Advertisements

Recipe For Disaster Transition @StateDept: Situation AltNormal, All Fucked Up

Posted: 12:12 pm PT
Updated: 1:15 pm PT

 

We just posted about the reported mass resignations of senior management officials at the State Department (see Patrick Kennedy, Other Officials Step Down – Yo! That’s Not the “Entire” Senior Management).

The State Department spox released the following statement:

“As is standard with every transition, the outgoing administration, in coordination with the incoming one, requested all politically appointed officers submit letters of resignation. The Department encourages and advocates for senior officers to compete for high level offices in the Department. These positions are political appointments, and require the President to nominate and the Senate to confirm them in these roles. They are not career appointments but of limited term. Of the officers whose resignations were accepted, some will continue in the Foreign Service in other positions, and others will retire by choice or because they have exceeded the time limits of their grade in service. No officer accepts a political appointment with the expectation that it is unlimited. And all officers understand that the President may choose to replace them at any time. These officers have served admirably and well. Their departure offers a moment to consider their accomplishments and thank them for their service.”

The senior management officials reported to be stepping down today are not exactly quitting because U/S Kennedy resigned.  Our understanding is that they are leaving because they, too, got letters telling them to go.

What we know right now is that a good number of senior career official received letters yesterday morning essentially saying, “Thank you for your service.  You’re done as of Friday.”  The letters went to U/S Pat Kennedy, A/S Michelle Bond (CA), Joyce Barr (A), and Gentry Smith (DS M/OFM).  We noted previously that there are 13 offices under the “M” group which includes among other things, housing, medical, logistics, personnel, training, security.  We understand that the only person left in the “M” family in a Senate-confirmed position is DGHR Arnold Chacon.

We can confirm that one career under secretary serving in an acting capacity did not receive a letter or notification to leave.  But letters reportedly also went to others, including an assistant secretary in a geographic  bureau overseeing a most challenging region saying “you’re done, once we nominate your successor.”

Here’s the problem, with the exception of the announced nominations for ambassadors to China and Israel, there are no announced nominees for the State Department in the under secretary or assistant secretary level.  How soon will the replacements come onboard? As soon as the nominees are announced, vetted, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Just to be clear, this is not the case of career employees refusing to continue working with a new administration or quitting public service, or quitting in protest — they were told to leave.

People who got these letters are “resigning.”  A good number of them are also retiring as of the 31st because they can no longer be in the Foreign Service due to mandatory retirement (they’re over 65) or they are subject to time-in-class/time-in-service restrictions.  For those who are not retirement-eligible or subject to TIC/TIS, they’re still in the Senior Foreign Service and could theoretically move into different jobs.

With the exception of the DGHR position, we understand that all Senate-confirmed positions in the “M” family are “unemcumbered” or will soon go vacant. The Trump Transition may not know this, but these positions are the most critical to keeping the Department going.  We understand that these firings cause all sorts of problems because “there are certain authorities that can only be vested in someone who is in a confirmable position.”  For example, whenever “M” is on travel, the role of “Acting M” always defaulted to the Senate confirmed senior official at Diplomatic Security, Administration, or Consular Affairs.

For real life consequences, “M” approves authorized and ordered evacuation requests and authorizes the use of K funds. So better not have an evacuation or embassy shutdown right now because without an “M” successor, even one in an acting capacity, no one has any frakking idea who is responsible.  We are presuming that the Legal Affairs bureau is trying to figure this out right now. That is, if the Legal Advisor is still in place and had not been asked to leave, too.

This need not have to happen this way. The Landing Team get to an agency, and it goes about the job of filling in positions with their selected appointees in an orderly manner. This is not the first transition that the agency has gone through.  We understand from the AP’s Matt Lee that there was only one under secretary position left at State during the Clinton to Bush transition.  But giving career employees, some with 30-40 years of dedicated service to our country a two-day notice to pack-up is not just disgraceful, it is also a recipe for disaster.

Unless somebody with authority steps in now, by Monday, the only person possibly left standing in the 7ht Floor is Ambassador Tom Shannon who is the Acting Secretary of State pending Rex Tillerson’s confirmation.  And when Rex Tillerson, who has never worked for the federal government shows up for his first day at work next week, with very few exception, he may be surrounded with people, who like him will be lost in Foggy Bottom.

