Marie Harf, a former spokeswoman for the CIA and the Obama presidential campaign, is expected to be named the new deputy spokeswoman for the State Department, The Cable has learned.
President Barack Obama is likely to appoint Harf to be the No. 2 spokesperson at State in the coming days, department sources say. She will be the deputy to former White House staffer and campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who joined State earlier this year. The appointment is one piece of a series of changes in how the State Department public affairs shop will be managed during the tenure of Secretary of State John Kerry.
Harf, who declined to comment for this article, most recently handled outreach for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during his extremely contentious confirmation process. She spoke on behalf of the Hagel confirmation effort and worked behind the scenes to liaise with outside groups and former officials to build support for Hagel's nomination and respond to critics.
On the 2012 campaign, Harf was the official spokesperson for all things related to foreign policy and national security and she worked closely with the co-chairs of Obama's national security advisory team, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl. She was also a member of Obama's debate prep team.
Harf began her career as an intelligence analyst for the CIA focusing on leadership analysis in the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia. She spent several years as an analyst before moving to the CIA's media shop. Hailing from Ohio, Harf graduated from Indiana University.
When Harf does come aboard at State as deputy spokeswoman, she will be Psaki's stand-in at the podium when Psaki is traveling. Currently, that job is filled by Patrick Ventrell, who is expected to remain in the public affairs shop as a third briefer, with expanded responsibilities and as director of the press office. Ventrell filled in ably for deputy spokesman Mark Toner during Toner's health troubles last year.
Psaki replaced Victoria Nuland, who is expected to be nominated to be assistant secretary of state for Europe in the near future. Nuland and Vetrell were both career Foreign Service officers, but Psaki and Harf are both outsiders coming into Foggy Bottom from the Obama team, albeit with some foreign-policy credentials of their own.
It's still unclear who will take on the role of assistant secretary of state for public affairs, currently filled by Mike Hammer, who is expected to be given an ambassadorship soon. The assistant secretary job is meant to manage State's huge public affairs bureaucracy while the spokesperson's job is specifically designed to focus on dealing with the media. The jobs were split up following the 2011 departure of P.J. Crowley, but may or may not stay split up when Hammer leaves the bureau. Our sources say that Kerry will keep the jobs separate due to the sheer volume of work associated with each.
Meanwhile, former Boston Globe editor Glen Johnson remains the personal communications advisor to Kerry, although his role is narrower than his predecessor Philippe Reines, who managed an entire strategic communications shop for Hillary Clinton. That shop has now been folded back into the regular public affairs infrastructure.
The United States still has not been able to confirm the details of two instances of chemical weapons use in Syria and no new actions have been chosen in response to their use, President Barack Obama said Tuesday.
Obama defended his administration's response to the two year war in Syria during a press conference Tuesday that was called to commemorate the 100 day anniversary of his second term in office.
"I think it's important to understand that for several years now what we've been seeing is a slowly unfolding disaster for the Syrian people, and this is not a situation in which we've been simply bystanders to what's been happening," he said. "My policy from the beginning has been President Assad had lost credibility; that he attacked his own people, has killed his own people, unleashed a military against innocent civilians; and that the only way to bring stability and peace to Syria is going to be for Assad to step down and to move forward on a political transition."
The president repeated his assertion that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "game changer" for the United States and the international community, but he said the U.S. intelligence community's assessment last week that with "various levels of confidence" they believed there have been two uses of chemical weapons in Syria was not enough.
"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. "And when I am making decisions about America's national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I've got to make sure I've got the facts."
The international community might not support U.S. action in Syria if the administration rushes to judgment on chemical weapons, he said. Obama also pledged that he administration would do "everything we can" to continue to investigate several uses of chemical weapons in Syria and establish the facts. A U.N. investigative team has yet to enter Syria due to disputes with the Assad regime over access.
But Obama refused to say what actions his administration might take if and when the use of chemical weapons in Syria is confirmed to his satisfaction.
"By game changer, I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us," he 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, but you know, clearly, that would be an escalation, in our view, of the threat to the security of the international community, our allies and the United States. And that means that there's some options that we might not otherwise exercise that we would -- that we would strongly consider."
U.S. President Barack Obama again warned the Syrian regime not to use chemical weapons Friday but said that more investigation is needed to determine whether or not his previously announced "red line" for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad had been crossed.
