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State Department sees exodus of weapons experts

WASHINGTON—State Department officials appointed by President Bush have sidelined key career weapons experts and replaced them with less experienced political operatives who share the White House and Pentagon's distrust of international negotiations and treaties.

The reorganization of the department's arms control and international security bureaus was intended to help it better deal with 21st-century threats. Instead, it's thrown the agency into turmoil and produced an exodus of experts with decades of experience in nuclear arms, chemical weapons and related matters, according to 11 current and former officials and documents obtained by Knight Ridder.

The reorganization was conducted largely in secret by a panel of four political appointees. A career expert was allowed to join the group only after most decisions had been made. Its work was overseen by Frederick Fleitz, a CIA officer who was detailed to the State Department as senior adviser to former Undersecretary of State John Bolton, a critic of arms agreements and international organizations.

Bolton's nomination to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was nearly derailed last year by allegations that he'd harassed and bullied his staff. Some State Department weapons experts from offices that had clashed with Bolton were denied senior positions in the reorganization, even though they had superior qualifications, the officials and documents alleged.

Fleitz, who works for Robert Joseph, Bolton's successor, later telephoned State Department employees who signed a letter protesting the moves and registered his displeasure, one official said.

The political appointees who crafted the shakeup sought and received assurances from the State Department's legal and human resources offices that what they were doing was legal.

But other officials charge that it violated long-standing management and personnel practices.

"The process has been gravely flawed from the outset, and smacks plainly of a political vendetta against career Foreign Service and Civil Service (personnel) by political appointees," a group of employees told Undersecretary of State for Management Henrietta Fore on Dec. 9, according to notes prepared for the meeting.

A dozen State Department employees delivered a rare written dissent to Fore and W. Robert Pearson, the director general of the Foreign Service, on Oct. 11. Some also sought, but failed to get, a stay from the Justice Department to stop the plan.

Joseph, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that the changes might have been painful to some but were necessary.

"Reorganizations are never easy. They inevitably mean change," he said. "The reorganization ... was essential to better position us to further the president's strategy against WMD (weapons of mass destruction) proliferation and (Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's) emphasis on transformational diplomacy."

"Yet the reorganization also offers important new professional opportunities for the employees of the State Department," he said.

Much more than personnel disputes are at stake, said the officials who are critical of the changes.

They said they were concerned that Rice, who announced the changes last July but apparently hasn't been deeply involved in their execution, will be deprived of expertise on weapons matters. Among those who have left is the State Department's top authority on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the international regime to curb the spread of nuclear arms.

"We had a great group of people. They are highly knowledgeable experts," said former Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf, who frequently clashed with Bolton. "To the extent they now are leaving State Department employ, or U.S. government employ, it's a real loss to State Department. It's a real loss to the government."

A half-dozen current department officials expressed the same view, but spoke on condition of anonymity because, they said, they feared retaliation.

Jonathan Granoff, the director of the Global Security Institute, an arms control advocacy group, said the loss of State Department arms-control expertise was especially worrisome because the only mechanism for verifying U.S. and Russian nuclear arms cuts—the 1991 START I treaty—is due to expire in less than three years.

That also will eliminate the most effective way of verifying that the former rivals are abiding by their Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments to eliminate their nuclear arsenals eventually, he said. "Rather than nurture our experts, the administration seems to have brought in neophytes without a passion for progress in this field and, worse, undermined the international institutions that are most effective in stopping proliferation," he said.

More broadly, the clash is the culmination of a generation-old battle over arms control.

In one corner are specialists who argue that negotiated arms agreements help U.S. security; in the other are those who argue that the United States should rely mostly on the threat of force, sanctions and other unilateral steps to curb the spread of dangerous weapons and maintain a credible deterrent against an attack.

When she announced the reorganization, Rice declared that more than deterrence and arms control treaties are necessary to safeguard America. "We must also go on the offensive against outlaw scientists, black-market arms dealers and rogue state proliferators," she said.

Bush has demanded maximum presidential flexibility on national security matters, avoiding major new arms treaties and pushing the limits of executive power on issues from domestic eavesdropping to the treatment of terrorism suspects.

Many career government experts didn't dispute the need to reorganize U.S. policy offices that deal with weapons of mass destruction. But they said they worried that future administrations with a view different from Bush and Rice's would have to build the expertise they'd need from scratch.

An inquiry by Knight Ridder has found evidence that the reorganization was highly politicized and devastated morale:

_Thomas Lehrman, a political appointee who heads the new office of Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism, advertised outside the State Department to fill jobs in his office. In an e-mail to universities and research centers, a copy of which was obtained by Knight Ridder, he listed loyalty to Bush and Rice's priorities as a qualification.

Lehrman reportedly recalled the e-mail after it was pointed out that such loyalty tests are improper.

_Specialists in the department's old Nonproliferation Bureau, which frequently battled Bolton on policy toward Iraq, Iran and North Korea, largely were frozen out of important jobs when offices in that bureau merged with those in another.

"Bolton had blood in his eyes for the Nonproliferation Bureau," said another official who's still working at the State Department.

One of the government's top experts on the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, which helps stem the spread of nuclear weapons but disputed the Bush administration's claims about Iraq's weapons programs, returned from two and a half years at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria, and was blocked from assuming an office directorship that had been offered to him, the officials and a complaint document said.

The post, which oversees U.S. diplomacy regarding international efforts to contain suspected nuclear-weapons programs such as those in Iran and North Korea, went to a more junior officer who numerous officials said shared Bolton's views.

Five higher-ranking officers were passed over, the document says, adding that none had negative work histories "aside from intimations that they were not as `trusted' politically by the political management level."

In August 2005, the officer chosen for the job sent an e-mail sarcastically titled: "A Nobel for the IAEA? Please." The agency and its director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October.

_None of the most senior posts in the new organization was filled by a woman, although several highly qualified female candidates were available.

_The effort was at odds with the recommendations of four December 2004 reports by the department's inspector general, also obtained by Knight Ridder.

The reports praised the nonproliferation unit as "having remained center stage following the events of September 11, 2001." The unit it merged with, the Arms Control bureau, was described as "largely in search of work."

A third unit overseen by Bolton—and now Joseph—which deals with overseeing compliance with arms treaties, was recommended for downsizing. Instead, it's been expanded.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a veteran nonproliferation expert who recently left the State Department, said he was worried about what he called an "exodus" of qualified specialists from the department.

"It seems about a dozen or so have left since the merger came about, many out of frustration," said Fitzpatrick, who's now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "I'm concerned that the ability of the merged bureaus to provide to Condoleezza Rice the same kind of high-quality advice they provided Colin Powell on the very dire proliferation issues facing the world will be diminished by the exodus."

The American Foreign Service Association, which represents foreign service officers, wrote to Rice on Nov. 28, citing allegations that political considerations drove the reorganization.

Dissidents had a second meeting last month with Fore, the undersecretary of state for management.


Key arms-control issues since President Bush took office:

The Bush administration's arms control policies began with a refusal to submit a global treaty to ban underground nuclear-test blasts indefinitely for Senate ratification.

The administration withdrew the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and blocked international efforts to conclude a pact on verifying compliance with a global biological-weapons ban.

The administration also rejected a mechanism for verifying that the United States and Russia are adhering to a 2002 accord to cut deployed nuclear warheads, has embraced new uses for nuclear arms and is spending billions modernizing and improving the U.S. arsenal.


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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