News Column

Obama's New Sanctions Against Syria, Iran Take Aim at Digital Harassment

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President Barack Obama took aim Monday at Syria and Iran, imposing new sanctions on the two regimes as well as the "digital guns for hire" that develop technology enabling the two governments to monitor, track and harass their own people.

The same satellite communications, mobile phone and Internet technology used by activists across the Middle East and North Africa to speak to the outside world is being used against them in Syria and Iran, amid a "deplorable and deteriorating human rights situation" in both countries, the White House said.

Obama used the backdrop of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to announce the new measures - along with a stepped-up U.S. effort to detect and deter mass killings and genocide.

"Too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale," said Obama, who was introduced at the event by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. "We are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save."

The executive order Obama signed establishes financial and U.S visa sanctions against those who perpetrate or assist in what the White House calls "Grave Human Rights Abuses Via Information Technology" in Syria and Iran - or GHRAVITY. It comes amid fighting in Syria despite a cease-fire and as Obama has come under criticism from some Republicans who say the U.S. needs to get tougher with Syrian leader Basher Assad.

Obama called the sanctions on the governments and private tech companies "one more step that we can take toward the day that we know will come - the end of the Assad regime that has brutalized the Syrian people."

"These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them," he said.

Treasury officials said the order targets people involved in developing technology "that could assist in or enable human rights abuses." Treasury imposed sanctions on the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, its director Ali Maluku, Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's Law Enforcement Forces, the Iranian Internet service provider Data Telecom, and the Syrian communication firm Striate.

All but Data already had been targeted for sanctions by Treasury under other violations. Under the new sanctions, any property in the U.S. in which they have an interest will be blocked, and Americans are prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.

Although Iran and Syria are targeted in the order, an administration official noted that Obama has the authority to impose sanctions on other countries if he chooses. The administration targeted Iran and Syria, the administration official said, "because of the ongoing and increasing use of technology by those governments to target people for grave human rights abuses."

Obama raised the specter of the Holocaust and past massacres in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur to promise a focus on preventing genocide that involves nearly a dozen federal agencies.

"This is not an afterthought," he said. "This is not a sideline in our foreign policy."

The Atrocities Prevention Board, which will be chaired by Samantha Power, the White House National Security Council senior director for multilateral and humanitarian affairs, was to meet for the first time Monday at the White House and report to Obama in six months.

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It also will monitor the National Intelligence Council's preparation of the first-ever national intelligence estimate on the global risk of mass atrocities and genocide and will work with the director of national intelligence to include information about mass atrocity threats in the annual threat assessment to Congress.

"Across government, alert channels will ensure that information about unfolding crises and dissenting opinions quickly reach decision makers, including me," Obama said.

He said that the Treasury Department will work to more quickly deploy financial tools to block the flow of money to abusive regimes and that the State Department would improve its ability to "surge our diplomats and experts in a crisis."

And he said the U.S. Agency for International Development will challenge high-tech companies to help create new technologies to quickly expose violations of human rights.

"We need to be doing everything we can to prevent and respond to these kinds of atrocities because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your people," Obama said.

He also announced that the U.S. will continue to deploy U.S. military advisers to assist Uganda and other regional African forces that are pursuing the murderous Lord's Resistance Army, led by rebel Joseph Konya.

He called it part of a "regional strategy to end the scourge that is the LRA and help realize a future where no African child is stolen from their family and no girl is raped and no boy is turned into a child soldier."

He noted that later this spring he will posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Karaka, a young Polish Catholic "who witnessed Jews being put on cattle cars, who saw the killings, and who told the truth, all the way to President Roosevelt himself."

Obama also used his speech to defend his policy toward Iran, which has come under criticism from his Republican rivals, who accuse him of failing to convince the country to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons. Analysts, however, have said that the administration has imposed some of the toughest sanctions against Iran in the regime's history.

Campaigning in Pennsylvania ahead of Tuesday's primary, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney called Obama's approach to Iran one of his great failings.

"When he came into office he should have put into place aggressive, crippling sanctions against Iran," he said. "And then over the last year or two he's been acting like he's more concerned that Israel might take action to get rid of (Iran's) nuclear weapons than he is about Iran developing nuclear weapons."

Obama told the crowd at the museum, which included Holocaust survivors, that he's promised he will "always be there for Israel."

"When faced with a regime that threatens global security and denies the Holocaust and threatens to destroy Israel, the United States will do everything in our power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon," he said.

Human rights groups applauded the focus on genocide prevention.

"This new 'all of government approach' reflects hard-learned lessons from tardy responses to past humanitarian crises," said Frank Jannuzi, Amnesty International USA's deputy executive director for advocacy, policy and research.