Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) blasted members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday, which voted overwhelmingly to arm elements of the Syrian opposition in a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). "This is an important moment," Paul said, addressing his Senate colleagues. "You will be funding, today, the allies of al Qaeda. It's an irony you cannot overcome."
The legislation, which would authorize the shipment of arms and military training to rebels "that have gone through a thorough vetting process," passed in a bipartisan 15-3 vote. Paul offered an amendment that would strike the bill's weapons provision, but it was rejected along with another Paul amendment ruling out the authorization of the use of military force in Syria. (Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy was the only senator to join Paul in support of the weapons amendment.)
Paul's two amendments constituted his first legislative act to soften the Menendez-Corker bill, which earned the support of powerful lawmakers from Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) to Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to Marco Rubio (R-FL) -- all of whom rejected Paul's allegations. "I don't think any member of this committee would vote for anything we thought was going to arm al Qaeda," said Rubio. "Al Qaeda, unfortunately, is well-armed," added Menendez. "That is the present reality in Syria."
The dispute centers on the issue of whether the United States could properly vet Syrian rebels so that weapons and body armor would not fall into the hands of extremist groups, such as the al Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra Front. The Pentagon's top brass has vacillated about whether it's logistically possible to keep track of weapons as they enter a conflict involving a complex mix of opposition groups, as the new bill would require.
Corker added that not arming rebel groups such as the more moderate Free Syrian Army would ensure the dominance of the better-equipped al-Nusra Front. Paul responded, saying, "It's impossible to know who our friends are ... I know everyone here wants to do the right thing, but I think it's a rush to war."
To get a sense of how adamant the committee is to authorize more aggressive intervention in Syria, an amendment offered by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) to limit the types of weapons delivered to rebels was forcefully rejected as well. "The senator from New Mexico wants to use shotguns against SCUD missiles," McCain said dismissively.
The bill now includes an amendment by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), that would "require the administration to impose sanctions on entities that provide surface-to-surface or surface-to-air missiles, like the SA20s or S300s, to the Assad regime," according to a press release -- a clear reference to Russia, which has vowed in recent weeks to proceed with sales of advanced missiles that would extend the range and sophistication of the Syrian regime's anti-aircraft systems.
The Menendez-Corker bill next moves to the Senate floor, but an aide to Menendez said it was uncertain when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, will take up the legislation.
Observers say the bill's chances of passing in its current form are slim, but it does increase the pressure on the administration to intervene more aggressively. As Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted earlier this month, "If you want to pressure the president into acting, it's a pretty good bill ...The last time the Hill moved on Syria was sanctions on Syrian oil in the summer of 2011. That pressured the president to move, and this could too."
You could almost hear the geopolitical tectonic plates shifting as the 200-odd guests clinked their glasses of Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc and Meiomi Pinot Noir in honor of Thein Sein, the reformist president of Burma and the toast of Washington this week.
Sein -- the first Burmese leader to visit the U.S. capital in 47 years -- was speaking at a swank U.S. Chamber of Commerce gala dinner put on in cooperation with the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council and sponsored by a raft of American companies, including GE, Ford, P&G, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, MasterCard, ExxonMobil, and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
U.S. officials Robert Hormats, the undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, and Derek Mitchell, the U.S. ambassador to Burma, credited Sein with shepherding what Hormats called "remarkable progress over the course of a couple years" in bringing one of the world's most isolated countries into the international system.
"They are tremendous partners," Mitchell said of the Burmese government.
Mitchell -- who like Hormats referred to the country by its official name, Myanmar-- noted that Sein had used his free time in Washington to visit Mt. Vernon, implicitly comparing the Burmese leader to George Washington and subtly prodding him to follow the American founding father's example by solidifying the principle of civilian control of the military.
The State Department is working assiduously to promote U.S. investment in what is currently one of the hottest growth stories in the world -- a gold rush to which Mitchell aluded, joking to the crowd, "I feel like I've hosted every single one of you over the past several months."
A GE official, James Suciu, announced at the dinner that GE is opening two offices in the next two weeks: One in Yangon and one in Nay Pyi Taw, the capital. The company expects to be doing as much as half a billion dollars in annual revenue in Burma in the next few years.
Several oil companies, including event co-sponsor Chevron, have been battling with human rights groups over a forthcoming State Department rule governing investment in Burma, a resource-rich country that was once one of the most heavily sanctioned in the world.
