USG Declares 35 Russian Officials Persona Non Grata, Imposes New Sanctions

Posted: 1:09 pm PT
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On December 29, the State Department declared persona non grata 35 Russian officials operating in the United States “who were acting in a manner inconsistent with their diplomatic or consular status.”  The Treasury Department also announced that its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions on two Russian individuals for engaging in malicious cyber-enabled activities pursuant to E.O. 13694.  Specifically, Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev and Aleksey Alekseyevich Belan are being designated for their activities related to the significant misappropriation of funds or economic resources, trade secrets, personal identifiers, or financial information for private financial gain.  Meanwhile, DHS and FBI released a Joint Analysis Report (JAR) which provide details of the tools and infrastructure used by Russian intelligence services to compromise and exploit networks and infrastructure associated with the recent U.S. election, as well as a range of U.S. government, political and private sector entities. Below is the State Department statement:

The State Department today declared persona non grata 35 Russian officials operating in the United States who were acting in a manner inconsistent with their diplomatic or consular status. The Department also informed the Russian Government that it would deny Russian personnel access to two recreational compounds in the United States owned by the Russian Government.

The Department took these actions as part of a comprehensive response to Russia’s interference in the U.S. election and to a pattern of harassment of our diplomats overseas that has increased over the last four years, including a significant increase in the last 12 months. This harassment has involved arbitrary police stops, physical assault, and the broadcast on State TV of personal details about our personnel that put them at risk. In addition, the Russian Government has impeded our diplomatic operations by, among other actions: forcing the closure of 28 American corners which hosted cultural programs and English-language teaching; blocking our efforts to begin the construction of a new, safer facility for our Consulate General in St. Petersburg; and rejecting requests to improve perimeter security at the current, outdated facility in St. Petersburg.

Today’s actions send a clear message that such behavior is unacceptable and will have consequences.

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Tit For Tat For Tit: Russia expels two US diplomats over unprovoked attack at US Embassy Moscow

Posted: 3:12 am ET
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On June 6, a Russian Federal Security Service (FSB)  guard reportedly attacked one of our accredited diplomats posted in Moscow. About three weeks later, somebody told the Washington Post about the attack.

This previously unreported attack occurred just steps from the entrance to the U.S. Embassy complex, which is located in the Presnensky District in Moscow’s city center. After being tackled by the FSB guard, the diplomat suffered a broken shoulder, among other injuries. He was eventually able to enter the embassy and was then flown out of Russia to receive urgent medical attention, administration officials confirmed to me. He remains outside of Russia.

RFE/RL reported the response from Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on June 30  — that the guard attempted to stop the man to check his identity, but the man struck the guard in the face with his elbow before running into the embassy. “In the tussle that followed, the unknown man shoved away the guard employee and disappeared into the embassy,” she said.

Here’s TASS with a quote from the Russian deputy foreign minister about the incident:

“A video of that incident was broadcasted on July 7 by the NTV channel and speaks for itself – in the middle of the night some man wearing a hat pulled on his eyes, though it is summer, rushes from a taxi to the embassy entrance without any attempts to present a pass,” the Russian deputy foreign minister said. “Then, as the police on guard in order to prevent any threat for the diplomatic mission from the stranger, hurries to the person, the man gives him a punch by elbow into the face, thus actually committing a crime.”

Well, now, here’s the video, which was released earlier this week by Russian state-owned NTV.

Can we please file the deputy under the “Baghdad Bob” folder?

In any case, on July 7, WaPo reported that Congress is now investigating the attack on the U.S. diplomat in Moscow.

On Friday, July 8, State Department spox, John Kirby told reporters for the first time that Russian diplomats were expelled from the US on June 17 in response to the attack. “We are extremely troubled by the way our employees have been treated over the past couple years,” Kirby said.

Gotcha. One month, two days.

On July 9, Russia’s Sputnik News confirmed from the Russian Foreign Ministry that “Washington urged Russian diplomats to leave the US, while not voicing any complaints concerning their activity.”

