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How Steve Bannon’s Propaganda War Led the Trump Administration to Excommunicate Top Muslim ISIS Hunter

Nafeez Ahmed investigates how Dr Haroon Ullah was ousted from a key role in US Government communications by ‘Trump-driven Islamophobia’

Dr Haroon Ullah

How Steve Bannon’s Propaganda WarLed the Trump Administration to Excommunicate Top Muslim ISIS Hunter

Nafeez Ahmed investigates how Dr Haroon Ullah was ousted from a key role in US Government communications by ‘Trump-driven Islamophobia’

This is the untold story of the Donald Trump administration’s internal propaganda war – of how one senior American Muslim official stood in the way of a plan to convert the US Government’s global media network into a propaganda organ for the President’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon. And as a result, the Government did everything in its power to destroy that individual, as an example to others.

His case is an astonishing example of the degree to which the Trump administration has sought to purge all ranks of governmental bureaucracy to ensure top-down loyalty. 

Dr Haroon Ullah was once the American Government’s highest-ranking Muslim counter-extremism official. But, in November 2019, he was convicted and sentenced to prison for “stealing” $34,000 from the US Government, derived largely from travel expenses.

With the Trump administration turning a blind eye to officials such as Scott Pruit, Ryan Zinke and Tom Price as they spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on unlawful travel, the Government’s determination to put Dr Ullah in jail involved far more than meets the eye. 

Former and active USAGM officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation said that they believed Haroon’s downfall was the beginning of an effort by the Trump administration to turn the USAGM into a de facto mouthpiece for Steve Bannon.

Byline Times can exclusively reveal that the prosecution’s case against Dr Haroon Ullah was not only fundamentally flawed but that the prosecution itself was under high-level political pressure to put him in prison.

Former US Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, Haroon’s former boss, had told Trump administration investigators that their leading lines of questioning about Dr Ullah “reminded him of the Bush-McCain campaign during which McCain was accused of fathering an African-American child in South Carolina. Voters are asked if that changed how they voted”.  

Indeed, Haroon’s prosecution was simply the beginning of a wider effort by the Trump administration to consolidate control of the US Agency for Global Media (UASGM) –the executive agency which operates all of America’s state-run media outlets. 

With an annual budget just under $1 billion and a staff of 4,000 employees and 1,500 reporters, the USAGM hosts the full gamut of US Government international broadcasting operations, including the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia.

Next in Line

Dr Ullah had joined the agency in October 2017 as its chief strategy officer (CSO), making him its highest-ranking Muslim official. An articulate speaker, he was already on track to become the face of the agency. He had played a key role in the agency’s major rebrand away from its old name (the Broadcasting Board of Governors) and had impressed senior officials with outreach activities to think tanks and other Government departments. 

By August 2018, he was in line to become second-in-command, beating out several other white contenders in the interview process for the coveted post of deputy director. According to a former USAGM employee who spoke to Byline Times on condition of anonymity, many recognised Dr Ullah as “next in line or at least among a select few who’d be in the running to lead the organisation one day”.

But the Trump administration had other plans. In June 2018, two months before Dr Ullah was making an upward beeline at the agency, the White House had announced President Trump’s intention to appoint Michael Pack as the USAGM’s new CEO. The decision was an indication that the Trump administration wanted to reshape the USAGM under a new, pro-Republican agenda.

Steve Bannon was reportedly “deeply involved” in getting Trump to nominate his friend Pack – a veteran media executive who had previously collaborated with Bannon on two documentaries. Previously, from 2015 to 2017, Pack had served as president and CEO of the Claremont Institute, described by Slate as “a racist fever swamp with deep connections to the conspiratorial alt-right” for its affiliations with Pizzagate and Barack Obama birther theories. 

Fast forward to November 2019, and Dr Ullah was convicted for theft of government property by fraudulently filing forged invoices, letters and documents and sentenced to three months in prison.

