Joe Biden Promised To Make National Security Agencies More Inclusive. Many Officials Are Still Waiting.

A former diplomat has been on a years-long quest to get answers about a sexual harassment allegation against a top State Department nominee, and several Biden appointees have filed Equal Employment Opportunity complaints.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

Amy Dahm has tried for nine years to get the government to take her complaints seriously.

Last year, President Joe Biden offered a senior job at the State Department to a man who Dahm says sexually harassed and retaliated against her when she resisted, damaging her diplomatic career as he advanced at State.

Since 2014, Dahm has provided testimony about the alleged incident to three different offices at the State Department, and to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which approves top State Department appointments. In July 2021, the State Department’s primary investigative bureau, the Office of Civil Rights, found Dahm’s claims to be “unsubstantiated and without merit,” and a source close to Dahm’s alleged harasser maintains that is true.

But that office at State still has not heard from at least two of Dahm’s witnesses, deeming them not “relevant” despite not having heard their testimony, HuffPost has learned. In November 2022, staff at the Senate committee said the State Department’s investigation into Dahm’s allegation was incomplete, and that the department should hear from three witnesses whom Senate investigators interviewed.

The Office of Civil Rights — which has the sole authority to determine what an investigation should involve and when one has concluded sufficiently — does not currently plan to speak with those witnesses, HuffPost has learned.

Biden has renominated the State Department official for the job.

A separate complaint Dahm submitted last year to the State Department’s inspector general ended up at the agency’s Management Bureau, according to emails reviewed by HuffPost ― but the department is citing procedure to argue that it cannot say what, if anything, happened with that complaint. And Dahm shared her concerns with the White House last August, leading a White House official to pass them on to State’s Diplomatic Security bureau. A Diplomatic Security investigator interviewed her soon afterward, but the bureau declined to share the status of its investigation with HuffPost, and Dahm said it has given her no further information.

The U.S. Department of State building is seen in Washington, D.C., Dec. 13, 2022.
The U.S. Department of State building is seen in Washington, D.C., Dec. 13, 2022.
Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Biden entered office saying the U.S. national security workforce at State, the Pentagon and related agencies was suffering from intense unhappiness and barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion that made it hard to advance American interests and craft effective foreign policy. He promised change. Yet two years into Biden’s presidency, current and former officials say the culture at those national security agencies drives talented people out of key positions, and that the agencies still only offer opaque systems for reporting allegations of mistreatment.

In an internal survey of State Department staff conducted last year, 44% of personnel said they had experienced harassment, discrimination or bullying at work, according to a Wall Street Journal review of the still-unpublished survey. Of that 44%, most said they did not report their experiences because they did not believe the alleged perpetrators would face consequences or because they feared retaliation, while many who did file complaints were not satisfied with State’s response. At the Defense Department, officials have only implemented six of the 18 changes for improving diversity, equity and inclusion that a congressionally mandated commission recommended more than a decade ago, the Pentagon’s inspector general reported last October.

Several officials who Biden placed at national security agencies have filed Equal Employment Opportunity complaints alleging harassment, discrimination and racial bias, according to documents reviewed by HuffPost. The White House and the State Department have largely ignored inquiries from lawmakers about where staff from marginalized groups are placed in the foreign policy hierarchy, and whether the administration will publish its promised progress reports on boosting diversity. And while Biden said he would support officials from historically excluded groups so that new perspectives would be able to influence policy, multiple Biden appointees who say their ideas challenge Washington orthodoxies have left the administration.

Meanwhile, Republicans are preparing to use their new majority in the House of Representatives to challenge policies that the GOP claims are intended to build a “woke military” and “discriminate against straight white men.”

HuffPost spoke with 10 current and former officials and reviewed complaints from eight others to understand the widespread disappointment in Biden. Most requested anonymity for fear of professional retaliation and further personal difficulties.