"Yesterday some of you saw that I asked my people to brief Congress about the fact that we now have some evidence that chemical weapons have been used on the populations in Syria," Obama said, standing beside Jordan's King Abdullah II. "Now, these are preliminary assessments. They're based on our intelligence gathering. We have varying degrees of confidence about the actual use, but there are a range of questions around how, when, where these weapons may have been used."
Obama said that if the use of chemical weapons is proven, "it is going to be a game changer," and added that the world cannot stand by and permit the "systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations."
On Thursday, White House officials said they were not sure if Obama's red line for Syria, the use or transfer or chemical weapons to terrorists, had been crossed because a new assessment by the U.S. intelligence community that determined with "various levels of confidence" that chemical weapons had been used was insufficient to make that conclusion. The U.S. government is still investigating, Obama said.
"In the meantime, I've been very clear publicly but also privately that for the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues," Obama said. "And I think that in many ways a line's been crossed when we see tens of thousands of innocent people being killed by a regime."
The newly revealed intelligence assessment was delivered to Congress Thursday in response to a bipartisan letter asking for the administration's view on whether reports of chemical weapons use inside Syria were true.
But The Cable has learned from multiple sources that the samples used to make that assessment, collected from the suburbs of Aleppo after a March incident, were delivered to the U.S. government more than three weeks ago. They consisted of blood samples, hair samples, and other items, such as soil from the area surrounding the attacks.
Another reported alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria occurred in the Damascus suburbs in March, and Syrian activists also claim that the regime used chemical weapons last December in Homs, but two State Department investigations failed to confirm that allegation.
On Thursday, the Syrian Support Group (SSG), a U.S.-based organization with close ties to the Free Syrian Army, reported two more alleged chemical weapons attacks in the town of Daraya, as first reported by the Daily Beast. The SSG reported that 105 people were injured and scores of animals died as well.
The Cable spoke Friday with an anesthetic technician who treated victims on the scene in Daraya and gave his name only as Majd.
"Due to Daraya's brave resistance against the regime, and due to the regime's inability to storm the city over the past five months because of the outstanding bravery displayed by FSA fighters, the regime resorted to an extremely serious escalation by shelling the city of Daraya using several rockets and bombs loaded with toxic gases which affect the nervous system," he said. "As a result, dozens of people, mostly civilians, displayed symptoms confirming toxic gas inhalation."
Symptoms included: difficulty in breathing, constriction of pupils (miosis), suffocation, nausea, and skin irritation, Majd said. These symptoms are usually associated with chemical gases such as fluorine compounds and sarin gas. Victims were treated with atropine injections, oxygen, and pain relievers, according to the SSG. The Cable was not able to confirm these claims, but a State Department offical said that the U.S. government is aware of the new reports and is "working to determine their veracity through a range of sources."
"The Local Council of Daraya City holds the regime responsible for the use of these gases and the outcomes of such use," Majd said. "We also demand that international organizations step in to investigate the regime's use of weapons of mass destruction, and provide us with necessary safety equipment."
Your humble Cable guy joined The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd and The Atlantic's Steve Clemons this morning to discuss the new U.S. intelligence assessment that the Syrian regime has likely used chemical weapons twice on its own people.
Take a look:
Despite a new U.S. intelligence community assessment that the Syrian regime likely used chemical weapons on its own people, the White House is still waiting for more evidence before deciding whether Bashar al-Assad has crossed President Barack Obama's "red line."
The White House scrambled Thursday to set up a conference call with reporters following Thursday morning's news that the U.S. intelligence community has concluded with varying levels of confidence that there has been small-scale use of sarin, a deadly nerve gas, inside Syria, most likely by the Syrian regime. Secretary of State John Kerry told lawmakers Thursday that the assessment referenced two instances of chemical weapons use in Syria.
A senior White House official said on the conference call that the intelligence community's assessment was not enough to determine that President Obama's red line regarding U.S. intervention in Syria has been crossed.
"We are continuing to do further work to establish a definitive judgment as to whether or not the red line has been crossed and to inform our decision-making about what to do next," the official said. "If we reach a definitive determination that this red line has been crossed, based on credible, corroborated information, what we will be doing is consulting closely with our friends and allies and the international community more broadly, as well as the Syrian opposition, to determine what the best course of action is."
