Friday, August 5, 2011

Whoops! No Double Standard Policy and US Embassy Bogota's Threat Info Dissemination

The State Department has what is called the "no double standard" policy  in its travel information program. 7 FAM dictates that if State shares important security threat information including criminal information with the official U.S. community, such information should also be made available to the non-official U.S. community.  Selective notification is against the law.  The regs also says that "If a post issues information to its employees about potentially dangerous situations, it should evaluate whether the potential danger could also affect private U.S. citizens/U.S. non-citizen nationals living in or traveling through the affected area."

The origin of the no double standard policy came from the Lockerbie bombing of 1988. Below is an excerpt from Jim Arkedis of ppi:

In the days before the holiday, the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt received vague threat information about a potential terrorist attack targeting American citizens.  The information didn’t state much, other than that the strike would emanate from Germany or possibly London.  The Regional Security Officer posted the threat information on a public bulletin board in the consulate, and many American government workers changed their Christmas travel plans.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, the travel warning turned out to be credible – the Lockerbie bombing of December 21, 1988 killed 190 American citizens, 270 total, traveling from London to JFK airport.  The flight had originated in Frankfurt, where the bomb was originally smuggled aboard.

While it was of course good that certain American government employees had avoided the catastrophe, a policy problem arose.  In short, there was a double standard in place:  Americans (and their families) who happened to work for the government in Frankfurt as everything from intelligence officers to economic advisors to custodians avoided the tragedy due only to their preferential position.  Americans elsewhere in Europe, whether in government or not, weren’t warned.
The Foreign Affairs Manual avoided mention of Lockerbie in its explanation of this policy:

In 1990, Congress passed the Aviation Security Improvement Act, which, in Section 109, added to the Federal Aviation Act a requirement that the President "develop guidelines for ensuring notification to the public of threats to civil aviation in appropriate cases”. The Act requires that the guidelines identify the officials responsible for deciding whether public notification of a threat is in the best interests of the United States and the traveling public, based on a consideration of among things, the specificity of the threat, the credibility of the information, and the ability to counter the threat. The guidelines were to be distributed to appropriate officials in the Departments of Transportation, State, and Justice, as well as to air carriers. The law prohibits selective notification of a threat to civil aviation to only selective potential travelers unless the threat applies only to them. These and other related provisions are now codified in 49 U.S.C. 44905. After enactment of these provisions, the Department decided to follow similar policies in non-civil aviation contexts.

The Office of the Inspector General questions the embassy's threat information dissemination in light of the no double standard policy.  Here is the US Embassy in Bogota, a 15% danger post: 
No Double Standard

The dissemination of threat information at this danger pay post may violate the Department’s “no double standard” policy. Some areas of Bogotá are off limits to U.S. Government employees because they are considered too dangerous. However, these areas are not identified as such in either the Colombia country-specific information sheet or the travel warning.

In addition, the embassy controls travel of its own employees throughout most of the country by delineating two safe areas (the north coast between Cartagena and Santa Marta) and the area around Bogotá (corresponding roughly to the Sabana de Bogotá plateau). The RSO approves visits to the rest of the country on a case-by-case basis after reviewing the security situation. Neither the Colombia country-specific information nor the travel warning mentions these two safe areas.

A third, lesser concern is the embassy’s use of hotels that are approved in advance by the RSO. Although vetting hotels is commonplace for official travel, requiring embassy employees to use the hotels while on personal travel again raises questions about possible double standard issues.

Fourth, the RSO issues email alerts to embassy staff about demonstrations or other disruptions in traffic that might impede embassy employees and make them vulnerable to criminal acts. The RSO does not send these alerts to a public Web site for the American traveling public.

The Department’s guidance on no double standard in Foreign Affairs Manual guideline 7 FAM 052.1 a. (1) applies to important security threat information, including criminal information. It states that “[s]uch information, if shared by the Department with the official U.S. community, generally should be made available to the non-official U.S. community if the underlying threat applies to both official and non-official Americans.”

There is no evidence that the travel restrictions for embassy employees for personal travel are based on threats that would not also apply to private U.S. citizens in Colombia. Therefore, the OIG team believes that the present system may violate the Department’s “no double standard” policy.

Recommendation 12: Embassy Bogotá should request from the Department of State by record communication a clarification of whether its dissemination of threat-related information is consistent with the Department of State’s “no double standard” policy and alter any procedures that do not comply with this policy. (Action: Embassy Bogotá)

Let's add 7 FAM 053.2-2 (e) below which has very clear reminders:

Remember that if you conclude you should warn your personnel or any U.S. Government employees, whether permanently stationed or on temporary duty abroad, about a security threat, your request for Department approval to warn post personnel should also include a request to share that same information with the non-official U.S. community under the "no double standard" policy (see 7 FAM 052). The policy applies whether the information is shared with U.S. Government employees in town meetings, in post newsletters, by e-mail, or on the telephone. The threat or warning information might include information about locations within the host country including hotels, restaurants, entertainment spots, places of worship, tourist sites, etc. Unless the threat is specific to a particular institution for reasons peculiar to that institution, you should not list names of specific locations, including names of hotels or restaurants, for which threat or warning information is available. You should also refrain from developing lists of "approved" hotels. In providing such lists to the community, you may actually increase the risk that perpetrators could change the target, thus increasing the risk to U.S. citizens/nationals who may be relying on such lists. (underlined for emphasis).


RSOAndrew said...

People always conflate the two different types of ‘security threats’ warnings. Unfortunately the FAM doesn’t make these distinctions clear either. There are both intell (using the term broadly) based security threats and criminal security threats. The former is typically the result of some type of intelligence collection and requires approvals before dissemination. The latter is based on the judgment of the DS Agent (RSO) at post and includes crime and political violence considerations.
Here's the difference. broad intelligence based warnings that go out to the official US community must be disseminated to the non-official US community. These also require prior approval from the department before dissemination except in exigent circumstances.
RSO warnings to official personnel should be evaluated by Post (after the fact) to determine if the warnings should be disseminated to non-official Americans. Post gets to make the determination as to whether or not to request permission from the Department to issue the information. The OIG report statement implies that all RSO Security Notices should be publically accessible.
My primary point about the OIG report is that non-official Americans do not always have to be notified about all security threats under the no double standard policy. My reminder to my Consular Officer colleagues is that there is no requirement for prior department approval on RSOs sending some types of security threat information to employees, a fairly common misinterpretation. Department approval is required, however, before sharing this information with non-official Americans.

Domani Spero said...

Thanks for your comment RSOAndrew. The regs is clear that the consular section is tasked with the travel info program. In fact this part of the OIG review was included in the consular section review not the RSO. I would put this responsibility squarely on the consular managers at Bogota. Granted that the RSO need not have to obtain permission for every warning it sends out, the Consular Section must be mindful of those warnings as they impact private Amcits.

One would hope that the consular section has a more effective collaborative relationship with its RSO that would enable it to monitor the NDS implications for RSo generated warnings. If there are restricted areas in the country, and it is not included in the travel info materials that State puts out to the public, and an amcit dies, you bet somebody will have to answer for it.