By Patricia H. Kushlis
A year ago, the little known U.S. Office of the Special Counsel, created to protect whistle-blowers, ruled against the State Department in a civil service hiring case in which the OSC charged that the Department had clearly violated the Prohibited Personnel Practices law. The term used in the OSC press release announcing the decision referred to State Department “shenanigans.” The Department was ordered to cut them out.
But has it?
I now understand that outside investigators are looking into allegations that current and past senior officials in the Department’s Division of Human Resources (HR) have tampered with the results of Foreign Service promotion panels (apparently State has been dodging requests from Congress for such an investigation for several years). If so, this is likely to be just one more example of the Department’s continuing mismanagement of its single most precious resource: its cadre of highly skilled professional diplomats who represent America’s interests abroad. But the Department’s administrative record over the past several years – from last year’s breakdown in passport services and its highly publicized and needlessly embarrassing approach to Iraq assignments to the disastrous Embassy Baghdad construction project – makes this oldest and once-upon-a time flagship department of the U.S. government resemble a decaying hulk.
Has something gone wrong with State’s corporate culture? How and why have things been allowed to spin so far out of control? And what will it take to repair the listing Ship of State?
Let’s begin with Human Resources: HR knows how to look after its own.
In my two previous posts on Foreign Service Ambassadorial assignments, I stressed that Human Resources has done outstandingly well in taking care of its own – especially in contrast with its handling of State’s war zone vets. What is particularly striking is that not one Ambassadorial assignment has been made for any career officer who has served in either Afghanistan or Iraq and HR. What is also striking is that proportionally more Ambassadorial assignments have gone to individuals serving in HR or who had recently served in HR than those who have served in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Since far more senior officers have served in both of these large posts since 2001 (in the case of Afghanistan) and 2003 (in the case of Iraq) than in HR, something is wrong with this picture.
Here’s how I reached my conclusions.
I compared the nominees who had had recent (previous one to two tours) in HR* to those with recent Iraq** and/or Afghanistan experience.*** In my first post, I did not count Afghanistan veterans – although they appear to have fared far worse than Iraq vets. I did, however, count Afghanistan service in my second post. In my first post, I also included two officers who had served TDY in Iraq and two others who had served on the Iraq desk because I assumed, in the latter case, the desk officers had traveled frequently in and out of the country at the time – dangerous duty in and of itself.
I relied on publicly available data from the following websites: State, the White House and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Since not all of the information on the three sites agreed 100 percent, I cross-checked the nominees biographies among those three websites. State may quibble around the margins, but the fact remains the trend is obvious, overwhelming and, frankly, appalling.
I suspect – but do not have the figures to prove – that the pool of eligible senior officers in Iraq and Afghanistan combined is several times greater than the number of eligible officers in HR at any given moment. First, because there are so many people of all grades including the Senior Foreign Service - assigned to those two posts. And second because Iraq and Afghanistan positions turn over annually due to the high personal danger whereas a far larger percentage of jobs in HR would normally turn over every two-three years.
Scandal Ridden State
Over the past 18 months, the State Department has been rocked by administrative and personnel scandals. The first to break concerned its cavalier attitude towards personnel returning from war zones with PTSD – a story that first appeared in USA Today May 2007 but only after Iraq vet Rachel Schneller went public due to lack of departmental support for help overcoming her trauma. Schneller, by the way, just received the American Foreign Service Association’s constructive dissent award for her efforts in battling the Department on behalf of others returning with similar afflictions. Then came the denouement of Inspector General Howard “Cookie” Krongard who “resigned” in disgrace in December 2007 but not before 20 of his 27 investigators had quit and two had gone to Waxman’s oversight Committee on the Hill to ask for an investigation.
This was followed by the dismissal of the head of Diplomatic Security over the Blackwater contracting affair and the resignation of General Williams who had overseen the disastrous Embassy Baghdad construction effort. Thankfully, Henrietta Fore – the Under Secretary for Management who had overall responsibility for all these problems – was kicked upstairs. Unfortunately, she also went off to head USAID, an agency with major problems of its own. Finally, there was the March retirement of Consular Affairs Bureau chief Maura Harty who had reined over last spring and summer’s passport issuance (or actually non-issuance) fiasco and the far more serious alleged used of passport data to perpetrate credit card fraud.
To Top It Off: Visas for Sex?
Then in early June, albeit at a far less exalted level, a visas and perversion scandal broke in The Washington Post. Turns out Gons Nachman, a junior Consular officer was found guilty of child molestation. He had made video tapes of his exploits with under age girls at two different posts (Congo and Brasilia) in an apparent sex-for-visas trade-off and then had the temerity to ask the judge if he would marry him and a 21 year old Brazilian while he was serving jail time. Worse, the judge initially agreed. Now this might be funny if it weren’t so sick. I’m amazed the story didn’t run front and center in a supermarket tabloid or that the tapes of his exploits didn’t find their way to You Tube.
Since apparently Mr. Nachman had a history of frequenting naturalist er nudist camps prior to becoming a diplomat, one has to wonder what Diplomatic Security was thinking when, in 2003, they Oked his security clearance.
Relief at Last?
The good news is that the Department now has Patrick Kennedy as Under Secretary for Management. Kennedy, a former Assistant Secretary for Administration and veteran of multiple Iraq tours, was brought in last summer by Deputy Secretary John Negroponte. His first task – completed in short order - was to straighten out the passport issuance mess. Kennedy has an excellent reputation and is, I understand, slowly and methodically sweeping the crooks, cronies and incompetents out the door and replacing them with well respected professional Foreign Service administrators. These formerly retired professional diplomats with strong administrative credentials come in with clean hands: they have no connection to the sordid shenanigans of the past four-five years. But they also know how the Department should work and the Foreign Service managed. Kennedy’s crew has its work cut out for it.
Here are a few of my suggestions.
They need to tackle HR’s questionable behavior sooner rather than later and get those shenanigans stopped. They need to commission an unbiased study of and rethink Ambassadorial assignments. They need to develop a systematic approach to war zone versus hardship/unaccompanied post assignments and to obtain buy-in from the ranks. This may well mean a major housecleaning in HR based on the Golden Rule.
State’s new administrative team also needs to compare promotion rates of warzone vets versus non-warzone officers overall. It’s not that I think the Department owes faster promotions or Ambassadorial assignments to officers who have volunteered for warzones, I don’t. But I do think it’s imperative to set the record straight and in public – who, in fact, is getting promoted and whether or not warzone service counts more than serving elsewhere. This divisive issue based on corridor gossip is tearing the all too small service and department apart.
Note: Ambassadorial nominations of Senior Foreign Service Officers between 2006 and May 2008 (listed alphabetically)
*Recent Human Resources postings: (total = 12)
Bernicat, English, Hawkins, Hodges, Jones, Kennedy, Klemm, Myles, Nesbitt, R. Nolan, S. Nolan, Parker
**Recent Iraq assignments: (total = 14 including 2 TDY and 2 Iraq Desk)
Callahan, Derse, Ford, Godec (Iraq desk), Jackson (also Afghanistan), McFarland, Munter (TDY), Reeker, Scobey, Speckhard, Stephenson (Iraq desk), Symington (TDY), Taylor, Williamson
***Recent Afghanistan assignments: (total = 2)