AFGE joins calls to fire State Dept diplomat for allegedly posting antisemitic content

The largest federal employee union is joining State Department employees and members of Congress in calling for the firing of a Foreign Service officer for alle...

The largest federal employee union is joining State Department employees and members of Congress in calling for the firing of a Foreign Service officer for allegedly running a website with antisemitic content.

The American Federation of Government Employees Local 1534, which represents State Department employees, is calling for the removal of Fritz Berggren, a Foreign Service officer, for running a website that “frequently assails members of the Jewish faith, the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, and argues that the United States should be a ‘Christian nation-state.’”

The site features nearly 800 blog posts with titles that include, “Jewish Tactics to Control the Narrative,” “Jesus Hated the Jews,” and “It’s OK to Be White.” Each post is signed by Berggren, and the site features several photos of him.

An Oct. 4, 2020 blog post states “Jewish ideas poison people.” Berggren did not respond to a request for comment submitted to his website.

AFGE Local 1534 First Vice President Chris Barnes, in an Aug. 2 letter to Undersecretary for Management John Bass and Director General of the Bureau of Global Talent Management Marcia Bernicat, called for Berggren’s removal and an investigation from Diplomatic Security and the Office of Inspector General.

Barnes said Berggren’s online posts are “not consistent with the mission and values of the department and the people who work here,” and are a possible danger to State Department employees.

“This individual is clearly an insider threat risk and may pose a danger to employees. There is also a serious problem if he has actually gotten the required clearance from Public Affairs for his hate speech blog and radical views. Why was this not flagged during his background investigation?” Barnes wrote.

Barnes, now president-elect of AFGE Local 1534, called the department’s handling of the situation a “management failure” in an interview Thursday.

“This is a clear case of the department ignoring a person they know who holds radical views, and the failure to act puts employees in danger,” Barnes said.

Barnes said he raised his concerns to AFGE, which then brought the issue to Congress, after he didn’t get a response from State Department leadership about his letter.

“I haven’t gotten a phone call, I haven’t gotten an email or even a text,” Barnes said. “I got no reply at all. This individual is clearly an insider threat risk and may pose a danger to employees. When the Office of Insider Threat is provided the information and passes it along in Diplomatic Security, action needs to be taken immediately”

A State Department spokeswoman said the agency cannot comment on individual personnel matters, but said “allegations that an employee has violated a law, regulation or department policy are taken seriously.”

“When such allegations are substantiated, the department may take disciplinary action, up to and including separation, when appropriate.  The department does not take such action lightly and must comply with all required procedures before doing so,” the spokeswoman said.

Bernicat, in her first interview since her Senate confirmation in May, said the department’s diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA)  priorities reflect a longstanding goal for the U.S. diplomatic corps to fully reflect the demographics of the country. She said tapping into the diversity of the U.S. population gives the department a “unique comparative advantage in the world.”

“The Department of State, like the broader administration, recognizes our diversity as a core source of strength,” the agency spokeswoman said. “We are committed to providing a workplace that is free from discriminatory harassment and one that investigates alleged violations of laws, regulations or department policies, taking disciplinary action when appropriate.”

Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said Foreign Service officers working in the same downtown Washington, D.C. building as Berggren have expressed concerns.

“We do not have any evidence of a threat. But in 2022, the idea that someone like this could be armed and dangerous is pretty uncontestable,” Rubin said.

Rubin said federal employees aren’t required to go through any security check when they come to the office and are not required to undergo any kind of security screening for what they have in their offices.

“If you’re working in the same office with this person, who’s already made very public what his views are about his fellow Americans, to put it bluntly, there’s a reason for concern,” he said.

Barnes said allowing an employee in this situation to continue working at the department without any restriction of his security credentials  a “complete failure in the background investigation.”

“You can’t have someone like this have access to any government systems. This guy is a Foreign Service officer. What does he have access to?” Barnes said.

Berggren wrote in a February 2021 post that “my ideas are my own and not a reflection of any employer, company, agency, country, etc.”

Rubin, however, said the department isn’t prohibited from taking action against Berggren, regardless of whether he made his comments outside of his official capacity.

“In this case, it’s pretty clear to us that a line has been crossed. You don’t have full freedom of speech as a federal employee, and we accept that. You have to support the policy of the United States government, as a general rule, and you have to avoid saying things that are considered unacceptable for federal employees to say,” Rubin said in an interview Wednesday.

AFGE President Everett Kelley said in a statement on Monday that the federal government “has a special obligation to take a strong stand against such toxic and unacceptable workplace behavior as the nation’s model employer.”

“Officials must go beyond words and take decisive action to root out this behavior and ensure all federal employees are able to serve their country in a safe, welcoming workplace where they are treated with dignity and respect without regard to individual difference,” Kelley said.

A group of more than 70 State Department employees, in a July 2021 letter first reported by Foreign Policy, raised concerns about Berggren to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, adding that his “presence in the department is threatening.”

“Not only is his propagation of anti-Semitic ideas highly disturbing and offensive to Jewish and non-Jewish employees alike, but as Jewish employees, we feel his presence at the department is threatening,” they wrote.

Lawmakers on the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism led a letter on Oct. 14 to Blinken calling on the department to investigate. A total of 75 members of Congress signed the letter.

The lawmakers, in their letter, said an internal review of these incidents is underway at the State Department but said “more can and must be done to protect the Jewish community, and other religious minorities, at the State Department.”

The letter also notes that in July 2021, a swastika was found in an elevator at the State Department’s headquarters in Washington. In February 2022, another swastika was found on a window shade at the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria.

“Together, these incidents appear to paint a troubling picture within the State Department,” lawmakers wrote.

The State Department spokeswoman said the agency takes antisemitic symbols in the workplace “extremely seriously. ”

“We unequivocally condemn any instances of hate or bias in the workplace, which these appear to be. This is a repugnant symbol that stands for everything we as a department are standing against.  We are committed to doing everything possible to ensure the State Department, including our posts overseas, remains a welcoming, inclusive and bias-free workplace; and that instances of antisemitism and other forms of hate are investigated and the perpetrators held accountable,” the spokeswoman said.

The 70 State Department employees, in their letter, expressed concern that agency leadership hasn’t taken further action against Berggren.

“While there may be HR processes underway, they do not appear to be having an impact and are apparently proceeding very slowly as Berggren has been posting this content since at least 2017,” they wrote.

Politico first reported about Berggren’s online activity in February 2021.

“It is our belief and understanding that this administration from the White House on down has decided to support the principles of freedom of expression over security for our federal employees, and we have a real concern about that,” Rubin said.

“It can’t be OK for someone to espouse racist and ethnic nationalist and religious nationalist positions and still be a federal employee,” he added. “What you say matters, and some of this stuff is poisonous. It’s just absolutely, to me, unacceptable.”

While agencies attempting to fire federal employees often encounter a lengthy appeals process, Barnes said the State Department should have taken more immediate action in this case.

“Absolutely give someone due process. I would never advocate not to. But when haven’t taken care of this for over a year, you shouldn’t be working in the State Department,” Barnes said. “Blinken is not the problem, it’s the people in management under him that are tasked to do the jobs that are. If you’re in management, and you failed to take care of this problem, you shouldn’t be in management because you do not understand the gravity of this situation.”

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