Sins of commission
As worldwide religious persecution intensifies, conflicts of interest threaten the existence of a U.S. commission that deals with the problem
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WASHINGTON—In 2001, some 60 police officers stormed the central Vietnam church where Father Thadeus Nguyên Văn Lý was preparing to deliver Mass. His crime? Providing testimony to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent body advocating for religious minorities. Today the bespectacled, 68-year-old priest is frail enough to use a walker but remains imprisoned 40 miles south of Hanoi.
Political and economic concerns often deter the U.S. government from officially speaking out for prisoners of conscience like Father Lý. That’s why Congress created USCIRF in 1998 as an independent, government-funded commission that would—free of entangling alliances and competing interests—provide candid recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress.
Hostility to religion worldwide has only grown in the years since, but the Obama years have seen the commission’s future and its independence repeatedly challenged. In some two dozen interviews, USCIRF commissioners, lawmakers, and staffers told me they believe the commission’s existence is in danger. Backroom strife coupled with partisanship—and now possible conflicts of interest—all threaten to derail USCIRF at a time when it is most needed by persecuted religious adherents.
Congress must periodically reauthorize USCIRF to keep it operating, a formality that was not controversial for the first dozen years of its existence. The commission met with foreign government officials, shined a light on prisoners of conscience such as Father Lý, and provided testimony to Congress. As part of its annual reports, USCIRF sounded early alarms on issues such as Boko Haram’s rise in Nigeria.
In late 2011, USCIRF reauthorization unexpectedly hit a snag when U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, launched a bid to reform the commission that led to a deal hours before USCIRF would have shuttered. Many thought the reform fight was finished—it wasn’t. In 2014, the House unanimously passed a five-year USCIRF reauthorization, but Durbin filed separate legislation proposing drastic changes. Among them, as an antidote to alleged partisanship in commission staff, Durbin proposed creating separate Democratic and Republican staffs, including majority and minority staff directors.
Many advocates in the international religious freedom community had welcomed some of Durbin’s 2011 reforms, such as establishing term limits for commissioners, but his 2014 proposal met stiff opposition. Elliott Abrams, a commissioner in 1999-2001 and 2012-2014, said the idea to “inject party politics” into USCIRF is a “disastrous mistake.” He told me he would rather the commission die than have partisan staffs: “This isn’t politics. … There is no Democratic and Republican view of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia.”
It turns out Durbin’s proposals stem from a single aide named Joe Zogby. The University of Virginia law graduate, who went to work for Durbin in 2003, is chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, a panel tasked with, among other issues, immigration and judicial nominations. USCIRF falls under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Relations Committee—which Durbin served on from 2011 to 2014—but Zogby has positioned himself as the power broker of the U.S. Senate on the issue. Zogby delivered demands to the staff of Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., in 2011 and 2014, and now Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who has taken over as the primary bill sponsor following Wolf’s retirement.
It’s common for staffers to take the lead on congressional negotiations, but Zogby’s involvement has a twist: His father sits on the commission. In 2013, President Barack Obama appointed long-time Democrat James Zogby—brother of pollster John Zogby—to a two-year term, and then reappointed him this year.
‘If I were on the commission and my son was in the position Dr. Zogby’s son is in, I would resign, or I would ask my son to be reassigned.’ —Richard Land
The Senate Ethics Committee received a complaint about the potential conflict of interest, but it declined to investigate the matter. Senate Rule 37.4 prohibits lawmakers and aides from working to pass legislation that could financially benefit an immediate family member, but USCIRF commissioners are unpaid. Mark Strand, president of the nonpartisan Congressional Institute, told me it’s still a relevant issue since Joe Zogby is influencing legislation that will directly affect his father: “Whether or not it is an actual violation, it certainly seems to violate the spirit of the rules.”
Critics argue Joe Zogby is attempting to implement reforms for which James Zogby has been unable to convince a majority of his colleagues to vote. In a June 23 letter sent to members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee—and obtained by WORLD—James Zogby and three Democratic-appointed commissioners advocate for changes that mirror demands Joe Zogby has made during negotiations.
The bigger problem, according to Elliott Abrams, who served on the commission with Zogby in 2013 and 2014, is that “it seemed pretty clear the younger Zogby knew everything that was going on at the commission.” Accusations of commissioners leaking private deliberations are not new, but it’s still prohibited in the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.
