IG Falls Short of Justice in Investigating Political Retaliation at the State Department

With the ongoing attacks against career government employees from President Donald Trump and his allies, last week’s State Department Inspector General (IG) report seemed a small vindication for officials who’ve faced similar retribution at the State Department.

In the report, IG Steve Linick concludes that several State Department employees had acted improperly when they reassigned Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a career civil servant, out of her job, “after significant discussion concerning the employee’s perceived political views, association with former administrations, and perceived national origins.” In plain speak, the Nowrouzzadeh’s superiors retaliated against her because of her Iranian heritage and her role working on the Iran nuclear deal for the Obama administration. The report provided some long-awaited justice for Nowrouzzadeh, who had been targeted by opponents of President Barack Obama’s Iran policy and faced actual personal and professional consequences at the hands of senior officials in the Trump administration.

Yet a closer read of the IG report suggests that, at best, it was a half measure of justice for Nowrouzzadeh and potentially no justice at all for the other four cases Linick investigated. The details of the report suggest the investigation stopped short of getting to the bottom of the problem. It relied primarily on reading email chains and did not obtain the necessary testimony to fully evaluate the allegations. And, in the end, the IG took a timid approach in recommending any real consequences for those involved. (Full disclosure: During my time in government, I worked with Nowrouzzadeh and potentially others included but not named in the report.)

With the Justice Department IG expected to testify next month on his findings on the origins of the Russia investigation and its ties to Trump’s 2016 campaign, the State Department IG report provides a cautionary tale and counsels us all to pay close attention to investigative methods before believing an IG’s conclusions.

The first sign that something might be amiss in the State IG report comes in the executive summary, where Linick writes that in two of the cases his office reviewed,

“there was inconclusive evidence, and OIG was unable to obtain essential information from key decisionmakers. Accordingly, OIG could not determine if improper considerations played a role in the decisions regarding the assignments of the two career employees.” (Emphasis added.)

For a professional investigator, this must be a difficult thing to write – it’s an admission that powerful officials who had critical information in the case would not participate and could not be compelled to do so. Indeed, it seems that several of the key witnesses in the case were either evasive in speaking to the IG, flat out refused, or were simply not interviewed, leaving the IG to primarily rely on email records in reaching its conclusions.

Before diving into the specific shortcomings, we should establish some basic facts about the report and the cast of characters involved. Linick’s report covers Nowrouzzadeh’s case and four others. POLITICO’s Nahal Toosi has provided extensive reporting on Nowrouzzadeh’s case, but the basic synopsis is that she was reassigned from her job in the State Department’s Policy Planning office after her bosses — officials in then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s immediate office — and the State Department’s White House liaison, either directly raised concerns about her Iranian heritage, her role in crafting the Iran deal, or her relationships with the previous administration, or forwarded around an article from the right-wing publication Conservative Review making similar allegations in salacious terms.

In two of the other four cases the IG investigated, career civil servants (“employees two and three”) alleged that Trump administration officials retaliated against them for their supposed ties to the previous administration and its policies. They did so by assigning them to rote administrative work reviewing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests despite their extensive foreign policy experience and the utility they could have provided to a policy office. Linick, however, concluded that “no impermissible factors influenced the personnel decisions.” Linick’s conclusion was primarily based on the argument that clearing the FOIA backlog was a top priority for Tillerson and he had the right to reassign employees accordingly.

In the remaining two cases, a senior career civil servant working on refugee issues (“employee four”) was involuntarily reassigned and a senior foreign service officer responsible for Middle East policy tissues (“employee five”) was denied a senior position for what appear to be politically motivated purposes. For employee four, State Department officials would only provide vague justifications, saying that Tillerson had “lost confidence” in him without providing specific reasons as to why. Employee four was discussed in a 2017 Breitbart article as an “Obama holdover,” who Trump should fire. The reason for denying employee five a deputy assistant secretary position is also unclear, though the IG’s report strongly suggests that White House pressure and the employee’s appearance in the same Conservative Review article that targeted Nowrouzzadeh played a role. Nevertheless, in both of these two cases, the IG was unable to obtain sufficient information to reach a conclusion.

Now to the key characters. In all five cases, much of the discussion regarding the personnel assignments involved the State Department’s former chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin; deputy chief of staff, Christine Ciccone; and White House liaison, Julia Haller, all Trump political appointees.

For Nowrouzzadeh’s case, her two immediate supervisors — career employee Ed Lacey and political appointee Brian Hook — actively discussed her reassignment. The White House played a role, too. Then-deputy White House Counsel Makan Delrahim forwarded the salacious Conservative Review article targeting Nowrouzzadeh and employee five to the State Department. Then-White House strategist Steve Bannon also reached out to State to raise concerns about employee five. The National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East at the time, Derek Harvey, appears to have had a conversation with Hook in which one or both men characterized several State Department employees, including one or more of those covered in the IG’s report, as disloyal, using inflammatory terms such as “leaker,” “troublemaker,” and “turncoat.” Hook emailed notes about this meeting to himself.

Beyond the White House, outsiders came into play as well. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich also forwarded the Conservative Review article to Peterlin. And an unnamed visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) also shared the Conservative Review article with Hook.

Yet of this long list of witnesses or potential witnesses, the IG appears to have interviewed only a handful of them. Peterlin had left government by the time the IG conducted interviews and declined to participate. Harvey, the NSC staffer who discussed allegedly disloyal employees with Hook, now serves as a senior aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and declined to be interviewed. He would only tell the IG that the characterizations in Hook’s contemporaneous email record of their conversation did not originate with Harvey. Lacey, who told Hook in writing that Nowrouzzadeh and several of her former colleagues were “Obama/Clinton loyalists not at all supportive of President Trump’s foreign policy agenda,” appears to not have been interviewed either, though the IG report does not specify whether he declined or was never invited in the first place. There is no indication in the report that the IG even tried to interview Gingrich, Bannon, or the CNAS fellow.

