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Rubio Presses State Department On 2016 Trafficking In Persons Report
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), today pressed the Obama Administration regarding the decisions made about country rankings in the State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report. Rubio questioned Ambassador-at-Large of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. Department of State, Susan Coppedge, on whether there were any instances in which the Secretary of State overruled the recommendation of professional staff and experts.
Rubio’s oversight questions were particularly relevant given media reports last year that the Department’s annual trafficking report had become politicized and that the tier rankings for several countries reflected political considerations rather than the actual facts on the ground. Rubio made his comments during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing focused on the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report.
“[I]’m not asking you who said what,” Rubio said. “What I don’t respectfully understand is, here’s a process that’s important to the American people, where we have staffers and embassies and all kinds of resources put out there. You guys are looking at this, and what I’m asking is, was there ever a situation – as we discovered last year – where a specific recommendation was made to go in this direction, but the Secretary overruled it and went in a different direction?
“I think the American people and this Congress and this Senate have a right to know if there are situations in which the staff’s recommendation was disregarded,” Rubio continued. “I’m not asking you to tell me who argued for what. I’m not even asking you to tell me which positions.
“I want to know whether there were any countries whose tier structure or any other decisions in the report are different because the secretary overruled a staff recommendation,” Rubio added.
Coppedge responded, “I can tell you that the Secretary addressed this concern at the release of the report and said that there were no political or other factors that went into consideration. He also noted that…”
“That’s not addressing my concern,” Rubio replied. “I’m not asking his motivations, we can determine that by asking him that question. We want to know whether there [were] any nations or any countries in which the determination made by staff ended up being different than what’s in the final report as a result of the Secretary’s decision.”
Coppedge replied, “Well, the report and the law is structured to give the Secretary the final decision and to allow him to draw on the experts in my office. We presented our recommendations to him and it’s ultimately the Secretary’s call.”
“I understand it’s his call,” Rubio said. “I want to know when he made that call and in what specific countries, and you’re saying you can’t answer that?”
“I’m saying I can’t answer that,” Coppedge responded.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio
U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Hearing
July 12, 2016
Senator Marco Rubio: “Were the recommendations that the professional staff under your authority followed by the State Department leadership in all cases, or were there specific cases, as shown last year, in which your office’s recommendations were overruled by your leadership?”
The Honorable Susan Coppedge, Ambassador-at-Large, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. Department of State: “The office works closely with the embassies that we have in various countries to gather information. We are not in every country around the world, although we do travel to ones that are of significant concern and that we believe can use encouragement or can use a visit from the Trafficking in Persons office to focus their efforts of trafficking.
“But we rely on individuals in the embassies and we rely on our regional counterparts here at the State Department to come together and make consensus recommendations to the Secretary.
“Every year there are a few countries where consensus cannot be reached because there are facts on either side of the minimum standards. We try to gather all the facts and answer any unanswered questions and present those recommendations to the Secretary. My office was able to do that this year and had meetings with top leadership.”
Rubio: “But the question is, where there any specific recommendations that you did arrive at consensus on in which the leadership, the Secretary’s office, decided to go in a different direction anyway?”
Coppedge: “I’m not going to get into internal deliberations. The Secretary receives the consensus recommendations and makes the final determination on the rankings.”
Rubio: “I’m not asking for the deliberations. I’m asking specifically, were there any cases or any countries, in which there was a recommendation going in one direction, but the Secretary’s office decided to go in a different direction? You don’t have to tell me about the deliberations. I want to know, were there any countries in which you recommended a certain tier, for example, but they decided to go in a different direction and disregard the recommendation?”
Coppedge: “Well, respectfully Senator, I do believe that gets into the deliberations, because if I answer that question then you will see part of the process, and part of the process needs to be protected so that all employees of the department feel comfortable making candid assessments and recommendations to leadership.”
Rubio: “Again, I’m not asking you who said what. What I don’t, respectfully, understand is: here’s a process that’s important to the American people, where we have staffers and embassies and all kinds of resources put out there. You guys are looking at this, and what I’m asking is, was there ever a situation – as we discovered last year – where a specific recommendation was made to go in this direction, but the Secretary overruled it and went in a different direction?
“I think the American people and this Congress and this Senate have a right to know if there are situations in which the staff’s recommendation was disregarded. I’m not asking you to tell me who argued for what. I’m not even asking you to tell me which positions.
“I want to know whether there were any countries whose tier structure or any other decisions in the report are different because the Secretary overruled a staff recommendation.”
Coppedge: “I can tell you that the Secretary addressed this concern at the release of the report and said that there were no political or other factors that went into consideration. He also noted that…”
Rubio: “That’s not addressing my concern. I’m not asking his motivations, we can determine that by asking him that question. We want to know whether there [were] any nations or any countries in which the determination made by staff ended up being different than what’s in the final report as a result of the Secretary’s decision.”
