Skip to main Content

Wikileaks shed light on GOP Senate candidate Sullivan's State Dept. career

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 29, 2014

A trove of more than 100 of the leaked Wikileaks diplomatic cables in 2010 provides an unvarnished view of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan's career at the U.S. Department of State, where he spent two-and-a-half years holding high-level meetings on oil and gas, climate change, and a host of other issues, even lobbying a head of state on a secret surveillance program.

The cables bolster Sullivan's foreign policy credentials, but also may expose him to criticism from the right over his advocacy for reducing carbon emissions.

Sullivan, Alaska's former attorney general and commissioner of natural resources, is one of three GOP candidates running to face Democratic Sen. Mark Begich in November.

He was nominated by President George W. Bush in April of 2006 to the post of assistant secretary for economic, energy, and business affairs, and confirmed unanimously by the Senate a month later.

He said he ran a bureau with some 240 employees, working on a broad swath of economic issues from energy and aviation to sanctions, and trying to undermine financing of terrorism networks.

"Our motto was, 'promoting prosperity at home and abroad,'" Sullivan said in an interview. "In every one of my meetings, I was doing what I thought Americans would want, which is promoting America's interests in the world. Every other country in the world's doing this too."

Some of Sullivan's efforts -- though far from all of them -- were revealed in the batch of 250,000 State Department cables made public through the Wikileaks release in 2010, for which Pvt. Chelsea Manning has been sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Sullivan's appearances in the cables -- first noted by the liberal website Firedoglake -- give an intimate look at the 30 months he spent as a globetrotting advocate for the U.S., with a travel schedule that he said filled up two passports and took him through Pakistan, Brazil, Colombia, Turkey, Norway, and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries.

He pushed former Soviet republics to embrace more open trade with the West, particularly on oil and gas. He helped convince the Afghan government to speed up talks on debt relief. And he personally asked Turkmenistan's president to allow the U.S. to restart a secret embassy surveillance program, after a local contact quietly recommended that approach in a handwritten note to an American diplomat.

While there's nothing explosive in the cables, they show that Sullivan, if elected, would arrive at the Senate with fluency in a key area of the job, according to Jerry McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"He's going to be familiar, real familiar -- more so than the other candidates, including Begich -- with areas that come up with the Senate pretty frequently," McBeath said in an interview, though he added that Sullivan's foreign policy credentials may not make much of a difference to voters.

Climate change

Sullivan's work on climate change included meetings with German, Mexican, and French diplomats -- some of them involving lobbying on behalf of an initiative from President Bush to "actually get a framework agreement among the major economies and (a) long-term global greenhouse gas reduction goal by the end of 2008," according to one cable from the summer of 2007.

The cables show Sullivan's efforts behind the scenes; a public address and press conference he gave in Europe in 2008 also addressed the Bush administration's climate change initiatives, and have been cited in recent news reports.

Sullivan has since said "there is no general consensus on pinpointing the sole cause of global temperature trends," though he acknowledges that "with seven billion people on earth, humans will have an effect."

A spokesman for Joe Miller, one of Sullivan's opponents in the Republican primary, said in an email that the Wikileaks cables show that Sullivan "presided over a shift in the Bush administration's strategy with respect to so-called climate change, and was working to build a consensus on the issue."

"Dan Sullivan uncritically accepted the premise of man-caused global warming…at least before he decided to run for Senate in a Republican primary," said the spokesman, Randy DeSoto. "He traveled the world in an attempt to build consensus on the issue."

Sullivan said that the climate effort "was driven by the White House," and that he wasn't President Bush's point person on climate change.

The goal of Bush's climate initiative -- which, Sullivan noted, "never came to anything" -- had been to head off a cap-and-trade or carbon tax regime being pushed by European nations, Sullivan said.

Since his time in the State Department, he added: "I think there's been a lot of pushback on the science."

Secret surveillance

Only seven of the Wikileaks cables that mention Sullivan's name were classified as "secret," though several shed light on his role in pressing Turkmenistan's government to authorize the restart of a surveillance program at the American embassy there that had been shut down.

Those cables read like they came from a spy novel, describing how a lower-level Turkmenistan official told an American diplomat to "never send another diplomatic note" about the surveillance program, even as he "scribbled on a blank piece of paper, 'Only president can solve.'"

That led to a request by the U.S. official in charge of the Turkmenistan embassy that Sullivan pull aside President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov during a meeting to press him on the surveillance program. ("Did you see the guy's name?" Sullivan asked in an interview. "It took me forever to figure out how to pronounce it, so I just referred to him as Mr. President.")

