By Patricia H. Kushlis
Updated September 25, 2010
What does it take to qualify for a Presidential Rank Award? Serve in a war zone perhaps, or, maybe, preside over the worst US passport issuance debacle in recent history?
The State Department announced its prestigious Foreign Service 2009 Presidential Rank Award winners in the July/August 2010 State Magazine. Four of the Foreign Service recipients had previously held top positions in either Iraq or Afghanistan and one has just returned to Iraq as Ambassador. Given the tenor and tone of US foreign policy since 9/11 these awards make sense.
Other winners, however, include Nancy Powell, State’s own Director General of the Foreign Service; Philippe Lussier, head of the Office of Resource Management; and Foreign Service Institute Director Ruth Whiteside – in essence members of State’s own management team also rewarding, ahem, who else? Themselves?
The strange case of Maura Harty
Even more strangely, however, one of the other Presidential Rank Award winners had retired – or perhaps been retired kicking and screaming – from the Foreign Service on February 29, 2008 nearly two years before the most recent period covered by the award. Her last overseas assignment which had ended in 1999 was as Ambassador to Paraguay – neither an onerous war zone nor hazardous duty at the time.
Presidential Rank Awards are “for exceptional service over an extended period.” The recipients are “nominated by their agency heads, evaluated by citizen panels and designated by the President” according to the write-up in State Magazine. So it’s difficult to understand how Maura Harty, the recipient in question, could have possibly qualified for an award that was supposed to cover more than a year when she was no longer employed by the US government. Not only had she already left the Department well before years before but her final assignment as Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs (2002-8) had been fraught with scandal.
(Update) As it turns out, the March 2010 State Department Report on Integrity and Fairness in the Foreign Service stated that "Initial recommendations for presidential awards (based on the candidate's performance over the previous 3 year period) are made by the senior promotion boards." (see page 14 of the report) So how could Ms. Harty have even been eligible for the award when she left the service in early 2008?
Furthermore, evidently none of those involved in the Presidential Award decision – including the citizen panelists - had applied for a passport during the first eight months of 2007 or worried about potential security breeches even for themselves because of insecure RFID chips embedded in their own passports.
Getting to the airport on time
Harty so bungled passport issuance in 2007 by grossly underestimating the increased staffing needed to cope with the sudden, but predicted, deluge of passport applications as a result of new and more stringent US travel document requirements in the wake of 9/11 but she also failed to respond to the American public’s cries for help until the delays had become so lengthy and the bureaucracy so frozen that the only way applicants could obtain passports to make it to the airport on time required Congressional intervention on a case by case basis. That saga can be found here in various posts in WhirledView’s archives in the Passports and Visas Category as well as elsewhere on the web. The comments are worth reading too. Here are a few links to the most salient: US Passport Delays (March 2007), Dealing with the Passport Mess, June 15, 2007 , and The Erratic State of US Passports, June 2, 2007 Updated July 3, 2007
Perhaps the culmination of the 2007 passport disaster was Harty’s Congressional testimony in June 2007 which was broadcast live throughout the US. Her performance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that held the investigatory hearing was nothing short of calamity Jane’s.
Only after that, did then Secretary of State Condi Rice, Deputy Secretary John Negroponte and others in the department apparently catch on that they had a major political liability - not to mention public relations disaster - on their hands.
When the powers that be finally figured it out, they not only relieved Harty of her position as Assistant Secretary and terminated her Foreign Service career - through a convoluted early retirement package that kicked in eight months after the passport fiasco ended – but also appointed someone else in her place to the top level Foreign Service career position (Director General of the Foreign Service) for which she was rumored to soon move. Harty had been slated for a coveted top level career position according to Knight-Ridder syndicated columnist Joel Mowbray until the Congressional light glaring down on her head spotlighted the sludge rapidly accumulating in the Consular Bureau.
Passport delays weren’t the only problem
Not only did Harty preside over the seven month passport fiasco which had first erupted in January 2007 (I reported it here first on February 7 several months before it became a story in the major media) but there were two other major consular scandals or near scandals which she oversaw during her five year stint as Assistant Secretary. These were the RFID chip controversy and the Western Hemisphere Initiative (WHTI).
