Is State/OBO’s Intense Focus on Design Excellence Driving Engineering Employees Away?

Posted: 1:22 am EDT
Updated: April 16, 2015, 7:42 pm PDT
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Last week, there was a Burn Bag submission we posted on the many losses in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations’ engineering staff.  We’re republishing it below, as well as reblogging a post from The Skeptical Bureaucrat. Maybe this would help save the State Department leadership from having to say later on that no one made them aware of this issue.

We’re actually considering sending a love note to the 7th floor. Something like, “Hey, subscribe to Diplopundit. You may not always like what you read but we’ll tell you what do not always want to hear.” Or something like that.

On second thought, maybe we shouldn’t. They might decide to go back to just Internet Explorer and then all of our readers there won’t be able to read this blog ever again. In any case, here is that burn bag submission, repeated for emphasis:

Is the State Department leadership aware that there have been many losses of OBO [Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations] engineers in the last 18 months, leaving more than a 20% deficit (OBO words via email, not mine) in engineering staff, with more contemplating separation? Does it care?


Below from The Skeptical Bureaucrat: Have Hard Hat, Will Travel (used with permission):

Diplopundit’s Burn Bag entry about OBO’s losses in engineering employees made me think back to the retirements and resignations I’ve noticed among my good friends in Overseas Buildings Operations over the last couple years. Yeah, I think there is indeed a pattern there.

A demoralization among OBO’s engineers would kind of make sense in the context of OBO’s overwhelming focus on Design Excellence, or, to use the new name for it, Just Plain Excellence. (The word “design” was dropped from the program’s name about one day after the disastrous House Oversight Committee hearing in which OBO’s Director and Deputy Director were severely criticized for favoring artsy & expensive embassy office buildings over functional & sensibly-priced ones.) In a Design Excellence organization, the architects are firmly in charge and the engineers will always play second fiddle.

According to the Burn Bag information, OBO has lost about 20 percent of its engineering staff. There is substantiation for that claim in the current USAJobs open announcement for Foreign Service Construction Engineers, which says OBO has “many vacancies” in that field:

Job Title: Foreign Service Construction Engineer
Department: Department Of State
Agency: Department of State
Agency Wide Job Announcement Number: CON-2015-0002

MANY vacancies – Washington DC,

A Foreign Service Construction Engineer (FSCE) is an engineer or architect, in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations working specifically in the Office of Construction Management, responsible for managing Department of State construction projects overseas. The FSCE is a member of a U.S. Government team that ensures construction is professionally performed according to applicable plans, specifications, schedules, and standards. The FSCE must adhere to the highest standards of integrity, dependability, attention to detail, teamwork and cooperation while accepting the need to travel, to live overseas, and when necessary, to live away from family.

Those vacancies are for permanent, direct-hire, Foreign Service employees. In addition, there were also personal service contractor vacancies for OBO engineers announced on five days ago. That one is looking for General Engineers, Mechanical Engineers, and Civil/Structural Engineers.

Why isn’t there also a need for Electrical Engineers? After all, you can’t spell Geek without two Es.

It looks like engineers are indeed exiting OBO in large numbers. Why that is, I can’t be sure. But I have to think it is not a good thing for my friends in OBO.


Sources tell us that William Miner, the director of the OBO’s design and engineering office was one of those who left in the last 18 months and Patrick Collins, the chief architect retired in January this year. 

The USAjobs announcement cited by TSB does not indicate how many vacancies OBO plans to fill.  In addition to the open vacancies for Foreign Service Construction Engineers, also has one vacancy for a Supervisory Engineer (DEU) and one vacancy for Supervisory Architect (DEU).  The announcement linked to above includes full-time, non-permanent-temporary non-status jobs with initial 1 year appointment renewable for 4 years. All must be able to obtain and maintain a Top Secret security clearance. Oh, and relocation expenses will NOT be paid.

About OBO

 These are the jobs advertised via


A  2013 HR stats indicate that OBO has 81 construction engineers including 10 who are members of the Senior Foreign Service (SFS).  Those numbers are, obviously, outdated now.   And we’re not sure what “more than 20% deficit” actually means in actual staffing numbers. But if we take a fifth from that HR stats, that’s about 16 engineers gone who must be replaced not just in the staffing chart but also in various construction projects overseas.

Even if OBO can ramp up its hiring the next 12 months, it will still have the challenge of bridging the experience gap. A kind of experience that you can’t reconstruct or replicate overnight unless OBO has an implantable chip issued together with badges for new engineers. Experience takes time, time that OBO does not have in great abundance. Experience that OBO also needs to rebuild every five years since in some of these cases, the new hires are on limited non-career appointments that do not exceed five years.

