April 6, 2021

Bonus Episode: Interview with Maura Harty

In this bonus episode, we learn about the much more recent history of women in the consular service, as Abby interviews Maura Harty, a career Foreign Service officer.

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Harty concluded her career at the State Department in the role of Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs.


Producer: Abby Mullen
Music: Andrew Cote


ABBY MULLEN: Hey, I’m Abby Mullen and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the history of the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. Last week, we introduced you to three women whose lives intersected with the consular service of the 19th century. But we wanted to know how women can be involved in the consular service today. So recently, I sat down with Maura Harty, who joined the Foreign Service in 1981. Over her multi-decade career, she served in Mexico, Spain, Colombia and Paraguay. She also served in Washington, DC, numerous times as an executive. In her final job at the State Department, she was the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Maura talked to me about how the consular service has changed over the course of her career, and about her experiences as a woman in the consular service. Before we jump in, a few things you should know: One, Maura spoke to me in her personal capacity, and nothing she says should be construed as the official opinion of the State Department. And, two, the Foreign Service is made up of several divisions, which are called cones. A Foreign Service officer can serve in any one of the cones. So if you hear Maura refer to a cone, just think division or unit.

Our main episode is about women who are, let’s call them, consul-adjacent. So wives of consuls who end up some in some cases acting like consuls, or are sort of the support mechanism for their their husbands. But I’m really excited to talk to you because of course in the 20th and 21st century now women can be consuls and women can be involved in the Foreign Service in a much more meaningful way. It sounds like you have been to a lot of interesting places. I’m sure that must be one of the most interesting aspects of being in the Foreign Service, is getting to go so many interesting places.

MAURA HARTY: Well, the world is endlessly interesting, right? And with specific reference to the consular function, we’re touching people’s lives every day, whether it’s sort of people who are seeking immigration benefit or simple tourist visa or student visa, to American citizens abroad. Those are the consuls that you have researched, knew very well are quite capable of getting themselves into pickles. You know, the funniest line I think a console ever hears is “you won’t believe what happened to me.” And we believe anything, because we’ve seen so much. People are endlessly resourceful at getting themselves into jams, and we try to be equally resourceful in helping them out.

MULLEN: Can you give me an example, what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever had to deal with?

HARTY: Gosh, that’s a really high bar, the strangest thing I’ve ever had to deal with. But I’ll give you one of the first ones. I mentioned to joining the foreign service in 1981. That was a couple of months after I graduated from undergraduate school. And so I was, what 22 when what I’m going to recount happened. I was assigned to go do what we all do, from time to time, visit American citizens in jail. And I was eager to go do my job. I read up on the handful of Americans we had in a jail in the Mexican city of Oaxaca. And I wanting to be compassionate, as well as professional, bought some cases of cigarettes, and I baked, and I bought magazines. Those things aren’t necessarily normal. And there’s no budget for that. So just to put that aside for anybody who thinks “my tax dollars!” No, no. So off I went. And when I got to the prison, all of 22 years old, I’m five foot nothing, sort of, sort of slight. The Mexican guards insisted that they that they needed to strip search me before I can go in, and then I couldn’t take in any packages. And I just called their bluff. Just went into the “you know, I am America. I am the embassy. You are not going to strip search me, I will show you what’s in the packages that I’m bearing, but they’re not for you.” And this went on for quite some time. And finally, they probably got bored with it, or realized I really wasn’t going to let any of those things happen. So they said, “Okay, okay, you can see them.” And “follow me,” says one guy, so I follow him right into the courtyard, where there’s probably 300 men. Nothing like sort of what you see in a movie where you go into a small room and you meet where you’re going to meet or something like that. So I thought, well, I started to turn to the guy to say, “you know, where, where do I go? You know, this isn’t a good place for meeting and where are the Americans that I’m here to see?” And he walked back through the door we had just walked through together, and locked it. So I’m in a courtyard with a whole bunch of guys, cookies, cigarettes and magazines. And in a flash, three guys come running over to me and say, in American accented English, “Are you the consul? Are you the consul? And I say, “Yeah.” They said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” And we then they escorted me to someplace more private than that. And they were nice to me, even before they knew I had treats for them. And I thought to myself, Wow, good life lesson. Show no fear. Every consular officer has 1,000,001 stories to tell. But I do think that that was something that, you know, I certainly never forgot.

