The State Department revoked a prestigious award from a Finnish journalist because of social media posts critical of President Donald Trump, according to a report from the State Department Office of Inspector General.
Although the watchdog found that the State Department had acted within its “broad discretion” to rescind the award from Jessikka Aro, it also found that the department lied to Congress and the press to explain why it had done so.
Aro, a Finnish investigative journalist with a history of breaking stories on Russian propaganda efforts, had been slated to receive an International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award in March 2019 when suddenly and without explanation the honor was rescinded.
After a Foreign Policy report suggested that the State Department may have retaliated against her because of her criticism Trump on social media, then-State Department deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino asserted it was a miscommunication and that she had been “incorrectly notified” of her award. He called it a “regrettable error,” saying Aro actually “had not” been a finalist.
However, the 16-page OIG report found that Aro’s social media posts were the only reason her award was rescinded.
“Indeed, every person OIG interviewed in connection with this matter acknowledged that had (the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues) not highlighted her social media posts as problematic, Ms. Aro would have received the IWOC Award,” it states.
Asked about the findings of the report, Aro told CNN Friday, “In my heart I feel like an international woman of courage. That the Trump administration can’t take away from me.”
The release of the report comes more than a year after a group of Democratic senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee requested an OIG probe into the circumstances of Aro’s award being revoked.
Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking member on the committee, said in a statement Friday that the “State Department owes Ms. Aro an apology.”
The report released Friday details conversations between State Department officials on the revocation of the award after the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues “discovered dozens of Twitter and Facebook posts by Ms. Aro that it considered controversial, some of which were critical of the current President.” According to the exchanges documented in the report, certain officials feared that the posts could cause an embarrassment to the department. US Ambassador to Finland Robert Pence “stated that, although he appreciated Ms. Aro’s work, the risk of embarrassment to the First Lady and the Department was too great to have her appear on stage at the awards ceremony.”
After an exchange between the acting director of the Office of Global Women’s Issues and the deputy chief of mission, in which the latter defended Aro, the office nonetheless drafted a memo stating that they were “unable to move forward with presenting an IWOC Award to Ms. Aro because she had not been ‘fully vetted’ and had a ‘history of inflammatory tweets, targeting US leadership and the Administration in a specific way.’ It further 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.’”
‘Misled the public and Congress’
Moreover, the report found that the State Department had provided false information to the press and Congress to explain why the award had been rescinded.
Officials from the department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs “told OIG that they disagreed with the language in the talking points and press statements suggesting that Ms. Aro was incorrectly notified and was not an awardee,” the report says.
In a briefing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March 2019, the acting director of the Office of Global Women’s Issues said “not really” when asked if Aro’s social media posts played a role in the department’s decision and the ambassador claimed he was not “worried” about Aro’s social media posts.
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. OIG found no documentary evidence to corroborate the Department’s claims during the briefing with congressional staff,” the report states. “Also, Department officials from (the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues), (the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs), and Embassy Helsinki all told OIG that, had Ms. Aro’s social media content not come to light, she would have received the award.”
Menendez said in his statement Friday that the report “confirmed that Secretary Pompeo’s 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.”
“Secretary Pompeo should have honored a courageous journalist willing to stand up to Kremlin propaganda. Instead, his department sought to stifle dissent to avoid upsetting a President who, day after day, tries to take pages out of Putin’s playbook,” the New Jersey Democrat said.