Vice President Joe Biden's national security staff, a training ground for future senior White House talent, is undergoing big changes this week.
The Cable has learned Jeff Prescott will replace Julie Smith as Biden's deputy national security advisor.
Prescott, special advisor for Asian Affairs at Office of the Vice President, joined the Biden team in 2010 as a White House fellow. Before that, he was deputy director of Yale's China Law Center. An Asia hand through and through, Prescott accompanied Biden on his 2011 trip to Japan, Mongolia and China and advised him on his visits with then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping.
On Monday, some 100 to 150 of Smith's current and former colleagues including Principal Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, recently appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan bid Smith farewell beside a "giant cake," one source says could've fed 300 people.
In recent years, working on Biden's national security team has become a career trampoline for a number of staffers. Most recently, Blinken succeeded Denis McDonough in the White House after McDonough moved to White House chief of staff. When Smith moved to Biden's team, she replaced Brian McKeon who ultimately became chief of staff of the National Security Staff.
"Biden jokes that he doesn't like losing his best people," Smith told The Cable, "but it's one team, one fight, so he sees it as a good thing."
Before joining Biden's team in April 2012, Smith served as principal director for the Europe and NATO policy at the Pentagon beginning in 2009. She told The Cable she's taking the summer off to spend with her 3-year-old son who's taking swimming lessons.
"There's some truth to the ‘women can't have it all thing,'" she said, referring to Ann-Marie Slaughter's buzz-generating cover story in The Atlantic. "It's time to re-introduce myself to my son. My husband has left work everyday to make sure our son wasn't with the nanny 20 hours a day and he's stayed home every night. I'm forever grateful for that so now I've got to take the bedtime routine."
Lost in last week's news that the Obama administration would begin to provide direct military aid to the Syrian opposition was the fact that about half of the non-lethal aid promised months ago has still not arrived.
That's raised some question as to how long it will take any new military aid to reach the fractured country.
Administration officials acknowledge that only some of the aid promised the Syrian opposition this spring has arrived in the country. They cite Congressional notifications, the need to vet recipients on the other end, and the more mundane necessity to obtain and then ship the supplies they plan to send as the hold up.
Gear like vehicles, medical supplies, communications equipment and night vision goggles - all key to helping to give the Syrian military opposition the upper hand once again - are all part of the assistance plan.
The State Deparment is working with the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Syrian Military Coalition on the aid but that there isn't any specific timeline, a spokesman for State told FP. "The process can take from several weeks to several months," he said.
"We want to establish channels that any assistance we deploy is done so in a manner that reaches those in need and is done so in accordance with our assistance regulations."
Approximately $127 million of aid is in the process of being delivered. Another $123 million, announced by Secretary of State John Kerry April 20 in Istanbul, is still undergoing Congressional notification processes, the spokesman said. State has already coordinated the shipment of 202,000 Meals, Ready to Eat, 529 medical kits and three tons of medical supplies that all fall under a $10 million contribution Kerry also announced in April.
The State Department investigator who accused colleagues last week of using drugs, soliciting prostitutes, and having sex with minors says that Foggy Bottom is now engaged in an "intimidation" campaign to stop her.
Last week's leaks by Aurelia Fedenisn, a former State Department inspector general investigator, shined a light on alleged wrongdoing by U.S. officials around the globe. But her attorney Cary Schulman tells The Cable that Fedenisn has paid a steep price: "They had law enforcement officers camp out in front of her house, harass her children and attempt to incriminate herself."
Fedenisn's life changed dramatically last Monday after she handed over documents and statements to CBS News alleging that senior State Department officials "influenced, manipulated, or simply called off" several investigations into misconduct. The suppression of investigations was noted in an early draft of an Inspector General report, but softened in the final version.
Erich Hart, general counsel to the Inspector General, did not reply to a request for comment. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said last week that "we hold all employees to the highest standards. We take allegations of misconduct seriously and we investigate thoroughly." She also announced that the department would request additional review by outside law enforcement officers on OIG inspection processes.
After the CBS News made inquiries to the State Department about the charges, Schulman says investigators from the State Department's Inspector General promptly arrived at Fedenisn's door. "They talked to both kids and never identified themselves," he said. "First the older brother and then younger daughter, a minor, asking for their mom's place of work and cell phone number ... They camped out for four to five hours."
Today, the Obama administration will announce the appointment of D.C. lawyer Clifford Sloan as the State Department's new envoy tasked with closing the Guantanamo Bay prison facility. One small problem: with some 150 unprosecutable detainees there, shutting down Gitmo is going to be borderline impossible.
