• State Department: Is America’s Oldest Cabinet Agency Trumped?

    March 14, 2017 // 4 Comments »


    What if it’s not incompetence? What if it is by design? What if President Donald Trump has decided American doesn’t really need a Department of State and if he can’t get away with closing it down, he can disable and defund it?

    The only problem is Trump will quickly find out he’ll have to reluctantly keep a few lights on at Foggy Bottom.

    Things do not look good for State. There were no press briefings between Trump taking office on January 20 and some irregular gatherings beginning in early March. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wasn’t seen at several White House meetings where foreign leaders were present, and has taken only two very short trips abroad. Of the 13 sets of official remarks he has given, 10 have been perfunctory messages to countries on their national days, with one speech to his own employees. Sources inside State say he is nowhere to be seen around the building, either in person or bureaucratically via tasking orders and demands for briefings.

    Meanwhile, President Trump has proposed a devastating 37% cut to State’s tiny budget, already only about one percent of Federal spending.

    And as if that isn’t bad enough, the Trump administration has left a large number of the 64 special representative and other “speciality” positions empty. Tillerson already laid off a number of his own staff. Add in a Federal-wide hiring ban, and the only good news at Foggy Bottom is that it’s no longer hard to find a seat in the cafeteria.

    The original concerns around State that Trump’s transition was in chaos seem sadly mistaken; there are too many empty slots for this to be anything but purposeful. As for Tillerson himself “Either he’s weak or he’s complicit,” one State Department official said. Neither option bodes well.

    Alongside Trump himself, State is its own worst enemy. Team Trump no doubt took careful note of the Department’s slow-walking the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails (after helping hide the existence of her private server for years), and the organization’s flexibility in allowing aide Huma Abedin to simultaneously occupy jobs inside and outside of the Department, alongside alleged quid pro quo deals related to the Clinton Foundation. Senior State officials purged in late January were closely associated with Hillary Clinton. Happens when you back the wrong horse.

    The already open wound of Benghazi festered just a bit more when a post-election Freedom of Information Act release revealed State covered up the fact the assault on the Consulate was not “under cover of protest” as the Obama administration claimed but was, in fact, “a direct breaching attack.” Never mind the leaked dissent memo aimed at Trump’s so-called Muslim ban, and the leaked memo admonishing State staffers to stop leaking.

    And what has been one of State’s public actions this February? Dropping $71,000 on silverware to entertain foreign dignitaries. An organization that will be missed by the bulk of Trump supporters this is not.

    So is this it? The end of the United States Department of State, founded alongside the republic in 1789, with Thomas Jefferson himself as its first leader?

    Maybe not. Trump will quickly find that there are several State Departments, and he’ll need to hang on to a couple of them, even if he sidelines the others.

    Most of the actions described above refer to the political State Department, the traditional organ of diplomacy that once negotiated treaties and ended wars, but more and more since 9/11 (maybe earlier) has been supplemented if not left behind by modern communications that allow presidents and other Washington policymakers to deal directly with counterparts abroad. Throw in the growing role of the military, and you end up with far too many State staffers having a lot of time on their hands even before Trump came along. The Wikileaks cables, years of State Department reporting from the field, contained as much filler and gossip as they did cogent policy advice.

    Trump can make his deep cuts in that part of State’s work and few will even notice. In some ways, no one yet has; as far back as 2012, more than one fourth of all State Department Foreign Service positions were either unfilled or filled with below-grade employees. The whole of the Foreign Service diplomatic corps is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier, and has been for some time.

    There’ll be a few functions that may need to be rolled into other parts of the government if most of State fades away: whatever refugee processing Trump allows to DHS, trade promotion to Commerce, foreign aid to perhaps DOD, all have ready homes waiting if necessary. Trump’ll need to have ambassadors abroad, not the least of which is because 30-50% of those positions are routinely handed out to rich campaign donors, banana-republic style.

    So what is left at State Trump will need to hold on to?

    Those 294 embassies and consulates abroad State operates serve a function as America’s concierge that cannot be easily replaced, and will have to be funded at some level whether Trump likes it or not.