“Many of the people affected by the actions of this administration are first-time appointees ― we are outsiders, heads of our household, veterans, BIPOC, women, queer, and living with disabilities,” said a Biden appointee who is in regular contact with a group of political appointees who felt marginalized at national security agencies. Many members of the group have quit the administration or been pushed out.

“We were simply political props for this administration,” the appointee added.

“We were simply political props for this administration.”

- A Biden appointee who spoke to HuffPost

Another official said it is jarring that Biden aides talk so frequently about making progress, and about how much the president cares about diversity issues.

“It’s actually a lot worse because people are like, ‘Well, we fixed it!’ Before, at least we never said we fixed anything,” the official said. “Now we’re claiming to fix things we haven’t fixed, and that I think is even more dangerous.”

Biden’s team is “proud that we have built an administration that looks like America,” a White House spokesperson told HuffPost in a statement.

“This includes foreign affairs and national security agencies where many of these communities have historically been underrepresented. In these agencies, 54% of appointees are women and 47% are people of color,” the spokesperson said. “Appointees of color in national security agencies have also been promoted at a rate comparable to their representation (46% of all promotions vs. 47% of all appointees). We are committed to continuing to build on this work to ensure our government is more representative and more inclusive so we can better serve people from across our nation.”

On Feb. 16, Biden issued a new executive order on the government’s approach to underrepresented groups, directing agencies to establish “Equity Teams” and identify leaders to be held accountable for achieving the president’s stated goal of reducing discrimination and other barriers.

Meanwhile, Dahm is still waiting to see if her complaint against her alleged harasser will be further investigated, if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will agree to hold a confirmation hearing for him regardless ― or if Biden will decide to withdraw the nomination.

Were the alleged harasser to take the new role, Dahm argues, the national security implications could be dire.

“In my experience, sexual harassers show a disregard for the rules that makes them more likely to commit other kinds of misconduct,” Dahm recently told HuffPost. “Watching harassers move up the ranks undermines morale and officials who commit sexual misconduct are also vulnerable to blackmail from America’s enemies. We can do better.”

Amy Dahm says a senior State Department official sexually harassed and then retaliated against her, damaging her career. Her alleged harasser denies the charges.
Amy Dahm says a senior State Department official sexually harassed and then retaliated against her, damaging her career. Her alleged harasser denies the charges.
Provided to HuffPost

A Convoluted Search For Justice

For Dahm, it all began more than a decade ago — with potato salad.

At a social gathering, her alleged harasser’s wife approached Dahm over the spuds and gave her a pointed message, according to a signed statement that Dahm provided to the Senate committee: Do not email my husband unless I’m on the chain too.

“At the time, I was offended because I thought she was questioning my integrity,” Dahm wrote in the statement. “I now wonder whether she either was aware of or was warning me of her husband’s capacity for inappropriate behavior.”

Two years later, Dahm’s alleged harasser brought her into a high-profile office where he was a manager ― a coveted position. He singled her out, giving her a corner office and roles on major trips, according to Dahm’s Senate statement. He repeatedly complimented her personal appearance and raised his marital issues to her, Dahm wrote. She added: “I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable.”

He emailed Dahm asking her to meet him alone after work and she declined, she wrote. Then one day she went into his office to discuss a document. As she stood behind his desk so they could look at the document together, he dropped his arm and grazed the back of her leg, she continued.

“This did not feel like an accidental touch, but that he was testing me for a reaction or making an overture,” Dahm wrote. “He immediately knew by the terrified look on my face that he had violated a boundary, and he said ‘I’m sorry.’”

Afterward, Dahm’s harasser “began to frequently criticize me,” she wrote in her Senate statement, “and openly badmouthed me to my supervisor, by saying that staffing me on an upcoming trip would be ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel.’”

“After I did not accept his advance,” Dahm wrote in a 2014 affidavit to the State Department, she was placed on a two-week probation period and her alleged harasser “could not tell me why or how to get out of it, except he would know it when he saw it.”