Sein himself said little of interest, hitting all the right buzzwords: accountability, transparency, market economy, "arbitration systems in line with international standards," and so on -- though he did surprise his audience by speaking in reasonably fluid, albeit heavily accented English.
"We want to lay the foundation for a robust middle class," he said. "We would like to invite U.S. businesses to come and invest in Myanmar."
Sein met earlier in the day with U.S. President Barack Obama, who told him, "we want you to know that the United States will make every effort to assist you on what I know is a long, and sometimes difficult, but ultimately correct path to follow."
The Democratic Party's chief watchdog on Republican statements about Jews and Israel was appointed as the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism on Monday:
Secretary of State John Kerry announced Monday that Ira Forman will serve as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Ira Forman, a graduate of both Harvard and Stanford Universities, previously served as Director of Congressional Relations for the Office of Personnel Management during the Clinton administration. He led the National Jewish Democratic Council for fifteen years.
The position, designed to strengthen ties between Jews and practitioners of other faiths and creeds regardless of party affiliation, spent much of his career at the National Jewish Democratic Council lambasting Republicans for everything from unfortunate gaffes to egregiously taboo remarks.
A not-atypical headline for one of Forman's writings as a Huffington Post blogger may include "Republicans Spout Typical Drivel to Demonize Obama as Anti-Israel" or "The Shamelessness of the Republican Jewish Coalition" or "Are Jewish Republicans Serious?"
After Mitt Romney announced his decision to hold his presidential announcement at the Ford Museum on February 13, Forman told the Associated Press he was "deeply troubled."
"Romney has been traveling the country talking about inclusiveness and understanding of people from all walks of life," Forman said. "Yet he chooses to kick (off) his presidential campaign on the former estate of a well-known and outspoken anti-Semite and xenophobe." (Forman was referring to automaker Henry Ford, who was indeed a raging anti-Semite and was the only American mentioned in Hitler's Mein Kampf.)
One imagines Forman's new post will take a less partisan overtone. The release notes that Secretary Kerry made the announcement in conjunction with the new 2012 International Religious Freedom Report. You can read the full item here. The State Department did not immediately respond to a question for comment.
On Monday morning, the White House released a vague agenda for this afternoon's historic bilateral meeting between President Barack Obama and Thein Sein, the first president of Burma, also known as Myanmar, to visit Washington in almost 50 years. While its release ticks off the major issues -- including democratic reform, "ethnic tensions," and economic development -- sources tell The Cable that a contract to operate Burma's Yangon airport will likely be brought up.
The contract, which involves the renovation and operation of the former Burmese capital's airport, is worth $1 billion over 30 years and has attracted bids from some of the most powerful corporations in the world. More importantly, from a geostrategic standpoint, it also pits a U.S. consortium including giants Boeing and McKinsey against a joint venture involving the massive Chinese-owned company China Harbour Engineering and Pioneer Aerodrome Service, a firm connected to Burma's former military regime.
As with most things in the historically secretive Burmese system, the decision-making process is opaque, but Burma watchers are observing the airport project closely as a sign of which way the political winds are blowing.
In preparation for Monday's meeting, a source familiar with the bid tells The Cable that last week officials with the Department of Commerce and National Security Council prepared to brief senior White House officials on the bid by the American consortium, the New York-based ACO Investment Group. Another source with ties to the administration said that senior State Department officials also raised the issue with the White House. "It's very much on the White House radar ... it's likely to come up," said the source.
The surge in economic interest in Burma comes as Sein opens up the country to foreign investment in an effort to modernize its infrastructure and develop its financial sector ahead of the 2015 elections. Last July, the United States lifted a raft of economic sanctions against Burma after Sein kickstarted a gradual reform process, which resulted in the election of human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament after years under house arrest.
Still, Obama is expected to walk a "fine line," as Reuters put it, between fostering ties with the quasi-military government and defending human rights. (Sein earned a bit of good will on Friday after pardoning 20 political prisoners. However, human rights groups were quick to allege that 160 political activists remain in imprisoned and others note that sectarian violence in the western state of Rakhine has worsened since the United States.dropped sanctions last year.)
ACO is bullish on Burma, planning to invest $700 million in the country, including $200 million in the Yangon International Airport should it win the contract. "Many Western institutional investors and companies are taking a wait-and-see approach as Myanmar comes out of reform," Hari Achuthan, managing director at ACO, told The Cable. "Someone like ACO however, will only help attract more foreign investment into the country. The U.S. government advocating for ACO on its projects would provide a lot of confidence both for investors and the Government of Myanmar."
