Meanwhile, Over at Foggy Bottom

“No, you don’t need to be tested. Never mind all those coughing people sitting across the table from you at lunch. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

It’s rough being a career member of the US State Department workforce in the Donald Trump era. In general, much of the work of these people is not particularly affected by the changes in presidential administrations. Passports get issued to US citizens who wish to travel abroad, and visas get processed for those who wish to visit here. Those posted at embassies abroad listen to what is happening around them and report the most interesting stuff back to Foggy Bottom in DC, and they take what they’re told by Foggy Bottom and share it with the country in which they are posted. Big things change, like treaty negotiation postures and diplomatic postures on big picture issues, but the nitty gritty stuff is pretty ordinary and non-controversial.

But now, there’s a new wrinkle: whatever you do, don’t do or say anything that will make the guy who sits in the room with no corners look bad. He does not react well. And that wrinkle makes even the ordinary nitty gritty stuff difficult.

“Domani Spero,” the pseudonym of the author of DiploPundit, means “See you tomorrow, I hope,” which seems a fitting moniker for someone who watches the ins and outs of the State Department. Says he, “DiploPundit wades into leadership and management issues, realities of Foreign Service life, ambassadors and nominations, embassy report cards, current events in countries and regions which may or may not include prominent U.S. interests, and other developments in the international affairs community.” His writing assume that his readers are familiar with State Dept jargon and acronyms, which can put some readers off. On the other hand, for those in and around the US diplomatic community, DiploPundit is a definite place to check in for details that might not make it into general media reporting. Along the way, he occasionally posts items that come from his “burn bag” (State Dept lingo for the receptacle for classified trash that must be burned, rather than taken to the curb), which is his place for receiving anonymous tips. These often come from current State Dept employees, raising issues that they do not feel comfortable in bringing to the attention of their superiors via in-house channels.

Four days ago, DiploPundit noted that the US Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica put out a classic non-denial non-response to a story in the local media. While he didn’t link to the story, he seems to be referring to the Jamaica Observer, which wrote this last Wednesday:

A second case of COVID-19 has been confirmed in Jamaica.

Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton confirmed the second imported case via Twitter this evening.

Dr Tufton said the second case is a US Embassy employee who returned from the UK.

As you might guess, the US Embassy in Kingston started getting calls about this, their response boils down to “we’re aware of the report and will not confirm or deny it, but we’re working with Jamaican authorities and doing a really deep cleaning of all embassy facilities.”

Three days ago, DiploPundit wrote up a Burn Bag post, sent to him by “sickdips”:

“Members of the Embassy community at one post have fallen seriously ill with COVID-19 symptoms, but the State Department will not test them for COVID-19 or *MEDEVAC them. There is already limited medical capacity at many posts, which will be completely overwhelmed as the pandemic spreads. What is MED waiting for? Protecting our people should be our NUMBER ONE PRIORITY.”

MEDEVAC is exactly what it sounds like – medically evacuate – and MED is the acronym for the State Dept’s Bureau of Medical Services. When I went to MEDs page at, it had nothing but standard “here’s what we do” language and no news items related to COVID-19 among US embassy staffers.

This led me back to that non-denial non-response. In the middle, there’s one sentence that jumped out at me: “The U.S. Department of State has no greater responsibility than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas and locally-employed staff.” Remember what I said at the top? Don’t say or do anything to make the guy who sits in the room with no corners look bad. That’s what’s going on in this statement. “Make sure you tell everyone that we take care of US citizens!”

If sickdips saw this (whether Jamaica is the post about which sickdips was writing or not), it’s probably what prompted sickdips to drop a note to the Burn Bag. Fancy words about protecting the safety of embassy staffers are nice, but actions on the ground like refusing to test after exposure to a known carrier of COVID-19 suggest otherwise.

