The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion State Department writes anti-leak memo, which promptly leaks

(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The State Department legal office prepared a four-page memo for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warning of the dangers of leaking by State Department employees. It promptly leaked, to me. That’s only the latest sign that the relationship between the Trump administration political appointees and the State Department professional workforce is still very much a work in progress.

The Feb. 20 memo by State Department acting legal adviser Richard Visek to Tillerson is entitled “SBU: Protecting Privileged Information.” The SBU stands for Sensitive But Unclassified, a designation used on documents that are not technically secret but also not supposed to be shared. The memo itself is marked SBU and begins with detailed explanation of how and when Tillerson has the privilege of protecting certain types of information from public disclosure, such as anything that has to do with internal State Department deliberations.

But the bulk of the memo is devoted to arguments for clamping down on unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information, also known as leaking.

“When such information is leaked … It chills the willingness of senior government officials to seek robust and candid advice, which ultimately is to the detriment of informed policymaking and the reputation of the institution from which the leak emanated,” the memo states.

Trump was a big fan of Wikileaks – but he doesn't like leaks from his own administration (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

State Department officials unhappy with a policy have many perfectly good alternatives to leaking, the memo argues. The can participate in the policy process as it develops or convey their concerns about a policy afterwards to their co-workers, supervisors or department leadership.

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“The Department has also benefitted [sic] from the existence of the Dissent Channel, which is itself a confidential deliberative channel that seeks to facilitate open, creative, and uncensored dialogue on substantive foreign policy issues,” the memo says.

Even before Tillerson was in place, more than 900 State Department employees used the Dissent Channel to object to President Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. The Dissent Channel cable was leaked to the media even before it was filed.

The memo makes the case for plugging leaks wherever they be found. “If the Department is going to be able to influence policy deliberations, we need to have a reputation for engaging responsibly in those deliberations,” it states.

State Department acting spokesperson Mark Toner told me that as a matter of policy the State Department will not discuss the contents of an internal memo that was not intended for publication. But he echoed the memo’s warnings about the dangers of leaking.

“It is essential that employees protect classified and other sensitive information from unauthorized disclosure,” he said. “This is a basic understanding that employees have when they enter federal service, and it is a condition of employment since mishandling of information jeopardizes their security clearances.”

It makes sense that Tillerson would want to show a White House very paranoid about leaks that he runs a tight ship. But many State Department bureaucrats don’t feel that they are able to affect policy through the normal channels due to what they see as lack of communication coming from Trump’s and Tillerson’s people.

Several also feel that the State Department’s experts and career officials are often being left out of the loop by the secretary’s office, causing a lack of clarity on what U.S. policy is in many cases.

“There’s so much that’s not being communicated inside the building and it’s a huge problem that affects everybody,” one career State Department official said. “Posts are calling us and asking us, ‘What are we supposed to say?’ We don’t know what to tell them.”

Several State Department officials told me that they see evidence of an effort by Tillerson to stymie leaking is already underway. For example, detailed readouts of Tillerson’s meetings with foreign officials are no longer distributed widely inside the building, leaving officials in relevant bureaus unsure exactly what transpired.

Another official told me Tillerson has shortened the list of officials allowed inside the daily 9:15 a.m. senior staff meeting, which has previously served as a key channel through which various State Department offices and bureaus learn about the day’s agenda and get direction from the secretary’s office.

A third State Department official told me he was instructed to make requests for policy information and guidance over the phone or in person, rather than commit any policy discussions to an email that might be leaked. Toner declined to confirm or deny those reports or say whether they show Tillerson’s office is trying to crack down on leaks. Toner said Tillerson has tried to encourage healthy debate within the department. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told Fox News earlier this month that Tillerson would be tackling the problem of leaking as part of his overall efforts to restructure how the State Department functions.

As my Post colleagues reported Wednesday, the State Department has been largely sidelined in Tillerson’s first month as secretary. He hasn’t attended key meetings, crucial foreign policy issues have been delegated to senior White House advisers, Tillerson has been largely out of the public eye and the department has not held a news briefing since the inauguration.

There are senior vacancies across the State Department, mostly because Tillerson asked both political appointees and career officials who had been appointed to key positions to leave their jobs before replacements were found. He also shut down the office of the deputy secretary of state for management and resources.

As Tillerson fills out his team and more senior officials are nominated, much of that confusion could subside. Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, is playing a large role. Former State Department official Brian Hook was just named as Tillerson’s director of policy planning, the office that serves as the State Department’s internal think tank.

Tillerson and his team should do to more to build trust with the State Department workforce and bring them along, rather than worrying about stamping out leaks. Most State Department officials would prefer to influence policy through the proper channels, if that is an option.