Brett H. McGurk

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Brett H. McGurk
Brett H. McGurk (2).jpg
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
Assumed office
October 23, 2015
President Barack Obama
Donald Trump
Preceded by John Allen
Personal details
Born (1973-04-20) April 20, 1973 (age 45)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Spouse(s) Gina Chon
Education University of Connecticut (BA)
Columbia University (JD)

Brett H. McGurk (born April 20, 1973) is an American diplomat who was appointed by President Barack Obama on 23 October 2015[1] as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. He replaced General John R. Allen to whom he had been a deputy since 16 September 2014. He also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, at the U.S. Department of State, and from October 2014 through January 2016 led 14 months of secret negotiations with Iran that led to a prisoner swap and release of four Americans from Evin Prison in Tehran, including the Washington Post journalist, Jason Rezaian.[2] This assignment, among others, reinforced McGurk's "reputation as a doer", according to the NY Times.[3] He earlier served under President George W. Bush as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan, and under President Obama as Special Advisor to the U.S. National Security Council and Senior Advisor to the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Mr. McGurk served as a law clerk to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist on the U.S. Supreme Court during the Court's 2001 October Term. On January 19, 2017, President-Elect Donald Trump's press secretary Sean Spicer announced that the incoming administration would retain McGurk in his role leading the counter-ISIS campaign.[4]

Early life and education[edit]

McGurk was born to Barry McGurk, an English professor, and Carol Ann Capobianco, an art teacher, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 20 April 1973.[5] His family later moved to West Hartford, Connecticut, where he graduated from Conard High School in 1991. McGurk received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Connecticut Honors Program in 1996,[6] and his Juris Doctor from Columbia Law School in 1999. While at Columbia, he was a Senior Editor of the Columbia Law Review, a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar, and won the prize for best written brief in Columbia Law School's Moot Court Honors Competition.

After graduation, McGurk served three consecutive clerkships at progressively higher levels of the federal judiciary: first, for Judge Gerard E. Lynch on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York; second, for Judge Dennis Jacobs on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (Manhattan); and, finally, for Chief Justice William Rehnquist on the U.S. Supreme Court. Following his clerkships, McGurk served briefly as appellate litigation associate at Kirkland & Ellis as well as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.[7]

Diplomatic career[edit]

In January 2004, McGurk returned to public service as a Legal Advisor to both the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the United States Ambassador in Baghdad. During his tenure in Baghdad, McGurk helped draft Iraq's interim constitution, the Transitional Administrative Law, and oversaw the legal transition from the CPA to an Interim Iraqi Government led by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. In 2005, he was transferred to the National Security Council, where he served as Director for Iraq, and later as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2006, McGurk became an early advocate for a fundamental change in Iraq policy and helped develop what is now known as the surge, which began in January 2007. In his book Decision Points, President George W. Bush refers to McGurk as part of his "personal band of warriors" that led to a new strategy and reset the trajectory of the war.[8] President Bush later asked McGurk to lead negotiations with Ambassador Ryan Crocker to establish a Strategic Framework Agreement and Security Agreement with the Government of Iraq, thereby ensuring continuity in policy beyond the end of his administration.[9] In 2009, McGurk became one of only three political appointees to survive the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, serving as a Senior Advisor to both the President and the United States Ambassador to Iraq.[10]

McGurk left government service in the fall of 2009 and served as a Resident Fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics, hosting a study group on "Highest Level (and Highest Stakes) Deliberations".[11] He also served as an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has also been a frequent commentator on several news outlets.[12] He was called back into public service twice, first in the summer of 2010 after a deadlock over formation of a new Iraqi government, and later in the summer of 2011, following a deadlock in negotiations with the Government of Iraq to extend the Security Agreement that had been successfully concluded in 2008.

In August 2013, he was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department.[13]

In November 2013,[14] and again in February 2014,[15] McGurk testified before the House Armed Services Committee about the emerging threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He is credited with being one of the first U.S. officials to warn about the rising threat of ISIL in Iraq and Syria.[16]

On June 9, 2014, McGurk was in Erbil, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, when ISIL overran the city of Mosul and approached Baghdad. He later flew to Baghdad and helped oversee the evacuation of 1,500 U.S. employees from the U.S. Embassy, while working with President Barack Obama and the National Security Council to develop the U.S. diplomatic and military response to the ISIL threat.[17] McGurk would ultimately play a leading role in facilitating the establishment of a new Government of Iraq, led by Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, and removing Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, who had served as Prime Minister over the past eight years.[18]

