Report

Hiring Freeze Put U.S. Diplomats Under Threat Worldwide, Report Says

Many programs in counterterrorism, global health, and cybersecurity are also struggling.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes a statement after his dismissal at the State Department in Washington, D.C.,  on March 13, 2018.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes a statement after his dismissal at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on March 13, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The State Department’s internal watchdog issued a scathing new report on Friday detailing how a long-standing hiring freeze has undercut U.S. foreign-policy priorities, as well as the security of embassies and consulates around the world. 

The report offers the most comprehensive public account yet of how a nearly year-and-a-half-long hiring freeze at the State Department had sweeping negative impacts on the day-to-day functions of U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration. Released by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General on Friday, the report details how the hiring freeze undercut State Department initiatives around the world, including on top Trump administration priorities, such as counterterrorism initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa. 

The report’s conclusions paint a harsh picture of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s management of the department.

The report’s conclusions paint a harsh picture of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s management of the department, an era marked by criticisms of mismanagement and plunging morale among rank-and-file diplomats. But it also warns that the department is still feeling the sting of the freeze, well over a year after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came into office and vowed to restore the State Department’s “swagger.” 

According to the report, U.S. diplomatic posts around the world were left alarmingly vulnerable to security risks, at least through 2018. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which oversees the safety and security of U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide, told the inspector general it was unable to properly staff its 24-hour command center to monitor threats against the secretary of state, U.S. diplomatic posts, and American citizens abroad. The staffing shortages “led to coverage gaps that could have significantly affected its ability to respond to overseas security crises,” according to the report. 

It also said that in the Middle East and North Africa, embassies reported that staffing gaps “reduced their ability to support security assistance and counterterrorism initiatives.”  

The State Department’s hiring freeze lasted from January 2017 through May 2018, spanning all of former Tillerson’s tenure and the first several months of Pompeo’s time in office. President Donald Trump ordered a hiring freeze across the federal government just days after entering office in an aim to reduce federal spending. While the freeze was lifted for other federal agencies months later, former Tillerson kept the hiring freeze in place at the State Department as part of an effort to redesign the department.

Critics in the department at the time said Tillerson mismanaged efforts to redesign the department’s bureaucracy in tandem with the hiring freeze, further worsening morale and hampering the State Department’s functions. The redesign plans were largely scrapped after Trump fired Tillerson in March 2018. But while the hiring freeze ended well over a year ago, the department is still dealing with its impacts, the inspector general’s office writes, as “on-board staffing levels and retention of other processes developed during the freeze continued to impede [bureaus’ and offices’] ability to fill positions.”

In one case, staffing gaps hampered State’s ability to oversee “a $39 million counterterrorism-related contract in Africa.”

The inspector general’s office was ultimately unable to calculate the total cost to taxpayers of the hiring freeze “because the Department did not systematically track these costs.”

The freeze impacted U.S. foreign-policy priorities spanning the world, including global health programs, humanitarian assistance, counterterrorism and counternarcotics initiatives, cybersecurity, and consular work.

In one case, staffing gaps hampered State’s ability to oversee “a $39 million counterterrorism-related contract in Africa.” The Bureau of Political-Military Affairs told the inspector general the freeze “affected its ability to oversee programs in Iraq and Syria aimed at removing explosive remnants of war, such as landmines and unexploded ordnance.” 

The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration said it did not fund “certain humanitarian programs in the early stages of the Venezuela crisis in 2017 because it lacked staff to oversee the work.” One embassy with $65 million in funds to tackle AIDS said “because of a combination of the hiring freeze and security clearance-related delays, it lacked a program coordinator for two and a half years.”

On cybersecurity, the department’s hiring freeze and staffing shortfalls “hampered its ability to develop tools and procedures to react and respond to malicious cyber activity targeting Department personnel and information assets,” according to the report. 

The freeze also had a wide-ranging impact on the State Department’s morale.

In another instance, an embassy told State’s internal watchdog that the “criminal embezzlement of $6,000 by the recipient of a public diplomacy grant went undetected” because of vacancies and staffing shortages. 

The freeze also had a wide-ranging impact on the State Department’s morale: In response to a survey from the inspector general for the report, all 38 of the State Department’s bureaus and offices and 97 percent of embassies and consulates abroad “reported that the hiring freeze had either a somewhat negative or very negative effect on employee morale and welfare.”

The inspector general’s office sent a questionnaire to senior diplomats at all U.S. overseas posts abroad to tally up what impact the freeze had on operations. The survey results paint a stark picture of how deeply unpopular—and potentially dangerous—the hiring freeze was. Of 151 posts that responded to the survey, nearly 80 percent of diplomats said the hiring freeze had a “somewhat negative” or “very negative” impact on the post’s health, safety, and security.

None of the diplomats at the 151 posts who responded to the survey said the freeze had a “very positive” or even “somewhat positive” impact on their operations.  

A State Department spokeswoman said the department welcomes the Inspector General’s report and the department is diligently working to overcome the effect of the 17-month hiring freeze.
 
We are pleased to report that we are closing the gap and anticipate the Foreign Service workforce will return to pre-freeze levels by year’s-end, the spokeswoman said. In the meantime, the Department continues to employ strategies and programs to mitigate any negative impact of staffing gaps and remains committed to seeking out innovative strategies to recruit and retain a highly qualified workforce.”
Update, August 12, 2019: This article was updated to included comments from a State Department spokeswoman.

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

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