Sunday, December 20, 2009

Farewell to Luanda

Farewell to Luanda

Dear friends and colleagues,

We are packing out and already I am missing this sad, strange place.  Luanda.  No place like it.  No place like it in this world.

Coming down with malaria is a pain that I won’t miss.  Nor will I miss that illness we get from time to time that fakes out the malaria test.  The locals call it catolotolo, while I call it total physical misery.  But I will miss the peaceful sunsets and late dinners out on the ilha, the hypnotizing popular music, dancing (more like watching them dance) the kizomba and the high-fives shared when one hits that out-of-sync step with rhythmic perfection. 

I’ll miss the taste of zindungo (a spicy sauce made from peppers, garlic and whiskey), the smooth harshness of Angolan coffee, the sweetness of overripe pineapple sold at inflated prices by the women on the street who swear it will last until tomorrow, and the bitter-sweetness of gimboa (a type of local greens) fried with onions and olive oil.  More than anything else, though, I’ll miss the effusive, infectious enthusiasm of our FSN employees, their willingness to learn, their professional dedication and loyalty.

The war, which resumed in earnest two years ago, continues in earnest.  The rebels continue to wreck havoc and random mayhem in the distant and not-so-distant provinces.  The government continues to blame the rebels and, by extension, the war for all the ills of the kleptocratic society it leads.  Luanda’s majority continues its struggle to survive and overcome desperate, oppressive poverty.  Luanda’s privileged elite continues to revel in opulent, ostentatious wealth.  International oil companies continue to discover and suck out black gold, Texas tea, like there’s no tomorrow.  And then there are diamonds.  Diamonds are forever.  Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.  Diamonds.  Y’all know the rest of that story.  The American Embassy continues its bifurcated operation in the Miramar trailer park and on top of the downtown garage known as Casa Inglesa.  Continuity, for better or for worse, is Luanda’s most obvious constant.  The strong get stronger, the weak go further off track.  Or, if corruption empowers, then absolute corruption empowers absolutely. 

Angola diz basta, Angola quer paz. Angola vai vencer.  Or so says the steady flow of local media propaganda.  Angola says enough.  Angola wants peace.  Angola shall win.  An associate with party connections gave me the red, black and gold t-shirt that repeats the mantra.  That makes it so.

The NOB didn’t start on time and may or may not start in the foreseeable future.  While I am buoyed by our accomplishments of the past two years, I am a little disappointed over the NOB delays and the failed prospect of being personally involved in yet another building project in yet another former Portuguese colony.  Never mind.  A luta continua e vitoria é certa (translation: the struggle continues and victory is certain).

We are coming up on two years of official USG presence in Angola in the post-Cold War era (1992-2002).  I am soliciting information, anecdotes, photographs, etc. from folks who have served in Luanda, and from PMO’s, FBO Area Managers and desk officers who have paid Angolan dues, so to speak.  While talking with people in Luanda and in Washington, I’ve made interesting discoveries regarding the colonial-era Luanda consulate and its employees (1952-1975) and the Benguela and Luanda consulates that supported US Navy ships (the African Squadron) involved in slave trade interdiction efforts in the 1840’s and 1850’s.  Keep those cards and letters coming and let’s all meet for a big birthday bash in Luanda in 2002!

They got it all wrong on Benghazi

You are taking this all too personally, Raymond.  It is not about you, it is about Hillary Clinton and 2016.  Those words were uttered by the State Department ombudsman in January 2013 in  an apparently well-intentioned attempt to simultaneously admonish and console me.  Her assessments probably were right, but when you are run over by the bus it is difficult to appreciate that it was swerving to avoid somebody else.

The attack on our diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 and the resulting deaths of four U. S. government representatives were horrific.  The American people deserve a complete and accurate account of those events.  However, the investigation conducted by the State Departments Benghazi Accountability Review Board (ARB) into the events was woefully incomplete and consequently misleading.  Perhaps most importantly, the ARB failed to interview a number of key officials who had a direct role in decisions regarding Libya.  Among the officials not interviewed by the ARB were three high-level political appointees:  Thomas Nides, Deputy Secretary of State and the official with overall responsibility for management of Department resources in Libya; Andrew Shapiro, Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs and the Departments point person for ensuring (to the extent possible) appropriate employment of the thousands of US-provided shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles in Libya; and Ben Fishman, the National Security Council (NSC) Director for Libya.