Coppedge: “Well, the report and the law is structured to give the Secretary the final decision and to allow him to draw on the experts in my office. We presented our recommendations to him and it’s ultimately the Secretary’s call.”
Rubio: “I understand it’s his call. I want to know when he made that call and in what specific countries, and you’re saying you can’t answer that?”
Coppedge: “I’m saying I can’t answer that.”
Senator Bob Corker: “If I could intervene… Without even naming the country, could you state whether there were cases, forget the name of the country, where the Secretary made a decision that was different than the staff recommendation?”
Coppedge: “Well, the staff recommendation is both the J-tip office and the regional bureaus and there were numerous – the vast majority were consensus recommendations to the Secretary.”
Senator Bob Corker: “So there were some cases where there wasn’t consensus and he ruled differently?”
Coppedge: “And that’s where the Secretary makes the final decision.”
Rubio: “I understand that there are cases where you’ve got conflicting recommendations from staff and the Secretary has to step in and decide which one.
“I’m asking specifically, were there any countries, you don’t even have to tell me the name of country, were the any countries in which the staff did have a consensus, but the report reflects a different direction from what the consensus of the staff was? You don’t even have to tell me the country, you don’t even have to tell me which side of it you were on. I just want to know, was there any country, at least one, in the report in which the secretary went in a different direction than a staff consensus?”
Coppedge: “The staff consensus, being the regionals and J-tip, all consensus recommendations were followed.”
Rubio: “Okay. In the minute that I have left, I have been very vocal about expressing my concerns about Cuba’s tier ranking. Its upgrade last year appears, in my opinion, to be solely based on political calculations rather than the facts on the ground. What was your office’s recommendation for Cuba’s tier placement this year?”
Coppedge: “So with respect to Cuba, the report sets out the factors that were evaluated to determine that it could remain on tier two watch list, based on its significant efforts. However, tier two watch list means that it did not make improving efforts. I traveled to Cuba in January and met with officials there. I pressed them on the issue of the medical missions and whether individuals serving in their medical missions were allowed to hold travel documents. We are continuing to implore the Cuban government to allow the individuals who travel to maintain their own identification documents.”
Rubio: “Right, I understand what the tier setting ultimately is in the report. My question is: Is the tier placement that Cuba got on this report reflective of what was recommended to the Secretary?”
Coppedge: “I am not going to get into the analysis of any particular country because I believe that chills the internal deliberations and debate at the State Department.”
Rubio: “Well then we can’t conduct oversight if you’ve got some secret process here in which we can’t even know about the deliberations that go on for making these determinations. What’s the point in having oversight hearings on these issues if you’re not allowed to testify and tell us what went into the decision making process?”
Corker: “You don’t want to leave that hanging do you?”
Coppedge: “Pardon? (laughs)
“Well I can use a baseball analogy and say I can’t hit it out of the park, Senator. But I will say that we, as the State Department, support the report as it is issued. The recommendations were made and the secretary adopted the recommendations. In a few cases he made the call himself, where there were competing interests.”
Rubio: “I just want the record to reflect, Mr. Chairman, that the State Department will not tell us whether the report reflects the recommendation made of the professional staff that spends a lot of time and money traveling to these countries interviewing people. They are making a recommendation to the Secretary, but we’re being told that somehow if that recommendation is different from what the secretary decided we can’t know about it.”
Coppedge: “And Senator Rubio, I just want to correct that characterization of professional staff and experts. We have people in every embassy, in every country – in most of the countries we report on, and persons that cover those other countries, and they are experts as well. They are in the field, they are working with governments on trafficking matters every day. They work with NGOs. They monitor media outlets. They talk to civil society. So those individuals in the field have expertise in the trafficking area as well.”
Rubio: “I agree. And I included those in the experts when I talked about experts. So, let me rephrase what I said. I guess what we’re being told is, Mr. Chairman, we’re not allowed to know if the folks in the embassy, the folks that we send out abroad, all of the people involved in analyzing these countries and understanding what’s happening there, if they make a recommendation but the Secretary refuses to move forward on that recommendation and goes in a different direction, we’re not allowed to know that happened.”
Coppedge: “But Senator, I already answered that all consensus recommendations were followed by the secretary.”
Rubio: “Right. So then why can’t you answer the question of whether or not the report reflects the recommendation made to the Secretary on Cuba’s tiering?”
Coppedge: “Because I don’t want to get into any one particular country and chill deliberations or the ability of the experts to discuss among themselves the very important trafficking indicators in the countries.”