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Pompeo’s State Department Faces Yet a New Oversight Battle With Capitol Hill

Democrats say the State Department is withholding information on diversity from Congress based on the claim it is “non-publicly available” information.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 28. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Two senior Democratic lawmakers say the U.S. State Department is withholding information on its longstanding diversity challenges based on legally dubious claims that the department does not provide information to its oversight committees that are “internal documents and non-publicly available,” according to a letter obtained by Foreign Policy

Their claims raise questions about whether the State Department will withhold other information to lawmakers who sit on committees with jurisdiction over the Trump administration’s foreign policy. 

It comes just after House and Senate Democrats launched an inquiry into President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to fire the State Department’s top watchdog on May 15—the fourth inspector general he has fired in the past two months. The decision came after State Department Inspector General Steve Linick opened an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s misuse of staff for personal reasons, congressional sources told Foreign Policy. As president, Trump has the power to appoint and remove inspector generals. In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Trump wrote that he lost confidence in Linick’s ability to do his job, but he didn’t offer specifics. 

Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Joaquin Castro, the head of the committee’s body on oversight and investigations, rebuked the department in the newest letter for refusing to hand over information on the department’s diversity issues by making a claim that is “not a legally-cognizable basis for withholding information from Congress.” The two Democrats wrote that the department is constitutionally mandated to share information with its committee of jurisdiction and has shared internal information regularly in the past. 

The new letter from Engel and Castro follows a February report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent federal agency, concluding that the State Department has struggled to overcome long-standing and systemic challenges to increase diversity within its ranks. The lawmakers wrote that the department gave an initial briefing on the issue to staff, but the department has “failed to demonstrate any serious effort to address the lack of workforce diversity at the mid-career and senior levels.”

The GAO report on the State Department’s diversity challenges, released in February and based on data from 2002 to 2018, found that the department is falling short of improving diversity across the board, with several exceptions. 

Among the study’s findings: The proportion of racial or ethnic minorities in the foreign service increased from 17 to 24 percent, but in the civil service it decreased from 44 to 43 percent. The number of women working at the State Department also fell from 44 to 43 percent, and the chance of minority men or women being promoted in the civil service was “statistically significantly lower” than for white men. The study appeared to contradict statements in recent years by senior State Department officials, who have insisted the department is improving its efforts to diversify its workforce, while conceding it still has room for improvement.

“GAO’s findings that minorities face barriers to promotion at the State Department are deeply concerning, a committee aide told Foreign Policy. “Now, the Department is compounding the problem by refusing to provide the Committee with information about how they are addressing this critical workforce issue.

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

Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee have frequently clashed with the State Department and Pompeo in the past. The Democratic-led House Foreign Affairs Committee also oversaw investigations into politically motivated retaliation by Trump administration officials against career diplomats, and parts of the impeachment investigation into Trump. During the impeachment investigation, Engel and other Democratic lawmakers rebuked the administration for withholding some documents from Congress and blocking witnesses from testifying. 

In their letter, Engel and Castro wrote that on May 8, the department informed congressional staff “after several queries that it will not provide documents to its Committee of jurisdiction claiming that these documents are ‘internal documents and non-publicly available’”—a claim Engel and Castro dispute. 

“As part of the constitutionally-mandated process of congressional oversight, the State Department has a long-shared information with congressional committees,” they wrote. They added that the department “appropriately produced significant amounts of non-public material to the Foreign Affairs Committee in connection with its related investigation of prohibited personnel practices at State during the Trump Administration.”

“We trust that any misperception that the Department can withhold materials from its committee of jurisdiction simply because they are ‘internal’ and ‘not publicly available’ will be swiftly corrected by agency counsel,” they wrote.

Update, May 18, 2020: This article was updated with comment from a House Foreign Affairs Committee aide.

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

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