The Peace Corps Looks Endlessly At Its Navel!
A lot gets lost over time and 50 years of history is a long time for an agency. Reading this past weekend the long, and deadly prose written report: The Peace Corps A Comprehensive Agency Assessment, published by the agency in June 2010, I realized how much of the original spirit of the Peace Corps has evaporated in five decades of service.
This report claims six people wrote it, with lots of advisory committees, but I’m told the key writers were Jean Lujan, an attorney, who recently retired from the Department of Justice. She was a PCV in Chile back in 1965-67, and a graduate of the U of Michigan. The other writer (to use the term loosely) was Carlos Torres. He is the founder and former president of I Corporation, a company specializing in international consulting. In other words, a Beltway Bandit. They, and their cohorts, attempts to evaluate the agency, and make recommendations for the future. It was done at the suggestion of Aaron Williams who said during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearings that his intention, once confirmed as director, was to “carry out an agency-wide assessment of the Peace Corps as a means of strengthening, reforming, and growing the agency.” Aaron said that “the agency-wide assessment would serve as a valuable tool for the agency to better articulate a strategic vision for the Peace Corps for the next ten years.”
Why anyone would read this report is beyond me. Perhaps that is what they wanted. To write something so ‘unreadable’ that no one would read it! They could collect their per diem and be out of the Peace Corps and no one would know the difference. It reads like a bad novel, and having written a few bad novels, I know what that prose is like. Here’s an example of an impossible sentences: “The Peace Corps at fifty is ready for a strong new beginning-rooted in the vibrant past of those early days, yet ready to harness twenty-first century American intellectual power, innovation and commitment to result.” What bullshit!
Then, they say (and this is only on page 5!) “Excitement, engagement, and effectiveness are the terms that should characterize the Peace Corps as it moves into the future. As the agency prepares to turn fifty, the agency needs to position itself to be one that looks less in the rear-view mirror at its rich history, but rather, looks forward firmly believing its best days are yet to come.” (Where’s the video of the PCV cheerleaders rallying around this rah-rah quote to carry us all to victory?)
There are some 200 plus pages of such dribble and as I work my way through the document, and the many, many vague recommendations the writers make, I’ll have more to say on other blog entries. But for the moment all this ‘assessment’ language reminds me of what was said and done in the early days of the Peace Corps.
I suggest that the current administration might be wise to look themselves into the ‘rear-view mirror’ and see what Shriver and the other senior staff did 50 years ago, how they did it, why it worked, and use those ideas as the way forward today.
Here are a few examples of what I mean.
Shriver was asked early on about creating a long-term budget estimate, to which he replied by laughing and saying, “That’s a legitimate question, but how the hell do I know where we’re going to be in five years?” Shriver would top that off by returning the Peace Corps appropriations to the Treasury. He gave back $1.9 million for fiscal year 1962, and $3.9 million for 1963. It was an unprecedented move by a government agency. When is the last time the Peace Corps (or any other agency) returned money not spent at the end of the fiscal year?
Then there is Warren Wiggins. He would write his staff in the first years, “We do not rely upon the rule-book. We operate fast and stay legal, but if something goes wrong, just operate fast.”
Shriver had no time for timid proposal or the bureaucratically inhibited response. He demanded boldness and intellectual daring. “There will be little tolerate of a ‘tomorrow’ philosophy, or ‘it can’t be done because it hasn’t been done before’ attitude,” he told those early employees of the Peace Corps. At the Director he also demanded total commitment from employees. Weekends work and early-morning phone calls to one’s home became standard. And Shriver wanted his Washington staff out in the field, working as Reps with the Volunteers. Harris Wofford went to Ethiopia as CD; Tom Quimby to Liberia; Frank Mankiewicz to Peru. Shriver himself, by 1963, had visited thirty-six of the forty-four countries in which the Peace Corps had program.
Shriver did not want a Peace Corps where the desk-bound bureaucrats made plans, unaware of the actual conditions under which Volunteers work. To make sure that didn’t happen, in 1962, he set up the Evaluation Division, the first of its kind in the federal government.
In recent years, the Peace Corps senior staff never went anywhere. Jodi Olsen, the Deputy Director under the former California cop, Gaddi Vasquez, who gave $100,000 to the Bush campaign to get the Peace Corps job, wasn’t even allowed to travel overseas by Vasquez, and she was the only senior official at the agency who had served as a PCV.