#

Advertisements

Patrick Kennedy, Other Officials Step Down – Yo! That’s Not the “Entire” Senior Management

Posted: 10:09 am PT
Updated: 10:29 am PT

 

Yesterday, Mark Toner, the State Department’s Acting Spokesperson said that “Patrick Kennedy will resign as Under Secretary for Management on January 27, and retire from the Department of State on January 31. A career Foreign Service Officer, Under Secretary Kennedy joined the Department in 1973.”  To read more about him, see The State Department’s Mr. Fix-It of Last Resort Gets the Spotlight.

Today, WaPo reports that the “entire senior management team just resigned.” In addition to U/S Kennedy stepping down, others named includes A/Barr, CA/Bond, DS/Gentry Smith, all career diplomats, and presumably are retiring from the Foreign Service. Previous departures include OBO’s non-career appointee, Lydia Muniz o/a January 20, and Diplomatic Security’s Greg Starr who retired a week before inauguration.

As we have noted before in this blog, U/S Kennedy has been the Under Secretary for Management since 2007. He is the longest serving “M in the history of the State Department, and only the second career diplomat to encumber this position. U/S Kennedy’s departure is a major change, however, it is not unexpected.

The “M” family of offices is the train that runs the State Department, it also affects every part of employees lives in the agency. But there are 13 offices under the “M” group.  Four departures this week including Kennedy, plus two previous ones do not make the “entire” senior management.  If there are other retirements we are not hearing, let us know.  But as one former senior State Department official told us  too much hyperventilation at the moment “is distracting from things that really are problematic.”  

The challenge now for Mr. Tillerson who we expect will be confirmed as the 69th Secretary of State next week, is to find the right successor to lead the “M” group.  We hope he picks one who knows the levers and switches in Foggy Bottom and not one who will get lost in the corridors.

Update: Via CNN “Any implication that that these four people quit is wrong,” one senior State Department official said. “These people are loyal to the secretary, the President and to the State Department. There is just not any attempt here to dis the President. People are not quitting and running away in disgust. This is the White House cleaning house.”

Update: Statement from Mark Toner, Acting Spokesperson:

“As is standard with every transition, the outgoing administration, in coordination with the incoming one, requested all politically appointed officers submit letters of resignation. The Department encourages and advocates for senior officers to compete for high level offices in the Department. These positions are political appointments, and require the President to nominate and the Senate to confirm them in these roles. They are not career appointments but of limited term. Of the officers whose resignations were accepted, some will continue in the Foreign Service in other positions, and others will retire by choice or because they have exceeded the time limits of their grade in service. No officer accepts a political appointment with the expectation that it is unlimited. And all officers understand that the President may choose to replace them at any time. These officers have served admirably and well. Their departure offers a moment to consider their accomplishments and thank them for their service.”

#

Dear @StateDept, You Need Bond. Michele Bond at the Daily Press Briefing

Posted: 4:08 am EDT

 

In case you missed this:

 

We’ve just read the Daily Press Briefing from last week with the press corps asking questions about K-1 visas related to the San Bernardino attack.

Oh, holy mother of goat and her stupid nephews!

It should have been all hands on deck to know absolutely everything about this case.  Instead we have Mark Toner, the deputy spokesperson of the State Department on December 3, either asking to take the question, or guessing his response. “I don’t know “…. “I would presume …”

Then the next day, Elizabeth Trudeau, the Press Office director did the DPB and seriously underwhelmed our video player. She refused to confirm that the K-1 visa was issued in Islamabad, something that Mr. Toner already talked about just the day before. 

Folks, haven’t you learned anything at all?  Anything? It’s not like this case is locked in a file cabinet in the catacombs of Foggy Bottom..  That’s why you have your consular systems.

 

Her name is Bond, Michelle Bond.

The State Department need to put its Consular Affairs Assistant Secretary of State Michele Bond up there at the podium to answer these questions.  Help the journalists understand the K-1 process, and the roles State and DHS play in the systems currently in place.  PA officials who have not done visa work in 15-20 years should not be left on the podium guessing about the process and unable to answer questions about this case.

When the press asks, “Can Americans have confidence in this visa processing system?”, Ms. Bond should be able to say “Absolutely, and here’s why.”  And she should be able to explain clearly the whys.  Hopefully, she’s not going to say because “it’s an adaptable system” or  that “We continue to improve it.” Because people are not really interested whether it’s an adaptable system. They want an assurance that the systems in place work; and if it did not work in the visa issuance process for Tashfeen Malik, they want to know what had been done to update that process.

