What Lurks at Foggy Bottom

The Harry S. Truman Building, headquarters for the State Department, in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Something dark and sinister has for some time now been slithering around the corridors and cubicles at Foggy Bottom, the State Department headquarters in Washington.

On July 27, a swastika was found carved near the office of the special envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism. Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded immediately with a message to all employees saying that “this type of rhetoric has no place in the United States, at the State Department, or anywhere else. And we must be relentless in standing up and rejecting it.”

An investigation was promptly ordered to apprehend the culprit. But even though the elevator area bristles with security cameras and armed guards at the entrances and exits, specifically designed to catch such things, there’s been no word of it since.

This Monday, we had more unpleasant news from the State Department, of a similar species.

More than 70 employees at State signed a letter to the Secretary calling for the removal of “an openly antisemitic department employee” who runs a website on which he posts anti-Semitic remarks in his own name, Foreign Policy reported.

Those remarks, which also include attacks on other groups, are not the borderline type where its author could credibly claim that no offense was intended. They are of the vilest, most blatant hate speech.

Nor has the author — Fritz Berggren, a mid-ranking Foreign Service officer — disavowed or apologized for the remarks. On the contrary, when Foreign Policy contacted him about it, he avoided direct comment on the substance, and instead added sarcastically that he was “heartened” to have Jewish readers and added that he hoped they will one day convert to Christianity.”

This isn’t a case of “microaggression,” but the threat of real aggression. Signatories to the letter expressed fear that some of his hate messages could be construed as a call to violence.

“The Department should not wait for Berggren to target Jewish employees in the workplace, potentially with violence, before removing him,” they wrote. “The security clearance process is meant to assess an employee’s suitability for continued employment with the Department. There is no universe in which Berggren should qualify as suitable.”

In its “relentless” way, the State Department says it’s on the case:

“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,” it said. “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.”

The State Department, which has its hands full trying to spin the Afghanistan debacle into a historic success, might understandably find it challenging to deal at the same time with an internal personnel problem. Firing an employee, even for blatant bigotry, requires due process, and that takes time.

But this matter did not come up yesterday. Berggren’s doings, including his affiliation with the State Department, was first reported by Politico in late February of this year. The sleuths at State didn’t require the assistance of the FBI to track him down.

The employees expressed their impatience in the abovementioned letter of complaint:

“Fritz Berggren’s continued employment is an affront to all of us and the values we share,” the letter obtained by Foreign Policy, says. “While there may be HR [Human Resources] processes underway, they do not appear to be having an impact and are apparently proceeding very slowly as Berggren has been posting this content since at least 2017.”

The letter was sent to Blinken on July 28, though it only surfaced in media reports this week.

This disconcerting story from Foggy Bottom comes just as the FBI released its Hate Crime Statistics for 2020, which told of a 6.1 percent overall increase in hate crime reports. In line with previous years, anti-Jewish incidents accounted for a disproportionate percentage: 676 incidents — 57 percent of the 1,174 religiously motivated hate crimes in 2020, while Jews account for less than 2 percent of the U.S. population.

“Preventing and responding to hate crimes and hate incidents is one of the Justice Department’s highest priorities … this report demonstrates the urgent need for a comprehensive response,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland as the report was published on Monday.

The State Department should include itself in that comprehensive response. It has only these two cases (as far as we know) to deal with. As Secretary Blinken said, hate speech has no place in the federal government. It’s a worthy sentiment. And it has to be acted upon.