Friday, December 22, 2017

Chappaquiddick Gets a Movie Treatment, 50 Years Later

Robert McNamara: "Jesus. The Bay of Pigs was a better run operation."

It will open in April, but you can read the script here. Stunning, and less so for how it portrays Ted Kennedy, at whose behavior most people have long since guessed, than for the amoral political rescue mission undertaken by the JFK White House bigwigs who came at old Joe Kennedy's call and did whatever was necessary to make that callous manslaughter go away.

The script writers used the extensive inquest transcripts, which were made publicly available many years later, to reconstruct events. Much, of course, they had to imagine.

This movie might be the capper to a year of exposés about powerful men and the young women they used. But the bigger scandal, really, ought to be the 50 years of adulation that Ted Kennedy got in Washington after he slunk away from his sunken car.

Taking Names at the UN: It's the Law

This law, to be exact.
GENERAL ASSEMBLY RESOLUTIONS RELATED TO ISRAEL OPPOSED BY THE UNITED STATES Public Law 101-246, as amended by Public Law 108-447, calls for a separate listing of all Plenary votes cast by UN member states in the General Assembly on resolutions specifically related to Israel that are opposed by the United States.

You see read the annual Congressional reports going back to the year 2000 here, at a publicly available source of information.

From skimming the handy Voting Practices in the United Nations section of the reports, it looks like most UN General Assembly members have voted our way only 7 or 8 percent of the time, tops. The 9 who voted with us, 35 who abstained, and 21 who failed to vote on yesterday's measure look like par for the course or maybe a little better.

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

That looks like some fine quality bud

Elderly couple claims marijuana was for Christmas presents - York News-Times

Paul Vrbka with the [York County] Sheriff’s Department said deputies initiated a traffic stop in the Bradshaw area after they saw a Toyota Tacoma driving over the center line and the driver failing to signal ... When they stopped the vehicle, he said, deputies could immediately smell the strong odor of raw marijuana ... Vrbka said they also told deputies “they didn’t know it was illegal to transport marijuana in Nebraska” ... The marijuana was seized and it is estimated that the street value is $336,000.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Merkelstein Monday: In Chicago They Like the Blue Lights

Chicago does a Christmas market, too, in cooperation with the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest. And, just like the markets in Germany, Britain, and Canada, it installed perimeter vehicle barriers and put up a larger police presence in response to last last's truck ramming attack on the market in Berlin which killed 12 and wounded 56.

How does Chicago compare to the others in terms of the effectiveness and subtle streetscapery of its barriers? It compares poorly.

Down go the concrete blocks across the entrance of the market in Daley Plaza. Just plain blocks, with little to no anti-ram value and no trimming to attempt to conceal their purpose.

Up goes fencing around the perimeter of the market space. Fencing that weak would serve to channel law-abiding people, but not much more.


Mounted on the surface of the sidewalk with no anchoring, and even less aesthetics. Hey, Chicago, you could at least have made them look like benches.

What's more, from the looks of it the market organizers and the police didn't even try to maximize the setback distance they could possibly have gotten by placing those blocks on the outer edge of the sidewalk. Either they don't understand the purpose of the anti-ram exercise or they're just going through the motions.

This is a step up from last year, when Chicago parked salt trucks as barricades around the Plaza. But still, all Chicago did was scatter some blocks and pedestrian barricades around, plus flood the zone with police patrols. Clearly not enough to actually preclude a Berlin-style truck ramming attack,

Visitors interviewed by local TV news sounded pleased with it all. They feel “safer, I guess, there's a lot of stuff going on lately ... more blue lights, that’s what I want to see.”

That might be the city's only goal here. Make people feel better, but don't take the truck ramming threat seriously enough to put up serious, tested and certified, anti-ram barriers.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

And the temperature was in the 20s

Naked Man Jumps Onto Moving Truck Near Dulles Airport
- NBC News Washington DC

After his release from the hospital, police said, Gonzalez Flores will be served with warrants charging him with two counts of felony hit and run, throwing an object at a moving vehicle, destruction of property, assault and battery, indecent exposure, disorderly conduct and possession of marijuana.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Merklestein Monday: Toronto's Christmas Market is "Safer Than Last Year"

Canada, our fine neighbor to the north, has Christmas markets modeled on those in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. This year, they have an added measure of Euro-authenticity in their vehicle barriers and heightened police presence.

For example, the market in Toronto's Distillery District is keeping it real, Euro style, with concrete barriers and police: the new norm at Distillery Christmas market:
The Distillery District Christmas Market opened Thursday and visitors will notice more than just a European feel to this popular holiday destination.

Security measures have been tweaked in the wake of recent attacks where vehicles have been used as weapons and driven through pedestrian areas.

Dozens of people have been killed in recent years in terrorist attacks where the assailants drove vehicles into crowds. [TSB note: Not dozens, bu hundreds of people have been killed in vehicle ramming attacks in recent years.] In the most recent attack, eight people were killed on a New York City bike path.

The market’s creator says the extra precautions won’t impact the user experience.

“The safety installations that we’ve put in place are really not that visible,” said Matthew Rosenblatt. “So, we hope that they certainly do act as a deterrent, but they’re not going to take away any of the market’s magic.”

