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Senior Democratic Senator Demands Answers on Pompeo Call Clampdown

Menendez accuses Trump administration of obscuring communications with foreign leaders in wake of impeachment inquiry.

Sen. Robert Menendez speaks at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) questions witnesses during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 3. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The top Democratic lawmaker on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is demanding “immediate details” about the State Department’s plan to limit its officials’ access to joining calls with senior leaders and foreign counterparts, accusing U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration of displaying a “glaring lack of transparency.” 

Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the committee that conducts oversight of the State Department, sent a letter to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan on Friday asking for more information on a decision to limit the State Department’s Operations Center from joining calls between the secretary of state and other senior State Department leaders, citing Foreign Policy reporting on the matter. 

“[T]he Department’s reported actions seem aimed at obscuring official U.S. government communications with foreign leaders to conduct the nation’s business,” Menendez said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy. 

Menendez cited a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, now at the center of ongoing Democratic-led impeachment investigation, saying Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “initially tried to conceal his role” in the call. Pompeo on Thursday criticized the Democratic case for impeaching Trump as “just all wrong,” and Republicans have condemned the impeachment process as unfair and unfounded.

The Democratic-led investigation relied in part on call logs in their investigation, in particular focusing on the memorandum of the call between Trump and Zelensky to probe whether Trump improperly held off on approving military aid for Ukraine unless it investigated one of Trump’s Democratic presidential rivals, Joe Biden. 

Officials familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy the State Department recently issued a directive that the department’s Operations Center will no longer listen in on calls between senior State Department leaders and foreign counterparts, ending a long-standing practice meant to disseminate information from such calls to other officials in the building and comply with federal records requests. 

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But a spokesperson previously told Foreign Policy the department “review[s] our information security policies routinely, consistent with federal records law, to ensure the security of sensitive information while maintaining appropriate records.”

“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 spokesperson said. 

Menendez pressed Sullivan in the letter for when the decision to limit the Operations Center’s access and use took place and what the basis for the decision was. He asked how the State Department was complying with federal records laws and how the department was transcribing calls and tracking call records absent full access for the operations center. He also requested an “immediate briefing” with the director of the operations center.

The State Department Operations Center is an on-call communications and crisis center for State Department leaders, coordinating the department’s response to worldwide crises and the secretary’s communications with foreign leaders. 

The center, manned by dozens of officers 24 hours a day, “play[s] a critical role in ensuring translation and note-taking for calls, and often provide[s] the background for memos and notes, which then become part of the Department’s official record for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy,” Menendez said in his letter.

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

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