• State Dept Staffs Syria Ceasefire Violations Hotline — With Non-Arabic Speakers

    March 7, 2016 // 14 Comments »


    Is there a better way to ensure no troublesome violations of John Kerry’s signature ceasefire in Syria get reported than by staffing the hotline where violations are to be reported by Syrians with non-Arabic speakers?

    Gotta love those clever gals and guys over at the State Department. The Department is all a twitter, high-fiving each other and sending congratulatory emails to Secretary of State John Kerry over his negotiating a ceasefire in Syria. And, in order to monitor compliance with the terms of the ceasefire, State set up a hotline. Ordinary Syrians, out there on the ground, could call in to report violations.

    Now remember, violations by anyone other than the naughty Russkies might make the State Department look bad, as if the ceasefire was only smoke, mirrors and a PR stunt, violated in part by forces to include the U.S.-supported militias.

    So, by some wacky Washington coincidence, the State Department admitted Wednesday it used only volunteers with limited Arabic language abilities to staff that hotline it set up to take calls about ongoing violence in Syria.

    That move led to confusion, as people who speak Arabic, which perhaps unknown to State is Syria’s official language, tried to call with information about violations of the cease-fire, only to get hung up by volunteers who didn’t understand the language.

    See, that volunteer part is another funny. Something as important as a hotline into Syria is staffed only by volunteers at State. No one could be bothered to assign personnel full-time to such a task.

    “In order to help monitor the cessation of hostilities in Syria, we did set up an information hotline that was staffed 24/7, where violations could be reported, I think via a number of different apps,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “There were some language issues among some of the volunteers. Granted, these again are State Department employees who are doing this in addition to their usual jobs.”

    “We are aware that there were language issues, as you note, and we’re working to correct those, obviously, because it’s important that we have Arabic speakers who are able to field incoming calls,” Toner said.

    Toner was asked whether proficiency in Arabic was a requirement for volunteering to work the hotline.

    “It was, just but, you know, given the time limits on setting this up, probably some of the language skills weren’t properly vetted,” he said. “So, we’re working to address that.”

    When asked for the phone number of the Syrian hotline, Toner said he didn’t have it on him. “I don’t have it in front of me, sorry,” he said.

    UPDATE: Apparently State is now redirecting calls from the Washington-based hotline to the American Embassy in Kuwait, where presumably they have someone who speaks Arabic.

    Related Articles:

    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Embassy/State, Syria

    Terrorist Prosecution Fail; Taxpayers Eat it for $25,000+

    January 27, 2015 // 9 Comments »


    Here’s another reason to be even more skeptical when you see those statistics about how the United States has arrested or detained 1,200,761,324 terrorists or whatever.

    A former college student, Nicholas George, the Face of Evil, pictured, was detained in 2009 for hours at Philadelphia International Airport because he was carrying Arabic flashcards and thus suspected by the TSA of having something to do with terrorism. With the assistance of the ACLU, George successfully sued the United States Government for abusing his First and Fourth Amendment rights. The $25,000 settlement ends five years of litigation, including numerous attempts to stall the case by the government, all paid for by you, the taxpayer. Because, freedom, ‘kay?

    The Madness

    The government’s madness began after Nicholas George was detained for having Arabic-English flashcards with words like “terrorist” and bomb” written on them. He was 21-years-old at the time and on his way to California, where he was a senior at Pomona College majoring in — wait for it — Middle Eastern studies. The U.S. government actually encourages Americans to learn “critical languages” such as Arabic, and both the CIA and the State Department offer recruitment incentives to those who do. The government also offers generous grants and loans to those who study Arabic. In order to better decode what a bad guy might be saying, it would make sense for a student to learn words such as “bomb.” The term would also certainly come up in any contemporary reading about world events.

    Back at the front lines of the war on terror, apparently the Philly airport, things played out a little differently.

    “At the metal detector at airport security, Transportation Security Administration agents asked me to empty my pockets,” George said. “I took the set of flashcards from my pocket and handed them to the officers. After I cleared the metal detector, they asked me to step aside for additional screening. One of them started rifling through the cards, and another took a book critical of U.S. foreign policy written by a Reagan administration official out of my carry-on. The minutes ticked by, and I got more confused about why I was being detained and more concerned that I would miss my flight. One of them called a supervisor.”

    Bin Laden Spoke Arabic

    After a half-hour delay at the security line, the supervisor showed up. After looking at the book and flashcards, the supervisor asked “Do you know who did 9/11?” George answered: “Osama Bin Laden.” Then she asked him if he knew what language Osama Bin Laden spoke. “Arabic,” he replied. George was in college, after all, so knew the answers. “So do you see why these cards are suspicious?” she finished. George did not know the answer to that question.

    George was then handcuffed and paraded through the airport to a police substation. Authorities searched his luggage and kept him locked up in a cell handcuffed. After about two hours George asked to go to the bathroom, and on the way back asked his jailer why he was being held. The cop answered, contending for the banality of evil award, “I dunno, what’d you do?” George was eventually set free without explanation. Having missed his flight, he was left on his own to get home.

