The U.S. State Department is standing by the accuracy of its annual global report on human trafficking, following a news report that accused senior diplomats of manipulating the rankings of more than a dozen strategically important countries.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Tuesday said the report was "objective" and "credible."
"The goal here is to help nations improve their efforts to stop human trafficking and to fight modern slavery," Toner said. "And that's the goal, pure and simple, and we stand by the process by which we arrive at those conclusions.
"These are important rankings. We understand that, you know, the world looks to them quite closely, and as such, you know, we need to ensure that the process stands on its own merits."
The report, released last week, ranked 188 countries on how they combat human trafficking, and listed 23 as Tier 3 for failing to meet minimum standards to fight human trafficking, including Iran, Syria, Russia and North Korea.
But an analysis by the Reuters news agency said the State Department office set up to independently grade global efforts to fight human trafficking was often overruled by top diplomats and was pressured to inflate assessments of 14 countries in the report. Sources told Reuters that Malaysia, Cuba, China, India, Uzbekistan and Mexico were among the countries that received higher rankings.
Last month, the United States renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba after five decades of hostilities. U.S. officials have included Malaysia in a prospective Pacific Rim trade deal. In this year's report, both countries were moved from the blacklist to the watch list to see whether they improve their human rights record.
Some U.S. politicians sharply criticized the Obama administration in response to the Reuters report.
In a Twitter post, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey called the account "alarming and unacceptable if true," and said "we must get to the bottom of this" at a Senate hearing later this week to review the report.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican presidential candidate, said the report set a "dangerous precedent."
"It's shameful that President Obama allowed a bunch of political hacks to alter the administration's human trafficking report to the benefit of perennial violators like Cuba and Malaysia," Rubio said.
Another Republican presidential hopeful, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, tweeted that Obama and the State Department "should be ashamed of their purely political manipulation of Cuba's human trafficking issues."
Menendez and Rubio sit on the Foreign Relations Committee, which on Thursday will question Under Secretary of State Sarah Sewall, who oversees the State Department office that grades efforts by countries to fight human trafficking.
“It’s a little curious that after 12 years on Tier 3, Cuba is upgraded shortly after the opening of diplomatic relations," Siddharth Kara of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government told VOA via Skype last week. "And Malaysia, which was on Tier 3 last year, upgraded one notch higher, around the same time the president’s pursuing a fairly ambitious trans-Pacific trade program.”