —


MS. PSAKI: — and work closely with AFSA.

QUESTION: And when was it fulfilled as – the way —

MS. PSAKI: I’d have to double check on that. I believe it was this morning, but let me double check on that and make sure that’s true.

QUESTION: It was this morning. So you missed their deadline. You were hoping for a little leeway, kind of like the Israelis and the Palestinians.

MS. PSAKI: I’ll check and make sure, Matt. Well, they certainly know when we met it or didn’t meet it, right?

QUESTION: Well, right. I know. Okay.

MS. PSAKI: It’s not a secret to them.

QUESTION: So we need to ask them if they’re satisfied with —

MS. PSAKI: And I can check – well, I can check too when – if it was last night or this morning.

QUESTION: How many tickets – how many tickets were there?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any numbers for you. It was any that were applicable in that timeframe.

QUESTION: Do you have in front of you – and I know the building has put these together, but I don’t know if it’s made its way to you – the response to the question that I asked yesterday, just to get it on the record, for how long it takes on average to respond to FOIA requests for the State Department?

MS. PSAKI: I do, Arshad.

QUESTION: I am delighted. Let’s —

MS. PSAKI: Get excited, it’s a Friday.

QUESTION: Let’s put this on the record. (Laughter.) Excellent.

MS. PSAKI: Okay. In Fiscal Year 2013, the average time to process a simple request was 106 days. In the same fiscal year, the average time to process a complex request was 533 days. To show just a factual point here on efforts to improve, in Fiscal Year 2013, the Department received over 18,000 FOIA requests and processed over 21,000. So we processed more than we received, meaning we’re trying to speed up the process.

QUESTION: So – and I had one other question about that, which is that implies that there is a big backlog that you were able to – right?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.


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State Dept on Ambo Nominees’ “Certificates of Documented Competency” — Working On It

— Domani Spero

The American Foreign Service Association was in the news yesterday after announcing that it will file a suit against the State Department if, by end of business day today, it does not get the certificates of demonstrated competence for ambassadorial nominees (see AFSA Threatens to Sue State Department Over Ambassadors Credentials, Again).

The topic made it to today’s Daily Press Briefing with the State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki answering questions about AFSA’s FOIA requests for these documents which were reportedly filed on July 29, 2013 and a second request filed on February 28, 2014.  Ms. Psaki refused to make a prediction of whether State would respond to AFSA’s request by the close of business today.

At about 3pm EST, ABC News tweeted that AFSA is giving the State Department until tomorrow morning to furnish the requested “Certificates of Documented Competency” for ambassador nominees.

When you look at that AFSA FOIA request delay of 7 months and a week, it might be useful to note that in FY2012, the State Department’s total requests in backlog is 10,464.   In fact, according to, State has one of the highest backlogs, second only to DHS. In FY 2011, the average number of days to process a simple case was 156; for complex cases, 342. Some cases have been pending for 5 or 6 years (see State Dept FOIA Requests: Agency Ranks Second in Highest Backlog and Here’s Why).  The oldest pending request, as you can see below is 1,922 days.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06

Here is the short version of the March 6, 2014 DPB:

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via Word It Out

Below is the long version from the March 6, 2014 DPB:

QUESTION: The American Foreign Service Association said yesterday that they were going to be filing suit against the State Department if, by end of business today, you don’t provide certificates of demonstrated competence for ambassadorial nominees. So I just wanted to know if you had any reaction to that.

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, AFSA submitted a FOIA request on July 29th 2013 to our website – this is just some details for all of you to be aware of – seeking certificates of a demonstrated competence for every ambassador from January 1st 2013 to the present. We receive, as many of you know, about 18,000 FOIA requests per year. Generally – we generally process requests on a first in, first out basis. So we’re currently actively processing the request in accordance with the statute and the Department’s regulations, which applies to the specific release they put out yesterday.

