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August 27, 2018
Reorganization Run Amok: State Department's WMD Effort Weakened
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Dean Rust

On July 29, 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a Department of State reorganization that focused primarily on arms control and nonproliferation efforts. Its stated purpose was to strengthen the State Department’s role in “protecting America from weapons of mass destruction” [WMD].[1] This was the culmination of an internal, albeit one-sided, debate prompted by an August 2004 draft report by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General.

During May-June 2004, the inspector general conducted an inspection of the Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Verification and Compliance Bureaus, all of whose substantive duties are generally overseen by the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. The stated reason for the inspection was the need to evaluate the results of the 1999 merger of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency into the State Department, which had led to the creation of the three bureaus.

The draft report included recommendations that claimed to make the department more efficient and effective in pursuit of U.S. arms control and nonproliferation objectives. Unfortunately, serious misjudgments were made in the report and in implementing the subsequent reorganization, with the latter also infused with a strong political bias. The State Department is now left with a structure not fully equipped to meet today’s diplomatic challenges in arms control and nonproliferation and a seriously demoralized and depleted group of career officers working in these areas.

A Background of Battles

It was clear from President George W. Bush’s 2000 election campaign that some changes in arms control and nonproliferation policy would be made following his election. The choice of the highly ideological John Bolton as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, however, suggested that the State Department’s approach to such diplomacy could change significantly, despite then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s reputation for moderation and pragmatism. After all, Bolton brought to his position strong doubts about the value to the United States of treaties and international institutions of any kind.

By late 2002, the Senate had confirmed Bush’s three choices to head the bureaus: Stephen Rademaker as assistant secretary of state for arms control, John Wolf as assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, and Paula DeSutter as their counterpart in the verification and compliance bureau. In addition, the White House had announced the main outlines of its WMD policy.

Over the next year, each bureau’s profile became more clearly defined. As they did, the arms control bureau leadership claimed it did not have enough to do. This view, undoubtedly influenced by Bolton, was puzzling in light of Bush’ s embrace of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, agreement to a U.S.-Russian Consultative Group for Strategic Security, support for negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty, and emphasis on strengthening the norms of the biological and chemical weapons conventions—all arms control bureau responsibilities.

Wolf displayed more independent leadership of his bureau, which led to occasional differences with Bolton. For its part, the verification and compliance bureau was a natural Bolton ally; its mission included assessing a key vulnerability of arms control and nonproliferation treaties and commitments. This political context set the stage for what was to follow.

Throughout 2003 and into the spring of 2004, the three bureaus were frequently in conflict both over policy and process issues. Some of this was to be expected and in the nature of bureaucratic give and take on issues over which bureau equities overlapped. Yet, it went much further: both the arms control and verification bureaus had begun to encroach regularly on the nonproliferation bureau’s responsibilities. Issues on which these bureaus had not previously focused suddenly became of interest, and their views frequently diverged from those of the nonproliferation bureau. Bolton did not seek to ameliorate this situation; if anything he encouraged it. (Bolton had come to view the nonproliferation bureau as untrustworthy because it occasionally took issue with his views during internal debates.)

As a result, the internal process became increasingly dysfunctional. The productivity and effectiveness of all three bureaus were hampered. Needless, nearly daily bureaucratic battles broke out. Policy deliberations were sidetracked and drawn out. Issues already resolved were frequently resurrected. Collegiality suffered as secret meetings and back-channel messages were employed. Senior officials and their deputies spent an inordinate amount of time addressing turf issues. Sometimes, four different representatives from each of the bureaus and the undersecretary’s office would strive to represent the department at interagency nonproliferation meetings. Other governments and even U.S. agencies naturally wondered who was in charge as the assistant secretaries for the three bureaus vied for influence.

This situation was particularly acute when it related to issues where Bolton wanted to curtail the nonproliferation bureau’s influence. One noteworthy incident occurred at the 2004 meeting of the preparatory committee for the 2005 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference. No less than three assistant secretaries, an undersecretary, and one ambassador delivered U.S. statements, two of which were embarrassingly repetitive. Not surprisingly, the inspector general’s office heard plenty about these problems during its inspection.

