Quote of the day/week/however long

"Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does."
~William James

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Let It Be Me

Many of us worry desperately about - and might admire enormously - those truly courageous souls who dare participate in the wave of protests and demonstrations now occurring and spreading in the world.  Where will this wave go now?  Maybe not China, maybe not North Korea, but not long ago we might have poo-pooed the idea of Libya, so we don't know.

As we read about our colleagues - only peripherally in the ordinary news, which at most might mention a ship or a flight 'arranged by the US embassy' - it is only human for a true consular officer to feel a tiny tug of envy.

Because in every such officer's heart is a wee little voice that whispers, "Me.  Involve me.  If it's going to happen, please let it happen while I'm here and while I can try my best to pass the ultimate consular test - to think fast and creatively and without hesitation to help and protect my employees and my American customers.

"Test me.  I can do it.  I'll think of everything, I'll think a step ahead of danger.  Let it be me standing on the tarmac, on the quay, on the train platform, on the side of the highway, waving goodbye to the last of those who trust and depend on me, as they race away to safety by means that I arranged.  Let it be me who will be able to say - "

" - Goodbye, hon.  Be careful out there."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bienvenue, Enfants

The NIV chief had a problem.  Her officers were having trouble getting away from their pro forma, routine questions (Got a job?  Married?), and their reliance on job letters, bank statements, and prior travel to other countries.  They were unconvinced by their chief's assurances that these customers might be deliberately fitting themselves into the patterns of their countrymen who had succeeded in obtaining US visas; they did not believe their applicants were that clever, or that their evidence could be fabricated.

After stewing for a while, the chief came up with a plan.

"Do this," she told the officers.  "If you intend to refuse an applicant for any reason and if the passport is still pristine, tell him in exactly these words, 'I'm sorry but you don't qualify for a US visa.  After all, you've never traveled out of your own country before.  You've never even been to France.'"

The officers laughed and complied, because they liked her but still wanted to prove her wrong.

And guess what?

In less than a month, every single NIV applicant's passport showed a week's recent travel to France:  a visa, and Charles de Gaulle airport arrival and departure stamps.

Faced with this phenomenon, the officers stepped out of their routines to ask questions whose answers surprised them.  Where had the travelers stayed in France?  With friends.  What friends?  Just friends.  In what city?  They didn't know; the friends 'took them around.'  What had these travelers seen in France? They couldn't name a single sight.

Those visas and stamps?  When turned over to the FSN investigator, they proved to be all masterful counterfeits.

Those officers are now scattered all over the world doing many kinds of interesting mid-level work, but every one of them remembers this experience with chagrin and gratitude.  They call it The Day the Refusal Rate Went Up.

Monday, February 7, 2011

So This Guy Walks in and Says...

Madam's nag last week had to do with the incautious handling of sensitive paperwork.  But what about incautious speech?

What could be more amusing than to relate the latest you-won't-believe-what-this-one-did Crazy Amcit story? There are times when we could be excused for believing that our resident Americans could not possibly have thought that up all on his own, and we can't help but wonder what the heck he was thinking of. And we could, briefly, be excused for believing that this will make a great story to tell colleagues and co-workers in the cafeteria, the elevator, anywhere we gather.

And so it might.  But please don't do that.

The Privacy Act of 1974 and 7 FAM 060 are extremely specific about who can be told what about Americans and their antics. And while most of these references concentrate on official documentary records, any note a consular officer has jotted down and stuck into a folder or onto a computer screen is part of those records. In practice, so is anything the American told a consular officer that hasn't been written down yet.

Can you tell the story if you leave out identifying information such as the person's name?

Consider: you can't be certain that a listener won't be able to connect the story with a specific individual. She might have seen him walk into the section and might know him from church, from the neighborhood, from the Hash. She might know details about his life that make him immediately recognizable. Even without any obvious identifying data, release of any information to another USG employee - even another consular employee - is still limited by the need to know.

It is routine for consular officers to discuss cases among themselves. Such discussions can serve as excellent learning and training tools. But be very wary about disclosing anything about any case involving an Amcit or LPR, even to closest colleagues. If you couldn't clearly and lucidly explain the sound professional reason behind this disclosure in front of a Congressional inquiry, think twice.

Of course, only Americans and LPRs are protected by the Privacy Act.  But might that very funny visa applicant be a friend, relative or countryman of a local staff member who happens to be within earshot?

Maybe we could talk about the political section's latest stunningly clever dimarche instead.  Or the weather.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Can We Put That Away, Please?

No, Madam is not referring to the occasional disturbed Amcit who believes that his personal parts are so attractive that local ladies - or gentlemen, or children - would like to admire them in public places. She is talking about consular records.

Some otherwise well-run consular sections remain cluttered after hours with files of ongoing fraud investigations, death and custody cases, immigrant visa cases, and loose documents such as birth certificates and Social Security cards - anything and everything left where it was used last.

As you know, Madam will be the first to say so if she believes that the FAM or the consular management handbook have wandered off base. But with this issue she stands staunchly with the most conservative of our managers.

We need to remember five points:

- There are people who pass through the consular section after hours, from the MSG to painters and plumbers. An escort can only watch so many workers. These folks might be absolutely honest, but they still have no need to know about consular cases. The temptation to learn about them should be removed.

- Even within a consular section, need-to-know rules apply. No consular employee - officer or LES - should have casual access to a file or a case that he or she is not actually working with.

- Mischief can happen.

- If there isn't enough secure space or containers to store everything as required, it is the consular chief's responsibility to acquire that secure space or those containers.

- A cluttered desk is NOT a sign of genius.

In a well-run consular section, every day is lockdown day. At every close of business we must make sure that computers are logged off, of course, but also all files and sensitive documents are secured;  foils, passports, cash, stamps and seal are locked up. And it should be the section chief himself or herself who makes it obvious that he or she is cleaning up his own work space and locking things away properly, then performing the benign but firm final sweep of the entire section. Leading, as always, by example.