Pompeo says China trade deal has ‘got to be right’: interview

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Trump will reject a U.S.-China trade deal that is not perfect, but the United States would still keep working on an agreement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a media interview.

“Things are in a good place, but it’s got to be right,” Pompeo told Sinclair Broadcasting Group, according to a transcript released by the State Department on Tuesday.

Asked if Trump would walk away from any deal that was not perfect, Pompeo said, “Yes” and pointed to the Republican president’s rejection of an agreement with North Korea at a summit last week in Hanoi.

Trump last week said that he was willing to abandon trade talks with China, but U.S. advisers in recent days have signaled more positive outcomes.

Pompeo made his remarks following stops in Iowa, where he was attending a conference for farmers, who have been caught up in the ongoing trade war with the world’s top two economies.

“This has to work for America. If it doesn’t work, we’ll keep banging away at it. We’re going to get to the right outcome. I’m confident that we will,” Pompeo told Sinclair.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Saudi Arabia strips Osama bin Laden’s son of citizenship; U.S. offers million dollar reward

A photograph circulated by the U.S. State Department’s Twitter account to announce a $1 million USD reward for al Qaeda key leader Hamza bin Laden, son of Osama bin Laden, is seen March 1, 2019. State Department/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has stripped citizenship from Hamza bin Laden, the son of slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the interior ministry said in a statement published by the official gazette.

The U.S. State Department said on Thursday it was offering a reward of up to $1 million for information leading “to the identification or location in any country” of Hamza, calling him a key al Qaeda leader.

Hamza, believed to be about 30 years old, was at his father’s side in Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks and spent time with him in Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan pushed much of al Qaeda&rsqu’s senior leadership there, according to the Brookings Institution.

Introduced by the organization’s new chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in an audio message in 2015, Hamza provides a younger voice for the group whose aging leaders have struggled to inspire militants around the world galvanized by Islamic State, analysts say.

He has called for acts of terrorism in Western capitals and threatened to take revenge against the United States for his father’s killing, the State Department said in 2017 when it designated him as a global terrorist.

He also threatened to target Americans abroad and urged Saudi tribes to unite with Yemen’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to fight against Saudi Arabia, it said.

Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces who raided his compound in Pakistan in 2011. Hamza was thought to be under house arrest in Iran at the time, and documents recovered from the compound indicated that aides had been trying to reunite him with his father.

The Saudi decision to strip him of his citizenship was made by a royal order in November, according to a statement published in the Um al-Qura official journal.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Andrew Heavens)

U.S. demands immediate return of ex-Marine detained in Russia on spy charges

Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen detained in Russia for suspected spying, appears in a photo provided by the Whelan family on January 1, 2019. Courtesy Whelan Family/Handout via REUTERS

By Mary Milliken and Gabrielle Teacutetrault-Farber

BRASILIA/MOSCOW (Reuters) – The United States is demanding the immediate return of a retired U.S. Marine detained by Russia on spying charges, and wants an explanation of why he was arrested, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday.

Pompeo, in Brasilia for the inauguration of Brazil’s new president, said the U.S. government hoped to gain consular access to Paul Whelan within hours.

“We’ve made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what it is he’s been accused of and if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return,” Pompeo said.

In Moscow, RIA news agency cited a foreign ministry spokesman as saying Russia has allowed consular access to Whelan. Russia’s FSB state security service detained Whelan on Friday and opened a criminal case against him.

The State Department did not immediately confirm that Moscow had provided consular access.

Whelan was visiting Moscow for the wedding of a former fellow Marine and is innocent of the espionage charges against him, his family said on Tuesday.

He had been staying with the wedding party at Moscow’s Metropol hotel when he went missing, his brother, David, said.

“His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected,” Whelan’s family said in a statement released on Twitter on Tuesday.

Russia’s FSB state security service said Whelan had been detained on Friday, but it gave no details of his alleged espionage activities. Under Russian law, espionage can carry a prison sentence of between 10 and 20 years.

