Interagency debate over FAS role heats up

USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service is drawing the involvement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack amid an escalating debate over whether the agency is expanding beyond its traditional role of analyzing foreign production, promoting U.S. agricultural exports and helping U.S. farmers on trade issues.

Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., one of the chief critics of this development, sent Clinton and Vilsack letters dated Sept. 23 asking why the administration is using FAS rather than the U.S. Agency for International Development to manage agricultural development efforts in Afghanistan. That decision, wrote Lugar, makes it difficult to convince Congress to give USAID more resources and raises questions about whether FAS is being diverted from its traditional mandate.

Clinton responded Monday that the Obama administration has a "one government approach" to efforts in Afghanistan and appreciates USDA's expertise. But Clinton, who is playing an unusually large role in managing USAID because no administrator has been nominated, said that she is "fully committed to rebuilding USAID as the U.S. government's lead for international development." She added USAID is hiring 300 Foreign Service officers, including agricultural development specialists.

"I will not support any expansion of USDA's international development function beyond Afghanistan without full engagement with the Congress first," Clinton wrote. "We fully share your concern that FAS' capacity to fulfill its primary mission to represent and promote U.S. farmers and exporters overseas not be hindered or diminished in any way as USDA engages in supporting U.S. objectives in Afghanistan."

Vilsack responded on Tuesday, saying USDA's efforts in Afghanistan are part of President Obama's "integrated, civilian-military counter-insurgency strategy" and that USDA has promised the State Department it will send 64 agriculture experts from the agency, state departments of agriculture and land grant universities to Afghanistan by January.

Noting that USDA and other agencies face key implementation decisions on Clinton's global food security initiative, Vilsack also promised to consult with lawmakers. But he did not address Lugar's concerns about FAS' expanded mission.

Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher said Lugar had received both responses and understands that USDA employees from many divisions can provide technical expertise in Afghanistan and other places. Lugar still believes USAID, not FAS, should be in charge of the mission, Fisher said.

FAS employees who question the agency's direction have noted that FAS officers who have been recruited for their analytical and export promotion capabilities do not have the technical expertise needed in Afghanistan.

One FAS employee said Lugar sent his letter a day after a difficult meeting between FAS and Lugar staff, adding that the missive has become known within the agency as the "smack down letter."

FAS officers, the employee said, have noted that Clinton, who worked hard to increase FAS programs to promote the sale of fruits and vegetables when she was a senator from New York, defended the agency's primary role more strongly than Vilsack.

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