U.S. Government Faces Critical ‘Brain Drain’ of Sanctions Experts

Departure of top sanctions official prompts new concerns.

The State Department headquarters in Washington on Sept. 12, 2012.
The State Department headquarters in Washington on Sept. 12, 2012.
The State Department headquarters in Washington on Sept. 12, 2012. Alex Wong/Getty Images

In his first year in office, President Donald Trump has repeatedly promoted international sanctions as a powerful tool to compel countries such as Iran and North Korea to yield to Washington’s demands.

In his first year in office, President Donald Trump has repeatedly promoted international sanctions as a powerful tool to compel countries such as Iran and North Korea to yield to Washington’s demands.

But the Trump administration has been gradually sidelining diplomats and other civil servants responsible for advocating and negotiating such penalties with foreign governments, a development that has sapped morale at the State Department and prompted a flight of critical sanctions experts from the U.S. diplomatic corps — a trend that could hamstring the administration’s ability to effectively craft sanctions in the future.

Even as the White House pins its hopes on sanctions as a means of coercing its adversaries, the administration has demonstrated little interest in expanding funding or manpower for civilian agencies such as the Treasury Department, which are charged with enforcing the ambitious policies.

In the latest departure, the State Department’s most experienced U.N.-based sanctions expert stepped down Friday, sending more than a decade of expertise out the door and contributing to a bout of brain drain that is diminishing the role of American diplomats in shaping Washington’s sanctions policy, according to several current and former U.S. officials.

The exit of Joshua Black — a veteran civil servant who served as America’s chief sanctions and counterterrorism expert at the United Nations for much of the past decade — comes at a time when the State Department’s career foreign service and civil service officers have already been sidelined in internal government debates on how to calibrate international sanctions against U.S. adversaries from Iran to North Korea.

For years, Black led a team responsible for negotiations sanctions against Iran, North Korea, Libya, Yemen, and Sudan, as well as terrorist groups including al Qaeda and the Islamic State. More recently, Black served as the director for multilateral affairs in the National Security Council before returning to New York. Black’s team is “immensely important” and “essential to the department for coordinating sanctions in the [United Nations],” one State Department official told Foreign Policy.

The U.S. Mission to the United Nations declined to comment on why Black was stepping down. But several current and former U.S. officials said Black — who declined to comment for this story — had grown disillusioned serving an administration that was contemptuous of multilateral institutions and that was tearing down a landmark nuclear deal he had personally participated in building.

In a farewell note to colleagues, which was obtained by FP, Black recalled that the two most meaningful days in his life were February 17, 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence on the back of an American military intervention, and “July 14, 2015, when against all human odds, we clinched the Iran nuclear deal. These were life changing experiences. We made the world safer. America at its best.”

“To state the obvious: we are living through tough times for our country,” Black wrote. “Americans are so divided. Appeals are being made to our baser instincts, not our better angels. Our foreign counterparts are concerned, wondering if the United States will lead the world in confronting the greatest challenges.”

But he said his career with the State Department has “filled me with optimism about the future of this country and the fate of the American experiment. Our nation has gone through worse — yet we always rise to the challenge….I am confident that we’re going to get through this rough patch.”

Despite his differences with the Trump administration, Black wished his former boss, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her staff “the best of luck.”

“As I leave government, I will be cheering most loudly for the success of Ambassador Nikki Haley and her talented team,” he wrote. “Ambassador Haley is the representative of the country I love — she deserves out support.”

But he saved his warmest words for his fellow foreign policy colleagues.

“It’s been said that there is nothing wrong with American that cannot be cured by what’s right with America,” he wrote.  “When I think of what’s right with this country, I will think of the extraordinary women and men of the U.S. Department of State and other foreign policy agencies. You are patriots and professionals. You — your skill, your commitment, your heart — will renew the American promise.”

Black’s resignation coincides with a shift in the way Washington approaches sanctions, current and former officials say. The White House has been bypassing the State Department’s seasoned veterans while tasking the U.S. military and intelligence establishment to step up their role in uncovering violations, particularly in Iran and North Korea, those officials say.

The Korea Mission Center, which was set up last year by the CIA to monitor North Korean nuclear and missile activities, has stepped up its surveillance of sanctions violations, according to one U.S. official familiar with the matter. That effort — combined with Trump’s threats to annihilate the reclusive country in defense of America’s allies — has yielded progress in prodding China to join forces with the United States in implementing far-reaching economic sanctions at the United Nations.

Meanwhile, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has vigorously pressed U.S. intelligence agencies to collect and declassify evidence that Iran has supplied advanced military equipment, including short-range ballistic missiles, to the Houthis in Yemen. The findings — which have been shared with U.N. investigators — have helped strengthen the U.S. case for sanctions against Tehran.

But senior U.N. Security Council diplomats say the United States is unlikely to translate those findings into a new round of U.N. sanctions against Tehran. “I’ve got to tell you, negotiations with China and Russia and getting them on board with sanctions is not an easy task,” a State Department official said.

Richard Nephew, a former State Department official who served as the lead sanctions expert on the negotiating team for the Iran nuclear deal, called Black’s departure a major setback.

