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EXCLUSIVE: U.S. envoys hesitate to report bad news
Question of the Day
U.S. embassies are discouraging or suppressing negative reports to Washington about U.S. allies, sometimes depriving officials of information they need to make good policy decisions, current and former diplomats say.
One diplomat told The Washington Times that he has decided to resign in part because of frustration with “rampant self-censorship” by Foreign Service officers and their superiors that has gone so far as to ban “bad news” cables from countries that are friendly with the United States.
The diplomat, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retribution against himself and colleagues, said that, in one instance under the George W. Bush administration, an embassy in the Middle East did not report local government interference in elections. Senior management censored accounts of low morale at another Middle East mission that had been the target of terrorist attacks, he said.
More than a dozen diplomats serving in Washington and abroad told The Times that they agreed with most of the officer’s critique, and that the censorship has continued to a lesser extent in the Obama administration. All asked not to be named to avoid retribution.
Thomas R. Pickering, a career diplomat for more than 40 years who rose to be undersecretary of state for political affairs under the Clinton administration, said the criticism is “well worth paying attention to.”
“What worries me - and I have heard it before - is the expectation that reporting has to be tempered to fit the expectations and not the realities. This is dangerous and unprofessional and worse,” Mr. Pickering said. “Some of it always existed and it was not confined to the political ambassadors alone, but it was more their expectation than among the pros. That is obviously now changing.”
Current and former Foreign Service officers said the censorship reached a peak during the Bush administration. They attributed its continuation to a risk-averse institutional culture.
“Even in highly classified cables, people in the [Foreign Service] are very careful not to speak negatively about their host country,” said the diplomat, who is resigning after three overseas assignments.
His ambassador declined to comment for this article. The officer has received consistently good evaluations, including a recent cable praising his work from the assistant secretary of state responsible for the region where he is serving.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that a cable “represents the view of the chief of mission” who signs it, and that he or she therefore has ultimate responsibility for its content. That gives the top diplomat the power to edit a draft written by a lower-ranking officer.
Still, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton “appreciates those in the department who give her their honest assessment, and so does the administration,” Mr. Crowley said.
In the Bush administration, he added, “there were various people with shortcuts around the interagency process, and the president didn’t always get the best policy advice. This administration values all and different points of view.”
“There may be a temptation to put a particular spin on a reporting cable, but the risk for a post is being seen as out of touch, because the department has other sources of information,” he said.
Mr. Pickering noted that officers do have another outlet for their critical reporting: e-mails, which do not need clearance.
However, unlike a diplomatic cable, an e-mail is not an official document and is not read by the wide circle of policymakers.
About the Author
Nicholas Kralev is The Washington Times’ diplomatic correspondent. His travels around the world with four secretaries of state — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright — as well as his other reporting overseas trips inspired his new weekly column, “On the Fly.” He is a former writer for the weekend edition of the Financial Times and ...
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