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U.S. 2009-2010 war reports on Sri Lanka: State OIG declared them ambiguous

By Daya Gamage
(Courtesy of Asian Tribune)

Expressing “deeply concerned by the appointment of Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva as Army Commander”, the United States Ambassador in Sri Lanka Alaina Teplitz in the embassy-released statement further noted “the allegations of gross human rights violations against him are serious and credible” while referring to UN and other international reports on the final stage of the battle between Sri Lanka’s military and the fighting cadre of the Tamil Tigers. ab copy Sri Lanka’s new Army Commander Shavendra Silva under US scrutiny

The Ambassador made use of reports done by other organizations to express her ‘concern’ about Shavendra Silva’s appointment; being a senior Foreign Service officer of the U.S. Department of State, she conveniently ignored the two reports – one in 2009 and the other in 2010 –written by the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice with extensive contribution from the American Embassy in Colombo accusing Sri Lanka of violating international humanitarian law (IHL) and committing war crimes.

As much as the State Department’s Office of Inspector General in its subsequent investigation found the American Embassy reportage to the Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice (OGCJ) which became the basis of the two reports as ambiguous and unsubstantiated, the two reports in fact carry contradictory findings within those based on the dispatches by American diplomats in Colombo.

If American Ambassador Teptitz had the time to go through the two reports and the subsequent ‘disclosures’ of the OIG she wouldn’t have avoided using the expression “the allegations of gross human rights violations against him are serious and credible”: especially, avoiding the word ‘credible.

ameri 123 Alaina Teplitz, US Ambassador in Si Lanka interferes in domestic governance

The strictly independent and non-partisan Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of State investigating the manner in which the U.S. diplomatic mission in Sri Lanka gathered data and information during the final months (January through May 2009) of the Eelam War IV and how it analyzed them to report to the Office of Global Criminal Justice of the State Department found that the pronouncements, determinations and analyses of the two state department reports – October 2009 and August 2010 – had unsubstantiated evidence of war crimes and ambiguous determinations that formed to allege Sri Lanka of violating IHL and committing war crimes.

Following GSL’s military victory over the lethal Tamil Tiger fighting cadre in May 2009, the OIG undertook an exclusive and extensive investigation of the operation of the American Embassy in Sri Lanka sending its personnel to Colombo and scrutinizing the role of the OGCJ while interviewing officials associated with Sri Lankan issues in Washington.

It is important to underscore the period the OIG report covered: the political-military scenario in Sri Lanka was still unstable and critical; the US diplomatic mission had witnessed, and was assessing the defeat of the Tigers; the US diplomatic mission Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) were gathering information and were interpreting based on the collected data; as WikiLeaks later disclosed, the mission’s classified diplomatic cables to Washington were full of conclusions based on information obtained without much verification, and all these cables were available to the personnel of the OIG; and policy pronouncements by Washington officials were on display in connection with the developments associated with events and issues in Sri Lanka.

The critical assessment of the OIG investigative report covered this crucial period, and most importantly, the report was highly skeptical of the policy determinations the Colombo American diplomats arrived at, in its final report, questioned the ability to discharge their duties generally expected of experienced and erudite officials. In fact, their wisdom was challenged by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General.

The OIG investigative report covered a period from August 2009 through the following September of 2010.

Between August 2009 and September 2010, the period the OIG report was developed, the US Department of State submitted two reports to Congress. The first, the State Department’s ambassador at large Stephen Rapp’s report, “Crimes against Humanity in Sri Lanka,” was submitted to the US Congress October 21, 2009. The other, a follow-up report on the same subject, and what measures Sri Lanka had taken since the war was concluded, reached Congress on August 11, 2010. Data to both these reports were provided by the FSOs at the American embassy in Colombo, and the two reports were within the OIG’s time period of its investigation.

Ambassador Alaina Teplitz is taking refuge behind the reports prepared by the United Nations as having ‘credible” information to express her displeasure to the appointment of Shavendra Silva as the Commander of the Army, nevertheless her own Department of State-produced two reports based on ambiguous and unverified information as declared by the Department’s independent body the OIG.

