Saturday, October 31, 2015

Embassy Bishkek Leaves the Silver Diner

Photo from U.S. Embassy Bishkek's Facebook page

SecState Kerry went to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, today to cut the ribbon on another new U.S. Embassy that was completed by my good friends in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. He made some appropriate remarks at the dedication ceremony.

First, Ambassador Sheila Gwaltney recalled the old embassy building - the one that's being replaced today - which was brand new the first time she was posted to Bishkek.

The American Embassy in the Kyrgyz Republic has come a very long way. Our initial embassy was a kindergarten here in Bishkek, and we very quickly outgrew it. When I served in the Kyrgyz Republic for the first time in 1999, I felt fortunate to work in our current embassy building which was new at that time. It was great. Everyone had decent office space, new computers and printers, and for the first time in my Foreign Service career all of the furniture in our offices matched. (Laughter.) I think others had the same experience.

That second embassy was modular, meaning that it was built in the United States, shipped to Bishkek, and assembled here. However, as our partnership with the Kyrgyz Republic deepened and our cooperation expanded, we quickly outgrew that office space and needed a new chancery that would represent the strength and the importance of our bilateral relationship with the Government and the people of the Kyrgyz Republic.

Now we have a chancery that is built on this site and is anchored in Kyrgyz soil. This building represents an investment in the future of our bilateral relationship. We are very proud of this new chancery. I am delighted that my colleagues will work in an embassy where they will be safe, secure, and have a comfortable environment that will facilitate their creativity and efficiency.

Then, SecState Kerry enthused about our new new embassy in Bishkek - "It’s a superb building. It is brilliantly designed. It’s bright; it’s open; it’s energy-efficient" - but he did find fault with its lack of trees and saw room for aesthetic growth. (Does he mean shrubbery?)
We – I want to congratulate all those who have been involved in helping to bring the construction of this building to a successful conclusion, and I hope you’ll all agree that the effort has been worthwhile. I don’t know if our security people will allow it, I don’t know what the rules are, but I was sitting here thinking I want to see some trees along these walls here, and maybe we can do some things that aesthetically grow it as we go forward.

When Ambassador Gwaltney got the microphone back she recognized OBO's representative at the dedication.
Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. We are also honored to have with us today Ambassador Will Moser, who is the principal deputy director of the Office of Overseas Building Operations at the Department of State, the office that had responsibility for building this beautiful chancery. Ambassador Moser, would you join us? Mr. Secretary, Mr. Minister, shall we go and cut the ribbon.

As an aside, Will Moser is someone OBO-watchers should keep an eye on. Ambassador to the Republic of Moldova before being assigned to OBO as PDAS, he is an experienced career Foreign Service Office with a strong background in embassy management, logistics, and global support. In other words, he is just the sort to provide OBO with the adult supervision that its current Director and her Deputy Director cannot. He also handles hostile questioning from Congress a lot better than they do, judging from what I saw at the recent House Oversight hearing on Mexican border violence.

Lastly, allow me to say a word about the old embassy building in Bishkek and why it was known as The Silver Diner.

As Ambassador Gwaltney noted, the building was of modular construction, meaning it was built in sections at a factory in the U.S., with the sections shipped to Bishkek and assembled on the embassy site. The result was not something an architect would love, but it was a functional and secure office building. Ambassador Gwaltney seems to have fond memories of working there.

Above all, that modular building was fast and cheap. Our initial embassy in Bishkek was in a former kindergarten which we replaced with the modular building in 1998. The cycle of planning, contracting, designing and constructing that replacement was probably not more than two years. The cost was $15 million. That's not a typo. The new embassy office building actually cost $15 million, an amount of money that would not pay for the windows or the doors in any current Fortress Embassy. OBO's contractor, Kullman Industries, won an industry Design-Build Award in 1999 in the category of Public Sector Projects under $15 million. I will never again be able to type "$15 million" in a post about new U.S. Embassy construction costs.

Old Embassy Bishkek, photo from

A Silver Diner - see the shared architectural DNA? 

That's it, above left. On the right is a typical Silver Diner restaurant. The similarity is no accident.

