The Obama administration and its allies are struggling to find a safe place to store Syria's chemical weapons after they've been shipped out of the country, raising new questions about when the U.S. military will actually begin destroying the deadly munitions.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has set an ambitious Dec. 31 deadline for Syria to hand over the deadliest of its chemical armaments, which are supposed to be packed into roughly 150 shipping containers, driven to the Syrian port city of Latakia, loaded onto Norwegian and Danish cargo ships and then transported to a location outside of Syria. Once there, they will be transferred to an American vessel called the Cape Ray for destruction. Senior American defense officials stressed Thursday that the Cape Ray itself won't dock at Latakia and that no U.S. personnel would set foot in Syria.
That, at least, is how the plan is supposed to work in theory. In practice, the effort faces an array of technical, diplomatic, security, and financial challenges. The disposal equipment being installed onto the Cape Ray has never been tested at sea, and it's not clear that it will be capable of operating continuously for months without breaking down. The U.S. and its allies will also need to find a way of ensuring that none of the weapons are stolen or damaged on their way to the Cape Ray or during the actual destruction work. To say it will be a challenge is the grossest of understatements.
"I know we have a deadline in three weeks but the operations have not yet started," said one diplomat familiar with the U.N.'s internal discussions. "It's never going to happen."
The Obama administration's more immediate task is to find an allied government willing to allow the ship from Latakia to land at one its ports and unload the weapons before they're transferred to the Cape Ray. It would take roughly two days to load the weapons onto the American vessel, which means they'd need to be stored at the port temporarily, posing a potential security risk to the host country. Not surprisingly, it's been hard to convince a government to let a weapons-laden cargo ship unload at one of its ports. That makes it highly unlikely that the U.S. and its allies will be able to meet the Dec. 31 deadline, set by the OPCW, to remove Syria's chemical arsenal.
Washington recently informed one ally that it was considering using a port servicing a U.S. naval base in Naples, Italy. Talks are also underway with Morocco and Spain to see whether the materials could be unloaded there. Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch head of a joint mission of experts from the United Nations and the OPCW overseeing the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons, said she wouldn't speculate about whether the armaments would be transferred to American custody in a Mediterranean port. Pentagon officials said negotiations with foreign governments were ongoing but declined to comment on which countries could ultimately take the weapons before they were transferred to the Cape Ray.
There's also considerable uncertainty about how the materials will get to Latakia in the first place. The U.S. and other Western powers responded coolly to a Syrian request for armored vehicles and other protective equipment Damascus claimed it needed to carry out a successful operation. In a November 15 letter to the Security Council, Kaag said that Syria would have to reach out to friendly countries for assistance in securing the route. Russia, one of Syria's closest diplomatic allies, is looking into the possibility of supplying up to 200 trucks to transport the materials. A spokesman for the OPCW, Christian Chartier, said Kaag was trying to act as a "go between" to encourage other states to help Syria with its security needs.
Renewed combat along the route to the port city poses another challenge. During a recent visit to Syria, Kaag told the U.N. Security Council in a closed-door briefing, she was not able to reach Latakia by the main road from Homs -- a key hub on the chemical weapons route -- because of fighting, forcing her to travel by helicopter from Beirut.
"It's a main artery, as you know. If we cannot travel there, it's a real issue," said Kaag, who is required to travel in the region with a Romanian close protection detail. Kaag insisted that the mission was "all very manageable," but conceded she could not certain it would go smoothly.
"I'm not aware that this operation has ever been carried out in this way," she said.
Sending the chemical weapons out of Syria marks the most dangerous, and the most expensive phase of a landmark Sept. 14 pact between U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calling for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons program by the middle of 2014. (Merely destroying the waste products could cost an estimated 35 to 40 million Euros; the full cost of transporting the armaments out of Syria and destroying them is likely to be exponentially higher).
The accord -- which averted a U.S. strike against Syria in retaliation for using sarin to kill hundreds of its own civilians in late August -- has proceeded smoothly. On October, 31, Syria effectively destroyed its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing and filling plants, the OPCW confirmed.
The U.N. has said the chemical weapons should be packed for transport by Dec. 13 and then moved out of Syria altogether by Dec. 31. A senior U.S. defense official called that timeline "ambitious," but expressed confidence that it could be met. The destruction efforts would begin aboard the Cape Ray in early January.
Senior defense officials said it would take 45-90 days to turn the weapons into non-harmful waste using two of the so-called "Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems" that are being installed in the Cape Ray's cargo holds. The equipment will operate inside of a sealed tent to prevent any of the chemical agents from being accidentally dispersed while they're being turned into waste. The resulting sludge, in turn, will be brought to a commercial destruction facility elsewhere in the world and then incinerated.
Beyond the difficulty in finding a port where the weapons can be unloaded, U.N.-based diplomats say the United States has also been unable to help secure sufficient funding to hire companies to dispose of the toxic waste products.
"The U.S. or Paris can say that we need to make the deadline but will they ensure they can make it possible?" another official asked, adding that governments "have to be realistic and feasible about the deadlines they impose."
As of Nov. 30, 35 companies had submitted expressions of interest in securing a contract to collect the waste product from the United States and transfer it to a facility for incineration. But OPCW officials noted that there isn't enough money in a trust fund established for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons to put out formal requests for bids from the firms.
"What I know is that what we have by now is just not enough; it's far away from being enough," said Chartier, the organization's spokesman. "We need to be certain of our financial commitments in order to start the tender process."
Congress has spent the past three years imposing tough sanctions on Iran that are designed to cripple its economy and force Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. In recent weeks, a parade of congressmen and senators have demanded that those sanctions stay in place, never mind the nuclear talks between Washington and Tehran. Lost in the noise is the fact that President Obama can -- and often does -- lift the measures with a stroke of the pen.
The current sanctions have sharply limited overseas investment in Iran's energy sector, locked foreign financial institutions that do oil-related business with Iran's central bank out of the U.S. banking system, and required banks around the globe to freeze more than $50 billion of Iranian money. In July, the House approved new sanctions by a whopping 400-20 vote designed to effectively make it impossible for Iran to sell any oil abroad; similar legislation will likely be introduced in the Senate before the end of the month.
The measures have devastated the Iranian economy and driven the value of its currency to historic lows. The question now is whether they'll remain in place. Congress can draft any sanctions it wants to, but the White House has tremendous leeway to decide how strictly they get enforced. The legislation that imposed tough sanctions on Iran's central bank gives Obama a "national security waiver" he can use to temporarily soften or lift the measures. The sanctions put in place to punish countries that buy Iranian oil allow the State Department to issue waivers to those that have significantly reduced their purchases. Key allies like Japan and the ten members of the European Union have been protected from the sanctions since the measures were put in place several years ago.
"The sanctions give the president maximum leeway," a senior administration official said. "That's how they were designed from the start."
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The U.S. government shutdown may finally be starting to wind down, if reports out of Capitol Hill and the White House are to be believed. But in the meantime, the cutoff of federal funds is hobbling American diplomatic efforts around the globe. A long-planned visit from a delegation of Chinese generals has been waived off. The State Department has been forced to postpone a scheduled review in Geneva of America's human rights record. High-level diplomatic, trade, and military meetings have all been shelved.
Last week, the shutdown prompted President Barack Obama to cancel plans to attend last weekend's summit of Asian leaders in Bali, Indonesia. The U.S. trade representative, meanwhile, announced that the United States would have to delay its participation in ongoing trade negotiations in Brussels; the office's tiny, $4 million annual travel budget is now effectively zero. Turns out those major, public admissions were only the start.
Some of China's most influential military thinkers and policymakers -- including several general officers -- were due to come to the United States next week for a series of long-arranged meetings at the U.S. Army War College, followed by private discussions at some of Washington's more prominent think tanks. Led by the respected Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu of the Chinese Academy of Military Science, the delegation's meetings were considered important at a time when Beijing and Washington are squaring off over issues from cybersecurity to the South China Sea.
But on Wednesday, the Army said it had to cancel the meetings because the funds to host the Chinese had dried up. "After the American democratic process provides the Army with funding to conduct international activities, we look forward to rescheduling this exchange at both sides' earliest possible convenience," the service noted in an email.
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A far-flung group of geeks, supported by the U.S. State Department, has built a tool for anonymous communication that's so secure that even the world's most sophisticated electronic spies haven't figured out how to crack it.
That's the takeaway from the latest revelations from National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. The NSA has used aggressive computer attack techniques to monitor people using the Tor network, a service that's funded by the U.S. government and allows users to remain anonymous when they're connected to the Internet. But the agency has not been able to undermine the core of the Tor system, which was developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in 2002. It remains a viable means for people to connect to the Internet anonymously. Although Tor's complete reliability has been called into question in light of the NSA's efforts -- which may have begun as early as 2006, according to the Washington Post -- for now it's State Department 1, NSA 0, in the anonymity wars.
Optimism about the possibility of improved U.S.-Iran relations, fueled by the election of the moderate Hasan Rouhani and a series of positive signals from both countries' governments, is running up against the hard realities of what it would take to get a nuclear deal done and provoking resistance from powerful constituencies on both sides. Despite a recent charm offensive by U.S. President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Iran has yet to offer any concrete concessions on uranium enrichment. The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, is equally ambivalent about providing sanctions relief to Iran, in part because of deep skepticism from Israel, which has sought to throw cold water on any possible deal.
In an early sign that the spark may be fading, a heavily hyped handshake between Obama and Rouhani did not materialize on Tuesday, when the Iranian delegation failed to show up for a luncheon hosted by the U.N. secretary-general. An informal meeting between the two presidents, something the White House last week hinted it was open to, would have been the first encounter between a U.S. and Iranian president since Iran's 1979 revolution.
Hours before the luncheon -- which reportedly featured tuna tartare with avocado and salted caramel chocolate mousse -- Obama told the U.N. General Assembly that the United States and Iran "should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful."
"The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested," the president said, adding that he would dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry to work with allies to lay the groundwork for a deal.
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The Obama administration's plan to get rid of Syria's chemical weapons depends on President Bashar al-Assad letting international inspectors into his country -- and standing by as they destroy the deadly agents in his arsenal.
But former high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials -- as well as Syria experts -- doubt that Assad has any intention of doing this. And in his tacit agreement to the daunting weapons-removal plan, which was brokered by the United States and Russia and will take months if not years to complete, they detect a deliberate strategy.
"I think this is the Syrians playing for time," Michael Morell, the recently-retired deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told Foreign Policy. "I do not believe that they would seriously consider giving up their chemical weapons."
