Teresita Schaffer enjoyed an illustrious 30-year career in the Foreign Service, developing a reputation as a leading expert on South Asia and international economics. She served in embassies in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh and as U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives from 1992-1995. After a first tour in Israel, Ms. Schaffer returned to Washington to work as the Israel analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) from 1969 to 1971. While at INR, she also had a chance to gain experience as a public speaker at U.S. colleges.
Secretary of State George Marshall established INR in 1947, making it the oldest civilian intelligence element in the U.S. Government. INR analysts draw on a myriad of sources to provide an independent analysis of world events of interest to State Department policymakers. The Bureau of Intelligence and Research ensures that U.S. intelligence activities support foreign policy and national security purposes, and, among other responsibilities, analyzes geographical and international boundary issues.
Teresita Schaffer was interviewed by Thomas Stern in September 1998. To read more about intelligence and research, Israel, Palestinians, or to read her oral history, please follow the links.
“The key to being a successful analyst is the ability to sell one’s expertise”
Teresita Schaffer, Analyst, INR Bureau, 1969-1971
SCHAFFER: I wrote a number of analytical papers on both Israel and the Palestinians. Specifically, I remember writing on Israel’s attitude toward the United States, on Israeli attitudes towards peace and territorial concessions, the future prospects for the Palestinian movement after the major upheaval of 1970–when the Jordanians cracked down on the Palestinians because they were a threat to the Jordanian government.
I also did a lot of work on the shelling across the Suez Canal that took place in 1970. This activity led to the cease fire and stand-down agreement [the Rogers Plan, which called for a military standstill on both sides of the Suez Canal to end the War of Attrition] between Israel and Egypt.
I used all sources for my analysis, but material from sensitive sources was key to writing about the cease fire. The source that gave me greatest pause was the FBI’s reports on people it had been watching in the U.S. That seemed to be in accord with the prevailing practices of the time, but indicated a lack of understanding of Middle East politics — I believed that this FBI activity was dangerous and inimical to our policies.
For example, there were individuals who for one reason or another had attracted the FBI’s interest. Most were Arabs. The commentary that was written on these people seemed to me to reflect a very poor understanding by the FBI agent of the Middle East.
The files included a lot of material that could have been deleted if one understood Arab practices; some of the information was misinterpreted, leading the agent to the wrong conclusions.
I had a good relationship with the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] analysts, even though there was [a] certain amount of organizational rivalry. I worked closely with the desk and the NEA [Near Eastern Affairs] Bureau. We did work closely with the desk; for example, the paper on Israeli attitude towards the U.S. was done at their request.
The key to being a successful analyst is the ability to sell one’s expertise. There is no point in sending an analyst to INR to learn; he or she must have considerable knowledge of a specific country and the area. Unless you have some degree of recognized expertise, you have little to offer to the desk or other policy making officers.
“INR was a great place for me at that stage of my career”
INR was a great place for me at that stage of my career. I had a lot of flexibility in choosing to pursue matters of interest.
We had pretty much a free hand in choosing the topics to be analyzed, although occasionally we would be commissioned by the regional bureau to work on something it was particularly interested in. So if I had a reasonable rationale to explore an issue, I would be allowed to do so. The deadlines were more relaxed than they were in a regional or functional bureau.
At the time, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how the bureaucracy operated. Since then, I have come to realize that it was a microscopic view, but at the time, I thought I knew what made the bureaucracy tick. All in all, I enjoyed my INR tour, partly because I had very good bosses and colleagues.
Phil Stoddard was a wonderful boss. I liked the people in INR with whom I worked; in general, they were bright and knew what they were doing.
The Foreign Service and Civil Service officers in my office worked closely together…There was a group in the office — about four FSOs [Foreign Service Officers] and a couple of CSOs [Civil Service Officers]– who would go off to lunch together.
One of the Civil Service officers was a fanatical cook, who would prepare elaborate meals or order elaborate picnics and would on ceremonial occasions cobble together very complicated and delicious lunches. So we all knew that if Al Vaccaro was in charge, we would be well taken care — good food and wine.
Another member of the group was Nat Howell, who eventually became our Ambassador in Kuwait [1987-1991]. Nat was the Egyptian analyst; he was a big man who had a PhD in Middle Eastern studies. He was quite flamboyant and extroverted, as he remains today.
“On my first day in this cubbyhole some paper planes with Egyptian markings flew over the cabinets”
When I first reported to INR, there was not enough space to accommodate another desk. The office rearranged the file cabinets in order to make room for me; these cabinets formed two walls. In between a desk was jammed in along with a telephone.
