Sec­re­tary of shrunken State Dept.

Tiller­son over­sees emp­ty­ing of­fices and plans for deeper cuts. Some say U.S. pol­icy and staff morale suf­fer.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Tracy Wilkin­son

WASH­ING­TON — For four years, Ira N. For­man served as the U.S. spe­cial en­voy to mon­i­tor and com­bat anti-Semitism, a State De­part­ment post in which he ad­vo­cated on be­half of Jewish com­mu­ni­ties at risk around the globe.

He re­signed, as re­quired for po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees, on Jan. 20, the day Pres­i­dent Trump took of­fice. But six months later, For­man and his staff have not been re­placed.

“All the ex­per­tise has frit­tered away,” For­man said.

His is one of scores of empty of­fices in a de­mor­al­ized State De­part­ment, where crit­ics say a shortage of diplo­mats, an­a­lysts and bu­reau­crats is weak­en­ing the for­eign pol­icy mission and hurt­ing ef­forts to project Amer­i­can val­ues abroad.

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son has em­braced a White House pro­posal to slash the com­bined State De­part­ment and U.S. Agency for In­ter­na­tional Devel­op­ment bud­get by nearly a third next year, from $54.9 bil­lion to $37.6 bil­lion.

The fi­nal cuts won’t be that se­vere. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chair­man of the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, called it a “waste of time” to even re­view the pro­posed bud­get be­cause Congress would re­ject it.

Still, Tiller­son has em­barked on a wide-rang­ing op­er­a­tion to re­or­ga­nize Foggy Bot­tom in ways that worry many for­eign pol­icy ex­perts.

He has pro­posed scal­ing back U.S. sup­port for United Nations peace­keep­ing mis­sions, plus cut­ting back of­fices that deal with refugees,

women’s health and cli­mate change.

News re­ports have sug­gested other jobs may be elim­i­nated, in­clud­ing the co­or­di­na­tor of cy­ber­se­cu­rity and an of­fice that in­ves­ti­gates in­ter­na­tional war crimes.

Even Tiller­son’s staff has taken a hit. He has ap­pointed only one un­der­sec­re­tary, not the six who worked for his pre­de­ces­sor, John F. Kerry.

Of the top 130 State De­part­ment posts that re­quire Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion, 44 had been nom­i­nated and 23 con­firmed by late Thurs­day, when Congress went on a month­long break, ac­cord­ing to the Part­ner­ship for Pub­lic Ser­vice, a non­par­ti­san, non­profit group that tracks gov­ern­ment hir­ing.

At this point in Pres­i­dent Obama’s first term, 95 State De­part­ment of­fi­cials had been nom­i­nated and 48 con­firmed. Un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, it was 100 nom­i­na­tions and 77 con­fir­ma­tions, ac­cord­ing to the Part­ner­ship for Pub­lic Ser­vice.

Cur­rent and for­mer State De­part­ment of­fi­cials say it ap­pears that one goal in the cur­rent re­or­ga­ni­za­tion is to re­duce staff by at­tri­tion, what one critic called “death by a thou­sand cuts.”

Tiller­son has de­nied that his ef­forts at stream­lin­ing will have a de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fect on pol­icy or morale.

“The build­ing is hardly hol­lowed out,” he said at a State De­part­ment news con­fer­ence that was called Tues­day to high­light his first six months in of­fice.

“Any­time you have a dra­matic change in the ad­min­is­tra­tion, like we had six months ago, there are going to be in­di­vid­u­als who strug­gle with that,” he added.

Tiller­son said he had hired an out­side con­sult­ing com­pany, In­signiam, to help sur­vey the more than 70,000 State De­part­ment em­ploy­ees world­wide for in­put on how to make the de­part­ment more ef­fi­cient.

About half re­sponded, some re­port­edly with scathing cri­tiques. About 1,000 peo­ple were in­ter­viewed for ad­di­tional per­spec­tive.

