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Doubts about U.S. State redesign deepen with erroneous comments

By Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson holds a town hall with staff on Tuesday amid skepticism about his planned agency reorganization that has been aggravated by his recent inaccurate comments about the State Department, a dozen current and former officials said.

The embattled diplomat, who has endured repeated media speculation about how long he will last, appears under fire both from the White House and his own workers, who resent his embrace of a 30 percent cut to the department and planned reorganization.

Tillerson made erroneous statements about the top echelon of U.S. diplomats during a question-and-answer session after a Nov. 28 speech, misstating their title and ages at retirement.

"It's one of many things that show that the administration as a whole doesn't fundamentally understand what diplomacy can do and how it works," said Richard Boucher, a former department spokesman and assistant secretary for South and Central Asia.

Boucher, one of six former officials interviewed, said the mistakes suggested Tillerson's staff did not consult widely enough or understand the issues themselves sufficiently to ensure he was well briefed.

Having served as spokesman for five secretaries of state, Boucher said that in his day the department "went to enormous lengths to try to avoid making mistakes," and when it did, it sought to correct them "visibly, publicly and ... quickly."

Speaking on Nov. 28 at Washington's Wilson Center, a think tank, Tillerson repeatedly referred to the few U.S. diplomats who hold the highest personal rank of "career ambassador" as "career diplomats" rather than by their correct title.

He also said the four people with the title who stepped down this year had reached the age of 65 and retired. In fact, one was 55 and another 61 when they retired. Of the other two, one was 67 and the other 65, but neither was under an obligation to retire because of the presidential appointments they held.

Asked about the statements, a State Department spokesman did not defend their accuracy but said Tillerson was responding to media reports suggesting a mass exodus from the agency.

"The secretary was speaking in general terms but responding to the narrative that people are leaving in droves. It is simply not true, and the numbers don’t bear that out," the spokesman said.

Tillerson has been criticized by diplomats and by members of Congress for his management of the agency and uncertainty over what he wants to achieve with the reorganization.

Last month, a senior official overseeing the reorganization stepped down after less than four months.

"People think he (Tillerson) doesn't have much of a clue," said a serving State Department official, one of six who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation, adding: "It sends the message that he doesn't understand the nuances."

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Leslie Adler)