Morale at US State Department ‘worse than during Iraq War’

Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded to internal discontent with a letter to staff in November, saying: “I know that for many of you the suffering caused by this crisis is taking a profound personal toll.” (AP)
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Updated 08 April 2024
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Morale at US State Department ‘worse than during Iraq War’

  • Former officials tell of internal tension and criticism
  • President Biden warned Israeli PM Netanyahu on Thursday that US support rests on Israel doing more to protect civilians, aid workers 

LONDON: A former director of the US State Department’s Office of Security and Human Rights has claimed the mood in the department is worse than during the Iraq war, on account of President Joe Biden’s policy on Gaza.

Charles Blaha told The Independent he had “never seen this much dissent,” adding: “I was in the State Department for 32 years, including during the Iraq War, and I have never seen this much unhappiness. It was even worse than Iraq. So yes, people are concerned.”

Pressure is growing on Israel to cease its military operation in Gaza, now in its sixth month, while the Biden administration has been criticized for its continued support for the Middle East country.

That pressure has only grown after the killing of seven aid workers, including a US citizen, earlier this month. Around 33,000 Palestinians are thought to have died in the conflict since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 last year.

The White House recently approved a new delivery of bombs to Israel and is considering an $18 billion deal to sell fighter jets and other equipment to the Israeli military.

Josh Paul, who resigned as the director of the State Department’s bureau of political-military affairs over “an unprecedented unwillingness to consider the humanitarian consequences of our policy decisions” in Gaza, told The Independent that discontent in the department was growing and he was aware of at least seven internal memos critical of the White House’s stance.

“I’ve certainly heard from a lot of people in the department in recent weeks, at an increasing clip, who are just deeply upset, I can say horrified, by the way the department is working and moving forward on arms transfers in the context of what we’re seeing in Gaza,” he said.

“My impression is that there are a number of people who are trying to push things in a better direction. There are also probably a larger number of people who are just saying ‘I’m not going to touch this stuff.’

“The absence of a willingness to hold that debate when it comes to Israel is not proof of our commitment to Israel’s security. Rather, it is proof of our commitment to a policy that, the record shows, is a dead end — and proof of our willingness to abandon our values and turn a blind eye to the suffering of millions in Gaza when it is politically expedient.”

Annelle Sheline, who also resigned from the department because she “no longer wanted to be affiliated with this administration” over its arming of Israel, told The National: “There were certainly many people inside the State Department who are so distraught by what’s happening.”

Former State Department legal adviser Brian Finucane told The Independent: “Based on my conversations since October with people at the department, there is a real disconnect between the analysis and policy recommendations of State Department personnel relating to Gaza and Israel-Palestine generally, and decisions ultimately being made by the White House.”

Finucane, who specialized in advising on issues related to the laws of war, war crimes and arms transfers, added: “The president is the ultimate decider and on Gaza he’s been largely immune to the facts of this disastrous conflict, at least with respect to actual US policy as opposed to rhetoric.” 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded to internal discontent with a letter to staff in November, saying: “I know that for many of you the suffering caused by this crisis is taking a profound personal toll.”

In the letter, subsequently reported by Reuters, Blinken added: “The anguish that comes with seeing the daily images of babies, children, elderly people, women, and other civilians suffering in this crisis is wrenching. I feel it myself.”

In a call between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, the president reportedly warned that the US’ future policy on Gaza would be determined by Israel announcing and enforcing “a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers.”

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UK’s Sunak, Starmer face televised grilling by unhappy voters

Updated 4 sec ago
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UK’s Sunak, Starmer face televised grilling by unhappy voters

LONDON: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer were grilled by voters at a televised event on Wednesday, with both challenged over past decisions, pledges and how they would fund policies if they won a July 4 election.

At their last meeting in television studios before the poll, the two men took turns to face an interviewer and then an audience, whose questions and responses underscored the everyday struggles of many in Britain and the mistrust of politicians.

With just over three weeks until an election opinion polls suggest Labour will easily win, Sunak was booed and heckled over doctors’ strikes, migration and his policy to introduce national service for young people.

Starmer was taken to task for what one audience member said was his avoidance of answering questions, and over his previous support of his predecessor, left-wing veteran Jeremy Corbyn.

A poll taken after the event in the northern English town of Grimsby said 64 percent believed Starmer had won the event on Sky News.

Starmer told the audience that he would start implementing his policies from ‘day one’ if he won the election but shied away from answering whether he was being honest when in 2019 he said his left-wing predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, should become prime minister.