Sloan, a former assistant to the Solicitor General in the George H.W. Bush administration and associate White House counsel in the Clinton administration has his work cut out for him. Efforts to close the facility have been stalled since January when the administration reassigned the previous special envy, Daniel Fried, without an immediate replacement.
In a statement on Sunday night, Secretary of State John Kerry said closing Gitmo "will not be easy, but if anyone can effectively navigate the space between agencies and branches of government, it's Cliff."
But Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch and a former colleague of Sloan's told The Cable that the real pressure is on President Barack Obama. "As good as Cliff is, he can only go so far,' said Roth. "He's going to need the president to match the nice words from his speech at the National Defense University to a genuine commitment to close the facility."
As it stands, there are 166 men left in the facility at a costs of $150 million annually to U.S. taxpayers. On Sunday, the Pentagon's chief prosecutor Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins scaled back the number of detainees "who can be realistically prosecuted" to around 20, meaning almost 150 will never be tried.
Last month, Obama denounced the facility as a propaganda tool for America's enemies and a hindrance to U.S. cooperation with allies on joint investigations at a counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University in Washington. "The original premise for opening Gitmo - that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention - was found unconstitutional five years ago," Obama said. "In the meantime, Gitmo has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law."
Administration critics from the left and right will be watching the administration's next moves closely.
Human rights activists want to see an end to both the facility, and its detainment policies. "One choice that shouldn't be an option is continuing a ‘Guantanamo North,'" said Roth, "a facility in the United States that supports detention without trial."
Meanwhile, the administration is wary of having a so-called "Willie Horton terrorist" moment on its hands, in which a prisoner upon release carries out a mass atrocity leaving the politician at least somewhat accountable.
When the White House first publicly announced in late April its belief that the Assad regime in Syria had used chemical weapons on its own people, it stressed that this was only a strong suspicion -- not a certainty. Yes, they had blood samples that indicated exposure to deadly sarin gas. But they couldn't say for sure who handled those samples in the two weeks it took to get the blood into Western hands. "The physiological examples are compelling but without being able to determine the chain of custody, that's the key to confirming the use," one unnamed U.S. official told the New York Times earlier this week.
That chain of custody still hasn't been nailed down, an American intelligence source tells The Cable. But U.S. spy agencies nonetheless now feel confident that chemical weapons were used in Syria. And that, in turn, prompted the White House to make its more sure-footed announcement Thursday that Assad had, conclusively, gassed his opponents in Syria's civil war.
After an alleged chemical attack on the city of Aleppo in March, the U.S. and United States came into possession of at least three physiological samples that tested positive for indicators of sarin gas. Now, Western intelligence services have at least twice that number of blood, urine, and hair samples coming from a variety of battle zones around the country.
"The big thing that changed is an increase in the number of incidents," the source says. "It's impossible that the opposition is faking the stuff in so many instances in so many locations."
When the samples were combined with information from signals intercepts, overhead surveillance, and human tipsters, the intelligence community felt it had a powerful case. And once the intelligence community made its conclusion, the White House was, in a way, compelled to act.
It wasn't just that President Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons to be a "red line" (although, of course, that was vitally important for all sorts of geopolitical and strategic reasons). An obscure 1991 law, 22 USC 5604, states that the president shall notify Congress within 60 days if the executive branch determines that a foreign government "has used lethal chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals."
Yet the White House's decision to announce the chemical weapons findings -- and the decision to provide "direct military support" to the rebels -- came rather quickly. "We had less than a week to prepare," the source says. "Nothing indicated a decision before this week."
And that quick move to announce may partially explain why the Obama administration's proclamation was so oddly short on specifics. There was that declaration of direct military support. But what shape that support would take, the administration wouldn't say, at least not on the record.
"Can't you even say small arms, RPGs, heavier weapons?" a reporter asked Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, during Friday's press briefing.
He answered: "We're just not going to be able to get into that level of detail about the type of assistance that we provide publicly here."
A State Department briefing with spokeswoman Jen Psaki added little clarity.
"So the United States has agreed to increase its support and aid to Syria, including direct military assistance," said a reporter. "Are you able to help us in any way explain exactly what is meant by that?"
"I cannot," Psaki said.
The CIA, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Pentagon directed all questions to the White House. ("Please feel free to report the CIA declined comment," one spokesman emailed.) The White House, in turn, refused to verify any order for small arms, ammunition, or any other kind of military support for the Syrian opposition.
One reason for the secrecy could be that the shipment of arms to rebels would fall under the CIA's classified purview. (Providing arms to rebel groups within another nation's sovereign borders presents legal issues in the absence of a United Nations Security Council resolution.) But another reason for the veiled statements and the lack of interagency coordination could be that the rollout of the chemical weapons announcement was done in haste.
