THE AMERICAN MISSION by Matthew Palmer printed with permission from GP Putnam’s Son, a member of Penguin Random House. Copyright 2014 Matthew Palmer.
J u n e 12 , 2 0 0 9
C o n a k ry
Check this one out. Twenty-two years old. Absolutely stunning. Says she wants to go to Disney World, but she has a one-way ticket to New York. Why do they always say that they’re going
to Disney World? You’d think they’d just won the Super Bowl or something.”
Hamilton Scott, Alex’s partner on the visa line at the U.S. Embassy in Conakry, Guinea, leaned around the narrow partition that separated their interview booths, dangling an application for a tourist visa. The woman in the visa photo clipped to the upper corner bore a striking resemblance to the supermodel Naomi Campbell.
It was admittedly unprofessional, but Alex understood what Ham was doing. Visa-line work could be excruciatingly monotonous, and in a third-world hellhole like Conakry, the applicants would say or do just about anything to gain entrance to the United States. The vice consuls often resorted to black humor or informal games like Visa Applicant Bingo as a way to keep themselves sane.
“Do you think she’d sleep with me for a visa?” Ham asked with mock seriousness.
“Twenty-two? Isn’t she a little old for you, Ham?”
“Ordinarily, yes. But this girl’s exceptional. And there’s no way she qualifies as a tourist.”
“Qualify” was a kind of code word in visa work. The law said that anyone applying for a visa to the United States had to prove that he or she was not secretly intending to emigrate. The challenge for the appli cants was demonstrating that they had strong and compelling reasons to come back after visiting the U.S. In practice, this meant money. Rich people were “qualified” for visas. Poor people struggled to overcome the supposition that they were economic migrants. In the euphemistic language of government, they were “unqualified.”
Ham turned back to the applicant and explained to Ms. Hadja Malabo that, sadly, she lacked the qualifications for an American visa and should consider reapplying when her “situation” had changed. Ham’s French was flawless, a consequence of four years at a boarding school in Switzerland. He was polite but, Alex thought, somewhat brusque in rejecting Ms. Malabo’s application.
Ham leaned back around the partition.
“I’m almost through my stack, only four or five left. How you doing?”
Alex looked at the pile of application packages still in front of him. There were at least twenty left. He and Ham were the only two interviewing officers at post, which meant about fifty nonimmigrant visa interviews a day for each of them. Ham made his decisions with a brutal efficiency. Alex took more time with each applicant. Most would come away empty-handed, but he wanted to give each person who came into his interview booth the sense that they had had a chance to make their case and that the consul had at least given them a fair shot. For most Guineans, their brief moment with a consular officer was as close as they were going to get to the United States.
“I still have a few to go,” Alex admitted.
“Give me some of yours.” Ham reached over and took nearly half of the stack out of Alex’s inbox. “If we can finish in less than an hour, we can grab a sandwich and a beer at Harry’s bar. My treat. Gatta meet with the Ambassador after lunch to talk over the report on human trafficking I did for him last week.” Ham paused for a moment. ‘Tm sorry, Alex,” he said carefully. “You know I don’t mean to rub that in.”
The Ambassador had been giving Ham increasingly significant re porting responsibilities, something relatively rare for a first-tour Vice Consul but understandable given that Ham’s full name was Hamilton Wendell Scott III and that both I and II had been ambassadors in half a dozen countries. Ham was just punching his consular ticket in a hardship post, something all junior officers had to do, before heading off for the salons and soirees of Western Europe and a diplomatic career with an unlimited upside. No doubt, Ham’s father considered his son’s stint in Conakry a “character-building” experience. He could bore future generations of American diplomats with war stories about life on the visa line in Guinea when he was ambassador to Sweden or Hungary or some such place.
For Alex, however, stamping passports looked like a permanent fixture of the next thirty years of his career. There wasn’t much else a Foreign Service Officer who had lost his security clearances was good for. The contrast between Ham’s upward trajectory and the flat, featureless plain that represented Alex’s career prospects could not have been any starker. Both knew it, and both generally avoided talking about it.
Having crossed the invisible line, however, Ham seemed determined to charge forward.
“Have you given any more thought to the Centrex offer, Alex?” he asked with characteristic directness.
“I’ve written two letters,” Alex replied, setting the passport he had picked up back on top of the pile. “One accepting the job and one turning it down. I’ve almost sent each one of them at least five times.”
“It’s a good job. Centrex Resources is a top-flight firm with global reach. Oil and gas is a big business in Africa now, and you’d be doing real policy work for them.”
“It’s a great opportunity,” Alex agreed. “In truth, I’m not quite cer tain why they reached out to me like that. I didn’t apply. It’s tempting. But my appeal is pending with Diplomatic Security, and I’m hoping that they’ll agree to restore my clearances.” After a brief pause, he added, “This time.”
“Alex, DS is like the Gestapo. They don’t own up to their mistakes. And without clearances, processing visa applications is about all you’ll be able to do in the Service. Head of government relations for the Africa division at a company like Centrex is just another kind of diplomacy. I think you should jump at it.”
Ham’s assessment of the odds DS would restore Alex’s clearances was unsparing but almost certainly accurate.
Alex remembered vividly the look of satisfaction on the face of the low-level agent who had informed him that the Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security had decided that—as a result of both his evident issues of mental instability and his failure to seek treatment through authorized channels—Alex’s access to information would be restricted to “Sensitive But Unclassified.” In other words, he could use the depart mental phone book and read the press guidance, but that was about it. For an ambitious young political officer, it was a professional death sentence.
What had really burned Alex was that the sanctimonious prick with an army-regulation haircut had been reading to him from Alex’s medical file, including notes from his therapy sessions with Dr. Branch. The agent refused to explain how he had acquired the confidential records. Alex had told no one that he was seeing a shrink, and he had paid his bills in cash to avoid leaving a paper trail with the insurance company. Going to the State Department’s doctors wasn’t really an option either. Foreign Service Officers with Top Secret security clearances knew that their access to information could be “suspended indefinitely” if they sought counseling for mental or emotional trauma.
“February fifth,” the agent read, “patient presents with nightmares, headaches, and trouble concentrating. Occasional panic attacks and difficulty with emotional control. Preliminary diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder related to service in Darfur. Prescribed Lexapro at thirty milligrams daily.”
There were things that Alex had told Dr. Branch that he had never told anyone else. That this officious little martinet was somehow privy to this private information was infuriating.
“March thirteenth,” the agent continued, “patient reports that the nightmares are increasing in both frequency and intensity. Vivid images of violence in Darfur coupled with feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Maybe a side effect of current medication; possible root issues with patient’s loss of his father at an impressionable age. Recommend switching to Zoloft, beginning with twenty milligrams daily and step ping up to fifty depending on patient response.”
The agent had read a few more entries, but it was cruelty without purpose. The judgment had already been delivered from on high. Dip lomatic Security had decreed Alex Baines a dangerous risk to the safe guarding of classified information. The interview was just checking a box. At the end, the agent had handed Alex a form for him to sign, ac knowledging that he had been informed that he was no longer allowed to either access or produce classified information. He instructed Alex to keep a copy for his personal files.
Maybe they were right not to trust him, Alex reasoned. Sometimes he didn’t even trust himself. It had been nearly three years since the sack of Camp Riad, but not a day went by that he didn’t think about it. Closing his eyes, he could see Janjaweed militia on horseback riding at full tilt through the crowded refugee camp, automatic rifles slung over their backs and polished black lances in their hands. He could hear the wet smack of a spearhead being driven clean through a human body, the incessant buzzing of flies, and, above all, the rhythmic cadence of helicopter blades beating the dry desert air.
“Alex, you still with me?” Ham asked. “You looked like you went to Bermuda for a moment there.”
