Politics & Policy

The State of State

Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy on Capitol Hill in 2012. (Reuters photo: Jose Luis Magana)
The departure of these staffers is not a big story.

Josh Rogin, a foreign-policy and national-security correspondent for the Washington Post, briefly set the political Internet abuzz when he fretted, Chicken Little–style, that the senior leadership of the State Department had resigned en masse. Rex Tillerson’s confirmation as secretary of state had, he suggested, caused an exodus of diligent, talented, indispensable civil servants.

Professional #Resistance members dutifully took up Rogin’s hue and cry, gnashing teeth and rending garments because the bureaucratic eschaton had become immanent. Conservative commentators pointed out that the departing civil servants had not exactly distinguished themselves for competency or impartiality during their long careers. Matt Lee, the Associated Press’s diligent and pathologically underappreciated diplomatic writer, sighed that the whole thing was a non-story. The AP, after all, had written up the whole thing a full day before Rogin decided to immolate his hair.

The truth is a bit more complicated than first meets the eye. In general, Lee is right: This is not a real story. Whether they were forced out, as reported, or not, is immaterial. Wholesale turnover at the top of the State Department is perfectly normal, and actually began in November, immediately after it became clear that Hillary Clinton would not be the next president.

The new administration has not filled the personnel gaps at Foggy Bottom with celerity. Indeed, in addition to the just-departed leadership, the following 15 offices appear to have their leadership posts occupied by placeholders in an “acting” capacity:

‐Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy

‐Office of the Legal Adviser

‐Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs

‐Bureau of Counterterrorism

‐Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs

‐Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs

‐Bureau of Political Military Affairs

‐Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration

‐Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs

‐Bureau of International Organization Affairs

‐Bureau of International Information Programs

‐Bureau of Public Affairs

‐Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance

‐Bureau of Legislative Affairs

‐Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

That’s a lot of empty chairs, and they need to get filled sooner rather than later. However, a slow transition does not mean that indispensable leaders are drifting away. This is a normal function of the transition from one administration to the next. When the sheriff rides off into the sunset, the deputies keep the peace.

The people who decamped en masse had helped turn the State Department into an ideological hothouse.

Nonetheless, the departing personnel are not, in one important way, just run-of-the-mill civil servants. Under Hillary Clinton, and then John Kerry, the State Department became an intractably politicized department from top to bottom. The people who decamped en masse yesterday were instrumental in helping that process happen. Indeed, their collective decision to resign bespeaks their earlier role in helping turn the State Department into an ideological hothouse rather than a diplomatic engine in pursuit of American interests.

Patrick Kennedy, the most conspicuous member of the pack, has made himself an institution at State, and more to the bad. For the last decade, Kennedy has been under secretary for management, or “M” in the parlance of the diplomatic corps. His office oversees the vital functions of the department, including administration of the department, diplomatic security, personnel, budgeting, staffing, information resources, management policy, and a host of other matters.

Thus it is Patrick Kennedy who was ultimately responsible for the signal failures of the State Department over the last eight years. The Russian hacking of State’s e-mail servers, which left them so woefully compromised that they had to be shut down for days, was Kennedy’s responsibility. The Benghazi attacks, coming despite repeated warnings about the deteriorating security situation in Libya, was Kennedy’s responsibility. Knowing about and preventing Hillary Clinton’s use of an imprudent and likely illegal homebrew e-mail server was Kennedy’s responsibility.

Yet Kennedy survived in his post, despite these failings, in large part because he has been willing to sacrifice the integrity of the bureaucratic process to protect successive secretaries of state. Numerous former employees of the Clinton Global Initiative and the broader Clinton Foundation have taken posts in the department, especially in those parts that deal with international business approval. More egregious still, after a member of the White House advance team – the son of a prominent Clinton donor – got caught up in the Cartagena Secret Service prostitution scandal, the State Department hired him on as a contract policy advisor to the Office on Global Women’s Issues.

And no one did more to obstruct Congress’s investigations into Benghazi, and by extension Clinton’s e-mail server, than Kennedy. Kennedy discouraged and slow-rolled bureaus responsible for compliance and security under his control. He actively engaged with the investigation, and not in pursuit of the truth. Indeed, as Tim Mak of The Daily Beast has reported, Kennedy may have “contacted the FBI, offering to allow the FBI to place more agents in Iraq in exchange for changing the classification of an e-mail from Clinton’s private e-mail account.”

Thus, while the departure of Patrick Kennedy and his acolytes is a normal part of the peaceful transition of power, Kennedy himself is not, or at least should not be considered, a normal civil servant. He has become a partisan operator in sheep’s clothing, and he is not alone. Conservatives ought to worry about the tardiness of the transition at State, not because it is leading to the departure of the incumbent leadership, but because a more thoroughgoing excavation of the State Department is in order.

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