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.
In the battle to shape the American public's perception of what happened in Benghazi, logistics is everything. On Wednesday, the two emerging rivals in this struggle, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and retired Amb. Thomas Pickering, co-chair of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) for the incident, clashed over the appropriate venue to discuss the U.S. government's response to last September's terrorist attack.
On Sunday, Issa announced his invitation to hear Pickering's sworn testimony in a private "deposition" to be followed by a public hearing. On Tuesday, Pickering sent a letter to Issa that essentially said thanks but no thanks -- I'd prefer a public hearing only.
In an interview with The Cable Wednesday morning, Pickering said he opposed a private deposition for two reasons not mentioned in his Tuesday letter. First, he made no bones about his view that Issa is turning the Benghazi tragedy into a "political circus." And, "now that the circus has been launched, we want to make our case in front of the public," Pickering said, referring to himself and retired Admiral Mike Mullen, the other ARB co-chair.
Second, Pickering found the entire idea of a deposition to be inappropriate given his role in reviewing the investigation. "Depositions are usually reserved for fact witnesses and people under investigation," he said. "We are not fact witnesses to Benghazi and we are not under investigation, at least not yet," he said, laughing, in a nod to Issa's aggressive appetite for Oversight Committee probes. Additionally, depositions are held "in a dark room with investigative personnel and no opportunity to have your voice heard," he said, "while everyone else already got their voice heard."
But Issa spokesman Frederick Hill tells The Cable the ambassador has nothing to worry about. "The committee's request to Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen is for them to voluntarily appear for transcribed interviews prior to a public hearing just as former Deputy Chief of Mission Gregory Hicks did," Hill said. "The committee has requested an answer by 5 p.m. today." Because Pickering never expressly refused a deposition in his Tuesday letter, Issa sent another letter this morning repeating his request for a private, transcribed interview.
"I appreciate your willingness to testify publicly," writes Issa. "However, your response failed to indicate your willingness to appear for a transcribed interview."
Why is Issa so intent on a private meeting? "Your transcribed testimony will allow Members of the Committee to ask informed questions during a subsequent hearing," Issa writes. A transcribed interview would also help Issa arrange the subsequent public hearing as he sees fit, and take away some of the spontaneity involved in the back-and-forth questioning.
The battle over the hearing's format comes as Pickering and Mullen's ARB report takes increasing fire from Republicans for failing to focus on higher-ranking State Department personnel, including the secretary of state at the time, Hillary Clinton. During last Wednesday's hearing, Hicks, the No. 2 diplomat in Libya during the assault, said the ARB had "let people off the hook," and another witness said it failed to interview "people who I personally know were involved in key decisions."
On Meet the Press Sunday, David Gregory picked up this line of argument, asking Pickering, "Did you not pay sufficient attention to -- and time with the secretary of state?"
"I believe we did," responded Pickering. "We had a session with the secretary. It took place very near the end of the report. It took place when we had preliminary judgments about who made the decisions, where they were made, and by whom they were reviewed. We felt that that was more than sufficient for the preponderance of evidence that we had collected to make our decisions and you know that our decisions was two of those people should be separated from their jobs. Two others failed in their performance."
Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) introduced a bill Wednesday to arm the Syrian rebels, the latest piece of legislation aimed at pressuring the Obama administration to intervene more aggressively in the protracted civil war. The bill provides lethal weapons to vetted members of the Syrian opposition and beefs up sanctions on weapons sales and petroleum sales to President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
In short, it has all the hallmarks of the bill Menendez introduced last week, but with a bipartisan sheen. As Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, described the Menendez bill last week, "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." Its new bipartisan gloss could give it that much more power.
The legislation is set to be taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with a markup session scheduled for Tuesday, May 21. Here's the release:
Menendez, Corker Introduce Syria Transition Support Act
WASHINGTON, DC - U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-TN) today introduced the Syria Transition Support Act, bipartisan legislation that plans for a post-Assad Syria by offering humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, limited lethal and non-lethal weapons, and training to vetted Syrian groups.