“No, not Bermuda.” Not by a long shot. “Just thinking about what you said. It makes a lot of sense, but it’s still a damn difficult thing to do. I know it’s a bit corny, but this is an honorable profession. It’s about ideas and ideals. Centrex is about maximizing shareholder profit.”
Rather than laughing at him as Alex had half expected, Ham nod ded thoughtfully. Under his somewhat more cynical exterior, the son and grandson of American ambassadors believed the same thing.
“Have you asked Anah what she thinks?”
Alex brightened at the mention of his daughter.
“She’s not thinking about much these days except summer vacation. She can hardly wait.”
“She wouldn’t miss it.”
One of the challenges of raising children in the Foreign Service was that the constant moving around the globe made it hard for kids to de velop a sense of belonging. They grew up as rootless “third-culture kids” who did not look on the United States as home. Many families tried to compensate for this with regular visits to someplace in America that the kids could think of as theirs. For Alex and Anah, it was Alex’s mother’s house in Brunswick. Alex could get only a few weeks off from work, but Anah typically stayed in Maine for the entire summer. She loved the beach and the tide pools and the dark pine forests. Most of all, however, she loved that there was so much family. Alex suspected that it reminded her on some level of the big, sprawling tribal family she had come from. Anah had a score of cousins in and around Brunswick who were her constant companions for the summer months. They had embraced the black girl from Sudan as family without reser vation.
The youngest of three, Alex was the only one who had left Bruns wick and the first in his family to finish college. His brother had done a year at the University of Maine in Orono in forestry before dropping out and going to work for the paper company. His sister worked part time at a coffee shop and full-time as the wife of a lobsterman. Their father had been a mechanic at the naval air station where he had worked on the P-3 Orions that patrolled the Atlantic coast looking for Soviet submarines. A longtime smoker, he had died of throat cancer when Alex was twelve.
Reluctantly, Alex and Ham turned back to the stacks of passports in front of them. The application on the top of Alex’s pile belonged to an elderly man with the unwieldy name Rafiou Alfa Ismael Pascal Gushein. In Guinea, having six or seven names with a mishmash of tribal, Is lamic, and French roots was not at all unusual. Gushein entered the in terview booth with a young man who introduced himself in French as the applicant’s nephew. His uncle, he explained, spoke neither English nor French, only the tribal Soussou language.
Alex sat on a bar stool behind two inches of bulletproof glass. A narrow slit allowed him to pass documents back and forth with the ap plicant. The glass wall established a psychological as well as a physical barrier between the consular officer and the applicant that was utterly intentional. It made it easier for the officers to say no.
Alex appraised Mr. Gushein while he flipped quickly through the passport. The applicant looked considerably older than his sixty-four years with his snow white hair and deeply lined face, but he stood tall and straight in the booth, and looked Alex right in the eye with an easy confidence. Alex pegged him for a village elder or headman. Someone used to automatic respect.
The passport was old and worn, but unused. A series of stamped dates on the back page indicated that Mr. Gushein had applied for a U.S. visa six times previously and been refused each time. One of Alex’s Guinean staff had pulled the old applications out of the file and bundled them with the passport. Scribbled notes from previous generations of consular officers explained the reason for the refusal. “Son living illegally in the United States,” said one.
“Poor risk,” said another.
Two of the previous forms said simply “214(b),” the section of im migration law that makes clear all visa applicants are assumed to be intending immigrants who must establish strong and compelling ties to their home country. Another two of the applications were blank, han dled by consular officers who were apparently too busy to even explain their reasons for a decision of no consequence to them but of enormous importance to Rafiou Alfa Ismael Pascal Gushein.
“Mr. Gushein,” Alex asked, “why do you want to go to the United States?”
His nephew translated into Soussou, a language of which Alex knew no more than a few words.
“My son lives there,” the nephew replied, translating Mr. Gushein’s response. “I have not seen him for many years.” “Where does he live?”
“What does he do in Chicago?”
“He cleans the windows of very big buildings.” “Is he paying for your trip?”