The latter meant travelers entering the US by land and sea – as well as air – soon also needed to show valid official travel documents. Given the 2007 disaster, Congress decided – over the Department’s objections – to delay the WHTI implementation for about a year to give the Bureau of Consular Affairs the chance to get its act together – which it did. Largely, if not entirely, under new management.
A Little More History
In early May 2007 after I saw the hits on various WV passport posts I had written jump from just a few per day to between 200 and 300 and comments from people with passport delay problems mushroom, I warned Ms. Harty - following a briefing at State - that the problems were major and increasing by the hour.
Her monotone response to me was, “oh, my, that’s too many.” Not only was her answer lackluster but she was also uninterested in hearing what I might have learned from the hundreds of people who had left comments about passport issuance delay problems on WhirledView or to ask me whether I might happen to have suggestions for improving the deteriorating situation – at least from a public relations standpoint – which I did.
Instead, the Bureau made things worse by continuing to post far too optimistic expected processing times on the Department’s website.
Perhaps because - according to Harty at the time - the problems were being solved by: 1) adding a second contract call center staffed by - according to frustrated applicants - operators who didn’t know anything; 2) and ensuring that applicants who were closest to their travel departure dates were serviced first.
The call center operators’ inability to answer even basic questions infuriated prospective travelers; and I’ve never been convinced that Harty’s second “solution” worked for any but the stout-hearted who lived near one of State’s regional passport offices and could devote at least a day to hanging out in a waiting room or more likely in a line that snaked around the building and onto the sidewalk. That is, unless the individuals called their Congressperson whose constituency representative would usually dutifully intervene at the eleventh hour to save the trip.
It was no surprise then that the State Department came across to furious Americans and their increasingly harried Congressional representatives as yet another example of total federal bureaucratic incompetence. Before State finally got its passport house in order, an angry Congress - I’m told – had to hire extra staff to handle the huge volume of complaints and pleas for help with this one single constituent issue.
By June we were getting 3-4,000 hits per day on WV passport delay posts and even a few interview requests from major US news media. It ultimately took the department six weeks of concentrated effort and emergency staffing beginning in July to put this Humpty-Dumpty together again. This was done by seconding hundreds of junior staff from their regular positions as well as rehiring retired Foreign Service Officers to clean up the months’ long backlog that had accumulated.
If presiding over this fiasco shouldn’t have been enough to have disqualified Harty from a Presidential Rank Award, there’s more. She was also at the helm when the GPO selected a Netherlands company named Smartrac with a chip making plant in Thailand whose security had previously been breached by the Chinese to manufacture machine readable RFID chips for embedding in all new American passports. Then the GPO grossly overcharged the State Department for its service. Here’s how Bill Gwertz characterized that problem in an expose in the Washington Times:
“Not only did the GPO – the federal government’s printing press – grossly overcharge the State Department for the production of passports when GPO is supposed to undertake the work at cost, but it also outsourced the work to Smartrac, a European company with production facilities in Thailand. “Smartrac,” according to Gertz, “divulged in an October 2007 court filing in The Hague that China had stolen its patented technology for e-passport chips, raising additional questions about the security of America's e-passports.”
You can read more details about this story on WV as well. The security issue, as far as I know, has yet to be resolved. Correct me please, however, if this problem’s been solved and I somehow missed it.
From Contractor Voyeurism to Visas for Underage Sex
Then there were other breaches in passport security under Harty’s watch – from contract employees illegally accessing celebrity applicant files to the infamous 42 year old consular officer Gons Nachman who landed in jail after being caught selling visas in exchange for underage sex at his two overseas previous posts (Congo and Brasilia).
Yet, according to State Magazine, Hillary personally made the Presidential Awards to the recipients lauding all with the tribute: “No way could we make any progress without your dedicated efforts.” Sure. Right. That may be true for the others on the 2009 list - but Maura Harty?