While there can be no doubt that Haroon broke the law and breached the trust inherent in his role as a public servant, court records, official documents and Government sources reviewed by Byline Times reveal that the case against him was heavily overinflated – and that his wrongdoing in 2018 was a result of temporary lapses in judgement due to extraordinary psychological pressures from a career fighting Islamist militants, which the prosecution simply ignored.

Former and active USAGM officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation said that they believed Haroon’s downfall was the beginning of an effort by the Trump administration to turn the USAGM into a de facto mouthpiece for Steve Bannon.  

“It’s hard to not draw a link between the seeming over-prosecution of Haroon’s case and Haroon’s official work to protect the independence of the agency and its news networks from the administration’s efforts to influence the agency,” said one senior USAGM official.

After Dr Ullah was gone from the agency, US Government sources confirmed that over the next few months some three other USAGM officials were intimidated out of the organisation for political reasons. And, about six months after Haroon’s conviction, Trump’s nominee, Michael Pack, was confirmed as the new CEO.

As soon as he arrived, Pack accelerated a ‘purge’ of top USAGM executives in an effort to eliminate any firewall between the White House and Government news entities.

Unto the Breach

Dr Haroon Ullah’s conviction – triumphantly announced by Trump’s Justice Department in a press release – was a spectacular fall from grace for the former career State Department official who had held senior roles in both the Barack Obama and Trump administrations. 

Before joining USAGM, Dr Ullah had been a member of the Secretary of State’s policy planning staff, serving under Rex Tillerson where he specialised in counter-extremism and public diplomacy. Yet he was by no means a Trump loyalist. 

A practising Muslim, Dr Ullah had risen up the ranks in the Obama administration, where he had been an advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry. Before that, he cut his teeth in the State Department, setting up America’s first countering violent extremism unit in the US Embassy in Pakistan. His work was renowned among US Government counter-terrorism experts. 

When he first joined the USAGM in October 2017 as its chief strategy officer, the appointment ruffled the feathers of pro-Republican staffers at the agency who had been there much longer.

Qamar ul-Huda, a former senior policy advisor at the US State Department who had served under John Kerry and during the first seven months of the Trump administration, told Byline Times: “I know three USAGM officials, all of whom are Republicans – and who are much older than Haroon – who felt threatened by him. It’s not unusual for those assigned senior positions by Trump to bring their own people in. They wanted the agency to reflect Trump.

“I don’t know if it was a concerted effort. I do think Haroon may have come across as a Democrat loyalist – and they had to find a way to scrutinise his record. Rejigging and realignment of bureaucracies with a new administration is fairly standard. But, in Haroon’s case, it seemed to me that this was to some degree personal – someone at the agency was really gunning to get him.”

Haroon is one of a very select group of individuals who know how to defeat ISIL 3.0, which is already on the horizon. We need Haroon Ullah to help our country now and for many decades to come

General John Allen

Two former and one current USAGM source confirmed widespread jealousy over Dr Ullah’s rapid ascent. The agency was far behind corporate America and other government agencies like the State Department or USAID in the diversity stakes. In August 2018, the same month that Haroon was applying for the deputy director role, a veteran pro-Trump staffer who had wanted the same role but had been turned down complained that Dr Ullah was billing the Government for personal travel. 

“He was one of the few people of colour in the USAGM C Suite,” said a former USAGM staffer. “He was a target because he was rising fast as a Muslim and many people had been there decades and felt they deserved it more.”

When USAGM authorities looked into it, they flagged up a handful of hotel invoices for talks that Dr Ullah had given. He was accused of falsifying the invoices so that he could claim expenses for personal travel “either to promote his book, or for weekend trips during which little to no USAGM business was conducted”. 

But part of Dr Ullah’s job at the agency was to speak to different audiences and stakeholders about USAGM’s work. His speaking engagements on behalf of USAGM received wide praise internally, including from the CEO, and he travelled extensively on behalf of the agency to talk about its mission to counter disinformation – his own area of expertise. 