On my first day in this cubbyhole some paper planes with Egyptian markings flew over the cabinets. I took the planes, crossed out the Egyptian markings and replaced them with the Star of David and threw them back. That was the beginning of a great friendship with [Nat] Howell (seen left.)
One of the tasks was to prepare once a week a short analysis of the columns written by Mohammed Hassanein Heikal [Egyptian journalist focused on Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein’s politics] for the Egyptian state-run paper Al Ahram. The column was viewed as a reflection of [President] Nasser’s views.
The editorial was sent to us by FBIS [Foreign Broadcast Information Service, part of Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Science and Technology], after being translated into English.
In those days, those reports came by teletype in multiple copies for wider contribution. So Nat would get a long, long piece of paper, the ink from which always came off on his hands. So as soon as he would finish his analysis of the FBIS report, he would crumple up the teletyped report, put some scotch tape around it and would walk out to where our long-suffering secretaries sat busily engaged to typing our reports. In those days, officers were not thought capable of doing so, or it was believed that they should have had more important things to do.
Nat would yell “Heikal ball!” and throw the crumpled paper to any of us who had rushed out for this weekly ritual. This moment was relief for a very hard-working group which was more than busy most of the time.
I did have a feeling of satisfaction with my work. I felt that a lot of my material was used by the policy developers as background and context. The work we did in assessing the 1970 cease-fire and stand-down agreement [the Rogers Plan] was of direct operational utility.
That was exciting; we knew that our material was going to the Secretary of State [William P. Rogers, 1969-1973] because the person who was to deliver our memo stood over us, breathing down our necks as we tried to piece together an intelligent memo…
By the end of my tour, I reached the conclusion that INR was a useful organization if it were staffed by people who knew their subject matter. I think it was also useful to have a mixture of civil service and Foreign Service personnel, although I recognize that this mixture presents a staffing problem because in the Foreign Service, if there is a shortage of experts, the [geographic bureau country] desk is likely to get the best, after leaving INR with second or third best.
“I had to worry about how God and the State Department fit together”
While in INR I became interested in public speaking. I was sent to different parts of the country as part of the Department’s “Community Meetings” program managed by the Public Affairs Bureau (PA). PA would cull over the many invitations received for a Departmental speaker to find sufficient resources to send a team of Departmental officers to one part of the U.S. to speak on different subjects…
My first experience with this effort came when PA [Public Affairs Bureau] came looking for someone to speak on Israel — I think the site was Chicago. I said that I would be glad to do that, even though I had not done much public speaking before.
Other community meetings around the country — e.g., Vermont, Mississippi — were part of a panel. Usually included was a Vietnam expert, a Middle East expert and a Latin America or Africa expert. I covered the whole Middle East — Arab and Israel.
I found those speaking tours mostly fun, although at times quite exhausting. I had a fascinating view of the U.S.; I learned a lot about my country. On that score, the most interesting trip was to Mississippi.
Our team consisted of Maryann Parsons, who was the escort officer; an African-American officer who spoke on East Asia; Datus Proper, an expert on Latin America, and myself. We started in West Memphis, Ark, and then headed south to Mississippi. We went to all different kinds of places.
One day, I was sent to Blue Mountain College — an all-girls school in the hills of Northeast Mississippi. I’m sure I was selected to go to Blue Mountain because they wanted a woman speaker. It turned out to be somewhat of a culture shock. In my undergraduate days at Bryn Mawr, we had dressed in blue jeans and sloppy sweaters and bare-footed.
At Blue Mountain, I was met by a group of girls wearing Peter Pan collars, nice neat Shetland sweaters and circle pins, not to mention the stockings that all were wearing — something that I would not have done in college even under duress.
My visit’s start was not auspicious. I tripped getting out of the car, falling on my knees, ruining my stockings and leaving my knee somewhat the worse for the wear. But we got over that. After having recovered from that beginning, I faced an assembly of practically the whole student body.
I gave my Middle East “from the flood to the Six Day War” overview. I found that after having done a number of these presentations I could give a ten minute, a twenty minute and even a thirty minute presentation, depending on when the chairman wanted the session completed. You also learn what jokes are successful [and] what the key points are wanted by an audience.
I had three set talks, all of which I used at Blue Mountain. And then, after lunch, I was asked to speak to a fourth group. I talked about the organization and functions of the State Department; that just illustrates how desperate I was. I hoped that my presentation would not put the students to sleep.
Just as I was entering the classroom, a white haired lady came up to me in the corridor and in her best Southern accent told me that she was delighted that I would speak to her class. She told me that the class was about the role of God in the world, and she thought that what I had to say would be important to her students.
Needless to say, that gave me a jolt. In few seconds I had to worry about how God and the State Department fit together. The story had a happy ending; I survived and the students did not fall asleep.
