WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, hoping to boost workforce morale, unveiled an “ethos” statement on Friday that some former officials viewed with skepticism, partly because an early draft had language they saw as an admonition not to leak to the media.
Two former officials knowledgeable about the effort said the language rankled them because it implied diplomats could not be trusted and they questioned the need for an “ethos” statement laying out the agency’s characteristic attitudes and beliefs.
The two former officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the initiative was driven by Ulrich Brechbuhl, the State Department counselor who is a close aide to Pompeo and was his classmate at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
A third former official knowledgeable about the effort said the language alluding to leaks ultimately had been dropped and that the statement itself sought to burnish the esprit de corps at the department.
“There was something that could be taken as a no-leak pledge that was in an early draft. It did not (survive),” said that former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Marking his first anniversary as the nation’s top diplomat, Pompeo presided at a ceremony in the State Department’s main lobby as a curtain was lifted from a giant facsimile of the statement at one end of the half-filled, marbled hall.
“These principles will now be the operating principles of our department,” he said. He then recited the statement that read in part, “I am a champion of American diplomacy” who “will protect the American people and promote their interests and values around the world” with “unfailing professionalism.”
A senior State Department official involved in the effort said he did not recall specific discussion about leaks but that there was a wider discussion of accountability and professional responsibility.
The official, who spoke on behalf of the department on condition of anonymity, said he could not categorically rule out that there had been any talk about leaks but stressed that it was by no means the main focus.
“To do so (categorically rule it out) means you want me to say that nobody ever had this on their mind or it was not one of the sort of elements that we would define as professional responsibility or accountability,” he said. “It might have been in people’s minds. ... It was never a principal or major one.”
More than a dozen current and former officials questioned the need for the statement of ethos, noting that U.S. diplomats take an oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
The agency also has a mission statement that says: “The U.S. Department of State advances the interests of the American people, their safety and economic prosperity, by leading America’s foreign policy through diplomacy, advocacy, and assistance.”
Pompeo has worked to improve morale by increasing promotions, lifting a hiring freeze and making it easier for diplomats’ family members to work at missions abroad - reversing policies pursued by his predecessor, Rex Tillerson.
Pompeo has also said that he wanted to focus on the State Department “getting back our swagger,” a phrase that rang false to some U.S. diplomats who are taught to be understated rather than overbearing, given U.S. economic and military might.
Several current and former officials said the latest effort may backfire at an agency where many are disheartened by chaotic national security decision-making, unfilled senior positions and perceived White House distrust of U.S. diplomats.
Told of the statement and the effort to enhance the agency’s esprit, Richard Boucher, a former State Department spokesman or deputy spokesman under four Republican and two Democratic secretaries of state, said: “You mean ‘swagger’ didn’t do it?”
“Nothing speaks like leading with diplomacy and if we are going to start doing that, then we don’t really need ... (a new) statement,” said Boucher, who teaches at Brown University.
Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mary Milliken, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis