State Department employees on February 19 woke up to a love letter in their inbox from their new Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun. The Deputy Secretary says that he is looking forward to highlighting his priorities relating to people, policy and process but the new email was aimed at tackling “the first issue”, that is, how they can “work together to ensure we do not improperly engage the Department of State in the political process.”
He writes that “One of the great strengths of our country is its democratic process, which we proudly showcase in our global engagements.”
He talks about the political debate going on and the agency’s far-reaching restrictions “designed to ensure our representation overseas is not perceived as partisan.”
It is not lost on any of us that there is a national political debate going on around us that manifests itself daily in news feeds, questions and comments from our foreign contacts, and communications from friends via emails and social media. I have spent my career at the intersection of foreign policy and politics, so I recognize that it can be personally challenging to keep politics outside of daily engagements. This, however, is what our laws and policies require. State Department employees, like all federal employees, are subject to restrictions on engaging in partisan political activity while at work and outside of work. We often talk of Hatch Act requirements, but in truth the Department has more far-reaching restrictions designed to ensure our representation overseas is not perceived as partisan.
Apparently, Mr. Pompeo recently approved “updated guidance for political activities restrictions that apply to all Department employees.” Further, Mr. Biegun notes that “Department legal requirements and policies, which have been in place for decades, are broad and bear careful review.”
He tells employees that “obligations differ based on your employment status” and reveals that “as a Senate confirmed Department official, I will be sitting on the sidelines of the political process this year and will not be attending any political events, to include the national conventions.”
His message does not say if all Senate-confirmed Department officials will also sit on the sidelines.
He writes that while he is not active on social media, he encourage employees “to think about your own practices and how the guidelines provided by the Office of the Legal Adviser might apply to your social media activity.” Further, he also shared that he intends “to be thoughtful in how I respond to emails from friends that have even the appearance of partisan political content.”
Apparently, there are three new Department memoranda which summarize political activity guidance for each of three categories of Department employees—
(1) All Presidential Appointees and All Political Appointees
(2) Career SES Employees
(3) All Department of State Employees (Other than Career SES, Presidential Appointees, and Political Appointees)
(—as well as special guidance for employees and their families abroad).
The Office of the Legal Adviser has issued three political activities memoranda but they are behind the firewall, so we do not, as yet, know what they say. He is asking employees “to review the guidelines carefully so that together we can ensure that our Department work is above reproach.”
(Can somebody please FOIA these updated guidance?)
Mr. Biegun also cited 3 FAM 4123.3 (Employee Responsibilities Abroad/Political Activities): https://fam.state.gov/fam/03fam/03fam4120.html — see 3 FAM 4123.3 for Political Activities
He ends his message with:
“I am impressed by the discipline and unfailing professionalism that I see across our Department team on a daily basis, exemplifying the Secretary’s Ethos statement. I hope you will join me in carefully adhering to these restrictions designed to support our nonpartisan foreign policy.”
Oops! We read “Secretary’s Ethos statement” and we nearly fell off our chair like a drunken master.
Bonus report below about the deputy secretary’s boss’ recent 17-minute speech at a city of 3,100 people in Florida and then you all can have a town hall meeting about how to ensure that the Department’s work is beyond reproach.
In any case, it sounds like employees who want to learn more may attend a special training session by the Office of the Special Counsel scheduled for March 13 in Foggy Bottom. It doesn’t sound like senior State Department officials and advisers who are active and partisan on social media are required to attend the training session. State/D’s message only notes that he is attending the OSC’s session, and it is “a regularly scheduled session available to all employees.”
If Mike Pompeo is not running for U.S. Senate (which he says he isn't) and if he's not using state travel to help Trump's 2020 campaign (which he says he isn't), then why did he secretly stop in The Villages on his recent trip to Florida?https://t.co/NloYGVEyZf
— Steve Contorno (@scontorno) February 19, 2020
I was traveling w/ Secretary Pompeo when his vehicle mysteriously split from the motorcade in Bushnell. @TB_Times reports he met w/ one of the wealthiest Republican donors in Central Florida: the Morse family. At the time no one would tell traveling press where Pompeo was going. https://t.co/sMyit7VlMl
— Elizabeth McLaughlin (@Elizabeth_McLau) February 19, 2020
For a month, I've asked the State Dept to explain why Mike Pompeo came to Bushnell—a city of 3100—for a 17 min speech.
It turns out there was more to his Florida trip: Pompeo secretly stopped in The Villages near a GOP donor, records we obtained show.https://t.co/NloYGVWanP
— Steve Contorno (@scontorno) February 19, 2020