David Whelan told CNN that his brother, who had served in Iraq, has been to Russia many times in the past for both work and personal trips, and had been serving as a tour guide for some of the wedding guests. His friends filed a missing person report in Moscow after his disappearance, his brother said.

He declined to comment on his brother’s work status at the time of his arrest and whether his brother lived in Novi, Michigan, as address records indicate.

BorgWarner, a Michigan-based automotive parts supplier, said Whelan is the company’s director, global security. He is responsible for overseeing security at our facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and at other company locations around the world.”

BUTINA CASE

Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief, said it was “possible, even likely” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered Whelan’s arrest to set up an exchange for Maria Butina, a Russian citizen who pleaded guilty on Dec. 13 to acting as an agent tasked with influencing U.S. conservative groups.

Russia says Butina was forced to make a false confession about being a Russian agent.

Putin told U.S. President Donald Trump in a letter on Sunday that Moscow was ready for dialogue on a “wide-ranging agenda,” the Kremlin said following a series of failed attempts to hold a new summit.

At the end of November, Trump canceled a planned meeting with Putin on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Argentina, citing tensions about Russian forces opening fire on Ukrainian navy boats and then seizing them.

Trump’s relations with Putin have been under a microscope as a result of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

Moscow has denied intervening in the election. Trump has said there was no collusion and characterized Mueller’s probe as a witch hunt.

Russia’s relations with the United States plummeted when Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Washington and Western allies have imposed a broad range of sanctions on Russian officials, companies and banks.

(Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Islamist militants adapted after losses: U.S. State Dept.

By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The State Department warned on Wednesday that Islamic State, al Qaeda and its affiliates have adapted by dispersing and becoming less vulnerable to military action after the United States and its partners made “major strides” against the armed Islamist groups last year.

In an annual report on the U.S. anti-terrorism fight worldwide, the State Department said militant attacks decreased globally in 2017 by 23 percent from 2016, with a 27 percent reduction in fatalities.

The drops were due mostly to “dramatically” reduced extremist attacks in Iraq, said Nathan Sales, the U.S. counter-terrorism coordinator, whose office produced the congressionally mandated report.

U.S.-backed forces and Iraqi militias liberated nearly all of the territory that Islamic State, also known as ISIS, once controlled in Iraq and Syria, including the major Iraqi city of Mosul.

The United States and its partners also stepped up pressure on al Qaeda to prevent its resurgence, it said.

Islamic State, al Qaeda and their affiliates, however, “have proven to be resilient, determined and adaptable, and they have adjusted to heightened counterterrorism pressure in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere,” the report said.

The groups “have become more dispersed and clandestine,” used the Internet to inspire attacks by their followers, and as a result, “have made themselves less susceptible to conventional military action,” it continued.

Militant groups retain “both the capability and the intent to strike the United States and its allies,” Sales told reporters.

The report said Iran remained “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism” in 2017, using its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanese Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Muslim militia movement, to undertake “terrorist-related and destabilizing activities.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell)

Trump questions 3-D gun sales as U.S. states sue

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the economy while delivering remarks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barr

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Tuesday raised concerns about the sale of plastic guns made with 3-D printers, a day after several U.S. states sued his administration to block the imminent online publication of designs to make the weapons.

Eight states and the District of Columbia on Monday filed a lawsuit to fight a June settlement between the federal government and Defense Distributed allowing the Texas-based company to legally publish its designs. Its downloadable plans are set to go online on Wednesday.

The legal wrangling is the latest fight over gun rights in the United States, where a series of mass shootings in recent years has re-ignited the long-simmering debate over access to firearms.

“I am looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public,” Trump said in a Twitter post that referred to the powerful National Rifle Association lobbying group. “Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense.”

Representatives for the U.S. State Department, which signed off on the settlement allowing publication of the designs to go forward, did not immediately reply to a request for comment. The U.S. Department of Justice, which also signed off on the settlement, said the issue was a matter for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a spokeswoman said.

NRA officials were not immediately available for comment.

The states are asking a U.S. judge to issue an injunction to block the online distribution of the gun blueprints. They say the U.S. government has failed to study the national and state security implications of the decision and violated states’ rights to regulate firearms.

Josh Blackman, a lawyer for Defense Distributed, said the case was not about guns but instead about protecting the constitutional free speech rights of his client.

“I don’t care what President Trump says. I will be arguing to protect my client’s First Amendment rights,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.

Defense Distributed’s website said it would publish the files on Wednesday but blueprints for seven guns already were available for download on Tuesday. The company’s founder, self-declared anarchist Cody Wilson, told media outlets on Monday that the files went up late Friday evening.

Mark Kelly, who co-founded a gun reform group with his wife, former Democratic U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, who was wounded in a 2011 shooting, criticized Trump for his tweet.

“He should go to the State Department, not the NRA,” he said.

Kelly said Trump should tell the department the blueprints should remain restricted under international arms trafficking regulations.

The states, in their filing on Monday, argued the online plans will give criminals easy access to weapons by circumventing traditional sales and regulations.

Gun rights groups have been largely dismissive of concerns about 3-D printable guns, saying the technology is expensive and the guns unreliable.

The gun plans were pulled from the internet in 2013 by order of the U.S. State Department under international gun trafficking laws. Wilson sued in 2015, claiming the order infringed his constitutional rights.

Until recently, the government argued the blueprints posed a national security risk. Gun control groups said there had been no explanation for the June settlement and the administration’s abrupt reversal on the issue.

Wilson said in an online video that the blueprints were downloaded more than 400,000 times before they were taken down in 2013.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Tina Bellon in New York and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Bill Trott)

U.S. visa applicants to be asked for social media history: State Department

FILE PHOTO - A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Twitter and a Facebook logo as he poses with a laptop in this photo illustration taken in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, August 14, 2013. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – The U.S. government plans to collect social media history from nearly everyone who seeks entry into the United States, State Department proposals showed on Friday as part of President Donald Trump’s policy of “extreme vetting.”

Most immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants – about 14.7 million people – will be asked to list on a federal application form all of the social media identities that they have used in the past five years – information that will be used to vet and identify them, according to the proposals.

The State Department will publish the proposals in a notice in the Federal Register on Friday seeking approval from the Office of Management and Budget. The public has 60 days to comment on the requests.

The proposals support President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge in 2016 to crack down on illegal immigration for security reasons and his call for “extreme vetting” of foreigners entering the United States.

The department said it intends not to routinely ask most diplomatic and official visa applicants for the social media information.

If approved, applicants also will be required to submit five years of previously used telephone numbers, email addresses and their international travel history. They will be asked if they have been deported or removed from any country and whether family members have been involved in terrorist activities, the department said.

Courts have struck down the first two versions of Trump’s travel ban and the current one is narrower in scope than its predecessors. The Supreme Court will consider its legality this spring and a decision is expected in June.

(Editing by Bill Trott)

Trump fires top diplomat Tillerson after clashes, taps Pompeo

FILE PHOTO: A combination photo shows U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 8, 2018, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., February 13, 2018 respectively. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (L) Aaron P. Bernstein (R)

By Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday after a series of public rifts over policy on North Korea, Russia and Iran, replacing his chief diplomat with loyalist CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

The biggest shakeup of Trump’s Cabinet since he took office in January 2017 was announced by the president on Twitter as his administration works toward a meeting with the leader of North Korea.

Some foreign policy experts criticized the decision to swap out top diplomats so soon before the unprecedented meeting and worried that Pompeo would encourage Trump to scrap the Iran nuclear deal and be hawkish on North Korea.

Trump chose the CIA’s deputy director, Gina Haspel, to replace Pompeo at the intelligence agency. She is a veteran CIA clandestine officer backed by many in the U.S. intelligence community but regarded warily by some in Congress for her involvement in the agency’s “black site” detention facilities.

Tillerson’s departure capped months of friction between the Republican president and the 65-year-old former Exxon Mobil chief executive. The tensions peaked last fall amid reports Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” and considered resigning.