Initial drafts of the inspector general’s report for each bureau became available in early August 2004. As reported in these pages, the report found unclear lines of authority among the bureaus, which had led to duplication and unproductive competition. It also found that that the arms control bureau had too little to do and that the nonproliferation bureau was overworked. It concluded this was a structural problem that could be remedied by merging the arms control and nonproliferation bureaus and narrowing the functions and role of the verification bureau.

The recommendation to merge the arms control and nonproliferation bureaus was a serious mistake. First, the problem was not structural. The lack of “clear lines of authority” identified by the inspector general had resulted from deliberate intrusion by the other two bureaus on the nonproliferation bureau’s functions. This problem could have been clarified by the undersecretary or other high-level officials, had they chosen to do so. Second, it was not clear how the secretary of state would be better served by asking an assistant secretary already stretched by a wide range of nonproliferation issues to also take on arms control matters.

Frankly, even if one believed that the arms control bureau did not have enough to do, it would have been wiser to retain it but assign it some of the nonproliferation bureau’s responsibilities, such as securing and disposing of the remnants of the Soviet Union’s missile and nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. Moving these functions to the arms control bureau would have allowed greater concentration on them while allowing the nonproliferation bureau to sharpen further its focus on critical issues such as the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea and the pursuit of presidential initiatives, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and UN Security Council Resolution 1540.

Eliminating the arms control bureau was bound to hamper U.S. diplomacy in this still critical area of international security. Arms control retains considerable salience globally, including among U.S. allies. Moreover, although the United States has modified some approaches to arms control and no longer negotiates lengthy treaties, Bush has pursued unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral measures in this field that should receive regular attention from the State Department. The arms control agenda actually seemed quite robust.

With regard to the role of the verification and compliance bureau, however, the inspector general’s recommendation was on target. Restricting this bureau’s actions and influence would have helped remedy many of the inefficiencies uncovered in the report. I make no judgement on the work for which it clearly had the lead. Moreover, its officers did much good work on cross-cutting issues; they helped keep the arms control and nonproliferation bureaus “honest” and pushed hard for stronger enforcement. Under Bolton, however, the bureau’s leadership crossed the line, and it became more of a hindrance to effective policy than a help.

The inspector general’s report became final in December 2004, and Powell approved the merger of the arms control and nonproliferation bureaus shortly before leaving office, leaving implementation to Rice. He took no action on the recommendation to narrow the role of the verification bureau. Some had argued that any change to the verification bureau would have required congressional action and would be difficult to obtain (Congress created it by statute in 2000). This argument was a red herring; the State Department leadership could have considerably relieved the tangled lines of authority while fully respecting the verification bureau’s statutory mandate.

Rice and Reorganization

Rice affirmed Powell’s decision but deferred implementation until Robert Joseph was sworn in as Bolton’s successor. The new structure was rolled out on July 29, 2005, with Rice announcing the proposed new Bureau for International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN). The structure was largely consistent with options that the arms control and nonproliferation bureaus had considered in early 2005, except that offices dealing with counterproliferation, WMD terrorism, and strategic planning were added to the merged entity and two arms control offices dealing with strategic and conventional arms control were moved to the verification bureau rather than becoming part of the new ISN bureau. Thus, contrary to the inspector general’s recommendation, the verification bureau’s scope expanded, and it was renamed Verification, Compliance, and Implementation (VCI) to reflect the addition of these offices. Joseph stated that the reorganization offered opportunities for professional advancement and represented good government, i.e., it would improve the management of resources and reduce duplication.

The department concluded congressional consultations on September 12, 2005. The only change that emerged from these consultations was the separation of the missile defense and missile nonproliferation functions, with the former going to the enhanced verification bureau. Joseph affirmed that the merger would adhere to all civil service regulations and merit system principles. Little formal planning for implementation of the merger had taken place during the congressional consultation period.

Implementation of the Reorganization

Despite this lack of planning, it was decided to bring the new ISN bureau into existence the next day, September 13, 2005. This was the first of three serious mistakes made before the end of September that effectively doomed important aspects of this reorganization. To stand up the new bureau without an implementation plan meant that specific functional duties of the new offices in the ISN bureau had not been enumerated, nor had any acting office directors been chosen. Neither Arms Control nor Nonproliferation Bureau employees had been assigned to the new bureau, nor had their interests or preferences been determined. The huge amount of personnel work involved in creating new positions had not begun.