“This, to me, is just yet another person who knows what they’re doing who’s not going to be there anymore,” Nephew told FP. “He has deep relationships with the other delegations in New York.”

Susan Rice and Samantha Power, two former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, decried Black’s resignation on Twitter as a blow to America’s sanctions policy.  “Josh Black is a pro’s pro,” Rice tweeted in response to FP‘s report on his resignation. “His departure is a massive loss that will cripple our ability to negotiate tough sanctions at the UN. No one person in the USG knows more than Josh about multilateral sanctions.”

Nephew, now a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said Black’s departure was part of a wider decline and exodus of seasoned professionals at the State Department, where morale has plummeted as the Trump administration has marginalized the role of diplomacy.

During the first year of the Trump administration, the department’s senior ranks were “being depleted at a dizzying speed,” Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, wrote in a letter published in the organization’s December publication. Ranks of career ambassadors, the State Department equivalent of four-star generals, dropped from five to two; the three-star-equivalent rank, career ministers, dropped from 33 to 19; and the rank of two-star generals dropped from 431 to 369, according to Stephenson.

“Anytime you’re losing that kind of expertise, you’re already in trouble. When you put that in the broader context of the loss of operational capacity and influence at the State Department, you’re in serious trouble,” Nephew said.

A State Department spokesperson denied that its employees were being sidelined and rejected the charge that there was an exodus of sanctions expertise. “There are hundreds of people across this department who work on sanctions,” the spokesperson added. “It touches every policy priority in every region of the world, and we have State Department experts in those regions working every day.”

For instance, the North Korea expert at the United Nations, David Lee, had already been managing the U.S. mission to the United Nations’ sanctions policy on Pyongyang for more than two years, according to diplomatic sources. His team helped secure the adoption last year of two of the toughest sanctions resolutions ever imposed on the Hermit Kingdom. Other regional experts have been running sanctions policy from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Yemen.

Yet last year, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson scrapped the department’s sanctions coordination office, reassigning some officials with deep expertise to other tasks. One official, Andrea Mihailescu, has been reassigned to processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests despite having nearly a decade of experience working on North Korea and Iran sanctions. (Mihailescu declined to comment for this story.)

“Ever since the sanctions coordinator office was shut down, there’s been a brain drain at the State Department,” one State Department official said.

The State Department rebuffed suggestions that the office’s closure signaled a decline of expertise. “The department is aligning expert resources as needed for the secretary’s top department policies, including the clearance of the backlog of FOIA requests,” the State Department spokesperson said in response.

Daniel Fried, the former head of the sanctions office, retired from the State Department in February 2017. His departure left Foggy Bottom without a dedicated high-level official with the seniority to corral the interagency effort and coordinate sanctions rollouts with allies, which in some cases can require months of diplomatic negotiations and bargaining. (Fried was an ambassador to Poland and the longest-serving foreign service officer at State Department at the time of his retirement.)

The task now falls to the Policy Planning Staff, overseen by Brian Hook, one of Tillerson’s closest aides and confidantes. Three officials say David Tessler, Hook’s deputy and a highly regarded sanctions expert, is now in charge of coordinating sanctions, but they expressed concern that the office lacks the bandwidth and staff to coordinate such measures properly.

The involvement of the Policy Planning Staff in sanctions comes as the division has emerged as a powerhouse under Tillerson. Officials describe it as a “miniature department” within the department, where Tillerson concentrates the bulk of his policymaking at the expense of other bureaus.

The Policy Planning Staff seem to be “trying to rely on the experts, but there’s no Daniel Fried to have that heft,” one State Department official said. The officials in that office are “starting from scratch.”

In an interview with FP, Fried credited the Trump administration with smoothly administering sanctions so far but warned that the State Department faced a leadership vacuum in this area — whether administered through a formal office or not. “I don’t care about the organizational boxes, but you have to have a go-to person of rank in charge. And that person of rank must have their own staff,” he said.

Lawmakers are also raising similar concerns, demanding the administration back up its sanctions policies with sufficient resources. The Senate Banking Committee in November passed an amendment to a North Korea sanctions bill that would require the administration to brief Congress on the funding needed to support its sanctions programs.

The proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 would cut the number of employees in the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence from 421 to 386 and scale back funding from $123 million to $116 million, former government officials said.

It’s not just the State Department that is facing a shortfall when it comes to resources to administer sanctions. Former Treasury officials told FP that the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the arm of the department that oversees sanctions enforcement, is already stretched thin with its current workload and needs more resources — not less — as it struggles to keep up with the faster pace.

“You could double the budget, and everyone would still be incredibly busy,” said one former Treasury official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The sanctions team at Treasury is “exceedingly competent but running on full steam, and it can only do that for so long.”

With both Treasury and State facing a loss of expertise, officials worry that the loss of Black at the U.S. mission in New York comes at a particularly bad time, just as Washington is trying to ratchet up pressure on Iran and North Korea at the United Nations. Black’s departure, Nephew said, is “as close as it gets to a single source failure.”

This story has been updated.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Dan De Luce was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2018.

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