Barr’s removal of career national security official, weeks before election, raises concerns

A little-known office in the Justice Department has lost its long-time chief.

August 31, 2020, 2:07 PM

Current and former national security officials are raising concerns over Attorney General William Barr's recent decision to remove the head of a Justice Department office that helps ensure federal counterterrorism and counterintelligence activities are legal – and replace him with a political appointee with relatively limited experience.

"It's very alarming," said Katrina Mulligan, who worked for the Obama administration in several national security roles and then, after President Donald Trump's inauguration, joined the Office of Law and Policy in the Justice Department's National Security Division.

For much of the past decade, that little-known office has been led by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brad Wiegmann, a 23-year career public servant, not a political appointee. But two weeks ago, Wiegmann, 54, was told he is being reassigned and replaced with a political appointee, according to a Justice Department spokesman and sources familiar with the matter.

Mulligan and other sources told ABC News that the new head of the office is 36-year-old Kellen Dwyer, a cyber-crimes prosecutor who joined the federal government six years ago and made international headlines in November 2018 when he accidentally revealed that federal charges had been secretly filed against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Mulligan said that given Dwyer's limited time and experience handling national security matters, he is "a very odd" choice to replace Wiegmann, whom she described as "exceptional" at managing government bureaucracy and resolving "highly contentious matters across the government."

The timing of the personnel change – coming just two months before the U.S. presidential election, and in the midst of a battle against domestic terrorism and foreign interference in the election – has worried current and former members of the national security community.

Past chiefs of the office have served as political appointees, while others – like Wiegmann – served as career officials, so, "It would not have been that unusual early in an administration to place a political [appointee] in that policy role, but to do that now is very unusual," one current U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Attorney General William Barr listens during an event in Washington, Aug. 4, 2020.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images, FILE

Matt Olsen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center under the Obama administration, agreed, saying "in and of itself, it's unremarkable" for Wiegmann's position to be filled with a political appointee, but "the concern here is that you have someone who by all accounts has been doing a great job in a very sensitive role … [and] now within really just weeks of the election is replaced with somebody who is viewed more as a partisan."

ABC News pressed the Justice Department spokesman to explain why the personnel change happened at this time, but he declined to answer.

The concern from current and former officials stems from the Office of Law and Policy's role in national security: The office shapes government efforts by ensuring that new policies and executive actions don't violate federal law.

"I understand that is what you want to do, but that is illegal," Mulligan recalled telling other government officials when she was in the office, working on matters such as immigration, counterterrorism, and Russia's interference in U.S. elections.

She would then "try to offer them alternatives that weren't illegal," according to Mulligan.

Now the office is being steered by a political appointee with power to potentially influence decisions over national security policy, especially debates over "what we will and won't do overseas and at home," including in terms of secret surveillance, and when "it is and isn't appropriate" for the Justice Department to tell the public about election interference, Mulligan said.

Though a relatively small unit of fewer than two dozen attorneys, the Office of Law and Policy participates in almost every National Security Council meeting, works with congressional staff to draft new legislation, and conducts oversight of the FBI's intelligence-gathering activities.

"[It] has been sort of the center of gravity for the Department of Justice on national security policy, and it's a central role," said Olsen, who at one point ran the department's National Security Division and later advised Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.

Wiegmann has led the office since the Obama administration and for almost all of the Trump administration.

"Brad doesn't have a political bone in his body" and "has been such an uncontroversial person in that role for such a long time," said Mulligan, who is now with the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.

At least during her time at the office, Wiegmann "was trying to advance the policies that this administration wanted to advance," she said.

Justice Department official Brad Wiegmann testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee in a hearing titled, "Confronting the Rise of Domestic Terrorism," May 8, 2019.

Last year alone, Wiegmann represented the Justice Department in three public congressional hearings, testifying about U.S. capabilities to fight the rise of domestic terrorism and the importance of conducting secret surveillance inside the United States and abroad.

At one of the hearings, a House Democrat tried to push Wiegmann into offering even indirect criticism of Trump's racially-charged rhetoric, but Wiegmann insisted: "It's just not my place as a career government official to comment on what either members of Congress or the president choose to say."

Further explaining his concern over a political appointee replacing Wiegmann at this time, Olsen said recent controversies surrounding the Barr-led Justice Department mean leaders there "don't get the presumption of the doubt when it comes to making personnel decisions like this."

Democrats have accused Barr of bending to Trump's will, most recently with his claims that left-wing radicals were hijacking civil rights protests and driving bursts of violence across the country, and his suggestion that just weeks before the election he might release the findings of a department review scrutinizing the FBI's investigation of ties between Russia and Trump's presidential campaign in 2016.

Asked about the concerns expressed by current and former officials, the Justice Department spokesman emphasized that the Office of Law and Policy has been led by "political appointees and career staff since its inception."

The office was created at the end of the George W. Bush administration, part of a Justice Department reorganization in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Weigmann "continues to serve a vital role in the front office of the National Security Division," the spokesman added.

As for Dwyer, the new head of the Office of Law and Policy, he was described to ABC News as a competent and "nice guy," with solid conservative credentials.

From 2018 to 2019, he served as a fellow at the conservative-leaning Leonine Forum, a non-profit organization that says its alumni are "committed to the cause of reintroducing the tenets of [the Catholic church] into the political, policy, legal, business, and cultural activities of society."

Before joining the Office of Law and Policy this month, he was an assistant U.S. attorney in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Wiegmann did not respond to an email seeking comment for this article. Dwyer also did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

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