Pompeo Blames Russia For Massive US Cyberattack

Mike-Pompeo
Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP

 

Russia was “pretty clearly” behind a devastating cyberattack on several US government agencies that also hit targets worldwide, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

Microsoft said late Thursday that it had notified more than 40 customers hit by the malware, which security experts say could allow attackers unfettered network access to key government systems and electric power grids and other utilities.

“There was a significant effort to use a piece of third-party software to essentially embed code inside of US government systems,” Pompeo told The Mark Levin Show on Friday.

“This was a very significant effort, and I think it’s the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.”

Roughly 80 percent of the affected customers are located in the United States, Microsoft president Brad Smith said in a blog post, with victims also found in Belgium, Britain, Canada, Israel, Mexico, Spain and the United Arab Emirates.

“It’s certain that the number and location of victims will keep growing,” Smith said, echoing concerns voiced this week by US officials on the serious threat from the attack.

“This is not ‘espionage as usual,’ even in the digital age,” Smith said.

“Instead, it represents an act of recklessness that created a serious technological vulnerability for the United States and the world.”

John Dickson of the security firm Denim Group said many private sector companies which could be vulnerable were scrambling to shore up security, even to the point of considering rebuilding servers and other equipment.

“Everyone is in damage assessment now because it’s so big,” Dickson said. “It’s a severe body blow to confidence both in government and critical infrastructure.”

The threat comes from a long-running attack which is believed to have injected malware into computer networks using enterprise management network software made by the Texas-based IT company SolarWinds, with the hallmarks of a nation-state attack.

James Lewis, vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the attack may end up being the worst to hit the United States, eclipsing the 2014 hack of US government personnel records in a suspected Chinese infiltration.

“The scale is daunting.  We don’t know what has been taken so that is one of the tasks for forensics,” Lewis said.

“We also don’t know what’s been left behind. The normal practice is to leave something behind so they can get back in, in the future.”

– NSA warning –

The National Security Agency called for increased vigilance to prevent unauthorized access to key military and civilian systems.

Analysts have said the attacks pose threats to national security by infiltrating key government systems, while also creating risks for controls of key infrastructure systems such as electric power grids and other utilities.

The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said government agencies, critical infrastructure entities, and private sector organizations had been targeted by what it called an “advanced persistent threat actor.”

CISA did not identify who was behind the malware attack, but private security companies pointed a finger at hackers linked to the Russian government.

Pompeo had also suggested Moscow’s involvement on Monday, saying the Russian government had made repeated attempts to breach US government networks.

President-elect Joe Biden expressed “great concern” over the computer breach while Republican Senator Mitt Romney blamed Russia and slammed what he called “inexcusable silence” from the White House.

Romney likened the cyberattack to a situation in which “Russian bombers have been repeatedly flying undetected over our entire country.”

CISA said the computer intrusions began at least as early as March this year, and the actor behind them had “demonstrated patience, operational security and complex tradecraft.”

“This threat poses a grave risk,” CISA said Thursday, adding that it “expects that removing this threat actor from compromised environments will be highly complex and challenging for organizations.”

Hackers reportedly installed malware on software used by the US Treasury Department and the Commerce Department, allowing them to view internal email traffic.

The Department of Energy, which manages the country’s nuclear arsenal, confirmed it had also been hit by the malware but had disconnected affected systems from its network.

“At this point, the investigation has found that the malware has been isolated to business networks only, and has not impacted the mission-essential national security functions of the department, including the National Nuclear Security Administration,” said agency spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes.

SolarWinds said up to 18,000 customers, including government agencies and Fortune 500 companies, had downloaded compromised software updates, allowing hackers to spy on email exchanges.

Russia has denied involvement.

-AFP

US Condemns Arrest Of Hong Kong Politicians

Mike-Pompeo
File photo: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, DC.  AFP

 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday denounced Beijing over the arrests of eight opposition politicians in Hong Kong, saying China was seeking to silence dissent.

