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How does the U.S. decide which Russians to throw out of the country?

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The U.S. has expelled 60 Russian diplomats, and the Russians have now responded by expelling 60 U.S. diplomats.

In a statement Thursday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said that “based on the principle of reciprocity,” the 60 Americans in Moscow and Yekaterinburg “were declared ‘persona non grata’ for activities incompatible with diplomatic status.” The Americans have to leave the country before April 5, 2018.

“Persona non grata” is the same term the U.S. uses when it expels diplomats. National security types call the expulsions “PNGing,” from the initials.

So how do the U.S. and the Russians decide which diplomats to kick out? And does it have any impact?

Experts consulted by NBC News say the Russian diplomats who were expelled from the U.S. were really spies, for the most part, and PNGing dozens of them is more than symbolic — it has an immediate, if short-term, effect on the ability of Russia to collect intelligence inside the U.S.

Earlier this month, Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by nerve gas in the southwestern English city of Salisbury. British authorities immediately suspected the pair had been poisoned by Russian agents trying to silence Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who had been a double agent.

Twenty-six countries expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning. According to current and former U.S. officials, the Russians had violated one of the unwritten rules of espionage — no assassinations, especially not on another country’s soil.

One current official said there is a gentlemen’s agreement — “honor among thieves” — in which there are lines spies should not cross. If a line is crossed, the offended party can expel as PNGs those diplomats it thinks may have some link to the violation.

 People carrying luggage leave the Russian Embassy in London on March 20, 2018 and board a van bearing diplomatic plates. Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP – Getty Images file

In addition to murder, the official said offenses that have sparked past expulsions from Western nations include:

  • Internal political meddling, like Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election;
  • Preparations for the outbreak of war;
  • Acts of sabotage;
  • Stealing or trying to steal a nation’s “continuity of government plans,” i.e., how the top levels of government would react after a nuclear strike. FBI mole Robert Hanssen gave the U.S. plans to the Russians, and the U.S. expelled Russian diplomats after he was caught in 2001.

The phrase itself, PNG, comes from the 1961 Vienna Convention, an international treaty that defined rules for diplomatic relations. Article 9 of the treaty says that “without having to explain its decision,” the host nation can notify the “sending State” that “any member of the diplomatic staff of the mission is persona non grata.”

When the Russians summoned U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman to the Foreign Ministry, they were notifying the “sending State” that they planned to expel 60 Americans. When the Foreign Ministry announced publicly that the Americans had been chosen for expulsion for “activities incompatible with diplomatic status,” they were calling them spies without giving details.

Once declared persona non grata,a diplomat must leave the country “within a reasonable period” or risk losing diplomatic immunity.

 Russian consulate in Seattle. Lindsey Wasson / Reuters

The U.S. expulsion of 60 diplomats in March was the second such purge in less than 18 months. The Obama administration had PNGed 35 diplomats in late 2016 in retaliation for Russian cyber meddling in the U.S. presidential election.

According to the current and former U.S. officials, in both cases the FBI and CIA had previously identified the operatives and gave the list to policy makers, who made the final decisions. Many of the Russians who fill diplomatic positions in the U.S. are actually operatives working for the country’s various intelligence services.

On Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that the U.S. gave Russia the names of the PNGed individuals after an interagency process that included the “weigh-in” of many “U.S. government partners,” like the FBI.

“We believe our country is safer by making these Russians go home,” said Nauert. “We know that they were not here to do good, but rather, they could have done something potentially bad … I think, if you look at the actions that took place against the British citizen and his daughter, it’s clear that, perhaps, our citizens were not safe.”

This month’s expulsion also included the shuttering of a consulate in Seattle. The Trump administration had shuttered the Russian consulate in San Francisco in 2017, and the Obama administration shut Russian recreation facilities in Maryland and New York in December 2016. Consulates and embassies can serve as hubs for human and electronic data collection, say the officials.

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More than 20,000 Haitians are gathered in Colombia for possible migration to U.S.

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WASHINGTON — U.S. officials are tracking large groups of Haitians in Latin America, including more than 20,000 in Colombia, who like the thousands now massed on the Texas border may soon try to reach the U.S., according to an internal document obtained by NBC News.

