Tag Archives: State Department

Trump challenges Rex Tillerson to IQ test

US President Donald Trump has challenged his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to an IQ test, in the latest sign of discord between the two.

He made the remark in a magazine interview when asked about reports that Mr Tillerson had called him a moron.

“I think it’s fake news,” Mr Trump told Forbes, “but if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.”

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Tillerson To Push NATO Allies On Military Spending, Press Russia On Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has arrived in Brussels to attend a March 31 NATO meeting that was rescheduled to allow him to attend.

A senior State Department official told reporters that Tillerson will push alliance members to increase their defense spending and will work with allies to press Russia to abide by the Minsk agreement to end the crisis in Ukraine.

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L.A. fashion district firms raided in cartel money laundering probe

Federal agents

Sinaloa cartel bosses had a problem. They were holding a hostage and needed to get the $140,000 ransom his family agreed to pay from the United States to Mexico in the form of pesos.

Continue reading L.A. fashion district firms raided in cartel money laundering probe

US Drug Agency Says It Knows Exactly Where ‘El Chapo’ Guzman Is

The U.S. antinarcotics agency believe the drug lord is in Sinaloa, where a source told teleSUR he was after his escape.

Almost four weeks after the escape of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the U.S. government released a statement saying it believes the world’s most powerful and most wanted drug lord is still in Mexico.

Guzman is more than likely in Sinaloa state, they say, a suspicion shared by a source with teleSUR immediately after his alleged jailbreak.

Chuck Rosenberg, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, told reporters U.S. federal agents are working with Mexican authorities on the recapture of Guzman, who supposedly fled the maximum security Almoloya de Juarez jail through a mile-long tunnel leading directly from his cell to an empty house.

“Where is he (Guzman) probably the safest and best protected?” Rosenberg asked during a press conference and replied.

“Probably in Sinaloa.” Guzman and his closest associate, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, run the Sinaloa cartel. They control large swaths of land, from just outside the Sinaloan capital Culiacan all the way up to Badiraguato, the municipality where El Chapo was born. He also said he was “not terribly surprised” to find out that Guzman had broken out of prison for a second time.

In 2001, he escaped the El Puente Grande maximum security jail in the northern state of Jalisco and was recaptured early 2014. The DEA official criticized the Mexican government, saying it had “institutional problems” that make sharing intelligence gathering very difficult.

“We have sources in Mexico we can work closely with. It doesn’t extend throughout the entire government,” he said at the briefing with reporters. Rosenberg said the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and the State Department are involved in the recapture of Guzman.

His statement comes the same day the DEA launched a new poster offering a US$5-million reward for information that will lead to Guzman’s recapture. Mexico has offered close to US$4 million.

Cuba deal comes from 18 months of secret diplomacy

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U.S. President Barack Obama announces a shift in policy toward Cuba while delivering an address to the nation from the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, December 17, 2014

WASHINGTON/MIAMI — The December breakthrough that upended a half-century of U.S.-Cuba enmity has been portrayed as the fruit of 18 months of secret diplomacy.

But Reuters interviews with more than a dozen people with direct knowledge of the process reveal a longer, painstakingly cautious quest by U.S. President Barack Obama and veteran Cuba specialists to forge the historic rapprochement.

As now-overt U.S.-Cuban negotiations continue this month, Reuters also has uncovered new details of how talks began and how they stalled in late 2013 during secret sessions in Canada. Senior administration officials and others also revealed how both countries sidelined their foreign policy bureaucracies and how Obama sought the Vatican’s blessing to pacify opponents.

Obama’s opening to Havana could help restore Washington’s influence in Latin America and give him a much-needed foreign policy success.

But the stop-and-start way the outreach unfolded, with deep mistrust on both sides, illustrates the obstacles Washington and Havana face to achieving a lasting detente.

Obama was not the first Democratic president to reach out to Cuba, but his attempt took advantage of – and carefully judged – a generational shift among Cuban-Americans that greatly reduced the political risks.

In a May 2008 speech to the conservative Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami, Obama set out a new policy allowing greater travel and remittances to Cuba for Cuban-Americans, though he added he would keep the embargo in place as leverage.

“Obama understood that the policy changes he was proposing in 2008 were popular in the Cuban-American community so he was not taking a real electoral risk,” said Dan Restrepo, then Obama’s top Latin America adviser.

Six months later, Obama was validated by an unexpectedly high 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote, and in 2012 he won 48 percent – a record for a Democrat.

With his final election over, Obama instructed aides in December 2012 to make Cuba a priority and “see how far we could push the envelope,” recalled Ben Rhodes, a Deputy National Security Advisor who has played a central role in shaping Cuba policy.

Helping pave the way was an early 2013 visit to Miami by Obama’s top Latin American adviser Ricardo Zuniga. As a young specialist at the State Department he had contributed to a 2001 National Intelligence Estimate that, according to another former senior official who worked on it, marked the first such internal assessment that the economic embargo of Cuba had failed.