Byline Times obtained detailed materials about Dr Ullah’s talks and presentation slides for the events identified by the prosecution, all confirming that they heavily promoted and explained USAGM’s work. In these cases, the Trump administration claimed that the invoices were double-billed because Dr Ullah’s accommodation was being paid for by third parties. But he would routinely file invoices months at a time, and only two of them related to third parties. When he had filed these, he had not been reimbursed by the third parties. 

The alleged irregularities were used by senior USAGM officials to justify opening up a wider prolonged investigation into Dr Ullah’s expenses. In doing so, however, there was a clear agenda. Rather than investigating to determine what had happened, the course of the investigation attempted to select as much evidence as possible to incriminate Dr Ullah while systematically ignoring exculpatory evidence.

Ignoring Medical Evidence

The prosecution’s most damning finding was that Dr Ullah had justified business-class flight upgrades for his travel by filing a falsified doctor’s note referring to a damaged knee, including a forged signature.

“I shouldn’t have done it,” he told Byline Times. “It was wrong, stupid, and indefensible. It was one of many terrible lapses in judgement that year – but I was not attempting to defraud the US Government. If I’d simply taken the time to get my doctor to write the note, I would have been entitled to those flight expenses. But instead I lied to rush it through myself.”

Documents seen by Byline Times indicated time and again that disputed flights were taken in Dr Ullah’s official capacity on behalf of USAGM, and that his medical condition justifying the upgrades was quite real. 

Medical records confirm that, in 2018, Dr Ullah was undergoing an intensive programme of physical therapy – funded by health insurance paid for by the US Government – due to a serious knee injury which meant that remaining seated for more than an hour would cause him significant pain. As the months went on, his condition improved and he was able to sit a few hours longer. The medical records confirm that, during the period from March and October 2018, when he upgraded to business-class, his knee injury required him to avoid sitting for too long to avoid pain and further injury. The vast bulk of the expenses that the prosecution categorised as stolen were accounted for by these flight upgrades.

When the investigators informed Dr Ullah’s doctor of the forgery, he was understandably upset. Wanting nothing further to do with the case, the doctor confirmed that he was not the author of the note and denied recommending flight upgrades. 

Investigators’ notes from the US Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) reveal that the doctor had not only confirmed Dr Ullah’s knee condition, but stated that if he had asked him for a medical waiver he would have given him one for work accommodation, and potentially authorised a flight upgrade for six months or less (confirming he had done this in the past for another patient with a hip replacement).

The prosecution used this to deny that Dr Ullah was medically entitled to the upgrades. Yet, by the time the case was taken to the grand jury, the story had evolved and the doctor testified simply that he would not have provided Dr Ullah with a medical waiver. Meanwhile, Dr Ullah’s medical records confirming his knee condition were submitted to the court – but entirely ignored by the presiding judge. 

The insistence that Dr Ullah was not medically entitled to the flight upgrades was the linchpin of the Trump administration’s case, accounting for the vast bulk of the money that he would be convicted of stealing from the US Government. 

Trailblazing and Trauma

If the prosecution had conceded that Dr Haroon Ullah was medically justified in seeking the flight upgrades, almost the entirety of their case against him would have collapsed.

There can be no doubt that Dr Ullah had committed a severe breach of trust by falsifying the doctor’s note, and other documents such as a spate of hotel invoices. For instance, the USAGM’s standard procedure was to pay a flat rate per day for hotels depending on their location. In several cases, Dr Ullah had booked cheaper budget hotels but filed falsified invoices for the expensive hotels in line with the higher rate. “I did that a few times on international trips,” he said. “Incredibly stupid and wrong, of course.”

Yet Dr Ullah had never done anything like this before in his life. The actions were entirely out of character. When Government investigators were scouring his records to identify incriminating evidence of fraud, theft and other potential crimes, they weren’t just looking at his USAGM role, but went through his entire history in the US Government. Apart from those fateful months that year, they found no evidence of similar wrongdoing from across his 10-year career in government.