The UN figure of 40,000 of civilian deaths was disputed by Britain’s Lord Naseby after a thorough investigation of British war reports declaring that the figure was 7,000. In fact, in an initial diplomatic cable sent by the U.S. mission in Colombo in May 2009 gave the figure 7,000. The high civilian figure was caused as a result of the LTTE maintaining a human shield in the combat zone in April-May of that year.

Quoting Rear Admiral Dr. Sarath Weerasekera’s open letter to the American Ambassador this week:

(Quote) The best rebuttal to the charge is that the most ‘objective’ evidence available—the 2011 census (roughly 8,000 dead), the U.N. country-report of 2009 (7,721 dead), and extrapolations from satellite imagery of grave sites —suggest that, not tens of thousands but roughly 8,500 persons were killed during the last stages of the war. Those estimates are corroborated by information retrieved by Lord Naseby of the British House of Lords under a Right to Information request from the British Foreign Office.

The Foreign Office released diplomatic dispatches from the British Military Attache in Sri Lanka that says that roughly 6,500 civilians had been killed in the last stages of the war. So, even if the maximum number suggested by the census data is taken, there could not been more than about 8,500 persons killed. It is known that the LTTE had roughly 5,000 cadres. So, the maximum number of civilians killed cannot exceed 3,500. That number is incompatible with indiscriminate shelling, but rather one where, if indeed civilians were killed, it was the result of collateral damage. (End Quote)

Despite the OIG made references to Colombo US diplomatic mission’s reporting practice during and since the war was concluded, and referring to some of the observations and conclusions as ambiguous, Ambassador Teptitz should have read the conclusions of the reports by her own Office of Global Criminal Justice.

The US Department of State report that investigated the manner in which Sri Lanka conducted its military offensive against the secessionist Tamil Tigers—released on October 23, 2009—admitted that the data and information used to compile it was “unverifiable.”

The report could not “reach conclusions concerning whether the alleged incidents detailed had actually occurred.” The report “does not reach legal conclusions as to whether the incidents described herein actually constitute violation of IHL (International Humanitarian Laws), crimes against humanity or other violations of international law.”

The report further declared that the “U.S. government sources are unable to attribute the reported damage (shelling in the No Fire Zone) to either the government of Sri Lanka or LTTE forces.”

The State Department had difficulties and limitations when compiling the report to verify the facts, data, and information that came its way, and the report further states that “such limitations preclude the kind of testing and corroboration of evidence that would be necessary to evaluate whether the allegations presented are factually supported and/or would constitute violations of international law.”

To a question raised by the media at the State Department daily press briefing, which coincided the release of the report on October 23, 2009, spokesman Ian Kelly said, “The report doesn’t attempt to verify all the claims, but we believe that the claims, which are based mostly on reporting by the Embassy, by international organizations on the ground out there, and by media and NGOs—we believe that they are credible.”

“We believe that they are credible” was challenged by the September 2010-released analytical report by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General in this manner:

The OIG report very subtly dismisses the reporting capabilities of the FSOs in the embassy’s Political Section noting, “The section chief is in his role for the first time while the second officer is in his first political tour. The remaining two reporting positions are filled with professional associates who have never done similar work or received training. The current section head did not receive training for first-time section chiefs and, as a result, lacks vital perspective on both his management and reporting responsibilities.”

The OIG report disclosed that contents (in diplomatic cables) often do not migrate to front-channel (more analytical) reporting. As a result, the broader audience in Washington received ambiguous reports with substandard analytical judgment. “Ambiguous reports with substandard analytical judgment” is a strong language exposing the unprofessional manner in which the FSOs in Colombo during that time discharged their duties.

It is appropriate to note here that three US investigations conducted in 2008 and 2009 warned the State Department not to depend on ambiguous information to arrive at judgments. This was prior to the November 2010 OIG investigation scrutinizing the operation of the American embassy in Colombo.

The three official investigative documents—(1) the Albright-Cohen Genocide Task Force Report of December 2008, (2) the US Congress’s independent investigative office Government Accountability Office (GAO) report of May 2009, and (3) the GAO report of September 2009—revealed the serious shortfall of policy decisions taken at the highest level in the State Department in Washington based on ambiguous and frequently conflicting information and assessments provided by its overseas diplomatic missions who are ill-equipped in many areas.

