EXCLUSIVE: State Dept. Officials Accused Of Retaliation Handle Internal ‘Dissent Channel’

Two State Department officials involved in an effort to sideline a civil servant suspected of disloyalty to the President also oversee an internal communications channel that allows department employees to question the administration’s policy decisions.

The two officials’ management of the channel likely gives them access to the names of U.S. diplomats and other agency employees who openly disagree with administration policy — information that independent watchdogs and members of Congress fear could be used in the effort to marginalize those deemed insufficiently loyal.

Informed of the officials’ role by TPM, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee called for an overhaul of the channel’s management to ensure it’s run by non-partisan actors.

Brian Hook, who held various government positions under the George W. Bush administration and who was appointed by President Trump last year, is currently the director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. Hook also has worked for Iowa’s former Republican Governor Terry Branstad. Edward Lacey, a career staffer since 2003, is Hook’s deputy in that office.

According to State Department guidelines, the two men oversee the State Department’s Dissent Channel — a process diplomats and staff around the world have used since the Vietnam War to formally and confidentially protest their government’s foreign policy decisions.

Under the current administration, diplomats have used that channel more than ever before, sending in cables signed by hundreds of federal employees protesting President Trump’s travel ban, refugee restrictions and other moves. The Trump administration has also openly expressed its distaste for the Dissent Channel, with then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer saying of diplomats who dissented with the travel ban: “They should either get with the program or they can go.”

The cable protesting the travel ban was addressed to Lacey. CNN reported last November that another dissent channel memo, protesting the Trump administration’s silence about countries violating the ban on child soldiers, went directly to Hook. 

Nick Schwellenbach, the Director of Investigations at the Project On Government Oversight, said he worries about Hook and Lacey’s oversight of the Dissent Channel, based on their recently revealed involvement in the effort to sideline a staffer based on her political views.

That involvement was detailed in emails recently obtained by Democrats on the House Oversight committee. The emails suggest that Hook and Lacey were involved in undermining a career State Department employee who had been the target of attacks by right-wing media outlets over her perceived opposition to Trump, and who ultimately was pushed out of the policy planning office.

“Now we know that they actively took measures to sideline career employees they didn’t think were sufficiently loyal. Did Hook or other appointees misuse Dissent Channel information they were privy to?” Schwellenbach told TPM. “In the emails obtained by the House Oversight minority, Hook demonstrates that he is freewheeling and isn’t acting in good faith with correspondence from career staff shared with him in confidence. It isn’t a stretch to wonder if he acted inappropriately with communications made over the Dissent Channel.”

Asked whether Hook and Lacey have access to the names of employees who file Dissent Channel messages and whether they have ever taken action against anyone who has exercised that right, a State Department spokesperson declined to answer.

“As a general matter, we don’t comment publicly on oversight matters,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson referred TPM to a press briefing last week at which State Department Press Secretary Heather Nauert told reporters that she has never seen the type of political pressure suggested in the leaked e-mails.

“Those on staff who have been here for many years, I have found them almost blind to politics,” she said. “They may not always like the policy that they are asked to advance on behalf of this administration and the American people, but my personal experience has been that people have done that and handled it in a very professional manner.”

But Hannah Gurman, a history professor at NYU and an expert on the history of the dissent channel, said Hook and Lacey likely have access to the names of Dissent Channel users.

“As far as I know that’s not censored out,” she told TPM. “The Policy Planning Office is responsible for both receiving and responding to messages, and they need to know who they’re responding to.”

The allegations that Hook and Lacey retaliated against a civil servant, Gurman added, could create a serious chilling effect, deterring career diplomats from speaking out about problems they see on the ground.

“It is supposed to be, in principle, a lively, engaged, internal debate. It’s not something you’re supposed to be afraid to do,” she said. “It’s also supposed to be a method of last resort when you have exercised all other options. So the fact that there seem to be more and more [people using the Dissent Channel] suggests the normal operating procedures are not effective.” 

Lawmakers currently investigating alleged retaliation against career civil servants are also alarmed.

“The State Department’s Dissent Channel is supposed to be a protected forum where career foreign affairs officials can raise candid criticism about government policy,” Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) said in a statement to TPM. “Protecting whistleblowers has always been a top priority for me, so I would be very concerned if these same officials discussing political retaliation against career civil servants also oversee the Dissent Channel. I urge the State Department to take immediate action to ensure that the Dissent Channel is overseen by nonpartisan actors.”

The emails obtained by Cummings and reported on last week revealed that Hook and Lacey helped undermine Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a career State Department staffer, after she came under attack last year from right-wing media outlets calling for her ouster. Amid the smear campaign about her record, Nowrouzzadeh wrote to her supervisor Hook for help. 

According to the House Oversight Committee: “Instead of helping Ms. Nowrouzzadeh, Hook forwarded her email to political officials at the Department, who then forwarded it to officials at the White House and used it as the basis for a wide-ranging internal discussion that questioned her loyalty to Trump.”

In that e-mail exchange, Lacey alleged that Nowrouzzadeh “helped promote and defend” the Iran nuclear agreement, “I would say, with enthusiasm.” 

Nowrouzzadeh argued the opposite in her e-mail to Hook, saying: “I’ve adapted my work to the policy priorities of every administration I’ve worked for.”

After an extensive e-mail chain, which included speculation about whether she cried when President Trump was elected, Nowrouzzadeh was pushed out of her role at the Policy Planning office three months before her stint there was set to end.

House Democrats are now demanding more information about Nowrouzzadeh’s case.

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