Top Pompeo aide emerges as key figure amid watchdog scrutiny

A top ally of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is under scrutiny as part of House Democrats’ probe into the ousting of the State Department’s independent watchdog.

Brian Bulatao, undersecretary for management at the State Department, holds the position that most frequently interacts with the office charged with oversight.

But a strained and sometimes contentious relationship with Bulatao was detailed by ousted Inspector General (IG) Steve Linick in his testimony to lawmakers investigating his abrupt firing.

President Trump dismissed Linick last month at the request of Pompeo. The secretary has defended his push for the IG’s ouster, accusing him of undermining the mission of the State Department and raising allegations that his office was behind a leak to the press.

But critics are alarmed the move was meant to block investigations into Pompeo, including one into whether the secretary and his wife misused federal resources, and another probing his involvement in a presidential executive order to sell billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

The Democratic chairs of the House committees on Foreign Affairs and Oversight have requested to interview Bulatao, along with other senior State Department officials, “regarding their roles in Mr. Linick’s firing and their knowledge of his office’s ongoing work at the time he was removed.”

In a letter to Foreign Affairs Chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) sent Thursday evening, Pompeo said Bulatao was prepared to testify on June 22 or 23 “to unambiguously refute your incorrect accusations.”  

Bulatao has a long history with Pompeo, having been the secretary’s classmate at West Point and his business partner in Kansas. Adding to the scrutiny over his knowledge of the probes are Linick’s allegations that Bulatao pushed back on the ex-inspector general’s attempts to move certain investigations forward.

“I would say that sometimes the relationship was professional; at other times, he tried to bully me,” Linick said, according to a transcript of his interview with House lawmakers released Wednesday.

“The other thing I would add to that is sometimes I felt he was unfamiliar with the role of inspectors general.”

Linick also described discussing the review of the Saudi arms sales with Bulatao, as well as the undersecretary’s pushback.

“I was trying to draw that distinction that, while we don’t engage in policy making, we look at how policy is carried out as we are required to by law,” Linick said, adding that Bulatao continued to push back on that explanation.

Bulatao now finds himself in the position of having oversight of the acting inspector general, Stephen Ackard, throwing into question the future of the office’s independence.

Ackard will simultaneously serve as watchdog and director of the Office of Foreign Missions, which technically puts him under Bulatao’s authority.

“I don’t see how anyone can fairly run a State office and at the same time run an office, OIG, that has oversight over the other State offices,” said a former senior State Department official.  

Bulatao, along with Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun, delivered the news of Linick’s ouster to the inspector general on May 15. At the time, the move was met with scrutiny from Democrats and the media.

Linick in his testimony said that neither Bulatao nor any other senior official ever told him to stop his work and he never felt pressured to change his findings.

His interview with lawmakers has thrust into the public the typically private conversations that take place between an undersecretary for management and the inspector general, a relationship generally described as a tense one.  

“This is utterly normal until you get to him being fired,” the former senior State Department official said of the interactions between Linick and Bulatao. “It is expected that you will be asking questions that [management] is very sorry that you asked.”

Bulatao was confirmed in his role at the State Department in May 2019, having earlier served under Pompeo at the CIA, where he was assigned the job of chief operating officer while Pompeo was director of the agency.

The two men reportedly have a tight bond, detailed in a 2001 profile in the Wichita Business Journal looking at their joint founding of the Kansas-based defense manufacturing firm Thayer Aerospace. 

Pompeo was technically Bulatao’s boss during that time but told the outlet their working relationship was a “partnership.” Their friendship was apparently solidified by the rigors of West Point and Harvard.

And Bulatao has since taken on the role of Pompeo’s chief defender at the State Department, doubling down on criticisms of Linick and reasons given for firing him.

For example, in an interview with the Washington Post, Bulatao chided the inspector general for not signing on to support Pompeo’s “ethos statement” for State Department officials.

Linick has called the explanations given for his firing “unfounded or misplaced.”

A point of tension between Pompeo and Bulatao against Linick, detailed in the transcript, was over a leaked inspector general report that documented instances of political retaliation at the State Department and recommended discipline for one of Pompeo’s top officials, special representative for Iran Brian Hook.

An article about the report was published by the Daily Beast in September and the full report was made public in November. 

Pompeo has said the leaked report was intended to “destroy” the career of a senior State Department official.

Linick said he was distraught over the suggestion the report was leaked from his office and described his process for ensuring independent accountability. He also detailed apparent efforts by Bulatao to assert control and have oversight of the review.  

“Well, we also had disagreements about how a leak investigation should be conducted,” Linick said. “…He wanted to manage the scope and direction of the DOD IG investigation.”

Linick said he was advised by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) to find a watchdog within one of the federal agencies to look into the leak allegations, saying he was turned down by IG offices in the Department of Labor and Veterans Affair before the Department of Defense (DOD) agreed to take on the probe.

The DOD’s investigation concluded that there was “no evidence” Linick or 14 members of his staff were responsible for the leak.

But Pompeo has homed in on the failure of Linick to identify the source of the leak as justification for his firing, calling Linick a “bad actor.”

“We asked him to investigate it in a certain way, he refused to do that, and that’s inappropriate,” Pompeo said in a briefing with reporters on Wednesday. The State Department did not return a request for comment from The Hill on Linick’s testimony prior to publication. 

Bulatao has taken charge and contacted CIGIE directly for a review of Linick’s conduct.

“In short, the events described below suggest that there may have been a significant breakdown in the typically-rigorous standards of an IG investigation, warranting CIGIE review,” Bulatao wrote in the June 8 letter.

CIGIE did not immediately respond to a request for comment by The Hill.

It’s unclear how the State Department investigations will proceed under the new acting IG, including the review of the justification for billions of dollars of weapons sold to Saudi Arabia and Pompeo’s alleged use of federal resources.

The American Academy of Diplomacy, a nonpartisan and nongovernmental organization of former senior State Department officials, said that Ackard “should publicly and explicitly state now his determination to carry out the IG’s duties according to the law; independently, without regard to politics or favoritism.”

Linick, who has been barred from his office since his abrupt termination, said he doesn’t know the status of reviews and investigations since he left the office on May 15.

“After May 15, I would have no indication one way or the other,” he said.

— Updated on June 12 at 11:23 a.m.

Tags Brian Bulatao Donald Trump Eliot Engel Inspector General investigations Mike Pompeo Saudi Arabia State Department Steve Linick watchdog

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