Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Public Servant and the Internet Beast

Right after the news of the passport breach at the State Department hit the web the night before last, conspiracy aficionados had a field day online. The Huffington Post did a brief news update on its site quoting an MSNBC news item and citing “Mora Hardy” as the person who was in charged of the passport office when the breaches occurred. There was not much on the report; it was approximately 250 words (it’s not online anymore and has now been replaced with this) but it did mention that “Mora Hardy” was am ambassador appointed during the Clinton administration and left readers to draw their own conclusions from what was still breaking news. And that they did, quite unfairly towards a dedicated public servant. Tsk! Tsk! Did not even bothered to fact-check her name.

One post alleged that Paraguay where Ambassador Harty was posted from 1997-1999 was a “prestige post” given to political contributors. According to the CIA World Factbook, Paraguay’s economy had rebounded between 2003-2007, but on “a per capita basis, real income has stagnated at 1980 levels and most observers attribute Paraguay's poor economic performance to political uncertainty, corruption, limited progress on structural reform, and deficient infrastructure.” Paraguay is far from Paris, and has a GDP of $4,000 but that’s not really relevant, is it? It is a foreign country that sounds exotic, it must be a prestigious post, never mind that it has a 10% hardship differential and a 10% cost of living allowance bundled with it. Another alleged that Ambassador Harty is a Clinton supporter and implied that she must be involved. After another post indicated that Ambassador Harty had retired in February, still one more poster, alleged that she must have seen this coming, that’s why she quit her job at 49!

I spent some time reading through the online posts and came away with the realization that the regular American public has no idea how the State Department works. I have never seen such ignorance and such great willingness to believe everything so quickly without any supporting facts. I understand that this is the price we pay for the 24/7 barrage of information that comes with technology but isn’t this quite disturbing? Do we think so lowly of our public servants that we cannot afford them the courtesy of waiting until the facts are in before drawing virtual blood? The feeding frenzy reminds me of sharks feeding, really!

Just for clarity - Ambassador Harty was a career Foreign Service Officer; she earned her “stripes” within a very competitive organization through hard work. You can read more information about her career in the State Department here and here.

Her impending retirement was announced in November last year, but her actual retirement did not occur until this past February. She was a career Ambassador, a rank equivalent to a General in the military. She was not only well-respected but also genuinely liked by the people who worked for her.

As for those “prestige” assignments given to political contributors – those are the non-career ambassadors, political appointees nominated by the White House and approved by the Senate. For historical context, I refer to U.S. Diplomacy which states:

“Until passage of the Rogers Act of 1924 all ambassadors (then generally called “ministers”) of the United States were non-career political appointees. However, since the Second World War the great majority of those positions have been filled by career FSOs. In recent years approximately 70% of U.S. ambassadors come from the ranks of the professional Foreign Service, while the other 30% are from the private sector. Nominations of non-career ambassadors are made by the White House. Career officers are nominated by the White House upon recommendation by the Department of State.”

Foreign Service Officers (our diplomats) are commissioned by the President of the United States. Since Ambassador Harty joined the State Department in 1981, she must have been commissioned by President Reagan. She continued her career within the State Department through the administrations of Bush I, Clinton and Bush 2. But there’s nothing odd about that; all our career professional and civil servants continue working for Uncle Sam regardless of which party occupies the White House.

I must also add that Foreign Service Officers like all Federal employees are precluded from engaging in political activities under the Hatch Act. Federal employees may not-

  • be candidates for public office in partisan elections
  • campaign for or against a candidate or slate of candidates in partisan elections
  • make campaign speeches
  • collect contributions or sell tickets to political fund raising functions
  • distribute campaign material in partisan elections
  • organize or manage political rallies or meetings
  • hold office in political clubs or parties
  • circulate nominating petitions
  • work to register voters for one party only
  • wear political buttons at work

The penalties can be a 30-day suspension or removal from office, so folks are extremely careful about that just as we are careful and mindful of all the rules and regulations that govern our lives inside and outside the office. If you are thinking about the Bill Clinton passport flap in 1992, please bear in mind that the culprits then were political appointees not career professionals.


Digger said...

I have quoted and commented on your post here:

DS said...

Thanks Digger, much appreciated!