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'Slow, Unexplained Erosion' at State Dept. Putting U.S. at Risk, Argues Top Senator

rex tillerson speaks at state department town hall

WASHINGTON -- The ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee charged Wednesday that there's been "a slow, unexplained erosion" at the State Department under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that threatens national and global security and the "values that it promotes and the vital role it plays around the world."

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) noted that more than 30 key ambassadorships still lack a nominee, dozens of senior-level posts remain vacant, the Foreign Service is "being hollowed out" with a sharp drop in recruits, and the most experienced career officials not tied to any presidential appointment are leaving or being forced out.

“I honor the experienced career officials stepping in to fill vacancies and carry out the Department’s important work, but there are limits to what officials can accomplish in an acting role," he said. "It is now December... we cannot afford to have a department that remains hamstrung because of rudderless stagnation at the top."

Morale at the State Department is "devastatingly low," he noted.

At a House Foreign Affairs hearing last week, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan admitted that "morale hasn't improved -- it's not something that I'm proud to say."

"I think one of our greatest failings has been a lack of communication," Sullivan said. "Communication particularly with our own career professionals, both at state and in the field. And a rededication to do a better job of that."

Cardin said that Tillerson's corporate-style redesign of the department "continues to tinker around the edges while the department’s core functions are deliberately hollowed out."

“Why should we tolerate a massive exodus of diplomatic and development expertise at the State Department and USAID? Our president said recently that we do not need to worry about the fact that many of the senior level positions at the State Department remain unfilled because when it comes to foreign policy his opinion is the only one that matters. Why on earth would he say that?" the senator asked. "For the thousands of FSOs around the world working to advance the ideals of United States, this was a horrible and offensive message."

He asked if the administration even understands that the State Department and USAID "are every bit as vital and critical an element of our national security as the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, our law enforcement, or the countless others in the federal government who work tirelessly every day to protect our security, extend our prosperity, and promote our values."

“Diplomacy is an investment we make so we don’t have to go to war. Nickel-and-diming it is not in our national security interest."

Stressing that U.S. foreign policy leadership is "paying the price and will continue to pay the price if things aren’t turned around quickly," Cardin called for more transparency from Tillerson including regular briefings to the Foreign Relations Committee, a detailed timeline for Tillerson's department reorganization, movement to fill senior vacancies and ambassadorships, and a vow that "the promotion of democracy and respect for human rights around the world must remain a central part of the State Department’s overall mission."

Tillerson argued in May that putting human rights foremost in policy can create "obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests."

Cardin said "improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the Department is critical to our national security given the countless challenges our nation faces," and "reforms to information technology, human resources, and procurement systems are long overdue."

“However, if the department continues down its current path my colleagues and I will be forced to turn to legislative options to address our many concerns," he vowed. "My goal is to ensure that the employees of the State Department have all the resources and support they require to complete their tasks and ensure the United States remains a global diplomatic leader. And, I will do everything in my power to guarantee this goal is accomplished."

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said at a recent press briefing that "times may seem tough right now."

"I know that the headlines coming out of the State Department do not look good, do not look promising. We have a lot of work to do here at the State Department," Nauert said. "It breaks my heart to hear that some feel that they aren't wanted or aren't needed or aren't appreciated. If I can get somebody else to convey that message more convincingly than I can, I would love to do that. But I just speak for myself right now and say how fantastic they are."