Pompeo in a statement said that the United States “strongly condemns” the arrests of the politicians, five of whom are sitting lawmakers in the financial hub.

“The Hong Kong government’s harassment and intimidation of pro-democracy representatives and attempts to stifle dissent are stark examples of its ongoing complicity with the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party, which seeks to dismantle the promised autonomy of Hong Kong and eviscerate respect for human rights,” Pompeo said.

“We call on Beijing and the Hong Kong government to respect the right of the Hong Kong people to air their grievances through their elected representatives.”

Hong Kong authorities said they made the arrests due to protests and scuffles that broke out earlier this year inside the legislature, where only half the seats are directly elected.

The United States has repeatedly criticized China for its clampdown in Hong Kong, including a tough new security law.

But China has stepped up action against critics in Hong Kong, to which Beijing promised a separate system before Britain handed back the city in 1997.

Pompeo Calls For Collaborative Efforts Against China’s ‘Corruption’

 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on key Asian allies to unite against China’s “exploitation, corruption and coercion” in the region, as he held talks Tuesday in Tokyo.

Pompeo was speaking at the start of discussions with his Japanese, Indian and Australian counterparts — the so-called Quad grouping, seeking to present a united front against an increasingly assertive Beijing.

But it was the top US diplomat who took the hardest line on China, referring to the “pandemic that came from Wuhan”, which he said was “made infinitely worse by the Chinese Communist Party’s cover-up”.

He warned it was “more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP’s exploitation, corruption and coercion”, citing China’s actions in the Himalayas, Taiwan Strait and elsewhere.

This rhetoric was not fully echoed by Washington’s partners in the grouping, although Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne pointedly spoke of the desire for a region “governed by rules, not power”.

The talks come with Washington, Sydney and New Delhi all at loggerheads with Beijing.

Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar noted the fact that the meeting was happening at all, given the coronavirus pandemic, was “testimony to the importance” of the alliance.

But Japan, under the leadership of new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, is seeking to balance the need to support its allies with its desire to continue gradually improving ties with China.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi notably did not mention China in his remarks, and the government has said the talks are not directed at any one country.

“Lately, the present international order has been challenged in various fields and the new coronavirus is accelerating the trend,” Motegi said at the start of the meeting.

“Our four countries share the objective of strengthening a free and open, rule-based international order.”

– Other stops scrapped –

Pompeo’s visit, which included bilateral talks with his counterparts as well as a meeting with Suga, took place despite the coronavirus crisis in Washington, where President Donald Trump and several staff and advisors have tested positive.

Although planned stops in South Korea and Mongolia were scrapped, Pompeo said it was important to go ahead with the four-way talks in Tokyo, promising “significant announcements”.

However, no joint statement or press conference is expected after the meeting.

Pompeo is a vociferous critic of China on issues from security to human rights to the pandemic, which Trump’s administration has sought to blame squarely on Beijing ahead of the US election next month.

He is the first senior American official to visit Japan since Suga took office last month, and he said he was confident Tokyo and Washington were on the same page.

Earlier Tuesday, Suga said the spread of the coronavirus had shown “exactly why right now is the time that we must further deepen coordination with as many countries as possible that share our vision”.

But he too avoided any specific mention of Beijing, which has made clear its disdain for the grouping and last week urged countries to avoid “closed and exclusive ‘cliques'”.

“We hope the relevant countries can proceed from the common interests of countries in the region, and do more things that are conducive to regional peace, stability and development, not the other way around,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

The Quad grouping was heavily promoted by Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe as a way for the region’s major democracies to step up cooperation in the face of military and other threats posed by China.

The first Quad meeting took place in New York last year, and there are moves to make the gathering an annual event.

-AFP

US Secretary Of State Pompeo Tests Negative For COVID-19

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Geoffrey Onyeama(not shown) deliver statements to the press, at the Department of State on February 4, 2020 in Washington,DC.
Eric BARADAT / AFP

 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday he has tested negative for the coronavirus after President Donald Trump announced he had been infected and was in quarantine.

“I’m feeling fantastic,” Pompeo told reporters travelling with him to Dubrovnik, Croatia, the last stop on a mini European tour.

Pompeo said he was tested “about 30 minutes ago” just a few hours after Trump’s announcement and added it was the fourth time he had been tested during the past two and a half weeks.

READ ALSO: US President Trump, Wife Contract COVID-19

The American top diplomat said he has not interacted with the president since the Abraham Accords were signed in Washington on September 15 when Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognised Israel.

“We are praying for the president and First Lady that they’ll have a speedy recovery,” he said.

During his brief stay in the southern Adriatic resort, Pompeo is to meet Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and Foreign Minister Gordan Grlic Radman.

The talks will focus notably on the purchase of fighter jets and abolishing of visas for Croatian travellers to the US, Croatian officials said earlier

-AFP

Pompeo In Tense Visit To Vatican As US Vote Nears

Mike-Pompeo
File photo: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a briefing at the State Department on February 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. Secretary Pompeo spoke on several topics including the coronavirus and the recent truce with the Taliban. Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP

 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Rome Wednesday, just a month ahead of the US elections and hot on the heels of a diplomatic breach with the Vatican, that experts see as an effort to win conservative Catholic votes.

Pompeo will not meet Pope Francis because the pontiff avoids such audiences in campaign periods, a Vatican source said.

Analysts say the pope has also been angered by Pompeo’s public calls for a historic Vatican-China accord to be scrapped.

Instead, Pompeo will speak at a symposium organised by the Holy See’s US embassy in the Italian capital on Wednesday, before meeting the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin on Thursday.

Francis has been working hard to repair ties with China, but his overtures run contrary to US President Donald Trump’s efforts to push a religious freedom theme against the Communist country in his campaign for a second term.

Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, went on the offensive earlier this month, calling a Sino-Vatican 2018 agreement on appointing bishops, which is up for renewal, a risk to the church’s “moral authority” given Beijing’s human rights record.

Powerful cardinal Oscar Maradiaga said the US intervention was unwelcome, and clearly linked to the election campaign.

“They’re looking for Donald Trump to get elected, and everything is based on that logic. In this sense, I don’t think they’re acting in the interests of Americans,” he said in an interview with the Repubblica daily on the eve of Pompeo’s visit.

Francis’s opening towards China had particularly angered the “anti-Francis” network close to the US president, he said, led by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican’s former envoy to the US, and Steve Bannon, Trump’s former advisor.

– ‘Propaganda’ –

Massimo Faggioli, a theologian at the Villanova Catholic University in the US, said there was a concerted effort under way to “turn a certain anti-Francis and anti-Vatican sentiment, which has become more visible in recent years, into votes for Trump”.

“Vatican diplomacy is being used for propaganda,” he said.

According to the Pew Research Centre, around half of Catholic registered voters describe themselves as Republicans or lean toward the Republican Party, while roughly the same identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party.

A “notable majority of white Catholics” voted for Trump last time, Faggioli said, and “the plan is to keep this bloc of white Catholic voters in some states where it is especially needed”.

Pompeo is also set Wednesday to meet Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio to discuss US efforts to deter European allies from using equipment by Chinese manufacturer Huawei in developing their 5G networks.

The US accuses Huawei of being a tool for Chinese espionage.

Italy insists its Golden Power law — which allows the government to impose conditions, restrictions or a ban on foreign investment in strategic industries — protects it from risk.

Nonetheless, Conte promised last week to take stronger measures to ensure national security in the country’s 5G networks.

Talks will likely also touch on Italy’s involvement in China’s ambitious “Belt and Road” trade and infrastructure investment plan.

Rome became the first G7 country to sign up to the plan last year, a move sharply criticised by those who fear the investment scheme will allow key trade secrets and technologies to slip into Beijing’s hands.