Rosenblatt wouldn’t go into too many details but added that the concrete barricades at the entrances should prevent or at least slow down any vehicle.

“We think it’s a safe place. Toronto and Canada is one of the safest places in the world. We’ve done what we think is appropriate to protect the people here,” said Rosenblatt. Toronto police would only say they have met with market officials and developed a site safety plan.

Mr. Rosenblatt is correct in his assumption that those simple concrete barriers - mere highway dividers, really - should slow down a vehicle, and probably do nothing more. Real tested and certified anti-ram bollards would actually stop a threat vehicle, not merely slow it down.

Why use an ineffective countermeasure when fully effective ones are available, and could even be blended into the market streetscape? I know the RCMP has a national center of excellence for physical security and those good people could have given Toronto's market organizers and city planners some professional advice. Are we serious about protection against vehicle attacks, or just putting on a show for public consumption? 

Toronto's Christmas market last year (above), right after the Berlin market truck attack. They hauled a couple old and shopworn Jersey barriers across the main pedestrian entrance to the shopping street.

This year (above), the markets at least sprung for new Jerseys, but placed them in the same weak surface-mounted configuration. They didn't even stagger the barriers to make a zig-zag chicane approach, much less try to lower their visual impact.

Pedestrian controls are evident, along with a police presence. All well and good, but then, nothing stops a ramming vehicle except a physical barrier that will absorb the requisite amount of kinetic energy.

It all makes me wonder whether the responsible parties just want to seem to be protecting the crowds rather than to really protect them. Judging from the comments by market visitors, the public appears to be happy with merely the appearance of security.

“I guess it does give you more sense of security that there are people kind of looking out for you“ ... “the visibility makes you feel a bit better”

In any case, perimeter barriers at large venue public events are now the new normal in the Great White North, as they are in Europe.

And so, in conclusion, I recommend trying the poutine if you are ever in Canada. See this New Yorker article for lots of background on the "surprisingly inoffensive" Canadian dish of french fries, cheese curd, and gravy.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Tillerson In Vienna, and a Townhall is Scheduled for Next Week

Silent Rex stopped in Vienna and delivered remarks to staff that were heavy on defense of the Department redesign effort and debunking media reports of a hollowed-out workforce. There was one new twist, referring to spouses and their employment. But the big news came out separately today via a notice to staff. Tillerson will hold a townhall meeting for employees next Tuesday, December 12.

A few excerpts from his remarks in Vienna:
I want to also recognize our three charge d’affaires, Young, Kamian, and Shampaine, and thank them for their leadership of all three of these missions. I know, as I’ve said many times, and I want to say this because a lot of stuff gets written out there in the media about the hollowed-out State Department and the empty hallways that I’m walking in, where all I can hear are the echoes of my footsteps. (Laughter.) And it’s not true. And I tell people everywhere it’s not true. We have great, competent, capable career people that have stepped up in leadership positions while we’re working to fill those roles, and we haven’t missed a beat. Not one. And I want to thank all three for their leadership at the missions here. I know it’s not the easiest thing to do when you’re put in an acting role like that, but we have not missed a beat on the leadership. The three charges here are very competent with the team we have.

-- snip --

I want to say a real quick word, and I’m not going to talk long because you don’t want me to talk long – (laughter) – but I want to say a little bit of a word about the redesign at the State Department because there’s been – a lot of other people seem to want to say a lot about it, whether they know anything about it or not. And so I want to tell you what’s going on. And we are moving – we’ve completed phases one and two now, and this is an entirely employee-led effort. Your colleagues are the ones doing all the work, they’re the ones making the recommendations, they’re the ones developing the various projects that we’re going to be undertaking.

-- snip --

But what it fundamentally comes down to – and we’re going to start holding some town halls now that we’re moving from phase two to phase three, which is execution, and share with you exactly what is being done.

-- snip --

And so some of this when – a lot of concern people have about we’re going to reduce the staffing by X amount, or we’re going to close this office or that office – there’s nothing planned to close any embassies, and there’s nothing planned in terms of a specific target for the staffing levels. What we did say is to the OMB, because we owe them a number and the reason we put the hiring freeze in place, is – and we said, look, we’re going to at least capture what normal attrition would be through these efficiencies, and that’s about 8 percent over the next few years.

-- snip --

So there may be redeployments of talent, but we’re going to use the talent, and we’re going to use it and provide a system of how we do that that makes people say, we need to modernize our policies and recognize the amazing working families today. Our policies are stuck in about the 1980s, as I look at them. So we need to recognize it. In today’s world, there’s a lot of two-career families, and we need to have our policies that are responsive in recognizing both members of that couple are very talented and they have a lot they can do. So a lot of what we’re getting at is capturing all that talent as well.

Let me just say, lastly, on the hiring freeze, just to correct a few numbers that are out there that scare people, I’ve approved over 2,400 exceptions to the hiring freeze for EFMs. I’ve approved a number of exceptions for promotions. We’re hired 300 new Foreign Service officers this year already. The total number of Foreign Service officers in the department is within 10 of what it was in October 2016, and that’s out of a base of about 1,080. We’ve actually had fewer people retire this year than we had last year.