Also on July 9, TASS reported that “two CIA officials working for U.S. Embassy were declared persona non grata.”  Apparently, Moscow has also warned Washington that “further escalation of bilateral relations will not remain unanswered.”

Here’s something to read via The American Interest:

The Obama Administration really wanted to keep this incident quiet. Whether due to wishful thinking or for reasons knowable only to those on the inside, the White House seems to think it can make progress with Russia on both the Ukraine and Syria portfolios. The harassment of State Department personnel in Moscow by security personnel was not exactly a new phenomenon, even though it had increased in intensity since Russia annexed Crimea, fought a covert war in Donbas, and had sanctions imposed on it. The White House probably saw this latest assault, egregious though it was, as fitting into a well-established pattern (one at odds with whatever hopeful signs it thought it was getting directly from the Kremlin).The Administration knew the video of the beating looked bad and could inflame U.S. domestic opinion if it leaked. But to its credit, it did not completely turn the other cheek either. Rather, it stuck to the informal, accepted procedure of quietly PNGing two Russian spies with diplomatic cover and gave zero notice to the press. Whatever the original reason for the assault, the thinking must have gone, it’s important that it not get in the way of improving relations with the Kremlin.

Read more: Kremlin Paranoia Leads to Escalation in Spy War and Why Russia Published Footage of an FSB Agent Beating an American in Moscow.

Below via the DPB with the official spox on July 8:

QUESTION: Okay. On the incident outside the Russian embassy, there’s been more comments out of Moscow or wherever. Seems like they’re bent on humiliating you over this incident. Do you have a response?

MR KIRBY: So I’ve been clear from the podium that we would prefer to deal with this matter in private government-to-government channels. However, because, as you noted, the Russian Government continues to make allegations about this incident, I am now compelled to set the record straight. On the 6th of June, an accredited U.S. diplomat, who identified himself in accordance with embassy protocols, entering the American embassy compound was attacked by a Russian policeman. The action was unprovoked and it endangered the safety of our employee. The Russian claim the policeman was protecting the embassy from an unidentified individual is simply untrue.

In addition to the attack on the 6th of June, Russian security services have intensified their harassment against U.S. personnel in an effort to disrupt our diplomatic and consular operations. We’ve privately urged the Russian Government to stop the harassment of American personnel in Russia, and as I said before, the safety and well-being of our diplomatic and consular personnel abroad and their accompanying family members are things we take very, very seriously.

QUESTION: All right. On the individual, the diplomat, there were some reports that he sustained injuries, including maybe a broken arm. Is that true, and has he since left the country, been PNGed, or anything like that?

MR KIRBY: Privacy considerations restrict me from speaking about health, and, as a standard practice, I’m not going to comment on the status of any of our employees serving overseas.

QUESTION: In Congress there’s calls for an investigation. Do you support those? Will you undertake an investigation?

MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of any investigation that we are going to undertake. If that changes or something, I’ll let you know.

QUESTION: And then what does this say about the broader U.S.-Russian relationship? Is it getting – if you can’t even operate in normal manner in the country, is it getting to a level – a worse level than it’s been in a very long time?

MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, I think it certainly speaks, as I said, of – to the kinds of harassment over the last couple of years – I mean, this is a very graphic example and a very violent one. But it comes on the heels of two years of increasing diplomatic harassment by Russian authorities that is also unprovoked and unnecessary. And as I said I think a week or so ago, Russian claims that they’re getting harassed here are simply without foundation. So you want to have a conversation about in-kind treatment, it’s time for Russia to treat our diplomats with – in the same manner in which they’re treated here when they come to the United States.