AFP

Pompeo Wraps Up Greece Visit With Naval Base Tour

Pompeo
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis stand in front of the Greek Naval frigate Salamis during their visit to the Naval Support Activity base at Souda, the foremost US naval facility in the eastern Mediterranean on the Greek island of Crete. . (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS / various sources / AFP)

 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday concludes a two-day visit to Greece on with a tour of a strategically vital NATO base.

Pompeo will visit the Souda facility in Crete with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on a trip aimed at easing tensions between Greece and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.

Washington has urged the NATO allies and neighbours, who have agreed to continue exploratory talks interrupted in 2016, to find “good solutions” to disputes exacerbated by energy exploration disagreements.

“We hope the exploratory talks not only get kicked off right, but it’s important that they’re resolved in a way that delivers outcomes that each of the two nations find more than acceptable,” Pompeo told Greek state agency ANA on Monday.

“It’s not just talking, we need to get to good solutions,” he added.

Greece and Turkey have spent weeks at loggerheads after Ankara sent exploration vessels into disputed, potentially resource-rich waters in a crisis that roped in other European powers and raised concern about a wider escalation.

In a joint statement on Monday after talks in Thessaloniki in northern Greece, Pompeo and his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias said rival claims to territory in the Mediterranean should be resolved “peacefully in accordance with international law.”

The 110-acre (44-hectare) Naval Support Activity base at Souda is the foremost US naval facility in the eastern Mediterranean.

Mitsotakis — who is hosting Pompeo at his family home in Crete — wants closer military ties with the United States.

Pompeo last October signed a defence agreement with Greek authorities allowing US forces a broader use of Greek military facilities.

Greece intends to further upgrade the naval facilities at Souda for its own navy operations, Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos told parliament on Monday.

“Our country wants to make its presence felt in the eastern Mediterranean, and this will be done through the upgrade of Souda,” Panagiotopoulos said, according to ANA.

On Wednesday, Pompeo will fly to Rome for meetings with the Italian government and Vatican officials. He will subsequently visit Croatia.

-AFP

US Seeks Breakthrough On Sudan Before Election

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Geoffrey Onyeama(not shown) deliver statements to the press, at the Department of State on February 4, 2020 in Washington,DC. Eric BARADAT / AFP

 

With weeks to go before US elections, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is racing to make a breakthrough with Sudan that he hopes could also benefit Israel.

Sudan’s new civilian-led government is urgently seeking to be removed from the US blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism, and is seen by Washington as open to becoming the latest Arab state to recognize Israel — a major cause for President Donald Trump’s electoral base.

“The United States has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that compensation is finally provided to victims of the 1998 Al-Qaeda-backed terrorist attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania,” Pompeo wrote in a letter to senators that was confirmed by congressional sources.

“We also have a unique and narrow window to support the civilian-led transitional government in Sudan that has finally rid itself of the Islamist dictatorship that previously led that country.”

Sudan is one of four nations listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States, severely impeding investment as businesses worry of legal risks in dealing with the country.

The designation dates back to 1993 when then strongman Omar al-Bashir welcomed Islamists including Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda, which carried out the embassy attacks that claimed more than 200 lives.

Washington had been gradually reconciling with Bashir, who agreed to independence for mostly Christian South Sudan.

But Sudan was transformed last year when Bashir was deposed following a wave of youth-led protests. British-educated economist Abdalla Hamdok has become the new prime minister with a reformist mandate in a transitional arrangement with the military.

– Question for Congress –

Sudan’s delisting has been held up by a dispute over a package of some $335 million that Khartoum would pay as compensation to victims’ families and survivors of the embassy attacks.

Completing a compensation package “is one of the highest priorities for the Department of State,” a spokesperson said.

In his letter, Pompeo said it was “very likely” that an agreement on claims and on delisting Sudan from the terror blacklist would be completed by the end of October — days before the November 3 election.

But Congress also needs to pass legislation to provide Sudan immunity from further claims.

