Singapore - When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks Saturday morning at the 2012 Shangri-la Security Dialogue, the crowd will be hoping he puts some more meat on the bone in explaining the U.S. military rebalancing toward Asia.
Speaking to reporters on his plane after leaving Hawaii, Panetta previewed his remarks in Singapore and explained the purpose of his cross-Asia journey, which will also include stops in Vietnam and India. But he stopped short of making or promising any news on how the U.S. shift to Asia will be implemented and whether or not there is concrete action to match the flowery rhetoric.
"Look, obviously, the purpose of this trip is to define the new defense strategy for the region and particularly the emphasis on the rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region," Panetta said. "In Singapore I'm going to be talking to the Shangri-La Security Dialogue and there I'll again define the Asia-Pacific rebalance and our new strategy. And I'll also engage in a number of bilateral and multilateral meetings to listen to them, to listen to their thoughts, but also to define for them what our new strategy is all about."
Here on the ground in Singapore, there's already a lot of anticipation over what new information, if any, Panetta will divulge. In an article Wednesday for Foreign Policy, former NSC Asia official Mike Green wrote that the Shangri-la attendees will be disappointed if Panetta just repeats the same commitments to increase America's presence in Asia without explaining exactly what that will look like and whether the U.S. is willing to pay for it.
"It has become a cliché for U.S. defense secretaries to proclaim emphatically at Shangri-La that the United States is a Pacific power, as if the McKinley administration hadn't established that fact over a hundred years ago. What our friends and allies really want to know is whether this administration is prepared to resource its Asia strategy," wrote Green.
On the plane, Panetta reiterated the four basic principles that underpin the U.S. engagement strategy, namely to promote a rules-based regional order, to build stronger regional partnerships, including with China, to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Asia, and to strengthen U.S. power projection in the region. But the details of each pillar were sketchy.
For example, with regard to strengthening the U.S. presence in Asia, Panetta said, "We want to do that through a key element of our new strategy which is developing these innovative rotational exchanges and deployments that we've already begun to do in Australia, that we're working on in the Philippines, and that we're working on elsewhere as well. And also to obviously build on our key alliances and partnerships in the region. "
The Australia deployments were actually announced at last year's Shangri-la dialogue by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and no concrete plan for new deployments is expected this weekend. One reporter tried to get Panetta to name any other country where rotational deployments might be used, but Panetta declined to specify.
Regarding U.S. power projection, Panetta said, "We're going to be having a higher proportion of our forces that will be located in the Asia-Pacific." Of course, the U.S. is withdrawing troops from Europe and the Middle East, so a "higher proportion" doesn't actually mean any new U.S. forces for the Asia-Pacific region.
"We want to develop some new platforms for the kind of operations that I talked about in that region as well," Panetta continued. "And we want to obviously continue to invest in new technologies that will help us build a stronger power projection in the region as well."
One reporter asked Panetta directly if he will announce any details on increased military cooperation with Asia allies. Panetta responded by saying he will be in a listening mode.
"One of the things I hope to do in this process is not just to talk to them, but to listen to their needs as well. And, you know, I think we have a number of capabilities that we can bring to bear here. We can obviously provide advice. We can provide assistance. We can provide technological help. We can provide weaponry that is necessary. So I'm going to be listening to all of these countries and listen to what kind of assistance makes sense in developing that partnership relationship," he said.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, speaking to American Forces Press Service on his own plane ride to Singapore, said he is also planning on doing a lot of "listening" at the conference and during his many bilateral meetings.
"What I already know is that we've been very clear about the need for cooperation in the maritime domain [involving] freedom of navigation," he said. "I think that's exactly the right position to place ourselves. But beyond that, I want to hear what these 27 nations [at the Shangri-La Dialogue] have to say, both to us and to each other -- because it will clearly be one of the most prominent issues."
There's a lot of writing in the Chinese media this week that the Shangri-la dialogue will be a forum to gang up on China, especially when it comes to China's aggressive actions in the South China Sea. The People's Daily had a front page commentary this week that railed against U.S. interceding in that dispute.
"Issues that arise from the South China Sea need to be solved through negotiations by China with the claimants," states the commentary said. "Intervention by external sources will only make existing contradictions more complicated and sharpen conflicts further, especially when a force of hegemony intervenes."
But if China is left out of the discussions on regional security this weekend, that is at least partially due to the fact that they have significantly downgraded their representation at the conference. Defense Minister Liang Guanglie decided not to return this year, perhaps to avoid another set of tough questions from your humble Cable guy.
"Liang Guanglie is a no-show in Singapore this year. The Defence Minister preferred to talk to his ASEAN counterparts in Cambodia, where he could express China's displeasure at recent events in the South China Sea in bilateral meetings - especially in the two-way with the Philippines," reads a commentary on the Interpreter, a blog of Australia's Lowy Institute.
"Shangri-La shouldn't discomfort Beijing too much. Ministers don't have to announce anything nor issue a formal concluding statement. This is the summit that makes a virtue out of not having official achievements."
Singapore - Security in the South China Sea, tensions in North Korea, and the changing nature of Asian security will top the agenda this weekend at the Shangri-la Security Dialogue, the largest annual gathering of Asian and Pacific defense officials and experts in the world.
Your humble Cable guy is already on the ground as the top delegations from 28 countries, including 16 defense ministers, convene on the island city-state this weekend for the 12th annual iteration of the conference, run by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) out of London. Last year's event was packed with news, as when then Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled a new U.S. plan to increase the U.S. military commitment to Southeast Asia.
Gates met with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie at last year's event and Liang fought off verbal attacks from several regional powers on China's aggressive activities in the maritime domain. He even answered several questions posed by The Cable. Although the United States and China tried to portray an image of improving U.S.-China military ties, last year's event highlighted the deep disparity between the two country's visions for the region.
This year, the United States is sending a large, high-level delegation led by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and including Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Pacific Command chief Adm. Samuel Locklear, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Mark Lippert.
There will also be a hefty U.S. congressional delegation here in Singapore, including Senate Armed Services ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Rep. Eni Faleomavaega (D-Samoa), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Panetta, who is also traveling to Vietnam and India on the trip, will focus his speech in Singapore on the U.S. military shift toward Asia. He previewed those remarks in a May 29 speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.
"America is a maritime nation, and we are returning to our maritime roots," Panetta said. "America's future prosperity and security are tied to our ability to advance peace and security along the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia. That reality is inescapable for our country and for our military, which has already begun broadening and deepening our engagement throughout the Asia-Pacific."
Panetta will travel to China for the first time as Defense Secretary later this year. For Washington, the conference is a chance to drive home its commitment to Asian security, said John Chipman, director-general and chief executive of IISS. For China, the conference is an opportunity to defend its actions and intentions toward its neighbors.
"This year the U.S. will reaffirm its rebalancing to Asia, what they earlier called the ‘pivot' to Asia that they are now calling ‘the rebalancing,'" Chipman said. "China has had a challenging year with the region, which is simultaneously attracted and intimidated by Chinese power."
In a change from last year, China won't be sending an official at the defense-minister level. Sources familiar with the discussions said that due to the sensitive nature of China's impending leadership transition, the Chinese government is being unusually cautious about its public interactions.
That will shift some of the attention to the other regional powers, such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, and Malaysia. For example, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will give the opening keynote address. Thai defense minister Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwanatat will attend for the first time, as will the defense minister of Myanmar, Lt. Gen. Hla Min. Indian defense minister A K Antony will deliver another one of the keynote speeches.
"We know what the U.S. and China think. It will be interesting to see how the medium powers seek to frame the discussion," Chipman said. "Indonesia sees itself now not just as a leading country in Southeast Asia but as a G-20 power. It wants to play a larger role in defining the security agenda in the region."
As with many of these conferences, much of the real action will take place on the sidelines -- in a series of bilateral, small group, and off the record meetings that will occur alongside the official festivities. This year there will be an off-the-record session on tensions in the South China Sea in which Chinese and Filipino officials will participate.
Other special sessions will cover the role of armed forces in international emergencies, the evolution of submarine warfare, cyberwarfare, and the emergence of new military systems such as unmanned vehicles.
The United States, Japan, and South Korea will use the opportunity of the conference to hold a trilateral side meeting, where the North Korea nuclear issue is expected to be discussed. Indonesia, Australia, and India will hold another small multilateral meeting, possibly including Japan.
There will be more than 200 bilateral meetings in Singapore as well, in addition to the dozen or so small multilateral gatherings. That's the whole idea of bringing these officials to Singapore for three days, Chipman said.
"Almost all the defense ministers refer to it as ‘the indispensable forum' for defense discussions," he said. "It really allows for a larger variety of discussions that no other forum in Asia -- official or unofficial -- permits."
We'll be blogging and tweeting (@joshrogin) the entire time. Watch this space.
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
The U.S. government considers the descendants of Palestinian refugees to be refugees, a State Department official told The Cable, and another top State Department official wrote in a letter to Congress that there are now 5 million Palestinian refugees.
The two new policy statements come in the midst of a fight over whether the United States will start separating, at least on paper, Palestinians who fled what is now Israel in 1948 and 1967 from their descendants.
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved unanimously an amendment to the fiscal 2013 State Department and foreign operations appropriations bill that requires the State Department to report on how many of the 5 million Palestinians currently receiving assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) are actually people who were physically displaced from their homes in Israel or the occupied territories, and how many are merely descendants of original refugees.
The amendment, as passed, was watered down by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) from a version proposed by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) that would have required more in-depth reporting on how many UNRWA aid recipients are now living in the West Bank, Gaza, and other countries such as Jordan. An even earlier version of the bill would have made it U.S. policy that Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, and those who are citizens of countries like Jordan are not, in fact, "refugees."
The State Department objected strongly to the Kirk amendment, claiming that any U.S. determination of the number or status of refugees was unhelpful and destabilizing and that refugee determinations are a final-status issue that must be negotiated between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
"This proposed amendment would be viewed around the world as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the outcome of this sensitive issue," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides wrote Thursday in a letter to Leahy. "United States policy has been consistent for decades, in both Republican and Democratic administrations -- final status issues can and must only be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians in direct negotiations. The Department of State cannot support legislation which would force the United States to make a public judgment on the number and status of Palestinian refugees."
"This action would damage confidence between the parties at a particularly fragile time, undercut our ability to act as a mediator and peace facilitator, and generate very strong negative reaction from the Palestinians and our allies in the region, particularly Jordan," Nides wrote.
But later down in the letter, Nides states, "UNRWA provides essential services for approximately five million refugees, including education for over 485,000 school children, primary health care in 138 clinics, and social services for the most Vulnerable, particularly in Lebanon and Gaza." (Emphasis added.)
To experts and congressional officials following the issue, that declaration was remarkable because it was the first time the State Department had placed a number -- 5 million -- on the number of Palestinian refugees.
"The Nides letter could be considered a change in U.S. policy with consideration to refugees because it states clearly that 5 million people served by UNRWA are refugees," one senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable. "For the Obama administration to stake out a position emphatically endorsing the rights of 5 million Palestinian refugees is by itself prejudging the outcome of final- status issues."
Steve Rosen, a long time senior AIPAC official who now is the Washington director of the Middle East Forum, said that by calling all 5 million UNRWA aid recipients "refugees," the State Department is saying that all the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and the nearly 2 million who are citizens of Jordan have some claim to the "right of return" to Israel, even though Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all stated clearly that a two-state solution would mean that the bulk of the 5 million Palestinian "refugees" would end up living in the West Bank or Gaza, not Israel.
President Barack Obama said in June 2011, "A lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people." In January, 2008, while a presidential candidate, Obama said, "The right of return [to Israel] is something that is not an option in a literal sense."
At the heart of the issue is what constitutes a "refugee." The entire thrust of the Kirk amendment was to challenge UNRWA's definition, which includes the descendants of refugees -- children, grandchildren, and so on. That has resulted in the number of Palestinian "refugees" skyrocketing from 750,000 in 1950 to the 5 million figure quoted by Nides today.
An analysis by the academic journal Refugee Survey Quarterly projected that if that definition remains intact, there will be 11 million Palestinian refugees by 2040 and 20 million by 2060.
In a new statement given to The Cable Thursday, a State Department spokesman said that the U.S. government does, in fact, agree with UNRWA that descendants of refugees are also refugees.
"Both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) generally recognize descendants of refugees as refugees," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told The Cable. "For purposes of their operations, the U.S. government supports this guiding principle. This approach is not unique to the Palestinian context."
Ventrell pointed out that the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees also recognizes descendants of refugees as refugees in several cases, including but not limited to the Burmese refugee population in Thailand, the Bhutanese refugee population in Nepal, the Afghan population in Pakistan, and the Somali population seeking refuge in neighboring countries.
UNHCR by default only considers the minor children of refugees to have refugee status but often makes exceptions to include latter generations. Regardless, the State Department's new statement could have wide-ranging implications.
"How many generations does it go?" asked Rosen. "I'm Jewish, and as a grandchild of several refugees, could I make a claim on all these countries? Where does it end? Someday all life on Earth will be a Palestinian refugee."