Regardless, the U.S game plan in Syria has yet to be explained in full by U.S. officials on record. That reveals a conundrum of American security policy in 2013. Our wars are technically fought in secret. Yet they're announced to the world.
You'd think the Syrian rebels and their representatives would be uniformly overjoyed at the news that the U.S. is finally going to provide them with some small arms. Not exactly. In interviews with The Cable, spokesmen for the two groups lobbying for the anti-Assad forces in Washington struck noticeably different tones in reaction to the White House's pledge to ship weapons to the rebels. One faction is cheering for the American show of support. The other is grumbling that it's not enough.
The Syrian Support Group (SSG), the only organization licensed by the U.S. government to provide financial and non-lethal support to rebel fighters, and the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), which boasts extensive contacts with rebel commanders, spent months lobbying Congress, the State Department and the White House for everything from small arms to anti-tank and and anti-aircraft weapons to body armor to advanced communications equipment for the rebels. But with a key component of that lobbying effort achieved following a White House assessment that the Assad regime "used chemical weapons" against the rebels, representatives of the groups are of two minds.
One of the major arguments against arming the Syrian opposition has been that the rebels are far from a coherent group. Some are pro-Western, others are al-Qaeda allies. The anti-government forces have at times been riven by in-fighting. Even their lobbyists in Washington can't seem to agree.
"This is very exciting," Dan Layman, director of media relations at SSG, said. "This is the result we've been working towards since the first major chemical attacks back in March. With this new guarantee of direct military support [Free Syrian Army commander Gen. Salim] Idris will enjoy new leverage that the opposition can take to the table at Geneva. I think this will make their attendance more likely and far more meaningful."
But Elizabeth O'Bagy, political director at SETF, doubted whether the administration's new pledge amounted to a significant policy change. "It's not enough," she told The Cable. "Small arms and ammunition really only get you so far against airplanes. And I wonder how much of this is simply an announcement of what they've already been doing on the ground," referring to pre-existing administration efforts to encourage Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to ship weapons into the country with assistance from the U.S.
"We're happy the administration has recognized the regime's chemical weapons use, but it's embarrassing that we didn't recognize it earlier," she continued. She emphasized SETF's advocacy of safe zones, a type of scaled back no-fly zone that would offer the rebels protection from Assad's air superiority.
Layman, meanwhile relayed a discussion SSG had with Idris "in the past two days," requesting weapons similar to M60 recoilless rifles, Metis and Konkurs antitank systems and SA-18 antiaircraft systems from Croatia. While eager to lobby Washington for all of Idris's demands, he was optimistic that the delivery of small arms would satisfy Idris's precondition of more weaponry before heading into the U.S.-Russia sponsored peace talks in Geneva that have proved difficult to get off the ground. "We of course still favor a political solution that includes Assad leaving power and authority being transitioned to an opposition civilian government," Layman said.
While both groups have similarly maximalist ambitions for arming the Free Syrian Army with any number of advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, their leadership have been known to clash: Specifically, SSG founder Louay Sakka and SETF executive director Mouaz Moustafa.
"It's a personal feud," said a source familiar with the rivalry, who compared it to fractions within the Syrian opposition movement in general. "This is exactly why the National Coalition can't get together because you have all these personal rivalries and feuds between the different members. It becomes difficult to coordinate."
Update: Mouaz Moustafa responds in an e-mail to The Cable:
I as executive director of the Task Force want to say that I welcome the decision of the administration for providing greater military aid to the FSA and i call on the administration to take steps for a no fly zone. But other than that I want you to know that I have always had only the best to say about Louay Sakka and I have no personal feud whatsoever with him.
President Obama's "red line" has been crossed, it appears. The White House declared on Thursday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in small doses against rebel forces -- and that America would begin to provide military aid to the opposition in response. The decision saddles the CIA with providing arms to vetted rebel fighters in the country.
"Our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said in a statement, noting that between 100-150 have been killed by chemical attacks in Syria. "The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has."
He added in a conference call with reporters, "The president has made a decision about providing more support to the opposition that will involve providing direct support to the Supreme Military Council. That includes military support."
In recent months, the administration had been reluctant to declare the Assad regime used chemical weapons, and repeatedly redrew Obama's red line to make sure Assad didn't step over it. As far back as April, the U.S. intelligence community uncovered blood samples taken from multiple people that tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.
Whether the decision will vastly alter views on intervention in Congress is yet to be seen, but shortly after the announcement, Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who had previously opposed the shipment of U.S. arms to Syria, changed his mind.
"It is now clear that the Assad regime has crossed a red line," he said in a statement. "I support the President's decision to expand assistance for the vetted Syrian opposition, and I encourage the Administration to begin, in earnest, arming the Free Syrian Army."
