Ex-Interior Chief Sally Jewell: I Didn't Even Know I Had A Special Flag

Her successor Ryan Zinke wasted little time reviving an arcane military flag-flying tradition.

WASHINGTON — Sally Jewell, who led the Department of Interior for more than three years under President Barack Obama, says she first learned about her own special flag at the agency when her successor started flying it over the department’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.

After taking over in March, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke revived an obscure military flag-flying tradition. As The Washington Post reported in October, when Zinke enters the building, “a security staffer takes the elevator to the seventh floor, climbs the stairs to the roof and hoists a special secretarial flag.” When he goes home, the flag comes down.

“I had no idea there was a secretarial flag,” Jewell told HuffPost. “And if I had known there was a flag the last thing I would have done was to ever fly it.”

Leading Interior — an agency that manages some 500 million acres of federal land, roughly one-fifth of the United States — is a demanding job that requires “creating an inclusive atmosphere, making people feel how important they are to the American people,” Jewell said. 

Zinke, a former Montana congressman and Navy SEAL, faced a barrage of criticism over the flag ritual, earning himself headlines like “Trump’s Interior Secretary Is Running His Agency Like He’s Queen Of England.” The move also violates the agency’s policy for displaying and flying flags, as HuffPost previously reported. 

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift has defended the arcane ritual, telling the Post at the time that it is “a major sign of transparency” and that Zinke “is restoring honor and tradition to the department.”

But one week after being sworn into his new post, Zinke sent staff scrambling when he inquired about redesigning the agency’s historic flag, as HuffPost first reported in November. And he succeeded in making flags larger, so that neither his secretarial flag nor the agency flag would be smaller than the United States flag that flies atop the department’s headquarters on C Street in Washington, D.C.

It is unclear how Zinke hoped to redesign the flag, which is emblazoned with a bison and has gone largely unchanged for a century.

The flag for the Interior Department’s deputy secretary, bottom, flies above agency headquarters in Washington. The mid
The flag for the Interior Department’s deputy secretary, bottom, flies above agency headquarters in Washington. The middle flag represents the department.

Interior first adopted a flag in 1917. Over the last 100 years, the bison seal, and presumably the flag, have twice been replaced — first with an eagle in the 1920s, and later to an image of hands holding the sun, mountains and water in the late 1960s. But both times the flag has reverted to the bison.

The last person to make a change to the seal was James Watt, President Ronald Reagan’s controversial, pro-drilling Interior secretary, who in 1982 temporarily turned the bison so that it would face to the right — a move The New York Times described at the time as “a partisan posture in keeping with his conservative views.”

In a speech to staff his second day on the job, Zinke said he wanted to restore the public’s trust in Interior and for the agency “to be the best department in the government.” He stressed the importance of teamwork and said he doesn’t care about his employees’ political beliefs, only that they love America and the department. 

But internal emails and interviews with current and former employees have done little to paint a picture of a happy workforce.

Zinke came under fire in September when, during a speech to an oil industry group, he said: “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.” The comment was met with outrage, including from a trio of groups representing retired Interior employees, who called the remarks “disrespectful,” “divisive,” “ludicrous” and “deeply insulting.”