Leaked Document Shows Tillerson Power Play
A leaked document shows how the secretary of state is trying to centralize foreign policy decision making, alarming veteran diplomats.
By Nahal Toosi
October 28, 2017 "Information Clearing House" - A leaked State Department document is alarming diplomats and others who say it shows the accumulation of power among a small and unaccountable group of senior aides to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The chart, obtained by POLITICO, illustrates the growing influence of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, which traditionally has served as an in-house think tank but which Tillerson heavily relies upon for day-to-day decision making. Critics already complain that the office — led by Brian Hook, a powerful Tillerson aide not subject to Senate confirmation — accepts too little input from career diplomats, and the chart, which lays out a method to craft foreign policy, shows no explicit role for them.
The chart appears to show a top-down approach in which ideas emanate from the secretary’s inner circle rather than bubbling up from diverse sources, such as foreign service officers in the field. More than half a dozen current and former U.S. officials who have seen the document said it reveals an unusual level of control and oversight by the Policy Planning Staff, which is known in diplomatic circles as S/P.
Several current and former U.S. officials warned that the new approach, called the Policy Planning Process, or “P3,” increases the risk of poor, uninformed policy choices on everything from terrorism in Africa to human rights issues at a perilous time in international relations. It could also further demoralize career State Department staffers who already feel marginalized by Tillerson and President Donald Trump.
“This says to me that they are developing a new foreign policy structure that is designed to largely ignore those who know these regions and who know these issues," said Brett Bruen, a former State Department official who served under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
The chart suggests “a power grab by a small cabal of Tillerson aides,” added a senior Democratic congressional aide. “Making policy with a token effort to engage policy experts is a recipe for disaster and further evidence that the political forces in this administration will do anything they can to dismantle the State Department.”
The State Department’s press section did not respond to a POLITICO request for more material and context, but a senior department official said in a statement: “Policy development starts with the administration priorities set by the president. The policy planning process develops foreign policy with broad input at all stages from within State and the inter-agency. This process has supported new policies in a range of areas, including Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.”
In recent weeks, Hook has been meeting with various divisions at the State Department to explain the eight-step process. A source familiar with the issue said Hook is not seeking feedback but merely informing employees of a process Tillerson has already approved. The chart shows that policymaking begins with a “whiteboard session” between Hook and Tillerson.
Other State Department sources said Hook is simply explaining an approach that, at least in its first few steps, has slowly taken hold since Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO used to corporate management structure, took over as secretary in February.
The State Department officials said Hook’s policy planning chart nonetheless formalizes an unwelcome change in their status from the Obama administration.
“We are implementers of policy decided by Tillerson and his team,” one veteran State Department official concluded.
Several sources were unsettled to see the chart omit any mention of other parts of the State Department, especially its many bureaus focused on specific regions and issues, such as the Middle East and economics.
Some noted that Hook and Tillerson could include career diplomats in policy discussions throughout the process, even if the chart does not describe a specific role for them. Certain longtime department employees, including acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton, are known to have Tillerson’s ear. It’s also possible that what the chart vaguely describes as an “internally” triggered policy demand could come from a junior diplomat with a big idea.
Regardless of those caveats, the sources consulted said the chart strongly implies that Hook and Tillerson are the authoritative drivers of foreign policy to an unusual degree.
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Several sources — while cautioning that the chart could offer an incomplete picture — also noted with concern that it also implies that the secretary of state, the Cabinet and Trump himself might endorse a policy prior to any significant evaluation by the National Security Council. They argued it should be the other way around to prevent poorly informed policy options from being placed before Cabinet secretaries and the president.
One serving U.S. official said the chart seemed “delusional” in its measure of the State Department and Tillerson’s influence in policy making. The Defense Department and the White House itself are major players in crafting U.S. foreign policy; and in the case of Tillerson, he’s clashed with Trump on so many levels — even reportedly calling the president a “moron” — that his very future at State is in question.
“This would be a challenging process to manage effectively for even the most powerful and skilled secretary of state, and we don’t have that right now,” said Derek Chollet, who was a deputy director of the Policy Planning Staff under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “I don’t understand how this comports with any reality that we’re aware of.”
The State Department’s Policy Planning Staff was created in 1947 by legendary diplomat George Kennan at the request of then-Secretary of State George C. Marshall. It’s supposed to be an independent source of analysis and often acts as a second opinion on policy for the secretary. According to the department’s own explanation, Policy Planning tends to “take a longer term, strategic view of global trends.”
Various secretaries of state have employed the office in different ways. It was considered unusually active under James Baker, when George H.W. Bush was president. It was also considered relatively active when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.
But former and current U.S. officials said that, even in those days, the Policy Planning Staff worked hand in hand with other divisions at State instead of supplanting them. A case in point was the “pivot to Asia” strategy publicly articulated by Clinton — but widely considered the brainchild of then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell.
Hook's role at State is drawing increasing scrutiny from lawmakers, many of whom are troubled by Tillerson’s slowness in filling the many vacant assistant secretary and other leadership positions at State. The jobs remain unfilled as Tillerson is working on a plan to restructure and streamline the entire department.
Hook and his crew on the Policy Planning Staff — which numbers around two dozen, according to the State Department’s website — wield unusual power in part because so many key jobs are empty or held by diplomats on an acting basis. And unlike assistant secretaries or other top officials, Hook’s position doesn’t require Senate confirmation, which troubles some on Capitol Hill.
Observers say Hook, viewed as a relatively mainstream Republican, is running ragged trying to meet the demands placed on him.
“Hook is like a one-man band frantically, albeit valiantly, trying to play all the instruments, as competent and experienced musicians are made to stand on the sidelines,” one U.S. official said.
There have been reports that Tillerson, as part of a broader effort to restructure the State Department, wants to greatly expand the size of the Policy Planning Staff. The department did not immediately respond to questions about those reports. Still, even the possibility is meeting resistance among some lawmakers.
Last month, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire tacked an amendment onto a State Department appropriations bill that seeks to limit the size of the Policy Planning Staff, subject to certain conditions. The broader bill, which was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, also largely rejected Trump's effort to slash the State Department's funding by a third.
This article was originally published by Politico -