Knowing that their emails are part of the public record, government officials are often hesitant to put sensitive information in writing. Extensive interviews would have been essential to evaluating the highly suggestive paper trail around these cases, and yet the IG inexplicably failed to even approach several people for interviews or to attempt to compel interviews from essential witnesses.

Even when the IG obtained interviews, they were often less than productive. Former Deputy Chief of Staff Christine Ciccone was finally interviewed after some six months of attempts to engage her. According to the report,

“Ms. Ciccone, through her former counsel, ignored or affirmatively rebuffed OIG’s repeated requests for an interview for several months. OIG ultimately had to seek the assistance of the Department of Homeland Security, including its Office of Inspector General, and the intervention of Congress in order to meet with Ms. Ciccone.”

When Ciccone finally sat for an interview, the report indicates that “her responses were, at best, consistently evasive on key issues.” In several instances, Ciccone indicated that she did not recall relevant details in a way that strains credulity. In Nowrouzzadeh’s high-profile case, for example, Ciccone stated that she could not recall several key details and that there were only “conversations in passing” about reassigning Nowrouzzadeh, even though the contemporaneous email record shows Ciccone was extensively involved. In the case of employee four, a refugee-focused official who was involuntarily reassigned at the direction of Tillerson after being bashed in right-wing media outlets, Ciccone refused to give specific reasoning for the reassignment, stating only that Tillerson had “lost confidence” in the employee.

As for Hook, his interviews and written statements to the IG come off as shifting and combative. He insisted that he had no recollection of certain events in a way that also strains credulity. For example, he stated that he didn’t even know employee five, despite working on overlapping portfolios. And his explanations of Nowrouzzadeh’s reassignment evolved substantially over the course of IG’s interviews with him and his written response to the IG report. In one instance, in which he offers a highly misleading account of his efforts to hire Nowrouzzadeh’s replacement, the IG appears to catch him in a lie, and yet there is no apparent consequence. Hook also leveled allegations that the report was written in a “highly politically motivated and biased manner,” without offering any evidence to support his claim.

In short, the IG investigation itself contains big gaps. Investigative reporting by journalists often includes more source interviews than a government-employed watchdog was apparently able to obtain. To be sure, additional interviews and attempts to corroborate or contextualize the thousands of emails the IG reviewed may not have necessarily validated the claims made by employees two, three, four, and five. But they would have allowed for a thorough investigation and they would have also given the affected parties and the public the faith that the investigation was carried out with the rigor befitting such serious allegations.

As for the report’s recommendations, they are not much better than the investigation itself. The IG offers two primary recommendations:

“to institute training on the Department’s merit-based personnel rules for political appointees and to consider discipline for any officials found to have violated these policies.”

The Department concurred with both recommendations. Although this sounds promising, it’s little more than lip service. Training could have been helpful in educating the White House liaison, Julia Haller, on personnel policies that she seemingly did not understand, but it hardly brings justice to any of the employees. It’s also about the easiest thing the Department could do to resolve this case.

As to the second recommendation, the Department has not indicated whether any officials will actually be disciplined, only that it will consider whether such action is appropriate. One of the primary offenders, Brian Hook, is still at State and has not been demoted or removed from his position. This has echoes of an August IG report – a far more scathing account of abusive and politically motivated actions in the International Organizations bureau, in which the assistant secretary implicated in the accusations was not immediately removed. (In October, he announced his retirement.) Further, the IG’s recommendation to consider disciplinary action would presumably not apply to those still in government service but at other agencies (Ciccone, Haller) or those who did not work at State at the time and remain in government service at another agency (Delrahim). This is a far cry from the Justice Department IG’s career-ending recommendations from its investigation of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.

In the end, the real toll was born by the five State employees. After more than a decade of federal service, Nowrouzzadeh took an educational sabbatical from the State Department. She remains subject to withering online criticism from Iran hawks and conservative trolls. Employee four cycled through three short-term assignments away from the office where he served for nearly two decades before being permitted to return to his old job working on refugee issues. Employee five left his post in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs for a faculty job at National Defense University. Even those who the IG determined had not been treated improperly have apparently struggled. Employee two had to fight the secretary’s staff just to accept a new position in the State Department that another bureau had offered him. As for employee three, the IG cites “specific, documented concerns regarding potential retaliation, including physical risk,” against the individual for the concerns raised to the IG.

Meanwhile, many of the officials implicated in the report have moved on to bigger and better things. Hook is now State’s point person on Iran. Haller, the White House liaison who questioned Nowrouzzadeh’s loyalty to the United States and ability to be trusted with classified information, now serves as a senior adviser on a faith and public policy program at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Deputy Chief of Staff Ciccone was promoted to an assistant secretary job at the Department of Homeland Security. Peterlin, Tillerson’s chief of staff, left state for a senior vice president position at AT&T. White House Deputy Counsel Makan Delrahim is now the top DOJ anti-trust official. Harvey, the NSC official who may have accused various employees of disloyalty, is a top staffer in Nunes’ office and was reportedly involved in efforts to expose the identity of the Ukraine whistleblower. It’s a very Washington ending, and one that should make us all question whether justice is possible for the career professionals maligned by the Trump administration.

Image: Brian Hook State Department Special Representative for Iran testifies during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Holds Hearing On US-Iran Policy on October 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Luke Hartig

Executive Director of National Journal's Network Science Initiative and Fellow, International Security Program at New America. Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, former Deputy Director for Counterterrorism Operations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. You can follow him on Twitter (@LukeHartig).