Menendez jabs State official over Colombian group's terror designation

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez on Tuesday took a dig at State Department officials for failing to consult with the Senate on a key policy change regarding Colombia.

Menendez, the powerful chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reproached Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols over the Biden administration's lack of consultation when delisting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as a terrorist organization.

"This is an example of when I've pressed the question both in nominations and with the administration, about consultation versus notification," Menendez told Nichols in a committee hearing.

"And in this particular case, my notification was through the Wall Street Journal," added Menendez.

"That is not what I consider consultation. And the lack of getting that type of consultation creates problems. So I hope we don't relive it again."

The Senate's constitutional role in foreign affairs - the body has the power of "advice and consent" on treaties and top diplomatic nominations - has at times been a source of friction between the upper chamber and the executive.

Still, Menendez is seen as a close ally of President Biden, and the Senate's foremost expert on U.S.-Latin American relations.

Earlier Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced in a statement that the FARC as a whole would no longer be considered a terrorist organization, but two dissident groups, La Segunda Marquetalia and FARC-EP, would be added to the list.

The policy is intended to strengthen Colombia's faltering peace process, allowing U.S. agencies and officials to deal with FARC members who have laid down their weapons, while sanctioning the FARC offshoots that have remained at war against the Colombian state.

"My understanding of what you are doing is sanctioning those who have not put their arms down while delisting those that have and who are now following a peaceful path towards reintegration in their society," said Menendez.

While Menendez neither endorsed nor rebuked the policy in the hearing with Nichols, other Senate Democrats involved in Latin America policy said they agreed with the fundamental idea of specifically targeting terrorist designations in Colombia.

"I think the decision to remove the FARC after five years of participating in a new life, in a new chapter in Colombian life, but designating groups like the FARC-EP, like Segunda Marquetalia ... I think it's the right thing to do and I just wanted to start there," said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

Still, the policy rollout rankled Menendez, a powerful chairman who's put his weight behind the administration on issues like Cuba, and tapped the brakes when at odds with the White House, including on Nichols's nomination to his current post.

Menendez pushed Nichols to explain how the broad policy change had come about in the Biden administration, after targeted sanctions relief allowed some Trump administration programs to interact with former FARC fighters.

"Who drove the question of delisting the FARC? Was it [the National Security Council], was it State Department, who was it?" Menendez asked Nichols.

"When I arrived in the position, it was already well advanced so I can't say who the specific driver was," replied Nichols.

Menendez then referenced a Wall Street Journal article that on Nov. 23 revealed the State Department's intention to delist the FARC, but in its original form did not focus on the listings for FARC-EP and Segunda Marquetalia.

A State Department official told The Hill the leak to the Journal was particularly damaging given that it didn't include information on the new, targeted sanctions.

"Somebody leaked it to the Wall Street Journal. There's limited things we can do about that," said the official.

"It was a partial leak and that caused a lot of confusion. Any leak is bad, the timing of this one was particularly bad," added the official.

The timing of that article coincides with the executive's obligation to notify Congress of such a policy change seven days before it goes into effect.

It also means the Journal received the notification before Menendez's office, amid slowdowns at the Capitol due to the Thanksgiving holiday.