So what had happened?

The preceding years had taken their toll. In 2016, Dr Ullah was devastated by the loss of his youngest brother, Muneer. Then, he and his wife suffered the loss of a pregnancy in January 2018. In April, his ill mother-in-law fell into a coma – on the very same day they discovered that his wife was pregnant. Having cobbled together money for a new house for their growing family, a storm led to a tree falling into their home, destroying the roof and making it unliveable for much of the year. It was precisely during this period of medical bills and house repair costs spiralling out of control that Dr Ullah’s wrongdoing on expenses occurred.

But, more crucially, the prosecution ignored the backdrop of untreated trauma against which Dr Ullah’s terrible lapses in judgement took place. His stint in Pakistan from 2010 to 2013 had been eventful to say the least. Apart from the constant threat of bombings, he was under ongoing surveillance by Pakistani intelligence and frequently followed by militants. He witnessed numerous acts of violence and, at one point, was held at gunpoint in Islamabad. 

It was a time when anyone working for the American Embassy was somewhat of a target and, as I recall, Haroon had some narrow escapes, putting his life on the line for the country.

Cameron Munter

“Haroon’s counter-terrorism work in the field fighting against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIL has already saved American lives (as well as those of global citizens),” wrote General John R. Allen, former Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL and ex-Deputy Commander of the US Central Command in a letter to the prosecution. “Haroon also put his life on the line to work at the US Embassy in Islamabad during a particularly difficult time in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” 

Describing his work as “trailblazing”, Allen noted that one of his anti-Islamic State projects had even been praised by President Obama. “Haroon is one of a very select group of individuals who know how to defeat ISIL 3.0, which is already on the horizon. We need Haroon Ullah to help our country now and for many decades to come.” 

Former US Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, whom Dr Ullah worked for from 2010 to 2012, similarly spoke highly of him. “He was not just one of the many embassy employees,” wrote Munter addressing the presiding judge. “He was truly a stand-out, someone whose extraordinary knowledge and remarkable gifts made a real difference to American interests during this difficult time.”

Munter had overseen the raid resulting in the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, which had made work in Pakistan especially dangerous. “Haroon was a key member of my team, helping us understand the roots of the challenges we faced and implementing efforts to turn the situation around,” he said. “It was a time when anyone working for the American Embassy was somewhat of a target and, as I recall, Haroon had some narrow escapes, putting his life on the line for the country.”

Expert evidence filed with the court confirmed that these experiences made Dr Ullah vulnerable to the sorts of lapses in judgement that took place in 2018, particularly as he became overwhelmed by a series of personal crises. 

“Based on these accounts and the symptoms which he reports having, including flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety, and paranoia when driving, it is clear that Dr Ullah has suffered from complex trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” wrote his counsellor, psychologist Dr Eric Rothman, in a letter to the US authorities. 

Dr Rothman noted that, coupled with the experience of prolonged surveillance, this can induce excessive paranoia that “leads to decreased mental toughness and resolve”. Without treatment, he explained – and at the time Dr Haroon Ullah was not receiving treatment – “this trauma can easily result in symptoms which show up in numerous ways. One example is a lack of psychological strength to adhere to personal values and convictions and poor judgement. Based on my clinical assessment it is reasonable to assume that the lack of treatment for Haroon Ullah’s complex trauma and PTSD contributed to the state of decreased mental toughness, deteriorated moral resolve and resulting poor judgement.” 

As a result of his service to the American people, Dr Ullah had suffered serious mental health challenges that paved the way for his lapses in judgement in 2018. He is currently receiving mental health treatment.

Penalised – For Saving the US Government Millions

The prosecution not only ignored these mitigating factors, but it seems investigators from the US Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General actively sought to generate evidence of egregious wrongdoing where none existed. 