That was three days ago. The following day, DiploPundit posted a roundup of items about COVID-19 at various embassies, which laid out nine different countries (including Jamaica and Italy) where ordinary services are restricted or the embassies and consulates are completely closed for all but the most extreme emergencies. The list included this observation at the top: “As of this writing, we have not seen any public announcement or guidance from the State Department on COVID-19 for employees or family members. Let us know if we missed any statement from Pompeo or [Undersecretary of State for Management Brian] Bulatao.”

That last sentence was DP poking Pompeo and his chief aide for running the State Department with a very sharp stick, and doing it in a place where everyone in the diplomatic community could and would see it.

That was two days ago. Today, the State Department put out an updated health warning for US citizens thinking about traveling abroad. The short version is this: don’t. The longer version is this:

Global Level 3 Health Advisory – Reconsider Travel

March 15, 2020

The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to reconsider travel abroad due to the global impact of COVID-19. Many areas throughout the world are now experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and taking action that may limit traveler mobility, including quarantines and border restrictions. Even countries, jurisdictions, or areas where cases have not been reported may restrict travel without notice.

On March 14, the Department of State authorized the departure from any diplomatic or consular post in the world of US personnel and family members who have been medically determined to be at higher risk of a poor outcome if exposed to COVID-19.

The first part of that is the language you’d find in a standard State Department warning, albeit these kinds of warning are usually aimed at specific countries or regions, not the whole world. But the second part of that — the part that begins “On March 14 . . . ” — is not standard. Not at all. It sounds to me as if someone at Foggy Bottom who read DiploPundit’s poke tried to address the concern, but “put it out with the trash” late on Saturday, hoping it wouldn’t get too much attention from the general media, and thus incur the wrath of that guy in the room with no corners.

This is a deeply serious development. This kind of “we’ll pull anybody out of anywhere” statement is damn near unheard of, and the only reason I say “damn near” is to give myself wiggle room should someone with greater historical knowledge step up. I can’t think of anything close, ever.

But even so, as broad and sweeping and unheard-of as this is, I don’t think on it’s face it is enough. As DiploPundit notes, “So the ‘authorized departure’ or voluntary evacuation depends on the determination of the local MED unit or based of current medical clearance?” You remember MED – the same folks that wouldn’t authorize testing personnel who had been in contact with an infected person?

Poke, poke, poke.

UPDATE from DiploPundit:

The cable released by State/M Brian Bulatao says: “Effective March 14, 2020, I hereby approve authorized departure (AD) from any diplomatic or consular post of U.S. direct hire employees or eligible family members (EFMs) as listed on employee orders and defined in 14 FAM 511.3 who, after confidential consultation with MED, have determined they are at higher risk of a poor outcome if exposed to COVID-19, or who have requested departure based on a commensurate justification in foreign areas.”

Our source, not from Public Affairs, interpret this to mean that MED approval is not specifically required but you need to refer to MED when you go tell your boss you want out.

The  last time we had a global authorized/ordered departure order was probably during Y2K, was it? (The State Department at that time also issued an edict stating that all embassies must be prepared to be self-sufficient for 30 days by January 1, 2000).

When Trump gave his speech last week about the “foreign virus” and the need to blockade the EU but not the UK, it was clear that Trump was acting out of his usual playbook: xenophobia, build bigger walls, get revenge on your foes and carve out loopholes for your friends. Since then, clearer heads have pushed Trump to include the UK in his travel blockade, as viruses do not care about the color of your passport. I suspect those clearer heads are folks like Anthony Fauci on the medical side and whoever at State authorized the evacuation of any diplomatic staff from any post over medical concerns.

God bless them both, because it clearly takes the concerted effort of a group of people who are willing to make the guy in the room with no corners look bad if he’s doing stuff that will kill innocent people. And make no mistake: he *is* doing stuff that will kill innocent people. (See Jim’s post on the Customs mess at airports last night.)

Domani spero, everybody. See you tomorrow, I hope.

