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Pompeo Lifts Hiring Freeze at State Department

Diplomats hail the decision as another sign the Tillerson era has ended.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands after delivering remarks to State Department employees in Washington on May 1. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands after delivering remarks to State Department employees in Washington on May 1. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has lifted a hiring freeze at the U.S. State Department imposed by his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, that infuriated career diplomats and had come to symbolize for them — along with other measures — a leadership that didn’t value their work.

Pompeo announced the decision in an email to staff Tuesday and said he would move quickly to fill positions he viewed as essential to promoting U.S. foreign-policy goals.

“The Department’s workforce is our most valuable asset,” Pompeo wrote in the email, obtained by Foreign Policy. “By resuming hiring of the most gifted and qualified individuals, we will ensure that we have the right people with the right skills working to advance our national interests.”

He signed off on the email as “Mike.”

State Department employees have welcomed the announcement.

It’s “very big news,” one State Department official says. The official adds that employees are hoping the move will “build momentum now for things like promotions [and] filling vacancies at the top.”

Barbara Stephenson, the president of the union that represents the foreign service and an ardent critic of Tillerson’s management policies, also praised the decision. She said in a statement released Tuesday that her union, the American Foreign Service Association, “is pleased to see the clear consensus between Congress and the Administration that diplomacy is a vitally important part of America’s national security toolkit.”

“Getting the Foreign Service back to full strength and deployed to the field is exactly what is needed to reassert America’s global leadership,” she added.

The hiring freeze, which extended to diplomats’ family members at embassies abroad, prevented bureaus and embassies from filling empty positions. It also barred some employees from transferring internally to plug gaps in busy offices.

Tillerson, a laconic former oil executive, announced the freeze on entering office in 2017 as part of a sweeping reform at the State Department he dubbed “the redesign.” In his 14 months in office, he agreed to dramatic budgets cuts, culled the top ranks of the diplomatic corps, and left many of the department’s senior posts vacant.

Former diplomats and lawmakers criticized Tillerson for distancing himself from the rank and file and closing himself off from many top career officials outside of an inner circle of advisors.

Pompeo, the former Kansas congressman and CIA director, vowed to restore the State Department’s morale and prestige on entering the job in April. He still faces the difficult task of restaffing the top ranks of the State Department, including five of the 10 top posts in Washington and dozens of ambassador postings. These positions require Senate confirmation.

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

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