We were going to suggest that the State Department convene an Accountability Review Board per 12 FAM 030. The ARB Permanent Coordinating Committee, where the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services sits as one of its seven members, by the way, can make that recommendation to the Secretary:

“The ARB process is a mechanism to foster more effective security of U.S. missions and personnel abroad by ensuring a thorough and independent review of security- related incidents. Through its investigations and recommendations, the Board seeks to determine accountability and promote and encourage improved security programs and practices. In addition, the ARB mechanism enhances the integrity of the visa issuing process by determining accountability in certain instances in which terrorist acts in the United States are committed by aliens.”

Except that current regulations are quite clear that “a Board will be convened with respect to a visa incident only if the following three determinations are made:”

(1)  That the incident involved a terrorist act causing serious injury, loss of life, or significant destruction of property in the United States;

(2)  That there is probable cause to believe that a specifically identified alien was a participant in the terrorist act; and

(3)  That the alien was issued a visa on or after May 1, 1996; at the time of visa issuance, the alien’s name was included in the Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS) and that the visa was issued as a result of a failure by the consular officer to adhere to the procedures required to be followed by the inclusion of the name in such visa lookout system.

Since State is confident of its vetting process, it appears right now that subject was not in the CLASS.  Which would make the ARB not a requirement under these regs.

Nonetheless, it would be helpful to know if the State Department has reviewed its internal processes or that it plans to do so. This individual got through  — despite the vetting, the interagency sharing of information, fingerprints, etc, and the face to face interview —  it is not unreasonable to ask how she got in. Maybe there are no cracks, but the public needs to understand the process, which will never with 100% fault-free.

As our consular blog pal told us, “It will never be fault-free because humans aren’t.” People can get away with lying, or can change their minds. Unless the USG has come up with a precognition system similar to Philip K. Dick’s in the Minority Report, there is no way to determine an individual’s action in the future. What do you do with a culprit that has not yet committed a crime? Do you arrest him or her before he/she commits a future crime thereby protecting the public from all prospective harm?  What regulations apply to that?


Daily Press Briefing excerpts:

On December 3, Mr. Toner, the State Department’s deputy spox took a stab at the K-1 questions.  If you want to beat your head against the wall, hard … well, we can understand the feeling, but wear your helmet first, okay?

QUESTION: — of the suspects in the San Bernardino mass shooting that happened yesterday? There are various statements and reports out there about Tashfeen Malik, the alleged female shooter suspect who was killed yesterday. Some are saying that she lived in Saudi Arabia before coming to the U.S. And what I wonder is the extent to which the State Department has been pulled into this investigation. Can you give us some kind of guidance on whether those reports are accurate? And if so, what type of visa was she in the United States on? Is there anything about the citizenship status of her that you can share with us?

MR TONER: Sure. Well, since it’s already been reported out in the press, I can confirm that she did receive or was issued a K-1 so-called fiancee visa, I believe in 2012. Is that correct? 2015 – 2000 – help me here. Okay, we’ll get that number for you. Unfortunately, it’s not in front of me here. But she did receive that from Pakistan. That allowed her to travel here to the United States.
[….]
QUESTION: Does that require an interview?

MR TONER: If that petition is approved, the case is forwarded to the U.S. consulate abroad in order to verify the qualifying relationship and vet the applicant for any derogatory information. I’m virtually sure that, as in any visa – as in any visa processing, that that involves an interview. I don’t know if —

QUESTION: But not a joint interview, right? They don’t have to appear together at the consular office, wherever that is?

MR TONER: Not – that I’ll have to – I’ll have to take that question. I’m not sure. I’m not sure.

[….]

QUESTION: And can you also check on the – that before getting that given visa, where did they meet? Because I’m not sure, but if I’m remembering correctly, there is a clause that they should have met or like – it’s not just on the —

MR TONER: Again, no, that wouldn’t – so that wouldn’t – again, I would refer those kinds of questions to the FBI who’s conducting the investigation into this.

QUESTION: Well, what happens if they don’t get married within 90 days?

MR TONER: I would presume that the – that would invalidate the visa.

QUESTION: And if – okay. And then if they do, does that mean that the visa is extended or they have to apply for something else?

MR TONER: Unclear to me whether that would be – that would be automatically extended. I would somewhat doubt that. There may be – again, I’m – I’d have to get you the full facts on it. I mean, if there’s extenuating circumstances, perhaps. I don’t know in this particular case and can’t really speak to it, but there’s a 90-day window because there’s a 90-day window. So, I mean —

QUESTION: Right. But one doesn’t automatically become a U.S. citizen —

MR TONER: No, not at all.

