High-level talks on fish fillets at an international flash point

Photos of cookies and a place card are among those posted by a State Department aide.
Photos of cookies and a place card are among those posted by a State Department aide. (Courtesy Of The State Department)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Al Kamen
Friday, March 5, 2010

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a congressional hearing Feb. 25 that she would try to resolve a trade problem that has blocked shipment of nine huge containers -- that's nearly 400,000 pounds -- of frozen Asian carp fillets from entering Israel. Carp is an essential ingredient in gefilte fish, traditionally eaten during the Passover holiday, which begins March 29.

Although there was much laughter at the hearing over the Gefilte Fish Crisis of 2010, it's no joke to Schafer Fisheries of Thomson, Ill. It is "the only company in the world supplying the Asian carp for gefilte fish," Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.) wrote in a letter to the Israeli ambassador here. And there is no Israeli supplier.

(Wait a minute? Thomson, Ill.? Where the Obama administration wants to send the Guantanamo detainees? So now Thomson has become the epicenter of the administration's foreign policy?)

Anyway, Israel slapped a 120 percent tariff on the fish, stranding two containers there -- worth $100,000 -- and seven others in cold storage in this country. The company says it laid off nine of its 43 Illinois workers and cut more than 30 workers' hours in half. The trade glitch with Israel, Schafer's biggest customer, also caused it to lay off 34 workers in Wisconsin and Iowa, the company said.

A day after the hearing, Clinton raised the issue publicly at the highest levels, with none other than Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in a discussion before their formal meeting. By late yesterday, there were hints that the two containers in Haifa might get in, but no other movement.

If it's this hard to get action on carp, think how hard the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations must be.

And why is this fish different from all other fish?

Too much information

Speaking of the State Department, the inspector general's report on the agency's public affairs operation found serious problems with morale, staffing, communication and leadership in the 175-person bureau. Some components -- for example, the "dysfunctional" Agency for International Development office -- have too many vacancies, the report said.

On the other hand, the public diplomacy office seems to be somewhat overstaffed. One employee, the report found, works about 90 minutes a day. Another "employee cited a three-page memorandum that the office director issued to all staff on the proper use of the office coffee pot," according to the report, first obtained by the Associated Press's Matt Lee.

Assistant Secretary P.J. Crowley was dinged for failure to communicate "his strategic vision" to all hands and for "inadequate oversight." Key deputy Philippe Reines, who worked for Hillary Clinton in the Senate, in the campaign and now at Foggy Bottom, "has important access" to her "but needs to communicate information transparently to" Crowley and others in key positions.

What! You want more communication? Be careful what you wish for. So now, on Clinton's five-country swing through Latin America, Reines is in constant, breathless twitter mode, communicating important information -- about his and her every move and thought.

Transparency? He's sending out scores of photos (http://www.flickr.com/photos/statephotos) -- they appear to be from an iPhone -- on Clinton's meetings, landings, arrivals, events, the plane itself and things important to us all, including a photo of his place card at one meeting and another of the cookies he was having for breakfast.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company