Fifty Shades of Disgrace

Emails add to concerns over Obama nominee for Iraq post

June 8, 2012

Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.) may hold up the nomination of former National Security Council member Brett McGurk in light of allegations that McGurk engaged in a love affair with a Wall Street Journal reporter while the duo were stationed in Iraq, according to sources close to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The revelations add to some members of the committee’s growing list of concerns regarding McGurk’s qualifications to be the next ambassador to Iraq, according to documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

McGurk, who led security negotiations in Iraq, apparently engaged in a sexual relationship with Wall Street Journal reporter Gina Chon in 2008 while the two were in that country, according to a series of emails posted on a hacker website and reported on by the Free Beacon Thursday.

The shocking details contained in the emails—including references to "blue balls," a term for sexual frustration—leave open the possibility that McGurk may have lured the reporter into a close relationship by enticing her with insider information.

Multiple sources close the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told the Free Beacon that McGurk’s nomination is hanging by a thread.

"This is having a serious and immediate impact," one aide to a Republican member of the committee said Thursday, soon after the news broke. "It’s looking pretty bad for him right now."

Inhofe has said that he will not personally meet with McGurk until the allegations against him are fully investigated.

While the erotic emails call McGurk’s judgment into question, those familiar with the nominee point to a laundry list of additional concerns, such as his lack of management experience.

A lawyer by training, McGurk spend nearly a decade dealing with the issue of Iraq, first as adviser to the last three U.S. ambassadors to Iraq and later as the chief negotiator in the 2008 agreement that permitted U.S. troops to remain in that country for several years. He is blamed for failing to reach an agreement with Iraqi officials when he again helmed talks on status of forces in 2011.

McGurk also advised the Iraqis on issues such as their constitution and electoral laws.

However, McGurk lacks experience in the broader Middle East, a complex region vulnerable to even the slightest diplomatic snafu.

"It is hard to see how this is the best man for the job, which adds to the questions about this nomination," experts opine in an internal Senate memo on McGurk’s nomination obtained by the WFB.

McGurk, they warn, should not be handed such a critical ambassadorship.

McGurk’s relationships with some of the Iraqi government’s most questionable figures—including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki—could also cause glitches.

"The sitting [Prime Minister] is not a guy to whom the U.S. owes any favors right now and familiarity with the Iraq file is not going to help you navigate the complex waters of the Middle East, nor make critical decisions affecting the State Department’s most complex mission," states the internal Senate document.

"While knowledge of Maliki and the Iraq file may be McGurk’s strong suit, it may also be a liability when it comes to pushing Maliki to do more on a particular issue, say on Iran or Syria."

McGurk’s coziness with those currently in charge could impede American relations with Iraq, the document states.

"The appointment also indicates the Obama Administration continues to wash itself completely of Iraq and is more intent on domestic politics than positive outcomes in Iraq," the document states. "Putting a Foreign Service veteran in place would risk that person challenging administration policy and seeking to improve the plan in place."

McGurk earned a reputation for failure when he was unable to reach an agreement with Iraqi officials in 2011 on the Status of Forces Agreement that would have maintained a stable U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

"McGurk was called in to lead that negotiation and it failed completely," the Senate experts warn.

The newly released emails detailing McGurk’s relationship with Chon add a deeper element of intrigue to the nominating process, as lawmakers and others figure out how to address the sensitive issue publicly.

Meanwhile, Journal reporter Chon has taken "a planned leave of absence," according to a spokesperson for that paper.

"We are looking into the matter," a WSJ spokesperson told Gawker. "Ms. Chon, currently a reporter in Money & Investing, asked for a formal leave of absence from the Wall Street Journal in March when it appeared her then-fiancé might be nominated as ambassador to Iraq. The request was granted at the time, and the leave is scheduled to begin later this summer."

Most Congressional offices contacted by the Free Beacon for comment did not respond.

Meanwhile, the State Department appears to be doubling down on McGurk despite the swelling controversy over his emails.

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland deflected questions about the veracity of the reports Friday afternoon during press briefing, but indicated that the administration remains committed to McGurk, who Nuland described as "uniquely qualified" for the ambassadorship.

"On the subject of the emails, they’re out there for everybody to see," Nuland said in response to a question. "I’m not going to get into emails between Mr. McGurk and the woman who subsequently became his wife."

In the Obama administration’s estimate, McGurk is "uniquely qualified to serve as our ambassador, and we urge the Senate to act quickly on his nomination," Nuland added.

Asked again if the release of the emails may have compromised cyber security at the State Department, Nuland bristled, declining to reveal if the release of the emails came from within the department.

"I don’t have anything to say on the emails," she said.

Pressed further by a reporter about concerns that McGurk’s unethical actions could have led to blackmail, Nuland reiterated the administration’s regard for the nominee.

"Again, we consider him uniquely qualified," she said. "All of the necessary things were done before his nomination, and we urge the Senate to confirm him."

Nuland declined to discuss the details of how the State Department is investigating the possible leaks, and also refused to say whether department officials had discussed the substance of the emails with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.