According to OBO, the State Department is entering an overseas construction program of unprecedented scale in the history of the bureau.  What might also be unprecedented is OBO engineers running out the door in droves.

Why is this happening? We can’t say for sure but …

  • We’ve heard allegations that an official has “run people out of the Department with his/her histrionic behaviors” and other unaddressed issues in the workplace that have generated complaints from staff but remained unresolved.
  • There are also allegations of “poor treatment” of OBO employees and families while in the Department or even when trying to separate.
  • One commenter to the Burn Bag post writes about problems within the Department of “an extreme lack of planning which will have caused our children to attend three schools in three countries just this year alone.”
  • Another commenter writes, “I know it’s TRUE, because I recently departed. Somewhere along the way OBO decided that Design Excellence meant more architecture and less engineering.”
Foggy Bottom, you’ve got a problem. People do not just quit their jobs and the security that goes with it for no reason. Somebody better be home to fix this before it gets much worse.

18 State Dept Accountability Review Boards Convened Since 1986 – Only Two Publicly Available

We recently located a GAO report (see State Department Has Not Fully Implemented Key Measures to Protect U.S. Officials from Terrorist Attacks Outside of Embassies GAO-05-642, May 2005) listing the previous Accountability Review Boards convened  from 1986 when the ARB was first mandated under the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986. As of March 2005 when the GAO report was made, 11 Accountability Review Boards had been convened. Of that 11 ARBs, five investigations have focused on attacks of U.S. officials on their way to work. The remaining remaining six ARBs were on attacks against U.S. facilities.

1.  Honduras.  April 1988 attack on U.S. facilities in Honduras

2.  Greece. June 1988 assassination of a post official in Greece

3.  Philippines. April 1989 assassination of a post official in the Philippines

4. Bolivia. 1990 attack on a U.S. facility in Bolivia

5.  Peru.  1992 attack on the Ambassador’s residence in Peru

6. Saudi Arabia. 1995 attack on a U.S. facility in Saudi Arabia

7. Pakistan. March 1995 assassination of two post officials in Pakistan  (Karachi, ARB convened 4/1995)

8. Kenya and Tanzania. 1998 bombings of U.S embassies in Kenya and Tanzania
(unclassified report available online)

9. Jordan. October 2002 assassination of a post official in Jordan
(On 27 Jan 2003, an Accountability Review Board was convened for the Murder of Laurence Foley, USAID Official in Amman, Jordan)

10. Gaza.  October 2003 assassination in Gaza of three post contractors from Israel.
(ARB completed in 2004)

We dug up some more from the Federal Register last year.  Two other ARBs (noted below) were located by The Skeptical Bureaucrat.  The State Dept said that there had been 18 ARBs convened since the statute was passed. We only have 16 on this list. Do feel free to add in the comment section if you know about the other two ARBs unlisted here.

11. Iraq.  On February 28, 2005 Convening an Accountability Review Board for the November 24, 2004 Murder of Mr. James C. Mollen, an Employee of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq (h/t The Skeptical Bureaucrat)

12.  Saudi Arabia.  On 11 Mar 2005, the Accountability Review Board for the December 6, 2004 Attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
(Review of Department of State Implementation of Jeddah Accountability Review Board of Recommendation to Consider Remote Safe Areas at Missions Worldwide, OIG, March 2013)

13. Iraq. On May 10, 2005 Convening an Accountability Review Board for the January 29, 2005, Rocket Attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, Which Caused the Deaths of LCDR Keith Taylor, USN, and Ms. Barbara Heald. (h/t The Skeptical Bureaucrat)

14. Iraq. On 8 December 2005, the Accountability Review Board to Examine the Circumstances of the Death of DS Special Agent Stephen Sullivan and Seven Security Contractors in September 2005 in Iraq.

In October 2005 ARB Exemption for incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq: Pursuant to Public Law 109-140 and Public Law 111-117, the Secretary of State is not required to convene a Board in the case of an incident involving serious injury, loss of life, or significant destruction of property at or related to a U.S. Government mission in Afghanistan or Iraq and which occurs in the period beginning on October 1, 2005 and ending on September 30, 2010 ( see 12 FAM 033.1)

15.  Pakistan.  On May 2006  an Accountability Review Board To Examine the Circumstances of the Death of David E. Foy and Mr. Iftikhar Ahmed in March 2006, Karachi, Pakistan

16. Sudan.  On 14 April 2008, Secretary Rice convened an ARB to Examine the Circumstances of the Death of John M. Granville and Abdelrahman Abees in Khartoum, Sudan in January 2008.