QUESTION: — simply because one married one. So clearly —

MR TONER: Not at all. So any individual would have to provide for legal residency or a green card after living here, I guess, in – it’s one year, I think.
[…]

Continue reading

@StateDept Issues Worldwide Travel Alert on Top of Worldwide Caution, Message Fatigue Next?

Posted: 2:03 am EDT

 

On November 23rd, the State Department issued a Worldwide Travel Alert:

Here is part of the Worldwide Caution it issued in July:

The Department of State remains concerned about the continued threat of terrorist attacks, demonstrations, and other violent actions against U.S. citizens and interests overseas. In August 2014, the United States and regional partners commenced military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a designated terrorist organization in Syria and Iraq. In response to the airstrikes, ISIL called on supporters to attack foreigners wherever they are. Authorities believe there is an increased likelihood of reprisal attacks against U.S., Western and coalition partner interests throughout the world, especially in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and Asia.

What’s the difference between a Worldwide Alert and Worldwide Caution?

Alerts are time-bound, true, usually 90 days or less, and expire automatically at the end of the prescribed period unless extended by the Department. Worldwide Caution is updated at least every six months.

The Fear Department is on it:

Here’s more:

#

The Worldwide Travel Alerts and Worldwide Caution are parts of the State Department’s Consular Information Program (CIP). Below from the FAM:

The CIP “is not mandated by statute, but several statutes are relevant to the Department’s performance of this function: Section 505 of the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986 requires the Secretary to notify Congress whenever the Department issues a Travel Warning because of a terrorist threat or other security concern (22 U.S.C. 2656e). Section 321(f) of the Aviation Security Improvement Act of 1990, Public Law 101-604 (49 U.S.C. 44905), prohibits the notification of a civil aviation threat to “only selective potential travelers unless such threat applies only to them.” See 7 FAM 052, No Double Standard Policy. See also 22 CFR 71.1, 22 U.S.C. 2671 (b)(2)(A), 22 U.S.C. 4802, and 22 U.S.C. 211a.”

Information provided is based on our best objective assessment of conditions in a given country, as reported by posts as well as other Department bureaus, media, and other foreign and U.S. government sources. The decision to issue a Travel Alert, Travel Warning, or a Security or Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens for an individual country is based on the overall assessment of the safety/security situation there. By necessity, this analysis must be undertaken without regard to bilateral political or economic considerations. Accordingly, posts must not allow extraneous concerns to color the decision of whether to issue information regarding safety or security conditions in a country, nor how that information is to be presented.

Who is responsible for the issuance of the travel information program?

Within the State Department, that would be the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele T. Bond who is responsible for supervising and managing the travel information program.  But the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Overseas Citizens Services has primary day-to-day supervisory responsibility for the program. That’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Overseas Citizens Services Karen L. Christensen.

Within OCS, Michelle Bernier-Toth, the Managing Director in the Directorate of Overseas Citizens Services (CA/OCS) is responsible for the day-to-day management and issuance of travel information, including coordinating the preparation of all Country Specific Information, Travel Alerts, Travel Warnings, Worldwide Cautions, Messages, and Fact Sheets before their release.

Here are a few things to know about the Travel Alerts:

  • If a threat evaluated as credible, specific, and non-counterable is aimed at a broad group (e.g., U.S. citizens/nationals and/or U.S. interests generally), the Department will authorize the relevant post(s) to issue a Message, and may also issue or update a Travel Alert, Travel Warning, or Worldwide Caution.
  • The Department issues Travel Alerts to disseminate information about short-term conditions, generally within a particular country, that pose imminent risks to the security of U.S. citizens/nationals. Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, coups, anniversaries of terrorist events, election-related demonstrations/violence, and high profile events such as an international conference or regional sports event are examples of conditions that might generate a Travel Alert.
  • Travel Alerts are issued for a specific period, usually 90 days or less, and expire automatically at the end of the prescribed period unless extended by the Department. If conditions warrant, the Department may cancel a Travel Alert before the end of the prescribed period via All Diplomatic and Consular Posts (ALDAC) cable and press release.

According to regs, CA/OCS reviews the Worldwide Caution continually and updates it at least every six months to ensure the most current general and regional safety and security information is shared with the U.S. citizen public.

