International drama added to Foreign Service officers’ feud

Joe Davidson
Columnist June 24

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 asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to postpone consideration of a Foreign Service officer as ambassador to Qatar.

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

That added a little international drama to an otherwise internal dispute among Foreign Service officers, who generally appear to be a pretty cohesive bunch.

Qatar increased interest in the rumpus because of President Obama’s controversial move last month. The 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.

Apparently sensing a tactical opportunity, 11 former AFSA presidents asked Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and ranking Republican Bob Corker (Tenn.) to postpone action on the Qatar nominee, Dana Shell Smith. They wanted her nomination delayed until an employment dispute involving her and another former AFSA president, Susan Johnson, is resolved. Smith, the former AFSA presidents said, “has not demonstrated the judgment or temperament” to be chief of mission.

The tactic was successful in raising the visibility of Johnson’s complaint with the State Department. It wasn’t successful in postponing action on Smith’s nomination. She was easily approved along with other nominees in a block voice vote. There wasn’t any mention of the dispute involving Smith and Johnson, nor any discussion about Smith’s nomination before the vote.

“I appreciate their [former AFSA presidents’] concerns, but I saw nothing in the nominee’s hearing or abilities to not move forward, and Qatar is incredibly important to us,” Menendez said after the committee meeting.

The family feud is rooted in a broader issue — the appropriate role of political appointees in government agencies.

The long and complicated story dates to April 2013, when Johnson, who filed the complaint, and two former State Department officials 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.”

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

Johnson’s arguments, they added, were “short-sighted and selfish.”

Two co-authors wrote the article with Johnson, but, for whatever reason, the letter criticizing the op-ed did not mention them. Also, two signers of the letter to Johnson were approved for ambassadorships without controversy.

Though the letter said “we are expressing our own personal opinions in this letter,” the writers sent it through the government’s e-mail system and included their work titles written in State’s abbreviated form.

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

Without mentioning names, a statement from the current AFSA leadership said that it “is focused on achieving Senate confirmation of all career Foreign Service ambassadorial nominees” and that it “does not comment on individual members’ grievances because they are confidential.”

Johnson referred all comment to Thomas Boyatt, a former ambassador who is among the past AFSA presidents supporting her. Boyatt said Johnson filed a grievance against the department because it did not disavow the letter Smith and Fowler circulated. That letter damaged Johnson’s reputation and opportunity for promotion, Boyatt said, and sent an “intimidating” message to those who disagree with management’s orthodoxy. At the time, State officials seemed cool to the op-ed’s message but did not criticize Johnson directly. The complaint also was filed because Fowler did not recuse herself from Johnson’s promotion review board as good personnel practice says she should have.

The letter from Boyatt and other Johnson supporters to the committee said State’s appearance of condoning the comments from Smith, Fowler and their group “send a chilling message that speaking out about or questioning personnel policies that lead to the weakening of the Foreign Service as a professional cadre may put careers at risk.”

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 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. Johnson, however, did not personally appear before the panel and did not know Fowler was on the board before it finished its review.

Though Smith, Fowler and the others criticized Johnson 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.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/
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