A longtime confidante of Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton who reportedly played a key role in the State Department’s damage-control efforts on the Benghazi attack last year is also named in accusations that department higher-ups quashed investigations into diplomats’ potential criminal activity.
Cheryl Mills, who served in a dual capacity in recent years as general counsel and chief of staff to Mrs. Clinton as secretary of state, was accused of attempting to stifle congressional access to a diplomat who held a senior post in Libya at the time of the attack.
Now she has become the closest member of Mrs. Clinton’s inner circle to have her name appear in an internal State Department Office of Inspector General memo at the heart of this week’s scandal.
The memo, believed to have been based on anonymous complaints from rank-and-file agents in the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security that arose during a 2012 inspector general’s review of the bureau, has sent shock waves through Foggy Bottom since becoming public Monday.
At its core, the document outlines a variety of cases in which high-ranking department officials quashed internal investigations into accusations of sexual assault, drug dealing, solicitation of sexual favors from prostitutes and minors, and other improper activity against American diplomatic personnel overseas.
The State Department has vigorously criticized the memo. Spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told reporters repeatedly this week that the accusations are “unsubstantiated.”
A spokesman for the inspector general’s office has called the memo a “preliminary” document that triggered investigations into suspected criminal activity and claims that earlier probes were blocked by State Department higher-ups. Outside law enforcement specialists have been called in to conduct the investigations.
With bipartisan pressure mounting from lawmakers on Capitol Hill to ensure such claims are investigated and resolved, Secretary of State John F. Kerry weighed in Wednesday, saying he takes the investigative process “very seriously” and that “all employees of this department are held to the highest standards, now and always.”
“I am confident that the [inspector general’s] process, where he has invited outsiders to come and review whatever took place a year ago, will be reviewed,” Mr. Kerry told reporters after meeting at the State Department with British Foreign Secretary William Hague. “I welcome that, I think the department welcomes that, because we do want the highest standards applied.”
Simmering beneath the surface of the scandal, however, is a political ingredient that some news reports suggest has to do with Mrs. Clinton’s potential ambitions to run for president and with Republican hopes to use Benghazi and other scandals against the former secretary of state.
It follows that the scandals would have to reach not only to anonymous State Department higher-ups, but to Mrs. Clinton herself.
That’s where Mrs. Mills comes in.
She has worked as a Clinton loyalist for more than two decades, first as a lawyer who helped facilitate Mr. Clinton’s transition into the White House after the 1992 election. She was named White House counsel in the Clinton administration and became a key litigator and public face of the defense team during his 1999 impeachment and trial on perjury and obstruction of justice charges related to a sexual-harassment lawsuit.
More recently, working in Mrs. Clinton’s inner circle at the State Department, Mrs. Mills made headlines in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack for the pressure she reportedly put on Gregory Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission to Libya, to be careful in his dealings with Republican members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee seeking answers about the attack.
During testimony before the committee in May, Mr. Hicks revealed that he got an aggressive phone call from Mrs. Mills after meeting with Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, who had traveled to Libya on a fact-finding mission about a month after the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Mr. Hicks testified that other higher-ups at the department ordered him not to meet with Mr. Chaffetz during the visit, but he ignored them. At one point, he met with the congressman without a State Department attorney present because the lawyer did not have a high enough security clearance to attend the meeting. Afterward, the call came from Mrs. Mills, demanding “a report on the visit,” said Mr. Hicks, who added that Mrs. Mills “was upset” by the attorney’s absence.
Mr. Hicks suggested that the call was serious because it had come from an official so high in the State Department and so close to Mrs. Clinton. “A phone call from that senior of a person is, generally speaking, not considered to be good news,” he said.
The call may simply show how seriously Mrs. Clinton’s uppermost staff members took the task of ensuring that officials like Mr. Hicks had the necessary legal protections as the Benghazi scandal unfolded.
But the attention given to Mrs. Mills — along with Mr. Hicks’ comments about her call during a congressional hearing on Benghazi — has made the appearance of her name in the more recent internal OIG memo scandal all the more pertinent.
According the memo, Mrs. Mills may have similarly attempted to block an investigation last year into suspected misconduct by Brett McGurk, whom President Obama had nominated to become ambassador to Iraq.
The memo outlines how agents from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s special investigations division had opened an probe into Mr. McGurk, who was working at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad at the time, on suspicion that had been improperly emailing government information with his girlfriend, a Wall Street Journal reporter.
“Some of the information may have been cleared for release, but other information reportedly was not,” states the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times after it was first reported by CBS News.
Investigators “never interviewed McGurk, allegedly because Cheryl Mills from the Secretary’s office interceded,” the memo states. “Email from Mills reportedly shows her agreeing to a particular course of action for the case, but then reneging and advising McGurk to withdraw his name from consideration for the ambassadorship.”
Mr. McGurk withdrew his name from consideration for the post last June.
His case is just one of eight outlined in the memo and appears to rank low in terms of the level of potential criminal behavior that was alleged.
State Department officials remained vague this week about details of any of the cases and refused to say whether any of them have been resolved during the inspector general’s ongoing investigations.
In one case, the memo states that an agent from the special investigations division had opened a probe into the activities of Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, and “determined that the ambassador routinely ditched his protective security detail in order to solicit sexual favors from both prostitutes and minor children.”
“The ambassador’s protective detail and the embassy’s surveillance detection team (staffed by host country nationals) were well aware of the behavior,” the memo states.
But as the agent “began to plan surveillance on the ambassador to obtain corroboration, the agent reportedly received notification that [Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick] Kennedy had directed [the Bureau of Diplomatic Security] to cease the investigation and have the agent return to Washington.”
Mr. Kennedy issued a statement Tuesday saying he has “never once interfered, nor would I condone interfering, in any investigation.”
Mr. Gutman also issued a statement Tuesday, saying he was “angered and saddened” by “baseless allegations that have appeared in the press.”
“To watch the four years I have proudly served in Belgium smeared is devastating,” he said. “I live on a beautiful park in Brussels that you walk through to get to many locations, and at no point have I ever engaged in any improper activity.”
The ambassador’s denial appeared to represent the first official acknowledgment of the various accusations of criminal activity cited in the inspector general’s memo.