Senate Democrats are divided in part because the draft package would provide more money to US citizens than Africans, who made up the bulk of the victims — an arrangement some call discriminatory but others say is realistic and in keeping with precedent.

Some lawmakers also want further discussion on compensation for other attacks by Al-Qaeda, notably the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen.

Why the sudden push by Pompeo, who in his more than two years as America’s top diplomat has rarely seemed preoccupied by Africa?

Sudan has hinted at a willingness to engage Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in February met Khartoum’s top general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in Uganda.

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain last month recognized Israel, a coup for the Jewish state and a signature foreign policy win for Trump.

Pompeo briefly stopped in Khartoum in late August in the first visit there by a US secretary of state in 15 years.

Hamdok demurred in his meeting with Pompeo, saying that his transitional government, which is set to rule until 2022 elections, did not have a mandate to normalize relations with Israel — in what would be a major about-face for a country until recently considered Islamist-run.

But some observers believe there can still be forward movement on relations with Israel, especially with the prospect of removal from the terror blacklist.

AFP

Pompeo Calls For Reduction In Tensions In Eastern Mediterranean

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Geoffrey Onyeama(not shown) deliver statements to the press, at the Department of State on February 4, 2020 in Washington,DC. Eric BARADAT / AFP.

 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Wednesday for Turkey and Greece to reduce tensions over disputed maritime rights and gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean.

“President Trump has been in conversations with President Erdogan, he’s spoken to the prime minister in Greece,” Pompeo said.

“We’re urging everyone to stand down to reduce tensions and begin to have diplomatic discussions” about security and energy, he told reporters.

“It is not useful to increase military tensions in the region. Only negative things can flow from that.”

Greece has accused Turkey of violating its sovereignty by pushing ahead with natural gas exploration activities in disputed waters southwest of Cyprus.

Both countries deployed naval warships to the area in shows of force, elevating concerns over a possible clash.

On Monday Turkey showed no sign of compromising, saying its vessel conducting seismic surveys for hydrocarbons would stay in the region until September 12.

On Tuesday Pompeo announced that the US would lift its two-decade arms embargo on Cyprus, allowing non-lethal equipment to the country in a move that angered Ankara.

He said Wednesday that the decision was “a long time coming,” not directly linked to the tensions between Greece and Turkey.

“We thought it was the right thing to do,” he said.

But Turkey’s foreign ministry said the US move “poisons the peace and stability environment in the region” and does “not comply with the spirit of alliance” between the United States and Turkey.

AFP

Pompeo, Netanyahu Hopeful More Arab States Will Forge Israel Ties

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bump elbows ahead of making a joint statement to the press after meeting in Jerusalem, on August 24, 2020. – Pompeo arrived in Israel kicking off a five-day visit to the Middle East which will take him to Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, focusing on Israel’s normalising of ties with the UAE and pushing other Arab states to follow suit. DEBBIE HILL / POOL / AFP.

 

Israel’s prime minister and the US top diplomat voiced hope Monday the Jewish state would soon build ties with more Arab countries, following its landmark normalisation of relations with the United Arab Emirates.

Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who started a Mideast tour in Jerusalem, both praised the US-brokered deal as a milestone toward bringing stability to the turbulent region.

“I’m very hopeful that we will see other Arab nations join in this,” said Pompeo, who was also set to visit Sudan, Bahrain and the UAE on a five-day regional tour.

Netanyahu hailed the Israel-UAE agreement as “a boon to peace and regional stability” which “heralds a new era where we could have other nations join”.

“I hope we’ll have good news in the future, maybe in the near future,” he said.

Netanyahu called Israel’s agreement with the Emirates, the first of its kind in a quarter century with an Arab state, an “alliance of the moderates against the radicals”.

Washington and its close ally hope Israel will be able to normalise ties with other regional countries traditionally hostile to it, in part to forge a stronger regional alliance against their common arch foe Iran.

Pompeo again stressed US President Donald Trump’s goal that “Iran will never have a nuclear weapon” and urged the international community to maintain an arms embargo on the Islamic republic.