44 replies
  1. Raven Eye says:

    Is “authorized the departure” a candy-ass way of saying we’ll MEDEVAC you if you ask, or is it saying “we’ll let you go home, buy you make the arrangements”?

  2. Frank Probst says:

    So we’re at Level 3 for the rest of the planet? I think we’re at the point where that makes sense, tbh, but I don’t expect this Administration (and Pompeo specifically) to necessarily do things that make sense.

  3. Jim White says:

    Hmm. So you think that they’ll use this description that sounds a bit like just getting the really old folks and those who may be immunocompromised or have heart disease back home and “away” from exposure to remove those who are already ill with presumptive COVID-19? Someone needs to quietly explain to Trump that those who are infected abroad can be kept off the US numbers and are counted in the country where they were infected. Maybe he’ll allow the sick folks back that way.

    • paulpfixion says:

      It’s like sane actors in the government are all the murder cops on the Wire arguing with the police bosses to be allowed to investigate, but the bosses don’t want a bunch of mystery murders driving up the numbers so the bosses refuse to fund an investigation and the mystery murders continue.

      • Peterr says:

        UPDATE from DiploPundit:

        The cable released by State/M Brian Bulatao says: “Effective March 14, 2020, I hereby approve authorized departure (AD) from any diplomatic or consular post of U.S. direct hire employees or eligible family members (EFMs) as listed on employee orders and defined in 14 FAM 511.3 who, after confidential consultation with MED, have determined they are at higher risk of a poor outcome if exposed to COVID-19, or who have requested departure based on a commensurate justification in foreign areas.”

        Our source, not from Public Affairs, interpret this to mean that MED approval is not specifically required but you need to refer to MED when you go tell your boss you want out.

        The last time we had a global authorized/ordered departure order was probably during Y2K, was it? (The State Department at that time also issued an edict stating that all embassies must be prepared to be self-sufficient for 30 days by January 1, 2000).

        Also added to the post.

  4. BobCon says:

    The Washington Post has a long article this evening about the federal government’s haphazard efforts to get the federal workforce able to adapt to coronavirus restrictions.–as-the-rest-of-the-country-isolates-itself/2020/03/15/d7915324-66cc-11ea-abef-020f086a3fab_story.html

    “’Every agency is scared to death to do anything without getting approval, and they don’t want to be the first,’ said one senior manager.”

    “’The White House is not set up to micromanage operations like this,’ said a senior agency manager. ‘It takes too long.’”

    “The result is chaos and a sense of paralysis in some offices as coronavirus caseloads mount.”

    OMB is supposed to be running the show, but there is a void at the top with Mick Mulvaney’s absentee show finally off to Northern Ireland, and it was always shaky in the first place.

    Basically, these contingency plans should have been developed months ago, but no Trump appointee dared (or cared) touch the possibility that Trump might be wrong. A lot of them are still in denial.

  5. e.a.f. says:

    Thank you for the post. Interesting information.

    Trump’s administration is clearly out of its league. this is another group of workers/people who no one thought about, much like prisoners, prison staff, detainees, etc.

    The guy in the room with no corners, needs to be in a padded room. It might be a good thing if every one simply got with the same agenda and forced the issues in all areas of the administration. Who knows he might have a real melt down and leave office due to ill health. Hey a person can dream can’t they.

    This is an amazingly disgusting manner in which to treat the people who represent the country in the nicest and worst places in the world. Most countries embassy staff do an excellent job providing information to their country and assisting their citizens. They deserve better than this.