To illustrate the consequences of this lack of planning, on September 13 the three newly created offices in the ISN bureau had no employees, and two other ISN offices formed from the merger of abolished offices in its predecessor bureaus had no lines of authority. There were many other organizational and administrative tasks that had not been addressed for all offices, including how to create new professional opportunities (as promised by Joseph) for the more than 200 employees affected by the merger. This lack of advance planning when combined with a sense of urgency in standing up the ISN bureau led to a process constantly beset with more questions than answers and one with many shortcuts. A delay of two to three months after September 13 in establishing the ISN bureau would have permitted a respectful transition period and avoided the “keystone cops” aspect of this exercise.

Only after the reorganization was already underway, did Joseph name a senior management panel to implement it. His second big mistake was the composition of this panel and its mode of operation. As a rule, career employees from substantive, legal, personnel, and management offices in the State Department have joined political appointees in effecting reorganizations. This approach brings expertise, impartiality, and transparency to bear on the many personnel and other management decisions to be made by the political officials. Powell had established such an interdisciplinary task force when it appeared the merger might occur during his tenure. The inspector general’s report had made a similar recommendation.

Instead, Joseph placed the task solely with Frederick Fleitz, Bolton’s former chief of staff, and a panel comprised of political appointees who served under Bolton.[2] These included the principal deputy assistant secretaries of the three bureaus—Frank Record, Andrew Semmel, and Christopher Ford—as well as Ambassador Jackie Sanders, who resided in Geneva and served as U.S. representative to the Conference on Disarmament and as the president’s special representative for nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

This was a remarkably bad decision. Without casting aspersions on these individuals, the fact is that new leadership had come to the State Department. Rice and Joseph clearly wanted to invigorate the department’s nonproliferation function. Why then would they turn to political appointees dating from Bolton’s tenure to carry this out, particularly given the history of conflict among these bureaus and individuals that was well known inside the State Department? No matter how well intentioned they might have been, each panel member brought a political and personal agenda to the table that had been influenced by the infighting that had occurred. It was inevitable that paybacks would be part of this process, even if not articulated.

Did Rice and Joseph also not realize how little trust the career staff would have in a panel composed largely of political appointees who owed their loyalty to Bolton, whose aversion toward employees who disagreed with him was well known? To top it off, the management panel met in secret, and nothing of importance about its deliberations was revealed. Career personnel officers offered advice to the senior management panel, but much of it was not followed. It appeared as though the panel was trying to maintain a semblance of legality in its decisions but with little regard for sound personnel management policies and practices.

The third serious mistake involved the selection of acting office directors for the new ISN bureau. The standard practice would have limited the choices to the merged bureaus, and then seniority and experience would determine who serves as “acting.” Instead, employees outside the career ranks of the arms control and nonproliferation bureaus were invited to apply for these positions. This was another bad management decision. Not only were former office directors from the merged bureaus competing against each other for a limited number of comparable slots in the new bureau, but personnel with little to no experience in running arms control or nonproliferation offices were invited to join the pool of eligible candidates. Not surprisingly, the selection process was entirely opaque. The decisions were announced on September 28 and amended later in the year.

Incumbent arms control and nonproliferation bureau civil servants and two foreign service officers were chosen to lead seven of the 12 ISN offices. This was not a surprise as all, but one of these offices had experienced little to no change in its duties or composition, and two had previously been led by foreign service officers. However, the senior management panel went outside the ranks of the bureau’s career civil servants for the leadership of the five other offices, including those dealing with the NPT, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran and North Korea, counterproliferation, anti-WMD terrorism, and strategic planning. Several very well-qualified officers—some with more than 20 years experience and outstanding reputations—were bypassed, including some who had led offices and thus were being demoted from their previous levels of responsibility. Significantly, three offices in the merged bureaus had been led by women; none of the ISN acting office directors announced on September 28 were women.

