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Is Obama giving away oil-rich Alaska islands? Nope.

Brooks JacksonFactCheck.org

Alaska Dispatch editor's note: A rumor circulating around the web recently claims that President Obama is "giving away" seven islands to Russia that the U.S. has claim to. It's been mentioned by failed U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller on his blog, and has raised the ire of citizens upset about rising gas prices and concerned about U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The following article was written by FactCheck.org in response to the rumor.

The question

I am certain the following e-rumor is not true but could you please research the story surrounding it and print it on your site? Thanks.

Subject: Losing a part of oil rich Alaska

Get this – as usual it is being done quietly and most Americans are TOTALLY unaware of it.

Obama Giveaway – Oil Rich Islands of Alaska to Russia. As a part of Obama’s war against U.S. energy independence includes a foreign aid program that directly threatens Alaska’s sovereign territory and your land and mine. Obama’s State Department is GIVING away seven (7) strategic resource laden Alaskan island to the Russians – yes tot the Putin regime in the Kremlin. Can you believe the nerve of this guy?

The seven endangered islands to be given away in the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea include one the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

The Russians also get the tens of thousand of square miles of rich oil seabeds surrounding the islands. The Department of the Interior is on record of estimating billions of barrels of oil are at stake.

This agreement was negotiated in TOTAL SECRECY. The State of Alaska was NOT allowed to participate in the negotiations, nor was the public given ANY opportunity for comment. Well certainly when Alaska found out about this they passed a resolution of opposition – but the State department does not care what their position is on this matter nor yours either for that matter. Yet it could be stopped with a draft of a pen from either Obama or Secretary Hilary Clinton. These islands have been a part of Alaska since 1881 and are the islands of Wrangell, Bennett, Jeannette, Henrietta, DeLong Islands, Copper Island, Sea Lion Rock and Sea Otter Rock. The later islands a part of Alaska since 1867.

Now get this Russia did not ask for this territory as a part of the State Department’s new maritime agreement nor are we getting anything in return – we are just giving them away and giving a foreign country a closer step to our mainland.

Apparently as usual our elected officials are not even aware of this happening. Let’s remind EVER member of Congress of this dealing underneath the table and to reject giving away a part of our 49th State. Your voice needs to be heard !!!!!

The answer

A look at the map will give the reader some notion of the frozen “Alaskan” islands under discussion. All are far closer to the Russian mainland than to the Alaskan mainland. All lie on the Russian side of the U.S.-Russia maritime boundary set by a treaty that the U.S. Senate ratified overwhelmingly more than two decades ago, after being signed by President George H.W. Bush, and with the support of both of Alaska’s senators.

The largest, Wrangel Island (in Russian, Ostrov Vrangelya), is named for the Russian explorer Ferdinand P. Wrangel, who heard of the island from Siberian natives as early as 1820. According tothe Encyclopedia Britannica, Wrangel did not land on it while mapping the Siberian coast that year. The first European to sight it may have been the British explorer Capt. Henry Kellett, who in 1849 discovered and landed on nearby Herald Island, and saw Wrangel in the distance.

The uninhabited Wrangel Island was sighted by U.S. vessels in 1867 and 1881, but not settled. A Canadian explorer named Vilhjalmur Stefansson and survivors of a disastrous expedition reached the island in 1914. But when Stefansson later tried to claim Wrangel for Canada without authorization, he caused an international incident, infuriating the Canadian government. Then in 1926 the Soviet Union staked a claim to the island and settled a few native families there.

According to a 1990 story by the Associated Press, Wrangel and four other uninhabited islands were surveyed in 1881 by a U.S. Navy commander, and for a time were listed in the “District of Alaska” by the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s about the extent of justification for calling them “Alaskan.” Neither the U.S., Britain nor Canada has disputed the Soviet (and now Russian) claim to Wrangel. The U.S. State Department says Wrangel and the others weren’t included in the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, and “they have never been claimed by the United States.”

Nevertheless, a crusading California activist named Carl Olson, of Woodland Hills, Calif., made it his business to claim that the islands are “100 percent American,” as the AP said in 1990. The organization Olson founded, “State Department Watch, Ltd,” is still pressing that argument today. (The group is a nonprofit advocacy organization that reported taking in $2.4 million in 2010 but spent most of it on fundraising, according to its most recent IRS Form 990. It paid Olson an $80,000 salary, made grants of $51,000 to the “1776 Tea Party” of Laguna Woods, Calif., and $9,500 to the “Minuteman Project, Inc.” of Aliso Viejo, Calif. But nearly $2 million was reported going for postage and printing. The group reports that it hired Virginia-based WJM Associates, a fundraising and marketing firm that lists several Republican and conservative groups as clients.)

