The White House’s pick for ambassador to Iraq has hit opposition in the Senate after reports revealed a racy e-mail exchange that he had in 2008 with a reporter when both were working in Baghdad.
Brett McGurk, whom President Obama tapped to lead the U.S. diplomatic mission in Iraq, was the subject of a confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at which lawmakers voiced no serious concerns about his receiving Senate approval.
But new attention has since focused on the sexually charged e-mails — which ABC News reported on Friday after several days in which they were circulating online — between McGurk and Wall Street Journal reporter Gina Chon. They are now married.
Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), a conservative who is the second-ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, has delayed a planned meeting with McGurk because of reports about the e-mails.
“Senator Inhofe always prefers to meet with nominees personally before giving his support,” said Inhofe spokesman Jared Young. “In regards to this nominee, Senator Inhofe has heard some concerning issues, and until those issues are cleared up, he will not meet with Mr. McGurk.”
The e-mail exchanges date from when McGurk was working in Iraq for the National Security Council under then-President George W. Bush. In several, McGurk seems to joke about providing Chon with information and access.
In one, he calls reporters “vultures,” then suggests that he might divulge information to Chon.
“If treated to many glasses of wine — you could be the chosen vulture,” he wrote, according to the ABC News report.
In another, Chon jokes about hiding inside his briefcase with a “sophisticated recording device.”
In a statement, her employer said: “We are looking into the matter. Ms. Chon, currently a reporter in Money & Investing, asked for a formal leave of absence from The Wall Street Journal in March when it appeared her then-fiancé might be nominated as ambassador to Iraq. The request was granted at the time, and the leave is scheduled to begin later this summer.”
Efforts to reach McGurk and Chon were not successful.
Though flirtatious, the e-mails contained no evidence that McGurk actually shared any sensitive details with Chon. But their publication comes at a time when senators on both sides of the aisle are concerned with stopping the spread of sensitive information.
Obama on Friday said his administration has “zero tolerance” for leaks, following recent news stories detailing national security matters, including U.S. drone attacks and a computer virus aimed at Iran’s nuclear program.
Critics have questioned whether the White House leaked information to highlight Obama’s security bona fides ahead of the election.
The State Department on Friday stood by McGurk, and Democratic aides suggested that the Senate would still ultimately approve his nomination.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the White House had vetted McGurk before nominating him and that State Department officials continue to “work with Congress” to address any concerns about him.
“We consider him uniquely qualified,” she told reporters. “All of the necessary things were done before his nomination, and we urge the Senate to confirm him.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had previously expressed concern about McGurk’s handling of U.S. policy in Iraq, including the inability of U.S. and Iraqi negotiators to reach a deal that would have left a small American military presence behind. All U.S. combat troops left Iraq last year after those negotiations broke down.