Political News

Pompeo faces challenge balancing State Department 'swagger' and security

Posted May 4, 2018 6:43 p.m. EDT

— Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday that the safety of State Department diplomats and their families will be a top priority for him as he paid his respects to fallen foreign service officers and the culture of sacrifice that defines the agency.

"I promise I'm going to do everything I can to keep every one of our team members safe," he said at a ceremony for foreign service officers who died in the line of duty, their names engraved on the wall behind him.

Pompeo said that even before he was confirmed by the Senate, he was thinking about safety.

"The very first briefing I received after I was nominated was on the issue of security," the new secretary said Friday. "I take this mission incredibly seriously."

But the issue of safety is fraught, both for the secretary and the agency he now leads.

Pompeo made his mark as a lawmaker on the House select investigative committee probing the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the deaths of four Americans.

Calling for renewed 'swagger'

During that time, he was a vocal critic of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's leadership of the State Department, rebuking her and others in the Obama administration for failing to better protect its personnel and respond to the attack as it unfolded.

Many in the diplomatic community believe the House Select Committee on Benghazi's investigation led to a culture of greater risk aversion in the agency, which has since hampered its efforts. Diplomats in certain posts are forbidden from traveling outside the embassy without guards, curbing their ability to connect with people. In some countries, they're forbidden from entering certain areas for security reasons.

That's an issue Pompeo will have to grapple with as he makes a call for diplomats to regain their "swagger" and do their jobs "in every corner of the world," as part of President Donald Trump's "muscular diplomacy."

At his formal swearing-in ceremony at the State Department on Tuesday, Pompeo said that "we need our men and women out at the front lines, executing American diplomacy with great vigor and energy, and to represent the finest nation in the history of civilization. We should be proud of that, and I'm counting on you all to help communicate in every corner of the world."

But "swagger" might be hard to align with an emphasis on security, observers point out.

Ambassador Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, says the select committee's investigation did contribute to a culture of risk aversion at the State Department that continues to this day.

The committee's investigation came after seven other congressional probes and lasted longer than investigations into the Sept. 11 attacks, Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, two former Obama administration security officials noted in a recent op-ed. It produced more than 75,000 documents.

And yet Pompeo felt the committee's work was "incomplete," wrote Derek Chollet, a former Pentagon official, and Ben Fishman, former North Africa director for the National Security Council. "So he co-authored fifty more pages of 'additional views' " about the attack, the two write.

"By persistently attacking the State Department and questioning its mission, the committee undermined the legitimacy of the institution and the competence of its personnel," Chollet and Fishman wrote in Foreign Policy magazine. "The result is a diplomatic corps that is bruised, demoralized, and risk-averse."

The State Department couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Neumann noted the irony, saying that aversion to risk is "one of the challenges he's going to have to tackle if he wants to get people out to do their job."

That said, Neumann and others stress that the diplomatic community is looking forward to having Pompeo at the helm and wants to focus on the future as it recovers from a year of morale-busting hiring freezes and proposed budget cuts.

"After the last year with [former Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson, people are a lot more focused on rebuilding the State Department and stopping the beating than they are looking back to Benghazi," Neumann told CNN, noting that Pompeo is "saying the right things" to staff so far.

"I think generally people are looking forward to having him there overall," he added.

Neumann wants to see Pompeo focus on restaffing the agency and elevating experienced career professionals to top-tier jobs, along with political appointees. The State Department is signaling that Pompeo wants to move quickly to fill vacant positions.

"The secretary has acknowledged and highlighted the importance of filling vacant positions," spokesman Heather Nauert said Wednesday. "As many of you know, we have a lot of them, and so he will be working very hard in filling up those positions."

Several State Department officials say the newly minted secretary is being well-received among the agency rank-and-file. They point to Pompeo's remarks to State employees and at his swearing-in ceremony, his emphasis on his respect for the department and his declared intention to be accessible and a good listener.

And Pompeo's first official act as secretary -- lifting a hiring freeze on family members of overseas diplomats, imposed by Tillerson -- was a hugely popular move. He announced the decision in an email to State Department employees, obtained by CNN, in which he addressed them as "team" and signed off as "Mike."