17. Pakistan.  On 22 October 2010, Secretary Clinton convened the first ARB during her tenure relating to the Death of Three DoD Personnel Assigned to the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Defense Representative Pakistan (ODRP) on February 3, 2010

18.  Libya. On October 4, 2012, Secretary Clinton convened the Accountability Review Board to Examine the Circumstances Surrounding the Deaths of personnel assigned in support of the U.S. Government mission to Libya in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012
(unclassified report available online)

As far as we are able to tell, the OIG had only twice previously reviewed the ARB recommendations  and  both were on ARB Jeddah.  In February 2009, the OIG reviewed the State Dept’s progress towards the installation of mantraps at U.S. diplomatic posts worldwide. Not clear from the 2-page report if this was one of the recommendations by ARB Jeddah but the 2004 incident, according to the IG, prompted the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS), in coordination with the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) to initiate a program to install pedestrian barriers, or “mantraps,” at all diplomatic posts worldwide.

On April 15, 2013, a 5-page IG report dated March 31, 2013 on the “Review of Department of State Implementation of Jeddah Accountability Review Board of Recommendation to Consider Remote Safe Areas at Missions Worldwide” was posted online.

We don’t know what type of classification these ARBs carry, but if the intent of having an accountability review is to learn the lessons from these attacks, it seems odd that the ARBs even from the 1980s are still under wraps.  We understand that the non-public reports are not even available to DS agents and Regional Security officers.  How can that be?


Thanks to TSB and A.Cog for helping us complete this list!  

— DS



In the post-Benghazi bureaucratic world — going forward. To where?

TSB over at The Skeptical Bureaucrat noticed the words being bandied about in the post-Benghazi bureaucratic world:

“Going forward” was the phrase we heard over and over at last month’s hearings. Will embassy security get better “going forward” after Benghazi? Will any real improvements come out of that disaster?
According to Hillary’s letter to Congress, the Department will now prioritize resources on a list of about twenty specially designated high threat posts. All well and good. But, if the next attack happens at one of those posts, will we then blame middle managers in an office annex in Rosslyn for not having sent more money and manpower to High Threat Post A and less to HT Posts B and C? And if the next attack happens at one of the 250 or so other diplomatic missions in the world, will we blame the same managers for not having upgraded Post D to the high threat group? And won’t every post in the world request every security measure it can think of “going forward” after Benghazi? Yes, yes, and yes. We can prioritize by risk, or we can cover our bureaucratic asses by spreading resources around evenly, but we can’t do both at the same time.

By the way, what’s up with that very odd term being used to describe those posts of special concern? High threat posts? As Diplopundit has noted, they are not literally the Department’s high threat level posts, and the criteria for designating them has not been explained, so far as I know. The ARB used the phrase “high risk/high threat” posts but that’s no better, not to mention kind of incoherent if you are a stickler for risk management definitions, since “threat” is only a component of “risk.”

Why isn’t the Department using the perfectly good term “Special Conditions” posts? That’s already an established category of diplomatic post with its own special rules for applying security standards and providing resources under extreme conditions. You can find it in 12 FAM 057.3, which the department has made publicly available here. That would be a step forward in terms of clarity, at least.

Read in full, The Skeptical Bureaucrat on Risk Management “Going Forward.”

You betcha every post in the world will have their requests down in bold, dark ink. Especially, if they are a designated danger post but not on the newly designated “high threat” list.  Then the somebodies will be on record approving or denying such and such request.  But you know, the request was on record when Ambassador Bushnell made her request on behalf of the US Embassy in Nairobi.  And there were paper trails and sworn testimonies concerning the requests made for the security in Benghazi.  Yeah. A lot of good it did them.

The other thing we’ve been thinking about on that high threat designation — surely, the people who are intent on doing our people harm are not totally dumb.  Given the opportunity to attack – would they really expend more efforts on those US diplomatic posts already considered “high threat” (what with the accompanying spending for fortifying/protecting those posts)?  If you were in their shoes, wouldn’t you attack targets that are not on those “high threat” list? Because why would you bang yourself against the hard wall when there is a soft wall um, okay, a wall of lesser hardness elsewhere?

By designating those missions as “high threat” posts, is it possible that we have discouraged the attacks against those facilities but have merely shifted the targets to diplomatic posts not on that list?  Okay, think about that for a moment.  There are about 250 posts not/not on that high threat list.


