If your calls to the Canadian Embassy in Washington weren't returned today, there's a good reason -- officers at the Canadian Foreign Service spent part of the afternoon picketing outside their own building.
About 30 members of the Canadian Foreign Service took to the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue Friday afternoon to protest their treatment from Ottawa. The "information pickets," as they called them, are the first of a series of actions Canadian Foreign Service officers will be taking at embassies around the world, if the treasury board that controls their pay doesn't come back to the negotiating table.
"We've decide enough is enough -- we're drawing a line in the sand," Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) President Tim Edwards told The Cable in an interview Friday.
The strikers' chief complaint is that Canadian Foreign Service officers make less than other professionals working in the Canadian government and Canadian embassies, such as lawyers, economists, and administrative professionals.
"If you expect us to promote fairness as a Canadian value, then we expect it to apply to us as well," Edwards said.
The Canadian Foreign Service has been working without a contract since April 2011, and the strikers say that despite the unilateral concessions they've made, such as accepting a pay raise of only 1.5 percent and forgoing severance packages, the government hasn't budged on the equal-pay issue.
As the first stage of their protest, the embassy Foreign Service officers have since February been implementing what they call "work to rule," which means they have been working exactly as much as they are required and no more, clocking in 7.5 hours per day and turning off their Blackberries after work.
They have technically been in "strike position" since April 2, but haven't actually gone on full strike yet. Today's picketing was an interim step.
"The idea is to simply to add another point of pressure on the treasury board to come back to the table to discuss equal pay for equal work," said Edwards.
If today's action doesn't yield results, similar picketing will occur in major Canadian embassies around the world, he said. The option to strike is under serious consideration.
"We don't want it come to that, but that is a potential avenue in the weeks ahead," he said. "We're just looking for a fair shake here."
Secretary of State John Kerry and host of other State Department employees gathered Thursday to pay tribute to Anne Smedinghoff, the 25 year old Foreign Service officer who was killed last month in Afghanistan.
The memorial was closed to the press at the family's request but a foreign service blog called Life After Jerusalem reported on some of Kerry's remarks about Smedinghoff earlier this week in an announcement about the memorial.
"Colleagues: I don't think any of us will ever forget where we were or what we were doing on April 6th when we learned that Anne Smedinghoff had been killed in Afghanistan. It was my most difficult day as Secretary, and the weight of knowing that three U.S. service members were also killed, and several other Mission Afghanistan colleagues injured, was something all of us felt quite profoundly and, frankly, we all still feel it today," he said. "We feel it especially this week as we gather to add new names to the Memorial Wall here at State."
The State Department released the speech Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine gave at Smedinghoff's memorial. Smedinghoff was a public diplomacy officer and was killed while on walking to a school where the U.S. was donating text books.
"As a diplomat dedicated to serving her country, Anne was special. She was special because she was a model, a model of the engaged PD officer. Like the almost 3,500 public diplomacy professionals who serve here and around the world - and that includes our local staffers - she understood that every day there was something she could do to reach out to foreign audiences. Something she could do to help people develop a greater understanding of the freedoms, the values, and the opportunities that we live by," Sonenshine said. "She intuitively understood the well-known statement of my original predecessor Edward R. Murrow. He said, ‘The real crucial link in the international exchange is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.'"
The American Foreign Service Association held its annual Memorial Plaque Ceremony at the State Department this morning, and Smedinghoff's name was among those deceased Foreign Service officers honored, along with the four U.S. personnel who died in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi: Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Ty Woods and Glen Doherty.
The ceremony also honored Ragai Said Abdelfattah, the USAID Foreign Service officer who was killed in Afghanistan last August, as well as two foreign service officers who died in Vietnam in the 1970s, Joseph Fandino and Francis Savage.
Smedinghoff's alma matter Johns Hopkins University also held a memorial for her April 27.
The new prime minister of Georgia said recently that he is investigating whether the previous government had a connection to Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, but that notion is "ridiculous," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told The Cable.
Saakashvili sat down for an exclusive interview Thursday at the end of his four-day trip to the United States, which included meetings with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and former President George W. Bush. Ever since the October 2012 parliamentary elections that brought the Georgian Dream party and its billionaire leader Bidzina Ivanishvili to power, Saakashvili has faced the threat of prosecution along with several of his former government ministers for alleged corruption -- prosecutions he says are politically motivated.
But since the April 15 attack in Boston that was traced back to two ethnic Chechens, Saakashvili has been battling a new charge -- that his government supported Chechen terrorists and may even have hosted the elder Tsarnaev during the bomber's 2012 trip to the region.
