TIME Ukraine

U.S. Warns Against Ukraine Travel

People walk past a building damaged by shelling in Snizhne (Snezhnoye), Donetsk region
People walk past a building damaged by shelling in Snizhne, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Aug. 29, 2014. Maxim Shemetov—Reuters

Escalating conflict in the region prompted the new travel advisory for Americans

The U.S. State Department warned Americans Friday to avoid traveling to eastern Ukraine, in response to the ongoing conflict between Ukraine’s armed forces and Russia-backed separatists.

“The situation in Ukraine is unpredictable and could change quickly,” the statement said. “U.S. citizens throughout Ukraine should avoid large crowds and be prepared to remain indoors and shelter in place for extended periods of time should clashes occur in their vicinity.”

The announcement identified the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been plagued with violent outbreaks for months, as the key areas to avoid. U.S. citizens have been threatened and detained in the region, according to the release. It also advised Americans to “defer all travel to the Crimean Peninsula.”

The U.S. announcement comes as the conflict in Ukraine continues to escalate with each passing day. Up to 1,ooo Russian troops appeared to enter Ukraine on Friday, and the Ukrainian government responded by instituting a mandatory conscription.

TIME foreign affairs

Congo’s Presidential Entourage Investigated for Beating Protesters in U.S.

The incident was allegedly captured on video and posted on YouTube

The U.S. State Department has taken steps to seek the prosecution of a members of the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s entourage, who were allegedly captured on video Thursday beating a protester in the streets of Washington, D.C.

A video posted on YouTube shows a man in a dark suit kicking the head of a protester as he lays on the ground near a member of D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, who appeared to be trying to defuse the situation.

“We are still gathering details on the incident, but are very troubled by reports that protestors were attacked by members of the President’s entourage,” the State Department said in a statement Thursday. “We take the right to freedom of expression very seriously, and violence against peaceful protestors is totally unacceptable.”

The statement went on to commend the efforts of D.C. police for coming to the aide of the protesters. “We have communicated our concern to the delegation from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the strongest possible terms,” the State Department statement continued. “We have requested a waiver of immunity to permit those involved to face prosecution. If it is not granted, we will ask that they leave the United States immediately.”

A spokesman for D.C.’ Metropolitan Police declined to comment, and a spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service said the investigation would be handled by the State Department.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo President Joseph Kabila is visiting Washington, D.C., for an African leader summit at the invitation of President Obama. According to a 2013 State Department human rights report, Kabila was elected in 2011 in an election international observer missions said “lacked credibility.”

“[Non-governmental organizations], including Human Rights Watch, reported security forces killed or arbitrarily detained dozens of citizens prior to the voting,” the report reads. The human rights condition in the country has remained poor since then, despite the appointment by Kabila of a human rights commission.
“Elements of the [state security forces] continued to harass, beat, intimidate, and arbitrarily arrest and detain domestic human rights advocates and domestic NGO workers, particularly when the NGOs reported on or supported victims of abuses by the SSF or reported on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the East,” the report reads.

 

TIME Libya

U.S. Evacuates Libyan Embassy

Secretary of State John Kerry blamed the rise of "freewheeling militia violence" in the country where an attack by Islamic militants killed four Americans in 2012

+ READ ARTICLE

Updated 10:59 a.m. ET

The State Department relocated all personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, on Saturday following an outbreak of violence between Libyan militias, the department announced.

“A lot of the violence is around our embassy but not on the embassy, but nevertheless it presents a very real risk to our personnel,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Paris, ABC reports.

Kerry blamed the “freewheling militia violence” that has flourished since the ousting of former president Muammar Gaddafi.

“We are committed to supporting the Libyan people during this challenging time, and are currently exploring options for a permanent return to Tripoli as soon as the security situation on the ground improves,” deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said in a statement.

U.S. military assisted in the operation and drove personnel to Tunisia. The relocation took five hours and was “without incident,” according a statement from Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.

Embassy staff will now work out of Washington, D.C., and other locations in the region.

The relocation occurred the same day the State Department issued a new travel warning that strongly advised U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to Libya and to leave immediately if already visiting.

In 2012, an attack on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya, by Islamic militants killed four Americans.

“Securing our facilities and ensuring the safety of our personnel are top Department priorities, and we did not make this decision lightly,” Harf’s statement continues. “Security has to come first. Regrettably, we had to take this step because the location of our embassy is in very close proximity to intense fighting and ongoing violence between armed Libyan factions.”

TIME Israel

U.S. Issues Travel Warning for Israel, Gaza and West Bank

Gaza Strip, Gaza City: Palestinian man stands near a damaged building by Israeli airstrike targeting Hamas police chief Tayseer al-Batsh on July 13, 2014 in Gaza City. ALESSIO ROMENZI
A Palestinian man stands near a damaged building in Gaza City, July 13, 2014. Alessio Romenzi

Secretary of State John Kerry also announced $47 million in aid to Gaza

The U.S. State Department on Monday issued a new travel warning for Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while Secretary of State John Kerry announced a $47 million aid package for Gaza amid growing conflict in the region.