"To change the tipping point in Syria against the Assad regime, we must support the opposition by providing lethal arms and help build a free Syria," Menendez said. "Vital national interests are at stake and we cannot watch from the sidelines as the Iranian presence in Syria grows, a growing refugee crisis threatens to destabilize the region, chemical weapons are used against the Syrian people, and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups take root there."
"The future for Syria is uncertain, but the U.S. has a vested interest in trying to prevent an extremist takeover, which poses a very real risk for us and the region. Without authorizing the use of force or additional spending, this legislation will begin to implement a more coherent U.S. strategy, both now and for the day after Assad, that is focused on trying to shift the momentum on the ground toward moderate opposition groups while also helping them build support within and outside Syria for a new government," said Corker. "This effort coupled with Russia's willingness to participate in talks for political transition will give us the best opportunity for a better outcome."
The Menendez-Corker legislation includes six key elements.
- Authority to provide arms, military training and non-lethal supplies to the Syrian armed opposition: Groups that have gone through a thorough vetting process which meet certain criteria on human-rights, terrorism, and non-proliferation would be eligible. A presidential waiver is included allowing for the distribution of anti-aircraft defensive systems with strict limitations.
- Creation of a $250 million transition fund each year through FY2015 drawn from funds otherwise appropriated for regional transition support: To assist the civilian opposition in early transition institution building and maintenance of existing institutions, such as preserving security institutions, preventing regional spillover, promoting government formation, supporting transition justice, and reconciliation efforts.
- Sanctions on arms and oil sales to Assad: Targeting any person that the President of the United States determines has knowingly participated in or facilitated a transaction related to the sale or transfer of military equipment, arms, petroleum, or petroleum products to the Assad regime.
- Broad authority for humanitarian assistance: To ensure the administration is not hampered in its efforts to provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. This section does not authorize any new or additional funding.
- Administration strategy: Requiring the administration to work with Congress and keep it fully apprised of strategy towards Syria, including working through the international community and Russia to find a political settlement.
- Amendment to the Syria Accountability Act: To allow for sanctions removal once a transitional government is in place and certain terrorism and WMD criteria have been met.
One of the curiosities of the Justice Department's extensive probe of the Associated Press's phone records is the role that CIA Director John Brennan played in the original leak incident.
On Monday, the AP announced that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of phone records on more than 20 lines assigned to its journalists -- a transgression its typically staid CEO called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion."
But setting aside the Justice Department's tactics, the rationale behind the original probe is a fascinating tale of espionage, network TV, and media relations, that remains contentious.
According to the news agency's best guess, the AP was targeted by the Justice Department in a leak investigation over a May 7, 2012 story it ran about a foiled terror plot in Yemen. The phone numbers of every reporter and editor on that story were obtained by the Justice Department.
The story was sensitive because it involved the successful penetration of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula by Western spies. (The spy in question inflitrated AQAP, retrieved its latest non-metalic underwear bomb and delivered it to U.S. authorities). But even more importanly, the sensitive operation was reportedly unfinished by the time AP reporters caught wind of it, and had to be cut short before completion.
As a result, the administration was furious about the leak and pinned the blame squarely on the AP. "The egregious leak here was to the Associated Press," read an official White House statement last May. "The White House fought to prevent this information from being reported and ultimately worked to delay its publication for operational security reasons. No one is more upset than us about this disclosure, and we support efforts to prevent leaks like this which harm our national security."