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Secretary of State John Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an American military strike by giving up his chemical weapons, an unscripted and off-handed remark that triggered a mad day of diplomatic scrambling and raised the first real prospect of a peaceful end to the Syrian crisis.
Speaking in London this morning, Kerry said Assad had one way, and one way only, of preventing the Obama administration from launching a military intervention into his country.
"Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week -- turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting," Kerry said. "But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki tried to walk back Kerry's comments almost immediately after he uttered them, describing the remarks as a "rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used."
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It was meant to be a softball question. Would the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked, sign off on legislation barring ground troops from being sent to Syria? The White House had been making that exact guarantee for days, and Kerry had been sent to Capitol Hill to reiterate the promise to a panel of skeptical lawmakers. He somehow messed up the answer all the same.
"It would be preferable not to" insert that kind of language into a formal congressional authorization for military strikes into Syria, Kerry said. He cited a range of hypotheticals, from Syria imploding to chemical weapons falling into the hands of the country's Islamist rebels, where the U.S. might need to take strong steps to prevent catastrophe. "I don't want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country," Kerry said.
Kerry realized his mistake almost immediately and quickly assured the lawmakers that the administration was fine with a ban on ground troops. "Let's shut that door now as tight as we can," he said. He wasn't able to put the genie back in the bottle, though. Over the course of the four-hour hearing, Republican after Republican asked Kerry to promise that the administration wouldn't do something it had already promised not to do.
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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accused Russia of supplying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with chemical weapons, the most eyebrow-raising moment in a long and sometimes strange hearing that included the Obama administration's first estimate of the financial cost of a potential U.S. strike on Syria, a detailed description of the U.S. target list, and a Republican congressman's meandering attempt to link Syria to the consolate attack in Benghazi and the Justice Department's "Fast and Furious" scandal.
First, Russia. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) -- best known for screaming "you lie" at President Obama during a State of the Union address -- made the most news at today's hearing when he asked Hagel where Assad had gotten his chemical weapons.
"Well, the Russians supply them," Hagel responded. "Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves."
Reports that Russia has been selling chemical weapons to Assad -- or at least providing the ingredients and equipment his scientists needed to make them -- have been floating around for years, but Hagel's comments marked one of the first times a high-ranking American official made the charge publicly.
The comments were later walked back by Pentagon Press Secretary George Little, who in a statement to reporters said: "In a response to a member of Congress, Secretary Hagel was referring to the well-known conventional arms relationship between Syria and Russia. The Syrian regime has a decades-old largely indigenous chemical weapons program. Currently, Russia provides the Syrian regime a wide variety of military equipment and support, some of which can be modified or otherwise used to support the chemical weapons program. We have publicly and privately expressed our concern over the destabilizing impact on the Syrian conflict and the wider region of continued military shipments to the Assad regime."
The allegation is likely to further exacerbate U.S.-Russian tensions over Syria, which spiked this week after Russian President Vladimir Putin came out in strong opposition to a potential American intervention into Syria.
Hagel's Russia comments were the most surprising part of the House hearing, but they weren't the only interesting moment on a day when the administration won its first major victory by getting the Senate Foreign Relations Services Committee to sign off, 10-7, on a military strike against Assad. The measure should go to the full Senate next week.
Below, four other highlights from from the House session:
Military Strikes On The Cheap: Hagel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the limited military strikes envisioned by the administration would cost "tens of millions of dollars," the Pentagon's first public estimate of the financial price of hitting Assad.
It's a surprisingly low number given that U.S. air operations in Libya, a country with far less sophisticated air defenses than Syria, cost roughly $1 billion. A U.S. official stood by Hagel's estimate, telling The Cable that "we're taking millions and not billions for this operation." If those numbers are accurate, the potential U.S. strikes on Syria would be exceptionally modest in both scope and duration. Proponents of the strike have talked about an attack that might cost a couple hundred million. Could this plan be even smaller than previously imagined?
Military Strikes On Someone Else's Tab: Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Arab League wasn't willing to formally request a U.S. strike on Syria, but said key Arab powers were prepared to do perhaps the next best thing: pick up the tab for the entire cost of the operation.
"With respect to Arab countries offering to bear costs and to assess, the answer is profoundly yes," Kerry said. "They have. That offer is on the table."
In fact, Kerry said, Arab countries were willing to open their checkbooks wide.
"Some of them have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing the way we've done it previously in other places, they'll carry that cost," Kerry said. "That's how dedicated they are at this. That's not in the cards, and nobody's talking about it, but they're talking in serious ways about getting this done."
Kerry also gamely insisted that so many U.S. allies wanted to take part in a potential strike on Syria that the Pentagon couldn't find a role for all of them. That seems unlikely, since Turkey and France are to date the only major powers to publicly express a willingness to use military force against Assad. But Kerry may have an elastic definition of "participation." Albania, he said later in the hearing, was willing to provide political support for a strike. He didn't say anything about Albania being willing to do much else.
The Target List: Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided one of the most-detailed breakdowns to date of the military's target list for Syria. He said the overall mission would be to degrade Assad's chemical weapons assets by striking targets "directly linked to the control of chemical weapons but without exposing those chemical weapons to a loss of security." Translated from military-speak, that means doing everything possible to ensure that those weapons didn't fall into the hands of the Islamists flooding into Syria to battle Assad.
Dempsey said other targets would include the "means of delivery" for the weapons, like the rockets and artillery shells that allegedly carried sarin gas into rebel-held areas of Damascus last month, and the country's air defense systems, including its longer-range missile and rockets.
That description closely tracks with recent news reports about the administration considering a target list of roughly 50 sites that would be struck over the course of one to two days. The White House has harshly condemned those leaked war plans and vowed to find those responsible.
Bringing the Crazy: The strangest and most contentious moment of the five-hour hearing came during a heated exchange between Kerry and Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), who accused the administration of having a "serious credibility issue" because of what he said were lingering questions about the White House's handling of Benghazi, the alleged IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department's ill-fated "Fast and Furious" program.
His questioning of Kerry quickly turned personal.
"Mr. Kerry, you have never been one that has advocated for anything other than caution when involving U.S. forces in past conflicts. The same is true for the president and the vice president," he said. "Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you would abandon caution in favor for pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?"
The secretary of state, not surprisingly, didn't take well to the charge. Normally even-keeled, a visibly angry Kerry reminded Duncan that he, Hagel, and Dempsey had all served in the military and cut the congressman off when Duncan tried to interject.
"I'm going to finish, congressman," he said, almost shouting. "I am going to finish."
Kerry said that as a senator he'd supported military action in Grenada and Panama -- conspicuously ignoring his early support for the Iraq war -- and made no attempt to hide that he thought the questions were ludicrous.
"I'm not going to sit here and be told by you that I don't have a sense of what the judgment is with respect to this," he said. "We're talking about people being killed by gas and you want to go talk about Benghazi and Fast and Furious!"
It remains to be seen whether Duncan will be the only one who wants to dredge up past administration scandals. With public opinion running sharply against any U.S. strike, Republicans seem likely to use any weapon in their arsenal to attack the White House's case for war.
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American intelligence agencies had indications three days beforehand that the Syrian regime was poised to launch a lethal chemical attack that killed more than a thousand people and has set the stage for a possible U.S. military strike on Syria.
The disclosure -- part of a larger U.S. intelligence briefing on Syria's chemical attacks -- raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions for the American government. First and foremost: What, if anything, did it do to notify the Syrian opposition of the pending attack?
In a call with reporters Friday afternoon, senior administration officials did not address whether this information was shared with rebel groups in advance of the attack. A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the information had been shared.
But at least some members of the Syrian opposition are already lashing out at the U.S. government for not acting ahead of time to prevent the worst chemical attack in a quarter-century. "If you knew, why did you take no action?" asked Dlshad Othman, a Syrian activist and secure-communications expert who has recently relocated to the United States. He added that none of his contacts had any sort of prior warning about the nerve gas assault -- although such an attack was always a constant fear.
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Despite the Egyptian military's brutal crackdown on government protesters, which has resulted in more than 500 deaths, President Obama declined to suspend America's annual $1.3 billion in military assistance to the country. In fact, in Thursday's 800-word address from Martha's Vineyard, President Obama did not say the words "aid" or "coup." Instead, he took the more modest step of cancelling next month's joint U.S. military exercise with Egypt.[[LATEST]]
"The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt's interim government and security forces," he said. "While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back."
The statements divided those seeking a sharp U.S. break from Egypt's military and those who hold the U.S.-Egypt relationship as sacrosanct. "While suspending joint military exercises as the President has done is an important step, our law is clear: aid to the Egyptian military should cease unless they restore democracy," said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy in a statement.
Pushing back against the "cut the aid" camp, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass supported the president's decision. "Agree with US line re Egypt," he tweeted. "Cancel exercise, keep aid in place, but puts generals on notice that time running out absent restraint/reform."
The question now is, how much time can the U.S. afford to give Egyptian generals as the slaughter of antigovernment protesters continues? As it stands, the death toll in Egypt has climbed to more than 500 with the number of injured up to 3,700. Following the military's crackdown on two sit-ins on Wednesday, Egypt's widely-respected Vice President Mohammad ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, resigned in protest.
Secretary of State John Kerry declared in an interview with Pakistan TV Thursday that U.S. drone strikes in the country will soon come to an end.
But that message apparently wasn't relayed back to Foggy Bottom. Three hours after Kerry's comments first broke, a spokesperson took them right back. "In no way would we ever deprive ourselves of a tool to fight a threat if it arises," a State Department spokesperson said.
Kerry is in Pakistan to try and make nice with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the country's newly elected leader who has made repeated, vociferous demands for the United States to end its use of drone strikes on Pakistani territory. And for a few hours on Thursday it seemed that he had arrived bearing a major olive branch and a striking concession on U.S. drone policy. "The program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it," he said in the interview. "I think the president has a very real timeline and we hope it's going to be very, very soon."
But of course it was not meant to be. In a news conference with Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's national security advisor, Kerry went on to offer something of a defense of American drone strikes. Though Pakistani officials argue that such strikes breach Pakistani sovereignty, Kerry noted that terrorist attacks by militants in the country also "violate the sovereignty of this country."
Together, the two statements send a clear message. When all the terrorists are dead, the United States will be happy to end its program of covert drone strikes in Pakistan. Until that day comes -- and it will be "soon," according to Kerry -- strikes are likely to continue. To underscore that reality, the United States carried outthree drone strikes in Pakistan during the month of July. And in Yemen, the drone war made a roaring comeback this week with the United States carrying out three strikes in five days.