The official indirectly referenced the flawed intelligence assessments about Saddam Hussein's programs of weapons of mass destruction in the lead up to the Iraq war as justification for caution.
"I'd say that given our own history with intelligence assessments, including intelligence assessments related to weapons of mass destruction, it's very important that we are able to establish this with certainty and that we are able to present information that is airtight in a public and credible fashion to underpin all of our decision-making. That is, I think, the threshold that is demanded given how serious this issue is," the official said. "But again, I think nobody should have any mistake about what our red line is... It is absolutely the case that the president's red line is the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups."
The Obama administration is keeping all options on the table, but the official declined to say what options might be considered if and when it is confirmed that the president's red line has been crossed. The official also declined to identify the locations or dates of the two alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria, but acknowledged that a March incident in Aleppo had spurred the United States to press for a fuller investigation.
"We will constantly have prepared contingency planning for different scenarios within Syria," the official said. "What the Assad regime needs to know is that we are watching this incredibly closely."
The White House's conclusion that not enough evidence exists to confirm that the Syrian regime has crossed Obama's red line was contradicted Thursday by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
"It is clear that ‘red lines' have been crossed and action must be taken to prevent larger scale use," she said in a statement. "Syria has the ability to kill tens of thousands with its chemical weapons. The world must come together to prevent this by unified action which results in the secure containment of Syria's significant stockpile of chemical weapons."
The original announcement about the new intelligence community assessment on Syrian chemical weapons came in statements Thursday from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and in a letter from the White House to several senators delivered Thursday morning during an otherwise classified briefing.
"Our intelligence community does asses with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin," Miguel Rodriguez, the director of the White House office of legislative affairs, wrote in the letter.
The White House acknowledged for the first time Thursday that chemical weapons were likely used in Syria and lawmakers quickly responded to say President Barack Obama's red line has been crossed.
At a briefing for all senators Thursday morning led by Secretary of State John Kerry and including representation from the office of the director of national intelligence and the FBI, lawmakers were given a letter from Obama stating that his administration now believed that the regime of President Bashar al Assad has used chemical weapons. The new assessment brings the United States in line with the assessments of Britain, France, the Israel Defense Forces, and the prime minister of Qatar, who addressed the issue Wednesday evening in Washington.
"Our intelligence community does asses with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin," Miguel Rodriguez, the director of the White House office of legislative affairs, wrote in the letter.
That conclusion was based in part on "physiological samples," the White House said. British intelligence agents were reported to have secured soil samples from an alleged instance of chemical weapons use in Aleppo and Damascus in March. Syrian activists also claim that the regime used chemical weapons last December in Homs, but two State Department investigations failed to confirm that allegation.
The White House said the chain of custody for the evidence was not clear so the U.S. intelligence community cannot confirm where or how the chemical weapons were used.
"Thus far, we believe that the Assad regime maintains custody of these weapons, and has demonstrated a willingness to escalate its horrific use of violence against the Syrian people," the letter stated.
The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross the "red line" President Barack Obama first established in an Aug. 20 statement. "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation," Obama said.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel echoed the letter's conclusions when speaking to reporters Thursday in Abu Dahbi. "It violates every convention of warfare," he said. Hagel said the administration was still assessing whether the information means that Assad has violated Obama's red line. Only yesterday, Hagel was striking a more skeptical tone. "Suspicions are one thing, evidence is another," he said Wednesday when asked about the issue.
Also yesterday, a senior official told The New York Times that the administration lacked conclusive evidence that chemical weapons had been used in Syria and therefore was not prepared to take steps toward intervention.
"It is precisely because this is a red line that we have to establish with airtight certainty that this happened," the official told the Times. "The bar on the United States is higher than on anyone else, both because of our capabilities and because of our history in Iraq."
The president's letter was a response to a letter sent Wednesday to Obama by a bipartisan group of senators asking for the administration's view on whether chemical weapons had been used. The letter was signed by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Carl Levin (D-MI), Bob Corker (R-TN), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH).
"Senior officials from your Administration have testified publicly to Congress that they are still reviewing the facts and have not yet determined whether chemical weapons have been used by the Assad regime in Syria," the senators wrote. "Has the Assad regime - or Syrian elements associated with, or supported by, the Assad regime - used chemical weapons in Syria since the current conflict began in March 2011? We believe this question can be answered straightforwardly without compromising any critical intelligence sources and methods, just as our French, British, and Israeli allies have done."