MULLEN: So kind of thinking about that more broadly. What do you see as the role of the consul today?

HARTY: You’ve no doubt seen our passports before. And the US passport has something that I think is quite unique. It may not be the only passport that has this. But it says right there in the very first page that “the Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay, or hindrance, and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.” That’s sort of the creed of the consul. This passport is among the most valuable documents on the planet, because it is a passbook, to every bit of assistance that is lawful and appropriate for the government of the United States to do to help an American citizen abroad. So that is number one. And it is the number one mission of the Department of State. Consuls also adjudicate visas for people who would like to immigrate or travel to the United States on a temporary basis. Since the horrific attacks of 9/11, I think the rest of the government and other agencies of government came to realize what we who do consul work always knew: that we also have a pretty vital role with respect to the security of the nation. We are the people who see and interview people in their home country in their own language. And we understand such things as the push and pull factor of some of the economics of it, why somebody might want to come to the States and in fact, stay, even though they’re telling us they’re planning a trip to Disney World. We also access information data provided by other agencies so that we can a know who we’re talking to. And we know whether or not any other agency of our government regards that person as a person of interest, as somebody who should not be allowed to come to the United States, so so we are an important part and even one of the very first parts of the Homeland Security equation. And, of course, the third part of what we do is we’re the ones who issue these passports. So the adjudication of a passport application is not because we’re nosy. It’s just because we want to make sure that only those who, who qualify for those get those.

MULLEN: So you mentioned 9/11. And that seems like a pretty big sort of watershed moment in the history of US foreign policy. But how has the role of consul changed over your time in the Foreign Service, either related to 9/11? Or maybe not related?

HARTY: I’ll answer it two ways: that the role of consular officers just continues to grow. As we’ve alluded to already, in that you may not have seen a particular problem before. But once you’ve seen it once, we know we’ll see it again somewhere else. And so our own skill set sort of grows to meet the needs of the American traveling public. When you think about your 19th century travelers, say, you know, there were a lot of issues related to seamen and sailors, right. Some of the tasks that consuls had to do had everything to do with you know, that sort of the commerce and the behavior and the whatever adventures be fell Americans citizens in that way. I remember living in Madrid and receiving a ship to shore phone call. I mean, Madrid is decidedly not on a coast right, and a Captain wanted me to perform a particular function for him. And I was, I was intrigued, because he was so certain that I could do this thing. And I said, “Sir, you you have me at a disadvantage, I have to admit, because you are speaking so, you know, cogently and with such familiarity and authority with a thing I have never heard of.” He gave me the Foreign Affairs Manual site, Foreign Affairs Manual, we call it FARM, he said, you know, “Go to the FAM,” and he gave me the cite. And and there it was. So here I am in, in a landlocked place, performing a function for this guy who’s done it a million times before just I never heard of it, you know, so you always have to suspend disbelief a little bit and realize that, you know, if it’s a rule or a reg, it’s going to be in the FAM and/or law and, you know, you swallow your pride and say, “Okay, I’m ready.” Now, on a more serious note, I think, quite honestly, that the 9/11 attacks created the most profound change in how we do consular work, and how others even within the Department of State, as well as the interagency community perceive what consular work is. The World Trade Center was attacked in 1993. It was a serious attack, but nowhere near the level of what obviously happened those many years later. But Shaykh Omar Abdullah Rahman engineered something that I, in all candor, now wish our entire nation and security apparatus and intelligence apparatus had realized was something to be taken seriously and for our eye never to be taken off that, you know, that particular ball, but things, things happen, that sometimes we only realize in retrospect had a little bit more of a meaning than we realized at the time. So anyway, before the September 11 attacks, I think my consular brethren and friends would agree with me that consular work was done professionally. But it was not always seen as, what shall I say? an integral part of the sort of bilateral relationships that we engaged in. So an embassy’s consular section was expected to sort of run well, be predictable, be service oriented, both for the host government authorities and citizens, as well as for American citizens who needed us. And it was in the main it was that after September 11, lots of things happen at the same time. But I will say with respect to consular work, that here in Washington DC, as you know, you’re here too, we tend to want to have easy answers to really hard questions. Whose fault is that? Whatever that is. But as we’re talking about 9/11, very early on, within hours, maybe people had focused on how the hijackers received visas. And so that was an answer. Some people were content to to stop with, well, if they’d never gotten visas, it never would have happened; who issued the visas? The then Assistant Secretary of Consular Affairs, was named Ambassador Mary Ryan, an iconic figure in the Foreign Service and much loved as well. Mary, right from the outset, said that we must look at everything that we do, of course, but no, this this was an intelligence failure. That wasn’t well received by some folks. But the 9/11 Commission, actually, some time after that, wrote a just a riveting report that pointed to the fact that a failure to share information among agencies certainly was a part of this, just an extraordinary regrettable—would, would that we could do one thing differently moment, we would make sure that we all knew what one of us knew. So the focus that I already mentioned it to you about us as a sort of the–some people use a phrase, I don’t like but it does give you an image–as sort of the pointy tip of the spear out there in the place. If the traveler wants to come to America and do America harm, we have that moment to to stop drawing on information, before 9/11 that we didn’t always receive. So we became a part of conversations we perhaps would not have been in earlier days in the consular service.

