@StateDept to Offer Buyouts to First 641 Employees Who Agree to Leave by April 2018 #$25M

Posted: 12:15 am ET
Follow @Diplopundit

 

In case you have not seen this yet, the NYT reported on November 10 that the State Department will soon offer a $25,000 buyout to diplomats and staff members who quit or take early retirements by April. We think the payout number is $40K, see our comment below:

The decision is part of Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s continuing effort to cut the ranks of diplomats and Civil Service officers despite bipartisan resistance in Congress. Mr. Tillerson’s goal is to reduce a department of nearly 25,000 full-time American employees by 8 percent, which amounts to 1,982 people.

To reach that number, he has already frozen hiring, reduced promotions, asked some senior employees to perform clerical duties that are normally relegated to lower-level staff members, refused to fill many ambassadorships and senior leadership jobs, and fired top diplomats from coveted posts while offering low-level assignments in their place. Those efforts have crippled morale worl

Still, State Department accountants have told Mr. Tillerson that only about 1,341 people are expected to retire or quit by the end of September 2018, the date by which Mr. Tillerson has promised to complete the first round of cuts.

Indeed, rumors of a buyout have reduced the number of departures expected this year. So $25,000 will be given to the first 641 employees who agree to leave by April, a representative from the State Department confirmed on Friday.
[…]
Asked about the many vacancies at the State Department, Mr. Trump said in an interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News: “You know, don’t forget, I’m a businessperson and I tell my people, ‘When you don’t need to fill slots, don’t fill them.’ But we have some people that I’m not happy with there.”

Pressed about critical positions like the assistant secretary of state, Mr. Trump responded in a statement that has since reverberated around the State Department. “The one that matters is me,” he said. “I’m the only one that matters because, when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”

See the link to the full article below.

As far as we know, this POTUS has never been anywhere near Foggy Bottom since his election. Based on the archive of his tweets, he also tweeted only nine times about the State Department between 2014-2016. So when he said in that Ingraham interview that But we have some people that I’m not happy with there” — we have to wonder who are the “some people” he was referring to, and why was he “not happy.”

Given his lack of direct interactions with the employees of the State Department, we can only point to one incident that happened very early in his administration that may account for this “unhappiness.”  Back in February, we blogged about our concern related to the leaked dissent memo over Trump’s travel ban (see Dissent Channel: Draft Memo Over #MuslimBan Leaks – Now What?).  We wrote then that the leak will probably cause the greatest crisis of confidence between the new President and the Foreign Service since 1971 (see Dissent Channel Leak: Who Gains the Most From Flogging the Laundry Like This?).  In that 1971 case, President Nixon apparently instructed Secretary Rogers to fire all 50 FSOs who signed a letter protesting an anticipated invasion of Cambodia. We are not aware of similar known instruction from this president but watching the news coming out of Foggy Bottom this past several months, one cannot help but wonder what function that leaked dissent memo had in the decision not to staff the agency at its upper ranks, and the reorganization that the new secretary of state has now embarked on (FOIA ninjas, here’s a case for you!).

Trump’s 2018 Budget requested $25.6 billion in base funding for the Department of State and USAID, a $10.1 billion or 28 percent reduction from the 2017 annualized CR level. The Budget also requested $12.0 billion as Overseas Contingency Operations funding for extraordinary costs, primarily in war areas like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, for an agency total of $37.6 billion. Note that the FY18 request under “Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments” include “Section 3523 of Title 5, U.S. Code shall be applied with respect to funds made available by this Act by substituting “$40,000” for “$25,000″ in subsection (b)(3)(B) of such section.”  (Read 5 U.S. Code 3523).

In September this year, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved “a $51.35 billion appropriations bill to strengthen federal programs and operations that support national security and American values abroad.”  The minority announcement notes that the allocation is $10.7 billion above the President’s request as scored by CBO, but it is $1.9 billion below the fiscal year 2017 enacted level. We expect this will pass due to bipartisan support.  Despite the reduced request by the Trump Administration, Congress reaffirmed its primary role in appropriating funds and gave the State Department more money than was requested.

