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State Department Says 'Working On' Russia Sanctions, Contrasts 'Foreign Agent' Laws

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert (file photo)
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert (file photo)

The U.S. State Department says it is still "working on" steps to implement legislation that Congress passed in July in an effort to strengthen sanctions against Russia.

The remarks by department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on October 24 came weeks after President Donald Trump's administration missed a key deadline related to the sanctions legislation, which he reluctantly signed on August 2.

The law is aimed at punishing Russian President Vladimir Putin's government for its alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, its aggression in Ukraine, and its support for President Bashar al-Assad throughout the more than six-year war in Syria.

The Trump administration was required to issue guidance by October 1 on how it was implementing the sanctions, including a list of individuals and organizations targeted for operating on behalf of the Russian intelligence and defense sectors.

Influential senators have criticized the White House for missing the deadline, saying that it raises questions about the administration's commitment to implementing the legislation -- which had overwhelming backing in Congress but was criticized by Trump.

"The sanctions bill includes a requirement that the State Department identify individuals linked to Russian defense and also intelligence operations that could be subject to new penalties, so we are working to try to complete that process," Nauert said.

Asked about the issue at a regular briefing, she said that the "people who are working on it...tell me that it’s pretty complicated, that it can take some time, that they’re working to complete the process...just as soon as possible."

The concerns in Congress about Trump's commitment to implementing the sanctions legislation come amid investigations by the Justice Department and congressional committees into Russia's alleged meddling in the U.S. election and whether there was any collusion between associates of Trump -- who said repeatedly during the 2016 campaign that he wanted warmer ties and closer cooperation with Moscow -- and Russia.

Nauert was also asked about Russian threats that it would place restrictions on the operations of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Voice of America (VOA), and other U.S.-based media in Russia, as well as whether the United States was placing any restrictions on state-supported Russian media organizations operating in the United States.

State-funded Russian television network RT said in September that the U.S. officials ordered it to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

The Justice Department has not confirmed that, repeatedly declining to comment, but Putin and other Russian officials have continually warned since then that Moscow could take action against both private and U.S.-government-supported media in response.

Earlier in October, the Russian Justice Ministry warned RFE/RL that its operations in Russia could be restricted under Russia's own "foreign agent" law.

Nauert said that the Russian law, which Kremlin critics and civil society activists say has been used by Putin's government to silence dissent and discourage a free exchange of ideas, is "very different" from FARA.

"Russia’s foreign agent law has been interpreted to apply to organizations that receive even minimal funding from any foreign sources, government or private, and engage in political activity, defined so broadly as it covers nearly all civic advocacy," she said.

Under the U.S. law, Nauert said, registration "is simply triggered when an entity or an individual engages in political activity. When the United States tells someone to register under a foreign agent requirement, we don’t impact or affect the ability of them to report news and information. We just have them register. It’s as simple as that."

Nauert did not specify whether RT has in fact been ordered to register under FARA.

Putin and other Russian officials have said that potential measures to restrict U.S. media would mirror any U.S. actions, but some U.S. media organizations already face limitations that Russian media organizations operating in the United States do not.

While RT distributes its programs freely in the United States on cable television, and Sputnik has an FM frequency in Washington, RFE/RL and VOA have no access to cable TV in Russia.

RFE/RL once had nearly 100 radio channels inside Russia, but had lost them all by 2012 following a campaign of pressure by the authorities.

With reporting by The Daily Beast
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