– ‘Legacy of hostility’ –

Israel had previously only signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which unlike the UAE share borders with Israel and had technically been at war with the Jewish state.

The pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom said Sunday that direct talks with the UAE on the wording of the deal were close to starting and that “a full agreement could be reached within a month”.

Under the US-brokered agreement announced on August 13, Israel pledged to suspend its previous plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, without saying for how long.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make a joint statement to the press after meeting in Jerusalem, on August 24, 2020. – Pompeo arrived in Israel kicking off a five-day visit to the Middle East which will take him to Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, focusing on Israel’s normalising of ties with the UAE and pushing other Arab states to follow suit. DEBBIE HILL / various sources / AFP.

 

The Palestinians have slammed the UAE’s move as a “stab in the back” while their own conflict with the Jewish state remains unresolved.

The Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, Monday charged that the Israel-UAE deal helps “maintain crimes and violations” against the Palestinians.

It urged regional and world leaders to “break their silence to bring an end” to the Gaza blockade.

In the latest upsurge of violence, Israel has bombed the coastal strip almost daily since August 6, while balloons carrying fire bombs and, less frequently, rocket fire have hit Israel from Gaza.

– Bahrain, Oman, Sudan? –

The Israel-Emirati pact has sparked speculation on which regional country might be next, with frequent mentions made of Bahrain and Sudan.

Israel remains technically at war with Sudan, which for years had supported hardline Islamist forces but which is turning its back on the era of strongman Omar al-Bashir who was ousted last year.

The State Department said Pompeo would meet Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok during his tour, to “express support for deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship”.

Pompeo will also meet Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa before talks with UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, it said.

Saudi Arabia, in keeping with decades of policy by the majority of Arab states, has said it will not follow the UAE’s example until Israel has signed a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Israel and the UAE say they want to promote trade, especially the sale of Emirati oil to Israel and Israeli technology to the UAE, establish direct air links and boost tourism.

Netanyahu has denied reports that the UAE deal hinges on the sale of US F-35 stealth fighter-jets to the Emirates, saying he opposes a move that could reduce Israel’s strategic edge in the region.

“This deal did not include Israel’s acceptance of any arms deal,” he said Monday.

Pompeo said the US was determined to help UAE defend itself against Iran and would do it “in a way that preserves our commitments to Israel”.

“The United States has a legal requirement with respect to (Israel’s) qualitative military edge. We will continue to honour that,” he said.

“But we have a 20-plus year security relationship with the United Arab Emirates as well, where we have provided them with technical assistance and military assistance.”

Washington, Pompeo said, would “continue to review that process to continue to make sure that we’re delivering them the equipment that they need to secure and defend their own people.”

AFP

Pompeo To Visit UN To Trigger Iran Sanctions ‘Snapback’

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Geoffrey Onyeama(not shown) deliver statements to the press, at the Department of State on February 4, 2020 in Washington,DC. Eric BARADAT / AFP.

 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travels to the UN Thursday to activate a controversial mechanism aimed at reimposing international sanctions on Iran, in a disputed move that threatens the Iranian nuclear deal.

Pompeo will tell the Security Council president, currently Indonesia, at a 2:00 pm (1600 GMT) meeting that the US is triggering the so-called “snapback” procedure, which its European allies are set to contest.

The move widens the gulf between the US and the other permanent members of the Security Council on Iran policy that began when President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear accord with Tehran in 2018.

The procedure, never before used, comes after the US suffered a humiliating defeat at the Security Council last week when it failed to muster support for a resolution to extend a conventional arms embargo on Iran.

Snapback aims to restore all international sanctions against Iran that were lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran in exchange for it agreeing not to develop nuclear weapons.

But it also threatens to torpedo that historic deal, which Britain, France and Germany — along with Russia and China — are trying to save.

A Security Council resolution ratifying the accord, which was negotiated by former president Barack Obama, says participating states can unilaterally reinstall sanctions if Iran has failed to significantly comply with the accord.

