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Top 10 Jaw-dropping Diplomatic Screw Ups

by James Fenner
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Lester B. Pearson, former diplomat and Canadian prime minister, famously said that diplomacy is “the art of letting the other fellow have your way.” The silver-tongued statesman was instrumental in resolving the Suez Crisis in 1956, an achievement that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. But not every diplomat has such a distinguished career.

Representing your country at the international level is like walking a tightrope. Cultural differences, language barriers, and social mix-ups can quickly turn fruitful discussions on their head. And that’s putting aside any existing political grievances. While diplomats are supposed to diffuse international tensions, occasionally they end up becoming the source of a diplomatic incident themselves. From drunken mishaps to vehicular manslaughter, let’s take a look at just some of the most astonishing diplomatic screw ups.

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10 Anally Swabbing American Diplomats

China denies reports US diplomats were ordered to take anal swab tests for Covid-19

China landed itself in hot water recently after administering anal swabs to American diplomats. In February, the U.S. Department of State accused the Red Dragon of violating the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, adding: “The Department is committed to guaranteeing the safety and security of American diplomats and their families while preserving their dignity.”

China started using anal swabs on its own citizens in January 2021. Those traveling from high-risk countries were also swabbed, sparking criticism from neighboring countries. The Japanese government asked China to stop testing Japanese citizens, following reports that the procedure had inflicted “psychological distress” on some of its recipients. Researchers claim the test provides a more accurate diagnosis for Covid-19, as the virus remains in the intestines much longer than in the respiratory system. The test involves inserting a cotton swab approximately five centimeters into the anus. The swab is then gently rotated for 10 seconds.

The Chinese authorities allegedly told the Department of State that the tests had been conducted in error. Beijing later denied any wrongdoing, claiming it has never required foreign officials to undergo invasive testing.

9 Accidentally Killing a Foreign National

‘Diplomatic cars’ seen on wrong side of road

On 27 August 2019, Anne Sacoolas was driving along a stretch of road near RAF Croughton, a U.S. communications station in Britain. Alas, the woman ended up colliding with a 19-year-old motorcyclist, Harry Dunn, after driving on the wrong side of the road for 20 seconds. Harry died from his injuries that day.

The British police interviewed Sacoolas the following day. She admitted to driving on the wrong side of the road, a statement that was confirmed by surveillance footage of the area. At the time of the incident, Anne’s husband, a CIA agent named Jonathan Sacoolas, was working at RAF Croughton. The authorities were led to believe that Mrs. Sacoolas, owing to her spouse’s position, had diplomatic immunity. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office attempted to obtain an immunity waiver from the U.S. government, in a bid to continue its investigation into the fatal crash. The waiver was rejected, however, and Sacoolas quickly returned to her home country. Making matters worse, the British government’s extradition request was also denied.

The UK authorities have now charged the 43-year-old, in absentia, with death by dangerous driving. It later emerged that Anne Sacoolas had previously worked as an undercover operative with the CIA. The status of her diplomatic immunity is also facing fresh scrutiny, and it is unclear whether the U.S. unlawfully rejected Britain’s original extradition request. Meanwhile, Harry Dunn’s parents are pursuing a civil case against Sacoolas in the United States.

8 Slamming Nigeria’s ‘Primitive Living Conditions’

Peace Corps Of Nigeria

President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps was designed to spread American values to post-colonial countries. The program, first established in 1961, would see young Americans flying off on globetrotting missions, offering a range of skills to help impoverished nations rebuild their infrastructure and economies. Volunteers worked in sectors like construction, agriculture, education, and healthcare.

Among the first wave of munificent helpers was Margery Michelmore, a new graduate from Smith College. Following a seven-week training course at Harvard, the 23-year-old went to teach classes in the upland forests of Nigeria. But life in West Africa came as a shock to Michelmore. Three weeks into her visit, she wrote to a friend about her time as a Peace Corps tutor. “With all the training we had we really were not prepared for the squalor and absolutely primitive living conditions rampant both in the city and the bush,” she explained. “We had no idea what ‘underdeveloped’ meant.” The postcard went on to explain how most of the residents lived, cooked, bartered, and defecated in the streets.