It’s also the case that–and understandable that–in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we saw things like the creation of the of the Homeland Security Department, Homeland Security. So a lot of new legislation, and a lot of it aimed at changing how we actually performed our functions with respect to these interviews, iterations of many kinds. I do not question at all why those things needed to be done, why Congress did what it did, but there was a byproduct of that, which was the predictability. You get an appointment, you know, whether we’re able to tell you when your appointment is, how long it’s going to take more or less. And, and when, should we decide Yes, should we decide you qualify for that visa, how long that’s going to take to get it. And that really matters to people who are in every walk of life. You’re a scientist coming to a conference, you’re anybody coming to a conference, you’re the ranking person in the Marriott Corporation in country x, and you’re coming for something with all of the other ranking, with all of your counterparts from everywhere, because that was one walk of life, the travel and tourism industry, that greatly suffered as our predictability was greatly impacted by new procedures. And by things we just had to learn to do differently, master, and then sort of apply to all of our embassies and consulates all around the world. And lots of lots of stuff, lots of retraining, lots of continuing scrutiny of the US of the function. This is not a complaint, it’s an observation, we were under a microscope, I’d put it that way. We got better over time, we turned it around. But whether it was the American academic community, the travel and tourism industry, the business community, people who simply had a visa case in progress, and when their fiance couldn’t make it here, it couldn’t, we couldn’t process that quickly enough for people. So the service standards lagged, while our security profile was greatly enhanced in and remains that way to this day. The service orientation of the people who do consular work never lagged. It hurt our hearts when we realized that some of the things that we were not able to do as quickly as we once could. The our goal was to get back our goal was to get back in the game in a way that really mattered. You’re an academic, you surely know this. And you may not like my use of this vocabulary, but it’s a multi billion dollar industry, bringing foreign students to the United States, right. And think of every industry in the hit that everybody took until we got this right again, I earlier spoke about pre-9/11 world when consular work was not necessarily thought of as sort of the the cutting issue of bilateral relationships. Well, what happened to everybody else in the State Department was all of a sudden, they could go to no meeting anywhere in the world or in the city with a foreign counterpart. Without having to have a conversation about basis. It became the everybody’s number one thing. On one hand, people are saying get those visas go and are you going out of your minds? Do you know what it’s costing America? And others saying, Hey, you know, are you sure that you understand the security needs of our country? So we coined a phrase in which I think that we still use, we described our efforts as secure borders and open doors. I like that. All of our interlocutors in every walk of life, we hear you. It was important that it’d be secure borders first, and open doors second. And we get that, you know, where we’re no less interested, we are as interested or more interested in the protection of our, you know, our nation and our citizenry than everybody else involved in these important issues.

MULLEN: So I want to pivot to thinking about sort of women in the Foreign Service. And, you know, you yourself are a career Foreign Service officer, you mentioned some people that you’ve worked with who rose pretty high in the ranks, to, you know, within the State Department. So how do you see–aside from going into a prison where you’re the only small female in a group of 300 men–how do you see your role as a woman? Maybe your identity as a woman impacting the work that you have done? Or has it impacted the work that you have done?