The Cable asked the State Department whether descendants of refugees get refugee status for endless generations and whether Nides's mention of the 5 million Palestinian refugees was an intentional shift in U.S. policy, but we haven't gotten a response.
The State Department statements also appear to conflict with the United States Law on Derivative Refugee Status, which allows spouses and children of refugees to apply for derivative status as refugees, but specifically declares that grandchildren are ineligible for derivative refugee status. In other words, U.S. law doesn't permit descendants of refugees to get refugee status inside the United States.
Some regional experts see Kirk's amendment as a ploy to cut some of the $250 million in U.S. funding for UNRWA and bolster Israel's position by negating rights of Palestinians that would otherwise be determined in negotiations.
Leila Hilal, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, told The Cable that to honestly determine which Palestinians remain refugees, one would have to wade into a long, complicated legal and factual analysis about which Palestinians in the region have adequate national protection that would end their refugee status.
"The rights of return and property restitution do not depend on refugee status," she said. "Ultimately, however, this congressional move is a political stunt intended to preempt final-status outcomes -- and a rather cheap one at that."
UPDATE: A State Department official confirms that yes, the descendants of refugees are still refugees for numerous generations until they return home or are resettled in a third country. The official also argued that Nides' reference to UNRWA serving 5 million "refugees" was also accurate.
"The number of people on UNRWA's rolls isn't and shouldn't be a secret," the official said. "The Kirk amendment, based on commentary surrounding it, is meant to set a stage for the U.S. to intervene now with the determination that 2nd and 3rd generation descendants have no claims and in fact aren't even Palestinians. Our interest is to avoid that. We are not predetermining numbers that the parties themselves must ultimately agree on. Nor can UNWRA."
In a rare moment of bipartisan unity in the Senate, Democrats and Republicans joined together to admonish Pakistan for its treatment of the doctor who helped the United States find Osama bin Laden.
At a Senate Appropriations Committee markup this morning, senior senators from both sides of the aisle took turns accusing Pakistan of supporting terrorism, undermining the war in Afghanistan, extorting the U.S. taxpayer, and punishing Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to find Bin Laden and was sentenced this week to 33 years in jail for treason. One senior senator predicted the Pakistani government was about to fall.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the heads of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, co-sponsored an amendment to the fiscal 2013 foreign affairs funding bill that would withhold $33 million in foreign military aid to Pakistan -- one year for each year of Afridi's sentence. That amendment came on top of new restrictions in the bill that would withhold all counterinsurgency aid to Pakistan if Islamabad doesn't reopen trucking routes for supplies for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But senators' frustration with Pakistan was not limited to recent events; they piled on with criticism of Pakistan's government, military, and intelligence services' actions throughout the war in Afghanistan. All agreed that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as currently arranged was dysfunctional and undermining U.S. national security interests.
Graham started by pointing out that the Senate is proposing reductions in next year's emergency funding for Pakistan by 58 percent from the president's request.
"When it comes to Pakistan, every member of this committee is challenged to go home and answer the question, ‘Why are we helping Pakistan?'" he said. "We can't trust Pakistan, but we can't abandon them."
"If we don't get those truck routes open so we can serve our troops in Afghanistan, we're going to stop the funding ... I do not expect Americans to sit on the sideline and watch the negotiations turn into extortion," said Graham.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) launched into a widespread criticism of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), the country's premier spy agency.
"I have long believed that Pakistan, especially the ISI, walks both sides of the street when it comes to terror," she said, noting that most leaders of the Taliban and the Haqqani network are assessed to be living in Pakistan. She also spoke about the Afridi case.
"He was not and is not a spy for our country. This was not a crime against Pakistan. It was an effort and locate and help bring to justice the world's No. 1 terrorist," she said. "This conviction says to be that al Qaeda is viewed by the court to be Pakistan ... I don't know which side of the war Pakistan is on."
Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) went next and said Feinstein's sentiments about Afridi were shared by many in the Senate. He was followed by Leahy, who said he was "outraged" about the Afridi case and said Pakistan public statements criticizing terrorism don't match its actions.
"It is Alice in Wonderland, at best, but it is outrageous in itself. If this is cooperation, I would hate like heck to see opposition," Leahy said.
"Pakistan is a schizophrenic at best ally," Graham said as he introduced the amendment to cut funding over the Afridi situation. "They are helping the Haqqani network ... which is basically a mob trying to take over parts of Afghanistan. And the ISI constantly provides assistance in Quetta on the Pakistani side of the border."
"The situation with the doctor is a classic example of not understanding the world the way it is," Graham said. "We need Pakistan, but we don't need a Pakistan that cannot see the justice in bringing bin Laden to an end."
Graham then took a shot at Pakistan's civilian government, which is often at odds with the military and the intelligence agencies.
"This government is about to fall. They are not serving their own people," Graham said.
Feinstein did chime in at the end of the debate with praise for Pakistan's new ambassador to Washington, Sherry Rehman.
"To me this is a very sad day. I have met the new Pakistani ambassador," Feinstein said. "She is a brilliant woman, she speaks fluent English, she has had a distinguished career.... This is just very hard to reconcile."
The amendment passed unanimously 30-0.
China's record on human rights deteriorated as the Chinese government engaged in widespread and expanding severe repression of its own people and ethnic minorities in 2011, the State Department said in a new report released today.
"Deterioration in key aspects of the country's human rights situation continued. Repression and coercion, particularly against organizations and individuals involved in rights advocacy and public interest issues, were routine," reads the State Department's new Human Rights Report on China.
"Individuals and groups seen as politically sensitive by the authorities continued to face tight restrictions on their freedom to assemble, practice religion, and travel. Efforts to silence political activists and public interest lawyers were stepped up, and, increasingly, authorities resorted to extralegal measures including enforced disappearance, ‘soft detention,' and strict house arrest, including house arrest of family members, to prevent the public voicing of independent opinions," the report stated.
The Chinese government harassed public interest law firms, increased attempts to limit freedom of speech and control the Internet, and continued "severe cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and Tibetan areas," the State Department determined.
The report listed dozens of ways the Chinese government represses its people, including: extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearance; "black jails"; torture and coerced confessions of prisoners; detention and harassment of lawyers, journalists, writers, dissidents, and petitioners; restrictions on freedom to assemble, practice religion, and travel; failure to protect refugees and asylum seekers; a coercive birth limitation policy that in some cases resulted in forced abortion or forced sterilization; trafficking in persons; and the use of forced labor, including prison labor.
"Corruption remained widespread," the report said.
The report also dings the Chinese government for its failure to account for the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.
"At year's end the government had not provided a comprehensive, credible accounting of all those killed, missing, or detained in connection with the violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations," the report said.
More than 40,000 people have been admitted to 22 psychiatric hospitals for the criminally insane in China run by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and those patients have no means to contest their status as mentally ill, according to the report.
"Patients in these hospitals reportedly were medicated against their will and forcibly subjected to electric shock treatment," the State Department said.
As for criminal trials in China, "There was no presumption of innocence, and the criminal justice system was biased toward a presumption of guilt, especially in high-profile or politically sensitive cases," the report explained. "According to statistics released on the Supreme People's Court (SPC) official Web site, in 2010 the combined conviction rate for first- and second-instance criminal trials was 99.9 percent."
Of more than 1 million criminal defendants tried in 2010, less than 1,000 were acquitted.
Tibet and Tibetan populated areas of China found themselves under "under increasingly intense and formalized systems of controls, many of which appeared to be aimed at facilitating enforcement of ‘social stability' and undermining the religious authority of the Dalai Lama," the report said.
"There was severe repression of the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and movement. Authorities continued to commit serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial detentions, and house arrests. The preservation and development of Tibet's unique religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage and unique high plateau environment remained a concern," it said.
The congressional drive to update a 1948 law on how the U.S. government manages its public diplomacy has kicked off a heated debate over whether Congress is about to allow the State Department to propagandize Americans. But the actual impact of the change is less sinister than it might seem.
On May 18, Buzzfeed published a story by reporter Michael Hastings about the bipartisan congressional effort to change the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 (as amended by the Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987). The story was entitled, "Congressmen seek to lift propaganda ban," and focuses on the successful effort by Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA) to add their Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 as an amendment to the House version of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.
The new legislation would "authorize the domestic dissemination of information and material about the United States intended primarily for foreign audiences." The Buzzfeed article outlines concerns inside the defense community that the Pentagon might now be allowed to use information operations and propaganda operations against U.S. citizens. A correction added to the story notes that Smith-Mundt doesn't apply to the Pentagon in the first place.
In fact, the Smith-Mundt act (as amended in 1987) only covers the select parts of the State Department that are engaged in public diplomacy efforts abroad, such as the public diplomacy section of the "R" bureau, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the body that oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other U.S. government-funded media organizations.
Implementation of the law over the years has been selective, haphazard, and at times confusing, because even State Department bureaus often aren't sure if they have to abide by it. The Thornberry-Smith language is meant to fix that by applying Smith-Mundt to the entire State Department and USAID.
The Defense Department, meanwhile, has its own "no propaganda" rider, enshrined in the part of U.S. code that covers the Pentagon, and that is not affected in any way by either Smith-Mundt as it stands or by the proposed update now found in the defense bill. The only reason the Smith-Mundt modernization bill was attached to the defense bill was because that bill is one that's sure to move and Congress hasn't actually passed a foreign affairs authorization bill in years.
"To me, it's a fascinating case study in how one blogger was pretty sloppy, not understanding the issue and then it got picked up by Politico's Playbook, and you had one level of sloppiness on top of another. And once something sensational gets out there, it just spreads like wildfire," Thornberry told The Cable in an interview today.
He said the update for Smith-Mundt was intended to recognize that U.S. public diplomacy needs to compete on the Internet and through satellite channels and therefore the law preventing this information from being available to U.S. citizens was simply obsolete.
"It should be completely obvious that a law first passed in 1948 might need to be updated to reflect a world of the Internet and satellite [TV]," he said. "If you want the State Department to engage on the war of ideas, it has to do it over the Internet and satellite channels, which don't have geographical borders."
Salon writer Glenn Greenwald interviewed Smith Tuesday and wrote a story questioning whether the law would allow the State Department to try to influence American public opinion though "propaganda." He noted a press release on the Thornberry-Smith legislation which complained that Smith-Mundt had prevented a Minneapolis radio station from replaying VOA broadcasts to Somali-Americans to rebut terrorist propaganda.
Thornberry's response was to say that the 21st century media environment is already so diverse and open that opening Americans' access to one more source of information, State Department-produced news and information, was not likely to propagandize American citizens.
"It makes me chuckle. This is not 1948 when everybody was tuned to a few radio stations and the fear was that the information we were sending to Eastern Bloc countries was going to affect American politics," he said. "The idea that the State Department could be so effective as to impact domestic politics is just silly. This gives Americans the chance to see what the State Department is saying to people all over the world."
In fact, advocates of the bill tout the issue of transparency and oversight of U.S. public diplomacy as one of the main benefits of the new bill. Previously, oversight of State Department public diplomacy efforts abroad was done by an advisory commission inside the State Department that was shut down last year, while Congress and the media has little to no direct access to the material.
Thornberry said that domestic dissemination of the material will actually increase the transparency and oversight of U.S. public diplomacy by laying it bare for Americans to chew over.
"If all these bloggers see the State Department trying to influence something domestically, they will be the first to raise the alarm," he said. "It is always going to be true that you have to look at the effectiveness and truthfulness of the content of the information. But it would no longer be against the law that the American people can see it."
Matt Armstrong, who was the executive director of the State Department's advisory commission on public diplomacy before it got shut down because Congress declined to reauthorize it, explained on his Mountainrunner blog that Smith-Mundt was designed by a Cold War U.S. government that simply didn't trust the State Department to talk directly to the American people.
"The Smith-Mundt Act is misunderstood and often mistaken for ‘anti-propaganda' legislation intended to censor the Government. The reality is the original prohibition on the State Department disseminating inside the U.S. its own information products designed for audiences abroad was, first, to protect the Government from the State Department and, second, to protect commercial media," he wrote.
In an interview today, Armstrong pointed out that the Thornberry-Smith bill explicitly notes that two existing provisions of Smith-Mundt, both of which would remain intact, address concerns that the State Department might overreach in trying to influence Americans. Section 1437 of the existing legislation requires the State Department to defer to private media whenever possible and Section 1462 requires State to withdraw from a government information activity whenever a private media source is found as an adequate replacement.
He said the law as it stands is just not working and doesn't make a lot of sense. "When Cal Ripkin or Michele Kwan go to China, Americans aren't supposed to know that they went or what they did there. In addition, virtually anything that's on a U.S. embassy website is off limits," he said.
The discussion over Smith-Mundt is further distorted by a lack of understanding about what public diplomacy is and when it crosses over into "propaganda."
"Let's face it, it is impossible to communicate and not influence.. The idea here is that U.S. public diplomacy is not based on lies," said Armstrong. "There's this misconception that public diplomacy is propaganda. Propaganda is a lie, a deception, or intentional ambiguity, none of which can be lead to effective public diplomacy by any country, let alone the U.S."