  6. Eureka says:

    Peterr, this is off-topic for the post. But pertinent to your comments lately about measures you are taking with your church services (and Jim’s comments, too), I wanted to share this, mainly for the photos*:

    11:32 AM – March 15, 2020
    Philly church offers drive-through communion

    (I don’t have a hard link, it’s in a stream — may have to scroll. The stream-jump link doesn’t seem to work)

    *particularly this one, very evocative for our times. Little drive-up testing; drive-away blessing:

    “As a congregant of St. Thomas Church drives away after receiving a communion wafer, the Rev. Gerald Collins offers a blessing and sprinkle of holy water. “

  7. Zinsky says:

    What Pompous Pompeo and Trumpo have done to the State Dept. is a crime against the United States. They have eviscerated the workings, purged everyone with any intelligence and nonpartisan acumen and left a bunch of mindless sycophants in their wake. This should be a key part of the inquiry by the Truth Commission that Elizabeth Warren advocates setting up after Trump is finally flushed out of the White House!

    • TXphysicist says:

      A domestic investigation is a start, but due to the global nature of pandemics, I think Trump and his ilk could eventually be tried in an international court of law.

      If only there were an online forum of people well-versed in legal matters I could ask…

      *begins poking the emptywheel comments sections with a stick*

      • bmaz says:

        The US is NOT a state party signatory to the Rome Statute that governs the ICC, so that’s out. Hard to see any other international entity having jurisdiction either. Not impossible there could be some domestic capability, but highly doubtful it would ever be exercised.

        • BobCon says:

          Yes, it’s a political issue. Throw the Bolton/Cheney worshippers out and get the GOP to lose its paranoia of UNICEF first, and then stuff ljke this might be a little bit more likely.

  8. TXphysicist says:

    Fact: The mathematics of pandemics are relatively simple. The “flatten the curve” idea (very google-able) is a great starting point, but it only looks at “active” cases, or even more accurately, “active cases requiring hospitalization”, and how we need to act to limit the burden on our already pathetic U.S. healthcare system.

    We can do one better by considering the total number of accrued cases, like this treatment: Naturally, an exponential function, of the form f(x, A, b) = A*(b)^x, reasonably describes the exponential growth of a virus spreading through a population. If there are 3,500 U.S. cases (A = 3,500) today (x = 0), in a week from now (x = 7) we can expect about 12,500 U.S. cases, if we assume exponential growth near b = 1.2, as implied in the above YouTube video. Different values of b reflect different stages of spreading and containment.

    Of course, there aren’t only 3,500 cases in the U.S., because we have objectively failed to ramp up covid-19 testing to anywhere near sufficient levels. We haven’t tested enough people to accurately reflect how the virus is propagating through society, and we’re flying blind, here. Ideally, you want to know b in every population, and at every scale, i.e. local, state, federal, global. The only way to constrain b is to test, test, test, and we’re not, not, not.

    With each day come new revelations of how the Trump administration’s criminal negligence and idiocy have put the entire globe at greater risk of covid-19 infection. I find it absolutely mind-blowing that the biggest scandal history will remember the Trump administration for won’t be Russia, Ukraine, or anything else. It’ll be this completely bungled fuck-up of a “response” to an impending pandemic.

    Prediction: In about two months from now, the U.S. will have more covid-19 infections as a percent of total population compared to anywhere else in the developed world. Including China! There is exactly one man primarily responsible for this.

    Especially if anyone has any maths questions, feel free to ask.

    • TXphysicist says:

      Yeah, I just crunched some numbers, and it won’t take two months for the infected U.S. population percentage to surpass China. It’s only gonna be about three weeks to a month. Not so sure about Italy, but yeah, China’s basically choked this thing out, though it took draconian measures. Measures that the U.S. has been exceedingly slow to even consider.

      • it's complicated says:

        I’m shouting it from the roof, as I see the late, chaotic and sometimes outright bizarre government measures adopted in “my” Europe and the US.
        Don’t look at China, we’re not authoritarian states. Look at the way South Korea has been and is fighting this. One of the key points is that they tried to develop and implement a democratic, transparent and agile way. We could do worse than try to learn from them, and they will gladly share.
        h ttp://

        • Rayne says:

          China has shown us that authoritarian ideology isn’t enough against this virus. We really need to take the examples of other countries together as a whole and pick what works for us. Singapore and Taiwan are two more examples we should examine.