Instead of traveling, the Peace Corps has now gone wild setting up ways and means to ‘evaluate’ the agency’s goals from ‘afar’.
This is not new. Maureen Carroll (Philippines 1961-63) tells that when she was the CD in Botswana in the early 1990s she’d come to work on Monday morning and her office floor would be littered with papers that had been faxed out from PC/Washington over night, all the offices in PC/Washington wanted to know something. The faxes covered the floor, like so much mice droppings.
Now, in this new digital age of the Internet, starting in 2007, the Office of Strategic Information, Research and Planning (OSIRP) was created and “charged with enhancing the agency’s strategic planning and reporting, evaluation and measurement, and date governance efforts.”
It appears that the agency has pulled together several ‘offices’ in PC/HQ under one giant umbrella. The office does four basic surveys. The first is the Volunteer Reporting Tool, an electronic data management system started in 2009. This ‘tool’ allows posts to “periodically collect detailed qualitative and quantitative data from all Volunteers on activities that relate to the three goals of the Peace Corps.”
The office (OSIRP) second monitoring tool is the Project Status Report which measures the progress of projects toward meeting their goals.
Then there is the “Annual Volunteer Survey to “assess Volunteers’ impressions of their service.”
The last ‘tool’ is the Results Based Field Evaluation. (Don’t you love these names?) This study, started in 2008, ‘collects information from host country counterparts, beneficiaries, host families and stakeholders to help inform Peace Corps on the impact of the Peace Corps’ work primarily focusing on goal one and goal two activities.”
Wouldn’t you think that with all these ‘tools’ the Peace Corps would get it right?
And this is just the beginning of the Peace Corps ‘tools’ for self-evaluation.
There is something called the “Administrative Management Control Survey” as well as reports from the Inspector General Office, also the report adds, “The Peace Corps benefits from the countless number of Ph.D. dissertations, M.A. theses, and academic studies on various aspects of the Peace Corps’ work.”
I’d like anyone of today’s Senior Staff to quote to me anything that they learned from reading what academics, or for that matter, what RPCVs have to say in their academic research of the Peace Corps.
Since the 90s, I have been giving to Peace Corps Directors, and other ‘new’ (mostly Political Schedule Cs appointments), the names of books written by RPCVs that tell the story of the agency. Not once have any of these people come back to me and commented on what they read or learned. The majority of the senior staff come into the agency totally ignorant of the history or the Peace Corps. It is all “On the Job Training” for them.
All of this brings to mind a story of a Peace Corps Director that I heard about in the late Sixties. This was during the days when CDs really ran their own countries. A Peace Corps HQ official went out to Brazil to see why the Latin America Regional Office wasn’t getting any reports from this post. (The Peace Corps went to Brazil in 1962 and left in 1980.)
Meeting up with the CD on the top floor of the Peace Corps Office in Brazil, the Washington guy had official mail for the Country Director and while they stood together making small talk in front of an open window, the CD casually fingered through the mail, tossing out through the window mail he didn’t want.
Slowly the visiting HQ official began to realized the CD was throwing away (unread) all the ‘official’ mail he had brought with him from D.C. When he glanced out the window, several floors below in the interior courtyard of the building, were hundreds of such official letters from Peace Corps/Washington, tossed away unread by this Country Director.
So much for what Peace Corps/Washington wanted to know about Brazil. This CD was running his own operation and not listening to Peace Corps/Washington.
As Warren Wiggins told his staff years ago, “We do not rely upon the rule-book. We operate fast and stay legal, but if something goes wrong, just operate fast.”
Those were the days!
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As I said in my piece, “While the Peace Corps Slept,” by the 1970’s the Peace Corps had dispensed with Kennedy’s idea of placing thousands of Americans among the many peoples of the world so as to get to know them and let them get to know us and replaced it with a “min-AID,” i.e. a technically competent, development assistance service. The problem was that we did not need another development agency, we needed a means for millions of people in the USA and abroad to get to know each other through direct contact.
Dear John, Thank you so much! I read the whole report and was so disappointed and discouraged. But, my service was so long ago, and the recommendations I made were not considered, and so I really did not feel that I was knowledgeable enough to say anything. You have said everything I thought and much more, so incredibly well.