And as for the broader relationship, the – our relationship with Russia is complicated, and we certainly don’t see eye to eye on everything. There are areas where we have in the past and I think we’ll continue to seek cooperation with them, such as on Syria and the political process there. There are obviously still areas where there’s tension; Ukraine and Minsk implementation is one of them, and certainly this. There’s no need for this when there’s so many more important things for us to be working on with Russia and so much real, meaningful geopolitical progress that could be had. There’s no place for this kind of treatment and there’s no reason for it.

QUESTION: Are you prepared to make an official complaint about a Vienna Convention violation?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything on that to say today.

QUESTION: And then lastly, are – do you have – are you considering any countermeasures against Russia in terms of diplomatic presence in the United States, whether it’s expelling embassies, limiting movement, or otherwise responding to this incident?

MR KIRBY: So a couple of things on there. I’d say in – certainly in a sign of how seriously we take it, as I said earlier, the Secretary raised it directly with Foreign Minister Lavrov on the very day that it occurred.

(Ringtone plays.)

QUESTION: Sorry.

MR KIRBY: That’s okay.

We’re well aware that such efforts against U.S. personnel are not always sanctioned by all elements of the Russian Government. So we’re going to look to senior Russian officials with whom we engage to reign in those elements seeking to impede our diplomatic and consular activities in – I’m sorry – in Russia and our bilateral relationship. And again, this has been raised at the very highest levels – this particular incident – and I think you’ll continue to see us do that.

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State Department Denies Raymond Maxwell’s Document Scrub Allegations. Peeeeriod!!!!

Domani Spero
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We did a blog post yesterday on former NEA Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Raymond Maxwell and Benghazi (see Former State Dept DAS Raymond Maxwell Alleges Benghazi Document Scrub Pre-ARB Investigation).

A Fox News report cited State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach denying the allegations:

“That allegation is totally without merit. It doesn’t remotely reflect the way the ARB actually obtained information,” he said in an email. He explained that an “all-points bulletin”-type request went out department-wide instructing “full and prompt cooperation” for anyone contacted by the ARB, and urging anyone with “relevant information” to contact the board. 

“So individuals with information were reaching out proactively to the Board. And, the ARB was also directly engaged with individuals and the Department’s bureaus and offices to request information and pull on whichever threads it chose to. The range of sources that the ARB’s investigation drew on would have made it impossible for anyone outside of the ARB to control its access to information,” Gerlach said. He further noted that the leaders of the ARB have claimed they had unfettered access to information and people. 

Looks like that’s the press guidance.  Below is a clip of  the Deputy Spokesperson of the State Department, Marie Harf, responding to a question on Maxwell’s allegations using similar words — full indirect access, completely without merit, completely ill-informed, ARB co-chairs are of impeccable credentials, period. So she did not call the State Department’s former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State a liar, she just called him “completely uninformed.” Except that only one of the them was in that room.

Here is the text:

MS. HARF: The ARB had full and direct access to State Department employees and documents. Any accounts to the contrary, like that one you mentioned, are completely without merit, completely ill-informed. It was – these reports show a complete lack of understanding of how the ARB functioned. It collected its own documents directly from anybody in the Department. There was a Department-wide call for information to be given directly to the ARB; that’s what happened. The ARB’s co-chairs, Tom Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen, both public servants of impeccable credentials, have both repeated several times that they had “unfettered access” to all the information they needed, period.

 

One could argue that until he was dragged into this Benghazi mess, Mr. Maxwell, a career diplomat of over 20 years was also a public servant of impeccable credentials.  One who initially did not even have access  to what was written about him in the classified report of ARB Benghazi.

Of course, as can be expected, the GOP is embracing this new revelation, and the Dems are simply shrugging this off as old news.  We know that Mr. Maxwell had a grievance case that was dismissed in June this year, we blogged about it. (See The Cautionary Tale of Raymond Maxwell: When the Bureaucracy Bites, Who Gets The Blame?).  But the allegation about this scrub had apparently surfaced about a year ago.  Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, confirmed to FoxNews.com on Monday that Maxwell told him and other lawmakers the same story when they privately interviewed him last year about the attacks and their aftermath. Folks will question that because Mr. Chaffetz is not the most impartial individual to collaborate that story. But if there were Democrats present in that interview, would anyone be wiling to say anything, anyway?

