The State Department is getting ready to decide if Egypt has done enough to earn its $1.5 billion in U.S. aid for this year, and one leading human rights organization is telling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the answer is no.
"Amnesty International USA is deeply concerned about the ongoing repression of the Egyptian people by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) in Egypt," the advocacy group wrote in a Wednesday letter to Clinton. "Given the human rights violations in Egypt, the US State Department cannot in good faith certify to the US Congress that the Egyptian government is protecting human rights."
Clinton is in charge of determining whether or not the Egyptian government has met the requirements spelled out in the last congressional appropriations bill as prerequisites for getting the $1.3 billion in annual military aid and another $250 million or so to promote democracy and civil society in Egypt. The law mandates that Clinton certify Egypt is proceeding on the road to a democratic transition, maintaining its commitments under its peace treaty with Israel, and "implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law."
The president can waive those requirements based on national security grounds if he wants.
"We urge you not to make such a certification, and we also oppose any waiving of this certification requirement," the Amnesty International letter states. "Making such a certification would undermine the brave struggle of the Egyptian people for a society founded on respect for human rights and the rule of law. Waiving the certification requirement would forfeit a key form of pressure for the advancement of human rights."
Specifically, Amnesty International opposes the subset of military aid that puts weapons, ammunition, and vehicles in the hands of security forces that have already used such items in human rights violations
We're told that although the State Department is technically in charge of this certification, other agencies are involved in the decision-making process and the Pentagon is pushing internally for at least some of the aid to go through.
Officials and lawmakers threatened to cut the aid to Egypt during the first round of the NGO crisis in January, when the Egyptian government raided several American funded NGOs and charged Americans with crimes for working at those NGOs. Even though those Americans have been allowed to leave Egypt, the Egyptian government's assault on its own civil society continues, Amnesty says.
"The ongoing trial of NGO staff on spurious charges is just one incident in a broader pattern of the new Egyptian regime continuing the old Mubarak practice of muzzling civil society," the group's letter continues.
Amnesty also points out that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which temporarily holds executive power in Egypt, has not rescinded emergency security laws, has continued to perpetrate violence against peaceful protesters, is still trying civilians in military courts, and has worked to exclude women from political participation.
"Furthermore, we call on the State Department to cease the funding, transfer, licensing, or sale of weapons, ammunition, military equipment, and military vehicles that can be used by Egypt's government to suppress human rights," the letter reads. "Any such funding derived from the U.S. Foreign Military Financing program should be halted immediately."
The United States shouldn't lift trade sanctions against Russia without replacing them with targeted actions against Russia's worst human rights violators, a top Russia opposition leader told The Cable today.
The Obama administration has been touting the fact that Russia's opposition leaders want America to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that prevents the United States from granting Russian Permanent Normal Trade Status (PNTR) and taking full advantage of Russia's new membership in the WTO. But according to former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, co-chairman of the People's Freedom Party, also known as the "Solidarity" movement, the United States shouldn't do that without replacing those sanctions with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago.
"We are for replacement of Jackson-Vanik with the Magnitsky bill," Nemtsov told The Cable in a Wednesday interview.
"We believe that sanctions against the state are absolutely ineffective, absolutely anti-Russian and against the U.S.-Russian relationship, because for Putin, he can say Jackson-Vanik is not against the Russian state but against the Russian people, which is bad," he said. "Much more promising is adoption of the Congress of the Magnitsky bill and I strongly support this bill. It's absolutely easy."
Nemtsov noted that U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Mike McFaul said Tuesday that the administration would not support any human rights legislation as a replacement for the repeal of Jackson-Vanik. But Nemtsov said that will be viewed in Russia as a U.S. capitulation to Putin.
"I know that some people are against that, including McFaul and the White House, but I don't think this is good. Because for Putin, cancelling Jackson-Vanik means that he won," he said. "And when Russia has no rule of law system, no independent court system, and corrupt bureaucrats are absolutely safe in Putin's Russia. The only way to protect human rights in Russia is adopt such a bill as the Magnitsky bill, which is absolutely crucial for us."
Corrupt Russian bureaucrats shouldn't be able to visit the United States and buy property and invest, Netmsov said, arguing that the United States has to protect its reputation as standing up for human rights and the rule of law and not become complicit in the activities of corrupt officials.
Last week's election of Putin was neither free nor fair nor a reflection of the views of the Russian people, Nemtsov claimed. Opposition leaders didn't run, Putin chose the candidates and the terms, there were no debates, and fraud was widespread, he said.
"It was not an election at all. It was a special KGB operation for Putin's corrupt team to keep power in Russia," he said.
Nemtsov said he doesn't think the U.S.-Russia reset policy can continue under Putin because the president-elect's core message is that the United States and the State Department is working to undermine the Russian government and fund the opposition, a charge McFaul has repeated denied.
"Putin said that all of the problems in Russia come from the U.S. because the U.S. wants to colonize Russia. Of course it's stupid and sounds like paranoia, but that's what he says every day."
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
Leading lawmakers on both sides kicked off the coming debate over the Obama administration's plans to speed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a partisan fight over how to extract the U.S. from its longest war with a measure of honor and success.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the Obama administration is debating multiple new troop drawdown plans that would govern the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the surge forces is completed this September. According to the report, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is supporting a plan that would remove another 10,000 troops by the end of 2012 and an additional 20,000 troops by June of next year.
Vice President Joe Biden is said to support a plan for an even more precipitous withdrawal. Gen. John Allen, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, reportedly supports keeping more troops there longer than either Donilon or Biden would like.
A number of leading Republican senators told The Cable that they oppose the new, faster Afghanistan troop withdrawal plans under discussion in the Times report, which they see as a trial balloon floated by the White House to frame the coming discussion.
"I hope it's a balloon that busts," said Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Graham laid out the basic argument against the speedier withdrawal: that it is opposed by leading U.S. military officials, is based on the White House's political considerations, and risks sacrificing hard-fought security gains.
"The problem with this administration is that every time the generals give them good advice, they've got to change it," said Graham. "Why is General Allen wrong? If I gotta pick between Joe Biden and General Allen, I'm picking General Allen.... The last thing we want is a bunch of politicians who have been wrong about everything controlling the war."
He also acknowledged that not all Republicans agree with him and even the GOP presidential candidates are becoming skittish on keeping the military committed in Afghanistan. Newt Gingrich said this week that the mission there might not be "doable."
"On the Republican side, we've had one or two folks talking about changing General Allen's withdrawal plan. They don't know what they're talking about. It would be a nightmare for this country for Afghanistan to go poorly," said Graham. "I hope the Republican nominee for president will say something very simple. ‘I know we're war weary. We're going to withdraw. We're going to transition. But we're going to do it based on what the general says.'"
Allen is coming to Washington next week and will testify on Capitol Hill. Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable in an interview that Republicans will press Allen to admit the dangers of speeding up the withdrawal plan.
"I'll ask ‘is the risk greater' and he'll say ‘the risk is greater because of these decisions,'" McCain predicted. The Arizona senator described the new, speedier withdrawal option as the administration "continuing the president's stated withdrawals over the objections of his military advisors who he has appointed, sending the message to the region that we are leaving and you have to make accommodations for us not being in the neighborhood, which is a strategy for failure."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) wholly supports the administration removing more troops from Afghanistan at a steady pace, although he acknowledges that some generals disagree.
"After the 30,000 troops are removed by the end of September, the president said a couple months ago that there will be further reductions continuing at a ‘steady pace.' I favored that very much. A number of top uniformed leaders did not," said Levin.
He said the uniformed leadership favored halting the withdrawal of U.S. troops after the 30,000 surge troops leave. That would leave the number of U.S. troops at about 68,000 until as late as 2014, when they would then reduce steeply.
"I have felt the president's ‘steady pace' approach was the right approach. We ought to continue that approach. That was right in terms of success of the mission," said Levin.
He also said that the recent incidents in Afghanistan, including the accidental burning of Qurans and last weekend's alleged murder of 16 Afghan civilians, reinforce the need to continue withdrawing, an argument the president himself made this week.
The White House seems determined to continue the pace of withdrawals into next year despite the criticism coming from Republicans. GOP leaders want the administration to know they will be bringing up Obama's Afghanistan withdrawal plans early and often throughout this election season.
"If you start bleeding [General Allen], you leave everybody left behind in a force protection nightmare and our ability to withdraw with honor and security will be forfeited," said Graham. "And when it goes bad, [the White House] will be reminded of who created it. I promise you that."
UPDATE: National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor denied the Times report. Here's his statement to The Cable:
The White House is not currently reviewing options for further troop withdrawals and no decisions have been made. As the President has said, we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer. After that initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead.
The President will make decisions on further drawdowns at the appropriate time, based on our interests and in consultation with our Allies and Afghan partners. We look forward to meeting in Chicago with NATO leaders to define the next phase of transition.
There are no options, and Tom Donilon isn't pushing any specific option or policy proposal.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The pending deal to move senior Taliban figures from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar is part of a trade for the return of a Western prisoner, according to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
The Obama administration's plan to move five top Taliban officials to live under house arrest in Qatar has been extensively reported but never openly discussed by administration officials. And until Feinstein confirmed it to The Cable, the fact that the crux of the deal is a swap for a Westerner had never been publicly disclosed.
"That's the framework of the exchange. But it's presented as a confidence-building measure," Feinstein said. "We are giving up people who killed a lot of people, people who were head of major efforts of the Taliban."
Feinstein said the deal involved the trade of one Westerner for the five Taliban leaders. She also confirmed the name of the Westerner in question, but The Cable has agreed to withhold that name at the request of U.S. officials out of concern for his safety.
Under the deal, the United States would reportedly place the Taliban officials under the responsibility of the Qatari government, where they would ostensibly remain under some degree of supervision and imprisonment. According to reports, the prisoners being considered for transfer include Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister; Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan; and former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund.
But Feinstein said she opposes it.
"These are major Taliban figures, they are not minor people. And they will not be in the same kind of custody, maximum-security custody. Forget that it won't be Guantánamo, just maximum-security custody," she said. "And in my view, there's no way of knowing what they may do and what kind of propaganda they may breed."
Afghan officials have spoken about the deal as a step toward peace talks meant to end the decade-long Afghanistan war, but U.S. lawmakers suspect the released Taliban could eventually end up returning to the fight.
Feinstein said the timing of the deal, with the Taliban still actively engaged against Western forces on the battlefield, was particularly problematic. "To do this as just a confidence-building measure without any acceptance by the Taliban of any rules or agreements or anything else, and at a time when the Taliban are still carrying out raids, planting IEDS, still killing people.... I think if you're able to achieve with the Taliban an agreement then it wouldn't be as horrible as it is," Feinstein said.
The administration has sought hard to preserve the secrecy around the prisoner trade, and administration officials won't confirm any of the details publicly.
Last week, White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden denied that a deal had been struck, saying, "The United States has not decided to transfer any Taliban officials from Guantánamo Bay" after reports surfaced that the Taliban leaders in question had agreed to be transferred.
"We are not in a position to discuss ongoing deliberations or individual detainees, but our goal of closing Guantánamo is well established and widely understood," she said. "In general, any decision to transfer a detainee from Guantánamo would be undertaken in accordance with U.S. law and in consultation with the Congress."
On Jan. 31, top administration officials briefed eight senators on the deal, including Feinstein. The other senators invited to that classified briefing were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Intelligence Committee ranking Republican Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Senate Armed Services chiefs Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).
In a brief interview Tuesday, Levin declined to comment in any way on the trade. But he did say that he was opposed to any Taliban transfers unless it was part of a peace process.
"I believe that before there's a transfer of anybody that there should be some progress in the negotiations and discussions. That should be used as a way of promoting progress in the discussions with the Taliban, rather than doing that before those discussions have any evidence of success," he said.
McCain, in his own brief Tuesday interview with The Cable, said that a prisoner swap wasn't necessarily a bad idea in principle. But he poured cold water on the notion of linking any such swap to peace talks with the Taliban.
"If it's intended to be a ‘confidence-building measure,' that is an extreme measure. If it's a swap, it's worthy of consideration of Congress, if that is the premise of it," said McCain, a former prisoner himself. "But they're doing it as a ‘confidence-building measure.' That's not confidence building."
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
As troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad stormed the opposition-held city of Idlib Tuesday, Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) became the fourth U.S. senator to openly call for U.S. military intervention in Syria ... before he partially walked back those comments in an interview with The Cable.