The warning, which replaces the one issued in February of this year, recommends U.S. citizens postpone non-urgent travel to the region if possible, and it upholds previous warnings against traveling to the Gaza Strip, where U.S. government employees are not allowed to travel.

Because of security concerns, the embassy in Tel Aviv is working with a reduced staff and limited service, while the embassy in Jerusalem is operating as normal. The full travel warning contains additional details about which areas and neighborhoods within Israel have been recent targets. On Sunday, Israel escalated its ground operations in Gaza, and the two regions have exchanged rocket fire over the past few weeks.

The humanitarian assistance Kerry announced Monday includes $15 million for United Nations relief efforts, $3.5 million for emergency assistance from the USAID’s OFfice of Foreign Disaster Assistance, $10 million in redirected USAID funding and $18.5 million in new USAID funding to address food, shelter and medical treatments for Palestinians in Gaza.

TIME Foreign Policy

John Kerry Tells Iran and Syria to Back Off Iraq

Secretary of State John Kerry warned U.S. adversaries in the Middle East not to foment unrest in Iraq

+ READ ARTICLE

Amid mounting reports of military intervention in Iraq by Syria and Iran, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry strongly advised that surrounding countries in the Middle East step away from any action that might further unhinge the delicate security situation.

“We’ve made it clear to everyone in the region that we don’t need anything to take place that might exacerbate the sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension,” Kerry told a NATO summit. “And so it’s very important that nothing take place that contributes to the extremism or could act as a flash point with respect to the sectarian divide.”

The Syrian government reportedly bombed Sunni militant strongholds on Tuesday, along the western border of Iraq. Meanwhile, Iran has reportedly sent in drones and other military supplies. Kerry added that questions about Iran’s intentions in Iraq should be directed at the Iranian and Iraqi governments.

While the U.S. had a stake in what happens to Baghdad, the American government will not directly pick Iraqi leadership, Kerry said. Iraqi citizens must develop a government that can push back against terrorism and “will not repeat the mistakes of the past.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday opted against forming an interim “national salvation government” in order to unite the sectarian groups butting heads in the region, calling it “a coup against the constitution and the political process.”

“It’s up to Iraqis to decide who has the ability to do that and who represents that future,” Kerry said.

TIME State Department

State Department: Malaysia, Thailand Aren’t Doing Enough Against Human Trafficking

Malaysia, Thailand and Venezuela have not made a substantial effort in the fight against human trafficking over the past year, the U.S. State Department said in a report released Friday.

The State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report ranks countries in terms of the efforts to put a stop to the practice of forcing humans to labor against their will. Thailand, Malaysia, and Venezuela’s status was automatically downgraded this year because they have been on a State Department human trafficking watch list for over four years and have not improved.

Thailand is among the worst offenders, according to the State Department. Recent news reports have highlighted widespread trafficking in the Thai fishing sector, where tens of thousands of migrants have been forced to work on fishing boats often without contracts or stable wages. Many others have been pushed into Thailand’s illegal sex trade.

Ambassador Luis CdeBaca from the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons said Thursday that although the U.S. government has worked well with members of the Thai government, overall there’s a general sense of complicity that his office can’t overlook.

“The widespread official complicity in human trafficking that continues to hinder their performance against sex trafficking and forced labor—the government as a whole did not demonstrate serious efforts to address that,” CdeBaca said on a conference call.

Though the Thai government reportedly paid a U.S. public relations firm $51,000 a month to help it boost its rating on the State Department report, the U.S. downgraded the country to the bottom tier, where it stands alongside 23 others including North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, Libya and Cuba. The 23 countries that were placed in the report’s lowest tier could face U.S. government sanctions on non-humanitarian, non-trade-related aid.

Issues similar to those identified in Thailand were also found in Venezuela and Malaysia, which also had their trafficking status downgraded by the State Department. According to the report, the Venezuelan government didn’t provide updated trafficking data, though its level of anti-trafficking enforcement efforts was about the same as in 2013. Meanwhile, the State Department found that Malaysia failed to adequately prosecute traffickers and protect victims.

Despite the downgrades of a handful of countries, several others, including Afghanistan, Chad and Honduras, saw their status boost as a result of a renewed focus on trafficking. The U.S., meanwhile, remains among the top-ranked nations in terms of combatting trafficking, despite the growing attention on the problem of trafficking in the country and the treatment of victims within the criminal justice system.

