• Told You So: WaPo Puff Piece on Haiti Reconstruction Deflated by Truth

    October 3, 2012 // 8 Comments »

    The default media plan at State is to follow anything negative in the press with a planted puff piece. Rather than tackle the facts in a negative story (seeking to refute them with other information, or to make corrections), State’s modus is to seek ink that just says everything is actually wonderful, without mentioning the offending original articles.

    That P.R. 101 (online university) shit lasts only as long as it takes the truth to ooze out. In the case of Haiti reconstruction, about six weeks.

    Following a scathing Associated Press investigation into the failure of State to reconstruct Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake (Less than 12 percent of the reconstruction money sent to Haiti after the earthquake has gone toward energy, shelter, ports or other infrastructure. At least a third, $329 million, went to projects that were awarded before the 2010 catastrophe and had little to do with the recovery), State first tried an “Op-Ed” by the ambassador blithely mumbling that all was well. That was back in late July.

    It took almost a month more, but State did finally select its author for the real puff piece, in this case some hack named David Brown at the hometown Washington Post (slogan: still dining out on that Watergate thing). Brown’s work at the Post has been mostly on health issues, mainly HIV/AIDS, with the odd bit about Warren Buffet’s prostrate (not good) and Dick Cheney’s artificial heart (“doing exceedingly well”). As such, he was obviously the perfect guy to write authoritatively on how wonderful reconstruction is in Haiti.

    On August 20, with a follow up a week later, this blog called the Post out as hacks, who were fed a puff piece and gleefully took it all down. There was never any response to my inquiries to the Post’s ombudsman.

    So a BIG surprise after all that happy talk when USAID’s own Inspector General released a report which says the largest U.S. contractor working to stabilize Haiti is “not on track” to complete its assignments on schedule, has a weak monitoring system and is not adequately involving community members. It seems that Washington D.C.-based Chemonics (also a big player in the wonderful Afghan reconstruction fiasco) won a $53 million, 18-month contract from USAID in 2011 to help Haiti strengthen its economy and public institutions. USAID’s Office of Inspector General released a report Monday that found Chemonics had a series of slips, including using arbitrary ways of evaluating its work, failing to hire local workers, and going ahead with potentially damaging environmental projects before they were approved.

    Here’s one secret to State’s success with contractors from that report: Chemonics is also responsible for setting up its own system of evaluation.

    Again, breaking news, most of those criticisms mirrored the earlier ones State denied and the WaPo over-looked.

    How do you know when USAID and State are lying to you? Their lips move. Will Congress please stop giving money to these people? It will be a mercy killing at this point.



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    Washington Post: Anybody Home?

    August 28, 2012 // 10 Comments »

    On August 20 I asked some serious questions of the Washington Post about what appeared to be a propaganda piece on the reconstruction of Haiti pimped to one of their “journalists” by the State Department. I sent the same questions to the Post’s Ombudsman via email and a phone message. I explained that I would publish his reply on this blog. I resent the email for good measure a day later.

    There has been no reply.

    There was however this comment posted to the original piece by “Lafcadio.” I don’t know Lafcadio or know who he is, but he has commented here about the State Department knowledgeably in the past. Here’s what he said:

    Don’t blame the writer for this drivel. The editors at the Post are the ones responsible. They hold all the power, and big Public Affairs (PA) at State has been cutting deals with them.

    After Mary Ryan got fired due to “unauthorized” leaks back in 2002, State started working the hometown paper. (They never had to work the NY Times, Times has almost always been in the bag for the Foreign Service). A lot of FS heavies (Black Dragons in Diplomatic Security [DS] speak) put pressure on the Post editors (and owners) to not run so many negative stories. As an incentive, big PA gives “exclusives” to the Post, in return for not running or downplaying the unauthorized leaks, and running a few puff pieces, like this one.

    How would I know ths? Some of the young flacks in big PA have big mouths. They even boast about this in Foreign Service Institute (FSI; the State Department training facility) presentations.

    Some of the writers at the Post chafe at the bit to run more of the unauthorized leaks. But their editors made a deal with the devil, or in this case, the Black Dragons.


