Sunday, December 14, 2008

Domestic Disturbance in the Public Affair’s Shop

Steven Aftergood wrote last week in ProPublica about the Crisis in the Foreign Relations Series (FRUS) in the Office of the Historian under the Bureau of Public Affairs at the State Department:

“In a tense and adversarial meeting at the State Department yesterday, the chairman of the Department’s Historical Advisory Committee warned that the future of the Department’s “Foreign Relations of the United States” (FRUS) series, which is the official record of U.S. foreign policy, is in jeopardy due to mismanagement by the Office of the Historian. Underscoring his concerns, he announced his resignation from the Committee. An Assistant Secretary of State rebuffed the criticism. He accused Committee members of engaging in innuendo and ad hominem attacks, and he abruptly walked out of the meeting.”

And you think history is a boring field?

CAST OF CHARACTERS: Thomas Schwartz President of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations Former Member of the Historical Advisory Committee

November 17, 2008: Mr. Schwartz memorandum to Secretary Rice excerpted below; you can read the full text here:

"I was the principal drafter of this year’s report, which contained some criticisms of the management of the Office of the Historian. As a result of this critical report, the Historian, Dr. Marc Susser, removed me from the committee, despite the fact the Organization of American Historians reappointed me this past summer to serve another three year term.

I was honored to serve on the Historical Advisory Committee, and I have enormous respect for the staff of the historians who serve in the Office and are attempting to fulfill their public responsibilities. However, I cannot leave this position without expressing my serious reservations abut the future of the FRUS series and the Office under the leadership of Dr. Susser. Not only does his action against me reflect an extreme sensitivity to any criticism, however mild, it also defeats the purpose of an Advisory Committee if Susser can simply remove members who express any reservations about the performance of the Office of the Historian."

Mr. Schwartz then urged Secretary Rice to “consult with the Historical Advisory committee and its chair, Professor William Roger Louis, and conduct her own investigation" and states that "Without any change, the future of the FRUS series, and the fulfillment of the Congressional mandate, will be placed in serious jeopardy.”

William Roger Louis Chairman, Historical Advisory Committee American Historical Association

November 28, 2008: Resignation letter embargoed from public release until 12/10/08, 1:30 p.m. Excerpted below, full text is readable here.

"Fully conscious of the serious nature of the issues raised in this letter, I must write to you about the future of the Foreign Relations series and of the related issues of plummeting morale and mismanagement within the Office of the Historian. I have served on the oversight body of the series, the Historical Advisory Committee, for nearly ten years, five of them as chairman. I am a past President of the American Historical Association. Along with all other members of the advisory committee, I am guided by the Congressional mandate to ensure that the Foreign Relations series represents a trustworthy, full, and honest documentary record. In our judgment, the prospective fate of the series has now become so grave that it would be a failure of responsibility on my part were I not to call it to your attention.

[…] My concern, along with that of all members of the committee, arises from mismanagement by the Historian himself, Dr. Marc Susser. So large are the numbers of staff members leaving, or contemplating departure, that the integrity of the Foreign Relations series is now in jeopardy. To give you a rough idea of the extent of the problem, 15 historians or compilers in a staff of about 35 have left in the last three years during Dr. Susser’s tenure."

Dr. Louis provided four attachments to support his statement, and included two recommendations including a thorough and comprehensive general review of the leadership and management of the Historian's Office and for major actions to be frozen pending the outcome of that review, particularly the appointment of new members of the Historical Advisory Committee and the hiring of a new General Editor of the Series.

Dr. Marc Susser State Department Historian From ProPublica:

“I regret that I have to sit hear and listen to this decline to the level of slime and innuendo,” said Dr. Marc Susser, the State Department Historian and the principal object of Committee criticism. “We welcome all constructive criticism, but not personnel issues, hiring, firing, or comings and goings of staff.”

Sean McCormack Assistant Secretary of State and Department Spokesman From ProPublica

“I hardly think that the kind of ad hominem attacks you have engaged in are the kind of behavior we expect from respected academics,” said Sean McCormack, the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. “To express concern about the timeliness and quality of the FRUS series is fine. But to attack individuals in public? I find that objectionable.” “I will not sit here and listen to personal attacks on the leadership of this office,” he said, before exiting the meeting."

* * *

In an email message to Mr. McCormark dated December 9, Dr. Louis writes:

"Let me write candidly about two developments that have taken place within the last week as a result of discussion within the committee. At the meeting on Wednesday afternoon I will read my letter to the Secretary of State, thus making it a public document. I will then resign from the committee, stating that I think my duty to explain publicly the way I see the Foreign Relations series reaching a state of crisis. I want you to know of the decision about the letter because it represents a collective decision by the committee. My decision to resign is my own, but it is now irrevocable."