Only an experienced official cadre could scrutinize and assess to produce fair, balanced, and nonpartisan analytical/investigative reports for Washington in a complicated and difficult-to-understand situation that had emerged since the military defeat of the Tigers. Based on the diplomatic cables the FSOs dispatch to Washington, the State Department draws its conclusions on policy planks; these reports are shared by congressional committees. The OIG was very much concerned of that fact and the manner in which the FSO perform their duties, and that particular routine.

The officials of the OIG in the State Department—who are credited for their integrity, fairness, and independence—based their observations during their investigative period from August 2009 through September 2010 who took into account the performance of the American diplomatic mission in Colombo in the areas of political reporting, assessments, and judgments. This eleven- to twelve-month period was the critical period as the American embassy was called upon to put the defeat of the Tamil Tigers and subsequent developments in proper perspective for Washington to have a broader and in-depth understanding.

Obtaining clear judgment and analyses from the Foreign Service officers in Colombo’s American embassy is in fact providing assistance to Washington to develop policy planks on Sri Lanka. In the absence of such, the officials at the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs were left to develop policy planks on their own, using ambiguous reports received from Colombo. The most disturbing trend is they have a greater tendency to use preconceived notions. In fact, the American embassy was sending diplomatic cables to Washington based on hearsay and ambiguous information is what the OIG found in its scrutiny.

It was this ‘preconceived notions’ – still used by senior FSO such as Ambassador Alaina Teplitz to exhibit her dissatisfaction of the installation of Shavendra Silva as Sri Lanka’s Army commander that the allegations against the latter were ‘credible’

Gathering of hard-to-get information, using those to engage in more research and finally do the analyses with recommendations is the work of the Political Section of any overseas US diplomatic mission which dispatches information in classified diplomatic cables to Washington. No Political Section would like to hear the following narration from the supreme investigative body of the State Department which is the Office of Inspector General (OIG). The report of the OIG which scrutinized the functions of the American Embassy in Colombo, having gone through the two reports produced by the Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, interviewed the officials concerned and others to declare the following in its report:

(Quote) The political section has an energetic yet inexperienced and largely untrained staff. The section chief is in his role for the first time while the second officer is in his first political tour. The remaining two reporting positions are filled with professional associates who have never done similar work or received training. The office management specialist is also on his first tour. The current (political) section head did not receive training for first-time section chiefs and, as a result, lacks vital perspective on both his management and reporting responsibilities. The chief of the political section had not traveled (within the Sri Lankan territory) at all, and the other political officer had not traveled in the three months prior to the inspection. (End Quote)

In connection with the issue of professional associates and monitoring of political-military scenario, the report states the following about the staff of the US diplomatic mission in Colombo, Sri Lanka:

(Quote) The Ambassador chairs a weekly political-military meeting, but these issues are viewed largely as being in the purview of the Defense attaché and the chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation. As a result, lines of responsibility are muddled and the political section does not play the central role. A professional associate has the political-military affairs portfolio in the political section. She has embraced the portfolio with enthusiasm and industry and has the full confidence of both the Ambassador and the DCM. She has not, however, received the necessary training or sufficient guidance from the political section chief. There is no certainty that the embassy can replace her with another professional associate when she departs in summer 2011. Political-military affairs in Sri Lanka merit the attention of an individual (whether an officer or professional associate) who has been adequately trained and has had the requisite consultations in Washington and with the Pacific Command. (End Quote)

No wonder Sri Lanka – globally – paid a severe penalty as a result of this deficiency that produced reports that damaged the reputation of the nation to which American Ambassador Teplitz still hangs on to interfere in the internal governance of Sri Lanka.

Having broadly assessed the above scenario, a major investigative report—the Genocide Prevention Task Force, coauthored by the much-respected former secretary of state Madeline Albright and former secretary of defense William Cohen, released in December 2008, noted, “When our diplomatic and intelligence reporting from the post is inadequate, analysts in Washington are left to make judgments from ambiguous and frequently conflicting information and assessments.”

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