    This raises the question of whether the Washington Post has devolved from writing about all the president’s men to being them. Ombudsman, still waiting on you…




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    Serious Questions about a Haiti Reconstruction Puff Piece

    August 20, 2012 // 7 Comments »

    The default media plan at State is to follow anything negative in the press with a planted puff piece. Rather than tackle the facts in a negative story (seeking to refute them with other information, or to make corrections), State’s modus is to seek ink that just says everything is actually wonderful, without mentioning the offending original articles.

    Following a scathing Associated Press investigation into the failure of State to reconstruct Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake (Less than 12 percent of the reconstruction money sent to Haiti after the earthquake has gone toward energy, shelter, ports or other infrastructure. At least a third, $329 million, went to projects that were awarded before the 2010 catastrophe and had little to do with the recovery), State first tried an “Op-Ed” by the ambassador blithely mumbling that all was well. That was back in late July.

    It took almost a month more, but State did finally select its author for what appears to be a real puff piece, in this case some hack named David Brown at the hometown Washington Post (slogan: still dining out on that Watergate thing). Brown’s work at the Post has been mostly on health issues, mainly HIV/AIDS, with the odd bit about Warren Buffet’s prostrate (not good) and Dick Cheney’s artificial heart (“doing exceedingly well”). As such, he was obviously the perfect guy to write authoritatively on reconstruction in Haiti.

    Without too much surprise, Brown tells us of the wonderful work State, via its USAID arm, has done in one micro-neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. The short version is that in this one neighborhood, 500 people have new houses, lots of locals were employed to do the work, and civic improvements accompanied the new homes. It is a real success story. Read it yourself.

    Some Questions

    Here are the questions I sent to the Washington Post Ombudsman about the article. Should I receive a reply, I will feature it on this blog. Had the article addressed these points it might have floated above puff piece.

    Did David Brown locate this rebuilt neighborhood on his own, or did State direct him to it? Did Brown fly to Haiti specifically to do this story? What role did State/USAID play in his access to the neighborhood? Was he accompianied by anyone from State/USAID at any time? Brown does not seem to cover Haiti, State or reconstruction issues. How did he end up with this story?

    The story says $8.5 million US tax dollars were spent repairing or replacing 500 homes. That works out to a very rough figure of $17,000 per home. Haitian GDP is about $1300 a person a year, among the world’s impoverished. Is $17k per home expensive? Typical costs? What does the figure actually mean?

    Why did reconstruction seem to succeed so well in this one micro-area while failing broadly? Are there lessons to be learned and applied elsewhere in Haiti or is this an anomaly?

    The Associated Press piece focused in part on how little reconstruction money actually makes it to Haiti instead of being siphoned off by US contractors. Brown’s article claims all but four workers used on this project were Haitian. At the same time, he notes that the project sent only $1.4 million of the $8.5 million total into the local economy. That seems to suggest over $7 million bucks went somewhere else. Where did it go?

    Brown’s article, which ran on the front page of the Post and continued inside, quoted only two people connected with the project by name, the project manager paid by USAID and one engineer paid by USAID. Why were there no quotes from any of the Haitian residents of the new dwellings? Why were there no quotes from any local Haitain officials? Did the WaPo editors cut out such quotes? Did they not ask Brown to obtain such quotes? How did Brown fact-check the details given to him by the USAID-paid people? DID Brown fact check those details?

    As I learned in Iraq, building things is relatively easy given massive amounts of money. The real magic is sustainability. Brown tells us “Groups of houses share 23 septic tanks and 100 bucket-flush toilets, which can be locked for privacy. Twenty solar-powered lights illuminate streets.” What plans and whose money are in place to repair and maintain that technology? Who/how will the septic tanks be drained or pumped out? What happens when the first solar light needs replacing? Will any of this be there working a year from now? If so, under what plan? The article calls the work in Haiti a “renaissance,” a pretty dramatic word that is empty, meaningless and damned temporary unless there is a sustainability plan in place.

    Almost all the details in the story are unsourced. Brown talks about the number of septic tanks, a kidnapping and decisions taken collectively by the neighborhood. He does not say where any of this information came from. Where did this information come from?

    Brown states:

    Another big problem was that wider paths and outdoor places to sit were neighborhood priorities but there was not any unoccupied land for them. As the project evolved, 201 households agreed to reduce the size of their plots, 171 agreed to reshape them, and 51 agreed to share their plots with another family by living in two-story houses.