“Do you know if your son is legally in the United States?”
“I don’t know. I’m sure he would rather be, but he is a headstrong boy. He broke my rules often enough. His dream was to go to America. I know that is hard to do for poor people like my son. He would do what was necessary to make this dream real.”
“Mr. Gushein, how long do you intend to spend in the United States? And how can I be certain that you will come home to Guinea?” “I will be in your country for two weeks. I must come home before
it is time to shear the sheep.”
There were more questions he could ask, but Alex didn’t really need any more information. It was clear to him why previous interviewers had rejected Gushein’s application: They were trying to punish the son for breaking U.S. immigration law by denying the father the right to visit. Alex didn’t share that philosophy. The only relevant question was whether it was reasonable to believe Mr. Gushein would return to Guinea after his visit to Chicago.
Immigration law gave consuls considerable discretion. In this case, Alex could decide to issue or not issue the visa as he saw fit. There was no appeal. Ham would certainly have said no without a second thought. Hell, he might have been one of the interviewing officers who had turned down the earlier applications.
Gushein’s explanation that he would need to return to his village in time for sheep-shearing season was perfectly credible. It was the right time of year. In the villages, livestock was a rough measure of a man’s wealth, and shearing was an important event on the agricultural calen dar that governed rural life in West Africa.
“Mr. Gushein,” Alex said, after perhaps twenty seconds of reflection. “Can you come back this afternoon to pick up your visa?”
When the nephew translated this request, Gushein nodded slowly, but Alex could see tears forming at the corners of his eyes. He had come in expecting to be rejected and had not allowed himself the luxury of hope. The Soussou elder put one hand against the wall to steady himself while his nephew gripped him by the other elbow.
“Merci, merci,” he said in accented but clear French, maybe one of only two or three words that he knew in that language.
Some days, Alex thought, the job wasn’t all bad.
The glow didn’t last for long. Alex had nearly finished his final in terview when the Consul General shouted for him from the comfort of his leather “executive model” desk chair.
“Alex, I want to see you in my office right now.”
Ronald R. Ronaldson was both Alex’s boss and the embodiment of his deepest professional fears. R Cubed had once been a rising star in the Foreign Service. Somewhere along the way, however, he had fallen from grace—alcohol, it was widely assumed—and found himself at fifty commanding a small consulate in a West African shithole. He was angry about his fate and took it out on his subordinates through the infliction of petty indignities.
“Sure thing,” Alex replied in as upbeat a tone as he could muster.
“Let me finish with this last case, and I’ll be right there.” “No, Alex. Right now.”
Alex made his apologies to the last applicant, a seventeen-year-old kid with good grades at the local convent school and a scholarship offer from Wake Forest, and made his way back to the CG’s office. French doors connecting his private office to the suite provided the Consul General with a commanding view of the entire section, or would have if Ron Ronaldson hadn’t kept the heavy curtains on the inside drawn tight to facilitate the occasional midafternoon nap.
“What can I do for you, Ron?” Alex tried hard to keep any edge of impatience or irritation out of his voice, but he was not quite successful.
“I’ve been going over the statistics on visa issuance,” Ron began. From the vaguely glassy look in the CG’s eyes, Alex suspected that R Cubed had been conferring with either Johnnie Walker or Jack Daniel, his two most reliable confidants. “Frankly, Alex, your issuance rate is simply too high. You’re nearly fifteen points higher than Ham and well ahead of the average for the region. I need you to bring that number down before it’s time to send in the quarterly report.”
“Why does the issuance rate matter? The real problem should be the overstay rate. There my numbers are pretty good. I may issue more visas than Ham, but in percentage terms, I don’t have any more of my visa cases picked up on immigration violations than he does. Less than two percent, actually.”
“I don’t give a good goddamn about that. The issuance rate is the number Consular Affairs sees, and I don’t want them flagging my consulate as the weak link in West Africa. We’d be seen as a terrorism risk. I’m simply telling you to get your numbers down.”
