Naz Durakoglu started her new job working for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in early June, shortly after the New Hampshire Democrat had pushed to add Russia sanctions to an Iran sanctions bill as it moved through the Foreign Relations Committee.
But after Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee said he would move ahead with a bipartisan effort to tighten sanctions against Moscow, Shaheen withdrew her amendments. The timing, though, put Durakoglu, as a senior foreign policy adviser to Shaheen, in the middle of discussions about how to respond to Russia’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 election.
Durakoglu previously worked in the House, but more recently she had been the senior adviser to Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs at the State Department under President Barack Obama.
“I worked for many different members, and all of them played a really important role in my own development, but I have to say working for a woman at the State Department — it was different and it was definitely a great experience for me,” Durakoglu said. “I really wanted to have that experience again.”
Durakoglu’s academic and research work focused on Turkey, but her first stint on Capitol Hill before her time as a political appointee at the State Department pulled her toward developing an expertise in Russia.
Durakoglu was the legislative director for Rep. William Keating, a Massachusetts Democrat, and, concurrently, his minority staff director on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittees he served on.
It was during her time with Keating that she first traveled to Russia, including as part of one infamous congressional delegation that involved Kremlin-friendly Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., and actor and martial artist Steven Seagal, whom Rohrabacher is close to and who served as a sort of go-between for the congressional delegation and Russian officials.
“My mother’s a musician, so I always had a very different perspective. I kind of looked at Russia through the lens of art and music and I was actually really excited to go to Russia for the first time, but you know, you kind of felt as soon as you got in there that they really saw us very differently,” Durakoglu said.
The impetus for the Russia trips was the Boston Marathon bombing. Durakoglu found herself traveling to Russia as part of bipartisan inquiries into what happened, and what was known by U.S. and Russian authorities about the perpetrators, the Tsarnaev brothers, prior to the attack.
Durakoglu always planned to leave State after President Donald Trump took office, but her timetable moved up as she was one of the many officials to sign the dissent memo over the president’s travel ban executive action.
“I was a part of the political appointments that were set to leave Jan. 31, but we heard that we were probably going to be extended after that to help transition everybody, and I had agreed to do that,” she said. “I quickly retracted that upon the executive order that dealt with the travel ban, so I actually left under those circumstances.”
Part of Shaheen’s portfolio now is oversight of the State Department’s internal management, something Durakoglu is quite familiar with.
“She’s now the ranking member of the State management subcommittee, and this is taking place in the middle of reorganization discussions,” Durakoglu said. “It was actually one of the reasons I was also attracted to work here.”
“I know that the senator is really excited to kind of move forward and defend the integrity of the department and its employees, and I’m really thankful to also be able to play a role in that,“ Durakoglu said.
Among the current issues is the department’s hiring freeze under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
“It’s not just a hiring freeze. It’s also preventing some of the career folks from actually being promoted,” she said. “They’re not allowed to do parallel relocations.”
“What they’re doing right now is not only cutting out opportunities for these people, but it’s also making it so that those agencies that would normally benefit from the institutional knowledge of even some of the civil service employees at the State Department, they don’t get that,” Durakoglu said.
Just before starting with Shaheen, Durakoglu worked at the Atlantic Council as part of its digital forensic research lab, focused on identifying Russian disinformation campaigns.
“I think this really attracted Sen. Shaheen to me. We spent a lot of time talking about it,” Durakoglu said. “She understands a lot that there is an aspect here that we are not addressing.”
Shaheen has already filed an amendment to the fiscal 2018 defense authorization bill, ahead of next month’s floor debate, that seeks to block the cybersecurity company Kaspersky Labs, which has reported ties to Russian intelligence, from government business.
“I think you’re going see us doing a lot more on all the baskets of Russian disinformation. Already with Kasperky, she’s looking to prohibit their use at [the Defense Department] and we’re actually going to do something that expands it to all U.S. government agencies,” Durakoglu said.