'It has been great working with Secretary Clinton'
The first-ever Indian-American assistant secretary of state Richard R Verma gives Aziz Haniffa an insider's view of the administration.
When United States President Barack Obama nominated Richard R Verma as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs in March, 2008, Verma notched up a first in Indian-American history.
Today, along with Dr Raj Shah, administrator, US Agency for International Development, Verma is one of the two high-ranking Indian Americans in the Obama administration, who work closely with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and enjoy her full trust and confidence.
Recently, when Clinton made a major push for the Senate implementation of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Talks treaty with Russia at a media briefing, she had Verma by her side. After the opening remarks, she called on Verma to conduct part of the briefing, especially with regard to pushing in through Congress in a bipartisan fashion.
Obama nominated Verma along with several others, including career diplomat Christopher Hill, then assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, as ambassador to Iraq, and retired Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, then deputy chairman, NATO's military committee, as ambassador to Afghanistan.
"I am honoured and grateful," Obama said, "that these dedicated public servants have agreed to join my administration as we work to tackle the great challenges of our time. These extraordinarily accomplished individuals have served their country with great distinction, and they have each agreed to take on tough assignments. I am confident that they will work with a sense of purpose and pragmatism, along with Secretary Clinton and (Secretary of Defense Robert) Gates, as we renew American diplomacy, strengthen our military, and advance our values and interests around the world."
Verma, before his nomination, was the highest ranking Indian-American Congressional staffer on Capitol Hill -- as chief national security adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. During President-elect Obama's transition, Verma was appointed as one of the leads of the Agency Review Team overseeing the Department of Defense for the Transition.
Earlier, Verma, had been appointed to the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism but the Obama transition had said he could remain on this commission even as he worked as a member of the Pentagon Agency Review Team.
Verma had been appointed to this Congressional commission by the Congressional leadership comprising House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Reid, House Republican Leader John Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
Verma, a US Air Force veteran, during this stint as principal national security and foreign policy adviser to Reid, was responsible for setting the national security agenda and developing a legislative strategy in the Senate.
He was also the senior defense and foreign policy liaison to key Senate committees, the office of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives and the White House. Verma, was also the point man in terms of communications and political advice to the Majority Leader, Committee chairmen and members of the Democratic Caucus.
In an exclusive interview with India Abroad, in his expansive seventh floor office at the State Department -- and his first since his appointment nearly 18 months ago -- Verma said the experience had been "amazing." After years of serving in the military, as a senior Congressional staffer and an academic, he said, he appreciated how government worked from the executive branch and was humbled to be working so closely with "a wonderful and supportive secretary of state."
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Image: Richard Verma, right, briefs the media on the START treaty as Secretary Clinton, center, listens
'I've learned more in these 18 months than I have at any period in my life'
It has been over a year since you joined the administration. Can you speak about your experience thus far?
Actually, it's been closer to 18 months, and it's been quite an amazing experience. I've probably learned more in these 18 months than I have at any period in my life -- maybe with the exception of kindergarten, when I was learning to read! I really have learned how government works from a completely different angle in the executive branch.
I knew it from the military side, from the legislative side, and I knew it academically. But working on this side of the street is a whole different experience. There have been tough issues, a tough political environment, but really great people, including a wonderful and supportive Secretary of State to work for.
What are your key responsibilities?
The key responsibility is to manage the Congressional portfolio for the State Department, and that means everything from the budget, to personnel, to key legislative issues like sanctions on Iran, to the key treaties that we are doing like the New START Treaty with Russia.
Also, investigations that Congress might have going on. We are kind of the intersection between politics and policy. We are a customer service office for the Congress but we are also an advocacy office for the Secretary and the President in a really important time when they try to transform the State Department and USAID -- make it more expeditionary in the world.
Be in places where we need to be, and where we try to deliver non-military solutions to a lot of pressing national security challenges facing our country, whether that be disease, or health or instability or economic inequality.
That's a pretty huge and diverse portfolio.
Exactly. And, every day, literally brings a range of five or six big issues, whether it is funding issues or war-related issues, or again, legal issues. So, it's quite an intersection that we have -- it's what makes this bureau so interesting and central.
You took me around and gave me an extensive tour of your entire department and introduced me to some of the experts -- a mix of both political appointees and career officers. It's a pretty large bureau with several area specialists, legal advisers.
We have about, I would say, over a hundred years of Hill experience just in the political appointees in this office. So, we have a lot of real-life House and Senate experience and that's important when we are trying to understand what members are facing on the Hill.
We have foreign service officers, who serve here for two, three years, just like any other foreign service assignment, we have career civil servants and that make up the brunt of our portfolio. We also have really good subject matter experts that can help us tackle critical issues -- whether that be on sanctions against Iran or treaty-related matters or trade matters, for example.
