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Exclusive: Russia Vetoes House of Cards

Vladimir Putin's government has vetoed House of Cards.

Russia's United Nations delegation on Tuesday blocked a request by the producers of the popular Netflix political drama to film two episodes in the U.N. Security Council, citing the need to keep the world's leading security chamber available for unanticipated crises, according to a series of confidential email exchanges between a Russian diplomat and his Security Council counterparts. The emails were obtained by Foreign Policy.

The Russian action came less than a week after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office recommended that the 15-nation Security Council allow the cable television series to film in its chamber during off-hours to raise public awareness about the organization. The decision doesn't foreclose the possibility that the producers of the show might shoot in another section of the U.N.'s gleaming headquarters at Turtle Bay. FP first reported on House of Cards' filming request last week.

But for viewers of House of Cards, Russia's action appears to have killed off the tantalizing possibility that television's most ruthless and devious political leader, President Frank Underwood -- who is played by Kevin Spacey in the show -- or one of his envoys would be given a seat at the Security Council's horseshoe table, an iconic setting that has launched military interventions from Korea to the Persian Gulf.

But the show is in good company.

More than half a century ago, the United Nations rejected a request by director Alfred Hitchcock to film a murder scene from his 1959 masterpiece North by Northwest in the U.N.'s North Delegate Lounge. Many top U.N. officials have long regretted it.

"The U.N. Department of Public Information is of the view that cooperating with the production would provide an excellent opportunity to raise awareness among a large audience around the world regarding the world of the Security Council, and of the organization in general," British diplomat Michael Tatham wrote Thursday in an email to his Security Council counterparts, including the U.S., China, France, and Russia. The U.N.'s public affairs office, he added, "has reviewed the scripts for these episodes and judged them to be appropriate."

The British delegation -- which will hold the presidency of the 15-nation council in August, the month that House of Cards' producers wanted to schedule their shoot -- urged council members to raise any objections by Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. or consider the request approved.

A Russian diplomat, Mikael Agasandyan, answered less than a half-hour before the deadline.

"Upon thorough reflection, we are objecting to the proposed filming in the Security Council," Agasandyan wrote in an email to council members late Tuesday afternoon. "We are of [the] opinion that the Security Council premises should be available at any time and on short notice. Besides that, we consistently insist that the Security Council premises are not an appropriate place for filming, staging, etc."

Technically, Russia's action doesn't amount to a formal veto, which can only be cast in response to a vote on an issue. But with most of the council's procedural decisions made by consensus, a decision to break consensus has the same effect.

Despite Russia's strenuous objections, some council diplomats were still holding out hope that Moscow might reconsider, noting that it once objected to a proposal by Norway -- which recently underwrote the financial costs of the Security Council's renovation -- to host a Security Council inauguration ceremony, only to subsequently relent. "Not sure it is completely off the table," said one council diplomat. "There still might be some discussion going on.... But I might be wrong."

China also expressed reservations about the virtue of filming the series in the Security Council. But it left open the door to reconsider if the council's members were granted script approval.

"I think Mikael's argument is reasonable," wrote Bo Shen, a political counsellor at the Chinese mission to the United Nations, referring to the Russian decision to block filming. He said China's officials "think council members should have a rough idea on scripts for those episodes which are relating to our work. DPI [The U.N. Department of Public Information] judged them to be appropriate but could not represent views of council members. Based on that, we regard the current information are insufficient before making a decision by the council."

House of Cards is immensely popular in China. But it has also shed an unflattering light on the country, including a storyline that had Underwood orchestrating shady land deals with a corrupt Chinese businessman. Though the program's harshest criticism is directly most sharply at America's political class, which it portrays as scheming, backbiting, and fundamentally corrupt.

The U.N. Security Council has previously allowed the council chamber to be used for an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot of then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice for Vogue magazine and for the filming of a French diplomatic comedy, Quai D'Orsay, by the French director Bertrand Tavernier.

The U.N sought to assure the council that filming would take place only late at night and over the weekend, and that the U.N. would ensure that filming would never be allowed to interrupt any emergency sessions of the council. The shooting was planned for mid-August, when most of the council's top ambassadors are vacationing.

"The [U.N.] Secretariat have informed me that the production company that produces the American political drama House of Cards has requested permission to film interior scenes for two episodes of its third season in the United Nations complex: inside the Security Council and in the Delegates Lounge," Tatham wrote. "The scenes to be filmed on location would depict a meeting of the Security Council, as well as depicting behind the scenes discussion between ambassadors before and after the council meeting.... The executive office of the secretary-general also supports this request."