HARTY: It wasn’t until sort of the mid to late ’70s that a woman could be married and continue to serve as a Foreign Service officer. I came in in 1981. So that just gives you a little bit of a sense of there was still stuff going on it needed to change. But when George Shultz became Secretary of State, and was assembling his team, he named a woman named Ambassador Roz Ridgeway to be the Assistant Secretary of State for what was then the Bureau of European and Canadian affairs. And if you understand that the prominence of the regional bureaus is pronounced. And the European and Canadian Affairs Bureau was the, you know, the capo de tutti capo, I mean, it’s just first first in show, Best in Show. And here comes George P. Shultz, at that point, three time cabinet member, this would be his fourth as SecState, and puts a woman in charge. And she’s no-nonsense extremely talented,–that I still feel in my ears now that I can hear the glass shattering, right, as an enormous thing had happened. When Secretary Schultz was turning 90, his staffers had a dinner for him. And we all put together we put together little scrapbook of stuff. And we were each given a page just to say what we remembered best and most about him. And I wrote my staff, and there were lots of, well, there are several things in it. But one of them was when you chose Rozanne Ridgeway to be the Assistant Secretary for European and Canadian affairs, you changed the vista, and you changed our futures. Because you we saw something we’ve never seen before. And all of a sudden, now we can do those things. The numbers, I think wax and wane; we’re nowhere near parity, in big jobs in the State Department, even today; if anything, I think we’ve taken some steps back. But I do know that you can’t keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris. And there are extraordinary colleagues of, of, you know, men and women who I have been delighted to serve with, sometimes to be mentored by sometimes to mentor. But we still have work to go, we have work to do and making sure that diverse diversity and inclusion values that we espouse around the world need to be modeled here, too.

MULLEN: Yeah, that’s a great point. So I know that most mostly consuls deal with Americans or people who want to come to America. But is there ever a time when the consular service might get involved in women’s issues or women’s rights throughout the world? Have you ever been a part of anything like that?

HARTY: As a mid-grade officer running something called the Office of Overseas Citizen Services, then-Assistant Secretary Ryan asked me to look at the office; it was, I don’t know, probably 80 some odd people. And the design of the office seemed to be ripe for a modernization. And so I did that, in. In those days, the office had almost a sort of, a sort of an emergency, it had a citizens emergency center where you know, that was fast twitch, you know, this is a sprint, you got to something has happened. We got to react, we got to fix it. And then slow twitch, and these are the marathoners. These are the people who are sort of working on cases that go on for a long time. And so anyway, we change the office a lot, but one of the things that we did in changing it was we created an Office of Children’s Issues. And that office was specifically geared toward inter-country adoptions, helping Americans in that way, and international parental child abductions. I started that office with four people in the, it was 1993, I think; there are over 100 people in that office now. And that’s a reflection of lots of things. So Americans travel, more Americans marry people from different countries more. Sometimes those marriages don’t always survive, just like Americans married to Americans sometimes see their marriages not survive. But there are often children involved. And the whole question of international parental child abduction and was was one that we, we have surged to to work on, I can think of so many cases. This happens all over the world. But some of the travel, it’s harder, it’s harder for an American citizen, whose former husband or estranged husband will not give permission to allow her to enter the country to see her children or to plead her case. So that was a big part of my my entire tour as CA Assistant Secretary was really visas and international parental child abduction. Now, it’s not always the dad who is the taking parent, of course, I hasten to to say, but but many of the cases that I remember so profoundly, were that, can I tell you one specific story?

