Archive for North America
Even skilled diplomats sometimes stumble, especially when they think the microphones are off. U.S. Ambassador Richard Norland in the former Soviet republic of Georgia found himself sputtering in outrage over comments he made earlier this month to students at Tbilisi State University in the capital of the Black Sea nation. “This was a discussion with students. Actually it was off the record, and it was [a] secret recording,” he said in remarks posted on the U.S. Embassy website. Mr. Norland suggested the quotes that appeared in the Georgian media were taken out of content, but the damage was done. In his Nov. 15 address at the university, he complained about how the Georgian government treated residents of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been restive since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Responding to a student’s question about his opinion of the cauldron of tension in the region, Mr. Norland said: “If you ask me about my opinion, I can tell you that when I was in Georgia 20 years ago, I saw that Georgians were treating Abkhazians and Ossetians the same way as Russians were treating Georgians, and Georgia will have to apologize for mistakes of the past.” His remarks sparked protests from opposition politicians, while the government tried to play down the ambassador’s gaffe.
The US National Security Agency in cooperation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation has reportedly been spying on Chinese and other foreign embassies and consulates in the United States for almost a century. The agencies even built full size mock-ups of the buildings they are housed in to train their agents to break into them, reports the website of Henan-based Dahe Daily citing Foreign Policy, a global magazine of politics, economics and ideas. Between 2006 and 2009, helicopters that belong to the FBI allegedly hovered above the construction site of the new Chinese embassy in Washington DC. The helicopters were said to be seeking the location of the communication center in the embassy. Chinese construction workers covered up the site with canvas in response to the surveillance, however, the bureau still monitored them closely and tried to recruit one or two of them as spies. Chinese officials also learned that the bureau sent agents to put surveillance on the construction materials and the equipment workers stored on the University of the District of Columbia’s soccer field. They suspected that the agents were seeking opportunities to install wiretapping devices. Around 600 foreign embassies, consulates and offices were said to have been spied on by the bureau. Of which, those belonging to Russia, China, Libya, Israel, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Venezuela have been closely monitored.
Mona Locke nee Lee, the wife of the US ambassador to China Gary Locke, said that the ambassador did not announce that he is stepping down from the role due to an alleged affair. “I assure you that this is not true,” she said when approached by reporters from the state-run China News Service while attending an event in Washington DC. Her remarks addressed a story on the Duowei News website, an outlet run by overseas Chinese, which reported that Locke had quit his job as ambassador because he had been having an affair. “We have two homes, one in Seattle and the other in Beijing. I miss Beijing very much and I will go back to Beijing next week to spend Thanksgiving with Gary,” she said. While Locke is stationed in Beijing, his wife and their three children relocated to Seattle this summer.
Over 50 current and former employees at the U.S. Embassy in Oslo have worked illegally, according to the Norwegian Tax Administration. Between 15 and 20 of these will be prosecuted for gross tax fraud. Several of the staff are accused of having withhold over two million NOK in several years, reports TV2. Earlier this year the Tax Administration sent letter more than 50 current and former embassy employees. They were asked to submit pay slips for all the years they had worked at the embassy. This means that the tax authorities believe more than 50 employees have been fully or partially worked cash-in-hand, without declaring their income to the tax authority. According to TV2, the authorities came across cases when an ex-partner of one of the staff at the embassy notified them. Then, they have become aware of which account was used to pay wages and who received the money. In 2010, Norwegian TV channel TV 2 had revealed that some Norwegian worked as agents in a covert monitoring unit for the U.S. Embassy in Oslo. The day after the disclosure, eight of the agents had been examined by the tax administration. Afterward, moonlighting practices were found. But police dropped the case in spring 2012, and the tax administration had decided not to appeal.
A Bosnian appeals court trimmed the prison sentence given to an Islamist gunman after he apologized for opening fire on the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo in 2011, seriously wounding a police officer. The court cut Mevlid Jasarevic’s sentence from 18 years to 15, citing mitigating circumstances such as the fact that he was not part of a criminal group. Jasarevic, being re-tried for the attack, had last week apologized for firing on the embassy for more than 40 minutes, calling it a “stupid act”. He appeared in court clean-shaven and wearing a white shirt and jeans, instead of with the long Islamist beard and traditional robe and skullcap he had before. The attack by Jasarevic, a Muslim originally from neighboring Serbia who recently said he had distanced himself from the strict Wahhabi form of Islam, had revived debate over the threat of radical Islam in the Balkans. His previous conviction was overturned in July after judges ruled the original trial was flawed. Defense lawyers had argued they did not have access to witness testimony and evidence.
Plans to move the U.S. embassy to the Vatican onto the grounds of the larger American embassy to Italy, though in a separate building and with a distinct entrance, are drawing fire from five former American envoys despite the tacit consent of the Vatican itself. Justified primarily on the grounds of enhanced security, the move is described by former U.S. Ambassador James Nicholson, who’s also a former Secretary of Veterans Affairs in the Bush administration and a former chair of the Republican National Committee, as a “massive downgrade” in U.S./Vatican ties. “It’s turning this embassy into a stepchild of the embassy to Italy,” Nicholson said. While the move has not yet been publicly announced, a contract for renovations to the new facility has been awarded, and it’s tentatively scheduled to open in January 2015. The embassy is presently located in a building near Rome’s Circus Maximus, roughly 3 miles away from the other American diplomatic facilities in the city. Although the Vatican traditionally has insisted that countries maintain embassies in distinct locations as a way of underscoring its autonomy, signals in this case suggest it won’t protest the relocation. On background, a senior Vatican official told NCR on Monday that safety is a “real concern,” especially in the wake of a lethal June 2012 assault on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that claimed the lives of an American ambassador and three other officials. A U.S. State Department report after that assault recommended consolidating facilities wherever possible. As long as the embassy remains “completely separate” from other U.S. missions, the Vatican official said, the new site represents a tolerable exception to normal practice. A few other countries, such as Israel, have always had their embassies in Rome at the same location while others, such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, have recently combined them.