    Dozens of other U.S. government agencies rely on State’s overseas real estate for office space and administrative support to keep their own costs down. American government VIPs traveling need someone to arrange their security, get their motorcades organized, and their hotels and receptions booked. Meetings with local officials still require on-the-ground American staff to set up. Supporting CODELS (Congressional Delegations’ visits to foreign lands) is a right of passage for State Department employees, and every Foreign Service Officer has his/her war stories to tell. While stationed in the UK, I escorted so many Important Somebody’s on shopping trips that I was snarkily labeled “Ambassador to Harrod’s Department Store” by my colleagues. Others will tell tales of pre-dawn baggage handling and VIP indiscretions that needed smoothing over.

    Never mind the logistics for a full-on presidential visit to a foreign country. No, Trump will need this side of State to stay on the payroll.

    The last part of the State Department Trump will need around one way or another is the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Consular performs the traditional government functions of assisting Americans overseas when they’re arrested, caught up in a natural disaster, or just need help with social security or a new passport.

    The big swinging bat, however, is visa issuance. Visas are what fills the American economy with tourists, Silicon Valley with engineers, and universities with foreign students. Visas are the State Department’s cash cow: in 2016 close to 11 million tourist, worker, and student visas were issued at an average fee collected of $160. That’s well over $1.7 billion in revenue in addition to the budget Congress allots State. The Bureau of Consular Affairs holds a budget surplus in reserve whose dollar amount is one of the most closely held non-national security secrets inside government.

    But in a Trumpian state of mind, what looks like a strength at Foggy Bottom might turn out to be a weakness. State fought viciously after 9/11 to hold on to consular work, even as the Bush administration sought to consolidate the consular function into the then-new Department of Homeland Security.

    State won the bureaucratic fight in 2001, but if the Trump administration really wanted to effectively wipe away most of the State Department proper, it might need to do little more than kick out the strongest (and most profitable) leg holding up the whole edifice. Like a jenga tower, Trump can pick away at the top positions for media and political points, but if he really wants to see it all fall down, he’ll attack the bottom. Watch for it; it’ll tell you how serious this fight really is.

     

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    Diplomacy Lost: State Does Not Come Clean on Afghan Death

    April 11, 2013 // 17 Comments »

    The initial reports about FSO Anne Smedinghoff in Afghanistan stated she was in an armored vehicle, which was hit by either an IED and/or a suicide bomber. She was enroute to a book give away at a local school. Smedinghoff’s father told journalists in the United States that he’d been told she was in a vehicle and the bomber either rammed it or detonated his explosives nearby.

    New reports suggest a different picture. According to McClatchy News, Smedinghoff was accompanying a group of perhaps a dozen Afghan journalists, perhaps in the company of a minor U.S. Ambassador, and that the group was walking, not in vehicles. The report stated that:

    …on the 200-yard walk from the local headquarters of the U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team to what they thought was the school. A man at the gate said they had the wrong place, though, that this was the provincial agriculture institute.

    The group retraced its steps to the American base to figure out what to do next, Abed said. The entrance to the base is just a few feet from the street, he said, and just as they reached it, walking more or less in single file, something slammed into his back and he staggered forward. Disoriented, he saw a car wheel roll past him.

    “At first I thought that a car had left the road and struck me,” he said. “But then I turned around and saw it had been a bomb.”


    That narrative differs significantly from the initial State Department version. Instead of a gallant young do-gooder snatched by fate, we see a group of diplomats who did not know what they were doing, physically lost, circling back to their camp to try again. If that is true, how did it happen? If that is true, why did State report a different version of events?

    Procedures

    My own Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) service was embedded with a U.S. Army unit and in Iraq, so procedures may vary, but we did our share of media events and book donations. Here is how things went and why it is hard to accept that the new discrepancies about Afghanistan are merely fog of war.

    Any movement outside the wire was planned meticulously. Excellent photographic maps were consulted, and a numerical grid location of our destination was established accurate down to (deleted) meters. Routes in and out were noted, with secondary routes established. Using maps and photos, we would decide where we would disembark our vehicles and how security would be kept. Medevac procedures would be reviewed, available air assets identified and so forth. Movement inside a war zone was a clear military operation. It was not free-lanced or improvised. Records were kept.

    If we did get off track, the unit went into defensive posture and nobody left the vehicles until we sorted that out. Lots of radio calls were made, and the Army’s electronic mapping and reporting system Blue Force Tracker was used. Our own headquarters always knew where we were and what we were doing. Log entries were made and records exist (some of what Bradley Manning leaked to Wikileaks consisted of such sitreps and Blue Force Tracker updates).

    If Smedinghoff and her compatriots got lost, it suggests they were not moving as just described. This calls up serious questions of competence and leadership. How did they get lost? What happened and who is responsible, because people died here.