"Senator, do you support a military intervention in Syria?" The Cable asked Brown in the hallways of the Capitol Building Tuesday.
"Well that's the million-dollar question," he said. "At what point do we do it? Is it 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 killed? At what point do we draw a line in the sand and get involved just based on the humanitarian [considerations] or just our belief that we are a great country and should be helping people?"
"We're at about 10,000 killed so far -- so what do you say?" we pressed.
"I'm at the point right now that I think we should handle it like we did with Libya: Get that coalition and go in and give the opposition a chance to regroup," he said.
"So you're for the U.S. getting involved in another international military intervention in Syria?" we asked. Then the Massachusetts senator appeared to have second thoughts.
"I'm still gathering information," Brown said. "I'm still asking for the appropriate briefings to see what we can do and what the limitations are and how this is different from Libya. And I'll have a more defined statement I think pretty soon."
Brown is not the only GOP senator grappling with the proper way forward in Syria, but other GOP lawmakers at least seemed to have their positions ready at their fingertips. Earlier Tuesday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) confidently told us that he doesn't believe the Syrian revolution is about "democracy."
In another Tuesday interview with The Cable, Senate Armed Services Committee member Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) said she supports increased international pressure on Russia and China but doesn't support U.S. military intervention at this time.
"Right now, I'm very concerned about what's happening in Syria," she said. "There are a number of legislative actions we could take against Russia to stop them from what they are doing."
As for arming the Syrian opposition, Ayotte said, "I think that's something that we should look at doing, but I also think there are other partners that might be in a position to do that, including the Turks."
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Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is moving to reassert Congressional control over billions of dollars in defense spending that he says the Pentagon has been abusing for years.
McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, declared Tuesday that he will no longer approve any of the Pentagon's reprogramming requests because, he says, the Defense Department has been abusing that mechanism to fund new programs without Congressional approval or oversight. The Defense Department reprogrammed between $12 and $15 billion in fiscal 2011, according to McCain, and that has to stop.
"The reprogramming process that allows only eight members of Congress to approve funding for new, unauthorized programs violates the traditional authorization and appropriation process," McCain wrote today in a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. "I will not support any further reprogramming requests for new, unauthorized programs except for emergency requirements."
The eight lawmakers who have the power to approve or disapprove Pentagon reprogramming requests are the chairman and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and their counterparts on the corresponding appropriations defense subcommittees.
McCain is not just halting approval of unauthorized new programs. He is also pledging to reject all non-emergency reprogramming requests until the Pentagon gives him a full accounting of every reprogramming action in the Defense Department for 2010 and 2011, including a list of all new programs begun through reprogramming. That's going to be a tall order for the Pentagon, which hasn't completed a financial audit in 40 years.
"I will not approve any further reprogramming requests until I am provided this information," McCain wrote.
The defense authorization bill provides the Defense Department with authority to reprogram about $8 billion per year, pending congressional approval, so McCain is saying that this authority has been abused. But he is also arguing that the Pentagon has been usurping power from Congress by using a power that is supposed to be reserved for unplanned contingencies to fund programs it can't get through Capitol Hill.
A McCain staffer told The Cable that Congress has seen the reprogramming process abuse getting worse recently. The committee has received requests for $850 million in reprogramming in only the last two months, $144 million of which is for "new" programs not authorized by Congress.
"It was a trend we were seeing in the last 6 months in which we were seeing it getting away from actually emergencies," the staffer said. "The goal for Sen. McCain is to ensure that any money for new programs is vetted through the appropriate Congressional processes."
Of course, Congress bears some of the blame for this problem. The appropriations process has been a mess for years, with funding bills coming late or not at all, creating havoc for Pentagon planners and financial officials. The entire federal government is often run on continuing resolutions due to Congress's failure to pass budgets, which makes starting new programs through the regular process more difficult. And the use of omnibus appropriations bills to eventually fund the government takes away individual lawmakers power to strike specific programs through amendments..
McCain's committee is supposed to authorize funding in its defense policy bill each year before the appropriations committee doles out that funding. But the authorization bills are also perennially late, passed after the fiscal year has started, so the Armed Services committees have less influence over defense funds than they should. McCain's effort today is also a way to try to redress that imbalance.
McCain has outright rejected at least two Pentagon reprogramming requests this year already. He re jected the Pentagon's request to increase the budget of the Navy's research and development arm by $29.2 million to bolster U.S.-European cooperation in forecasting ocean patterns, asking the Pentagon to explain why that was more important than other military needs.
McCain also denied a $38 million reprogramming request from the Army's research and development shop that the Army wanted to spend on studying ways to combat emerging threats posed by new radio communications technologies. That issue will be debated in Congress as part of this years authorization bill.
A Pentagon spokesman didn't immediate respond to a request for comment.
President Barack Obama's administration will not support any human rights or democracy legislation in exchange for Congress repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law, which is preventing Russia from getting top trade status with the United States, the U.S. envoy to Moscow said today.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul, the former NSC senior director for Russia and a key architect of the administration's "reset" policy with Russia, was in Washington today --along with all other U.S. ambassadors -- in advance of a huge conference at the State Department Tuesday. He made clear, in two separate speaking events, that the administration's top trade priority in 2012 is to repeal the Jackson-Vanik law, which has blocked Russia from getting Permanent Normal Trade Status (PNTR). However, the administration doesn't support any replacement for the law, such as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago.
Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill want to link the passage of the Magnitsky bill to the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was put in place in the 1970s to punish Russia for its treatment of Jewish would-be emigrants but now stands in the way of lifting U.S.-Russian trade restrictions. Last year, the State Department did quietly issue visa bans for the Russian officials linked to the case, and McFaul said that's enough.
"We believe that we can ban people from coming to this country that do grossly abusive things regarding human rights. And it was strengthened by a human rights executive order last August that we took to give additional authorities. So from our point of view this legislation is redundant to what we're already doing," McFaul said at a Tuesday morning event on Capitol Hill organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), a conservative policy organization. "We took this situation very seriously and we took action."
McFaul got into an impromptu debate at the FPI event about the Magnitsky Act with leading human rights advocates, and one of Magnitsky's original clients, Bill Browder. McFaul reiterated that the administration does not support financial sanctions on Russian human rights violators that go beyond the visa bans, and he said it's not helpful to name the names of the officials who are banned.
The Senate Finance Committee will take up the issue of Russia's PNTR status and the Jackson-Vanik law on Thursday. Committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) visited Russia last month and met with several senior Russian officials on the issue, including lame duck President Dmitry Medvedev.
"Jackson-Vanik from our position is a total no brainer. There's no upside to holding onto Jackson-Vanik right now. Zero. And viewed in human rights terms, there's no upside," McFaul said. "Jackson-Vanik should be terminated because there's no advantage in terms of the debate about democracy. There's no advantage in terms of human rights."
David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, talked at the event about the coordinated campaign by the Russian government to clamp down on democratization and human rights progress in Russia and to blame the current anti-government protests in Russia on the United States.
"Politically, in light of the environment in Russia, which has been deteriorating in Russia, to simply lift Jackson-Vanik without some replacement would be viewed in Moscow and Russian leadership as a sign of weakness on the part of the United States -- again, that we need this relationship more than they do," Kramer said. "And if we don't replace it, then we would, in their minds, be rewarding them despite their bad behavior by not going after them. To me, this has to be a package deal."
At a separate event this afternoon at the Petersen Institute for International Economics, McFaul again said that the administration would not support any human rights bill in exchange for repealing Jackson-Vanik, and made the case that Jackson-Vanik only hurts U.S. businesses.
"We're not going to have an argument about the diagnostics with anybody on Capitol Hill. We're not going to claim Russia's more democratic than you think. We're not going to get into that kind of argument. We'll just agree Russia has problems with these issues. But we disagree on the prescription," he said. "We don't believe that holding on to Jackson-Vanik in any way, shape, or form, advances the cause of democracy, human rights, or rule of law in Russia... there's no causal relationship."
McFaul is pushing for a new civil society fund, which would provide about $50 million in new money support NGOs there. The White House sent the plan to Capitol Hill last October, and McFaul says it is "stuck in Congress." We're told the request for funding is being held up by the office of Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).
"If you want to do something constructive, that's an area where we should be focusing on our attention, not on this weird linkage, like somehow holding Jackson-Vanik is going to make Russia more democratic or is going to help us with Syria," McFaul said. "I dare somebody to stand up today and tell me how not lifting [Jackson-Vanik] helps the cause of promoting rule of law, democracy, and human rights. We just don't see it that way."
McFaul also mentioned in both events the blog post published today by several Russian opposition leaders, including Alexey Navalny and Boris Nemtsov, calling for the repeal of Jackson-Vanik.
"At the end of the day, those who defend the argument that Jackson-Vanik's provisions should still apply to Russia in order to punish Putin's anti-democratic regime only darken Russia's political future, hamper its economic development, and frustrate its democratic aspirations," the opposition leaders wrote. "Jackson-Vanik is also a very useful tool for Mr Putin's anti-American propaganda machine: it helps him to depict the United States as hostile to Russia, using outdated cold-war tools to undermine Russia's international competitiveness."
FPI's Ellen Bork pointed out at the event that Navalny and Nemtsov both support passage of the Magnitsky act, although they didn't mention that in their blog post.
In response to a question from The Cable, McFaul declined to call the recent election of President-elect Vladimir Putin "free and fair," referring to State Department's statements on the election. He also denied accusations that the United States is financially supporting the protest movement, which he characterized as a healthy example of increasing Russian popular political participation.
"I wouldn't call it civil unrest; I would call it civil society renewal. This is not a movement that is seeking the violent overthrow of the current regime. They seek to engage in peaceful actions to reform the current system. That's different from other places around the world," McFaul said. "There are real politics in Russia again. The society is taking their constitutional rights more seriously and the state is responding to that."
Leading human rights activists see the government response to the protests in a harsher light.
"In the past few years, Russia has moved backwards not forwards... The trappings of democracy exist, elections happen," Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said at the FPI event. "But beyond those surface trappings, over the last few years, the Russian government has tried to weaken or dismantle every institution that might check the power of its officials or increase the power of its people."
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If the Russians are going to continue to arm the brutal Syrian regime, then the U.S. military should rethink its $900 million contract with the official Russian government-controlled arms broker, 17 senators said in a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today.
"We write to express our grave concern regarding the Department of Defense's ongoing business dealings with Rosoboronexport, the same Russian state-controlled arms export firm that continues to provide the Syrian government with the means to perpetrate widespread and systematic attacks on its own people," reads a bipartisan letter sent to the Pentagon today led by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Richard Durbin (D-IL), and signed by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), James Risch (R-ID), Roger Wicker (R-MS), David Vitter (R-LA), Robert Casey (D-PA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), and Mark Kirk (R-IL).
Russia has supplied over $1 billion of arms to the Syrian government since the unrest is Syria began, the senators wrote -- including four cargo ships full of weapons that have arrived in Syria since December. Rosoboronexport is Russia's official broker, serving as a middle man for all Russian foreign defense sales. It reportedly signed a new contract with the Syrian regime for 36 combat jets in January.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army is in the middle of buying 21 Mi-17 dual-use helicopters from Rosoboronexport for the Afghan security forces. That $375 million deal was granted to the Russian arms broker through a sole-source contract that was never competitively bid. The contract has an option for another $550 million in helicopters, which could bring the whole deal to over $900 million.
"Even in the face of crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian government during the past year, enabled no doubt by the regular flow of weapons from Russia, the United States Government has unfortunately continued to procure from Rosoboronexport," the senators wrote.
Rosoboronexport is a special case not just because it is allegedly arming the Syrian regime to this day. The firm was blacklisted from doing business with the U.S. government in 2006 for violating the Iran-Syria Nonproliferation Act, and was removed from that blacklist in 2009.
"While it is certainly frustrating that U.S. taxpayer funding is used to buy Russian-made helicopters instead of world-class U.S.-made helicopters for the Afghan military, our specific concern at this time is that the Department is procuring these assets from an organization that had for years been on a U.S. sanctions list for illicit nuclear assistance to Iran and in the face of the international community's concern is continuing to enable the Assad regime with the arms it needs to slaughter innocent men, women, and children in Syria," the letter reads.
