On a rainy June night, President Biden toasted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a state dinner at the White House, celebrating “two great friends and two great powers” – a gesture of flattery for a leader he enlisted to help the United States curb China’s ambitions and counter Russia’s aggression.
According to the White House, the president had no idea that a significant test of those relationships was unfolding, even during the state visit.
On June 22, while Mr. Biden was using all diplomatic means to bring Mr. Modi together, a senior Indian government official offered the “green light” approving the murder-for-hire plot surrounding a Sikh American in the United States. soil, according to a Justice Department indictment filed Wednesday in a New York federal court.
There was a flaw: The hitman turned out to be an undercover law enforcement agent, prosecutors said, and the plot was foiled. The suspect, an Indian national accused of trying to organize the murder, was arrested in the Czech Republic on June 30, eight days after the state dinner.
The United States has no information that Mr. Modi knew of the alleged plot, according to several American officials. But this bold project illustrates how complicated it can be for American presidents to balance their relationships with deeply flawed allies while trying to preserve their commitment to the values of human rights and democracy.
Mr Biden’s advisers and analysts say relations between the two countries remain as strong as they were that June evening, driven by Mr Modi’s desire to assert his country as an economic superpower and Mr. Biden’s need for a powerful ally to serve him. as a counterweight to Russia and China.
“India remains a strategic partner and we will continue to work to improve and strengthen that strategic partnership with India,” National Security Council spokesman John F. Kirby told reporters Thursday. But, he added, “we have made it clear that we want whoever, whoever is responsible for these alleged crimes, to be held duly accountable.”
After the White House was briefed in July on the alleged murder-for-hire plot, some officials expressed surprise, even disbelief, that India risked disrupting warming relations with such a brazen plan, they said. US officials said. Some White House advisers privately expressed regret that the invitation for a state visit was extended in the first place, officials said.
But publicly, the episode did not cause a rift. As Mr. Biden worked to build a network of global alliances to counter his adversaries, he at times smoothed over differences and raised difficult questions privately rather than airing them publicly.
His advisers say he did so while meeting Mr. Modi at the Group of 20 in India in September, where he stressed how seriously the United States was taking the allegations, according to a senior U.S. official who was not not authorized to detail the conversation.
Mr. Biden has also resorted to a “keep them close” strategy with Israel. His aides say the president’s public solidarity with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the October 7 Hamas attacks allowed him to use his influence privately on issues such as humanitarian aid.
Whether this strategy will work in the long term remains to be seen. But Mr. Biden clearly prefers to bring his friends together, using positive reinforcement to try to change their policies.
“These allegations in this investigation, we take them very seriously,” Mr. Kirby said Thursday. “And we are happy to see that the Indians are too.”
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland has often said he does not discuss ongoing investigations with White House officials, usually in response to questions about the Justice Department’s indictments against Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter, and against former President Donald J. Trump.
But criminal investigations of foreign nationals that have foreign policy implications may be another matter. Department officials routinely report significant investigations to the State Department, members of the intelligence community and even the National Security Council if they could affect international relations, according to current and former law enforcement officials. Then, top gatekeepers, including the national security adviser and chief of staff, decide when and whether to brief the president.
The federal prosecution of Indian defendant Nikhil Gupta began as a relatively routine drug trafficking investigation, federal law enforcement officials said. In late July, about a month after Mr. Gupta’s arrest, the president’s advisers were briefed when it became clear that the matter was not just a criminal investigation but involved the Indian government, according to a person familiar with it. of the investigation.
By early August, Mr. Biden had sent his top aides to New Delhi, officials said.
In October, Avril D. Haines, director of national intelligence, traveled to India to present much of the material the government made public in Wednesday’s indictment, according to U.S. officials. In the days that followed, Indian officials assured Washington that they would open their own investigation.
In recent months, a parade of American officials — including Ms. Haines, William J. Burns, the CIA director, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Mr. Biden himself — have confronted India with a message that Washington would not tolerate assassinations around the world. North America.
U.S. officials say they do not know whether high levels of the Indian government were involved in the alleged plot. Intelligence agencies continue to try to gather information, but officials say much will depend on cooperation from the Indian government.
Mr. Biden has worked to stabilize relations with the leaders of authoritarian regimes, including during his recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping two weeks ago in San Francisco.
As a candidate, Mr. Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for a host of human rights abuses and the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who has criticized the Saudi government in articles he wrote for the Washington Post. .
In the years since, Mr. Biden has visited Saudi Arabia and shared a fist bump with Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s crown prince. He changed his position by pursuing long-term attempts to lower oil prices and broker a relationship between Israel and the Saudis.
Nirav Patel, managing director of the Asia Group and deputy assistant secretary of state to President Barack Obama, said in an interview that “there is a realpolitik orientation to the way that not only this administration, but previous administrations, have attempted to manage areas of divergence. »
The officials argued that efforts to bring Mr. Modi into the diplomatic fold helped U.S. officials work with their Indian counterparts as the investigation continued.
This is a different approach than that taken by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, whose country is home to the largest population of Sikhs outside of India. Relations between the two countries deteriorated after Mr. Trudeau accused the Indian government of being involved in the June 18 assassination of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, British Columbia.
Mr. Nijjar was a strong advocate for the independence of Punjab, a state in northern India that is home to large numbers of Sikhs. So was Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who U.S. authorities believe was the intended victim in the case revealed this week.
Mr Modi’s government has pushed for the extradition of 26 Sikh separatists on grounds they could pose an extremist threat. The indictment unsealed Wednesday says Mr. Gupta told an associate that three other murders were planned in Canada, in addition to the plan to kill Mr. Pannun in New York.
Ed Shanahan reports contributed.
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