WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is defending its nominee to be the next ambassador to Iraq amid allegations that he may have acted inappropriately while working at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during President George W. Bush's second term.
The State Department said Friday that Brett McGurk is "uniquely qualified" to serve as the top American diplomat in Iraq and urged the Senate to confirm him quickly Some members of Congress have questioned McGurk's fitness for the job because of flirtatious and sometimes racy e-mails that McGurk allegedly sent in 2008 to a Baghdad-based female journalist. He was married to someone else at the time but got divorced and is now married to the journalist.
A spokesman for Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., says that there are "concerning issues" about McGurk's nomination and that the senator will not meet with him until those have been addressed. Inhofe spokesman Jared Young said the senator, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has not decided whether to place a formal hold on the nomination — which could kill it — but is withholding judgment until the matter is "cleared up."
Several Republican senators, including Sen. John McCain, have criticized McGurk for his failure to negotiate a residual U.S. force in Iraq after combat troops left in December 2011. McCain said this week that the "unraveling of Iraq" underscores why Americans should have had a small force in the country.
McGurk faced the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday for a confirmation hearing. The emails did not come up at the hearing.
The emails, which were published online this week, indicate that McGurk and the reporter had an intimate relationship and suggest that she was seeking information from him about delicate negotiations with the Iraqis. It is not clear from the messages if McGurk gave her any privileged or secret information.
The veracity of the emails has not been challenged.
A congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about it, said some lawmakers were particularly concerned because McGurk's nomination came on the heels of the scandal involving Secret Service agents and prostitutes in Colombia.
McGurk did not immediately reply to an email sent to him seeking comment.
A former Supreme Court law clerk to the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, McGurk worked as a lawyer for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and joined Bush's National Security Council staff, where in 2007 and 2008, when the emails were written, he was the lead U.S. negotiator on security agreements with Iraq.
After a brief stint outside government with the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, he returned to Baghdad last year as a senior adviser to the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland would not comment on the emails but noted that "they are out there for everyone to see" and that the reporter "subsequently became his wife."
"With regard to Mr. McGurk's nomination, I think you know that he spent the better part of the last decade serving our country in and out of Iraq, working for a Republican administration, a Democratic administration. He is, in our view, uniquely qualified to serve as our ambassador, and we urge the Senate to act quickly on his nomination," she told reporters.
She added that McGurk had been subject to rigorous vetting before being nominated for the job.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.