The State Department admitted that it’s not offering a different advice from what it has been been saying for over 10 years in Worldwide Caution.  And folks have certainly wondered if the threats evaluated in this current Travel Alert are “credible, specific, and non-counterable” as directed by its rules book, or just one more CYA exercise; that is, if CA doesn’t issue a warning/alert and something happens, you already know where the fingers will be pointed, but …

The Worldwide Caution already cites the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and Asia. The Worldwide Alert says that “Authorities believe the likelihood of terror attacks will continue as members of ISIL/Da’esh return from Syria and Iraq.” That’s not a short-term condition. And yet, the alert is only good until February 24, 2016.  If the State Department issues an alert not based on credible and specific threats but simply on a belief that attacks could happen during a specific timeframe, how useful is that really?

The other concern, of course, is message fatigue. How long before folks stop taking this seriously?

#

Consular Affairs Bureau Seeks to Expand Visa Waiver and Interview Waiver Programs

— Domani Spero

 

The State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs retired last April (see Asst Secretary for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs to Retire Effective April 3).  As far as we know, no successor has been nominated to date.  Pardon me? You want ……..? And you want Overseas Citizens Services DAS Jim Pettit?  Excuse me, Mr. Pettit was already nominated as Ambassador to the Republic of Moldova.  Who else?  You want ……. ? Well, maybe State should have a list of nominees and have all CA employees vote for their next boss per the bureau’s Leadership Tenets. Because wouldn’t that be a screamingly fantastic experiment?

In any case, CA’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Michele Bond has been the Acting A/S since April 2014.  This past June, at a hearing at the Senate Subcommittee on Tourism, Competitiveness and Innovation on  The State of U.S. Travel and Tourism Industry, Ms. Bond discussed how the bureau is meeting increasing demand for visas worldwide, particularly in  Brazil, India, Mexico and China (see prepared statement). Stressing that the State Department’s  “top priority in visa adjudication is always national security,” the prepared statement provides a look at where the bureau is seeking to expand.   Specifically, it seeks legislative authority to expand the Interview Waiver Program and wanted to see an expanded  Visa Waiver Program to include additional countries to the 37 current participants.  The  Interview Waiver Program (visa applications without personal appearances) is potentially controversial given its history, and probably the reason the bureau is seeking legislative authority from Congress.

Below are excerpts from the prepared statement:

Consular Adjudicators

In 2013, Brazilian visitors contributed $10.5 billion to the U.S. economy, a 13 percent increase from the prior year.  During the same period, Chinese visitors contributed $9.8 billion, an 11 percent increase from the prior year, or $5,400 per visitor.  To address this important opportunity to contribute to our country’s economy, 167 officers perform consular work in Mission China.  Consular Affairs created over 50 new officer positions in China in fiscal year 2012 alone.  In the same year, we increased consular staffing in Mission Brazil by 40 percent within six months, and eventually increased staffing by more than 100 percent.  We met the President’s Executive Order target of 40 percent capacity increase in Brazil in June 2012 and in China in November 2012, both ahead of schedule.
[…]

In 2011, we realized our traditional hiring mechanisms wouldn’t allow us to deploy officers quickly enough to meet exploding visa demand in Brazil and China. We weren’t recruiting enough Portuguese- and Mandarin-speaking officers and could not wait for new entry-level officers to learn these essential languages.  In response, the Department created a rapid hiring pilot program to ramp up staffing at critical needs posts.  These adjudicators met a high bar for qualifications and underwent a rigorous screening process to assess their skills and background for these positions.  The first class of these adjudicators, appointed for one-year periods and limited to a maximum of five consecutive years, began in January 2012.  That year, we brought on a total of 24 Mandarin-speakers and 19 Portuguese-speakers, all of whom arrived at posts by mid-July.  In fiscal year 2013, we expanded the program to recruit Spanish-speakers.  To date, we have hired and deployed 59 adjudicators under this program to China, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, representing an added capacity of 900,000 visa adjudications per year.

Interview Waiver Program

We are utilizing technology and advanced fraud detection techniques to help us expand the pool of applicants for whom interviews can be waived under the Interview Waiver Program.  This allows us to focus resources on higher-risk visa applicants while facilitating travel for low-risk applicants.

We are working with our colleagues across the government to expand this successful program, which became permanent in January 2014.  In fiscal year 2013, we waived over 380,000 interviews, and a recent study showed that tourist and business visitor visa holders whose interviews were waived, all of whom were subject to the full scope of security checks, posed no greater risk for an overstay than those who were interviewed.  We are interested in explicit legislative authority to supplement the existing Interview Waiver Program by adding additional low-risk applicant groups such as citizens of Visa Waiver Program members applying for other types of visas such as student or work visas; continuing students moving to a higher level of education; non-U.S. citizen Global Entry and NEXUS trusted traveler program members; and holders of visas in other categories, such as students and workers, who wish to travel for tourism or business.  The Department is interested in working with Congress on legislation specifically authorizing the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security to enhance our interview waiver programs.