The senators argue that the Russian helicopters, which the Afghans have more experience flying than American ones, could have been bought through other firms. The Navy did exactly that in 2009, before the Rosoboronexport contract was signed, buying four of these helicopters prior to the current Army deal in a competitively bid contract.
"Other options are very likely available as demonstrated by the fact that the first four Mi-17 helicopters that the U.S. Navy purchased for Afghanistan came through a different firm. We ask that the DoD immediately review all potential options to procure helicopters legally through other means," the senators wrote.
At last week's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Army Secretary John McHugh, Cornyn pressed him directly on the Rosoboronexport contract. The Army, as the executive agent on the program, is in charge of the contract.
"I am aware of it. The newer development, of course, is the alleged activity of Russian arms manufacturers in Syria. And the clarity on that is not what I think most of us would like at this point," testified McHugh, the former ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
McHugh claimed that the order for these specific helicopters came from U.S. Central Command -- the branch of the military tasked with overseeing operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and the Army was just executing those orders. He also claimed that buying the helicopters from Rosoboronexport was the only way to get them.
"Rosoboron, under federal law in Russia, is the only one who controls the export of those platforms, so we didn't have options there, either, as I understand it," McHugh said.
Cornyn argued that this simply isn't true, because other versions of the helicopter can be purchased elsewhere and then retooled to meet the Afghans' specific needs.
"Apparently, in 2009, the Navy was able to use an alternative acquisition route through a private broker, and so, at least back in 2009, there appeared to be an alternative source for the Mi-17 variant helicopters and related tool kits for the Afghan army," Cornyn said.
"So it strikes me that it's pretty clear that Russia has Syrian blood on its hands and complicit in that effort," he continued. "And with that predicate, you can understand why I was troubled to read and learn that Rosoboronexport's customer list also included the United States Army."
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
The Russian people and international observers may not see last Sunday's presidential election in Russia as legitimate, but President Barack Obama has now officially endorsed the return of Russian past and future President Vladimir Putin.
"President Obama called Russian President-elect and Prime Minister Putin to congratulate him on his recent victory in the Russian Presidential election," the White House said in a late Friday afternoon statement (read: news dump) about the Friday morning phone call between the two leaders.
"President Obama highlighted achievements in U.S.-Russia relations over the past three years with President Medvedev, including cooperation on Afghanistan, the conclusion and ratification of the START agreement, Russia's recent invitation to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) and cooperation on Iran," the statement read. "President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed that the successful reset in relations should be built upon during the coming years."
Obama told Putin he looked forward to Putin's May visit to Camp David for the G-8 summit and the two talked about how they could benefit economically from Russia's joining the WTO, the statement explained.
That could be a reference to administration efforts to get Congress to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that prevents the U.S. from giving Russia permanent normal trade status. Some in Congress are resisting that because of Russia's deteriorating record on democracy, rule of law, and human rights.
At the end of the statement, the White House mentioned the crisis in Syria, in which the Russian government is arming the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed to continue discussions on areas where the United States and Russia have differed, including Syria and missile defense," the statement read. "President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed to continue their efforts to find common ground and remove obstacles to better relations."
The State Department, in their May 5 statement on the election, noted the concerns of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe about the election, including that it wasn't a level playing field to begin with, that government resources were used partisan purposes, and that there were procedural irregularities on the day of the election.
"We urge Russian authorities to build on these steps to ensure that the procedures for future elections will be more transparent," the State Department said. The White House statement made no mention of the problems with the election.
After Russia's Dec. 2011 parlaimentary elections, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called them "neither free nor fair." When Russian protesters took to the streets to protest those elections and Putin's return to the presidency, Putin publicly accused Clinton of inciting the protests.
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images
What a difference a few days make. After warning earlier this week that he was about to "pull the plug" on his support for the Afghanistan war, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is back on board with the mission following a new agreement on detainees.
Officials in Kabul announced Friday that the United States had agreed to gradually hand over control of most Afghan detainees in its custody over the next six months, representing a compromise between the Afghan demand that they be handed over now and the American refusal to hand them over at all. The issue became especially sensitive after the U.S. military admitted burning dozens of Qurans at the Parwan Detention Facility on Bagram Air Force Base late last month.
Graham traveled to Kabul recently and met with President Hamid Karzai to discuss the progress (or lack thereof) in negotiating a U.S.-Afghanistan Status of Forces Agreement that would provide the legal framework for the 20,000 U.S. troops expected to remain in Afghanistan past 2014, the deadline by which President Barack Obama has said full control of Afghanistan will be handed back to the Afghans.
On March 6, Graham told The Cable that if Karzai didn't budge on his demands for the immediate handover of all prisoners and the immediate cessation of night raids against the Taliban, he would "pull the plug" on his support for the whole war.
"If he insists that all the prisoners have to be turned over by March 9 and that we have to stop night raids, that means we will fail in Afghanistan and that means Lindsey Graham pulls the plug. It means that I no longer believe we can win and we might as well get out of there sooner rather than later," Graham said.
On Friday, in response to the announcement of the detainee deal, Graham issued a new statement expressing optimism that the issues between the United States and Karzai's government could be worked out.
"Today's agreement regarding detainees begins to clear the path for a broader strategic partnership agreement between our two nations which will be the biggest accomplishment to secure Afghanistan in over a decade. The remaining issue left to be dealt with is the issue of night raids with Afghans in the lead, a vitally important military tactic which must be preserved," Graham said. "This has been an emotional and contentious topic for all concerned."
He explained that the agreement creates a "double-key veto system" that would allow either the Americans or the Afghans to object to the release of any detainee believed to be a threat to coalitions forces. Also the Afghans have changed their law to allow for "administrative detention" of suspected insurgents without having to go through the Afghan criminal justice systems.
"The adoption of Protocol II of the Geneva Convention, allowing for nations facing an insurgency to detain individuals as a security threat, rather than a common criminal, is a major breakthrough in the war effort. It creates a lane of detention under Afghan law specifically designed to deal with the insurgent threat," Graham said. "As previously mentioned, this begins to clear the way for a broader strategic partnership between our two nations."
But if Karzai really wants to complete an agreement with the United States that has Graham's support, he's going to have to tackle the night raids issue sooner or later.
"With a rational agreement allowing for US captures to Afghan control, combined with an agreement that will continue night raids, we could be on the verge of reaching a turning point in the war - a strategic partnership agreement - that will allow us to reduce our military presence post-2014," Graham said. "This is an outcome that we have been fighting for and tremendously enhances our nation's national security."
The State Department weighed in on the Invisible Children campaign to stop Joseph Kony Thursday, explaining that it is aware of no plan to pull U.S. advisors from the hunt, as the viral video suggests.
"In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him. In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That's where the American advisors come in," says the narrator of the video "Kony 2012," produced by the grassroots NGO Invisible Children. The clip has been viewed more than 55 million times on YouTube.
"But in order for the American advisors to be there, the American government has to deploy them," the narration continues. "They've done that, but if the government doesn't believe the people care about Kony, the mission will be cancelled. In order for the people to care, they have to know. And they will only know if Kony's name is everywhere."
Freelance Journalist Michael Wilkerson pointed out in a blog post for FP this week that this fear of some imminent withdrawal of the U.S. advisors doesn't seem to be based on any actual statements from the Obama administration.
"So the goal is to make sure that President Obama doesn't withdraw the advisors he deployed until Kony is captured or killed. That seems noble enough, except that there has been no mention by the government of withdrawing those forces -- at least any I can find," Wilkerson wrote.
At Thursday's State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was asked directly if there was any internal consideration of withdrawing the 100 or so U.S. military advisors that President Barack Obama deployed to Africa to aid the fight against Kony's Lords Resistance Army only 5 months ago.
"I don't have any information to indicate that we are considering that," Nuland said, noting that the Pentagon is in charge of the advisors. "As you know, they've only been in for a couple of months, and we consider them a very important augmentation of our effort to help the East and Central African countries with this problem."
Nuland said the Invisible Children effort was helpful but she noted that the cause the group is supporting has been something the U.S. government has been active on and aware of for years, although she noted that State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner was made aware of the video yesterday by his 13-year old daughter.
"Well, certainly we appreciate the efforts of the group Invisible Children to shine a light on the horrible atrocities of the LRA. As you know, there are neighboring states, there are NGO groups who have been working on this problem for decades," she said. As you know, thousands of people around the world, especially the young people, have been mobilized to express concern for the communities in Central Africa that have been placed under siege by the LRA. So the degree to which this YouTube video helps to increase awareness and increase support for the work that governments are doing, including our own government -- that can only help all of us."
As for the campaign's goal that Kony be arrested by the end of 2012, that just might not be possible, the U.S. military is warning. At a congressional hearing late last month, AFRICOM Commander Gen. Carter Ham said that there was no way to tell when the LRA might be defeated.
"The Lord's Resistance Army is an organization that creates through violence a tremendous amount of instability in a four-country region of east and central Africa," Ham said. "Initially beginning in Uganda but now extending their efforts into South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, they've displaced many thousands of African citizens and brought terror and fear to families across the region."
"To date, what we have found is that presence of the U.S. mostly special forces advisors that are working with the armed forces of those four nations are having a very positive effect," said Ham, but added that the effort is "not yet to the point where we see the end in sight."
In a Feb. 22 briefing with reporters, Navy Rear Adm. Brian Losey, commander of Special Operations Command Africa, said that the LRA is on the run and is down to about 200 core fighters.
"Now they are only a small percentage of their former strength," Losey said.
MICHELE SIBILONI/AFP/Getty Images
Libya's interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department Thursday, but let's hope he didn't check the State Department's website, which still has Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi listed as the head of the country.
Sure, the Arab Spring must keep the State Department web teams busy with revisions, but Qaddafi has been dead for months now. You wouldn't know that by reading the State Department's website, though, as it still shows the all-green Qaddafi flag on its Libya page and refers to Libya as the "Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya." The Libya page was last updated in July 2011, after NATO forces had begun attacking Libya but before the Qaddafi regime fell. (And yes, the State Department gift shop still sells flag pins with the old Libyan flag juxtaposed with the stars and stripes.)
Clinton celebrated the new Libyan government in her remarks after her meeting with Keib.
"Just think, this time last year, the United States was working to build an international coalition of support for the Libyan people, and today we are proud to continue that support as the people of Libya build a new democracy that will bring about peace and prosperity and protect the rights and dignity of every citizen," she said.
"We've seen progress in each of the three key areas of democratic society -- building an accountable, effective government; promoting a strong private sector; and developing a vibrant civil society. And we will stand with the people of Libya as it continues this important work."
Clinton lauded Libya's new election law and endorsed the goal of holding constitutional assembly elections this June. She praised Libya's increasing oil production and acknowledged the country still has a ways to go in the areas of border security, integrating militias, and working toward national reconciliation.
Keib thanked the entire Obama administration "for having been a tremendous support and for their strong leadership in supporting the Libyan revolution," and asked Clinton for help in retrieving the billions that Qaddafi is thought to have stolen from Libya and returning it to the Libyan people.
"In the past year, the dynamics between the U.S. and Libya has been dramatically transformed for the better," he said.
On Wednesday morning, Keib met with President Barack Obama and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon at the White House. He spoke at the U.N. Security Council in the afternoon and attended a dinner at the official residence of U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, sharing a table with actress Angelina Jolie and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Keib said Thursday he was not aware of any training camps in Libya for Syrian rebels, as the Russian government has alleged exist, but said he supports the Syrian opposition and formal recognition of the Syrian National Council. Libya has pledged $100 million for the Syrian cause.
Clinton said the Libyan National Transition Council (NTC) could be a model for the Syrian opposition.
"[The NTC] presented a unified presence that created an address as to where to go to help them, a lot of confidence in their capacities on the ground, their commitment to the kind of inclusive democracy that Libya is now building," Clinton said. "And we are working closely with the Syrian opposition to try to assist them to be able to present that kind of unified front and resolve that I know they feel in their own -- on their behalf is essential in this struggle against the brutal Assad regime."
And Clinton was quick to mention that she raised with Keib the issue of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 108 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the U.S. desire to see the convicted plotter Abdelbaset al-Megrahi returned to prison.
"You know where I stand. I believe that Megrahi should still be behind bars," she said. "We will continue to fight for justice for all the victims of Qaddafi and his regime. And in this particular case, the U.S. Department of Justice has an open case, and it will remain open while we work together on it."
