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Putin appears to be targeting U.S. officials who worked on Russia sanctions

Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, shown in 2013 at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow.
Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, shown in 2013 at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow. (Misha Japaridze/AP)

Almost from the day he arrived in Moscow as the U.S. ambassador in 2012, Michael McFaul and his family were subjected to a campaign of surveillance and harassment.

According to McFaul’s book “From Cold War to Hot Peace,” Russian authorities followed him to his son’s soccer game and on outings to McDonald’s. They trailed his children’s bus to school and sat behind the family at church. They slashed the tires of an embassy staffer’s car and broke into the homes of other employees.

Embassy security officials advised McFaul there was only one secure room at the embassy he and his wife should use if they ever quarreled because everywhere else was monitored by the Russian government.

Now, McFaul is one of 11 U.S. citizens a Russian prosecutor wants to question in connection with an investigation many U.S. officials say is bogus. The list is believed to include at least two other former diplomats, a congressional staffer, a CIA agent, a staffer for the National Security Council and two employees at the Department of Homeland Security.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "there was some conversation" between Trump and Putin about Russia questioning U.S. officials, "but there wasn't a commitment." (Video: Reuters)

The State Department has called the request for the Americans “absolutely absurd,” and the White House said Thursday that President Trump “disagreed” with the idea after initially declining to rule it out. The Senate voted 98 to 0 for a resolution calling on the administration to refuse to make any officials available to Russia for interrogation.

Putin’s push to interrogate U.S. officials Russia accuses of crimes, explained

What began as Trump’s attempt to repair relations that had been deteriorating since the Obama administration ended up causing a bigger rift.

Russia on July 19 broadcast a series of videos showing the testing and operation of new nuclear and conventional weapons. (Video: Reuters)

The fact he had even considered making Americans submit to questioning by Russian authorities sowed suspicion and outrage among current and former diplomats.

Russian President Vladi­mir Putin raised the issue when he met Trump in Finland this week, days after the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian military officers suspected of interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. Trump initially called the offer “interesting.”

“It’s flabbergasting why the White House did not shut this down immediately,” said Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs. “The president should have said at the news conference that he would not go along with this.”

Many of the Americans on the list were involved in some way with the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 U.S. law that has imposed stiff sanctions against Russia for human rights abuses, or have been harsh critics of human rights abuses in Russia under Putin. The act has brought sanctions against many officials who are part of Putin’s clique, and the Russian government stopped U.S. adoptions of Russian children after it was signed into law.

“Mr. Putin has a fixation on the Magnitsky Act,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), the act’s lead author. “It clearly is something he’s very much annoyed about. That shows it’s working. The fact he wants to interview Americans is outrageous.”

For years, the Russian government has criticized and harassed Bill Browder, a wealthy U.S.-born financier who lives overseas. In 2009, his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in a Russian prison after alleging a massive fraud involving senior Russian officials. Browder made it his life’s work to lobby Congress for the sanctions act named after the lawyer.

What is the Magnitsky Act, the focus of so many powerful Russian interests

The Russian government has branded Browder a criminal and repeatedly placed his name on an Interpol wanted list, putting countries on notice to arrest him when he passes their border control.

McFaul and others on the list have raised concerns that Russia will report their names to Interpol, as well.

“I’m not concerned about traveling to Western-allied countries, but I am concerned about getting snagged on a Russian notice or warrant in a Central Asian country, parts of the Caucasus or Turkey,” said one person on the list, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person is not authorized to speak about the issue publicly.

But they remain defiant.

“I am very proud to have played a supporting role with Bill Browder in advocating for the Magnitsky legislation — and would do it again, particularly given the appalling human rights situation in Putin’s Russia,” said David J. Kramer, who as president of Freedom House advocated for the law’s passage. A former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, Kramer is among the Americans the Russians want to question.

Speaking over Skype to the Atlantic Council, Browder said he was “aghast” by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s remark that the president was considering the Russian request.

“Most of the people on the list of Americans are people . . . trying to protect the United States against Russian malfeasance,” he said, adding, “effectively Trump is considering handing them over to an enemy state.”

The Russians also want to question Jonathan M. Winer, a former adviser to secretary of state John F. Kerry who was active in developing the Magnitsky sanctions. Kramer and Winer played a key role in the drama around the dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British spy. The dossier alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and contacts between Russian agents and the Trump campaign.

Kramer traveled to London in late 2016, met Steele, received a copy of the dossier and provided it to his former boss, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), who later personally handed it to then-FBI Director James B. Comey. Winer prepared a two-page summary of Steele’s information and gave it to Kerry.

Winer said he had feared that the White House review of the Kremlin interrogation request could undermine the U.S. system of justice.

“It is a challenge to the fundamental way our system is supposed to work,” he said. “I have no reason to believe this country will tolerate it.”