Rice's Management at Issue
Critics Cite Blackwater, Baghdad Embassy and Passports

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 10, 2007

Shortly after Condoleezza Rice took charge of the 57,000-person State Department in 2005, she said she relished the challenge of "line responsibility" in leading a large organization. "I really enjoy that," she said in an interview. "Some of my favorite times here have been my budget and high-level management reviews."

Nearly three years later, Rice is under fire from inside and outside the State Department for a range of crises that are largely managerial in nature -- the failure to monitor private security guards in Iraq, the delays in opening the huge U.S. Embassy under construction in Baghdad and the resistance of some Foreign Service officers to being forced to serve there. Over the summer, the department also fell woefully short in processing passport applications, resulting in ruined vacation plans for many Americans.

Within the department, Rice is viewed by many rank-and-file employees as an aloof manager who relies on a tight circle of aides, leaving her out of touch with the rest of the staff, in contrast to her predecessor, Colin L. Powell, a retired Army general who won praise from workers for treating them as though they were his "troops." At her last town hall meeting with employees 2 1/2 years ago, Rice told staffers: "I consider myself the chief management officer of this department." But a poll by the American Foreign Service Association indicated that an overwhelming majority did not feel that Rice was their advocate.

The latest controversy about forced assignments to Iraq has only heightened internal resentment of Rice's management style. "I personally do not like the ultimatum-giving," said one Foreign Service officer. "It is not what State is about."

Senior State Department officials dispute such charges, contending that Rice has moved quickly to deal with emerging problems at State despite her hectic overseas schedule. "Given what is on the secretary's plate, the myriad issues, the travel, the contact with foreign leaders and meetings at the White House, I never cease to be amazed at how up to speed she is on key management issues," said Deputy Secretary John D. Negroponte, who noted that he is the department's chief operating officer.

At a contentious hearing before the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee last month, Democrats aggressively questioned Rice over what one lawmaker labeled "seriously deficient" management. Asked to explain her oversight of State's private security contractors, Rice offered an answer that, to some lawmakers, seemed to deflect responsibility: "I certainly regret that we did not have the kind of oversight that I would have insisted upon."

Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said he was taken aback by Rice's responses. "She acted as if she had nothing to do with it," he said. "There are too many issues we know about, in which people were not given the oversight they needed, in what seems to be a pattern of indifference to management."

Rice's management has come under fire before. As national security adviser during President Bush's first term, she was criticized by many insiders for permitting a dysfunctional policymaking process while fierce battles raged among top Cabinet members.

At State, Rice has pushed ambitious efforts to reshape how foreign aid is distributed and to shift key diplomatic jobs from Europe to emerging powers such as China and India. The foreign-assistance overhaul, in which Rice personally approved country-by-country budget numbers, was criticized by lawmakers and some within the department because it appeared to minimize the advice of specialists in the field. The job shifts were put in place so quickly that a number of Foreign Service officers who had been promised plum posts in Paris and elsewhere had to be told that those positions no longer existed. Henrietta H. Fore, undersecretary of state for management, said 285 overseas jobs have been shifted so far, with another 85 slated for movement.

Rice's defenders said she has taken on hard issues that previous secretaries ducked because they wanted to avoid dissent. They said she has been hampered by the fact that a key management job -- deputy secretary of state -- was vacant for eight months, after Robert B. Zoellick left in July 2006. Rice struggled for months to fill the post, which was unoccupied for the longest period in State Department history, until Negroponte came on board early this year.

Early on, Rice set up a seventh-floor office at State headquarters that in many ways echoed the style of one of the most successful secretaries of state, James A. Baker III, who served under President George H.W. Bush. Baker relied on a small group of senior officials to set policy. But aides also said Rice fancies herself as more like another predecessor, George P. Shultz, who was revered for listening to the bureaucracy's concerns.

When Rice is not traveling, she meets at 8 a.m. weekdays with a few top aides for half an hour to map out her day, before meeting with other top department officials. In the evenings, she holds a wrap-up meeting with close aides to review and plan ahead. Spokesman Tom Casey said Rice has visited the offices of about two dozen bureaus of the State Department and, since March, has met with a dozen desk officers to get their views.

Some State veterans compare Rice's management unfavorably with that of Powell, who was secretary during Bush's first term. Powell held large staff meetings daily; Rice cut those to three per week. And twice a week, she holds smaller meetings with undersecretaries and key regional assistant secretaries. Unlike Powell, who was an avid e-mailer, Rice does not use e-mail.

Powell worked closely with his deputy, Richard L. Armitage, who by all accounts carried the bulk of the management load. Armitage tried to make sure decision memos were acted on within 24 hours, whereas under Rice such memos may languish for days, a former official said.

"Powell did spend time on management issues," said John R. Bolton, former ambassador to the United Nations, who served under Powell and Rice and whose new book, "Surrender Is Not an Option," is critical of how Rice has directed foreign policy. "Rice is typical of secretaries of state in that they generally don't pay attention to management issues," Bolton said.

For any manager of a large organization, making sure problems come to the attention of top officials is critical. When Powell became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he handed out rules to his staff, including "Bad news doesn't get any better with time" and "If there is a problem brewing, I want to know of it early." Some officials think that problems at State have trouble coming to Rice's attention early enough.

Another official who served under both secretaries said Powell asked more detailed questions when facing bad news. "You could not have a greater contrast between two people," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he still deals with the government. "He had a style in which people were encouraged to talk about their problems."

A third official who served under both secretaries recalled how, after an assistant secretary of state made a mistake resulting in several days of negative news coverage, Powell treated that person with civility. By contrast, the official said, Rice becomes angry over even minor news accounts, turning furiously to the relevant assistant secretary for an explanation. "Dressing someone down like that is not great for morale and does not encourage people to bring up bad news," he said.

In a change that may have limited Rice's exposure to the rest of the building, Rice moved news conferences to the fancier higher floors of State's headquarters. While Powell held news media sessions outside -- after escorting out foreign officials -- Rice wanted a more dignified venue. Powell, after meeting with the media, chatted with workers in the lobby, reaching out to lower-level staff.

Senior officials disagree that Rice is isolated. "As secretary, you get information because you ask questions and you don't lock the door," said Pat Kennedy, director of State's office of management policy and a nominee for undersecretary for management. "She is open to discussion, and in the meetings she asks pointed questions."

Lawmakers have questioned why Rice has not anticipated potential problems. On the passport issue, for example, the State Department had estimated that passport applications would increase 33 percent because of new travel rules, but they jumped 51 percent instead, leaving State unable to handle the load. Rice forced 300 junior diplomats to give up their summer jobs to process passport applications and ordered that systems be streamlined to prepare for future surges.

Though there had been a number of deadly incidents involving contract security guards over the years, Rice did not order an investigation until after a Sept. 16 shootout in Baghdad involving guards from the private security contractor Blackwater left 17 Iraqi civilians dead.

And recognition of staffing issues and problems with the construction of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad did not emerge until after Rice installed a new ambassador there this year. The embassy was short-staffed, and construction problems have delayed the opening of the $592 million complex.

Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, said it is the "responsibility of the ambassador" to notify the secretary of state of problems -- and not the secretary's job to dig deeper if the news appears good.

Kennedy credits Rice with pushing for action after the Blackwater shootings. Before he departed for Baghdad on his first trip to review the incident, 12 days after the shootings, Rice told him she wanted an initial report "done fully but fast" -- in 96 hours, Kennedy said.

"Some might argue that such a review should have been taken earlier," Negroponte said. "But she moved very rapidly to deal with the situation. A test of a manager is that if problems come up, you are able to deal with them effectively."

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