WASHINGTON — A 2017 Trump administration hiring freeze at the State Department had devastating effects, hurting core functions such as providing services to U.S. citizens abroad and protecting embassies, the agency's internal watchdog said Friday.
The department's inspector general said all domestic offices and nearly all overseas missions surveyed reported the freeze had a "negative or very negative effect on morale."
It said 96% of embassies and consulates overseas and 95% of offices in the U.S. reported negative effects on security, consular and administrative operations. Those included oversight of millions of dollars in counter-terrorism, health, human rights and humanitarian assistance programs from Afghanistan to Venezuela.
"Several bureaus charged with protecting security, health, and life safety reported to [the inspector general] the hiring freeze had significant detrimental effects," states the report, which was based on surveys of 38 domestic offices and 151 overseas posts.
The report, which confirms anecdotal evidence from employees at the time, quantifies the effects of a significant across-the-board cutback that caused turmoil in the agency as diplomats struggled to explain the new foreign policy strategy in the chaotic early days of the Trump administration.
The inspector general also said it could not assess whether the freeze had actually saved any money because the department did not systematically track the costs of overtime, travel and other expenses incurred due to staffing vacancies.
President Donald Trump froze hiring immediately after taking office in January 2017 as a cost-cutting measure. The cuts were imposed under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and hiring was restored by his successor, Mike Pompeo.
Among the issues reported were an inability to fully staff diplomatic security positions and implement procedures called for by Congress and others after the deadly 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya. It caused lengthy delays in the implementation of programs aimed at securing highly classified communications and information.
The Bureau of Diplomatic Security said the freeze "could have significantly affected its ability to respond to overseas security crises," according to the IG report, which was ordered by Congress.
Another department bureau that deals with the government's most sensitive secrets "reported that extended vacancies in its information security positions placed at risk highly classified information," the inspector general said.
The freeze also had policy implications, the report said.
It said one bureau reported the freeze "prevented it from conducting a robust rollout of a priority Administration security initiative related to East Asia." Another bureau said the freeze had left it unable "to support an urgent need related to counterterrorism efforts in Iraq and Syria."