We had a number of cases in, in Jordan, I would say I should say several– I don’t want to make it seem like it was a it was a gigantic number. But we had several cases in Jordan. And I had gone to Chicago to do a town hall meeting with parents who, what we used to call left behind parents, with parents whose children had been taken by their foreign spouse somewhere else. And I met at that town hall meeting, a woman whose three children had been taken to Jordan. I’ll try and be very careful not to give any identifiers of any kind. Anyway, we chatted at the end of the town hall. And I mentioned to her that I was going to Jordan specifically to work on some of the cases I was aware of her case. And she asked me if she could send me some presents, because she hadn’t seen her children in 10 years. And so I took those presents, and, and off I went to Jordan with with another colleague. And we talked to various ministers of government. And you know, in one case, I showed a minister of government the photos, the last photos that this woman had given me copies of. The children were 10 years older than these photos now, when they were taken away. They were very little. So I asked him, if this minister of government could, was there a way that he could possibly arrange a visit. I said, “It hurts my heart to know that this is happening. I can’t imagine what it feels like to endure this.” And I didn’t think I got a lot of traction. He said he’d think about it. But in the car ride to our next meeting, he called me. And he said, “Can you go” and he named a town not too far out of Amman, which is where we were. “Can Can you go and meet the mayor of this town?” And I said, “Yes, certainly, I’ll call him.” He said, “No. I mean, can you go right now?” and this town was pretty close to where these children were living. So we did. The mayor turned out to be a guy who was he looked like he was 12 years old. I wasn’t even sure I didn’t know who I was talking to. Then. So I’m, you know, just talking in broad terms. I don’t want I want to ask the right person for what I want, right? And he says, “No, I’m the mayor; we will make this happen. But I’d like to send you with a police escort.” And I said, “Great.” I said, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know this was going to happen today. I don’t have a camera. I have to go back to my hotel and get a camera.” He said no, he gives me a photographer. And so with a police escort, and a photographer far more talented than I would be, off we go. We just literally knock on the door. The house was used three children life. And the father wasn’t home but his his mother, his mother was their grandmother. And she let me in greeted me very hospitably the father arrived a few minutes later in high dudgeon. We went to their living room where his American college diploma was hanging on the wall. And we were there for about five hours. One of the children the oldest child was a poet. She read some of her poetry for us. I gave them the presents from their mom. I asked if the dad would be amenable to mom visiting. He said, Yes. I called mom from my hotel room that night. And I don’t know which one of us cried more. I told her I had 72 pictures that this Jordanian cameraman had had taken. And I would FedEx them to her as soon as I got back to the United States, she said, “No, God, no.” She lived in Chicago, she drove to Washington, DC, because she didn’t want to run the risk that the photos might be lost in the mail. There were so many cases like that, you know, this is this is not a consular heart on a sleeve. This is a human beings heart, honestly, right. For everybody in in that case, and all of the cases that we had us sort of a women’s issue. I can’t help but bring my personal perspective to this. And I do believe that the majority of cases were that were so very difficult. You know, that’s some of the toughest stuff we do. And I’m really proud to say that the four people who staffed that office for me when I first set it up, and the 100+, who are there now, are all volunteers. Nobody gets dragooned into that office, because you know that the stakes are so very high, that there’s not, there’s not so much wiggle room there. You either get your child back, or you don’t we either help you get your child back, or we fail. And that’s meaning that the highs in that office are astronomically high, and the lows are just equally as devastating. But you never stop. Just never stop. And that’s keeping faith with the American people. That’s showing them as we do in disasters and all sorts of things where we, you know, basically don’t wave this in your face and say it but we believe this, you have this. I am going to pull out all the stops, I have to make sure that we can do our best.

Mullen: Maura, thank you so much for being willing to talk to us about the consular service today, and about its impact on women. I learned a lot. And that’s all for this bonus episode of Consolation Prize. Consolation Prize is a podcast of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. This episode was produced by me, Abby Mullen, special thanks to our guest, Maura Harty. Our music is as always by Andrew Cote. We’ll be back in a few weeks with a new episode in our regular style. In the meantime, thanks for listening

Maura Harty

Maura Harty became the Assistant Secretary of Consular Affairs on November 21, 2002. Immediately prior to assuming the position in Consular Affairs, she served as the Executive Secretary of the Department of State.

Ambassador Harty entered the Foreign Service in 1981, after receiving a bachelor’s degree from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Following an initial assignment to the American Embassy in Mexico City, Ambassador Harty returned to Washington and immediately participated in the United States’ rescue mission to Grenada. She later served as a Watch Officer in the State Department’s Operations Center and was promoted to Senior Watch Officer during that assignment. In 1987-1988, Harty was a Special Assistant to then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz.

Harty returned overseas in 1988 as Chief of the non-immigrant visa section in Bogota, Colombia. Ambassador Harty subsequently served as Consul at the American Embassy in Madrid. During that time she also assisted in the opening of the American Embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania.

In 1994, Harty served as the Managing Director of the Directorate of Overseas Citizens Services, where she created the office of Children’s Issues.

Harty was selected as a Deputy Executive Secretary of the Department in 1995 and subsequently served as Executive Assistant to Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Following that assignment, she became the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Paraguay.

— Bio taken from the US State Department archived webpage