He met a representative of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation, and young Cuban-Americans who, according to one person present, helped confirm the waning influence of older Cuban exiles who have traditionally supported the half-century-old embargo.

But the White House wasn’t certain. “I don’t think we ever reached a point where we thought we wouldn’t have to worry about the reaction in Miami,” a senior U.S. official said.

The White House quietly proposed back-channel talks to the Cubans in April 2013, after getting notice that Havana would be receptive, senior U.S. officials said.

Obama at first froze out the State Department in part due to concern that “vested interests” there were bent on perpetuating a confrontational approach, said a former senior U.S. official. Secretary of State John Kerry was informed of the talks only after it appeared they might be fruitful, officials said.

Cuban President Raul Castro operated secretly too. Josefina Vidal, head of U.S. affairs at Cuba’s foreign ministry, was cut out, two Americans close to the process said. Vidal could not be reached for comment.

The meetings began in June 2013 with familiar Cuban harangues about the embargo and other perceived wrongs. Rhodes used his relative youth to volley back.

“Part of the point was ‘Look I wasn’t even born when this policy was put in place … We want to hear and talk about the future’,” said Rhodes, 37.

“THE CUBANS WERE DUG IN”

Obama’s people-to-people Cuba strategy was complicated by one person in particular: Alan Phillip Gross.

The U.S. government had sent Gross, a USAID contractor, on risky missions to deliver communications equipment to Cuba’s Jewish community. His December 2009 arrest put Obama’s planned “new beginning” with Cuba on hold.

The secret talks were almost derailed by Havana’s steadfast demand that Obama swap the “Cuban Three,” a cell of Cuban spies convicted in Miami but considered heroes in Havana, for Gross.

Obama refused a straight trade because Washington denied Gross was a spy and the covert diplomacy stalled as 2013 ended.

Even as Obama and Castro shook hands at the Johannesburg memorial service for South African leader Nelson Mandela, the situation behind the scenes did not look very hopeful.

“The Cubans were dug in … And we did kind of get stuck on this,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes and Zuniga spent more than 70 hours negotiating with the Cubans, mostly at Canadian government facilities in Ottawa.

By late spring 2014, Gross’ friends and family grew alarmed over his physical and psychological state. The White House and the Cubans knew that if he died in prison, repairing relations would be left to another generation.

With Gross’ mother, Evelyn, dying of lung cancer, the U.S. government and his legal team launched an effort to convince the Cubans to grant him a furlough to see her.

That bid failed, despite an offer by Gross’s lawyer Scott Gilbert to sit in his jail cell as collateral.

But a turning point had occurred at a January 2014 meeting in Toronto. The Americans proposed – to the Cubans’ surprise – throwing Rolando Sarraff, a spy for Washington imprisoned in Cuba since 1995, into the deal, U.S. participants said.

The White House could claim it was a true “spy swap,” giving it political cover. But it took 11 more months to seal the deal.

Castro did not immediately agree to give up Sarraff, a cryptographer who Washington says helped it disrupt Cuban spy rings in the United States.

And Obama, stung by the outcry over his May 2014 exchange of five Taliban detainees for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, was wary of another trade perceived as lopsided, according to people close to the situation.

He weighed other options, including having the Cubans plead guilty to the charges against them and be sentenced to time served, according to the people.

Gilbert worked with the Obama administration, but urged it to move faster. From his vantage point, the turning point came in April 2014, when it became clear key Obama officials would support a full commutation of the Cuban prisoners’ sentences.

“TEARS IN OUR EYES”

The last puzzle piece slid into place at a Feb. 2014 White House meeting with lawmakers including Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy and Sen. Dick Durbin.

Obama hammered home his opposition to a straight Gross-Cuban Three trade, two people present said. Durbin, in an interview, said he “raised the possibility of using the Vatican and the Pope as intermediaries.”

Pope Francis would bring the Catholic Church’s moral influence and his status as the first pontiff from Latin America. It was also protection against harsh critics such as Cuban-American Sen. Robert Menendez.

Leahy persuaded two Catholic cardinals to ask Francis to raise Cuba and the prisoners when he met Obama in March. The Pope did so, then wrote personal letters to Obama and Castro.

“What could be better than the president being be able to tell Menendez or anybody else, ‘Hey, The Pope asked me?’” a congressional aide said.

The deal was finalized in late October in Rome, where the U.S. and Cuban teams met separately with Vatican officials, then all three teams together.

Rhodes and Zuniga met the Cubans again in December to nail down logistics for the Dec. 17 announcements of prisoner releases, easing of U.S. sanctions, normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations and Cuba’s freeing of 53 political prisoners.

Gilbert was aboard the plane to Cuba that would bring Gross home. Landing at a military airfield, Gilbert met Cuban officials who had been in charge of Gross for five years. “Many of us from both countries had tears in our eyes,” Gilbert said.