"Maybe the suspect in Boston terrorist attack had some kind of contact with terrorists trained in Georgia," Ivanishvili, the prime minister, said in an interview with Georgian TV station Rustavi 2. He added that his government was "investigating the possibility."
Ivanishvili's comments seemed to give credence to a recent report in the Russian newspaper Izvestia that claimed Tsarnaev visited Georgia in 2012 for seminars organized by the Jamestown Foundation and the "Fund for Caucasus," a Georgian group. But Saakashvili dismissed the accusations and said such reckless talk harms Georgia's image and standing abroad.
"It's ridiculous, but it's even more ridiculous that the prime minister might say that," Saakashvili said. "Of course, they have a domestic agenda. The problem is that they don't distinguish their domestic agenda from the harm they are doing to the country."
Tsarnaev didn't ever enter Georgia, as far as he knows, Saakashvili said. But Ivanishvili and his team may be speculating about it in order to undermine Saakashvili's reputation both inside Georgia and abroad.
"They are trying to sow doubts about the previous government in this nasty way without thinking about the other consequences. They are so desperate to undermine us that they are willing to try anything," he said. "They might think that we are so influential in Washington that they have to do things like that to undermine this influence. But the point here is that it is damaging the country, not just individual politicians. And plus it's just not true."
More broadly, Ivanishvili is claiming that the previous Georgian government had a pattern of supporting Chechen terrorists and never revealed its true actions related to an August 12 incident near the Lapota Gorge. In that incident, 11 Chechen extremists found operating inside Georgia took hostages during a clash with Georgian security personnel and were eventually killed, along with three Georgian troops.
Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili, who was appointed by Ivanishvili, filed his own report on the Lopota Gorge incident claiming that Saakashvili's government trained and equipped the Chechens before killing them to hide their own involvement. Ivanishivili has said that report warrants further investigation.
"We know that Georgia was used for years as a transit point for fighters," Ivanishvili told the New York Times. "We will stop this by all means. This will not happen now."
Ivanishvili also is pushing for new inquiries into the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, which he has often said was caused in part by Saakashvili. Saakashvili told The Cable that Ivanishvili is reinforcing Russian government rhetoric on both the war and the accusations of Georgian support for Chechen terrorists.
"I don't think the prime minister consciously does it, I think most of the time he just follows what the most extremist ones on the Russian side say," Saakashvili said. "It for sure coincides with what the Russian extremist side and Putin himself will say."
Even members of his own party have publicly stated that Ivanishivili's comments on Georgian support for Chechen terrorism and his speculation about Tsarnaev and the Lopota Gorge incident has been counterproductive.
"In general I think that on such issues, which are sensitive from both international and domestic point of view, we all should better at first wait for the investigation materials and for incontrovertible evidence and to then express suppositions; that will be much better," Parliamentary Chairman Davit Usupashvili, a member of Ivanishivili's Georgian Dream party, said.
The new Georgian government has publicly stated on many occasions that it wants to continue its integration with Europe and the West, continue to pursue membership in NATO, and continue to improve its relationship with the United States.
"Our people realize that European and Euro-Atlantic integration is the only way to enable our country to build a European democracy," Ivanishvili said at a recent NATO seminar held in Georgia.
But for Saakashvili, the repeated accusations of Georgia's involvement with terrorists undermine the trust and relationships needed to make that integration a reality.
"All our allies know what have done on terrorism, but they are concerned and preoccupied because these were the countries that were supporting us. And if Georgia's government now says the truth was exactly the opposite, that sounds weird to say the least, but it's also hostile to our allies that did their best to bail us out from these situations."
As for whether he fears personal prosecution, Saakashvili said he isn't worried about it much.
"I don't think my personal issues are a big deal because I am still the most difficult target to go after, but the point is there is this continued effort to behead the whole political opposition and that is 100 times worse," he said.
He also called on the United States and the West to become more involved in the crisis in Syria, where he said the radicalization of the opposition was getting worse, partially due to a reluctance of Western countries to engage.
"The more the situation radicalizes the more difficult it will be to control in the future. And we clearly have seen if there is not more U.S. and Western involvement things might get more out of control in the future no matter what the scenario will be," Saakashvili said. "At this stage, the biggest losers might be the Syrian government and the West together, paradoxically. So I think the West needs to do something."
Early Tuesday morning, the United States delivered its first direct shipment of food and medical supplies to the rebel Free Syrian Army, with some help from its representatives in Washington.
At about 5 a.m. Tuesday morning at an undisclosed location across Syria's northern border, a U.S. C-17 transport aircraft based out of Dover Air Force Base offloaded the first of what will be several shipments totaling $8 million in halal "Meals Ready to Eat" and combat medical packs called Warrior Aid and Litter Kits. Those supplies are marked with a note from the Syrian Support Group, the U.S. government's implementing partner, which coordinated the logistics for the transfer to the FSA.
Gen. Salim Idris, the leader of the FSA's Supreme Military Command, who met with Secretary of State John Kerry last month, was on hand to oversee the delivery of the new aid. He is also in charge of overseeing its delivery to warehousing facilities in Aleppo province that are under FSA control.
"The Syrian Support Group was the U.S. government's key partner in organizing and delivering the supplies directly into Syria. With the protection and oversight of General Idris and Col. Abdel Jabar al-Akaidi, the supplies will be distributed to units under the command of the Supreme Military Council operating throughout each of Syria's 14 provinces," the SSG said in a statement provided to The Cable.
The SSG is the only U.S.-based organization licensed to provide support directly to the Free Syrian Army. The SSG taped a video of Idris thanking the United States and the SSG for the supplies as well as another video of the trucks heading into Syria.
Later on Tuesday, Idris sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking the president to help train and equip the FSA in the wake of the use of chemical weapons inside Syria, which Idris said was perpetrated by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
He also said that Obama needs to be more forceful in responding to the regime's use of chemical weapons lest Assad feel emboldened to use them again.
"The Regime's history of desensitizing the international community to its gradual use of internationally banned weapons as led me to the alarming conclusion that these incidents are but a prelude to larger and more systematic deployment of chemical weapons as part of Assad's military strategy," Idris wrote. "We appreciate, as you noted today at your press conference, the critical importance that facts will play in your analysis. However, I respectfully submit to you that Assad is not taking your carefully phrased condemnations as warnings, but as loopholes, which justify his continued use of chemical weapons on a small, strategic scale."
Syrian Support Group
One of the three suspects arrested Wednesday for allegedly helping Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hide evidence reentered the United States in January after dropping out of school, but his visa was still technically valid when the government let him back in the country, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Azamat Tazhayakov was arrested and charged Wednesday with obstruction of justice for his role in disposing of Tsarnaev's possessions days after the April 15 bombing attack at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Tazhayakov and fellow Kazakhstan citizen Dias Kadyrbayev stand accused of disposing of a laptop computer and backpack containing fireworks that belonged to Tsarnaev, with whom they interacted with after the attack, according to the criminal complaint filed by the FBI. U.S. citizen Robel Phillopos was charged with making false statements to federal investigators during a terrorism investigation.
Federal law-enforcement officials later found the laptop and backpack. The attorney for the two Kazakh suspects said Wednesday they did not realize they were disposing of evidence related to the bombing.
CNN reported Wednesday that Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev were both in the United States illegally. Federal officials also learned at Wednesday's immigration court hearing that Tazhayakov had been granted entry back into the United States on Jan. 20 following a trip to Kazakhstan, even though his student status at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth had been terminated on Jan. 3.
"They shouldn't have let him in," a U.S. official told CNN. "Bells should have gone off."
Peter Boogaard, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, told The Cable Wednesday afternoon that Tazhayakov's student visa was still technically valid when he came back through U.S. customs on Jan. 20 and Custom and Border Protection (CBP) had not been notified that he was no longer a UMass student.
"The individual in question entered the United States on Jan. 20, 2013 pursuant to a student visa with a stated expiration date of Aug. 30, 2013. At the time of his re-entry, CBP had not been notified that the individual had left school on Jan. 4, 2013. As a result, CBP re-admitted the individual into the United States pursuant to the unexpired visa," Boogaard said.
DHS has recently reformed the student-visa system to ensure that CBP is provided with real-time updates on all relevant student-visa information, according to Boogard, but at the time of Tazhayakov's re-entry there was no derogatory information that suggested he posed a national security or public safety threat.
A DHS official told The Cable that the customs officer who handled Tazhayakov's visa when he returned to the United States did not know that UMass had reported that he had left the school. Typically, students are given 30 days to "normalize their status" even after their student visas are terminated because they are no longer enrolled, the official added.
After Tazhayakov was granted reentry into the United States, his visa was eventually terminated, but that wouldn't necessarily cause Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to go and round him up, especially if he didn't appear to pose any threat.
"If an individual has no criminal history or other derogatory information, then they typically do not present a priority case for ICE if ultimately they are unable to normalize their status with the school," the DHS official said.