          • it's complicated says:

            Absolutely right. I didn’t mention them because the one place I can look at in more depth is Korea, as I have lots of friends there and also speak the language to some extent. Many of my friends there are as surprised as I was by how well their government has reacted. One has to keep in mind that Korea is quite badly polarized, they had filter bubbles and alt-right at a time when these terms didn’t exist in Europe/US and they also had two quite trumpish presidents. The current president was elected after massive and peaceful pressure from the street got his predecessor impeached, removed and sent to jail. Her followers want to do the same to the current president, among other things for the “crime” of not closing borders to all of China earlier. Despite all that and also mistakes in the early stages, things do look hopeful. They will (probably) have midterm elections in early April, and during the last president’s time the MERS response was horribly botched, maybe these two things contributed to really wanting to do this right. History will tell.

      • Frank Probst says:

        I could be wrong–and I often am, so my opinion doesn’t carry much weight–but I’m not even remotely convinced that China’s epidemic is over. I suspect that they’re going to see more “pockets” of cases pop up. And it only takes one person to restart an epidemic. I don’t think this is over for them.

        • Rayne says:

          Correct. I don’t think anyone has a handle yet on how long persons carry active virus — some reports imply at least a month — nor do researchers have a handle on conferred immunity post-infection.

          I’m dismayed reading Daniel Goldman’s tweets about his experience with COVID-19 because he really needs to take at least 2 more weeks in isolation before he can assume he’s not contagious.

        • BobCon says:

          For me the biggest concern is that places like Brazil and India are doing almost nothing.

          India and Brazil have each only reported about 200 cases. Bolsinaro and Modi are in the same mindset as Trump and places like that are where the biggest risk lies.

      • Rugger9 says:

        Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones has been following this as well, including publishing the curves which track remarkably well. Digby picked it up. The hidden point is that to report a case requires testing for it, and that is a fundamental part of this scandal.

        For political reasons and for profit reasons (see Digby below), the WH has decided to restrict access to the tests.

        We also had the Fed cut interest rates to essentially zero to prop up the market. The last time they did that was December 2008 (see the history below). Let’s hope that works (early returns weren’t promising) because that’s all the Fed chairman can really do. Of course those carrying a lot of debt will benefit as well.

        • BobCon says:

          There is a lot more the Fed can do, but it lacks the psychological juice of rate cuts. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the sooner policy makers get quick fixes out of their heads, the more likely they start focusing on addressing systemic issues in a more comprehensive manner.

          We’ll see a reversion to the fights of 2008-2010, where the GOP tries to squelch sound policies because they want the Democrats to suffer. Hopefully the Democrats will have learned some lessons from that period about GOP bad faith.

    • Rayne says:

      Thanks for the thumbnail estimate. Please look at Trevor Bedford’s work on estimates related to the Washington state outbreak — we are WAY past tens of thousands across the country in terms of unconfirmed infections, cryptic or otherwise. I haven’t had time to dig into Nextstrain’s work on the genomic epidemiology to see if it also sheds light on numbers.

      CDC’s ILI (influenza-like illness) tracking will show a spike. Suspect it may have more than 6 weeks ago when there was an uptick in child deaths due to flu; I don’t know that those children were actually tested for influenza or if their ILI was simply recorded as ILI.

      The one number sticking in my mind which really bothers me is 115,000 — the state of Ohio said last week in their emergency declaration that they believed they had that many unconfirmed cases. That was more than 3 days ago, which means there are now ~250,000 cases based on doubling every 3 days. We’re gonna’ need a bigger boat, so to speak.

    • e.a.f. says:

      It is the lack of testing which is a very real problem. Without testing you don’t know where the virus is showing up. Testing people with the virus isn’t going to help that much. They know they have it, they’re sick. The medical system needs to know where its jumping to so protocols can be established along with health care.

