Menendez Blasts State Department’s Politically-Motivated Responses to Congress; Calls on Pompeo to Engage on Extensive List of Congressional Requests he has Ignored

Menendez Blasts State Department’s Politically-Motivated Responses to Congress; Calls on Pompeo to Engage on Extensive List of Congressional Requests he has Ignored

 

WASHINGTON  Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), today sent a pair of letters condemning the State Department’s decision to provide thousands of pages of documents to Republicans in response to inquiries seeking to smear President Trump’s political rivals while ignoring requests from Democrats on critical national security matters, and calling on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to respond to a growing list of unanswered requests on key policy and national security issues.

Menendez’s letters come in the wake of Senate Republicans ratcheting up politically-motivated requests aimed at aiding President Trump’s election year prospects, and following an angry missive from the Secretary last week attacking the Senator for pursuing legitimate congressional oversight into his conduct and the President’s corrosive foreign policy agenda. 

In his letter to Secretary Pompeo, the Senator welcomed the Secretary’s call to engage “on an intellectual level an on the merits” on foreign policy issues, noting that he had been asking questions of the Secretary for months about some of the most serious foreign policy and national security issues facing the nation and the world.

“As our country’s shining light as the beacon of freedom and democracy continues to dim under this administration, it would behoove our standing in the world and strengthen our own democratic fabric if the nation’s leading diplomat would engage on these and other issues,” wrote Menendez. 

Citing then-Congressman Pompeo’s penchant for being perceived as a guardian of Congressional oversight during his years in the House of Representatives, Menendez rejected the notion that for President Trump and Secretary Pompeo to have a successful national security agenda, it must be so at the expense of our systems of checks and balances.

Menendez also reiterated his open invitation for the Secretary to begin showing up to Congress to defend the Trump Administration’s foreign policy failures, and concluded with a representative, non-exhaustive list of 59 requests for which the State Department owes Congress information, and about which Secretary Pompeo has yet to testify.

In the letter to Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun, Menendez seeks a justification for why the State Department decided to produce thousands of pages to Republicans who are running an election-year investigation into President Trump’s political opponents but have stonewalled Democratic requests seeking details on matters of national security, including the President’s withholding of security assistance for Ukraine that aids its defense against Vladimir Putin’s aggression. 

“This Department’s track record on transparency and responsiveness is already at the lowest point I have encountered in my near three decades in Congress. These actions threaten to degrade the Department’s reputation and signal that it is willing to be weaponized to further the President’s political, not policy, agenda. It should go without saying that the State Department should remain above this fray,” wrote Menendez to Biegun.

A copy of the Senator’s letter to Secretary Pompeo can be found HERE and below

A copy of the Senator’s letter to Deputy Secretary Biegun can be found HERE and below. 

 

Secretary Pompeo,

In your May 28 letter to me you “implore[d] [me] and [my] staff to confront foreign policy issues of concern and interest to [me] and [my] constituents on an intellectual level and on the merits.” Thank you for this invitation; as you well know, I have been seeking to do exactly that for the duration of your tenure.

Indeed, for months, I have asked, repeatedly, questions about some of the most serious foreign policy and national security issues facing our nation and the world. I have asked those questions of you personally, of senior officials at the Department, and through my staff to various appropriate officials in the Administration. Despite the pressing nature of some of these concerns—including the Administration’s early response to COVID-19; the basis for withdrawing funding to the WHO; the ongoing commitment to global health priorities; the deporting of individuals from our country with COVID-19; the justification for additional arms sales to Saudi Arabia; the grounds for dismissing an independent Inspector General; details about agreements with third countries on asylees and refugees—my requests for substantive engagement on critical matters of foreign policy have gone largely ignored or woefully unaddressed.

You also note that your “job is to lead an organization focused on the execution of President Trump’s foreign policy priorities on behalf of the United States.” I would argue that part of that job is to explain to the American people—and their elected representatives in Congress—exactly what those priorities are.

I understand that Chairman Risch, with my full support, has been trying to get you to testify in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since February, including by appearing remotely, on the budget request for the State Department. Additionally, given that we are currently facing a global pandemic that threatens some of the world’s most vulnerable populations, witnessing increased tension with China, and instability that threatens U.S. interests across the world, there are any number of topics that would normally trigger a Secretary of State testifying before Congress. Moreover, you have only publicly appeared in front of this Committee three times; the last time being April 10, 2019. Again, I would welcome you to come testify on any topic of your choosing.