Nonetheless, Kerry will be returning to Washington with a diplomatic prize in hand. In his meetings with Pakistani officials Thursday, Kerry secured an agreement to restart partnership talks that collapsed two years ago amid intense anger in Islamabad over the impunity of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.
The continuing use of drone strikes comes against a stated committed by President Obama to cut back on their use and bring the war on terror to a close. "Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue," he said in a landmark speech in May that coincided with new policy guidance that tightened standards for drone strikes. "But this war, like all wars, must end. That's what history advises. That's what our democracy demands."
In practice, the drone strike genie is refusing to be returned to the bottle, as evidenced by State's comment today that the United States would never "deprive" itself "of a tool to fight a threat if it arises." Compare that statement to Obama's May speech: "As our fight enters a new phase, America's legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power -- or risk abusing it."
When that power will be constrained, however, is very much up for debate.
The White House has nominated an agency outsider and the first woman to be the CIA's No. 2 after career intelligence officer Mike Morell, passed over for the top job earlier this year, resigned.
Avril Haines, a White House lawyer who has been a deputy counsel at the NSC and focused on national security issues, will replace Morell Aug. 9, CIA Director John Brennan announced Wednesday. Haines was nominated two months ago to be legal counsel at State but will now go to help lead an intelligence agency in which she has never before worked.
In a statement, Brennan said that at the White House, Haines has worked on some of the agency's most sensitive programs, participating in most of high-level meetings over the past two years. "In every instance, Avril's command of substance, sense of mission, good judgment, and keen insights have been outstanding," Brennan said.
The 43-year-old Haines has enjoyed a meteoric rise from Senate staffer to now the second most powerful position at the agency. On the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she was known for being an effective operator, clearing many treaties that had been stalled in committee by working closely with members of the GOP.
Haines's appointment could be seen as another example of the White House putting more of its people in key national security jobs. Mark Lippert's appointment as chief of staff at the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, after a long stint at the NSC, suggested to some outsiders that the White House was pushing its people out to key agency jobs. Sending Haines to the second most important job at CIA seems like another such example to some. But the Center for Strategic and International Studies's David Berteau, who tracks national security appointments, doesn't think filling these jobs in this way smacks of a White House asserting its control.
"I don't see that this appointment presents a threat to the operational integrity of the agency," he said, adding that giving principals the discretion to hire who they want leads to their ultimate success. "The real question here is, is this the person who John Brennan wants and needs?"
Berteau pointed to the nomination of Leon Panetta to CIA, which initially raised eyebrows because he was not steeped in intelligence. It didn't take long before those critics began to sing his praises. "By all accounts, Leon Panetta turned out to be a superior director of the CIA," he said.
When David Petraeus left the agency directorship abruptly after his affair with biographer Paula Broadwell, it was Morell who stepped in as acting director -- the second time in his career. Many from inside the intelligence community wanted to see Morell be given the job permanently. They cited his long history in the intelligence world and hoped his nomination to be director could be a sign of the agency returning to its roots of intelligence collection and analysis. In the end he was passed over for John Brennan, who has expressed interest in pursuing a similar agenda.
Morell will leave a field in which he's been for 33 years. In a memo to staff, Morell said Brennan made the decision both tougher and easier for him. Morell said he believes the agency is in good hands but at the same time said he wished he could watch the agency "accomplish great things" under Brennan's leadership. But Morell said he was leaving to spend more time with his family -- the "real reason" he's leaving, he said. "Whenever someone involved in the rough and tumble of Washington decides to move on, there is speculation in various quarters about the 'real reason,'" he said in the memo. "But you all know me, so you know that when I tell you that it is time for my family, nothing could be more real than that."
DNI Jim Clapper issued a statement saying Haines was an "excellent choice" to replace Morell. Haines, he said, has "distinguished herself" in key national security positions. "She has a deep understanding of the intelligence community and she values the contributions of our nation's intelligence professionals," Clapper wrote.
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The Obama administration has invited a senior delegation from the Khartoum regime to visit Washington for high-level discussions, just after the State Department criticized Sudan heavily in its annual country reports on human rights.
The Sudanese Foreign Ministry first announced Tuesday that senior officials from the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) had been invited to Washington for consultations. Sudan Tribune, an émigré newspaper based in Paris, paraphrased a Sudanese official citing the "mere presence of diplomatic missions in both countries and meetings of ambassadors" as representing "some degree of dialogue between Khartoum and Washington."
Sudan is among the most-sanctioned countries in the world. President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court, Sudan has been on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1993, and the United States imposed additional sanctions in 1997 and then again in 2003, following the outbreak of government-sponsored violence in Darfur.
Sudan advocacy-group leaders were quick to criticize the administration's decision to invite the NCP officials to Washington, where they are expected to discuss ongoing tensions with South Sudan, the upcoming referendum in the contested region of Abyei, and the ongoing violence in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
"United to End Genocide believes that the delegates of Sudan's National Congress Party (NCP) do not deserve to be rewarded by the United States government and invited to Washington, D.C. until they stop committing crimes against the civilians throughout Sudan," said Tom Andrews, the president of the group. "It is imperative that in his new term, President Obama evaluates his previous diplomacy towards Sudan, sets strong policy with clear measures that can help end the suffering of the people of Sudan, and hold the perpetrators accountable before offering rewards."
At Tuesday's State Department press briefing, spokesman Patrick Ventrell acknowledged the invitation but gave few details about why the administration believes it's a good idea to host the Sudanese delegation at this time. He said that presidential adviser Nafie Ali Nafie will lead the delegation, but the exact timing has not been finalized.
"We've planned to receive this delegation for a candid discussion on the conflicts and humanitarian crises within Sudan, including in Darfur and the two areas -- Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, counterterrorism, human rights and other issues of concern to the U.S. government," Ventrell said. "We've also continued to express our deep concern about another -- a number of other issues. While we've had some progress here, you have ongoing aerial bombardment of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and some other areas in terms of Darfur that we're still concerned about. So we've seen some progress, but we still have some concerns and we'll raise them directly with the government."
The delegation announcement comes in the same week that the administration announced it was relaxing some sanctions against Khartoum. The Treasury Department announced April 22 that it would now authorize some professional and educational exchanges with Sudan that had previously been prohibited.
Only three days before relaxing sanctions, the Obama administration heavily criticized Sudan in its annual country reports on human rights practices, released April 19, which documented extreme government-sponsored atrocities and human rights violations.
"The most important human rights abuses included: government forces and government-aligned groups committed extrajudicial and other unlawful killings; security forces committed torture, beatings, rape, and other cruel and inhumane treatment or punishment; and prison and detention center conditions were harsh and life threatening," the State Department report said. "Except in rare cases, the government took no steps to prosecute or punish officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government who committed abuses. Security force impunity remained a serious problem."
Other major abuses in Sudan, according to the State Department, included arbitrary arrest; incommunicado and prolonged pretrial detention; executive interference with the judiciary and denial of due process; obstruction of humanitarian assistance; restriction on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement; harassment of internally displaced persons; restrictions on privacy; harassment and closure of human rights organizations; and violence and discrimination against women. Societal abuses including instances of female genital mutilation; child abuse, including sexual violence and recruitment of child soldiers; trafficking in persons; violence against ethnic minorities; denial of workers' rights; and forced and child labor were also reported.
That report prompted a call from the Sudan advocacy community for the administration to employ stronger pressure mechanisms against Khartoum, rather than offering more incentives like visits to Washington or rewards like an easing of sanctions.
"These atrocities and abuses stem from the many conflicts in Sudan, and point to the need for a comprehensive approach to all of Sudan's conflicts," a group of Sudan advocacy organizations wrote in a letter to Obama April 22. "In addition, given the scale of the atrocities perpetrated by the regime, international donors should not provide significant assistance or debt-relief until real and verifiable steps towards peace and democratic transformation are taken."
These groups, along with several members of Congress, also lament that the president has yet to appoint a special envoy to Sudan to replace Amb. Princeton Lyman, who stepped down late last year. The administration is said to be circling around a couple of candidates, but there's been no announcement as of yet.
"This vacancy is symptomatic of a president that has all but forsaken the people of Sudan," Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) said in a March floor statement. "Candidate Obama purported to be deeply concerned by the crisis in Sudan and committed to bold actions. Have we seen a fraction of that concern or anything close to bold action since he became president?"
ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images
The Chinese government has changed its approach to North Korea and taken a tougher line out of frustration with Pyongyang, according to Kurt Campbell, the State Department's top Asia official until last month.
"The most important new ingredient [in the North Korea crisis] has been a recognition in China that their previous approach to North Korea is not bearing fruit. That they are going to have to be much clearer and much more direct with Pyongyang that what Pyongyang is doing is undermining Chinese security," Campbell told an audience at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies Thursday.
"There is a subtle shift in Chinese foreign policy. You've seen it at the U.N., you've seen it in our private conversations ... I don't think that subtle shift can be lost on Pyongyang," he said. "It's not in their strategic interest to alienate every country that surrounds them. I think they have succeeded in undermining their trust and confidence in Beijing."
In the latest apparent sign of Chinese discontent, Beijing recently rejected a North Korean request to send a diplomat envoy to Pyongyang, a South Korean newspaper reported Thursday.
China has long considered North Korea a useful check against a united, pro-American Korean Peninsula. But Chinese frustration with Beijing could eventually lead to a more dramatic shift in Chinese foreign policy that would change the state of play in Northeast Asia, according to Campbell.
"It's very clear [to China]: If this is a buffer state, what is it good for?" he said.
The White House has promoted a careful dual message throughout this crisis: The United States takes North Korean provocations seriously but doesn't see North Korea's actual military moves as significant.
"They're doing that in a way so that we don't have a set of circumstances where things escalate beyond a point where it can be effectively managed," Campbell explained.
Meanwhile, there are feelers out that might pave the way for a conversation with North Korea that might provide a way out of the crisis.
"Subtle messages have been sent in every corner and in every venue that the door remains open to dialogue," Campbell said. "We have to be prepared to be open to dialogue."
Campbell also revealed that there is one senior administration who prefers the term "pivot" rather than "rebalance" to describe the shift in U.S. attention toward Asia -- President Barack Obama.
Campbell said the initial use of the term "pivot" was later replaced with the term "rebalance" because some misinterpreted the word "pivot" to mean a turn away from Europe, which was not intended as part of the policy.