For years, a slew of advocates - many of whom have been paid for their services -- have flooded U.S. airwaves on behalf of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization opposed to the Iranian regime.
After months of difficult negotiations, the MEK has finally begun moving out of its secretive Iraqi home near the Iranian border, called Camp Ashraf. But the group's American advocates have now become a major obstacle in the international effort to move the MEK to a new home in Iraq and avoid a bloody clash with the Iraqi military, officials say.
U.N. special representative in Iraq Martin Kobler, with help from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and the State Department, has organized efforts to relocate the MEK to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport. The first convoy of about 400 MEK members arrived there last month. The second convoy of about 400 MEK members arrived Thursday at Camp Liberty, Reuters reported.
The United Nations and the U.S. government have worked tirelessly in recent months to avoid a violent clash between the MEK and the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which is determined to oust the MEK from Camp Ashraf, where more than 3,000 members of the group, many of them suspected to be armed, have lived for years. Two previous attempts by the Iraqi government to enter the camp resulted in bloody confrontations.
But the U.N. and the State Department's efforts have been made exponentially more difficult due to the MEK's surprisingly strong base of support in Washington. In recent weeks, retired U.S. officials and politicians -- many of whom admit to being paid by the MEK or one of its many affiliates -- have mounted a sophisticated media campaign accusing the U.N. and the U.S. government of forcing the group to live in subhuman conditions against its will at Camp Liberty, an accusation U.S. officials say is as inaccurate as it is unhelpful.
"This is tough enough without paid advocates making it worse," one official told The Cable.
"Camp Liberty: A Prison For Iranian Dissidents in Iraq," reads a March 3 full-page ad in the New York Times, leveling the surprising accusation that the former U.S. military base is unfit for human occupation. The ad quotes former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani calling Camp Liberty "a concentration camp" -- a charge Giuliani made at an MEK-sponsored conference late last month in Paris. The ad also quotes former Democratic National Committee chairman and Vermont Governor Howard Dean, former Homeland Security secretary and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz trashing Camp Liberty.
However, according to an Obama administration official who works on the issue, it's actually the MEK that is trashing Camp Liberty -- literally. According to this official, the U.N. has reported that MEK members at Camp Liberty have been sabotaging the camp, littering garbage and manipulating the utilities to make things look worse than they really are. While there are some legitimate problems at the camp, the official admitted, the U.N. has been monitoring Camp Liberty's water, sewage, and food systems on a daily basis and the conditions are better than the MEK is portraying.
The New York Times ad is only the latest in a years-long, multi-million dollar campaign by the MEK and its supporters to enlist famous U.S. politicians and policymakers in their efforts to get the group removed from the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations and resist Iraqi attempts to close Camp Ashraf, which the new government sees as a militarized cult compound on its sovereign territory.
The campaign has included huge rallies outside the State Department, massive sit-ins at congressional hearings, and an ongoing vigil outside the State Department's C Street entrance. MEK supporters there tout the support of a long list of officials, including Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, and former Sen. Evan Bayh.
The administration official told The Cable that, as delicate negotiations between the U.N., the United States, the Iraqis, and the MEK continue, the role of these often paid advocates is becoming even more unhelpful and potentially dangerous.
"The Americans who ought to know better and claim to be on the side of good solutions are really damaging it. Either they are too lazy or too arrogant to actually do their homework. They don't spend the time to learn facts, they just pop off. They accept the MEK line without question and then they posture," the official said. "We have a plan that has a chance to work and the Iraqis want it to work. The MEK ... it's not clear. And in this situation they are being badly advised by the people whose names appear in these ads."
"Whether the MEK wants a resolution or wants a confrontation is something we're still debating. It's that bad," the official said.
The relationship between the American advocates and the MEK leadership, led by the Paris-based Maryam Rajavi, has led both to pursue strategies that neglect the dire risks of sabotaging the move from Camp Liberty to Camp Ashraf, the official said. Rajavi is said to have created a cult of personality around herself and to rule the MEK as a unchallenged monarch.
"The not-too-stable Queen [Rajavi] hired a bunch of court flatterers to tell her that she's great, which is fine, except that she has now forgotten that these are hired court flatterers. She thinks they are actual advisors," the official said. "Meanwhile her wise counselors are being marginalized by those who are saying ‘Oh Queen, your magnificence will cause your enemies to fall on their knees.' And she's beginning to believe them."
"By enabling Rajavi to indulge her worst instincts and encouraging her to think she has more power and leverage she does, they may precipitate a crisis, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid," the official said.
Another example of the American advisors' unhelpfulness was the MEK's recent public call to be relocated en masse to Jordan, an idea the U.S. official said came from the group's American friends. There was just one problem: Nobody had asked the Jordanians.
"To announce it publicly as a demand without checking with the Jordanians is the sort of thing you do to destroy it," the official said. "Why the hell should the Jordanians buy trouble like this by giving these people an autonomous militarized camp?"
U.N. and U.S. officials had been hoping to keep discussions open with Jordan about the possibility of hosting some MEK members in the event of an emergency, such as a renewed outbreak of violence. But U.S. officials now think that the MEK's actions have made that much more difficult.
"Whoever advised them has done actual demonstrable damage to a possible humanitarian solution. They're not helping. It's remarkable," the official said.
The arrival at Camp Liberty Thursday of the second convoy may signal that the MEK is coming around to the realization that the Iraqi government will never allow it to stay at Camp Ashraf. But the U.S. official warned that the group may have more tricks up its sleeve.
"The MEK will delay, confuse, deny, and spin until faced with an imminent disaster, and then they give only enough to avoid that disaster," the official said. "And the problem is: If you play chicken enough, eventually you will get into a head-on collision."
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
If the Obama administration wants to enter new talks with Iran, that's fine -- but they had better keep ramping up the pressure on the Islamic Republic during negotiations and not trade sanctions for piecemeal concessions from the Iranians, 12 U.S. senators said Wednesday.
"As the P-5+1 prepares to resume talks with Iran, we strongly believe that any hope for diplomatic progress with Iran depends upon a continuing and expanding campaign of U.S. and international pressure on the regime and that such pressure must continue until there is a full and complete resolution of all components of illicit Iranian nuclear activities," said Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Jim Risch (R-ID), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in a joint statement Wednesday.
"As we recently wrote to President Obama, we remain extremely concerned that the Iranian government will seek to buy time or otherwise dilute the focus of our diplomacy through proposals that either suspend or reverse the current momentum of the pressure track in exchange for partial measures that fail to address the totality of their nuclear program," the senators' statement continued. "Such tactical maneuverings are a dangerous distraction and should not be tolerated. For instance, we would strongly oppose any proposal that caps or limits sanctions against the Iranian regime in exchange for anything less than full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment activities, including both 3 percent and 20 percent enrichment."
When Iran offered to come back to talks last month, these 12 senators were quick to put together a letter outlining their precise concerns and what they wanted to see President Barack Obama's administration do.
In addition to continuing along the pressure track, they want the administration to insist that Iran suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities "for the foreseeable future," cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and resolve all outstanding questions about military dimensions of its nuclear program. The Obama administration has said repeatedly that Iran has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, but these 12 senators don't agree.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, in her March 6 letter welcoming new talks, acknowledged that the P5+1 countries - Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany -- will engage in discussions over confidence-building measures to the Iranian government.
"We remain convinced that initially we could work towards the shared objective to engage in a constructive dialogue on the basis of reciprocity and a step by step approach based on practical and specific suggestions for confidence building measures," she wrote.
But the senators think that is foolish, and want to emphasize that the administration should not trade the relaxation of sanctions for partial measures by the Iranians, which they see as a delaying tactic.
"Such tactical maneuverings are a dangerous distraction and should not be tolerated," the senators wrote. "For instance, we would strongly oppose any proposal that caps or limits sanctions against the Iranian regime in exchange for anything less than full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment activities, including both 3 percent and 20 percent enrichment. The time for confidence building measures is over."
Top administration officials, leading lawmakers, and GOP presidential candidates have all weighed in on Sen. John McCain's proposal to launch U.S.-led airstrikes to halt the violence in Syria, but there is still no consensus on the costs and benefits of entangling the U.S. military in another armed conflict.
"Just as was the case with Libya, there is a broad consensus among regional leaders and organizations on the preferred outcome in Syria: Assad and his cronies must go. There is not, however, a consensus about how this goal could be achieved," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) said at Wednesday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Levin didn't say whether he was for or against a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria, but he warned of the risks and talked about the possible impact on the region.
McCain was more clear, repeating his call for foreign air power to be used against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, and calling for the immediate arming of the Syrian opposition -- hopefully with international cooperation from Arab partners and European allies.
"It is understandable that the administration is reluctant to move beyond diplomacy and sanctions. Unfortunately, this policy is increasingly disconnected from the dire conditions on the ground in Syria, which has become a full state of armed conflict," McCain said.
He urged Panetta to remember his time as White House chief of staff during the NATO intervention in Bosnia and quoted President Bill Clinton as saying at the time, "There are times and places where our leadership can mean the difference between peace and war and where we can defend our fundamental values as a people and serve our most basic strategic interests. There are still times when America and America alone can and should make the difference for peace."
McCain also quoted CENTCOM chief Gen. James Mattis, who testified Tuesday that "Assad is clearly achieving what he wants to achieve" that his military campaign is "gaining physical momentum on the battlefield." Mattis also noted that Assad's downfall would be "the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years."
In his testimony, Panetta clearly ruled out any unilateral military action by the United States in Syria, but he left the door wide open to a multilateral mission inside Syria at some later date. Yesterday, President Barack Obama said that no option in Syria has been taken off the table.
"We are reviewing all possible additional steps that can be taken with our international partners to support the efforts to protect the Syrian people, to end the violence, and ensure regional stability, including potential military options, if necessary," Panetta said. "Currently, the administration is focusing on diplomatic and political approaches rather than military intervention."
"We need to have a clear legal basis for any action that we take. For us to act unilaterally would be a mistake," Panetta said. "Can it happen today? Can it happen now? No. It's gonna take some work; it's going to take some time. But when we do it, we'll do it right. We will not do it in a way that will make the situation worse. That's what we have to be careful of."
Dempsey said the Pentagon has planned for several possible military actions in Syria, including delivering humanitarian relief, imposing a no-fly zone, conducting maritime interdiction, establishing humanitarian corridors, and executing limited air strikes. He said the planning was at a "commander's estimate level of detail," and that there had been briefing to the National Security Council staff but not the president directly.
"As you know, we're extraordinarily capable and we can do just about anything we're asked to do," Dempsey said. "The ability to do a single raid-like strike would be accessible to us. The ability to do a longer-term sustained campaign would be challenging, and would have to be made in the context of other commitments around the globe."
Dempsey also confirmed elements of The Cable's Tuesday story on Syria, including the fact that Russia continues to arm the Syrian regime, including with advanced air defense systems.
Panetta said he believed that NATO should start debating the issue of a military intervention in Syria. That discussion so far has not begun in Brussels, according to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Panetta also said the Pentagon will not begin planning for a Syria intervention in detail until directed to do so by the president.
"I don't think there's any question that we're experiencing mass atrocities there," Panetta added.
Yesterday, several top Republican politicians declined to go along with McCain's call for airstrikes on Syria now, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
In a short interview Tuesday, McCain said that didn't bother him one bit.
"I couldn't care less," McCain said. "I know the difference between right and wrong. I know that people are being slaughtered as we speak."
"I refer back to Bosnia and Kosovo. Under President Clinton, we acted although there were Republicans strongly opposed to that. I think it turned out well."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who joined McCain's call for airstrikes along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), told The Cable Tuesday that he preferred a multilateral military intervention in Syria over a unilateral strike.
"The Arab League is the right vehicle," said Graham. "If they request air support I'm willing to be part of the team. But I want the Arab League and the international community to be deeply involved and I want it to be to stop the slaughter."
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) took to the Senate floor Tuesday to pick apart Mitt Romney's latest op-ed on Iran.
"The United States cannot afford to let Iran acquire nuclear weapons. Yet under Barack Obama, that is the course we are on," Romney wrote in Tuesday's Washington Post. "As president, I would move America in a different direction."