Media Matters deployed its rapid response ninja calling Mr. Maxwell a “dubious source”:

Maxwell himself is a dubious source. He was placed on administrative leave after the Accountability Review Board’s investigation found a “lack of proactive leadership” and pointed specifically to Maxwell’s department, saying some officials in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs “showed a lack of ownership of Benghazi’s security issues.” A House Oversight Committee report released findings from the classified version of the ARB report, which revealed that the ARB’s board members “were troubled by the NEA DAS for Maghreb Affairs’ lack of leadership and engagement on staffing and security issues in Benghazi.”

 

Damn, where is that NEA DAS office for staffing and security issues in Benghazi here?

Extracted from DIPLOMATIC SECURITY | Overseas Facilities May Face Greater Risks Due to Gaps in Security-Related Activities, Standards, and Policies – GAO-14-655 June 2014 (click on image for larger view)

 

This will unfold with Raymond Maxwell either demonized or hailed a hero.   We don’t think he’s either; he’s just a dedicated public servant unfairly tainted by Benghazi who wants his good name back.  It looks like he’ll have to walk through fire before he gets a chance to do that.

We’ve heard about this document scrub allegation this past summer. We understand that there were others who were told about this incident last year. Some NEA folks reportedly also heard this story.

So why now?

Only Mr. Maxwell can answer that.  We hope he gets to tell his full story under oath before the Select Committee.

While we refused to see a conspiracy under every rug in Foggy Bottom, and we did not  support the creation of the Benghazi Select Committee, this changes it for us.

We just hope the Committee can keep its adult pants on and not turn the Benghazi hearings into a clownsport.

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USG Declares Three Venezuelan Diplomats Personae Non Gratae

— Domani Spero

The Venezuelan Government notified the United States on the afternoon of February 17 that they have declared three of our consular officers at US Embassy Caracas personae non gratae. The three were given 48 hours to leave the country (see Venezuela (Where Almost No One Has Toilet Paper) Kicks Out Three U.S. Diplomats for “Flaming” Student Protests).

On February 25, the U.S. Government kicked out three Venezuelan diplomats in response to the Venezuelan  Government’s decision.  The State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki identified the png’ed diplomats as First Secretary Ignacio Luis Cajal Avalos, First Secretary Victor Manuel Pisani Azpurua, and Second Secretary Marcos Jose Garcia Figueredo.  Ms. Psaki said that the diplomats were given 48 hours to leave the United States. Citing Article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, Ms. Psaki also noted that the convention permits the United States to declare any member of a diplomatic mission persona non grata at any time and without the necessity to state a reason.

Asked to comment about the possible nomination of a new Venezuelan ambassador to the U.S., the spox had this to say:

“Well, as you know, a decision about an exchange of ambassadors is a mutual decision, so obviously, we’ve said months ago that we could – we would be open to an exchange of ambassadors but that Venezuela needs to show seriousness about their willingness and their openness to a positive relationship moving forward.”

Late the same day, Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro announced the nomination of Maximilien Arvelaiz to be the country’s first ambassador to the U.S. since 2010.  According to Bloomberg, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said that the nomination of Arvelaiz, a former ambassador to Brazil, was meant to “establish political relations at the highest level that will contribute to peace.”  

In 2010, then President Hugo Chavez caused the withdrawal of Venezuela’s agrément on the appointment of Larry Palmer as U.S. Ambassador to Caracas (see How Larry Palmer, the US Ambassador nominee to Venezuela got rolled?). Nicolas Maduro, then Foreign Minister presented the diplomatic note to the embassy formally withdrawing the agreement of Larry Palmer to be the Ambassador to Venezuela.  Ambassador Palmer was later nominated and confirmed in 2012 as U.S. ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.

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