State Clamps Down on Officials Joining Pompeo’s Calls

A Democratic lawmaker says the lack of transparency and record-keeping will keep the public in the dark.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a press briefing in the State Department in Washington on Feb. 1. Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. State Department issued a directive to limit the number of officials who listen in on calls between senior department leaders and their foreign counterparts, several officials told Foreign Policy, upending a longstanding procedure and raising internal alarm bells over transparency requirements and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trust in the rank and file. 

When the secretary of state calls a foreign leader, the call is normally patched through the State Department’s Operations Center, considered the department’s nerve center, which serves as a nonstop 24-hour situation room to monitor communications for the secretary and emergencies around the world. Operations officers listen in on calls with the secretary or other top State Department leaders to take notes and transcribe the calls, both to send readouts of the calls to other officials in the building and to comply with federal record-keeping laws. 

That long-standing practice has ended, officials familiar with the matter tell Foreign Policy. It comes in the wake of the impeachment investigation Democratic lawmakers launched after a controversial July 25 phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, about which a whistleblower later issued an official complaint. The decision was relayed to officials around the building in a directive in the past week, and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez highlighted the issue in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday. 

Some bureaus within the State Department have been told not to expect readouts of the secretary of state’s calls going forward, several officials said. They say the readouts coming from the Operations Center, known as “Ops” within the State Department, were key to helping keep decision-makers in the massive bureaucracy appraised of which foreign officials the secretary was speaking to and what messages he was delivering. 

“It is unclear what exactly is to gain from not having any [Operations Center] record other than a complete lack of transparency,” said one official familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The decision to end that practice “would imply a lack of trust and confidence in the foreign service,” said another official.

When asked about whether decision indicates senior State leaders don’t trust their employees not to leak, another official characterized the question as ironic. “People think something is happening and they run to a reporter. This is kind of a silly accusation for people to make as they are currently leaking,” the official said. 

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment when asked if there was such a new directive but indicated that the department is concerned about leaks that could undercut national security and stressed the department will continue to comply will federal records laws. 

“We review our information security policies routinely, consistent with federal records law, to ensure the security of sensitive information while maintaining appropriate records,” the spokesperson said. “The need to routinely review such policies is often due to leaks of sensitive information that risk American lives, important United States policy implementation or sensitive communications with our international partners.” 

The move has prompted concern among some State Department officials and Menendez, the senior Democratic lawmaker on the Foreign Relations Committee, and comes as Pompeo faces scrutiny over his role in Trump’s Ukraine policy, now at the center of an impeachment investigation. Democratic lawmakers have questioned Pompeo’s role in the matter, based in part on State Department documents tracking Pompeo’s calls with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani is at the center of the investigation into whether Trump improperly withheld military aid from Ukraine unless it investigated one of his Democratic rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, whose son served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company accused of corruption. The State Department documents were released last month as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by American Oversight, a nonprofit ethics advocacy organization that has targeted the Trump administration with open records requests.

Trump and Republican lawmakers have repeatedly denounced the impeachment investigation as unfounded and unfair. Pompeo on Monday criticized Democrats for scheduling impeachment hearings while Trump is abroad for a meeting of NATO leaders on “important matters,” calling the move “very unfortunate.” He has said the department will comply with the law in the House-led impeachment investigation and insists he is proud of the Trump administration’s record on supporting Ukraine as it confronts Russian-backed separatists in a five-year-long war. 

Menendez raised the issue of the Operations Center’s role in a public hearing with the department’s third-ranking official, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, on Tuesday. 

“I’m alarmed to have learned today that Secretary Pompeo may be considering changing the way in which the State Operations Center places and participates in calls with foreign leaders,” Menendez said. He appeared to link the decision to other criticisms he has leveled at senior Trump administration officials amid the ongoing impeachment investigation, where top diplomats including U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland exchanged views on Trump’s Ukraine policy over texts and calls on their own phones, bypassing official and secure diplomatic communication channels.

“I’m concerned about the lack of transparency and lack of record-keeping that such a change may entail, in effect keeping the American public and Congress in the dark at a time when we know that the president’s senior State Department officials and others appear to be carrying out official U.S. government foreign policy on personal cell phones,” Menendez said.

Hale said he was “not aware of any proposed change to our policy” but would relay the concerns to the secretary before coming back to the committee. 

The Operations Center has a unique role within the State Department, placed just down the hall from the secretary’s office with dozens of officers on duty 24 hours a day. They stand by to connect the secretary to foreign leaders around the world at all hours and monitor emergencies that could impact U.S. embassies or American citizens traveling abroad. 

The center’s records and call logs are also integral to piecing together the U.S. government’s response to crises after the fact for the department and oversight bodies, as well, current and former officials say. The State Department and congressional investigators relied in part on the center’s watch logs to understand the department’s response to the attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012.

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

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