Mr. McCormack’s email response on the same day with some prescience that this too would be public record says in part:

"As for resources dedicated to the FRUS, I understand that under Dr. Susser's management the resources dedicated to the FRUS have increased significantly. I have maintained a funding and personnel level during my tenure consistent with my predecessors. In fact, I understand that the FRUS is now on track to meet the 30year publishing requirement set out by the law, something that has never before been achieved in the history of the series.

[…] I feel also compelled to offer my own editorial comment regarding your decision to resign, which I accept at face value as a matter or principal, and which I only learned via your email with no courtesy of prior communication. By taking these actions, I feel you are obscuring the very thing you hope to accomplish: to raise questions about the quality of the FRUS. I do not believe you can dispute the fact that disagreements with the Historian's Office have become entangled with personal issues that have nothing to do with the quality of scholarship. While you have decided to walk away from the FRUS, I will continue in my efforts to ensure its continuing timeliness and quality."

But part of the analysis provided to the Secretary of State includes the following:

"For any office, the bottom line is production, and for the Office of the Historian, the bottom line is publication of Foreign Relations volumes. Susser and Herschler have regularly asserted that it doesn’t matter who does the work, as long as there is sufficient staff to follow their leadership. The numbers, however, contradict this assertion. Under Slany [previous Historian], a FRUS staff of 24, with an average of 11 years of experience per member, published 63 volumes. Under Susser [current Historian], a FRUS staff of 35, with an average of 6 years experience per member, has published 42 volumes. In other words, Slany’s staff―two thirds the size of Susser’s but with twice the experience―produced 50% more.

I say it's always tough to fight with real numbers. I noted Dr. Susser’s take on constructive criticisms and staffing issues so I thought I’d check on the authority and responsibilities of the Historical Advisory Committee, which now has two vacancies in its 9-seat membership. Here's part of its task: "The Advisory Committee reviews records, advises, and makes recommendations to the Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, concerning the Foreign Relations of the United States documentary series. The Committee monitors the overall compilation and editorial process of the series and advises on all aspects of the preparation and declassification of the series. Although the Committee does not review the contents of individual volumes, it does monitor the overall process and makes recommendations on particular problems that are brought to its attention.”

My own take on this is if leadership and management issues are impacting the mission, then the Committee is within its authority to bring up the matter. But - what really strikes me here is the reaction of the Assistant Secretary of State. You might remember that inconvenient AFSA Survey that caused a bunch of senior officers to blog and defend the Secretary’s resource gathering talents early this year? Mr. McCormack then says: “The experts also noted, as I did, that the lack of random sampling technique raised serious questions about the value of the "survey" results in drawing conclusions about attitudes in the Foreign Service.”

Makes one wonder if the validity of "bad news" is always suspect?

The History News Network wades in on the FRUS fracas: "That the State Department appears to have dismissed these concerns entirely is even more troubling."

Doesn’t that sounda kinda familiar? Anyway, delete the entire back and forth here and two things still appears to be true: 1) There has been a significant departure of qualified staff from the Historian’s Office: This year alone the office has lost 20% of its FRUS staff (7 of 35 members) and 30% of its FRUS staff experience (64 of 212 years).

2) The FRUS series was far behind its legally-mandated schedule: During the last eight years of [former Official Historian], Slany, 18 of the 63, or 29%, of the volumes were published on-time, that is, within 30 years. The corresponding figures for [current Official Historian] Susser are 6 of 42 volumes or 14%. The cumulative delay in the series (i.e. past the 30-year line) has been about twice as long under Susser as it was under Slany (209 to 111 years).

Meanwhile in a comment posted in the ProPublica blog, “Insider” provides the following insight:

“The people who populate the office are, like myself and scores of others I know, civil servants who are hired to do a job and do it well because we are intelligent, skilled, and motivated. The breakdown in the office in question is not unique by any stretch of the imagination and would not be worthy of note were it not for the fact that the office fulfills a congressionally-mandated mission that is of the utmost importance and maintains a level of close contact with experts in academia. This is a serious matter and it is important that action be taken by the Secretary — or by someone in a position of authority on the Hill — to remedy the situation. Meantime, State’s office of medical services provides counseling for anyone in the office (or elsewhere in the department) who needs it.”

Discordant and adversarial meetings like these used to percolate only in four-walled offices and generally beyond public view; but as you can see – that’s not the case anymore. There’s a lesson here somewhere for our public leaders and managers. The blogosphere is alive and wild. Unless all meetings are put on “SBU” or whatever they call those restrictions these days, we’ll see more domestic disturbances online. Which is not necessarily bad - see my video this past week on cultivating a culture of candor. If you have that - do you think you'll get blow-outs like this?

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