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Critics Say Tillerson Is Gutting The State Department In His Re-Design Efforts


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says he's redesigning the State Department to make it more efficient. But his critics say he's gutting it at a time when the U.S. needs diplomats and development experts to promote national security interests. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are sounding the alarm, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: An open letter from the State Department's union sparked the latest wave of concern about Rex Tillerson's management style. It warns that the top leadership ranks are being depleted at a, quote, "dizzying speed." And that has the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin, worried.


BEN CARDIN: If this was happening at DOD, where our generals were resigning and our top management was missing in action, there would be I think greater alarm. So I just really want to raise the alarm.

KELEMEN: The State Department says the union figures are a distortion. The highest-ranking diplomats, the career ambassadors, may be down more than 60 percent, as the union says. But there were only six to begin with this year, and the department is now down to two. But the lower ranks are also thinning, says Senator Cardin, who again compares the foreign service to the military, where experience matters.


CARDIN: We're losing that, and it takes a long time to rebuild that capacity.

KELEMEN: Cardin plans to use his position on the Foreign Relations Committee to push back. He'll have some help from the Republican chairman, Bob Corker, who, though a backer of the secretary of state, expressed frustration about Tillerson's reform plans.


BOB CORKER: We had a very unsatisfactory meeting last week with the State Department. I don't think they're anywhere close to having a plan to present relative to the reforms they want to make there.

KELEMEN: State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert says the redesign is still a work in progress, and diplomats are having their say.


HEATHER NAUERT: The people who are implementing the redesign, the people who are deciding the future of the redesign - you know, it's not coming from a brand new political appointee like myself. It's coming from people who have worked for the State Department for many years, in some cases decades and decades.

KELEMEN: That, she says, is separate from some of the other concerns raised by members of Congress. Senators John McCain, a Republican, and Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, wrote to Secretary Tillerson urging him to remove a hiring freeze and resume promotions in a system where, like the military, it's up or out.

In another letter, Democrat Chris Murphy questions Tillerson's plans for buyouts, saying that could lead to a dangerous loss of expertise. Nauert says the department is just trying to meet the budget goals set by the White House. But that's part of the problem, says Senator Cardin, who doesn't see Tillerson defending his department.


CARDIN: Secretary Tillerson has not been an effective voice to represent the State Department through reorganization.

KELEMEN: Morale is low, too, something Nauert addressed in her briefing today.


NAUERT: Sure, there is a morale issue in this building. And that's why I say, you know, folks, hang in there. We have a lot of work to be done. Please don't give up. Don't give up on this building. Don't give up on what America's doing. Don't give up on the importance of this job and this career.

KELEMEN: President Trump has sent a different message. He doesn't want a lot of positions filled at the State Department, telling Fox News recently that when it comes to foreign policy, quote, "I'm the only one that matters." Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF CCFX'S "THE ONE TO WAIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.