Indeed, when you were yourself a member of Congress, you extolled Congressional oversight as a critical function of this country. In March 2014, you stated that our system of checks and balances, including Congress, “is the best [system] devised by humankind for a way to provide oversight on a country’s incredibly important intelligence operations.”[1] Surely the same logic would apply to our foreign policy operations. In March 2016, you told a newspaper that the State Department “ought” to “respond to a legitimate inquiry from the legislative branch, duly authorized by statute and cooperate.”[2] I could not agree more.

As our country’s shining light as the beacon of freedom and democracy continues to dim under this Administration, it would behoove our standing in the world and strengthen our own democratic fabric if the nation’s leading diplomat would engage on these and other issues.

In the spirit of your request, below is a representative, non-exhaustive list of requests I have sent over the last year on foreign policy matters of grave concern to me and my constituents, to which the State Department has failed to respond to fully or at all and about which you have yet to come to Congress to testify. I look forward to your prompt engagement on these matters, and to having you testify before the Committee in short order.

 

Outstanding Requests regarding U.S. Foreign Policy:

1. Legal analysis and determination for the Trump administration’s decision not to make a legally-required determination under the Global Magnitsky Act regarding the role of Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, including relevant records and information – requested Feb. 14, 2019

2. Information on the Administration’s climate change policy following reports that the NSC was pursuing the establishment of a commission to undermine the utilization of climate science in national security planning – requested Feb. 20, 2019

Information on the Trump administration’s climate leadership plans in light of U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement – requested Feb. 28, 2019, Sept. 27, 2019 and earlier.

Answers regarding reports that the U.S. government committed to paying $2 million to North Korea to secure the release of Otto Warmbier – requested May 3, 2019

5. Records and information related to the State Department’s role in delaying security assistance to Ukraine and facilitating meetings between the President’s personal agent, Rudy Giuliani, and Ukrainian officials – requested Sept. 24, 2019

6. Adequate answers and documents responsive to 31 outstanding questions for the record from the September 25, 2019, Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Mexico and Central America, including all agreements and arrangements and associated documentation between the U.S. and Mexico and the U.S. and the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) – requested Sept. 27, 2019

7. Information on your role and the State Department role in the July 25 Trump-Zelenskyy call and surrounding events – requested Sept. 27, 2019

8. Communications, information, and any legal opinion relating to the July 2019 Joint Department of Health and Human Services and State Department letter to more than 70 countries urging them to oppose abortion access – requested Oct. 28, 2019

Written details and briefing on the State Operations Center and reports that the Department was limiting it to document calls with foreign leaders – requested Dec. 6, 2019

Information on the State Department’s birthright citizenship initiative – requested Jan. 24, 2020

Briefing with Assistant Secretary Ford to discuss State’s Cyber Office – requested Feb. 2020

12. Documents showing the division of non-security assistance in Iraq between U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and State Department and of all non-security assistance and staffing for religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria – requested Feb. 3, 2020 with several follow ups, most recently on June 1, 2020

13. Information fully responsive to my questions, asked with Senator Warren and 23 other Democratic Senators, to you, Attorney General Barr, and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, about the negotiation and implementation of three international “Asylum Cooperative Agreements” (ACAs, or Safe 3rd Country agreements) in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – requested Feb. 5, 2020

Clarification as to whether Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 will be included in the calculation of Turkey’s progress towards its two percent Wales commitment – requested Feb. 28, 2020

15. Information about the Trump administration’s strategy for countering Russian interference in African elections; and a description of all activities funded by State or USAID specifically aimed at countering Russian interference in African elections, with funding amounts – requested Mar. 3, 2020

Explanation from the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) of the Administration’s policy toward asylum seekers in response to the coronavirus outbreak, and a detailed explanation from the Office of the Legal Adviser Office of Human Rights and Refugees (L/HRR) of how this policy comports with domestic and international legal obligations toward asylum seekers – requested Mar. 18, 2020

Information about Global Engagement Center operations – requested Mar. 23, 2020

Information and document request regarding the Bureau of Intelligence and Research and China COVID-19 cables – requested Mar. 24/30, 2020

Briefing on COVID-19 origins – requested Apr. 2, 2020

20. Briefing on Open Skies Treaty – requested Apr. 3, 2020

Explanations for the role of the U.S. in the Serbia-Kosovo talks, why the U.S. has not imposed sanctions on Serbia pursuant to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), and whether the suspension of the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC) Kosovo programs is in keeping with the MCC’s mission – requested Apr. 13, 2020

