By William Fisher
The Bush Administration is seeking to recruit foreigners to fill 16 critical jobs at the massive new American Embassy in Baghdad while close to 50 experienced American Foreign Service Officers remain in legal limbo at the State Department in Washington.
This is the claim being made by an organization known as Concerned Foreign Service Officers (CFSO). It comes on the heels of an urgent memo to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice from the US Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who complained that his embassy was seriously understaffed and asserted that too many of its personnel were inexperienced.
The pool of up to 50 consists of seasoned Foreign Service Officers who have had their security clearances suspended by State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS). CFSO says DS frequently suspends security clearances based on bogus allegations, without due process, and often takes years to complete its investigations. During that time, experienced diplomats cannot serve abroad and are given make-work assignments in Washington.
One senior State Department official, not a member of CFSO, says the practices of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security have turned it into "the State Department's own version of Guantanamo."
In a statement, the CFSO said that, "as part of its efforts to staff critical positions in the American Embassy in Baghdad, the State Department sent a telegram to all American diplomatic and consular posts worldwide, seeking to recruit locally-employed staff to serve in temporary duty assignments in Iraq."
The organization noted that "locally-employed staff are foreign nationals who do not hold security clearances."
At the same time, the group charged, "The State Department has a pool of nearly fifty career Foreign Service Officers 'in limbo', pending resolution of security clearance suspensions," adding, "Like the locally employed staff being solicited, they do not have security clearances. Unlike the locally employed staff, they are all American citizens, and all have held Top Secret or higher clearances in the past. The list includes officers with years or even decades of experience performing or supervising the jobs being offered. Many are more than willing to go to Iraq and indeed, many have repeatedly bid on other Iraq positions and been turned down due to their security clearance status."
According to CFSO, "None of the officers in question is accused of any crime, nor any act against the interests of the United States. Almost all of them are accused of technical violations of a security regulation; the vast majority having to do with a decades-out-of-date cold-war-era contact-reporting policy that even the Department itself has acknowledged is contradictory and obsolete."
CFSO, a group of some 60 diplomats including several ambassadors, has been sharply critical of the State Department's Diplomatic Security apparatus for what it terms is its cavalier approach to what often proves to be career-ending actions because of the protracted periods before a suspension is investigated and resolved. This process, it says, often takes years.
In a May 31 cable, Ambassador Crocker told Secretary that the embassy in Baghdad -- the largest and most expensive U.S. embassy -- lacks enough well-qualified staff members and that its security rules are too restrictive for Foreign Service officers to do their jobs.
"Simply put, we cannot do the nation's most important work if we do not have the Department's best people," Crocker said in the memo.
The Baghdad embassy has a budget of more than $1 billion and a staff that has expanded to more than 1,000 Americans and 4,000 third-country nationals.
The State Department claims that 99 percent of the positions in the embassy and in regional reconstruction teams have been filled. But State officials have privately conceded that in the rush to fill slots -- each person serves only one year -- not enough attention has been paid to the management of the flux of people.
CFSO says the Foreign Service Officers whose security clearances have been suspended could be part of the solution. It points out that none of these FSOs have been accused of "any act related to their job performance or their ability to perform the duties of the jobs being offered" to third country national. It says most "have received numerous awards and commendations for their job performance. Six have received Department-wide awards for excellence and three have received the Department's award for Heroism."
CFSO adds that, "Despite the fact that their State Department security clearances are suspended, several still hold valid clearances, at the Secret level or above, from the Department of Defense or other agencies. To assert that these uncleared American Foreign Service Officers are somehow less trustworthy or less capable than equally uncleared foreign-citizen staff would be absurd."
Most of the FSOs with suspended clearances "are employed in clerical positions well below their level of experience and expertise, some are doing nothing at all, and some are performing support work very similar to the work being offered in Iraq," says the CSFO, adding, "It is hard to understand how xeroxing and scanning documents eight hours a day, five days a week, at a Department of State annex, is a better use of a senior-level Foreign Service Officer's time and salary, than working within his or her field, albeit at a lower level of responsibility, in Embassy Iraq."
CFSO says that once a security clearance is suspended, it often takes years to complete an investigation, and most suspensions ultimately lead to revocation. "For a Foreign Service Officer, losing a security clearance is tantamount to losing a job. Diplomats with suspended clearances are given desk jobs in Washington that require little or none of their expertise and experience. Experienced officers in whom the agency has invested large amounts of training are sidelined and unavailable for use by the agency."
CFSO charges that the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) within the State Department is "increasingly misusing a poorly managed and poorly regulated security clearance process to circumvent personnel regulations, to bypass equal employment opportunity and other civil-rights laws, to avoid due process in the established discipline and suitability processes and to punish dissenters and whistleblowers within the agency."
It claims that security clearance investigations are increasingly being carried out in a military-type environment by inexperienced personnel, "thus greatly extending the period during which a diplomat with a suspended clearance is unable to do any meaningful work."
The organization adds that these "acts of diplomatic security misfeasance and incompetence threaten the national security of the United States by reducing the reliability and integrity of State Department security operations...."
In a related development, the Bush Administration is urging Congress to give the State Department the authority to place diplomats with suspended security clearances on "leave without pay" (LWOP) - thus effectively ending most of their careers.
In a June 11 letter to House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Lantos (D-CA), the influential American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) - the diplomats' union - said it strongly opposed the State Department's proposal to permit it to suspend a member of the Foreign Service without pay when there is reasonable cause to believe that the member has committed a crime, even if there is no connection between the alleged crime and the member's position as a Foreign Service employee, or when the member's security clearance has been suspended."
AFSA said "the change would be profoundly unfair to employees."
It charged that the provision "would permit the Department to place on leave without pay an employee who committed an off-duty misdemeanor that has no connection to his or her job as a Foreign Service Officer (for example, driving under the influence of alcohol)."
AFSA said it "strenuously objects" to the provision because it would permit the Department to place an employee on indefinite leave without pay when the employee's security clearance is suspended. The Department's Diplomatic Security (DS) bureau, it says, has absolute discretion to suspend an employee's clearance. "The employee is not entitled to any details or documents regarding the basis for the suspension and has no right of response," AFSA says.
The organization pointed out that the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit recently overturned the Department of Justice's indefinite suspension of a DEA employee based on the suspension of his security clearance, finding "the employee had been denied due process because he did not have a meaningful opportunity to respond to the basis of the proposed LWOP."
AFSA added, "In addition to our concerns about due process, we are also very concerned about the lengthy period of time that an employee could be placed in a leave without pay status. Although the Foreign Affairs Manual states that DS will seek to investigate the underlying allegations and make a decision to either reinstate or move to revoke the clearance within 90 days, in reality, these cases take much longer. In AFSA's experience, most of these cases take two to three years to process, and on occasion four, five, or even more years before a final decision is rendered."
It cited one case where the employee's clearance was suspended in April 2004, saying, "DS has interviewed the employee on a number of occasions but has taken no further action regarding his security clearance. Another employee's clearance was suspended in November 2002. The employee is still waiting for a decision from DS regarding his clearance. Numerous other cases have taken two to three years to resolve."
"The scant information provided to an employee when his or her clearance is suspended and the lengthy time it takes before a final decision is made makes it profoundly unfair to place an employee on LWOP, particularly when one recognizes that many of these employees ultimately have their clearances reinstated because the allegations were unsubstantiated or did not warranted revocation of their clearance. To force employees onto LWOP during this period would amount to a presumption of guilt, without affording the employee even minimal due process. It would impose a severe penalty on employees before the investigation and adjudication of their cases are even completed," AFSA's letter stated.
State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security did not respond to telephone messages left by Truthout.