March 16, 2020

Menendez Calls on Pompeo to Answer for State Department’s Shortcomings in Response to Spread of Novel Coronavirus

“These are not just theoretical questions. They bear on the Department’s ability to function and to serve the American people, including providing vital services for Americans overseas during this unprecedented global health crisis, and helping to protect those in the United States.”

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today called upon Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to immediately rectify the State Department’s slow and deficient response to the coronavirus pandemic. Citing specific examples of leadership mismanagement and shortcomings around the Department’s response to the outbreak, Menendez called on Secretary Pompeo to increase transparency about the impact coronavirus is having on the Department to prevent the unnecessary endangerment of U.S. officials and Americans abroad and the exacerbation of COVID-19’s public health impact, and to immediately update the Committee on steps the Department is taking to protect personnel.

“I fear the Department’s lack of a robust response has put the health its own employees, including those stationed abroad, at further risk, and further jeopardized the health and well-being of the American people,” wrote Menendez, lauding the State Department personnel actively working to help address the health risks facing U.S. citizens, facilitate their return to the U.S., contain the spread of COVID-19 globally

Menendez specifically cited the Secretary’s failure to provide any specifics about the circumstances or the Department’s response to protect personnel even after a State Department embassy employee reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. The Senator also raised his concerns with the department’s excessive delays in providing guidance to employees or their families on COVID-19, as well as in updating the Department’s Visa Alert page with critical information for international travelers.  

“I am also concerned about the lack of transparency regarding the Department’s contingency planning for pandemics such as COVID-19,” added Menendez, citing the Trump Administration’s insistence on stonewalling Congress’ efforts to obtain answers about questions of national security. “Despite repeated requests from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Department has failed to provide any basic information or substantive responses on issues critical to the health and safety of our diplomatic corps and the American people they are on the front lines to serve.” 

Menendez made a series of requests about the State Department’s role in combatting the spread of COVID-19, including protecting personnel overseas, and called on Secretary Pompeo to prepare to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to discuss these issues in a public setting. 

A copy of the Senator’s letter can be found HERE and below.

Dear Secretary Pompeo: 

As our nation and the world comes to terms with the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is apparent that the U.S. government response to address this global threat has thus far fallen far short. I am similarly concerned that the State Department has not responded with the urgency or focus required to protect our citizens abroad and diplomatic personnel.

I recognize that thousands of dedicated State Department personnel at home and abroad are working around-the-clock to help address the health risks facing U.S. citizens and their families, facilitate their return to the U.S., and work to contain the spread of COVID-19 globally. However, the Department’s has not put forth a coordinated, robust response which I fear puts the health of its own employees at further risk, and further jeopardizes the health and well-being of the American people. 

Last week, according to public reports, at least one State Department embassy employee tested positive for COVID-19—and may well have worked during a period when they were infectious. However the Department has failed to provide any details or the Department’s response to protect personnel and the surrounding community. I understand that even after the Department knew there were multiple positive cases in several different locations, the Department failed to provide any guidance for employees or their families on COVID-19, and, as the blog Diplopundit noted, the Department’s Visa Alerts page—a pivotal source of information for international travelers—remained empty for days even after the Department was aware of positive cases and was downgrading certain Consular functions.

I am also concerned about the lack of transparency regarding the Department’s contingency planning for pandemics such as COVID-19. 

Despite repeated requests from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Department has failed to provide any basic information or substantive responses on issues critical to the health and safety of our diplomatic corps and the American people they are on the front lines to serve. 

These are not just theoretical questions. They bear on the Department’s ability to function and to serve the American people, including providing vital services for Americans overseas during this unprecedented global health crisis, and helping to protect those in the United States.

Therefore, I request that you provide the following information immediately, and continue to provide updates on a rolling and prompt basis: 

  1. An immediate status update on the number of suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases of Department personnel;
  2. The current operating status of all overseas posts and contingency plans for further spread of COVID-19;
  3. A copy of all Department guidance provided to employees and overseas posts regarding up-19, including how such guidance is being communicated to personnel;
  4. A copy of the Department’s current response plan for any suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 involving Department personnel;
  5. The current guidance to personnel for going into work or working remotely; and
  6. A detailed briefing on the Department’s continuity of operations plans.

In addition, I request that you arrange for my staff to be briefed immediately on each of these concerns in detail, and that you be prepared to appear before the Committee to discuss these issues with Congress and the American people.

Sincerely,

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