The State Department Inspector General is looking into why senior career officials who worked on Obama administration priorities like refugee resettlement and closing the Guantanamo Bay prison were temporarily reassigned to menial work processing Freedom of Information Act requests, the IG’s office confirmed to TPM on Thursday — reviewing whether the reassignments were politically motivated.
In January, Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) called for an investigation after whistleblowers at the State Department shared what the lawmakers called “credible allegations that the State Department has required high-level career civil servants, with distinguished records serving administrations of both parties, to move to performing tasks outside of their area of substantive expertise.”
Cummings and Engel, who serve as the top Democrats on the House Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees respectively, told the IG that they feared the moves “may constitute impermissible abuse and retaliation” against federal workers.
Later in January, CNN reported that the IG was “conducting preliminary work…to assess the allegations.”
On Thursday, communications director Sarah Breen at the State’s Inspector General’s office told TPM: “The review requested by Congressmen Engel and Cummings is ongoing.”
Engel told TPM that the confirmation of the probe is “a good start but doesn’t come close to resolving the problem.”
“I continue to have concerns that this Administration is targeting career employees for their perceived political beliefs,” Engel said, “and I still expect the Department to fully respond to the requests from myself and Ranking Member Cummings.”
Beginning last October, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ordered a “FOIA surge,” shifting hundreds of State Department workers away from their regular duties to process Freedom of Information Act requests as part of an effort to address the agency’s massive backlog. The “surge” was extended this January.
Among those roped in was Lawrence Bartlett, the former head of State’s Population, Refugees and Migration bureau, who worked on policies around refugee resettlement under the Obama administration. Bartlett is part of the Senior Executive Service — an elite class of highly experienced non-partisan federal workers.
Also placed on temporary FOIA duty was Ian Moss, a former U.S. Marine who worked in the State Department’s office of the Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure and the National Security Council under the Obama administration. Under the Trump administration, Moss’ attorney Mark Zaid told CNN, Moss was reassigned “under threat of disciplinary action” to the FOIA task force. There, he was tasked with basic data entry and research — the kind of work often done by interns or entry level employees at the agency.
A State Department spokeswoman has insisted that the transfers were made “without regard to politics.”
But a congressional aide who has communicated with State Department whistleblowers about the reassignments told TPM that they carried “a strong sense of a political motivation.”
“The people being moved worked on policies that this administration opposes,” the aide said, citing the closure of Guantanamo and the admittance of refugees as examples. “These are career officers viewed as ‘Obama holdovers,’ viewed as being too close to the last administration. If they really cared about addressing transparency and FOIA they would have filled the jobs in the FOIA shop that were required to be filled rather than make these political reassignments.”
State Department employees transferred to FOIA duty told The New Yorker that they felt the reassignments were “designed to demoralize” the career officials. A U.S. ambassador told CNN that the transfers were the career equivalent of being banished to “Siberia.”
Several laws protect federal workers from being fired, denied a promotion, or reassigned because of their real or perceived political affiliation. Reps. Engel and Cummings have asked the IG office to probe the following questions: “Were the rights of the Department’s employees violated? Did political retaliation play any role?”
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who ordered the “FOIA surge,” was fired by President Trump in March. His successor, former CIA Director Mike Pompeo, is expected to face questions about the allegations when he testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee next week.