The State Department’s procedures for performance issues require written counseling sessions, but Dahm said she never received any. The process she experienced was “highly irregular,” Dahm wrote to the Senate, and within weeks of the alleged harassment incident, she was removed from the team.

“I was left reeling and scrambling for a position,” Dahm wrote in the affidavit. In the Senate statement, Dahm said the sudden removal made it hard to find a new post. The experience left her “humiliated,” she wrote, as “colleagues overtly wondered about my unexpected departure from such a prestigious post.” Dahm wrote that one interviewer for a new job was “openly skeptical,” and that she burst into tears during another interview.

“No one knew exactly what happened, but they knew it was not good,” Dahm wrote.

“Please note I have doubts as to the breadth of the investigation.”

- Amy Dahm, in a 2021 letter to Senate counsel

A source close to her alleged harasser disputed Dahm’s version of events, arguing that the alleged harasser did not have the authority to reassign her unilaterally and that a group of managers in the office believed she had performance problems. The source also argued that Dahm was moved to another job that would help her get promotions.

HuffPost contacted five State Department officials who worked with or close to Dahm and her alleged harasser. Only one agreed to provide comments for use in this story.

“She was not performing up to the standards needed by the office ― people bring different skill sets,” said the official, who was not on Dahm’s direct team but on an adjacent team. “It would have been a collective decision [to reassign her] ... these decisions are not made lightly.”

HuffPost reviewed a draft performance evaluation pertaining to Dahm’s time in the role, in which managers in the office — including her alleged harasser — praised her as hardworking and noted that multiple officials outside the team, like a staffer at then-Vice President Biden’s office, had complimented her work.

Dahm ultimately found a job in another State Department bureau. Three years later, in 2014, she reported the harassment and retaliation, naming the alleged perpetrator, in a signed affidavit to State’s Office of Civil Rights and in a conversation with an investigator at the office. The State Department declined to tell HuffPost if that report ever led to any action. Its regulations mean that Dahm, too, never heard about the result ― or lack thereof.

After Dahm left the department in 2017, she became one of the most prominent voices regarding its approach to sexual harassment allegations. She offered advice to other women trying to navigate the department’s reporting and accountability mechanisms. She provided information for independent probes by State’s inspector general in 2018 and by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2019. And she offered ideas for improvements by working on landmark legislation called the SHAPE Act and a high-profile Truman Center for National Policy report.

When she heard in 2020 that the State Department planned to include her alleged harasser on a list of promotions, Dahm shared her affidavit and the more detailed statement with a counsel at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“I am writing to protect other women,” Dahm wrote in the Senate statement. The “misconduct had far-reaching consequences for me personally and for my career, health and financial well-being.”

The Senate counsel discussed the issue with Dahm and interviewed her in 2020 and 2021, emails show. Then, in the summer of 2021, a State Department attorney contacted Dahm to say her office was launching an investigation into “possible sexual harassment” and asked to interview her, per an email shared with HuffPost.

The attorney was from the civil rights office, where Dahm had sent her affidavit seven years earlier. The interview request “felt jarring after years of no contact with” the office, Dahm wrote in a later statement to Senate investigators that HuffPost reviewed.

Dahm had a conversation with the attorney, during which the attorney simultaneously transcribed Dahm’s testimony. On July 9, 2021, the attorney contacted her to share a draft transcript from the interview, asking her to return “suggested edits” within three business days and to provide contact information for witnesses she had mentioned, per an email shared with HuffPost. Two days later, Dahm wrote an email to her personal attorney saying: “I’ve already seen some things that are not right ... What’s the big rush with this investigation?”

On July 16, Dahm’s attorney wrote an email to the State Department attorney asking for an extension, because both Dahm and her lawyer were dealing with health problems. The State attorney wrote back hours later: “This case has been pending at its initial stages for quite some time, and I really need to act on it.”

