U.S. State Department officials Thursday defended handing over information at the request of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team, outlining “existing programs and activities to promote gender equality."
“Obviously, we would have concerns if, for instance, there were issue-specific lists of names,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby. “That would not be the kind of thing we would want to engage in.”
A “flash transition tasker” message was sent around the Truman Federal Building on Wednesday – with responses due by 5 p.m. that day – for materials on issue papers – including positions and funding – on such topics as “ending gender-based violence, promoting women’s participation in economic and political spheres, entrepreneurship, etc.”
The ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, New York’s Eliot Engel, in a statement provided to VOA News, noted he and his Democratic Party colleagues have made it clear “that the targeting of State Department employees by the Trump Transition team was unacceptable, so I'm troubled by reports that certain offices are being singled out.”
Requests could ‘set off alarm bells’
A congressional aide, speaking to VOA on condition he not be named, said this kind of request could “set off alarm bells” on Capitol Hill.
There is nothing wrong with indicating which seats are filled by presidential appointees or career foreign service officers, Kirby told reporters. “That’s typical. That’s normal,” the former U.S. Navy
admiral said, comparing it to a new captain coming aboard ship and informing him of who is on board and what jobs they have.
But “transition officials need to explain why they're collecting this information,” added Engel.
Kirby said there is concern the Trump team’s request may be an attempt to ascertain what programs at the State Department are focused on support for family planning (including abortion) or gay rights, issues that are an anathema to some very conservative politicians and groups in the United States.
Career diplomats and civil servants in the building expressed to VOA heightened concern after the request from the transition team. They noted that even if Hillary Clinton had won the election there would have been some anxiety about higher-level personnel changes, but now there is fear of far more widespread upheaval under Trump.
Clinton, whom Trump defeated in last month's presidential election, early in her tenure as secretary of state created a position of ambassador at large for global women’s issues and put strong emphasis on that arena, something that has continued under her successor, John Kerry.
Gender equality remains of “paramount importance” at the State Department, Kirby told reporters Thursday.
Concerns of retaliation
The State Department has informed some concerned members of Congress it will not accede to any request from the incoming administration that could lead to retaliation against public servants.
The assurance was made in an informal response to a letter sent by all of the Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sources told VOA on Thursday.
U.S. diplomats promised a formal response to the letter, which was sent to Secretary of State John Kerry. It came in the wake of a request the Trump transition team sent to the Energy Department requesting names of officials who worked on climate change.
“We believe your Department should work to ensure a smooth transition of power. However, individual civil servants, Foreign Service officers, and other staff should not be singled out for their work in support of policy objectives that clash with the next administration’s goals, leaving them vulnerable to retribution by the incoming administration,” reads the letter to Kerry. “In our view, gathering names in this manner bears striking resemblance to dark chapters in our history marked by enemies lists and political witch hunts.”
The letter goes on to say Kerry and the State Department have the signatories' “full support as you seek to protect the department’s public servants.”
The Energy Department says it refused the Trump transition team’s request to provide a list of employees or contractors who attended certain meetings on climate change.
Civil servants “must be free from retaliation for simply following the lawful policy direction of their supervisors. A professional, apolitical career civil service that implements the law is a bulwark of Western democracy,” said J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “Everyone – regardless of party – should be outraged by any attempt to politicize an agency of the Executive Branch. We cannot allow a return to the political witch hunts of the 1950s.”
VOA News sent a request to the Trump transition team for comment but no response has been received.