On September 13, 2014, Secretary John Kerry announced McGurk's appointment as Ambassador and Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.[19] Three days later, Ambassador McGurk met in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama and retired Marine Corps General John Allen, Special Presidential Envoy, to discuss the strategy for building a global alliance to defeat ISIL.[20] On December 3, 2014, in Brussels, Belgium, a formal alliance of 62 nations was formed to support Iraq and help the new government under Prime Minister Abadi fight ISIL along five military and diplomatic lines of effort.[21]

In his role as Special Presidential Envoy, McGurk has worked to organize a global coalition of nations as well as coalitions on the ground in Iraq and Syria to help eject ISIL from its strongholds. He was intimately involved, for example, in negotiating agreements between Arabs and Kurds to prepare for the liberation of Mosul.[22] He also helped lead negotiations with Turkey to open Incirlik airbase for counter-ISIL missions, and prepare the historic defense of Kobani in Syria by negotiating with Turkey to permit the Kurdish Peshmerga to enter the besieged city through Turkish territory.[23] McGurk has since visited the battlefields of Kobani where he met officials from the Kurdish Democratic Union Part (PYD) and its People's Protection Units (YPG),[24]as well as the front lines in Mosul to meet with Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish Pershmerga prior to an offensive to secure the eastern side of the city.[25]

He has also helped rally the global coalition for military and financial contributions to support major counter-ISIL operations in Iraq and Syria, with emphasis on post-conflict stabilization and returning the displaced to their homes.[26] In August 2017, McGurk stated that the Trump administration had "dramatically accelerated" the U.S.–led campaign against ISIL, citing estimates that almost one-third of the territory taken from ISIL "has been won in the last six months." McGurk favorably cited "steps President Trump has taken, including delegating decision–making authority from the White House to commanders in the field."[27]

McGurk during the MSC 2017

Under the Trump administration, he worked with Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson to develop the accelerated campaign against ISIS, which led to the liberation of Raqqa in October 2017 [28]. He has also visited the battlefields of Syria multiple times to help organize the coalition of Arab and Kurdish fighters that has succeeded in defeating ISIS in its former strongholds[29]. Diplomatically, under President Trump, he has led talks with Russia and Jordan to establish a ceasefire zone in southwest Syria [30], and spearheaded an initiative with Secretary Tillerson to restore ties between Saudi Arabia and Iraq after nearly three decades of dormant relations [31].

From October 2014 to January 2016, he was lead negotiator over fourteen months of intensive and secret negotiations with Iran that led to a prisoner swap and the return home of four Americans, including Jason Rezain, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini.[32]

McGurk was awarded the Distinguished Honor Award by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in January 2009 and the Distinguished Service Award by Secretary of State John Kerry in November 2016. These were the highest awards each Secretary could bestow in McGurk's capacity as a White House official under the Bush administration and a State Department official under the Obama administration. He has also received the Superior Honor Award from the U.S. Department of State [33], and the Outstanding Service and Joint Service Commendation Award from the U.S. National Security Council while serving as Special Assistant to President George W. Bush.[34]

Ambassadorial nomination[edit]

On 26 March 2012, McGurk was nominated to become the next United States Ambassador to Iraq, succeeding James F. Jeffrey.[35] However, McGurk's confirmation hearings soon became embroiled in controversy after a series of his emails were leaked to the press and published on Cryptome.[36] Speculation remains as to who was responsible for the leak.[37][38] The illicit emails were exchanged with Gina Chon, then a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Critics claim that the extramarital affair cast doubt on his ability to lead and manage the embassy, while supporters argue that it was at most a momentary lapse in judgement and that McGurk and Chon were a married couple when the series of emails from five years earlier leaked.[39][40]

Chon was later accused of sharing articles with McGurk before publication, and was forced to resign from the newspaper. McGurk and Chon married in 2012, after McGurk's amicable divorce from his previous wife, Caroline Wong.[41][42]

On 18 June 2012, McGurk submitted a letter to President Obama and withdrew himself from further consideration. “While we regret to see Brett withdraw his candidacy”, Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said in a statement later that day, “there is no doubt that he will be called on again to serve the country.”[43] The position eventually went to Robert S. Beecroft.


  1. ^ "Obama names Brett McGurk as envoy to coalition fighting Islamic State". Reuters. 2015-10-23. Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  2. ^ "Prisoner Swap: Obama's Secret Second Channel to Iran". 16 January 2016.
  3. ^ "Iran Negotiations Add to Special Envoy’s Reputation as ‘a Doer’". The New York Times. 20 January 2016.
  4. ^ "Trump keeps Obama appointee tasked with helping run the war against ISIS". Washington Post.
  5. ^ "Ambassador to Iraq: Who Is Brett McGurk?".
  6. ^ Best, Kenneth (2005-04-25). "UConn Advance - April 25, 2005 - Alumni Recount Experiences in Iraq". Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  7. ^ "Brett McGurk - Director for Iraq, National Security Council". Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  8. ^ George W. Bush, Decision Points, Crown 2010, Page 371
  9. ^ "Brett McGurk | Roger Hertog Program on Law and National Security | Columbia Law School". Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  10. ^ "Brett H. McGurk - Council on Foreign Relations". Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  11. ^ "Brett McGurk | The Institute of Politics at Harvard University". Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  12. ^ "Brett McGurk". Brett McGurk. Archived from the original on January 9, 2016. Retrieved December 16, 2015.
  13. ^ "McGurk, Brett". 2014-09-16. Retrieved 2015-04-21.
  14. ^ "Testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa Hearing: Iraq" (PDF). 2013-11-13. Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  15. ^ "Testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing: Iraq" (PDF). 2014-02-05. Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  16. ^ News, A. B. C. (September 30, 2014). "3 Times Obama Administration Was Warned About ISIS". ABC News.
  17. ^ "Statement for the Record: Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk : Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing: Iraq at a Crossroads: Options for U.S. Policy" (PDF). 2014-07-24. Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  18. ^ Solomon, Jay (2014-08-13). "U.S.'s Man in Baghdad Key to Political Deal". WSJ. Retrieved 2015-04-21.
  19. ^ "Announcement of General John Allen as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL". 2014-09-13. Retrieved 2015-04-21.
  20. ^ "Readout of the President's Meeting with General John Allen, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and Ambassador Brett McGurk, Deputy Special Presidential Envoy | The White House". 2014-09-16. Retrieved 2015-04-21.
  21. ^ "Joint Statement Issued by Partners at the Counter-ISIL Coalition Ministerial Meeting". Retrieved 2015-04-21.
  22. ^ "Exclusive: U.S. helped clinch Iraq oil deal to keep Mosul battle on track". October 4, 2016 – via Reuters.
  23. ^ "We really can"t succeed against ISIL without Turkey: US - DIPLOMACY". Hürriyet Daily News - LEADING NEWS SOURCE FOR TURKEY AND THE REGION.
  24. ^ Davis, Julie Hirschfeld (February 1, 2016). "Senior U.S. Official Describes 2-Day Visit to Syria" – via
  25. ^ El-Ghobashy, Tamer; Phillips, Michael M. (December 5, 2016). "U.S. Seeks to Maintain Fragile Anti-ISIS Alliance in Iraq" – via
  26. ^ "Defense, foreign ministers to plan next steps against IS".
  27. ^ DeYoung, Karen (2017-08-04). "Under Trump, gains against ISIS have 'dramatically accelerated'". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2017-08-08.
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^ Landler, Mark (2016-01-19). "Iran Negotiations Add to Special Envoy's Reputation as 'a Doer'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-02-11.
  33. ^ "Brett McGurk '99 | Columbia Law School Magazine". Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  34. ^ "About Brett McGurk". Archived from the original on April 23, 2013. Retrieved June 5, 2013.
  35. ^ "President Obama Announces More Key Administration Posts". 2012-03-26. Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  36. ^ "Ambassadorial Nominee Brett McGurk and WSJ Gina Chon Emails". Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  37. ^ Kaplan, Fred (2012-06-20). "Brett McGurk nomination to be U.S. ambassador to Iraq ended because of leaked email messages". Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  38. ^ Eli Lake. "The Man Behind the 'Blue Ball' Emails Scandal That Snared Brett McGurk". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  39. ^ Entous, Adam (2012-06-18). "Brett McGurk Withdraws as Iraq Ambassador Nominee - WSJ". Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  40. ^ "Brett McGurk lands in hot water over racy emails with Wall Street Journal reporter Gina Chon". 2012-06-10. Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  41. ^ "War Correspondent Gina Chon Defends Herself: "I've Never Felt So Vulnerable" - BuzzFeed News". Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  42. ^ "Caroline Wong and Brett McGurk". The New York Times. 2006-03-12. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-02-11.
  43. ^ "Facing Confirmation Fight, Nominee as Ambassador to Iraq Withdraws". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-12-16.

External links[edit]

Media related to Brett H. McGurk at Wikimedia Commons

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
John Allen
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant