WASHINGTON – Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), was joined today by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in sending a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following the publication of an Inspector General report they jointly requested, which found that Trump Administration officials lied to the public and Congress about why it rescinded the International Women of Courage (IWOC) award from Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro.
The Inspector General confirmed State Department officials decided that Ms. Aro, a renowned campaigner against Kremlin propaganda, was “not suitable” for the award after they discovered she had criticized President Trump for labeling journalists as “enemies of the people.” When questioned, Department officials lied to the media and Congress by saying Ms. Aro had been “incorrectly notified.”
Noting that Ms. Aro is “a brave reporter who was defamed, stalked, and threatened after she exposed a Russian troll farm,” the Senators wrote that rescinding the award was “a sad moment for U.S. diplomacy, and contrary to the ‘basic right of speech’ that the Department criticizes authoritarian governments for suppressing.” The Senators called on the State Department to “embody the values that it encourages other countries to embrace” and told Secretary Pompeo that “the Department should fix its error, apologize to Ms. Aro, and correct the record of its deceptions to the public and Congress.”
The IG investigation followed a March 2019 report prepared by Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which called into question the State Department’s claims about rescinding the award. Ms. Aro has been the target of online harassment for her investigative journalism about Russian disinformation campaigns and also helped expose the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm that interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential elections in favor of Donald Trump. Pro-Kremlin trolls used the Department’s decision to rescind the award in their renewed attacks on Ms. Aro.
A copy of the Senators’ letter can be found HERE and below:
Dear Secretary Pompeo,
The State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently released the results of an investigation—started at our request—into the Department’s decision not to award the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage (IWOC) award to Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro.
Ms. Aro is a brave reporter who was defamed, stalked, and threatened after she exposed a Russian troll farm—the same operation that later interfered in our presidential election and was then indicted by the Department of Justice on eight criminal counts.
Our diplomats in Helsinki recognized her courage and nominated her for the 2019 IWOC award, and you agreed that she should receive it. But when State Department interns found that Ms. Aro had criticized President Trump’s attacks on the media—such as his labeling of journalists as “enemies of the people”—senior officials deemed her “not suitable” for the award.
Embassy officials objected, arguing that her statements were “legitimate political speech” and pointing out that she “has the fullest backing of our counterparts who chair the Finnish President’s whole of government approach to strategic communications and countering malign influence.” But senior officials would not yield—they feared “what she may say …. on the same stage as the Secretary”—and Ms. Aro was removed from the list of awardees. It was a sad moment for U.S. diplomacy, and contrary to the “basic right of speech” that the Department criticizes authoritarian governments for suppressing.
Perhaps recognizing this hypocrisy, senior Department officials then concealed the truth. A spokesperson told the media that Ms. Aro had been “incorrectly notified” that she was an award finalist. And despite warnings from embassy officials that this claim could be “easily disproven,” officials told Congress the same fib. Department officials, OIG concluded, made “statements to the public and congressional staff that inaccurately asserted that Ms. Aro was erroneously notified that she had been selected for the award.” In brief, they lied.
Ms. Aro deserved the IWOC award. The United States, through the Department of State, should embody the values it encourages other countries to embrace. Rescinding an award for journalistic courage because an individual exercised their freedom of speech sets a terrible example and makes a mockery of the Department’s professed commitment to free expression. The Department should fix its error, apologize to Ms. Aro, and correct the record of its deceptions to the public and Congress.