The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Nobody home at the State Department

Two months into Secretary of State John Kerry’s tenure, a large number of senior State Department positions remain vacant, and the process to fill them seems indefinitely stalled, officials inside the department tell The Cable. When Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, came into office, she negotiated for herself 100 percent control over State Department appointments and ...


Two months into Secretary of State John Kerry's tenure, a large number of senior State Department positions remain vacant, and the process to fill them seems indefinitely stalled, officials inside the department tell The Cable.

Two months into Secretary of State John Kerry’s tenure, a large number of senior State Department positions remain vacant, and the process to fill them seems indefinitely stalled, officials inside the department tell The Cable.

When Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, came into office, she negotiated for herself 100 percent control over State Department appointments and largely kept Obama campaign officials at arms’ length. Kerry has no such deal with the White House, and his office is only one voice in a White House-managed appointment process that is moving as slowly as molasses, several State Department officials and insiders say.

As Kerry prepares to travel to East Asia next week, his third major overseas adventure in his short time in Foggy Bottom, the most glaring opening at State is the post of assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs (EAP), which was vacated by Kurt Campbell in February. NSS Senior Director for Asia Danny Russel has been long assumed the leading contender, but Kerry is said to prefer a non-White House staffer. Meanwhile, Deputy Assistant Secretary Joe Yun has been running the EAP shop.

But the EAP is only one of nearly a dozen bureaus that are working without politically appointed leaders and there are several reports of angst that the vacancies are being left unfilled for so long.

"We must report rising anxiety at senior policy levels at what players characterize as virtual indifference by Sec. St. Kerry and his inner-circle to moving on the Asst. Secretary appointments needed to properly run the Department’s many bureaus," reports Chris Nelson of the Nelson Report, an insider’s newsletter on Asia policy.

All of the regional bureaus are now being run by acting assistant secretaries or assistant secretaries that come from the Foreign Service ranks, Nelson notes.

"In short, neither White House nor Kerry people are now running the store," he writes. "The system isn’t designed to work that way. No matter what the White House may think, it and the NSC can’t run everything… Unsurprisingly, some folks now speculate this means Obama and his team are determined to control it all."

Our State Department sources report that there is increasing concern that Kerry is spending so much time out of the building (although his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry has been spotted in the Truman Headquarters on several occasions), leaving the day-to-day management to a select group of senior officials.

The handful of people who are running the show at State these days is largely limited to the very few senior staffers Kerry brought in with him: Chief of Staff David Wade, Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Danvers, Policy Planning Director David McKean, and senior communications advisor Glen Johnson, along with the few holdover senior officials who have regular direct access to Kerry: Deputy Secretary Bill Burns, Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Nuland especially is said to have risen in influence since Clinton, and her longtime communications aide Philippe Reines, departed. A power struggle inside the State Department’s public affairs office between Nuland and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Mike Hammer, along with his deputy Dana Smith, has largely been won by Nuland, several State Department sources said. 

Although Hammer is technically the head of the bureau, Nuland runs the daily meetings, often travels with Kerry, takes the lead on forming the messages and talking points, and has emerged victorious in several internal battles, including a dispute over who would be on the plane with Kerry during his first trip as secretary. Smith wanted her own people to travel but Nuland insisted on choosing the traveling personnel and got her way.

Nuland, who was recently elevated to the status of career ambassador, the highest rank in the Foreign Service, is expected to be nominated to replace Philip Gordon as assistant secretary of state for Europe. Hammer is expected to be given an ambassadorship soon. Smith is known to want Hammer’s job, but the model of having an assistant secretary who is not also the spokesperson is under review, and incoming spokesperson Jen Psaki could be tapped for both jobs. 

Psaki was a White House and Obama campaign staffer, but also has longstanding ties to Kerry. Stephen Krupin, the head speechwriter for Obama for America, has begun work as Kerry’s chief speechwriter, and the rumor is that the White House is seeking to place more Obama campaign hands at State — potentially bad news for the Kerry staffers left waiting over at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Meanwhile, a host of State Department offices and bureaus are functioning with temporary leadership. 

In the Africa bureau, Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson‘s last day was March 29. He had been hoping to retire in January but was asked to stay longer by Kerry’s staff. That bureau is now being run by Acting Assistant Secretary Don Yamamoto, a Foreign Service officer who has been an ambassador three times. NSS Senior Director Gayle Smith is rumored to be in the running for Carson’s job.

The related special envoy for Sudan job is also vacant since Princeton Lyman stepped down last December.There are some names being bandied about, such as former Ambassadors Tim Carney and Cameron Hume, although Sudan advocacy groups are warning the White House against choosing Carney, whom they see as too cozy with Khartoum. 

There’s also no special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, following the return of Amb. Marc Grossman to the private sector last December. Acting SRAP David Pearce is running the office but there’s no word on whether Kerry intends to replace Grossman or when.

The position of assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs has been filled in an acting capacity by Foreign Service officer Beth Jones ever since Jeff Feltman departed for the U.N. last year. The rumor had been that Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson was in line for that job, but lately State Department sources report that there are no firm indications of who might get it.

Rose Gottemoeller is serving as acting undersecretary for arms control and international security while also technically still serving as the assistant secretary for arms control, verification, and compliance. She will have to be nominated again for the undersecretary slot soon, but there’s no schedule for what could be a very contentious confirmation process in the Senate.

Michael Posner has left his job as assistant secretary of state for democracy, leaving long time Foreign Service officer Uzra Zeya as acting head of that bureau. There’s no word about his replacement, although we hear rumors that Human Rights Watch’s Washington director, Tom Malinowski, may be in contention.

The Diplomatic Security Bureau has been leaderless since its top three officials were placed on paid administrative leave following the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Greg Starr is the nominal official in charge.

Melanne Verveer, the ambassador at large for global women’s issues, left the department Feb. 8. Sharon Weiner, a caree
r Foreign Service officer, is acting ambassador, but the White House has announced its intention to nominate Cathy Russell to replace Verveer.

There’s no word on who will replace Deputy Secretary for Management Tom Nides, who left the department in February to return to Wall Street. There’s also no assistant secretary for legislative affairs, which could be a disadvantage for State in the upcoming budget fights.

The State Department also does not have an inspector general to oversee its operations, but that is not the fault of Kerry’s team. The last time the State Department had a full-time inspector general was Feb. 6, 2008.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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