Senators in both parties blast Obama administration for playing politics with trafficking report (The Washington Times)

August 6, 2015

By Dave Boyer  

Senators in both parties accused the Obama administration Thursday of putting its trade goals ahead of modern-day slavery.

At a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing, lawmakers threatened to subpoena State Department records on the agency’s upgrade for Malaysia on human trafficking, at a time when that nation is seeking to join President Obama’s cherished Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive free trade deal in the Pacific Rim.

Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said State’s latest report on human trafficking “was under exceptional pressure to shape the rankings to meet political demands, not the facts on the ground.”

Noting reports that political appointees at State interfered with staff recommendations against improving Malaysia’s ranking, Mr. Menendez said the upgrade appeared to be “the result of external pressure.”

Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, said the administration’s policy “trumped any real regard for humans being trafficked.”

“You sort of threw the trafficking phase under the bus to ensure that you were successful with” the TPP, Mr. Corker told Sarah Sewall, State’s undersecretary of human rights.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, denied that the country’s upgrade resulted from political pressure.

When Mr. Menendez called on the committee to seek all documents related to the trafficking analysis, Mr. Corker said the panel should even consider a subpoena to do so.

“This is possibly the most heartless, lacking-of-substance presentation I have ever seen about a serious topic,” Mr. Corker said.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, asked why Malaysia received an improved ranking “despite having less [criminal] convictions” for trafficking in 2014.

The annual Trafficking in Persons Report, issued July 27, upgraded Malaysia from a “Tier 3” country – the lowest ranking – to the Tier 2 “watchlist.” Congress has barred any Tier 3 country from taking part in the TPP negotiations, but Malaysia is a party to the 12-nation agreement reaching the final stages of talks.

Mr. Obama considers TPP the economic centerpiece of his effort to “pivot” foreign policy toward Asia and serve as a counterweight to China’s influence.

In the House Thursday, Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin asked Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry for “clarification” of the decision involving Malaysia’s trafficking record.

“We are concerned about the upgrade of Malaysia’s status to the Tier II Watch List,” the lawmakers wrote, calling the upgrade “inconsistent with findings from other reports.”

Earlier Thursday, Mr. Kerry said there was no political influence on the report.

“Let me just be crystal clear, because I am the person who approved this,” Mr. Kerry told reporters in Malaysia. “I had zero conversation with anybody in the administration about the Trans-Pacific Partnership relative to this decision – zero.”

Mr. Kerry said he “personally signed off” on the decision to give Malaysia a better score.

“The reason I made this decision was based on the recommendation of my team, because Malaysia has passed additional legislation in 2014, they’ve consulted with civil society, they drafted amendments to Malaysia’s anti-trafficking law in order to allow the country’s flawed victim protection regime to change,” he said. “I’m confident it was the right decision, and I can guarantee you it was made without regard to any other issue.”

Mr. Kerry said the Tier 2 Watch List ranking “actually indicates there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”

“It’s not a gold seal of approval by any means,” he said. “It is a sign of movement in the right direction, but it also means there’s a lot of way to go.”

Netanyahu should dial down critical tone on Iran deal — US Jewish leader (The Times of Israel)

NEW YORK – While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has every right to warn US Jews of the perceived dangers in the newly signed nuclear agreement with Iran, his bombastic approach to the American political process is making some of his co-religionists uncomfortable, a senior community leader said Thursday.

“I think that Israeli officials should make the case, on the content, on the substance, and we will do the good job of translating it into activity,” Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, said in a briefing for members of the Israeli Diplomatic Correspondents Association.

Netanyahu can indeed address American Jews on the deal, which the prime minister perceives as existential danger to the Jewish state, said Hoenlein, one of the Jewish world’s most influential leaders. But, he said, there exists some unease in the American Jewish community about the Israeli prime minister’s aggressive campaign to encourage them to actively lobby Congress to reject the deal.

“I want to be clear: I think Netanyahu has the right to say to American Jews, you have to understand the seriousness of this issue,” Hoenlein said. “He has the right, and by his assessment and everything we know, maybe the obligation to reach out.”

US lawmakers are going to vote on a deal that be believes poses a danger to Israel, and Netanyahu must therefore address the American people, Hoenlein said.

However, Hoenlein acknowledged “discomfort” among American Jews regarding Netanyahu’s aggressive outreach, which some perceive as him pitting them against their government. As a rule, Jerusalem should not get involved in American politics, he said, but the Iran deal is an exception, he acknowledged.

“Israeli governments should not be telling American Jews what to do vis-à-vis their governments. And we shouldn’t be telling Israelis what they should do vis-à-vis their government,” Hoenlein said. “But this is unique. We haven’t had an issue like this in decades of such significance.”

On Tuesday, Netanyahu had urged American Jews to “stand up and be counted.” In a videoconference co-sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and Hoenlein’s Conference of Presidents, the prime minister asked his audience to “rise above partisan politics” and speak out. “Oppose this dangerous deal,” he demanded.

US President Barack Obama, in a speech Hoenlein characterized as “very troubling,” said Wednesday that Israel was the only country in the world to publicly oppose the deal, pointing out that that the United Nations Security Council unanimously endorsed it.

On Thursday, the US State Department issued a statement saying that the 10 member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations and Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand “welcomed” the Iran deal on the occasion of an international summit in Malaysia.