“There were some blacks with us; that was probably why the waitress threw our silverware on the counter”
I also recall a visit we made to Rust College—a historically black college funded soon after the Civil War. It had a brand new library, thanks to the U.S. Government. It also had a dedicated staff who were inspiring in their devotion to their students. Most of the staff was black; there were just a few whites.
The students — mostly men — were really very earnest and serious; they tried to absorb as much as they could. Unfortunately, they were unprepared to discuss foreign policy and I was quite depressed by that situation. The contrast between the shining new library and a Southern rural education was striking.
The students were also very poor, and the College was run on a shoestring. It was quite obvious that foreign policy did not rank very high on the College’s goals. The students tried very, very hard to understand us, and we in turn tried our best to leave them with something to think and learn about. ..
That evening, we had dinner with a white faculty member at a diner in town. There were some blacks with us; that was probably why the waitress threw our silverware on the counter. We asked the professor whether such behavior was customary; he said that the town was now used to mixed groups, but didn’t really like it.
I am sure that he had taken some of his students to this diner and was well aware of what the reaction of the waitress would be.
The final stop on this tour was in Jackson, Mississippi. I was programmed to appear on a morning television talk show, hosted by a woman with gravity-defying blond hair. It was the week before Thanksgiving, so that the segment of the show preceding me was devoted to [the] defrosting of turkeys and the dangers of doing it the wrong way.
Then she began to talk about me and the Foreign Service; she wondered how a nice girl like me ever got into the Foreign Service. Then she asked what Foreign Service officers did. Her standard reply to my explanations was always: “How exciting!” or “That sounds very interesting!” She seemed particularly to be interested in the consular function.
As the time allotted for the interview drew toward a close, the host said that she had always been confused by Middle East issues and asked me to explain them.
At that moment, I saw the camera man flash two fingers—meaning that I had two minutes to cover all Middle East issues. I took a deep breath and in two minutes covered the Middle East from the great flood to the Six Day War. I ended just in time for the host to sign off with “Well… I’m just overwhelmed!”
I admit that particularly for the first few appearances, I was nervous. I anticipated questions from people who knew more about the subject than I did, but that never happened.
“I felt that after the 1970 crisis in Jordan, the Palestinians really began to be noticed”
While in INR I [also] worked on the Palestinian issue. My assignment on this subject was twofold. First, I had to keep track of the players who worked in the many Palestinian organizations.
One of my papers that received considerable acclaim was a just a list of these various groups with a short description of each. At the time, not much attention in Washington was being paid to the Palestinians; it had heard of the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization, an armed struggle against Israeli citizens, founded 1964] and later the Fatah [Palestinian National Liberation Movement, for Palestinian Arabs, founded 1959 by the Palestinian Diaspora], and eventually the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] when it started to highjack planes.
But the whole picture was essentially unknown and did not attract very much attention. My second task was to analyze the Palestinians’ prospects. This was added to my portfolio, which was primarily Israel, when they began to be noticed.
Both in the regional bureau and in INR, Palestinian and Israeli issues are handled by the same office. I felt that after the 1970 crisis in Jordan, the Palestinians really began to be noticed; they were a factor in the Middle East which was not likely to disappear.
On that score, I was both right and wrong. In the short term, the Jordanian crackdown in 1970 really reduced Palestinian power and influence, particularly since the activist leadership was pressured to leave Jordan for other countries. In the longer run, I was right because the Palestinians certainly became very important players in the Middle East.
I had met some Palestinians when I visited Lebanon; not many in Israel while I served there. The Lebanese Palestinians had been residents there for some time; this was before the major immigration from Jordan and other countries.
I was also sent by INR to attend a convention of Arab-American university graduates. A number of prominent Arab- Americans spoke. There I met a number of people who gave me some insights into Palestinian views and perceptions.
“I am not sure that it was a good device for bringing unorthodox views to the Department’s leadership”
I served in INR at the height of the American disillusionment with the war in Vietnam [1965-1975]. There was considerable political ferment in the U.S. I was very much involved with the Open Forum, which at the time consisted primarily of junior officers. We had been told that Secretary of State Dean Rusk would be interested in discussing any subject with us except Vietnam.
He was not interested in what we thought of that situation. William Rogers followed [Dean] Rusk [as Secretary of State]; he was not much of a presence in the Department. On the other hand, his deputy, Elliot Richardson, was a great influence on the Department.
I remember that one time he met with the junior officers’ club to encourage us to think unconventionally. He used the analogy of a skier who must lean forward to get ahead of the potential problems rather than sitting back on his haunches reacting after the problems were encountered.
