You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Fired State Department watchdog was conducting 5 probes into potential wrongdoing

CNN logo CNN 6/10/2020 By Nicole Gaouette, Kylie Atwood, Jennifer Hansler and Zachary Cohen, CNN
a person talking into a microphone © Alex Wong/Getty Images

The State Department inspector general fired by President Donald Trump before he could complete investigations into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his office was looking into five matters of potential wrongdoing at the State Department, according to a transcript released by Congress Wednesday.

In addition to investigating Pompeo's potential misuse of taxpayer funds and reviewing his decision to expedite an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, Steve Linick told lawmakers his office was looking into three other matters that "involved the Office of the Secretary in some way."

These three probes, which CNN had not previously reported on, include an audit of Special Immigrant Visas, a review of the International Women of Courage Award and another review "involving individuals in the Office of the Protocol."

Linick told lawmakers he had informed senior State Department officials about at least two of the probes -- the allegations Pompeo and his wife misused government resources and the Saudi arms sale -- but did not tell them to hide that information from Pompeo himself, according to the transcript. Pompeo recommended that Trump fire Linick, who was jettisoned on May 15.

Linick's testimony raises questions about Pompeo's claims he didn't know about the ongoing probes -- beyond the Saudi arms sale review for which he submitted written answers -- and therefore couldn't have fired the watchdog in retaliation. The veteran inspector general told lawmakers that before his ouster, a senior Pompeo aide tried to "bully" him to stop pursuing the Saudi arms probe.

Linick also provided sharp rebuttals to the flurry of justifications Pompeo and his aides have publicly offered for his firing. Linick said he has been given no reason for his ouster and disputed Pompeo's public justifications.

"I can tell you that I don't believe there's any valid reason that would justify my removal," Linick told the lawmakers in a June 3 video interview that lasted almost seven hours. He would not speculate on Pompeo's reasons for moving against him. He added that he was "shocked" to learn he had been fired.

Pompeo reacted Wednesday to Linick's testimony, saying he hadn't read the transcript before criticizing Linick personally, accusing him of undermining the department's mission and of not following directions, despite the inspector general's mandate as an independent watchdog.

"Steve Linick is a bad actor in the inspector general's office here. He didn't take on the mission of the State Department to make us better," the secretary told reporters at the State Department. "That's what inspector generals are supposed to do. They work for the agency head -- that's me -- and they're supposed to deliver and help make that organization better. It's not what Mr. Linick did."

Pompeo has denied he fired Linick in retaliation for the probes, saying he had no knowledge of the ongoing investigations.

But Linick told lawmakers that he had informed Undersecretary Brian Bulatao -- a friend of Pompeo's from their days at West Point -- and Deputy Secretary Steve Biegun about his inquiries into Pompeo's potential misuse of government funds.

"I wanted to make sure everybody was aware so that they wouldn't be surprised," Linick said, and so that Pompeo and his aides "knew what we were doing before they just got a document request."

"And I didn't tell them not to tell anybody, including Secretary Pompeo, about them," he added. 

Linick refused to speculate whether either senior official told Pompeo about the investigation. The questioner, Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu of California had pointed out the close relationship between Bulatao and Pompeo.

Linick testified before Democratic and Republican lawmakers and select staff from the House Foreign Affairs and House Oversight committees, and Democrats from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Linick told lawmakers of other ways in which those around Pompeo were aware of his lines of inquiry. Linick said that State Department officials got "some type of briefing" on his probe into the weapons sale to Saudi Arabia and other countries before he was fired.

Linick also said that at the State Department's request, he provided "topic areas" when he requested an interview with Pompeo about the sale. Pompeo ultimately refused to sit for an interview, Linick told the lawmakers, though he submitted written answers.

Linick told the lawmakers that Bulatao questioned his mandate to investigate the arms deal and when Linick explained that inspectors general have the right to investigate how policy is implemented, Bulatao "just continued to push back."

'He tried to bully me'

Pompeo expedited the arms deal over deep objections from Congress, where lawmakers were furious about the kingdom's murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the civilian death toll in the Saudi war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Bulatao "strenuously objected to our doing work on a policy matter," Linick said. "In response to that, I cited the Foreign Service Act, which requires us to review implementation of policy, not to judge whether it's a good policy or a bad policy, which does not concern me one bit, but whether or not the policy is being carried out in accordance with the regs—the regulations and the law."

Linick said of working with Bulatao "that sometimes the relationship was professional; at other times, he tried to bully me."

Linick also said Bulatao sometimes seemed "unfamiliar with the role of inspectors general," and "seemed surprised" when Linick told him "that IGs are nonpartisan and typically stay through the change of administration."

Bulatao asked Linick to join an effort "to help design the Department's response to Covid-19." Linick explained that "wouldn't be appropriate" as IGs are prohibited from making policy or designing programs because they may eventually need to audit them.

Linick testified that Bulatao said "OK" when Linick turned him down. But in a Fox interview at the end of May, Pompeo said one of the reasons he suggested Linick's removal was because he refused "to be a part of a team to protect his own officers from Covid-19."

Pompeo and his team have publicly cited other reasons for firing Linick, including his refusal to promote the secretary's "ethos statement" for the department.

Linick told lawmakers he was unclear why that would be a reason, noting that the statement is "inconsistent" with his office's role as an independent watchdog and that it was "inappropriate" for them to promote it.

Pompeo has also claimed he had Linick fired because he or his office leaked to the press, but an investigation by the Pentagon inspector general found no evidence that Linick or anyone in his office shared information with the media, two sources familiar with the investigation told CNN.

On Wednesday, Pompeo repeated the leak claims and yet another reason he has offered for firing Linick: that the inspector general had been uncooperative about sharing the results of the investigation that cleared him and his office.

Linick said he resisted providing an internal report of a leak investigation into his office to top State Department officials out of concern they would retaliate against his investigators.

After the Pentagon inspector general cleared Linick's office of leaking, Bulatao asked to see the internal report, Linick told lawmakers.

The report contained not only "the names of the individuals, but their interviews and what they said.... I was concerned -- or I could imagine the Department using information in that report against them," Linick said.

"I thought my staff acted in accordance with the principles and procedures in the IG's Office and the standards," Linick said.

After State Department officials tussled with Linick about sharing the DOD report in March, they approached Stephen Ackard, the current acting Inspector General and a former staffer to Vice President Mike Pence, about taking the job, Linick told lawmakers.

Ackard told staff in the Inspector General's office he had been approached in April about potentially filling Linick's position, Linick testified. "Somebody told me that he learned in April, that he told staff that he learned in April," Linick said.

Then in May, a week and a day after the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked Linick how the Saudi report was coming, Trump fired Linick at Pompeo's urging.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More From CNN

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon