A Traveler In The Foreign Service: The Petraeus Fallout – Keep Your Pants On And Watch Out For Honorary Consuls

In the wake of the David Petraeus-Paula Broadwell-Jill Kelley scandal, many Americans are wondering why General Petraeus felt compelled to resign. Shouldn’t consenting adults be allowed to cheat on their spouses, so long as it doesn’t impact their job performance? The most recommended comment on a New York Times story in the immediate aftermath of Petraeus’ resignation follows this line of thinking.

“I fail to see how Petreus’ (sic) private life has any bearing on his effectiveness as a public servant,” wrote a reader from Minnesota identifying himself as Skeptical.

But the truth is that there is no real work/private life separation for CIA spooks, Foreign Service diplomats and anyone else with a top-secret security clearance that gives them access to classified information. As the director of the CIA, Petraeus is a huge fish, but even much lower level government employees have seen their careers go up in smoke based upon allegations of infidelity.

I know of a few cases where Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) had their security clearances suspended for allegedly cheating on spouses but for every one of those situations, there are several others where the employee keeps their security clearance while their “corridor reputation” is essentially shot.

It might seem unfair, but anyone who has access to classified material – and that includes someone way down at the bottom of the food chain like Bradley Manning, the accused WikiLeaks whistleblower, all the way up to someone like Petraeus – is susceptible to blackmail if they have secrets they don’t want anyone to know about.

A lot of Foreign Service hopefuls stress out about getting a security clearance. They worry that they may have smoked too many joints or their dicey credit score or a cranky old neighbor who might rat them out for some real or imagined offense. But the truth is that investigators are mostly digging around to see if the applicant is susceptible to blackmail for any reason – infidelity, debts, sexual orientation, etc.

The bottom line is that if you have a security clearance, you’d better be faithful to your spouse. (And even if you don’t, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb, don’t you think?) So if you want to join the Foreign Service, it’s probably best to forget about wife swapping, swinger’s parties, soliciting prostitutes and anything else that could spell the end of your career.

There are no hard stats on divorce rates in the Foreign Service, but there is anecdotal evidence that the Foreign Service lifestyle can be hard on marriages. In an era when our biggest posts are unaccompanied and more FSOs are being asked to live without their spouses for a year or more at a time, it’s easy to understand how respected people like Petraeus could go astray.

People who are put together in a highly stressful, claustrophobic, foreign environment, away from their families are more susceptible to temptation. That is not to excuse it, but if you read books like Kim Barker’s “Taliban Shuffle,” you get a sense that there’s a lot more partying and infidelity among the expats in Kabul than one might expect.

The other diplomacy-related takeaway from the scandal is Jill Kelley’s bizarre claim that she has diplomatic immunity, based upon the fact that she is apparently an honorary consul for South Korea.

“I’m an honorary consul general so I have inviolability, so they (the press), um should not be able to cross my property,” she said to a 911 operator. “I don’t know if you want to get diplomatic protection involved as well.” (See video below.)

Honorary consuls don’t have diplomatic immunity and their lawns certainly aren’t “inviolable” as embassies and consulates are, but give her credit for trying. The truth is that there are a lot of very bogus people, like Kelley, trying to pawn themselves off as diplomats. The Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger exposed the murky world of pay-for-title sham diplomats in his terrific film “The Ambassador,” which is available on iTunes, but even he might have to laugh at Kelley’s audacity.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service

[Photo credits: Michal Spocko, Mike Licht, and The Tim Channel on Flickr]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Thoughts On The Murder Of 4 American Diplomats In Libya

On Tuesday night, the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, four American diplomats, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in Libya when a rocket-propelled grenade struck their vehicle in Benghazi, Libya. They were fleeing the U.S. consulate, which was attacked by a Salafi Islamist mob that was outraged over a film that, according to the Telegraph, depicted the Prophet Mohammed as “a fraud, a womanizer and a madman” and “showed him having sex and calling for massacres.”

Protestors also made it over the wall at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, but luckily no one there was hurt. The film, which was also being promoted by the infamous Koran-burning Pastor, Terry Jones, was made by Sam Bacile, an Israeli-American who has been described in the press as “unrepentant,” “defiant,” and “unapologetic.”

Bacile told the Associated Press that he made the film with $5 million in backing from 100 Jewish donors and declined to accept any responsibility for the attack.