22. Briefing on Chinese nuclear testing – requested Apr. 16, 2020

23. Information about the State Department’s response to warning signs in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak – requested Apr. 16, 2020

24. Information from the Bureau of International Organization Affairs (IO) about how suspension/cessation of the World Health Organization (WHO) contributions is affecting engagement related to COVID-19 and health programming on the ground in Mozambique – requested Apr. 23, 2020

25. Legal opinion related to Iran that was provided to one or more Republican Senators before Biegun’s confirmation as Deputy Secretary of State – requested Apr. 27, 2020

26. Briefing on State’s plans to address the growing threat of foreign white supremacist terror, and request for you to immediately provide clarity on the employment status of Mr. Matthew Gebert following his August 2019 suspension, as well as for you to call out bigotry and unequivocally reject the promotion of hatred – requested Apr. 28, 2020

27. Information on whether State is conducting a review of our response to COVID-19, whether the findings of the review we are asking WHO to conduct will be used to inform the U.S. response, whether the U.S. is providing staff to assist WHO with the review, and a copy of Ambassador Bremberg’s remarks as delivered at the WHO Executive Board meeting in February 2020 – requested May 1, 2020

28. Information on COVID-19 testing for migrants before deportation, medical treatment for those who test positive, and ending deportations of individuals who have tested positive or exhibited symptoms of COVID-19, as well as the results of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) review of the impact of deporting individuals that have tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Guatemala – requested May 1, 2020

29. Briefing on the failed mercenary incursion into Venezuela that occurred on May 3, 2020, and resulted in the capture of two American citizens, as well as related potential violations of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) – requested May 4, 2020

30. Documents relating to the State Department’s engagement with the WHO in the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic – requested May 5, 2020

Documents related to origins of, and early preparation for, COVID-19, including all cables regarding the CDC and China, the WHO, and the Department’s pandemic preparedness or response plan – requested May 7, 2020

32. Briefing on the inadequate report received from the Department, pursuant to the VERDAD Act, on the Maduro regime’s potential involvement in crimes against humanity. The VERDAD Act includes a statutory requirement that a briefing on this report be provided within 15 days – requested May 7, 2020

33. Briefing on Ethiopia security sector engagement – requested May 8, 2020

34. Briefing from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor about accountability for abuses by Cameroon security forces – requested May 8, 2020

35. Information on the Administration’s asylum ban justified, in part, on conditions related to COVID-19 – requested May 12, 2020

Information and briefing on rescissions at the Department – requested May 12, 2020

Information regarding “non-public” disclaimer language from the Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser – requested May 12, 2020

38. Update on the economic and political situation in Jordan – requested May 13, 2020

39. Briefing with Special Envoy Billingslea on arms control issues – requested May 14, 2020

Briefing on the Sacoolas case and Interpol – requested May 15, 2020 (following-up on 2019 requests)

41. Further information on the status of Egyptian purchase of Su-35, in violation of CAATSA - requested May 19, 2020

42. Further information on the Unalienable Rights Commission purpose, membership selection, and expected outputs – requested May 20, 2020

43. Information about U.S. engagement with civil society organizations that are monitoring the implementation of African Development Bank (AfDB) and World Bank projects in Zimbabwe – requested May 27, 2020

44. Impact of COVID-19-related travel restrictions on Bureau of Educational and Cultural Exchanges J1 Visa programs – requested May 27, 2020

45. Determinations that allowed the Asylum Cooperative Agreements to enter into force – requested May 27, 2020

46. Information on U.S. objections to the concept of “discrimination” and its understanding of how the concept of “equal protection of the laws” applied in an OAS declaration in support of LGBTI rights – requested May 28, 2020

47. Information about how State’s African Affairs Bureau is planning to mitigate loss of credibility and moral authority on messaging on democracy and governance, respect for human rights, and accountability for security sector abuses in Africa given U.S. police abuses and President Trump’s tweets – requested June 1, 2020


Outstanding Requests regarding State Department Management and Operations:
1. Information regarding Special Representatives and Special Envoy Status – ongoing series of requests, dating back to 2019

2. Information and records on how State protected and defended Ambassador Yovanovitch, why she was removed early, and what State is doing to ensure State Department personnel know their rights under federal whistleblower laws – requested Oct. 10, 2019

Briefing by Under Secretary for Management on steps taken to address retaliation at the Department, including in the IO bureau – requested Oct. 11, 2019

4. Explanation of the steps taken to investigate the alleged surveillance of Ambassador Yovanovitch – requested Jan. 15, 2020 and Jan. 29, 2020