Romney said he would increase the Navy's shipbuilding rate from 9 to 15 ships per year and pledged to "press forward" with ballistic missile-defense systems aimed at Iran and North Korea. He also promised to press for "ever-tightening sanctions," to speak out in support of democracy in Iran, visit Jerusalem on his first trip as president, place aircraft carrier groups in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, and increase coordination with Israel.
"Most important, I will buttress my diplomacy with a military option that will persuade the ayatollahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Only when they understand that at the end of that road lies not nuclear weapons but ruin will there be a real chance for a peaceful resolution," Romney wrote. "Either the ayatollahs will get the message, or they will learn some very painful lessons about the meaning of American resolve."
Kerry said on the floor today that Romney's op-ed troubled him and he said Romney's attack on the administration's Iran policy was "as inaccurate as it was aggressive." The timing of the op-ed, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington, was additionally unfortunate, in Kerry's view.
"We should all remember that the nuclear issue with Iran is deadly serious business that should invite sobriety and serious-minded solutions, not sloganeering and sound bites. This can't become just another applause line on the Republican presidential stump," Kerry said. "Talk has consequences, and idle talk of war only helps Iran by spooking the tight oil market and increasing the price of the Iranian crude that pays for its nuclear program. And to create false differences with the president just to score political points does nothing to move Iran off a dangerous nuclear course."
"Worst of all, Governor Romney's op-ed does not even do readers the courtesy of describing how a President Romney would do anything different from what the Obama administration has already done," Kerry said. "Just look at this op-ed. From his opening paragraphs, Romney garbles history."
Kerry disputed Romney's assertion that President Jimmy Carter's efforts to negotiate the release of U.S. hostages in Iran in 1981 was "feckless," and his claim that Obama was the most "feckless" president since Carter, considering he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
"I don't know if Governor Romney has checked the definition of the word ‘feckless' lately, but that ain't it," Kerry said.
Kerry then goes point by point through Romney's op-ed to argue that Obama has basically the same Iran policy Romney is proposing. Kerry even quotes Ambassador Nick Burns, President George W. Bush's lead negotiator on Iran, who said, "The attacks on Obama basically say, ‘He's weak and we're strong.' But when you look at the specifics, you don't see any difference."
"So when you add it all up, Mitt Romney is just trying to ignore, twist, and distort the administration's policy to drive a wedge in our politics," Kerry said. "We're going to have a bruising election season. And so we should. That's how we decide big issues in the United States. We always have. But let's have an honest debate, not a contrived one. Governor Romney can debate the man in the White House instead of inventing straw men on the op-ed pages."
Obama himself criticized the GOP presidential candidates for their rhetoric on the possibility of a war with Iran during his press conference today.
"You know, those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities. They're not commander in chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I'm reminded of the costs involved in war. I'm reminded that the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle and the impact that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy," Obama said.
"This is not a game. And there's nothing casual about it. And, you know, when I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk, but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we've been doing over the last three years, it indicates to me that that's more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem."
If Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai doesn't change his tune fast on two key U.S. demands, the U.S. military should just pack up and go home and leave Afghanistan for good, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said today.
Graham, who has been one of the strongest congressional supporters for continuing the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan beyond 2014, said today that unless Karzai relents on his demands that the United States immediately hand over control of Afghan prisoners and end night raids against insurgents, there is no way the U.S. can achieve its objectives in Afghanistan and therefore should just end its involvement there.
"If the president of the country can't understand how irrational it is to expect us to turn over prisoners and if he doesn't understand that the night raids have been the biggest blow to the Taliban ... then there is no hope of winning. None," Graham said in the hallways of the Capitol Building just before entering the GOP caucus lunch.
"So if he insists that all the prisoners have to be turned over by March 9 and that we have to stop night raids, that means we will fail in Afghanistan and that means Lindsey Graham pulls the plug. It means that I no longer believe we can win and we might as well get out of there sooner rather than later."
Graham acknowledged that those two issues were crucial in ongoing negotiations over a U.S.-Afghanistan Status of Forces Agreement, which would provide the legal basis for the ongoing presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014, the deadline President Barack Obama has set for transferring full control of the country back to the Afghans.
"I am going to pull the plug on Afghanistan from a personal point of view if we don't get this strategic partnership signed," Graham said. "Karzai's insistence that all detainees we have in our custody be turned over by Friday to an Afghan system that will let guys walk right out the door and start killing Americans again is a non-starter."
Graham, who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations' State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, visited Kabul and met with Karzai late last month. Today he said he supports a U.S.-Afghanistan agreement for a post-2014 presence of about 20,000 U.S. troops, with three or four U.S. airbases and coordination in the military, political, and economic spheres.
"But I'm not going to support signing that agreement if Karzai insists that we end night raids, which are the biggest blow available to our forces against the enemy," he said. "If he requires that we end night raids, we'll have no hope of being successful."
Regarding the prisoners, Graham said that any follow-on U.S. force would be put at risk if U.S.-held prisoners, currently numbering over 3,000, were placed under Afghan control.
"I cannot go back home to South Carolina and tell a mother, ‘I'm sorry your son or daughter was killed today by a guy we had in custody but let go for no good reason.' We want Afghan sovereignty over prisoners but they're not there yet," he said. "That's not good governance. That hurts the Afghan villagers that have been preyed on by these people and it sure as hell puts our people at risk. I want an agreement but not at all costs."
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Coming soon from the Congress that brought you the sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran: new legislation to sanction every single Iranian bank.
Members of both the House and Senate from both parties are moving forward soon with legislation that would expand financial sanctions against Iran to include all Iranian financial institutions -- whether government-affiliated, private, inside Iran, or controlled abroad. According to multiple congressional aides who previewed the legislation for The Cable, this would effectively cut off every Iranian financial institution from the international community -- subjecting any bank that conducts transactions with an Iranian bank or holds money for an Iranian bank to risk losing its own access to the U.S. market.
Currently, only the 18 Iranian banks designated by the U.S. Treasury Department and the Central Bank of Iran are subject to such sanctions -- leaving more than 25 banks free to conduct business with the international community, which the legislations' sponsors see as a major hole in U.S. policy. According to congressional aides involved with the legislation's development, the ban on all Iranian banks would contain a humanitarian exemption, the oil exemptions built into the Menendez-Kirk amendment passed into law last December, and would provide the president with the authority to issue a national security waiver.
The legislation, being developed by the office of Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) in coordination with other offices, including Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), may be offered as early as next week as an amendment to the new Senate Iran sanctions bill that was approved by the Senate Banking Committee last month.
"This would really be a one-two punch combination if Congress extended sanctions to all Iranian financial institutions," one aide involved in the legislation told The Cable. "When you land a clear blow to a boxer's chin, you don't back off and wait to see if he'll fall -- you throw another punch and make sure he does."
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative policy organization in Washington, told The Cable that the new measures were necessary to prevent the Iranian regime from simply changing its banking tactics to focus on banks not yet sanctioned.
"Money is like water; it searches for cracks in a foundation exploiting even hairline cracks that provide an entry point," he said. "Existing cracks in sanctions laws are leaving entry points to the global financial system for scores of unsanctioned Iranian financial institutions. This allows the Iranian regime to shift its transactions to those still allowed access and to freely move money through the global financial system."
The full text of the new language is here.
Iran sanctions are extremely popular on Capitol Hill these days. After the Obama administration initially opposed the Kirk-Menendez amendment to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, the Senate added that legislation to the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill by a vote of 100-0.
Meanwhile, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, replied positively via letter today to Iran's Feb. 14 letter on resuming nuclear talks with the P5+1 countries, which included the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
According to Ashton's letter, the international community is willing to resume talks with Iran. Those discussions would have to focus on Iran's nuclear program, but initial steps could focus on confidence-building measures between the two sides.
"Looking forward to a sustained aimed at producing concrete results and in order not to repeat the experience of Istanbul, I would propose that we resume our talks at a mutually convenient date and venue as soon as possible," she wrote.
The Obama administration is moving to provide direct assistance to the internal opposition in Syria for the first time, marking a shift in U.S. policy toward a more aggressive plan to help oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Last week, a group of senior Obama administration officials met to finalize a package of options for aiding both the internal and external Syrian opposition, to include providing direct humanitarian and communications assistance to the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable. This meeting of what's known as the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council set forth a new and assertive strategy for expanding U.S. engagement with Syrian activists and providing them with the means to organize themselves, but stops short of providing any direct military assistance to the armed opposition.
For now, riskier options, such as creating a no-fly zone in Syria, using U.S. military force there, or engaging directly with the Free Syrian Army, are all still off the table. But the administration has decided not to oppose, either in public or in private, the arming of the rebels by other countries, the officials said.
"These moves are going to invest the U.S. in a much deeper sense with the opposition," one administration official said. "U.S. policy is now aligned with enabling the opposition to overthrow the Assad regime. This codifies a significant change in our Syria policy."
The package of options will be debated by cabinet-level officials at what's known as a Principals Committee meeting as early as this afternoon, the two officials said. The principals could endorse the entire package or make some changes, the officials said, although the package does have the consensus of the interagency coming out of last week's Deputies Committee meeting.
The administration is planning to greatly expand its interactions with the external Syrian opposition, led by the Syrian National Council, as well as with internal opposition bodies to include Syrian NGOs, the Local Coordinating Councils, and the Revolutionary Councils that are increasingly becoming the de facto representation of the Syrian opposition. The Free Syrian Army works with these councils, but the administration is not ready to engage the armed rebels directly out of concern that they are still somewhat unaccountable and may have contacts with extremist elements.
As part of the new outreach, the State Department and USAID have been tasked with devising a plan to speed humanitarian and communications assistance to the internal Syrian civilian opposition, working through State's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) office. There is no concrete plan yet as to how to get the goods into Syria if the Assad regime doesn't grant access to affected areas.
"We're leaving State and USAID to work that out. That's the million-dollar question. We're working on that now," the official explained.
Meanwhile, the administration wants to bolster the new defense committee established by the SNC last week, hoping to solidify that body's prominence as the contact point for coordinating military and technical assistance to the rebels, if a decision is taken later to move in that direction. The FSA has rejected the SNC's defense committee as being part of its chain of command, but for now the Obama administration sees the SNC as a more credible organization with which to explore options to potentially provide military aid.
"The prevailing narrative is enabling the transition while keeping options open for reaching out to the armed opposition," the administration official said. "There is recognition that lethal assistance to the opposition may be necessary, but not at this time."
At last month's initial Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said that arming the Syrian rebels was "an excellent idea," though there are conflicting reports as to whether and to what extent Saudi weapons and cash were already flowing into the country.
In preparation for the next Friends of Syria meeting in Turkey later this month, the Obama administration has decided not to openly oppose direct military assistance to the rebels as long as it comes from another country, not the United States, one of the administration officials said.
"The decision has been made at the next Friends of Syria meeting to not oppose any proposals to arm the FSA and we're not going to publicly or privately message on that," the official said. "We're not going to publicly or privately tell the Friends of Syria not to do this."
Inside the administration, there is still a consensus that U.S. military intervention in Syria is not wise at this time and there are still voices expressing hope that political transition could take place in Syria without all out civil war.
"It's more about what could be accomplished by intervening. So many questions haven't been answered," another administration official said, expressing the widespread internal uneasiness about involving the U.S. military in yet another war in the Middle East. "There's a chance we could get embroiled in a conflict. What does that do to our preparedness for other contingencies?"
Some in the administration still hold out hope that the Russians can be persuaded to play a more helpful role in Syria. But two officials confirmed that Russian arms deliveries to Syria are ongoing and one administration official said that the latest shipment included large amounts of advanced anti-aircraft missile systems, which are meant to help Syria repel any attempt to establish a no-fly zone.
"What that says is that the Russians are doubling down on Assad. They're preparing for the next step, which is the internationalization of the conflict," one administration official said.
For the critics of Obama's Syria policy, these moves represent a step in the right direction but still fall short of what is needed for the United States to halt the violence.
"I am encouraged the Obama administration is exploring steps to provide direct assistance to Syrians inside their country, but the incremental measures reportedly under consideration still do not come to grips with the fundamental reality in Syria, which is that Bashar al-Assad, equipped and resupplied by Iran and Russia, is now waging an outright war against the Syrian people, who are outmatched, outgunned, and urgently in need of decisive international intervention," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable today.
Lieberman, along with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) came out Monday in favor of a U.S.-led intervention in Syria to begin immediately.