The embassy construction constructor was Kullman Building Corporation, which began in 1927 as Kullman Dining Car Company, a builder of railroad dining cars. By the 1940s, railroad cars had morphed into roadside restaurants, of which Kullman was a prime builder. Eventually, Kullman used the techniques of railroad dining car construction to manufacture buildings of all types, as explained in New York Architecture's salute to the diner:
Strip a diner of its stainless steel, its restaurant equipment, furnishings and ornamentation, and what remains is a highly durable steel and concrete building module, that interconnects with other such modules to form a variety of building types. Kullman, with Robert's urging, aggressively pursued this new potential in the corrections, educational, institutional, and broader food service markets.

The company coined the term "Accelerated Construction" to describe a building process free from the uncertainties of weather, site conditions, and contractor relations. Accelerated or factory construction utilizes the same building materials and labor found on any project site, but with an extra measure of quality control and predictability.

-- snip --

In 1994, Kullman made history yet again by building a United States embassy building at its plant in Avenel, New Jersey and shipping it to Bissau, Guinea-Bissau. This development marked the first construction of an American embassy in America, and its success led to projects for Ashgabat, Turkmenistan and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Built, shipped, and assembled by American personnel with security clearances, Kullman helped the State Department avoid the security risks that often plague on-site construction by local labor in foreign countries.

Modular construction is a common practice for school systems, chain restaurants, banks, hotels, and so forth. It makes sense because there are only a very few different ways you can lay out, for example, a branch bank. The tellers have to be in a certain configuration and relationship to the bank officers, to the vault, and to the drive-up window. You can design it once and build it many times. It's the same thing with hotels. Frequent travelers must have noticed that all Hyatt Hotels have pretty much the same lobby and atrium.

New U.S. embassy buildings could also be modularized, which would not only reduce their design costs but also greatly shorten their construction times, which is where the big savings would occur compared to conventional construction.

Such a great deal! Why doesn't OBO do more modular construction? In my opinion, it's because architects generally hate modular construction, and OBO is pretty much run in the interests of architects.

Maybe that will change if, someday, an experienced Foreign Service Officer with a strong background in management, logistics, and global support were ever to be put in charge of OBO.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

Dog named Trigger shoots owner while hunting - WANE, North Webster, Indiana

Allie Carter, 25, of Avilla was hunting waterfowl at Tri-County Fish and Wildlife Area on Saturday.

Carter was apparently repositioning herself while hunting and placed her 12-gauge shotgun on the ground at her feet. That’s when the Department of Natural resources said her 10-year-old chocolate Labrador, “which is ironically  and aptly named Trigger,” stepped on the shotgun. The gun went off and shot Carter in the foot, point-blank.

Carter reportedly did not complete a hunter education course.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

From the Golden Age of Homeland Security - Teen Angst Songs

Here's a 1962 Atomic Age teen love song, preserved by the Cold War pop culture folks at CONELRAD.

A little background on this Atomic Platter:
Pop culture historians and music scholars have long noted that the so-called teenage "death" songs of the late fifties and early sixties (1959's "Teen Angel," 1960's "Tell Laura I Love Her" 1962's "Patches," etc.) were, in effect, allegorical Bomb songs. These dire, yet catchy songs about train accidents, car wrecks and double suicides channeled the atomic angst of America's youth into mainstream hit singles.

The unforgettable 1962 release "Fallout Shelter" took a more direct approach in conveying the fears of teenagers everywhere over nuclear annihilation. Its melodramatic storyline of a boy who wants to share his family's shelter with his girlfriend and his father's intervention is a perfect blending of elements from the overt and the allegorical/subtle Bomb song.

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

"Puerto Rico's high murder rate is creating a huge opening in organ transplant industry for Americans who need surgery" - Reuters via UK Daily Mail

Puerto Rico's murder and non-negligent manslaughter rate of 19.2 per 100,000 people translates into a pool of donors in the 18-30 age range unmatched in the mainland ... "The donors (are) victims of car accidents or gunshot wounds to the head, because Puerto Rico, sadly, we have a very high crime rate."

