Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thanil before a meeting at the State Department in Washington on Nov. 20. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Columnist

In July, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Doha and signed an agreement with the Qatari foreign minister to work together to combat terrorism financing. At the time, it was a clear sign from the State Department that even in the midst of a feud among its Persian Gulf allies, U.S.-Qatar relations remained on track.

Six months later, members of Congress in both parties are calling that agreement into question, mainly because it has been held by the State Department in secret. And in a twist, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has become the administration’s chief defender of the U.S.-Qatar Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), even though she disagrees with Tillerson on how to deal with Qatar overall.

The lack of transparency is fueling lawmakers’ demands the Trump administration get tougher with Qatar about combating terrorism financing, placing both Tillerson and Haley in the uncomfortable position of defending Qatari progress — with no details to share.

“The American people have a right to know what steps Qatar’s government is taking to deter Islamic terrorism,” a group of lawmakers led by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) wrote in a letter to Tillerson on Dec. 14. “The decision to classify the document while publicly praising Qatar’s progress toward upholding its contents makes it impossible for the public to judge Qatar’s compliance.”

After four months of requests, the State Department allowed lawmakers to view the MOU once last month, but only for a few hours in the Special Compartmentalized Information Facility inside the office of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). The lawmakers stated the document does not appear to contain classified or sensitive information.

One lawmaker who saw the MOU told me there were no classified markings on the document at all, meaning the MOU may not actually be classified even though congressmen are not permitted to possess it.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J) viewed the MOU and said his concern was not just about its secrecy. The document doesn’t specify what happens to Qatar if it doesn’t make progress on combating terrorism financing, he said.

“I want to see more concrete steps on how the administration plans to enforce it,” he said. “There weren’t enough specifics and teeth. … Treasury hasn’t been aggressive enough.”

A State Department spokesman told me the MOU can’t be released because it contains classified information about foreign governments and intelligence operations. The document is a nonbinding political memorandum of understanding and does not include legally binding enforcement mechanisms but does contain political commitments by Qatar, the spokesman said.

“Qatar has made significant progress to date implementing the MOU, and there is every indication Qatar will continue to deliver on its commitments,” the spokesman said.

Tillerson negotiated the memo with Qatar after Saudia Arabia launched a diplomatic and economic boycott of its neighbor, backed by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. Though President Trump initially supported Saudi claims that Qatar was funding terrorist groups, Tillerson and the State Department adopted a neutral stance and have tried, unsuccessfully so far, to broker a settlement.

Haley vigorously defended the U.S.-Qatar MOU in a Dec. 7 letter to Congress and said that the Qataris have already made progress on aviation security, financial terrorism investigations, and examining charities and nongovernmental organizations.

“While progress is encouraging, we must demand more,” Haley wrote. “No country, including Qatar, should be allowed to support any terrorist entity without consequences.”

Haley was responding to congressional calls for her to clarify her positions on Qatar and Hamas after she stepped into controversy over the issue in October. In response to a written question from Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), Haley wrote that the “Qatar government does not fund Hamas,” which appeared to be a correction from June testimony in which she said that Qatar was “funding Hamas.”

Haley also seemed to endorse the hosting of Hamas leaders in Qatar in her answer to Engel. In her Dec. 7 letter, Haley affirmed that the United States does not condone support for any part of Hamas and does not draw any distinction between support for Hamas’s political and military wings, although the Qatari government does.

A U.S. official at the United Nations speaking on background told me that the controversy over Haley’s written answer was the result of botched staff work rather than a reversal of policy by Haley. But the official acknowledged that while Haley is supportive of the MOU, she disagrees with Tillerson on how tough to be on Qatar overall.

Tillerson is trying to maintain the role of honest broker in the current Gulf crisis. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis agrees with this approach. Haley, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, senior adviser Jared Kushner and Trump all favor leaning harder on Qatar and encouraging the Saudis to do the same.

The confusion about the MOU and the confusion about the administration’s Qatar policy all stem from that basic disconnect at the top of the administration. The administration’s Qatar policy suffers from not only a lack of transparency but also, more importantly, a lack of cohesion.