Protecting Diplomats Post-Embassy Attacks: More Fortresses or Rethinking Fortresses?

The Skeptical Bureaucrat in his blog points out that the USG investment in new, secure, embassy buildings paid off very big for those employees who were inside the safe havens in Tunis, Khartoum, and Sanaa during the embassy attacks several days ago.  He writes:

Where the host government fulfilled its obligation to protect the integrity of diplomatic premises, the mobs were kept back. Where the host government did not do so, our missions had to rely on physical barriers – their walls, doors and windows – to keep the mobs outside.

Physical barriers themselves are not absolute protection, of course, but are there just to delay the attackers until the host government acts, if it ever does.You cannot keep people out of embassy compounds for long if the local authorities don’t show up. However, you can keep people out of your embassy office building for a good long time, maybe even long enough for them to give up and leave, if the building was built for that purpose.

Of course, if it were more than a mob attack, people may not just give up and leave; or may do so only after there is considerable damage in life and property.

In the aftermath of the Benghazi attack and several breaches into our embassy compounds, diplomatic security will be in the front burner once more.  Like Yogi Berra says, it’s dejavu all over again. The 1998 East Africa embassy bombings happened in an off election year (but during the Lewinsky scandal), the Benghazi attack happened right smack in the middle of a presidential election. So while there will be calls for resignations, investigations and whatnots, this year, it will be louder than usual.

There will be calls for more secure embassy facilities in addition to the now standard requirement for 100-foot setback from vehicular traffic and nine-foot-tall walls.  Former Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian once said, ‘O.K., we built a 16-foot wall, but there is such a thing as a 17-foot ladder.’  As we’ve seen this past weeks on live tv, the 100-foot setback and nine-foot walls were not a deterrent to rioters who scrambled quickly up those walls and spread easily to wreck havoc inside the compound.

Before the embassy attacks happened, the new 1 billion US Embassy in London reportedly inspired by English architecture, was already planned to include a moat, er, reflecting pool to “prevent the possibility of a vehicle getting to the embassy to cause damage.” Take a look. Somebody must have already calculated the upkeep and utilities for a building such as this, but we have not seen the figures.  For more on the new embassies, read  former FSO, Dave Seminara’s piece in The Washington Diplomat, America’s Embassy Building Boom Fortifies Diplomacy, Security Abroad from April this year.

Aerial view of the new Embassy building © KieranTimberlake/studio amd via US Embassy London/Flickr

Continuing on this road, the next stop might be a concentric fortress for an embassy needing the very best protection.  As with the concentric castles of the 12th century, the concentric embassy will be surrounded by a moat and entrance will be by drawbridge. It will be protected by an inner wall built of thick stone with towers positioned at intervals, and another lower stone wall that’s just as thick.  Apparently, in the old days, the space between the two walls was known as the ‘death hole’ because those trapped within the walls certainly die from being picked by archers one by one.

The Krak des Chevaliers as it was in the Middle-Ages. From Guillaume Rey : Étude sur les monuments de l’architecture militaire des croisés en Syrie et dans l’île de Chypre (1871). Via Wikipedia

Finally, we promised not to fall off our chair if there will be calls for our diplomats to get more weapons training in addition to a week of crash and bang for those going to war zones and dangerous assignments. Or for our diplomats to be armed.

While we wait for the results of the yet to meet Pickering Accountability Review Board, we must note that the Benghazi office or as The Skeptical Bureaucrat calls it, the Non-Standard, Un-Fortress, Not-A-Consulate In Benghazi, is not even a typical new embassy compound. But it’s not by far, the only one. We have an American Presence Post and Consulates with one or two or a few American officers holding offices at rented floors in commercial buildings.  How do you turn those rented floors into fortresses?

Anthony C. E. Quainton, a former assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security says, “You can protect people where they work by building more fortified embassies. […] But how do you protect them all the time, in all places?”

That’s a great question — how do you protect them all the time, in all places?

Wendy Chamberlain, our former Ambassador to Pakistan and Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the current
President of the Middle East Institute has this piece in HuffPo:

In this brave new context the 1961 Vienna Conventions, based on the premise of the equality of sovereign states, seem quaint to say the least, particularly Article 22 which guarantees the inviolability of diplomatic facilities. Clearly we must not abandon the mission even though these newly emerging nations do not have the wherewithal to provide such security.
In transitional regions, we must rely on smaller, more agile missions, granting the ambassador greater control over the nature and size of his or her staff. While not minimizing the importance of personal contact, and the unspoken message our presence sends, we should engage NGOs and local platforms and deploy electrons in lieu of bodies whenever possible. We must be more Sun Tzu than Clausewitz, less bulky and bureaucratic, with the budgetary flexibility to change direction when need be and less reliant on embassy fortresses to secure our assets, even as we work to assist central authorities to build their security infrastructure. And perhaps it is time to take another look at our increasingly militaristic approach to international relations, driven to some degree by the fact that our enormously talented, competent military and its neatly measureable operational successes are politically easier to fund than the long, often messy slog of brick-making for building the foundations of civil society.