"To me this should begin with medical and military assistance for the opposition, including tactical intelligence and weapons, and ultimately should include targeted airstrikes against Assad's bases and forces," Lieberman said. "The United States should help organize such support for the Syrian opposition, but it should be international and include our concerned allies in the Arab League, the GCC, NATO, and the EU."
Lieberman, McCain, and Graham will all have a chance to question the administration on these new moves Wednesday when the Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joints Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment on the administration's internal deliberations.
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
Airstrikes against Syria are tempting but ultimately not a good idea, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) told The Cable today, reacting to the Monday call for airstrikes from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), also first reported here.
It's not easy these days to be more hawkish than Ros-Lehtinen, but that's where McCain ended up today after he called for the United States to lead an international military intervention in Syria to halt the killing of civilians by President Bashar al-Assad.
"Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower," McCain said Monday. "To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country."
We caught up with Ros-Lehtinen, who has been vocally opposed to any outreach to the Assad regime since 2009, on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference, where she had just finished her appearance on a panel calling for more Iran sanctions.
Ros-Lehtinen told us she wants the United States to do more to stop the bloodshed there, but active military involvement at this juncture was just a bridge too far.
"Senator McCain's heart is always in the right place. He was right on Egypt and Libya. But I believe that we've got to get our allies involved and get them committed," she said. "So my heart agrees with him, but my head says no."
Ros-Lehtinen said the American people, following decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that seem to finally be winding down, are war weary.
"The American people and the constituents that I represent, they are cautious about getting involved in another military operation," she said. "I understand the humanitarian issues involved... But I hear people saying, ‘Who's going to enforce the no-fly zone? Who's going to do all of this? Is it always the U.S.?'"
Attacks on Syria now could also create a "domino effect" that could lead to a hot war with Iran, which considers Syria a client state, Ros-Lehtinen warned.
"Senator McCain has been right, but I worry the Syria operation may be harder because of its tie-ins to Iran and what will Iran do militarily," she said.
She said her committee will mark up a new Syria sanctions bill she co-sponsored with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) March 8. The bill imposes mandatory sanctions against persons that transfer or retransfer goods or technology that can aid Syria's efforts to obtain WMDs and their delivery systems. Further, the legislation mandates extensive sanctions, including asset freezes and a travel ban, on senior officials of the Syrian regime.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Later today, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, will become the first U.S. senator to publicly call for U.S. led air strikes to halt the violence and atrocities being committed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"After a year of bloodshed, the crisis in Syria has reached a decisive moment," McCain will say Monday afternoon in a speech on the Senate floor, according to excerpts obtained in advance by The Cable.
"What opposition groups in Syria need most urgently is relief from Assad's tank and artillery sieges in many cities that are still contested. Homs is lost for now, but Idlib, and Hama, and Qusayr, and Deraa, and other cities in Syria could still be saved," McCain will say. "But time is running out. Assad's forces are on the march. Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower."
The Obama administration's stance thus far has been to clearly communicate that international military intervention is not on the table in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the United States is willing to provide humanitarian assistance in Syria immediately... but only if Assad agrees to provide access to affected areas.
McCain, referring directly to the requests for more direct assistance from the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, and Local Coordinating Committees inside Syria, will call for the United States to lead an international effort to protect civilian population centers in northern Syria through airstrikes on Assad's forces.
"To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country," McCain will say. "The ultimate goal of airstrikes should be to establish and defend safe havens in Syria, especially in the north, in which opposition forces can organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad. These safe havens could serve as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance -- including weapons and ammunition, body armor and other personal protective equipment, tactical intelligence, secure communications equipment, food and water, and medical supplies. These safe havens could also help the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups in Syria to train and organize themselves into more cohesive and effective military forces, likely with the assistance of foreign partners."
McCain will point out that more than 7,500 lives have now been lost in Syria and that the United Nations has declared that Syrian security forces are guilty of crimes against humanity, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilians, the execution of defectors, and the widespread torture of prisoners.
"Increasingly, the question for U.S. policy is not whether foreign forces will intervene militarily in Syria. We can be confident that Syria's neighbors will do so eventually, if they have not already. Some kind of intervention will happen, with us or without us. So the real question for U.S. policy is whether we will participate in this next phase of the conflict in Syria, and thereby increase our ability to shape an outcome that is beneficial to the Syrian people, and to us. I believe we must."
He will also drive home the point that the situation in Syria is now as dire as the situation was in Libya before the U.S. led a NATO intervention there last year.
"The kinds of mass atrocities that NATO intervened in Libya to prevent in Benghazi are now a reality in Homs. Indeed, Syria today is the scene of some of the worst state-sponsored violence since Milosevic's war crimes in the Balkans, or Russia's annihilation of the Chechen city of Grozny," McCain will say.
McCain will then point out that President Barack Obama characterized the prevention of mass atrocities as "a core national security interest" when speaking about Libya and has committed the credibility of the United States to his repeated calls for Assad to step aide.
"If Assad manages to cling to power -- or even if he manages to sustain his slaughter for months to come, with all of the human and geopolitical costs that entails -- it would be a strategic and moral defeat for the United States. We cannot, we must not, allow this to happen," McCain will say.
"Rather than closing off the prospects for some kind of a negotiated transition that is acceptable to the Syrian opposition, foreign military intervention is now the necessary factor to preserve this option. Assad needs to see that he will not win."
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
Vice President Joe Biden is in Mexico today to meet with all three candidates in that country's presidential election, but the White House isn't taking any sides.
Biden left Washington Sunday night and is in Mexico today, meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderón. But Calderon is barred from running for reelection in July, so Biden is taking the opportunity to visit with his possible successors. On Tuesday, Biden will travel to Honduras to meet with President Pepe Lobo.
"This trip is the latest chapter in the administration's sustained, high-level engagement with our partners in the Americas. The economic security, familial, historic and cultural ties we share with the Americas and particularly with Mexico and Central America, are among the most consequential we have as a country," said Biden's National Tony Blinken on a conference call with reporters.
"The ongoing challenge posed by the drug cartels and transnational criminal organizations is one critical shared responsibility. We strongly support Mexico's efforts in dealing with this challenge, and the United States and Mexico are collaborating as never before."
"He'll underscore to each that the United States will continuing working with President Calderon and his administration until the final day that they're in office, and that we look very much forward to working with whomever the Mexican people elect as their next president," Blinken said.
Blinken wouldn't comment on the statements by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) questioning whether one of the Mexican presidential candidates would continue Calderon's commitment to the increased tempo and aggressiveness of the campaign against the Mexican drug cartels.
In a February hearing with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, McCain asked Clapper whether the next Mexican president would keep up the campaign that Calderon began in Dec. 2006. Clapper said yes.
"Well, I might suggest you focus on that question a little more closely, Mr. Director, because I don't believe that's the case, at least with respect to one of the candidates," McCain said, not identifying which candidate he was talking about.
On Tuesday, after meeting with Lobo, Biden will attend a working lunch to prepare for the upcoming Summit of the Americas. At that lunch will be several regional leaders, including the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama.
At that meeting, drug policy is set to be discussed as well, including the increasingly popular proposal in Central America of decriminalizing drug use and altering the current policy regarding fighting the cartels. But the Obama administration is not on board with what would be seen in the United States as a radical departure from longstanding U.S. drug policy.
"The Obama administration has been quite clear in our opposition to decriminalization or legalization of illicit drugs," said NSC Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs Dan Restrepo. "At the same time, we've also been very open -- the president has said it on numerous occasions, in meetings with leaders and publicly -- of our willingness, our interest, in engaging in a robust dialogue with our partners to determine how we can be most effective in confronting the transnational criminal organizations, and, as in the case in Central America, the gangs that are adversely affecting people's daily lives and daily routines."
One day before the AIPAC conference kicks off in Washington, an anti-Obama pro-Israel group is widening its criticism of President Barack Obama's record on Israel -- while the White House defends its treatment of the relationship.
The trailer for a new 30-minute video, entitled "Daylight: The Story of Obama and Israel," cuts together clips of Obama quotes and outside commentary to put forth the narrative that Obama has made statements and taken actions as president that have put him out of step with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters.
(UPDATE: Now you can watch the entire 30 minute video here.)
"We believe that that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines," Obama is shown saying, a reference to his May, 2011 speech, where he for the first time explicitly defined U.S. policy as supporting the 1967 borders with agreed swaps as the basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
"He didn't quite have a full grasp of what the full region looks like," conservative journalist Lee Smith is shown saying in the video. "This is not how you treat an ally."
The ad goes beyond the Israeli issue to suggest that the president is too solicitous of Muslim concerns. The end of the trailer shows Obama saying, "I want to make sure we end before the call to prayer," a clip from his town hall meeting with Turkish students in Istanbul in April 2009.
The video was produced by the group the Emergency Committee for Israel, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on its pre-AIPAC publicity campaign, including posters and billboards all over Washington that question Obama's commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
"He says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Do you believe him?" the posters read. Then, next to a picture of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, it says, "Do they?"
ECI is run by executive director Noah Pollak and Michael Goldfarb, a former McCain-Palin staffer now working at the consulting firm Orion Strategies and as chairman of the board of the Washington Free Beacon, an new conservative website.
"Obama says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable," Pollak told The Cable today. "We hope he means what he says, but the recent statements from his administration, his contentious relationship with the Israeli government, and his consistent efforts to weaken congressional sanctions don't inspire confidence."
The ECI board is comprised of Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, Gary Bauer, who has endorsed Rick Santorum, and Rachel Abrams, the wife of former NSC official Elliott Abrams, and the author of the controversial Israel-focused blog "Bad Rachel." The group is also the only Israel-focused advocacy organization to have formed a SuperPAC in the run up to the 2012 election.
As part of its pre-AIPAC activity, ECI took out a full page ad in the New York Times yesterday calling out donors for supporting two liberal advocacy organizations in Washington, the Center for American Progress and Media Matters, and accusing those donors of "funding bigotry and anti-Israel extremism."
Pollak also said that the video, billboards, and ads happen to refute a pre-AIPAC interview Obama gave to The Atlantic, in which Obama expressed frustration with the attacks coming from conservative lawmakers and groups like ECI that claim he is not pro-Israel.
"Every single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security, I have kept," Obama said. "Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they've had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?"
"Obama said today he doesn't understand why there are questions about his record of support for Israel," Pollak said. "We think this movie will set the record straight, and remind pro-Israel Americans of the facts of this administration's failure to stand with Israel at some critical moments."
Here is the full video:
If the international community gave the Syrian rebels arms, communications equipment, and intelligence, that would help speed President Bashar al-Assad's removal from power, the top U.S. military official in Europe said Thursday.
Navy Admiral James Stavridis, Commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, told the Senate Armed Services that NATO is not doing any "detailed planning" for ways to aid the Syrian opposition or protect Syrian civilians. But under intense questioning from the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Stavridis admitted he believed that giving material aid to the rebels would help them get better organized and push forward the process of getting the Assad to step down.
"Yesterday the secretary-general of NATO, Mr. Rasmussen, told The Cable, quote, ‘We haven't had any discussions about a NATO role in Syria and I don't envision such a role for the alliance,'" McCain said, referring directly to our Feb. 29 exclusive interview with Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
"Is it true that NATO is doing no contingency planning of any kind with respect to Syria, including for the provision of humanitarian and medical assistance?" McCain asked Stavridis.
"We're not doing any detailed contingency planning at this point, senator, and there's a reason for that. Within the NATO command structure, there has to be an authorization from the North Atlantic Council before we can conduct detailed planning," Stavridis said. The North Atlantic Council is the body charged with making NATO policy decisions.
After getting Stavridis to confirm he believes the Syrian crisis is now an armed conflict between government and opposition forces, McCain then asked Stavridis if the provision of arms, communication equipment, and tactical intelligence would help the Syrian opposition to better organize itself and push Assad from power.
"I would think it would. Yes, sir," Stavridis replied.
McCain contrasted NATO's reluctance to intervene in Syria with previous NATO missions to halt massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) seconded that comparison at the hearing.
"This does remind me of experiences we had in Bosnia and Kosovo in the '90s," Lieberman said. "It actually took quite a while for us to build the political will, both here and in Europe, to get involved there. And while we were doing that, a lot of people got killed, and the same is happening in Syria now. I hope it doesn't take us so long."
