Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Administration Critics Chafe at State Dept. Shuffle; Merger Has Brought Appointees Into Conflict With Longtime Workers, Who Say They Are Sidelined

Administration Critics Chafe at State Dept. Shuffle
Merger Has Brought Appointees Into Conflict With Longtime Workers, Who Say They Are Sidelined

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer

A State Department reorganization of analysts involved in preventing the spread of deadly weapons has spawned internal turmoil, with more than half a dozen career employees alleging in interviews that political appointees sought to punish long-term employees whose views they considered suspect.

Senior State Department officials deny that and say an investigation has found that the proper personnel practices were followed. But three officials involved in the reorganization, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, acknowledge that a merger of two bureaus reduced the influence of employees who were viewed by some political appointees as disloyal to the administration's policies.

"There are a number of disgruntled employees who feel they have been shoved aside for political purposes. That's true," said one of these officials. "But there was rank insubordination on the part of these officers."

About a dozen top experts on nonproliferation have left the department in recent months, with many citing the reorganization as a reason.

The dispute has thrown a spotlight on the tensions that often exist between longtime career employees and the political appointees who come and go with successive administrations. It is also being closely watched within the State Department as another sign that, under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's leadership, the department will no longer be at war with the rest of the administration.

Rice and her top aides have sought to heal the damaging rifts that existed with the Pentagon and other agencies. Some State Department officials privately acknowledge that they used to be thrilled by the department's reputation as a renegade in President Bush's first term, but they say the message has become clear in the past year that such attitudes are no longer acceptable.

Few people would speak about the controversy for the record, either because they fear retaliation or because they must continue to work with State Department officials in their new jobs.

"The suspicion is we would undermine the policy," said one of the officials who have felt sidelined. "That is what all of us find most offensive. We are here to serve any administration."

Robert Joseph, the undersecretary of state for arms control, who oversaw the reorganization, and Henrietta H. Fore, the undersecretary for management, said in interviews that political motives were not a factor, adding that any change is going to cause distress. Fore said she has listened to employee concerns, reviewed the implementation and determined that "all steps were taken according to the law."

"None of these allegations stand up," Joseph said. "You have got a small group of individuals who are resisting the changes. I am not surprised by that. Change is difficult, but change is absolutely necessary."

The employees who say that they have been targeted once had a back channel to then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his deputy, Richard L. Armitage, who they said would on occasion ask them to bypass their superior, John R. Bolton, now the ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton, with backing from allies in the Pentagon and the vice president's office, frequently battled the rest of the State Department on policy issues.

But Joseph, who worked for Rice at the White House, is an ideological soul mate of Bolton's and retained much of Bolton's staff -- and now officials say the policy disputes that characterized Powell's State Department have largely faded under Rice's tenure. The back channel that these employees used to alert senior management to their problems with Bolton no longer exists, the career officials said.

By many accounts, the decision to merge two key bureaus focusing on nonproliferation and arms control was necessary. The merger was originally approved by Powell, in his waning days as secretary, after the department's inspector general recommended combining the bureaus on the grounds of efficiency and workload. The IG said the nonproliferation bureau -- which seeks to deter the spread of weapons of mass destruction -- was overworked, and the arms-control bureau -- which negotiates and implements arms-control agreements -- was underworked. The IG also recommended that a third bureau, verification and compliance, be downsized.

But once a panel of Joseph's top aides began implementing the plan, some of the IG's recommendations were set aside -- the verification bureau was expanded, not downsized, while officials in the arms-control bureau appeared to attain more authority. Both bureaus had appeared more in sync with the administration's views, officials said.

The merger was accomplished with unusual speed this fall because, officials said, they did not want it to become mired in excessive bureaucracy. "We wanted to pull the Band-Aid quickly as opposed to slowly, hair by hair," one official said.

But other officials said the process was opaque, and even supporters say it could have been better managed because it hurt morale throughout the bureaus and energized intense opposition. "We shouldn't have given the other side ammunition," an advocate of the changes said.

Mark Fitzpatrick, who was deputy assistant secretary for nonproliferation before leaving the department in October after 26 years, said, "I've heard about low morale and a number of people seeking to leave because they don't find the atmosphere as rewarding as it had been when it was not so politicized."

One particular office in the nonproliferation bureau, dealing mainly with the International Atomic Energy Agency, was especially targeted, numerous officials on both sides of the dispute said. Several top officials in the office were close to IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei and had privately objected to the administration's public campaign to deny him a third term. A former office director who had been on loan to the IAEA asked for his job back -- but was given a non-managerial position in another bureau; the acting office director also did not get the job.

Instead, a relatively junior Foreign Service officer, who is outranked by several officials in the bureau but who is considered skeptical of the IAEA, was named acting head of the office. Last year, two months before ElBaradei and the IAEA were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the official sent an e-mail to his colleagues ridiculing the idea. The subject line read: "A Nobel for the IAEA? Please."

Three officials familiar with the reorganization said the actions were necessary because this office -- and others -- had been openly opposed to administration policies and thus was perceived as incompetent. "You can't expect everyone to agree with you. But you do expect results," one official said. "The office became a black hole and was very ineffective."

Supporters of these officials acknowledge that they were sometimes appalled by administration positions, with several saying they had at times been embarrassed for the United States. But they also noted that the IG report had praised the office as being effective, well-run and having high morale -- in contrast to the assessment of its counterpart in the arms-control bureau.