Watchdog: State Dept lied about rescinding woman’s award

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Mike Pompeo

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference to announce the Trump administration’s restoration of sanctions on Iran, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, at the U.S. State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The State Department’s internal watchdog has determined that the agency lied about the reasons it rescinded a prestigious award to a Finnish journalist, finding she was denied the honor because of her criticism of President Donald Trump.

The department said it made a mistake in notifying Jessikka Aro that she had won an International Woman of Courage award in 2019 for her work in exposing Russian propaganda and misinformation. The agency’s inspector general, however, said in a report issued Friday that her social media posts critical of Trump were the primary reason the award was rescinded.

The report cited internal emails and interviews with those in the selection process that indicated the award was revoked because of fears that Aro might make “political statements” at a gala ceremony that was attended by first lady Melania Trump.

“Because decisions as to IWOC awardees are solely within the department’s discretion, the decision to rescind Ms. Aro’s award appears to have been an authorized exercise of the Department’s broad discretion to select awardees,” it said.

“OIG found, however, that department officials made subsequent statements to the public and to congressional staff that inaccurately asserted that Ms. Aro was erroneously notified that she had been selected for the award and that factors other than Ms. Aro’s social media posts formed the basis of the decision not to give her the IWOC Award.”

Congressional Democrats who had called for the inspector general probe, including Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, denounced the findings.

“The Inspector General’s report is another somber example of how fear and partisanship have permeated our nation’s foreign policy and diplomacy under the Trump administration,” Menendez said. The State Department “misled the public and Congress about why it rescinded Ms. Aro’s award, covering up that her social media posts were the reason the award was withdrawn. The Trump administration also drafted talking points that falsely stated Ms. Aro had never been selected as a recipient.”

The department told reporters and congressional aides at the time that the notification had been the result of an unfortunate error and poor coordination between the embassy in Helsinki and Washington.

In response to questions from some reporters, department officials offered several explanations, including a convoluted answer that claimed there were too many awardees from Europe and that one of them had to be dropped in the interest of geographic fairness.

At a department press briefing, a spokesman characterized assertions that the decision was based on Aro’s social media statements as “speculation” and refused to discuss the selection process further.

“The department’s statements during this briefing do not align with the internal discussions that occurred at the time the decision was made to rescind Ms. Aro’s selection,” the report found.

In response to questions from congressional aides, the department said that confusion due to the government shutdown had caused the error. It made no mention of Aro’s social media posts and said the honor was rescinded because Aro “was not sufficiently aligned with the broader goals of the award.”

But the report cited internal documents as saying that Aro had not been “fully vetted” for the award and had a “history of inflammatory tweets, targeting US leadership and the administration in a specific way.” One document noted that the “identified disconcerting social media content could lead to potentially embarrassing media coverage for the department and the first lady along with the other awardees.”

The report is one of several the IG’s office was working on when Trump abruptly fired inspector general Steve Linick in May on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recommendation. Some lawmakers, including Menendez, have suggested Linnick’s dismissal may have been due to his investigations into possible misuse of government staff and funds by Pompeo and his wife as well as other allegations of impropriety.

Pompeo and other officials have forcefully denied those allegations.

In response to Friday’s report, the department pointed to comments made by the ambassador at-large for global women’s affairs, Kelley Currie, who was not in that position at the time of the incident, and noted that her office had been operating without Senate-confirmed leadership until she arrived in December 2019. However, Currie said her office shared the concerns expressed by the inspector general and was taking steps to prevent similar incidents in the future. She said the office would “uphold the tradition and integrity” of the award and also the department’s commitment to the sacred trust placed in the institution by the American people.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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