Beyond Capitol Thunderdome: Can't Anybody Read?

I mentioned this before, on the evening of the first day of the marathon Benghazi Select Committee hearing - or was there only one day? It seemed like more - but it continues to bug me that there is so much confusion over the rather important question of whether or not the SecState waived legal requirements and security standards for the facility in Benghazi.

The mistaken impression that Hillary Clinton either waived or failed to waive the requirements of the law pertaining to the Special Mission facility in Benghazi appears to have set in as one of the few gotchas to come out of the hearing. That impression is mistaken because SECCA applies only to overseas diplomatic facilities that have been notified to the host government as diplomatic premises, such as chanceries and consulates. The policy for applying SECCA is established in Foreign Affairs Manual 12 FAM-300, which is publicly available. According to the report of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) - which is also publicly available - the facility in Benghazi was not notified to the host government as a diplomatic premise, therefore the law did not apply and it did not require a waiver.

Anyone interested in this matter can read 12 FAM 300 for himself and see what I'm talking about. Here's a tip: read the entire thing starting from the top, and don't skip the part that states how diplomatic facilities are defined for the purpose of applying SECCA. For some reason, journalists, Congressional staffers, and commentators who quote from it, are skipping ahead to the part they like, where the SecState has waiver authority that may not be delegated, and ignoring the all-important bureaucratic minutia of 12 FAM-313, paragraph b.

But what do I know? Here a report from Breitbart which quotes the back-and-forth between Rep. Susan Brooks and Hillary Clinton that constitutes the smoking gun of this false allegation:
Brooks asked, “Congress passed something referred to as SECA, the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act, which requires the secretary of state to issue a waiver if under two conditions if US government personnel work in separate facilities, or if US overseas facilities do not meet security setback distances specified by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. the law specifies that only the secretary of state may sign these waivers, and that requirement is not to be delegated. Was a waiver issued for the temporary mission in Benghazi, and the CIA annex after the temporary mission compound was authorized through December of 2012? And did you sign that waiver, Madame Secretary?”

Hillary answered, “T think that the CIA annex, I had no responsibility for, so I cannot speak to what the decisions were with respect to the CIA annex.” She did acknowledge she was responsible for the temporary mission compound before continuing, “I had no responsibility for the CIA annex, obviously. The compound in Benghazi was neither an embassy nor a consulate. Those are the only two facilities for which we would obtain a formal diplomatic notification, and those were the only kinds of facilities that we would have sought waivers for at the time, because we were trying to, as has been testified to earlier, understand whether we were going to have a permanent mission or not. That means you have to survey available facilities, try to find a secure facility, and the standards that are set by the inter-agency Overseas Security Policy Board are the goals we try to drive for. But it is very difficult, if not impossible to do that in the immediate aftermath of a conflict situation. The temporary mission in Benghazi was set up to try to find out what was going on in the area, to work with the CIA, where appropriate, and to make a decision as to whether there would be a permanent facility. So, we could not have met the goals under the Overseas Security Policy Board, nor could we have issued a waiver, because we had to set up operations in order to make the assessments as to whether or not we would have a permanent mission, whether that mission would remain open, and we made extensive and constant improvements to the physical security, some of which I mentioned before.”
Hillary answered the question correctly, i.e., the Special Mission facility was not a chancery or consulate and those are the only types of facilities that would need waivers. But then she rambled on about other matters until she seemed to be saying that the uncertain duration of the Mission was the main thing.

Another commentator who seems to have poor reading comprehension is Victoria Toensing, who is confused by both 12 FAM-300 and the Benghazi Accountability Review Board report.

This is Toensing's critique of Rep. Brook's inept questioning of the witness - By law, Clinton was required to waive the security in Benghazi and could not delegate that decision:
Repeatedly, the Committee allowed Clinton to claim she had nothing to do with security in Libya. Such requests “were rightly handled by the security professionals…. I did not see them. I did not approve them. I did not deny them.” However, the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999, SECCA, passed in the wake of the 1998 Embassy twin bombings in Africa when Bill Clinton was president, required her to rule on the substandard security in Benghazi.