-- snip --

So I’m very excited about it. They’ve got great ideas. They’re your ideas. We want to just unleash all of that. So lastly, thank you again. Thanks for what you do for us here day in and day out. And I appreciate every one of you. Thanks.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Testing Begins on That Big Beautiful Wall

That "big, beautiful, wall" along the U.S.-Mexico border gets closer to reality today as DHS will begin to test eight prototype wall designs, ABC News reports: Trump administration begins testing border wall prototypes to prevent scaling, breaches.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) began physically testing the southwest border wall prototypes this week, according to a spokesperson for the department.

-- snip --

The physical testing will include attempts to scale and breach the prototypes. Officials will use items such as jackhammers, saws and hydraulic tools to attempt to breach the prototypes.

During the procurement process the companies were required to build the walls at least 6-feet deep. The depth of the walls was evaluated during the construction process, according to Diaz.

All eight prototypes were required to be 18 to 30 feet high and designed to deter illegal crossings.

-- snip --

The physical tests are expected to take place over the next two weeks.

Evaluators are going through a “very regimented process” during this assessment phase “to ensure when it’s completed we have the best information available,” said Diaz.

CBP is evaluating all the breach attempts and how long they take.

Everything is being complied and documented for the evaluation process that comes afterward, according to CBP.

Which wall will be the biggest and beatifullest of all?

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

York Catherdral Installs Vehicle Barriers The Right Way

The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York, commonly known as York Minster, is the cathedral of York, England. Architecturally, it is a Gothic structure comparable to Canterbury Cathedral.

Now, the York Minster has installed new anti-terror blocks along its street-facing side in what seems to be a resigned acceptance that the threat of terrorism in Britain may not decrease for a generation or longer.
A SECURITY barrier of concrete blocks has now been installed in front of York Minster - as a retrospective planning application was submitted to planners.

The 12 blocks have been placed in a line outside the west end of the cathedral in an attempt to tackle the terrorist threat.

-- snip --

A council spokeswoman said she understood it was likely the application would be considered by officers under delegated powers, rather than by councillors on a planning committee. A Minster spokeswoman said last week the decision to strengthen security was taken following recommendations from the Counter Terrorism Unit. The Dean of York, the Very Reverend Dr Vivienne Faull, inset, said Chapter had been concerned about the potential vulnerability of the area around the Minster’s West End for some time.

She said the national terror threat level had been at “severe” for many months and was likely to remain so for some time to come, with some experts believing we are facing a generational problem which may last for 20 or 30 years.

She said the appalling attacks in Manchester and London earlier this year had required everyone responsible for the security of nationally important buildings, monuments and public spaces to reassess, review and constantly refine their arrangements for keeping people safe.

-- snip --

Steve Brown, managing director of Make It York, said it was reassuring that York Minster had acted upon the recommendations and advice it had been given.

Mr Brown added: "It is vitally important that York continues to be a safe place to live, work and visit.”

Those barriers, unlike the temporary ones that were place around most British Christmas markets recently, are professionally planned and executed. A security industry news site reported that the blocks were "approved by the Home Office and tested by the official (CPNI), Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure." That's good, because the CPNI is an extremely well-regarded organization that is available to provide advice to the owners of national-level assets in the UK.

Here's a page from the CPNI's publicly available advice on streetscaping:

While I'm admiring things British, here's something else I like - the news story commenters who left intelligent remarks about the Minster's security measures. Here are a few choice examples:
Eek - whilst I agree they are a deterrent, I think more thought could have gone into what street furniture they could have used, there are a lot better anti-vehicle systems that would have been less obtrusive than a square edged stone block, just saying thats all.

The press could run a competition for what they could be used for to soften the harshness in the future. Make them a feature as they are ideal plinths. Perhaps for artwork, sculptures, I could see them being more than a block of concrete and more aesthetically pleasing in the future.

Great idea, at the very least they can be used as benches.

People have commented on the bollards which are most likely cast iron and therefore would just snap if a truck drove into them. However it would have been possible to replace them with steel bollards with a decent length underground and the above ground bit encased in a decorative mould plastic covering.

These just look like something from the Normandy beaches.

Those citizens get the point of the exercise, and they have actually good constructive suggestions. Hell, they even know the vocabulary, like "street furniture" and "plinth." The later, by the way, is a heavy base that commonly supports a column or sculpture.

Britons, be proud.

Silent Rex Tillerson spoke to staff and families of the U.S. Missions in Brussels today, which I guess must mean that the packout from his Washington residence has been delayed yet again, because I've been reading for months now about how every day is his last.

Anyway, while he is still on the clock he made some further remarks about the redesign effort. One new tidbit: he says it is now beginning the implementation phase, which means they'll be some announcements in the next couple of weeks and townhall meetings before the end of the year.

Here are the complete remarks:
I want to say just a couple of words about the State Department. The redesign, which everyone seems to be an expert on – (laughter) – we’re actually going to be doing some town halls here before the end of the year, because the teams, your teams – and this is an employee-led effort – all the teams are led by your colleagues at the State Department. We’ve had multiple teams working on the redesign. We’ve been through phase one, now we’ve just completed phase two, and we’re going to transition to phase three, which is now execution.