Also limiting the ARBs investigation was the fact that the Board, despite its claims to having unfettered access to documentation, experienced perhaps unknowingly the same problems gaining access to emails, memos and similar materials that Congressional committees later faced.  The Boards difficulty in gaining access to information was not accidental, it was by design.  When the ARB issued its call for documents, the executive directorate of the State Departments Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) was placed in charge of collecting all emails and other relevant documents.  However, once the documents were gathered and boxed, a select group of NEA staffers spent a weekend in a basement operations center pouring through the entire collection.  I was not invited to that after-hours endeavor, but I heard about it and decided to check it out on a Sunday afternoon.  There, one of the staffers from NEAs Office of Maghreb Affairs explained the operation to me.  Ray, she said, we are to go through these stacks and pull out anything that might put anybody in the NEA Front Office (i.e., Assistant Secretary Beth Jones or Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) Elizabeth Dibble) or the 7th Floor (State Department short-hand for the Secretary of State and her principal advisors) in a bad light.  But isnt that unethical? I asked.  Ray, she responded, those are our orders.  A few minutes later, in walked Cheryl Mills, chief of staff to Secretary of State Clinton, and Jake Sullivan, another trusted Clinton advisor.  When Cheryl saw me she snapped, Who are you?  Jake explained, Thats Ray Maxwell, an NEA DAS.  She conceded, Well, OK.  A few minutes later I voted with my feet and returned home.

Despite its claims to being independent, the ARB was anything but.  Sworn Congressional testimony revealed that ARB co-chair Admiral Michael Mullen made phone calls to Cheryl Mills to report on the fitness of a potential Congressional witness who had been interviewed by the ARB.  When questioned about that September 2013 testimony, ARB co-chair Ambassador Thomas Pickering said he would not have said that.  His response was carefully parsed diplo-speak.  What he did not say was that he would not have done that.  Because of the casualness of the remark that Admiral Mullen made and the oblique reference Ambassador Pickering made to it, we have every reason to believe that communications between the ARB and the Secretarys staff was on-going during the ARB process.  Even if contact occurred only that one time, that is NOT being independent.

Despite claims to impartiality, several officials involved in the Benghazi ARB, and in the overall damage control process following the events of September 2012, had possible tracks to cover from previous fatal attacks of U. S. diplomatic facilities, specifically the bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998.  In the 1998 East Africa bombings, 224 lives were lost, including those of twelve Americans.  Susan Rice, currently President Obamas National Security Advisor and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 2012, was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in 1998 and consequently in the direct chain of command that declined then-Ambassador to Kenya Prudence Bushnells request of additional security funding.  ARB co-chair Thomas Pickering was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in 1998, also in that chain of command.  Dick Shinnick, a member of the Benghazi ARB committee, in 1998 was then-Secretary of State Madeline Albrights Executive Director.  Current Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy was the acting Under Secretary for Management in 1998.  I remember those officials and their positions in 1998 because I was a watch stander in the State Departments Operations Center in 1998 and was on watch the night of the bombings.  No-one was held accountable in 1998, which generated increased pressure to assign responsibility and name names after the Benghazi attack.

Lest we forget, our facility in Benghazi was not a consulate.  That would have required Congressional approval and direct funding.  In fact, the U. S. government presence in Benghazi was not primarily a State Department operation at all.  It was, as has been reported widely in the media, a CIA operation.  Did the ARB question why the CIA did not provide better security?  Was anybody from the CIA held accountable?  Was anybody from the CIA even interviewed by the ARB?  No, no and no.

Finally, the ARB report completely let Congress off the hook, assigning no specific blame to Congress for the security funding decisions it had made.  Almost certainly, this aspect of the ARB report was specifically designed to persuade members of Congress to find the reports findings palatable.  It worked.  The chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the time of the reports release focused solely on the status of the four people named in the classified section of the report.  Why cant they be fired? she asked.  What is being done to discipline them? she demanded.  Never did she ask, Did they receive due process?  Or even, Are we sure the findings are correct?  State Department political leadership played Congress like the hard-to-tune viola I played in my youth.

Lets face facts and call the Benghazi ARB by its proper name.  It was a disgrace.  It perpetrated a disservice to the memory of the U.S. officials who lost their lives on September 11, 2012.  The ARB inquiry was, at best, a shoddily executed attempt at damage control, both in Foggy Bottom and on Capitol Hill.  I am confident that history ultimately will judge the ARB report to be a flawed product and will conclude that the entire ARB process, unfortunately, was little more than an exercise in misdirection and political theatrics.