Of course, the State Department's Public Affairs bureaucracy, which speaks to Americans every day in various forms, is capable of "propaganda," but is not covered by Smith-Mundt. The Cable asked State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at today's press briefing if State supported the Thornberry-Smith legislation.
"We have long thought that aspects of Smith-Mundt need to be modernized, that in a 24-7 Internet age it's hard to draw hard lines like the original Smith-Mundt [Act] did in the ‘40s," she said.
We then asked Nuland whether the State Department has any intent to propagandize American citizens.
"We do not and never have," she said with a smile.
The United States should not pay upwards of $5,000 for each truck Pakistan lets through to Afghanistan to aid the war effort, both leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee told The Cable today.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met at this weekend's NATO summit in Chicago and President Barack Obama met with Zardari in a three-way exchange with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But the United States and Pakistan were not able to finalize the details of a deal to reopen the ground lines of communication through which the U.S. sends goods to troops in Afghanistan. Those supply lines have been closed since ISAF forces accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in two border outposts last November and refused to apologize for it.
One American official told the New York Times that Pakistan wants "upwards of $5,000" for each truck that crosses through its territory, whereas the fee paid by the United States before last November was about $250 per truck.
"I think that's called extortion," Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable Tuesday. "We can't look at aid in that light. It's now becoming a matter of principle."
Senate Armed Services Committee head Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable there's no way the United States should pay Pakistan fees anywhere near that level.
"Whatever the cost of the security has been, we ought to continue whatever level of support that was. This looks to me to be totally inappropriate," he said.
Levin's committee is working on the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill this week behind closed doors. That bill could contain new restrictions on U.S. aid to Pakistan.
UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Appropriations Committee proposed new restrictions on aid to Pakistan in their mark up of the fiscal 2013 State and foreign ops appropriations bill. The bill would withhold all counterinsurgency funds for Pakistan until the Pakistani government reopens the cargo supply lines to Afghanistan.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker will leave his post due to health concerns, the State Department confirmed today.
"Today, Ambassador Ryan Crocker confirmed to the Afghan Government, U.S. Mission Afghanistan, and the ISAF community that he intends to depart his post for health reasons in mid-summer, following the Kabul and Tokyo conferences," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "Ambassador Crocker's tenure has been marked by enormous achievements: the Bonn Conference, the conclusion of the Strategic Partnership Agreement, and the two Memoranda of Understanding on detentions and special operations, and the Chicago NATO Summit."
The Tokyo conference on Afghanistan is scheduled to take place in July.
Crocker came out of retirement in January 2011 to take up the Kabul envoy post. From 2009 until 2011 he was dean of the George Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University. Previously, he was the top U.S. official in Kabul following the fall of the Taliban and reopened the U.S. Embassy there in 2003.
Two State Department officials also confirmed to The Cable that Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman will step down soon to become the U.N.'s under secretary for political affairs, replacing Lynn Pascoe. That was first reported in March by the U.N. blog Inner City Press, and was reported again by Reuters Monday.
At the U.N., Feltman will be in charge of coordinating that body's response to crises in the Middle East, among other places. There is no word on Feltman's replacement, but we're told by an administration source that State is considering bringing in someone to temporarily fill in for Feltman in the assistant secretary role.
As the war in Afghanistan winds down, Afghan women and those who support them are clamoring to make sure that years of progress in women's rights are not reversed as the international community leaves.
The State Department's ambassador at large for global women's issues, Melanne Verveer, represented the U.S. government at a series of events in Chicago meant to highlight the plight of Afghanistan's female population and urge their inclusion in the political process. There was only one woman in the Afghan government's official delegation, but Verveer and others strove to make sure the issue didn't get short shrift in Chicago.
Verveer headlined a "shadow summit for Afghan women" Sunday in Chicago that included the participation of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). The goal of the summit was to urge Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO leaders, especially President Barack Obama, to boost women's participation in Afghan civil society development and to call on them to protect hard-fought rights for Afghan women if and when the Taliban re-enter the Afghan government.
"This issue was not one that should be viewed as a favor to women, but one that is absolutely critical to any future progress, stability, or peace in Afghanistan," Verveer said in a Monday interview with The Cable.
She noted that the joint declaration issued at the summit Monday gave a nod to women's equality in Afghanistan but said that more work needed to be done to ensure promises will be kept if the Taliban join the government.
"Red lines have been established [for Taliban reconciliation] that, in addition to renunciation of violence and rejection of al Qaeda, talk about adherence to the constitution, which includes women's rights and all that represents," Verveer said. "It has been an intensive, extensive, ongoing effort and that will continue."
Leading human rights groups are not so sure that effort is succeeding. Amnesty International, the organization that convened the shadow summit, released Sunday an open letter to Obama and Karzai pleading for more protections and a greater role for Afghan women.
"We are concerned that the U.S. and allied withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 may put women and girls at even greater risk of abuses... In this climate, we are alarmed that inadequate attention is being paid to women's rights and participation in peace talks with the Taliban," stated the letter.
"The United States, Afghanistan and other relevant parties must commit to clear, measurable steps to ensure that women's and girls' rights are protected and that positive momentum is maintained. Without these safeguards, any peace agreement will represent false progress and doom Afghanistan to repeat its repressive past."
The letter was signed by Albright, Schakowsky, actress Meryl Streep, musician Joan Baez, former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, artist Yoko Ono, feminist leader Gloria Steinem, musician Sting, and many others.
Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, told The Cable Monday that although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken out about Afghan women, there's a lot more the U.S. government can and must do.
"This weekend's summit contained no specific recognition of the circumstances women faced under the Taliban, the progress that has been made over the last 10 years and the primary importance of making sure that progress continues," she said. "There's not a sense this is being considered a critical piece of the overall transition process. This really requires presidential leadership."
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
Today, President Barack Obama announced today that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will hand over lead combat responsibility for all of Afghanistan in mid-2013 -- just as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in February.
"Today, we'll decide the next phase of the transition -- the next milestone," Obama said today at the NATO summit in Chicago. "We'll set a goal for Afghan forces to take the lead for combat operations across the country in 2013 -- next year -- so that ISAF can move to a supporting role. This will be another step toward Afghans taking full lead for their security as agreed to by 2014, when the ISAF combat mission will end."
Obama's announcement is meant to set a marker of progress next year when ISAF hands over the fifth and final tranche of territory to Afghan security forces. As of this week, three out of those five areas now have Afghan security forces in the lead. The announcement was made to show progress toward a complete end of the ISAF combat role in 2014, as agreed at the last NATO summit in Lisbon.
The announcement's weight and impact was lessened somewhat by the fact that Panetta had already made it in February, some say accidentally, most say inelegantly, on a plane ride to Brussels.
On the way to a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels, Panetta made news when he told reporters on the plane, "Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013... Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role."
Those remarks were initially interpreted as a speeding up of the Lisbon schedule, but two days later in Munich at an international conference, Panetta clarified that he was talking about a transfer of lead combat responsibility and that ISAF troops would retain some combat role well into 2014.
"We hope Afghan forces will be ready to take the combat lead in all of Afghanistan sometime in 2013. But of course ISAF will continue to be fully combat capable and we will engage in combat as necessary thereafter," he said.
Your humble Cable guy was in Munich and heard from several NATO officials that they were surprised by Panetta's remarks because they expected the milestone announcement to come out in May. "It was all carefully planned and now that plan is completely ruined," one European defense official said at the time.
At the time, one administration official told The Cable that the reason Panetta disclosed the 2013 milestone inelegantly and months ahead of the planned rollout was that he accidentally went beyond the talking points cleared for public consumption to reporters on the plane.
Today, a senior defense official told The Cable that simply wasn't the case.
"The messages he delivered were the messages he intended to deliver. It's wrong to say that he accidentally read from internal documents. He drew from materials that officials across the interagency knew would be made public," the defense official said.
An internal document obtained after the fact by The Cable backs up that claim. According to the document, Panetta did have clearance to talk about the shift away from a combat mission during his Brussels/Munich trip, although not in explicit detail and not with the 2013 date attached.
"NATO and its partners in ISAF are discussing the establishment of an interim milestone for transition in Afghanistan, which would be announced at Chicago," reads the document. "When we reach the interim milestone ISAF forces will shift from a lead combat role to a supporting role - focused on training, advising and assisting the ANSF."
The internal document was marked "For use with allies and press."
Either way, the White House today said that Obama's announcement today about the milestone was still significant because it included the endorsement of all the relevant world leaders and made it the official ISAF policy, regardless of who said what and when.
"What happened this week codified at a head of state level a lot of hard work and planning that's been ongoing for months and which builds on what we agreed to at the Lisbon Summit," National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.
This weekend's NATO summit in Chicago is the first in decades to make little to no progress on the enlargement of the organization, leaving several countries to wait another two years to move toward membership in the world's premier military alliance.
In the official 65-point summit declaration issued Sunday, there were several references to the four countries vying for progress on their road to NATO membership: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Georgia. But none came away from the summit with any tangible progress to tout back at home. NATO expansion was just not a priority of the Obama administration this year, U.S. officials and experts say, given the packed security-focused agenda and looming uncertainly caused by the deepening European financial crisis.
The 28 NATO foreign ministers did meet with leaders of the four "aspirant" countries, and the declaration praised those countries' contributions to NATO missions, but offered them little more than polite thanks.
"We are grateful to these partners that aspire to NATO membership for the important contributions they are making to NATO-led operations, and which demonstrate their commitment to our shared security goals," the declaration said.
"We're caught in this halfway place of ‘the door is open,' but it feels as if there's no political will or energy to make it happen," said Heather Conley, senior fellow and director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "NATO enlargement has always been about strong American leadership, but this has not been a top priority for this administration."
Each would-be NATO member has its own roadblocks to membership. Bosnia still has some constitutional reforms to enact before it can be eligible. Georgia, recently named an "aspirant" NATO member, has its bid tied up by the Russian occupation of two of its territories. Montenegro has been granted its NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), the final step before membership. But Macedonia, which was granted MAP status way back in 1999, can't join NATO because Greece is still demanding that the Republic of Macedonia change its name.
There was a concerted effort in Washington in the lead up to the summit to push for a resolution to the Macedonia name dispute, but to no avail. Last month, 54 members of Congress wrote to President Barack Obama to ask him to break the logjam. Obama's own former National Security Advisor, Jim Jones, wrote an op-ed May 18 urging the president to do more on enlargement.
"The alliance's enlargement has been a priority at each major meeting of NATO heads of state since the fall of the Berlin Wall," Jones wrote. "This weekend, when NATO leaders convene in Chicago, enlargement may be swept under the rug in deference to other topics of concern. That would be a blow to stability in the Balkans and to the Republic of Macedonia in particular."
Just before the summit began, former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, with former Defense Secretaries William Cohen and Donald Rumfeld, wrote a letter to the president urging him to break the impasse over Macedonia's membership or risk alienating European countries in transition that want to look to the West.
"Today, NATO is at a crossroads. As defense spending among NATO members falls, new aspirant nations in Southeastern Europe will provide needed manpower and resources to the Alliance. And while the region has made steady progress since the conflicts of the 1990s, stability in the Balkans cannot be taken for granted," they wrote. "We cannot afford to send mixed messages to those nations that are willing to stand up and be counted."
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), came to the defense of Georgia's membership aspirations last week. In an op-ed in The Hill she argued for enlargement and called in a separate statement for progress on Georgia's bid.
"Georgia's security and sovereignty is critical to U.S. interests in the region. Georgia was invaded by Russian forces in 2008, and large portions of its territory remain under Russian occupation," she said. "I strongly urge our Administration to work with our allies at the NATO Summit in Chicago later this month to ensure that Georgia becomes a full member of the Alliance as soon as possible."
Conley pointed to the Serbian elections this weekend, where Serbians chose an ultra-nationalist known as "Toma the Gravedigger" to be their president, as evidence that these countries could slip back toward authoritarianism if not given full support and inclusion by Western organizations.
"If we let this agenda lapse, we may not like what we see in the future," she warned.
The biggest single new initiative in the State Department's $51.6 billion budget proposal for next year was a Middle East Incentive Fund -- $770 million in mostly new money to help State respond to the Arab Spring by supporting emerging democracies and their civil societies. But the House of Representatives declined to fund it in their version of the appropriations bill.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee for State and Foreign Ops didn't give any money to fund the initiative in their fiscal 2013 appropriations mark, released last month. The leaders of that subcommittee claim that State failed to give them enough detail about the program to justify the new outlay of funds. Now, the State Department is depending on its allies in the Senate to save the program when the Senate Appropriations Committee marks up its bill next week. The episode is an example of the disconnect between State and Congress over how to respond to the Arab Spring as well as the difficulty of securing new money for diplomatic initiatives in this tight budget environment.
"This is something that Secretary Clinton has really -- and with the President -- has focused principally on," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides said in February when announcing the initiative. "The notion is we're in a new world. The Arab Spring has come; we need to make sure we have the tools and the flexibility in which to fund these initiatives. I cannot tell you today where that money will be spent because we'll be, obviously, in consultation with the Hill. We'll be coming up with initiatives that we'll then be discussing with the Hill."
