The State Department Needs a Watchdog—Now, Not Later

A Foreign Service whistle-blower is doing her best to fight promotion irregularities. But she should have an inspector general to back her up.

Jason Reed/Reuters

The U.S. Department of State has not had a permanent, Senate-confirmed inspector general (IG) since 2008. This is the longest vacancy of any of the 73 inspector general positions in government, and the effects of this are all but impossible to ignore. Whether it's the boondoggle that is the Jeddah New Consulate Compound, or the tragic attacks in Benghazi, the "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies" (as an independent panel called it) of the State Department are in need of repair. That's not going to happen until an IG candidate is found, vetted, and installed.

To understand the importance of the position, it's useful to look at what the job entails. A good inspector general is an agency's fail-safe. A bureaucracy will always operate in its own self-interest. Budgets, portfolios of responsibility, head-counts, and independence from oversight are prime motivators for any organization. Accordingly, the leadership of the little kingdoms within a bureaucracy will always work to protect and perpetuate themselves.

An inspector general, on the other hand, exists in parallel. He or she is an outlet for reports of fraud, waste, and abuse, and can investigate and audit offices and operations. Because he or she isn't part of the bureaucratic hierarchy, an inspector general can oversee an agency with impunity, give voice to those with grievances, and shine a light on questionable activities.

The Government Accountability Office has long been critical of the seemingly permanent vacancy of an IG at the State Department. In 2011, the GAO focused on one especially problematic habit at State: "Specifically, the appointment of management and Foreign Service officials to head the State [Office of the Inspector General] in an acting capacity for extended periods of time is not consistent with professional standards for independence. In addition, GAO reported that the use of Foreign Service officers at the ambassador level to lead OIG inspections resulted in, at a minimum, the appearance of independence impairment."

All of this is what makes the case of Joan Wadelton so interesting. She is a former Foreign Service officer who has blown the whistle on promotion irregularities at the Department of State. She is accusing the Bureau of Human Resources of the Foreign Service of criminal wrongdoing. Specifically, she claims that Foreign Service Selection Board results are being doctored for internal political reasons, with certain favored insiders receiving higher placement on promotion lists. Concomitant with less-qualified persons receiving preference in promotion are capable Foreign Service officers being passed over. The latter group -- collateral damage in this situation -- then faces a more severe problem. In Foreign Service, once you reach a certain position of authority, you must either be promoted or forced into retirement. In this case, State employees are being unfairly passed over, and then fired for not being promoted in time. The inevitable upshot is the aforementioned "management deficiency."

If Wadelton's claims are substantiated, it means that less-qualified State Department employees are reaching senior positions and competent employees are being shown the door. It means, in other words, a self-perpetuating management catastrophe.

To be sure, Wadelton is no low-level ax grinder. She was one of the first members of the State Department on the ground in Iraq (where she served two tours), and was recognized for heroism for leading the first economic reconstruction team in Fallujah. More important, perhaps, was her success at creating the Congressional Liaison Office for the State Department -- a project decades in the making. Her annual performance reviews are exemplary, and each of them recommended promotion. But after falling victim to the broken promotion system and blowing the whistle on Human Resources, she was allegedly retaliated against, repeatedly passed over for promotion, and ultimately forced into retirement. She has filed suit, which is covered at length at DiploPundit.

Making enemies with HR is no small thing, as she explained by phone: "In the State Department, we don't have the types of big programs like at the Department of Defense, where, for example, you can be in charge of production of tanks, and you have control over money and so on. At State, it's through your assignments. It's basically what assignments you get, and those assignments help you get promoted. So if people can't get assignments, or if they can't get the next higher level of assignment -- you're supposed to keep going up from one level to a higher level in a natural progression -- you can't get promoted. So HR is enormously powerful."

The alleged abuses by Human Resources can be traced to the lack of a permanent inspector general. "My case is a window into a larger problem. At the first level, it's a degradation of the personnel system, clearly. If you step up another level, you're looking at a degradation of the administrative, logistical, and support functions of the State Department. You have the problems in Benghazi, the problems with contracting in Iraq. You have an across the board problem with the administrative side of the State Department -- personnel, contracting, security, the Foreign Service Institute budget, procurement, and so on."

"These problems have been going on for many years, and there's never been any involvement that I've seen by the politicos. They don't pay as much attention to the administrative side. They don't understand it, certainly. They're there to do policy and they tend not to see a lot of these things, which are run by career Foreign Service and civil service. I think what the State Department has had, unfortunately, is a lack of oversight. There hasn't been a truly functioning inspector general at State for several years, and at the end of the day, you're looking at a massive failure of oversight."

Wadelton did not want to be a whistleblower. "The thing is that I haven't spoken to other whistleblowers and I don't really know how it works," she said. "I didn't so much start it as stumble into it. For me it's been like peeling an onion."

On Wednesday, there will be a hearing to decide whether or not there is a public interest in disclosing the internal agency emails and other such records that would prove Wadelton's allegations. These files would presumably document the misconduct she has been complaining about -- not only shedding light on her case specifically, but also exposing the underlying pervasive problems in the system.

No one at State should be surprised if irregularities are discovered in Foreign Service promotions, if only because the State Department itself has admitted to the problem. As reported in the results of a March 2010 internal investigation of the Foreign Service selection board process:

At the conclusion of board deliberations, each member is supposed to sign the transmittal memoranda and lists documenting the board's decisions. Several former board members asserted that [Human Resources/Performance Evaluation] remitted lists to the Director General absent that board member's certiļ¬cation or with results at variance with the member's recollections. Notes taken by board members deliberately are destroyed after a board is dismissed. Thus it was not possible for OIG to verify to what extent there may be problems in this regard. [Emphasis mine.]

And yet the same report, in a supreme act of schizophrenia, called the process "fundamentally fair and trustworthy." This is one reason why a vetted, Senate-approved, truly independent inspector general is so sorely needed at the Department of State.

"There's only one way that things can be 'at variance,' and it's because somebody changed them. Computers aren't sitting there changing things by themselves," said Wadelton. "The role of an IG is to say, 'We found the problem, here's how to fix it, and we'll be back in six months to see if you did correct it.' And none of that happened."

After Wadelton and others approached Congress to correct these problems, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Howard Berman, the Ranking Member, signed a bipartisan letter to the GAO tasking it with following up on the 2010 Inspector General's report and reporting back whether had been fixed. In July 2012, the GAO began its investigation, which is still ongoing. Wadelton was one of the first people that they interviewed.

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry blamed the absence of a permanent inspector general on the White House. "We're trying to fill a number of positions right now, the IG among them. The greatest difficulty I'm finding -- now that I'm on the other side of the fence -- is, frankly, the vetting process," he said. "And I've got some folks that I selected way back in February, when I first came in, and we're now April, and I'm still waiting for the vetting to move."

Until then, the problem will either have to sort itself out, which is unlikely, or whistleblowers like Joan Wadelton will be forced to take matters into their own hands.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.