Berdimuhamedov told Sullivan that Turkmenistan law enforcement had established that the American program had violated the country's laws, but added he would tell his foreign ministry to set "mutually agreed limits."

Sullivan said that the surveillance program was not part of his normal portfolio at the State Department, but was one issue the U.S. wanted to raise while he had access to Turkmenistan's president.

"In Central Asia and the Caspian region, those are dangerous neighborhoods, and we want to make sure our diplomats and their families are protected," Sullivan said.

He added that he had "zero" to do with the National Security Agency or domestic surveillance.

McBeath, the UAF professor, said he didn't think the cables showed that Sullivan was "a loose guy, as far as surveillance."

The program may or may not have broken Turkmenistan's laws, McBeath added, but it should be viewed in the context of attacks on American embassies -- areas that he called an "extension of our nation state."

"From the American perspective, if you're going to be blowing up our embassies, you're going to be watching everyone who comes through your door," McBeath said.


The Wikileaks cables also show Sullivan holding high-level meetings on energy issues, with particular emphasis placed on getting former Soviet republics to broaden their trade in oil and gas beyond Russia.

One cable describes how he led a delegation to Kazakhstan's capital that held meetings in 2007 with the county's prime minister. Sullivan and another diplomat argued that a new gas pipeline across the Caspian Sea -- one that didn't pass through Russia -- would help provide Europe with more secure flow of energy, and get the Kazakhs better prices.

He made a similar pitch to a government energy official in Turkmenistan, who was so desperate for Western expertise in negotiating agreements with oil companies that he looked straight at Sullivan and said: "We need your help."

Those American efforts came as the Russians pushed their own agenda in the region -- as Sullivan described it, "following, watching, and also very aggressively trying to thwart what we were doing."

Other cables show how Sullivan tried to extract information about the activities of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries from officials in the United Arab Emirates, while in 2006 he met with executives from a Norwegian oil company and learned about their "cutting-edge offshore technologies that had made development of remote subsea Arctic resources a reality," as he later told a Norwegian official.

Free Trade

Sullivan also worked on more conventional trade and economic issues in his time at the State Department, which fit into President Bush's broader economic policies.

Several Wikileaks cables showed Sullivan's efforts pushing for free trade agreements, particularly in South America, both in meetings with foreign diplomats and with skeptical labor union officials.

In those meetings, Sullivan argued that free trade partnerships could help reduce poverty and increase competitiveness, according to one of the cables -- though labor officials in Colombia argued that an agreement "would worsen labor conditions by forcing companies (there) to become more competitive."

Other initiatives Sullivan worked on that are detailed in Wikileaks cables included pushing foreign nations to protect and embrace U.S. products. He lobbied for recognition of intellectual property rights in Brazil, argued against Norwegian taxes on light trucks that hurt American exports, and pitched the value of biotechnology -- including genetically modified organisms -- to the French government.

"He's out there pushing U.S. interests and making sure other people don't screw us," said Professor Judith Goldstein, the chair of Stanford University's department of political science. "He's looking like everyone else in the George W. Bush administration -- they were business roundtable kinds of people, they were very free-trade oriented."

Then, there was ground-level diplomacy. In Turkey, he attended the release of a guidebook that explained how to do business in the U.S. In Brazil, he fielded a pitch from officials that their national liquor, cachaca, deserved special trade recognition.

"Those kind of things actually, to me, are an important part of diplomacy," Sullivan said.

On the whole, Goldstein said, Sullivan's work appeared to align what she described as President Bush's "totally reasonable" foreign policy on trade. But it's hard to draw any broad conclusions from the cables, which she described as a "small slice of what's going on."

"The problem is, we don't know what else he was doing," she said.

Croatian enthusiasm

As for Sullivan's opponents? There's no mention of GOP primary rivals Mead Treadwell and Joe Miller in the cables -- at least, not the Joe Miller who's a Fairbanks attorney and Senate candidate.

Incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, however, earns a couple of mentions in weekly activity reports from the American embassy in Croatia's capital.

At a November 2008 breakfast with more than 300 government officials, media members, and businessmen hosted by the American ambassador, attendees were eager to discuss results from the Alaska Senate race, "in which Croatian-American (and Anchorage mayor) Mark Begich was the Democratic candidate."

A subsequent cable noted that "Croatian media have reported extensively" on how Begich's victory made him "the first Croatian in the Senate," and described how his grandfather emigrated to the U.S. in 1911, "from the small town of Podlapaca in the rural Lika region."

However, the cable dryly noted those reports neglected "the fact that Ohio Senator George Voinovich's family ties reach back to the ethnic Serb community in Vojnic."

Contact Nathaniel Herz at

For more newsletters click here

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.