Five steer­ing com­mit­tees will make rec­om­men­da­tions to the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get on Sept. 15. But Tiller­son has in­di­cated the re­design of op­er­a­tions could take a year, leav­ing some pol­icy pri­or­i­ties and pro­grams adrift.

A se­nior State De­part­ment of­fi­cial, who asked not to be named for fear of ret­ri­bu­tion, said morale had plum­meted. Diplo­mats and for­eign ser­vice of­fi­cers who can earn higher salaries in the pri­vate sec­tor were leav­ing in droves, the of­fi­cial said.

“There is a dearth of clear in­for­ma­tion — no sense of who is mak­ing de­ci­sions or how … no sense of di­a­logue or trust,” the of­fi­cial said.

“Even if the po­si­tions are filled in the com­ing years, it will re­quire a long pe­riod of re­build­ing re­la­tion­ships that diplo­mats count on” to do their jobs, the of­fi­cial said.

Heather Nauert, the State De­part­ment spokes­woman, said that few de­ci­sions on per­son­nel cuts had been made and that crit­ics were over­re­act­ing. She be­came ex­as­per­ated when re­porters pressed her re­cently on re­ports of likely job and pro­gram cuts.

“I know peo­ple are ob­sessed with, ‘Are you shut­ting down this bureau? Are you shut­ting down that bureau? Are you shut­ting down the global of­fice of what­ever, what­ever?’ ” she said.

“All of those func­tions will still re­main here at the State De­part­ment. That is not chang­ing. A dif­fer­ent per­son may han­dle it. In some in­stances, it may get com­bined with an ex­ist­ing bureau. That doesn’t mean that the pri­or­ity goes away, and that doesn’t mean that the func­tions of that job or its du­ties will go away,” Nauert said.

She de­fended the re­or­ga­ni­za­tion un­der­way, ar­gu­ing that it was sim­ply mod­ern­iz­ing a de­part­ment that was mired in tra­di­tion.

“We’ll fig­ure out best prac­tices and how we should change things to al­ter the State De­part­ment, to keep it in line with the 21st cen­tury,” she said.

Robert G. Ber­schin­ski, a deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of State in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, said it was “com­pletely ap­pro­pri­ate” for Tiller­son to look for ways to stream­line what many see as a bloated bu­reau­cracy.

But by ac­cept­ing dras­tic bud­get cuts be­fore study­ing the prob­lem, Ber­schin­ski said, Tiller­son has alien­ated much of the staff.

“It set ev­ery­body on their back foot and caused a com­pete ero­sion of trust,” said Ber­schin­ski, now a vice pres­i­dent of the New York-based Hu­man Rights First. “It has been max­i­mally coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.”

There are about 70 spe­cial en­voys at the State De­part­ment. Eleven, in­clud­ing the spe­cial en­voy on an­tiSemitism, are man­dated by Congress, so only law­mak­ers can elim­i­nate them.

But many of the other po­si­tions are empty and could be on the chop­ping block un­der Tiller­son’s re­or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“There is ap­pre­hen­sion ev­ery day. Are they going to fill these jobs or not?” said Ar­salan Sule­man, who left the State De­part­ment in Jan­uary af­ter seven years, most re­cently as spe­cial en­voy to the 57-na­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Is­lamic Co­op­er­a­tion.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Mary­land, rank­ing Demo­crat on the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, ex­pressed con­cern about the lack of spe­cial en­voys, say­ing that their work re­quires “a point per­son” at the State De­part­ment rather than an agenda item for other diplo­mats.

Bren­dan Smialowski AFP/Getty Im­ages

“ANY­TIME YOU have a dra­matic change in the ad­min­is­tra­tion, like we had six months ago, there are going to be in­di­vid­u­als who strug­gle with that,” Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son says of crit­i­cism that at­tri­tion and stream­lin­ing ef­forts dam­age for­eign pol­icy or staff morale.

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