Senators in both parties accused the State Department on Thursday of protecting trade goals over victims of human trafficking, and they threatened a subpoena over the agency's analysis.
Instead of taking Malaysia and other countries to task over abhorrent practices allowing sex slavery and human trafficking, the Obama administration backed off in order to smooth through a looming trade deal and accomplish other diplomatic goals, according to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“You sort of threw the trafficking phase under the bus to ensure that you were successful with [the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)].”
State Department officials were under “exceptional pressure to meet political commands — not the facts on the ground,” added Sen. Bob MenendezRobert MenendezTaiwan deserves to participate in United Nations The way forward on the Iran nuclear deal under President Trump Corruption trial could roil NJ Senate race MORE (D-N.J.).
This year’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report upgraded Malaysia from a “Tier 3” country — the lowest level— to “Tier 2 watchlist,” meaning that it does not comply with the minimum standards set by the U.S. but is planning to take efforts over the next year.
The change in category is a big lift to the Obama administration’s trade agenda.
Congress has barred the fast-tracking of any trade deals that include a Tier 3 nation. Promoting Malaysia, which is part of the 12-nation TPP talks, helps negotiators scale that potential hurdle.
Menendez pressed Sarah Sewall, State's undersecretary of human rights, as to whether the determination for moving Malaysia to Tier 2 would hold up in emails, memos and all communications under the scrutiny of a congressionalor or an inspector general’s investigation.
“I would urge the committee to seek all the documentation that was created in the context of devising this year’s report because in the answers to you and the ranking member I certainly am not satisfied,” Menendez said.
Corker went a step further.
“I think based on this presentation if that is not forthcoming immediately my sense is that the committee would take the very unusual step of subpoenaing that information,” Corker said.
“This is possibly the most heartless, lacking of substance presentation I have ever seen about a serious topic,” Corker told Sewell during the hearing.
Speaking in Malaysia on Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry categorically denied that politics had played any role in the ranking.
“I personally signed off on it. And I had zero conversation with anybody in the administration about the Trans-Pacific Partnership relative to this decision — zero,” Kerry told reporters following a meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
“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.”
Sewall reiterated the message before the Senate panel.
"The tier rankings do not assess the severity of human trafficking in a given country,” she said. “The tier rankings assess a country's efforts over the given year.”
“The fact remains that the government has major work to do on its anti-trafficking efforts,” Sewall added.
Lawmakers were unmoved.
"I don't think any person in Malaysia who has loved ones who have been sold into sex slavery would be very comforted by what you've just said,” retorted Corker.
Members of the panel also raised concern about upgrades to both India and Cuba, which they said appeared equally borne out of politics.
In response, lawmakers openly contemplated subpoenaing the State Department for internal communications about the report and potentially changing the law to open up the process of compiling it.
“I’m putting you on notice,” Corker told Sewall, “that any destruction of emails, phone records or letters ... could have significant consequences.”
“I think it’s pretty clear that until we get into the internal documents, we’re never going to know what is truly at hand here,” he added.
The annual TIP report is “the gold standard,” added Sen. Ben CardinBen CardinOvernight Defense: Senators go to White House for North Korea briefing | Admiral takes 'hit' for aircraft carrier mixup | Lawmakers urged to beef up US missile defense Senators get North Korea briefing in unusual WH visit Lawmakers talk climate for Earth Day, Science March MORE (Md.), the panel’s top Democrat.
“It’s on my desk. I look at it before I meet with any representative of another country so that we can go over their trafficking issues and make clear that if they want to have the type of relationship with our country they have to make fighting trafficking a high priority in their country," he said.
“Whether politics played a role or not in the determinations, the perception is that it did,” he added. “And it’s going to be a much more open season by countries to try to influence the TIP rankings through the political process.”
— Updated at 4:57 p.m. to clarify the restrictions on Tier 3 countries