And so now we’re in a position to really talk about some concrete things. And there’s two kind of broad elements of this, if I could have you think about it this way: There’s a huge leadership element where we see we need to do some things with a lot of the systems and developing people, servicing their needs, and a lot of leadership areas that we’re going to address. And then there’s what I call the modernization of the State Department. And modernization is anything from having an IT system that’s in the cloud and lets you work efficiently, to modernizing a lot of our practices and policies and principles to recognize today’s working families. The workforce has changed, and over the last 20 years State Department policies haven’t necessarily changed with it. So we have a lot of modernization to do from a policy standpoint.

We have some modernization to do with how we get things done efficiently and effectively – again, using today’s approaches. So again, your colleagues have really led this effort. They’ve met with a lot of great ideas out, and now we’re ready to begin to execute against those. So we’ve got some programmatic areas and we’ve got some projects to undertake. We’re going to talk some more about that in the coming days and share with you the specifics.

We’ve got what we call some quick wins. I think you’re going to be happy with some of the quick wins that we’re going to announce here in the next couple of weeks because I think they get right to some of the issues that we’ve heard from you in the listening exercise. And for those of you that participated back when we did the survey, 35,000 of you responded. That’s where all these ideas came from. Over 300 face-to-face interviews. And we’ve kept the portals open so you can continue to put things into the process, and I can tell you that people look at every idea that comes in and it gets incorporated into the work that others are doing.

So we’ll have more to say about that to you in the next couple of weeks, before the end of the year. We’ll share some things with everyone so you know where this is going. It really has one objective in mind, and that’s to allow you to be more effective at what your talents already allow you to do, and also to prepare you to do more and allow you to have a much more rewarding career and do it in a way that isn’t so frustrating sometimes because some of the processes you have to interface with are frustrating. So we’re going to be addressing a lot of that, and hopefully when it’s all said and done you’re going to have a much more satisfying work environment, a great career ahead of you, and we’re going to be much more effective and much more efficient in how we do it. That’s really the objective of the whole exercise. There’s nothing more to it than that.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Merkelstein Monday: Not Much Subtlety In UK Christmas Markets

Britain has lots of Christmas markets. It also has a recent history of vehicle ramming attacks in public venues. So, how do the British do perimeter anti-ram barriers this holiday season?

My bottom line: they do them with no subtlety at all, and little actual anti-ram effectiveness. The new German fashion of gift-wrapped vehicle barricades has - with one exception - not spread to Britain. But they do present lots of guns, which surprises me. The recent spate of terrorist attacks seems to be making the British more accustomed to and accepting of armed police.

Are there really rings of steel surrounding the markets?
Heavy police presences could be seen in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh and Bath with armed cops patrolling the perimeters of festive attractions. Plain clothed officers will also mingle amongst the crowds of revellers in a bid to keep the nation safe from further terror attacks. The moves come after the Local Government Association warned councils to be vigilant this year with the terror threat level to the UK currently at "severe".

This means that an attack "is highly likely."

In response to those atrocities barriers separating traffic from pedestrians were erected on three of the capital's bridges. Similar measures are now be in place at major Christmas markets - including Manchester, Birmingham and London's Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park.

I think not. They look more like linked-together small traffic barriers, probably in normal use as mobile highway lane dividers, plus a manually-operated drop bar barrier. While I hate to judge based on just a few photos that don’t show the larger physical context, the configuration of surrounding streets, etc., that is one very weak ring of steel. Or concrete.

The UK police have announced plans for greatly heightened security measures:
Extra measures including armed police patrols, large concrete barriers and stop-and-search checks have been introduced at venues across the country.

Pedestrianised areas are blocked off to prevent vehicles ramming into crowds after ISIS fanatic Anis Amri, a Tunisian failed asylum seeker, killed 12 people and injured more than 50 when he ploughed a lorry through Berlin's Breitscheidplatz last year.

Heavy police presences could be seen in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh and Bath over the weekend with armed officers patrolling the festive attractions.

Plain clothed officers will also mingle among crowds of revellers as part of the heightened security situation.

I see the checkpoints and bag searches, etc., but I'm still looking for "large concrete barriers." Those small concrete blocks do not have the anti-ram resistance to stop a Berlin-type truck attack, believe me.

And then we come to Bath, where either they ran low on little concrete blocks and had to space them out, or else they expect some very wide trucks.

I mean, you could drive a bus through those openings. Why even bother putting the blocks up?

Only two British markets made an attempt to blend the barricades in with seasonal decorations, the way some German cities did this year. Leeds showed a flare for aesthetic physical security by rejecting concrete and using large soil-filled planters with actual plants in them.

Congratulations, Leeds. But the first place award goes to Hull, which really out-did even the gift-wrapped German barricades we looked at last week.

Well done, indeed. Genuine anti-ram bollards, and they're inside an innocuous disguise. Hull really knows how to hide anti-ram bollards.

In conclusion, Hull's perimeter security has a level of artistic and anti-ram legitimacy that even the Germans would be hard-pressed to match. The rest of the UK's Christmas markets seriously need to up their game.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Is "Enablement" a Word?

Silent Rex likes to keep you guessing. Tomorrow he'll resign - Breaking! Sources say! For real this time, not like the last ten times! - but yesterday he delivered some pretty extended remarks on his Department redesign planning during the Q&A after an address at the Wilson Center.

Here they are:
MS HARMAN: Mindful of your time, I just want to get in a few questions about other topics, including questions from the audience. But I would note that an interesting point you made in your talk was about Turkey, that Turkey now has a choice: It can become more connected to Europe, which is a huge advantage, and to us, or not. And I heard that loud and clear.

I want to turn to the question of State Department funding and organization, something that many people are interested in. Every organization needs renewal. The Wilson Center needs renewal. And surely, everyone here, including long-serving Foreign Service officers, think the State Department needs renewal. However, questions have arisen about the steep cuts in your budget proposed by the Office of Management and Budget – that doesn’t mean that’s what Congress will enact – and what some claim is a hollowing out of your department. Most recently today, two valued friends of the Wilson Center, Nick Burns and Ryan Crocker, both of them enormously experienced Foreign Service officers and ambassadors, wrote a piece in The New York Times with a lot of information about who’s leaving and what its implications are.

My understanding is there is another side to this story. And so I would like to ask you to tell your side of this story and give us your vision for what the State Department should become.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, let me start quickly with the budget, because it’s – I think it’s the easier – actually easier question to address. The budget that the State Department was given in 2016 was a record-high budget – almost $55 billion. This was above what traditionally has been a budget that runs kind of the mid-30 billion level. And this was ramping up over the last few years, in many respects for some good reasons. But as we look at that spending level, quite frankly, it’s just not sustainable. It is very difficult to execute a $55 billion budget and execute it well. That’s a lot of spending and deployment of resources, and I take our stewardship of those dollars very seriously, and I take the congressional oversight obligations on us very seriously and am not going to brush them aside light handedly. So part of this was just a reality check: Can we really keep this up? And the truth of the matter is, it’d be very difficult to keep it up and do it well.

And secondly though, part of this bringing the budget numbers back down is reflective of an expectation that we’re going to have success in some of these conflict areas of getting these conflicts resolved and moving to a different place in terms of the kind of support that we have to give them. So it’s a combination of things – that sustainability, a recognition that those numbers are really the outliers. The numbers we’re moving to are not the outliers; they’re more historic in terms of the levels of spending.

As to the State Department redesign – and I use the word “redesign” because it would have been really easy to come in on day one and do a reorg. A “reorg,” when I use that word, is moving the boxes around on the org chart. When I showed up in the State Department, I was stunned when I got the organization chart out and I had 82 direct reports to the Office of the Secretary, to me – 82. Now, almost 70 of those are special envoys, special ambassadors, positions that have been created. So we immediately undertook an examination of just what’s a reasonable way to run the place, and that isn’t it. Having run a large global organization – and I have been through three major reorganizations in my history and actually enjoy doing it – it’s always focused on how do we help the people be more effective, how do we get the obstacles out of their way.

So we undertook a different approach, and since I don’t know the department and didn’t know its culture, we had a massive listening exercise. We had 35,000 people respond and we had over 300 face-to-face interviews, and we continue an active dialogue with people today about what is it – if I could do one thing for you that would make you more effective and make you – make your work more satisfying, what would that be. And we got hundreds of ideas. We’ve actually selected about 170 of those ideas that we are now perfecting.

The reason we call it a redesign is most of these have to do with work processes internally and work processes with inter-agencies that we should be able to improve the way people get their work done. Some of it is tools and enablement, so things like – we have a really antiquated IT system. I was shocked when I went down to spend an afternoon with the A Bureau, and I said, “What’s the one thing I could do?” And they said, “Get us into the cloud.” And I looked at them. I said, “What do you mean? We’re not in the cloud?” And they said, “No, no. We’re still on all these servers.” Well, that’s a big cyber risk, first. But it really made it very cumbersome for people, and when I started using my own computer I started realizing just how cumbersome it was.

So a lot of the projects that have been identified out of the redesign are process redesigns and some enablement for people, and it’s all directed at allowing the people of the State Department to get their work done more effectively, more efficiently, and have a much more satisfying career. We have a lot of processes in the HR function that have not been updated in decades, and they need to be updated. How we put people out on assignment – we invest enormous amounts of money in people that we deploy to missions overseas, and I was stunned to find out in a lot of the missions these are one-year assignments. So we invested all this money; we send them out to the mission. They’re there for one year, and about the time they’re starting to figure it out and have an impact, we take them out and we move them somewhere else. Well, a lot of people have said to me, “I would really like to stay another year and start contributing.” So it’s a lot of things like that that came out of the listening exercise.

So the – so we have five large teams. They’re all employee-led. I’ve brought in some consultants to help us facilitate, but the redesign is all led by the employees in the State Department.

The issue of the hollowing out – I think all of you appreciate that every time you have a change of government you have a lot of senior Foreign Service officers and others who decide they want to move on and do other things. We’ve had a – our numbers of retirements are almost exactly what they were in 2016 at this point. We have the exact same number of Foreign Service officers today – we’re off by 10 – that we had at this time in 2016. There is a hiring freeze that I’ve kept in place, because as we redesign the organization we’re probably going to have people that need to be redeployed to other assignments. I don’t want to have a layoff; I don’t want to have to fire a bunch of people. So I said, “Let’s manage some of our staffing targets with just normal attrition.”