“I can give you until Monday 7/19. If I don’t receive edits ... I will use the draft as the final,” the attorney concluded. Dahm told HuffPost she rushed to meet that deadline and sent the attorney corrections to the draft.

Dahm also provided the attorney with three witnesses to contact, she wrote in a later statement to Senate investigators. Two of those three potential witnesses, who requested anonymity out of fear of professional retaliation, told HuffPost that the State Department attorney never interviewed them.

On July 29, the civil rights office issued a memo to the alleged harasser ― later reviewed by HuffPost ― that said it found the claim unsubstantiated and would not be recommending further action.

Soon afterward, Dahm wrote back to the Senate counsel: “It is not a complete surprise that State was unable to substantiate my harassment complaint, given the passage of time between my report and the investigation.”

“Please note I have doubts as to the breadth of the investigation,” Dahm continued, arguing that the State attorney’s “pressure” meant she did not have time to review her records or contact more potential witnesses.

In 2022, Dahm learned that Biden had nominated her accused harasser for an even higher position ― a revelation that she said made her whole body start shaking.

She contacted the foreign relations committee again. This time, she also reached out to the White House, at least four senators’ offices and Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, the State Department’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, per emails seen by HuffPost. (Abercrombie-Winstanley declined to comment.)

Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the State Department, appears before a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on July 26, 2022.
Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the State Department, appears before a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on July 26, 2022.
Rod Lamkey/CNP/ABACA/Shutterstock

Dahm spoke with two Senate counsels last summer and early fall, sharing with them her 2014 affidavit to the State Department, her previous statement to the Senate committee and the list of witnesses she’d provided to the State Department the previous year, according to an email shared with HuffPost.

By November, the counsels had interviewed Dahm’s three witnesses as well as an additional fourth witness. They held a call with Dahm and sent her a follow-up email in which one of them wrote that they planned to ask the State Department’s civil rights office to “investigate further, including speaking with those whose names you previously provided with whom they didn’t speak.”

When asked for more detail, a Senate aide cited limits on discussing specific nominations. “We vet all foreign relations nominees rigorously but generally do not comment publicly on the vetting,” the aide told HuffPost in an email.

Separately, Dahm’s outreach to the White House led a Presidential Personnel Office staffer to direct her complaint to the State Department’s Diplomatic Security bureau last August, according to an email shared with HuffPost.

The Diplomatic Security officer who probed the allegation said the matter was “very time sensitive” in an Aug. 26 email. He interviewed Dahm on Sept. 1, 2022, according to emails reviewed by HuffPost.

Dahm said she never heard anything further from Diplomatic Security. The Diplomatic Security bureau declined to tell HuffPost whether its investigation had concluded.

Dahm decided to use a third reporting mechanism: She submitted a complaint through the State Department inspector general’s hotline on Nov. 29, 2022, a screenshot of the online submission form shows. The inspector general responded to her in a Nov. 30 email that said State’s management bureau would “address your concerns.”

Today, Dahm is unsure of what has happened with her various complaints, and therefore without many avenues to appeal decisions that she’s not sure even exist.

“As a Department, we embrace and champion diversity, equity, and inclusion as a source of strength. The Department has no higher priority than the health, safety, and security of our workforce,” a State Department spokesperson told HuffPost. “Although we cannot comment on individual personnel matters, we can confirm that allegations that an employee has violated a law, regulation, or Department policy are taken seriously. When such allegations are substantiated, the Department may take disciplinary action, up to and including separation, when appropriate. The Department does not take such actions lightly and must comply with all required procedures before doing so.”

Broken Promises

Two weeks into Biden’s presidency, he issued a memo directing U.S. foreign policy agencies to overhaul their approach to staff. He acknowledged in a State Department address the same day that many national security personnel felt marginalized or victimized, and that supporting staff was vital for restoring the U.S.’s international standing after Donald Trump’s presidency. “We want a rigorous debate that brings all perspectives and makes room for dissent. That’s how we’ll get the best possible policy outcomes,” Biden said.