"But this is something we coordinated and talked a lot about with our friends on the Hill, the idea is to have some flexibility to support everything from Tunisia, to support areas like potentially in Egypt and in areas where things are changing every day in Syria, things where changing, the world is evolving as we see it, and we felt it was important to have a pool of money," he said.
At the time, budget experts warned that it would be difficult for the State Department to get Congress to spring for the program because State didn't seem to have a lot of detail about what the money would be used for.
"That will be controversial because there's no content. It's a contingency fund and Congress doesn't like to give State contingency funds," said former Office of Management and Budget National Security Director Gordon Adams at the time.
State did brief all the relevant committees on the new fund and provided as much detail and context as they could, but it wasn't enough for the House subcommittee leaders, Reps. Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY).
"The administration could not justify the broad authority requested to override existing laws. However, the House bill does provide State some flexible funding to be responsive, within the existing account structure, while increasing congressional oversight on key countries," Granger's spokesman Matt Leffingwell told The Cable.
The "existing account structure" he referred to is the economic support funds that are given each year on a country-by-country basis. Congress prefers granting State country-specific aid because it's easier to track and oversee.
"Congresswoman Lowey supports U.S. engagement in the region and believes we must have the flexibility to respond to rapid changes and developments. Existing accounts within the bill provide that important flexibility," Lowey's spokesman Matt Dennis told The Cable.
Outside experts working closely on the issue said that the State Department didn't properly explain the new fund or its benefits to Congress and didn't have specific enough proposals to give lawmakers assurance the money would be spent wisely.
"This incentive fund is an important new initiative, but unfortunately it seems the administration has done a pretty poor job of pitching it to the hill. There's a lot of confusion in Congress about what this fund is for and why it's important," said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy.
"This fund should be a signature initiative of the administration to respond to the historic events in the region, and these funds could be essential to the administration's ability to respond to events that haven't yet unfolded in places like Syria, where there is no existing U.S. assistance package in the budget," said McInerney.
Using economic support funds is not a great option because those funds are already devoted to specific causes and diverting them from other places would hurt other priorities, McInerney argued.
"The administration won't be able to use that flexibility without significant cuts to existing programs. Without some support from Congress, it's really tough to get it off the ground," he said.
Tamara Wittes, head of the Brookings Institute's Saban Center on the Middle East, pointed out that within the $770 million State requested for the new fund, it included a $65 million annual request for an existing program called the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which is how State has been funding civil society development in the region. So now, MEPI's funding is also at risk.
"Congress may not realize that MEPI funding was embedded in this proposal, but they need to be aware of the impact of their decision on America's ability to partner with citizens in the region who are working for positive change," she said. Wittes was head of the MEPI office and deputy director of State's new Middle East Transitions Office before she left government earlier this year.
The new Middle East Incentive Fund is State's way of trying to shift America's aid approach in the region from the military-dominated focus of the recent decades to an approach focused on the promotion of civil society and political reform, said Wittes.
"We have to look at the overall ratio of our assistance and how that is seen by the people of the region. In order to seize the opportunity that the Arab Spring presents, we need to shift the logic of our relationships to one that emphasizes projects with people," she said.
The fight to save the fund now goes to the Senate, where the Senate Appropriations Committee is set to mark up its State and Foreign Ops bill as early as next week. David Carle, the spokesman for State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), told The Cable, "Sen. Leahy does intend to include some amount for the fund, for the reasons the administration requested it -- to provide flexibility to respond to changing events in the ME and NA regions."
The Senate subcommittee hasn't decided how much of the request to support. Their version of the bill could be conferenced with the House version. More likely, Congress will not complete any appropriations bills this year and the two versions will simply inform a temporary funding measure crafted by congressional leadership in late September.
The new fund does have one powerful staunch supporter in Congress, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA).
"This is something that's been percolating a long time on the Hill and in the administration and it's really a no-brainer," Kerry told The Cable in a statement. "We're witnessing a period of historic change in the Middle East, and it's impossible to predict what will happen next month, let alone next year, which is why the State Department should have the flexibility to deal with unforeseen contingencies. Positive incentives for economic and democratic reforms also make sense. American assistance in itself may not convince governments that are resisting reform to change, but in places that have already begun to chart a new course, like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, it can help empower moderates and reformers."
The State Department declined to comment.
UPDATE: A reader points out that the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee's report on the bill does direct $70 million to MEPI, separate from the Middle East Incentive Fund.
The Defense Department and Congress are playing chicken over $600 billion of mandatory defense cuts identified by a process known as "sequestration," but a compromise probably won't surface until after the November elections, according to former top Obama defense official Michèle Flournoy.
"I think during that period after the election and before the sequestration goes into effect [on Jan. 3], that will be the period when people will become intensely focused on this," Flournoy said in response to a question from The Cable at an event Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute.
Flournoy, who stepped down in February as under secretary of defense for policy, was speaking on a panel with retired Gen. David Barno, now with the Center for a New American Security, AEI's Tom Donnelly, and Michael Waltz of the New America Foundation.
Flournoy said she was not aware of any planning going on inside the Pentagon for the possibility that sequestration will occur, even though President Barack Obama has promised to institute the cuts if Congress doesn't find a way around them. The Budget Control Act of 2011, passed by both parties and signed by Obama, would mandate $600 billion in defense and $600 billion in cuts to non-security spending, such as funds for Medicare providers, over 10 years if Congress doesn't agree on $1.2 billion worth of discretionary spending cuts over the same time period.
"The onus is really on Congress to exercise the discipline, the political courage, the pragmatism to reach a budget deal that avoids sequestration, which would impose draconian cuts in a mindless way that would have severe and negative impacts for our national security," she said.
Flournoy said that a short-term solution could be possible, but probably not before the election, because any compromise would be a "huge political risk" for a candidate facing voters. She emphasized that a deal to avoid sequestration should include cuts to programs favored by Democrats and Republicans alike.
"I think frankly we would be wise to spend our time trying to build a balanced package ... tax reform, spending cuts, and more investment in things that drive American competitiveness," she said.
Asked by The Cable if she thought it was time for a woman to become secretary of defense and whether she would take the job, Flournoy demurred: "I didn't hear your question."
Barno said the lame-duck session will be filled with emergency issues that Congress will want to deal with, such as the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the Alternative Minimum Tax, Medicare physician benefits, and another fight over increasing the debt ceiling.
"We definitely have a looming train wreck in December," he said. "In that list, sequestration for defense is going to be fairly low on that pecking order, if you look at how many American homes it would immediately impact."
Donnelly argued that so far, only Republicans have put forth any concrete ideas to avoid sequestration. There are bills in the House and Senate that would take the money from federal workforce reductions, but last week House leadership unveiled an entirely new idea.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) wrote in an op-ed last week that the money should be taken from a host of spending items, including food stamps, federal workforce benefits, and by prohibiting future government bailouts.
"These savings will replace the arbitrary sequester cuts and lay the groundwork for further efforts to avert the spending-driven economic crisis before us," they wrote. "Unless we act, the sequester will take effect. We do not believe this is in the national interest, and the President claims that he agrees."
The panel was moderated by AEI's Danielle Pletka, who was filling in for Peter David, the Washington bureau chief of the Economist, who died in a car accident last weekend.
Syrian government forces continue to attack opposition forces, civilians, and aid volunteers, preventing the international community from getting emergency aid to the Syrian people, USAID has detailed in a series of internal reports obtained by The Cable.
In its latest "humanitarian update," written at the end of April, USAID reported in detail the extensive attacks perpetrated by Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG) troops, despite an ongoing U.N. monitoring mission and in direct violation of the "cease-fire" there. The USAID report, marked "sensitive but unclassified," sourced its findings to U.N. representatives in Syria as well as representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), and other aid groups on the ground.
"U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan expressed concerns regarding reports of SARG reprisal attacks in areas where Syrian civilians met with U.N. observers, including in Hamah and Damascus governorates," the report stated. "The observers report that SARG forces have not withdrawn heavy weapons from urban centers -- a condition of the U.N. and Arab League supported ceasefire and peace plan that went into effect on April 12."
Although the U.N. Security Council has authorized the deployment of 300 monitors, the report could only confirm that "at least 11" U.N. monitors had arrived in Syria as of April 24. (Additional monitors have reportedly arrived since then.)
Meanwhile, USAID reported that government forces attacked an SARC vehicle April 24 that was evacuating wounded civilians in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, killing one aid volunteer and injuring three. Twenty-six aid workers were trapped in an SARC building following the attack and the SARC had to negotiate a temporary ceasefire between opposition and government forces to get them out, USAID reported.
Following a request from SARC, USAID contractors have suspended the deployment of mobile medical units that were providing health-care services in and around Damascus, the report said.
"In addition to emergency medical needs resulting from ongoing violence, a USAID/OFDA partner report increasing constraints on the availability of medications for chronic diseases, which are prohibitively expensive for Syrians without financial assistance," the report stated. "In addition, the U.N. World Health Organization representatives have expressed concern about the health of displaced Syrians in Jordan."
A USAID contractor is working to train Syrian doctors in Jordan so they can return to Syria and provide life saving medical care there, and a USAID contractor has procured 10,000 kg of medical supplies for use in Syria and is trying to get those supplies into the country, according to the report.
In an April 26 press briefing, USAD Deputy Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance Christa Capozzola criticized the Syrian regime for not allowing emergency aid supplies to reach the Syrian people and called for more help.
"While some aid is reaching people in need through the Red Crescent, other U.N. agencies, and other international organizations, current humanitarian access restrictions remain a significant challenge to the aid effort," she said. "After months of working under these conditions, the aid organizations working in Syria are extremely stretched. To continue alleviating suffering and saving lives, they need more support and capacity from the international community.
The U.S. government has spent $39.4 million on assistance for Syria in fiscal 2012, the report stated. The report noted that only $33 million of this assistance has been publicly reported before now.
Overall, the USAID report concluded that there had been at least 9,000 civilian deaths in Syria as of March 27, according to U.N. figures, although the current number is likely higher. There are between 300,000 and 500,000 internally displaced Syrians, according to the report, 610,000 estimated refuges inside Syria, and approximately 66,000 Syrian refuges who have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.
The USAID report was marked sensitive but unclassified (SBU).
U.S. Agency for International Development
Senators from both parties are now urging the Obama administration to drastically scale back U.S. sanctions on Burma in light of that country's moves toward reform and democratization.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), who has traveled to Burma twice in the past year, announced Monday morning that he now support the "suspension" of a host of sanctions against Burma and the ruling regime.
"Another major test for U.S. diplomacy is Burma," McCain said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I have traveled to Burma twice over the past year. And to be sure, they still have a long way to go, especially in stopping the violence and pursuing genuine reconciliation with the country's ethnic minority communities. But the Burmese President and his allies in the government I believe are sincere about reform, and they are making real progress."
McCain praised the April elections that brought Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and many members of the National League for Democracy into power, despite some irregularities, and said they warranted U.S. temporary lifting of all economic sanctions except for the arms embargo against the Burmese military and targeted sanctions against individuals who have undermined human rights and the rule of law there.
"This would not be a lifting of sanctions, just a suspension. And this step, as well as any additional easing of sanctions, would depend on continued progress and reform in Burma," McCain cautioned.
He said the United States also must set up a regime for ensuring corporate responsibility in Burma as its economy opens and argued that U.S. businesses should still be barred from interacting with Burmese state-owned enterprises due to the risk of enriching hard-liners inside the Burmese system who are resisting reforms.
"U.S. businesses will never win a race to the bottom with some of their Asian, or even European, competitors. And they should not try," McCain said. "Rather, they should align themselves with Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese people -- who want the kinds of responsible investment, high labor and environmental standards, and support for human rights and national sovereignty that define American business at its best."
McCain joins Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, who came out May 4 for lifting all economic sanctions against Burma in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that was also signed by his subcommittee counterpart Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). Webb made his third trip to Burma in April.
"At this critical moment, it is imperative that our policy toward Burma be forward thinking, providing incentives for further reforms and building the capacity of reformers in the government to push for additional change," Webb and Inhofe wrote. "We urge the Administration to take action under its own authority, and seize this opportunity to support the Burmese people in their efforts to form an open, democratic government that respects and protects the rights of all."
The administration has made several small concessions to the Burmese following Clinton's trip there last December, such as nominating Derek Mitchell to become the first U.S. ambassador to Burma in more than 20 years and restarting U.S.-Burmese cooperation on some development and counternarcotics programs.
In testimony before Webb's subcommittee on April 26, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joe Yun detailed the administration's actions to date, noting ongoing concern about the Burmese regime's failings in the areas of human rights, and said the administration would take a slow but steady approach to easing sanctions further.
"We continue to emphasize that much work remains to be done in Burma and that easing sanctions will remain a step-by-step process. We have pursued a carefully calibrated posture, retaining as much flexibility as possible should reforms slow or reverse, while pressing the Burmese government for further progress in key areas," Yun said.
"We have serious and continuing concerns with respect to human rights, democracy, and nonproliferation, and our policy continues to blend both pressure and engagement to encourage progress in all areas."
Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa came to Washington this week to attend his son's college graduation, but he left with hands full of gifts from the U.S. State Department, which announced new arms sales to Bahrain today.
The crown prince's son just graduated from American University, where the Bahraini ruling family recently shelled out millions for a new building at AU's School of International Service. But while he was in town, the crown prince met with a slew of senior U.S. officials and congressional leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain, as well as several other Washington VIPs.
On Friday afternoon, the State Department announced it was moving forward on a host of sales to the Bahraini Defense Forces, the Bahraini National Guard, and the Bahraini Coast Guard. The State Department said the decision to move forward with the sales was made solely in the interest of U.S. national security, but outside experts see the move as meant to strengthen the crown prince in his struggle inside the ruling family.
"We've made this decision, I want to emphasize, on national security grounds," a senior administration official told reporters on a Friday conference call. "We've made this decision mindful of the fact that there remain a number of serious, unresolved human rights issues in Bahrain, which we expect the government of Bahrain to address."
The official noted that the United States is maintaining its hold on the sale of several items the Bahrainis want, including Humvees, TOW missiles, tear gas, stun grenades, small arms and ammunition.
"The items that we are moving forward with are those that are not typically used for crowd control and that we would not anticipate would be used against protesters in any scenario," the official said.
The official declined to specify items on the list, but multiple sources familiar with the details told The Cable they include six more harbor patrol boats, communications equipment for Bahrain's air defense system, ground-based radars, AMRAAM air-to-air missile systems, Seahawk helicopters, Avenger air-defense systems, parts for F-16 fighter engines, refurbishment items for Cobra helicopters, and night-vision equipment.
The United States also agreed to work on legislation to allow the transfer of a U.S. frigate, will allow the Bahrainis to look at (but not yet purchase) armored personnel carriers, and will ask Congress for $10 million in foreign military financing for Bahrain in fiscal 2013.
Opponents of arms sales to Bahrain were quick to criticize the package, arguing that the administration is sending the wrong message to the regime at a time when the violence between government forces and protesters is actually increasing, as are allegations of prisoner abuse by Bahraini security forces.
"This is exactly the wrong time to be selling arms to the government of Bahrain. Things are getting worse, not better," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a statement to The Cable. "The country is becoming even more polarized and both sides are becoming more entrenched. Reform is the ultimate goal and we should be using every tool and every bit of leverage we have to achieve that goal. The State department's decision is essentially giving away the store without the government of Bahrain bringing anything to the table."
On the conference call, administration officials could not name one concession or deliverable the crown prince gave or promised in exchange for the goodies he is bringing home with him.
But outside analysts believe the administration's strategy is more nuanced, and that the real goal of the arms sales is to bolster the crown prince's standing inside the ruling family in his pitched battle with hard-liners over the way ahead.
"The administration didn't want the crown prince to go home empty-handed because they wanted to empower him," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who was arrested in Bahrain while documenting protests there last month. "They placed a lot of hope in him, but he can't deliver unless the king lets him and right now the hard-liners in the ruling family seem to have the upper hand."
The crown prince has been stripped of many of his official duties recently, but is still seen as the ruling family member who is most amenable to working constructively with the opposition and with the United States. It's unclear whether sending him home with arms sales will have any effect on internal Bahraini ruling family politics, however.
"That's the gamble the administration is taking, that it helps him show he can deliver something," Malinowski said. "But there's no guarantee the government will do what we all hope it does. They might just as easily conclude ‘We don't have to empower the crown prince at home; we just have to send him to America.'"
While the crown prince has been in Washington, hard-liners like the prime minister and the minister of the royal court have wielded their control over state media to bash the United States and accuse the U.S. government of fomenting the unrest in Bahrain.
"[The] trend in Bahrain is the redoubling of the anti-American media onslaught witnessed in most aggressive form last summer. This is usually a very clear sign that the State Department is pressuring for a deal to be done, and that some in the royal family are fighting back via their allies in society," wrote Justin Gengler, an academic and blogger focused on Bahrain.
He detailed a list of conspiratorial, anti-American allegations in the Bahraini state-controlled media over the last two weeks and noticed that the state media is focusing again on the case of Ludo Hood, the former political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain who was sent home "after being the focus of threats by pro-government citizens."
A high-level delegation from the opposition al-Wefaq party was in Washington this week as well, but they did leave empty handed.
"Many in the administration want to empower the crown prince as the reformer in the royal family against the hard-liners, and didn't want to send him home empty handed after his visit," said Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. "But no matter how you look at it here in Washington, on the street in Bahrain this will be perceived as the U.S. supporting a regime that is still doing horrible things."
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
Frustration with North Korea's ongoing nuclear weapons and missile programs has pushed Congress to reopen the debate in Washington over whether the United States should reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea.
The House Armed Services Committee adopted an amendment to the fiscal 2013 national defense authorization bill that supports "steps to deploy additional conventional forces of the United States and redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the Western Pacific region," and mandates that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta submit a report on the feasibility and logistics of redeploying forward-based nuclear weapons there, "in response to the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons developments of North Korea and the other belligerent actions North Korea has made against allies of the United States."
The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), was approved by a vote of 32-26, with all Republicans, except for Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), and two Democrats in favor. It comes only weeks after another committee member, Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), demanded the administration investigate North Korea's apparent acquisition of Chinese-made mobile ICBM launchers.
"We in the last many years have appealed to China to help us negotiate with North Korea to bring them in line in the quest for peace in the world... In fact, China has now embarked on selling nuclear components to North Korea," Franks said at at the committee's Wednesday markup. "Consequently it's become time for us as a nation to look to our deterrent and our ability to take care of ourselves and work with our allies to do everything we can to deter and to be able to defend ourselves against any future belligerence or threats from North Korea."
The United States stockpiled nuclear weapons in South Korea for 33 years before President George H.W. Bush removed them in 1991 as part of his effort to withdraw all overseas tactical nukes, except a few in NATO countries. Since then, every so often South Korean politicians raise the idea of reintroducing them as a response to North Korean aggression.
One senior South Korean politician argued this week that North Korea's ongoing belligerence justified a new discussion about the issue.
"There is no reason not to respond in a proportional manner [to the DPRK's military threat]," Conservative Party lawmaker and presidential candidate Chung Mong-joon said in a press conference in Seoul on Thursday. "The threat of a counter-nuclear force may be the only thing that can change North Korea's perception of South Korea."
In early 2011, the White House WMD Czar Gary Samore told a South Korean reporter that the U.S. would be willing to deploy tactical nukes to South Korea, after which the White House quickly backpeddled Samore's remarks and insisted the issue was not under discussion.
"Our policy remains in support of a non-nuclear Korean peninsula," Robert Jensen, deputy spokesman for the National Security Council, told Yonhap News Agency after the Samore comments. "There is no plan to change that policy. Tactical nuclear weapons are unnecessary for the defense of South Korea and we have no plan or intention to return them."
The Obama administration and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) are beginning a new push to seek ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, known around Washington simply as the Law of the Sea Treaty.
The treaty, which came into force in 1994, established rules of the road for operating in international waters and set forth a regime for determining mineral and other rights beneath the ocean floor. Since then, 161 countries have signed on, as well as the European Union, but the U.S. Senate has not ratified it.
In fact, the treaty has never come up for a full vote, despite support from multiple administrations, Democrats, and the Navy, which views it as needed to allow the United States to fully participate in the growing multinational system that governs the open seas. It is vigorously opposed by some Republicans, who argue that signing it would be tantamount to an abandonment of U.S. sovereignty.
Kerry's efforts to initiate the months-long ratification process on the treaty began last year. He has met with a host of senators on the issue, and his staff has been consulting with businesses and the military and respected national security experts in both parties. But the drive to set up hearings to promote the bill stalled.
Hill staffers say that Kerry's committee counterpart Richard Lugar (R-IN) did not want the ratification process to begin before his primary, because he was inclined to support the treaty but recognized that his support could be used against him politically. But with Lugar now out of the way, the ratification process is back on track.
Kerry will soon announce the first hearing, which will be made up of a panel of high-ranking military officials, The Cable has learned. It will be a "24-star hearing," meaning the panel will have six military officers with four stars each.
"Senator Kerry has heard for a long time that it'd be helpful for the committee to hold some hearings and review a treaty that hasn't been examined since 2007. The Senate has experienced massive turnover since that period, with 30 new senators," Kerry's Communications Director Jodi Seth told The Cable.
She denied, however, that the timing of Lugar's primary was the reason for the delay.
"Senator Kerry considered holding hearings last year, but it wasn't feasible after he was asked to serve on the Super Committee, and there have been other urgent issues from Iran to Syria and the State Department budget that have required the [SFRC's] immediate attention this spring," said Seth. "But now, after hearing from conservative-minded businesses, national security experts of both parties, and the military, all of whom strongly support the treaty, Senator Kerry decided the time was right to initiate some hearings and he hopes they'll be helpful for the committee."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also pushed for a new ratification process to pass the treaty in Wednesday remarks at a Law of the Sea symposium in Washington. Panetta called on the Senate to embrace Lugar's bipartisan spirit.
"Our country desperately needs the bipartisan spirit he embodied. It would be an enormous tribute to Senator Lugar's distinguished record to accede to this convention on his watch," Panetta said.
He also laid out the administration's main arguments in favor or the treaty: that U.S. accession to the treaty would allow the United States to secure mineral rights in a larger geographical area, would ensure freedom of navigation for U.S. ships, and would give the country better leverage for claims in the Arctic.
Panetta warned that in failing to ratify the treaty, the United States would "give up the strongest legal footing for our actions."
"We potentially undercut our credibility in a number of Asia-focused multilateral venues -- just as we're pushing for a rules-based order in the region and the peaceful resolution of maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere," he said. "How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven't officially accepted those rules?"
When alleged terrorist Ali Musa Daqduq was transferred from U.S. to Iraqi custody last December, many in Washington worried that the Iraqi government would release him back to the battlefield. This week, Daqduq was acquitted in an Iraqi court and now the administration is trying to figure out how to keep him behind bars.
Daqduq, who U.S. military officials claim is a Hezbollah commander, had been imprisoned by U.S. forces in Iraq for leading a team that kidnapped and killed five U.S. soldiers in Iraq in January 2007. Twenty-one senators had drafted last December a letter urging the administration not to hand him over out of concern that the Iraqi government might release him.
"Failure to transfer Daqduq to Guantanamo Bay or another American military-controlled detention facility outside the United States before December 31st will result in his transfer to Iraqi authorities, potential release to Iran and eventual return to the battlefield," the senators wrote in the letter, which was never sent because the administration handed over Daqduq first, on Dec. 16.
"Daqduq's Iranian paymasters would like nothing more than to see him transferred to Iraqi custody where they could effectively pressure for his escape or release. We truly hope you will not let that happen."
At the time, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told the New York Times, "We have sought and received assurances that he will be tried for his crimes."
An Iraqi court determined on May 7 there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute Daqduq -- even though he apparently confessed to the crimes against U.S. soldiers -- and ordered his release. That order is now being appealed automatically under Iraqi law. The United States has also charged Daqduq with war crimes under the military commission system, but those charges will be impossible to enforce unless Daqduq somehow winds up in U.S. custody.
So what is the administration doing about it? The Cable obtained the internal talking points prepared by the National Security Council and approved by Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough just yesterday.
"Daqduq should be held accountable for his crimes. Period," the talking points read. "While we strongly oppose his acquittal, protections for the accused are built into all judicial systems, including our own. We transferred Daqduq to Iraqi custody out of respect for, and obligation to, the rule of law in Iraq, and while we disagree with this decision, we respect the independence of the Iraqi judiciary. We will continue to work closely with the Iraqi government to explore all legal options to pursue justice in this case."
The administration won't say if they have filed an extradition request for Daqduq, but the talking points instruct any official speaking on this to say, "I can assure you that we have explored a wide range of legal options to effectuate Daqduq's transfer to the United States."
The talking points go on to praise the Iraqi government for its handling of the Daqduq case and emphasized that Daqduq has stayed in prison this long.
"Our Iraqi partners worked to ensure that he was brought to trial and that the strongest case possible was brought against him, despite Iranian pressure for his immediate release without trial. Iraq has already kept Daqduq in custody for more than four months, despite predictions by many that he would be released far earlier," the document reads.
The talking points then proceed to list a number of arguments for administration officials to use when trying to assert that the Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not doing favors for Iran.
"A wide range of examples illustrate that Iraq is not in strategic alignment with Iran: Iraq continues to increase its oil production, making sanctions against Iran more effective and sustainable. Iraq has worked with the United States to prohibit the transport of lethal aid from Iran to the Syrian regime. Iraq has resisted Iranian pressure to arrest the MEK and deport them to Iran, and has instead worked with the UN to peacefully relocate the MEK. Iraq continues to work with the United States to protect U.S. personnel from the threat of Iranian-backed militants. Iraq is a major security partner with the United States, having spent $8.2B on U.S. weapons and equipment to date."