“I want to get the place when I can roll up my sleeves and work with you ... to say the government is on your side,” Starmer said to applause. “That will be a massive difference to the last 14 years.”

SUNAK BOOED

Sunak was challenged over some of his policies, which audience members said had yet to solve their inability to get dentist appointments, reduce waiting lists in the National Health Service or stop the arrival of migrants in small boats.

“I know we’ve been through a tough time, of course we have... its been tough for all of you here tonight, all of you watching, but I do believe we have turned a corner and we’ve got a clear plan for the future,” he said.

“I am going to keep fighting hard until the last day of this election.”

The event came a day after Sunak unveiled 17 billion pounds of tax cuts in his governing party’s manifesto, trying to convince voters’ that he had a plan to make them better off while Labour’s policies are vague and ill-thought through.

He said again on Wednesday that a vote for Starmer was akin to writing him a blank cheque, repeating the contested accusation that a Labour government would increase taxes by more than 2,000 pounds. Starmer denied that was the case.

On Thursday, Labour will be try to set the story straight with its own manifesto, a document which sets out the policies the party will pursue in government, an agenda Starmer said would put wealth creation and economic growth at its heart.

Labour has repeatedly said it will stick to strict spending rules — a line Labour, traditionally seen as the party of tax and spend, has adopted not only to try to show it has changed since being led by Corbyn but also to challenge Conservative attacks that it will increase taxes.

But it was Corbyn who came back to haunt Starmer on Wednesday, when he was asked whether he believed what he said when in 2019 he said the veteran leftist would make a good prime minister and when he made 10 left-wing pledges to become Labour leader a year later, several of which he has since dropped.

“Have I changed my position on those pledges, yes I have,” said Starmer. “I think this party should always put the country first.”


US slams Russia over alleged abduction of Ukrainian children

Updated 18 min 12 sec ago
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US slams Russia over alleged abduction of Ukrainian children

WASHINGTON: The United States on Wednesday again accused Russia of taking Ukrainian children, some of whom were put up for adoption, after fresh media accounts detailed alleged abductions.

“This is despicable and appalling. These Ukrainian children belong with their families inside Ukraine,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said.

“Russia is waging a war not just against the Ukrainian military — but against the Ukrainian people.”

An investigation by the Financial Times, published Wednesday, identified and located four Ukrainian children allegedly transferred to Russia, then offered for adoption on the website usynovite.

The children are aged between 8 and 15 years old.

According to the report, the name of one child was changed to Russian and no mention is made on the site of their Ukrainian origins.

Ukraine is demanding the return of nearly 20,000 minors it says have been illegally taken by Russia since the start of Moscow’s invasion in 2022.

The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, over the allegations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told AFP last month that he planned to make the return of children a top priority at this weekend’s summit in Switzerland on ending the war.


US expands Russia sanctions, targets chips sent via China

Updated 28 min 36 sec ago
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US expands Russia sanctions, targets chips sent via China

WASHINGTON: The United States on Wednesday dramatically broadened sanctions on Russia, including by targeting China-based companies selling semiconductors to Moscow, as part of its effort to undercut the Russian military machine waging war on Ukraine.

Among the steps, the US Treasury said it was raising “the risk of secondary sanctions for foreign financial institutions that deal with Russia’s war economy,” effectively threatening them with losing access to the US financial system.

It also said it was moving to restrict the Russian military industrial base’s ability to exploit certain US software and information technology services and, with the State Department, targeting more than 300 individuals and entities in Russia and beyond, including in Asia, Europe and Africa.

Separately, the Commerce Department said it was targeting shell companies in Hong Kong for diverting semiconductors to Russia, taking steps that would affect nearly $100 million of high-priority items for Moscow including such chips.

It will also expand its lists of items Russia cannot import from other nations to cover not just US-origin products but US-branded goods, meaning those made with US intellectual property or technology, a senior Commerce official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

US-made chips and other technology have been found in a wide array of Russian equipment, from drones to radios, missiles and armored vehicles, recovered from the battlefield, Ukrainian officials say.

After seizing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of its neighbor in 2022, triggering a host of new US economic sanctions on Moscow.

While many analysts do not expect US and other nations’ sanctions to materially change Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculus, they believe they will both make it harder for Moscow to wage war and, over time, weaken Russia’s economy.

“Today’s actions strike at their remaining avenues for international materials and equipment, including their reliance on critical supplies from third countries,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement.