“I feel the security system (at the embassies) is no good,” he said. “America should do something to change it.”

When tragedies like this one occur, every current and former Foreign Service Officer (FSO), myself included, feels the loss. The Foreign Service is a family, a big dysfunctional one, but a family nonetheless, and everyone grieves along with these families.

The tragedy underscores the risks FSOs and their family members take in serving their countries overseas. The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) maintains two plaques inside the State Department’s Harry S. Truman building that contain the names of 236 diplomats who have perished while serving their country overseas.

The media often derides American embassies and consulates overseas as “fortresses” but when I was in the Foreign Service, I wanted our missions to be as secure as possible. All three of the overseas posts where I served were deemed insecure facilities that needed to be replaced, and in Skopje, the wing of the embassy that my wife worked in was deemed particularly vulnerable. (A new embassy has since opened there) I would invite any journalist that wants to criticize American security to go work in one of these facilities and see if their perspective changes.

Several years ago, I remember strolling right into the Hungarian embassy in Washington with no security in sight and thinking how nice it would be to be from a country that wasn’t a target for terrorists and other evildoers. I wouldn’t trade my citizenship for that of any other country, but I wish that the Sam Bacile’s and Terry Jones’s of the world would understand how their actions put Americans overseas in danger.

They should be ashamed of themselves, but obviously the blame for this incident goes directly to the evil perpetrators of the crime itself. Let’s hope they are brought to swift justice and are treated in the harshest way imaginable. Many on the right will recoil at the idea of blaming anti-Islam crusaders like Bacile and Jones. Mitt Romney hasn’t commented on the video itself but claimed that President Obama “sympathized with the protesters.

Romney apparently objected to an apparently unauthorized statement put out by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, hours before they were under siege. Governor Romney hasn’t spent much time in the Middle East and other parts of the world where being an American carries great risks and apparently isn’t aware of the need to try to keep a lid on the protests that have occurred around the Muslim World.

We know from past experience that ultra-conservative Muslims around the world don’t simply shrug off attacks on the Prophet Mohammed as the work of fringe zealots and yet people like Bacile continue to stir the pot, oblivious to the risks and the damage their work does to our country’s image. Why?

I didn’t know Ambassador Stevens, but some of my former colleagues did and from what I can gather, he was an outstanding diplomat and an all around great guy. One described him on Facebook as a “genuinely nice person,” “a gifted diplomat, and a good man,” while another wrote that he was “a peacemaker” and “one of (our) best Middle East diplomats,” who was a “scholar, a jogger, and a mentor.”

The State Department also released the identity of one of the other three victims. He was Sean Smith, an Information Management Officer who was a father of two and a ten-year Foreign Service veteran with previous postings in Baghdad, Pretoria, Montreal, and most recently the Hague.

My thoughts and prayers are with the families of all of the victims of this horrific tragedy. Their service, and the work done by everyone in the Foreign Service tends to go practically unnoticed in a country that takes too much for granted.

The public tends to think of diplomats as highbrow types who spend their time sipping cocktails in the European capitals, oblivious to the reality that many, if not most, are hunkered down in downright unpleasant places doing important, sometimes dangerous work.

It shouldn’t take a tragedy like this to remind us to be thankful for the sacrifices they make for our country, but as we grieve along with their families, we ought to also thank all those who serve their country overseas – soldiers, diplomats, aid workers, everyone – for their service.

UPDATE: News reports indicate that the Libyan attackers may have used the protests over the anti-Muslim film as cover to launch their attack on the consulate and the American FSO’s who died may have been in the compound, rather than fleeing in a vehicle. It will probably be months before we know exactly what went down but I stand by what I wrote this morning. The attackers are to blame but the filmaker/s should be ashamed of themselves for putting Americans at risk. News outlets have also called into question the identity of Sam Bacile, which may be a pseudonym. Romney, meanwhile, is standing by his ludicrous, slimy, uninformed criticism of the President, which has in some ways overshadowed the tragedy itself.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Queue Jumpers and Diplomatic Parking Scofflaws

The line of cars waiting to cross the border was, in fact, no line at all. It was an unruly scrum of cars, wide at the back end yet narrowing into a single line near the immigration booth, with battered old Yugos and brand new BMWs jockeying ahead, inch-by-inch, for supremacy.

We were waiting to enter Macedonia – Greek Macedonia, from Macedonia – Macedonian Macedonia, as in The Republic of Macedonia, or for Greeks, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. And as I sat in the logjam, wondering how to cut the line, I thought back to what Blake, my social sponsor at the American Embassy in Skopje, had said about the border.

“You don’t have to wait like all the other slobs,” he boasted. “As diplomats, we have the right to go right to the front of the line.”

And according to Blake there were other vehicular perks as well: park wherever you want, drive as fast as you like and zoom right through toll booths all over the country. But what Blake didn’t explain was how to cut the line at the border, and I didn’t ask, because at the time, it sounded like a very arrogant and stupid thing to do. Why would I cut the line at the border? Only a complete ass would do that, I thought. I didn’t join the Foreign Service because I wanted to be a scofflaw or line cutter, and the idea of drawing attention to myself by conspicuously cutting a line was not appealing. But I’m also highly impatient, and when I first traveled down to the Greek/Macedonian border and saw how long the line was, and how slowly it was moving, I quickly reconsidered my options. The time I’d save would be worth the momentary embarrassment.

But there were only two lanes open at the border, one heading in each direction, and there were scores of cars everywhere. On my first attempt at being a diplomatic line cutter, I was out of my depth and had no idea how to physically do it. So I sat in line like everyone else, plotting my next move.

After a few minutes, I saw a late model Mercedes Benz with tinted windows and diplomatic plates speed past the queue, then stop right before a large concrete median. A man hopped out of the passenger seat, said something to the Greek immigration officer in the booth and then, another Greek official came by and halted progress in the line and waived the diplomatic vehicle up to the booth to be serviced next. A-ha, I thought. So that’s how you do it.

But that was a beautiful new Mercedes Benz that commanded respect. I was driving a 1994 Nissan Altima with all four hubcaps missing, and a side view mirror that was held together with duck tape. I had the diplomatic plates, but I looked more like the assistant manager at Sanford & Son than a legit embassy official.

Nevertheless, I gave it a go, but when I tried it, a couple of cars started honking at me, making me feel like the bum that I was. I looked straight ahead, not wanting to make eye contact with any of the other drivers, and when I parked in front of the median and arrived, on foot, at the booth, the Greek official took a look at my car, then exhaled deeply, rolled his eyes and took a drag on his cigarette.

It appeared as though he planned to accommodate me, but unlike the previous VIP, there was clearly no rush for a low level official driving a junky old car like mine. Over the course of the next two years, I became far more adept at cutting lines at the various borders but I never felt very good about it. Not bad enough to stop the practice, mind you, just a little guilty.

The public has a general perception of diplomats as scofflaws who invoke diplomatic immunity at any opportunity to cover their asses. I think this perception stems from the bad press foreign diplomats in the U.S. get each year due to unpaid parking tickets, particularly in New York, where some foreign diplomats who work at the United Nations tend to park wherever they damn well please.

Last year, the Freakonomics blog posted the following table of outstanding parking tickets for NYC and D.C.-based diplomats.

New York

Egypt – $1,929,142
Kuwait – $1,266,901
Nigeria – $1,019,998
Indonesia – $692,200
Brazil – $608,733

Washington, D.C.

Russia – $27,200
Yemen – $24,600
Cameroon – $19,520
France – $19,520
Mauritania – $8,070

And the Daily Telegraph posted their own league table for diplomatic scofflaws in Great Britain.

China, 257 fines outstanding, £27,690 owing
Afghanistan, 245 fines outstanding, £25,820 owing
Turkey, 253 fines outstanding, £25,590 owing
Saudi Arabia, 169 fines outstanding, £15,440 owing
Cyprus, 140 fines outstanding, £14,500 owing
Pakistan, 128 fines outstanding, £13,120 owing
France, 120 fines outstanding, £11,900 owing
Ghana, 107 fines outstanding, £10,760 owing
Uzbekistan, 102 fines outstanding, £9,680 owing
Malaysia, 89 fines outstanding, £8,950 owing
Ukraine, 86 fines outstanding, £8,260 owing
Russia, 71 fines outstanding, £7,920 owing

In 2006, a study by Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel, economists at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, concluded that diplomats from the world’s most corrupt countries were also the most likely to be parking scofflaws. I think there’s some truth to that.

I think my social sponsor in Skopje, Blake, was the only Foreign Service Officer I knew who parked their car wherever they pleased. At all three overseas missions I served at, we received very clear messages from each front office specifically warning us against this kind of boorish behavior.

