Defense

The woman behind the State Dept. bureau rushing security aid to Ukraine

The Biden administration is under immense pressure to rush security assistance to Ukraine so it can better defend itself against a potential Russian incursion. 

Overseeing the flow of that assistance is Jessica Lewis, a longtime congressional staffer who now serves as assistant secretary of State for the department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.  

As the world closely watches the Russia-Ukraine conflict unfold, Lewis says the people in her bureau have been given a chance to shine. 

“This has been an extraordinary effort,” Lewis told The Hill in a recent interview. “Our leadership was very clear with us that we needed to make sure that we move all of these defense articles as quickly as possible and get them to Ukraine.” 

President Biden nominated Lewis for the role in April, and by September she was confirmed, becoming the first woman to hold the position. 

“I think I’m lucky because a lot of people have gone before me” at the State Department, Lewis said. “But I think really, you know, it is a matter of finding your own voice and having competence to be comfortable to speak up and say what you believe in.” 

She added that there have “certainly been environments where” she’s been one of “very, very few women” — if not the only one. 

“And I think it takes time to build that skill set. And it’s something you have to do consciously,” she continued. 

A former third grade teacher, Lewis started working on Capitol Hill about 20 years ago — when she was hired by then-Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) to serve as his foreign policy adviser and staff director for the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of what is now the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

As a Senate staffer, she served as national security adviser for the late Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) before working as Democratic staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, serving under Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and then Menendez again. 

Speaking on the Senate floor ahead of her confirmation vote, Menendez said it was with “deep pride and some sorrow” that she would be headed to the State Department. 

“Jessica is recognized across party lines as one of the most effective and trusted leaders on Capitol Hill,” he said at the time, referring to her as a “trailblazer for women in national security.” 

Lewis says her current job shares three big objectives with being a congressional staffer: know your policy work, make sure your bosses are well-informed to make the right decisions and build relationships. 

Lewis says she wants to be a bridge between the State Department and Congress, which she described as critically important in the face of Russian aggression toward Ukraine. 

“What I’m hopeful of is that this opportunity and the closeness that we’ve had in working together — really working hand in glove — will continue as we work through the whole other range of issues in other parts of the world that are going to be coming,” she said.

Among the most important lessons she’s taken from her time on Capitol Hill to Foggy Bottom, she says, are taking care of the people who work for her and leveraging diversity.

“Wanting the diversity of voices at the table as we make these decisions is incredibly important. That was something I worked on the Foreign Relations Committee, particularly in bringing in the next generation of foreign policy leaders,” Lewis said. “This is something Menendez cared a lot about making sure that the next generation of leaders reflects America.” 

“And so, I think that’s something that I really want to focus on in my own bureau,” she continued. “We have unbelievable talent already, so making sure that the talent that we have stays with us you know, gets promoted, moved up. And that our voices are heard across the board.” 

The Bureau of Political and Military Affairs, which is staffed by civil servants, foreign service officers, current and former members of the military and contract personnel, is meant to serve as a coordinating point for the defense, national security and foreign policy worlds.  

Between fiscal 2019 and 2021 it oversaw a three-year rolling average of $161.1 billion in arms sales. 

The bureau last fiscal year had oversight on almost $7 billion in security assistance under Title 22 of the U.S. Code and coordinated or concurred with the Department of Defense on an additional $9 billion in aid funded under Title 10 of the Code. 

It also does work on a host of other issues, including removing landmines around the world and leading negotiations on security agreements that allow American forces to operate in other countries. 

Over the past year, the U.S. has granted $650 million in security assistance to Ukraine, more than at any other point since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, with a lot of it flowing through the bureau. 

Lewis pointed to a particular form of assistance — allowing the Baltic states to provide Kyiv with American-made anti-armor missiles and anti-aircraft missiles — to show how dedicated the bureau is to the conflict. 

“We had these third-party transfers from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and one of them, we literally turned them around in one day,” she said. “People stayed late, woke up early — work through every possible process to make sure that these things got out the door.” 

“I think they were they were honored to do it, because they really believe this was the right thing to do and we needed to move quickly,” she continued. 

Lewis also says that it’s important to make sure that Ukraine is getting the right kind of weapons to defend itself, looking at transfers to Kyiv and other countries as a “total package approach.” 

“You have to look at both what they may need, given their defense, environment and the threats they face as well as what they have the capacity to absorb and training to use.” 

All this assistance, she emphasizes, is simply part of the bigger foreign policy approach that heavily involves diplomacy. 

“I think Ukraine is an excellent example of this, right? The diplomacy work that’s going on. That’s where the entire department and the president and the secretary [of State] are singularly focused on: moving forward with the diplomatic path in Ukraine and making sure that Russia understands that is the best way to move forward,” Lewis said. 

—Updated at 12:48 p.m.

Tags Ben Cardin Bob Menendez Harry Reid Joe Biden

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