Biden’s team urged international affairs experts to come aboard as appointees. Inspired and hopeful, many did, while many career staff felt energized by a chance for their expertise to make an impact, rather than be ignored or attacked, which happened under Trump.

The highest echelons of the State Department are dominated by white men, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2020.
The highest echelons of the State Department are dominated by white men, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2020.

Yet across national security institutions, multiple new officials who were from marginalized groups say they quickly met pushback. Hurdles due to long-standing systemic discrimination were inevitable, but several disillusioned current and former administration officials said the Biden administration made choices that exacerbated tensions.

“When we came in, the diversity was poorly placed,” said the Biden appointee who is in touch with dissatisfied colleagues. “Most of it was placed in marginal positions, not in areas that had more power like Middle East policy, European affairs or East Asia and the Pacific.”

Many appointees from underrepresented communities received vague titles like “special assistant” or “senior advisor,” rather than traditional government positions such as deputy assistant secretary.

Responding to the criticism on background, a White House official noted that Biden has appointed the first Black defense secretary and the first female director of national intelligence, among other Cabinet members from historically marginalized communities. “In key national security roles, we absolutely believe it’s imperative to have public servants that look like America,” the official said.

Yet they acknowledged that while 47% of political appointments have gone to people of color, nonwhite staff “are represented at higher rates at the junior level,” where their proportion rises to 51%. “We believe it’s incredibly important to build the pipeline,” the official said.

Many appointees from underrepresented communities struggled to “have the juice” to wield real power, the Biden appointee said.

“They’ll in a heartbeat give a person of color a racial justice or [diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility] position. If you go into [a policy area] where it’s all white, they cheaply accommodate it, then over time ... a lot of people don’t get promotions ― but they’ll give you one or two if it’s communications or Africa policy or something that is not your priority,” the appointee added.

Disputes over political sensitivities ― particularly the prospect of the Biden administration becoming more progressive ― helped create toxic environments for a range of officials.

A former national security appointee who is a woman of color told HuffPost her colleagues derided her suggestions as “woke.” Her team’s work suffered as a result, she said: They spent hours debating whether the office should acknowledge Juneteenth, a federal holiday, and their boss made controversial public remarks about “woke” culture. (Presented with this allegation, a White House official pointed to Biden’s 2022 remarks about Juneteenth.)

The appointee felt singled out by a group of largely white women who had previously worked together outside government. “The ‘Becky bunch’ clique of white women has seized this moment,” the appointee said, requesting anonymity for fear of professional retaliation.

The then-appointee experienced racial discrimination and “hostility” that hurt her physical and mental health, her doctor wrote in a signed statement reviewed by HuffPost. Despite those challenges, the doctor noted, the appointee remained committed to performing her job functions.

The appointee told HuffPost she was “verbally accosted” by a white male team member. Instead of backing her harassment claim, her team supported her alleged harasser in a group call, and her supervisor regularly accused her of taking unapproved leave in group emails reviewed by HuffPost. Unbeknownst to her, she said, the office began a process of terminating her role.

In an email the appointee sent to one of the most senior leaders at her agency, she wrote that the head of her office treated her differently on the basis of “unlawful race discrimination,” creating a “toxic, psychologically unsafe and unbearable work environment.” The treatment led to the then-appointee filing an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, per the doctor’s treatment.

There was no response to her email, the former appointee said.

“They give you no resources, they give you no support, and their microaggressive behavior just mounts and mounts,” the appointee said. Eventually, she said, she became so affected by “daily attacks” that she began having panic attacks at work.

“I don’t want to hear any pandering commentary from any of these agencies while we’re on the heels of the murder of Tyre Nichols or at the onset of Black History Month when you are causing this kind of harm against people of color ― especially women of color and Black women ― that’s instigated by white women and perpetuated by others due to their own fear of retaliation,” the former appointee told HuffPost.