The document argues that the administration simply had no choice but to hand over Daqduq to the Iraqis, rather than send him to Guantanamo Bay or Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, or somewhere else.
"Under the [2008 U.S. Iraqi] Security Agreement, any transfer of Daqduq out of Iraq requires the consent of the Iraqi government, and, to be blunt, a transfer to Guantanamo or Bagram was a non-starter for the Government of Iraq," it reads.
Finally, on what the administration is doing now, the talking points say only, "As with other terrorists who have committed crimes against Americans, we will continue to pursue all legal means to ensure that he is punished for his crimes."
That's not going to be enough for the U.S. lawmakers and officials who are angry that the administration didn't figure out a way to keep Daqduq in U.S. custody and are worried that he will return to the battlefield soon.
"The administration really thought if we gave our evidence to the Iraqis, they would hold him under the rule of law, but the Iraqis had a different understanding of the judicial process than we do," said one administration official who is critical of the overall handling of the case.
"At the end of the day, if this guy is released, they will be releasing a man with the blood of five Americans on his hands," the official said. "This guy deserves a term much longer than five years.
"This guy has been responsible for the death of five Americans and this is another indication of the unraveling that's taking place in Iraq since we do not have a residual force there," Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable in an interview.
"There's a lesson here for another conflict that Mr. Obama is eager to wind down," read a Wednesday editorial in the Wall Street Journal. "As part of the plan to pull U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Washington has agreed to transfer control over detainees in U.S. custody to the Kabul government. Now would be a good time to make the proper future arrangements for any terrorist we don't want to walk free."
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin has informed the White House that he will not be coming to the United States for next week's G-8 summit at Camp David.
Putin will instead send Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the meeting. Putin and Medvedev completed their job swap on Tuesday when the Russian parliament confirmed Medvedev to return to the position he held last time Putin was president. Putin was also sworn in as President on Tuesday and President Barack Obama called him Wednesday to congratulate him on his return to the top job in the Russian Federation.
A senior administration official told The Cable that Putin's ongoing formation of the new Russian government was the main reason he will not be coming to the United States.
"Putin will not attend the G-8," the official told The Cable. "He has to finalize the cabinet in the new Russian government. However he will meet with the president on the margins of the G-20 summit in mid-June."
Also, the domestic optics would bad for Putin if he goes to the United States as his first overseas trip as president. Putin criticized the U.S. government throughout the campaign and accused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of fomenting unrest inside Russia during the election campaign.
For the administration, Putin's absence cuts both ways. Medvedev is seen in Washington as more amenable to working with the U.S. government than Putin and has good relationships with Obama administration officials. But Putin's decision to not attend delays what would have been his first meeting with Obama as president and removes a chance for the two leaders to promote an image of cooperation in the wake of tensions between Washington and Moscow that surrounded the Russian elections.
Russia, which is not a NATO member but has attended past summits, is also sitting out the NATO summit in Chicago on May 20-21, also due to the timing of the event, according to Obama administration officials.
National Security Advisor Tom Donilon traveled to Moscow and met with Putin last week.
Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng's best friend in Congress, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), told The Cable on Tuesday that the Obama administration has failed to stand up for Chen's cause, the abuse of women under China's one-child policy.
In an interview in the Capitol building, Smith said he intends to hold another congressional hearing on May 15 on the Chen case -- to follow up on the hearing he held May 3, which Chen actually phoned into. Smith has invited Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and State Department Counselor Harold Koh to the hearing, but those officials have yet to RSVP.
"I don't think they want the hearing frankly. But we need to keep the focus on this," Smith said.
If and when administration officials do show up to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, Smith plans to press them on two things: The fight against forced abortion and forced sterilization that led to Chen's initial imprisonment and the plight of Chen's friends and extended family members who are undergoing government harassment in China.
"The administration has hermetically sealed his message, the man and why he was in trouble, from this incident," Smith told The Cable. "Have you heard anybody talk about that he was defending women from forced abortion? Hillary Clinton? Not a word. I Googled it."
Smith said that the administration has been avoiding any reference to the issue, which they haven't done for similar human-rights related cases in countries other than China.
"Can you imagine the president saying ‘no comment' on Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi? He would launch into what they stood for as well as their personal plight," Smith said. "They say his name but they don't talk about his message. It's more than troubling."
The State Department feels confident the Chinese government will honor its pledge to allow Chen study in the United States and bring his wife and son in tow. But Chen's mother, nephew, and several activists who supported him are still in legal limbo and facing increasingly violent retribution, Smith said.
Smith referred to the case of Jiang Tianyong, Chen's lawyer, who was arrested and beaten badly last week on the way to visit Chen in the hospital. Jiang remains under house arrest. Other figures in Chinese government hands include Chen's nephew, Chen Kegui, and He Peirong, the woman who drove Chen to the embassy.
Smith said he can't get answers from the administration on what's being done to secure the safety of those individuals.
"I've conveyed that to everybody at the State Department. They know about it. But what are they doing about it? That's the question."
The House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee has released its fiscal 2013 appropriations legislation, which would cut billions from the president's request for a range of key international programs.
The bill, to be marked up by the subcommittee Wednesday morning, would provide $40.1 billion for the base budget of the State Department, USAID, and international affairs programs in other agencies, in addition to $8.2 billion for diplomatic and development programs related to the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan in what's known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. If enacted, the legislation would represent a 12 percent cut from the administration's $54.71 billion budget request.
When war costs are taken out of the equation, the House proposal would represent a 14 percent cut to the administration's request. The House proposal would also cut $5 billion or 9 percent from the funding levels enacted in fiscal 2012.
The Senate Appropriations Committee, in its own allocations, proposed giving the State and foreign operations accounts $53 billion, roughly equal to fiscal 2012 levels, although the Senate proposed shifting $5 billion from the OCO account to the base budget. The Senate could mark up its version of the bill as early as next week.
"This is a tough, effective national security bill that continues to cut spending, reform our aid programs, and demand accountability from our partners and allies," Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) said in a release. "This bill reflects principled funding decisions that give the United States the flexibility to respond to a rapidly changing world while making sure our foreign aid is not a blank check for foreign governments who do not support our national security priorities."
Her Democratic counterpart, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), was more critical of the committee's proposal. She told The Cable that the House was cutting unnecessarily, considering that the overall discretionary allocations determined by the Republican majority, amounting to $1.028 trillion, was under the $1.047 trillion limit allowed under the Budget Control Act of 2011, the deal struck last year to avert a crisis over the debt ceiling.
"The proposed funding levels are insufficient for our nation to respond to health, education, and security challenges; make critical investments in diplomacy and development; and ensure robust oversight over taxpayer funds," Lowey said. "As the appropriations process moves forward, I will work to protect critical priorities and remove onerous policy riders that hurt our ability to maintain moral leadership worldwide."
The House subcommittee's bill contains several policy riders that have appeared in previous bills but are staunchly opposed by congressional Democrats and the administration. The legislation would reinstitute the so-called Mexico City policy, also known as the "global gag rule," which would bar funding to any international organizations that discuss abortion. The bill would also cap spending on family planning and reproductive health programs at the fiscal 2008 level.
According to a committee-issued press release, the bill also "maintains long-standing pro-life riders, including the ‘Tiahrt Amendment,' which ensures family planning programs are voluntary; the ‘Helms Amendment,' which bans ‘foreign aid from being spent on abortions; and the ‘Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which prohibits funds to organizations the President determines to support coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization."
For the State Department and USAID, the bill proposes cuts across the board, including steep cuts to programs that focus on multilateral institution building.
The State Department would be forced to operate with $433 million less than in fiscal 2012. The committee proposed giving State $12.9 billion for operations, $1.5 billion less than the president's request. USAID would get $1.2 billion in operations funding under the bill, a reduction of $73 million from last year's level and $252.5 million below the president's request.
On the United Nations, the House is proposing cutting U.S. funding for the U.N.'s Human Rights Council, the U.N. population fund, and any U.N. organization led by a "terrorist country." The bill provides no funding for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), following U.S. law that prohibits funds for any U.N. organization that has admitted Palestine as a member. Other U.N. agencies would see partial reductions in U.S. contributions until they provide full financial audits.
The bill would cut $632 million from the president's $7.9 billion request for international security assistance. Inside that total, the bill would fully fund the administration's $3.1 billion request for assistance to Israel and the $300 million request for assistance to Jordan.
The bill would also cut $3 billion from the administration's $17.2 billion request for bilateral economic assistance while proposing increased funding above the president's request for global health programs, refugee assistance, and democracy promotion activities.
The committee is also proposing a $725 reduction in the administration's $2.9 billion request for multilateral assistance, which would result in reduced U.S. contributions to a host of international organizations and multilateral financial institutions, including the provision of only half of the requested capital for the multilateral development bank,
As for country-specific funding requests, the bill would seek to cut foreign aid to several countries that do not meet Congress's conditions. For example, according to the committee's press release, the bill would affect foreign aid in the follow ways:
Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng entered the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last week in such poor medical condition that U.S. officials suspected he might have advanced colon cancer, pushing them to speed up his exit from the embassy and into a local hospital, a senior administration official told The Cable.
Following Chen's harrowing escape from house arrest and what U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke called a "Mission: Impossible"-style rescue by to get him into the U.S. Embassy, U.S. officials found Chen to be in much worse health that has previously been disclosed, according to the official, who had first-hand knowledge of the episode. Chen's severe medical condition was a factor in the embassy's desire to get him to the local hospital as quickly as possible and was also a reason U.S. officials left Chen alone during a portion of his hospital stay, because he had to undergo extensive testing to determine whether or not he had a fatal disease.
"When Chen entered the embassy and was examined by our doctor, he was found to be bleeding profusely from his rectum," the official said, adding that the American doctor on site concluded that Chen either had a severe case of gastroenteritis or an advanced case of untreated colon cancer. "This gave us a lot of anxiety."
The Chinese were not about to allow any medical equipment to come into the embassy, however, so the need to get Chen to the nearest hospital became a priority throughout the negotiations that eventually saw him walk out of the U.S. Embassy and arrive at a local hospital, where he remains.
The Washington Post reported Sunday that Chen does in fact have a case of gastroenteritis, but U.S officials didn't know that at the time Chen was inside the embassy, the official said. It was clear, however, that his foot was badly damaged, and that Chen had entered the embassy in a state of disorientation, fatigue, and a great deal of pain. The embassy wasn't properly equipped to diagnose his internal ailment or treat his foot properly, the official said.
The U.S. official said that after the Chinese government agreed to a set of understandings that led Chen to walk out of the U.S. Embassy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was prepared to make a public statement detailing all of those understandings, to include the Chinese government's promises to allow Chen to study law and to investigate local officials' treatment of him and his family.
"We were going to use her high-level statement as a way to lock in [the understandings]. That was the game plan," the official said.
But when Chen arrived at the hospital, he had the chance to speak with several activists who urged him to scuttle the deal and leave China for his own safety. Chen's wife also gave him new details of the harassment she had endured since his escape, prompting Chen to change his mind and decide he had to get out of the country.
"We didn't think that he would rethink it all and request to leave China," the official said. "Once that happened, the Chinese went ballistic and we had to start all over again."
The U.S. officials then re-entered intense negotiations with the Chinese government to strike a new set of understandings, under which Chen would be allowed to apply for a visa to study in the United States with his immediate family in tow.
The official's account matches that of Jerome Cohen, Chen's legal mentor and confidant, who explained in detail last week Chen's account of his change of heart.
At the beginning of his hospital stay, Chen's statements to the media expressing dismay that U.S. officials had left him alone in his hospital created the impression that the U.S. officials had been cut off from access to Chen. The official said that in fact there was more direct contact with Chen than has been publicly disclosed but there were some miscommunications that resulted in confusion over the issue.
"For example, on Thursday [May 3] it was always planned that he would have a full day of medical tests," the official said, explaining why U.S. officials had less concern about not being in direct contact with Chen on that day.
Throughout the ordeal, the U.S. officials working on the case believed they were pushing the Chinese government as hard as they could to grant concessions to Chen. They argue that the Chinese government went beyond what it had done in previous such cases, by agreeing to the first and then the second set of understandings about how Chen was to be treated.
Outside commentators have speculated that the impending high-level dialogue involving 200 U.S officials who were in Beijing, called the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, put the United States at a negotiating disadvantage. But the official said the S&ED's existence actually put the Chinese government under more pressure to make a deal that it knew would be supported by the endorsement of senior American officials during a time of intense focus on the U.S.-China relationship.
There were also signs of an internal struggle within the Chinese system between the Foreign Ministry and the organs of state security over how to deal with the Chen case, the official said. But the understandings between the United States and China over Chen were endorsed at the highest levels of the Chinese government at every juncture, the official insisted.
"It's in our interest that this be handled by the Foreign Ministry, because then within the Chinese system it's treated as an issue of foreign policy and not as an issue of internal security," the official explained.
The official said he expects the process of Chen applying for permission to visit the United States to move quickly and that his application will be approved by the Chinese government. The U.S. government is already working with private foundations to secure the financial support Chen and his family will need to live in the United States.
"We think the first set of understandings would have held and we think the second set of understandings will hold as well," the official said.