You had recommended that the number of political appointees be reduced dramatically. That was not in the recommendations. The authors of the report allude to those 29 or 32 political appointees in “decision making positions” and on page 148 makes the following statement, the most honest and saddest commentary on that small agency.
“Staff members working at headquarters as political appointees are in key and senior positions. They receive similar training to that provided to any newly – hired individual: security procedures, time sheets, etc.
After several months, they are invited to attend a three-day management training course. They do receive an overview of the Peace Corps’ approach to development, policy challengs, structure of the agency, and over overarching themes.”
“While not a formal recommendation, the assessment team strongly urges the agency to extend the learning continuum (as discussed in the next section) to headquarters staff members and to develop an orientation program for political appointees.” I think that says it all.
Hugh Pickens’ Peace Corps Online has an editorial critizing the failure of the “assessment team” to recommend the Peace Corps Foundation as the vechicle for Third Goal Activities.
Again, Thank you.
The Transition Team’s report done after Obama was elected said there were too many Schedule Cs (political appointment) at the agency. This Report lists hundred of ‘consultants’ that’s the other problem. This is a small agency and funds are getting eaten up by people who have no idea what the agency does overseas.
I am hearing from my Peace Corps connections in the building that they are really angry with all of the political types, especially the liaison woman with the WH, and the head of Communications. These two (plus others) can’t handle their jobs, and it is noted. Aaron Williams and the Peace Corps are a Dark Hole in the universe. No one knows or cares about PCVs and what they do.
Recruitment is up now because the economy is so bad and kids getting out of college can’t get jobs! Once the economy turns around, the number of Apps will tank.
Aaron has to take control of the agency, just like Obama has to take control of the war in Afghanistan. Both are out of control!
Some years ago I made the point in my book (The Peace Corps Experience) that all too often those who write about or talk about, even think about, the Peace Corps do so, unfortunately, from a PC/W perspective.
It sounds as if this report has done the same, and, just maybe, the negative reaction to the report is due to the critics taking PC/W too seriously.
What happens in the field is what is important and enduring.
Relax! Let the Washington folks do their thing. My guess is that the real Peace Corps continues to be the bright spot it has always been.
David–you are so right!
By the way, were you thowing away those official letters from Washington, D.C. UNOPEN, too…when you were a CD?
In September 1961, President Kennedy and Sargent Shriver met with Colombia One Volunteers in the White House. The President shook our hands and said “I look forward to your return and want to hear what it’s really like down there.”
My interpretation of what JFK meant is that he wanted official Washington and all Americans to have a deeper understanding of the needs and aspirations of the common man in developing countries. He wanted this information to modify foreign policy in a way that would reflect not just the strategic needs of the USA as defined by military-intelligence-diplomatic communities but a wider vision; one that incorporated the experience and insights acquired by PCVs during their years working in villages, towns and cities.
Kennedy’s vision is embedded in the Third Goal but a great deal more effort is needed to harness the knowledge and perspectives of RPCVs into foreign policy. Past Director Ron Tschetter proposed a Peace Corps Foundation as a way to advance the spirit of the Third Goal and as noted in a recent PCOL (Peace Corps On Line) post, is neglected in the Agency Assessment Coyne discusses.
The five year rule took care of the “history” of the agency, by dropping it (George Bernard Shaw said that “what we learn from history is that we don”t!). Also,as it became more bureaucratic, bureauracy took over with each new hirering believing that s/he could make a difference, in effect not considering what went before (Hey, look at me, I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread and certainly deserve the salary and title of my job!). And, of course, there was the downgrading of country/desk officer staff by the Nixon Administration when it grabbed all of the top FSR ranks, i.e., FSR 1s and 2s, transferring them to DC to be filled with political appointees that were owed during the second election that relied on ethnic politics).
With any bureaucracy, “planning” is undertaken by each new administration and then reorganization takes place. Funny thing is that it has been found that with each new administration, the older planning and organization is jetisoned to make way for the new think and speak, which is then jetisoned by the next director/administration. Again, this is a way for individuals to say, I merit the title and money that I get because I have to demonstrate to myself that I am worth it. This also leads to a sort of character disorder in which the new folks push away all ideas of agency employees in order to show that they are in charge and know better: “this is a new administration and I am here to show you the light! The Volker Commission looked at political appointees and found that their effectiveness was correlated with how fast they grasped what their inherited staffs had to say and how quickly they listened and acted on those suggestions.