Visa Waiver Program

[W]e are working with our U.S. government colleagues to expand the Visa Waiver Program, consistent with U.S. law, as was recently done with the addition of Chile to the program earlier this year.  With this designation, Chile now joins 37 other participants and is currently the only participant from Latin America.  The Department supports the proposed amendments contained in the Senate-passed Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, because we believe they would restructure the Visa Waiver Program in a manner that would strengthen law enforcement cooperation, while maintaining the program’s robust counterterrorism and criminal information sharing initiatives and promoting commerce and tourism in the United States.

No to Premium Visa Processing

However, we do not recommend offering premium visa processing.  We believe many visa applicants would be willing to pay any “premium processing fee” in the false belief that payment of a higher fee will ensure visa issuance, thus making any such program less efficient and compromising the integrity of the visa process.  The best approach to achieve greater efficiencies is the continued prioritization of student, medical, and urgent business travel applications, which is already in effect at consular posts worldwide.  We will also pursue increased visa validity where reciprocal agreement can be obtained with interagency support.

The full statement is available here.

 * * *

 

State Dept’s Critical National Security Database Crashes, Melts Global Travelers’ Patience

— Domani Spero

 

The first announcement about the troubled Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) went out on Wednesday, July 23:

The Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs is currently experiencing technical problems with our passport/visa system.  This issue is worldwide and is not specific to any particular country, citizenship document, or visa category.  We apologize to applicants who are experiencing delays or are unable to obtain a passport, Consular Report of Birth Abroad, or visa at this time. We are working urgently to correct the problem and expect our system to be fully operational again soon.

The AP reported on July 23 that unspecified glitches have resulted in performance issues since Saturday, which would be July 19.

On July 25, CA announced:” Our visa and passport processing systems are now operational, however they are working at limited capacity. We are still working to correct the problem and expect to be fully operational soon.”

A State Department official speaking on background told us the same day that this issue was not/not caused by  hackers. We were told that the CCD crashed shortly after maintenance was performed and that the root cause of the problem is not yet known.

On July 27, CA released an update:

As of July 27, the Department of State has made continued progress on restoring our system to full functionality. As we restore our ability to print visas, we are prioritizing immigrant cases, including adoptions visas. System engineers are performing maintenance to address the problems we encountered. As system performance improves, we will continue to process visas at U.S. Embassies and Consulates worldwide. We are committed to resolving the problem as soon as possible. Additional updates will be posted to travel.state.gov as more information becomes available.

On July 29, CA posted this on FB:

The Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs continues to make progress restoring our nonimmigrant visa system to full functionality. Over the weekend, the Department of State implemented system changes aimed at optimizing performance and addressing the challenges we have faced. We are now testing our system capacity to ensure stability. Processing of immigrant visas cases, including adoptions, remains a high priority. Some Embassies and Consulates may temporarily limit or reschedule nonimmigrant visa interview appointments until more system resources become available to process these new applications. We sincerely regret the inconvenience to travelers, and are committed to resolving the problem as soon as possible. Additional updates will be posted to travel.state.gov as more information becomes available.

 

The CA Bureau’s Facebook page has been inundated with comments. There were complaints that at one post the visas were printing fine and then they were not. There were complains from people waiting for visas for adopted kids, for fiancees, for family members, for family waiting at the border, for students anxious to get to their schools, people worried about time running out for diversity visas, applicants with flights already booked, and many more.  One FB commenter writes, “I feel that the problem most people have is not that the system broke, but the lack of clear, meaningful information so people can make appropriate plans.

Other than what the CA Bureau chose to tell us, we cannot pry any substantial detail from official sources.  We, however, understand from sources familiar with the system but not authorized to speak for the bureau that the CCD has been having problems for sometime but it got worse in the last couple weeks.   If you’re familiar with the highs and lows of visa operation, this will not be altogether surprising.  Whatever problems already existed in the system prior to this “glitch” could have easily been exacerbated in July, which is the middle of the peak travel season worldwide. A source working in one of our consular posts confirmed to us that the system is back running, but not at the normal level and that the backlogs are building up. Another source told us that Beijing already had a 15k NIV backlog over the weekend.  We haven’t yet heard what are the backlogs like in mega visa-issuing posts like Brazil, Mexico and India.