Members of Congress advocating for more aggressive U.S. intervention in Syria immediately jumped on the news. "In using chemical weapons, #Assad committed a war crime against his own people," tweeted Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). "What more does the civilized world need?"
In a statement, House Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI), gave the president a backhanded compliment. "I am pleased that President Obama's Administration has joined the growing international chorus declaring that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons," reads the statement. "The United States should assist the Turks and our Arab League partners to create safe zones in Syria from which the U.S. and our allies can train, arm, and equip vetted opposition forces."
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, encouraged the president to openly lay out his position. "I want to urge the president to exercise leadership by ... publicly make the case to the American people for arming moderate forces," Corker said. "Such an effort would embrace the approach passed overwhelmingly by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and would acknowledge the enormous risks for the U.S. and region from the worsening conflict, which could lead to an extremist takeover."
In one of the more hawkish statements to emerge on Thursday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), voiced his support for a U.S. enforced no-fly zone over Syira. "I think its time we act in a very serious way, if a no-fly zone is what they've decided to do, I'm sure our military has taken the right preparations for carrying out a successful operation and I'll support that," said Chambliss when asked about reports the Pentagon is proposing a no-fly zone in Syria.
Both the CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence directed inquiries to the White House.
So the question becomes: what's next? Last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a bill to authorize the shipment of lethal weapons to the opposition by a vote of 15-3. While more hawkish lawmakers have advocated the establishment of a no fly zone, the Pentagon has demonstrated an institutional resistance to the plan, given the Assad regime's significant anti-aircraft defenses.
Meanwhile, public polling indicates an overwhelming opposition to intervene in the country. In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, just 15 percent in the poll said they favor U.S. military action, and only 11 percent supported the shipment of arms to rebels. At the same time, President Obama faced pressure from President Bill Clinton this week, who said Obama risks looking like a "wuss" and a "fool" by not more aggressively intervening in the country. And that was before the White House confirmed that Assad had gone chemical.
Additional reporting by John Reed.
With regime-backed Hezbollah fighters advancing on the rebel stronghold of Aleppo following a swift victory over anti-government forces in Qusair last week, Brigadier General Salmi Idris, leader of the rebels' Supreme Military Council, placed an urgent phone call with Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) on Wednesday. "His voice just gave a real sense of urgency and concern" said Casey. "He said what happened in Qusair could happen in Aleppo." Idris apparently got the memo that now is the time to lobby Washington hardest on intervening more aggressively in Syria.
The rebels' defeat to Hezbollah fighters last week cost them a stronghold near the Lebanese border, which they had spent a year fortifying with mines, booby traps, and tunnels. Now, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is preparing an offensive on rebel-held Aleppo, According to reports on the ground, thousands of Alawites enlisted in pro-regime militia groups are headed to Aleppo. The loss of the city would be devastating to the rebels from a strategic standpoint.
Meanwhile, in Washington, an internal memorandum circulating inside the Obama administration says "the intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition mutilple times in the last year," according to the New York Times. The paper reports that Obama "now believes the proof is definitive," meaning the regime violated his own "red line." This comes as senior administration officials have said the decision of whether to arm Syrian rebels has dominated senior-level meetings in the last few days, which Secretary of State John Kerry postponed his trip to Israel to attend. Adding to the grist of Washington's "do-something" caucus, the United Nations revised its official death toll in Syria to 93,000 up from 80,000 in mid-May.
In his conversation with Casey, Idris "made very clear to me, they are in need of not just greater support, but very specific support: anti-tank weaponry and some kind of anti-aircraft weaponry," according to Casey. Speaking to his concerns about losing the rebel-held stronghold of Aleppo, Casey said Idris believed "there are 5,000 Hezbollah fighters prepared to advance on Aleppo with the help of the regime's air superiority."
Casey, of course, has been at the forefront of advocating for more military aid in Syria, authorizing a bill back in March that shaped a weapons bill that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a 15-3 vote in May. Other Democrats have similarly pressured the White House to act on Syria such as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Eliot Engel (D-NY) on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Ironically, one of the lawmakers providing the most cover for the administration's cautious approach to Syria is Republican Senator Rand Paul, who has warned repeatedly that militarizing the conflict could put weapons in the hands of extremist groups, such as the al Qaeda aligned al-Nusrah Front.
During his phone call with Idris, Casey said "I emphasized that we can not be seen as helping al Nusrah or any other extremist groups and Idris made it clear to me that he agrees." The Pentagon, meanwhile, has vacillated about whether it's logistically possible to keep weapons out the hands of extremists in a conflict involving a complex mix of opposition groups. The rebels -- and Casey -- may want the weapons. Getting them is another matter.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.