"I actually think the better terminology is ‘rebalance,'" Campbell said. "And of course, initially the response was very clear from the NSS [National Security Staff in the White House] that really the term that is appropriate is ‘rebalance,' so those of us who use ‘pivot' were sent to reeducation camps and works in the fields."
But White House aides' effort to erase the use of the word "pivot" was ultimately thwarted by their own boss -- Obama.
"The irony of this, after all of this reeducation, it turns out: Who is the person who actually likes the term and the concept of the pivot?" Campbell said. "The president of the United States."
Iraq's national security advisor, Faleh al-Fayyad, said Monday that Qatar and other Arab countries, along with nongovernmental groups, are financing Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian jihadi group, with the acquiescence of Turkey.
"These are the same sources that finance al Qaeda," Fayyad said through a translator. "In times of crisis, some countries use al Qaeda; some countries make peace with al Qaeda," he said.
Fayyad and a delegation of Iraqi officials and members of Parliament are in Washington this week for meetings with top U.S. officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and other senior State Department and Pentagon officials.
Fayyad said his meeting with Biden was "very beneficial and useful." Iraq is hoping to bolster its relations with the United States, including via increased weapons sales and training, and attract greater investment from U.S. companies. The delegation is using this week's meetings to get acquainted with the Obama administration's second-term team.
Fayyad said that Turkey, Qatar, and other Arab countries had pushed the uprising in Syria, soon to enter its third year, toward armed conflict.
But the Iraqis were keen to stress that they bear no goodwill toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Fayyad said had caused a lot of suffering over the years in Iraq, and that they sympathized with the suffering of the Syrian people.
"Bashar al-Assad has hurt Iraq the same as Saddam Hussein," said Yassin Maijd, an Iraqi MP traveling with the delgation, noting the similarities of the two countries' Baath parties.
The Iraqis are especially concerned about the rising power of Jebhat al-Nusra, which the United States has designated a terrorist group with ties to al Qaeda in Iraq.
"Very frankly, elements of al Qaeda are very active in certain parts of Syria," Fayyad said, comparing Turkey's role of hosting and facilitating armed groups to that of Syria at the height of the insurgency in Iraq.
Fayyad noted that Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki had personally warned U.S. President Barack Obama that the conflict could drag on for two years or longer.
Iraq and the United States had previously had sharp differences over Syria, Fayyad acknowledged, but said that Obama's position on Syria -- which he described as pressure aimed at bringing the warring parties to the table -- is now "really good."
Fayyad said that Iraq is willing to cooperate with the international community to find a negotiated end to the conflict in Syria, but warned that Iraq would be less willing to do so if it is not included in the discussions and that it would not tolerate a government that included jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.
"We will not accept to have the noose around our necks and allow Syria to be divided along sectarian lines," Fayyad said.
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner will leave government to start a new center for business and human rights at the New York University Stern School of Business.
Posner, who has been at State since September 2009, becomes the latest State Department official to leave since Secretary of State John Kerry replaced Hillary Clinton last month. Other top officials who have already departed include Deputy Secretary Tom Nides, Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills, Undersecretary Maria Otero, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, Policy Planning Director and Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sullivan, and many others. Posner will join NYU in March, the university said in a Thursday release, and will also serve as a professor in the Stern School's business and society program.
"Global businesses are confronting complex human rights challenges that demand approaches that go beyond ‘corporate social responsibility'. We need rules of the road that address companies' responsibilities to respect human rights in their own operations," Posner said in the release.
Sarah Labowitz, Posner's policy advisor at State, will also join NYU Stern as a research scholar and will help Posner set up the new center. Labowitz also worked as an advisor to State Department Cyber Coordinator Christopher Painter.
Posner's last trip as an administration official was last week, when he traveled to Burma and met with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Presidential Advisor Soe Thein, Attorney General Dr. Tun Shin, Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Lt. General Kyaw Zaw Myint, and other high-level government officials in the capital Naypyidaw.
Before joining State, Posner was the founder and president of Human Rights First. He also played a leadership role in several advocacy organizations, including the Fair Labor Association, the Global Network Initiative, and the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.
"At NYU Stern we categorically reject the ‘or' and embrace the ‘and'. Profits and principle must coexist as citizens and consumers around the globe demand both. Mike is respected around the world for his distinguished 30-year career as a lawyer, advocate and policymaker," Stern Dean Peter Henry said in the statement. "His principled, practical approach to some of the world's toughest human rights and foreign policy challenges will break new ground in business education with the creation of the first center at a business school to focus on human rights."
The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simply not a top priority for Israel at this time, according to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who just returned from a trip to the region.
Rubio traveled to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan last week and spoke about his trip Wednesday to an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"Israel has a number of issues that they are concerned about and at the top of the list is Iran," Rubio said, noting that he believes Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon and that only the threat of losing power, not negotiations, will convince the Iranian government to change course.
"I hope there is a breakthrough in the negotiations ... I really hope that's what happens, but I don't believe that's what will happen," Rubio said.
"The second major concern is Syria with regards to weapons," he continued, noting that Syria is being flooded with weapons that will remain there after the regime falls, mostly in the hands of groups hostile to the United States. He said he supports giving elements of the Syrian opposition ammunition, but not weapons.
"You don't have to give them weapons; they've got plenty of weapons, frankly. What they need is ammunition. They run low on that very quickly," he said.
"The third concern that they have in Israel is Egypt," Rubio went on. He said the Israelis view the Muslim Brotherhood as a very patient group that, in the short term, is willing to be very pragmatic, but has a long-term strategy of fundamentally redefining every entity in Egypt and pushing the country in a more Islamic direction. The worsening security situation in Sinai is also a priority for Israel, and the U.S. government should press Egypt to do more, he said.
"The fourth issue that comes is the Palestinian question with regards to the West Bank," Rubio said. "The sense you get from the Israeli side of that is that is not the No. 1 issue on Israeli minds at this moment."
"It's not that the Palestinian issue isn't important to the Israelis; it's just that in the ranking now, it's lost its place because of all these other issues," Rubio said.
There's a fundamental difference of opinion between the Israeli government and the Obama administration on the priority of dealing with the Palestinian peace process, he said.
"I think the right approach of the U.S. is to view all of these issues through the lens of Israeli security. The more security Israel feels, the likelier it's going to be that these issues move forward to resolution," Rubio said.
Rubio said that Israeli officials were eagerly anticipating the visit next month by President Barack Obama and were curious about whether Obama was coming with a specific plan on the Palestinian peace process or whether he was just going to go to listen.
"I told them I probably wasn't the best source for the president's thinking but my sense of it was the president was probably coming more to listen than to dictate," he said.
Vice President Joe Biden is on a tour of Europe that will include stops in Germany, France, and Britain and meetings with leaders from Russia, the United Nations, and the Syrian opposition.
The White House is framing the trip as chance for Biden to reassert the importance of the trans-Atlantic relationship at the beginning of President Barack Obama's second term. Biden will start by attending the Munich Security Conference, which he last attended in 2009.
"Now he's going back at the start of the second [term]... to take stock of what we've accomplished over the past four years and to look at the agenda going forward," said Tony Blinken, Biden's outgoing national security advisor, who will soon move into his new role as the principal deputy national security advisor at the National Security Council. "It's no coincidence that the vice president went to Europe then and returns to Europe now to help set out our foreign-policy agenda. As President Obama has said, Europe is the cornerstone of our engagement with the world and a catalyst for global cooperation."
Biden left Washington Thursday evening and arrived in Berlin Friday morning for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Friday evening he arrives in Munich, where he will give a speech and hold a series of meetings on Saturday. Biden will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. and Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria, and with Moaz al-Khatib, the president of the Syrian opposition council.
"We'll be discussing our continued political and non-lethal support to the opposition that is helping them coalesce and become more organized and provide certain services like medical services to the Syrian people," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. "And we'll be discussing the political way forward. And what we would like to see from other countries, including Russia, is an acknowledgement that Bashar al-Assad must go and that there needs to be a transition within Syria to a new government."
Rhodes also confirmed that Biden and Lavrov will discuss the potential for new nuclear reductions negotiations, as The Cable reported this week.
"On this question of further reductions, the president has spoken to this in the past. For instance, if you look at the speech he gave in Seoul in the spring of last year, he indicated that even as we move forward with the New START reductions and deployed warheads and launchers, that he believes that there's room to explore the potential for continued reductions, and that, of course, the best way to do so is in a discussion with Russia," said Rhodes. "We'll obviously have to carry forward that dialogue going forward."
Saturday evening, Biden will attend Bavarian minister Horst Seehofer's dinner, which honors former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. At last year's Munich Security Conference, the dinner honored former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT).
On Sunday, Biden and his wife will visit the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center before leaving for Paris later Sunday afternoon. On Monday Biden will meet French President François Hollande before moving on to London, where on Tuesday he will meet with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron for a working lunch at 10 Downing Street. Following lunch, Biden will attend a meeting of Britain's National Security Council.
Blinken said that in his Paris and London stops, Biden will be discussing the ongoing crisis in Mali and ways to increase the ongoing U.S. support for the French-led mission there.
"What we're seeing across North Africa and parts of the Middle East is an extremist threat that is fueled by the reality of porous borders, ungoverned territory, too readily available weapons, increasing collaboration among some of these groups, and, in many cases, a new government that lacks the capacity and sometimes the will to deal with the problem," Blinken said.
"And so this requires a comprehensive approach, as Ben said, bringing to bear our political and economic tools, as well as our military tools, but it also requires a common approach. And so this trip is an opportunity, in all of its stops, for the vice president to confer with leaders about that and to look forward to how we can continue to work together and strengthen our common efforts to deal with this challenge."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), one of the new Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has no plans to oppose the nominations either of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be the next defense secretary or current Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) to be the next secretary of state, he told The Cable in an interview.
"I'm going to remain open-minded and hear more about what [Hagel's] plans are and his direction are as he comes forward. I'm not going to make a prior commitment one way or the other," Paul said.
The firm opposition to Hagel has now risen to include five GOP senators. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) announced he would vote "no" on the nomination, adding him to the list that includes Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX), Dan Coats (R-IN), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Other top senators who have expressed reservations but not committed to a "no" vote include Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and new ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee James Inhofe (R-OK).
Paul said he intends to use Hagel's nomination to press the former Nebraska senator on whether he would support the reform of how the United States doles out arms and military aid to foreign countries, especially those that don't follow policies that are in the American national security interest.
"It's an opportunity to talk about the issue and get his opinion about our aid to foreign countries. I would like to ask and will ask [him] whether or not they are aware of the world we live in. Everybody seems to be aware of it, but nobody is changing policy," Paul said.
Paul isn't on the Armed Services Committee, which will vet Hagel, but he is on the SFRC, which will vet Kerry. Paul intends to use Kerry's hearing to press for answers on Benghazi, but he said Kerry's nomination shouldn't be considered until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the committee first.
"One of my questions will be: If the buck stops with her, is she taking ultimately responsible for the failure?" he said. "I'd like to know whether she read the cables from Ambassador Stevens... The real point is who was in charge of the security and in the months leading up to the attack, why wasn't there adequate security."
Paul has been active in pushing his idea for cutting foreign aid to the countries of Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan until or unless those countries take steps to cooperate with U.S. foreign policy objectives. Sometimes, Paul has used tactics like holding nominees or objecting the easy passage of bills to get a hearing on his foreign aid amendment.
Those tactics are likely to continue, Paul said, but that's his prerogative as a senator and he doesn't feel guilty about using that power from time to time.
"While people complain about the Senate, in the end we've never held anybody who wasn't released as a nominee eventually," he said.
Paul plans to use his new perch to argue for a scaled-back American role in the world and a reform of American foreign assistance funding.
"There needs to be a voice for people in the country who want to see a less aggressive foreign policy, a more defensive foreign policy, and a less interventionalist foreign policy," he said. "The president says over and over again that we need to do nation building at home, not overseas, but he continues to do both. I think we need to put teeth to the fact that we are running out of money."
Paul will also continue work to ensure that any resolutions or sanctions measures for Iran include language making clear that Congress has not authorized the use of military force there.
"I'm not about to let any war happen without a significant and serious debate in Congress. I wish the president was more like he was a senator when he said no president should go to war without the consent of Congress. Now that's he's president, he's totally forgotten that," he said.
There are some rumors that Paul might be given a ranking Republican position on one of the SFRC subcommittees, which would give him more staff and the ability to work on more issues. He said hasn't been offered such a post but would take it if offered.
There could also be fireworks between him and McCain, who also just joined the SFRC and who opposes Paul on almost every foreign-policy issue.
"You'll just have to wait and see on that," Paul said with a laugh.
Poor coordination in Washington and an overwhelming neglect of security risks at the U.S. mission in Benghazi exacerbated the damage cause by "a series of terrorist attacks" there on Sept. 11, an independent review of the State Department's handling of the events has found.
"A series of terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11-12, 2012, resulted in the deaths of four U.S. government personnel, Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty; seriously wounded two other U.S. personnel and injured three Libyan contract guards; and resulted in the destruction and abandonment of the U.S. Special Mission compound and Annex," reads the unclassified version of the report of the State Department's independent Accountability Review Board, which was set up to investigate the attacks.
"Systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department ... resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place," the report, chaired by retired ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, says.
The "two bureaus" referenced in the report were the bureau of diplomatic security (DS) and the bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA). Those bureaus are headed by Eric Boswell and Beth Jones, respectively, though the report does not mention either by name.
Instead, the board faulted "certain senior State Department officials" in those bureaus for "a lack of proactive leadership and management ability appropriate for the State Department's senior ranks in their responses to security concerns posed by Special Mission Benghazi, given the deteriorating threat environment and the lack of reliable host government protection." It did not find, however, that "any individual U.S. Government employee engaged in misconduct or willfully ignored his or her responsibilities," and therefore did not recommend any disciplinary action.
That said, the panel's indictment of the State Department's security preparations are damning. The number of security staff in Benghazi before the attack was inadequate, despite repeated requests for more staffing, and there was an over-reliance on local Libyan guards and poorly skilled employees of a British security contractor, the report found.
"Board members found a pervasive realization among personnel who served in Benghazi that the Special Mission was not a high priority for Washington when it came to security-related requests, especially those relating to staffing," the report states. "In the weeks and months leading up to the attacks, the response from post, Embassy Tripoli, and Washington to a deteriorating security situation was inadequate."
There was no protest outside the U.S. mission, the report confirms. There were also no specific, credible threats of an impending attack on the Benghazi compound, the report says.
The ARB makes 24 specific recommendations, including reexamining dependence on local security at diplomatic posts, reorganizing the diplomatic security leadership and management structure, increasing training for incidents such as these, increasing the number of Marines and diplomatic security agents at high-threat posts, and increasing foreign language training in languages such as Arabic.
"The Accountability Review Board provides a clear-eyed look at serious, systemic challenges that we have already begun to fix," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee. "I am grateful for its recommendations for how we can reduce the chance of this kind of tragedy happening again. I accept every one of them."
In her letter, Clinton outlined several steps the State Department took in the hours and days after the attack. The State Department increased security at diplomatic posts worldwide, she wrote, immediately ordered an investigation, and "intensified a diplomatic campaign aimed at combating the threat of terrorism across North Africa and bolstering the region's emerging democracies."
"We will have implementation of every recommendation underway by the time the next Secretary of State takes office," Clinton wrote. "There is no higher priority for me or my Department."
Clinton initiated the Accountability Review Board, as required after any diplomatic incident resulting in a loss of life or serious injury, in the days after the attack and the board began its work in early October. In addition to Pickering, the board was led by former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen (ret.), Catherine Bertini, Hugh Turner, and Richard Shinnick.
A few copies of the classified version of the report were sent to the relevant committees Tuesday afternoon. Pickering and Mullen will brief lawmakers in a classified setting Wednesday. Deputy Secretary Tom Nides and Deputy Secretary Bill Burns will testify in open session in both chambers Dec. 20.
After that, the State Department will defer comment to the FBI.
"Well, with regard to the investigation, that's, as you know, fully in the hands of the FBI now. So they will be responsible for giving whatever press information they feel comfortable with. But my understanding is that they don't intend to do any briefing on the status of the investigation, their work with the Libyans, until they're completed, which they are not yet," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Tuesday's press briefing.
Nides will lead the team responsible for the implementation of the board's recommendations, a notice sent to all State Department employees Wednesday said. That team will also include Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy, Director General of the Foreign Service Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Executive Secretary John Bass, and Deputy Legal Advisor Mary McLeod. State Department Counselor Harold Koh is leaving government to return to Yale Law School.
"The implementation team met today and will continue meeting regularly to ensure execution of the Board's recommendations as well as other actions directed by the Secretary. Bureaus and offices across the Department can expect to receive taskings in support of this effort from the Executive Secretariat," the notice stated.
The State Department's Inspector General's office will oversee the implementation and report on that independently, acting IG Harold Geisel said in an Oct. 26 letter to Congress.
The report stated that the State Department's diplomatic security bureau is doing a "fine job" overall but is being stretched to its limits by increased demands to protect diplomats in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The report calls on Congress to support the State Department with the proper resources to protect diplomats.
"No diplomatic presence is without risk, given past attempts by terrorists to pursue U.S. targets worldwide. And the total elimination of risk is a non-starter for U.S. diplomacy, given the need for the U.S. government to be present in places where stability and security are often most profoundly lacking and host government support is sometimes minimal to non-existent," the report stated.
For the head of Libya's national election commission, the method by which Americans vote is startling in that it depends so much on trust and the good faith of election officials and voters alike.
"It's an incredible system," said Nuri K. Elabbar, who traveled to the United States along with election officials from more than 60 countries to observe today's presidential elections as part of a program run by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Your humble Cable guy visited polling places with some of the international officials this morning. Most of them agreed that in their countries, such an open voting system simply would not work.
"It's very difficult to transfer this system as it is to any other country. This system is built according to trust and this trust needs a lot of procedures and a lot of education for other countries to adopt it," Elabbar said.
The most often noted difference between American elections among the visitors was that in most U.S. states, voters need no identification. Voters can also vote by mail, sometimes online, and there's often no way to know if one person has voted several times under different names, unlike in some Arab countries, where voters ink their fingers when casting their ballots.
The international visitors also noted that there's no police at U.S. polling stations. In foreign countries, police at polling places are viewed as signs of security; in the United States they are sometimes seen as intimidating.
Sara Al-Utaibi, IFES deputy country director in Jordan, said that the fact that voting is done differently in different U.S. states is highly unusual. In Maryland, for example, electronic voting is common, whereas in Washington paper ballots predominate. If there are different voting procedures within another country, someone assumes fraud or abuse, she said.
"What's very unique about the way the Americans do it, it's not the process, it's the confidence that's placed in the process," she said. "This is what lacks in other countries. They say if this would happen in Arab countries it would not work the way it does in the United States."
Many of the visiting international officials noted that there were no observers at the polling places to ensure that proper voting procedures were being followed. IFES staffers explained to them that in the United States, election observers are sent by the political parties, which wouldn't use their limited resources inside the District of Columbia, where President Barack Obama is a heavy favorite.
Many of the visiting election officials were from emerging democracies, including Tunisia, Indonesia, Russia, Nigeria, and Yemen. The will spend a total of four days in the United States in a series of workshops and seminars.
"The point is to bring the highest-level commissioners and election staff here so they can connect and exchange ideas," said Ambar Riaz Zobairi, IFES deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. "The overall point is to highlight the very interesting electoral process that we have here."
Provisional ballots are also a source of puzzlement for international officials. American voters who don't find their names on the rolls can vote anyway and verify their eligibility days later, a system not often found abroad. Ballots in foreign countries are often not as complicated as ballots in the United States.
"Their ballots are simple. We have a range of things on our ballot, referendums and such. In most countries, it's just president and parliament," said Cindy McCormick, an IFES consultant with more than 30 years of election monitoring experience.
One observer from Lebanon who did not want to be quoted pressed staffers on how the ballots are handled before and after voting day. He was amazed that ballots are sent directly to poll workers and that the handling of those ballots after the voting ends is also entrusted to local poll workers.
In Morocco, the poll workers take the unused ballots outside at the end of the night and burn them, McCormick said. In Russia, unused ballots are piled up and a poll worker drives a spike though the pile with a hammer. In The Gambia, a country in West Africa, each voter is given exactly one marble, which they place in one of the large marble collecting jars that are set up for each candidate.
"The polls workers are listening because when the marble goes into the jar, there's a ding. And if there are two dings, maybe somebody came in with extra marbles in their pocket, so they call the police," she said.
Asked how Gambians do a recount with the marble-based voting system, McCormick said, "I have no idea."
Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy
The House Oversight Committee is demanding answers from the State Department regarding newly discovered documents found in the wreckage of the U.S. mission in Benghazi that reveal U.S. diplomats noticed a Libyan police officer conducting surveillance of the compound the morning before the Sept. 11 attack and that the Benghazi police department had not responded to requests for more security during the visit of Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died in the attack that night.
Two reporters visiting the burned-out compound more than six weeks after the attack, and weeks after the FBI had visited the site, discovered an array of official and personal items that reveal the state of mind of nervous U.S. officials on the morning of Sept. 11, just hours before a group of well-armed men stormed the compound with heavy weapons, an attack that would ultimate result in the death of four Americans. In an exclusive report for Foreign Policy, journalists Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa revealed two unsigned draft letters written the day of the attack and warning that a Libyan police officer was spotted taking pictures of the compound.
"Finally, early this morning at 0643, September 11, 2012, one of our diligent guards made a troubling report. Near our main gate, a member of the police force was seen in the upper level of a building across from our compound. It is reported that this person was photographing the inside of the U.S. special mission and furthermore that this person was part of the police unit sent to protect the mission," reads the letter, addressed to Mohamed Obeidi, the head of the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs' office in Benghazi.
Obeidi said he never received the letter. Another letter states that U.S. diplomats had asked the Libyan government for added security for Stevens's visit -- security they apparently didn't get.
"On Sunday, September 9, 2012, the U.S. mission requested additional police support at our compound for the duration of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens' visit. We requested daily, twenty-four hour police protection at the front and rear of the U.S. mission as well as a roving patrol. In addition we requested the services of a police explosive detection dog," the letter reads. "We were given assurances from the highest authorities in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that all due support would be provided for Ambassador Stevens' visit to Benghazi. However, we are saddened to report that we have only received an occasional police presence at our main gate. Many hours pass when we have no police support at all."
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and National Security Subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who have been leading a congressional investigation into the security failures surrounding the attack, fired off a letter today to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding the new revelations, obtained by The Cable.
The congressmen are demanding to know whether the Benghazi mission's concerns about Libyan police surveillance and their unanswered requests for more Libyan government security assistance were ever sent to Washington, and if so, why the State Department didn't reveal that before now.
"These documents paint a disturbing picture indicating that elements of the Libyan government might have been complicit in the September 11, 2012 attack on the compound and the murder of four Americans. It also reiterates the fact that the U.S. government may have had evidence indicating that the attack was not a spontaneous event but rather a preplanned terrorist attack that included prior surveillance of the compound as a target," Issa and Chaffetz wrote.
"Given the location where they were found, these documents appear to be genuine and support a growing body of evidence indicating that the Obama Administration has tried to withhold pertinent facts about the 9/11 anniversary attack from Congress and the American people."
The congressmen lamented that important information about the attack is still being discovered by the media and not being given to congressional investigators by the administration. They said the letters call into question repeated State Department claims that there were no warnings before the attack, including when a senior State Department official told reporters Oct. 9 that there had been no security incidents at the consulate that day.
"Everything is calm at 8:30 p.m," the official said during a background briefing. "There's nothing unusual. There has been nothing unusual during the day at all outside."
"These statements appear to be inconsistent with the information included in the documents uncovered by Foreign Policy," Issa and Chaffetz wrote.
The State Department must tell Congress whether the letters were included in any cables, telegrams, or emails and provide copies of those documents "no later than 5:00 p.m. on November 8, 2012," the letter said.
Other documents found at the compound include a printout of an email from Stevens to his political officer regarding the Benghazi visit, a travel itinerary sent to Sean Smith, the other State Department official killed in the attack, and an Aug. 6 copy of the New Yorker addressed to Stevens.
Syrian opposition leaders of all stripes will convene in Qatar next week to form a new leadership body to subsume the opposition Syrian National Council, which is widely viewed as ineffective, consumed by infighting, and little respected on the ground, The Cable has learned.
The State Department has been heavily involved in crafting the new council as part of its effort oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and build a more viable and unified opposition. In September, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a group of Syrian activists who were flown in to New York for a high-level meeting that has not been reported until now.
During the third and final presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney criticized President Barack Obama's Syria policy as a failure to show "leadership" in laying the groundwork for the post-Assad era and called for "a form of council that can take the lead in Syria."
In fact, over the last several months, according to U.S. officials and Syrian opposition figures, the State Department has worked to broaden its contacts inside the country, meeting with military commanders and representatives of local governance councils in a bid to bypass the fractious SNC.
Many in the SNC are accordingly frustrated with the level of support they've gotten in Washington. "The Obama administration is trying to systematically undermine the SNC. It's very unfortunate," one SNC leader said told The Cable.
But U.S. officials are equally frustrated with an SNC they say has failed to attract broad support, particularly from the Alawite and Kurdish minorities. The new council is an attempt to change that dynamic. Dozens of Syrian leaders will meet in the Qatari capital, Doha, on Nov. 3 and hope to announce the new council as the legitimate representative of all the major Syrian opposition factions on Nov. 7, one day after the U.S. presidential election.
The Obama administration sees the new council as a potential interim government that could negotiate with both the international community and - down the line - perhaps also the Syrian regime. The SNC will have a minority stake in the new body, but some opposition leaders are still skeptical that the effort will succeed.
The Qatar meeting will include dozens of opposition leaders from inside Syria, including from the provincial revolutionary councils, the local "coordination committees" of activists, and select people from the newly established local administrative councils.
"We call it a proto-parliament. One could also think of it as a continental congress," a senior administration official told The Cable.
U.S. officials and opposition leaders are calling the initiative the "Riad Seif plan," named after the former Syrian parliamentarian and dissident who was imprisoned after he signed the Damascus Declaration on respect for Syrians' human rights in 2005. He was released in 2011, beaten up by a Shabiha gang in Noember 2011, and finally allowed to leave Syria in June 2012.
Seif is central to the formation of the new council and is seen as a figure with broad credibility with both the internal and external Syrian opposition.
"We have to get [the internal opposition] to bless the new political leadership structure they're setting up and not only do we have to get them to bless the structure, but they have to get the names on it," the official said, noting that the exact structure of the council will be determined in Qatar, not before.
"We need to be clear: This is what the Americans support, and if you want to work with us you are going to work with this plan and you're going to do this now," the official said. "We aren't going to waste anymore time. The situation is worsening. We need to do this now."
Secretary Clinton's personal involvement came when she met with select members of the 80-member "Friends of Syria" group in New York, which included internal opposition figures and several foreign ministers from the Friends of Syria "core group" of 22 countries.
"The New York meeting was designed to tee up the idea that there has to be a new political structure, not just the SNC," the official said.
Two SNC leaders attended the meeting along with four representatives of the internal opposition, although only one such leader actually came from inside Syria. Of the other three, one traveled from Sweden, one from Jordan, and one from Kuwait. They all spoke briefly and then left the room while the foreign ministers discussed the road ahead.
"We wanted more [from inside Syria] but we couldn't get them out. The other people were chosen by people from the inside," the official said.
Even bringing that individual from within Syria proved to be a major undertaking, however, because he didn't have a passport. It took high-level intervention between the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. The Syrian caught his flight to New York for the meeting -- but only at the last minute.
The U.S. government will be represented at the Nov. 7 Qatar meeting by Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who has been dealing with various opposition groups and weighing in on the composition of the new council, a senior administration official said. For example, Ford pressed for the council to have 50 members in order to include 20 representatives of the internal opposition alongside 15 members of the SNC and 15 other representatives of various Syrian opposition organizations.
The idea is also to create an eight- to 10-member executive body -- made up of technocrats who are not on the new council -- that would be able to work directly with foreign governments on a day-to-day basis on practical items such as the delivery and direction of humanitarian assistance.
"We could finally have an interface to say ‘The needs of this place are greater than the needs of people in that place, so please direct assistance here or there,'" the official said.
The U.S. government is coordinating with governments in Europe and the region to forge consensus on the way ahead with the political opposition inside Syria and outside, the official added.
The Turkish government has been wary of the new effort because it has been heavily invested in the SNC, and the new council intentionally puts the SNC in a minority position.
But Washington's relationship with the SNC has been deteriorating for several months, officials said, and the administration believes the Turks will ultimately come around to embrace the new body.
The mutual recriminations between the Obama administration and the SNC reached a tipping point over the late spring and summer, when two official visits by the SNC to Washington were canceled, one in May and one in July. The May meeting was canceled by the U.S. side because the administration wanted the SNC to visit Moscow first -- a visit that didn't go well, the official said. The July meeting was scuttled by the SNC itself.
But the SNC isn't going away. The group's leaders will hold their own meeting in Qatar on Nov. 3 to establish a new 15-member executive council and potentially a new president.
Other Syrian activists warn that the new council is far from a sure thing.
One external opposition activist with ties to military leaders inside Syria told The Cable there's a risk the Doha meeting could be only the latest example of the opposition's failure to coalesce around a common vision and plan for a post-Assad Syria.
"Right now, the opposition groups are very vague and there's no agreement on who's representing who and what and where," this opposition activist said. "Right now there is a lot of risk that this will be another failed approach that will not achieve anything."
But the Obama administration's efforts go beyond the attempt to stand up the new council.
Although members of Ford's staff have been in communication with representatives of the opposition Free Syrian Army for some time, in July, Ford made his first in-person contact with the FSA during a visit to Cairo. A special conference call was arranged earlier this month between Ford and several FSA commanders, the official confirmed.
The Obama administration is well aware of the growing influence of opposition military commanders and the effort by Islamist extremists, including groups linked to al Qaeda, to gain influence over the direction of Syria's burgeoning civil war.
"There's a rising presence of Islamist extremists. So we need to help these [military council leaders], the majority of them are secular, relatively moderate, and not pursuing an overly vicious agenda," the official said.
But the Obama administration remains reluctant to directly provide weapons to the FSA and has all but ruled out committing U.S. military assets to the fight, despite the hopes of many Syrian opposition figures that the Nov. 6 election will mark an inflection point.
"We are providing to the political opposition all kinds of assistance and we're going to ramp that up, as the secretary has said," the official said. "I don't think there's going to be a big change after the election."
Corruption in Iraq is at an all-time high and several other major indicators of progress in the country are on a downward trend, according to a new U.S. government report.
Earlier this month, the Iraqi government fired Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) Governor Sinan al-Shabibi amid allegations of corruption, a move that is both a symptom and a consequence of increased corruption in Iraq and also a possible power grab by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, according to the report, published Tuesday by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.