As with Benghazi, an Accountability Review Board (ARB) for each African bombing was convened. The ARBs faulted the State Department for no accountability for the security in Kenya and Tanzania, and made specific recommendations for future Secretaries of State. But Congress went further. SECCA requires the Secretary to waive any situation where all the embassy buildings are not housed in one facility, as was the case with Benghazi, and states that the decision cannot be delegated.

For a long time, the Committee seemed to be aware only of the ARB language, quoting it extensively while ignoring the statutory mandate. Finally, during the dinner hour, Rep. Susan Brooks broached the issue but clearly did not understand the law. When Sec. Clinton demurred she did not sign a waiver because the Benghazi consulate was “temporary,” Brooks abandoned the subject. But Brooks’ acquiescence missed the point of the law. It was intended to cover such “temporary” facilities.

The Benghazi ARB admitted in its 2013 report that there had been a waiver, describing the Benghazi compound as being “excepted” under the law. Was no one on the Committee aware of that fact? An obvious follow up question: “But Ms. Clinton, who did the ARB refer to when saying Benghazi had been excepted?” And then: “If you did not sign the waiver, who did?” But the Committee let her escape an admission of violating the law by falsely claiming it did not cover a temporary facility.

Toensing is berating the Committee members and staffers for being unaware of this passage in the ARB report:
Another key driver behind the weak security platform in Benghazi was the decision to treat Benghazi as a temporary, residential facility, not officially notified to the host government, even though it was also a full time office facility. This resulted in the Special Mission compound being excepted from office facility standards and accountability under the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999 (SECCA) and the Overseas Security Policy Board (OSPB). Benghazi’s initial platform in November 2011 was far short of OSPB standards and remained so even in September 2012, despite multiple field-expedient upgrades funded by DS. (As a temporary, residential facility, SMC was not eligible for OBO-funded security upgrades.) A comprehensive upgrade and risk-mitigation plan did not exist, nor was a comprehensive security review conducted by Washington for Benghazi in 2012. The unique circumstances surrounding the creation of the mission in Benghazi as a temporary mission outside the realm of permanent diplomatic posts resulted in significant disconnects and support gaps.

Did the ARB Report really say that the SecState, or anyone else, had signed a SECCA waiver for the facility in Benghazi? Is that what the report means by "excepted" from the law?

No. The report clearly states that because the facility was not officially notified to the host government, SECCA did not apply, which resulted in the facility being excepted from both SECCA and overseas security standards.

Sorry, but there is no smoking gun here. And I say that as someone who does not have any personal, professional, or political fondness for Hillary.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Beyond the Thunderdome

That hearing went on for eleven hours? If I watch it all this weekend I'll feel like I'm binge-watching Netflix.

Luckily for me, the WaPo had the entire transcript today - Full text: Clinton testifies before House committee on Benghazi. Thank you!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Capitol Thunderdome, as Night Follows Day

The Benghazi Select Committee hearing is still going on as we approach 8PM. I'm home trying to catch up while having a brew, and so far I have to give this match to Hillary.

One interesting thing happened right around 7PM, when Rep. Susan Brooks played the SECCA card. SECCA is the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999, and it creates certain legal requirements for physical security at overseas diplomatic facilities. Rep Brooks quoted to Hillary Clinton from Foreign Affairs Manual 12 FAM-315, which concerns SECCA and the SecState's authority to waive certain requirements of the law if he or she finds it is in the national interest.

BTW, that Foreign Affairs Manual is a publicly available source of information which you may read for yourself here.

Anyway, Rep. Brooks evidently thought she had Hillary dead to rights on the question of whether or not she had signed a waiver for the Benghazi Special Mission facility. That sounded like Hillary is in quite a fix. Either she deliberately waived security standards - which would be politically explosive - or else she was at fault for not complying with the law. So which was it? Did she or did she not sign a waiver?

