A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

‘Muslim Spy’ Falsehood Circulates Again


Q: Did President Trump find a “Muslim spy” in the White House?

A: No. That falsehood about a career State Department employee has circulated since 2017.

FULL ANSWER

A number of websites in recent days have parroted a sensational headline that posits that President Donald Trump has exacted “sweet deep state revenge” after he “caught Barack Obama’s Muslim spy in the White House.”

That claim is false — and old. It has been circulating since last year.

“For months, patriots have been wondering about certain Barack Obama holdovers who had embedded themselves inside the ‘Deep State,'” the story published Sept. 6 on thnewsdaily.site reads. “Now, reports are coming in that President Donald Trump has just caught the biggest Muslim spy who brokered the disastrous Iranian Nuclear Deal working right inside the White House, and what he did to her has conservatives cheering all across the country.”

Similar websites — including coloradopost.site and georgiadaily.site — also republished the story, which appeared in April 2017 on madworldnews.com with a label that “the information presented is the opinion of the author.”

The story centers on Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a career State Department official who had worked under former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Nowrouzzadeh, who was born in Connecticut to Iranian immigrants, was director for Iran and Iran Nuclear Implementation on the White House National Security Council from 2014 to 2016, according to her biography. Between 2016 and 2017, she oversaw the Iran portfolio as part of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff.

Without evidence, the false piece labels Nowrouzzadeh a “Muslim spy” and “Iranian spy.” It cites a March 2017 article by the Conservative Review that was critical of Nowrouzzadeh’s role in shaping the Iran nuclear deal, purporting that she “burrowed into the government under President Trump.”

But career federal workers continuing their service across administrations isn’t nefarious — it’s routine.

The Conservative Review said Nowrouzzadeh “worked for an alleged Iranian regime lobbying group” — the National Iranian-American Council. While the NIAC describes itself as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the voice of Iranian Americans and promoting greater understanding between the American and Iranian people,” critics say it’s a lobbying group that works to benefit the Iranian government.

Trita Parsi, president and founder of the NIAC, told FactCheck.org that Nowrouzzadeh was never an employee but an intern in the early 2000s. She interned for a year while attending George Washington University, according to the Washington Post. At the time, the organization’s stated mission indicated it didn’t take positions on policy debates.

The false story insinuates she is an “Obama holdover,” but Nowrouzzadeh began her tenure with the U.S. government in 2005 under Bush. It also claims “Trump kicked her the hell out” and that she’s been “summarily dismissed” — assertions that also don’t square with the facts. 

While Nowrouzzadeh was moved off the Policy Planning Staff in April 2017, the State Department confirmed to FactCheck.org that Nowrouzzadeh is still an employee. She is currently doing a research fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

“Sahar has an outstanding reputation in the Department and we expect her to continue to do valuable work in furtherance of U.S. national security,” a State Department spokesperson told us in an email. “We strongly condemn media attacks against all Department personnel.”

Nowrouzzadeh’s being moved off the Policy Planning Staff — three months before her year-long assignment there was supposed to end, and in the aftermath of the conservative media focus on her — did indicate a skirmish within the State Department, according to Politico.

Last month, Democratic Reps. Eliot Engel, of New York, and Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raising questions about alleged “political retaliation” at the department by Brian Hook, who headed the Policy Planning office. Hook was named special representative for Iran last month.

“Documents show that Mr. Hook failed to respond to a direct request for help from Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a career State Department employee, after she was targeted on false and inaccurate grounds by conservative news outlets,” they wrote. “Instead of defending his employee, Mr. Hook used Ms. Nowrouzzadeh’s request for assistance to start a wide-ranging and factually inaccurate internal discussion that included the questioning of Ms. Nowrouzzadeh’s loyalty to President Trump and her national origin.”

It continued: “Ultimately, the State Department failed to defend Ms. Nowrouzzadeh from the false and misleading charges. Ms. Nowrouzzadeh’s assignment to the Policy Planning office was cut short by three months, counter to the terms of her Memorandum of Understanding with the office.”

Asked about the letter, the State Department told us it “takes the allegations in the recent correspondence from members of Congress seriously” and that the matter was referred to the department’s Office of the Inspector General and to the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel.

“While these independent investigations continue, the Department will fully cooperate with them and provide all requested documents and information but will not be in a position to discuss this matter further,” the spokesperson said.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on the social media network.

Sources

An Insight into Iran.” GW Magazine. Accessed 11 Sep 2018.

Cummings, Elijah E., and Eliot L. Engel. Letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 22 Aug 2018.

Donald Trump’s Sweet Deep State Revenge — He Just Caught Barack Obama’s Muslim Spy In The White House.” Thnewsdaily.site. 6 Sep 2018.

Parsi, Trita. President, National Iranian-American Council. Email to FactCheck.org. 13 Sep 2018.

Sahar Nowrouzzadeh.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. Accessed 11 Sep 2018.

Toosi, Nahal. “Emails reveal conservative alarm over ‘Obama holdovers’ in Trump administration.” Politico. 14 Mar 2018.

Trump Just Caught Obama’s Iranian Spy At WH, Patriots Love What He Did Next.” Mad World News. 24 Apr 2017.