“We have an SDN [Specially Designated Nationals] list that will be regularly updated — it’s not simply a one-time thing — that we will continue to refine.”
— “Senior administration official one,” Background briefing on Burma, May 17, 2012
We do not normally examine anonymous statements, but an interesting briefing was given last week by a pair of administration officials as part of the historic announcement by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that the United States was “suspending” sanctions on Burma, also known as Myanmar. The rules set by the State Department would not permit reporters to quote these officials by name.
But the officials’ comments about the list of so-called “bad apples” — individuals and companies which are blocked from doing business with U.S. firms — are a case study of the choices made in diplomacy. When an administration is looking to tout what it considers to be a diplomatic achievement — in this case, opening up the possibility of reform in what was a brutal military dictatorship — sometimes inconvenient facts get played down.
Some background: The pace of change in Burma has been remarkable, with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and activist long under house arrest, recently winning a seat in parliament. (She is pictured above with Clinton.)
Before the sanctions announcement, human rights groups had pressed the administration to “gradually relax sanctions,” paying close attention to conducting “a comprehensive update” of the SDN list. “If these precautions are not taken, new U.S. business activity permitted under the relaxation may directly benefit individuals and entities responsible for human rights abuses, who contribute to corruption, or are otherwise acting to obstruct political reform,” nine groups said in a letter to President Obama sent on April 24.
When Clinton made her announcement on May 17 — on the same day Burma’s foreign minister was visiting Washington — the scope of the sanctions easing was unexpectedly broad. “Suspending” is a bit of a misnomer, because once U.S. firms flock to the energy and mineral rich nation, it may be rather hard to close the door again and force them to forsake their investments.
In particular, the administration ignored the plea by human rights groups that the SDN list first be updated before sanctions were lifted. At the briefing, the unnamed U.S. officials suggested that such updating would happen in the future. But here’s the missing fact from this briefing: Virtually nothing had been added to the Burma part of the list during the entire Obama presidency.
We checked through all of the updates to the list posted by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control since Obama became president and found only one — in 2010. And these were mostly just adding to sanctions already imposed on people previously sanctioned, such as Steven Law, also known as Tun Myint Naing, who The Fact Checker once tried to call in an earlier life as The Post’s diplomatic correspondent.
The SDN list, as maintained on the Treasury Web site, is very difficult to wade through, especially because many names are duplicative and it covers many countries. Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, helpfully provided a consolidated list, which shows how small the list really is for Burma.
Indeed, nearly a year ago, Aung Din compiled a list of people and entities that should be added to the SDN list. Here’s that list.
Many of the names on his list are similar to a list contained in a State Department cable from the embassy in Rangoon, dated Nov. 19, 2008, that was released by WikiLeaks in September 2011, after Aung Din had compiled his recommendations. So clearly, these individuals and firms were well-known within the State Department and could have been added at any time within the past three and half years.
So why has the list for Burma been effectively frozen? Because the administration was trying to gently pry open the door to reform. Officials may have convinced themselves that that made sense, diplomatically, but now it will be even harder to add entities and people to the list.
The first administration official specifically announced at the beginning of the briefing that “we are going to sharpen, refine the tools we have at our disposal to update the specially designated entities list, the SDN list.” But, given the effective suspension of adding to the list before, it seems more likely that firms and people will be dropped from the list in the future, not added. This may especially be the case with politically connected people, in a period when the United States is trying to improve relations. (Already, according to a very interesting Reuters report, many of these regime cronies are rapidly remaking their image in order to do business with American and European firms.) Failing to update the list before the announcement — but pledging to do it in the future — could be kind of like closing the barn door after the horse has fled.
The State Department referred calls to Treasury, apparently because Treasury maintains the list. (The names, however, are added through an inter-agency discussion, with State playing a critical role.) Since we cannot say publicly who these briefers are, we will not perform a “Pinocchio Test” on their statements.
The Bottom Line
When the briefer said updating the list was “not a one-time thing,” in the case of Burma that turned out to be incorrect; it has been updated only once during the entire administration. The administration will face a real test now to live up to its suggestion that it will update the Burma list with new names and entities even as the diplomatic opening proceeds. The briefers never made clear that the SDN list had not been updated in recent years — and reporters did not ask — but failing to bolster it before sanctions were eased may, in the case of Burma, make it a less effective tool for the future.
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