Just down the hall from the SASC hearing, two top State Department officials were giving an entirely different take on the efficacy of arming the rebels. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration just doesn't think that arming the Syria rebels is a good idea.
"We've been very hesitant about pouring fuel onto a conflagration that Assad himself has set," Feltman testified Thursday. "So we're very cautious about this whole area of questioning and that's why we have worked with this international consensus on political tracks, on economic tracks, on diplomatic tracks, in order to get to the tipping point we were talking about earlier."
As Ben Smith in Politico reported Thursday, the Syria issue has divided Congress on traditional party and ideological lines -- lines that were muddled during the debate over intervention in Libya because of internal Republican disagreement. Most GOP senators and leading congressmen, along with all the GOP presidential candidates, are urging the Obama administration to begin directly aiding the Syrian rebels now.
Leading congressional Democrats, to the extent they have commented on the issue, have been more reluctant to get more involved in the Syria crisis. House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told reporters Thursday, "If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try. Right now I don't see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."
"It is critical that we all proceed with extreme caution and with our eyes wide open," SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said at the Thursday hearing. "There are serious questions to be answered about the Free Syrian Army, but it is not too soon to think about how the international community could shape its thinking or encourage restraint."
The debate in Congress over aiding the Syrian rebels will ramp up next week, with a March 6 SASC hearing with Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis and a March 7 SASC hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
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Fifteen foreign NGO workers were allowed to leave Egypt Thursday in what U.S. officials said was a positive step toward the resolution of a simmering crisis. But all sides warn that the crisis is still far from being resolved.
The Egyptian government removed the travel ban on foreign employees of several Cairo-based NGOs that were raided last December, allowing 8 Americans, 3 Serbs, 2 Germans, 1 Norwegian, and 1 Palestinian to speed to the Cairo airport and fly out Thursday. The Americans include Sam LaHood, director of the International Republican Institute and son of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood. Other American- funded NGOs -- including the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House -- have been harassed and had their staffs charged with crimes. Several Egyptian NGOs have also been targeted.
"We are very pleased that the Egyptian courts have now
lifted the travel ban on our NGO employees. The U.S. government has provided a
plane to facilitate their departure and they have left the country. They are
currently en route home," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday.
But she indicated that the United States and Egypt still have some differences to iron out.
"The departure of our people doesn't resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs," Nuland said. "We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOs in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process, and we will keep working with the Egyptian government on these issues."
Behind the scenes, the administration and several unlikely allies in Congress have been scrambling in recent days to urge the Egyptian government to produce some tangible progress on the issue before the Americans were dragged into Egyptian courts for trial and before the U.S. Congress moved to cut off Egypt's $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid, $1.3 billion of which goes to the Egyptian military.
According to officials and staffers close to the issue, the bulk of the credit for the progress thus far goes to the administration and first of all Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, who has been working furiously to resolved the crisis in Cairo. Other key officials involved were Brooke Anderson, the National Security Council chief of staff, who was the White House point person on the issue, and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns. The Justice Department and State Department Counselor Harold Koh have also been heavily involved, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey visited Cairo earlier this month and discussed the issue at length.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met twice with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr on the issue last weekend, once on the sidelines of the Somalia conference in London and once on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria conference in Tunis. The State Department also sent a delegation of lawyers to Tunis, an official said on background basis.
According to sources close to the negotiations, in the end the key Egyptian figures who facilitated the deal to were Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Justice Minister Mohamed Abdel Aziz Ibrahim. In fact, U.S. officials believed they finalized the outlines of a deal with those two leaders last week, whereby the judge presiding over the NGO trials would lift the travel ban when the trials opened on Feb. 26.
When the time came, that presiding judge refused to follow through, according to sources, and Ibrahim stepped in to remove him from the case, effectively placing Ibrahim himself in charge of the decision. Ibrahim then lifted the travel ban. The U.S. side agreed to pay $5 million in "bail" money as part of the arrangement.
Two Republican senators who rarely have any nice words about the administration's foreign policy, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), also pitched in. They traveled to Cairo last weekend with Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and John Hoeven (R-ND) and met with a series of Egyptian interlocutors, including Tantawi and representatives of Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The FJP, which holds the largest share of seats in the Egyptian Parliament, issued a public statement on the heels of the McCain-Graham visit, which said the party was unhappy with the current NGO law in Egypt, a relic of the Mubarak era. The FJP statement acknowledged that the foreign NGO workers had played a constructive role in Egypt over the years and described the prosecutions of the NGO workers as "politically motivated."
In a statement Thursday, the four U.S. senators acknowledged the Muslim Brotherhood's cooperation. "We are encouraged by the constructive role played over the past week by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Their statement of February 20 was important in helping to resolve the recent crisis," the senators said.
The American lawmakers had help from the Senate floor, where McCain and Graham were working hard this week to prevent a vote on an amendment by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that would have cut off all U.S. aid to Egypt immediately. McCain and Graham successfully prevented the amendment from reaching the Senate floor, but were unsure how long they could continue to do so before affecting other Senate business. This created a sense of urgency that was communicated directly to the Egyptians.
David Kramer, president of Freedom House, said in an interview today that the FJP statement was important because it allowed the SCAF and elements of Egypt's civilian government to lift the travel ban without fearing a domestic political backlash.
"It provided political cover to the authorities that if they took the step they took today, the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn't attack them in the press," he said.
But Kramer emphasized that the government's persecution of NGOs is ongoing. The cases against the Americans haven't been dismissed, and the SCAF has failed to provide an open and transparent system for domestic civil society to operate.
"No Egyptians got on a plane today, just the foreigners," Kramer noted. Several Egyptian Freedom House staffers are still charged with crimes. "This is a very important first step, but there are many steps along the way here. We have to get the investigations closed down. We have to be allowed to reopen and engage in our activities, like we were doing before. The pressure needs to be maintained."
"Today's action helps take away one element of tension. It wasn't helpful to have the focus be on Americans imprisoned in Egypt," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch. "That was taking the focus away from the real problem, which is the Egyptian government's assault on its own civil society."
The threat of a cutoff of U.S. aid to Egypt still remains, Malinowski noted. That prospect was always based on the most recent U.S. appropriations bill, which requires Secretary Clinton to certify that Egypt is making progress on, among other things, protecting freedom of association and moving toward true democracy.
"This is not enough for Hillary Clinton to certify progress under that law, although it might make it easier for her to use her national security waiver," Malinowski argued. A decision by Clinton could be put off until April, he added.
But the crisis has at least suggested that Congress and the Islamists in the new Egyptian legislature can work together, despite their differences in outlook.
"The Muslim Brotherhood will be the leading organization politically. It is up to them to create an environment where the world feels welcome," Graham said on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon. "Maybe we've learned our lesson, that you can't just have partnerships without basic principles. And so, we look forward to working with the Egyptian parliament and people."
As Syrian tanks consolidated their hold on the restive city of Homs, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday that the United States should not provide any direct assistance to the Syrian people at this time.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) spoke Thursday morning in a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, mostly about the defense budget and military acquisitions programs. The Cable asked Smith whether or not the United States has any responsibility to protect civilians in Syria and whether he would support any direct assistance there, be it humanitarian, medical, communications, intelligence, or even military support to the people under attack by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Smith said no to both questions. On the issue of "responsibility to protect," the humanitarian doctrine often cited as a rational for foreign intervention, Smith said it's not a workable policy.
"There are a whole lot of people around the world suffering in a variety of different ways and it would be wrong to say that under no circumstances do we bear any responsibility for that ... But there are more people suffering and more problems in the world than we could possibly solve or even come close to attending to," he said. "Do we say if there is suffering anywhere we as the United States of America have a responsibility to try and fix it? ‘No,' is the answer to that question, because it's a challenge we can't possibly meet."
Regarding Syria specifically, Smith said there are just no good options, and definitely none that would make a difference without costing the United States too much.
"If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try," Smith said. "Right now I don't see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."
Syria is different than Libya because the opposition is spread throughout the country, and doesn't hold any territory, according to Smith. Assisting Syrians would therefore be logistically problematic, he said.
"In Syria, it's a mess ... it would be very difficult to act in the first place in a way that would make a difference," he said.
Smith also cited the lack of an international mandate for direct assistance in Syria.
"If that broad international support came together, you know, if there was a clearer military mission that could be achievable, I think it's something that if I were the president I would be looking at every day," said Smith. "Is the situation changing or evolving in a way that puts us in a position to help? I don't think it's there right now."
Smith's comments closely track those of NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who told The Cable in an interview Wednesday that NATO has no intention of intervening in Syria or providing direct aid to the opposition in any way.
"The guiding question should be: Would it bring a sustainable solution to the problem if we decided to intervene, if we had the legal basis, if we had support from the region?" Rasmussen said, arguing that any intervention mission simply wouldn't have a high likelihood of success.
The Obama administration has clearly stated several times it does not favor any military intervention in Syria or providing arms to the Syrian rebels, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the United States is interested in providing humanitarian assistance if the Assad regime consents.
The Cable also asked Smith what the U.S. reaction should be if Israel conducts a unilateral military strike on Iran's nuclear program.
"We should have a policy, we should not talk about it publicly, because that would not help the overall situation," Smith said. "To state a policy that says, ‘If Israel attacks...' will only fuel the fire and make people think ‘Well, [the U.S.] must know that they're going to attack."
Office of Rep. Adam Smith
The United States and North Korea have each issued statements about the results of last week's meetings in China, but the two sides seem to be reading from two different sheets of paper.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Glyn Davies and Special Envoy to the Six Party Talks Clifford Hart traveled to Beijing for meetings with top DPRK officials Feb. 23 and 24, including North Korea's top nuclear negotiator Kim Gye Gwan. These were the first U.S.-DPRK direct talks since the December death of Kim Jong Il. Today, the State Department sent out its statement on the meetings as well as the DPRK's official news agency's readout of what was agreed. Apparently, something was lost in translation, because the two readouts just don't match.
"[T]he DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities," the U.S. statement said. "The DPRK has also agreed to the return of IAEA inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the 5-MW reactor and associated facilities."
Regarding the pending deal to give North Korea 240,000 tons of U.S. food assistance, the U.S. readout explained, "We have agreed to meet with the DPRK to finalize administrative details necessary to move forward with our proposed package of 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance along with the intensive monitoring required for the delivery of such assistance."
The United States has always maintained that nuclear negotiations and food assistance were not linked and the Obama administration must appear it is not being lured into the time-honored tradition of what critics see as "bribing" North Korea to talk. But the State Department admitted last week that the food-assistance issue might come up during the nuclear talks, and in fact, it did.
The State Department didn't say anything meaningful about sanctions on North Korea in its statement, only promising to increase people-to-people exchanges in areas such as sports and pledging that "U.S. sanctions against the DPRK are not targeted against the livelihood of the DPRK people."
And what about Pyongyang's interpretation?
If you read the North Korean statement on the meetings, which hasn't yet been posted on the KCNA website but was sent around to reporters Wednesday morning, you would have a somewhat different idea of what happened in Beijing.
"The U.S. promised to offer 240,000 metric tons of
nutritional assistance with the prospect of additional food assistance, for
which both the DPRK and the U.S. would finalize the administrative details in
the immediate future," the North Koreans said. "Once the six-party talks are
resumed, priority will be given to the discussion of issues concerning the
lifting of sanctions on the DPRK and provision of light water reactors."
The United States hasn't publicly discussed the idea of providing light-water nuclear reactors to North Korea since the KEDO project terminated its activity in 2006, due to what U.S. officials say is North Korea's failure to live up to the deal under which KEDO was begun.
As recently as Feb. 27, the State Department was insisting that no decision has been made on providing food assistance to North Korea, which is opposed by many in Congress.
"As they always do, the North Korean side also raised the nutritional assistance, so we did discuss that," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said about the Beijing meetings. "As you know, the United States does not link these issues. There's no deal to be had here. But we did continue to discuss the questions that the U.S. has with regard to need, with regard to how we might monitor nutritional assistance if we are to go forward with it. So no decisions have been made either on the six-party talks side or on the nutritional assistance side."
Former Pentagon Asia official Dan Blumenthal, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the confusion over the meeting was due to a lack of a clear strategy for achieving U.S. goals in North Korea beyond just scheduling more talks.