The snapback procedure is supposed to lead to the re-establishment of sanctions after 30 days, without the possibility of any members, namely Russia and China, wielding their vetoes.

European countries on the Security Council say the US gave up their right as a participant when Trump pulled out of the deal in May 2018 and reimposed American sanctions as part of his “maximum pressure” campaign against the Iranian regime.

Experts say the snapback threatens to plunge the Security Council into crisis and raise questions about the legitimacy of its resolutions.

They foresee a situation where the United States acts as if the sanctions have been reimposed and the rest of the Council continues as before.

Pompeo will also discuss the move with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at Guterres’ residence in New York during a meeting at 2:30 pm.

America’s top diplomat is then due to brief press at the UN at 3:30 pm.

AFP

Pompeo Says ‘Enormous Evidence’ Coronavirus Came From Wuhan Lab

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a briefing at the State Department on February 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. Secretary Pompeo spoke on several topics including the coronavirus and the recent truce with the Taliban. Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP

 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that there was “enormous evidence” that the coronavirus pandemic originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

“There is enormous evidence that this is where it began,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

But while highly critical of China’s handling of the matter, Pompeo declined to say whether he thought the virus had been intentionally released.

President Donald Trump has been increasingly critical of China’s role in the pandemic, which has infected nearly 3.5 million people and killed more than 240,000 around the world.

He has insisted that Beijing recklessly concealed important information about the outbreak and demanded that Beijing be held “accountable.”

News reports say Trump has tasked US spies to find out more about the origins of the virus, at first blamed on a Wuhan market selling exotic animals like bats, but now thought possibly to be from a virus research laboratory nearby.

READ ALSO: Russia Reports More Than 10,000 New COVID-19 Infections

Pompeo, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told ABC that he agreed with a statement Thursday from the US intelligence community in which it concurred “with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.”

But he went further than Trump, in citing “significant” and “enormous” evidence that the virus originated in a Wuhan laboratory.

“I think the whole world can see now, remember, China has a history of infecting the world and running substandard laboratories,” Pompeo said.

He said early Chinese efforts to downplay the coronavirus amounted to “a classic Communist disinformation effort. That created enormous risk.”

“President Trump is very clear: we’ll hold those responsible accountable.”

AFP

US Asks Tehran To Release American Prisoners Amid Coronavirus Crisis

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a briefing at the State Department on February 5, 2020 in Washington, DC.  Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP

 

The United States on Tuesday called for Iran to release all American prisoners held in the country as the coronavirus outbreak reportedly spreads through its prisons.

“The United States will hold the Iranian regime directly responsible for any American deaths. Our response will be decisive,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

“Reports that COVID-19 has spread to Iranian prisons are deeply troubling and demand nothing less than the full and immediate release of all American citizens.

“Their detention amid increasingly deteriorating conditions defies basic human decency.”

Iran’s response to the deadly coronavirus outbreak, including temporarily releasing 70,000 prisoners, was “too little, too late,” a UN rights expert said Tuesday.

Javaid Rehman, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, said Tehran was trying to “fudge” its handling of the outbreak, one of the deadliest outside China, where the disease originated.

“The situation on coronavirus is highly disturbing within Iran,” Rehman told reporters at the UN in Geneva.

Iran on Tuesday reported 54 new deaths in the past 24 hours, the highest single-day toll since the start of the outbreak there. That brought the numbers killed in the country to 291 out of 8,042 infected.

The Iranian judiciary’s Mizan Online official news agency cited Asghar Jahangir, the head of Iran’s prisons organization, as saying that “about 70,000 prisoners” had been released in a bid to combat the outbreak.

Iran said in December it was ready for more prisoner swaps with the United States after it secured the return of scientist Massoud Soleimani in exchange for Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-born American held in the Islamic republic.

Decades-old tensions between Tehran and Washington have escalated steeply since 2018, when US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran.

AFP