State Dept. to release competence reports on future ambassador picks

This post has been corrected, as indicated below.

WASHINGTON — After a string of embarrassing confirmation hearings in which President Obama’s picks for ambassador displayed gaps of knowledge on the countries they were to serve in, the State Department has agreed to publish details on the qualifications of future nominees.

The move comes after the American Foreign Service Assn., a group of over 16,000 foreign service employees, threatened to sue the State Department last month.

The AFSA had previously filed two Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain the candidates’ so-called certificates of competence, documents that outline the qualifications of each candidate. They are used by the Senate, which must approve presidential nominees for ambassador.

During a particularly rough January confirmation hearing, two nominees who had been top contributors to Obama’s reelection campaign botched their responses to relatively general questions from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

George Tsunis, the ambassadorial nominee to Norway, characterized a member of the country's governing coalition as a “fringe element.” Colleen Bell, nominated to serve in Hungary, struggled to cite American strategic interests there.

In another hearing, former Sen. Max Baucus, who is now the U.S. ambassador in Beijing, admitted, "I'm no real expert on China."

The AFSA said about 37% of Obama's ambassador appointments have been political picks, compared with an average of about 30% during the past three administrations. Looking only at Obama's second term, the ratio of political nominees is 53% so far, the group said.

“These are not start-up learner, beginner positions,” said AFSA president Bob Silverman, adding that political nominees “must be as qualified as anyone else.”

The AFSA proposed guidelines in February, urging that Chiefs of Mission – ambassadors and other top diplomats – be required to possess leadership skills, policy-making capacities, management experience and an “understanding of host country and international affairs.”

Though the AFSA has received the certificates of competence on past Obama nominees from the State Department, they do not plan to release them to the public.

[For the Record, 8:32 a.m. PDT April 7: An earlier version of this post said the American Foreign Service Assn. had over 1,600 foreign service employees. It has 16,000 foreign service employees.]

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