Hammond and other sources said Tillerson is aware of the funding requests. But some officials involved said it’s not clear if the secretary understands all the details or is aware of his aides’ machinations.
Current and former State Department officials are particularly mystified as to why, aside from the $60 million at the Pentagon, the Global Engagement Center has also been denied access to $19.8 million dedicated to fighting the messaging of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. That $19.8 million is in the State Department’s coffers but has yet to be directed to the Global Engagement Center.
Observers say the dispute over the various funds reflects a confused decision-making process fueled by Tillerson aides who distrust the State Department’s foreign service and civil service employees, believing them hostile to Trump’s agenda.
“There’s paranoia and inertia — decisions are not being made,” said one State Department official familiar with funding squabble.
Whether to fund the Global Engagement Center is one of numerous decisions on hold at State. Current and former officials told POLITICO that up to 200 “action memos” have piled up in the executive suites at Foggy Bottom. The backlog is unusually large; in one instance, according to a former State Department official briefed on the matter, a bureau asked months in advance for approval of talking points for use at an international conference. The response came too late, leaving U.S. officials unable to make meaningful remarks at the event.
Tillerson is said to be a methodical thinker whose step-by-step decision-making reflects his training as an engineer. His CEO experience seemed a potential asset when Trump tapped him to lead the 75,000-employee State Department. But critics say Tillerson hasn’t fully grasped that the U.S. diplomatic apparatus has many moving parts that need simultaneous attention, so decisions can stack up fast.
Tillerson’s inability to fill the vast majority of leadership slots at State, including undersecretaries and assistant secretaries also means more decisions land in his office. At the same time, Tillerson is trying to get a sense of how State uses its resources, and he’s hinted that he’s reluctant to make major decisions on hiring or new programming until he’s developed a plan for reorganizing the department.
“They use the reorganization as an excuse to not act on anything,” one former State official complained. “That’s why people doubt the motivations of the reorganization. They think it’s all about starving the beast.”
Hammond insisted that major decisions are made quickly and that Tillerson needed to prioritize urgent threats.
“Issues are given diligent attention and are processed as fast as possible,” Hammond said.
“I feel bad for the guy working on the Bermuda desk,” he added, “but unless the island is sinking into the ocean … I think I’ve made my point.”
Supporters of the Global Engagement Center say it should be a high priority given the enmity between Washington and Moscow, not to mention the ongoing worries over terrorist recruiting online.
Multiple sources said their read of the law suggests that if the first $60 million chunk at the Pentagon is not transferred to State by Sept. 30, it will no longer be available for use. What’s less clear is whether the money, if transferred, would have to be spent before Sept. 30 or if it can also be spent in the following fiscal year. At that point, the second $60 million also can be transferred to the State Department, if Tillerson requests it.
Last month, Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio pressed Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan on whether Tillerson considers the Global Engagement Center a priority and urged that hiring caps be lifted so the center can expand.
Sullivan called the center “a priority” for Tillerson, saying it is “an important part of our mission.”
After Tillerson testified at a June 13 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Portman submitted written questions asking about the fate of the $60 million. He has yet to receive an answer.