He also said that North Korea is never likely to give up its nuclear weapons, which is the stated U.S. goal, so the basis for the negotiations is flawed from the outset.
"The DPRK statement is just the public rhetoric part of their strategy, which is to get accepted by the U.S. and others as a nuclear power and meanwhile to extract other concessions that alleviate their economic problems," Blumenthal said.
But other analysts saw the deal as an incremental step forward and left open the possibility for real progress.
"These steps are modestly significant," said Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution. "They could indeed be an initial step on a path towards serious negotiations, negotiations that Pyongyang scuttled by its own actions. Or they could simply be a ploy to get nutritional assistance and meddle in South Korean politics. North Korea's record suggests the latter, but we shall see. I think it is safe to say that no one in Washington, Seoul, or Tokyo is holding their breath."
UPDATE: A senior administration official gave more detail on the food assistance discussions in a Wednesday background briefing with reporters. The United States put forward an offer of 20,000 tons of food assistance per month, but not the rice and grain that the North Korean government wanted, because that could be easily diverted to the military.
“And we’re talking about foods that would be appropriate for young children, in particular those under five or six years old, pregnant woman as well because we want to make sure we address the sort of the first 1,000 days as the administration has wanted to focus on,” the official said. “We’re going to have things like corn-soy blend, we will have vegetable oil, some pulses, and then there will be probably a modest amount of the ready-to-use therapeutic foods depending upon the number of children that we see with acute malnutrition.”
The official explained that monitoring mechanisms would have to be firmly in place before food aid can begin to flow. “If we are successful in finalizing the details that I’ve just laid out, this will be the most comprehensively monitored and managed program since the U.S. began assistance to the DPRK in the mid 1990s,” the official said.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) asked all 435 members of Congress to join her at a meeting at the Syrian Embassy in Washington Tuesday, but in the end, she was the only one who attended.
"I invite you to join me, as Members of Congress, at the Syrian Embassy on Tuesday, February 28, 2012, to ask for an immediate cease-fire, a resumption of international mediation, and a peaceful end to this conflict," Jackson Lee wrote to all lawmakers Feb. 27. "We will show our support for the Syrian people and our rejection of the senseless killing of unarmed innocent civilians. This will be a strong diplomatic and symbolic gesture from the U.S. Congress to Syria."
"We will meet with the Syrian chargé d'affaires Zouheir Jabbour at 10:30 a.m. Together, we will express our disapproval of actions taken by President Bashar al Asad's troops against the people of Syria," read the letter, which identified Jackson Lee as the co-chair of Congressional Children's Caucus.
Jackson Lee attended the meeting, but no other lawmakers joined her, her spokesperson told The Cable.
Regardless, Jackson Lee considered the meeting a success because she was able to deliver a letter to Jabbour, this time as a "senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee," that questioned "whether the regime of President Bashar al Assad, whose actions unfortunately have veered into a realm ranging from undesirable to brutal, can handle a growing problem."
She made seven specific demands of Assad in the letter, namely that he: cease fire and cease the violence of the Syrian government, establish a safe camp for all woman and children, allow immediate access for the Syrian Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross, allow immediate access for Poland to remove Western journalists stuck in Homs as well as the bodies of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, allow the removal of all other wounded, make immediate provisions for the safe arrival of medical care and food, and "for President Assad to step down as President IMMEDIATEDLY." (Emphasis in original.)
Jackson Lee also handed Jabbour an identical letter to give to Assad himself, and another copy to give to Syria's Ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha. That copy might be tough to deliver because Moustapha suddenly moved to Beijing amid an FBI investigation into the embassy's alleged spying on Syrian Americans for the purpose of harassing them and their families.
So why didn't any other members of Congress join Lee? Despite the tough tone of her letter, some offices thought that Lee was simply grandstanding and that meeting with the Syrian embassy officials sent the wrong message at the wrong time.
"Essentially she's allowing herself to be used as a propaganda tool by the Assad regime," one senior congressional aide told The Cable. "It's hard to see how show your support for the people of Syria by legitimizing a regime that continues to brutalize them."
The State Department has begun coordinating with Syria's neighbors to prepare for the handling of President Bashar al-Assad's extensive weapons of mass destruction if and when his regime collapses, The Cable has learned.
This week, the State Department sent a diplomatic demarche to Syria's neighbors Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, warning them about the possibility of Syria's WMDs crossing their borders and offering U.S. government help in dealing with the problem, three Obama administration officials confirmed to The Cable. For concerned parties both inside and outside the U.S. government, the demarche signifies that the United States is increasingly developing plans to deal with the dangers of a post-Assad Syria -- while simultaneously highlighting the lack of planning for how to directly bring about Assad's downfall.
Syria is believed to have a substantial chemical weapons program, which includes mustard gas and sophisticated nerve agents, such as sarin gas, as well as biological weapons. Syria has also refused IAEA requests to make available facilities that were part of its nuclear weapons program and may still be in operation.
The State Department declined to provide access to any officials to discuss the private diplomatic communication on the record, such as the author of the demarche Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman. In a meeting with reporters earlier this year, Countryman expressed confidence that the United States knows where Syria's WMD stockpiles are, but warned that they could become a very serious security issue for Syria and the region going forward.
"We have ideas as to the quantity and we have ideas as to where they are," Countryman said. "We wish some of the neighbors of Syria to be on the lookout... When you get a change of regime in Syria, it matters what are the conditions -- chaotic or orderly."
Today, in response to inquiries from The Cable, a State Department official offered the following statement:
"The U.S. and our allies are monitoring Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. These weapons' presence in Syria undermines peace and security in the Middle East, and we have long called on the Syrian government to destroy its chemicals weapons arsenal and join the Chemical Weapons Convention," the State Department official said. "We believe Syria's chemical weapons stockpile remains under Syrian government control, and we will continue to work closely with like-minded countries to prevent proliferation of Syria's chemical weapons program."
The demarche made four specific points, according to other U.S. officials who offered a fuller account to The Cable. It communicated the U.S. government's recognition that there is a highly active chemical warfare program in Syria, which is complemented by ballistic-missile delivery capability. It further emphasized that that any potential political transition in Syria could raise serious questions about the regime's control over proliferation-sensitive material.
Third, the State Department wanted Syria's neighbors to know that should the Assad regime fall, the security of its WMD stockpile -- as well as its control over conventional weapons like MANPADS (shoulder-fired rocket launchers) -- could come into question and could pose a serious threat to regional security. Lastly, the demarche emphasized that the U.S. government stands ready to support neighboring countries to provide border-related security cooperation.
"It's essentially a recognition of the danger to the regional and international community of the stockpiles that the regime possesses and the importance of working with countries, given the potential fall of the regime, to prevent the proliferation of these very sensitive weapons outside of Syria's border," one administration official said. "It's an exponentially more dangerous program than Libya. We are talking about legitimate WMDs here -- this isn't Iraq. The administration is really concerned about loose WMDs. It's one of the few things you could put on the agenda and do something about without planning the fall of the regime."
The administration is also working closely with the Jordanians on the issue. A Jordanian military delegation was at the Pentagon Thursday to meet with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
In addition to the danger of proliferation, there is a concern that Assad could actually use his WMDs if his situation becomes desperate.
"The WMD program is in play now, and that's important because it highlights the innate danger that the existence of this regime poses to U.S. security and regional interests," the administration official said. "[The demarche] puts Syria's neighbors on notice and it reflects the recognition that a dangerous Assad regime is willing to do anything to save its own skin. If they are willing to kill the country to save the regime, they might be willing to do a great deal more damage throughout the region."
Some officials inside and outside the administration see the WMD activity as helpful, but lament that such a high degree of planning is not taking place on the issue of how to precipitate the downfall of the Assad regime as quickly and as safely as possible.
Over 70 countries met in Tunis today to develop a unified message on the transition of power in Syria and urge the Assad regime to allow humanitarian access. The Saudi delegation actually walked out of the meeting, complaining of "inactivity" and urging the international community to arm the Syrian opposition.
The Obama administration has consistently rejected calls by the Syrian National Council and others to prepare for a military intervention in Syria and no real strategy exists internally to force Assad from power, another administration official said.
"Our strategic calculus can't be solely about what comes after Assad without taking a hard look at how to bring about Assad's downfall as safely as possible," said this official. "The reality is, at some point, there will be a recognition you can't plan for a post-Assad scenario without planning how to shape the downfall itself. You can't separate the two."
Concern about a gap in planning for how to oust the Assad regime is shared by some in Congress, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who issued a statement today urging the administration to start directly aiding the Syrian rebels and protecting Syrian civilians.
"Unfortunately, speeches and meetings by themselves will do nothing to stop the unacceptable slaughter in Syria, which is growing worse by the day," the senators said. "We remain deeply concerned that our international diplomacy risks becoming divorced from the reality on the ground in Syria, which is now an armed conflict between Assad's forces and the people of Syria who are struggling to defend themselves against indiscriminate attacks."
In her prepared remarks in Tunis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she supported more sanctions on the Assad regime but she declined to endorse any direct help to the Syrian opposition without the consent of the Syrian government, saying only, "We all need to look hard at what more we can do."
The Obama administration slapped new sanctions Thursday against one of Japan's largest organized crime groups, showing more resolve to fight Japanese organized crime than the Japanese government.
"Today's action casts a spotlight on key members of criminal organizations that have engaged in a wide range of serious crimes across the globe," said David Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, in announcing sanctions on the Yamaguchi-gumi as well as Kenichi Shinoda, its kumicho ("godfather") and its wakagashira ("deputy godfather") Kiyoshi Takayama. "Today's designations are just the first under our new our sanctions authority to target transnational criminal organizations and isolate them from the global financial system."
The Treasury Department said that Shinoda and Takayama play key roles in directing all Yakuza activities and are involved in international drug trafficking, human trafficking, extortion, prostitution, fraud, and money laundering.
"Today's action is designed to protect the integrity of the U.S. financial system, to prevent U.S. financial institutions from being used unwittingly to facilitate the unlawful activities of these groups, and to deny the named individuals and entity access to the U.S. economy," Treasury said in its statement.
The sanctions represent the first concrete implementation of an executive order President Barack Obama signed last July promising to go after transnational criminal organizations.
There's only one problem: The Japanese government doesn't seem to be on board. The National Police Agency (NPA), which is in charge of organized crime, has been uncooperative with the U.S. efforts to keep the Yakuza out of the United States and does not share its database of Yakuza bosses and associates with the FBI, DEA, or Homeland Security Investigations (formerly ICE), according to Jake Adelstein, the author of Tokyo Vice, an insider's look at the Yakuza in Japan. The NPA has also rarely acted on the hundreds of tips the United States passes along about child pornography coming out of Japan.
"The Yamaguchi-gumi is the Wal-Mart of organized crime. If you count smaller Yakuza groups under their umbrella, they are more than half of the market of Japan's 79,000 Yakuza members and associates. They also support the DPJ and ruling coalition of Japan," said Adelstein, adding that the Yamaguchi-gumi has ties to Olympus and TEPCO, two firms that operate within the United States.
"The reaction of the Japanese ministry of justice and the National Police Agency to Obama's executive order last year was one of shock and shame. This latest announcement is a slap in the face of Japan, telling them to really do something about their organized crime problem, which is spilling into international waters," he said.
Without help from Japanese officials, it's difficult for the U.S. law enforcement community to get a handle on Yakuza activities. For one thing, only the Japanese government can identify Yakuza officials, because tracking them requires knowing their names, their date of birth, their faces, and the Kanji symbols -- Japanese characters -- they use to identify themselves.
But in the Japanese system, the Yakuza are legally recognized entities that operate freely and have clear links to banks, legitimate businesses, and leading politicians.
"The Yakuza exists openly in Japan with fanzines and magazines," Adelstein explained. "They are heavily involved in the stock market and there are politicians with known Yakuza ties in national politics."
That kind of institutional corruption crosses borders, bleeding heavily into the U.S. economy. The Japanese police estimate that roughly 40 percent of foreign exchange trading companies in Japan are Yakuza-affiliated.
"With so many Japanese companies invested in the U.S. and with so many American companies investing in the Japanese stock market, which is yakuza infested, it becomes a matter of U.S. national security," Adelstein said. "Because of the yakuza's deep involvement in the Japanese economy and Japan's economic ties with the U.S., the actions of the Yakuza effect the U.S. economy, therefore it's not just a Japanese problem."
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