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

david petraeus and paula broadwell scandal photo of them togetherIn 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.


cia with naked woman silhouetteI 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.

paula broadwellPeople 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.

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

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Can a guy who didn’t get high get a security clearance?

I was sitting at my kitchen table with a former law-enforcement official feeling nervous about the fact that I’d never taken any illegal drugs.

“In the last seven years, have you illegally used any controlled substance- cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana, hash, narcotics, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, steroids, inhalants or prescription drugs?” the man asked, reading from a list of prepared questions.

“No, not at all,” I answered.

The man looked up from his yellow legal pad and put his pen down.

“You never smoked marijuana?” he asked, squinting his eyes as if struggling to see me.

I had no pony tail, I wasn’t wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt, and there were no half eaten cartons of Cherry Garcia in sight. Was my story really so unbelievable? I half-considered concocting some recreational drug use just to be a bit less boring.

I had passed the Foreign Service written exam and the oral assessment and had received a “conditional” offer of employment from the State Department. The offer was contingent upon being able to pass background and medical examinations, and having the good fortune to be invited to join an A-100 class, which is an introductory class for incoming Foreign Service Officers.

My kitchen table non-confession was with a contract background investigator who had been retained by the Office of Personnel Management to delve into my background to ensure that I wasn’t a spy, a terrorist, or a drug addict.
After the series of questions on drug and alcohol use, he asked me if I had any plans to overthrow the U.S. government by force. He was reading from a prepared list of questions, so it wasn’t like he’d sized me up and thought I was a radical jihadi, but I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone had ever answered yes to that question.

I sailed through the rest of his prepared questions without a raised eyebrow until we got to a section on my prior foreign travel and foreign contacts. I did my best to compile a list of my foreign travel over the prior seven year period, but had no idea who I should list in the foreign contacts section. I’d made dozens of foreign friends in my travels over the years but for the sake of simplicity, listed only a few as “close and continuing contacts.”

I assumed that the State Department would want Foreign Service Officers who had traveled extensively and had foreign contacts, but in the context of a background investigation, foreign travel and contacts are viewed with suspicion, and each foreign trip elicits a litany of additional questions.

After speaking with me, the investigator started knocking on the doors of my neighbors to ask about me each of the many addresses I’d live in during the previous seven years. After several of my former bosses and co-workers were interviewed, I was warned that the investigator needed to interview my current boss.

The State Department recruiter had specifically warned us against giving notice at our current jobs because our employment offer was merely “conditional” and not a done deal, so I had to inform my boss that I was quitting. Probably. But not really giving notice just yet. They were understanding, but it made me a bit of a lame duck months before I was to leave and the day the investigator came to our small office, the place was buzzing with gossip. I had to tell everyone that I was “probably” going to join the Foreign Service. Sometime soon, I hoped.

More than a year after I passed the Foreign Service exam I finally had my security clearance and a concrete offer to join the Foreign Service. A week prior to leaving for training in Washington, I asked my girlfriend to marry me. She said yes, but we had no clue what country we’d be in the next year and that suited me just fine.

Next: The List, The Call, The Flag- Assignments in the Foreign Service

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[flickr image via Wiros]