State Department to Expand Religious Freedom Office as It Cuts Many Others

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a briefing at the Department of State August 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is moving to eliminate or downgrade special envoy positions at the State Department, including the representative for climate change, a step that is sure to ignite vociferous opposition from some members of Congress.

In a letter obtained by CNN and written to Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who heads the foreign relations committee, Tillerson said he would end or transfer as many as three dozen special envoy positions.

“I believe that the Department will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus,” Tillerson wrote Corker, “and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose.”

Special envoys for Syria, Sudan and South Sudan, and the Arctic will be eliminated.

Cuts and one area of expansion

Other positions dedicated to thorny diplomatic issues, ranging from Mideast peace to relations with Afghanistan, would be subsumed under existing State Department bureaus. One area of oversight — the Office of Global Food Security — would be moved to USAID.
Three offices would be expanded — those dealing with religious freedom, HIV/AIDS and Holocaust issues. The special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would remain under the office of the secretary.

Tillerson hinted at a reorganization on his first day at the State Department, even before the Trump administration signaled its intent to cut up to 30 percent of the agency’s budget. The letter to Corker outlines some of the first concrete steps the former ExxonMobil CEO will take in his restructuring.

Tillerson notes that the department has nearly 70 special envoys, many that still exist even though the underlying issues have been resolved. But his critics, who pushed back against the proposals at a July hearing on Capitol Hill, pointed out that a special envoy can focus attention on issues important to US national security interests that might otherwise get overlooked.

Indeed, Tillerson himself appointed a special representative for Ukraine negotiations, career diplomat Kurt Volker, in July. In that position, Volker will play a lead role in working on a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine — a crucial step to achieving President Donald Trump’s goal of better relations with Russia.

At the hearing, as in the letter, Tillerson argued that the State Department “will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus, and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose.”

The revamp will “eliminate redundancies that dilute the ability of a bureau to deliver on its primary functions,” Tillerson said. These changes, he said, will advance US national security interests and will help to “counter the influence of US adversaries and competitors.”

Tillerson has gotten the backing of some think tanks and policy groups in Washington that had been recommending a review of the envoys. In 2014, the American Foreign Service Association said that the number of special envoys and representatives had “increased substantially, diluting the brand and reducing effectiveness.”

A State Department official told CNN after this story was first published that Tillerson believes integrating the functions of certain envoys into the bureau structures will make the agency more efficient.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss State Department business, said that of 66 positions outlined in the letter, Tillerson will keep 30 envoys and representatives with their title. The work of another 21 will be integrated into bureaus, nine positions will be eliminated entirely and another five will be folded into existing positions.

Bureaus will take over the envoys’ allocated budgets, staff and responsibilities. Senior officials will be empowered to conduct high-level diplomacy with foreign officials on issues that call for it.

“Empowering regional and functional bureaus will make knowledge and resources more accessible, provide clarity in reporting authority, strengthen communication channels and create a more efficient State Department,” the official said in an email.

Corker expressed support for Tillerson’s move on Monday, noting that the State Department reauthorization bill his committee passed directed Foggy Bottom to tell Congress which special envoys it wanted to keep in place.

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SOURCE: CNN – Elise Labott, Nicole Gaouette and Jeremy Herb