The Campaign Spot

When U.S. Lawmakers Visit, Foreign Governments Go Shopping

The latest U.S. State Department list of gifts from foreign leaders to American officials was released this week, revealing what foreign governments gave to President Obama, the First Lady, the cabinet, diplomatic staff, visiting members of Congress, and some CIA personnel.

Since 1978, federal employees have been required to file reports with their agencies detailing gifts worth more than $305 received from foreign governments. Employees are permitted to keep gifts worth less that that; gifts worth more are considered gifts to the agency, although the employee has the option of purchasing the item. In almost all cases, the gift is accepted because “non-acceptance would have caused embarrassment to donor and the U.S. government.” Non-purchased gifts are either turned over to the General Services Administration for storage or retained by the agency for official display. In some cases, lawmakers are permitted to display the gifts in their offices, which is deemed “official use.”

The president receives ceremonial gifts everywhere he goes; everything is appraised in case the lawmaker decides to purchase the gift from the government. Food, wine, and edible gifts are “handled pursuant to Secret Service policy.”

Pope Benedict XVI gave Obama a “gilt framed and matted mosaic depicting St. Peter’s Square; decorative gold coin with the inscription ‘Benedict XVI Pont Max Anno IV’ with the profile of Pope Benedict the XVI; booklet entitled ‘Instruction Dignitas Personae On Certain Bioethical Questions’; book entitled ‘Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI’; silver keychain.” All of that was collectively estimated at a value of $7,905.

Shimon Peres, president of Israel, gave Obama a bronze statue of a girl releasing a flock of doves, estimated to be worth $8,000. The pen holder made from the wood of the HMS Gannet, given by then–prime minister Gordon Brown, is valued at $16,510.

Saudi King Abdullah gave Obama a “large desert scene on a green veined marble base featuring miniature figurines of gold palm trees and camels; large gold medallion with the Royal seal in a green leather display box; large brass and glass clock by Jaeger-LeCoultre in a green leather display case.” The entire package was assessed at $34,500. But the king’s gift to Michelle Obama cost even more: A ruby and diamond jewelry set consisting of a pair of earrings, a ring, a bracelet, and a necklace, estimated to cost $132,000.

Of course, you didn’t have to be as wealthy as the Saudi rulers to give expensive gifts to the First Lady: Ernestina Naadu Mills, first lady of the Republic of Ghana, gave her a “Backes and Strauss ‘Black Star of Ghana’  watch, crafted in 18 karat gold with diamonds and leather,” estimated to be worth $48,000.

Then again, not every gift is so pricey; Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, gave President Obama a bottle of olive oil valued at $75.

A fascinating bit of irony considering the controversy Hillary Clinton found herself in, dealing with U.S. diplomatic personnel collecting personal and sensitive data on U.N. personnel: On February 1, 2002, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Israel, and Tourism Minister Binyamin Elon gave her a gift, a metal-and-wood sculpture by artist Israel Hadany valued at $3,500. The sculpture’s title? “The Spies.”

(One of my favorites, from a few years ago: “Shortly before Christmas 2004, King Abdullah and Queen Rania of Jordan gave Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld an “aromatherapy gift set” valued at $380. It may never be known if the collection of scents soothed the secretary’s nerves; the gift was turned over to the General Services Administration.”)

Back in 2006, I wrote about the gifts to then–CIA Director George Tenet for the (gasp!) Washington Post. The list of donors and non-director recipients is classified, but I noted back then that the gift descriptions offered a clue of the donor’s nationality: Bahranian 22-karat gold coins, a “Pakistan ‘Tabriz’ design rug,” valued at $500, “Pakistan Bokhara rug,” valued at $500, and perhaps most intriguingly, a “Qum silk rug” on May 8, 2004, about 7 feet by 4 feet, in emerald green and red. Qum, a city famous for its ornate rugs, is in Iran, which has no diplomatic relations with the United States.

I notice this year there are no revealing adjectives on the list for gifts to CIA employees.


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