That gave us the sense that at least the Deputy Secretary (seen left) was more receptive to our views; he appeared to welcome our input to a much greater extent than the Secretary.
I might just for historical purposes talk a little bit about the Open Forum. It was officially known as the Secretary’s Open Forum, having been started in the 1960s. It was intended as a vehicle for more junior members of the staff to hear and express views on interesting policy issues. It provided an opportunity for staff to think unconventionally — beyond long standing frames of reference…
People would write papers, sometimes to dissent from established policy and sometimes to look at an issue from an off-beat angle. These papers would be discussed; sometimes we would ask experts on an issue to come to talk to us with their perspectives.
I am not sure that it was a good device for bringing unorthodox views to the Department’s leadership; I don’t remember our inputs having much influence. But the group was very interesting; it was mostly junior officers although some more senior ones participated as well.
Today, the Open Forum has changed character; it is now mainly an opportunity for the interested staff to hear the views from outsiders, even if those views do not conform with administration policy. That is a useful function, but the Open Forum is much more passive today than it was when I was a member.
“He [President Nixon] immediately ordered that we all be fired”
Although I was concentrating on the Middle East, no one in the Department or in the country at large could avoid being concerned with the war in Vietnam. There were “true believers.” I was troubled by the American intervention and by “the slippery road” that I thought would not enhance our role as one of the world’s leaders.
The beginning of my doubts came when I was still in Bryn Mawr (seen right), although I was not an activist, unlike some of my classmates. My first “wake up” call really came when the two diplomats on their way home from Saigon were invited to address the staff of our Embassy in Tel Aviv –which I described earlier. That really reinforced my view that Vietnam was a losing proposition and that we should cut our losses at the earliest opportunity.
Thereafter, I had more and more qualms about US policy. I don’t believe that my doubts ever led me to question whether I had done the right thing in joining the Foreign Service or continuing in it. But then I never faced the prospect of being assigned to Vietnam; that might have required more serious evaluation.
In any case, even if I had resigned it would have had zero effect on policy. In the first place, I was a junior officer, and in the second, my area of expertise was far removed from Vietnam.
At one point — probably in the Spring of 1970 when we [the U.S.] invaded Cambodia and resorted to secret bombings — a group of junior officers got together and drafted a petition for the Secretary, asking him to meet with a group of junior officers who were concerned with events in South East Asia. It was a classified petition — an unusual procedure in itself.
There were about 200 signatories, including me. I think that the fact that it was classified was a good illustration of the Foreign Service culture. The petition was duly sent forward; somehow it came to the attention of President Nixon.
He was furious. He was told that all FSOs served at the pleasure of the President. He immediately ordered that we all be fired.
He was dissuaded from this course, but an instruction was sent to the Department demanding that every signatory be called in by his or her assistant secretary for “counseling” — i.e. a sharp dressing-down.
Since there were about twenty INR staffers who had signed this petition, we filled a small briefing room in the Director’s suite. George [C.] Denney, [Jr.], who was the acting Director at the time, called us all in but obviously was very uncomfortable in carrying out the directive.
He told us of the President’s intense displeasure and the Secretary’s discomfort with our action. Denney asked that we refrain in the future from publicly voicing our displeasure with administration policies.
This affair did hit the press, but it was not a Page 1 item.
“He had seen a steady parade of blue jean and bandanna-wearing staff members who were leaving the Department to join the demonstration”
In May 1970, there were several marches on Washington. I was involved with them in two different ways. On May Day, I came home from work, only to discover that my car had been “liberated” from its normal place and parked in front of a fire hydrant. It had a parking violation ticket — I later learned that it had in fact acquired three tickets.
Someone had removed a wire in the engine so that I could not start the motor. Subsequently, I learned that a group of demonstrators had picked up the car and had carried it to the space where it would impede traffic.
There were several cars that had suffered the same fate. In my case, in order to open the street again to traffic, the police had parked my car in front of the hydrant. It took me about a year to persuade the District officials to wipe out the tickets.
The next day, there was a large meeting on the Ellipse [the President’s Park South] behind the White House. My brother, who at the time was a Harvard undergraduate, had come to Washington with friends in an overloaded Volkswagen. They all slept on my living room floor. Then they went to demonstrate and I joined them.
It was bizarre; I had a pass for parking in the Department’s basement. I drove my Volkswagen to the Department, parked it in the garage and took the elevator to the C Street entrance, wearing blue jeans and a tattered T-shirt.
I walked past all of the flags that fly in the main entrance; a guard gave me a baleful and disgusted look. He had seen a steady, if not massive, parade of blue jean and bandanna-wearing staff members who were leaving the Department to join the demonstration.
It was a memorable moment.