Having said that, I have signed over 2,300 hiring exceptions, because I’ve told every post if you have a critical position and you really need that filled, just send it in. And I think I have out of 2,300 requests I think I’ve denied eight positions that I decided we really didn’t need. So we’re keeping the organization fully staffed. We’ve had over – we’re still running our Foreign Service officer school; we’ve hired over 300 this year. So there is no hollowing out. These numbers that people are throwing around are just false; they’re wrong.

There was a story about a 60 percent reduction in career diplomats. The post career diplomat was created by the Congress in 1955 to recognize an elite few. The number of career diplomats in the State Department have ranged from as low as one at any given time to as many as seven. When I took over the State Department we had six. Four of those people have retired. These are your most senior – they were – they reached 65, they retired, they moved on. We have a review process – we’re very selective in replacing those, but we actually have a review process underway and we’re evaluating a handful of people who might be worthy of that designation. But we still have two. But we went from six to two; it was a 60 percent reduction. It sounded like the sky was falling.

The other comment I would make is while the confirmation process has been excruciatingly slow for many of our nominees, I have been so proud of the acting assistant secretaries and people who’ve stepped into acting under secretary roles. And when the – I read these articles that there’s this hollowing out, I take offense to that on their behalf because the people that are serving in those roles are doing extraordinary work, and they know they’re not going to get the job permanently. They already know we have a nominee, but they come in every day, they work hard, they travel with me around the world, and that’s – it’s that group of people that have helped me put in place and helped the President put in place the North Korean strategy with the international sanctions; a Syrian approach to the peace process that we think we’re about to get on the right track; an approach to negotiating with the Russians on Ukraine; an approach to the Defeat ISIS campaign; the Iran policy, the South Asia policy in Afghanistan, our new posture towards Pakistan; the open – free and open Indo – all of that’s been done with the people that are working there today, and I’m very proud. I’m very proud of what they’ve done. They’re working hard and I’m offended on their behalf. I’m offended on their behalf when people say somehow we don’t have a State Department that functions.

But I can tell you it’s functioning very well from my perspective. Have we got more we want to do? Yes, we got more we want to do. And my only objective in the organization redesign is to help these people who are – who have chosen this as a career – because I’ll come and go, and there will be other politicals that will come and go – what can I do to help them? Because they’ve decided they want to spend their life doing this and they should be allowed to do it as effectively and efficiently and without a lot of grief and obstacles. And if I can remove some of that for them, that’s what I want to do.

After delivering those remarks SecState Tillerson went home and packed his bags. If you put any credence in today's media feeding frenzy.

Hiring Rollercoasters and Waning Enthusiasm, Back in 1990

Amid all the complaints about hollowed-out work forces and drastic budget cuts, let's think back to a previous reordering of the State Department under SecState James Baker, when he brought in management guru Ivan Selin.

Selin dispensed with the listening and the word clouds and the employee-managed whatnot of today's prolonged redesign effort, and went straight to the cutting. And that was before the Clinton administration eliminated 2,000 employees and closed 26 posts.

Here's an excerpt from Selin's 1991 interview with the oral history project of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training:
Q: Did you run into much resistance from the Foreign Service to your concept of linking policy and resources?

SELIN: No. My view is, at least at the conceptual level, the Foreign Service was just waiting for someone to come in to manage the resources, including the personnel system of the Foreign Service itself. The enormous uncertainties, the roller coaster with the many lean years, the continuing indecision which moved personnel policies back and forth, made the Service very discontented. Having said that, I must admit that a lot of the habits of the Foreign Service are inimical to the kind of management that I viewed as required. When faced with the costs of this kind of management, maybe some of its enthusiasm may have waned.

As Selin noted elsewhere in the interview, the Foreign Service in his day consisted of 4,900 generalists and 3,300 specialists, Compare that to 8,000-some generalists and 5,800 specialists in 2017. Which was hollower?

Monday, November 27, 2017

Merkelstein Monday: Hot Mulled Wine and Gift-Wrapped Security

So Germany’s Christmas Markets have opened, one year after a truck ramming attack on Berlin’s largest such market. You can read about the history and culture of the markets here. “All of these markets offer Glühwein (hot mulled wine) and other warming drinks, gingerbread hearts, decorative craftworks.” Well, this year, the decorative craftworks include perimeter anti-ram barriers installed around the sites.

Berlin's Breitscheidplatz market, the scene of last year's attack, opened this week. What the city authorities did for perimeter security was underwhelming, to say the least.

They put up nothing but precast concrete highway dividers, and didn't even connect them together or attach them to the street or sidewalk surface to make them more resistant to the impact of a truck or car.

I'm astonished that Berlin would use such weak barriers, especially after recent testing carried out by news media in Germany showed how they are nearly useless against the kind of attack that happened last year.
“Researchers drove a 10-tonne truck into the barriers at 30mph and found the 2.5 tonne concrete blocks were simply pushed aside by the power of the vehicle, which only came to a halt when it hit a wall.”
Very strange.

Well, if they won’t use more effective barriers, can’t they at least make them decorative? On that score the city of Bochum outclassed everyone with its gift-wrapped car barricades.
Bochum authorities placed a string of 1.2 ton pellet bags in the downtown area to avert potential terror attacks ahead of the seasonal opening of the local Christmas market.

On Thursday morning, however, the bags took on a holiday look, with the city's official marketing service turning them into novelty Christmas presents.