The request comes at a time when the U.N. has been actively courting Hollywood filmmakers in an effort to harness the film industries' power to reach billions of viewers around the world, and hopefully to promote a positive image of the United Nations. In an effort to win over the Security Council, U.N. officials informed them that Netflix has global reach, with more than 44 million subscribers in 41 countries.

Unfortunately, those numbers can't stand up to the power of a single Russian nyet.

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Blackwater Bombshell Raises Questions for State Department Heavyweight

Eye-opening new revelations about the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide and its cozy relationship with the State Department are raising new questions about a senior Foggy Bottom bureaucrat who has found himself in Capitol Hill's crosshairs before -- and seems certain to now do so again.

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that Patrick Kennedy, the State Department's current under secretary for management, led a review of the private security firm in 2007 after its guards fatally shot 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square. Kennedy's review, however, failed to reference a scathing State Department memo on the contractor completed just weeks earlier that found the company had systematically overcharged the government. The memo also alleged a senior Blackwater executive in Baghdad threatened to kill the State Department auditor behind the memo.  At the time, Kennedy dismissed questions about early warnings of Blackwater misconduct.

As under secretary for management, Kennedy holds large sway in the promotion and appointments of officials throughout the State Department. The powerful bureaucrat is responsible for a range of department operations related to human resources, budgets, facilities, consular affairs and security. It's unclear if Kennedy's review in 2007 simply missed the internal memo of Blackwater misconduct or whether it was suppressed.

Though the incident is now seven years old, anger remains on Capitol Hill about how the State Department, and in particular, Kennedy, manages relations with government contractors. On Monday, an aide for Senator Claire McCaskill (D-M.O.) noted his boss's "longstanding frustrations with the failure to improve contract management at the State Department." He cited an April letter between McCaskill and Kennedy in which she scolds Kennedy for failing to implement recommendations from the Inspector General about the maintenance of contract files dating back seven years.

"I have written to you nearly a dozen times over the past five years raising concerns about contract management," McCaskill wrote. "When I have raised these concerns, you have repeatedly responded that the State Department's contract acquisition and management are adequate and that the Department is making improvements."

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf did not respond to a request for comment about the alleged Blackwater threat and Kennedy's review of the Nisour Square killings. At the daily press briefing, spokesperson Jen Psaki offered few details, citing the ongoing legal case into the tragic incident. "There's very little we can say," she said.

The new flap dates back to 2007, when Blackwater was at the peak of its influence in Iraq and reaping hundreds of millions of dollars per year in government contracts.

In his 2007 memo, Jean Richter, a Diplomatic Security special agent, wrote that Blackwater contractors "saw themselves as above the law" and characterized an environment where "the contractors, instead of Department officials, are in command and control." He warned higher ups that lax oversight of Blackwater fostered "an environment of liability and negligence." 

Sixteen days after Richter filed his report, Blackwater officials fired into a crowd of men, women and children in a busy traffic circle in Baghdad. Blackwater guards said they were shot at first, but American military investigators later found no evidence of an insurgent attack that day. Federal prosecutors accused the guards of shooting indiscriminately with grenade launchers and automatic weapons.

The incident badly damaged relations between the United States and the Iraqi government, and prompted then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to name a special panel led by Kennedy to review the killings and recommend reforms.

No one on the panel interviewed Richter, according to the panel's final report, which includes a list of everyone consulted about the incident. It's particularly unusual that the panel didn't talk to Richter given that he specifically visited Iraq to review the State Department's contract with Blackwater, the firm at the center of the controversy. During a press Q&A on October 23, 2007, then-Time magazine reporter Brian Bennett noted the existence of "complaints about contractor conduct," and asked "why this review wasn't done earlier?" In response,  Kennedy told reporters that his review found no communications from the embassy in Baghdad complaining about contractor conduct prior to the Nisour Square killings. 

"When you look through the report you'll see that we interviewed a large number -- large number of individuals," Kennedy said at the time.  "We did not find any, I think, significant pattern of incidents that had not -- that the Embassy had suppressed in any way. (A transcript of the Q&A is available in the State Department archives here).

As it happened, Richter's report cited a number of complaints about contractor misconduct that went beyond cavalier behavior and death threats. According to his memo, he found evidence that Blackwater overcharged Foggy Bottom by allowing guards to use unauthorized weapons, falsifying records, understaffing certain assignments, and placing foreign workers in poor housing conditions.

Kennedy has survived congressional scrutiny before. Last year, he endured the grilling of a series of angry Republicans for his oversight of diplomatic security in the months leading up to the 2012 attack on U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya. In May of last year, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) subpoenaed his documents and records related to the incident. It's unclear how much heat the latest flare up may bring.

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