The State Department under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is paralyzed, demoralized and at a new low, according to a new report by the Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee published Tuesday, which describes a lack of accountability, wildly unfit administration nominees, politically driven targeting of career staff, and a growing sense that senior leadership does not maintain high standards of honesty and integrity.
Administration nominees for ambassador posts have been so poorly vetted, they included a woman who was subject to a restraining order after she left a bullet-riddled target sheet on an acquaintance’s chair. One political appointee was found to have misrepresented, in multiple ways, their experience and jobs, and had even created a fake Time Magazine cover featuring their photo.
Pompeo’s political staff has accused career officials of being “disloyal” members of a “Deep State,” targeting staff for their perceived political views and, on one occasion, because of their ethnic origin, the report said, facing little to no accountability for those acts. As morale has declined, the State Department has plummeted from being one of the top five large federal agencies to work at in 2016, to 14th place in 2019.
These trends, many of which started under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have worsened sharply under Pompeo, according to the report, which documented a series of ways in which the department is falling far short of the ethics statement the secretary has posted around the State Department.
More recently, the report said Pompeo has left diplomats feeling abandoned by his failure to offer guidance or timely comment on the protests for racial justice that have swept the US and left them angry about his silence as President Donald Trump personally attacked diplomats during his impeachment trial and publicly referred to the “Deep State Department.”
‘Beyond the pale’
The administration’s job candidates for State positions have been so unqualified that the report describes them as “beyond the pale, jeopardizing the Department’s ability to safeguard our nation’s interests.”
The Democratic staff report, titled “Diplomacy in Crisis: The Trump Administration’s Decimation of the State Department,” appears as Pompeo is set to testify before the committee on Thursday. The State Department did not respond to requests for comment about charges in the report.
The report draws from Employee Viewpoint Survey data from 2016 to 2019; an analysis of department vacancies and the administration’s nominees; reports and findings by the State Department Office of the Inspector General; and public reports and statements from former officials that “document a decline in morale and an increased fear of retaliation.”
The authors draw a straight line from the health of the State Department to the strength of US national security. “A weakened State Department means a weakened America in the global arena. The results of these surveys show that the current trajectory is a demoralized Department that feels less supported, less secure, and, therefore, less able to fulfill its mission,” the report said.
Among other things, the report said:
- Trump administration appointees created a culture of fear and mistrust, as political appointees accused career staff of “disloyalty” based on perceived political views, referring to some as “traitors” and of being “disloyal.”
- Frustration about a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion has been exacerbated under Pompeo, most recently after the State Department reacted to reports of racist, sexist comments by Trump’s ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson, with a full-throated defense, in sharp contrast to Pompeo’s silence after attacks by the President, his allies and administration officials on career diplomats during the impeachment trial.
- From 2016 to 2019, employees in key bureaus reported steep increases in fear of reprisal for reporting suspected violations of law and declining confidence in senior department leadership.
- Vacancies and acting officials at the department have persisted through two secretaries of state, despite numerous commitments to fill key positions.
- Three and a half years into the administration, 11 assistant secretary or under secretary posts – more than one-third – are vacant or filled by acting officials.
- As of July 2020, more than half of Senate-confirmed department positions have been filled at least once by someone who had not been confirmed.
- Career public servants report that senior leadership exhibits a sense of disrespect and disdain for their work, prompting many to leave and contributing to a loss of expertise at the department.
- Senior leadership’s lack of accountability and refusal to defend career employees against attacks has contributed to declining morale and a drop in confidence in leadership. In bureaus dealing with refugees, counterterrorism, legal issues and international organizations, staff reported sharp jumps in the sense that senior department leadership does not maintain high standards of honesty and integrity.
Fear of reprisal
Some of the most stark responses emerged from the department’s Office of the Legal Adviser, which provides advice on all legal issues and helps ensure that State Department employees follow ethics regulations and legal guidelines.
From 2016 to 2019, staff in this office reported a sevenfold increase in the percentage of respondents who felt they could not disclose a suspected violation of law, rule, or regulation without fear of reprisal, from less than 1% in 2016 to more than 7% in 2019.
There was a 22-point increase among respondents who reported that arbitrary action, personal favoritism, and coercion for partisan political purposes was tolerated in their bureau, from 1% in 2016 to 23% in 2019. And there was a 34-point increase among legal advisers who felt that the department’s senior leaders did not maintain high levels of honesty and integrity.
The “data indicates that increasing numbers of the State Department’s own lawyers believe they cannot disclose suspected violations of laws, rules, and regulations, or are subject to arbitrary action and coercion. This disturbing trend jeopardizes adherence to the rule of law for our foreign policy and national security,” the report said.
The report also details at least one way in which the administration has pulled the rug out from under diplomats, with the President abruptly announcing coronavirus-related travel restrictions on European countries in March 2020, leaving diplomats scrambling to provide answers to “blindsided international counterparts and panicked Americans trying to get home.”
The report uses data from the employee viewpoint surveys to show there has been “measurable damage to integrity, leadership and workplace culture,” with the responses over time providing “valuable, yet disturbing insights” into the reasons “the Department is hemorrhaging talent it has spent years investing in.”
The surveys “show the pernicious effect of a culture in which ‘loyalists’ are rewarded and career public servants are viewed with suspicion and sidelined. They demonstrate that a sense of inclusion and belonging as an American diplomat is frayed. They give credence to the increased workload and burnout resulting from staff attrition and lack of faith in leadership. And they indicate that far too many employees are working in a culture of fear and survival, not support and professional development,” the report found.
The State Department’s annual score in the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Place to Work Agency Ranking has seen a sharp drop alongside sinking morale.
The department has consistently ranked among the top five large federal government agencies to work at since 2012 but fell from a ranking of 4 in 2016 to 8 in 2017 after Trump took office. In 2019, the Department’s ranking dropped to 14.
The authors note that because the survey data only reflects responses thorough July 2019, it does not include the “further reported drops in morale during the House impeachment inquiry due to attacks on career employees, made worse by the Department’s failure to defend them.”
CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.