Emerging from Thursday morning's briefing, which was classified, McCain waved the president's letter, which was unclassified, and called for more aggressive military steps by the U.S. inside Syria.
"I think it's pretty obvious that this red line has been crossed," McCain said. "Everything that the non-interventionalists said would happen in Syria if we intervened has happened."
McCain called for a no fly zone to protect Syrian civilians and for the U.S. to provide arms to members of the Syrian armed opposition. He also said the military has to prepare to go into Syrian to protect the regime's chemical weapons from falling into the wrong hands.
"We have to have operational capability to secure these chemical weapons stocks," McCain said.
Graham warned of the chaos that is spreading in the region and the potential for that instability to increase if and when Assad falls. He called for the administration to develop a strategy "to contain the fighting so the Kingdom of Jordan does not fall." Jordan's King Abullah II is on Capitol Hill Thursday to meet with lawmakers.
Corker, the Republican head of the foreign relations committee who has not called for military intervention, struck a more somber tone following the briefing.
"There's probably a little bit of additional verification that needs to occur, but there are indications that a red line has been crossed," he said. "I think there are a lot more serious and sober discussions ahead."
Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that deceased alleged Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev became a killer when he traveled to Russia in 2011, but the State Department and the White House had to walk back Kerry's remarks right after he said them.
Kerry was in Belgium on Wednesday for a NATO foreign minister's meeting and made the comments about the 26-year old alleged bomber during a brief interaction with reporters.
"We just had a young person who went to Russia, Chechnya, who blew people up in Boston," Kerry said. "So he didn't stay where he went, but he learned something where he went and he came back with a willingness to kill people."
Those comments suggested that Tsarnaev was not able or willing to commit acts of terror and murder before he traveled to the Russian region of Dagestan for six months in 2011, but made some connections to people there that resulted in a more fervent anti-American ideology that contributed to the Boston Marathon attack.
Tsarnaev's 19-year old brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is talking with law enforcement officials while recovering from injuries, has reportedly said that he and his brother had no contacts with foreign terrorist groups and no international help in executing the attacks. The FBI cleared Tamerlan Tsarnaev after an investigation in early 2011, before his Russia trip. The Russian authorities warned U.S. intelligence agencies about Tsarnaev multiple times, including after he returned to the United States in October 2011, a U.S. senator said Tuesday.
Both the State Department and White House press shops sought to walk back Kerry's comments about the elder Tsarnaev's Russia experience in their daily press conferences on Wednesday, saying that Kerry was not revealing any actual information on the case.
"The secretary was simply expressing broad concern about radicalism and not necessarily offering any more specific information about this case," Spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Wednesday. "I'm clarifying his remarks and saying that he was simply expressing broad concern about radicalism. This isn't about new details about the ongoing investigation."
Ventrell declined to say whether the administration currently believes that Tsarnaev's time in Russia contributed to his radicalization, despite that Kerry was apparently not intending to reveal anything new. "I'm not in a position to say one way or another on that," he said.
The U.S. embassy in Moscow sent officials to speak with Tsarnaev's parents in Dagestan this week as part of an interagency team, Ventrell said. The two parents are expected to come to the United States soon to visit Dzhokhar , although no firm date has been set.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney urged reporters on Wednesday to set aside Kerry's comments in Belgium and wait for the FBI-led investigation into the bombings to run its course.
"Secretary Kerry was not reflecting any new information or conclusion about the individuals involved. He was speaking generally about the nature of terrorism. But we are in the process of an investigation. Those comments don't reflect any new information," he said.
Carney defended the FBI's initial investigation into the elder Tsarnaev brother and said there was no indication of terrorist activity or associations with foreign or domestic groups at the time.
He also pushed aside comments by Vice President Joe Biden, who said at the funeral of MIT police officer Sean Collier that the Tsarnaev brothers were "two twisted, perverted, cowardly, knock-off jihadis."
Carney warned against jumping to conclusions in the case, without referencing Kerry or Biden specifically.
"So I think we saw last week that there is some danger in making -- jumping -- to conclusions, making judgments based on new information that may or may not be true, or partial information that will be developed further as time goes on," he said.
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration has invited a senior delegation from the Khartoum regime to visit Washington for high-level discussions, just after the State Department criticized Sudan heavily in its annual country reports on human rights.