    (Another opinion disclaims the idea that the group was “lost”)

    Reporting

    State’s mistakes in reporting what actually happened on the ground all seem to be mistakes in favor of State’s narrative– gallant young life taken even as she worked to help local Afghans– instead of incompetently lead public affairs hack engaged in another failed feel-good media event where they did not even know the location of the school being helped. How could this have happened? Fog of war?

    State reported the death (in vehicle) on April 6. State amended the story to mention the deceased was on foot on April 10 only after news reports were making the claim.

    My former job with State for 20 some years was as a Consular Officer and entailed, in part, dealing with the deaths of American Citizens abroad. I know how hard it can be to figure out what happened. Many of the deaths I assisted in sorting out happened in combat-like confusion following earthquakes, plane crashes and the like. There is chaos, but you are trained to work past that. Our training was very simple: you’re speaking officially on behalf of the USG to grieving next of kin. Tell them what you know and how you know it. Be very clear when things are unsure, uncertain or subject to change. Don’t fill in gaps, don’t make things up, be respectful but don’t try and “help” by covering up tough things (died autoerotically, was found with a weapon, was in a hotel room with a prostitute, etc.). If you don’t know something, say you do not know. Credibility is key and trust is earned and most of the real story will come out somehow.

    It is hard to imagine that the death of an FSO with multiple witnesses was not reported fully back to Foggy Bottom. This was the first “real” FSO killed in either Iraq or Afghanistan and post-Benghazi everyone knew it would be major news. Yes, others sadly were also killed but the death of a young woman with social media presence was obviously a greedy media’s lead. Nobody at State was going to just jot down a few notes on what may have happened and flash out a press release. There were multiple witnesses, and indeed the death occurred literally at the PRT’s doorstep. It would be very, very surprising if that front door was not covered by video surveillance. The source cited by McClatchy was treated by U.S. personnel and flown back to Kabul by the U.S., so was not hard to find.

    Conspiracy theorists, have at it. Or maybe it was all just journalistic fudges and fog of war.

    Instead, I will propose something baser and cruder: to the State Department, especially post-Benghazi, what mattered in the death of Anne Smedinghoff in Afghanistan was literal damage control of the already-failed narrative that the Department was accomplishing great things in Afghanistan under a policy of competent, calculated risk. The lives were lost of course no matter what the point or purpose, but it is typically owed to the dead the respect of not exploiting them even into the grave.

    Update: Diplopundit reports an email recieved from a Foreign Service Officer which reads “I knew Anne well. I am sending you this as the Department has been actively recruiting her friends and coworkers to talk to the press or to write about her even while no Department memorial service will be held.” Stay classy State.

    The People’s Republic of Snarkistan has a thorough write-up on what may have happened to Smedinghoff and her group well-worth reading. He also informs us that the school in question was built by the U.S. in October 2009, only to enjoy a $135,000 “rennovation” a few months later that included “foundation work, installation of new windows and doors, interior and exterior paint, electricity and a garden.” Yeah, looks like the original contractor ripped off the PRT. The U.S. Army noted at the time that “The many smiles on the faces of both men and women showed all were filled with joy and excitement during this special occasion.”

    In my own Iraq PRT experience, the record for the U.S. (re)building the same school was three times in four years.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    About the Irrelevancy Thing at State…

    July 19, 2012 // 4 Comments »




    I recently wrote about the State Department’s increasing irrelevancy. About one out of every four positions are unfilled or under-staffed, while the military continues to assume a greater and greater role in America’s relations with other countries. You can read more here.

    The article brought forth the usual handful of angry emails from offended Foreign Service Officers unable to cope with the cognitive dissonance of their own irrelevancy in a job they worked so hard to obtain and which constantly tells them they are some sort of elite special forces kind of thing as they file stuff in triplicate.

    So let’s poke our head under the rock at Foggy Bottom and see what State did today to assert its crucial importance to anyone but itself.

    The State Department issued a Worldwide Caution, nearly identical in wording to the same Worldwide Caution they have been re-issuing about every six months since the 9/11 wake up call. The purpose of this document is clear: “U.S. citizens are reminded to maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness.”

    Well now, that seems important. Let’s drill down a bit. I bet you did not know this:

    Current information suggests that al-Qaida, its affiliated organizations and other terrorist groups continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. and Western interests in Europe. European governments have taken action to guard against terrorist attacks, and some have spoken publicly about the heightened threat conditions. In the past several years, attacks have been planned or occurred in various European cities.