We understand that everyone is currently doing all they can to get the process moving, but that some cases are getting through the system, while some are not. No one seems to know why this is happening. These machine readable visas are tied to the system and there are no manual back-ups for processing these cases (more of that below).

 

So who owns CCD?

The Consular Systems and Technology (CA/CST) manages the CCD.  We have previously blogged about its troubled past:

CST is currently headed by a new Director, Greg D Ambrose who reports to the CA Bureau’s Assistant Secretary.  It looks like despite the 2011 OIG recommendation, the CST deputy position remains vacant. We should also note that the  Asst Secretary for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs retired this past April.  No replacement has been nominated to-date and Michele T. Bond has been Acting Assistant Secretary since Ms. Jacobs’ departure.

Last September, Mr. Ambrose was with FedScoopTV and talked about Consular One, the future of consular IT.

 

CST Just Got a New Data Engineering Contract

In Many 2014, ActioNet, Inc., headquartered in Vienna, Virginia,announced a 5-year task order for data engineering, supporting CST.

ActioNet, Inc. announced today the award of a five (5)-year task order entitled Data Engineering (DE) in support of Department of State (DOS). This task order will provide data engineering and database infrastructure support services necessary for planning, analysis, design, and implementation services for the Bureau of Consular Affairs.  These service also include contract and program management support to ensure that innovation, efficiency, and cost control practices are built into the program. […] The Office of Consular Systems and Technology (CST) within the Bureau develops, deploys and maintains the unclassified and classified IT infrastructures that help execute these missions. The Bureau currently manages over 800 servers worldwide, in order to comply with the fast paced changes inherent to data processing and telecommunications, CST requires that contractor services provide for rapid provisioning of highly experienced and trained individuals with the IT (information technology) backgrounds and the security clearances required of CA’s environment of workstation-based local and wide-area network infrastructures.

Due to limited information available, we don’t know if the new Consular One and/or the new DE contract are related to ongoing issues or if there are hardware issues, given the multiple legacy systems, but we do know that CST has both an impressive and troubled history. Let’s take a look.


Records Growing by the Day

The 2010 Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) describes (pdf) the CCD as “one of the largest Oracle based data warehouses in the world that holds current and archived data from the Consular Affairs (CA) domestic and post databases around the world.”  According to the PIA, in December 2009, the CCD contained over 100 million visa cases and 75 million photographs, utilizing billions of rows of data, and has a current growth rate of approximately 35 thousand visa cases every day. The 2011 OIG report says that in 2010, the CCD contained over 137 million American and foreign case records and over 130 million photographs and is growing at approximately 40,000 visa and passport cases every day.

That was almost four years ago.


A Critical Operational and National Security Database with No Back-Up System?

According to publicly available information, the CCD’s chief functions are 1) to support data delivery to approved applications via industry-standard Web Service queries, 2) provide users with easy-to-use data entry interfaces to CCD, and 3) allow emergency recovery of post databases.  The CCD also serves as a gateway to IDENT and IAFIS fingerprint checking databases, the Department of State Facial Recognition system, and the NameCheck system. It  provides access to passport data in Travel Document Issuance System (TDIS), Passport Lookout Tracking System (PLOTS), and Passport Information Electronic Records System (PIERS).  The OIG says that the CCD serves 11,000 users in the Department and more than 19,000 users in other agencies, primarily the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and various law enforcement elements, and is accessed more than 120 million times every month.

Given that the CCD is considered “a critical operational and national security database,” there is surprisingly no redundancies or any back-up system.


Resurrect the Standard Register protectograph aka: `Burroughs visas’?

No one is actually suggesting that but when the CCD system is down, there is no manual way to issue a visa. No post can  handprint visas  because security measures prevent consular officers from printing a visa unless it is approved through the database system. Here is a quick history of the handprinted ‘Burroughs visas’ and the machine readable visas via the GPO:

November 18, 1988, mandated the development of a machine-readable travel and identity document to improve border entry and departure control using an automated data-capture system. As a result, the Department developed the Machine Readable Visa, a durable, long-lasting adhesive foil made out of Teslin.

Before MRVs, nonimmigrant visas were issued using a device called a Standard Register protectograph, otherwise known as a Burroughs certifier machine. It produced what was colloquially known as a “Burroughs visa,” an indelible ink impression mechanically stamped directly onto a page in the alien’s passport. Over time, Burroughs machines were gradually replaced by MRV technology, which is now used exclusively by all nonimmigrant visa issuing posts throughout the world.

