Nation & World

‘Jack Daniel’s diplomacy’ questioned in taxpayer-funded liquor gifts abroad

The U.S. embassy in Moscow was the second-highest spending agency in the federal government on alcohol in an analysis by the American Media Institute. Only the U.S. embassy in Bangkok spent more.
The U.S. embassy in Moscow was the second-highest spending agency in the federal government on alcohol in an analysis by the American Media Institute. Only the U.S. embassy in Bangkok spent more. AP

You’d think the Russian people would have enough alcohol on hand without American taxpayers getting the next round – or the next 840 rounds.

But the American embassy in Moscow regularly hands out hundreds of bottles of premium liquor to local officials, workers, contacts and fixers as year-end goodwill presents, an American Media Institute analysis of federal spending data shows.

In 2010, the State Department, under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who unsuccessfully tried a “reset” in relations with Russia, spent $21,733 to distribute 840 fifths of Jack Daniel’s as “gratuities,” presumably all or most to citizens of America’s No. 1 national adversary.

The embassy practice predates Clinton and has continued under the present Sec. John F. Kerry, in a land long ranked high among the world’s top imbibers of hard drink, with alcoholism and related health and social problems to match.

Worldwide, American taxpayer-funded spending on alcohol, primarily at embassies, has increased substantially in recent years, more than doubling from $281,000 in the 2009 fiscal year to more than $764,000 in 2014. It dropped last year to $623,000, the database analysis shows.

Diplomatic liquor sales top federal government spending on alcohol, according to the AMI analysis. The State Department is by far the biggest spender, with $3 million in purchase since 2009 fiscal year; with the US Navy coming in a distant second with $131,000 during the same period.

Small wonder the cost trend is generally upward. The American embassy in London paid nearly $200 per bottle of 2005 Opus One wine in 2011 when it bought two cases for an event, records show. The embassy press office confirmed that the purchase – almost $4,300 – was for a formal “diplomatic representational event” that took place at the U.S .ambassador’s residence. The wine typically is much more expensive now.

“An important part of the Department of State’s mission is to represent the United States and its interests abroad,” the embassy staff said in a written statement. “The Department does so fully mindful of its duties as stewards of the public resources entrusted to it. These activities are vital to maintaining the bilateral and multilateral relationships required to advance U.S. government priorities overseas.”

None of the American officials contacted for this article would consent to an interview about the gifts, including the appropriateness of distributing alcohol in a country with high alcoholism. The Clinton campaign did not respond to emailed inquiries.

“We don’t have anyone available to do an interview on this,” emailed a State Department spokeswoman, who said even that comment was off the record, before terms of any interview were agreed to. But in a statement, the department defended the gifts as an accepted part of diplomacy, which has long been lubricated by libations.

“It is common practice for diplomatic missions, whether from the United States or other countries, to provide nominal gifts to foreign officials and contacts particularly during the holidays,” the statement said. “For instance,” the statement continued, “if an embassy official had worked with local police to help an American citizen in trouble somewhere, that official might decide to send a small holiday gift to the police station.”

But a taxpayer advocate panned the superpower drinksmanship.

“It’s crazy,” said David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. “I don’t see relations with Russia getting better because of Jack Daniel’s. They might be insulted we weren’t handing out Russian vodka.”

In the diplomacy of the distilled and fermented, the cultural sensitivities don’t end there.

While in the West it may seem overly puritanical to frown on taxpayer funded tippling to advance international relations, alcohol is a touchy subject in countries that ban or severely restrict it.

In the Muslim world, U.S. embassies evidently skirt the issue by stocking booze for diplomatic functions on the premises, which are sovereign American territory, as with the $4,680 of American wine laid on by the embassy in Kuwait in 2011, according to purchasing records. Meantime, the State Department warns American travelers to Kuwait: “You risk immediate imprisonment for possession of alcohol or driving under the influence.”

American officials would not say how many Russians work at or come in contact with the American embassy in Moscow, nor did the Russian Embassy in Washington respond to inquiries.

But the U.S. bastion in the Russian capital’s central Preznensky District has long been a focus of intrigue, and that was especially true in the time of the Soviet Union. It was Soviet workers who were suspected of planting hidden listening devices in the building when it was under construction in the 1980s, touching off a long diplomatic row.

Records for the embassy show it spent $40,000 on wine and bourbon as gratuities in 2012; $24,850 on bourbon gifts in 2013; and about $19,000 on various alcoholic gratuities over 2014 and 2015, not to mention $10,835 for American beer and wine at embassy Fourth of July festivities.

The State Department statement said such gifts respect local mores and the department makes them “fully mindful of its duties as the steward of the public resources entrusted to it, and in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.”

But Williams of the taxpayers’ alliance, while conceding the purchases might be only a drop in the bucket, said they are expenses that should end.

“It’s not going to solve all the fiscal problems, but it’s low-hanging fruit, and when it comes to government waste … it’s an easy decision not to buy alcohol,” he said. “Sometimes when taxpayers see waste, they’re even more frustrated because they can identify with a smaller figure. They know that $10,000 is what their mortgage payment might be for a year.”

American Media Institute is an independent investigative journalism organization.

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