by Ken Moskowitz
On June 15, State Department Inspector General Steve Linick officially departed his office, after his firing the previous month by President Donald Trump. The president said, per the clichéd phrase, that he had “lost confidence” in Linick. Linick is the fifth U.S. Government inspector general fired by Trump. The president has fired his cabinet secretaries and bureaucrats frequently. Why is this one important?
Before retiring in 2015, I spent the last three years of my career as a Foreign Service Officer at the State Department as an inspector in the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The last two years were under Steve Linick. The OIG, replicated in most U.S. departments, conducts investigations, audits, and inspections of domestic State Department offices and overseas missions and embassies to insure that they are adhering to professional standards and properly carrying out their assigned duties. They also conduct ad hoc or topical investigations and inspections when particular problems have been brought to the IG leadership via its hotline or other confidential communications.
What does a bureaucrat do for the president to lose confidence in him? It is pretty clear that Linick raised the ire of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by, well, doing his job with integrity and honesty. First, at the time of Trump’s phone call to the president of Ukraine (April 2019), he passed along documents, after a whistleblower complaint, to the House Judiciary Committee. Second, his office produced a report detailing how Trump administration officials had retaliated for political reasons against an Iranian-American State Department analyst.
Secretary Pompeo was apparently upset upon hearing about other IG investigations as well, including one of Pompeo and his wife, who may have asked his staff to do personal errands for them, and another on the State Department’s role in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the secretary’s rationale for the dismissal was worded vaguely, without citing any legal or professional infractions. He accused Linick of pursuing investigations of administration policies he disagreed with and not supporting the secretary’s “ethos statement” on department behavior, a new State mission statement appearing on the department’s website. He also recently charged Linick with “strange and erratic behavior,” though without citing what this behavior consisted of.
In case anyone harbors any notion that Steve Linick is a surreptitious partisan figure because he was appointed by President Obama, allow me to set the record straight. I believe that what Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., said about Supreme Court justices, “We don’t work as Democrats or Republicans,” also holds for inspectors general. I also worked for Linick’s predecessor, Ambassador Harold Geisel, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2008. Because Geisel was a retired Foreign Service officer, and thus raised suspicions that his reports might treat his former colleagues with kid gloves, he was designated as “Acting” IG. Nevertheless, I saw no evidence, from my inspector’s vantage, of either partisanship or pressure to go easy in our reports.
Linick began work in 2013 with a previous record that could hardly cause concerns of political bias. While serving as a government attorney at the Justice Department pursuing fraud in Afghanistan, he was named the first Inspector General of the Federal Housing Finance Agency in 2010, nominated by President George W. Bush.
Linick struck his new staff as a technocrat rather than as a political figure. Given his prior experience as an IG, he was committed to tradecraft excellence. He had also completed a term as the head of a U.S. government inspectors general association, and brought in one of his colleagues to lecture us on how to conduct appropriate inspections. He hired a staff English teacher and required deficient inspectors to get remedial training to polish their prose.
If that doesn’t indicate his lack of partisan political interests, I should add that he also personally inculcated IG trade skills, urging inspectors to drop colorful but meaningless adjectives from reports: A “great” performance? Is that better than an “outstanding” one? He demanded that every criticism be documented as a clear violation of a State Department policy, to be footnoted in the same report. There was considerable — I can hear Linick asking, “Umm, how much is “considerable”? — staff grumbling about the added demands, but also a notable improvement in the professionalism, fairness, and integrity of our products.
Still, a government official can be both a technocrat and politically biased. If this were the case, however, how can one explain Linick’s inspection report (August 2015) on the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, which pointedly criticized the management skills of Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, a Democrat appointed by President Obama, and the disruptive role of her personal assistant, also an Obama appointee? (Since I had worked twice at this Embassy, and therefore could have created the appearance of going easy on my former colleagues, I was excluded from the inspection team.) Furthermore, how to explain Linick’s signing off on the politically explosive OIG report (May 2016) highly critical of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server?
These high-profile reports aside, most IG work is labor-intensive and below the radar, “in the weeds,” as our bureaucratic jargon has it. But Linick thrived in this environment, routinely hectoring his staff to do work we could be proud of.
How do you square this Linick the techno-bureaucrat with the image of partisan political skullduggery the president suspects him of conducting? President Trump clearly does not welcome the criticism of his administration’s conduct that Secretary Clinton tolerated. He has apparently slotted Linick into his narrative of Deep State conspiracy, of disloyal and self-serving career bureaucrats, including inspectors general, working to undermine his political objectives. On this score, philosopher Karl Popper, an expert on the dangers of totalitarianism, has this to say about conspiracies:
“[They] are typical social phenomena. They become important, for example, whenever people who believe in the conspiracy theory get into power. And people who sincerely believe that they know how to make heaven on earth are most likely to adopt the conspiracy theory, and to get involved in a counter-conspiracy against non-existing conspirators.”
Where does this leave us? In testimony at a virtual interview on June 3 with members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Linick sounded like the consummate professional I knew. He said that, “every minute of my work … has been devoted to promoting … efficiency and effectiveness … along with ensuring that taxpayer funds are protected against waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Republican members of Congress repeated that the President has the “absolute” right to fire any inspector general, a right that has never been challenged. The issue is whether the dismissal was justified in terms of Linick’s work performance, or rather politically motivated.
The Foreign Affairs Committee must determine whether inspectors general can remain non-partisan professionals, or if they too must fall victim to political reprisal. More promising perhaps is that Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), a long-time defender of the agency watchdogs, is drafting legislation to strengthen protection of their roles, including a provision to bar political appointees from serving as inspectors general. This would challenge the President’s naming of Stephen J. Akard as Linick’s successor, since Akard is a political ally of Vice President Pence.
I wish Senator Grassley well. Americans’ trust in their Federal government, at a historical low of 17% in 2019, is down from 73% in 1958 (per the Pew Research Center). A robust community of credible inspectors general might slow or halt this decline.
Ken Moskowitz has been Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Temple University Japan since August 2016. In 2015, he completed a 30-year career as a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. State Department. Domestically, he served as an inspector with the Office of the Inspector General and as an APSA Congressional Fellow for Sen. James Jeffords and Rep. Nancy Pelosi. His overseas postings, where he specialized in press and cultural work, included the U.S. embassies in Sofia, Budapest, Kyiv, and Tokyo, where he was the American Center Director. He has also taught cultural diplomacy at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, and attended SAIS/Johns Hopkins University as a mid-career Fellow. He holds a Ph. D. from the Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia, an M.A. in Philosophy from Brown University, and a B.A. in History and English Literature from Swarthmore College.