Embattled at home, Pompeo and Barr lash out at foreign foe

·National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — A defiant Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the International Criminal Court as a “highly politicized” institution on Thursday morning as he announced new sanctions against it for its investigation into potential war crimes by U.S. forces during the years-long conflict in Afghanistan.

“We cannot, we will not stand by as our people are threatened by a kangaroo court,” Pompeo said. He was joined at the press conference by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Attorney General William Barr and national security adviser Robert O’Brien.

In his own remarks, Barr noted that the United States would pay no heed to a body he described as guided by “unaccountable international elites.” The court is based in The Hague.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, holds a news conference on the International Criminal Court with Attorney General William Barr at the State Department on Thursday. (Yuri Gripas/AFP via Getty Images)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, holds a news conference on the International Criminal Court with Attorney General William Barr at the State Department on Thursday. (Yuri Gripas/AFP via Getty Images)

The United States has never been a party to the Rome Statute, which in 1998 created the court to prosecute “the most serious crimes of international concern,” including war crimes, crimes against humanity, aggressive war and acts of genocide. Past indictments have named Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan dictator.

The new U.S. measures include “economic sanctions against International Criminal Court officials directly engaged with any effort to investigate or prosecute United States personnel without the consent of the United States,” according to an announcement released by the White House. In addition, both ICC officials and their family members will face “visa restrictions.”

Speaking some minutes later, Pompeo said that “it gives us no joy to punish them,” but argued that it would not make sense to allow ICC officials and their families “to come to the United States, to shop, travel and otherwise enjoy American freedoms as these same officials think to prosecute the defender of those very freedoms.”

ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdallah did not immediately respond to a Yahoo News request for comment about the sanctions on its officials.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. While the Taliban government was quickly toppled, armed hostilities have continued for nearly two decades, killing as many as 157,000 people, including 2,353 members of the U.S. armed forces. In February, President Trump signed a deal with the Taliban that would effectively conclude U.S. military occupation of the war-torn nation, though this week a senior military commander said the conditions for U.S. withdrawal have not yet been met.

Members of the U.S. military have been accused of killing civilians, including children, in its airstrikes, while the CIA operated a torture facility in Afghanistan in the early days of the war. Most such excesses took place during the presidencies of George W. Bush and his successor, Barack Obama, who did not bring the war to the conclusion he had once promised.

Trump has expressed skepticism of foreign military intervention, but he is just as skeptical of oversight by foreign bodies like the ICC. “Rest assured that the men and women of the United States armed forces will never appear before the ICC,” Esper said in his remarks on Thursday morning.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, and Attorney General William Barr, speaks at Thursday’s news conference on the International Criminal Court. (Yuri Gripas/AFP via Getty Images)
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, and Attorney General William Barr, speaks at Thursday’s news conference on the International Criminal Court. (Yuri Gripas/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s unclear why the Trump administration is choosing the present time to pursue sanctions, since there hasn’t been any indication that the U.S. would comply with the results of an ICC investigation into its conduct in the Afghanistan War. 

ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in 2017 asked to investigate “alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed in the context of the ongoing armed conflict in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” Her investigations would have included not only U.S. forces — and the Central Intelligence Agency — but also the Taliban and the Afghan National Security Forces.

ICC judges rejected her request last year. But that decision was overturned in March, meaning that Bensouda’s investigation could proceed. 

News of the new sanctions comes as Barr and Esper are facing intense questioning over their participation in the clearing of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, last week. Pompeo, meanwhile, has been hounded by accusations over the firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick. 

Barr speaks at Thursday’s news conference as Pompeo looks on. (Yuri Gripas/AFP via Getty Images)
Barr speaks at Thursday’s news conference as Pompeo looks on. (Yuri Gripas/AFP via Getty Images)

Linick was conducting investigations into Pompeo, a close Trump ally of considerable political ambition.

Speaking yesterday, Pompeo denounced Linick as a “bad actor” who “didn’t take on the mission of the State Department to make us better.” Linick has alleged that Pompeo’s deputies attempted to intimidate him into dropping investigations into an armaments deal with Saudi Arabia, and abuse of State Department resources by Pompeo and his wife. Linick was conducting five investigations into Pompeo at the time he was fired.

Pompeo’s comments about the ICC were hardly less combative than the previous day’s remarks on Linick, with the secretary of state branding the court “grossly ineffective and corrupt.”  

The sanctions will only deepen long-standing hostility between Washington and the Netherlands-based court. 

Bush was resistant to any U.S. collaboration with the ICC, but even Obama, despite his internationalist leanings, made no move for the U.S. to join the court. And when, for example, U.S. forces were sent in 2014 to the African nation of Mali for peacekeeping efforts, Obama signed a memorandum asserting that U.S. troops were operating “without risk of criminal prosecution or other assertion of jurisdiction” on the part of the ICC. 

Cover photo thumbnail: Yuri Gripas/AFP via Getty Images

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