It was neither. A waiver was not required, because SECCA did not in fact apply to the Benghazi Special Mission. Evidently, neither Rep. Brooks nor her staffers bothered to actually read much of that Foreign Affairs Manual, or else she would have read 12 FAM-313, para b., in which it states that "for purposes of applying SECCA, a U.S. diplomatic facility is any chancery, consulate, or other office notified to the host government as diplomatic or consular premises ..." The Special Mission was not a chancery or consulate or any other kind of office so notified.

So, to quote White Goodman of the great movie Dodgeball, "you can put away your rule book on that one, Poindexter." Point: Hillary.

Now, will this hearing ever end so I can go to bed?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Capitol Thunderdome: Two Political Careers Go In, One Comes Out

The House Benghazi Special Committee interviews Hillary Clinton tomorrow in a marathon public session that starts at 10AM and may run into late afternoon. To view it live, watch this space.

It will be Committee Chairman Harold Watson Gowdy III ("Trey") versus Hillary Rodham Clinton. Gowdy gets only one shot, since Hillary has agreed to a single session. When the hearing ends tomorrow afternoon, which one will go home victorious, and which one will just go home?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Jimmy Carter Helps Out His Fishing Buddy Vladimir Putin

Ex-President Jimmy Carter says he has delivered maps of ISIS positions in Syria to the Russian Embassy in Washington, in order to improve the accuracy of Russian air attacks.

Yes, he really did say that. It's on video.

That is all.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

Well, why should the Clanton Gang always lose?

"2 Shot During 'Old West' Gunfight Reenactment In Tombstone, Arizona" - Huffpost Crime

Two people were shot in Tombstone, Arizona, during a gunfight reenactment when one of the actors allegedly used real bullets.

Tombstone is known for its historical reenactments of Old West gunfights ... Next week marks the anniversary of the Oct. 26, 1881 "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral."

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Will Julian Assange Fade Away?

Assange has been staying in the dark for three years now, shut up in Ecuador's London embassy and getting paler by the day while waiting for criminal charges placed against him in Sweden to expire. Three of four charges have now expired but a fourth charge, of rape, remains.

Last week, the London Metropolitan Police announced they are removing their static guards from outside the Ecuadorian embassy. But they aren't letting Assange go ghost. Rather, they say they "will deploy a number of overt and covert tactics to arrest him."

See London Police Stop Watching Ecuadorean Embassy For Sign Of Assange.

Good luck to them. Judging from that recent photo, Assange leaves very little sign anymore. He could sneak out on a bright day and not be spotted. 

FBI's Hoover Building HQ - Not Worth Fixing, And Too Expensive to Replace

The Hoover Building in Legos (better built than the real thing)

Will Representative Jason Chaffetz and his House Oversight and Government Reform Committee please take official notice of the Hoover Building? Chaffetz is hot on the trail of cost overruns and purported mismanagement in the case of U.S. embassy overseas office building construction, but he's passing up a good one right in front of his face in the Federal Triangle of Washington DC.

The FBI's Headquarters building is a well-known architectural, managerial, financial, and security disaster. The inability of the USG to either fix or replace it is a disaster of another kind. See the WaPo story of this week, which asks a good question - The FBI’s headquarters is falling apart. Why is it so hard for America to build a new one? That kind of question is right up HOGR's alley, isn't it?

How big a disaster is the FBI headquarters building, exactly? Well, it is only forty years old yet the structure is already collapsing - big chunks of it drop off regularly. The office space is dysfunctional - only 53 percent of it is judged to be usable. It is insufficient to house all headquarters' activities - the FBI has non-consolidated annexes all over the region. It cannot comply with modern Federal office building security standards, policies, and best practices due to its design and location, especially its total lack of setback distance from surrounding streets.

That's all bad enough. But consider that the Hoover Building was the most expensive new federal office building ever when it was completed in 1975 at a cost of $126 million. That final cost was more than double the original cost estimate of $60 million. Was HOGR asleep at the switch back in the 1970s, too?