“We got along actually quite well but we disagreed on things,” Trump said on the White House lawn on Tuesday. “When you look at the Iran deal: I think it’s terrible, I guess he thinks it was OK. I wanted to break it or do something and he felt a little bit differently.”

Trump said he and Pompeo have “a similar thought process.”

Pompeo, a former Army officer who represented a Kansas district in Congress before taking the CIA job, is seen as a Trump loyalist who has enjoyed a less hostile relationship with career spies than Tillerson had with career diplomats.

Senior White House officials said Trump wanted his new team in place before any summit with Kim Jong un, who invited the U.S. president to meet by May after months of escalating tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

TILLERSON UNCLEAR ON REASON

Tillerson’s imminent departure had been rumored for several months and Trump said he and Tillerson had discussed the move for a long time. But Steve Goldstein, a State Department undersecretary of state for public affairs, said Tillerson did not know why he was being pushed out and had intended to stay.

Goldstein was fired later on Tuesday, two U.S. officials told Reuters.

Many Democrats in Congress expressed dismay at the firing, which they said would sow more instability in the Trump administration at a crucial time.

Foreign policy experts from Republican and Democratic administrations also questioned Trump’s timing and choice, noting that Pompeo was known as a political partisan who strongly opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Evans Revere, a former senior U.S. diplomat who dealt with North Korea under President George W. Bush, said Trump’s move sends “a bad signal about the role of diplomacy.”

“Tillerson’s replacement by … Pompeo, who is known as a political partisan and an opponent of the Iran agreement, raises the prospect of the collapse of that deal, and increases the possibility that the administration might soon face not one, but two nuclear crises,” he said.

Senior White House officials said White House chief of staff John Kelly had asked Tillerson to step down on Friday but did not want to make it public while he was on a trip to Africa. Trump’s Twitter announcement came only a few hours after Tillerson landed in Washington.

On Monday, Tillerson blamed Russia for the poisonings in England of a former Russian double agent and his daughter. Earlier at the White House, press secretary Sarah Sanders had refrained from saying Moscow was responsible.

He appeared to be caught by surprise last week when Trump announced he had accepted Kim’s invitation to meet.

“Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!” Trump said on Twitter.

Tillerson joined a long list of senior officials who have either resigned or been fired since Trump took office in January 2017. Others include strategist Steve Bannon, national security adviser Michael Flynn, FBI Director James Comey, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, health secretary Tom Price, communications directors Hope Hicks and Anthony Scaramucci, economic adviser Gary Cohn and press secretary Sean Spicer.

OUT OF THE LOOP

Trump publicly undercut Tillerson’s diplomatic initiatives numerous times.

In December, Tillerson had offered to begin direct talks with North Korea without pre-conditions, backing away from a U.S. demand that Pyongyang must accept that any negotiations would be about giving up its nuclear arsenal.

The White House distanced itself from those remarks, and a few days later, Tillerson himself backed off.

Several months earlier in Beijing, Tillerson said the United States was directly communicating with North Korea but that Pyongyang had shown no interest in dialogue. Trump contradicted Tillerson’s efforts a day later.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump wrote on Twitter, using a pejorative nickname for Kim.

Tillerson had joined Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in pressing a skeptical Trump to stick with the agreement with Iran and other world powers over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and he has taken a more hawkish view than Trump on Russia.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate after an April committee hearing, Pompeo will be taking over a State Department shaken by the departures of many senior diplomats and embittered by proposed budget cuts.

Lawmakers from both major parties have criticized those cuts and the administration’s failure to fill dozens of open jobs there.

Tillerson faced a tougher confirmation that most nominees to be secretary of state last year as Democrats grilled him about his oil business ties to Russia. But over time, many lawmakers grew to appreciate Tillerson as a relatively steady hand in the chaotic Trump administration.

“He represented a stable view with regard to the implementation of diplomacy in North Korea, Iran and other places in the world,” said Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during most of Tillerson’s tenure.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, David Brunnstrom, Lesley Wroughton, Paul Simao, Susan Heavey; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bill Trott)

Stranded Yemenis, thousands of others stand to lose ‘golden ticket’ to U.S.