But here's the thing: The original AP story never mentioned anything about an undercover CIA agent or Western "control" over the operation. It merely stated that "it's not immediately clear what happened to the alleged bomber," leading others to suggest that someone else was responsible for detailing the most sensitive aspect of the story -- that the CIA had someone on the inside. Enter Reuters investigative reporter Mark Hosenball. Last summer, he tracked the evolution of the story minute-by-minute and implicated then-White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan -- a story that played a not-insignificant role in his confirmation hearing to lead the CIA. Here's Hosenball's masterful tick tock:
At about 5:45 p.m. EDT on Monday, May 7, just before the evening newscasts, John Brennan ... held a small, private teleconference to brief former counter-terrorism advisers who have become frequent commentators on TV news shows. According to five people familiar with the call, Brennan stressed that the plot was never a threat to the U.S. public or air safety because Washington had "inside control" over it.
Brennan's comment appears unintentionally to have helped lead to disclosure of the secret at the heart of a joint U.S.-British-Saudi undercover counter-terrorism operation. A few minutes after Brennan's teleconference, on ABC's World News Tonight, Richard Clarke, former chief of counter-terrorism in the Clinton White House and a participant on the Brennan call, said the underwear bomb plot "never came close because they had insider information, insider control."
A few hours later, Clarke, who is a regular consultant to the network, concluded on ABC's Nightline that there was a Western spy or double-agent in on the plot: "The U.S. government is saying it never came close because they had insider information, insider control, which implies that they had somebody on the inside who wasn't going to let it happen." The next day's headlines were filled with news of a U.S. spy planted inside Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who had acquired the latest, non-metallic model of the underwear bomb and handed it over to U.S. authorities.
Importantly, the White House denies Brennan had anything to do with the leak, a point it maintained throughout Brennan's confirmation hearing in January. "Everyone who works with John Brennan knows he is a straight shooter who would never harm national security," then-National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said. "At the White House, John has worked to prevent the publication of information that would harm our national security."
Which gets us to the crux of the issue: No one is saying that Brennan leaked the story to the AP. (The FBI questioned him about that ahead of his confirmation and he vigorously denied any role in the story.) The allegation is that his "inside control" comment gave enough information for reporters to advance the AP story and reveal the most sensitive aspect of it -- that the CIA had a man on the inside. Little did anyone know that the leak incident would ultimately prompt one of the most far-reaching Justice Department probes on a news organization in history.
With scrutiny building over the Justice Department's sweeping seizure of two months of phone records by Associated Press journalists, Attorney General Eric Holder is set to face a grilling from House lawmakers on Wednesday, a committee source tells The Cable.
The House Judiciary Committee had already scheduled an oversight hearing on Capitol Hill for 1 p.m., and according to the committee source "Attorney General Eric Holder will testify and the AP email issue will come up." If this morning's remarks by the committee's chairman, Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), are any indication, it should be a contentious hearing.
"Any abridgement of the First Amendment right to the freedom of the press is concerning," he said Tuesday in wake of the probe. "The House Judiciary Committee will thoroughly investigate this issue and will also ask Attorney General Eric Holder pointed questions about it at Wednesday's oversight hearing."
Thus far, the White House has denied involvement in the probe, and has referred reporters to the Justice Department, putting all eyes on Holder. Last night, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said "we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP.... Any questions about an ongoing criminal investigation should be directed to the Department of Justice." Lawmakers are likely to take Carney up on that suggestion.
In sum, the Justice Department secretly seized the records for more than 20 separate phone lines of the AP and its journalists, in a move the news agency's CEO called "massive and unprecedented." The Cable spoke with Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer who's worked on a number of high profile leak cases, who put the probe in similar terms. "This is one of the boldest moves ever taken by an administration in its war against leakers," said Zaid, noting that the length of time and number of reporters and editors ensnared rivaled any case in recent memory.
The probe is believed to be in response to a May 7, 2012 AP story in which a government employee allegedly leaked details of a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen involving a CIA double-agent to an AP journalist.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, has requested that former CIA director David Petraeus testify under oath in a new public hearing on Benghazi in a letter to Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA).