"This peremptory and constitutionally questionable move occurred as an audit of the CBI's foreign currency auctions surfaced. The audit purportedly found that perhaps 80% of the $1 billion purchased at weekly CBI-managed auctions was tied to illegal transactions, with the funds subject to those transactions potentially lost abroad to money laundering," the report reads.
It continues: "This development is symptomatic of a troubled year in Iraq, evidenced by increasing corruption, resurgent violence, deepening ethno-sectarian strains, growing apprehensions about the conflict in Syria, and widening divides within the coalition government."
Special Inspector Stuart Bowen, in an interview with The Cable, said it's unclear whether the firing of Shabibi was a direct power grab by Maliki, but it does open up the possibility that Maliki will now have greater access to the vast capital reserves the bank holds.
"The facts are that Governor Shabibi was widely respected around the globe amongst financial ministers for building up Iraq's reserves to about $65 billion. And I did know from my discussions in Iraq there was some desire in Iraq to access some of that money for capital expenditure purposes and Shabibi had exerted a firm hand in preventing its use," Bowen said. "The government of Iraq wanted to access some of those reserves."
The Iraqi government's public explanation is that Shabibi was not diligent enough in combatting the money laundering that was going on at the bank, mostly through weekly auctions of dollars for Iraqi dinars. Bowen said that Abdul-Basit Turki, the head of the Board of Supreme Audit, made that money-laundering determination. Basset is now the acting governor of the Central Bank of Iraq.
"The matter of corruption was brought to me by a number of ministers, who noted to me that it's as bad as it's ever been," Bowen said.
The report points to several other negative indicators. For example, Iraq suffered its worst day of violence in more than two years when Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi was sentenced to death in absentia last month, charges that are widely viewed as political in nature. Iraq's relationship with Turkey is deteriorating, the ongoing violence in Syrian presents both political and humanitarian problems for Iraq, and a temporary resolution of Baghdad's oil revenue sharing dispute with the Kurds has not solved the overall problem, the report said.
Official numbers for staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, America's largest, have actually gone up despite State Department claims that the embassy was in the process of being downsized. Apparently, the number of staff had been underreported in the past.
"U.S. Embassy-Baghdad reported that 16,035 persons supported the U.S. Mission in Iraq at the end of the quarter, including 1,075 U.S. government civilian employees and 14,960 contractor personnel. The Embassy said the discrepancy was due to earlier underreporting of certain staff categories," the report stated.
"My expectation is that it will be shrinking. We had conflicting reporting about the size of the staff at the embassy," Bowen said. "We'll just have to wait to see how that evolves over the next couple of quarters."
SIGIR also announced in its report the conclusion of several investigations that resulted in either guilty pleas or convictions of persons abusing U.S. taxpayer funds in Iraq, including the guilty plea of the former chief of party in Baghdad for USIP of wire fraud.
Earlier this month, two former employees of the contractor Parsons were sentenced to prison for terms of 27 and 15 months for "conspiring to commit kickbacks, wire fraud, and mail fraud, and for filing false tax returns" and will pay about $2 million in restitution to the U.S. government. And Monday, UK-based Iraqi subcontractor Ahmed Sarchel Kazzaz was sentenced to 15 months in prison and ordered to pay about $1 million in restitution and forfeit another $1 million.
The U.S. government has obligated $60.5 billion to Iraqi relief and reconstruction since 2003.
In January, the SIGIR office will release its final lessons report and three more audits, and then the office will begin to roll up its operations unless Congress sees fit to extend its funding past March. If not, the hope is to take about 20 staffers from SIGIR's investigative unit and move them over to the Office for the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Bowen said.
"We have over 80 cases ongoing... the Hill has expressed in continuing the investigative part of SIGIR after the office officially closes down," he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot produce about $1 billion of receipts for fuel and other supplies it bought in Iraq using Iraqi money, a government investigation has found.
The total amount of funds unaccounted for has now reached a staggering $7 billion, officials say -- and they warn that the Iraqi government is likely to demand at least some of that money back.
The United States has been managing billions of dollars of Iraqi money through the U.N.-created Development Fund for Iraq (DFI) since 2003, money that was the result of Iraqi oil and gas sales or was left over from the "oil-for-food" program. The Army Corps of Engineers has been spending that money on energy and infrastructure programs in Iraq, but its recordkeeping was so poor that the Corps cannot prove it actually received goods for about $1 billion of the money it spent, according to the report, which was released Friday by the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR).
SIGIR reviewed $1.1 billion of DFI-related transactions by the Corps and found that a key document, the receiving report -- which documents that the goods or services were actually delivered to the intended recipients -- was missing for 95 percent of the transactions.
"Missing receiving reports involved commodities vulnerable to fraud and theft, such as fuel, televisions, and vehicles. SIGIR has not concluded that fraud or theft occurred, but the absence of receiving reports raises questions," the report stated. "Instead of using the required receiving reports to document fuel deliveries in Iraq, USACE officials told us that they maintained a fuel delivery log book. However, the log book is missing. In the absence of receiving reports and the fuel delivery log book, USACE has no evidence that shows whether fuel products paid for with DFI funds were received."
The Corps also didn't have enough trucks with meters to determine how much fuel was being delivered to more than 100 sites around Iraq. Nor has the Corps completed the required financial audits, so it's impossible to determine the status of all the DFI contracts, SIGIR says.
"Without these audits, USACE cannot close out these contracts and task orders and assess whether the contractor owes the U.S. money, whether the U.S. owes the contractor money, and ultimately, whether the U.S. needs to return unused DFI funds to the [government of Iraq]," the report said.
In an interview with The Cable, Deputy Inspector General Glen Furbish said that even though there's no evidence of fraud, there's a good chance the Iraqi government will try to seek some or all of this money from the U.S. government.
"Our inability to show that goods were received will always leave that question in the minds of the Iraqis as to whether we used their money appropriately," Furbish said. "We've sensed for some time that there is probably going to be an effort to make a claim against the U.S. for the unaccountable funds and this will probably be a piece of that ultimate claim."
This latest report is only the latest in a series of reports that delve into how the DFI money was used, and the total amount of money not properly accounted for is around $7 billion, Furbish said. SIGIR will release a final report on the U.S. government's handling of the DFI funds in January.
"This primarily means that our administrative handling of this money was not good," he said. "[The Iraqi government] may assert that our failure to keep records creates a claim for them."
The SIGIR office also released today a final report on the State Department's handling of Quick Response Funds (QRF), money that was handed out in Iraq, often by Provincial Reconstruction Teams, for projects that may or may not have ever materialized.
The State Department and USAID managed about $258 million in QRF funds but the results of the projects funded are unclear.
"From the available records, we could generally determine how funds were intended to be used, but we could not assess whether all of the goods and services were actually purchased, received, or transferred to beneficiaries," the report stated.
Furbish said that for many of these projects, the money was handed out but nobody ever followed up on the programs, largely because it was too dangerous to check on small reconstruction projects in the middle of the war.
"They have always maintained that we are asking a bit too much for a wartime program, in terms of us being bean counters and asking if people got something for their money," Furbish said. "Call us bean counters if you want, but if you can't show us what you spent the money on, I think you've got a control weakness."
State has made improvements in its handling of the QRF funds going forward, but department officials told SIGIR that it's impossible to go back and figure out what happened to the money spent in the early years on these projects, Furbish said.
"Cash on the battlefield is problematic in so many ways. It probably shouldn't even be allowed," he said.
Obama administration officials and outside experts believe that the Sept. 11 e-mails sent by the State Department's operations center referring to claims of responsibility by an extremist group might have been wrong, especially since that group denied responsibility the next day.
On Wednesday, several outlets reported that emails sent on the night of the attack from the State Department operations center to administration officials described the assault as it was in progress and noted that the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter.
The first email, sent on Sept. 11 at 4:05 p.m. Washington time, reported that 20 armed men had fired on the compound, that explosions were heard, and that Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other personnel were in the compound safe haven. The second email at 4:54 stated that the shooting had stopped. The third email said that Ansar al-Sharia had claimed credit on Facebook and Twitter.
But the official Facebook and Twitter pages of the Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi chapter showed no such Facebook posting on the night of Sept. 11, only a posting the next day denying that the group had been responsible for the attack, according to Aaron Zelin, an expert who monitors jihadist websites. The group's official Facebook page was taken down in the days after the attack but its official Twitter feed is still active, though the most recent tweet was on Sept. 14.
The group also posted on Facebook and Twitter a YouTube video on Sept. 12 praising the attack but emphasizing that it was not organized or officially led by Ansar al Sharia. The video leaves open the possibility that individual members of the group may have been involved in the attack.
"We commend the Libyan Muslim people in Benghazi [that were] against the attack on the [Muslim] Prophet [Muhammad]," a summary of the video states. "Katibat Ansar al-Sharia [in Benghazi] as a military did not participate formally/officially and not by direct orders."
Zelin, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, captured screenshots of the Facebook page, and said they suggest that the State Department operations center got it wrong when it emailed officials saying the group had claimed responsibility.
"Based on the original reaction from Katibat Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi (ASB), the language would suggest that the attack was not planned by the senior leadership, but rather members in an individual capacity were involved," Zelin told The Cable in an email. "Further, because this video statement was not posted until 7AM EST on the 12th on ASB's official Facebook page and Twitter account, it calls into question the leaked emails, which stated there was a statement claiming responsibility the night of the attack. It is possible staffers were mistaken in the heat of the moment. Not only was there no statement from ASB until the following morning, but it did not claim responsibility."
The group also released an official statement on Sept. 12 along the same lines, stating that the attack was not an official operation, as noted by Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal.
"Ansar al-Shariah Brigade didn't participate in this popular uprising as a separate entity, but it was carrying out its duties in al-Jala'a hospital and other places where it was entrusted with some duties. The Brigade didn't participate as a sole entity; rather, it was a spontaneous popular uprising in response to what happened by the West," the statement said.
Also on Sept. 12, a spokesman for Ansar al-Sharia praised the attack and said, according to the New York Times, "We are saluting our people for this zeal in protecting their religion, to grant victory to the prophet. The response has to be firm."
A senior State Department official told The Cable that the State Department operations center heard about the alleged Sept. 11 Facebook posting claiming responsibility secondhand, from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. The State Department hasn't determined whether the ops center email was correct or not, and either way, such emails are just spot reports and are not considered intelligence products.