Despite Olson’s objections, the Senate ratified a treaty establishing the current maritime boundarybetween the U.S. and the Soviet Union (now Russia) on Sept. 16, 1991. The vote was a lopsided 86 to 6. Alaska’s senators, the late Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski, both Republicans, voted in favor of ratification.

But voting against the treaty were Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and four other Republicans, led by the late Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina. During a very brief debate, Helms said he was fighting to “protect the status” of Wrangel Island and four others: Herald, Bennett, Henrietta and Jeannette Islands.

The treaty did not specifically cede sovereignty over the islands to the Soviets (which the U.S. wasn’t disputing anyway), and merely clarified the location of the maritime boundary to settle squabbles over fishing and undersea mineral rights. Nevertheless, Helms said he would vote against it because “I doubt that the State Department will make use of the opportunity to press U.S. claims to the five islands — even though the right to do so is preserved.”

(To read the full debate in the Congressional Record, search the Library of Congress Thomas website for the 102nd Congress, and enter “S13036″ to bring up the first page.)

And sure enough, no president or secretary of state since has shown any interest in disputing the Soviet/Russian claim to Wrangel Island or the others. Which brings us to the present accusation that President Obama is somehow giving away something the U.S. has never claimed to own. How can that be?

For one thing, the maritime boundary treaty has never been ratified by the Russians, which is required for it to take full force. By the time the U.S. Senate had ratified the treaty (signed by the Soviets the previous year), the Soviet Union was near collapse. Shortly afterward, the Russian Federation notified the U.S. government by diplomatic note that it would continue to abide by the terms of the agreement on a provisional basis, however.

Ironically, in view of claims of a U.S. “giveaway,” it is the Russians who have sought to renegotiate the terms of the boundary treaty on grounds that their side gave up too much to the United States. Ahistory of the matter, by Vlad M. Kaczynski of the Warsaw School of Economics, published in the May 1, 2007, edition of the Russian Analytical Digest, details why the new Russian Federation refused to ratify the treaty:

Kaczynski, 2007: Many accuse Gorbachev and Shevardnadze of ceding Russia’s rightful fishing areas in their haste to negotiate a deal for signature at the 1990 White House Summit. “Russian parliamentarians understood perfectly well that the agreement infringed upon Russia’s interests and therefore the document has never been ratified by the Russian parliament,” these critics say. Other Russian officials have voiced their opposition to the treaty not only because of lost fishing opportunities, but also due to the loss of potential oil and gas fields and naval passages for submarines.

Content to hang on to what the Soviet negotiators gave up, the U.S. State Department says, “The United States has no intention of reopening discussion of the 1990 Maritime Boundary Agreement.” However, since the treaty has yet to be ratified by the Russians, Olson and some on the right argue that the U.S. should still be pressing claims to Wrangel (Olson prefers to spell it “Wrangell” with two “l’s”) and other islands and rocks.

The whole business was raised anew in an opinion piece published Feb. 16 on the conservative site World Net Daily (notable for promoting dubious claims about the president’s birthplace). It was written by Joe Miller, the Tea Party favorite who defeated Sen. Lisa Murkowski (daughter of former Sen. Frank Murkowski) in the 2010 Republican Senate primary, only to see Lisa Murkowski go on to win the general election handily as a write-in candidate.

“Obama’s State Department is giving away seven strategic, resource-laden Alaskan islands to the Russians,” Miller wrote. “We won the Cold War and should start acting like it.” The following day, Miller posted an addendum to his piece conceding that he was raising “an old issue” and that he had been “assisted with this article” by Olson’s State Department Watch.

It is an old issue indeed. In fact, World Net Daily itself published a July 29, 2008, article critical of the State Department for the “island giveaway.” Of course, George W. Bush — not Obama — was president at the time. (The Bush administration’s official Arctic Region Policy stated that the U.S. would abide by the 1990 maritime agreement and would continue to urge the Russian Federation to ratify it.)

And we’re not sure why Miller mentions only seven islands when Olson always has insisted the U.S. has a claim to eight. But whatever the count, it is simply false to claim that Obama is “giving away” islands to which no U.S. president has asserted a claim for more than 85 years, if ever.

This article originally appeared at FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. It has been reprinted here with permission.