Tag Archive: us foreign policy

Reports this week claimed Snowden had applied for asylum in Russia because he feared torture if he was returned to US

The US has told the Russian government that it will not seek the death penalty for Edward Snowden should he be extradited, in an attempt to prevent Moscow from granting asylum to the former National Security Agency contractor.

In a letter sent this week, US attorney general Eric Holder told his Russian counterpart that the charges faced by Snowden do not carry the death penalty. Holder added that the US “would not seek the death penalty even if Mr Snowden were charged with additional, death penalty-eligible crimes”.

Holder said he had sent the letter, addressed to Alexander Vladimirovich, Russia’s minister of justice, in response to reports that Snowden had applied for temporary asylum in Russia “on the grounds that if he were returned to the United States, he would be tortured and would face the death penalty”.

“These claims are entirely without merit,” Holder said. In addition to his assurance that Snowden would not face capital punishment, the attorney general wrote: “Torture is unlawful in the United States.”

In the letter, released by the US Department of Justice on Friday, Holder added: “We believe that these assurances eliminate these asserted grounds for Mr Snowden’s claim that he should be treated as a refugee or granted asylum, temporary or otherwise.”

The US has been seeking Snowden’s extradition to face felony charges for leaking details of NSA surveillance programmes. There were authoritative reports on Wednesday that authorities in Moscow had granted Snowden permission to stay in Russia temporarily, but when Snowden’s lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, arrived to meet his client at Sheremetyevo airport, he said the papers were not yet ready.

Kucherena, who has close links to the Kremlin, said Snowden would stay in the airport’s transit zone, where he has been in limbo since arriving from Hong Kong on 23 June, for the near future.

The letter from Holder, and the apparent glitch in Snowden’s asylum application, suggest that Snowden’s fate is far from secure.

But a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin insisted Russia has not budged from its refusal to extradite Snowden. Asked by a reporter on Friday whether the government’s position had changed, Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies that “Russia has never extradited anyone and never will.” Putin has previously insisted Russia will not extradite Snowden to the US. There is no US-Russia extradition treaty.

Putin’s statement still leaves the Russian authorities room for manoeuvre, however, as Snowden is not technically on Russian soil.

Peskov said that Putin is not involved in reviewing Snowden’s application or involved in discussions about the whistleblower’s future with the US, though he said the Russian security service, the FSB, had been in touch with the FBI.

Speaking on Wednesday, Snowden’s lawyer said he was hoped to settle in Russia. “[Snowden] wants to find work in Russia, travel and somehow create a life for himself,” Kucherena told the television station Rossiya 24. He said Snowden had already begun learning Russian.

There is support among some Russian politicians for Snowden to be allowed to stay in the country. The speaker of the Russian parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, has said Snowden should be granted asylum to protect him from the death penalty.

The letter from Holder was designed to allay those fears and negate the grounds for which Snowden as allegedly applied for asylum in Russia. The attorney general said that if Snowden returned to the US he would “promptly be brought before a civilian court” and would receive “all the protections that United States law provides”.

“Any questioning of Mr Snowden could be conducted only with his consent: his participation would be entirely voluntary, and his legal counsel would be present should he wish it,” Holder said.

He added that despite Snowden’s passport being revoked he “remains a US citizen” and said the US would facilitate a direct return to the country.

Germany’s president, who helped expose the workings of East Germany’s Stasi secret police, waded into the row on Friday. President Joachim Gauck, whose role is largely symbolic, said whistleblowers such as Snowden deserved respect for defending freedom.

“The fear that our telephones or mails are recorded and stored by foreign intelligence services is a constraint on the feeling of freedom and then the danger grows that freedom itself is damaged,” Gauck said.

In closing arguments, defence lawyer paints portrait of Wikileaks source as someone without ‘evil intent’

The lawyer representing the WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning has asked the judge presiding over the soldier’s court martial to decide between two stark portrayals of the accused – the prosecution’s depiction of him as a traitor and seeker of notoriety, and the defence’s account that he was motivated by a desire to make a difference in the world and save lives.