National Security Council Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden declined to comment on specific investments to be discussed with President Sein, but told The Cable, "We expect the President to have a constructive and substantive discussion with President Thein Sein about the status of his reform efforts and the challenges the Burmese government is facing in the ongoing transition." A White House release adds that Obama looks forward to discussing how to "bring economic opportunity to the people of [Myanmar], and to exploring how the United States can help." The State Department declined to comment on any specific investments, but an official speaking on background with The Cable said, "In general, we encourage U.S. business to invest in Burma and to do so responsibly. Responsible investment is essential to the success of the reform process in Burma, bringing prosperity to the people of Burma and creating job opportunities for Americans."
The consortium was co-founded by Achuthan and former United Airlines president Ronojoy Dutta. It includes the Asia Group, a Washington and Singapore-based investment and consulting firm founded by Kurt Campbell, the recently departed assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Campbell was the architect of a range of policy initiatives in Obama's first term, most notably, the opening up of Burma and Washington's subsequent rapprochement with the country. When asked if his revolving-door involvement in Myanmar created a conflict of interest, Asia Group COO Nirav Patel told The Cable that Campbell's activities in the country have been "extremely consistent" over the years. "This is intrinsically about supporting reform," he said. "You can't get to supporting reform without people taking [investment] risks. That's something we're very passionate about."
The U.S. government, meanwhile, may have multiple reasons for supporting the consortium. For one, it's rarely shy about promoting American businesses in its goal of increasing U.S. exports and trade. For another, the U.S. Treasury makes no bones about how it feels about one of ACO's leading competitors on the bid: Asia World, Myanmar's biggest and most diversified conglomerate. Both of its founders, Steven Law and his father Lo Hsing Han, are still on the U.S. sanctions list. Treasury even has its own flow chart of the two founders' involvement in "illicit activities," which include the Burmese junta and drug trafficking stretching back to the ‘70s. Law has repeatedly denied U.S. claims of his and his father's involvement in the region's drug trade.
It remains to be seen which consortium Burma will ultimately choose. Airport operators in Japan, Singapore and South Korea are also competing in the final stage of bidding, and the Burmese government is expected to announce the winner by June 25.
House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) is done asking nicely, and on Friday, issued a subpoena for retired Amb. Thomas Pickering, co-chair of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) on Benghazi, to appear for a deposition on last year's attack.
"While I am very much committed to having you testify publicly and appreciate your newfound willingness to do so, I was disappointed that you are attempting to limit the Committee's understanding of the Accountability Review Board by refusing to participate in a voluntary transcribed interview prior to testifying publicly," Issa wrote in a letter to Pickering. "In light of your continuing refusal to appear voluntarily for a transcribed interview, however, I have found it necessary to issue a subpoena to compel your appearance at a deposition."
All week, Issa's office had been publishing open letters to Pickering requesting his participation in a private, transcribed interview, and all week Pickering declined, saying he was willing to testify publicly about his review of the State Department's response to the attack, but insisting that a private deposition was inappropriate.
"Depositions are usually reserved for fact witnesses and people under investigation," he told The Cable. "We are not fact witnesses to Benghazi and we are not under investigation."
Shortly after Issa's announcement, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MA), ranking member of the Oversight Committee, issued a press release condemning the subpoena as emblematic of "extreme Republican overreach."
"Today's subpoena is a stark example of extreme Republican overreach and the shameful politicization of this tragedy," Cummings said. "Both Admiral Mullen and Ambassador Pickering have made clear that they stand ready and willing to testify at a public hearing to respond directly to these reckless accusations, but Chairman Issa is now imposing new conditions to keep them behind closed doors. The Chairman should reverse his decision, conduct a responsible and bipartisan investigation, and allow the American people to hear directly from these officials."
Issa insists a private deposition is a necessary precursor to a public hearing.
"A fully informed hearing, in which the Committee begins with a factual understanding of how the Board reached its conclusions, is critical to engaging in a public discussion with you about criticisms career State Department officials levied at the ARB's efforts and recommendations," Issa wrote.
