State Department Vacancies Increase Embassy Security Risks, Report Warns

Diplomats and their families could be in jeopardy, but the Trump administration has no plans to address the issue, the Government Accountability Office says.

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes a statement announcing his departure from the State Department on March 13, 2018. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes a statement announcing his departure from the State Department on March 13, 2018. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Hundreds of long-standing vacancies in State Department posts worldwide are undercutting U.S. foreign policy and increasing security risks to diplomats, but the Trump administration has not addressed the issue, a detailed new government study warns.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new congressionally mandated report on Wednesday evening concluding that chronic vacancies overstretch U.S. diplomats and hamper morale while hamstringing U.S. foreign-policy initiatives on issues from nuclear nonproliferation to anti-fraud efforts.

The State Department, according to GAO, “doesn’t have a plan to address this issue.”

The report describes a State Department hampered by budget cuts, recruitment problems, and bureaucratic hurdles to quickly fill vacancies, exacerbated by a hiring freeze the Trump administration imposed from January 2017 to May 2018. 

Empty posts at the State Department have long been a problem, predating President Donald Trump’s administration. But those concerns gained new life during the Trump administration, starting under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, when the administration left dozens of senior positions and ambassadorships sitting empty for months and even years. The measures were lambasted by former diplomats as well as both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and stoked a perception the Trump administration was gutting the United States’ diplomatic corps.

The GAO report, at 42 pages, is one of the most detailed government reports yet on how lingering vacancies have hit the State Department and U.S. diplomatic missions abroad at the rank-and-file level.

A State Department spokesperson, when asked about the report, said there is “no higher priority than the safety and security of our personnel and our family members” and the department “agrees on the importance of addressing the root causes of persistent Foreign Service vacancies.”

The vacancy rate is a long-term problem, the spokesperson said, and the department will “continue to employ strategies and programs” to address the vacancies.

The impact of all the empty posts is felt across the world: Overstretched State Department officials in Africa told GAO that their ability to train embassy staff to better tackle fraud, waste, and abuse is slipping. Officials in East and South Asia said vacancies have “limited their capacity to engage with host government officials” on reducing nuclear proliferation and other issues.

The report says vacant security-related positions increase dangers to U.S. diplomats and their families abroad. “Vacancies in security officer positions at overseas posts reduce the amount of time that security staff can spend identifying, investigating, and responding to potential security threats to the post,” the report says.

“Because of vacancies in these positions, some security officers had been unable to complete this work for their posts, potentially increasing the risk of foreign government officials gaining access to sensitive information,” the report adds.

Of 989 overseas posts for security officers overseas, 160 of them are vacant, according to the report.

Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat, said the GAO report serves as a warning sign. The vacancies, particularly for security officers, are “depleting our first line of defense at a time when the threats have never been higher and the United States less popular.”

Gaps in information management positions also “increased the vulnerability of posts’ computer networks to potential cybersecurity attacks and other malicious threats,” the report adds.

The report finds that vacant foreign service officer positions abroad have largely hovered around 14 percent over the past 10 years, though the number of foreign service officer posts abroad have grown from 8,148 in 2008 to about 9,848 in 2018. In 2008, 1,169 foreign service positions at overseas posts were vacant, while 6,979 were filled—a vacancy rate of 14 percent. In 2018, 1,274 posts were vacant, while 8,574 posts were filled—a vacancy rate of 13 percent.

Around the world, 18 percent of posts are vacant in the Middle East and North Africa, 12 percent are vacant in Europe and Eurasia, 10 percent are vacant in Africa, 21 percent are vacant in South and Central Asia, 9 percent are vacant in the Western Hemisphere, and 11 percent are vacant in East Asia and the Pacific.

Much of the criticism surrounding Tillerson focused on senior positions outside of career foreign service officer posts abroad—including assistant secretaries of state and ambassadors who require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation—and entry-level jobs. Tillerson imposed a hiring freeze early into his tenure at State while he attempted to reform the department.

He also froze diplomats’ family members from being hired at embassies and consulates abroad, which stoked anger and resentment in the diplomatic corps. Many short-staffed U.S. embassies, particularly in developing countries, rely on hiring family members to help support day-to-day embassy functions. He reversed his decision shortly before he was fired in March 2018.

Current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo famously pledged to restore the State Department’s “swagger” when he replaced Tillerson, lifting the hiring freeze and vowing to reverse course and begin filling in roles. Since then, efforts to fill some senior positions have been held up in the Senate amid policy disagreements between the administration and lawmakers. Democratic senators also accused the Trump administration of nominating people to State Department positions who were woefully unqualified.

Currently, about one in five of the department’s political officer posts is vacant, while nearly one in six economic officer posts sits empty.

Vacancies fuel more vacancies in a vicious cycle, according to the report: “Staff at multiple posts said that vacancies and the resulting increased workloads had created substantial stress and increased ‘burnout’ of Foreign Service employees at the posts.” The officers then leave for either medical or personal reasons, thereby further increasing the number of vacancies.

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

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