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Rapid cuts at State Department raise concern, says former ambassador

Judy Woodruff: There is new and pointed criticism of the way the U.S. State Department is being run in the Trump administration.

This time, it comes from a senior diplomat with three decades of experience here and abroad.

William Brangham has the story.

William Brangham: “There is simply no denying the warning signs that point to mounting threats to our institution and to the global leadership that depends on us.”

Those are the stark words of Ambassador Barbara Stephenson in a letter she wrote for “The Foreign Service Journal.” Stephenson rails against what she says is the decapitation of senior leadership within the State Department, and which she argues could harm America’s ability to retain its role as a global leader.

Over her long career, Barbara Stephenson was U.S. ambassador to Panama and also held senior postings in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. She currently serves as president of the Foreign Service Association, and she joins me now.

Welcome.

Barbara Stephenson: Thank you so much, William. It’s great to be with you.

William Brangham: Tell me, why did you put this letter out now?

Barbara Stephenson: You know, it came about because a journalist asked us, what’s up?

We knew cuts were coming. That’s always been clear, so I should be clear about that. Secretary Tillerson said we would have 8 percent cuts. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June that he would cut the Foreign Service by 4 percent, the civil service by 12 percent.

So, the idea that cuts were coming was not news. But a journalist said to me, you know, I have been walking through Foggy Bottom. I have been through four…

William Brangham: The State Department office.

Barbara Stephenson: The State Department office.

I have been to four retirement ceremonies there in this last week of September, all women acting assistant secretaries. And why is everybody leaving? Is this a story, or is this just some sort of a weird coincidence?

And so we started to really compile the numbers. So, we knew cuts were coming, but what was really surprising when we put the numbers together was how concentrated the cuts are at our very top ranks.

We had five four-stars at the beginning of the year. So they are called career ambassadors. We now have two career ambassadors left at the four-star rank. And then we had 33 at the beginning of the year that were at the three-star rank. We call them career ministers. And they’re down to 20.

And then we have… our two-star ranks were 431 on the day after Labor Day, which is when the promotions were added in for the year. And they had fallen to 369, the department told us a few weeks ago. And we are already tracking another 11 or 12 that we know will be gone by December 1.

So these are 60 percent, 40 percent, 20 percent cuts. So the cuts are very concentrated among our very top leadership.

William Brangham: Big numbers.

Let me read something from — you wrote in your letter. You wrote: “The talent being shown the door now is not only our top talent, but also talent that cannot be replicated overnight. The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events.”

A couple of things to unpack there. Why can’t they be replicated overnight?

Barbara Stephenson: The Foreign Service is, like the military, an up-or-out system. You enter…

William Brangham: You’re promoted, or you’re gone.

Barbara Stephenson: You get promoted, or you’re gone.

So, we grow people by bringing them in as an entry-level officer. So, I came in, in 1985 as a little junior officer. And then, over the course of the years, I moved up through FS2 and FS1, lieutenant colonel and colonel ranks.

That’s how we actually grow senior Foreign Service officers. And then there’s a big cut when we go into getting that very first star to be a counselor of the Foreign Service. And only 35, 40 percent make that cut of the officers. And then it’s cut further.

And by the time you get to our three-stars, you’re down to, oh, probably 1 percent. So there’s a very serious winnowing that goes on this up-or-out system. But we grow people by bringing them in at the beginning and actually training them on how to be diplomats.

We’re not alone in this. The military does it this way. So does essentially every diplomatic service of every major Western country.

William Brangham: Help me understand why this is going on. A journalist said to you, is this a coincidence? You looked at the numbers.

You wrote this very pointed letter. You clearly don’t think this is a coincidence. Why do you think this is happening?

Barbara Stephenson: Well, I know that there is a stated intention to cut the Foreign Service.

And we actually, as the American Foreign Service Association, do not — didn’t rise up and object to that in principle. But the idea of so rapidly cutting our top leadership does, I believe, leave us — it leaves us a less strong institution. And that is just not — at odds with the stated intent of strengthening the Foreign Service.

There was a decision that was made to dramatically slash promotion numbers. So, for that one-star or two-star jump, 61 people were moved into the two-star ranks last year. This year, that number was cut to 29.

So, there’s a conscious decision to dramatically cut these senior promotion numbers. And that has the effect of thinning the ranks of the senior leadership.

William Brangham: We reached out to State Department to see if they would respond to your letter. They did. You have seen what they had to say.

And they argue that these freezes, the hiring promotions, those are just temporary. They say that the retirement numbers are not out of order with historical patterns. And they argue that you’re basically exaggerating the impact that this is going to have on our ability to do foreign policy.

What do you say to that?

Barbara Stephenson: Well, I don’t think it would surprise you that, as a career diplomat, I believe that what we do is actually really important for Americans from all walks of life.