Over four hours of intense closing arguments at Fort Meade in Maryland, David Coombs set up a moral and legal clash of characterisations, between the Manning that he laid out for the court, and the callous and fame-obsessed Manning sketched on Thursday by the US government. “What is the truth?” the lawyer asked Colonel Denise Lind, the presiding judge who must now decide between the two accounts to reach her verdict.

“Is Manning somebody who is a traitor with no loyalty to this country or the flag, who wanted to download as much information as possible for his employer WikiLeaks? Or is he a young, naive, well-intentioned soldier who has his humanist belief central to his decisions and whose sole purpose was to make a difference.”

Coombs answered his own rhetorical question by arguing that all the evidence presented to the trial over the past seven weeks pointed in one direction. “All the forensics prove that he had a good motive: to spark reforms, to spark change, to make a difference. He did not have a general evil intent.”

Coombs ridiculed the prosecution case as a “diatribe” and said that its account of his client as someone who only cared about himself as the opposite of the truth. “He is concerned about everybody, he is concerned to save lives.”

The lawyer continued: “He felt were were all connected to everybody, we had a duty to our fellow human beings. It may have been a little naive, but that is not anti-American, it is really what America is about.”

The closing arguments presented over two days in the courtroom at Fort Meade have emerged into a clash of visions about the nature of leaking of official secrets in the digital age. At the centre of the battle is Manning himself, a diminutive figure in military fatigues, who has sat silently throughout.

With the end of the evidential stage of the trial, it now falls to the Lind to make sense of these two starkly conflicting pictures and reach a verdict that could come within days. Sitting without a jury at Manning’s own request she must now decide whether the soldier is guilty of 21 counts that could see him detained in military custody for life without any chance of parole, plus a total of 154 years for itemised offences.

The soldier has already admitted to transmitting hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks, and to a lesser version of the charges that carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail.

The most serious charge against Manning, carrying a possible life sentence, is that he “aided the enemy”, specifically al-Qaida, by passing intelligence to WikiLeaks which then made it accessible on the internet. In prosecution closing arguments, the government alleged that because of Manning sensitive US state secrets had been found in the possession of Osama bin Laden the day the al-Qaida leader was killed.

Countering that view, Coombs argued that WikiLeaks was a legitimate news organisation on a par with the international alliance of news outlets that had worked with the anti-secrecy websites to release edited versions of Manning’s disclosures. “WikiLeaks is no different from the New York Times, no different from the Guardian, no different from Der Spiegel.”

He cited the US government’s own counter-intelligence report on WikiLeaks that described the organisation as being motivated by a desire to hold governments accountable to their people. “That is the watchdog function of the press – that is what the press is designed to do,” Coombs said.

The “aiding the enemy” charge is the most contentious aspect of the Manning trial. It has provoked a wide debate about its possible impact on press freedom in the US, with first amendment advocates warning it could spread a chill across investigative reporting.

Coombs made his comments within that context, implying that to hold Manning guilty of helping al-Qaida by dint of having leaked to a news organisation would set a dangerous precedent. “Giving something to a legitimate news organisation is the way we hold our government accountable. Giving information to the world, to inform the public does not give intelligence to the enemy,” he said.

Contrary to the prosecution’s claim that he was indiscriminate in his leaking, Coombs said that Manning was careful to be selective in his choice of documents, weeding out “humint” reports that gave specific details on human sources on the ground and focusing instead on civilian loss of life such as the Apache video. “If he was a traitor who wanted to hurt the US, you would have seen a lot more indiscreet disclosures,” he said.

The defence attorney also tried to undercut prosecution allegations that the more than 700,000 documents Manning leaked were damaging to the US. The soldier faces several counts under the 1917 Espionage Act accusing him of leaking intelligence “with reason to believe such information could be used to the injury of the United States or the advantage of any foreign nation”.

Coombs attempted to counter those charges by arguing that in fact the WikiLeaks disclosures had very limited impact on US interests. The more than 750 files on Guantanamo detainees were “not worth the paper they were written on”, the lawyer said, adding they were intended for background information and were riddled with inaccuracies.