“One example is he saved millions by renegotiating bloated contracts with Psiphon at the Office of Internet Freedom – the most mission critical department at USAGM,” said a former USAGM staffer familiar with Dr Ullah’s work in recalibrating USAGM’s contract with Psiphon, a company offering open source internet circumvention software to evade censorship.

This task had involved Dr Ullah meeting with Psiphon in Canada, as the group had not been questioned on its productivity in around a decade. OIG investigators claimed that his trip to Psiphon in Toronto was unnecessary, even though their own notes record the head of Psiphon, Michael Hull, saying that his meeting with Dr Ullah was a long, complex discussion that could not have been done over the phone. 

From Toronto, Haroon travelled straight to London to attend meetings hosted by Jamie Angus, head of BBC World Service, along with another senior USAGM official. The prosecution claimed that the entire trip was personal, but investigators failed to interview anyone else at USAGM – including Dr Ullah’s colleague at the London meeting (whose travel expenses were never questioned) – about the trip. The prosecution tacked on a $9,000 loss to the US Government from theft due to this trip.  

Former and current USAGM officials told Byline Times that Dr Ullah was targeted in this way because the Trump administration saw him as a fundamental obstacle to its plans to restructure the agency.

The prosecution also claimed that most of Dr Haroon Ullah’s travel from March to October 2018 was nothing to do with the USAGM. In one example of the extraordinary lengths to which Trump administration investigators went, they questioned his travel in August 2018 to a conference in Geneva, Switzerland. Haroon participated in his official capacity and delivered a presentation there on countering disinformation, showcasing his USAGM work. 

When a Government investigator telephoned the conference organisers asking hostile questions about his attendance, an administrator was allegedly so alarmed that he told the investigator that Dr Ullah was only attending in his personal capacity to speak about an app.

This was untrue – the administrator had confused Dr Haroon Ullah with another attendee – but the investigators ran with it. Dr Ullah’s lawyer, Mark E. Schamel of Lowenstein Sandler, wrote to the Assistant United States Attorney prosecuting the case, Dr Russell Carlberg, explaining that the senior executive who ran the conference as CEO, the administrator’s boss, “was clear that Haroon was there in his role as USAGM. Haroon came to network on professional issues related to USAGM”. The CEO, he noted, “will confirm that this was a legitimate USAGM business and as the man running the programme”. 

The CEO contacted the investigator via email and phone on several occasions with no response. In a reply to Schamel, Carlberg insisted on relying on the mistaken claim of the administrator which, he wrote,  “seems pretty specific and credible”.

The rationale made no sense. Dr Haroon Ullah had twice participated in the same conference in an official capacity while at the State Department, with expenses covered. In 2016, he had attended the same conference in Portugal where then US Ambassador to Portugal, Robert Sherman, had lauded Dr Ullah’s work in his official speech to the conference. Suddenly the 2018 attendance was deemed illegitimate – this alone accounted for some $10,000 of the amount Dr Ullah was alleged to have stolen from the Government.

Fishing Expedition

Further inquiry into these issues was dropped by investigators, supposedly over a lack of time. But investigators did find time to question Dr Haroon Ullah’s former colleagues about his counter-terrorism work years earlier.

In at least four interviews, Trump administration investigators asked his colleagues whether Dr Ullah had played any role in counter-terrorism efforts and whether he had really put himself in danger in Pakistan. In two other interviews, they asked Dr Ullah repeatedly about his views on al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  

OIG records seen by Byline Times demonstrate that Dr Haroon Ullah’s colleagues were confused by this line of questioning: what did his counter-terrorism work in Islamabad seven years earlier have to do with this 2018 expense investigation? What were investigators really looking for?  

Investigators even looked into Dr Haroon Ullah’s taxi fares. According to a former USAGM employee, this demonstrated that they were scraping the bottom of the barrel. “The level of scrutiny given on a point like taxi fares shows a desire to hyper-scrutinise,” he said. “The agency has people travelling all the time to conferences and gatherings.” He compared this to the millions Dr Haroon Ullah had saved the agency in renegotiating the Psiphon contract.

