Did Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump fire Inspector General Steve Linick because he got too close to an arms deal with the Saudis? Or did Linick set up a leak operation within the State Department? NBC News reported last night on allegations that Linick got canned for his suspicions about the deal, but even that suggests that Linick might have gotten out over his skis:
The former State Department inspector general fired by President Donald Trump told lawmakers that two top officials tried to discourage his investigation into a U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia, according to congressional testimony released Wednesday.
The ousted inspector general, Steve Linick, said Under Secretary of State for Management Brian Bulatao told him “that we shouldn’t be doing the work because it was a policy matter not within the IG’s jurisdiction,” according to a transcript of his June 3 testimony.
The State Department’s acting legal advisor, Marik String, also questioned the probe, arguing it was outside the scope of the inspector general and purely a policy matter, Linick said.
The sale to Saudi Arabia is hardly a novel policy. The US has sold arms to Riyadh for decades, mainly to win some tolerance of Israel while standing the Saudis up as a counterweight to Iran. After the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the cozy relationship between Washington DC and the Saudis drew a lot of criticism, but it still makes sense in a geopolitical framework to support the Sunni nation against the terror-state Shi’ite radical mullahs in Tehran.
Linick says he wasn’t interfering on the policy, but …
“We don’t assess whether a policy is good or bad, but we assess how a policy — whether it’s efficiently and effectively implemented and whether rules are followed. And we continued to do that,“ Linick said.
If that’s all Linick was doing, it seems a bit odd that Pompeo and Trump would bother to fire him in the first place. The political fallout would be far worse than a review of the legalities of an arms sale, especially given the long track record of such transactions in the past. It also seems odd that this is the second or third explanation from Linick’s defenders as to why he might have been fired. Supposedly Linick was looking into Pompeo’s behavior with subordinates, or potentially using the office for partisan political purposes.
Pompeo responded at that time by refusing to discuss it as a “personnel matter,” saying that “I don’t leak to y’all.” That might have been a hint, if the Free Beacon’s report last night on Linick turns out to be accurate. According to a report acquired by Adam Kredo from an IG at the Department of Defense, Linick had been copying official emails to his personal account, and then maybe leaking the material to the press — which is what really got him fired:
The inquiry report, dated March 17, confirms that fired State Department inspector general Steve Linick was the subject of a broad investigation related to the leaks of politically charged materials to journalists, specifically a draft evaluation report into Brian Hook, the State Department’s top Iran official. The report, which was provided to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, concluded that while Linick was permitted to send information to his personal email account to facilitate access while traveling, he was the only official in that office to have done so. The disclosure is likely to raise new questions about Linick’s suspected role in leaking sensitive information to the press. …
Details of the highly sensitive investigation into Hook—involving unsubstantiated allegations that Hook fired officials he saw as insufficiently hawkish on Iran—were leaked to the media without authorization, according to the DOD investigation.
The DOD investigation into Linick found that between March 2019 and September 2019 Linick sent 23 emails containing confidential work products from inside the State Department email system to his personal Gmail account. Eight of the emails Linick sent to himself, which were forwarded over a six-day period, contained copies of the incomplete probe into Hook. Linick was the only State Department employee from the IG’s office to email drafts of the evaluation outside the department, according to the report.
The DOD IG did not find evidence that Linick leaked the evaluation to journalists. Nevertheless, the revelation is likely to fuel criticism of Linick’s conduct.
Why would an IG need to copy sensitive material to his personal e-mail account at all? That might be something that bureaucrats do in order to act as whistleblowers, but IGs are already whistleblowers by form and function. They have a formal and well-trodden path to Congress for revealing any issues within executive agencies. There is no need for them to leak to anyone except the relevant congressional committees about what they find in investigations.
The DOD probe may not have found any direct evidence of leaks to the press, but they appear to at least have a circumstantial case developing. If no one else violated internal security to get those documents out of their classified containment, then Linick looks like the source of any leaking that did occur. At the very least, he violated those classified-material rules that IGs are supposed to enforce and defend.
This might be why Linick became a cause célèbre in the media, too. If they just lost an insider within the federal bureaucracy, of course they’d try to make him a martyr … for any other reason than what Linick was really doing, assuming that is what he was doing. It seems pretty absurd to think that Linick was fired for merely dotting Is and crossing Ts on the latest in a decades-long string of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, though.
Update: This seems even more curious. Why do House Democrats who have been lionizing Linick suddenly have no interest in testimony from State Department officials? Pompeo sent an angry letter to Foreign Affairs Committee chair Eliot Engel accusing the committee of reneging on an earlier offer:
Man, @SecPompeo doesn’t hold back in this letter to Engel about Linick:
“I hear you’ve been busy in your district, so let me get you up to speed on what’s been going on in your committee.” pic.twitter.com/rXmmy4HcWb
— Nate Madden (@NateOnTheHill) June 12, 2020
This looks like House Democrats aren’t terribly interested in pursuing this, all of a sudden. Maybe Senate Republicans will take a greater interest in fairness.