When they go overseas to adopt a child or on a mission for a church or to open a business or to study, they count on the embassy to be home base for them. So, it’s staffed by people like me, who are real Americans.

But I also speak the local language and I know how to get things done in that country. And I really have their back. So, I know that I’m valuable to my fellow Americans, but I also know that we are the keepers of that rules-based order that has made it possible for us to travel and trade so freely over the post-World War II period.

So, I think that what we to is actually — it’s really important. And the numbers overall are in the 4 percent range that the secretary talked about. What I wrote about was the surprising concentration at our very top leadership levels. That is striking to me.

William Brangham: Last quick question.

The national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, seemed to argue, in justifying these cuts, that the people who are leaving are people who don’t or haven’t gotten on board with the Trump administration’s policy.

How true is that?

Barbara Stephenson: That is — we’re career diplomats.

I was appointed ambassador to Panama by George Bush. When I worked on the Iraq surge, I served President Obama faithfully. I have served back and forth across my 32-year career.

This is what we’re trained to do in the Foreign Service. It’s what we sign up for. It’s what we swear an oath to.

So, that is discouraging to me, and it’s not the Foreign Service I know.

William Brangham: Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, thank you very much.

Barbara Stephenson: Thank you, William. It’s great to be here.

 

Editor’s Note: This is the State Department’s response to the piece Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, published criticizing personnel cuts at the State Department.

This is on background to a State Department Spokesperson:

On more than one occasion Secretary Tillerson has said that the redesign effort is his highest priority for the Department. This statement reflects his care for every team member and his understanding that our indispensable career diplomats must have the tools they need to do their jobs for decades to come.

The State Department has never had a comprehensive, employee-led review of its functions, and there’s no better time than now to see how we can improve them. The goal of the redesign has always been to find new ways to best leverage our team’s brains, ingenuity, and commitment to serving our nation’s interests. AFSA and other employee groups are important partners in the redesign effort. As has been said many times before, the freezes on hiring, promotions, are only temporary while we study how to refine our organization.

Suggestions that drastic cuts to our foreign service ranks are taking place are simply not accurate:

As of October 31, 2017, the Senior Foreign Service is comprised of of 976 diplomats,
with 63 waiting for Congress to attest their promotion into the senior ranks. Once these promotions are attested, there will be 1039 Senior Foreign Service Officers, a number nearly identical to the 1058 Senior Foreign Service Officers at the same point in 2016.

  • From February 1 to September 30, fewer Foreign Service Officers and Foreign Service Specialists combined retired in 2017 (244) than they did in 2016 (249).
  • A 60% reduction in Career Ambassadors is a misleading description. In January 2017 there were five career Ambassadors serving. Three retired this year. Today, two serve with this rank, which is within the historical norms of 1 to 7 at any one time since 1980. Since 1955, Congress has bestowed this distinction on 58 people. The Secretary plans to nominate individuals for this role in the near future.
  • In 2015, 14,480 individuals took the Foreign Service Officer Test. In 2016, 11,886 took it. This year 9,519 took the test. This trend corresponds with an improving economy and similar trends have been observed in the past.

Secretary Tillerson remains fully committed to the success of our team, the professional development of the foreign service, and America’s global leadership. These facts will again be reinforced once the freezes on personnel movement, including hiring, are lifted at the appropriate time.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There is new and pointed criticism of the way the U.S. State Department is being run in the Trump administration.

    This time, it comes from a senior diplomat with three decades of experience here and abroad.

    William Brangham has the story.

  • William Brangham:

    “There is simply no denying the warning signs that point to mounting threats to our institution and to the global leadership that depends on us.”

    Those are the stark words of Ambassador Barbara Stephenson in a letter she wrote for “The Foreign Service Journal.” Stephenson rails against what she says is the decapitation of senior leadership within the State Department, and which she argues could harm America’s ability to retain its role as a global leader.

    Over her long career, Barbara Stephenson was U.S. ambassador to Panama and also held senior postings in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. She currently serves as president of the Foreign Service Association, and she joins me now.

    Welcome.

  • Barbara Stephenson:

    Thank you so much, William. It’s great to be with you.

  • William Brangham:

    Tell me, why did you put this letter out now?

  • Barbara Stephenson:

    You know, it came about because a journalist asked us, what’s up?

    We knew cuts were coming. That’s always been clear, so I should be clear about that. Secretary Tillerson said we would have 8 percent cuts. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June that he would cut the Foreign Service by 4 percent, the civil service by 12 percent.

    So, the idea that cuts were coming was not news. But a journalist said to me, you know, I have been walking through Foggy Bottom. I have been through four…

  • William Brangham

    : The State Department office.

  • Barbara Stephenson:

    The State Department office.

    I have been to four retirement ceremonies there in this last week of September, all women acting assistant secretaries. And why is everybody leaving? Is this a story, or is this just some sort of a weird coincidence?

    And so we started to really compile the numbers. So, we knew cuts were coming, but what was really surprising when we put the numbers together was how concentrated the cuts are at our very top ranks.

    We had five four-stars at the beginning of the year. So they are called career ambassadors. We now have two career ambassadors left at the four-star rank. And then we had 33 at the beginning of the year that were at the three-star rank. We call them career ministers. And they’re down to 20.

    And then we have… our two-star ranks were 431 on the day after Labor Day, which is when the promotions were added in for the year. And they had fallen to 369, the department told us a few weeks ago. And we are already tracking another 11 or 12 that we know will be gone by December 1.

    So these are 60 percent, 40 percent, 20 percent cuts. So the cuts are very concentrated among our very top leadership.

  • William Brangham:

    Big numbers.

    Let me read something from — you wrote in your letter. You wrote: “The talent being shown the door now is not only our top talent, but also talent that cannot be replicated overnight. The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events.”

    A couple of things to unpack there. Why can’t they be replicated overnight?

  • Barbara Stephenson:

     The Foreign Service is, like the military, an up-or-out system. You enter…

  • William Brangham:

    You’re promoted, or you’re gone.

  • Barbara Stephenson:

     You get promoted, or you’re gone.

    So, we grow people by bringing them in as an entry-level officer. So, I came in, in 1985 as a little junior officer. And then, over the course of the years, I moved up through FS2 and FS1, lieutenant colonel and colonel ranks.

    That’s how we actually grow senior Foreign Service officers. And then there’s a big cut when we go into getting that very first star to be a counselor of the Foreign Service. And only 35, 40 percent make that cut of the officers. And then it’s cut further.

    And by the time you get to our three-stars, you’re down to, oh, probably 1 percent. So there’s a very serious winnowing that goes on this up-or-out system. But we grow people by bringing them in at the beginning and actually training them on how to be diplomats.

    We’re not alone in this. The military does it this way. So does essentially every diplomatic service of every major Western country.

  • William Brangham:

    Help me understand why this is going on. A journalist said to you, is this a coincidence? You looked at the numbers.

    You wrote this very pointed letter. You clearly don’t think this is a coincidence. Why do you think this is happening?

  • Barbara Stephenson:

     Well, I know that there is a stated intention to cut the Foreign Service.

    And we actually, as the American Foreign Service Association, do not — didn’t rise up and object to that in principle. But the idea of so rapidly cutting our top leadership does, I believe, leave us — it leaves us a less strong institution. And that is just not — at odds with the stated intent of strengthening the Foreign Service.

    There was a decision that was made to dramatically slash promotion numbers. So, for that one-star or two-star jump, 61 people were moved into the two-star ranks last year. This year, that number was cut to 29.

    So, there’s a conscious decision to dramatically cut these senior promotion numbers. And that has the effect of thinning the ranks of the senior leadership.

  • William Brangham:

    We reached out to State Department to see if they would respond to your letter. They did. You have seen what they had to say.

    And they argue that these freezes, the hiring promotions, those are just temporary. They say that the retirement numbers are not out of order with historical patterns. And they argue that you’re basically exaggerating the impact that this is going to have on our ability to do foreign policy.

    What do you say to that?

  • Barbara Stephenson:

    Well, I don’t think it would surprise you that, as a career diplomat, I believe that what we do is actually really important for Americans from all walks of life.

    When they go overseas to adopt a child or on a mission for a church or to open a business or to study, they count on the embassy to be home base for them. So, it’s staffed by people like me, who are real Americans.

    But I also speak the local language and I know how to get things done in that country. And I really have their back. So, I know that I’m valuable to my fellow Americans, but I also know that we are the keepers of that rules-based order that has made it possible for us to travel and trade so freely over the post-World War II period.

    So, I think that what we to is actually — it’s really important. And the numbers overall are in the 4 percent range that the secretary talked about. What I wrote about was the surprising concentration at our very top leadership levels. That is striking to me.

  • William Brangham: 

    Last quick question.

    The national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, seemed to argue, in justifying these cuts, that the people who are leaving are people who don’t or haven’t gotten on board with the Trump administration’s policy.

    How true is that?

  • Barbara Stephenson:

    That is — we’re career diplomats.

    I was appointed ambassador to Panama by George Bush. When I worked on the Iraq surge, I served President Obama faithfully. I have served back and forth across my 32-year career.

    This is what we’re trained to do in the Foreign Service. It’s what we sign up for. It’s what we swear an oath to.

    So, that is discouraging to me, and it’s not the Foreign Service I know.

  • William Brangham:

     Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, thank you very much.

  • Barbara Stephenson:

     Thank you, William. It’s great to be here.

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