The request comes in response to Issa's recent remarks that Petraeus was pressured into toeing the administration line in the aftermath of last year's Benghazi attack. "David Petraeus said what the administration wanted him to say," Issa told NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday.
In the letter, Cummings challenges Issa to make those allegations to Petraeus's face. "These are some of the most serious charges you can make against our nation's top military and intelligence officials, and I believe the American people deserve to hear their responses in the same forum in which you made them -- a public hearing before our Committee," writes Cummings.
When asked if Issa would consider calling on Petraeus to attend a public hearing, Issa spokesman Frederick Hill left the possibility open, saying "We always welcome the minority to make suggestions." Petraeus's lawyer and Washington heavyweight Robert Barnett, who has handled media requests for the retired general in recent months, did not respond to a request for comment.
Interestingly, in this highly politicized investigation, it's not clear which partisan interest a Petraeus testimony would serve.
Many conservatives maintain that Petraeus was one of the few noble actors in the Benghazi mishap, a position that hardened yesterday after a report from ABC's Jonathan Karl, who quoted an e-mail by then-CIA Director Petraeus denouncing the edited State Department talking points as "essentially useless" at the time. "I would just as soon not use them, but it's their [the White House's] call," Petraeus said.
That's the Petraeus many conservatives have been begging to see testify. But it's not clear if that's the Petraeus conservatives would get.
For instance, this is how Rep. Peter King (R-NY) recalls a briefing with Petraeus days after the Sept. 11, 2012 attack. "The clear impression we were given [in September] was that the overwhelming amount of evidence was that it arose out of a spontaneous demonstration, and was not a terrorist attack," King told reporters in November.
Cummings, meanwhile, appears to be fed up with Issa's allegations that Petraeus, and other respected military and intelligence officials such as Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and former AFRICOM chief, Gen. Carter Ham, acted either negligently or willfully became White House puppets after the attack.
"Over the past week, you and other Members of the Committee have accused these officials of withholding critical military assistance that could have saved American lives in Benghazi, intentionally misleading the American people about the attacks, and engaging in a cover-up to conceal their wrongdoing," writes Cummings.
The message being: Either say it to their face, or don't say anything at all.
In recent days, Foreign Policy's tally of the number of Hillary Clinton references during Wednesday's Benghazi hearing has become grist for politicians and reporters to extrapolate wider political truths about the House Oversight Committee investigation. In total, we counted 32 discussions of the former secretary of state in almost five hours of testimony. To many, this meant one thing: Republicans used the hearing to tarnish Clinton's leadership credentials -- a calculated early strike ahead of her anticipated bid for the presidency in 2016.
Here's Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) on NBC's Meet the Press this morning:
My concern is when Hillary Clinton's name is mentioned 32 times in a hearing, then the point of the hearing is to discredit the secretary of state, who has very high popularity and may well be a candidate for president.
Here's Reuters' Patricia Zengerle on Thursday night:
Clinton is clearly a major focus of Republicans' attempts to get to the heart of what they believe is a national security scandal.
Foreign Policy magazine counted 32 separate discussions mentioning Clinton during Wednesday's hearing of the House Oversight Committee.
Here's Politico's Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman on Thursday afternoon:
Republicans now seem willing to cast the State Department response to the Sept. 11, 2012 attack in Libya as a referendum on Hillary Rodham Clinton's fitness to lead the country - and are abandoning a long-held hands-off-Hillary strategy rooted in her popularity with women of all races, ages and political stripes.
Clinton's name was invoked over and over during the hearing (a blogger for Foreign Policy counted 32 mentions) ...
Without a doubt, there's a strong incentive for Republicans to chip away at Clinton's record-high favorability ratings before the next presidential election and it would be naive to assume that many of the GOP questions were driven by altruistic intentions. But the number 32 is not evidence in and of itself of naked political opportunism.
For instance: Exactly half of the 32 references were made by Republican lawmakers. The other 16 originated from a combination of Democratic lawmakers and State Department witnesses.