The current cost estimates for a replacement FBI Headquarters run between $1.4 and $2 billion. That is more than twice the cost of the much-maligned new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a project that drew intense House Oversight, if not much Reform, less than ten years ago. And unlike in Baghdad, the FBI doesn't need a campus full of 20-some buildings, perimeter walls and gates, defenses against mortars and rockets, on-compound housing and feeding for its staff and third-country security guards, an aviation wing, medical facilities, and more stuff like that. Not to mention that there was a very active war going on all around, and sometimes on, that Baghdad construction site.

If the FBI does manage to get a new Headquarters built someday, it will have to be on the outskirts of Washington DC in order to get the setback distances that are necessary to meet our domestic government office building security standards. Those standards, BTW, are not nearly as onerous as their counterparts for overseas buildings.

Why is it that Rep Chaffetz will spend so much time and trouble to beat up on my good friends in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations over comparatively penny-ante costs and overruns for U.S. embassy construction and security in places like Kabul, London, Jakarta, and Mexico City, but then give the FBI a pass for running a decrepit and security-deficient headquarters building and pursuing a TWO BILLION DOLLAR replacement project?

A few excerpts from the WaPo:

Beneath the headquarters of America’s premier crime-fighting organization, one of the parking ramps has been condemned because corroded pieces of the ceiling were falling on cars.

Netting hangs on the Ninth Street facade to prevent broken concrete from hitting passersby 160 feet down on the sidewalk below. During a July fire drill, half of the building’s alarms didn’t go off.

-- snip --

Three years ago, the federal government launched a search for a new site for its headquarters but that effort is months behind schedule. FBI officials fear that with Congress increasingly unwilling to pass funding measures, the move to a new building could be dramatically pushed back or set aside following next year’s election.

-- snip --

Looming over the process is the failed attempt to consolidate the Department of Homeland Security, whose own headquarters consolidation in Southeast D.C. won approval six years ago but is less than one-quarter complete, a decade behind schedule and more than $1 billion over budget.

Nearly three years after the FBI’s search began a final location has not been identified and funding has not been secured. In the meantime, the FBI’s 9,500 headquarters employees are spread throughout 14 locations in the Washington region.

-- snip --

In an effort to secure its perimeter, the FBI shuttered some exterior entrances and put 298 cement planters on the sidewalks around the building, most of them filled with only dirt because plants were deemed too costly to maintain. The netting on Ninth Street catches falling pieces of concrete; Director James B. Comey Jr. keeps one of the larger pieces in his office.

Further retrofitting is prohibitively expensive; despite the Hoover building’s overall size of 2.4 million gross square feet only 53 percent of that is usable according to a 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office.

-- snip --

As the Hoover’s problems worsened, the FBI and GSA planned a 2.1-million-square-foot campus that could accommodate 11,000 FBI personnel within two-and-a-half miles of the Capital Beltway and two miles of a Metro station.

Unlike the Hoover Building, which is separated by a sidewalk from traffic, the new campus would likely have 50-foot setbacks with blast-resistant façades and separate facilities for mail screening and visitors.

GSA officials, lacking congressionally approved funds to build such a campus, proposed a novel solution to pay for it, trading the Hoover Building site for the money needed to build the new facility.

The strategy aimed to take advantage of booming property values along Pennsylvania Avenue and to avoid the fate of St. Elizabeths, where Congress approved the consolidation of the Department of Homeland Security but repeatedly failed to provide construction money. The search has narrowed to three sites, in Greenbelt, Landover and Springfield, and attracted a half dozen big money development teams interested in the work.

-- snip --

Without funding, Hoover and the other FBI buildings will remain in a state of purgatory — not worth fixing, but not worth saving.

It seems to me the U.S. taxpayers are in another kind of purgatory, stuck with the bill for two perpetually unfinished multi-billion dollar office consolidation projects - the FBI's, and the even more expensive and screwed-up beyond repair DHS headquarters - neither of which Congress will either cancel or fund sufficiently to bring them to completion.

Where can the taxpayers go to get oversight and reform of that situation?

Friday, October 9, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

Comfortably numb?

"Man who calls police to say he’s ‘too high’ found in pile of Doritos" - Fox 8 Ohio

Police arrived at the 22-year-old man's home at approximately 5:20 p.m, according to WJW.

