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POLITICS: PennAve

Under legal fire, State Dept. hands over docs on 'competence' of ambassadors

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Politics,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,State Department,Norway,Argentina,FOIA,Jen Psaki,Ambassadors

Facing legal action, the State Department on Friday responded to a request for documents about the qualifications of President Obama's ambassadorial nominees.

The American Foreign Service Association, the labor union for career diplomats, has been dissatisfied with the backgrounds of several recent administration picks for ambassadorships and on Thursday threatened to file suit against State for withholding information about their qualifications.

Last summer, AFSA filed a Freedom of Information Act request for “Certificates of Demonstrated Competence” that the State Department fills out and submits to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before nomination hearings.

It requested the certificates for every ambassador nominated from Jan. 1, 2013 to the present. The group followed up with a second FOIA request for the information on Feb. 28.

After State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki faced a barrage of questions about the request during her regular briefing with reporters on Thursday, officials handed the information over to AFSA on Friday.

“We fulfilled AFSA's July 29 FOIA request this morning,” State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach told the Washington Examiner.

Gerlach said State provided the “Certificates of Competence” for all nominees the president made from January through November 2013.

AFSA spokeswoman Kristen Fernekes confirmed that her organization received the information Friday and said three staffers were reviewing the material.

“We appreciate the fact that the State Department was responsive,” Fernekes said. “That really is the key for us.

“People take interest when someone suggests bringing suit on a federal agency but the most important part of this for us is getting the documents that will give us the insight into what the qualifications of these people are,” she added.

President Obama's recent ambassadorial nominees — in particular for Norway, Argentina and Hungary — have come under fire for flubbing basic facts about the countries they were picked to serve.

Modern presidents have regularly tapped well-heeled campaign donors and political allies for plum ambassador assignments, but the long debate over whether presidents should reward big donors flared up again this year.

Recent Obama nominees admitted they had never visited the countries they will serve in before being nominated.

Presidents generally follow a “70-30” rule when making the nominations, choosing career foreign service officers for the majority of posts and leaving the rest for big donors and others who helped on the campaign.

Henri J. Barkey, a State Department official during the Clinton administration and an early supporter of Obama in 2008, last month penned a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post saying that the “administration's appointments suggest that the president isn't being honest when he says that diplomacy is important to him.”

Barkey, who is now a professor of international relations at Lehigh University, told the Examiner Friday that “all administrations appoint lousy bundlers” but he thought the case of the nominees for Norway and Hungary was particularly unnerving. He said the picks had not bothered to do their homework and don't deserve to be confirmed.

“Even though I am an Obama supporter, when you make mistakes you have to live with consequences and admit you erred. I think the president should withdraw them,” he said in an email. “He will look better for it and it will be better for the country. Besides, after all this they will not be taken seriously at their destination.”

He said that if Obama were to “pull the plug on these he would also be establishing a standard.”

AFSA keeps a close watch on the ratio and says political allies have accounted for 37 percent of the ambassadors nominated by Obama. That number, though, rises to 53 percent if only those nominated in his second term are counted.

Fernekes said institutional knowledge is limited at the organization, but as far as she could tell the last time the group filed suit to get similar information on a previous president's ambassadors was in 1990 under President George H.W. Bush.

She said, however, that she didn't believe the group asked for certificates of competence for ambassador nominees under President Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.

A new board at AFSA came on last year, she said, and they are taking a closer look at the qualifications of Obama's nominees for ambassadorships.

“Our point is, regardless of who the president is, the individuals in these positions are his emissaries around the world and they represent the U.S. in all of these countries,” Fernekes said. “It's important that they are qualified and capable because we don't know where the next hot spot is going to pop up.”

Ferenkes was quick to say that the group is open to the president choosing some political appointees to represent him in key countries, adding that many of those chosen who are not career foreign service are great at their jobs.

She cited the late Shirley Temple Black as an example. Temple Black, who died in February at age 86, was an iconic Hollywood child star who also served as U.S. ambassador to Ghana under President Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s and later to Czechoslovakia under President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s.

“People spoke very highly of her and she was not a career foreign service officer,” Ferenkes said.

She said the recent controversy over Obama's ambassadors is only part of the reason AFSA made the FOIA request.

“You can't fully understand the qualifications from watching just those [Senate nomination] hearings,” she said. “We want to make sure that individuals are qualified. .... To make a judgment otherwise would be working without the complete picture.”

When pressed on the FOIA requests Thursday, Psaki had said that State was following FOIA law and responding to information requests on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“We receive, as many of you know, about 18,000 FOIA requests per year,” Psaki said. “We generally process requests on a first-in, first-on basis. We're currently actively processing the request in accordance with the statute and the department's regulation, which applies to the specific release they put out yesterday.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been particularly harsh in criticizing the caliber of Obama's nominees.

In grilling Norway ambassador nominee George Tsunis earlier this year, McCain pointed out that Tsunis had offered a kind assessment of the country's president even though it didn't have one. Norway is a constitutional monarchy, McCain chided.

Tsunis was caught flat-footed again when he said the country's government had denounced the Progress Party. McCain tartly reminded him that the Progress Party is part of the current government.

Republicans have objected to the ambassadorial nominations, but under a Senate rule change made by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., late last year, the so-called “nuclear option” allows nominees to win Senate approval with only a 51-vote majority. Republicans have 45 members.

The dust-up over Obama's ambassadors became fodder for late-night comedians in mid-February when “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart pointed out that three nominees had been big Obama campaign bundlers.

Tsunis had helped round-up $850,000 in support of Obama's re-election. The president's pick for Iceland had raised $1.6 million. And the Argentina nominee had directed $500,000 to Obama's re-election effort.

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Susan Crabtree

White House Correspondent
The Washington Examiner