Castro and Obama, whose Cuba policy still faces vocal opposition from anti-Castro lawmakers, will come face to face at next month’s Western Hemisphere summit in Panama. Aides have dared to imagine that Obama could be the first U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

“We’re in new territory here,” Rhodes said.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Anna Yukhananov, Lesley Wroughton and Mark Hosenball in Washington, and Dan Trotta in Havana. Editing by Jason Szep and Stuart Grudgings)

Waldorf Astoria sale to Chinese on hold over security fears

Welcome, new owners! (Image courtesy Hilton Worldwide)

The State Department said it is reviewing the sale of the hotel to Beijing-based Anbang Insurance Group, and that it may stop leasing space for the U.S. ambassador to the UN or the General Assembly.

Anbang is reportedly linked to China’s Communist Party, which has overseen a massive effort to use cyberspying to steal U.S. trade and military secrets.

The sale of the Waldorf Astoria to a Chinese insurance giant is really bugging the State Department.

NYC PAPERS OUT. Social media use restricted to low res file max 184 x 128 pixels and 72 dpi

Grand plans by Beijing-based Anbang Insurance Group “to restore the property to its historic grandeur” has some Washington diplomatic and security insiders wondering if the Chinese will be adding more than a view to kill for.

Officials said Monday they are reviewing the sale — and implied the glittering renovation scheme for the iconic Park Ave. hotel may mask a nefarious purpose: espionage.

“We are currently in the process of reviewing the details of the sale and the company’s long-term plans for the facility,” said Kurtis Cooper, a spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

The State Department said it may end a 50-year practice of leasing a residence at the hotel for the U.S. ambassador to the UN.

Also at stake is the department’s rental of two floors of the Waldorf during the annual UN General Assembly.

The White House declined to say if President Obama will continue staying at the hotel’s presidential suite during trips to New York. Every commander-in-chief since Herbert Hoover has stayed there.

Cooper said security, along with cost, would determine if the State Department maintains its relationship with the hotel in the wake of the $1.95 billion sale, announced last week.

“The State Department takes seriously the security of its personnel, their work spaces and official residences,” Cooper said. “We are constantly evaluating our security protocols and standard operating procedures to ensure the safety and security of our information and personnel.”

Anbang, which bought the Waldorf from Hilton Worldwide, is reportedly linked to China’s Communist Party, which has overseen a massive effort to use cyberspying to steal U.S. trade and military secrets.

After all, the U.S. knows the game — we’ve done our own cloak-and-dagger work involving diplomatic representatives of allies and foes alike.

The National Security Agency’s eavesdropping efforts include bugging the Manhattan headquarters of the UN itself, according to documents provided to the German magazine Der Spiegel last year by ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The State Department regularly reminds U.S. diplomats who go to China that they are likely to face surveillance and tells American citizens who travel to China that someone might be listening in their hotel rooms.

“Hotel rooms (including meeting rooms), offices, cars, taxis, telephones, Internet usage and fax machines may be monitored onsite or remotely, and personal possessions in hotel rooms, including computers, may be searched without your consent or knowledge,” according to the department’s latest travel advice for China.

Ex-U.S. Envoy Khalilzad Money-Laundering Probe Leads to Austria

Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, at UN HQ in New York on 10 August 2008

A U.S. probe into alleged money laundering by Zalmay Khalilzad has led Austrian authorities to freeze a Vienna bank account linked to the former presidential envoy to Afghanistan.

Khalilzad, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, allegedly transferred $1.4 million to his wife’s bank account in Vienna, Austrian magazine Profil reported today, citing court documents.

The money came from oil and building contracts in Iraq and the United Arab Emirates that allegedly violated U.S. laws, U.S. investigators told their Austrian counterparts, according to the papers cited by Profil.

Austrian court spokeswoman Christina Salzborn confirmed the documents’ authenticity in a telephone interview. Christian Bielesz, the lawyer of Khalilzad’s wife, Cheryl Benard, confirmed that the account was frozen and an investigation under way.

President Bush listens with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (left) and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad (right) at a Security Council meeting in 2007

The U.S. had asked Austrian authorities not to seize Benard’s account, Bielesz said in a phone interview. A decision on whether to unfreeze the account is expected “quite soon,” he said.

The documents alleging the misconduct were part of a cache of sensitive papers retrieved from a garbage bin earlier this year by a Vienna-based blogger. Austria’s courts have instructed workers to take better care of sensitive information, Salzborn said.

Since leaving the State Department, Khalilzad founded Gryphon Partners, which “advises companies and high net worth individuals on business opportunities,” according to its website.

Zalmay Khalilzad (third left) with his wife Cheryl Benard alongside executives from Italian industrial company Fata

 

He also sits on the board of Dubai-based RAK Petroleum, which operates in Iraq, and Guernsey, U.K.-based Tethy’s Petroleum, which produces in Central Asia. Khalilzad is a counselor to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Calls and e-mails to Khalilzad at Gryphon Partners outside of business hours weren’t immediately returned.