In terms of broadly speaking, obviously, in nominating ambassadors, we look – the Administration looks for qualified candidates who represent Americans from all walks of life and who show true zeal for serving their country, and we’ve received interest and recruited talented people from all across the country and all kinds of professional backgrounds, whether they are Foreign Service – well, that’s – they proceed through a different process, there, of course, but political appointees who may be from the business sector, who may be from a public service sector. We feel that this kind of diversity helps represent who we are and the United States around the world.

So long story short, we are reviewing their request. We process requests as they come in. Certainly we welcome the comments of anyone and views of anyone on these sorts of issues, but I think it’s important to remind everyone of what we look at when it comes to ambassadorial nominees.

QUESTION: Jen, they submitted this request in July? How many months ago?

QUESTION: January.

QUESTION: No, July 29th, she said.

QUESTION: I thought you said January.

MS. PSAKI: For every ambassador from January 20 —

QUESTION: Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry.

QUESTION: So how long should they expect to wait until you finish processing your request? And why should they even have to submit a FOIA request for this? Why wouldn’t you just – if they asked for it, why wouldn’t you just turn them over?

MS. PSAKI: They were asking for specific documents that are —

QUESTION: Right. But this is not an organization that has a questionable interest in this. It’s an organization that, in fact, represents – I mean, it is the – basically the union for Foreign Service officers, so it’s not really an outside party.

MS. PSAKI: Well, oftentimes, Matt, there’s a processing aspect that needs to take place with these requests, so —

QUESTION: Right, I’m sure that – I’m sure everyone is thrilled, everyone who’s ever filed a FOIA request to the State Department or any other government agency is thrilled, but I think that —

MS. PSAKI: There are many people who do. That’s part of the challenge in processing them.

QUESTION: Right. Okay, so you just threw this in the big pile, in the in-box with every single other request, even though they clearly have some – they have demonstrated interest in this subject. I don’t understand —

MS. PSAKI: I didn’t say we threw it in a pile, Matt.

QUESTION: Yeah, you did. You said you get 18,000 requests a year, so – and —

MS. PSAKI: We do. We process them.

QUESTION: So when they —

MS. PSAKI: But obviously, we’re working to review their request and see how we can meet it as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: But specifically they asked for it to be by the close of business tonight. Otherwise, they’re going to take their – take this to legal action.

MS. PSAKI: I understand that.

QUESTION: Are you saying that you will not be able to get it to them by end of day tonight?

MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to make a prediction of that. We’ll see what happens.

QUESTION: Just – can I have one —

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: Where – you are now processing this specific request, correct?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: You’re actually looking at it and trying to satisfy it?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Okay. If you get 18,000 FOIA requests a year, what is the typical time lag for processing a request? Is it, as in this case, I guess, eight months or – is that typical or is it less, is it more?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any specific time breakdown for you. I’m happy to see if there’s anything like that we can provide.

QUESTION: And was this one —

MS. PSAKI: We’re – they’re about to start the press avail, but go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. Was this one jumped to the front of the queue for any reason or no? It was processed —

MS. PSAKI: Well, there are cases where – and they asked for expedited processing, and some cases that question is asked. This didn’t satisfy the specific laid out standards for that, but we’re still working to see if we can process this as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: But it was not – was it jumped ahead or no? Or it —

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re still working to see if we can process it as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: No, no, that’s not my question, though. My question is whether it got – I understand that they may have requested expedited processing —

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — and did not – denied it because they don’t meet the standards, which happens to a lot of people.

MS. PSAKI: And at the same time, we’re still working to expedite – to process this as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: Right. Right. Right. No, but I’m sure you’re doing that with the other 17,199, right? I mean, the question is whether you are doing this faster.

MS. PSAKI: Specifically with this one, we are —


MS. PSAKI: — working to process it as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: But quicker than everything – others’ stuff?

MS. PSAKI: It doesn’t work in that exact way, but we’re working to process it as quickly as possible.


QUESTION: And Jen, they said that – AFSA said that they also filed a second FOIA request on February 28th.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: So did they express to you their – because I know there was discussion between counsels.