You mean, for example, the US-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement -- the sort of intricacies, the nuances of the reprocessing agreement and what it's all about, etc?
Absolutely. We also have nonproliferation experts and besides treaty agreements and other bilateral cooperative agreements, we also do a lot of other things here in this office, like, for example, we handle all the Congressional travel. Department of defense has the airplanes, but we have the itineraries and country clearances and manage all those aspects of member and staff travel.
We handle about 20,000 plus different Congressional inquiries to the State Department and we deal with close to 400 reports that Congress requires of the State Department every year. So, it's quite an impressive operation and I am really proud to be a part of it.
Seems like, in some ways, it's the State Department's equivalent of the Congressional Research Service, when it comes to the think tank aspect of it?
In some ways, yes. We do have a kind of analytical and research capability. But, you know, it's hard to trump what the Secretary of State knows about Congressional issues. It's such a great advantage having her as our leader -- as a former Senator -- because she really cares about the issues that we are working on.
I've seen you sit just behind the Secretary at Congressional hearings when she appears before the Senate or House. But I've also seen you with the likes of Richard Holbrooke (special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan) or Ambassador (Karl) Eikenberry (envoy to Afghanistan) when they appear before Congress. Do your responsibilities extend to being on hand for all senior State Department officials -- besides the Secretary -- when they are up on the Hill testifying on major issues?
It's an interesting question and I don't think there's any real clear line. The one clear responsibility is that I am there to serve the Secretary of State for her needs in Congress.
And then, as needed, for the deputy secretaries (of state), for the under secretaries and for big hearings, I will go whether that's for Ambassador Eikenberry and his team when they come from Afghanistan or other principals. For example, Deputy Secretary (Jim) Steinberg when he testifies on Iran. There are kind of ad hoc situations, but someone from our team is present at every congressional hearing.
Obviously, in this regard, there are intense preparations when the Secretary or other senior officials are up on the Hill to testify on major issues.
We start (preparing) generally about two weeks before the hearing, and we go through the preparation of the testimony, the practice sessions on questions and answers, the research of what individual members might be most interested in.
We do a pretty thorough analysis of what they've written about in the past, what they've written the State Department about, what concerns they might have. And, we try to bring all that to bear so that again, the State Department's interests are represented. Being present (at the hearings) is really just a way to see it through to conclusion, but most of the work is done before that hearing arrives.
You were one of the most senior aides and advisers to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. How has it been now on the other side as part of the executive after serving for years as a senior Congressional staffer and looking at things specifically from the perspective of the legislature and being one of those who drafted members' concerns and questions to the State Department?
It's a great experience to have both views on two sides of the street. It's much harder to get things done in the executive branch -- deliberately so -- whereas in the legislative branch, you can, at least in Leader Reid's office, move very quickly on certain memos and papers and ideas. In the executive branch, there is a very vast inter-agency clearance process -- in fact, there is a very vast clearing process in the State Department itself.
I remember, when I first got here, in the first month, trying to prepare the questions and answers for the secretary's budget hearings. I said, 'OK, let's just do these ourselves,' and I remember my chief of staff saying, 'No, we have to send these out for clearance within the building.'
And that takes a lot of getting used to. But, ultimately, it's very important because you get a lot of people's expertise, a lot of people weighing in and kind of consulting to get a very good product by the time it goes to the Secretary. So, the processes are very different between the legislative and the executive branches.
I guess these clearances get to be even more painstaking and protracted vis- -vis the inter-agency process.
That's right. And that's where the National Security Council is so important and so effective in making sure that there is kind of a harmonious administration position on complicated issues.
Is that why sometimes replying to the query or a question addressed to the Secretary by a lawmaker can take months?
It's a good question, because in responding to members' letters we want to be quick, but more importantly, we want to be right. And being right is not always quick. And so, we want to make sure the response we are providing is the response that's shared throughout the inter-agency and so it can take a long time. We try to track these and make sure we don't take as long, but sometimes it is unavoidable.
Image: US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Verma
'It's terrific that so many Indian Americans are in the US administration'
You touched on this earlier too. How much of an advantage is it to be working for a Secretary who was a US Senator before taking over as the country's top diplomat, and obviously knows the workings of the legislative branch inside out? More so, since she was someone who really immersed herself in it, particularly as a member of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, etc.
It's such a huge advantage -- somewhat intimidating as well -- but it is terrific because you don't have to convince her to make a phone call to a member; she loves to engage in the legislative process. She'll be happy to sit down with even freshman members of Congress, with Republicans, with Democrats.
