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'Death by a thousand cuts': Empty State Department offices sap morale, some staffers say

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 news conference Tuesday at the State Department that was called 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 anti-Semitism, 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.

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

 

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UPDATES:

8:40 a.m.: This article was updated with numbers from the Obama and Bush administrations.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.

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