State Department Deflects Lawmakers’ Complaint of Political Retaliation Against Career Employees

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces the creation of the Iran Action Group at the State Department last week. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces the creation of the Iran Action Group at the State Department last week. Cliff Owen/AP

The State Department on Wednesday reiterated a position that “political retaliation will not be tolerated,” reacting to a letter sent Tuesday from two Democratic committee leaders questioning the recent promotion of a policy planner accused of intimidating career employees.

Brian Hook, State’s director of the policy planning staff, was recently named by Secretary Mike Pompeo to lead a new Iran Action Group as a special representative. Hook was praised as having “worked tirelessly to advance President Trump’s foreign policy priorities across multiple domains.”

But internal State documents, according to an Aug. 22 letter to Pompeo by Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the respective ranking members of the House committees on Oversight and Government Reform and Foreign Affairs, indicate Hook's involvement in “significant acts of political retaliation against career State Department employees.”

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Cummings and Engel had written to State last March about Hook’s activity, but received none of the documents they requested.

The chief example they gave in the new letter involved career employee Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, who asked Hook to support her after she came under fire from conservative news organizations as an “Obama holdover” running policy toward Iran. Hook allegedly ignored false information being circulated about her.

The lawmakers quoted Pompeo’s own response to a related question during a May House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, when they asked whether Pompeo believed State should tolerate appointees who target employees based on their national origin or whether they are sufficiently “loyal to the president.” Pompeo’s reply: “I do not.”

Another Trump appointee mentioned in the letter, copied to their committee chairmen, is former beverage lobbyist and State Senior Adviser Mari Stull, reported to have researched the affiliations of career employees.

The lawmakers asked for a special briefing and a set of documents, by Sept. 4, on Hook and other individuals, as well as how State is handling the controversy over political retaliation.

Ask for a response, a State spokesperson told Government Executive on Wednesday that “the State Department takes these allegations as well as requests by members of Congress seriously.  Secretary Pompeo has shown his full support for career staff at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Political retribution will not be tolerated. We always work closely and cooperatively with Congress and seek to be as timely and responsive as possible to their requests for information.”

State acting spokesperson Heather Nauert addressed the topic at a June 19 press briefing. “We take responses to Congress extremely seriously. We take allegations of this sort very seriously,” she said in response to a question.  The secretary “regards the work of our Foreign Service, our Civil Service, our longtime colleagues here, very–holds them in the highest regard. …We handle these matters with Congress through the proper channels.”

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