‘A very anxious time’: USAID staff fear motives of top aides

Nahal Toosi

The U.S. Agency for International Development is grappling with growing internal turmoil over how it will treat the LGBTQ and Muslim communities, as well as demands for a stronger response to the case of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody.

Staffers’ concerns are driven in large part by the recent hiring and promotion at USAID of a handful of political appointees with deeply conservative views and a history of making anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim and even anti-democracy statements.

Staff members are urging USAID’s new acting administrator, John Barsa, to take substantive steps to assure them and overseas partners that the agency opposes discrimination on religious, sexual and other grounds. But Barsa has sent mixed signals, insisting he won’t tolerate discrimination but defending his controversial aides.

Given the broader context — the coronavirus pandemic, an ongoing reorganization at USAID and the arrival of a new leader — the tensions are palpable, several current and former USAID staffers told POLITICO, nearly all on condition of anonymity.

"There's a lot of angst and a lot of confusion, a feeling that there's floundering and no leadership," said Dave Harden, a former senior USAID official. He added that some of the new political appointees could hurt the agency's integrity. "We work in a very diverse world, and we have to be able to have credibility and effectiveness with diverse audiences,” he said.

“It’s a very anxious time, and it’s overwhelming,” added one senior USAID official.

A man walks past boxes of stockpiled USAID humanitarian aid meant for Venezuela at a warehouse in Colombia.

In a statement sent after this article was first published, Barsa stressed that USAID policy forbids discrimination and urged employees who believe they may have been targeted unjustly to file a complaint. “Leadership will take appropriate action to hold accountable any employee, regardless of hiring mechanism, who is found to have engaged in discriminatory or harassing behavior,” Barsa said.

The latest pressure on Barsa, who took the reins two months ago, comes from a letter being circulated among staff that urges him to do more to address racism within and beyond the agency.

The letter asks Barsa, among other things, to issue a public statement “affirming that Black Lives Matter;” devise a strategy for improving minority recruitment; and meet with the secretaries of State and Defense to discuss ways to end structural racism within the U.S. national security apparatus.

“Our adversaries are eagerly exploiting perceived American hypocrisy and fractures in our society; we cannot message our way out of this,” the letter, dated Thursday, states. A person familiar with the effort said it already had more than 1,000 signatures, all USAID employees.

In recent days, a Change.org petition also has emerged demanding that Barsa fire a handful of aides with histories of making incendiary comments. That petition, which has gathered more than 1,500 signatures – though it’s not clear how many are from USAID staffers – appears to have been sparked by a ProPublica article about one particular hire, Merritt Corrigan.

ProPublica noted that Corrigan, USAID’s new deputy White House liaison, has in the past alleged that America is “in the clutches of a ‘homo-empire‘” that pushes a “tyrannical LGBT agenda.”

In another online post, ProPublica reported, Corrigan has claimed that “liberal democracy is little more than a front for the war being waged against us by those who fundamentally despise not only our way of life, but life itself.”

Corrigan also has worked for the Hungarian Embassy and called Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban “the shining champion of Western civilization.” Orban is an autocrat whose accumulation of power recently led NGO Freedom House to declare that Hungary is no longer a democracy.

Other top USAID officials whose hiring and promotion have stirred concern are Bethany Kozma, who has spoken derisively of trans people and was recently named deputy chief of staff; and Mark Kevin Lloyd, a new USAID religious freedom adviser who has reportedly slurred Islam, calling it a “barbaric cult” in at least one instance.

Barsa has tried to walk a fine line in responding to the concerns.

On June 2, he sent a lengthy email to staffers bemoaning Floyd’s death. “We don’t tolerate any form of discrimination or prejudice in our ranks and we don’t tolerate it in our work overseas,” Barsa wrote.

Two days later, he issued a statement celebrating Pride Month, observed each year by the LGBTQ community.

But a few days later, Barsa issued a terse public statement decrying “recent news article attacks” on Kozma, Corrigan and Lloyd, subtly distancing himself from their hiring but not addressing any of the concerns about those aides’ past comments.

“Political appointees are appointed at the discretion of the White House to carry out the president’s foreign policy agenda at USAID,” Barsa said. “I have full confidence that each political appointee at USAID has and will continue to implement the president’s policies and agenda to the best of his or her ability.”

That statement alarmed many staffers at USAID, some of whom said it basically negated Barsa’s other assurances on non-discrimination.

Because so many USAID officials work in countries with large Muslim populations, and given that promoting democracy is a major reason for USAID’s existence, some staffers fear that the mixed messaging from Barsa will undermine their work.

The person familiar with the letter on the fallout from Floyd’s death said it avoids getting into the issues brought up by the political appointees because organizers feared touching on that would shut down any chance at a successful conversation.

And while the letter nods to Barsa’s June 2 email, the person said, “many of us felt it didn’t go far enough to acknowledge the present moment.”

Barsa’s predecessor, Mark Green, was widely respected by members of both political parties, and he managed to stay largely under the radar while also launching a reorganization of the agency.

Many observers of USAID were surprised that Barsa was tapped as the acting administrator. Previously, he’d served as USAID’s assistant administrator for the bureau dealing with Latin America.

His elevation — and the hiring of Corrigan and others, which are more likely the White House’s decision than Barsa’s — signaled that USAID might stake out more controversial territory than it did under Green.

Already, Democrats are livid over Barsa’s decision to send a letter to the United Nations warning it not to promote abortion as part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Barsa suggested that the U.N. is “cynically” promoting abortion under the cover of “sexual and reproductive health services.”

“I urge you to stop politicizing the historically bipartisan humanitarian assistance the United States provides and ensure that comprehensive life-saving assistance is continued,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) wrote in a rebuttal to Barsa.