Joe Zogby (and Durbin’s office) did not reply to multiple requests for comment, but James Zogby vehemently denied any impropriety on the part of himself or his son, calling the idea “bizarre” and “horrific.” He said he does not discuss internal deliberations with his son, and no one has ever raised the familial connection as a potential problem. “Where the conflict is, I have no idea,” Zogby said. “I am interested in making the commission better.”
The issue has apparently affected congressional negotiations: In late 2014, as Senate aides worked on a multiyear reauthorization deal, several were surprised to learn of the Zogby connection late in the process. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, subsequently backed out of the deal he had previously co-sponsored. The result: a compromise nine-month USCIRF extension that expires in September (the commission has already begun shutdown procedures).
“If I were on the commission and my son was in the position Dr. Zogby’s son is in, I would resign, or I would ask my son to be reassigned,” said Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, who served on the commission for more than a decade. “But that’s my own personal moral compass—I’m responsible for mine, Dr. Zogby is responsible for his.”
A separate ethical quandary has called potential motives into question: Zogby, the brother of pollster John Zogby, is the managing director of Zogby Research Services, which lists Arriyadh Development Authority as a top client. That’s a government entity of Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most religiously oppressive countries, over which USCIRF provides oversight.
In the 2015 USCIRF report, Zogby, a Catholic with a Ph.D. in comparative religions, appeared to take up for Saudi Arabia in a dissenting statement attached to the commission’s recommendation that the country be named a “country of particular concern” (CPC). Zogby cited ongoing “reforms” in the country, saying any punitive actions would be counterproductive: “I strongly disagree … with USCIRF’s decision to call on the Department of State to remove the waiver provision that defers any action that might be taken as a result of Saudi Arabia’s CPC status.”
The controversy comes at a time when USCIRF’s bipartisan leadership has been seamless: Katrina Lantos Swett, a Democratic appointee, and Robert P. George, a Republican appointee, have maintained a consistent message while chairing the commission in alternating years since 2012. Frank Wolf told me they are “two of the finest people who have ever served on the commission.”
Despite that, fighting for USCIRF’s existence is crowding out other priorities. In 2011, 2014, and 2015, Wolf and then Smith proposed comprehensive updates to the 1998 law, including giving more power to the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, mandating religious freedom training for foreign service officers, and adding non-state actors (i.e. Islamic State, Boko Haram) to the entities eligible for sanctions. Advocates know the State Department will oppose those changes, but there is not enough time or political will even to wage a debate as long as USCIRF reauthorization remains contentious. Smith recently split the State-related provisions into a separate bill, removing the sense of urgency that would accompany expiring USCIRF authorization.
The State Department is where reform is actually needed, said Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University. Even with “outstanding” USCIRF chairs like George and Lantos Swett, he believes only someone inside State can “penetrate the barriers” to sound policy that have been present for so long: “A senior member of the bureaucracy, with the support of a president and a secretary of state, must convince American diplomats that religious freedom is deeply relevant to what they do daily—implement U.S. foreign policy.”
Meanwhile, Durbin’s office is pushing changes to micromanage USCIRF, such as a new process to hire and retain the commission’s executive director (who many people told me has done an excellent job). Joe Zogby, lacking support from the international religious freedom community, is searching for endorsements among refugee organizations.
Smith declined to discuss specifics about the negotiations, but he expressed concern that Durbin “will block the bill this year—and he’ll be responsible for killing the commission.” That would be an odd move for Durbin, who has a strong human rights record, but it may not be far-fetched: Last year, in a meeting with participants of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, Joe Zogby threatened to “kill USCIRF” if the groups didn’t cooperate.
Off the record, Senate Democrats will admit they are not enthusiastic about Durbin’s reforms, but the issue is not worth challenging the No. 2 Democrat. Complicating matters is that Corker, now the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, is occupied with Iran nuclear negotiations and hasn’t taken a strong interest in USCIRF. When I asked him for comment, he said he didn’t know enough about the issue to speak publicly. Corker spokesperson Tara DiJulio assured me he is involved in negotiations and working to “find a responsible, bipartisan way forward for a longer-term reauthorization.”
While haggling over USCIRF occupies time and attention, religious extremism continues to spark global chaos. Islamic State militants, already carrying out genocide against Yazidis in Iraq, executed attacks on three continents on June 26. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe. And Boko Haram militants have killed and displaced thousands of Christians and Muslims in northeastern Nigeria.
“USCIRF is more important now than ever before, based on what’s taking place around the world,” Wolf said. “Without the commission there would be no one else speaking out and advocating on these issues.”
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