The FBI has posted the photos of three individuals who were on the scene during the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
The three individuals, who were not named in the FBI announcement, are suspected to have more information on the attacks. Here's the FBI's notice:
The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation appreciates that the Libyan people and the government of Libya have condemned the September 11, 2012 attacks on U.S. Special Mission personnel and facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
The FBI is now asking Libyans and people around the world for additional information related to the attacks, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
We are seeking information about three individuals who were on the grounds of the U.S. Special Mission when it was attacked. These individuals may be able to provide information to help in the investigation.
A group of Syrian activists extended a long, symbolic red line in front of the White House Sunday in a call for the Obama administration to respond aggressively to the Syrian regime's alleged use of chemical weapons.
The Syrian American Council, a U.S.-based group that supports the Syrian opposition, organized a series of events in the Washington area over the weekend and coordinated the White House protest. The group's sign, directed at President Barack Obama, reads "Your credibility is on the line."
Obama gave no indication that his administration would change its calculus on whether or not to more aggressively support the armed Syrian opposition with lethal aid during his April 30 press conference. He did promise to continue to investigate what are now at least four instances of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria, two of which the U.S. intelligence community has said it can confirm, albeit with various degrees of confidence and with questions about who might be the perpetrator.
"And what we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don't know how they were used, when they were used, who used them; we don't have chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened," Obama said. ""Obviously, there are options that are available to me that are on the shelf right now that we have not deployed, and that's a spectrum of options... And I won't go into the details of what those options might be."
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the administration is considering providing arms to the rebels but that a decision isn't likely for several weeks, as Obama prepares to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in June. Secretary of State John Kerry is set to travel to Moscow soon.
National Security Staff spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said that the administration is now discussing non-lethal military aid to the Syrian opposition, such as body armor and night-vision goggles, but no final decisions have been made on lethal assistance.
"As the president has said, our assistance to
the Syrian opposition has been on an upward trajectory, and he has directed his
national security team to identify additional measures so that we can continue
to increase our assistance," she said. "We continue to consider all other
possible options that would accomplish our objective of hastening a political
transition, but have no new announcements at this time."
While the world grapples with Syria's apparent use of chemical weapons, there are still lingering unanswered questions about the Syrian regime's secret nuclear program, a top State Department official said Monday.
Israel attacked a partially constructed nuclear reactor inside Syria in September, 2007, destroying it before it became operational. The reactor was based on a model used by North Korea to produce its stockpile of nuclear fuel. In 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that the site struck by Israeli planes was a nuclear reactor in construction that was never declared to the IAEA, which constitutes a violation of Syria's obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The matter was referred to the U.N. Security Council, but no further action was taken.
On Monday Tom Countryman, the assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation, told the NPT conference in Geneva that Syria has still not addressed international concerns about its nuclear program and must do so immediately.
"With regard to Syria, it has been nearly two years since IAEA Director General Amano reported that the facility destroyed in 2007 at Deir Ez-Zour was ‘very likely a nuclear reactor that should have been declared to the agency pursuant to Syria's safeguards agreement," Countryman said. "To date, Syria has not taken any concrete steps to address the outstanding serious questions about its clandestine nuclear activities."
Countryman has been intimately involved with the Syrian WMD issue since the crisis broke out in 2011. He has helped lead the effort to organize Syria's neighbors to respond to the potential use of WMD inside Syria and to help secure Syrian weapons sites if and when the Assad regime falls.
But the ongoing civil war in Syria does not prevent Syria from telling the international community about the status of its secret nuclear program, he said.
"The Assad regime's brutal campaign of violence against the Syrian people and the resulting unrest cannot be an excuse for not cooperating with the IAEA. Syria remains obligated to remedy its noncompliance immediately and demonstrate a constructive approach in its relations with the IAEA and the international community," Countryman said. "Noncompliance should be a matter of serious concern to NPT parties. As agreed in the 2010 Action Plan, it is vitally important that all NPT parties support the resolution of all cases of noncompliance with IAEA safeguards and other nonproliferation requirements. The Treaty and the regime can only be as strong as the parties' will to uphold the Treaty's integrity."
Countryman also called for a new effort to create a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. That idea, which was supposed to result in a conference in Helsinki in 2012, has been stalled over several issues, including whether Israel, which has a suspected nuclear weapons stockpile of over 100 weapons, would be included. Countryman called on the states in the region to come up with a way to move the issue forward.
"We missed an important deadline -- but we have not yet missed the opportunity to transform the security environment of the region. In fact, unprecedented diplomatic efforts continue to be directed at making the conference a reality," he said. "We remain prepared to assist in any way requested, but leadership must also come from the states of the region. They will be responsible for the big idea -- creating the political and security conditions that would make a WMD-free zone an achievable concept. And they need to start now by showing creative thinking on a scale that is smaller, but big enough to get us to the first step, to Helsinki."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.