So CA/OCS May Survive a Funding Crunch Only to Fall Apart at the Seams?

 

The largest public facing bureau of the State Department is the Bureau of Consular Affairs. For those who may need more familiarity, the major sub-divisions within this bureau are passport services (PPT), visa services (VO) and overseas citizen services (OCS). The identification and repatriation of remains of Americans overseas are handled by OCS. Evacuations of American citizens during natural disasters and civil unrest are also handled by OCS.  When somebody goes missing overseas, or becomes a victim of crime, these cases are handled by CA/OCS. In addition to the recent Afghanistan evacuations, the bureau also managed the massive COVID repatriation around the globe.
Consular operations are mostly fee-based; you pay for visa processing, passport issuance, notarial services and so on.  With the Trump travel bans and the subsequent COVID travel restrictions, passport and visa fee collection significantly cratered. At the same time, CA undertook two massive repatriation and evacuation.
In a congressional hearing in 2020, the State Department projected a $1.4 BILLION loss which was about 50 percent of Consular Affair’s revenue in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2020. It also projected comparable losses in FY2021 and FY2022. We’re sure the numbers are available internally, but we have yet to see publicly the cost of the global COVID repatriation and the Afghanistan evacuation.
During that same 2020 hearing, CA’s top official told Congress that services for American citizens “will not be put out of business.” We’re now wondering if the OCS directorate was saved from the funding crunch only to fall apart at the seams. Let’s consider a few things that we’ve learned:
STAFFING
–The Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (CA/OCS – DAS) recently sent a memo to staff acknowledging that the long hours and lack of sleep has taken an “unacceptable health toll”.
— The  Director of the Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management (CA/OCS/ACS) abruptly retired, reportedly one year into a two year tour and only months after making the Senior Foreign Service.
— The Managing Director of CA/OCS took a week off after acknowledging to the staff that the MD’s well-being had been put at risk, and indicated the need for some time off “to regroup.”
— Several of the staff who flew into Afghanistan are reportedly still struggling with what they saw.
— Staffers who made the thousands of phone calls to US citizens in Afghanistan have reportedly been traumatized by what they hear.
— During the inbound call phase early in the operation these staffers reportedly “suffered abuse at the hands of the US public, self-identified military callers who blamed the Task Force for Afghans left behind, and congressional staff who called in to yell at phone bank workers.”
A FOREVER TASK FORCE AFTER THE END OF A FOREVER WAR
— The Task Force continues – until when?
— “We are still staffing 24 hour task force support, which is just wearing people out.”
LEADERSHIP OBSESSES OVER NUMBERS AS EXHAUSTION BITES
— The Leadership is reportedly “totally focused” on the numbers. “All that matters in the Bureau is the number of people called, put on lists, and flown out.  Getting everyone out who wants out is a great goal, but from the top it is clearly just numbers.”
— “A/S and PDAS are only focused on this, basically never in SA17. Everyone is exhausted.”
— Somebody noted to us that “The idea that “around 100″ citizens remain in Afghanistan is absurd, as we never knew how many were there in the first place. And if it is such a low number who are posts from Mexico to Pakistan calling?”  Initially these posts were apparently calling the same folks who had reached out to the US over and over to try to determine who is ready to go. It was relayed to us that most of the times, State didn’t actually have a flight for them to get on or a solution to their problems (no passport, can’t leave family), leading to some testy exchanges.
— Department leadership allegedly “appears blind to the fact that the obsession with getting the number of American Citizens  in Afghanistan to zero has crippled OCS.”
For those who agree that the US should rightfully obsess in a zero AmCit number in Afghanistan, we should point out that the United States left thousands of U.S. citizens stranded in Yemen in 2015 and the show ponies in Congress did not care to interrupt their beauty sleep. (see Stranded in Yemen: Americans left to find own way out, but exactly how many more AmCits are left there?Yemen Non-Evacuation: Court Refuses to Second-Guess Discretionary Foreign Policy DecisionsFor U.S. Citizens in Yemen, a New Website and a New Hashtag Shows Up: #StuckInYemen).
REALITY CHECK
— “CA is ill prepared to continue on this path, and a second major crisis would be almost impossible for the Bureau to address.”
— “CA and OCS people need a break.”
— “COVID is still an issue around the world, regular OCS work doesn’t go away, so fewer people have to handle that and these are the same people that did the COVID repatriations.”
— “It’s not just OCS though, the SIV cases are still out there, and posts everywhere are short staffed, tired, and working under a variety of local restrictions”
— “CA needs what it always needs: money, staff, training, and a Department leadership that values more than a visa referral or a quote for the Secretary.”
Well, now you know.
How soon before we hear about the leadership tenets and taking care of people?

 

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US Embassy Beirut: A Form Letter Response, Please, That’s Cold

Posted: 2:50 am EDT
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The US Embassy in Damascus, Syria suspended its operations on February 6, 2012, and is not open for normal consular services.  The Travel Warning for Syria was last updated on August 27, 2015. Yes, these folks should have left Syria when it was still a possibility, but they probably knew that already, and blaming them now is not going to help. For folks interested in learning what the U.S. Government can and cannot do in a crisis overseas, please click here.

Look, we understand that there is not much that the USG can do in terms of consular services in an active war zone.  But. While it may not be much, forwarding the inquiry in this case to the U.S. Interests Section of the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Damascus might have, at a minimum, alerted the Section of this family’s existence.  Two, when one is in a life and death situation, receiving a form letter from the U.S. government is probably one of the coldest manifestation of the bureaucracy.

The Government of the Czech Republic serves as the protecting power for U.S. interests in Syria. U.S. citizens in Syria who seek consular services should contact the U.S. Interests Section of the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Damascus at USIS_damascus@embassy.mzv.cz. U.S. citizens in Syria who are in need of emergency assistance in Syria and are unable to reach the U.S. Interests Section of the Embassy of the Czech Republic or must make contact outside business hours, should contact the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan: AmmanACS@state.gov; +(962) (6) 590-6500.

 

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