U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke, who oversaw the handling of potential crises over the flight to U.S. diplomatic missions by a persecuted legal activist and high-profile police chief, said he will step down early next year. Locke, the first Chinese-American to hold the post, said he informed President Barack Obama earlier this month of his decision to rejoin his family in Seattle. Locke, 63, known for his affable, non-confrontational style, placed a high priority on improving embassy efficiency and facilitating bilateral trade at a time when exchanges are growing rapidly. Yet his time as ambassador witnessed two of the most delicate diplomatic episodes between the countries in years that had the potential to severely complicate relations. In February 2012, Wang Lijun, the police chief in the western city of Chongqing, fled to a U.S. Consulate in southwest China with information about the murder of a British businessman – setting off China’s biggest political scandal in years. Wang’s intentions were unclear and he was taken into Chinese custody the next day after leaving the consulate on his own. Yet his flight led to the removal and subsequent sentencing to life imprisonment for corruption of Chongqing’s leader, Bo Xilai, formerly one of China’s most powerful politicians. Just two months later, and days before then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Beijing, blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest and was given shelter in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where he remained for six days. Locke spent hours each day with Chen and was photographed holding his hand as they entered a hospital, earning plaudits from the overseas human rights lobby. Chinese officials later allowed the activist and his family to leave the country to study in New York. Locke, who is married with three children, took up the post in August 2011 after serving as U.S. commerce secretary and two terms as governor of Washington State. In a statement, Locke listed increased U.S. exports to China, the promotion of Chinese investment in the U.S., and a reduction in waiting times for visas as major accomplishments of his time in office. The speed up in visa issuance to just three to five days, from the previous 70-100 “significantly increased” Chinese business and tourism to the U.S., he said. During his tenure, embassy officials “advanced American values” by meeting with religious leaders and human rights lawyers and visiting Tibetan and Uighur ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang, Locke said.
Caroline Kennedy arrived in Japan on Friday to take up her position as U.S. ambassador, the first woman to serve in the post and one who is from a political family familiar to many here. “I bring greetings from President Obama,” she said in after getting off the plane with her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, at Narita airport. “I am also proud to carry forward my father’s legacy of public service,” said the 55-year-old daughter of late President John F. Kennedy. “He had hoped to be the first U.S. president to visit Japan. So it is a special honor for me to be able to work to strengthen the close ties between our two great countries.” Kennedy’s appointment is being widely acclaimed here. As the daughter of the late president and an early supporter of President Obama, her selection is seen as reassurance of the special relationship between the two countries. Nov. 22 marks the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, adding poignancy to what the Japanese already view as a close bond with the Kennedy family. JFK was injured when his PT 109 was sunk by a Japanese destroyer during World War II. But he maintained a cordial correspondence with the ship’s captain in later years, and had planned to be the first president to visit Japan in the post-war era. Indeed, an advance team from the White House was in Tokyo planning for the visit when Kennedy was killed in Dallas. In a video posted on the U.S. Embassy website this week, Kennedy embraced her family legacy. “This appointment has a special significance as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of my father’s presidency,” she said. The new ambassador is scheduled to meet with the popular Emperor Akihito on Nov. 19 to present her credentials.
The State Department said it has quietly offered a $10 million reward since January for information leading to those behind the Sept. 11, 2012 attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in Benghazi. The men died when militants attacked a loosely guarded U.S. diplomatic compound and a nearby CIA annex in the eastern Libyan city on the anniversary of the 2001 attacks on the United States. The State Department said Secretary of State John Kerry had confirmed that the U.S. government had offered the reward – part of the department’s so-called Rewards for Justice program – in a letter to lawmakers on Friday. “The State Department today confirmed that since January of 2013 the Rewards for Justice (RFJ) program has had a reward offer of up to $10 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction of any individual involved in the September 11-12, 2012 Benghazi attacks,” the department said in its statement. “Due to security issues and sensitivities surrounding the investigation, the event-specific reward offer has not been publicly advertised on the RFJ website,” it added, saying the program can work without advertising rewards on the internet.
Soul music legend Tina Turner filed paperwork in late October at the US Embassy in Switzerland to relinquish her citizenship, media reports said. The US Embassy in Bern, Switzerland confirmed that she was in the embassy in late October to sign her “Statement of Voluntary Relinquishment of US citizenship.” The 73-year-old singer, known for such hits as “Proud Mary”, “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” and “What’s Love Got to Do with It”, signed the forms to voluntarily relinquish her citizenship Oct 24, The Washington Post reported. Turner affirmed in the documents that she does not have strong ties to the US, “except for family, and has no plans to reside in the US in the future,” the daily said. Turner, who was born in Nutbush, Tennessee, Nov 26, 1939, has lived in Switzerland for more than two decades and married her long-time boyfriend, German producer Erwin Bach, in July. Turner, who has won eight Grammys and sold more than 100 million records in her career, became a Swiss citizen April 10.