In response to Russian hacking of American political organizations, President Obama announced a number of retaliatory actions on Thursday, including the expulsion of nearly three-dozen Russian citizens from the United States.
The term, persona non grata, is a powerful one in international diplomacy. Meaning “unwelcome person,” it's a declaration that someone is effectively banned from a country. A 1980 memo prepared by the Department of Justice for President Jimmy Carter in consideration of actions to be taken against Iran outlines the legal authority for ousting foreign agents, tracing it back to the earliest days of the American republic.
Shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, President George Washington faced a diplomatic quandary. The French were at war with the British — again — a tension that had been helpful to the colonists a few years prior. At this point, French politics were tumultuous, after the monarch was overthrown in 1792. In 1793, a French minister named Edmond Genêt was using the United States as a base of operations to launch raids against British naval vessels. The U.S. was officially neutral in the conflict, forcing Washington to demand that Genêt be recalled to France. He was not expelled from the country, largely because he would likely face execution on his return thanks to a shift in power in his home country. This incident, though, established that the executive branch had the right to reject foreign envoys as it saw fit.
“The president has inherent constitutional power to declare foreign diplomatic personnel persona non grata and to expel them forcibly from the United States,” the 1980 analysis reads. “[The] exercise of this power is consistent with international law, including specifically the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.” (The applicable portion of the Vienna Convention is Article 9, Section 1: “The receiving state may at any time and without having to explain its decision, notify the sending state that the head of the mission or any member of the diplomatic staff of the mission is persona non grata or that any other member of the staff of the mission is not acceptable.”) The Justice Department's 1980 analysis continues to note that the diplomat retains his or her diplomatic status — preventing them from attempting to seek asylum to remain in the country. Nor could those who had been “PNG'd” (in the current vernacular) revoke their diplomatic status to avoid expulsion.
It's been tried. President Bill Clinton took similar action against a Cuban diplomat named Jose Imperatori, who was given a similar deadline to leave, but declined to do so. He charged that he'd been falsely accused of spying and that he intended to fight the charge, giving up his claims to diplomatic immunity. As The Post reported at the time, his bid to stay was unsuccessful.
FBI agents arrived at Imperatori's Bethesda apartment building at 8:40 p.m. Two agents spent five minutes inside his apartment before returning to the basement garage with the diplomat, who wore a blue trench coat, carried no luggage and was not handcuffed. Accompanied by his attorney, former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke (D), he was driven to Reagan National Airport, where a bureau plane was waiting to fly him to Montreal. He was booked on a Cubana Airlines flight tonight from Montreal to Havana.
At the time, there were no direct flights between Cuba and the United States.
The 35 Russians stamped as personae non grata are not even the first to receive the label from Obama. In 2012, the government expelled Venezuelan diplomat Livia Acosta Noguera from Miami. She, too, was declared persona non grata and given 72 hours to leave the country.
Why such a drastic step? It may be the only recourse the country has, as George Washington University's Sean Murphy explained in an email to The Post. "Diplomats and consular officials generally enjoy immunity from prosecution in US courts," he wrote, "especially for acts committed as a part of their official functions, such that often the only recourse that can be taken by the host State (absent a waiver of the immunity from the sending State) for wrongful conduct is to 'PNG' the person."
The Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom offered an initial response to Obama's decision to expel the 35 Russians.
Imagine the meme the French might have created in 1793, were it not for lack of computers.
The persona non grata declaration is not unique to the United States. Other countries can and have made similar declarations against U.S. citizens. In fact, President-elect Donald Trump was declared persona non grata by Panama City in 2011 after he told CNN that turning over the Panama Canal to the country was “foolish.” Something to keep an eye on, should he ever need to attend an event in the country as president.