The ever sharp Chas Freeman, our former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, former Assistant Secretary of Defense and almost National Intel Council chair (until his nomination was derailed) has some thoughts about how to make our diplomats safer, and it has less to do with fortress embassies:

In his speech to the UNGA, Egyptian President Morsi recognized the “duty” of the receiving state to protect the diplomats assigned to it.  This is a useful reminder of an ancient truth. The farther we move into self-protection through the transformation of embassies into fortifications and motorcades into armadas, the more we undercut both the traditions and the effectiveness of diplomacy.  Diplomats add very little value if they mimic military invaders, cower behind walls, are inaccessible to local people, and venture forth only in armed convoys.  (I won’t visit U.S. embassies myself anymore.  It’s just too much hassle.  Then, too, as a onetime professional diplomat and proud American, I’m embarrassed by the zero-risk mentality on display.)

In procedural, if not in substantive terms, diplomacy is an inherently consensual and reciprocal, not a coercive or combatant activity.  We should be thinking hard about how to return the responsibility for the protection of diplomats as much as possible to the host nation, where it belongs.  If a host nation cannot or will not discharge that duty, we would be well advised to end or severely to limit our presence there, impose reciprocal restrictions on its representation here, enlist others in punitive sanctions against it, and plan to communicate with it by Skype, etc. or in neutral third countries rather than face-to-face.

It is truly striking (though not surprising in the midst of a presidential election and given the role of talk radio in dumbing down our national dialogue) that debate here focuses so singlemindedly on how we can protect ourselves or — as many Americans argue — arm our diplomats to blow away those who appear to threaten them.  We should be attempting to strengthen the host nation obligation to protect diplomats that is implicit in the Vienna Conventions, find ways to enforce this obligation, and criminalize or assign liability under international law for failing to discharge it, not designing more elaborately crenelated crusader castles for our diplomatic outposts in the Middle East or elsewhere.

By taking up the gun and relying on the parapet rather than the security services of the host and the law to protect us, we are inadvertently endorsing the notion that there can be no safety in the rule of law.  In an odd way, by building fortresses and preparing to blaze away at those who display anger as they approach us, we encourage the very violence we should be attempting to preclude.  Our obsessions with monopolizing security responsibilities for our installations and personnel unintentionally contributes to the irresponsibility of receiving-state governments, degrades the idea of the sanctity of envoys, and erodes the prospects for rule-based order internationally.  To make our diplomats safer, we need better diplomacy vis-à-vis foreign nations and international organizations much more than we need higher bastions.

The Inman Report of the Secretary of State’s Advisory Panel on Overseas Security following the Marine barracks bombing and the April 1983 US Embassy bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, has been influential in setting security standards, not just with the embassy design, but also with physical and residential security, training, use of armored vehicles, etc. The idea of an accountability board as a “board of inquiry […] convened in the event of a security incident involving loss of life, grievous injury or massive property destruction due to terrorist or other violence” also originates from the Inman Commission.

The Crowe Accountability Review Board following the 1998 twin embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania “observed that many of the problems identified in that landmark report [Inman] persist..”  It faults “the collective failure of the US government over the past decade to provide adequate resources to reduce the vulnerability of US diplomatic missions to terrorist attacks in most countries around the world. Responsibility for this failure can be attributed to several Administrations and their agencies, including the Department of State, the National Security Council, and the Office of Management and Budget, as well as the US Congress.”

Following the release of the Crowe Report, there were changes in work place security including co-location of US agencies in the host country, additional funding for capital building programs, better crisis management and procedures including Crisis Management Exercise conducted regularly in our posts overseas.

The Crowe ARB in 1999 also recommended that the Department look specifically at reducing the number of diplomatic missions by establishing regional embassies located in less threatened and vulnerable countries with Ambassadors accredited to several governments. The State Department did exactly the opposite, of course, by opening missions not only in vulnerable countries but in the middle of war zones.

It is too early to tell how the Pickering ARB will impact the conduct of diplomacy abroad or the life of USG employees overseas.  We’re sure there will be changes, we just don’t know if there will be more fortresses in the future or less.