"For us it was very important to fit in those ugly barriers into the beautiful overall atmosphere," said the head of Bochum Marketing Mario Schiefelbein.

The move surprised both local residents and the police, as the service reportedly giftwrapped up all of the 20 bags overnight without forewarning.

Bochum is not the only city to put a bow on new security measures. In the Bavarian city of Augsburg, for example, authorities will use decorated trucks belonging to Christmas market stall owners as car barriers. Munich officials plan to block the streets with planters containing season-appropriate evergreen plants.

Visitors to Bochum's market who were interviewed last Friday seemed to like gift-wrapped security. Typical comments: “We think it’s a pity that it must be done across the entire [Christmas market] area, but it is good that it is done” and the barriers convey "a feeling of safety, and if there are some [barriers] packed like presents, [when] there is no police presence, then that seems good to me.”

The city authorities must be pleased with that reaction. However, of course, we can't see what kind of barricade they have inside the wrapping so it could be as weak as Berlin's, for all we know.

Not all German cities are as interested as Bochum in the aesthetics of security. Dresden used extremely non-decorative concrete blocks.

Those concrete blocks are just flat-out ugly, while also being as weak as Berlin's highway dividers.

Essen also used plain grey raw concrete blocks, only ones a bit larger than Dresden's.

In Essen's case the city leased the barriers for 30 days, so I guess they didn't want to pay more to put lipstick on those pigs.

Vienna went with gift-wrapped barricades.

Those are nice like Bochum's Christmas presents. But guess what we see if we peek under the wrapping?

The exact same grey raw concrete blocks that Essen used! In fact, it seems to be a double stack of them, based on the height of the wrapped packages.

Hey, Essen, see what you could have had with just a little bit of DIY?

Next Monday we'll look at Christmas market security in the United Kingdom.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Merkelstein Mondays

Those are, without a doubt, the most decorative anti-ram bollards or planters I've ever seen. Put up in a German Christmas market (news article here), they form an über-aesthetic terrorsperren that ought to preclude a truck ramming attack this holiday season like the one that happened last year in Berlin, when an ISIS-influenced failed asylum seeker from Tunis killed 12 persons and injured 56.

Since such security measures in public gathering places have evidently become a new holiday tradition in Europe, I plan to feature them in a series of posts this December which I'll call "Merkelstein Mondays," after a new hashtag I saw today in German Twitter. Merkelstein = Merkel stones.
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas (Markets),
Ev'rywhere you go;
Take a look in the Merkelstein, saying to terror “Nein!”
High-visibility stripes aglow.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas (Markets),
Police in ev'ry street,
But the prettiest sight to see is the bollard that will be
On your own front door.
Christmas markets are pretty much exclusively a European thing, I believe, with some exceptions for a couple of Canadian cities and maybe the American upper mid-west. But Merkelsteins of one sort or another are being introduced to high-traffic public venues of all kinds today. Pay attention when you go to large gatherings and special events and you'll see them.

Bollards aren't just for government buildings or U.S.-interest targets anymore. Bit by bit, one vehicle attack after another, everyplace is starting to look like the Blast-Proof City of Washington DC.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Morale and the Trust Deficit

It's been almost exactly two months since the last public announcement about the Department's redesign planning.

The Secretary’s Message on the Redesign went out on September 13 ("I am writing to update you on the progress of the redesign. This ongoing effort to transform the State Department and USAID to be more effective and efficient would not be possible without you") along with four charts on the redesign team composition. On September 29 the Deputy Secretary briefed Congress ("the Redesign provides a new foundation for our diplomacy and development professionals to define America’s leadership in the world for generations to come"). There's been nothing further from them since then.

Of course, every day there has been another news story blaming Silent Rex for the evisceration of the State Department and the purported rock-bottom morale of its employees. Yesterday it was CNN: “Tillerson under fire for turmoil at State: ”
As the battle over staffing unfolds, multiple sources tell CNN morale inside the State Department is at the lowest level in years, largely because of the perceived talent flight and an insular and distrustful approach from Tillerson and his team that's being interpreted by longtime employees as not valuing their input.

The rebukes [that is, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker's complaints] mark the latest headache for Tillerson, whose rocky first year in office has been marked by disagreements with President Donald Trump and an inability -- or unwillingness -- to connect with career staff at the State Department, which has led to plummeting morale.

Insular, distrustful, and unable or unwilling to connect with the staff, whose morale then goes plummeting? Pardon my insensitivity, but that sounds like Tillerson is accused of not doing enough hand-holding with Generation Snowflake.

And then, there is the downsizing of the State Department. But we’ve been there before. Back in the Bill Clinton administration the State Department cut more than 2,000 employees and closed consulates in 26 foreign cities. The Agency for International Development (AID) closed 23 missions overseas. Staffing has been both higher and lower in the recent past than it is right now.
The Office and Management and Budget has ordered the State Department to slash 8% of its full-time employees [which cannot be met by normal attrition alone, hence the hiring freeze and the possibility of buyouts].

Still, State Department officials are pushing back on assessments that Foggy Bottom is hemorrhaging talented employees. They argue there are more senior diplomats on hand today than at the beginning of the Obama administration.

