Pompeo Criticized for Failure to Communicate on Coronavirus

Diplomats, lawmakers say the State Department hasn’t been transparent in responding.

Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the State Department
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news briefing at the State Department in Washington on Feb. 25. Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is facing a groundswell of criticism over his response to the new coronavirus, angering some diplomats and senior lawmakers by not providing timely information on how America’s diplomatic corps is responding to a worldwide pandemic that has jolted the global economy and roiled international diplomacy. 

“It’s like pulling teeth … emails and requests for information are going essentially unanswered, or they just give us the runaround,” one Democratic congressional staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy. “It’s clear to us that [the State Department] is still woefully behind the curve.”

Considering the global nature of the pandemic, Pompeo’s handling of the coronavirus has outsized importance, officials say, both for coordinating a diplomatic response to the crisis and ensuring American citizens abroad can continue to rely on U.S. embassies and consulates for support. It represents the latest test for President Donald Trump’s chief diplomat as the State Department finds itself on the front lines of pandemic response—even as it grapples with other administration priorities including standoffs with Iran and North Korea, and the war in Syria. 

Some diplomats and lawmakers have become frustrated by the relative lack of communication from Pompeo and his leadership team, according to interviews with six current and former officials. Diplomats posted in Washington must navigate a raft of confusing bureaucratic rules to self-isolate and work from home as much as possible. While top U.S. officials have advised people to work from home and avoid gatherings of over 10 people, federal government employees have still been directed to show up for work, including at the State Department. Officials are also concerned that some of the hundreds of State Department employees evacuated from China were never administered tests for the coronavirus, even though they went into self-quarantine after returning home. Some of them are already back working in the department’s headquarters in Washington, according to two officials familiar with the matter.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

“There’s lots of frustration with the ad hoc nature of the response by Pompeo and management … but also an acknowledgment that these are complicated and unprecedented problems,” said Molly Montgomery, a former U.S. diplomat and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

As the department scrambles to protect its own personnel, it is already facing more calls to organize emergency evacuations for U.S. citizens elsewhere in the world, as it did in China in January and February. On Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Moldova announced it was arranging an evacuation flight for U.S. citizens as the Eastern European country prepares to temporarily bar travel in and out of the country. 

At a press conference on Tuesday, Pompeo said the department was doing everything it could to protect State employees as well as American citizens abroad, and he praised State Department employees for performing “unbelievably” in response to the pandemic. He declined to offer many specifics on the department’s internal response, saying that the State Department has had “a couple of employees—count them on one hand—who had positive tests” and they are following all proper protocols. 

Privately, several State Department officials say they expect there are more cases both at embassies abroad and in Washington, given how frequently diplomats travel abroad and how few tests have been administered in the United States. (One official compared the headquarters to a “petri dish” for the virus.)

“I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the intricacies of what the State Department is doing. It is a rapidly evolving situation,” Pompeo said at his press conference on Tuesday. “I stay as current as I can on what our support team is doing for our team. State Department officials and every American should know we’re going to do everything we can to take care of our team.”

Pompeo also declined to directly answer a question on whether the department had sent coronavirus test kits to embassies overseas. 

“We believe it is essential that Americans serving their country overseas receive full information about the scale and scope of the health challenges that they face in this current crisis. Our colleagues need full transparency on the impact of the pandemic,” said Eric Rubin, a senior foreign service officer and head of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents foreign service officers. “If members of the U.S. Foreign Service have been diagnosed with the virus, we need to know that information. Those who have been evacuated from overseas also need to know details on what the U.S. Government is doing to support them.”

Lawmakers and congressional staffers on the committees overseeing the State Department said it has been difficult to obtain information on how the department is responding to the crisis. “I am also concerned about the lack of transparency regarding the Department’s contingency planning for pandemics such as COVID-19,” Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a letter to Pompeo on Monday. “Despite repeated requests from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Department has failed to provide any basic information or substantive responses on issues critical to the health and safety of our diplomatic corps and the American people they are on the front lines to serve.” 

The department organized briefings with both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee staff on Tuesday—after Menendez sent his letter, according to congressional staffers familiar with the matter. But the briefings didn’t offer many specifics and came only after weeks of prodding, several staffers said. One also noted that it stood in stark contrast to how the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services were proactively briefing lawmakers on their response. 

Others counter that the department has already taken steps to protect its employees and curb the effects of the virus on the department, including barring most travel abroad, issuing directives for employees to telework as much as possible, and telling staff they can curtail their assignments abroad if they wish without any backlash. Some officials who spoke to Foreign Policy said they welcome these measures, though others said it has forced diplomats with children or loved ones to care for to burn through paid time off as schools and day cares close. Most of the communication on this issue has come through the department’s undersecretary for management, Brian Bulatao. 

“We will communicate updates regarding confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the State Department workforce as they become available and in compliance with privacy regulations,” a State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy. “The State Department’s Bureau of Medical Services follows [Centers for Disease Control] and [World Health Organization] recommendations regarding prevention, diagnosis, isolation, and treatment for all infectious diseases.”

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

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