A long-awaited State Department watchdog report will find that the Trump administration’s point man on Iran, among other officials, retaliated against an agency employee in part because of her Iranian-American background, two knowledgeable sources told The Daily Beast.
The Daily Beast has previously reported that the State Department inspector general’s office was prepared to suggest disciplinary action for Brian Hook for political retaliation against employees in his policy planning office, including a career department official and Iran expert, Sahar Nowrouzzadeh.
But the inspector general’s report, set for release on Thursday in between the first two public hearings in the impeachment of the president, found that top State Department officials, including Hook, retaliated against Nowrouzzadeh in part because she is Iranian. Politico first reported the finding.
The allegation derives from a cache of emails that show officials within Hook’s policy planning office and other departments talking about Nowrouzzadeh’s background ahead of the premature end of her detail to the prestigious office. Some of those emails, previously reported by The Daily Beast, described Nowrouzzadeh as being among “Obama/Clinton loyalists not at all supportive of President Trump’s agenda.” And one official falsely suggests that Nowrouzzadeh was born in Iran.
Hook has vociferously denied retaliating in 2017 against Nowrouzzadeh based on her heritage. The inspector general report, released Thursday, acknowledges that it “did not identify emails or other documents in which Mr. Hook suggested that he was personally motivated to end the detail because of [Nowrouzzadeh’s] perceived political opinions, perceived place of birth, or similar issues, and no witnesses made such statements.” Department Counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl disagreed with the inspector general’s findings, writing that it “ignore[d] 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 being brought to his attention, and that the decision was made for entirely professional and lawful reasons.”
However, the inspector general said it did not find Hook’s alternative rationales for ending Nowrouzzadeh’s detail early to be “a convincing explanation.” It called his “acquiescence” to the campaign to remove Nowrouzzadeh—a campaign that bought up her heritage and her perceived politics as a factor—“inappropriate.” Taking action against an employee for reasons not having to do with merit, it continues as a blanket statement, strikes “at the heart” of the career service.
“Regardless of whether Mr. Hook personally shared the opinions and motivations expressed by Ms. Haller [Julia Haller, then the department liaison to the White House] and others, the comments about [Nowrouzzadeh] in the articles and emails circulated within the Office of the Secretary suggest that improper factors likely influenced the requests to end her detail and his acquiescence to those requests,” the report concludes.
After the report’s release, Nowrouzzadeh commented in a statement: “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. For nearly 15 years, I've been proud to serve our country, across Republican and Democratic administrations. 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.”
The State Department IG’s office has for months held onto its report for final review before sending it to Capitol Hill. Two individuals with knowledge of the report’s drafting told The Daily Beast that the report was originally due for public release sometime over the summer. The IG’s office picked up the investigation into Hook and other State Department officials for their perceived political retaliations after multiple whistleblowers approached lawmakers on the Hill about their experiences working on the policy planning team under Hook.
The release of the report comes at a time when the State Department is under the microscope by investigators on Capitol Hill looking into how officials in Foggy Bottom worked to convince Ukraine to open up specific investigations in exchange for a presidential White House visit and the delivery of U.S. military aid. And multiple impeachment witnesses have criticized Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s treatment of career diplomats. The details provided in the inspector general’s report about Hook can only serve to further undermine the department’s credibility in the way it conducts foreign policy.
In a different case, however, the inspector general did not find political retaliation. Ian Moss, a State Department official who served in the office for closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility during the Obama administration, began the Trump administration on a detail to the White House’s National Security Council. Moss’ performance evaluations were consistently laudatory.
By the time Moss returned to State later in 2017, he entered an atmosphere where chief deputies to then-Secretary Rex Tillerson were assessing the department’s political leanings based in part on officials’ association with Obama administration priorities— such as closing Guantanamo. Moss found himself reassigned to the Freedom-of-Information Act office, from which he launched a retaliation claim first reported by CNN.
Among the evidence the inspector general collected is an email between Kirstjen Nielsen, then the deputy White House chief of staff, discussing Moss with Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin. The email chain concludes with an exhortation to continue the conversation over the phone. Yet the inspector general stopped short of assessing that Moss was the victim of political reprisal.
Moss, formerly a U.S. Marine, told The Daily Beast the inspector general’s findings in his case are a “pathetic whitewash.”
“While they were targeting experienced career officials on account of their ethnicities and on account of perceived political affiliation, they were hiring C-list YouTubers and wine bloggers,” Moss said. “It is hard to find evidence when you don’t even bother to interview witnesses and deliberately choose not to follow glaring leads. [State Department Inspector General Steve] Linick has no honor.”
Moss put the saga of political retaliation at the State Department in the context of Trump’s impeachment.
Over a half-dozen witnesses from the State Department, NSC, and elsewhere in the government have told the House impeachment inquiry about a shadow foreign policy to Ukraine run by Rudy Giuliani, Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker, and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.
Those witnesses, typically career or long-experienced diplomats, have said this shadow effort was designed to benefit Trump rather than the United States and routed around those most expert in Ukraine because of their perceived disloyalty.
Moss considers his and others’ experience in 2017 to have been a harbinger of the apparently highly parochial shadow initiative. “This is what happens when you let nefarious behavior go unchecked,” he told The Daily Beast.
Over the summer the State Department hired the Iranian-American woman who publicly advocates for the ousting of the government in Tehran to work with Hook and other senior officials.
Mora Namdar, an Iranian-American lawyer from Texas, is working with top department officials, including Brian Hook, the administration’s special representative on Iran. She is also working on a controversial project to build a U.S. pavilion at the World’s Fair in Dubai in 2020.
This is the second team to take on the task of raising $60 million for the event. The first team disbanded this spring when several individuals on the board quit because of internal mismanagement and allegations of influence-peddling by leadership. One of the managers, Alan Dunn, is also the CEO of IP3, the firm attempting to push forward a nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia. Dunn used his position on the team to advance the interests of his firm, The Daily Beast reported in August.
Namdar’s law school brief from 2011 mimics that of the current Trump administration’s policies on Iran, including the need for economic sanctions, increased pressure on Tehran to scale back its nuclear program, and directly targeting Iranian officials by freezing their assets. But she says the U.S. should go one step further.
“It is logical to ascertain that it would be in the best interest of not only the Iranian people but the United States to support regime change in Iran,” Namdar wrote.
Namdar went on to say that “encouraging the United States to stay out of the internal conflict with the Iranian elections… can now be seen as poor advice.”
The department first took notice of Namdar during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Dallas this spring, when he met with members of the Iranian-American diaspora in a roundtable session, according to two State Department officials. Namdar was pictured sitting next to Pompeo during that event.