    This is a huge thing to have accomplished. In reconstruction work, the easiest thing to do is simply to redo what was destroyed, urban problems and all. Destroyed too-narrow streets are replaced with new too-narrow streets because it proves inexpedient to resolve the many disputes. How did this process actually work out in Haiti? Did it really happen? If it did, the method used should be a critical element toward replicating this success throughout Haiti. Did State/USAID lead negotiations? Was there some sort of local micro-government?

    Since it is unlikely that such agreement spontaneously emerged, leaving out the process raises questions about whether Brown had any idea what he was writing about, or was simply a notetaker for USAID’s propaganda machine.


    Over to you, Washington Post Ombudsman.

    BONUS: The Haitian government has hired an ex-Bill Clinton administration guy to act as a lobbyist, seeking to influence US decision-makers on aid and rebuilding issues.




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    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State

    Too.Much.Self.Love.

    July 25, 2012 // 7 Comments »

    I wrote yesterday that if one definition of mental illness is doing the same thing repeatedly hoping for different results, the Department of State is clearly and simply insane as an organization.

    Example No. 1 was then-ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, who oversaw a good chunk of the State Department’s failed reconstruction follies in America’s longest war. Crocker had previously overseen a good chunk of the State Department’s failed reconstruction in Iraq as ambassador there. He was also recycled to be ambassador in Pakistan, where things are also going swimmingly in anticipation of someone else’s disclosure book-to-come. Why keep sending a guy who failed at leading reconstruction efforts repeatedly back to lead some more off a cliff?

    The Crocker example was paired with a piece on State’s failures in post-earthquake reconstruction in Haiti, lead there by now-departing US ambassador Kenneth Merten (Merten’s departure was marked by the freakish sideshow caricature above, posted on the embassy’s official Facebook page; Crocker’s embassy staff blessed his departure by naming a hut after him. My own departure from the State Department will no doubt by marked by them simply slamming the door shut behind me).

    Today we learn from Diplopundit that Merten was the recipient of the 2011 Ryan C. Crocker Award for Outstanding Leadership in Expeditionary Diplomacy, for, of course, “his extraordinary leadership of the unprecedented U.S. government response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which… embodies the highest virtues of public service and crisis management.”

    So to sum up things at the State Department: a guy who fails at reconstruction gets chosen to do it again, then gets an award for such work named after him, and that award is given to another guy who was largely unsuccessful at the task.

    Aw yes, the circle is complete. As one philosopher stated, self-love is the purest form of affection. Gotta go wash up now.



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    State Department Fumbles (Haiti) Reconstruction

    July 23, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    While my book chronicled the State Department’s utter failure in the reconstruction of Iraq, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan details the Department’s ongoing failure in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, it is the Associated Press that shows us now how the State Department is failing in the reconstruction of Haiti.

    Remember like a hundred years ago (it was two years ago) Haiti had this big earthquake and Sean Penn had to go there to fix things? Well in addition to Sean Penn (Clooney was tied up on location), the US pledged to reconstruct Haiti, under the auspices of the Department of State. We would rebuild the country.

    State Tries to Hide its Failure

    Of course the State Department would not tell anyone how things were going, so the AP had to pry it from them. A major frustration for watchdogs of the U.S. effort is a lack of transparency over how the millions of dollars are being spent, claims the AP, saying that from interviews to records requests, efforts to track spending in Haiti by members of Congress, university researchers and news organizations have been met with resistance and even, in some cases, outright refusals from the always polite diplomats at the State Department.

    “A series of requests from journalists may come your way,” cautioned Karine Roy, a spokeswoman for USAID, in an email to about 50 humanitarian aid officials. “Wait for formal clearance from me before releasing any information.” U.S. contractors, from pollsters to private development firms, told the AP that USAID had asked them not to provide any information, and referred to publicly released descriptions of their projects.

    The Real Story

    However, contracts, budgets and a 300-item spreadsheet obtained by the Associated Press under a Freedom of Information Act request show why Foggy Bottom tried to hide:

    Less than 12 percent of the reconstruction money sent to Haiti after the earthquake has gone toward energy, shelter, ports or other infrastructure. At least a third, $329 million, went to projects that were awarded before the 2010 catastrophe and had little to do with the recovery.

