WASHINGTON – Desperate times call for desperate measures.
In a move that may affect services at U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide this summer, the State Department is trying to lure diplomats back home over the next two months to help clear a massive backlog in passport applications.
Unable to cope with nearly 3 million backed up applications and thousands more that are pouring in each day, the department has issued an urgent all-points global appeal seeking volunteers to return to the United States at government expense in August and July to deal with the problem.
The department faces withering criticism from citizens and lawmakers over its failure to cope with unprecedented passport demand that has led to major delays in processing and disrupted travel plans for thousands.
"I am asking all foreign service personnel with consular experience to look at whether you can volunteer and serve our citizens here at home," Undersecretary of State for Management Henrietta Fore said in a cable sent Friday to all U.S. diplomatic missions abroad.
"All related travel, lodging, and per diem costs will be covered," she said in the unclassified memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. The memo also offers training and refresher courses for those who might be rusty.
"The needs are real and we need your help now," Fore said. "We recognize, and accept, that there will be an impact on other services and activities. All volunteers are welcome."
Two groups of 50 diplomats each are needed. The offer expands on a similar but less costly appeal earlier this month for diplomats planning to be on home leave this summer to work at the overwhelmed National Passport Center in New Hampshire and other processing facilities.
The department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, which oversees passport operations, could not say how much money may have been set aside to pay for airfare, hotels and meals for the volunteers.
Officials said the offer is an indication of how serious the department is in ending the passport mess that has crippled the system despite the hiring of additional staff.
Fore said the goal is to clear the backlog by the end of September, when a temporary suspension of a major new border security initiative that had caused the surge in applications expires.
The contents of her cable were first reported by The Washington Times.