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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
White House Admits Russia's Intelligence Chief to US to Attend Conference on Countering Violent Extremism
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David Kramer, senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute writes an op-ed today in the Washington Post, "U.S. Invites a Russian Fox into the Coop."

President Barack Obama has allowed Alexander Bortnikov the head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the KGB's successor, to come to the United States to attend a conference today and tomorrow at the White House called Countering Violent Extremism.

The optics of having such a figure come to the US at a time when the US is attempting to put pressure on Putin to stop its war on Ukraine certainly aren't good.

Incredibly, Bortnikov isn't on the current list of sanctions introduced against Russia over its forcibly annexation of the Crimea and continued war on Ukraine, although our allies have included him. Says Kramer:

Bortnikov is not on the U.S. sanctions list that denies dozens of Russians entry to the United States either because of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine or because of the 2012 human rights legislation known as the Magnitsky Act. His name does appear, however, on the Ukraine-related sanctions lists adopted by the European Union and Canada.

Bortnikov should long ago have been included on the Magnitsky sanctions list dealing with human rights abuses as well as the Ukraine-related list. The FSB leads Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to eliminate his political opposition, stifle civil society and independent media and perpetuate the myth that the West, and the United States in particular, are a threat to Russia. It is actively involved in the propaganda effort in which the Kremlin spreads lies and misinformation to its audiences via RT (formerly Russia Today) and the Sputnik news agency. Its special forces are heavily involved in Ukraine.

How did this happen? As Kramer points out in his piece, it's because we didn't have Bortnikov on the sanctions list, and Putin took the opportunity to stick a finger in our eye and put his secret police chief at the head of the delegation. The White House then didn't feel they could say "no" -- although there is no reason they couldn't have objected and asked the Russians to find another law-enforcement official.

Instead, by the White House refusing to take a stand even now, Putin could wink and say this official was required because of the topic of the conference -- fighting extremism.

This is a topic Putin's enforcer knows a lot about, as under Russia's vaguely-worded "anti-extremism" law, hundreds of web sites have been closed and dozens of people have been jailed -- some of whom we would agree are guilty of "incitement to violent action" (the US Supreme Court test for overcoming free speech guarantees to prosecute extremists) but some of whom are not -- like people who have opposed the war in Ukraine.

Obama, author of the "re-set" with Russia, has always been reluctant to punish the top leadership of Russia, and opposed the Magnitsky Act when it was launched in the US Congress.

The conference itself was something that was postponed last year for reasons that have not been disclosed. It was put on again hastily, with some controversy as the Administration came under attack recently for how it has handled the challenge of ISIS in general, and specifically, for Obama's recent remarks that the Paris terrorists who targeted Jews in a kosher deli had killed "random" people.

USA Today said the conference had "missed the mark" and critics were questioning what it would achieve.

“It’s bizarre,” says Naureen Shah, a former legislative counsel with the ACLU who recently became the security and human rights director at Amnesty International. “On the one hand they’ve been touting this summit and trying to showcase the U.S. and global efforts to combat violent extremism. But on the other hand, they’re not providing any information about what’s going to happen.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to comment last week on whether Russia would be participating in the summit, saying she did not currently have the list of invitees. She anticipated that, in the days before the summit, “we’ll do a briefing on the plans for the summit, what we hope to accomplish, et cetera.”

A State Department spokesperson confirmed Friday the department had not yet finalized the list of attendees with the White House, though an announcement later in the day said the attendees would include "ministers, senior officials from the UN – including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – and other multilateral organizations, and private sector and civil society representatives."

Obama wrote an op-ed piece explaining the conference, but didn't mention Russia -- it's primarily aimed at addressing extremism in the Middle East directly threatening Americans.

But his involvement of Russian intelligence in this effort is highly troublesome because Russia deals harshly with its extremists, real or suspected, by violating basic rights of free speech, association and assembly and worst of all, by extra-judicial killing; more than 300 suspected Islamist militants have been gunned down by Russian forces, mainly in Dagestan, in the last year. 

Strangely, even the Amb. Vitaly Churkin, Russia's envoy to the UN, questioned the White House conference and US leadership in leading the countering of terrorism. "It's only going to attract extremiss," the New York Times reported him as saying.

The White House conference bears a lot of resemblance to a conference process conceived by former State Department official Jared Cohen, who is now director of Google Ideas. In 2011, Cohen convened a conference of former members of gangs and jihadist groups to discuss ways in which extremism could be countered in the community. He has formed a global network called Against Violent Extremism.

There has also been an Air Force study on countering violent extremism and various other studies and trainings by the US government to grapple with the challenge of Islamism leading to this conference which has engendered controversy from left and right.

This debate will endure as the issues are complex, but it is hard to see why involvement of Putin's intelligence apparatus will be helpful. While the description of US-Russian law-enforcement cooperation on cases like the Boston Marathon bombers is often described as involving a lapse on the part of the FBI, who failed to intercept the Tsarnaev brothers, in fact serious questions could be asked why our then-partners failed to tell the US that Tamerlan Tsarnaev were alleged by Dagestani intelligence to have contacted Islamist militants who were then later assassinated in Dagestan by Russian special forces.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick