By CONOR FINNEGAN, KATHERINE FAULDERS and BENJAMIN SIEGEL
(WASHINGTON) — The State Department sent a letter to the chair of the inspectors general council requesting a new probe of the agency’s watchdog who was fired by President Donald Trump and accusing him of a “disturbing pattern of leaks.”
The new letter from a top adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argues that the ousted IG Steve Linick should be investigated again after he and his office were cleared of leaking by a probe concluded in March.
But many of the claims in the letter run counter to Linick’s sworn testimony to Congress last week, portions of which were obtained by ABC News before Democrats released a transcript Wednesday.
Pompeo said he recommended to Trump that Linick be fired, but the administration has not provided a clear rationale for why. In a letter to Congress, Trump said he lost confidence in the longtime government watchdog, while Pompeo has said publicly it was because Linick’s office leaked or because he was investigating policy decisions.
In a closed door interview with lawmakers, Linick confirmed his office was investigating Pompeo’s use of an emergency declaration to sell $8 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — argued it was not about the decision itself, but the legality of how it was implemented.
In the new letter sent Monday to the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, Brian Bulatao, the Under Secretary for Management and a top Pompeo lieutenant, wrote that a previous probe conducted by the Pentagon inspector general’s office faced “a significant breakdown in the typically-rigorous standards of an IG investigation, warranting CIGIE review.”
In particular, Bulatao wrote, the DOD OIG should not have conducted the probe, which he slammed as “exceedingly cursory.”
But Linick testified last week that he requested CIGIE to do the investigation first and the office said no. Instead, the DOD OIG was the third inspector general office that he asked, and in a report concluded in March, it found “no evidence that any DOS OIG personnel emailed or discussed any details of the evaluation report with the authors of ‘The Daily Beast’ article or other members of the media.”
The article in question is a Sept. 13 report by the outlet that revealed details of an unreleased probe into another top Pompeo aide, senior adviser Brian Hook, and whether he and other officials retaliated against a career employee over her perceived nationality and political beliefs. The probe recommended that Hook face punishment for his role in the retaliation.
The story was sourced to “two government sources involved in carrying out the investigations,” so Bulatao and others have pointed the finger at the OIG, which has denied any leaks. The OIG gave the State Department a draft of its report two weeks prior to the Daily Beast story on August 30.
While Linick and his office were cleared by the DOD OIG, Bulatao wrote that Linick was supposed to refer the leak investigation to CIGIE. But Linick testified that he did first approach the council, and it said no.
“I would have been happy if they could have done it as well. So it didn’t matter to me. I just wanted an independent review of our office. I went to CIGIE — and then I went to other IGs to get this done,” he told lawmakers last week. “I went to the CIGIE. They told me that they wouldn’t do the review and that I needed to go find somebody else.”
Bulatao, a close friend and West Point classmate of Pompeo, also said that Linick didn’t tell leadership about the change, writing: “He had deviated from the clear course agreed upon with leadership.”
But Linick’s testimony implies that they were aware, particularly Bulatao with whom he had conversations about the DOD OIG probe. Bulatao “wanted to contact DOD — we were talking about the DOD IG, and he wanted it to be CIGIE, and he kept pushing that issue. … At one point, he said he would like to get a better understanding of what DOD IG is doing, the scope; he wants to, sort of, talk through it with the DOD IG. … I recall telling him that it would be inappropriate to manage that,” Linick said.
Linick’s testimony also implies that the State Department wanted to use its Bureau of Diplomatic Security to investigate the OIG over the leak: “I thought it would be inappropriate for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security to be investigating us, in that there’s an independence issue, and we wanted another IG to peer-review us precisely to ensure that it was an independent review, as opposed to our [auditee] investigating us,” Linick testified.
When the report was completed in March, Linick did not turn it over to Bulatao or other senior leaders at the State Department, instead telling them that it had cleared his office of the leak. Bulatao accused Linick of refusing to turn it over, but Linick testified that he wanted to first review the report so that it did not disclose sensitive information about his office to State Department leadership or set a precedent of doing so. Instead of turning it over, he planned to brief Pompeo’s deputy Stephen Biegun in person and let him read it — but was never able to because COVID-19 restrictions shut his office down and took priority.
“It wasn’t on the top of my list, and they didn’t follow up on it, and frankly, I had already conveyed the conclusions to them, and I had anticipated sitting down with the deputy … and letting him read the report” he testified, adding later, “All our in-person meetings were canceled.”
The probe reviewed the government emails of 15 OIG employees, including Linick and interviewed 14 of them because the 15th employee had left OIG before the report was even completed. Because the investigation didn’t probe personal email addresses or phone records, Bulatao condemned it as “exceedingly cursory” and said it “would catch only the most blatant mishandling of information and would fail to uncover any person who disclosed the draft through an intermediary or sent the report from a personal email address.”
The DOD OIG did investigate one person’s Gmail account — Linick. The ousted IG may have violated OIG email protocol by emailing password-protected drafts of the report to his Gmail account on eight occasions while traveling over six days in August 2019. A review of his account found he did not forward the report on, the DOD OIG said.
Linick said he was within State Department email protocol — which allows for personal email use when access to a government account is limited — but OIG rules specifically prohibit that: “The use of corporate or personal equipment, systems/applications, to include to email, or other file storage sites to store, process, or transmit OIG or Department data is prohibited.” Linick testified he would have requested an exemption given his travel schedule and the need to finish the report, which he was working on when accessing it from his Gmail account, he said.
In his letter, Bulatao letter wrote that Linick never shared this part of the report’s finding with State Department leadership and that it raises questions about his judgment, although neither he nor Pompeo knew about it at the time Pompeo recommended his firing.
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