Background Briefing on State Department Communications With U.S. Citizens Overseas

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
July 7, 2016


MODERATOR: Good morning, everybody. We’re pleased you could join us for today’s background call. We’re pleased that today we have a senior State Department official who will be discussing the State Department’s communications with U.S. citizens overseas. As a reminder, this call is on background with all attribution to a senior State Department official.

For your reference only, then, and not for reporting purposes, our senior State Department official is [name and title withheld]. Our senior State Department official will have brief remarks at the top and then we’ll open it up for questions and answers. And again, this call is on background with all attribution to a senior State Department official. And if our senior State Department official would like to go ahead with the introduction, we’re ready.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: All right. Good morning, everybody, and thank you for joining us. I’m really pleased to have this opportunity to talk about our Consular Information Program.

Protecting U.S. citizens abroad is the department’s highest priority and we view our Consular Information Program as really the cornerstone to those efforts because we believe that by providing information that is timely and accurate to – and useful to U.S. citizens who are traveling and residing abroad, we can help them make informed decisions about their travel plans and activities while they’re overseas.

There is a range of documents – and I use that term loosely since it’s all on the website or by emails – that consist of – that comprise the Consular Information Program starting with country-specific information pages for over 180 countries. These are snapshots of information that we believe is useful to traveling Americans that they might not get in the Lonely Planet guide or other guidebooks, but things like entry and exit requirements, special circumstances, security issues, health issues, and so forth. We keep those up to date. They’re reviewed every six months or every year and updated accordingly.

When we see there’s a security risk to U.S. citizens in a particular country or a region of a country or region of the world, we might issue one of a number of different products. If something is fast-breaking – we are aware, for example, of a terrorist incident taking place in a particular city – we would issue an Emergency Message, which is sent out not just through our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program via email but which will be sent out via social media – be twittered out – tweeted out, put on Facebook, and so forth – to U.S. citizens in that area or who have enrolled in our program. If we see a situation that is perhaps not breaking but it is a security threat that we want people to be aware of, but it’s going to be short – it is a short fuse, very significant, we will put out a Security Message. There’s a sort of difference there in terms of the imminence of the threat.

If we see a situation – security threats to U.S. citizens in a country or, again, in a part of a country that is short-termed but not a flash in the pan, we would put out a Travel Alert. And Travel Alerts can range from everything from warning people about upcoming elections with protests that could turn violent to a major storm – a hurricane that’s bearing down on them – to a more general security situation due to civil unrest. If that security situation – if the threat to U.S. citizens is chronic, we would then put out a Travel Warning. And I think it’s important to note that both Travel Alerts and Travel Warnings can range in their advice from consider the risks of travel to don’t go at this time or defer non-essential travel.

All of this language is calibrated based on the no-double-standard policy. The no-double-standard policy says that if we have threat information that we have deemed to be specific, credible, and non-counterable in the sense that we can’t take specific steps to prevent the threat, and we have told official Americans about this threat and we have provided them with guidance on what we want them or we require them to do, then we have to make that information available to private U.S. citizens as well. This is a general government-wide policy, and it is embodied in our Consular Information Program documents.

We also will issue a Travel Warning any time one of our embassies or consulates goes to either ordered or authorized departure – in other words, we’re drawing down either eligible family members and/or non-emergency personnel or offering the opportunity to leave on the government’s dime because of a security risk. We automatically will always put out a Travel Warning in that instance. Travel Alerts typically will have a 90-day default, although that can be changed depending on what the circumstances are. They will expire after 90 days and they’ll say so in the first paragraph. Travel Warnings are indefinite, but we do review them at least every six months and update them, sometimes more frequently depending on what’s going on – if there’s a change in circumstances and so forth. Again, that means that we are reviewing the security situation on the ground at least every six months, and there are times when we determine that, based on information that we’ve received from our colleagues in Diplomatic Security, from the intel community, from the embassy itself, from host government authorities and so forth, that we can lift that Travel Warning because the security situation has improved. There are times like that.

So it is a constant, ongoing process. And, again, the – coming up with the language in a Travel Alert, a Travel Warning, or even some of our Security Messages is a very collaborative process. We depend, again, heavily on Diplomatic Security to give us their sense of is this threat credible, specific, and non-counterable; is it something we need to take action on. They, in turn, are getting their information from a wide variety of sources – from the embassy, the consulate on the ground, from the host government, from the intel community, from other governments. We put it all together, we assess it, and we determine what it is that we need to tell the traveling American public about what’s going on.

So with that, I think I’ll stop and open it up for questions.

MODERATOR: Thank you to our Senior State Department Official for that introduction. Operator, if you can explain to our callers how to ask a question and if we can take a few moments for those questions to come in queue.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, press * 1. You’ll hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed in queue and you may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. Once again, to ask a question, press * 1 at this time. And we’ll wait for a moment for the first question. And we will begin with the line of Karen DeYoung with The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello, thank you. I have a couple of questions. When you issue alerts or threat warnings, do you – is – does some of your information come from the government of the host nation? Do you consult with them at all? Have you found yourself in a situation where they – say they’re heavily dependent on tourism – where they protest and try to dissuade you from that?

And secondly, have you found – I was just looking at your Bangladesh warning that came out this morning. Have you found statistically that you have an increase in such alerts, and over what time period?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s – Karen, that’s a great – the first question is – it’s a great question. Obviously, many countries do not like the fact that we have issued a Travel Warning relating to security threats in their country. We will inform governments that we are going to issue a Travel Warning, but we do not, in a sense, clear anything with them. We might be gathering information from their own police sources about the security threat. For example, crime statistics in countries like Honduras or El Salvador – those are coming from government sources. But we’re not seeking their concurrence on whether we issue the Travel Warning or not.