There, they found him on the floor "in a fetal position," surrounded by, "a plethora of Doritos, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and Chips Ahoy cookies."

According to a police report, the man told the officer that he couldn't feel his hands because he smoked too much weed.

Monday, October 5, 2015

New Embassy Project Vientiane a "Global Best Project" Winner

Kudos to my good friends in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) for this: New U.S. Embassy in Vientiane Wins Global Best Project Award From Engineering News-Record Magazine:
Engineering News-Record (ENR), a leading journal for the construction industry, honored the U.S. Embassy Project in Vientiane, Laos as a Global Best Project in the Government Buildings category. The U.S. Government and the project team were celebrated alongside other complex, global projects including stadiums, airports and infrastructure developments. The award was announced at this year’s ENR Global Best Projects Award ceremony in September 2015.

Since 1999, as part of the Department’s Capital Security Construction Program, the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) has completed 122 new diplomatic facilities and has an additional 46 projects in design or under construction.

The mission of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations is to provide safe, secure, and functional facilities that represent the U.S. government to the host nation and support our staff in the achievement of U.S. foreign policy objectives. These facilities should represent U.S. values and the best in U.S. architecture, engineering, technology, sustainability, art, culture, and construction execution.

That's from the bottom of my heart, because I admire good project management over almost any other endeavor.

BTW, Vientiane is pronounced like "Vee-end-tee-on," and it is the capitol of a land-locked country in Asia that is neither Chinese nor Japanese.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

"Fuck Off" She Explained

Harry Truman was a POTUS who could really cuss up a storm

Ronald Kessler is basically the Boswell of U.S. federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, having published about 20 or so books on the CIA, FBI, and the U.S. Secret Service.

His latest is about the interactions of Secret Service details assigned to the President's families, First Family Detail. It goes on sale August 5, just in time for the start of the 2016 election season.

The next time I visit a bookstore I plan to flip straight to the index and look up stuff like this:
Because Hillary Clinton is so nasty to agents, being assigned to her protective detail is considered a form of punishment and the worst assignment in the Secret Service. (pgs. 5, 16-26)

The New York Post today reviewed an advance copy of Kessler's book and quoted recollections by former members of the Hillary Clinton protective detail, none of them flattering. See Secret Service agents: Hillary is a nightmare to work with.

This one is typical:
“‘Good morning, ma’am,” a member of the uniformed Secret Service once greeted Hillary Clinton.

“F— off,” she replied.

None of this comes as a surprise. While Hillary partisans will of course denounce Kessler - some already have (here) - Hillary is a well-known personality, after having being in Washington and the public eye ever since 1992. Even I, at my lowly perch on the government ladder, have gotten loads of hearsay about her from Secret Service agents right from the start of Bill Clinton's first term, all of it consistent with Kessler's anecdotes.

Will this book drag down Hillary's public image? I doubt it. Surely, every sentient voter already has a firm fixed image of her after all this time. Her devotees are practiced at ignoring stuff like this, and her haters weren't going to vote for her anyway. But, the media machine needs material to fill the 24-hour news cycle, and stories like Kessler's are more entertaining than most.

Word to the wise politician - the drivers and bodyguards hear and see everything you do, so you might want to resist any impulse you have to insult and belittle them.

In Which the Rand Corporation Gives Two Cheers for a Reality-Based Strategy

The Rand Corporation's - justly - renowned deep thinker on counterterrorism, Brian Jenkins, posted an article today that reads like a bucket of cold water thrown in the face of our national security establishment. Read it here: Any Review of Syria and Iraq Strategy Needs Realistic Reappraisal.

Note that the title juxtaposes the words "Syria and Iraq strategy" and "realistic," which signals that the author is not going to deliver the usual happy-talk about 'degrade and defeat' or 'train and assist' or whatever other buzz words are in fashion. Instead, he starts by listing some obvious realities:

  • The continued fighting has seen the diminishing strength of Syria's secular rebels and the ascent of its most extreme jihadist component, represented by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
  • The conflicts in Syria and Iraq seem to be at a stalemate.
  • National armies in both countries have failed.
  • Syria and Iraq are now effectively partitioned.

