Q&A

Pompeo’s Silence Creates a ‘Crisis of Morale’ at State Department

“The rank and file are very disturbed by the inability, the refusal, of the secretary of state to defend his own people,” says former diplomat Nicholas Burns.

Former U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns testifies before the Senate.
Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard University and a former diplomat, testifies before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in Washington on June 28, 2017. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Lawmakers released documents and messages this week that appear to show associates of U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer surveilling the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie “Masha” Yovanovitch, amid a campaign to oust her from her job. They are the latest documents at the center of the impeachment investigation into Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential rival.

It’s unclear whether the new revelations from these associates, including Lev Parnas, a Ukrainian-born American who worked for Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and has since been indicted, were outlandish claims or have real merit. But the allegations have ramped up pressure on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to publicly defend the former ambassador and other career State Department employees ensnared in the political upheaval. So far, Pompeo and the State Department have remained silent. 

Foreign Policy spoke to Nicholas Burns, a former career diplomat, about what the latest news means for Pompeo and America’s diplomatic corps. Burns serves as an unpaid advisor to Biden’s presidential campaign. He previously served as U.S. ambassador to NATO and undersecretary of state for political affairs during George W. Bush’s administration. From 1995 to 1997, he was the State Department’s spokesperson. He is currently a professor of diplomacy at Harvard University. 

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment for this interview. 

Foreign Policy: What was your reaction to the latest documents Congress released that included messages from associates of Trump?

Nicholas Burns: I think it answers the questions that Congress should have both in the House and Senate on the impeachment inquiry about the effective hijacking of American policy towards Ukraine by Rudy Giuliani and his associates. I cannot remember a similar incident over the last four decades where a private individual had so much influence over our policy towards a very important country in the world. It should be part of at least the questions that are being asked in the impeachment inquiry so that senators, when they vote, have a better sense of what was happening. 

From a foreign service and State Department perspective, the Parnas documents are deeply troubling. Now, obviously, it remains to be seen if these are entirely true stories that he is telling. But that means there has to be an investigation, and it has to be done in a methodical manner by the House and Senate. It would be unprecedented in my experience for an American ambassador to be put under surveillance by people representing the president.

FP: Ukraine agreed today to investigate those claims that Yovanovitch might have been surveilled.

NB: This might be the first time in American history that a foreign government, Ukraine, has rushed to the defense of an American ambassador who was being targeted for surveillance by [associates] of the president of the United States. And as all this was being revealed, the secretary of state over the last 36 hours has said nothing to defend [Yovanovitch]. This is an unprecedented situation. From the perspective of the foreign service and the State Department, those who are dedicated to the institution of our career diplomats, it is indefensible not to support Ambassador Yovanovitch. It’s inexcusable. Any other secretary of state would have said those things.

FP: But Pompeo has already repeatedly said hell comply with the letter of the law and criticized the impeachment investigation as unfounded. Do you think that these new revelations will change anything or prompt Pompeo to speak out publicly on this further?

NB: Well, I think it’s going to put additional pressure on him. His tenure is going to be known for many things. But one big thing [will be] that he failed to defend the career foreign service when it was attacked unfairly. Masha Yovanovitch, [former acting Ambassador to Ukraine] Bill Taylor, [Deputy Assistant Secretary of State] George Kent, all of the others who testified. He’s the leader. I can’t imagine any prior secretary of state who would be silent when all this was happening.

There should be calls for Secretary Pompeo to stand up and support her and support the security of an American ambassador. There’s nothing more elementary than that. We are accustomed as ambassadors, as foreign service officers, to be sometimes surveilled or harassed by authoritarian governments. It is completely unprecedented for representatives of the president, representatives of Rudy Giuliani, to even consider for one moment putting an American ambassador under surveillance. Completely unprecedented. And it’s wrong, and it’s indefensible that they would consider it.

FP: But often the State Department is restricted, for security and legal reasons, in what it can publicly disclose with allegations of wrongdoing or when the safety of an ambassador is in question. You were at one point the State Department’s spokesperson. Walk us through some of the restrictions of what a spokesperson might be able to say or not say publicly in this type of scenario.

NB: The first thing you want to do on a really big story is decide what you’re going to say. To have the State Department be, if not ahead of the story, at least responding very early in the process so that people know what the State Department and the United States government think. And it’s the job of the spokesperson—and I was in this job for two and a half years for Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright of the Clinton administration—to go to the secretary of state and make a recommendation: “Mr. or Madam Secretary, we’ve got a major problem right now, and here’s what I think we should say,” and ask the secretary of state to approve it. 

That’s the process. The cardinal sin of diplomacy in this instance is to be silent because then your opponents of course hold sway and they define the story. And I think it would be completely understandable if in the present circumstances, the first thing the statement might say this week would be: “We don’t know if this story is true. It comes from someone under indictment. But nonetheless, it is so serious and the matter is so grave that we’re going to investigate. And once we finish that investigation, we will brief the Congress and the American public.”

That would be an entirely defensible thing to say. And of course, they should say in that statement: “We defend the security of all of our ambassadors, and we defend the security of Ambassador Yovanovitch.”

They didn’t say anything. That would’ve been the minimum. And so I think in terms of public diplomacy, what a spokesperson and secretary of state should think about is actually responding to a major story. They haven’t done that, which I find inexcusable.

FP: But if indeed these allegations were under investigation, some of this would need to remain private or even classified. The State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security obviously doesnt publicly talk about investigations that may or may not be running. Given that, is it fair to criticize the department for not speaking publicly about this?

NB: Not after this morning, when the Ukrainian government said publicly that they were launching an investigation. The State Department did not even say: “We will participate in this investigation. We will comply with this investigation. Thank you to the Ukrainian government for launching this investigation. We agree the security of our ambassador is paramount.” It’s inexcusable that the Ukrainian government is showing greater concern for the security of an American ambassador than the United States government. There is no defense here. They have no option. If they want to do the right thing, they have no option but to get behind this Ukrainian government investigation, say they’ll comply with it, and to say that they support the security of American ambassadors, in this case Ambassador Yovanovitch.

FP: Given the fraught political situation the State Department finds itself in now, what else would you recommend to Secretary Pompeo if you were still in the department now?

NB: I would recommend the secretary of state send a message to the entire workforce, 70,000-plus people around the world, saying security is paramount. We always defend our ambassadors and any other person working for us, and we’ll do it in this case. Because the elephant in the room here is the crisis of morale. And when the secretary of state is silent on an elementary issue, like the security of an ambassador, it further weakens morale. And there’s a very widespread belief that this administration has been the weakest administration in supporting the career foreign and civil service in our memory. And there’s a crisis. The rank and file are very disturbed by the inability, the refusal, of the secretary of state to defend his own people.

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

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