Burroughs visas contained a space in which a consular employee was required to write the name of the alien to whom the visa was being issued. An alien’s passport might also include family members, such as a spouse, or children, who also had to be listed on the visa. In March 1983, in order to expedite the issuance of nonimmigrant visas and to improve operational efficiency, the Department authorized the use of a “bearer(s)” stamp for certain countries so that consular officers would not have to spend time writing in the applicant’s name (and those of accompanying family members). MRVs, however, must be issued individually to qualified aliens. Consequently, the “bearer”annotation has become obsolete.

The problem with the old Burroughs machine, besides the obvious, was maybe — you run out of ink, the plates are ruined/broken or you need it oiled. We could not remember those breaking down. With the MRV technology, all posts are connected to a central database, and the new machines by themselves cannot issue visas.  Which brings us to the security of that system.

 

Management Alert on Information System Security Program

The State Department PIA says that “To appropriately safeguard the information, numerous management, operational, and technical security controls are in place in accordance with the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) of 2002 and information assurance standards published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).” Must be why in November 2013, the Office of the Inspector General issued a Management Alert  for significant and recurring weaknesses found in the State Department’s Information System Security Program over the past three fiscal years (FY 2011-2013).

In 2011, State/OIG also issued a report on CA’s CST division and has, what appears to be a lengthy discussion of the CCD, but almost all of it but a paragraph had been redacted:

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 8.40.37 AM

That OIG report also includes a discussion of the Systems Development Life Cycle Process and notes that decision control gates within CST’s SDLC process are weak. It cites a couple of examples where this manifested: 1) the development of the Consular report of Birth Abroad (CRBA) system. “The ownership of development and deployment shifted throughout the process, and the business unit’s requirements were not clearly communicated to the development team. As a result, CST designed and tested the CRBA for a printer that did not match the printer model identified and procured by the business unit;” 2)  the Crisis Task Force application, for which CST was tasked to enhance its Web-facing interaction. “The deployment of this application has been challenged by the lack of project ownership and decision controls, as well as by the incomplete requirements definition. The use of incorrect scripts that were provided by the CM group has further delayed the Crisis Task Force application’s deployment.”

 

If there’s somethin’ strange in your CCD, who ya gonna call? (Glitchbusters!)

The Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) is central to all consular operations. It is run by CST where according to the OIG, “the smooth functioning of every part of the office depends on its contractors.” And because it runs such an important element of U.S. national security systems, if all CST’s contractors, all 850 of them quit, this critical consular data delivery to the State Department and other Federal agencies would screech to a a halt.

To carry out its mandate, CST must provide uninterrupted support to 233 overseas posts, 21 passport agencies, 2 passport processing centers, and other domestic facilities, for a total of 30,000 end users across 16 Federal agencies and in nearly every country. CST faces 24/7/365 service requirements, as any disruption in automated support brings operations to an immediate halt, with very serious implications for travelers and the U.S. image.
[…]
CST is led by a director and is staffed by 68 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees (62 Civil Service and 6 Foreign Service). There are 12 positions (3 Foreign Service and 9 Civil Service) currently vacant. CA recently authorized CST 19 additional FTE positions. There are also more than 850 contractors operating under nearly 30 different contracts. In FY 2010, CST’s annual operating budget was approximately $266 million.

If CCD is compromised for a lengthy period such as the last couple of weeks, what is the back up plan to keep the operation going?  Obviously, none. It’s either down or running under limited or full capacity.  No one we know remember CCD problems persist this long.  Right now, we know from a reliable source that the system is not down, and some cases and going through but — what if the CCD is completely down for two weeks … four weeks … wouldn’t international travel come to a slow stop?

What if CCD goes down indefinitely whether by hardware or software glitch or through malicious penetration by foreign hackers, what happens then?

Currently, it appears nothing can be done but for folks to be patient and wait until the fixes are in.  We know they’re working hard at it but there’s got to be a better way.   Perhaps we can also agree that this has very serious national security implications on top of disgruntled travelers and a grave impact on the U.S. image overseas.

 

 Related items:

May 2011 |  Inspection of The Bureau of Consular Affairs, Office of Consular Systems and Technology (CST) Report Number ISP-I-11-51

-11/30/13   Audit of Department of State Information Security Program (FISMA) (AUD-IT-14-03)  [3610 Kb]  Posted January 29th, 2014

-01/13/14   Management Alert on OIG Findings of Significant, Recurring Weaknesses in Dept of State Info System Security Program (MA-A-0001)  [6298 Kb]  Posted on January 16, 2014

 

 Related articles