By Matt Spetalnick and Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A powerful Senate committee demanded on Thursday that the State Department hand over all the documents used to rank countries in its annual human trafficking report as lawmakers expressed concern it had been watered down due to political considerations.
Senator Bob Corker, Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, issued the order as members grilled a senior State Department official over whether politics trumped human rights in the higher grades given this year to strategically important countries like Malaysia and Cuba.
The contentious hearing followed a Reuters examination, based on interviews with more than a dozen sources in Washington and foreign capitals, that showed the State Department office set up to independently rate countries' efforts to fight human trafficking was repeatedly overruled by senior U.S. diplomats.
Testifying before the committee, Undersecretary of State Sarah Sewall faced pointed questions over the 2015 Trafficking in Persons report published on July 27. Malaysia and Cuba were among countries upgraded from the blacklist of worst offenders on human trafficking, over the objections of the State Department’s own experts.
Corker threatened a congressional subpoena if all documents, including emails, memos and telephone records, were not provided and vowed “significant consequences” if any of the materials were destroyed. Democratic Senator Bob Menendez raised the prospect of calling for an inspector general’s investigation of how the ratings were decided.
“If it is true that the administration politicized this report, there are questions about why they chose to significantly diminish a tool that has been effective in fighting slavery around the world,” Corker said, expressing concern that the ranking process had “run amok.”
Under heavy fire, Sewall, who oversees the U.S. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, reiterated State Department denials of political interference and insisted that the report was something “all Americans can be very proud of.”
“The rigorous and comprehensive annual assessment process is what makes the TIP report the gold standard in anti-trafficking efforts,” she said.
But lawmakers were unconvinced. They echoed earlier concerns from human rights groups and some former State Department officials that unearned higher grades undermine the credibility of the report and compromise U.S. efforts to fight human trafficking internationally.
Analysts in the anti-trafficking office disagreed with U.S. diplomatic bureaus on ratings for 17 countries during the decision-making process, according to the sources. The analysts, who are specialists in assessing efforts to combat modern slavery, prevailed in only three of those disputes, the worst ratio in the 15-year history of the unit.
In the end, not only Malaysia and Cuba, but countries such as China, India, Uzbekistan and Mexico, received better grades than the anti-trafficking office wanted to give them, the sources said.
The number of rejected recommendations suggests a degree of intervention not previously known by top State Department diplomats in a report that can lead to sanctions on countries relegated to the lowest rating, known as “Tier 3.”
Sewall defended the "complex" criteria by which the ratings are decided. But she repeatedly refused to answer questions on whether senior State Department officials ignored analysts’ recommendations, saying: “We do not comment on internal deliberations.”
The biggest target for criticism at Thursday’s hearing was Malaysia’s upgrade from the lowest ranking, which could smooth the way for an ambitious proposed U.S.-led free-trade deal with the Southeast Asian nation and 11 other countries.
Corker said many lawmakers believed that the State Department “threw the trafficking piece under the bus” to ensure the success of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Barack Obama’s signature trade initiative, still under negotiation.
Sewall insisted that Malaysia had shown improved efforts to combat human trafficking but acknowledged it still has “major work to do.”
Lawmakers also raised questions about whether politics played a role in the State Department’s upgrade of Cuba after 12 years at the lowest ranking. The change removes another irritant between the two former Cold War foes at a time of rapprochement.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Susan Heavey and Dan Grebler)