On Sunday's Meet the Press, Vice President Joe Biden went even further.
"The Chinese have told us that if he files the papers to be able to go abroad, that would be grand. And we're prepared to give a visa right away," Biden said. "He's going to be able to take his family. We expect the Chinese to stick to that commitment."
There is no firm Chinese government agreement to allow blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng leave China to study in the United States, only two statements by the two governments and hopes that everything will work out fine, according to Chen's legal mentor and confidant Jerome Cohen.
In a long interview Friday with The Cable, Cohen expressed optimism that the latest twist in the Chen saga, whereby the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement suggesting that Chen can leave China but doesn't promise anything, will lead to a salvation for Chen and his family.
"If he wishes to study overseas, as a Chinese citizen, he can, like any other Chinese citizens, process relevant procedures with relevant departments through normal channels in accordance to the law," Xinhua quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin as saying Friday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her own remarks, praised the statement.
"We are also encouraged by the official statement issued today by the Chinese government confirming that he can apply to travel abroad for this purpose. Over the course of the day, progress has been made to help him have the future that he wants, and we will be staying in touch with him as this process moves forward," she said.
"Now things look brighter," Cohen told The Cable in a Friday afternoon interview, compared with Chen's situation earlier in the week. "When I saw that this morning, I thought this was great news and it seems to be a way out."
There may be private understandings between the two governments. But nothing is assured, Cohen said, and the Chinese government's statement was not the same as a promise, much less a bilateral agreement to do anything for Chen.
"The first question I asked is: What form will this take? Will this be in writing by the Chinese? At what level? The form that was contemplated was not that conventional. It was going to more like the Shanghai communiqué. One side says something and the other side doesn't say anything," Cohen said.
But Cohen was nonetheless upbeat, explaining that in the U.S.-China relationship, having the two sides make two unilateral statements and then act as if there were an agreement is a time-honored tradition.
"This is the real world and the way nations deal with each other," Cohen said.
Cohen, a law professor at New York University, said that NYU would provide an invitation for Chen to be a visiting scholar but that reports of a "fellowship" are incorrect, leaving open the question of who will pay for Chen and his family to live and study in the United States -- if, that is, he is actually allowed to go.
"I run a budget; I know about slender academic resources. I don't have the money to support him and his family at the moment and I can't commit to that at this point. Hopefully if push comes to shove I could raise it," Cohen said. "I can't assume he will necessarily come to NYU. It's very likely, but many law schools would likely welcome him as a guest."
Chen consulted with Cohen directly and often during his six-day stay in the embassy before agreeing to the terms of the first U.S.-brokered understanding with the Chinese government, under which Chen and his immediate family would be allowed to live freely in China and Chen would be able to study at a Chinese university.
Cohen was always skeptical of that deal and had recommended to Chen that he should reject the deal and elect to stay inside the U.S. embassy indefinitely, he disclosed.
"Neither option was attractive. Though he wanted to stay in China, he was very fearful to make the choice to accept the arrangement that the U.S. and China had agreed upon," said Cohen. "I said to Chen ‘Look, you are in no position to take this offer. Just tell them you will stay in the embassy and take your chances.'"
On the morning of May 2, Chen had nonetheless decided to take the deal because he had been informed that the Chinese government, through the Americans, had made it clear if he stayed in the embassy he would not be reunited with his wife and children.
"Tough pool, there," Cohen said, referring to the Chinese gamesmanship. Cohen also said Chen wanted to continue his work in China if at all possible. "Only 40 years old, did he want to exile himself from the country so that he would be ineffectual both in America and in China?"
Cohen told Chen May 2 that the strength of the Chinese assurances rested on the engagement of senior U.S. officials, namely President Barack Obama and Clinton. If they spoke out about the deal, he believed, the Chinese government would have to take it seriously.
"Chen said he would go for the deal if Obama would say something about it," Cohen said.
Clinton's statement supporting the deal fulfilled that request, as far as Cohen was concerned, though Obama has yet to make a statement.
Cohen also said he was cognizant of the fact that the issue was fast becoming a political football in the United States and that Obama was under pressure to help out Chen.
"I knew Obama would sooner or later have to say something. How was he going to fight a campaign and respond to attacks by Romney? By sitting in silence?"
Chen also took a call from his wife before leaving the embassy, Cohen said, wherein his wife expressed her support for the idea of staying in China but did not mention the harassment and abuse she had been subjected to since Chen's escape.
Based on all of those factors, Chen decided to take the deal.
"Everything's fine, he gets in the car, everything's lovey-dovey. He gets a call from Hillary. He's exhilarated," Cohen said. "Then he gets to the hospital and over the next few hours the environment changes drastically. That's when things took a turn for the worse."
Not only was Chen disoriented and hungry when he first arrived at the hospital, he began receiving phone calls from activist friends who told him he had make a mistake in taking the deal and that he was a fool to think the Chinese government would hold up its end of the bargain.
The Americans should have kept somebody there, Cohen said, noting that the place was infested with secret police, including some of those that escorted Chen's wife and children from their locality.
"His human rights friends start calling him and saying ‘Are you crazy, get out of here, they will never fulfill the terms of this crazy deal,'" Cohen said.
Fellow activist Hu Jia's wife called and said "This is terrible, don't accept this," according to Cohen. It was she whose tweets first alerted the international media to Chen's change of heart.
At that moment, Chen started getting calls from the AP and other media and Chen and his wife decided they wanted to leave China after all. Unfortunately, some of the statements Chen made to the media made it seem as though he was criticizing the embassy and that he was coerced to leave the embassy, which wasn't Chen's intention, according to Cohen.
By the next day, Chen had been reached by more moderate activists, who informed Chen how the impression abroad was that Chen was criticizing the embassy. Chen then sought to clarify his position, including with a dramatic call into a congressional hearing, that he was not seeking "asylum" -- only a "rest" in the United States.
The following day, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued its statement, notably free of any of its previous condemnations of the United States.
In a Friday background briefing in Beijing, several reporters pressed two senior Obama administration officials on the lack of concrete, much less written, assurances by the Chinese government that Chen would be allowed to leave China.
"We are encouraged by the overall process, and we believe that steps will play out expeditiously," one official said, declining several times to define what timeline "expeditiously" means.
The officials said the United States would quickly approve a student visa application for Chen if one materialized. But the U.S. officials did not give any sense that the Chinese had committed to approving Chen's application to leave the country. They did say they agreed with the Chinese that the Chinese government had held up its side of the original deal.
"Let me just say on that we actually believe that the Chinese government was following through with the arrangements and the understandings that were undertaken. But what matters is what Mr. Chen felt and believed," another official said.
Also left unanswered is the fate of Chen's extended family and those who supported his escape. The officials said they were aware of it and that they were optimistic it would all be resolved constructively.
"We've had detailed conversations with Chinese interlocutors about concerns of his family, his friends, his colleagues back in Shandong, and others who have been involved in his pilgrimage to Beijing over the course of last week," one official said. "We believe that this process will proceed accordingly, and we have high confidence in its course."
Chen Guangcheng's friend Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid, told a congressional commission Thursday that Chen only agreed to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after U.S. officials conveyed a threat from the Chinese government that Chen would never see his wife again if he didn't leave the embassy that day.
Fu has been in contact with Chen directly throughout the ordeal and told the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) today that he had spoken to Chen Wednesday night as Chen and his family remained in a Beijing hospital, unable to leave or receive visitors. U.S. officials have insisted that Chen left the embassy of his own volition after agreeing to the terms of a deal U.S. officials struck with the Chinese government.
But Fu said Chen's real motivation was fear.
"According to my conversations last night with Mr. Chen," Fu testified, "the U.S. officials relayed to Chen a message from the Chinese side that they would harm his wife. And it was in response to this threat that Chen reluctantly agreed to leave the embassy."
He continued: "Chen was talked to by a U.S. government official before he left the embassy and he was told it was a Chinese government message, that the Chinese government wanted to convey the message through the U.S. government official that if he did not leave the embassy on May 2, he will not be able to see his wife and children again."
"Chen said, after hearing that message from the Chinese government, conveyed by U.S. officials, his heart was heavy and he felt he had no other choice but to walk out of the U.S. embassy," said Fu.
U.S. officials deny that they conveyed any physical or legal threats to Chen. In a statement issued Wednesday and repeated Thursday by the White House, however, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland acknowledged, "U.S. interlocutors did make clear that if Chen elected to stay in the Embassy, Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification."
Chen may have interpreted those comments as an implicit threat, observers said.
According to Fu, after Chen arrived at the hospital, he heard from his wife that she was abused in recent days at their Shandong home. She was tied to a chair and beaten, Fu said. Upon hearing that, Chen no longer had faith in the Chinese government to honor any deal to keep his family safe and decided to plea for U.S. assistance in leaving China.
"The interrogator told her that if her husband did not walk out of the U.S. Embassy, they would kill her. It should be clear to anyone who uses logic that constitutes a threat," Fu said, adding that Chen has not asked for "amnesty" per se but wants to leave China.
"Secretary Clinton, at least deliver what you have promised and repeatedly said over the last two years: that you want to see Chen and his family in freedom and safety," Fu said.
In an interview with CBS, U.S. Amb. to China Gary Locke said that the United States had worked hard to negotiate a package of concessions from the Chinese government, and that Chen was enthusiastic about the arrangement. Locke also said that Chen's wife and children were brought to Beijing at Chen's request.
"Why can't the Chinese just do something first as a sign of good faith? Why must I trust them to do various things after I leave the Embassy?" Chen told U.S. officials, according to Locke. "Why can't they bring the family from the village to the hospital first so that I can know that they're safe, so I can talk to them on the phone? And if, after that conversation, I'm satisfied, I will leave the embassy and rejoin them."
Locke said that Chen was never pressured to leave the embassy, never expressed a desire to leave China when at the embassy, and rejected other offers from the Chinese government before eventually agreeing to the final offer.
"We were able to get the Chinese government to offer an unprecedented package of care for him -- family reunification. He hadn't seen his son in over two years. They were going to give him a full scholarship at one of seven universities of his choosing with full housing and living expenses for him and his family, and they would conduct an investigation of the abuses that he had suffered," Locke said. "If he had stayed in the embassy, his family still would have been in the village where they have suffered abuse."
Nevertheless, Locke noted that Chen was obviously having a change of heart and said that U.S. officials were working Thursday to determine Chen's wishes and how they could assist him. Chen's wife came out of the hospital to meet with U.S. officials Thursday and officials have had two conversations with Chen over the phone, Locke said.
Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told The Cable that the U.S. government had no choice but to relay the Chinese government's implicit threat to Chen and allow Chen to use that information to make the best decision for him and his family.
"The State Department said there was a particular threat made that they duly informed him about. They did what they had to do in conveying that to Chen," he said. "It would have been wrong if it was the case that they pressed him on that basis in one direction or another, but I don't have any information that they did."
The CECC is chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), the congressman to whom Chen appealed directly for help Wednesday after saying he felt abandoned by the U.S. government. At today's hearing, Smith referred to Chen's comments in an interview with CNN from his hospital bed, during which he said that administration officials lobbied him repeatedly to leave the embassy, kept him from communicating with friends, and reneged on promises to stay with him at the hospital.
"I'm very disappointed in the U.S. government. I don't think U.S. officials protected human rights in this case," Chen said in the interview. (In a more recent interview with the network, Chen chalked some of his earlier comments up to a "misunderstanding.")
Smith said he intends to hold another hearing on the issue next week with U.S. officials.
"Chen's comments portray the U.S. as manipulating him, cutting him off from outside communication, and encouraging him to leave the embassy rather than seek asylum," said Smith. "He said he was denied requests to call friends. He said he felt the embassy officials had lied to him."
There are several questions left unanswered, Smith said, including: How will the U.S. enforce the agreement with the Chinese government on Chen? What happens if Chen or his family suffer retaliation? Where is Chen's nephew Chen Kegui? What happens now to He Peirong, the woman who drove Chen to the embassy?
Smith detailed Chen's fight against alleged abuses of China's family planning laws in Shandong and the abuses he and his wife have endured at the hands of Chinese officials, including beatings and various other forms of intimidation. CECC has been documenting these abuses in detail and held a hearing about Chen's case last November.
"Hu Jia, a human rights and environmental advocate, and Chen Guangcheng, a self-trained legal advocate who publicized population planning abuses, were released from prison this year only to face, along with their families, onerous conditions of detention and abuse with little or no basis in Chinese law," CECC's 2011 Annual Report stated. "In Chen's case, authorities kept him and his wife under extralegal house arrest and allegedly beat them after video footage of their conditions was smuggled out of the house and released on an overseas Web site."
As the world watches the saga of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng unfold in a Beijing hospital, the White House is disputing a Tuesday report that claimed the staff of Vice President Joe Biden overruled the State Department to reject the asylum case of Wang Lijun, the local Chinese official who fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February.
Unlike in the Chen case, when Wang sought refuge with U.S. authorities, he was not a human rights activist fleeing persecution for his advocacy on behalf of China's abused masses. Wang was the police chief of a major Chinese city and a key deputy to provincial boss Bo Xilai. Wang was embroiled in an alleged corruption and murder scandal involving Bo's wife and a British national and was fleeing Bo's wrath. He eventually left the embassy of his own volition, according to the State Department, after which he was scooped up by Beijing authorities and has not been heard from since.
In Washington, some critics accused the Obama administration of rejecting Wang's reported asylum request out of concern it would disrupt the impending visit by Chinese heir apparent Xi Jinping, whom Biden was hosting.
On Tuesday, the Washington Free Beacon, citing unnamed officials, reported that Biden's office overruled State Department and Justice Department officials to dictate that Wang's asylum request should be denied.
"In the end, Antony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser, successfully prevailed over other officials in arguing that Wang's asylum appeal should be rejected," the report stated. "Blinken, according to the officials, feared China would cancel the upcoming visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, whose visit was to be hosted by Biden, unless Wang was sent away from the consulate as soon as possible."
National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable flatly that the story was false and that neither Blinken nor anyone in Biden's office was involved in the Wang case in any way.
"This is complete fiction. No one from the office of the vice president, including specifically Tony, was involved in any way shape or form," Vietor said. "This was a consular matter handled by the State Department."
"I stand by the facts of my story," Free Beacon reporter Bill Gertz told The Cable.
This week, State Department officials also took the lead in the Chen case. State Department counsel Harold Koh, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, and Ambassador Gary Locke led the negotiations with the Chinese that found Chen in a Beijing hospital fearing for his safety and that of his family.
In a Wednesday interview with CNN, Campbell emphasized that the United States adhered to Chen's wishes in negotiating a deal with the Chinese government that allows Chen to reunite with his family and start a new life inside China.
"I think everyone felt that we had served his interests and we'd worked closely with him in a manner that brought his family together that had been torn apart years ago and really had done something that gives him a chance to have a productive life," he said. "It's not going to be easy, but that's what he wanted, and we were very grateful to be able to support him."
But Campbell also acknowledged that there was no guarantee the Chinese government would adhere to the deal and that Chen's safety may be at risk.
"Now, time will tell," he said. "And what we have been able to do is provide the base, but it will be important for the U.S. government, for non-profits, for his many friends, admirers, and supporters to create a support network for him that protects him, that supports him, that encourages him in the way ahead."
The State Department insists that blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy of his own volition Wednesday and that U.S. officials in Beijing did not convey threats to harm his family by Chinese officials, as Chen claims.
"At no time did any US official speak to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children. Nor did Chinese officials make any such threats to us," said State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. "U.S. interlocutors did make clear that if Chen elected to stay in the Embassy, Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to [their home in] Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification."
Nuland was responding to accounts by Chen supporters, now repeated by Chen himself to the Associated Press, that said Chen was pressured into leaving the embassy via threats to the safety of his wife and family. Chen told the AP that U.S. officials told him the Chinese would take his family back to their home province in Shandong, where they had been under extrajudicial house arrest and in some cases physically abused, if he didn't leave the embassy.
Chen also said a U.S. official told him the Chinese government would beat his wife to death if he didn't leave the embassy and agree to the terms of the deal struck by U.S. and Chinese negotiators, according to the AP's account.
The State Department disputed that version of events.
"I was there. Chen made the decision to leave the Embassy after he knew his family was safe and at the hospital waiting for him, and after twice being asked by Ambassador Locke if he [was] ready to go," said Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who was a key negotiator in the deal. "He said, ‘zou,' -- let's go. We were all there as witnesses to his decision, and he hugged and thanked us all."
The deal, detailed by Foreign Policy's Editor Susan Glasser from Beijing, included a reunion between Chen and his family at a hospital where he could receive attention to the foot he damaged by scaling a wall during his daring escape last week.
The deal also stipulates that the Chinese government would treat Chen and his family humanely, that they would be relocated, and that Chen would be allowed to study at a university. Senior administration officials told reporters in a background briefing in Beijing that Chen called Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the car to the hospital and said, "I want to kiss you."
Glasser noted that Zeng Jinyan, the wife of well-known activist Hu Jia, contradicted that account on Twitter, saying Chen told her he had asked to "see" Clinton, not to kiss her.
Clinton, in a statement, said, "I am pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng's stay and departure from the U.S. Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values."
Chen, according to the AP, said that it was true he had expressed his desire to stay in China. But now that U.S. officials have left him alone in his hospital room, he is having second thoughts.
"I think we'd like to rest in a place outside of China," he said. He then asked to relay a message to Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ). "Help my family and I leave safely."
The Obama administration said Tuesday it is involved in ongoing consultations with various Taliban officials, but said that a long-negotiated deal to transfer five senior Taliban commanders out of the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay is "on hold" indefinitely.
The U.S. plan for Afghanistan took shape today when President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement to extend the U.S. security commitment in Afghanistan until 2024. The agreement was signed during Obama's surprise one-day visit to Afghanistan, which just happened to fall on the anniversary of the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Two senior administration officials briefed reporters today on a conference call from Kabul. Asked by The Cable whether the Obama administration is still negotiating with the Taliban directly and whether the administration sees Taliban participation in the future of Afghanistan, the officials said yes on both counts.
"We continue to remain in contact with various Taliban leaders and we have several indications of intense interest in the reconciliation process," a senior administration official said. "It's quite clear to us that there is a range of interest among Taliban in reconciliation and there's quite a bit of internal political turbulence within the Taliban on that score."
But the official explained that a deal under consideration to transfer five senior Taliban commanders out of Gitmo to "house arrest" in Qatar, in exchange for the release of a Westerner in Taliban custody, was stalled due to internal divisions within the Taliban's ranks.
"For reasons that appear to have to do with internal political turbulence among the Taliban, those efforts have been basically put on hold for the time being," the official said. "The Taliban understand very well what needs to happen in that channel for those talks to restart and we'll see what they do with that knowledge."
Senior U.S. lawmakers in both parties have come out against the proposed transfer of Taliban commanders out of Gitmo, arguing that they were too dangerous to be released and that the Qatari arrangement would not be enough to ensure they did not return to violence. The deal would also have set up a Taliban representative office in Qatar from which the Taliban could operate.
Last month, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told a Washington audience that he also opposes releasing Taliban officials from Gitmo until the Taliban have shown some evidence that they are negotiating in good faith.
The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has expressed some hope that the deal would be a precursor to more positive interactions, although Afghan officials were initially upset that the United States had begun discussions with the Taliban outside their purview.
The Karzai government also has good reason to be suspicious of Taliban peace offers, considering that its most recent peace engagement with the Taliban literally blew up when a supposed Taliban negotiator detonated a suicide bomb that killed the leader of Karzai's peace council, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Former Deputy NATO Senior Civilian Representative at ISAF Mark Jacobson, now with the Truman National Security Project, told The Cable today that the administration's comments represented new openness about its talks with the Taliban.
"I think the White House is increasingly open about U.S. discussions with the Taliban -- an indication to me that we are in a good position to move these talks along," he said. "In the end its going to have to be about Karzai and the Taliban, but both sides feel much more comfortable in direct discussions with us because both sides see us as more reliable than the others. And in the end, any agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government will require the backing and support of the United States."
On the conference call from Kabul, the administration officials rejected assertions that the Obama administration is opening itself up to charges of politicizing bin Laden's killing by signing the agreement on the one-year anniversary of the mission. They said the timing was based on the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago.
"The negotiations were completed in recent weeks... The two presidents set a clear goal for the agreement to be signed before the summit in Chicago," one official said. "It was always the president's intention to spend this anniversary with our troops. What better place to spend that time with our troops here in Afghanistan who are in harm's way."
President Barack Obama has landed in Afghanistan and arrived at the presidential palace in Kabul, where he will sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the Afghan government on the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
"President Barack Obama is in Afghanistan for a whirlwind visit that will culminate in a live, televised address to the American people," a White House pool report said Tuesday.
Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will sign the agreement shortly and Obama is scheduled to address the nation just after 7:30 EDT Tuesday evening (4 AM local time) from Bagram Airbase. The agreement commits the United States to a security presence in Afghanistan for years after the 2014 handover of control to the Afghan government, but exact troop numbers won't be decided until next year.
Obama's plane left Andrews Air Force Base just after midnight Monday and arrived at Bagram Tuesday evening Afghanistan time. He was greeted at Bagram by Amb. Ryan Crocker and Lt. Gen. Mike Scaparotti, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"Senior administration officials said the timing of the trip was driven by the negotiations over the Strategic Partnership Agreement and by the desire of both presidents to sign the agreement in Afghanistan prior to the NATO summit in Chicago later this month," the pool report stated. "However, the officials also acknowledged that the timing coincides with the first anniversary of the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden."
At the Pentagon, defense officials released a new report on the progress of the mission in Afghanistan, required by Congress under section 1230 of the Defense Authorization Act. The report claims continued progress in the effort to defeat the Taliban and train the Afghan National Security Forces to take the lead.
"The year 2011 saw the first year-over-year decline in nationwide enemy-initiated attacks in five years. These trends have continued in 2012," the report stated. "The performance of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the close partnership between the ANSF and ISAF have been keys to this success. As a result, the ANSF continue to develop into a force capable of assuming the lead for security responsibility throughout Afghanistan."
The report did mention the dozen or so attacks on ISAF forces by soldiers in ANSF uniforms, known as "green on blue" attacks, but the report failed to note that some attempted "green on blue" attacks are never reported by ISAF because they were not successful, as reported by the Associated Press Monday.
While the Pentagon report praises the progress of allied forces in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, it excoriates Pakistan for harboring enemies of the Afghan government and accuses Karzai's government of rampant corruption.
"The Taliban-led insurgency and its al Qaeda affiliates still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan. The insurgency's safe haven in Pakistan, as well as the limited capacity of the Afghan Government, remain the biggest risks to the process of turning security gains into a durable and sustainable Afghanistan. The insurgency benefits from safe havens inside Pakistan with notable operational and regenerative capacity," the report states.
"Additionally, the Afghan Government continues to face widespread corruption that limits its effectiveness and legitimacy and bolsters insurgent messaging."
The handover of security control to Afghan government forces continues apace, according to the report. As of March 31, 2012, 20 of 34 provinces, comprising about half the Afghan population, were under Afghan control, the report said.
The report said that ANSF numbers will reach 352,000 by Oct. 2012, which is about when the United States will make decisions regarding how many American troops to leave in Afghanistan when the drawdown of "surge" troops is complete this fall. At that time, 68,000 U.S. troops will remain, with the goal of handing over complete control to the Afghan government in 2014.
The report claims that the insurgency is severely degraded and that Taliban reintegration programs are working well.
"ANSF-ISAF operations have widened the gap between the insurgents and the population in several key population centers, limiting insurgent freedom of movement, disrupting safe havens in Afghanistan, and degrading insurgent leadership," says the report. "Continued success of the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program appears to be amplifying this trend by degrading Taliban cohesiveness."
A senior State Department official said Tuesday that the the Strategic Partnership Agreement Obama is about to sign contains within it mechanisms to get at the problem of Afghan government corruption.
The agreement authorizes "a bilateral commission with a set of working groups that will further assure the donor community, including the United States, that the Afghans are making the kind of progress that they need to make in order to demonstrate to donors that it's worthwhile to continue providing the kind of assistance that we provide," the official said.
But the Pakistan problem remains. A senior Pentagon official said that the share of attacks in eastern Afghanistan has gone up due to the activity of the Pakistan-based Haqqani network.
"The Haqqani network continues to operate networks in Afghanistan and continues to carry out attacks in Afghanistan. When we're talking about the attacks on RC-East, the Haqqani network is the major actor in the major problem area," the official said. "We will continue to work to interdict their ability to act in Afghanistan and continue to make clear to Pakistan that we expect them to take action to prevent violence emanating from its borders, impacting other countries, including its neighbor Afghanistan."
There is no formal planning going on inside NATO to prepare for defending Turkey from the violence spilling over from Syria, even though Turkey is considering whether to formally invoke NATO's chapters on collective defense, a top Obama administration official said Monday.
"Our Supreme Allied Commander [Adm. James Stavridis] can do a certain amount of planning... but there has been no formal tasking and there has been no formal request by the Turks for consultations in an Article 4 or Article 5 scenario," said Liz Sherwood-Randall, the National Security Council's senior director for Europe, in remarks Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu briefed his foreign minister and defense minister counterparts on Syria at a high level meeting in Brussels this month, and reports said that Davotoglu discussed at length a cross border attack by Syrian forces on a refugee camp inside Turkey that killed two. Davotoglu is also reported to have said the Syrian regime has "abused a chance offered by the Annan plan."
The Obama administration also believes that the Annan plan "is failing," is currently searching for a "plan B" in Syria, and is preparing military related options in case diplomacy breaks down. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that NATO might have to get involved earlier this month, during a ministerial meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group in Paris.
"Turkey already has discussed with NATO, during our ministerial meetings over the last two days, the burden of Syrian refugees on Turkey, the outrageous shelling across the border from Syria into Turkey a week ago, and that Turkey is considering formally invoking Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty," Clinton said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.