EXCLUSIVE: State Department Disputes Union Claims About Department Attrition

Will Racke | Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter

The president of the American Foreign Service Association, the labor union that represents U.S. diplomats, presented a misleading picture of severe attrition within the senior diplomatic corps in a recent column, according to the State Department.

In an advance copy of her column for the December issue of AFSA’s Foreign Service JournalAmbassador Barbara Stephenson warned of “mounting threats” to the foreign service under the Trump administration. She was especially concerned about a purported exodus of career diplomats in the senior foreign service ranks, which is having a “serious, immediate, and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events.”

To support her claims, Stephenson presented some worrisome figures about the retirement of senior officers since Secretary of State Rex Tillerson began his tenure.

State’s foreign service officer corps has lost 60 percent of its career ambassadors — the diplomatic equivalent of four-star generals — since January, Stephenson said. The number of career ministers, the next highest rank, have fallen from 33 to 19 over the same time period. And “two-star” minister-counselors have fallen from 431 immediately after Labor Day to 369 today, and are “still falling.”

“These numbers are hard to square with the stated agenda of making State and the Foreign Service stronger,” Stephenson wrote, questioning the motive behind Tillerson’s department restructuring plan. (RELATED: Tillerson Looks To Wring $10 Billion In Savings From State Department Restructuring)

Many of Stephenson’s claims appear to be either misleading or completely false, according to State Department data provided to The Daily Caller News Foundation.

It is technically true that there are 60 percent fewer career ambassadors now than there were in January. When expressed in absolute and historical terms, though, a much fuller picture emerges. There were just five career ambassadors in the entire foreign service in January, and three have retired since then, according to department figures.

“Today, two [career officers] serve with this rank, which is within the historical norms of 1 to 7 at any one time since 1980,” a State Department spokesperson told TheDCNF. “Since 1955, Congress has bestowed this distinction on 58 people. The Secretary plans to nominate individuals for this role in the near future.”

State Department officials also questioned Stephenson’s claims about depletion in other ranks in the senior foreign service. As of Oct. 31, there were 976 diplomats in the senior service, with another 63 waiting for Congress to approve their promotions, the department said. If all those promotions go through, there will be 1,039 senior foreign service officers, about 2 percent fewer than the 1,058 at the same point in 2016.

Department officials acknowledged the slight reduction in senior foreign service personnel, but argued that Stephenson’s characterization of the dip as a “decapitation” of leadership ranks was unfair.

“As has been said many times before, the freezes on hiring and promotions are only temporary while we study how to refine our organization,” the State spokesperson said. “Suggestions that drastic cuts to our foreign service ranks are taking place are simply not accurate.”

In addition to disputing Stephenson’s claims about the senior ranks, the department said she was off the mark in asserting that the number of job candidates taking the foreign service officer test has dropped by more than half since 2015.

Stephenson cited her own column from March 2016, which noted that “more than 17,000” people applied to take the test the prior year. But the number that actually sat for the test in 2015 was 14,480, compared to the 9,519 that took the test in this year, according to department records. The two-year decline of 34 percent is notable, but also less severe than a drop of “half as many” cited by Stephenson.

Declining interest in foreign service officer test comes with an improving economy and “similar trends have been observed in the past,” the department spokesperson said.

When asked for clarification about the discrepancy between Stephenson’s claims and State Department statistics, AFSA spokesperson Asgeir Sigfusson told TheDCNF that the organization had received its figures from State human resources. He also noted that State’s response did not address restricted hiring at the entry level, the result of a temporary hiring freeze put in place during Tillerson’s redesign.

“If the Department’s position is now that there won’t be cuts to the Foreign Service, that is certainly news — and welcome news to America’s diplomats and our fellow Americans who count on us,” Sigfusson told TheDCNF in an email.

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