And yet, the State Department is going forward with shrinking its American workforce by 8 percent. NYT put the reduction in number at 1,982 employees. The NYT report also says the first 641 employees who agree to leave by April will get $25K. The budget request actually increases the buyout amount to $40K. If our math is right, that means a total payout of about $25.6 million.

See: @StateDept/USAID Staffing Cut and Attrition: A Look at Real Numbers and Projected Attrition, our calculations at 600 missed by 41 employees for the buyout.

We remember reading, in the aftermath of the dissent memo leak that the Democratic Members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs reminded the Trump Administration that State Department personnel who dissent from policy are protected by law and sought assurances that State Department personnel would not be subject to harassment or retribution for offering dissenting viewpoints.

But who’s going to protect an entire agency in what now looks glaringly like collective punishment?

A career ambassador who left the Service the last couple of years told us recently, “Until now, I’ve kept an open mind and a stiff upper lip. But now I’m ready to conclude that they really are working incrementally [to] fuck the traditional Foreign Service.”

#


Advertisements

More on the Syria Dissent Channel Memo, and Chasing Down Concerning Rumors

Posted: 4:21 pm ET
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

According to Tuesday’s Daily Press Briefing, Secretary Kerry met yesterday with a small number, approximately 10 of the 51 signers of the Syria Dissent Channel memo for about a half an hour. The official spox said that “as you can imagine, the group is sizeable, so it wasn’t possible to meet with everybody. But he did have a collegial discussion with them this morning.” 

MR KIRBY: I’m – because the dissent channel memo and the contents of it are meant to be privately conveyed, so too I’m afraid are going to have to be the discussions around it. So I’m not going to be able to characterize the content of the Secretary’s conversation with them, because we want to respect the confidentiality of the process. It was, however – it was – I believe the Secretary came away feeling that it was a good discussion, it was worth having. He appreciated their views and just as critically their firm belief in their – in the opportunity that they have to express those views. And so they had a good 30-minute or more conversation.
[…]
MR KIRBY: Look, let me do this. So I can tell you a couple of things. He thanked them for expressing their views and for using the dissent channel. And he reaffirmed his strong belief in the value of the dissent channel, which we’ve talked about quite a bit here. So he thanked them for expressing their views, for using the dissent channel to do that. He made clear that he takes the dissent channel seriously and he took their views seriously, and also made clear that he read their message with sincerity. And, again, without talking about the specific detail of it, the Secretary also walked them through his own thought process with respect to this particular issue and the efforts that he’s been expending on this particular issue.
[…]
MR KIRBY:
 I didn’t say and I won’t speculate as to discussions going forward with respect to what we’re doing in Syria or decisions that may or may not get made, either as a result of this message or as a result of ongoing routine discussions that have been had and continue to be had on alternatives. So I’m not going to speculate about the role that this message might play one way or the other.

But if you’re asking me, was this just a show for the Secretary, the answer is absolutely not. I mean, it – certainly he wanted to thank them and pay respect to the process because this is an important issue. But he also didn’t waste time in terms of hearing them out and asking questions and listening to their views and asking them to expound on them further. I mean, that’s the way this Secretary likes to conduct meetings and discussions and to inform himself. And again, I think he found the meeting useful in that regard. But I wouldn’t begin to speculate one way or another what this conversation today or that message did last week in terms of altering, changing any of the thinking going forward.  As I said last week, nobody is content with the status quo on the ground and the Administration has been looking at other options with respect to Syria for quite some time. This is not new. And yes, some of those options have included the potential for military initiatives. Again, that’s nothing new. So all these things —

The full DPB transcript is here.

Meanwhile, we had to chase down a couple of concerning rumors related to the dissent memo. We heard an allegation about Congressional pressure for a) the memo and b) the names of the signers.  Apparently, “word on the street” is that the Front Office of a certain geographical bureau is “providing names to the Hill in exchange for unblocking some nominations.” We must note that this bureau’s two chief of mission nominees had their confirmation hearing on Tuesday, June 21. There were no indications previously or at this time that these two nominations are subject to a Senate hold.

