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Disquiet Grows While Tillerson Culls the Ranks

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the White House in Washington, November 20. Tom Brenner/The New York Times The New York Times

Disquiet Grows While Tillerson Culls the Ranks

Gardiner Harris

WASHINGTON — Of all the State Department employees who might have been vulnerable in the staff reductions that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has initiated as he reshapes the department, the one person who seemed least likely to be a target was the chief of security, Bill A. Miller.

Republicans pilloried Hillary Clinton for what they claimed was her inadequate attention to security as secretary of state in the months before the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Congress even passed legislation mandating that the department’s top security official have unrestricted access to the secretary of state.

But in his first nine months in office, Tillerson turned down repeated and sometimes urgent requests from the department’s security staff to brief him, according to several former top officials in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Finally, Miller, the acting assistant secretary for diplomatic security, was forced to cite the law’s requirement that he be allowed to speak to Tillerson.

Miller got just five minutes with the secretary of state, the former officials said. Afterward, Miller, a career Foreign Service officer, was pushed out, joining a parade of dismissals and early retirements that has decimated the State Department’s senior ranks. Miller declined to comment.

The departures mark a new stage in the broken and increasingly contentious relationship between Tillerson and much of his department’s workforce. By last spring, interviews at the time suggested, the guarded optimism that greeted his arrival had given way to concern among diplomats about his aloofness and lack of communication. By the summer, the secretary’s focus on efficiency and reorganization over policy provoked off-the-record anger.

Now the estrangement is in the open, as diplomats going out the door make their feelings known and members of Congress raise questions about the impact of their leaving.

In a letter to Tillerson last week, Democratic members of the House Foreign Relations Committee, citing what they said was “the exodus of more than 100 senior Foreign Service officers from the State Department since January,” expressed concern about “what appears to be the intentional hollowing-out of our senior diplomatic ranks.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., sent a similar letter, telling Tillerson that “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex global crises are growing externally.”

Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, has made no secret of his belief that the State Department is a bloated bureaucracy and that much of the day-to-day diplomacy that lower-level officials conduct is unproductive. Even before Tillerson was confirmed, his staff fired six of the State Department’s top career diplomats, including Patrick Kennedy, who had been appointed to his position by President George W. Bush. Kristie Kenney, the department’s counselor and one of just five career ambassadors, was summarily fired a few weeks later.

They were not given any reason for their dismissals, although Kennedy and Kenney had been reprimanded by Trump transition officials for answering basic logistical questions from Nikki Haley, President Donald Trump’s pick as U.N. ambassador. Tillerson is widely believed to dislike Haley, who has been seen as a possible successor if Tillerson steps down.

In the following months, Tillerson launched a reorganization that he has said will be the most important thing he will do, and he has hired two consulting companies to lead the effort. Since he decided before even arriving at the State Department to slash its budget by 31 percent, many in the department have always seen the reorganization as a smoke screen for drastic cuts.

Tillerson has frozen most hiring and recently offered a $25,000 buyout in hopes of pushing nearly 2,000 career diplomats and civil servants to leave by October 2018.

His aides have fired some diplomats and gotten others to resign by refusing them the assignments they wanted or taking away their duties altogether. Among those fired or sidelined were most of the top African-American and Latino diplomats, as well as many women, difficult losses in a department that has long struggled with diversity.

One of them was Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career Foreign Service officer who served as ambassador to Liberia under Bush and as director general of the Foreign Service and assistant secretary for African Affairs during the Obama administration. Thomas-Greenfield was among those asked to leave by Tillerson’s staff, but she appealed and remained until her retirement in September.

“I don’t feel targeted as an African-American,” she said. “I feel targeted as a professional.”

For those who have not been dismissed, retirement has become a preferred alternative when, like Miller, they find no demand for their expertise. A retirement class that concludes this month has 26 senior employees, including two acting assistant secretaries in their early 50s who would normally wait years before leaving.

The number of those with the department’s top two ranks of career ambassador and career minister — equivalent to four- and three-star generals — will have been cut in half by Dec. 1, from 39 to 19. And of the 431 minister-counselors, who have two-star-equivalent ranks, 369 remain and another 14 have indicated that they will leave soon — an 18 percent drop — according to an accounting provided by the American Foreign Service Association.

The political appointees who normally join the department after a change in administration have not made up for those departures. So far, just 10 of the top 44 political positions in the department have been filled, and for most of the vacancies, Tillerson has not nominated anyone.

“Leadership matters,” said Nancy McEldowney, a former ambassador who retired in June after a 30-year career as a Foreign Service officer. “There’s a vacuum throughout the State Department, and the junior people now working in these top jobs lack the confidence and credibility that comes from a presidential nomination and Senate confirmation.”

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