    Half of the $1.8 billion the U.S. promised for rebuilding is still in the Treasury, its disbursement stymied by an understaffed U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince in the months after the quake and by a Haitian government that was barely functional for more than a year.

    Despite State Department promises to keep spending public, some members of Congress and watchdogs say they aren’t getting detailed information about how the millions are being spent, as dozens of contractors working for the U.S. government in Haiti leave a complex money trail.

    Of the $988 million spent so far, a quarter went toward debt relief to unburden the hemisphere’s poorest nation of repayments. But after Haiti’s loans were paid off, the government began borrowing again: $657 million so far, largely for oil imports rather than development projects.


    And of Course, Contractors Profit

    The single largest recipient of funding is, of course, a Washington, D.C.-area contractor named Chemonics, which has received more than $58 million, including $6.8 million to remove rubble, $7.2 million to develop a market for environmentally friendly cook stoves (a big personal Hillary issue; it was the reason she went to China recently), money for youth soccer tournaments (a popular money-waster in Iraq reconstruction as well) and “key cultural celebrations” including Flag Day and Mother’s Day. Even a Chemonics spokeswoman admits only 67 percent of the federal money went to Haitians.

    Huge surprise: Chemonics also has mucho contracts for work in Afghanistan!

    Meanwhile, 390,000 people are still homeless. The U.S. promised to rebuild or replace thousands of destroyed homes, but so far has not built even one new permanent house. The State Department, in response to the damning AP report sort of, kinda, maybe acknowledges that efforts to build shelters have been “slower than anticipated.”

    However, on State’s own Diplonote blog, reads by dozens at State daily, it is all success baby, all golden unicorn rainbow happy time. They assure us all that “the U.S. Government is Committed to Transparency and Accountability” in Haiti. As part of that assurance the blog tries to link to the Federal Procurement Data System so you can peruse existing contracts but they have the wrong link (the correct link is here). Somewhat oddly, the blog reminds that “If you don’t look closely, numbers can be deceiving.”


    Same as it Ever Was

    You’d think with all this practice that State might get reconstruction at least partially right at some point, and course it is possible that snowflakes will fly out of my butt someday too. But once again, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have the same elements of failure present: big, empty promises, an understaffed embassy floundering, propaganda friendly priorities that emphasize that whatever we do is for us, not the locals and contractors sopping up the cash like the pigs at the trough that they are.

    Best for Last

    State’s constant failures are built around a rotten core. Lacking any objective measurement of right and wrong, good or bad– no hills to conquer, sales quotas to exceed, battles to win, soldiers to count as trained, customer lists to build– “success” inside the State Department is fully and solely dependent on one’s yearly evaluation, which is dependent on pleasing your boss’ whims, which are dependent on his/her boss’ needs. This rarely has anything to do with making life any better for the stupid Haitians.

    The Associated Press illustrates this with a wonderful story.

    One of State’s most tangible post-earthquake accomplishments was the construction of a bridge across the muddy Ennery River. The bridge had been down for more than a year before the 2010 earthquake, a casualty of the 2008 hurricane season. Plans had been sketched for a new bridge, but there wasn’t funding. A few days after the quake, Hillary Clinton was being driven around for some disaster tourism when her car bounced across a partially submerged temporary crossing of the Ennery River.

    “USAID told me, ‘This came from Hillary Clinton herself: There must be a new bridge at Ennery,'” said engineer Larry Wright, who temporarily moved to Haiti from Wyoming to lead the $4 million project. “It’s known as the Hillary Bridge.” He said he didn’t know the funding came from earthquake reconstruction funds. “This had nothing to do with the quake,” said Wright.

    Sorry Haitians Iraqis Afghans, the joke is on you. Again.

    Bonus

    On the State Department’s Diploblog, which features heavily screened comments (don’t ask me how I know), one patriotic asshole named “Michael H.” couldn’t help but say:

    I enjoy all of the State Dept. e-mails that I am registered to receive. The information from Administration to Administration has been informative and it certainly goes beyond the information that is available through news-networks.

    Bonus BONUS

    State’s stalwart ambassador to Haiti released today an “op-ed” in the Miami Herald just plump full of happy thoughts on Haiti. Predictably, the puffy puff piece is very short on specifics; the best he could do was talk about an industrial park in the future tense, and even for that he makes no connection to anything the US may or may not have had to do with it. Lame; didn’t you people go to college?




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