A State Department spokesperson, on background responded to our inquiry with the following:

“The dissent channel message has been provided to the Hill, but we did not include — nor will we — the names of the authors.”

We do not even want to imagine what a Congressional committee can do with the names or hearings in a partisan fight, in an election year.  So that’s one rumor debunked.

We also heard that the subject of this uproar, which appears to have SBU marking (“sensitive but unclassified”) has now been “retroactively classified.”

A State Department spokesperson, on background also told us that the cable was transmitted on the highside, and was classified confidential by the authors.”

Thanks X for debunking this other rumor.

The draft version published by the New York Times contains the SBU marking. It appears that the final version went out as “confidential” and was transmitted via the classified system.  What we still don’t know and may never know is how wide was the distribution of this “Dissent Channel” message and who purposely let this piglet out of the pen. We are still at a loss as to the leaker or leakers’ motive/s and perplexed at the calculation of sending a public message to a President with less than six months left in office.

Here are more links to read:

Here’s an early summer bonus for the “security diplomats”!

 

#

 

When Policy Battles Break Out in Public — Holy Dissent, What a Mess!

Posted: 8:26 pm ET
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

Also see “Dissent Channel” Message on Syria Policy Signed by 51 @StateDept Officers Leaks NYT Publishes Draft Version of @StateDept Dissent Memo on Syria Without the Names of Signers from 

 

Here is the DPB for today, June 20 with the State Department spox answering questions about the “it’s good” response from Secretary Kerry — apparently, he wasn’t referring to the punctuation:

QUESTION: All right, let’s start with Syria. Earlier today, in one of the events that you just mentioned, the Secretary told our colleague Abigail that he had read the dissent channel memo —

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: — and that he – that it looked good to him, or he said something like, “It’s good,” and that he would —

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: — he was going to meet them. Can you elaborate at all?

MR KIRBY: Well, I don’t know how much more I can —

QUESTION: Well, what does he mean when he said it’s good?

MR KIRBY: I think – I think —

QUESTION: I mean, does that mean he agrees?

MR KIRBY: Well, I’m – again, I’m limited in what I can talk about in terms of the content of a dissent channel message. I think what the Secretary was referring to was the – that he did read it and that I – that he found it to be a well-written argument. But I’m not going to talk about the content. And as for meeting with the authors, he has expressed an interest in meeting with at least some of them. I mean, there’s a lot of them, so I don’t know that we’ll be able to pull off a single meeting with each and every one of them there, but he has expressed an interest in talking to them, and we’ll do that in due course.

QUESTION: So when you say it was a – what did you say, it was a well-presented argument?

MR KIRBY: What I – what I —

QUESTION: Well-written argument?

MR KIRBY: What I think the Secretary was referring to was that he read the paper and thought that it was – thought that it was well written, that it was good in that regard. I won’t talk to the content or his views of the content.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, without talking about what the actual content was, when you say it was well written or the argument is a good one, does that mean that he is prepared to – whatever it says, I’m not asking you about content – that he is prepared to make the case for those – for the positions that are articulated in this cable —

MR KIRBY: Well, two – two thoughts there. First —

QUESTION: — within the Administration?

MR KIRBY: Two thoughts there. First, as you know, the policy planning staff will be preparing a response, as is required. That response is not yet finished, and we don’t publicize – any more than we publicize the contents of dissent channel messages, we don’t publicize the response. But the response is being prepared. As for any espousal of the ideas before, during or after the fact of them being proffered in a dissent channel message, the Secretary very much keeps private his advice and counsel to the President on policy matters, and we’re going to – obviously, we’re going to respect that.

QUESTION: Well, since this became public last week, you will have noticed numerous articles, numerous – or numerous reports saying outright and suggesting strongly that, in fact, the Secretary agrees with many if not all of the points made in this cable. Are you not – are his comments today not indicative of that?