Yemeni Rafek Ahmed Mohammed Al-Sanani (R), 22, and Abdel Rahman Zaid, 26 look through documents as they speak with Reuters in Serdang, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia July 20, 2017.

By Riham Alkousaa and Yeganeh Torbati

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Yemen is urging the U.S. government to take in dozens of Yemenis who traveled to Malaysia in recent months expecting to immigrate to the United States, only to find themselves stranded by President Donald Trump’s temporary travel ban.

The ban, which was blocked by lower courts before being partially reinstated by the Supreme Court in June, temporarily bars citizens of Yemen and five other Muslim-majority countries with no “bona fide” connections to the United States from traveling there.

The Supreme Court ruling sharply limited the number of people affected by the ban. Largely unreported has been the fate of one group – thousands of citizens of the six countries who won a randomized U.S. government lottery last year that enabled them to apply for a so-called green card granting them permanent residence in the United States.

In a stroke of bad luck for the lottery winners, the 90-day travel ban will expire on Sept. 27, just three days before their eligibility for the green cards expires. Given the slow pace of the immigration process, the State Department will likely struggle to issue their visas in time.

A recent email from the U.S. government to lottery winners still awaiting their visas warned “it is plausible that your case will not be issuable” due to the travel ban.

The lottery attracts about 14 million applicants each year, many of whom view it as a chance at the “American Dream.” It serves as a potent symbol of U.S. openness abroad, despite the fact that the chance of success is miniscule – about 0.3 percent, or slightly fewer than 50,000, of lottery entrants actually got a green card in 2015.

The program helps to foster an image of America “as a country which welcomes immigrants and immigration from around the world, but also especially from Africa,” said Johnnie Carson, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the Obama administration.

Some former diplomats worry the travel ban’s impact on the lottery could tarnish that image of inclusiveness.

“Taking this away from people who have won it is the cruelest possible thing this administration could do,” said Stephen Pattison, a former senior State Department consular official. “It makes us look petty and cruel as a society.”

Reuters spoke to dozens of lottery winners from Yemen, Iran and Syria, including about 20 who are still waiting for their visas to be issued. Many declined to be named so as not to risk their applications but provided emails and other documents to help confirm their accounts.

They described having spent thousands of dollars on the application process, and many said they had delayed having children, sold property and turned down lucrative job offers at home because they assumed they would soon be moving to the United States.

 

AN ARDUOUS JOURNEY

For Yemenis, the situation is particularly difficult. Because the United States does not maintain a diplomatic post in Yemen, its citizens are assigned to other countries to apply for their visas, and many of them to travel to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The journey to a country 4,000 miles (6,400 km) away can be expensive and arduous for Yemenis, whose country, the Middle East’s poorest, is embroiled in a two-year conflict.

Most of the Yemenis who come to Malaysia make their first stop at a high-rise apartment building on the outskirts of the capital, where they have built a small community. Because of immigration restrictions, they are not allowed to work and are slowly running out of money. Most survive from funds donated by other Yemenis or sent by relatives back home.

“Imagine you get notified you got the golden ticket, only to have it yanked away,” said Joshua Goldstein, a U.S. immigration attorney who advises lottery winners.

The so-called “diversity visa” program was passed in its current form by Congress in 1990 to provide a path to U.S. residency for citizens from a range of countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States.

Because it has relatively few educational or professional requirements, it tends to attract people from poorer countries. In Ghana and Sierra Leone, for instance, more than 6 percent of the population in each of the West African nations entered the lottery in 2015.

Yemeni officials in Washington launched talks with the State Department this month to find a way to get dozens of Yemeni lottery winners into the United States despite the travel ban, said Yemen’s ambassador to the United States, Ahmed bin Mubarak.

“They’ve been in Malaysia for more than six months and sold everything in Yemen,” bin Mubarak said. “We are doing what we can.”

