By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 1, 2007
Uneasy U.S. diplomats yesterday challenged senior State Department officials in unusually blunt terms over a decision to order some of them to serve at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad or risk losing their jobs.
At a town hall meeting in the department's main auditorium attended by hundreds of Foreign Service officers, some of them criticized fundamental aspects of State's personnel policies in Iraq. They took issue with the size of the embassy -- the biggest in U.S. history -- and the inadequate training they received before being sent to serve in a war zone. One woman said she returned from a tour in Basra with post-traumatic stress disorder only to find that the State Department would not authorize medical treatment.
Yesterday's internal dissension came amid rising public doubts about diplomatic progress in Iraq and congressional inquiries into the department's spending on the embassy and its management of private security contractors. Some participants asked how diplomacy could be practiced when the embassy itself, inside the fortified Green Zone, is under frequent fire and officials can travel outside only under heavy guard.
Service in Iraq is "a potential death sentence," said one man who identified himself as a 46-year Foreign Service veteran. "Any other embassy in the world would be closed by now," he said to sustained applause.
Harry K. Thomas Jr., the director general of the Foreign Service, who called the meeting, responded curtly. "Okay, thanks for your comment," he said, declaring the town hall meeting over.
In notices e-mailed to Foreign Service officers around the world late Friday night, Thomas wrote that State had decided to begin "directed assignments" to fill an anticipated shortfall of 48 diplomats in Iraq next summer. Separate e-mail letters were sent to about 250 officers selected as qualified for the posts. If enough of them did not volunteer, the letters said, some would be ordered to serve there.
Foreign Service officers swear an oath to serve wherever the secretary of state sends them, but no directed assignments have been ordered since the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War. More than 1,200 of 11,500 eligible State Department personnel have already served in Iraq, but the growth of the embassy has led to an ever-increasing demand.
The notices, which most diplomats first learned about from the news media as the e-mails sat in their office computers over the weekend, appeared to have catalyzed unease that has been swirling through the Foreign Service over issues that include Iraq, underfunding and inadequate recruitment, perceived disrespect from the U.S. military and the job performance of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
A poll conducted this month by the American Foreign Service Association found that only 12 percent of officers "believe that . . . Rice is fighting for them," union president John K. Naland said at yesterday's meeting, which was first reported by the Associated Press.
"That's their right. But they're wrong," said Thomas, who appeared to grow increasingly agitated as the questioning became more pointed.
"Sometimes, if it's 88 to 12, maybe the 88 percent are correct," Naland said.
"Eighty-eight percent of the country believed in slavery at one time. Was that correct?" Thomas responded, saying he was "insulted." Rice is fighting hard for them, he said. Amid scattered boos from the audience, Thomas added: "Let no one be a hypocrite. I really resent people telling me that I do not care about other Foreign Service officers."
The session began sedately. "We are the Foreign Service and the Civil Service of the United States of America," Thomas told them. "I am very proud of you. There is none better."
But he got quickly to the point. "We have 250 jobs to fill in the summer of '08 in Iraq," he said. "We have filled a little over 200."
Thomas reminded them, according to an audiotape of the session, that "every member of the Foreign Service, there can be no doubt, has agreed to worldwide availability. Every member . . . has taken an oath to the flag and the country." If volunteers come forward for the unfilled posts, he said, "we will cease this operation. But if not, we will continue. . . . If we have to, we will redirect assignments."
Some may have already decided that they "can no longer live up to their worldwide availability obligation," he said. "We will respect that. I will not criticize anyone. I will not slander anyone. . . . But we're going to move on with this."
Thomas told the diplomats that in the future, "everyone in the Foreign Service is going to have to do one out of three tours in a hardship post." Those who have not served in hardship assignments in the past will not be punished, but they all have to realize that there are "different conditions" now than in the past, he said. New training programs for those serving in hardship and dangerous posts are being developed, he said.
Many in the audience appeared initially reluctant to ask questions, according to several who attended. "I assure you you're not going to be punished or placed on a list," Thomas invited.
Naland rose first to note that there were "only about 30 spaces left" on a memorial plaque in the building commemorating those who had died on duty. His members told him that "some of our people [in Iraq] can't really do their jobs because of the security situation," he said, asking, "How certain are you and the secretary . . . that every one of those posts must be filled, that they require unarmed, undertrained Foreign Service and Civil Service [employees] to go there?"
At least three department employees have been killed in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Naland said in an interview that some diplomats sent to Vietnam received four to six months of training. Many of those who have gone to Iraq received only two weeks of training, he said.
Thomas said he had traveled to Baghdad and gone over the staffing list with U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. Crocker sent a brusque cable to Rice in March saying that he needed more and better-qualified people if the U.S. diplomatic mission in Iraq was to succeed. Thomas said he was "not going to dispute that some people may disagree on the numbers." But, he said, "we have to go with the ambassador."
The number of diplomatic positions in Iraq has increased every year since the embassy was opened in 2004. The expansion of provincial reconstruction teams -- made up of diplomats who work with local communities outside Baghdad -- from 10 to 25 last summer as part of President Bush's new strategy, added 30 Foreign Service personnel and many more outside contractors.
Amid the anger expressed, the woman who was stationed in Basra said she had "absolutely no regrets" about serving in Iraq. "I wanted to go to a place where I knew it was important for my country to be," she said, "even though I had a lot of questions about the origins of the war to begin with."
But citing her own medical situation and sounding near tears, she said: "The more who serve in war zones, the more that will come back with these sorts of war wounds. . . . Now that you are looking at compulsory service in war zones . . . we have a moral imperative as an agency to take care of our people."