MR KIRBY: His comments today – I would not characterize his comments today as being indicative of a full-throated endorsement of the views in this particular dissent channel message. Again, I can’t speak to content. What I can tell you is a couple of things. One, obviously, whatever views, advice and counsel he presents to the President need to remain private, and they will. And so I won’t get into that. But then also, as I said Friday, he has made no bones about the fact that he is not content with the status quo in Syria. We are not content with the status quo in Syria. Too many people are dying, too many people are being denied basic life-sustaining material – food, water, medicine – and there’s been too little progress on the political track.

QUESTION: Yeah, but —

MR KIRBY: But if you also look – but if you also look at what else he said this morning – I mean, I know that Abigail shouted out a question, but if you look at the transcript of what else he had to say to those college students, he talked about how important it is that we continue to work through a transitional governing process in Syria, and that that is the best way forward – a political solution is still the preferred path forward.

QUESTION: Right, but when you talk about how no one – you’re not, he’s not, no one is satisfied with the status quo – this is a bit of what is actually going on on the ground in Syria – clearly, no one is. But this isn’t a question about the status quo on the situation in Syria. This is a question about the status quo of the policy. So are you not in a position to be able to say that the Secretary is not – that he doesn’t like the status quo, the policy status quo, the U.S. policy status quo?

MR KIRBY: Nobody’s happy with the status quo of events on the ground, and that is why —

QUESTION: Yeah, but what about the policy?

MR KIRBY: — but – I’m getting there.

QUESTION: All right.

MR KIRBY: That is why, as – and I mentioned this Friday – that is why we do consider – we are considering, we are discussing other alternatives, other options that may be applied, mindful that we are, that the current approach is, without question, struggling. But as the President said himself, none of those other options – be they military or not in nature – are better than – in terms of the long-term outcome, are going to be better than the political solution we’re trying to pursue.

QUESTION: Okay. This will be my last one. I – because I’m just a – the – so you – you’re – what you’re saying is that his comment, “It’s good,” refers —

QUESTION: Very good.

QUESTION: Sorry?

QUESTION: Very good.

QUESTION: It’s very good – sorry, it’s very good – that refers to how it was put together, like the grammar and the sentence structure, and not the actual content? Because that strikes me as being a bit —

MR KIRBY: No, I’m not saying he was talking about punctuation. I mean, I —

QUESTION: Oh, okay, so —

MR KIRBY: Obviously – obviously, he read the memo and found it to be a well-crafted argument, well enough that he feels it’s worth meeting with the authors. Now, what exactly did he find in Abigail’s shouted-out – quote, “Very good,” I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to him about every element of it. And again, I’m not going to talk about the content of it from here.

QUESTION: Well, so you can’t – you’re not in a position to say that the “It’s very good” means that he is prepared to make those same arguments within the – as the Administration deliberates?

MR KIRBY: No, I’m not prepared to – I’m not prepared to say that.

#

“Dissent Channel” Message on Syria Policy Signed by 51 @StateDept Officers Leaks

Posted: 2:52 am ET
Updated: 3:55 pm ET
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

The State Department’s Dissent Channel was created “to allow its users the opportunity to bring dissenting or alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues, when such views cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels or procedures, to the attention of the Secretary of State and other senior State Department officials in a manner which protects the author from any penalty, reprisal, or recrimination.”  Note that management, administrative, or personnel issues that are not significantly related to matters of substantive foreign policy may not be communicated through the Dissent Channel according to the Foreign Affairs Manual.

There is a reason we don’t hear often about the messages sent through the “dissent channel”:

Freedom from reprisal for Dissent Channel users is strictly enforced; officers or employees found to have engaged in retaliation or reprisal against Dissent Channel users, or to have divulged to unauthorized personnel the source or contents of Dissent Channel messages, will be subject to disciplinary action.  Dissent Channel messages, including the identity of the authors, are a most sensitive element in the internal deliberative process and are to be protected accordingly.

