Pompeo ends unpopular hiring freeze at State Department

Washington (CNN)Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ended a largely self-imposed hiring freeze Tuesday, which had hampered staffing decisions at the State Department for over a year.

In an email to agency employees, obtained by CNN, Pompeo said the move would "give our domestic bureaus and missions overseas the flexibility to fill positions that are essential to promoting the Department's mission and the United States' foreign policy goals worldwide on behalf of the American people."
"The Department's workforce is our most valuable asset," he added. "We need our men and women on the ground, executing American diplomacy with great vigor and energy, and representing our great nation."
The State Department had been operating under the freeze since January of last year, when newly inaugurated President Donald Trump signed an executive order to temporarily halt hiring across many federal agencies.
    But when the large-scale freeze was lifted the following April in favor of what the White House called "targeted" and "surgical" cuts, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opted to continue the embargo in his department, with exceptions made on a case-by-case basis.
    The policy was deeply unpopular at the State Department and contributed to sinking morale under Tillerson.
    It also drew criticism from lawmakers and from the American Foreign Service Association, a union representing US diplomats.
    The association's president, Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, criticized the hiring freeze in an open letter late last year, writing, "As the shape and extent of the staffing cuts to the Foreign Service at State become clearer, I believe we must shine a light on these disturbing trends and ask 'why?' and 'to what end?' "
    Stephenson welcomed Pompeo's announcement Tuesday, saying in a statement her group was "pleased to see the clear consensus between Congress and the Administration that diplomacy is a vitally important part of America's national security toolkit."
    "Getting the Foreign Service back to full strength and deployed to the field is exactly what is needed to reassert America's global leadership and deliver wins for the American people," she added, while also warning against a proposed cut to the State Department's overseas contingency operations budget, which "could cripple State operations and disrupt staffing."
    When Pompeo took over at the State Department just over two weeks ago, he pledged to bring back the agency's "swagger."
    One of his first moves was to reimpose a policy that allowed eligible family members of diplomats, primarily spouses, to serve in critical support positions at embassies and consulates overseas. That program had also been frozen under Tillerson.
    This latest move will reopen a slew of positions for foreign and civil service officers throughout the 70,000-person agency.
    A State Department official, confirming the move Tuesday, said the department would be able to hire "to current funding levels."