A White House official told HuffPost: “We can’t comment on specific comments or complaints but ... The Biden-Harris administration does not tolerate discrimination, bias or harassment of any kind.”

Before she was told she was being terminated, the appointee heard from a third party that her position had been eliminated, according to a message she sent to White House officials and shared with HuffPost. In the email, the then-appointee wrote that she had shared her experience of alleged harassment with the White House weeks earlier and was promised support, but that she had never heard from the administration again. She told HuffPost the White House did not respond to either that message or another she sent two months later.

Asked about these claims, a Biden administration official told HuffPost: “After an individual is hired, each agency is responsible for its own personnel matters and for ensuring their employees follow their agencies’ codes of conduct. Each agency is also responsible for maintaining an office culture that meets the high standards of this administration by ensuring it is welcoming, inclusive, and free from harassment and discrimination.”

The terminated appointee and another appointee told HuffPost that appointees of color have expressed particular frustration with David White, a Black veteran who oversees the national security portfolio at the Presidential Personnel Office. They said some appointees feel he has failed to support officials from underrepresented communities, pushing them to tolerate harmful work environments, move to less powerful posts or simply leave the administration. HuffPost viewed multiple email chains with White in which appointees asked him for support while facing problems at their offices.

A senior administration official gave White credit for working to incorporate people of color in national security roles.

“There is a difference between [White’s] role of identifying good candidates to serve in the administration and fill vacancies with highly qualified and capable individuals ... and then someone who’s having a problem or issue at work that should be reported to their agency’s human resources department,” the official said.

Across agencies, staff from underrepresented communities say Biden administration leadership has attempted to create the appearance of supporting diversity largely by elevating a community of white women in foreign policy, following a broader national trend. They describe the circle with various names, from “the Becky bunch” to “the Madeleine Albright group,” and point to patterns like the appointment of white women at the Pentagon to fill most of the senior roles that did not go to white men.

Members of racial or ethnic minority groups are up to 29% less likely to be promoted at the State Department than white co-workers with similar qualifications, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2020.
Members of racial or ethnic minority groups are up to 29% less likely to be promoted at the State Department than white co-workers with similar qualifications, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2020.

Some officials who faced harassment and discrimination have pushed back, but have been forced to navigate a complex, historically flawed system in order to seek accountability.

A former appointee who is a decorated veteran, and who requested anonymity to avoid professional retaliation, told HuffPost she was harassed from the beginning of her employment with the Biden administration. Initially, she experienced “hazing” from career staff, she said in an email to the White House Presidential Personnel Office and in an interview with HuffPost. The appointee said she sought advice from fellow veterans in the Biden administration. “As first-time appointees, none of us really knew how to maneuver in this situation,” she said.

A White House official reiterated to HuffPost that the administration opposed any kind of harassment, saying: “Any form of hazing is absolutely unacceptable.”

During one of the most tense points in her tenure ― as the U.S. government rushed to help Afghans after the Taliban took over their country ― the then-appointee was aggressively confronted by a colleague, she wrote in a signed discrimination complaint document that she shared with HuffPost.

She told HuffPost that at the behest of a commander, she had asked the colleague to leave a U.S. base for violating protocol. The colleague, a man larger than her, launched into expletives, walked up so close to her she could feel his spit hit her face, and, fists shaking, asked how dare she transmit the commander’s message, the former appointee said. She added that as she stood her ground, he ignored her requests to stay out of her personal space and to have a discussion when he was less emotional.

Another member of the team said she was present at the scene when the then-appointee asked her colleague to leave. The alleged assailant was “yelling and pointing” at the then-appointee, creating “potentially a very aggressive situation,” said the witness, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Later that day, the former appointee said, she filed a complaint to her agency’s investigative office, which never told her whether the report led to any action.

The experience left the former appointee scared, and aggravated her post-traumatic stress from her time in military service, she said.

Five months later, the appointee was fired at a 4:30 p.m. meeting without any prior notice, she wrote in her message to the Presidential Personnel Office.

“There was no forewarning of this action, no counseling, no coaching, no indication from any of my leadership ... I had expressed to [the White House] and my boss previously that I was being hazed and bullied by career staff, was excluded from meetings and was not given equal opportunity to work on policy ― with no action from them to rectify the situation,” she wrote. “The way I was treated ... was disrespectful, undignified and not in line with the values that this administration purports to hold.”

More than a week after the appointee’s termination, a White House official told her via email that the Biden administration was grateful for her service but could not conduct an exit interview or provide any information beyond what she received from her agency. The White House official noted that the appointee could use channels for reporting harassment through the agency ― which the appointee told HuffPost she had already done.

“All appointees are held to the highest ethical and professional standards. While we cannot comment on the specifics of any case out of respect for the privacy of the individual, termination of employment is a step that agencies generally only take in the most egregious of circumstances and after multiple communications,” a White House spokesperson told HuffPost via email.

The situation exacted a heavy toll, the former appointee said. “I felt a lot of shame and it’s caused real financial hardship,” she told HuffPost. “This shouldn’t have happened.”

The man who allegedly berated and intimidated her still works for the government.

The exodus of Biden administration officials from historically marginalized backgrounds contrasts with the way some Washington stalwarts remain in powerful jobs despite public criticism, the current official said. They highlighted the case of Brett McGurk, an alum of the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations who organized Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia last summer and has since faced criticism. “Powerful people do not like him but he’s surviving,” the official said of McGurk. “It tells you the privilege that he has.”

Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, listens to questions from reporters during a Pentagon briefing, May 19, 2017, in Arlington, Virginia.
Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, listens to questions from reporters during a Pentagon briefing, May 19, 2017, in Arlington, Virginia.
Win McNamee via Getty Images

By 2022, the frustration among personnel who thought Biden would uplift underrepresented communities and little-heard viewpoints started spilling into the open.

In May, Politico reported that so many Black personnel had quit the White House that staff were speaking of a “Blaxit.” (Commenting to Politico, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden “is committed to continuing historic representation for Black staff and all communities,” adding: “This is a normal time for turnover across the board in any administration and Black staff have been promoted at a higher rate than staff who are not diverse.”)

In August, the American Federation of Government Employees wrote to State Department leaders to note that the agency had yet to fire diplomat Fritz Berggren, who more than a year earlier had been unmasked as running an antisemitic website. By October, more than 70 lawmakers had signed a letter that called Berggren’s continued employment “beyond alarming.” (State declined to comment on Berggren’s case, citing privacy concerns.)

The same month, The Wall Street Journal published the details of the State Department survey showing continued low morale and fear of reporting misconduct. Acknowledging “the department’s shortcomings” in a statement to the Journal, Secretary of State Tony Blinken said: “We’re facing them head-on and tackling this imperative with the urgency and priority it deserves ― and with the resources to back it up.”

In November, the head of the Presidential Personnel Office made a public appearance that the group of disheartened current and former officials still regularly reference. Appearing at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, known as “America’s Black think tank,” Gautam Raghavan said Biden’s team prides itself on “building and maintaining a really diverse and inclusive team,” and that it appreciates outsiders “holding us accountable.”

In the next two years, he plans to focus on “retention and supporting people once we hire them,” Raghavan said, noting that hiring candidates from marginalized groups often means placing appointees in agencies where they have not previously worked.

“If we don’t support them from day one, and invest in their growth, we’re not going to be successful,” he continued. “That’s not a good look for us ― and it’s substantively bad for the American people.”

‘Keep Keeping It White’?

Lawmakers and watchdogs are trying to hold Biden to his promise of progress. But the administration has provided little response to two notable letters from Capitol Hill, HuffPost has learned.