As The Cable noted last week, the dispute can best be described as a battle over the American public's perception of what happened in Benghazi. Issa knows that a transcribed interview with Pickering will better allow him to control the narrative of the next Benghazi hearing, and certainly, it helps for running a hearing more efficiently. Pickering thinks Issa is running a "political circus," and as he told The Cable on Wednesday, "now that the circus has been launched, we want to make our case in front of the public," not in a private setting.
Interestingly, Admiral Mullen, the other co-chair of the ARB, has been given a pass. When The Cable asked Issa's office if he too had been served a subpoena, Issa spokeswoman Becca Watkins said "he was not."
The subpoena requires Pickering to show up for a deposition on Thursday, May 23, at 10 a.m. Pickering did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
With President Barack Obama's appointment of Danny Russel to assistant secretary of state for East Asia, the president has returned one of his key national security advisors to the State Department to tackle some of his administration's thorniest issues in a region boiling over with nationalist rhetoric and military posturing.
If confirmed, Russel, a career member of the Foreign Service and currently the senior director for Asian affairs in the White House National Security Staff, will fill the big shoes of Kurt Campbell, architect of a slew of first-term administration policy initiatives including efforts to open up Myanmar. The position, which is the top diplomatic post in East Asia, has been vacant since February when Campbell stepped down.
"It's almost June. It's time to get the team in place and start cracking," Tommy Vietor, former National Security Council spokesman, told The Cable. "I think the signal here is that Asia continues to be a top priority for the president and he wants one of his top emissaries out in the field implementing his policy."
After four years away at the White House, Russel's return to Foggy Bottom is the subject of a flurry of chatter at the department. An insider tells Chris Nelson, who runs an exclusive newsletter focused on Asian affairs, that Russel will have to regain the trust of colleagues in the building given his long absence. "He's run into the age-old problem of any career person being on ‘detatched' duty, and in this case over 4 years at the White House, before returning to the Mother Ship," the source told Nelson. "So he's really got to work to reach out to former colleagues and re-build personal connections."
Vietor, however, says that White House experience is exactly what will make Russel such an effective diplomat. "Foreign leaders will know Danny's spent as much time with Obama as anyone and that's really important," he said. "He's also worked directly with Tom Donilon, Tony Blinken, Denis McDonough, Joe Biden -- all the top people in the White House."
Some critics have suggested that in Russel, the administration has selected a Japan guy at a time when Obama's "pivot to Asia" necessitates a deeper knowledge of China. (Before joining the White House, Russel was director of the Office of Japanese Affairs at State.) But Vietor dismissed the criticism as nonsense. "Danny knows every issue the White House has dealt with for the last four years," he said. "He's been involved in every important debate about China and North Korea and can really answer authoritatively about any question he's asked."
Obama sent Russel's nomination to the Senate on Thursday.
Attorney General Eric Holder baffled lawmakers on Wednesday when he told the House Judiciary Committee he had no idea when he had recused himself from the Justice Department's investigation into classified leaks to the Associated Press.
Didn't he put that decision in writing? Isn't there a memo somewhere with a date and his signature memorializing the transference of power to the deputy attorney general?
The answer to both questions was "no," a response that sent political observers racing to find out if such an oversight violated the law. Turns out, it doesn't -- but it's no way to run the Justice Department, according to former DOJ officials speaking with The Cable.
"There does not appear to be any statutory requirement that the recusal be in writing," Andrew McBride, a partner at Wiley Rein who served 10 years at DOJ, including seven as assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia. "However, it is highly unusual for a recusal not to be in writing, to set out the subject matter of the recusal and therefore the scope of the authority of the DAG to act in the capacity of acting attorney general."
"I worked for two attorneys general, Dick Thornburg and William P. Barr," McBride continued, "and I can attest that this was the standard practice of both those attorneys general."
Dan Metcalfe, the founding director of the DOJ's Office of Information and Privacy, now a professor at American University, agreed that written recusals are standard operating procedure. "Holder, as a matter of practice, should make a recusal in writing," he said.
The issue of legality was raised by bloggers who pointed to a statute requiring the attorney general to put a recusal in "writing," when appointing an independent counsel. But both lawyers speaking with The Cable said the AP leak investigation does not qualify as independent counsel and therefore the statute is irrelevant.