There are currently 983 senior foreign service officers, with 63 more waiting for Congress to approve their promotion to senior tiers, according to State Department figures. This is more than the 931 when President Barack Obama took office in 2009. (There were more than 1,000 senior foreign service officers on hand at the height of the Obama years.)

CNN also states that "Tillerson has approved 2,300 exemptions from the hiring freeze as of last month, according to the State Department. That includes more than 300 foreign service officers and 150 civil service staff employees."

Assuming those numbers are correct, in what way are the current budget and staffing situations either unprecedented or a hollowing-out of the State Department?

Then there was this:
Trump's assertion earlier this month that "I am the only one that matters" in formulating foreign policy has also contributed to widespread unease that career expertise is not valued.

Characteristically blunt language, but is Trump not simply doing a Trumpian take on Obama’s observation that elections have consequences? [“Elections have consequences, and at the end of the day, I won. So I think on that one I trump you.” – President Obama to House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, January 23, 2009.]

Who can deny it? The President is, in fact, the one who really matters in regards to national policy.
"The State Department has a history of frank discussion before policy decisions are made," McEldowney [Nancy McEldowney, who last June resigned as director of the Foreign Service Institute] said. "But we were told early on there is a 'trust deficit' and if you want to rebuild that trust, get in line and follow the policy.' But internal debate does not equal disloyalty or disobedience. Quite the contrary."

And yet, after the frank discussion and internal debate, elections do have consequences. There can be no effective difference between the President and his Executive branch on policy matters.
Said one career officer of the foreign service: "We have always been a grumpy group" … "This is not just about how the place is managed. It is about the politics, policy and a whole approach to diplomacy. We are a country in the midst of serious political change that will have a profound impact on how we do our foreign policy and people are having to come to terms with that."

That anonymous career officer hit the nail on the head. The political pendulum swings both ways, and if you intend to have a government career of any length at all, you will sooner or later have to come to terms with serious political changes with which you disagree.

Are you genuinely distressed by ideas that run contrary to your worldview? Then get over it. Just remember that the most meaningful difference between any President of the United States and you is that he or she got elected and you did not. Until the pendulum swings back your way, you will simply have to endure the politics and policies of others.

Human Hair Threatens to Take Down DC's Metro

I let it fly in the breeze
And get caught in the trees
Give a home for the fleas in my hair
A home for fleas
A hive for the buzzin' bees
A nest for birds
There ain't no words
For the beauty, the splendor, the wonder Of my...


But not so wonderful when it gums up the electrical system of the Washington DC Metro, though.

According to NBC News, 'Beyond Vulgar': Human Hair Buildup in Metro System Poses Fire Threat :

Hair and other human fibers are accumulating in Washington D.C. Metro tunnels in such large quantities that the gunk poses a threat of electrical sparks and fire, a transit consultant tells News4.

So much hair and skin cells built up on insulators that support the electrified third rails that the mess looks like a thick layer of felt, said a safety specialist from Amalgamated Transit Union, the largest labor union representing transit employees in North America.

"I was flabbergasted -- flabbergasted -- at the amount of hair that's in the Metro," Brian Sherlock said.

It's not just hair and fibers -- dust and debris also are gathering, according to Sherlock.

He said the issue can become especially dangerous when debris gathers near the high-voltage third rail.

"The amount of debris is just beyond vulgar to think of," Sherlock said.

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld acknowledged the issue.

"Hair literally comes off of people and off of clothing and gets sucked up," he said.

This hair issue is not one that Metro has independently studied, but Metro has made efforts to increase the regularity of trackbed cleaning since 2016, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.

I don't ride the DC Metro much anymore, but it looks like a ride at Disney World compared to the New York City subway and most other old underground rail systems. How much skin and hair buildup must those have???

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

"Detroit Officers Posing As Drug Dealers Get Into Brawl With Detroit Officers Posing As Drug Buyers" - and Fox New 2 Detroit

Sources say guns were drawn and punches were thrown while the homeowner stood and watched ...  "You've gotta have to have more communication, I guess," said the resident. "I don't understand what happened about that - communicate."

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Now, There's a Trust Deficit

A tragedy happened in New York City yesterday after an Australian diplomat at the UN had too much to drink, took too big a risk on a high rooftop, and placed entirely too much trust in the wrong person.

The New York Post reports, UN diplomat falls to his death from balcony after ‘trust game’ goes wrong:
A game of “trust” took a deadly turn for an Australian diplomat, who plunged to his death from his Manhattan balcony early Wednesday during a night of boozing with friends and his wife, police sources said.

- snip -

While on the roof, the diplomat, who serves as the second secretary to the UN for Australia, then climbed to a higher roof landing where he began swinging a female friend around, sources said.

Once he put her down, everyone decided to go back inside.

While inside, the 24-year-old man, who is the husband of the woman Simpson had been swinging, confronted Simpson over the gesture, sources said.

The two men then stepped out onto Simpson’s balcony, where Simpson told the husband that he meant no harm, according to sources.

To prove to the husband that he could trust him, Simpson suggested playing the “trust game” — in which Simpson would lean back on the ledge and trust the man to catch him before he would fall.

Simpson jumped up onto the balcony railing and sat on it facing the apartment before he fell backward, sources said.

The man told investigators that he put his arm out to catch him, but Simpson slipped and fell to his death, according to sources.