  9. Blueride27 says:

    I know this has nothing to do with this post but, i consider this place to be a group of smarter people then I. So i have a question. Would it be possible to suspend all debt? Just until a vaccine is developed and distributed?

    • e.a.f. says:

      Don’t know if its possible in U.S.A. but Italy has told the banks that mortgages will not be collected. I’m not sure of all the details, but did read the government was ensuring people didn’t have to worry about their mortgages, the banks would have to wait.

      In Canada it would be easy to deal with. Banks are chartered via the Federal Government and there are only the “BIG 5” and then a couple of smaller ones. The federal government could order the banks to not force people into defaulting on their mortgages. In Canada, however, the banks tend to work with people who genuinely can’t pay and may leave them in their homes for up to a year before they go to court to “call” the mortgage. People can also go and object and sometimes the “master” (judge) will give people a chance to sell the house themselves or whatever they ask for. In Alberta, people who can no longer pay their mortgages (when the oil booms go bust) if they leave their homes in good repair can take their house keys to the bank manager, leave them there and can’t be forced into bankruptcy. That has been on the books there since approx. the late 70s/early 80s.

      I’m sure the U.S.A. could do what it wanted regarding mortgages on people’s houses, but based on what I saw during the 2008 recession. banks did everything to seize houses and re sell them. I’m sure there are the friends of trump who are waiting to pick up these properties for nickels on the dollar and make a bundle.

  10. Frank Probst says:

    Random thoughts:

    1. There have been several reports of infants (< 1 year old) and even newborns infected with the COVID-19 virus. As far as I can tell, none of them have had a severe illness. And I haven't seen a single report of someone under 15 years-old dying from the disease, which I think is somewhat odd, considering the numerous case reports we've seen of younger adults with no health problems developing severe illness and occasionally dying. (The answer could simply be that kids don't develop the "cytokine storm" that we've discussed in previous threads, but that begs the question of why that doesn't happen in kids versus adults.)

    2. That was the good news. Here's the bad news: we have no idea what happens to early embryonic/fetal development if a pregnant woman gets infected with the COVID-19 virus early in the pregnancy. The virus just hasn't been around long enough for us to see if there are any birth defects in this group. It's going to be several months before we we even start to see these babies being born, and it's going to take years to see if they have cognitive problems.

    3. RE: Running out of ventilators. I haven't seen any mention of the role that EMTs and ambulances play in terms of getting people to ERs or in terms of transferring people from one ER to another. If Hospital #1 is maxed out on ventilator usage, but Hospital #2 isn't, then the 911 dispatcher can divert patients with respiratory problems to Hospital #2. Ambulances can also provide respiratory support to patients that need to be transferred to Hospital #1's ER to Hospital #2's ER. Unfortunately, this sort of thing sucks up EMT/ambulance usage. How much time is that going to buy us, and is it going to be so pervasive that it eventually prevents people with other medical emergencies from getting an ambulance in a reasonable amount of time? Is there a plan here?

    • ducktree says:

      Re: #2 – Yesterday and friend and I were texting on what might lie “around the bend” of this pandemic and she coined a word “coronials” to mean the children born nine months from now (like “millenials”). Come to find out that word is already taken: “or or relating to a coroner.” What a ghastly etymological coincidence!

  11. greengiant says:

    Bravo for state department employees.They have received treatment no worse than medical professionals in the US or people coming from infected cruise ships etc. etc. following the administrations guidelines and test. People will take this abuse until they don’t.

  12. milestogo says:

    I received the State Department communication here in Spain. I found it interesting they called out “Wuhan, China”. Probably nothing and certainly factually correct, but it seemed odd the first time I read it.

    “Event: There is an ongoing outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) first identified in Wuhan, China. The global public health threat posed by COVID-19 is high.”

    I am going a bit stir crazy stuck inside but it’s a small sacrifice to make to keep everyone healthy.

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