Giving back funds at the end of a fiscal year results mostly from the expections of the congress, rather than the realities of the admnistration, particularly with a new program. It simply takes a couple of years to post regs for comment, convert those commets into policy and set up a system that grants funds to entities, such as grantees and contractors to carry out programs. In turn, the grantees themselves have to kind of feel their way in order to get it right and that too takes time. Also, when a program becomes unpleasant politically, as it did with the War on Poverty under Shriver, unexpended money is used as a reason to cut back future appropriations. Remember, when Shriver took over OEO, he said that we could end poverty in five years at a cost of $5 billion a year, but of course, it was never given those kind of resources. Finally, the existence of grants and contracts give agencies the means to award unexpended funds on the last day of each fiscal year in order to “bleed” those funds and avoid the embarrassment of having to return them to the US Treasury, as well as having future funds cut back because they went unspent.
I also think that the first PCVs were true adventurers, having nothing to refer to for guidance, and believing in the President Kennedy’s vision. It was also a time when women began to be considered on a par with men, as pointed out in a paper from the Hoover Institute: with comics like Mike Nichols and Elaine May, political satirists like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce and television programming like the Dick Van Dyke show that had a single women on the comedy team as depicted on the show.
And, there was the civil rights movement which strongly influenced the thinking of the time. It was truly a brave new world. Finally. with all programs, “skimming” took place taking the cream of the crop, those being the best and the brightest. By the mid-60s, avoiding the draft in the VN era and resume-builder shifted motivation away from commitment to an ideal. This did not really become clear to me until 9/11 when a new crop of AmeriCorps*VISTAs emerged, once again wanting to accept the challange of making the world a better place in which to live.
Of course, this is not meant to denegrate the service of those who followed. In that vast majority of cases that I know, PCVs have been true to the model, just a little wiser on entering the corps and having a better idea what they could, or could not do. By the time I returned to government, AB generalists were no longer wanted by the Peace Corps; everything had just become too specialized. Don Romine and I tried to place one of Harris Wofford’s boys in the Peace Corps and he was rejected because he did not an identifiable skill set. This situation was also attributable to the countries asking for more skilled volunteers; hence, a new recruit would know not only what speciality they would be assigned, but even in which city or town. Apparently, the novelty of the PCV had begun to wear off.
As always, the real work of the Peace Corps is being done every day by Volunteers in the field. For example, my Volunteers have led the way in Senegal with innovative approaches to preventing malaria and distributing bed nets. They have provided an example that has now been adopted by the government of Senegal and USAID and is saving hundreds of lives here. See:
No particular help from Washington, and none needed, but outstanding work by dedicated Volunteers which my Senegalese staff and I do our best to support, as has ever been the case.
As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the Peace Corps’ inception, government documents are most probably stored away somewhere in boxes, or on magnetic tape, or Microfiche, or even on transparent rolls of microfilm, quietly disintegrating. The memoirs so carefully written and published by our own citizens are scattered over the nation like blowing leaves, to be lost. On the official Peace Corps web site, this message was recently posted; “Our resources do not permit us to serve as a comprehensive Peace Corps historic archive, nor is it our mandate to do so.” Unfortunately, it is nobody’s mandate. I suggest that Congress mandate the Library of Congress to immediately begin a Peace Corps Experience Special Collection based upon donations of published volunteer and staff letters, journals, memoirs, essays, novels, short stories, plays, poetry and/or songs. In this way we can ensure that future generations can share this wonderful experiment in unarmed foreign policy. It would also fulfill the Peace Corps third goal to help Americans understand foreigners.
Chris Hendrick. I read your website and the innovative ways that your volunteers are introducing the use of mosquito netting. You should all be congratulated. There had been an article recently in the Denver Post suggesting that the nets were not being used. It seems very apparent to me that the “cultural integration” of PCVs are what are really making the difference.
I just received a rejection of my FOIA appeal in which I asked what happened to all the public records which were in the Peace Corps/ACTION library when it was dismantled. I was told that information doesn’t exist.
I didn’t ask for the records. I did not even ask for their location. I just asked for a list of the records and what happened to them. The response was essentially that the current staff does not know and is not responsible.