While negative GOP remarks about Clinton outnumbered positive comments about her, the references to Clinton by Democrats -- some prompted by allegations made during the hearing, some not -- were universally favorable.
In this respect, a dispatch from the hearing by Roll Call Senior Editor David Drucker is instructive:
New York Democrat [Carolyn Maloney] opened her question time with a full throttled defense of Clinton, despite the fact that the former secretary of state's name had yet to arise in any meaningful way at that early point in the hearing. None of the witnesses had yet made comments that were particularly problematic for the possible 2016 presidential candidate. But Maloney's very deliberate remarks signaled that Democrats are sensitive to how the House GOP investigation into Benghazi might affect Clinton, regardless of its partisan overtones.
"I find it truly disturbing and very unfortunate that when Americans come under attack the first thing some did in this country was attack Americans, attack the military, attack the president, attack the State Department, attack the former senator from the great state of New York and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton," Maloney said, before going on to question the witnesses on the fact that the secretary of state's signature is included on all sorts of documents he or she never actually sees.
So let's not discount the reflexive Republican penchant to attack Clinton. But let's not give Democrats a pass on the reflexive penchant to defend her.
The newly-revealed Benghazi emails obtained by ABC News reflect a bureaucratic turf war between the CIA and the State Department, according to administration officials with access to the emails.
The controversy over the editing of the CIA's Benghazi talking points centers on emails in which State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made requests to remove references of the al Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar al-Sharia and delete references to CIA warnings about terrorist threats in Benghazi ahead of the Sept. 11 attack. In the extensive back-and-forth -- the talking points were edited 12 times -- Nuland noted that the information "could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either? Concerned."
Elaborating Friday on the exchange, an official speaking to The Cable says that the CIA's inclusion of "selectively noted Agency warnings" of terrorist threats in Benghazi ran the risk of igniting a media blame game that could serve to exonerate the CIA at the expense of the State Department.
"[Nuland] wanted to ensure interagency consistency of messaging," said the official. "[The CIA] selectively noted Agency warnings in a manner which might have led Congress to believe the State Department had ignored them. This appeared to encourage a blame game before the investigation was complete. She did not make changes to the points. Rather, she asked for higher level interagency review, which the White House agreed was necessary. She played no further role in the handling of these points."
Perhaps most controversial in the email trail posted by ABC is one in which Nuland says "my buildings leadership" is not satisfied with the talking points, though there is no evidence that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or her top aides were part of the email exchanges. Ben Rhodes, the top White House communications advisor on the National Security Council, was on the chain - and he effectively ended the long back and forth over the talking points by saying there needed to be a White House meeting on them the next day, which there was (and about which not much is yet known.)
Meantime, a blame game between the CIA and the State Department is in fact what did later emerge following revelations that the two agencies had a shared security arrangement in Benghazi. As a November Wall Street Journal report explained, the two agencies had a "symbiotic" relationship in which the State Department consulate served as cover for CIA staff, meanwhile, "The State Department believed it had a formal agreement with the CIA to provide backup security."
Update: A U.S. intelligence official familiar with the drafting of the talking points tells The Cable the CIA had no intention of making the State Department look bad, and was not engaged in a "turf battle."
"The changes don't reflect a turf battle," said the official. "They were attempts to find the appropriate level of detail for unclassified, preliminary talking points that could be used by members of Congress to address a fluid situation."
Interestingly, the official went on to defend Nuland's request that references to al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia be erased from the CIA's original talking points.
"Overall, the changes were made to address intelligence and legal issues," said the official. "First, the information about individuals linked to al-Qaeda was derived from classified sources. Second, when early links are tenuous, it makes sense to be cautious before pointing fingers to avoid setting off a chain of circular and self-reinforcing assumptions and reporting. Finally, it is important to take care not to prejudice a criminal investigation in its early stages."
You can read the full email trail here:
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.