The Cable

Exclusive: Kerry Scolds Staff About Leaking to the Press

Secretary of State John Kerry is frustrated and angry about the high-profile leaks coming out of Foggy Bottom, and is hammering his staff to stop. It’s not working out so well.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 09:  US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press conference with Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague (not pictured) at the the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on September 9, 2013 in London, England.  Secretary of State John Kerry who's on a two-day visit to London renewed U.S. allegations that Syria's President Bashar Assad launched a chemical weapons attack against his own people.  (Photo by David Bebber - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 09: US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press conference with Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague (not pictured) at the the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on September 9, 2013 in London, England. Secretary of State John Kerry who's on a two-day visit to London renewed U.S. allegations that Syria's President Bashar Assad launched a chemical weapons attack against his own people. (Photo by David Bebber - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Frustrated by a series of embarrassing and high-profile leaks, Secretary of State John Kerry has admonished State Department employees about making unauthorized disclosures to the press.

It’s not working out so well.

In a tense Monday meeting about leaks, which was promptly, well, leaked to Foreign Policy, Kerry told staff to keep a lid on internal deliberations or find a new place to work. The meeting was a response to two recent stories about the department’s failure to counter the Islamic State militant group’s growing presence on social media and allegations that senior U.S. officials watered down the department’s annual human trafficking report.  

The officials who talked to FP spoke on condition of anonymity.

Unauthorized disclosures to the press are a constant headache for cabinet officials across the federal government, but the two stories by Reuters and the New York Times are said to have hit a particular nerve on the seventh floor of the State Department.

“In slightly more polite words, Kerry said if you want to leak, you can get the f— out,” a State Department official said.

Asked about the meeting, State Department spokesman John Kirby said at no time did Kerry “discourage anybody at the State Department not to talk to the media.”

“What he did do was express his frustration with the leaks about policies that haven’t been made yet, decisions that haven’t been effected yet, and the process by which advice and counsel is derived here in the building and driven to his desk,” Kirby told FP. “He believes it’s important that in the process of making sound foreign-policy decisions, that candor and openness and frankness can dominate here at the State Department.”

One of the leaks in question involved internal deliberations ahead of the State Department’s widely anticipated report on human trafficking, which was released last month. The report is well known for shaming individual governments with poor records on human slavery and sex trafficking. But Reuters, citing more than a “dozen sources in Washington and foreign capitals,” said senior political staff at the State Department overrode the opinion of the department’s human rights experts and decided to upgrade Malaysia’s human trafficking record.

The rejected recommendation suggested a “degree of intervention not previously known by diplomats in a report that can lead to sanctions and is the basis for many countries’ anti-trafficking policies,” according to the Reuters report.

The article fueled suspicions that senior State Department officials whitewashed Malaysia’s human trafficking record to ease the conclusion of a massive trade deal with the Southeast Asian nation and 10 other countries known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a charge Kerry strongly denies.

“I personally signed off on it. And I had zero conversations with anybody in the administration about the Trans-Pacific Partnership relative to this decision — zero,” Kerry said at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Aug. 6. “The reason I made this decision was based on the recommendation of my team, because Malaysia has passed additional legislation in 2014, they’ve consulted with civil society, they drafted amendments to Malaysia’s anti-trafficking law in order to allow the country’s flawed victim protection regime to change.”

The other leak that caused considerable heartburn for State Department leadership involved a memo to Kerry from Richard Stengel, a former managing editor of Time magazine and the agency’s undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs.

The memo disparages efforts by the U.S. government and its allies to counter the Islamic State’s messaging on social media and says the extremist group’s tweets and Facebook posts have “trumped” the best efforts of the West.

The memo, which was leaked to the New York Times, also describes a working group of the United States and its allies as ineffective — and is potentially insulting to diplomats from Britain and the United Arab Emirates. “The U.A.E. is reticent, the Brits are overeager, and the working group structure is confusing,” said the memo. “When we convened meetings with our counterparts, I am certain we all heard about various initiatives for the first time.”

Kirby, speaking to FP, said such leaks are “manifestly unhelpful” to the process of conducting sound foreign policy, but emphasized Kerry’s appreciation for the Fourth Estate.   

“Secretary Kerry values the work of the media,” said Kirby. “He certainly values the work of everybody here at the State Department and our diplomats around the world and routinely encourages communication with the press about what our hard working diplomats are doing around the world.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

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