By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Ryan C. Crocker, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, bluntly told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a cable dated May 31 that the embassy in Baghdad -- the largest and most expensive U.S. embassy -- lacks enough well-qualified staff members and that its security rules are too restrictive for Foreign Service officers to do their jobs.
"Simply put, we cannot do the nation's most important work if we do not have the Department's best people," Crocker said in the memo.
The unclassified cable underscores the State Department's struggle to find its role in the turmoil in Iraq. With a 2007 budget of more than $1 billion and a staff that has expanded to more than 1,000 Americans and 4,000 third-country nationals, the embassy has become the center of a bureaucratic battle between Crocker, who wants to strengthen the staff, and some members of Congress, who are increasingly skeptical about the diplomatic mission's rising costs.
"In essence, the issue is whether we are a Department and a Service at war," Crocker wrote. "If we are, we need to organize and prioritize in a way that reflects this, something we have not done thus far." In the memo, Crocker drew upon the recommendations of a management review he requested for the embassy shortly after arriving in Baghdad two months ago.
"He's panicking," said one government official who recently returned from Baghdad, adding that Crocker is carrying a heavy workload as the United States presses the Iraqi government to meet political benchmarks.
"You could use a well-managed political section of 50 people" who know what they are doing, the official said, but Crocker does not have it because many staffers assigned to the embassy are "too young for the job," or are not qualified and are "trying to save their careers" by taking an urgent assignment in Iraq.
"They need a cohesive, coherent effort on all fronts," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "It's just overwhelming."
But some lawmakers have balked at what they consider the unbridled expansion of the embassy. "Having said over and over again that we don't want to be seen as an occupying force in Iraq, we're building the largest embassy that we have. . . . And it just seems to grow and grow and grow," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said to Rice during a hearing last month. "Can we just review who we really need and send the rest of the people home?"
The State Department said that as of last week, 99 percent of the positions in the embassy and in regional reconstruction teams had been filled. But State officials privately concede that in the rush to fill slots -- each person serves only one year -- not enough attention has been paid to the management of the flux of people.
"In terms of Iraq and Afghanistan, the secretary has put the department on a war footing," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "If one of her ambassadors says he needs something, she will get it for him."
Crocker, in an interview, confirmed the authenticity of the cable. He insisted it was not intended as criticism of Rice or of the staff. He said the cable reflected the urgent nature of the tasks he has faced since becoming ambassador.
"The big issue for me, in my estimation, was simply not having enough people," Crocker said. "The people here are heroic. I need more people, and that's the thing, not that the people who are here shouldn't be here or couldn't do it." Crocker said he does not know why the changes he is pressing for had not taken place sooner. The embassy was established three years ago, when the Coalition Provisional Authority was dissolved.
Shortly after arriving in Baghdad, Crocker asked Rice to dispatch Pat Kennedy, the State Department's director of management policy, to Baghdad to conduct an extensive assessment of staffing and security issues. Kennedy was directed to come up with a plan to bring greater order to embassy staffing, beef up the political and economic sections, and make sure the embassy has greater control over staffing decisions.
Kennedy's 80-page report includes 88 recommendations, including doubling the personnel devoted to political and economic reporting and analysis, State Department officials said. The embassy previously had 15 political officers, and Crocker has won an additional 11. The nine-person economic staff will be increased to 21 and will add four contractors. Many of the slots will be transferred from functions that are ending, such as reconstruction projects.
In the cable, Crocker said the State Department's human resources office "has made heroic efforts to staff the embassy, but to a large extent HR has been working alone." Referring to the floor where Rice and her top aides work, Crocker said there should be "a clear message from the Seventh floor . . . that staffing Iraq is an imperative."
Crocker also called for ensuring that responsibility for recruiting and assigning personnel for the embassy rests with the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, which covers the Middle East and North Africa. All other bureau assignments "should be held until there are sufficient bidders with requisite qualifications for Iraq positions," Crocker wrote.
Crocker, in the interview, said the human resources department does not have the capacity to make sure the best people are placed in Baghdad. "They can't do this," he said, whereas the Near East bureau, which oversees Baghdad, has the skills to "identify the right people with the right skill sets." State Department officials acknowledge that hiring has been haphazard, but a team has been set up in the Near East bureau to work with the personnel department.
Crocker's cable also complained about the "overly restrictive" security rules that the diplomats must operate under because of a law passed after the 1983 bombing of the Beirut embassy. "If the Department's normal standards for operation were fully applied, we would not have a diplomatic presence in Iraq," he wrote. "We do, and we must." He asked for authority to operate under less restrictive military standards, as necessary.
Crocker, in the interview, said diplomats are "not able to do the job needed," such as meet with officials in cities such as Najaf, under the security rules.
State Department officials acknowledge that the law did not envision a situation such as Iraq and that department lawyers are examining whether it can be interpreted to give Crocker additional flexibility.
If military standards "are good enough for them, they should be good enough for us," Crocker said. "We are all in the same fight."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.