The first was a previously unreported 2021 missive in which Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) and colleagues asked Blinken for demographic data about the staff selected for the top ranks of the State Department. When asked about the letter, a department spokesperson told HuffPost: “As a general matter, the Department does not comment on congressional correspondence.”

In 2021, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) and colleagues asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken for demographic data about the staff selected for the top ranks of the State Department.
In 2021, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) and colleagues asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken for demographic data about the staff selected for the top ranks of the State Department.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

The second congressional letter, from the Democrats on the House intelligence committee to deputy national security adviser Jon Finer in 2022, requested updates on Biden’s working group on the national security workforce and suggested that the group’s quarterly reports be made available to the public.

Mark Hanis, whose advocacy group Inclusive America was a partner on the 2022 letter, told HuffPost there has not been “any substantive engagement” with the inquiry. White House staff privately briefed House and Senate staffers on diversity efforts following the letter, a White House official told HuffPost. Yet the quarterly reports remain out of public sight.

“If you talk to [the Presidential Personnel Office] or [the Office of Personnel Management] or various chief diversity officers, at the beginning they would say, ‘Our hands are full ― we’re working on it,’” Hanis said of inclusion efforts. “While that’s obviously true at the beginning of the administration ... two years in, it’s less valid because the dust has settled and the results are very clear.”

A White House official declined to comment on that criticism.

Hanis tracks overall diversity at agencies like the State Department and the Pentagon, as well as whether people from historically underrepresented groups gain jobs at their top tiers.

“It’s the most diverse administration in history, but it’s not yet equitable,” Hanis said, noting particular concerns about the highest ranks of the Defense Department, outreach to religious minorities and limited promotions of people with intersecting marginalized identities, like being both female and a person of color.

“It’s particularly important that there’s diversity, equity and inclusion at every level so it’s not the classic thing we see in corporate America with protected classes in the most junior roles. We see that a lot in the national security sector still,” Hanis said. “If we can’t see the outcomes ... it takes away from their argument that they’re making progress.”

Bishop Garrison served at the Pentagon under Biden for 18 months as the agency’s first-ever top diversity officer to hold senior executive rank.

Garrison told HuffPost that Biden deserves “an A- to a B+” when it comes to retaining diverse talent and improving accountability for misconduct. He cited particular improvements at the Pentagon: setting up a commission on sexual assault and harassment in the military, compiling a comprehensive report on violent extremism among armed personnel and veterans, and launching the largest-ever Defense Department partnership with a historically Black university, Howard.

“They’ve taken so many of these different historic steps to help protect, support and uplift women and marginalized communities within the department,” Garrison said.

When asked about attrition, he noted that most presidential administrations see turnover at the 18-month to two-year mark as officials experience burnout or seek other professional opportunities.

Yet Garrison acknowledged that personal relationships are key in bureaucracies like the Pentagon, and that developing them can be especially challenging for national security experts who have traditionally been excluded.

“Everyone is so busy ... and a lot of members of marginalized communities often have not had the same opportunities at the outset of their careers,” he said.

Biden, who has worked in politics since the 1970s, has developed his own substantial network ― and, as a congressional aide who works on diversity issues noted, “people of color and women of color have not historically been part of that network.”

The aide also cited the administration’s choice to place many personnel from marginalized groups in posts “where you kind of have to figure it out for yourself... you have to navigate this environment where you’re starting at a disadvantage.” The aide contrasted the choice with the coalition that Biden depended on to secure the presidency: a diverse group of volunteers and the largely Black voters in the South Carolina Democratic primary who helped him become his party’s nominee in the first place.

As staff who have felt stymied make their decisions about leaving, going public with their stories or trying to stay in the administration, they are balancing some lingering hope in Biden with their exhaustion with agencies that they feel are designed to keep them out.

For some, the internal fight must continue over the next two years.

“I still want to not be pushed out completely,” said one Biden appointee. “All they’re going to do is keep keeping it white.”

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