“While the U.S. goes overseas and judges other countries on their commitment to trafficking, we also have to be critical and take an honest look at the conditions and the commitment of our government here at home,” Melysa Sperber, Director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, told TIME.

TIME Iraq

Iraq Militants Seize Old Chemical Weapons Facility

The weapons that remain are probably useless

Militants who have advanced across large swaths of Iraq in the past week seized a complex that was once Saddam Hussein’s top chemical-weapons production facility.

The facility still contains a stockpile of old weapons, but they are contaminated and hard to transport, and officials don’t believe the militants could make a chemical weapon out of them, the Wall Street Journal reports. In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion a decade ago, the U.S.-impaneled Iraq Study Group determined that the facility was sufficiently dismantled and that the remaining chemicals were useless.

But the capture of the Muthanna complex, roughly 45 miles northwest of Baghdad, highlights the threats from the advancing Sunni forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its allies.

“We remain concerned about the seizure of any military site by the [ISIS],” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told the Journal. “We do not believe that the complex contains CW materials of military value and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely move the materials.”

[WSJ]

TIME Iraq

State Dept Will Beef Up Security at Baghdad Embassy

A U.S. flag flies in front of the Annex I building inside the compound of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad
A U.S. flag flies in front of the Annex I building inside the compound of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad December 14, 2011. Lucas Jackson—Reuters

Taking action as militant extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) expands its reach and heads toward the city

The U.S. State Department announced Sunday that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will stay open as militant extremists in Iraq continue their offensive toward the city, but it will also take a number of increased security measures to protect its staff.

“As a result of ongoing instability and violence in certain areas of Iraq, Embassy Baghdad is reviewing its staffing requirements in consultation with the State Department,” spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement.

The State Department said it will increase the number of security personnel in Baghdad, while other embassy staff members will be relocated to the Consulate Generals in Erbil and Basra as well as the Iraq Support Unit in Amman, Jordan. Most of the embassy staff will remain on site and “continue to engage daily with Iraqis and their elected leaders — supporting them as they strengthen Iraq’s constitutional processes and defend themselves from imminent threats.”

The Pentagon also announced that the U.S. military would provide security assistance to diplomats stationed in Baghdad. “A small number of DOD personnel are augmenting State Department security assets in Baghdad to help ensure the safety of our facilities,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.

The move to beef up security in Iraq comes after the State Department faced criticism over its lack of security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which was overrun by militants in a 2012 attack that killed 4 Americans including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. But the embassy compound in Iraq has both a far heavier military presence and stronger fortifications than the Benghazi compound had.

TIME

U.S. Confirms Russia Sent Tanks to Ukraine

The U.S. confirmed Friday that Russia sent tanks and military equipment to separatist fighters in Ukraine.

The delivery of military equipment threatens to further escalate tensions between Russia, Ukraine and Ukraine’s Western allies after pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine began an open rebellion in April.

“We are highly concerned by new Russian efforts to support the separatists,” said State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf. “In the last three days a convoy of three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 or Grad multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles crossed from Russia into Ukraine near the Ukrainian town of Snizhne. This is unacceptable.”

Harf said that the U.S. had information indicating that Russia had stockpiled old tanks in southwest Russia and that some of those tanks “recently departed.”

“Russia will claim these tanks were taken from Ukrainian forces, but no Ukrainian tank units have been operating in that area,” Harf said. “We are confident that these tanks came from Russia.”

Pro-Russian rebel leaders said Friday that they had received tanks, even as Ukrainian forces made inroads into driving out separatists from the southern port of Mariupol.

The government in Kiev is still trying to regain full control of eastern Ukraine—and cut off arms deliveries from across the border. On Thursday, amid allegations that the tanks been delivered across the border, newly elected President Petro Poroshenko told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the situation was “unacceptable.”

–With reporting from Zeke J. Miller

TIME National Security

White House Overrode Internal Objections to Taliban Prisoner Release

Pentagon, Intelligence officials used Top Secret intelligence to prevent previous release of Taliban Five, officials tell TIME

+ READ ARTICLE

To pull off the prisoner swap of five Taliban leaders for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the White House overrode an existing interagency process charged with debating the transfer of Guantanamo Bay prisoners and dismissed long-standing Pentagon and intelligence community concerns based on Top Secret intelligence about the dangers of releasing the five men, sources familiar with the debate tell TIME.

National Security Council officials at the White House decline to describe the work of the ad hoc process they established to trade the prisoners, or to detail the measures they have taken to limit the threat the Taliban officials may pose. They say consensus on the plan was reached by the top officials of Obama’s national security team, including representatives from the Pentagon, State Department, intelligence community and Joint Chiefs of Staff. “These releases were worked extensively through deputies and principals,” says National Security Counsel Deputy for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes. “There was not a dissent on moving forward with this plan.”