Somebody stumbled across Margery’s postcard and posted its contents around campus. Some of the more radical students, who believed the Peace Corps represented a clandestine arm of the CIA, organized a series of protests. The protests soon turned into riots, forcing Margery to flee the country. Although the incident jeopardized the Peace Corps’ very existence, President Kennedy wrote a message of support to Margery. “We are strongly behind you and hope that you will continue to serve in the Peace Corps,” he wrote.

7 Creating a Honeypot to Spy on U.S. Officials

AXIOS on HBO: Chinese Intelligence Operation Investigation (Clip) | HBO

In December 2020, reports started to circulate about a Chinese honeypot that had been used to lure U.S. officials. The woman at the heart of the scandal, Fang Fang, seduced a number of rising politicians in the San Francisco Bay Area. After enrolling at California State University East Bay, the Chinese national used her student credentials to attend local political events. Over the years, she forged connections with a number of key players in U.S. politics and engaged in sexual relationships with at least two mayors. Unbeknownst to her targets, Fang Fang was actually working for the Ministry of State Security – a Chinese spy agency.

Fang Fang quickly rose through the ranks, assisting with political events for the likes of Ro Khanna and Tulsi Gabbard. The Chinese agent also helped U.S. Representative Eric Swalwell with fundraising initiatives. Fang served as a “bundler” during Swalwell’s bid for re-election in the 15th district of California, persuading potential donors to write checks for his campaign. She even placed an intern inside the Democrat’s office in Washington.

In 2015, the FBI informed Swalwell of its suspicions. According to intelligence officials, he immediately cut all ties with the spy. Fang suddenly left the country as rumors started to spread that various agencies were investigating her ties to the CCP. Her whereabouts are currently unknown. Fang Fang’s primary responsibilities involved gathering information on political candidates, shaping the views of powerful officials, and spying on Chinese American communities. “She was everywhere,” said one Bay Area councilmember. “I was surprised at how active she was and how she knew so many politicos.”

Swalwell’s office refused to comment on whether his relationship with Fang Fang was of a sexual nature, claiming the issue was classified. In January 2015, Swalwell was given a seat on the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee – a position he holds to this day. He currently oversees the budgetary and policy considerations of the CIA.

6 Implying Argentinians are Gay Cowards

In 2012, the British ambassador to Chile made international headlines after questioning the sexuality of an entire nation on Twitter. The senior diplomat in question, Jon Benjamin, made a sly reference to a well-known anti-Argentine soccer song. One line of the song, which the official did not directly quote, goes like this: “Argentinians, gays, they took the Falklands off you because you are cowards.” Chilean supporters often use the chant as a means of provoking their Argentine rivals during major sporting events. It also makes reference to the South American nation losing the Falkland Islands to the British in 1982 – a conflict that remains a source of contention to this day.

The incident occurred in the run-up to a soccer match between Argentina and Chile. After securing tickets to the event, Benjamin tweeted the following to his 10,000 Twitter followers: “Which islands did they take off you and for being what?” Naturally, the incident did not go down well. The remarks were splashed across the front pages of Argentinian newspapers, stoking tensions throughout the region. Chile was Benjamin’s first ambassadorial post, after serving in the British Foreign Office for 26 years. Benjamin apologized profusely for the insensitive Tweet, admitting that he had intended to send the message privately to a friend.

5 Staring at a Princess’s Jewels

Busted! Finnish President’s Husband Is Caught Staring At Princess Mary’s Chest

It’s not every day that a world leader’s partner creates a diplomatic incident. Step forward Pentti Arajarvi, husband of Finland’s former President Tarja Halonen. In 2012, the civil servant attended a banquet in Copenhagen, Denmark. Seated next to Princess Mary of Denmark, Arajarvi’s eye was drawn to something around the Royal’s chest area. The First Gentleman’s gaze was only broken after the Princess noticed something was up. He quickly shifts his attention to the ceiling of the Amalienborg Palace.

The Danish press had a field day. Some accused the First Gentleman of staring at the Princess’s breasts. Others argued that he was merely admiring the jewelry adorning her neck. Whatever the case, the damage was done.

4 Stealing a Wallet

Pak Diplomat Caught On Cam Stealing Wallet Of Kuwaiti Delegate!

