There are about 40 of them -- ghost employees of the State Department. They have had their security clearances suspended and are under investigation until officials decide whether to revoke or restore them.
Some of the employees are Foreign Service officers with decades of experience. They say they have been waiting for as long as two and three years for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which investigates possible security risks, to make decisions in their cases.
Daniel Hirsch, one of the diplomats with a suspended clearance, was recalled to Washington from a Central Asian nation after his wife sought marital counseling. He has been in limbo, as he called it in an interview, for more than two years. Hirsch has retained his salary and, he said, performs "some light duties" in an office "with a lovely view of the Capitol dome."
Bill Savich, whose case has been pending for two years, was recalled from a "critical threat" nation after allegations were made that he had an improper relationship with a local woman. He denied the charge and said senior officials in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security will not respond to his requests for a ruling in his case.
Another diplomat, a 21-year veteran recognized for heroism in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, was accused in 2003 of making a sexual pass at a guard. He denied the allegation but was recalled and has worked in nonsensitive jobs since. The diplomat is gay and said he disclosed his sexual orientation to the department in 1988 to allay the risk of blackmail. He spoke on condition that he not be identified.
A diplomat with 29 years of service has been waiting nearly three years for a resolution in his case. He got a divorce while overseas and started dating, apparently prompting concern that he was not trustworthy, he said. He also spoke on condition that he not be named.
As in most personnel cases, sorting out allegation from fact is messy and time-consuming and requires subjective judgments. There are many facets to State Department cases, and they are not easily summarized.
But the diplomats in limbo contend that the department is allowing their cases to drag on too long. They say the department should overhaul how it handles cases and move more quickly to either revoke or reinstate clearances.
Savich said he will tell his story in next month's Foreign Service Journal, published by the American Foreign Service Association (www.afsa.org). The journal also will publish articles by one other employee and from security officials.
Hirsch and others argue that suspending clearances has increasingly become a "backdoor" way for ballooning cases that ordinarily would have been viewed as cause for disciplinary action or reprimands into matters of national security.
Because of renewed focus on security after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Hirsch said, "there is no room for gray areas, no real room for things that in the past would have been shrugged off or become the topic of a minor disciplinary action."
Government employees can challenge disciplinary actions but cannot file grievances or lawsuits over a suspended clearance when a case is being investigated as part of State's internal administrative process.
Once clearance is revoked, employees get a chance to appeal the decision. At the time of revocation, they receive a written explanation and can plead their case to State's director of diplomatic security. If that fails, they may appeal to a panel of senior department officials.
Adam Ereli, a department spokesman, told reporters last week that suspensions of clearances are considered "a very serious matter" and that they represent "a very limited number of cases."
Investigations, Ereli said, can be "complicated. . . . So it's not always as fast as everybody would like, but it's done in a way that I think is deliberate and careful and designed to move forward as quickly as they can."
The Bureau of Diplomatic Security declined to make key officials -- Richard J. Griffin, who heads the bureau as assistant secretary, and Joe D. Morton, the principal deputy assistant secretary for diplomatic security -- available for interviews.
There are no good endings in these disputes, as longtime federal employees know. Even if they win back their clearances, the diplomats said, their careers are effectively over.
"These investigations create a scandal all by themselves," Hirsch said. "So, odds of your rising above a certain level are ended."