    Or maybe this will shock you into a higher level of vigilance:

    Credible information indicates terrorist groups also seek to continue attacks against U.S. interests in the Middle East and North Africa. For example, Iraq remains dangerous and unpredictable.


    Of course, not all the advice is so… generic. If you are planning a yacht trip off the coast of Somalia, the State Department quite correctly reminds you:

    The U.S. government maritime authorities advise mariners to avoid the port of Mogadishu and to remain at least 200 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia. In addition, when transiting around the Horn of Africa or in the Red Sea, it is strongly recommended that vessels travel in convoys and maintain good communications at all times.

    Now I bet a lot of mariners planning a casual transit around the Horn o’ Africa enroute to the spice trade would not have thought to maintain good communications. Noted!

    A Safe Trip Abroad

    The Worldwide Caution refers you to an online State Department pamphlet, A Safe Trip Abroad, that appears to have been written in 1955 by the Beaver’s mother. “To help avoid becoming a target, do not dress in a way that could mark you as an affluent tourist,” it scolds. “If you wear glasses, pack an extra pair.” “Bring travelers’ checks.” Do they even sell those anymore? Has anyone tried to cash a travelers’ check in this decade? “If possible, lock your luggage.” Oops, if you do that TSA will simply break the lock to inspect your underwear before you even board the plane. “Make two photocopies of your… airline tickets.” R i g h t… who out there is old enough to even remember paper aero-plane tickets?

    It is not that this information has not been updated since 1989, but look at this paragraph:

    Before you go, learn as much as you can about the local laws and customs of the places you plan to visit. Good resources are your library, your travel agent, and the embassies, consulates or tourist bureaus of the countries you will visit.

    That is precious. Is it because most State Department offices don’t have web access yet that they still use libraries, travel agents and tourist bureaus? Do State travelers hope to pick up paper maps at local petrol stations enroute to the steamship or dirigible port?

    Here ara a few things the State Department expects most Americans will take care of before that four day cruise to the Bahamas:

    Have your affairs in order at home. If you leave a current will, insurance documents, and power of attorney with your family or a friend, you can feel secure about traveling and will be prepared for any emergency that may arise while you are away. If you have minor children, consider making guardianship arrangements for them.

    OK honey, I have iPhone charged and loaded with the e-boarding passes. Did you construct a legal guardianship agreement for Wally and the Beaver or should I do that at the same time I incorporate us in the Caymens to avoid US taxes?

    But of course, since the State Department is clearly not irrelevant, they save some of the best advice for last. Indeed, this seems to be advice that they follow themselves:

    Try to seem purposeful when you move about. Even if you are lost, act as if you know where you are going.




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    Great Moments in Social Media: Self-Congratulatory Propaganda

    April 13, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    We are all aware of the power of social media– to bend autocratic governments to the will of the people, to inform, to entertain, to allow the Department of State to speak directly to individuals instead of governments. Powerful, 21st century stuff. Indeed, social media is so important to the Department of State that over 150 people work on just that, Tweeting and Facebooking 24/7 like high school freshman on their third Red Bull. The State Department even has a full-time person with the humble title “Innovator,” Alec Ross, to embiggen this amazing set of tools which Hillary Clinton has dubbed “Smart Power” and “eDiplomacy.”

    The Australian government actually sent someone all the way over here to study the Department of State’s social media. That guy wrote “US policymakers have put great stock in the transformative power of Internet freedom. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, these tools will be used “to advance democracy and human rights, to fight climate change and epidemics, to build global support for President Obama’s goal of a world without nuclear weapons, [and] to encourage sustainable economic development that lifts the people at the bottom up.”

    So with that all in mind, let’s have a peek at what the Department of State felt compelled to pass into the Twitter stream on April 10:





    Wow. I wept. That is innovative, 21st century stuff, all on the tax payers dime. Jeez, at least when you “friend” Pepto Bismal on Facebook you get a coupon or something.

    How many of those 150 people working on social media at the State Department do you think it takes to crank out a couple of Tweets like that?



    (Of course not everyone has drunk the Kool Aid. Philip Seib, Huffington Post: “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the existence of an ongoing ‘information war’ that the United States is losing… Clinton’s remarks were particularly welcome as a note of realism from a State Department that often is primarily interested in self-congratulation.”

    Oops. No wonder Hillary looks so tired in that picture.




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