Diplomatic Briefing

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Newsline: US Diplomat Told Congress He Raised Hunter Biden Issue

A U.S. diplomat told congressional investigators this week that he raised concerns about Hunter Biden’s position with a Ukrainian energy company in 2015, only to be turned away by an aide to then-Vice President Joe Biden, a person familiar with the testimony said. Hunter Biden’s role on the board of Burisma Holdings Ltd while his father was in the White House plays into a Democratic-led impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump in the U.S. House of Representatives. The U.S. diplomat, George Kent, who was the State Department’s deputy chief of mission in Ukraine, told congressional investigators Tuesday that he became aware of Hunter Biden’s Burisma board seat in early 2015 and spoke to a Biden staffer about it. At the time, Joe Biden’s other son, Beau, was dying from cancer. “Kent testified that he raised this issue — the perception of a conflict of interest — that was problematic,” the source said. “What he was told by the Biden official was that Beau’s dying of cancer and they didn’t have any further bandwidth to deal with family issues.” (https://www.voanews.com/usa/impeachment-inquiry/us-diplomat-told-congress-he-raised-hunter-biden-issue) Hunter Biden’s role in Burisma coincided with a U.S. anti-corruption drive in Ukraine that emphasized the importance of avoiding conflicts of interest, the source said.

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Newsline: Russian Hackers Accused of Breaking Into European Embassy In Washington

The hackers who infamously breached the Democratic National Committee have continued to cause havoc. The so-called Cozy Bear hackers, who were revealed in 2016 to have infiltrated the DNC along with a group called Fancy Bear as part of a Russian-government sponsored attack on American democracy, have hacked the Washington, D.C., embassy of a European member state, said cybersecurity researchers from ESET. The hackers also broke into computers at the ministries of foreign affairs of three European countries. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/thomasbrewster/2019/10/17/russian-hackers-breach-european-embassy-in-washington/#25510f077c93) Neither the embassy nor the government departments are being identified by ESET. But the research represents a rare sighting of Cozy Bear and a resurgence of a Russian intelligence operation heading into a turbulent geopolitical period, with Britain’s exit from the European Union and the 2020 U.S. election on the horizon. Three new malware types were also discovered, showing the unit continues to build its digital arsenal as it tries to spy on diplomats.

Newsline: Zimbabwe was not evicted from its London embassy

Zimbabwe House is still listed at 429 Strand. AFP in London also visited the building and saw that the embassy was operating as normal. (https://factcheck.afp.com/no-zimbabwe-was-not-evicted-its-london-embassy-it-owns-building) The building was erected in 1908 to serve as headquarters for the British Medical Association. The government of Southern Rhodesia had acquired the British Medical Association Building in the Strand and remodelled it into offices for its London representatives. It’s been known as Zimbabwe House since the country’s independence in 1980. Prior to that, it was known as Rhodesia House. Zimbabwe House is also a Grade II* listed building on the National Heritage List for England – that grading means it’s an important building of more than special interest. According to the UK Land Registry, Zimbabwe House belongs to the Zimbabwe government.

Newsline: Russia Disputes Travel Plans of U.S. Diplomats Near Test Site

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said three U.S. diplomats who were stopped near the restricted zone of a recent deadly nuclear explosion had declared a different destination for their trip. The American foreign service personnel requested permission from the Defense Ministry to travel to the northern city of Arkhangelsk, but “instead, they arrived in a rented car with Russian license plates in Severodvinsk,” a city that foreigners need special permission to enter, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters Thursday. (https://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-disputes-travel-plans-of-u-s-diplomats-near-russia-test-site-11571320803) The U.S. diplomats, who the Russian authorities said included military attachés, then took a train from Severodvinsk to “a village near which is a military training ground,” Ms. Zakharova said. An Aug. 8 explosion during a missile test killed at least seven people and caused radiation levels to spike in the area. She didn’t name the village, but Nyonoksa, where the Defense Ministry’s testing site is located, is about 25 miles from Severodvinsk. Upon arriving in the village by train, the U.S. diplomats were stopped by a military patrol, Ms. Zakharova said. “They were told that they were in a zone with restricted access…and offered to return on the same train,” the Russian official said. “They were never detained.” The State Department said that “the American diplomats were on official travel and had properly notified Russian authorities of their travel.”

Newsline: Trump’s Embattled E.U. Envoy Oversees Lavish Renovations to Brussels Residence

hile the Ukraine scandal has thrown a harsh light on the bipartisan tradition of rewarding top campaign donors with ambassadorships, in the case of Gordon Sondland, it has also brought unwanted scrutiny to the hotelier’s fondness for sumptuous interiors. Ordinarily, the position of U.S. ambassador to the European Union is among the more technocratic postings available inside the State Department, encompassing a Brussels office staffed by bookish diplomats with expertise on issues like data privacy and energy security. Sondland, who donated $1 million to Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, was also interested in the drapes. According to government spending reports, Sondland is overseeing extensive renovations at the U.S. embassy on Rue Zinner, just down the street from the royal Parc de Bruxelles. The renovations might have gone unnoticed had Sondland not become ensnared in the House impeachment inquiry into the Trump administration’s apparent effort to solicit dirt on Joe Biden. Now, chatter has picked up among diplomats about the ambassador’s makeover of the embassy, which has included a new pool-Jacuzzi heating system and a professional kitchen remodel. (https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/10/ambassador-gordon-sondland-renovations-brussels-residence) It’s not unheard of for ambassadors to make changes to their diplomatic residences. As one former ambassador explained, “These things cost money and they are old buildings and they do require upkeep.” Nor is it atypical for diplomats to refresh properties to their liking—perhaps new carpeting, a fresh paint job. But it is the extent of the renovations on the Brussels residence that is raising eyebrows.

Newsline: E.U. ambassador to testify that ex-Ukraine ambassador was ‘great’ despite Trump ouster

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland will tell Congress on Thursday that he thought former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was “great” and that he has nothing negative to say about her job performance, despite her ouster by President Donald Trump. A person with knowledge of Sondland’s testimony tells NBC News that Yovanovitch was an able and professional diplomat, and that he had no issues with her whatsoever. The person spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity. (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/trump-impeachment-inquiry/e-u-ambassador-testify-ex-ukraine-ambassador-was-great-despite-n10661110) Yovanovitch told House impeachment investigators last week that Trump personally pressured the State Department to have her removed from her position. Sondland is expected to testify under subpoena on Thursday as part of the impeachment inquiry. Sondland will also testify that after he attended Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s inauguration in May, he met with Trump, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and former U.S. special envoy Kurt Volker in the Oval Office. In that meeting, Sondland will say, Trump told them that any in-person meeting between Trump and Zelenskiy would have to be approved by Rudy Giuliani.

Newsline: Saudi Ambassador to UK Calls Donald Trump A “Tweet Monster”

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.K. Prince Khalid Bin Bandar has described United States President Donald Trump as a “tweet monster” over his belligerent response to the attacks on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq last month. Speaking at defence think-tank the Royal United Services Institute in London on October 14, Prince Khalid was asked about Trump’s initial response that the U.S. was “locked and loaded” and ready to respond to the attacks. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/dominicdudley/2019/10/15/saudi-trump-tweet-monster/#3e1de14f7eed) “He is a tweet monster if you like. He loves engaging with people on social media,” said the ambassador, who was appointed to the role earlier this year. “He does so very quickly and sometimes it’s just his initial reaction.”