The war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq were historical documents that recorded past battlefield events that could not provide useful intelligence to the enemy given how rapidly tactics on both sides changed in a military conflict. “The harm that could have been done is like Chicken Little yelling the sky is falling down,” Coombs said.

In the most emotive scenes of his closing arguments, Coombs played to the court three clips from the video Manning uploaded to WikiLeaks of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad. The clips showed a group of civilians, that included two Reuters correspondents, being mowed down from aerial bullet fire.

Coombs asked the judge to watch the video “from the standpoint of a young man looking at eight people and what we know now to be the truth – there are two reporters there – standing on a street corner and being shot like fish in a barrel … You have to view that through the eyes of a young man who cared about human life.”

White House says threats are not helpful after Pyongyang vows to cancel non-aggression pact with South Korea

The US urged North Korea to resist “further provocative actions” on Friday after Pyongyang vowed to cancel a non-aggression pact with South Korea and planned to disconnect a crisis hotline in retaliation for a new round of sanctions.

The White House plea came as North Korea ramped up its bellicose warnings. A senior North Korean military figure was quoted on Friday as saying that troops had been mobilised and inter-continental ballistic missiles placed on standby.

Washington, anxious to avoid adding to the over-heated rhetoric, opted for a relatively muted response. Asked at the daily White House briefing about North Korea’s threats, the deputy press spokesman John Earnest read out a carefully prepared statement: “North Korea’s threats are not helpful. We have consistently called on North Korea to improve relations with its neighbours, including South Korea. This is a moment for the North to seize the opportunity presented by a new government in Seoul, not to threaten it.

“Further provocative actions would only increase Pyongyang’s isolation and its continued focus on its nuclear and missile programme is doing nothing to help the North Korean people.”

The US has promised to protect South Korea and Japan against an attack from North Korea, which also threatened this week a pre-emptive attack on America. The US military is sceptical about whether North Korea has missiles capable of reaching the US.

A North Korean military leader, Colonel General Kang Pyo-yong, was quoted in North Korea’s party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, as telling a rally on Thursday that soldiers had been mobilised and stationed along the border ready to take over South Korea. “Our intercontinental ballistic missiles and other missiles are on standby position mounted with various nuclear warheads that have been developed lighter and smaller.”

Foreign policy experts point out that North Korea has a history of bellicose statements without matching action, and do not believe it capable of mounting a nuclear warhead on a missile that could reach the US, but expect the North to take action of some kind in response.

Shortly after the UN sanctions resolution was agreed on Thursday, the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, the body dealing with cross-border affairs on the peninsula, announced the cancellation of the hotline and non-aggression pact, repeating its threat to retaliate with “crushing strikes” if enemies trespass on to its territory and to cancel nuclear disarmament agreements with the South.

“According to their strategy and gameplan they have to do something – they have to respond,” said Daniel Pinkston, deputy project director for the north-east Asia programme at the International Crisis Group.

Secretary of state’s choice of maiden voyage – to UK, Europe and Saudi Arabia – has a familiar 20th-century feel

The arrival of John Kerry in London on the first stop of his first foreign trip – followed by the ritual invocation of the ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK – and a joint declaration of intent on Middle East peace all point to a return to business as usual in American foreign policy-making.

Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, made her maiden voyage as secretary of state to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China, underlining the Obama administration’s intended “pivot to Asia”, where America’s greatest challenges and opportunities were widely believed to lie.

Events however have conspired to complicate this overarching global strategy, and the old neighbourhoods have proved hard to escape. In the face of the Arab spring, the continuing Syrian tragedy and the Iranian nuclear challenge, Washington has found it impossible to extricate itself from the Middle East, and that in turn has reminded Washington of its dependence on tradition allies, the UK foremost, in the bid to prevail on the world stage.