I cannot opine on the source of the animus toward Dr Ullah, but it seemed that there were motivations at the State Department unrelated to the misconduct.

Dr Ullah’s lawyer, Mark Schamel

But the investigators were not interested in pulling up institutional inefficiencies widely tolerated by the USAGM. They wanted to single out Dr Ullah with every scrap of evidence they could find. 

Trump administration investigators even tried to prove that he had massively defrauded his insurance company over his house repairs. Haroon had hired some 20 different contractors and sub-contractors to repair the house after it had been almost destroyed by the fallen tree. Some of them didn’t have established businesses or official papers, so he wrote up receipts by hand. His estate agent, who had helped find the sub-contractors, agreed to put his name down as the general contractor. But, when pulled in front of a grand jury, terrified that authorities would probe his own businesses, the estate agent disavowed all responsibility. 

In reality, the prosecution’s position didn’t add up: despite Government pressure to cut Dr Ullah’s insurance, his insurance company never accepted the US Government’s claim that he had fraudulently overinflated his insurance claim. The same company that paid out the money for the repairs recognised his receipts as entirely legitimate and continues to cover his home insurance to this day. 

Political Pressure to Prosecute

Before the OIG settled on prosecuting the case via the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, they had shopped the case around to find willing prosecutors with little luck. It had been turned down repeatedly, including by prosecutors in Washington DC where it was originally touted. 

Even so, after finally taking on the case, sources confirm that, early on, prosecuting attorney Russell Carlberg had agreed to a proposal that while Dr Ullah should receive appropriate punishment, the case should not be prosecuted. But, when this agreement went up to Trump’s State Department, it was refused.

According to Dr Ullah’s lawyer Mark Schamel, Carlberg took his track record as an exemplary American who had served his country and saved lives into consideration. Carlberg understood that Dr Ullah had recognised his wrongdoing and shown true remorse. He wholeheartedly recommended an appropriate resolution that would avoid prosecution. But that proposal was pushed back and the State Department insisted on a criminal prosecution. 

“I cannot opine on the source of the animus toward Dr Ullah, but it seemed that there were motivations at State unrelated to the misconduct,” said Schamel. In short, the prosecutor’s hands were tied. 

As a result, the investigation increasingly took on absurd proportions.

Instead of seeking to objectively evaluate the evidence against Dr Haroon Ullah, investigators went to pains to cherry-pick any evidence to inflate the size of his alleged theft. They originally claimed that he had stolen more than $60,000. In discussions of a potential plea deal, the spectre of this larger crime was used to push for Dr Ullah to sign a blanket admission of guilt to avoid a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. Independent legal sources familiar with the prosecution’s conduct at this time described it as “putting immense pressure” on Haroon to plead guilty to all charges.

Under Judge Ellis’ order, Dr Haroon Ullah went to jail while his mother-in-law was in a coma and his wife in late pregnancy looking after their other young toddler. While he was in prison, his mother-in-law passed away.

Then, as the investigation drew to a close, Carlberg – himself under pressure from Trump’s State Department – finally offered Dr Ullah a ‘take it or leave it’ plea deal with no room for adjustment on wording or calculations, in order to minimise jail time. Haroon was advised to sign, which he did so reluctantly. 

When it came to sentencing, the judge disregarded the prosecutor’s recommendation. Dr Ullah’s case was presided over by Judge T. S. Ellis – described by ABC News as “President Trump’s new favourite judge”. Judge Ellis had famously challenged the scope of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 US Election, and excoriated the prosecution in the case against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, whose 19-year sentence for tax and bank fraud Ellis had reduced to a measly four. 

But in Dr Ullah’s case, Judge Ellis was not so lenient. “I think if you steal this much money from the government, there has to be a consequence,” he told Dr Ullah in a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. 

In his own statement in court, Dr Haroon Ullah took full responsibility, saying that he had “betrayed [his] own standards of moral conduct… and have no excuse. I let myself down, my family, my colleagues and my country, I will carry this painful lesson for the rest of my life and come back stronger.”

