- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2009

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.

“Unfortunately, the e-mail may get out, but it doesn’t get widely seen and is not thus of policy significance and influence in the Washington reading community,” he said.

The resigning officer said that, during one of his tours, his ambassador, a political appointee of President Bush, “flat out banned any ‘bad-news’ cables, and made it known at all levels that we were only to produce ‘good-news stories’ about our [host] country,” a U.S. ally.

The officer said he had written “several cables critical of senior leaders” in his host country and about “interference by the government in the electoral process,” but many of them “were either quashed or radically altered.”

On the other hand, he said, negative cables are common regarding countries with strained relations with Washington, such as Burma, Zimbabwe and Venezuela.

Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the diplomats union, pointed out that the State Department has a dissent channel, through which officers can express disagreements with policy or other issues. However, there seems to be a widespread perception in the Foreign Service that the channel is almost “moribund,” she said.

“People don’t seem to believe in it anymore,” Ms. Johnson said. “Having a functioning dissent process is vital for the health of the system and our foreign policy, and AFSA strongly supports it.”

She said that AFSA has been struggling to find nominees for some of its annual dissent awards in recent years. As her organization’s new president, she said, one of her missions will be “revitalizing dissent.”

Several officers said that channel has been used few times because of the impression that the Bush administration did not welcome dissent.

Francis J. Ricciardone, deputy chief of mission in Afghanistan and a former ambassador to Egypt and the Philippines, said that his 31-year experience in the Foreign Service “may be unusual, but in any case it has not resembled what” the resigning officer described.

“Self-censorship most often is precisely that - self-imposed, from within oneself, not the larger organization,” Mr. Ricciardone said.

“There have been a good many play-it-safe colleagues along the way, but I guess I have been lucky to serve with intellectually restless people of great integrity - and humor - who have known and shown me the art of pushing different thinking through exasperating bureaucracies, the fog of political correctness and, at times, doctrinaire self-delusion,” he said.

Patricia Kushlis, a former career diplomat who now writes a blog on foreign affairs, WhirledView (http://whirledview.typepad.com), said that censorship “comes with a stultified bureaucracy and a [State] Department afraid to rock the boat for a variety of reasons - some good, others not.”

“There were always legal ways around the system if one looks, and that’s the hallmark of a good bureaucrat. Possibilities include e-mail, letters, telephone and simply briefing trusted journalists on deep background,” she said.

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