The U.S. Treasury Department on Thursday eased some economic sanctions against Russia, specifically licensing cyber-security sales to the Russian Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, according to official documents.
General License No. 1 by the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the Treasury Department covers "all transactions and activities" involving the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, that were prohibited by earlier executive orders.
It notes in particular that "requesting, receiving, utilizing, paying for, or dealing in licenses, permits, certifications, or notifications issued or registered by the Federal Security Service (FSB) for the importation, distribution, or use of information technology products in the Russian Federation" is allowed.
The initial sanctions, imposed by President Obama in April 2015, were titled "Blocking the Property of Certain Persons Engaging in Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activities." That was further strengthened in December in an order entitled, "Taking Additional Steps to Address the national emergency with Respect to Significant Malicious Cyber-enabled Activities."
President Trump brushed off the reports, saying, "I'm not easing ... anything."
At the White House, press secretary Sean Spicer also disputed that the move by Treasury was "easing" sanctions.
“We’re not easing,” he said, adding that, “It is, from what I understand, a regular course of action” that Treasury takes when sanctions are imposed.
“It’s a fairly common practice for the Treasury Department, after sanctions are put in place, to go back and look at whether or not there needs to be specific carve-outs for different, either industries or products and services that need to be going back and forth,” he said.
The Obama administration eased sanctions on Iran as part of a landmark 2015 nuclear agreement, including a ban on the sale of many medical devices. That change affected products used for nuclear medicine purposes that might have uses in an atomic weapons program.
Spicer maintained the change does not represent any shift in policy and referred further questions to the Treasury Department, which did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
In Moscow, Nikolai Kovalyov, former director of the FSB and now a member of the State Duma, tells the Russian news agency Tass that the move signals a thawing of relations between Moscow and Washington.
"This shows that actual joint work on establishing an anti-terrorism coalition is about to begin," he says. "This is the first step on the way leading to cooperation in the war on terror."
"Without easing these sanctions it would have been impossible to take the next step," Kovalyov adds. "These practical actions indicate that U.S. President Donald Trump has been consistent."
Rep. Eric Swalwell ✔ @RepSwalwell
#RussianHacking attacked our democracy. They should pay a price. @POTUS rewards them by rolling back sanctions against their team of hackers
7:59 PM - 2 Feb 2017
269 269 Retweets 232 232 likes
The December sanctions were put in place after Obama charged that the Russians sought to affect U.S. elections via cyber-espionage.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., ranking member of a House CIA subcommittee, accused the Trump administration of “rewarding” the FSB for tampering with the U.S. elections.
“This is the same group (FSB) that, just a month ago, our intelligence community determined was responsible for the attack on our democracy,” Swalwell told USA TODAY. “We just made it easier for the same group to import into Russia the tools they could use to hack us or our allies again.”
Swalwell said he will explore methods for Congress to enact its own sanctions.
“We have French and German elections coming up, and we just made it easier (for the FSB) to go after them,” he said. “They can sharpen the knives and come after us again.”
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to make a statement on the decision, Russian news agency TASS said in reporting the easing of sanctions,
"First we need to understand what it is all about," Peskov said, according to TASS. "If we turn to the rocket engines matter, we will see that our U.S. counterparts never impose sanctions that could damage their own interests."
The move comes as some members of Congress have proposed adding new sanctions to Russia in connection with the hacking allegations.
Last month, Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham pushed for greater sanctions against Russia for trying to influence the U.S. election and said then President-elect Donald Trump was in danger of being in conflict with congressional Republicans if he didn't get tougher on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said the Trump administration was going to "extreme lengths" to put Russian interests above the United States.
"Allowing U.S. companies to do business with the Russian intelligence service (FSB) rewards Russia for its nefarious behavior and emboldens Putin to act out in the future," said Castro, a member of the House Permament Select Committee on Intelligence.