A total of 40 letters were sent to the judge, many from senior officials across the topmost echelons of the US national security community, calling for the judge to account for Dr Ullah’s years of service. In response, OIG investigators went to every individual who had sent a letter and told them – falsely – that he had lied to federal investigators. At one point, General John R. Allen withdrew his letter as a result of this ploy. After Dr Ullah’s lawyer Schamel called up Gen. Allen and confirmed to him that Dr Ullah had not lied to investigators, he resubmitted his letter.

Nevertheless, under Judge Ellis’ order, Dr Haroon Ullah went to jail while his mother-in-law was in a coma and his wife in late pregnancy looking after their other young toddler. While he was in prison, his mother-in-law passed away.

A spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia declined to comment, as did the US State Department. The US Agency for Global Media did not respond to requests for inquiries.

Trumpism and Anti-Muslim Animus 

The stark disparity between the treatment of Dr Haroon Ullah and other senior Trump administration officials racking up unlawful expenses is instructive.

“Haroon seems to have received harsher prosecution and punishment than the typical offender for similar or greater infractions, notably of those actually appointed by the current administration,” said an active senior USAGM official.

The manner in which he was singled out for criminal prosecution was, many credible observers believed, a symptom of the latent anti-Muslim animus that had become prominent under the Trump administration. 

“Haroon was one of the top 15 experts in countering violent extremism in the Washington DC beltway,” said former State Department official Qamar ul-Huda. “He was in extremely high demand – I can say without any qualm that there was resentment against Haroon, resentment that a brown person knows a lot, with the language skills, cultural skills, having lived overseas. I’ve had that myself.”

In addition, he pointed out that Dr Ullah’s appointment at the USAGM would have raised Republican hackles. “Usually, it’s only political appointees that get to such a top echelon. So to take that position in the Trump administration would have ruffled some Republican feathers there.”

Former and current USAGM officials told Byline Times that Dr Ullah was targeted in this way because the Trump administration saw him as a fundamental obstacle to its plans to restructure the agency. If it wasn’t expenses, they would have had to find another justification to push him out.

A former USAGM staffer said: “Haroon was doing groundbreaking work at the agency and many people didn’t want him to be the face of the Voice of America or any entity at USAGM. He was targeted because of his ethnic background and the Trump-driven Islamophobia.” But his fall from grace was just the beginning of the reshaping of the agency.

“Most of the people in important positions were targeted and either forced to resign, put on leave or detailed to another part of the agency… This was a push to root out anyone that people didn’t agree with, that was making the agency more dynamic. Haroon was at the tip of this spear.”

Since then, Michael Pack, the Steve Bannon collaborator overseeing the agency – nominated by President Trump just two months before Haroon was investigated – has authorised US Government officials to interfere in USAGM news reporting while obstructing an incoming Joe Biden administration with Trump loyalists who would be difficult to remove.

According to a former USAGM employee: “The whole situation seemed vindictive and meant to not just take him out, but make an example of him – that as a Muslim you won’t be in this type of prominence. Not in a Trump administration that is… They wanted to make an example that ‘no you can’t achieve a particular prominence as a Muslim or non-Trump loyalist’.”

The impact on Dr Haroon Ullah’s life has been profound. Unlike other white, non-Muslim Trump officials who face no consequences for defrauding the US Government at will, he is a convicted felon. He cannot teach at university, despite his PhD and scholarly work on counter-extremism. He cannot ever hold a security clearance or work in government – and the US Government cannot benefit from his expertise.

But more than that, Dr Ullah’s case provides an alarming insight into the McCarthyist scale of Trump administration efforts to purge all ranks of the US Governmental infrastructure in pursuit of its agenda.

Trump’s State Department wanted to make an example of the highest-ranking Muslim in the US Government’s global media network – a man who had put his life on the line to save American lives from Islamist terrorists. And it succeeded. 

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