I’m biased but I think that American diplomats are among the world’s best behaved. Not because we’re the most virtuous, but because, as Americans, all eyes are on us overseas, waiting for us to slip up. The stereotype is that we’re arrogant and ignorant of other cultures, so we need to work a little harder to overcome that.

I did my part in the posts I served at – Skopje, Port of Spain and Budapest – by parking on the sidewalks, just like everyone else and cutting the lines at the borders in the nicest way possible.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

[Photo via Alan Cleaver on Flickr]

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Not much of a diplomat

My journey into the U.S. Foreign Service started as a Colonel Muammar Gaddafi impersonator in a school auditorium near Buffalo, New York in 1986. I was taking part in an 8th grade Model U.N. assembly, and had been given the difficult brief of dressing up like a citizen of Malta and delivering a speech advocating Maltese interests, whatever those were during the Cold War.

According to my trusty Encyclopedia Britannica, (remember those?) Libya was one of Malta’s primary trading partners, and since it appeared to be relatively close to Libya on the map, I went ahead and donned a flowing white Arab-style robe with matching headdress and aviator sunglasses for my speech. A photograph of me in my Gaddafi costume appeared in The Buffalo News, and someone at my school decided to send a copy of the press clipping to the embassy of Malta in Washington, in the absurd belief that they might find some amusement in the fact that a 13-year old boy was photographed grossly misrepresenting their country.

A few weeks later, I received a package from the office of the Prime Minister of Malta with some books about the country, along with a scathing letter, which darkly and absurdly hinted at a sinister, anti-Maltese conspiracy perpetrated by our “so-called free press” in Buffalo. My school was convinced that I’d created an international incident and forwarded the letter to the State Department. Five months later, I received a letter from the State Department’s Desk Officer for Malta, which contained an unlikely piece of advice: consider a career in diplomacy.

My parents bought me a shortwave radio and the crackling sounds of far-off places fed my desire to see the world. After college, I took jobs in advertising and publishing more or less to fund travel opportunities, and took off as soon as my bank account allowed for extended overland trips in Europe, the Middle East, Russia, Central Asia and China. The trips left gaping holes in my resume but renewed my interest in joining the Foreign Service.

Wanderlust is a romanticized concept but it can also be an affliction, a malady that prevents people from becoming settled, productive members of the rat race. After returning to Chicago, my adopted hometown, after along overland trip in 2000, I resolved to make a serious push to get into the Foreign Service, in the hopes that it would be a career that could channel my wanderlust into something productive. Rehabilitate me, if you will.Others have had much longer and more distinguished careers in the Foreign Service than I have, and this series isn’t meant to be a definitive account of what life in the service is like. There are more than 5,000 Foreign Service Officers working in some 200 posts all around the world, and everyone has their own stories, experiences and perspectives.

When I tell people that I was in the Foreign Service, I get a lot of blank stares and awkward questions. Even well educated people often have no idea what the Foreign Service is.

“Is that like the French Foreign Legion?” a medical doctor and Ivy League graduate once asked me.

In this series, former Foreign Service Officer, Dave Seminara, will attempt to explain what the Foreign Service is and isn’t, share some Foreign Service vignettes, and provide an answer to this question: is the Foreign Service a good career option for compulsive travelers?

Next: ‘You’ve Never Smoked any Marijuana?’ Getting into the Foreign Service

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

TSA causes two international incidents by searching Indian diplomats

It seems we common folk aren’t the only ones who find TSA‘s security checks intrusive. Transportation Security Administration officials have recently caused not one but two international incidents with India by searching diplomats.

India’s ambassador to the U.S. Meera Shankar got frisked at an airport on December 4. She was pulled out of the line because she had brown skin and was wearing a sari in a random search. When she revealed she was a diplomat, security officials were unimpressed and frisked her anyway.

Now it turns out this wasn’t the first incident, the BBC reports. Two weeks ago India’s UN envoy, Hardeep Puri , who is Sikh, was asked to remove his turban. Sikh men think it is immodest to remove their turbans in public. Once again, the diplomat mentioned his special status and was ignored. He was taken into a holding room so the turban could be checked for whatever it was the TSA thought he was hiding in there.

Hey, at least they didn’t have to go through a body scanner like Baywatch actress Donna D’Errico.