“Ron, are you telling me that I need to start rejecting qualified people who traveled two days and forked over a hundred and forty dollars for three minutes of my time just to bring our numbers in line with the bell curve?” Alex knew that this approach was not going to produce the desired result, but he couldn’t help himself.
Anger flared briefly in Ron’s eyes before they returned to their glassy norm. “If you want to put it that way, Alex, then yes. That’s ex actlywhat I’m telling you to do. You can start with this gentleman.” Ron pulled a passport and visa application out of his in-tray. Alex could see from the piles of applications and passports that the CG had been reviewing the morning’s issuances. “You approved a visa earlier for a man named Rafiou Alfa Ismael Pascal Gushein.” Ron mangled the pronunciation of the unfamiliar name. “The man is an obvious bad risk. When he comes back this afternoon, you tell him your decision has been over turned by a more experienced officer and that he does not qualify for a visa.” Ron made no effort to hide the satisfaction he took in issuing this humiliating instruction, and Alex felt his ears begin to burn.
“I know you feel that consular work is a terrible comedown for you, Baines. And, frankly, you’re not particularly good at it. You’re too soft and too slow. Ham is in a different class. He’s just passing through the consular universe. But you’re in this for the long haul. Get used to it. Stop thinking you’re better than this. Better than us.”
Alex had no reply. Ron was wrong about Gushein, but not about Alex. He left the CG’s office without saying a word.
That afternoon, Mr. Gushein and his nephew came back for the visa Alex had promised them. R Cubed had pulled open the curtains in his office and opened the French doors to provide a good view of Alex’s humiliation.
“Listen,” Alex said to Gushein’s nephew. “We have a problem. The big man back there doesn’t want me to give your uncle a visa. He doesn’t think Mr. Gushein will come back to Guinea after visiting his son. I don’t agree. I’m giving your uncle the visa, but you need to make it look like I’ve turned you down.” Alex spoke in rapid-fire French mixed with a heavy dose of Guinean slang that he knew Ron wouldn’t understand. The CG’s French had never progressed much past “Frere Jacques.”
“Please tell your uncle that he needs to convince the fat man back there that I’ve just ripped his heart out of his chest. Do you think he can do that?”
“No problem.” The nephew spoke softly but rapidly to Gushein, whose face almost seemed to cave in with sadness. Alex wondered for a moment if his nephew had told him that he would not be getting a visa. No matter. He would learn the truth soon enough. Alex had printed the visa himself and placed it in the passport rather than allowing one of the local staff to do it. There was a record of the decision in the com puter and Ron, of course, had access to the system, but he was generally pretty lax about administrative controls. Alex doubted very much that he would ever check.
Alex heard R Cubed slam the French doors, which was followed by the sharp hiss of the curtains being drawn. Time to celebrate his triumph with a Jack and Coke, easy on the Coke.
Gushein left the consulate leaning on his nephew for support. When he reached the door, he turned to look back at Alex and gave him an almost imperceptible nod. So he knew. The old man would have made a hell of an actor.
Alex realized that he had just made two important decisions. The first was that Mr. Gushein was getting on a plane for Chicago if Alex had to buy the ticket himself. The second was which letter he was going to send off to the Centrex people.
Matthew Palmer is a Foreign Service Officer currently serving as Director of the Office of Multilateral Affairs in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Previously, he was Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia. Earlier tours included Nicosia, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, and various positions in Washington. Mr. Palmer was a member of the Secretary’s Policy Planning staff, Director for Europe at the National Security Council, and Deputy Director for Mainland Southeast Asia. While at Policy Planning, he helped to design and implement the Kimberly process for certifying African diamonds as conflict-free. This experience served as the basis for his first novel, the American Mission. G.B Putnam and Sons will publish his second novel, Secrets of State, in June 2015. Mr. Palmer is a distinguished graduate of the National War College, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a member of the International Thriller Writers Association. He speaks Serbo-Croatian, Greek and Japanese.