I remember reading in David Searles book about the thousands of field reports and other documents which he found so helpful in writing his book. There are public records located in various places. The JFK Library solicted papers from Volunteers. Certainly the National Archives has a Peace Corps collection.But, the wealth of information gathered over 40 years which was contained in the Peace Corps Library has been lost and its demise not even recorded. I wonder if some of those political appointees took them home as souvenirs.
I do remember having a few ‘spats’ with my ‘superiors’ from PC/W but I probably didn’t toss out the letters from above. I do remember once being upset by something from PC/W and in haste sent back a message asking if the writer remembered the apocraphyl Peace Corps story that ends ‘strong letter follows.’ I got no reply but things were a bit less off-putting thereafter.
As I have said many times PC country director is a job made in heaven! Not only were we free to do whatever we had the guts to try my immediate boss was 10,000 miles and 12 hours on the clock away. Who could ask for anything mopre?
I have bounced from local govenment to the private sector and back for the past 36 years during which time I had the opportunity to consult historical records in 3 states, several dozen communities, and even records in 2 foreign countries. The rules for record keeping are much looser than most realize and most agencies do not wish to spend on space and librarians. Over the years, the combination of natural disasters, man-made diasters, moves and even incompetence have a huge effect on what is kept. The advent of electronic meida has only accenuated this trend. Most every agency that I have been in contact with over the past 10 years is scanning documents and destroying the orginals to save money. The problem is that electronic libraries are more often than naught poorly organized. The result is as if someone had boxed records without marking them and placed them into secret warehouses. How do you access them? The bigger problem is that elecrtonic media is ephemeral- one power outage can have the same result as an atomic blast.
I should also mention that government records are generally very limited (even if they are kept). Personal notes and observations are usually expunged for fear of lawsuit. Hence, the added value of personal memoirs. If a participant takes the time to consult his or her personal papers, internview others involved and maybe even some historical records (before they are lost), the result can be an impressive record. This is not to say that it is some sort of example of stylist greatness. An example of a well written memoir is Grant’s memoir which mostly covers the Civil War years. He did consult others and records. A leser work might be Franklin’s memoir which was apparently all written by memory for his son and lacks specifics.
There are already hundreds of such Peace Corps memoirs in existence. However, without a place to store and organize, they they will very soon be lost and forgotten just like the Peace Corps Library.
Please indulge me with an additional comment:
The Peace Corps Report, as far as I can tell, is failing to recognize what has gone before and worked. Shriver was also about community service, with “Peace” as the hook. In 1989, Shriver testified on proposed National Service legislation being considered at the time. He noted that there were 8 different bills being proposed; however, he asked: why create a new program? Just expand VISTA.
Of course, it took President Clinton to get the National Service legislation through in ’94. From that time on, the White House Office of National Service folks spent their time putting down ACTION that managed VISTA, along with RSVP, Foster Grand Parents and Senior Companions, and those of us who served as VISTAs or in the Peace Corps. Jack Lew, the GC for the White House staff, told me that he was prepared to ask the oversight committee to drop VISTA from the final legislation because of the Union’s concern that its membership would be dropped from the Corporation for National Service that was to be set up as a public corporation incorporating the programs from the former ACTION agency.
The Union’s fears resulted in AFSCME, to which the ACTION Union belonged, intervening with the president. As a result, a meeting occurred in the Old Exec. Office Building between Union representives and Jack Lew. His arrogant and derogatory comments about the ACTION employees and the programs that they managed(similar to those contained in the PC Report) resulted in a full court press by AFSCME lobbyists and the Union members who bombarded the Hill with letters, specifically the House committee headed by Bill Ford. I also gave testimony to the sub-committee, which contributed to our getting to be heard on this issue. Ironically, it was Congressman Petri, an RPCV (Somali I), a Republican and an admirer of Harris Wofford, said that somehting had to be done to protect the ACTION staff. As a result, we were included in the legislation enabling us to be transferred “with no accretion or diminuation of duties” to the new corporation; and we were allowed to remain for a year with no changes in the conditions of our employment. At the end of that period, all of us were converted to permanent positions with the Corporation.
