By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008
The U.S. Embassy in Berlin has instructed Foreign Service personnel stationed there not to attend Sen. Barack Obama's public rally today, which the State Department this week labeled a "partisan political activity" prohibited under its regulations for those serving overseas.
Government employees serving in the United States are permitted to attend such events under the Hatch Act, which bars other partisan activity, such as contributing money or working in behalf of a candidate.
But "we always maintain that no U.S. government Foreign Service person overseas should be seen to be advocating one side or the other," State Department Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy said, adding that "it has nothing to do with who" the candidate is.
"When a German sees you there, they're not going to think, 'Oh, he or she is on their off time.' It's 'Oh, they are a Democrat, a Republican, an independent,' God knows what," Kennedy said in an interview.
The American Foreign Service Association, the union of the diplomatic corps, objected to the ruling, calling it an "unnecessarily narrow interpretation" of the Foreign Affairs Manual. "The fact that you are working for the U.S. government overseas should not preclude political activity that you could engage in in the United States," one retired senior Foreign Service officer said.
Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is currently traveling overseas, stopping in recent days in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of an official bipartisan congressional delegation. But other stops, including today's appearance in Germany, have been organized and funded by the Obama campaign. He is expected to draw a massive crowd at the Berlin rally.
AFSA representatives met with Kennedy and State Department legal representatives Tuesday after two unnamed embassy employees complained to the union that the prohibition -- in an internal statement issued after some stationed there had asked about attending the rally -- violated their civil rights.
Kennedy cited section 4123.3 of the third volume of the lengthy manual of personnel regulations for the Foreign Service, which says: "A U.S. citizen employee, spouse, or family member shall not engage in partisan political activities abroad."
In the interview, Kennedy described the regulation as "a standing policy," although he acknowledged that "I don't believe we've ever had to interpret this before. None of us thinking about this could come up with a precedent" for the Obama campaign rally.
He said that despite the manual's prohibition on "spouses and family members," the departmental interpretation was that only Foreign Service members were barred from attending the event.
In a letter yesterday to embassy employees in Berlin, the AFSA said that the ruling could be contested through a formal grievance procedure but that "we have no way to compel the Dept. to change the policy over the next 18 hours between now and the Obama speech."