But officials in the Pentagon and intelligence communities had successfully fought off release of the five men in the past, officials tell TIME. “This was out of the norm,” says one official familiar with the debate over the dangers of releasing the five Taliban officials. “There was never the conversation.” Obama’s move was an ultimate victory for those at the White House and the State Department who had previously argued the military should “suck it up and salute,” says the official familiar with the debate.

Obama has broad authority under Article II of the U.S. Constitution to order the prisoner exchange as commander in chief of America’s armed forces. The lengths to which he went to bring it about show how determined he was to resolve the lingering issue of America’s only prisoner of war in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration first considered whether the five men were safe to release at the very start of his term as president. In January 2009, Obama ordered a Justice Department-led review of all 240 Guantanamo Bay detainees. The five Taliban leaders were found to be high risks to return to the fight against Americans, confirming Bush administration assessments of the threat they posed, according to officials familiar with the group’s findings. “These five are clearly bad dudes,” says a second source familiar with the debate over their release, adding that the detainees are likely to return to the fight.

Thereafter, the administration established a regular process for handling the release of detainees from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Releases were considered and approved through the “Guantanamo Transfer Working Group” which comprised officials from the State Department, the Pentagon, the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Over time, 82 detainees have been released by the Obama administration, according to the latest report to Congress by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The question of the release of the five Taliban leaders was a recurrent subject of debate in the administration and was a key element of the behind the scenes effort by the State Department and the White House to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. The transfer of the five was discussed as a possible confidence-building measure to pave the way for a deal. The debates over their release were contentious, officials familiar with them say.

Those opposing release had the benefit of secret and top secret intelligence showing that the five men were a continuing threat, officials familiar with the debate tell TIME. But in the push from the White House and the State Department to clear the men, opponents to release found themselves under constant pressure to prove that the five were dangerous. “It was a heavy burden to show they were bad,” says the second source familiar with the debate.

Opponents of release say absent a peace deal with the Taliban, the release makes no sense. “When our military is engaged in combat operations you’re always going to err on the side of caution,” says the first official familiar with the debate. “Just conceptually, how much sense does it make to release your enemy when you’re still at war with him?”

During previous debates, opponents were aided by a law passed by Congress during Obama’s first term that required the administration to certify to a set of onerous conditions that the administration said were nearly impossible to meet. That changed thanks to the efforts of Sen. Carl Levin, who managed to weaken certification standards in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act to allow the Secretary of Defense to release Guantanamo prisoners when it is in the national security interests of the United States.

That change made it easier for the President to exert his commander in chief powers in effecting the prisoner swap. So far the White House has said little about the measures they negotiated to assure the men would not be a threat upon release. Administration officials have said the men will remain in Qatar under a one-year travel ban. Under existing procedure, released detainees are monitored by the CIA station chief in the country where they reside. On Tuesday, Obama said he had confidence the U.S. would “be in a position to go after them if in fact they are engaging in activities that threaten our defense.”

But Republicans now question whether the president has gone too far, even under the new law, which still requires 30 days’ notice ahead of a release from Guantanamo Bay. Administration officials told members of the Senate armed services and intelligence committees “repeatedly they weren’t going to [release the five men] and they would be notified and consulted if they did,” says a GOP Senate aide. The committees were only notified after the fact.

At least one member of the Senate did have advance notice. “We were notified of the plan to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s release on Friday,” said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. A spokesman for Republican House Speaker John Boehner, however, told TIME that there was no advance notice given to the leader of the House. Senate Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein was not informed in advance, either, and on Tuesday Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken called her to apologize for the oversight, she told reporters.

The White House said Tuesday the President had exercised his constitutional authority out of a sense of urgency for Bergdahl’s safety. “Delaying the transfer in order to provide the 30-day notice would interfere with the Executive’s performance of two related functions that the Constitution assigns to the President: protecting the lives of Americans abroad and protecting U.S. soldiers,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement released to the press. “Because such interference would significantly alter the balance between Congress and the President, and could even raise constitutional concerns, we believe it is fair to conclude that Congress did not intend that the Administration would be barred from taking the action it did in these circumstances,” Hayden said.

Jack Goldsmith, a Bush administration veteran of the battles between the executive branch and Congress over Commander-in-Chief powers in the war against terrorists, says Obama may have been acting legally. On the website Lawfare Tuesday he wrote, “If the statute impinged on an exclusive presidential power, the president properly disregarded it and did not violate it.”

Even many of those who opposed the release in the past accept the president has the power in conflicts to effect a prisoner swap. “We have done prisoner swaps in the past,” says the first official familiar with the debate over the release. But, the official added, “That’s been in international armed conflict where you have a state with which you can negotiate and you can say this guy will not go back to the fight.”

–with additional reporting by Zeke Miller and Alex Rogers/Washington

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 46,514 other followers