U.S. officials said they would work with Yemen’s government to help those who qualify for exceptions to the travel ban to be allowed in on a case-by-case basis, said Mohammed al-Hadhrami, a diplomat at Yemen’s embassy in Washington.

A State Department official declined to comment on how the United States was working with Yemen on the issue.

 

‘YANKED AWAY’

It is unclear exactly how many lottery winners are now caught up in the travel ban, which affects Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, but in 2015, more than 10,000 people from the six countries won the lottery, and 4,000 of them eventually got visas.

Yemeni officials provided Reuters with a list of Yemeni lottery winners, mostly in Malaysia, which they have also given to the State Department. It showed 58 Yemenis still waiting for a response to their applications, including some who have been stuck in security checks for more than eight months.

The State Department declined to comment on the figures, but departmental data shows that 206 Yemenis received diversity visas between March and June.

Following the June 26 Supreme Court ruling, State Department officials told lottery winners from the six countries that their visas would not be granted during the 90-day period the travel ban is in place unless they can demonstrate close family ties or other approved connections to a person or institution in the United States, according to an email seen by Reuters.

Yemeni officials are scrambling to help the country’s lottery winners demonstrate how they might qualify for an exemption and are also pushing to get a waiver for those who don’t have any relationships, Hadhrami said.

Rafek Ahmed al-Sanani, a 22-year-old farmer with a high school education, is among the Yemenis stuck in Malaysia. He traveled there in December via a route that included a 22-hour bus ride followed by flights to Egypt, Qatar and finally Malaysia.

“I was the first one to apply for the lottery in my family,” said Sanani, one of nine children in a family from Ibb governorate in Yemen’s north. “I want to come to the United States to learn English and continue my studies.”

Sanani said he had to borrow $10,000 to pay for his trip to Malaysia and living expenses. As he waits to hear the outcome of his application, he is resigned to his fate.

“What can I do?” he said. “I will accept reality.”

 

(Additional reporting by Rozanna Latif in Kuala Lumpur and Yara Bayoumy in Washington; Editing by Sue Horton and Ross Colvin)

 

Exclusive: U.S. asks nations to provide more traveler data or face sanctions

Staff demonstrate the flow of passengers as they queue to X-ray shoes, mobile phone and bags at the security gates at Cointrin airport in Geneva, Switzerland, November 24, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

By Arshad Mohammed and Mica Rosenberg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department will require all nations to provide extensive data to help it vet visa applicants and determine whether a traveler poses a terrorist threat, according to a cable obtained by Reuters.

Countries that fail to comply with the new protocols or take steps to do so within 50 days could face travel sanctions.

The cable, sent to all U.S. diplomatic posts on Wednesday, is a summary of a worldwide review of vetting procedures that was required under U.S. President Donald Trump’s revised March 6 executive order that temporarily banned U.S. travel by most citizens from six predominantly Muslim countries.

The memo lays out a series of standards the United States will require of other countries, including that they issue, or have active plans to issue, electronic passports and regularly report lost and stolen passports to INTERPOL.

It also directs nations to provide “any other identity information” requested by Washington for U.S. visa applicants, including biometric or biographic details.

The cable sets out requirements for countries to provide data on individuals it knows or has grounds to believe are terrorists as well as criminal record information.

Further, countries are asked not to block the transfer of information about U.S.-bound travelers to the U.S. government and not to designate people for travel watchlists based solely on their political or religious beliefs.

“This is the first time that the U.S. Government is setting standards for the information that is required from all countries specifically in support of immigration and traveler vetting,” the cable said.

The cable can be read here: (http://reut.rs/2untHTl).

The new requirements are the latest in a series of steps the Trump administration says it is taking to better protect the United States from terrorist attack.

However, former officials said much of the information sought is routinely shared between countries, including examples of passports and additional details about particular travelers that may present security concerns.

Some U.S. allies may worry about privacy protections if Washington is seen as seeking information beyond what is already shared, said John Sandweg, a former senior Homeland Security Department official now with the firm Frontier Solutions.