The Sudanese Foreign Ministry first announced Tuesday that senior officials from the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) had been invited to Washington for consultations. Sudan Tribune, an émigré newspaper based in Paris, paraphrased a Sudanese official citing the "mere presence of diplomatic missions in both countries and meetings of ambassadors" as representing "some degree of dialogue between Khartoum and Washington."
Sudan is among the most-sanctioned countries in the world. President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court, Sudan has been on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1993, and the United States imposed additional sanctions in 1997 and then again in 2003, following the outbreak of government-sponsored violence in Darfur.
Sudan advocacy-group leaders were quick to criticize the administration's decision to invite the NCP officials to Washington, where they are expected to discuss ongoing tensions with South Sudan, the upcoming referendum in the contested region of Abyei, and the ongoing violence in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
"United to End Genocide believes that the delegates of Sudan's National Congress Party (NCP) do not deserve to be rewarded by the United States government and invited to Washington, D.C. until they stop committing crimes against the civilians throughout Sudan," said Tom Andrews, the president of the group. "It is imperative that in his new term, President Obama evaluates his previous diplomacy towards Sudan, sets strong policy with clear measures that can help end the suffering of the people of Sudan, and hold the perpetrators accountable before offering rewards."
At Tuesday's State Department press briefing, spokesman Patrick Ventrell acknowledged the invitation but gave few details about why the administration believes it's a good idea to host the Sudanese delegation at this time. He said that presidential adviser Nafie Ali Nafie will lead the delegation, but the exact timing has not been finalized.
"We've planned to receive this delegation for a candid discussion on the conflicts and humanitarian crises within Sudan, including in Darfur and the two areas -- Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, counterterrorism, human rights and other issues of concern to the U.S. government," Ventrell said. "We've also continued to express our deep concern about another -- a number of other issues. While we've had some progress here, you have ongoing aerial bombardment of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and some other areas in terms of Darfur that we're still concerned about. So we've seen some progress, but we still have some concerns and we'll raise them directly with the government."
The delegation announcement comes in the same week that the administration announced it was relaxing some sanctions against Khartoum. The Treasury Department announced April 22 that it would now authorize some professional and educational exchanges with Sudan that had previously been prohibited.
Only three days before relaxing sanctions, the Obama administration heavily criticized Sudan in its annual country reports on human rights practices, released April 19, which documented extreme government-sponsored atrocities and human rights violations.
"The most important human rights abuses included: government forces and government-aligned groups committed extrajudicial and other unlawful killings; security forces committed torture, beatings, rape, and other cruel and inhumane treatment or punishment; and prison and detention center conditions were harsh and life threatening," the State Department report said. "Except in rare cases, the government took no steps to prosecute or punish officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government who committed abuses. Security force impunity remained a serious problem."
Other major abuses in Sudan, according to the State Department, included arbitrary arrest; incommunicado and prolonged pretrial detention; executive interference with the judiciary and denial of due process; obstruction of humanitarian assistance; restriction on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement; harassment of internally displaced persons; restrictions on privacy; harassment and closure of human rights organizations; and violence and discrimination against women. Societal abuses including instances of female genital mutilation; child abuse, including sexual violence and recruitment of child soldiers; trafficking in persons; violence against ethnic minorities; denial of workers' rights; and forced and child labor were also reported.
That report prompted a call from the Sudan advocacy community for the administration to employ stronger pressure mechanisms against Khartoum, rather than offering more incentives like visits to Washington or rewards like an easing of sanctions.
"These atrocities and abuses stem from the many conflicts in Sudan, and point to the need for a comprehensive approach to all of Sudan's conflicts," a group of Sudan advocacy organizations wrote in a letter to Obama April 22. "In addition, given the scale of the atrocities perpetrated by the regime, international donors should not provide significant assistance or debt-relief until real and verifiable steps towards peace and democratic transformation are taken."
These groups, along with several members of Congress, also lament that the president has yet to appoint a special envoy to Sudan to replace Amb. Princeton Lyman, who stepped down late last year. The administration is said to be circling around a couple of candidates, but there's been no announcement as of yet.
"This vacancy is symptomatic of a president that has all but forsaken the people of Sudan," Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) said in a March floor statement. "Candidate Obama purported to be deeply concerned by the crisis in Sudan and committed to bold actions. Have we seen a fraction of that concern or anything close to bold action since he became president?"
ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.