"Whatever claim of responsibility that was issued that first night was withdrawn soon after by the Sept. 12 statements," the official said. "While some are interpreting it otherwise, this more than anything speaks to the fluidity of information that night and the days that followed."
The White House has refused to comment on which officials received the emails or when.
Pressed Wednesday to explain how the State Department ops center emails could be reconciled with official claims in the days after that there was no evidence the attack was "pre-planned," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney referred to the Sept. 12 statements from Ansar al-Sharia disavowing responsibility.
"This was an open-source, unclassified email about a posting on a Facebook site. I would also note I think that within a few hours, that organization itself claimed that it had not been responsible. Neither should be taken as fact. That's why there's an investigation underway," Carney said.
Three Republican senators -- Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) -- nonetheless sent a letter Wednesday to President Barack Obama demanding an explanation as to how the new reports reconcile with administration accounts of the attack at the time and since.
"These emails make clear that your Administration knew within two hours of the attack that it was a terrorist act and that Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan militant group with links to Al-Qaeda, had claimed responsibility for it. This latest revelation only adds to the confusion surrounding what you and your Administration knew about the attacks in Benghazi, when you knew it, and why you responded to those tragic events in the ways that you did," they wrote.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Wednesday criticized the idea that the State Department ops center emails or the alleged Facebook posting they mentioned could be definitive in any way.
"Posting something on Facebook is not in and of itself evidence, and I think it just underscores how fluid the reporting was at the time and continued for some time to be," Clinton said. "What I keep in mind is that four brave Americans were killed, and we will find out what happened, we will take whatever measures are necessary to fix anything that needs to be fixed, and we will bring those to justice who committed these murders. And I think that that is what we have said, that is what we are doing, and I'm very confident that we will achieve those goals."
UPDATE: After House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) sent a letter to the president today based on the State Department e-mails, his Democratic counterpart Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) issued a statement criticizing Issa for not mentioning that the content of the e-mails was in dispute.
Over and over again, Republicans have launched partisan accusations based on limited and inaccurate information, and in this case Chairman Issa disregarded conflicting reports that Ansar al-Sharia disavowed responsibility for the attack less than 24 hours later," said Cummings. "It’s time to stop shamelessly politicizing this tragedy and let the independent investigation complete its work without interference."
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) suggested Tuesday that President Bill Clinton is getting more and more active in politics this cycle in preparation for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to run for the presidency in 2016.
"I would never think such a thing and I am certainly not Machiavellian, but I am told that there are some that think this may have a lot to do with 2016 and the president's wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton," McCain said Tuesday morning. "Of course I would never suspicion such a thing, but there are some real jerks around who think that might be the case."
McCain was speaking on a conference call following Monday night's debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He said Obama is using President Clinton more and more in the campaign because Romney is gaining in the polls.
"I think [President Clinton's] appeal is obviously there and I don't think it's an accident that as Mitt Romney has surged in the polls there has been increase in the activities of President Clinton," he said.
In a recent interview with Marie Claire, Clinton repeated that she does not plan to run for president in 2016.
"I have been on this high wire of national and international politics and leadership for 20 years," Clinton said. "It has been an absolutely extraordinary personal honor and experience. But I really want to just have my own time back. I want to just be my own person. I'm looking forward to that."
McCain also addressed Obama's comments ridiculing Romney for comparing the size of the U.S. Navy today to its size during World War I.
"I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works. You -- you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets -- because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines," Obama said. "And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's what are our capabilities."
McCain said that Obama's highly touted rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region was an effort that requires robust ship presence and he said that if defense cuts under sequestration are allowed to take place, shipbuilding industries will suffer across the county and jobs will be lost.
"That was both demeaning to Mitt Romney and it also showed a degree of ignorance on the part of the president," McCain said. "You need naval presence the same way you did back then. Then to justify a steady reduction in shipbuilding, it shows a misunderstanding of the size of the challenge we face in the Asia-Pacific region."
McCain said that Romney had passed the commander-in-chief test at Monday's debate.
"The question in a lot of people's minds before this debate was: Is Mitt Romney capable of being the commander in chief?" McCain said. "I think he achieved that goal last night. I think he made it very clear to Americans, principally women, that he's not going to get us into other conflicts, that he understands the war-weariness of the American people over Iraq and Afghanistan. But he has also pointed out that we are weaker than we were four years ago, and of course in the Middle East that's absolutely true."
McCain did not mention that he supports U.S. airstrikes and the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria.
President Barack Obama and his administration did not only mislead the American people, they misled themselves on what happened the night of Sept. 11 in Benghazi, a top Romney foreign-policy advisor told The Cable ahead of Monday night's debate.
Regardless of whether or not Obama called the events in Benghazi an "act of terror" in the days following the attack, Mitt Romney does not believe the administration's insistence that the attack was related to an anti-Islam video was based solely on reports from the intelligence community, Romney advisor and former National Security Council official Eliot Cohen said in an interview.
"This notion that this was all because the intelligence community gave them bad information is just not correct. The idea that this was all attributable to the trailer for a crackpot movie was just not true," Cohen said. "That's a big fundamental problem that the administration has to deal with, that they did mislead people for a period of time, and what's even scarier, they misled themselves."
Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have reported that the intelligence community didn't formally revise its view that there may have been a protest related to the video until Sept. 22; the intelligence community maintains, according to the Times, that militants involved in the attack were inspired by the breach of the U.S. Embassy walls in Cairo.
But the Romney campaign's critique is broader than its claims of mishandled intelligence.
Cohen said that during Monday night's debate, Romney will likely refer to the administration's reaction to the Benghazi attack to counter the administration's claim that it has dealt a devastating blow to al Qaeda and that al Qaeda is "on its heels," as Obama has said many times in the past.
"They wanted to believe the narrative that this was an understandable if excessive and unacceptable reaction to a provocative piece of video, because the alternative would be to believe that their story, which is that the extremist problem is an essentially an al Qaeda problem, that it's a narrowly defined problem that you can deal with through targeted killings, that al Qaeda was on the verge of strategic defeat, is not true," he said. "In fact you are dealing with a larger problem which has metastasized across the Middle East. That is something they did not want to believe. You get into trouble when you try to fool other people. You get in bigger trouble when you try to fool yourself."
Cohen also criticized Obama for saying the death of four Americans is "not optimal" during an appearance last week on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stewart had used the word "optimal" in his question to Obama, but Cohen said that Obama shouldn't have taken the bait.
"For the president to get on a comedy show and say that the death of four Americans is ‘not optimal,' that is a really disturbing way to react to his event. It's absolutely glib," he said. "A president is supposed to be self-aware enough to just use words like ‘tragedy.' He's not supposed to be Jon Stewart. Jon Stewart is a comic; the president is supposed to be something else."
As for the debate, Cohen said that Obama has a natural advantage because he has access to vast amounts of intelligence and hundreds of national security officials, whereas Romney has limited foreign-policy information resources.
"There is a fundamental asymmetry here... The governor and the president both have experience creating jobs. Only one of them has been president with responsibility for the conduct of foreign policy," he said. "I think what you can expect from Governor Romney -- what is reasonable to expect -- is his assessment of how he sees the world, how he sees the larger developments that are out there, a set of principles of he thinks shape foreign policy, a sense of his leadership style, and how he makes decisions, and then an examination of the record of the guy who actually has been in charge for the last four years."
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has been advertising its message about Romney's foreign-policy competence this week, including through a memo penned by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) alleging that Romney has failed the "commander-in-chief" test.
"We have that steady and strong leader today in President Obama. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, offers nothing but endless bluster and a record of dangerous blunders, failing at every turn to show he's up to the challenge. In fact, Governor Romney has outlined fewer specific policies for how he would lead on national security issues than any presidential candidate in my memory," Kerry wrote. He is an extreme and expedient candidate who lacks the judgment and vision so vital for the Oval Office, and he's at the top of the most inexperienced foreign policy ticket to run for president and vice president in decades."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
During Tuesday's debate, President Barack Obama tempered his claims about U.S. success in fighting al Qaeda, jettisoning his oft-repeated campaign-trail claim that the terrorist organization is "on its heels."
"I said that I'd end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said we'd refocus attention on those who actually attacked us on 9/11, and we have gone after Al Qaeda's leadership like never before and Osama bin Laden is dead," Obama said during his second debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
That paragraph is part of Obama's regular stump speech, and he made nearly identical remarks at two campaign stops last week. But in those previous instances, Obama said that al Qaeda was "on its heels," a claim he didn't repeat in front of Tuesday night's national audience.
"Four years ago, I made a few commitments to you. I told you I'd end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said I'd end the war in Afghanistan, and we are. I said we'd refocus on the people who actually attacked us on 9/11 -- and today, al Qaeda is on its heels and Osama bin Laden is no more," he said in a campaign stop in San Francisco on Oct. 9.
Two days later, in another campaign stop in Miami, Obama said nearly the same thing.
"Four years ago, I told you we'd end the war in Iraq -- and we did. I said that we'd end the war in Afghanistan -- and we are. I said that we'd refocus on the people who actually attacked us on 9/11 -- and today, al Qaeda is on its heels and Osama bin Laden is dead," he said.
The attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi on 9/11 was reportedly the work of the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is thought to have ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM).
This month, the White House has been slowly but surely adding qualifications to its claims of progress in destroying al Qaeda, which has seen its ranks in North Africa increase recently.
For example, on Sept. 19 White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama's strategy in Afghanistan has "allowed us to take the fight to al Qaeda in the region in a way that we had not been able to before; that led to the decimation of al Qaeda's leadership."
By Oct. 10, after reports emerged tying al Qaeda links the Benghazi attack, Carney was specifying that al Qaeda "central" was hurting in two specific countries.
"Well, what we have said all along, what the president has said all along, is that ... progress has been made in decimating the senior ranks of al Qaeda and in decimating al Qaeda central in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region," adding that al Qaeda "remains our No. 1 foe."
Carney repeated his qualification that al Qaeda is hurting in Southwest Asia, but not necessarily in North Africa, two days later.
"[Obama] has made clear that he would refocus attention on what was a neglected war in Afghanistan, refocus our mission on al Qaeda, and decimating al Qaeda's leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- he has," Carney said Oct. 12.
In his debate Oct. 11, Vice President Joe Biden also declined to say that al Qaeda was completely decimated or on its heels during his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan.
"The fact is we went [to Afghanistan] for one reason: to get those people who killed Americans -- al Qaeda," Biden said "We decimated al Qaeda central; we have eliminated Osama bin Laden. That was our purpose."
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