There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about press freedom in Cambodia and the troubling lack of transparency from Cambodia’s ruling elite. The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh recently issued a statement condemning Cambodian authorities for abruptly shutting down the National Democratic Institute, an NGO committed to government accountability and openness.
This reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about a matter involving the U.S. Embassy that touches on these same topics of transparency, accountability, and press freedom. It also touches on violence, drunkenness and prostitutes. Probably.
1. The Incident
About three years ago, I saw a juicy blurb in an issue of the Bayon Pearnik. You may know Bayon Pearnik as the flimsy monthly free magazine that you once reluctantly flipped through because your smartphone battery died while you were waiting for a meal at Paddy Rice.
The “Cockroach Corner” column in the August 2014 Bayon Pearnik included an interesting bit of gossip about a supposed bar fight at “Golden Sorya Mall” involving someone who worked at the U.S. Embassy. For those who are not aware, Golden Sorya Mall (a.k.a. “GSM”) is a sleazy outdoor bar complex located on Street 51, the most popular “late night entertainment” street in Phnom Penh. GSM is a very public place, quite visible from Street 51. This makes it a dumb place for a U.S. Embassy staffer to get into a bar fight, as the fight would surely be witnessed by all the pimps, whores, meth-heads, and journalists who typically frequent that area at 2 a.m.
The Bayon Pearnik column said this:
Expats in Phnom Penh have rather vivid imaginations and are prone to unreliable gossip. After reading the Bayon Pearnik’s report of the bar fight, I wanted to know if this story was true. I also wanted to learn more details about what actually happened. Was the punchy embassy guy a high ranking diplomat or a low level flunky? What was the fight about? Were any weapons used? Was anyone seriously hurt? Was the embassy man the aggressor or the victim; the ass kicker or the ass kickee?
Because I am a shit-stirring prick, wait I mean an “online columnist for a popular expatriate-oriented website,” I decided to ask for records created by the U.S. Embassy about the GSM bar fight, so that I could share those records with Khmer440’s readers.
2. The Request
If you want documents from a U.S. Embassy, you can’t just ring the bell at the embassy and ask to come in and look through their files. That’s a no go. You have to formally request the records from the U.S. State Department under the Freedom of Information Act. Then you wait a long time for someone to collect the documents from the embassy or fetch them from some huge Washington, D.C. warehouse like that one they show at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) is a fifty year old American law that provides a right of access to federal agency records, subject to a few limited exemptions. FOIA reflects our profound national commitment to ensuring an open government. The Supreme Court of the United States has observed that FOIA is “a means for citizens to know what their Government is up to.”
America’s commitment to freedom of information and government transparency distinguishes us from Cambodia and other repressive nations that we like to look down on. Just imagine asking the Cambodian government for its documents about a bar fight involving a Cambodian diplomat stationed in another country. You’d probably be stonewalled with refusals to produce information and offered laughable excuses about why those documents couldn’t possibly ever see the light of day.
Fortunately, Americans aren’t like that. Our commitment to freedom of the press is enshrined in our Constitution. Our diplomats in Cambodia, specifically, extol the virtues of press freedom and government transparency, and they urge Cambodian officials to embrace these ideals.
In 2014, U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William Todd wrote a column in the Cambodia Herald titled “The Importance of Transparency.” In that column, he implored Cambodia’s leadership to be more transparent. Quoting the popular phrase “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he asserted that “public interest is best served when governments and organizations operate in a spirit of openness and transparency.”
Ambassador Todd laid it on pretty thick:
“I cannot emphasize enough that openness and transparency is not only for the people of Cambodia – it is also good for the Cambodian government and the democratic process. In discussions with government officials and other stakeholders, I have consistently stressed the importance and the advantages of increased transparency and openness, which makes government more effective, increases confidence in elected and appointed leaders, and improves Cambodia’s image in the world.”
Ambassador Todd also used his column on the U.S. Embassy’s website to push similar themes, writing that media freedom, robust reporting, and access to information are crucial for democracy in Cambodia.
On August 12, 2014 I emailed a FOIA request to the U.S. State Department for any records from the embassy about the Golden Sorya Mall bar fight described in the Bayon Pearnik. I then sat back and waited for the freedom and transparency to roll in.
3. The Documents
I am pleased to say that a speedy two years, ten months, and four days after emailing my FOIA request, I received a response from my government. That response included a two page cover letter from the State Department’s Office of Information Programs and Services, enclosing nine pages of responsive records from the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh about the incident. Nine pages! About a bar fight! Oh man, this was going to be good. Uncle Sam really came through.
Here are those nine pages of responsive documents I received, shedding sunlight on the GSM bar fight, in all their transparency-loving glory:
4. The Shame, oh, the Shame
According to the cover letter that accompanied this nine-page bukkake of whitewash, the State Department claims that providing any information at all about this public bar fight involving an U.S. Embassy staffer “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The State Department also argues that the redacted material was compiled for “law enforcement purposes” and that releasing the information would “disclose investigative techniques.”
In legal parlance, their response is a load of horseshit. When a diplomat or other embassy staffer is assaulted or assaults someone in a public place, prompting a response from the Local Guard Force in an SUV with a K-9 team, and with that SUV then being pelted by locals as it departs the scene, this is not a matter of “personal privacy.”
Moreover, the Local Guard Force’s incident report wasn’t prepared for “law enforcement purposes.” The guard force consists of locally hired security guards who protect the embassy and its personnel; they do not “enforce” American laws or Cambodian laws. No sensitive investigative techniques are used when driving an SUV down Street 51 in the middle of the night to rescue a drunken staffer from a bar fight at an open air brothel.
The U.S. government routinely produces documents about similar incidents involving American officials who get into trouble abroad. There was a well-publicized scandal in 2012 involving Secret Service agents who hired prostitutes during a visit to Cartagena, Colombia. The Department of Homeland Security investigated the matter and generated a seventy page report about the prostitution and misconduct. It published that document online for the American public to see. Names of the whoremongering agents were withheld, but their misbehavior was described in great detail, without additional assertions of “personal privacy.”
Moreover, the State Department also maintains an online “FOIA Reading Room” which contains many released documents about Americans (including embassy staffers) who are arrested or assaulted abroad. The State Department’s argument to me that every shred of information about the GSM bar fight is exempt from disclosure due to “personal privacy” is contrary to the U.S. government’s ordinary practice of disclosing documents very much like these.
Look, I’m not naive. I anticipated a bit of gamesmanship and obstruction in response to this FOIA request. I didn’t expect them to just offer up the name of the punchy staffer, or his medical records, or a photo of the ladyboy hookers he was probably sitting with, or anything like that. But I did expect that the State Department would otherwise act like responsible law-abiding grown ups and say “OK, one of our embassy guys was involved in an altercation in a public place, here’s our redacted report showing the date, time and location of the incident along with a general description of what happened and how this incident was totally not his fault.”
Public bar fights involving embassy staffers in notorious venues where impoverished prostitutes offer sex must be a tad embarrassing to the embassy. I get that. The embassy probably prefers not to have detailed press coverage or online scuttlebutt about such incidents. But do you know what is far more embarrassing? When U.S. State Department officials blatantly and hypocritically cover up mildly scandalous events like these, in violation of the Freedom of Information Act, while simultaneously lecturing the host government ad nauseum about the importance of transparency, accountability, and press freedom.