The Department of Homeland Security document also said the DHS Office of Professional Responsibility, the agency’s internal watchdog, is investigating an incident in which a Border Patrol agent on horseback in Del Rio, Texas, grabbed a Haitian migrant by the shirt. The incident, captured by a news photographer, drew widespread criticism Monday, prompting White House press secretary Jen Psaki to describe it as “horrific.”

In addition to the 20,000 Haitians gathered in northern Colombia, DHS is also monitoring groups of about 1,500 in Panama and 3,000 in Peru, the document said. A senior DHS official said it remains to be seen when and whether those migrants will come to the U.S., but they have begun “staging” in the various countries, potentially signaling they are planning to travel in large numbers.

Like the surge of 15,000 Haitian migrants who arrived in Del Rio over the past week, most of the migrants in Central and South America left Haiti years ago, many of them after the 2010 earthquake, and have been living in other countries.

Recent economic conditions in those countries, as well as what Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas described as misinformation about the Biden administration’s willingness to take in Haitians, have triggered many to seek protections in the U.S.

When DHS has previously monitored caravans of migrants headed to the U.S. border in large numbers, there has been a two to three-week lag between their departure and their arrival. But many of the recently arrived Haitians took buses through Mexico, expediting their arrival and increasing their numbers.

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CIA director’s team member reported Havana Syndrome symptoms during India trip

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A CIA official reported symptoms consistent with so-called Havana Syndrome, a mysterious affliction that has struck diplomats, spies and other government workers at home and abroad, two sources familiar with the matter told NBC News on Monday.

The unidentified employee was traveling with CIA director Bill Burns during a trip to India this month. The employee was immediately tested as part of a protocol the CIA has established to deal with the mysterious brain symptoms typically associated with Havana Syndrome and is receiving medical treatment, the sources said.

The incident was first reported by CNN.

This is the latest reported case of a U.S. government employee reporting symptoms associated with the mysterious ailment. Havana Syndrome first came into public view in 2017 after U.S. diplomats and other government workers stationed in Cuba reported feeling unusual physical sensations after hearing strange high- and low-pitched sounds. U.S. government employees have also reported cases while in China and the Washington, D.C. area.

In late August, at least two U.S. diplomats were medically evacuated from Vietnam after Havana Syndrome incidents were reported in the capital city of Hanoi ahead of Vice President Kamala Harris’ arrival.

“The health and well-being of American public servants is of paramount importance to the administration, and we take extremely seriously any report by our personnel of an anomalous health incident,” a senior administration official said Monday night. “It is a top priority for the U.S. government to determine the cause of these incidents as quickly as possible and that we ensure any affected individuals get the care they need.”

Many people who have experienced Havana Syndrome report experiencing vertigo, dizziness, fatigue, nausea and intense headaches. Some describe it as being hit by an invisible blast wave. Some have no longer been able to work.

The India incident has raised questions about whether a foreign adversary had intentionally targeted the CIA director’s staff, but the sources said the agency is unclear what exactly could have caused the incident. The case is one of a number of new incidents in recent months involving CIA personnel who experienced what U.S. officials call “anomalous health incidents,” the sources said.

A CIA spokeswoman declined to confirm the case in India but said the U.S. government and the agency are taking every incident seriously.

“Director Burns has made it a top priority to ensure officers get the care they need and that we get to the bottom of this,” the spokeswoman said. “We’ve strengthened efforts to determine the origins of the incidents, including assembling a team of our very best experts — bringing an intensity and expertise to this issue akin to our efforts to find Bin Ladin.”

The spokeswoman added that a panel of experts has been convened from across intelligence agencies “to work collectively to increase our understanding of the possible mechanisms that could be causing [anomalous health incidents].”

Many U.S. officials suspect the incidents, which have caused permanent brain injuries in some victims, are a result of an attack or surveillance operation by Russian spies, but the evidence is inconclusive.

The National Academies of Sciences said in a report last year the most likely cause of the injuries was directed microwave energy, but that conclusion is being debated in the scientific community.

Last week, deputy CIA director David Cohen said the agency is getting closer to solving the mystery, but there are limitations.

“In terms of have we gotten closer, I think the answer is yes — but not close enough to make analytic judgment that people are waiting for,” he said.

Josh Lederman contributed.



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Boris Johnson tells jab-sceptic Brazilian President to get 'great' AstraZeneca vaccine

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BORIS JOHNSON has told the jab-sceptic Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to get a dose of the “great” Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca vaccine.

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