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: So was that part of the aspect, that they didn’t feel that the July request had been processed or addressed within a – expeditiously enough so that —

MS. PSAKI: You’d have to ask them that question. I’m not sure if they are basically about the same thing or not. So I’m happy to check, and you may want to check with them and see what the reason was for the second one.

QUESTION: These documents are – what they’re seeking or these certificates are not classified, are they?

MS. PSAKI: No, but they’re still internal files, and so obviously we go through a process —

QUESTION: Fair enough. But they’re for a very small number of people, 50. Do you have any idea how many pages one of these things is?

MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s every ambassadorial nominee for the last 14 months.



QUESTION: And how many – well, actually, it wouldn’t have been originally —

MS. PSAKI: 15?

QUESTION: No, because they filed it in July asking for every one that went back to January. So —

MS. PSAKI: But when you meet it, you’re abiding by what the FOIA request —

QUESTION: Fair enough. How many pages is one of these things?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have a specific number of pages for you.

QUESTION: It seems to me like this is a very limited request from an organization that’s got a very, very important interest in this subject, and that frankly, they should, if they ask, should be allowed to see – without having to go to through the FOIA processing. Was there any – did – do you know – are you aware if they asked outside of FOIA to get this – to get these documents?

MS. PSAKI: They are closely engaged with our chief of staff and deputy secretary of state, and have a range of meetings. So I know that all of these issues have been discussed. In terms of this specific request, I can check if there’s anything we can share on that.

QUESTION: So in other words, you said no. They asked, you said no, you have to submit a FOIA? Is that —

MS. PSAKI: I’m not saying that’s how it all went down. I’m saying they have many channels for having discussions with people in the Administration. And if there’s more to share on whether they made this specific request outside of the FOIA request process, I’m happy to check into that.

QUESTION: Do you have any idea if there is a chance, even a remote chance, that the processing will be finished by 5 o’clock this afternoon?

MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to predict when it will be finished.

QUESTION: Well, I know, but —

MS. PSAKI: Obviously, we’re working to process it as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: I understand that. But is there a possibility that it could be done by 5 o’clock?

MS. PSAKI: There’s always a possibility.

QUESTION: There is. Okay.

QUESTION: How many nominees are we talking about? Have you got a figure?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have a figure.

Well, then, tomorrow, maybe  — or we’ll wonder who’ll stop the rain …


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USG Declares Three Venezuelan Diplomats Personae Non Gratae

— Domani Spero

The Venezuelan Government notified the United States on the afternoon of February 17 that they have declared three of our consular officers at US Embassy Caracas personae non gratae. The three were given 48 hours to leave the country (see Venezuela (Where Almost No One Has Toilet Paper) Kicks Out Three U.S. Diplomats for “Flaming” Student Protests).

On February 25, the U.S. Government kicked out three Venezuelan diplomats in response to the Venezuelan  Government’s decision.  The State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki identified the png’ed diplomats as First Secretary Ignacio Luis Cajal Avalos, First Secretary Victor Manuel Pisani Azpurua, and Second Secretary Marcos Jose Garcia Figueredo.  Ms. Psaki said that the diplomats were given 48 hours to leave the United States. Citing Article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, Ms. Psaki also noted that the convention permits the United States to declare any member of a diplomatic mission persona non grata at any time and without the necessity to state a reason.

Asked to comment about the possible nomination of a new Venezuelan ambassador to the U.S., the spox had this to say:

“Well, as you know, a decision about an exchange of ambassadors is a mutual decision, so obviously, we’ve said months ago that we could – we would be open to an exchange of ambassadors but that Venezuela needs to show seriousness about their willingness and their openness to a positive relationship moving forward.”

Late the same day, Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro announced the nomination of Maximilien Arvelaiz to be the country’s first ambassador to the U.S. since 2010.  According to Bloomberg, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said that the nomination of Arvelaiz, a former ambassador to Brazil, was meant to “establish political relations at the highest level that will contribute to peace.”  