Our point in talking to governments about our Travel Warnings is that these are not a reflection of our bilateral relationship. They are part of our commitment to provide safety and security information to U.S. citizens abroad. That’s what – and that – pure and simple, that’s what it is. So we do not consult with them in that or have them clear it. We just give them a heads-up sometimes that something is coming out, but no, there – it’s not a collaborative process with host governments. And as far as the tourism issue, the point is really that – reporting on acts of terrorism is probably much more of a deterrent than our warnings.

On the second one – I’m sorry. It was on statistics?

QUESTION: Well, I wondered if you’ve seen an increase lately just because of the incidents of terrorism, if you keep any statistics, and also if you keep any statistics on actual U.S. travel – whether you’ve seen a response, whether to reporting on acts of terrorism or to your own warning, if you keep track of how many Americans are traveling. Do you find that more Americans are contacting you when they arrive in a country where you’ve issued a warning?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the first point on statistics, I think – one of the things that has changed within the past several years is the use of social media. And we have given posts – our posts abroad much more latitude in using social media to communicate with the – with the American public in their countries. And so there has, I would say, been an increase in the numbers of messages that are going out – Security Messages, Emergency Messages – mostly security – and also just plain messages – there is a tax preparer coming into town – because they can use social media to do that. So it’s kind of hard to say is it due to increased threats or just general ability to communicate more easily with the public.

On terms of Americans traveling abroad, we estimate – but it’s only an estimate – that approximately 9 million Americans live abroad, another 90 million make trips. But again, because people don’t have to report their travel to us, it’s really hard to tell. We do see an – we always see a spike in enrollment in our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP Program, following major terrorist incidents. Usually those enrollments are specific to the country where the incident occurred. But again, more generally, we do see an increase there. And yes, people are – people contact us all the time and we’re very pleased with that. We also monitor, although I don’t have the statistics handy, how many people visit our website, how long they stay on the website. And we’ve been using those – that data to fine-tune our language. If you are looking at our country-specific information pages, for example, you’ll see that we are in a process of reviewing the Consular Information Program generally and looking to streamline the language to make it more direct, to make it more readily understood by the public, and to make sure that we are meeting their needs for timely and accurate information.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: All right, great, thank you. Operator, can we go to the next caller, please?

OPERATOR: Yes. Next we’ll go to the line of Jackie Northam with NPR. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks very much for doing this. I also have a couple of questions. And one is, is there any sort of consideration – I assume there is – about the economic impact of any of these Travel Warnings or advisories? I mean, tourism, surely, but also any sort of business deals that might be in the works, what sort of impact it’ll have on the host country.

And the other thing is I’m just trying to – I’m curious about why you’re doing this background call. Is – was something precipitated it? Was there just sort of a general, gosh, we should let everybody know, or did something happen that sort of pushed you to make this background call?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, Jackie, great questions. No, we do not consider the economic impact, because again, as I said, just as when we go into a host government and explain that the purpose of our Consular Information Program is to help U.S. citizens living and traveling abroad make good decisions about their activities and their travel plans, we do not take economic considerations into that mix. It’s purely about the security of American citizens. That said, we also work very closely with the Overseas Security Advisory Council – OSAC – which is a public-private partnership headed by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. And so we are able to use OSAC and all of its thousands of members – U.S. companies, academic organizations, NGOs – to help disseminate our Consular Information Program documents and our Travel Alerts and Travel Warnings, our Security and Emergency Messages. And obviously, those companies will take all of that into account; they will work with OSAC on doing risk assessments for their own purposes to help develop security plans and so forth for both their U.S. employees as well as other nationalities who work for the companies.

Why are we doing this now? I think because recently we’ve had so many questions from the press about the differences between Travel Alerts, Travel Warnings. We just felt that it was a good time to try to explain what this is all about.

QUESTION: Thanks.

MODERATOR: Okay, Operator, we’re ready for the next caller.

OPERATOR: Sure. And as a reminder, to queue up for a question you may press *1. And next we’ll go to the line of Nike Ching with Voice of America. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for taking my call and then for the briefing. I just have a quick for clarification – if – please excuse me if you have already explained this. But for country-specific information, is that updated every six months or updated annually? And then, am I right to read – in terms of the sense of urgency and the scope of threats, the most urgent one is Emergency Message, and then Travel Alert, and then Travel Warning. Is that a correct reading? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I love these questions. Country-specific information pages are routinely updated every year, but again, if something changes in the interim they’ll be updated then. They contain a lot of information. A lot of people have – make contributions to that information. And so it’s an annual process.

In terms of the sense of urgency, yes, Emergency Messages would be sent out if there is something actually happening or about to happen that we need people to know about immediately. Travel Warnings, Travel Alerts could go out to – as a follow-up, but again, it’s going to be either a warning or alert depending on how we’ve assessed the duration of the threat. Is this a short-term, temporary situation, in which case it would be a Travel Alert? Or is this something that is chronic, is it something that’s not going to go away? Or it’s something that has prompted us to draw down the embassy in that country – that would be a Travel Warning.

MODERATOR: Okay, great. Thank you very much to our senior State Department official today for all of the information and all the callers for the questions. This concludes today’s call.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you very much, everybody. This has been great.