    First and Fourth Amendments? Never Heard of ‘Em

    “Even after searching my luggage without probable cause of a crime and finding nothing out of the ordinary, TSA agents and the police felt they had the authority to detain and then arrest me, purely on ignorant assumptions about a language spoken by 295 million people worldwide,” George wrote in a blog post.

    Another victory in the war on terror,or for bullying, or for the triumph of the will of ignorance. Thanks TSA!

    Related Articles:

    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Embassy/State, Syria

    I can’t stand by and watch Peter Van Buren’s account of the PRTs stand

    October 5, 2011 // 7 Comments »

    It is a long, sort of nerdy, boring article, but someone named Steve Donnelly has written what he calls a rebuttal to me, my book and my view of the PRT program in Iraq.

    The piece is somewhat odd, in that he ends up agreeing with most of my points (waste, stupidity, mismanagement) while trying to say I was wrong. Whatever, it’s modern journalism.

    For example, this:

    As our group set off for Iraq, all of us felt as very well-briefed and trained as we could be under the chaotic and fast-track circumstances, although the parallels to disaster movies like Meteor, where a group of drillers are rapidly assembled and shot into space to emplace a nuclear device on a meteor threatening Earth, was not lost on any of us.

    Our biggest challenge, as was predicted, was to get out of Embassy Baghdad and up to our duty stations. Transportation out of Baghdad for the uninitiated was not easy, as Embassy staff held one mandatory “briefing” after another as different departments could tell us little but implored us to report what we found to them (not the guy in the stove-piped office next door).

    Not unlike my own points made in the excerpt now online, albeit not as clever. Actually, I’m jealous, as he said his training at State included Arabic cuss words.

    Have a look at the whole article at Foreign Policy.

    Related Articles:

    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Embassy/State, Syria

    Tongue-Tied State Department Failing in its Core Mission (Part II)

    July 12, 2011 // Comments Off on Tongue-Tied State Department Failing in its Core Mission (Part II)

    In addition to the obvious opportunities for waste, fraud, corruption and just plain stupidity, the real problem is how lack of language capability within the State Department contributes to the further militarization of foreign policy.

    There really are more military band members than State Department Foreign Service Officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. Despite the role that foreign affairs has always played in America’s drunken intercourse abroad, the State Department remains a very small part of the pageant. At the same time, Congress continues to hack away at State’s budget. As head-count shrinks, the number of FSOs who can be pulled off the assembly line and sent to Arabic training (it takes two full-time years of study in the State Department system to have a chance at qualifying as generally professionally competent in a hard language like Arabic) the so-called “training float,” also shrinks.

    There are other, more institutional problems, as well. State insists on holding at least the first year of any language training at its campus in Arlington, VA, where students joke about learning to speak Arabic, or Dutch, or Tagalong with a Virginia accent. The Arlington location limits the pool of teachers to those who happen to live in the area, a zone rich with Homeland Security contractors snapping up good Arabic speakers for higher salaries. Officers in language training are pulled out of real contention for promotions, death in State’s up or out system and a severe disincentive. Person applying to the foreign service only get credit for foreign languages they speak after otherwise being accepted; they get little advantage in the very difficult testing and evaluation process that begins with a written test so difficult most people fail. State offers some bonus pay for language skills, but has never measured the impact of the pay incentive on increasing foreign language proficiency.

    A Congressionally-funded hiring boom between 2002-2004 that was supposed to create a “training float” was instead squandered by State in staffing the world’s largest embassy in Baghdad, as well as its smaller, twin evil sister in Kabul.

    The GAO concluded however that the worst problem is State’s bureaucracy:

    In 2002, GAO reported that State had not prepared a separate strategic plan for developing its foreign language skills or a related action plan to correct long-standing proficiency shortfalls and recommended that the Department do so.

    In 2009, seven years later, GAO wrote again that “State’s efforts to meet its foreign language requirements have yielded some results but have not closed persistent gaps and reflect, in part, a lack of a comprehensive, strategic approach.” The GAO recommended arcane techniques such as “measurable goals, objectives, milestones, and feedback mechanisms” to State.

    In a 2010 follow-up report, GAO wrote again “State has efforts underway to identify foreign language needs and capabilities, but persistent shortfalls in foreign language-proficient staff highlight the need for a comprehensive, strategic approach.”

    They are really stubborn people over there in Foggy Bottom.

    In economic terms, State’s comparative advantage has always been that we could talk to foreigners. Give that up—alongside the smaller head count, the flaccid budget—and what is left? As America continues to find new countries to invade and occupy, the chances become greater and greater that the only Americans foreigners in many Middle Eastern countries will see wear green and carry a weapon, and they’ll not be in the mood to chat.

    “We cannot effectively sway our allies or adversaries if we do not speak their language,” said Senator Daniel K. Akaka, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee. The tool box America uses to deal with issues abroad will shrink, as there will be fewer people around who can talk to foreigners.

    Guess we’ll just have to shoot more of ‘em.

    Read Part I of “Tongue-Tied State Department Failing in its Core Mission”

    Related Articles:

    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Embassy/State, Syria