Probe claims State Department sidelined Iran expert in politicized smear campaign

The State Department's Office of the Inspector General finds that “improper considerations played a role" in the removal of a career employee's assignment to the department's policy planning office.

al-monitor People enter the State Department Building in Washington, Jan. 26, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Joshua Roberts.

Nov 14, 2019

A senior Donald Trump administration official cut short a career civil servant's assignment to the State Department policy planning office following a smear campaign involving misinformation about her political loyalties and Iranian heritage, a long-anticipated report released today by the State Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG) concluded.

The 54-page report, “Review of Allegations of Politicized and Other Improper Personnel Practices Involving the Office of the Secretary,” said that in April 2017, then State Department policy planning chief Brian Hook (now the US special envoy on Iran), terminated the assignment to the department's policy planning office of an unnamed “Employee One,” a career civil servant who has been identified in media reports and who confirmed her identity as Sahar Nowrouzzadeh. The report describes how a group of Trump administration political appointees in the White House and then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s office circulated an article published on March 14, 2017, by the right-wing Conservative Review that smeared Nowrouzzadeh, who began her civil service career during the Republican George W. Bush administration, as an “Obama holdover” who had promoted “initiatives that pushed the Iran deal,” and discussed possible pretexts to remove her from her job.

“OIG found that Department officials ended the detail of a career employee in the Office of Policy Planning after significant discussion concerning the employee’s perceived political views, association with former administrations, and perceived national origin, which are non-merit factors that may not be considered in assigning career personnel under the Department’s policies,” the report said.

“OIG concludes that Mr. Hook would not have ended the detail early without being prompted by others who, as described previously, appear to have been motivated to prematurely end Employee One’s detail by factors unrelated to Employee One’s performance or willingness or capability to implement the new administration’s policies,” it said.

The report recommended that the State Department institute training on the Department’s merit-based personnel rules for political appointees, and that the Department consider discipline for any officials found to have violated these policies.

The State Department said it disagrees with the inspector general’s finding that “improper considerations played a role in the early termination of [Nowrouzzadeh’s] detail,” State Department counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl wrote in an Oct. 30, 2019, memo. “The report ignores the compelling evidence provided by Brian Hook that his personnel decision in this matter was actually made prior to any of the non-merit factors brought to his attention.”

However, despite disagreeing with the inspector general’s conclusion on that case, Brechbuhl wrote that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department were “committed to ensuring the highest levels of professional behavior,” and were receptive to the inspector general’s recommendation for training for political appointees.

Hook, in a lengthy memo included as an appendix to the report, said he had decided to bring on somebody else as his Iran adviser in the policy planning shop before the Conservative Review article smearing Nowrouzzadeh appeared. When the first candidate he considered bringing on, who appears to be think tank analyst Andrew Bowen, didn’t work out over vetting issues, Hook said he then picked a second candidate, J. Matthew McInnis, a former Pentagon Iran expert then at the American Enterprise Institute. McInnis started as an Iran adviser at policy planning in September 2017, six months after Nowrouzzadeh’s detail to the office was terminated.

Hook said that what other Trump administration officials wrote him in emails and the article disparaging her should not be attributed to him. “It would be wrong to graft the motives of anyone in the Department to my motives or to assume the motives of others were my motives,” Hook wrote.

Nowrouzzadeh, who remains a State Department employee while she is on leave completing a Ph.D., said she hopes the inspector general’s findings help prevent further misconduct against public servants. “It is my hope that the Inspector General's findings pertaining to my case help prompt action that will guard against any further such misconduct by members of this or any future administration,” Nowrouzzadeh wrote on Twitter.

“For nearly 15 years, I've been proud to serve our country, across Republican and Democratic administrations,” she wrote. “I continue to strongly encourage Americans of all backgrounds, including those of Iranian heritage, to consider public service to our nation and to not be discouraged by these findings.”

Echoing several of the witnesses whose testimony is now being heard by the House impeachment inquiries, Nowrouzzadeh argued that US national security benefits from the loyalty and professionalism of nonpartisan career civil servants.

“I also think I speak for many … in saying that we should not fear, but rather value rigorous debate among colleagues with deep experience when formulating U.S. policy on matters critical to our national security,” Nowrouzzadeh wrote. “It is one of the ways we faithfully discharge our duties, as per our oaths and loyalty to the U.S. constitution, above all else.”

Nowrouzzadeh, contacted by Al-Monitor, declined to further comment.

While the report concluded that Nowrouzzadeh’s policy planning detail was cut short for improper reasons that were not based on merit, it found the evidence inconclusive in two other cases it reviewed, including the decision in late 2017 not to give former US Consul General and Syria envoy Michael Ratney the position of deputy assistant secretary of state in the Near East Affairs bureau.

Ratney, identified as “employee five” in the report, in December 2017 was told by then-Acting Director General of the Foreign Service William Todd “that he should leave NEA,” the report said. He asked Todd if Tillerson’s chief of staff Margaret Peterlin or deputy chief of staff Christine Ciccone “had some concerns with him,” but was “simply told that all Foreign Service officers go through periods when they are ‘on the outs.’” Ratney was subsequently reassigned from the NEA bureau and found a position at National Defense University.

The inspector general's report also determined there was no evidence of improper factors involved in two other cases it reviewed of senior career employees being assigned to conduct Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) duties.

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the inspector general report’s findings shameful.

“The growing body of evidence about the Trump Administration’s repeated efforts to punish dedicated career public servants who have served Democratic and Republican administrations is shameful,” Menendez said in a statement today. “Under this administration’s watch, public servants have been routinely subjected to demotion, reassignment, threats, and damage to their careers — all for serving the American people. If nothing else, this long-overdue report by the Inspector General reiterates that Congress’ work to protect career personnel is more important than ever.”

Luke Hartig, a former career civil servant who served as the senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said he detected troubling suggestions in the report that the inspector general's powers even to obtain information to conduct his review were limited.

The report said, for instance, that Tillerson’s former chief of staff Peterlin declined to be interviewed by the Office of the Inspector General entirely.

“I was surprised that in many cases, the IG couldn't obtain the relevant information, which I think raises real questions about how conclusive the findings are and indeed, how much power the IG has to conduct his mission,” Hartig, now a fellow with the New American Foundation, told Al-Monitor.

“Also, setting aside the strict findings on legality and departmental policy, we should acknowledge that it's crazy to take two senior civil servants and assign them to FOIA duty for any extended period of time,” Hartig said. “It's a waste of their talents, when more junior staff could be assigned to do it instead, and it raises pretty clear questions of whether somebody was trying to get back at them for something.”

“Finally, I was surprised to see Brian Hook make, without any evidence, claims that the IG was politically biased,” Hartig said. “That's a pretty big accusation to levy at the IG and if he's going to do it, it's on him to back it up.”

The report recounts multiple instances of Trump administration appointees discussing and emailing notes with disparaging opinions and often misinformation about career civil servants, and suspicions about their loyalty to the Trump administration. On March 14, 2017, Hook forwarded the Conservative Review article criticizing Nowrouzzadeh to his then deputy policy planning chief Edward Lacey, the report states. The next day, Lacey responded “with an email describing ‘all of the [policy planning] staff,’ including detailees, as ‘Obama/Clinton loyalists’ who were not ‘supportive of the current administration’s priorities,’” the report wrote. “Hook’s response was to describe both emails as ‘helpful’ and … to suggest setting up a time to meet.”

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