Neither the identity of a Dissent Channel user nor the contents of any Dissent Channel message may be shared with anyone outside of the procedures as outlined in 2 FAM 074.1paragraph (b)

We understand that in 1977, the Executive Secretariat logged in some 32 Dissent Channel messages. By contrast, in 2005, you apparently could count by the fingers of one hand the number of Foreign Service professionals who used the Dissent Channel.

In 2009, USA TODAY (October 12, 2009) publicly reported the use of the dissent channel on a USAID program in Pakistan (see Dissent Channel: USAID/Pakistan Program.

Probably, one of the more famous use of the dissent channel was one signed by 20 diplomats on the U.S. policy toward East Pakistan, also known as the Blood Telegram, the subject of the book by Gary Bass.  Archer Blood was our top diplomat in Bangladesh.  He was the Consul General to Dhaka, East Pakistan and was famous for sending the strongly-worded dissent telegram protesting against the atrocities committed in the Bangladesh Liberation War. [See cable: Dissent From U.S. Policy Toward East Pakistan Cable (PDF); Also see Wanted: Patron Saint for Dissenting Diplomats).

On June 16,  NYT’s Mark Lander reports that dozens of diplomats have signed a dissent memo over the administration’s Syria policy, and that a State Department official provided a draft of the dissent memo to the newspaper:

More than 50 State Department diplomats have signed an internal memo sharply critical of the Obama administration’s policy in Syria, urging the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad to stop its persistent violations of a cease-fire in the country’s five-year-old civil war.

The memo, a draft of which was provided to The New York Times by a State Department official, says American policy has been “overwhelmed” by the unrelenting violence in Syria. It calls for “a judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.”

So, what happens next?

According to the regs, the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff (S/P) is responsible for management of the Dissent Channel, including receipt, storage, distribution, and acknowledgment of all Dissent Channel messages received, and drafting, clearance, and timely transmission of all Dissent Channel responses.  Note that Jon Finer, is Secretary Kerry’s Chief of Staff and also the Director of Policy Planning

Immediately upon receipt of all incoming Dissent Channel messages, S/P distributes copies to the Secretary, the Deputy Secretary (Blinken), the Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources (Higginbottom), the Under Secretary for Political Affairs (Shannon), the Executive Secretary, and the Chair of the Secretary’s Open Forum (who is not identified on the state.gov website). The director of S/P may distribute the dissent message to other senior officials in the Department, both for information purposes and for help in drafting a response.  No additional distribution may be made without the authorization of the S/P director.

The Director of Policy Planning is also responsible for acknowledging receipt of a Dissent message within 2 working days and for providing a substantive reply, normally within 30-60 working days.  At the discretion of the Director of the Policy Planning, S/P may also clear replies with other senior Department of State officials.

Will this change the policy on Syria? Don’t count on it.

According to Kal Bird in Dissent in the Foreign Service, the first dissent cable was filed by Jack Perry, protesting the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, on the eve of the Nixon-Brezhnev summit. Perry’s arguments had no impact on the Nixon-Kissinger Vietnam policy. Also this:

The first major test of the dissent channel as a means of not only venting views, but changing policy, came in Cyprus in 1974. In that year of the CIA-sponsored coup d’etat in Nicosia, Thomas Boyatt filed a dissent cable protesting Kissinger’s interventionist policy. Within days Boyatt was fired from his position as director of the Office of Cypriot Affairs. His dissent cable was not answered for five months, and even then, the response was merely an acknowledgment of receipt.

(Note: The Blood telegram is dated April 6, 1971, so while we do not have a date for the Perry cable protesting the 1972 bombing of North Vietnam, the Blood dissent appears to predates the Perry dissent).

Mr. Bird’s article notes that “precisely because few dissent cables have ever changed policy, use of the dissent channel is considered a desperate last resort.”

A “desperate last resort” and might just be the reason why this dissent channel memo was leaked to the New York Times.

#

What a dissent cable looks like — read Dissent From U.S. Policy Toward East Pakistan Cable via National Security Archive/GWU:

 

#