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White House Wants to Know Political Leanings of Job Applicants at the U.N.

New questionnaire asks about public statements, support for politicians.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and U.S. President Donald Trump at U.N. headquarters in New York, on Sept. 18, 2017. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and U.S. President Donald Trump at U.N. headquarters in New York, on Sept. 18, 2017. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

The White House has begun vetting U.S. citizens pursuing jobs in the United Nations and other international organizations, in what appears to be a widening effort by the Trump administration to determine the political affiliation of Americans seeking work on the international stage.

The vetting is being conducted by officials at the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, who are asking American candidates for U.N. jobs to fill out a new questionnaire as part of the application process.

The form inquires whether the candidate has ever spoken publicly about political issues, addressed Congress, supported a political candidate, or appeared on major cable news networks like Fox and CNN. It also requests disclosure of social media accounts.

“Have you ever maintained a blog? Written an opinion piece that appeared in a traditional newspaper like the Wall Street Journal or New York Times? Written for an online publication like Breitbart, Newsmax, or Mother Jones?” asks the questionnaire, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy. “Have you given speeches on a controversial issue?”

Though some of the questions might be standard for some American diplomatic jobs in the U.S. government, others suggest the form is a kind of political litmus test for the candidates, according to several State Department and U.N. officials.

It marks the first time in decades that the White House has inserted itself so aggressively in the U.N. vetting process, and it appears to be targeting applicants for even midlevel and lower-ranking jobs, which have no political component.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

The disclosure comes less than a month after FP revealed that a political appointee in the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs, Mari Stull, had been compiling a loyalty list of U.S. citizens at the United Nations and the State Department.

“There’s a pattern here of testing loyalty. It’s really unnerving people,” said one State Department official. “Is this just due diligence or is it something more nefarious that all centers around what they think of Trump?”

The form contains no questions designed to assess candidates’ technical fitness for a U.N. post or whether they have relevant experience in their field. Instead, it focuses on the candidates’ public statements and writings that might reveal their political leanings.

“Have you ever appeared on a political podcast? Talk radio/local radio?” the questionnaire asks. If so, “please provide as much information as possible regarding the program such as the name of the show, the host, the date it was aired/posted, the broadcaster and (if applicable) the hyperlink to the program.”

Under the terms of the U.N. charter, international civil servants are supposed to pledge their loyalty to the world institution and are prohibited from seeking or receiving “instructions from any government.” U.N. member states, meanwhile, pledge to “respect the exclusively international character” of U.N. staff and desist from seeking to “influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities.”

Brett Schaeffer, an expert on the United Nations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said some governments have ignored that principle, including China, Cuba, and Russia, which promote politically acceptable candidates for the lowest-level U.N. career jobs.

He said White House involvement in the application process could be seen as a sign that the United States is more actively trying to encourage American nationals to seek jobs at the United Nations, particularly mid- and lower-level positions. Congress has long raised concern about underrepresentation of U.S. nationals in these jobs.

“The fact that the administration is doing so now I think just reflects a belated attention to an issue that has been an irritant for both Congress and the State Department for a long time.”

Both Republican and Democratic administrations have traditionally put forward candidates from their own parties for the most senior jobs at the United Nations. But those candidates have not been subjected to a such a detailed inquiry into their political activities and public statements.

The new policy would also expand the category of candidates subject to political vetting, requiring midlevel and junior civil servants to fill out the questionnaire.

“It’s outrageous to check the loyalty of someone under consideration for a normal, career appointment to a nonpolitical post,” said Larry Johnson, a retired U.N. lawyer. “U.N. staff are required to be independent and accept no instruction and no influence from their governments.”

The questionnaire asks potential candidates whether they have ever run for political office, served on a local or state political party committee, or addressed a political conference hosted by the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Republican National Committee, the Democratic National Committee, or any other political organization.

“Have you given speeches on a controversial issue?” it says. “To the best of your ability, please list any speech that you have made in support of a candidate, policy issue, or before a political organization. If you are able, please provide a link to or transcript of the speech.”

The questionnaire also asks hopefuls to provide hyperlinks to any current or past social media accounts, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, and warns them against scrubbing their online identity.

“Please note, that it is better not to go through your accounts and delete posts prior to the vetting process as the offending posts are often recoverable by the press in another form.”

FP reporter Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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