So Kerry, standing beside his British counterpart, William Hague, under the gilded ceiling of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, reminisced fondly about boyhood visits to Britain – even getting lost, and then found, by a kindly stranger in London Zoo. He talked of the “common values and long-shared ties of family and friends” that constituted the special relationship.

The rest of Kerry ‘s itinerary also has a familiar 20th-century feel, reflecting the enduring hold of old alliances and areas of vital American interests. He will be in Berlin on Tuesday, then Paris and Rome and Ankara, before going on to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The dominant themes will be Middle Eastern: Syria, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, and the familiar challenge will be how to maintain solidarity between the west and its Gulf allies in that arena.

Hague meanwhile basked in Kerry’s recollection of the fights for “freedom and survival” US and Britain have shared. For a British foreign secretary, there is no higher policy goal than staying close to Washington, and Hague had bet heavily on Kerry when the then-senator from Massachusetts visited the Foreign Office while still vying for the state department with the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice. The foreign secretary treated him as if he already had the job.

The two men now find common cause in seeking to persuade their governments to take a more activist stance on Syria, though both still balk for now at arming the rebels directly. Hague also sees in Kerry a potential ally in persuading Obama to take a hands-on role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The new secretary of state did not go as far as Hague, who declared there was “no more urgent foreign policy priority in 2013”, but he is committed to travelling with Obama to Israel and the West Bank next month.

It is no guarantee that Washington will stay involved in the normally thankless task of Middle Eastern peacemaking, and the logic of America’s long-term interests in the Pacific is as strong as ever. But for the UK and Europe this first Kerry outing on the world stage marks a hopeful sign that the Obama administration is prepared to revisit familiar, if intractable, problems.

Outgoing defense secretary ‘disappointed’ by combative questions from Republicans who focused on Israel and Iraq war

Senate opponents to Chuck Hagel have been wielding “political knives” to discredit the White House pick for defense secretary, according to the man he is set to replace.

Outgoing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that he was “disappointed” by the line of questioning Hagel faced during a fiery congressional hearing in the week.

“They talked a lot about past quotes, but what about what a secretary of defense in confronting today?” he asked.

On Thursday, Hagel, a Republican former Nebraska senator, was grilled in a series on combative Senate hearings over his views on Israel, nuclear disarmament and the war in Iraq.

Many observers suggested that he came off worse in the exchanges, and appeared at times to be inadequately prepared for the gruelling eight hours of questioning.

Some of the testiest moments from Thursday’s senate hearings came in confrontations between Hagel and lawmakers whom he had served alongside during two terms as a Republican senator, such as former friend John McCain. The pair had a failing out several years ago over Iraq war policy.

“It’s pretty obvious that the political knives were out for Chuck Hagel,” Panetta told Meet the Press.

He added that a lot of the focus was on Hagel’s past statements in regard to past statements, rather than ongoing conflict overseas and proposed budget cuts. Opponents to Barack Obama’s Defense Department pick have complained that he is only lukewarm towards America’s traditional Middle East ally, citing a quote in which Hagel appears to criticise the influence of pro-Israeli lobbyists in Washington.

In the Senate hearings he also had to counter repeated questions over his stance on nuclear disarmament and why he opposed the troop surge in Iraq.

“What about the war … in Afghanistan? What about the war on terrorism? What about the budget sequestering – what impact it’s going to have on readiness? What about Middle East turmoil? What about cyber-attacks?” the Pentagon chief said, pointing out the areas which he believed were neglected in the Senate hearings.

“All of the issues that confront a secretary of defense, frankly … we just did not see enough time spent on discussing those issues,” Panetta added.

Despite weeks of seemingly ceaseless battering at the hands of largely Republican opponents, the White House is standing by Hagel.

Although some harbour concerns over Hagel’s voting record on gay rights, none of the Senate’s Democrats have publicly abandoned him. It means that minority Republicans would have to resort to procedural tactics to try to block his confirmation.

The nomination appears likely to clear its first hurdle – approval by the Senate Armed Services Committee – on a straight party-line vote. That vote could take place as early as Thursday. The nomination is then voted on by the full Senate, where Democrats hold the majority.

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