“I don’t think you can ignore the political aspects of the unpopularity of the current administration. That puts political pressure to stand up to the administration,” he said.

The cable lays out risk factors the U.S. government will consider when evaluating a country. Some of these are controversial and could be difficult for countries to prove to U.S. satisfaction, including ensuring “that they are not and do not have the potential to become a terrorist safe haven.”

Countries are also expected to agree to take back citizens ordered removed from the United States.

If they do not provide the information requested, or come up with an adequate plan to, countries could end up on a list to be submitted to Trump for possible sanction, including barring “categories” of their citizens from entering the United States.

The real worries for countries may not come until the results of this review are known, said Leon Rodriguez, the former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“Once they start making decisions I think that is where there is going to be a lot of anxiety,” he said, saying delays in visa processing for nations that do not pose much of a threat could start to hurt “ordinary business and personal travel.”

The most controversial of Trump’s immigration-related moves are two executive orders, challenged in federal court, which impose a temporary ban on travel to the United States for most citizens from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

While the orders were initially blocked from being enforced, the Supreme Court on June 26 allowed the ban to go into effect for people from the six nations with no strong ties to the United States.

The cable requires countries to act quickly, but stressed that the United States would work with foreign nations to assess if they meet the standards and, if not, to come up with a plan to help them do so.

The cable asks that U.S. diplomats “underscore that while it is not our goal to impose a ban on immigration benefits, including visas, for citizens of any country, these standards are designed to mitigate risk, and failure to make progress could lead to security measures by the USG, including a presidential proclamation that would prohibit the entry of certain categories of foreign nationals of non-compliant countries.”

The cable says the U.S. government has made a preliminary determination that some countries do not meet the new standards and that others are “at risk” of not meeting them. It does not name these, listing them in a separate, classified cable.

The State Department declined comment on the cable, saying it would not discuss internal communications.

“The U.S. government’s national security screening and vetting procedures for visitors are constantly reviewed and refined to improve security and more effectively identify individuals who could pose a threat to the United States,” said a U.S. State Department official on condition of anonymity.

(Additional reporting by Julia Ainsley and Andrew Chung; Editing by Sue Horton, Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio)

Firm commissioned by Tillerson recommends that DHS issue U.S. visas

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Department of Homeland Security emblem is pictured at the National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) located just outside Washington in Arlington, Virginia September 24, 2010. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang/File Photo -

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The issuance of U.S. visas, passports and other travel documents should be transferred to the Department of Homeland Security from the State Department, a consulting company commissioned by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has recommended in a report.

The study, by Insigniam Holding LLC, which was seen by Reuters, also urges extending foreign postings for U.S. diplomats by one year and ensuring overlap between arriving and departing diplomats to improve efficiency and impact.

The 110-page study was based on online surveys of 35,386 people within the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development as well as one-on-one interviews with about 300 workers. It was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Tillerson commissioned the study as he looks to reorganize the State Department to cut its budget by roughly 30 percent, as laid out in President Donald Trump’s budget proposal.

Influential members of Congress, which has the power of the purse, have made clear that they are not willing to institute such sharp budget reductions, which have contributed to anxiety and low morale among many State Department employees.

In the report, the consultants recommended that Tillerson “move issuance of passports, visas and other travel documents to Homeland Security.”

“There may be an opportunity to elevate efficiency and reduce cost by this change,” it said. “Indications are that doing so would elevate security at our borders.”

Jeffrey Gorsky, a former State Department consular official, said the idea of shifting visa issuance from the State Department had been around since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but that improved U.S. security had undercut the argument for this.

Such a shift, he said, would likely require congressional action and could erode the principle of “non-reviewability,” the current doctrine under which consular decisions may not be reviewed by the courts.

The report also called for crafting “a unifying, clear and vibrant mission” for the State Department and USAID, though the recommendations did not specify one; focusing on “front-line” staff at U.S. embassies and consulates rather than headquarters personnel; and improving management to measure performance, remove “poor performers” and update personnel policies.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Leslie Adler)