Leading members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee threatened on Thursday to subpoena all documents related to the State Department’s production of its annual human trafficking report amid accusations that the agency inflated assessments for several strategically important countries.
Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), chairman of the committee, said at a hearing that the body will seek all information about the alleged politicization of the 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, including department emails, letters, and memos.
"If that is not forthcoming immediately, my sense is the committee would take the very unusual step of subpoenaing that information," he said.
Reuters reported this week that senior political leaders at the State Department overruled the agency’s trafficking experts on the rankings of 14 countries’ efforts to combat the modern slave trade, an unprecedented number in the TIP report’s 15-year history. U.S. officials have sought to increase engagement with several of the countries that received more flattering scores than analysts recommended, including China, Cuba, and Malaysia—all nations that have been accused of sponsoring or failing to crackdown on forced labor and prostitution.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), a former chairman of the committee, raised the prospect of an investigation by the State Department’s inspector general into the creation of this year’s TIP report.
"If there was an inspector general investigation, or some other investigation, would your answers hold up in emails, memos, letters and all other communications?" he asked before posing further questions to Sarah Sewall, the department’s under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights.
Menendez expressed particular concerns about the rating for Malaysia, which was upgraded from the worst ranking, Tier 3, to Tier 2 in this year’s report. He noted that the Malaysian government only recently strengthened its anti-trafficking laws in June, well after the conclusion of the department’s reporting period at the end of March.
While the TIP report mentioned that Malaysian authorities were implementing measures to curtail the sale of humans, it did not address the discovery in May of dozens of migrant graves near the country’s border with Thailand—likely holding trafficking victims from Bangladesh and Myanmar.
"You won’t reflect those things that are negative after the reporting period," Menendez said.
Sewall said that "there are a variety of ways Malaysia has been responsive over the reporting period."
"[Secretary of State John Kerry] signed off on the tier ranking of Malaysia because of his belief that Malaysia has taken the steps to change," she said.
The TIP report also noted that Malaysian authorities convicted just four traffickers on forced labor or passport retention charges last year, compared to nine convictions in 2013.
Critics of this year’s report allege that the State Department upgraded Malaysia’s score due to political concerns related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a landmark free trade agreement that the Obama administration is currently negotiating with several Asian countries. President Obama signed a bill into law in June that permits a "fast-track" process or simple up-or-down vote on the TPP in Congress, but the legislation also included an amendment—authored by Menendez—that prohibited considerations of Tier 3 countries in a trade deal.
The State Department has denied the accusations of politicization and says its officials "engage in iterative, fact based deliberations on the annual trafficking in persons report."
Menendez also highlighted the case of Cuba, which was also elevated to Tier 2. He said there had been "no progress" on ending forced labor, including coerced foreign medical missions for Cuban doctors. He noted reports of "the Cuban government keeping over 70 percent of the wages provided to them by the World Health Organization."
"The 2015 TIP report also states that Cuba is a source country for adults and children, some as young as four years old, subjected to sex trafficking," he said.
Sewall defended the administration’s pursuit of closer relations with Cuba, noting that it resulted in the government providing more information about the trafficking situation in the country. She also said that Cuba had made progress on convicting sex traffickers and assisting victims.
Corker was visibly frustrated with the answers provided by the State Department.
"This is possibly the most heartless, lacking of substance, presentation I have ever seen about a serious topic," he said. "I don’t see how anybody could believe that there was integrity in this process."
He added that the 2015 report would encourage countries to intensify their lobbying efforts for higher trafficking grades in the future, in exchange for meeting other U.S. objectives.
Menendez said he "took to heart" Kerry’s recent comments that, "we all need to be true to the principle that although money may be used for many things, we must never allow a price tag to be placed on the heart and soul and the mind of a living person."
"I don’t know that we didn’t pervert that lofty goal by a report that, clearly seems to me, has been politicized in a way that is not justifiable," Menendez said.