But the practical reasons that attorneys general should put recusals in writing are manifold. For one, as the AP case indicates, when an attorney general recuses him or herself, the deputy attorney general inherits vast powers, such as the authority to approve the secret seizure of numerous phone records from the one of the largest news organizations in the world. That kind of power transfer ought to be documented. For another, the absence of a paper trail could tempt attorneys general to claim prior recusal "whenever a case gets too hot," noted McBride. In that scenario, the attorney general says he recused himself when he never actually did, thus avoiding whatever scandal is headed his way. It's an unlikely circumstance since it requires a fall guy in the form of the deputy attorney general who would under most circumstances refute the attorney general's claim -- but stranger things have happened in government.
In any event, although Holder said he had no idea when the recusal happened and had no documentation, Metcalfe said a date is probably available on the deputy attorney general's document authorizing the subpoena. "If you're deputy attorney general, and providing the authorization, you're going to recite the fact that the attorney general has recused himself. The authorization, in effect, becomes a memorialization of the recusal."
Insiders with ties to the Obama administration tell The Cable that U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice has become the heir apparent to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon -- a post at the epicenter of foreign-policy decision making and arguably more influential than secretary of state, a job for which she withdrew her candidacy last fall amid severe political pressure.
"It's definitely happening," a source who recently spoke with Rice told The Cable. "She is sure she is coming and so too her husband and closest friends."
"Susan is a very likely candidate to replace him whenever he would choose to leave," agreed Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to President Obama and counselor at the Washington Institute. "She is close to the president, has the credentials, and has a breadth of experience."
Both sources said the timing of succession was uncertain. "I don't believe Tom Donilon is about to leave but would be surprised if he were to remain for the whole second term," Ross said. "But in answer to your question, [Rice's appointment] is very logical."
Rice's candidacy for secretary of state imploded in November after she recited talking points about the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi on five Sunday talk shows that turned out to be erroneous.
The question now is whether Benghazi's return to the spotlight will affect her potential appointment at a time when the White House is reeling from revelations about the IRS's scrutiny of conservative groups and the Justice Department's subpoena of the calling records of AP journalists.
For now, prominent Republicans don't seem inclined to make a fuss.
In November, Arizona Sen. John McCain pledged to "do everything in my power to block her from becoming secretary of state"; South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said, "I don't think she deserves to be promoted"; and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker said she'd make a better DNC chair: "I think most of us want someone who is more independent minded."
But now -- even as Benghazi fever reaches a crescendo following last week's dramatic "whistleblower" hearing and Wednesday's release of 100 pages of Benghazi emails -- the GOP's desire to check her rise has seemingly evaporated, and Republicans have few tools to prevent her appointment, which would not require Senate confirmation.
When asked if he was concerned about a future National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Corker, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Cable he was sitting this one out.
"In the case of national security advisor," he said, "whomever serves in that position serves at the pleasure of the president. So it's totally his prerogative." When The Cable asked Graham and McCain the same question, their spokesmen declined to comment.
In some ways, the deflated interest in Rice is only natural. Though the testimony of State Department witnesses last week served to highlight the inaccuracy of Rice's talk-show appearances, new details of the editing process of her talking points show her nowhere near the drafting process -- just as the administration has long maintained.
Meanwhile, a more tantalizing GOP target has emerged in the form of Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming favorite to assume the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Democrats, Republicans and witnesses fixated on Clinton 32 times during discussions in last week's hearing.
Rice spokeswoman Erin Pelton declined to comment for this article. White House National Security Council Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said, "We don't have any personnel announcements to make at this time, and Mr. Donilon has no plans to depart at this point." She added that Donilon is "fully engaged in managing our national security agenda, from his recent trip to Moscow and major address on global energy, to planning for a trip to China in late May and more upcoming speaking events."
The administration hasn't shied away from heaping praise on Rice. Last week, at a gala for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Vice President Joe Biden told the audience that the U.N. ambassador has "the absolute, total, complete confidence of the president," and that when she speaks on issues of foreign policy, nobody doubts she's speaking for Obama.
Back in March, when colleague Colum Lynch first reported whispers of Rice's comeback, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, spoke glowingly of Rice's relationship with the president. "Susan always maintains close relations with the president and his national security team, and that continues to be the case," he said. "If anything, the way she handled the Benghazi situation -- and then the withdrawal -- only enhanced her relations here, because she did so with grace and good humor."
The president himself has gone out of his way to wink at an expanded role for Rice within his administration. "I have every confidence that Susan has limitless capability to serve our country now and in the years to come, and know that I will continue to rely on her as an advisor and friend," Obama said in a December statement.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.