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Pentagon’s cold shoulder in probe of Russia war crimes spurs pushback at Senate

It's been four months since Congress authorized the Biden administration to assist the international court of law by documenting the crimes against humanity that Russian forces have committed in Ukraine.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Senate lawmakers from both sides of the aisle renewed accusations Wednesday that federal agencies are dragging their heels on the congressional directive to support the International Criminal Court as it investigates war crimes committed in Ukraine by Russian soldiers.

As part of its federal spending plan for 2023, Congress in December changed the law to give the executive branch power to provide information, as well as financial and technical support, that would assist the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court in its inquiry.

So far, though, a coalition of federal agencies —  including the Defense Department, State Department and Department of Justice — has been slower to act than some members of Congress would like. In the meantime, the ICC has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin in connection with what it said were war crimes and crimes against humanity that Russian troops have committed since they invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

As the Senate Judiciary Committee met Monday to focus on America's efforts to seize Russian assets, the panel's Republican ranking member pressed Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco to name names.

“Just to put a finer point on this,” said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, “is it DOD? Are they the problem?”

Monaco declined to take a position, reasoning that it would not be appropriate for her to weigh in on internal agency discussions. The Biden official point, however, to what she called “longstanding concerns” at the Defense Department about engaging with the ICC.

Some Pentagon officials have said the Defense Department is reticent to assist the international court because it is worried that it would set a precedent for other countries to prosecute U.S. forces at the ICC in the future. The New York Times reported in March that a meeting of the National Security Council aimed at coordinating support was derailed by resistance from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Graham complained that the agencies were stalling in the face of specific direction from Congress, to say nothing of the bipartisan support for ICC cooperation.

“I’ve been told by people who care that the intel is not flowing … because of the Department of Defense,” the lawmaker said.

Graham also rejected concerns from defense officials that assisting the ICC could backfire. “We’re not jeopardizing any American soldier. We’re talking about evidence involving foreign nationals in a specific theater of operation.”

Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin echoed his GOP colleague’s concerns. “I am stunned to hear that this is still being debated in Washington,” he said.

The Illinois Democrat asked Monaco whether all the Biden administration’s agencies were united in the effort to assist the ICC.

“We are absolutely united in ensuring that there is accountability for the atrocities that you’ve laid out,” the deputy attorney general responded. She thanked lawmakers for giving the executive more authority to work with the international community to prosecute Russian forces.

“The discussions about how to use that authority are, as you noted, ongoing,” Monaco added, “but there is unanimity in ensuring accountability across this government using all of the tools that we can bring to bear.”

Senate lawmakers from both parties have ratcheted up pressure on the Biden administration in recent weeks to make sure that federal agencies are on the same page about ICC assistance.

In a March 24 letter to President Biden, Durbin, Graham and a group of senators on the judiciary panel urged the White House to get in gear. “We welcome the significant assistance your administration has provided to date—made available through bipartisan action from Congress — for the Ukrainian government and civil society actors working to document evidence of atrocities and strengthen Ukrainian investigative and prosecutorial capacity,” the lawmakers wrote. “But we also know that the ICC has a critical role to play.”

Although the U.S. in 2000 signed onto the international treaty that stood up the ICC, the Bush administration withdrew Washington from the statute. The White House contended at the time that the court could eventually be used to prosecute U.S. soldiers engaged in foreign conflicts — although the ICC’s guidelines allow international prosecution only if a country’s home legal system fails to seek justice.

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Categories / Government, International, Politics

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