Request for interviews related to joint political retaliation investigation on – requested Feb. 24, 2020

Clarification of Diplomatic Security policy on background investigations – requested Mar. 4, 2020

Follow-up information on diversity issues at the State Department – requested Mar. 25, 2020

Update on staffing at the U.S. Consulate in Thessaloniki, Greece – requested Mar. 25, 2020

9. Information on whether the Department weighed in on Mari Stull’s candidacy to be the Washington D.C. Representative of the OAS Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) and what details the State Department provided to IICA about retaliation allegations against Stull – requested Mar. 27, 2020

10. Information about the Department’s review of Ambassador McCarter’s tweets referring to COVID-19 as the Wuhan Flu and any directives from State to Ambassadors to avoid the term – requested Apr. 22, 2020

Information request to Ambassador McCarter about the review process of his tweets referring to COVID-19 as the Wuhan Flu – requested May 6, 2020

Documents related to the firing of State Department Inspector General Linick – requested May 16, 2020

Details regarding the firing of State Department Inspector General Linick and appointment of Acting Inspector General Akard – requested May 16 and 18, 2020

14. Legal basis for appointing Lee Rizzuto as “Principal Officer” for U.S. Consulate General in Bermuda – requested May 27, 2020

 
Deputy Secretary Biegun:

I write to express my deep disappointment and disgust at the State Department’s selective response to Congress on what appears to be purely political grounds.

Under this administration, the Department has stonewalled all documents from Democratic members of Congress related to the withholding of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine, even defying lawful subpoenas. It has not provided any documents about the shameful early removal of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, a decision that allowed foreign influence to infect our national security. Nor did it produce information about how the Department came to possess and disseminate a packet of foreign disinformation aimed at undermining U.S. policy and discrediting a U.S. ambassador.

On September 24, 2019, I requested records that would shed light on why the executive branch stalled congressionally-appropriated funds to an ally fighting Russian aggression. On September 27, 2019, I sought information about what the Department knew about foreign attempts to seek Ambassador Yovanovitch’s removal. On October 10, 2019, I requested information about steps the Department took to protect that U.S. ambassador.

I have received no response to these requests. None.

Yet, even as these and other requests about urgent national security and foreign policy concerns were ignored for months, the Department found it appropriate to prioritize and produce thousands of pages of Ukraine-related documents to the Republican Chairmen of other Senate Committees.

Worse, these requests seek information designed to advance false conspiracy theories, including that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections. President Vladimir Putin has gleefully pushed this theory—a theory that President Trump’s homeland security advisor called “debunked” and his former Russia Director on the National Security Council warned was a “fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

The administration has also argued that its response to the global pandemic means congressional requests have to take a temporary back seat. Yet, in early April, it eagerly produced additional documents to Republican Committee Chairmen that have no bearing on current national security priorities, and zero relevance to the pandemic.

In recent weeks, Republican Committee Chairmen with little or no jurisdiction over the Department have made other requests to the Department, which seek information that is similarly irrelevant to U.S. national security. If the Department expends taxpayer resources on these unprincipled requests, it would be serving only the partisan purposes of congressional Republicans, not U.S. policy or U.S. taxpayers. And it would only further amplify the very Russian disinformation campaigns that have plagued the nation over the last four years.

This Department’s track record on transparency and responsiveness is already at the lowest point I have encountered in my nearly three decades in Congress. These actions threaten to degrade the Department’s reputation and signal that it is willing to be weaponized to further the President’s political, not policy, agenda. It should go without saying that the State Department should remain above this fray. And if the Department sees it appropriate to send thousands of pages to other Committees, it should, at a minimum, also provide them to the primary Committee of jurisdiction.

The oversight role of Congress is not a perfunctory responsibility subject to the whims of executive branch agencies. It is a constitutionally-vested authority that Congress must uphold with the utmost gravity. I know that you understand the importance of the executive branch’s responsibility to respond to and engage with Congress in good faith and for the public interest, and I look forward to hearing how you plan to do so.

I have attached my still-outstanding requests. I look forward to promptly receiving a response to them, as well as the complete set of documents previously provided to other Senate Committees on Ukraine.

Sincerely

Robert Menendez
Ranking Member

Enclosed:
Letter to State Department OIG requesting investigation into withholding of security assistance to Ukraine, September 24, 2019
Letter to Secretary Pompeo requesting information related to the Trump-Zelensky phone call and related issues, September 27, 2019
Letter to Secretary Pompeo regarding the dismissal of Ambassador Yovanovitch, October 10, 2019

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