In 2010, then President Hugo Chavez caused the withdrawal of Venezuela’s agrément on the appointment of Larry Palmer as U.S. Ambassador to Caracas (see How Larry Palmer, the US Ambassador nominee to Venezuela got rolled?). Nicolas Maduro, then Foreign Minister presented the diplomatic note to the embassy formally withdrawing the agreement of Larry Palmer to be the Ambassador to Venezuela.  Ambassador Palmer was later nominated and confirmed in 2012 as U.S. ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.

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AFSA Releases Underwhelming Ambassador Guidelines For “Successful Performance”

— Domani Spero

We’ve been hearing about the AFSA ambassador guidelines for a while now.  We were prepared to be amazed but frankly, given that AFSA has largely ignored the termination of ambassador report cards, we tried hard to contain our expectations (see State/OIG Terminates Preparation of Report Cards for Ambassadors and Sr. Embassy Officials).

Last week, the State Department’s favorite columnist over at WaPo writes, “The cringe-inducing performances in recent weeks by some of President Obama’s ambassadorial nominees have raised expectations that the American Foreign Service Association will weigh in next week with some revolutionary guidelines to revamp the nomination process.  Don’t count on it. Thoughtful, yes. Explosive, hardly. Our sense of the guidelines, which AFSA began working on last summer, is that they’re fairly anodyne suggestions, not a call for stricter criteria.”

According to Al Kamen, the AFSA board reportedly approved the draft guidelines on a 17 to 5 vote, with all four former ambassadors on the board voting against the guidelines, “apparently feeling the new ones watered down the 1980 Foreign Service Act’s useless section on ambassador selection.”  We also heard complaints that while AFSA has been working on these guidelines since last summer, the AFSA membership reportedly did not get a chance to provide comments and input until Friday last week. What the hey?!

Below is the relevant section of the Foreign Service Act of 1980


(a)(1) An individual appointed or assigned to be a chief of mission should possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission, including, to the maximum extent practicable, a useful knowledge of the principal language or dialect of the country in which the individual is to serve, and knowledge and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country and its people.

(2) Given the qualifications specified in paragraph (1), positions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service, though circumstance will warrant appointments from time to time of qualified individuals who are not career members of the Service.

(3) Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission.

We are confident that various administrations since 1980 had their own definitions of what “from time to time” actually means.

So what’s the purpose of releasing these guidelines now?  AFSA says that it offers “this Guidelines paper as a resource to inform the executive and legislative processes of nominating and confirming U.S. chiefs of mission. Chiefs of mission are the president’s envoys to foreign countries and multilateralinstitutions, usually carrying the title of ambassador. They lead our engagement with foreign governments and act as the CEOs of U.S. overseas missions and embassies.”

One retired ambassador who is not an AFSA member asked why ambassadors are even described as CEOs  since they are not — having no bottom line, no shareholders, and no board of directors?  Without all that, we wonder who gets to fire these CEOs to improve “corporate” governance at our overseas missions?

Some of the folks we know who are retired members of AFSA are opposed to the practice of appointing bundlers as ambassadors citing Section 304 of the FSA 1980.   Some see this issue as key to defining an American profession.  Others strongly believe that AFSA as the professional association representing career Foreign Service diplomats, “must–like Cicero–at least take a stand and call out the current system for what it is–plutocratic  corruption.”

Just saw WaPo reporting that AFSA “may oppose Obama ambassador nominees” but that AFSA President Robert Silverman reportedly also “noted that there may be a feeling that AFSA might not “want to get into the middle of a dogfight” while it’s in progress.”

Whose dogfight is this, anyways?  Does AFSA really think that these guidelines would change the current practice of nominating ambassadors ?

