Cox Aide Heads to Danger Zone

Staffer Takes Senior Position With Coalition Provisional Authority

Posted October 27, 2003 at 6:39pm

An aide to House Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) is heading into the danger zone of Iraq, becoming one of the most senior Congressional staffers to accept a post with the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in the country.

Muhammad Hutasuhut is vacating his post as a senior foreign policy adviser for Cox to take on a year-long stint at CPA under the direction of Ambassador Paul Bremer.

A Cox spokeswoman said Monday that the Defense Department has prohibited Hutasuhut from discussing his new assignment until he officially begins later this week.

But in a brief interview on Friday, Hutasuhut said, “I’m eager and honored to help a free Iraq.”

Cox declined to discuss the specifics of Hutasuhut’s new post, citing security reasons, but said the aide will serve a “management” role in the rebuilding effort.

“Muhammad is extraordinarily well-qualified to help the Department of Defense in the rebuilding effort,” Cox said.

Tom Korologos, a senior adviser to Bremer who helps serve as the ambassador’s eyes and ears on Capitol Hill, said “quite a few” former Congressional staffers now work at CPA — though no official statistics are available.

Among those who have accepted positions within CPA are Traci Scott, former press secretary to Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.), and Suzanne Schaffrath, former scheduler in Sen. Don Nickles’ (R-Okla.) office.

Although CPA does not specifically recruit Congressional aides, Korologos said, the addition of Hill staff has proven to be a symbiotic relationship: The Pentagon gains knowledgeable employees while Members gain an additional window into the U.S.-led coalition’s activities.

“The beauty of working on the Hill is they know a little bit about a lot of things and they tend to learn fast, and that’s a big plus from my standpoint,” said Korologos, the well-known former Republican lobbyist. “They come over there and see first-hand for themselves, and given the electronic mail situation they can say, ‘Hey, that last report missed the point. It ain’t like that, it’s like this.’”

Cox already has access to a wealth of information, but noted: “We certainly look forward to staying in touch with Muhammad and learning first-hand about his experience.”

He later added: “It’s a vitally important job for our country and in order to ensure that the job is done right, we need the very best people. Undoubtedly, some of the skills we most require can be found on Capitol Hill.”

Cox described the 26-year-old Hutasuhut as “uniquely well-qualified” for a CPA assignment, noting that the aide is fluent in four languages: English, Arabic, Indonesian and French.

“In dealing with foreign policy issues he has dealt with a lot of people from different cultures and he seems to have great diplomatic skills,” said James Freeman, Cox’s legislative director. “That’ll be valuable in whatever he’s doing.”

Before joining the office, Hutasuhut worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee as a Federal Election Commission analyst.

His résumé also includes stints with the Cato Institute, the Kuwait-America Foundation and Frederickson International Limited in Weybridge, England.

In the days leading up to his departure, Cox said he has given his aide some advice.

“We had a chat and I discussed with him how important his work was, not only to Iraq and to America but to the rest of the world,” Cox said. “I advised him, almost certainly unnecessarily, to take care.”

Despite Hutasuhut’s mandated silence, his departure created an inadvertent stir last week, when a fellow aide in Cox’s office sent an invitation to other House aides announcing a going-away party.

Legislative aide Howard Fienberg wrote in the e-mail: “Eulogies, instructions on bullet-dodging, and manuals on how to recognize a land mine at forty paces are certainly welcome. I hear he has been looking for a copy of ‘Let’s Go: The Sunni Triangle on 5 Dinars a Day.’”

Although a Cox spokeswoman said the message was intended to be “light-hearted,” it raised the hackles of at least one senior Democratic aide.

“The e-mail is tasteless and offensive,” said a chief of staff who received the invitation. “I wonder how Congressman Cox would explain it to his constituent families whose loved ones have been killed serving our nation in Iraq.”

Aides in the lawmaker’s office have spoken with Fienberg about the incident, who expressed regret for his actions.

“While this e-mail was written in a light-hearted tone, no one in our office would ever joke about what our brave men and women are doing in Iraq,” said Cox spokeswoman Kate Whitman.

In the interview Friday, Hutasuhut said he does not blame other House staffers for being outraged by the tone of the invite.

“I do sincerely regret and apologize for the e-mail, which understandably offended some people. There’s no way around that,” he said.

But Hutasuhut defended Fienberg, saying his colleague was simply trying to inject some humor into the invitation “to ease my anxiety over my departure.”

“He just wanted to reduce some of the uncertainties about my going to a zone that’s very chaotic,” he said.

Cox, who criticized the Democratic aide for requesting anonymity while attacking a member of his staff, echoed Hutasuhut’s statements.

“Obviously there are security concerns for an American living long-term in Iraq and working for the CPA,” said Cox. “Everyone on the staff is quite fond of Muhammad and concerned for his safety. He is undoubtedly a bit nervous about it himself. The graveyard humor is an attempt to diffuse that.”

Ed Henry contributed to this report.