When so many qualified State Department career employees are inexplicably denied leading positions in the new organization, it feeds the perception that political factors played a role in the panel’s decisions. Given the composition of the panel, it does not take much imagination to arrive at that conclusion. Indeed, The Washington Post quoted an official involved in the reorganization as acknowledging that the influence of some career employees was reduced because they were viewed as “disloyal.”[3] The facts point toward an effort to select individuals with favorable political or personal connections to the panel over long-serving career staff with superior qualifications. Not surprisingly, this led to a mini-revolt against the panel, a situation that festered for months and received press attention in February 2006.[4] These decisions and the manner in which they were made do not comport with merit system principles codified in U.S. law promulgated by the Office of Personnel Management involving “fair and open competition for advancement” and “the efficient and effective management of employees.” Moreover, the secret and slipshod way the reorganization was implemented fell far short of “maintaining high standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest.”[5]

The Result

What started as an ostensibly routine inspection of the arms control, nonproliferation, and verification and compliance functions at the State Department has ended with a restructuring that has led to a net loss of the State Department’s effectiveness in these areas. Arms control is bifurcated and subjugated, nonproliferation is even more overburdened, and verification and compliance is more overextended. Poor implementation of the reorganization further compounded the damage caused by the structural changes.

Beyond cronyism and the influence of political factors in the selection of personnel, there is also a presumption by some in the administration that the State Department’s seasoned WMD experts are only capable of “old think” and that post-September 11 “new think” is needed. This perception is wrong. Experienced government WMD experts know the technology, legal regimes, intelligence, and international politics of arms control and nonproliferation and are best suited to devise ways to strengthen existing tools and to find new approaches. They have been doing so for years. Effective adaptation of the regime to new threats requires knowledge and experience. These officers are highly capable of energizing even the less-than-ideal new organizational structure put into place by Joseph.

Yet, the botched implementation has already led many experienced career officers to leave the newly constituted ISN bureau, with others closely on their heels. This resource of knowledge, experience, and advice was consciously built up over the past 30 years in the State Department and the former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), which was merged into the State Department in 1999 to strengthen its ability to address weapons proliferation. The dissipation of this resource will hamper the State Department’s role at home and abroad for years to come.

Frankly, one could argue that this reduction in the State Department’s role is precisely the outcome some were seeking. It is no secret that some in the administration have little faith in treaties and institutional approaches to arms control and nonproliferation. What better way to strip the State Department of its capabilities in these areas, including its experienced officers, than under the guise of reorganization? Efforts to push back against this outcome were effectively neutralized throughout the process by ignoring or overruling alternatives offered by career substantive and administrative officers.

Although accomplishing their political agenda, the architects of this reorganization have weakened the administration’s overall diplomatic resources needed to carry out its goals in coping with such threats as Iran and North Korea and in pursuing its priority tools, including the Proliferation Security Initiative. Moreover, the president, while pursuing new approaches in nonproliferation, has not abandoned existing treaties and institutions in this area and has even pursued limited negotiations on arms control. It is the job of the State Department to advance these policies. Indeed, Rice has strongly affirmed the importance of international agreements and norms on weapons of mass destruction and has expressed support for maintaining the State Department’s role in arms control diplomacy. Yet, the reorganization has severely compromised the State Department’s capabilities in some of these areas.

It is too early to cite specific examples of how this reorganization has harmed the administration’s nonproliferation efforts. Besides, the real damage from poor organizational changes and the loss of experienced staff would most likely be manifest in small increments, with major consequences aggregating over time. It is a fact, however, that the offices in the former nonproliferation bureau that dealt with the NPT, the IAEA, and the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs are mere shadows of their former selves. The offices were either merged or divested of some of their duties, their former civil service leadership positions were eliminated, and many experienced career staff have left. The office leadership positions have been reclassified as foreign service positions. While foreign service officers with good management skills can and have served effectively in running nonproliferation program offices, the State Department needs experienced and knowledgeable civil service officers running offices with front-line operational nonproliferation policy responsibilities, including those with a strong technical component.