At the DPB yesterday, a reporter asked if the State Department believe that an association or the union for current and retired professional diplomats should have any say in the nomination process.  The official spokesperson Jen Psaki replied, “I’d have to check and see … if we have an official U.S. Government position on that question.” Prior to that question, she did say this:

“Obviously, the nomination process, as you well know, happens through the Executive Branch, which has been a traditional process, and input and thoughts comes from a range of resources. And certainly, we support freedom of speech by anyone in terms of what they view nominees should be able to – should – criteria they should meet. But again, these decisions have traditionally been made out of the White House.”

Seriously now, are you hearing what she’s saying?

AFSA says that the Guidelines are “drawn from the collective experience of a group of distinguished former chiefs of mission, both career and non-career, and from legislative and regulatory sources.” Ten ambassadors, all retired; including Ambassador Donald Gips, our former ambassador to South Africa who also served  as head of the WH office for Presidential Personnel.  In that role, Ambassador Gips managed “the selection of several thousand political appointments for the Obama Administration” prior to his appointment to South Africa.  The working group surprisingly did not include a single member of the active Foreign Service.   How well or how badly these missions are managed have a direct impact on the life and work of our diplomats. So we’re curious — how much input did the active membership provide in finalizing the guidelines that the association issued on its behalf?  

AFSA says that the paper is “non-partisan in nature” and offers the following guidelines:

Under “Leadership, character and proven interpersonal skills,” the Guidelines says “A key skill is the ability to listen in order to better understand the host country’s perspectives.”

You know that every bartender worth his/her salt, actually could do this one just as well, right?

Under “Understanding of high level policy and operations, and of key U.S. interests and values in the country or organization of prospective assignment,” the Guidelines says of the  nominee: “He or she demonstrates the capacity to negotiate, and has the proven ability to take on various challenges, including working with U.S. and foreign business communities and other nongovernmental interests, and providing services to U.S. citizens.”

One could argue that Mr. Tsunis, the hotelier nominated for the U.S. Embassy Norway can demonstrate this just as well. As CEO of Chartwell Hotels, LLC which owns, develops and manages Hilton, Marriott and Intercontinental hotels throughout the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states, he presumably worked with U.S. and foreign business communities and provide services to American citizens. Every. Single. Day.

The third item in the Guidelines is Management.  The President of the Garden Club of Oz, as well, “possesses experience in setting goals and visions, managing change, and allocating resources.”

The fourth and last item listed is “Understanding of host country and international affairs.“The Guidelines says of the nominee: “has experience in or with the host country or other suitable international experience, and has knowledge of the host country culture and language or of other foreign cultures or languages.”

Experience as a foreign exchange student count, right?

To be clear, your blogger’s household does not pay any dues to AFSA, so we are not a member of any standing.   But after reading  the AFSA Guidelines officially titled, “Guidelines for Successful Performance as a Chief of Mission,”we also had to wonder — what was AFSA thinking?  Yes, it is doing something, but is it doing the right thing?

In fact, we think folks could wave these AFSA Guidelines around to defend even the most controversial ambassadorial nominees.  Let’s try it.

For example, according to Wikipedia, Colleen Bell, producer of The Bold and the Beautiful, graduated with high honors from Sweet Briar College with a bachelor’s degree in political economy, a dual major in political science and economics. She spent her junior year abroad at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.   Scotland is not Hungary but that is a foreign culture, is it not? You don’t think this is enough for AFSA Guidelines #4?  Doesn’t it say on paper, “of other foreign cultures or languages?” She also produced the world’s most-watched soap opera, viewed in over 100 countries. The show serves 26.2 million viewers, including U.S. citizens. You don’t think that has anything to do with management and understanding of international affairs?

As a taxpayer with a vested interest in the effective functioning of our overseas missions, we have followed AFSA and the Foreign Service closely.  While we are not a voting member of this association, we would have wanted, instead, to see two things from AFSA: 1)  work on strengthening the Foreign Service Act of 1980 through Congress, who is after all, tasked to provide “advice and consent”on ambassadorial nominees under the U.S. Constitution, and 2)  work on the reinstatement of the OIG Inspector Evaluation Reports (IERs)  to promote accountability and successful performance of our chiefs of missions overseas.  The end.

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