As the president of the new Union CNCS, I also attended a meeting with representatives from the former White Office on National Service who proceeded to lecture us on the new “culture of service.” The iriony of this meeting was that I and my wife had both been RPCVs (Ethiopia I and Peru 7), the Union VP served in Ethiopia and had married another volunteer, and the Chief Steward had served in Afghanistan and married an RPCV who had served some years later in Honduras. To say the least, we wondered why they had to lecture us about service. Our point was that we served for altruistic reasons, not because their was an education voucher worth $4,750 per year at the end of service.
And we were proved right: The new national service programs that they set up were the Community Conservation Corps, AmeriCorp*State and National and they put the AmeriCorps* label on VISTA. They also began to call AmeriCorp* the domestic Peace Corps, taking it away from VISTA. Worst of all, they focused on member, rather than community development.
When Harris Wofford became the director of CNS, he changed the name back to CNCS, as the legislation had originally intended, because it was about national AND community service, something that the new staff had dropped, not realizing that it is in the community, as with the Peace Corps, where change is affected by those performing service.
One interesting sidelight was when Harris brought Shriver to a nationwide meeting of the former ACTION state staff that the CNS folks had wanted to get rid of, because they wanted to give that money to the state commissions (which would have negated the impact that VISTAs, just like PCVs, has had since inception). Harris asked the attendees to raise their hands if they were either RPCVs or former VISTAs : over half of the attendees raised their hands, bringing both Harris and Sarge to tears.
As this “new culture” of service evolved, I saw that the CCC was really for youth that were looking for direction, some of whom had lost their way, or were looking for something different but wanted to be in a secure group setting at one of five campuses across the country. AmeriCorps* became a sort of groupee organization at the local level, with the bulk of the funds flowing through state commissions on national service. The commissions were obviously political, with their members being appointed by governors. As a result the program interests of the commissioners’ determined the progam foci to which members were assigned within each state. About 50 national grants were let to national organizations for the balance of the AmeriCorps* funds under the National AmeriCorps* office.
My personal experience with one national grant was a breakdancing group. They used my daughter’s church for weekly practice and periodic exhibitions drawing nationwide talent. They never paid the rent as promised, or shared their gate receipts with the church. I also discovered that the AmeriCorps* member assigned to the project had a job, which of course, is not allowed for AmeriCorps*VISTA service.
On the other hand, VISTA became the paragon of national service as far as the CCC and AmeriCorps* members were concerned. They admired VISTA volunteers for their rugged individualism and broad creativity. Wofford quickly recognized that VISTA was the only program that could undertake a new national program initiative, put out an RFP, review applications, and award funds within months of a new initiative being designated, e.g., the Entrepreneur Corps that I managed for AmeriCorps*VISTA from 2002-6, when I retired, along with the retirement of the Corps.
This is a long way of saying that the Peace Corps Report wants to put a stamp on things that reflects new ideas (sold as “future think”) with little regard to what has already been done over the life of the program.
Peace Corps needs to enter new countries and expand existing ones; and, let the members develop as they have done since time immemorial. There is simply no substitute for the improvement of economic and social condtions of a community and the self- actualization of the volunteer that occurs under the three goals of the Peace Corps. VISTA, being a domestic program in 1964, did not list a third comparable goal since it would have been construed as making it “political!” But, all service is political, with a small “p”, in that the achievement of third goal does give members the greatest life-long learning experience. It blows away all of their preconceived ideas that they bring to service, replacing them with a true understanding of, and emphathy for, poor communities. In turn, they become advocates for improved economic and social conditions in those communities to which they are assigned, and to the world at large.
The key ingredient on the part of the volunteer is empathy. I have observed over 40 years of service that if empathy is lacking, and the member does not comprehend, and subsequently address the reality of the community, to which they are assigned, and adjust their attitude accordingly, they either terminate early, or become isolated and ineffective until their time is up.
So I would strongly urge the Peace Corps to recruit the brightest people (read “motivation” to serve, no matter how idealist they appear to be), place them, and the rest will take care of itself.
I think that this is what Shriver, and the other architects of the Peace Corps at the Mayflower Hotel, recognized in setting it up. The current Peace Corps just needs to go back to those basics: get the most motivated recruits and let them serve.
Look these guys are trying to do something instead of just talking about it…something has to be said about that? Look at the FOIA section:
Does Peacecorpsworldwide support these sites or know about them?