Senate, Qatar linked to State Department employees’ feud


(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

What started as essentially a family feud among federal employees has reached the Senate and potentially a key Middle East ally.

The feud involves former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) who have asked a Senate committee to postpone consideration of a Foreign Service officer as ambassador to Qatar.

In a controversial move last month, the Obama administration sent five Taliban detainees to Qatar in exchange for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held prisoner for five years. The next envoy to Qatar will have to deal with that.

The Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to consider the nomination of Dana Shell Smith on  Tuesday afternoon. But 11 former AFSA presidents have asked Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and ranking Republican Bob Corker (Tenn.) to postpone action on her nomination until a grievance involving Smith and another former AFSA president is resolved.

The long and complicated story dates back to April 2013, when Susan Johnson, who filed the grievance, and two former State Department employees, wrote a Washington Post op-ed article. They said the “Foreign Service is being relegated to a secondary status” by “the overwhelming — and growing — presence of political appointees in mid-level and top leadership positions.” The article also said the department’s General Service “has grown significantly the past few decades, at the expense of the Foreign Service.”

Smith and Valerie Fowler, both foreign service officers, took issue with the op-ed. They circulated a letter, signed by a total of 10 State Department officials, that said that the article was “inaccurate, offensive to many of our colleagues and completely misrepresentative of AFSA membership.”

Fowler later was on a review board that considered Johnson for a promotion she did not get.

Thomas Boyatt, a former ambassador who is among the past AFSA presidents supporting Johnson, said she filed a grievance against the department because it did not disavow the letter Smith and Fowler circulated. That letter damaged Johnson’s reputation, Boyatt said,  and sent an “intimidating” message to those who disagree with management’s orthodoxy. At the time, State officials did not endorse the op-ed’s message. The grievance also was filed because Fowler did not recuse herself from Johnson’s promotion review board as Boyatt said she was required to do.

State did not permit interviews with Smith and Fowler. Doug Frantz,  an assistant secretary of state, said the letter asking the committee to delay action on Smith “contained errors.”  He noted that Johnson’s grievance “was filed subsequent to Ms. Smith’s nomination.” He added that Johnson could have requested Fowler’s recusal from the board, but did not.

Though the letter from Smith, Fowler and the others to Johnson was sent by government e-mail, Frantz said it “was intended to be a private communication from AFSA members to the head of their association.”

It’s not private now.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012.
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