In 2018, a Kuwaiti delegation traveled to Pakistan to discuss future trade links between the two countries. But events took a rather unexpected turn when one of the Kuwaitis complained that his wallet had gone AWOL. The host nation launched a frantic search. After reviewing CCTV footage of the area, the Pakistani officials discovered that one of their own senior civil servants had stolen the wallet.

The Pakistanis initially refused to disclose the identity of the would-be thief, outraging their guests even further. Pakistan eventually made an embarrassing climb down and revealed the crook’s name: Zarar Haider Khan, the joint secretary of the Ministry of Industries and Production. Khan initially denied any involvement in the incident, until presented with the video evidence.

Khan was immediately suspended from his ministerial duties and placed under arrest. Matters were made worse when the media started circulating pictures of the wrong man. The press showed a photo of an American risk analyst named Ziad Haider – not Haider Khan. Suffice to say, Kuwait backed out of its plans to invest in Pakistan.

3 Urinating during Diplomatic Discussions

South Sudan Ambassador to Washington Gordon Buay captured urinating during a live Zoom meeting

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many diplomats to hold remote meetings to continue their work. But this newfound reliance on videoconferencing, it’s safe to say, has come with its ups and downs. There is no greater example of this than Gordon Buay, South Sudan’s deputy ambassador to the United States.

In July 2020, Buay joined his fellow diplomats on a Facebook livestream to discuss the political happenings in the northern state of Upper Nile. The ambassador, who streamed his activities using a mobile device, began making his way to the bathroom. The camera pans down to reveal Buay’s pantsless form. “I think you need to mute, Ambassador Gordon Buay,” pleads one of the speakers. While Buay did manage to mute his device, the video feed continued. Attendees begin laughing as they witness their colleague relieving himself. One of the panelists quickly removes Buay from the chat, sparing him any further indignity.

When news of the incident broke, Buay claimed the footage had been faked. One former diplomat, James Okuk, accused Buay of conducting diplomacy while intoxicated. He also criticized the ambassador for shouting at other panelists. “Something just really must be done,” he demanded.

2 Being Bound, Naked, and Surrounded by Sex Toys

An Israeli ambassador raised a few eyebrows after he was caught in a sexually comprising position in El Salvador’s capital. City cops discovered the official, Tsuriel Raphael, in the yard of his home in a state of undress. He was also drunk, bound, and surrounded by sex toys. The police performed their duties admirably, freeing the man from his restraints and removing the ball gag stuffed in his mouth. The authorities did not divulge exactly how the ambassador came to be in such a state.

The Israeli press initially misunderstood the nature of Mr. Raphael’s predicament, thinking he had been the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. As the truth emerged, the public’s concern quickly turned into ridicule. The ambassador’s superiors were not happy. “The ministry sees his behavior as unbecoming of a diplomat,” explained a spokesperson for the foreign ministry. “He is going to remain in Israel.”

1 Hacking a Journalist into Pieces

Killing Jamal Khashoggi: How a Brutal Saudi Hit Job Unfolded | NYT – Visual Investigations

On 2 October 2018, a journalist made his way through the streets of Istanbul towards the Saudi consulate. Little did he know that a team of Saudi assassins lay in wait, ready to execute him in cold blood. Their target was the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The building was nearly empty, its staff told to take the day off. The 15-man team lined one of the rooms in plastic sheeting, laughing at the prospect of catching their “sacrificial animal.” One of the assassins, a pathologist named Dr. al-Tubaigy, joked, “It’s the first time in my life I will have to cut (up) pieces on the ground.” The precise nature of Khashoggi’s death remains unclear. However, audio footage of the incident suggests the squad had wrapped the writer’s head in a bag, before chopping his body up into pieces.

Khashoggi was critical of the Saudi regime and its new leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The oil-rich nation attempted to cover up the assassination, pinning the blame on “rogue agents” that were outside of its control. The CIA pushed back against this assertion, claiming the crown prince was involved in orchestrating Khashoggi’s death. The assassins allegedly preserved the writer’s fingers and presented them to the prince as proof of the hit’s successful completion. The rest of the dismembered remains were carried out of the consulate in bags. A body double, dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes, left the building shortly after the killing. In creating a doppelganger of the journalist, the hit team tried to make it seem as though the journalist had left the consulate alive. Nine days later, Saudi “investigators” arrived at the consulate and scrubbed the area of all forensic evidence.

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fact checked by Jamie Frater