The Treasury also said it was imposing sanctions on key parts of Russia’s financial infrastructure, including the Moscow Exchange (MOEX), which operates Russia’s largest public markets for equity, fixed income, foreign exchange and other products.

MOEX and its related subsidiaries have facilitated sanctions evasion by obscuring the identities of parties engaged in such transactions, a senior Treasury official told reporters. By sanctioning them, the official said, the US would force greater transparency on cross-border transactions, making it harder to evade sanctions.

MOEX, in a statement rushed out within an hour of the US moves on Wednesday, a public holiday in Russia, said the new sanctions had forced an immediate suspension of trading in dollars and euros on its leading financial marketplace.

The news came as President Joe Biden departed for a summit in southern Italy with leaders from other Group of Seven democracies: Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.

One of the G7 leaders’ priorities is boosting support for Ukraine, now in the third year of resisting Russia’s invasion, and disarming the Russian war machine.

Peter Harrell, who served as White House senior director for international economics in 2021 and 2022, described the latest sanctions as a “paradigm shift,” partly because they expose foreign banks to the risk of being cut off from the US financial system if they deal with key large Russian banks.

The Treasury accomplished this by increasing to 4,500 the universe of Russian companies and individuals who could trigger such sanctions from about 1,200, the senior Treasury official told reporters.

“For the first time, the US is shifting toward something that begins to look like ... an effort to set up a global financial embargo on Russia,” Harrell said.


Iran frees imprisoned French citizen: Macron

Updated 36 min 17 sec ago
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Iran frees imprisoned French citizen: Macron

PARIS: Iranian authorities have released a French citizen held since September 2022, France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced Wednesday, urging Tehran to free three other French citizens “without delay.”

“Louis Arnaud is free. Tomorrow he will be in France after a long incarceration in Iran,” Macron posted on X, thanking Oman in particular for helping to secure “this happy outcome.”


Biden faces first lawsuit over new asylum crackdown at the border

Updated 39 min 20 sec ago
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Biden faces first lawsuit over new asylum crackdown at the border

  • The order Biden issued last week would limit asylum processing once encounters with migrants between ports of entry reach 2,500 per day.

WASHINGTON: A coalition of immigrant advocacy groups sued the Biden administration on Wednesday over President Joe Biden’s recent directive that effectively halts asylum claims at the southern border, saying it differs little from a similar move during the Trump administration that was blocked by the courts.

The lawsuit — filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others on behalf of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and RAICES — is the first test of the legality of Biden’s sweeping crackdown on the border, which came after months of internal White House deliberations and is designed in part to deflect political attacks against the president on his handling of immigration.

“By enacting an asylum ban that is legally indistinguishable from the Trump ban we successfully blocked, we were left with no choice but to file this lawsuit,” said Lee Gelernt, an attorney for the ACLU.

The order Biden issued last week would limit asylum processing once encounters with migrants between ports of entry reach 2,500 per day. It went into effect immediately because the latest figures were far higher, at about 4,000 daily.

The restrictions would be in effect until two weeks after the daily encounter numbers are at or below 1,500 per day between ports of entry, under a seven-day average. But it’s far from clear when the numbers would dip that low; the last time was in July 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The order went into effect June 5, and Biden administration officials have said they expected record levels of deportations.

But advocates argue that suspending asylum for migrants who don’t arrive at a designated port of entry — which the Biden administration is trying to push migrants to do — violates existing federal immigration law, among other concerns.

Biden invoked the same legal authority used by the Trump administration for its asylum ban, which comes under Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. That provision allows a president to limit entries for certain migrants if their entry is deemed “detrimental” to the national interest.

Biden has repeatedly criticized Trump’s immigration policies as he campaigns, and his administration argues that his directive is different because it includes several exemptions for humanitarian reasons. For example, victims of human trafficking, unaccompanied minors and those with severe medical emergencies would not be subject to the limits.

“We stand by the legality of what we have done,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on ABC’s “This Week” before the lawsuit was filed, saying he anticipated legal challenges. “We stand by the value proposition.”

Under Biden’s directive, migrants who arrive at the border but do not express a fear of returning to their home countries will be subject to immediate removal from the United States, within a matter of days or even hours. Those migrants could face punishments that could include a five-year bar from reentering the US or even criminal prosecution.

Meanwhile, those who express fear or an intention to seek asylum will be screened by a US asylum officer but at a higher standard than currently used. If they pass the screening, they can pursue more limited forms of humanitarian protection, including the UN Convention Against Torture, which prohibits returning people to a country where they’re likely to face torture.