She really believes in the process and the product. She has such great respect for both institutions and she really believes that we should be responsive to Congress as an institution. So, it makes our job here so much easier. Frankly, I believe it has helped shape this kind of transformational agenda that she and the President have been pushing for in our foreign policy through the State Department.
So it's really been great. Not only her, but Jack Lew, our deputy secretary (nominated by President Obama to succeed Peter Orszag as director, White House Office of Management and Budget) worked for (the late iconic House Speaker) Tip O'Neill (a Massachusetts Democrat whose famous phrase, 'All Politics is Local,' has become part of the county's political lexicon) for six years, our other Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg worked for Ted Kennedy for five years. These are great sets of experiences from already extremely talented people, but the fact that they have this legislative experience in our senior team has made our job here really much easier.
For you, personally, does your legislative experience bring enormous advantages? Not just in terms of knowing what the legislative process is all about and familiarity with all of its nuances, but in terms of the vast network of former colleagues, friends, and being known to many of the senior and influential Senators, particularly with regard to foreign and national security policy?
The network is certainly helpful, but more than that I think it's an appreciation for the time constraints that members feel, the amount of issues on their plate, the complexity of issues. So, it helps when we are trying to present something -- how to do it, how not to do something in a way that might alienate them.
I guess I just have empathy for what they are going through on a day-to-day basis whether in the House or Senate. So, we try to be helpful, we try to facilitate discussion. So, my experience has been enormously helpful in working here. No question about it. And also, having had the great fortune of learning from people like Harry Reid, Carl Levin (chairman, Armed Services Committee), Joe Biden (former chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee) and others. And earlier with the late Congressman (John) Murtha (who was a powerful and influential member of the House Appropriations Committee).
Last month, Under Secretary of State Bill Burns and Indian Ambassador Meera Shankar formalised the reprocessing agreement with regard to the US-India nuclear deal. Now, within this interim period, would your bureau also have the responsibility of explaining to members of Congress like you would with the START Treaty, sanctions against Iran, etc, the nuances and other technical and specific details of this reprocessing agreement?
Yes. It's a shared responsibility between the White House Legislative Affairs, NSC, DOE (Department of Energy) -- it's a team effort like any other kind of major international agreement that Congress may be interested in. The New START Treaty is a perfect example of this kind of team effort where we have to work with our military experts, intelligence experts, nonproliferation experts, the lawyers, the policy people -- who deal with Russia -- and bring them all together, as we try to advance this very important treaty in the Senate.
So, yes, we try to bring together a lot of different talents to try to advance some of these big objectives.
Along with (USAID Administrator) Raj (Shah), you are one of the senior-most Indian Americans in the administration, and there are quite a few others in the bureaus of the State Department itself who are career diplomats.
Over at the White House, there's also Preeta (Bansal), Aneesh (Chopra) Vivek (Kundra) and Suresh Kumar, and Ro Khanna at Commerce. There's also Neal Katyal, who is now acting solicitor general. What does this say about this crop of second-generation Indian Americans, who are holding such high positions in the Obama administration, and other young Indian Americans entering public service in much greater numbers and holding senior positions?
I believe it's just terrific. The credit goes to the President and Secretary for wanting to have a diverse administration -- one that represents many different segments and looks like the country we live in today.
But all the individuals you mentioned are so qualified -- they've worked so hard to have success in their individual careers. And, frankly, they are just such well regarded people who are experts in their field and that has really made such a difference -- and it's a great tribute to them.
And hopefully, they will inspire more South Asians to get into public service and into fields of international affairs and public service. It's a very exciting development, and, hopefully, it will be a gateway for more and more people to get into public service.
Here at the State Department, there is a South Asian Employees Association and I am the senior mentor to that group and I just like doing those kinds of things because it's a chance to help maybe some other folks who would like to serve or just need some assistance.
Now that all of us have been given these opportunities, we have to deliver for the administration. But we also have to reach out to some of the younger folks and bring them along too. Because you do realise you are in these jobs because people have given you opportunities along the way -- whether that be mentors or people who have guided you -- and so you realise you are only standing out in a crowd because you are standing on other people's shoulders.
It's a familiar clich but it's true and I think we should never forget that. And, so you try to work as hard as you can, have a little bit of fun while we are here and realise this is a chance to give back, a chance to serve, in what I believe will be very consequential and historic presidency.
But especially to my parents, who worked so hard and took so many risks so I could have this opportunity, my thanks, love and appreciation to them. And to my wife, Pinky, and kids who put up with me spending so many hours at work, and make this job possible -- thanks to them and so many others who have allowed me to serve this President and Secretary of State. I am really grateful.
Image: Richard Verma, right, with Senator John F Kerry, chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee