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MARCH 2015


Let the public service be a proud and lively

career. And let every man and woman who

works in any area of our national govern-

ment be able to say with pride and with

honor in future years: ‘I served the United

States Government in that hour of our

nation’s need.’

—President John F. Kennedy,

State of the Union Address, Jan. 30, 1961

aby boomers may recall a cer-

tain leadership style prevalent

in the State Department when

we came in that doesn’t really

exist any longer—a brutally honest,

results-oriented approach that is also

focused on self-sacrifice and the collec-

tive good.

I hold no nostalgia for the “good old

days.”The Foreign Service I entered in 1989

was reeling from the class action law suits

of women and African-Americans who

had been systematically discriminated

against in assignments and promotions.

The Foreign Service of today, while

far fromperfect, is more inclusive and

meritocratic. Still, this background should

not prevent us from admiring and retain-

ing many good features of “old school”

leadership. Let’s recall the career of one of

its exemplars, Mary Ryan.

Mary entered the Foreign Service in

1966, swept into

the government

like somany of

her generation

by the words of

President Kennedy.

An administrative

officer, she served in Italy, Honduras and


From 1973 to 1975, she and a young Pat

Kennedy were rovers in the Africa Bureau,

covering at small posts for those on home

leave or transfer.

She became assistant secretary for

consular affairs in 1993, after Elizabeth

Tamposi, a political appointee, left in

disgrace for opening the passport files of

then presidential candidate Bill Clinton

(seeking nonexistent evidence that he had

renounced his citizenship).

Mary served the next nine years as

assistant secretary for CA. Among her

achievements was mentoring a series of

leaders, including her three successors,

who together have elevated CA to the best-

managed bureau in the State Department,

one that truly engages in career develop-

ment and long-term strategic planning.

Her first challenge after taking over CA

was the World Trade Center bombing of

1993. The person who inspired and helped

plan this attack, Omar Abdel Rahman, had

been issued a visa in Khartoum, though

information was known about him in his

home country of Egypt. Mary led the inter-

agency to undertake two reforms.

First, she directed visa fees to be used

to automate the worldwide lookout system

(replacing the cumbersome microfiche

readers). Second, she worked with the

intelligence and law enforcement agencies

to create the Visas Viper program, to pro-

vide a mechanism for sharing information

with consular sections.

Eight years later, a second attack on

the World Trade Center gave Mary her

ultimate challenge. Once again the visa

function came under intense public scru-

tiny. All of the 9/11 hijackers had received

tourist visas. In congressional hearings,

Mary defended these issuances as straight-

forward cases. The problemwas that the

CIA and FBI had not shared information

on these individuals.

“Every name of every one of those 19

terrorists was run through the classified

lookout system. And we had no informa-

tion on any of them,” she later recalled.

Mary became the public defender for

keeping the consular function at State, as

Congress moved customs and border pro-

tection into the newHomeland Security


Mary knew her truth-telling was career-

ending. She took a beating fromboth

Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

She didn’t want her consular troops to

think she was abandoning them, so she

did not resign and, as the highest-ranking

Foreign Service officer, continued to advo-

cate for them. But she realized Secretary

Colin L. Powell might have to ask her to

step down—as he did, in September 2002.

Here is the most remarkable thing

about Mary Ryan: She moved on to new

challenges in retirement and had no time

for resentments, despite the scapegoat-

ing she endured. I never knew her, but in

talking with her protegés I believe it was a

deep religious faith that sustained her and

pushed her to become a Foreign Service


Be well, stay safe and keep in touch,




Robert J. Silverman is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.

A Doyenne of the Old School