Similarly, the refusal of the reorganization panel to place former arms control or nonproliferation bureau career professionals in leadership positions on counterproliferation, anti-WMD terrorism, and nonproliferation strategic planning has also seriously compromised Joseph’s task of invigorating these functions. The elimination of the arms control bureau and the transfer of its top career strategic nuclear analysts to other topics will hamper the State Department’s ability to develop the best possible options for future U.S.-Russian cooperation in this area. Additionally, the strengthening of the verification and compliance bureau means that State Department policies on arms control and nonproliferation will continue to be hindered by a much too strong emphasis on matters that, although important, prevent a balanced consideration of U.S. interests on some WMD issues.

It may be too late to change much of what has transpired, but senior State Department leadership must ensure that the remaining reorganization tasks are handled with the utmost professionalism, including full attention to merit system principles. The permanent directors of the five offices noted above should be civil servants, and the selection criteria should focus heavily on relevant experience and knowledge, as well as management skills. Senior leadership must also stem further hemorrhaging of expertise from the ISN bureau. Moreover, it must revisit the decision to transfer strategic and conventional arms control policy to the expanded verification bureau. These key areas deserve more attention than simply being a subset of verification and compliance.

In general, the State Department’s senior management and human resource officials need to take a serious look at this entire exercise, remedy any abuses that occurred, and advise the secretary of state on policies and practices that any future reorganization should follow. The inspector general’s office should delve into some of its key recommendations, such as why the verification bureau’s mandate was expanded rather than contracted and why the reorganization was implemented by a political panel under Joseph rather than, as the inspector general recommended, one led by the undersecretary for management. The inspector general’s office should consider adding subject matter experts to future inspections of functional bureaus. With all due respect, an inspection team comprised solely of foreign service personnel was handicapped in making credible and informed judgments about the efforts of the three previous bureaus in carrying out the administration’s objectives in the arcane fields of arms control, nonproliferation, and verification and compliance. These fields have been dominated for more than three decades by civil servants from a broad range of legal, scientific, military, national security, political science, and international relations backgrounds.

Finally, the selection of a new assistant secretary for the new ISN bureau is critically important. Rice should recommend to the president a person compatible with her approach to nonproliferation diplomacy, one who is experienced, open-minded, and genuinely committed to building effective cooperation in combating the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and related delivery systems, including through the invigoration of international institutions and treaties. It should also be someone capable of mining the considerable resource offered by the State Department’s career arms control and nonproliferation staff and of restoring trust across the board with that group. The selection should reflect a clear break from the political orientation that burdened the State Department’s efforts in this area during the president’s first term.

U.S. diplomacy aimed at building partnerships against weapons and missile proliferation is our first line of defense against states or terrorists that would do us harm. Certainly, some changes in the organizational structure were advisable to reflect today’s priorities and to allow for more efficiency. A heightened organizational focus on new tools such as the PSI and UN Security Council Resolution 1540 makes good sense. However, this reorganization fell well short of achieving its objectives. The State Department has publicly downplayed the internal dissent by citing “the difficulty of change.” Yet, in the words of the old German proverb: “To change and change for the better are two different things.”

Undoubtedly, this is not the first time that subcabinet-level political appointees have hijacked a reorganization to pursue their own agenda, but the outcome in this case has hampered the State Department’s ability to pursue the president’s crucial national security objectives. The new organizational structure has serious weaknesses, many experienced staff have been shunted aside or have left, and key offices remain understaffed. Rice can still salvage some aspects of this unfortunate situation, but she needs to move quickly.


Dean Rust retired from the Department of State on September 30, 2005 after more than 35 years with the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and the State Department’s Nonproliferation Bureau, which was created after ACDA merged with the State Department in 1999. His last position with the Nonproliferation Bureau was as the acting deputy director of the office that dealt with nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency matters.

1. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “Beginning to Transform the State Department to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century,” Department of State, July 29, 2005.

2. See Wade Boese, “State Department Announces Reorganization,” Arms Control Today, October 2005, p. 36.

3. Glenn Kessler, “Administration Critics Chafe at State Dept. Shuffle,” The Washington Post, February 21, 2006.

4. See Warren Strobel, “Career Weapons Experts Booted by Bush Team,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 8, 2006.

5. 5 USC § 2301.