  • He closes with this:
    Although these stark conclusions hardly sound controversial, they are antithetical to American policy. The very idea of a military stalemate lasting years — or decades — defies America's sense of progress. Secular, democratic governance and religious tolerance are deeply held American values. The United States operates on the presumption that the sectarian and ethnic divisions can be bridged; that Iraq's national army can be rebuilt into an effective fighting force; that the Bashar Assad regime in Syria can be replaced by a more inclusive government; that the Sunnis can be won over and the jihadists can be isolated, contained and defeated; that peace and national unity can be restored, enabling the refugees to return; and that this can be achieved without the commitment of large numbers of combat forces or even with the commitment of American combat forces.

    Unquestionably, these are noble aims, and diplomats are required to be optimists. Nonetheless, national objectives must be based upon realistic assessments of the situation. Here, the distance between presumed aspiration and reality seems great.

    So you say we ought to consider reality as we pursue our national objectives in the partitioned and stalemated Iraq and Syria? You are right, Mr, Jenkins, that does not sound at all controversial.

    But bear in mind that the Rand Corporation is the government-funded policy think tank of the Pentagon, so even that mild scolding is coming from the inside. Could it indicate a new willingness to stop stumbling along with our Neo-Wilsonian approach to the Middle East?

    From Brian Jenkin's mouth to God's ears (you should forgive the Yiddishism).

    Friday, October 2, 2015

    Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

    Virginia Beach mom finds ammo in Toys "R" Us package - ABC 13 News Now

    Jasemin Stephenson says she ordered a "Minecraft Foam Diamond Sword" from the toy store's website last week.

    When the package arrived Tuesday, Stephenson says she found 800 rounds of 9mm ammunition in the box, along with the sword.

    Thursday, October 1, 2015

    Secret Service Shoots Itself in the Foot

    What is going on at the U.S. Secret Service? I mean, I dislike Representative Jason Chaffetz as much as anyone, but really? Leaking gossipy tidbits to the press is very petty harassment, not to mention a violation of the Privacy Act when those tidbits come from your internal official files. Also not to mention stupid and reckless, since who else but Secret Service insiders could have accessed the 12-year old file on Chaffetz's unsuccessful application for a Secret Service agent job, and didn't they realize that would come back to bite the Service at a time when it can ill afford any more scandals?

    The OIG report on this incident is short and sweet. A couple excerpts:
    We have substantially completed our review of the allegation and have determined that a Secret Service database containing sensitive personally identifiable information (PII) pertaining to Congressman Jason Chaffetz, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, was accessed on approximately 60 occasions by Secret Service employees. We have concluded that a vast majority of those who had accessed the information did so in violation of the Privacy Act, as well as Secret Service and DHS policy. Additionally, we identified one individual who acknowledged disclosing information protected by the Privacy Act to an outside source. However, because the number of individuals with access to this information was so great, we were unable to identify others who may have disclosed protected information to third parties.

    [Chaffetz's] application had not been acted upon and the applicant had not been interviewed, reflected in MCI by a data field that read “BQA,” which meant that other better qualified applicants existed.

    We identified 18 supervisors at the GS-15 or Senior Executive Service level who appeared to have known or should have known, prior to the publication of the fact, that Chairman Chaffetz’ MCI record was being accessed.

    Moreover, at least one senior Secret Service executive, who knew about the fact of the Chaffetz application, suggested that it be leaked. On March 31st, two days before the publication of the information, Ed Lowery, who is an Assistant Director and in charge of training for the Secret Service, replied to an email from Faron Paramore, another Assistant Director who was in charge of Congressional and public affairs. Paramore’s email distributed a press statement by Secretary Johnson regarding Chairman Chaffetz’ decision to subpoena Secret Service agents. Lowery’s reply, sent only to Paramore, is reprinted in its entirety:

    "Some information that he might find embarrassing needs to get out there."

    An Assistant Director was incautious enough to say that in an e-mail? A 'better qualified applicant' will be found for his job very soon, I think.