Having secured Syria's pledge to give up its stores of more than 1000 metric tons of chemical weapons, nerve agents, and precursors, the United Nations is struggling to find a place to dispose of them.
Much of the legwork is being carried out by the United States, which has been sounding out governments from Europe, the Middle East, and Russia about the prospects of taking on the task. So far, there are no apparent takers.
U.S. officials have even approached Norway about disposing of the agents -- even though the country has neither the technology nor the expertise to do so.
The search for a chemical weapons dump is under way as the U.N. has already started to oversee the dismantling of Syria's chemical weapons program. Earlier this week, a U.N.-backed team of weapons inspectors began the work of supervising the destruction of equipment and mixing machines linked to Syria's chemical weapons program. "Syrian personnel used cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable a range of materials, including missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote the Security Council this week.
But the destruction of the vast majority of Syria's most lethal agents and weapons has yet to begin.
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A far-flung group of geeks, supported by the U.S. State Department, has built a tool for anonymous communication that's so secure that even the world's most sophisticated electronic spies haven't figured out how to crack it.
That's the takeaway from the latest revelations from National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. The NSA has used aggressive computer attack techniques to monitor people using the Tor network, a service that's funded by the U.S. government and allows users to remain anonymous when they're connected to the Internet. But the agency has not been able to undermine the core of the Tor system, which was developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in 2002. It remains a viable means for people to connect to the Internet anonymously. Although Tor's complete reliability has been called into question in light of the NSA's efforts -- which may have begun as early as 2006, according to the Washington Post -- for now it's State Department 1, NSA 0, in the anonymity wars.
Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, is on a charm offensive in advance of his visit to New York for the U.N. General Assembly next week. Most recently in an op-ed published Friday in the Washington Post, he has signaled his willingness to enter new negotiations with the United States over Iran's nuclear program. And that comes as little surprise to former U.S. intelligence and national security officials, who see Rouhani as a known quantity, and someone the Americans can do business with.
Rouhani was one of the so-called "Iranian moderates" who, in May 1986, met secretly in Tehran with officials from President Reagan's National Security Council staff. The meeting was arranged largely in the hopes of enlisting the Iranians' support in winning the release of American hostages. But Reagan and his advisers also sought to improve U.S.-Iran relations generally by forging ties to pragmatists in the Iranian regime. They thought Rouhani, then a senior defense official, was one of them.
"He said many things at the time that showed he wanted to deal with us. And we could deal with them," Howard Teicher, then a senior NSC staffer who was part of the delegation that met with Rouhani, told Foreign Policy.
It was not to be. The secret meeting was also a pivotal moment in what would soon become known to the world as the Iran-Contra affair, the covert operation that embroiled the Reagan White House in scandal and ended with the resignation of several top officials. But, says Teicher, officials were hopeful at the time for a new opening that might undermine the influence of Iran's hardline leaders.
"I left my meetings with Rouhani believing there were clearly people in the revolutionary government that saw the world and its interests in ways that were rational," Teicher said. That Rouhani is now reaching out to the Obama administration is "incredibly encouraging," he added. "He's back and he's promoting the same [initiative]. ...To not engage him very seriously, to me, would be the height of folly."
Other former intelligence officials shared the view that Rouhani is still the moderate he was in the mid-80s. "This is a pragmatic person. I don't think he has changed his stripes at all," said Paul Pillar, who served as the CIA's national intelligence officer for the Near East and Southeast Asia. "He's coming at these issues with the same attitude he has all along."
Former officials describe Rouhani as willing to forge ties with the United States at great political and personal risk. Teicher noted that Rouhani used an assumed name when he met with U.S. officials in 1986 for fear he'd be discovered by senior government officials. "Many times we thought he would end up losing his head," said Teicher, who described Rouhani as "the least bloodthirsty" of Iran's leaders.
But former officials and experts cautioned skepticism about whether Rouhani could make good on a new deal on nuclear weapons. And, they noted, before Iran is likely to make a substantial shift in its policies, it would need to see some relief from crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations over the country's nuclear program.
"I think [Rouhani] has a reputation as a moderate. But they're really hurting with sanctions," said Amb. Joseph DeTrani, who served as the CIA's Director for East Asia and was the State Department's special envoy for the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program. DeTrani, like other former officials, said Iran's struggling economy is forcing Rouhani's hand as much as any predisposition he has towards pragmatism.
"We will only be able to declare a true turning point when we see what happens at the negotiating table, as opposed to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post," said Greg Thielmann, who served as an office director in the State Department's intelligence bureau. "My own assessment, however, is that Rouhani's campaign rhetoric was indicative of a fundamentally different approach to foreign policy than his predecessor. ... There is mounting evidence that the stars are aligning for a more productive discussion with the United States over, not just Iran's nuclear program, but issues like Syria as well."
Theilman said he was particularly encouraged by comments from Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that suggest the new president has the backing of the country's most powerful figure.
To the extent that Rouhani's election and his most recent statements are being greeted as a moment of opportunity, the Obama administration has a chance to reboot the U.S.-Iran relationship. White House national security official Ben Rhodes said Friday that there's no meeting "currently planned" between the two presidents. But former officials predicted a "chance" encounter in the halls outside the General Assembly next week, and said it would be a welcome step.
"The new Iranian administration has opened a door to a better relationship, and one better for the United States, about as widely as such doors ever are opened," Pillar wrote Friday in a column for The National Interest. "The United States would be foolish not to walk through it."
As the slaughter of antigovernment protesters in Egypt continues, a string of first-term State Department officials are now distancing themselves from President Obama's policies and refuting his reluctance to cut off military aid to Egypt's generals.
With injuries in the thousands and the official death toll nearing 700, Egypt's military leadership is showing no signs of abating, despite repeated demands by the White House to end the violent crackdown. Thus far, President Obama has cancelled next month's joint U.S. military exercise with Egypt and postponed the delivery of F-16 fighter jets, but former officials say those moves don't go nearly far enough.
"The situation in Egypt keeps getting worse, and Egyptian government actions keep running contrary to what the U.S. is calling for publicly and privately," said Amy Hawthorne, who left the State Department in December as Foggy Bottom's Egypt country coordinator. Hawthorne said the administration has waited too long to suspend military aid to the government. "Continuing this kind of business-as-usual approach implicates the U.S., in a way, in whatever is going on in Egypt, and could put us in a position pretty soon where we might be contorting ourselves to accept whatever repressive new political reality the Egyptian leadership is trying to create," she said.
Hawthorne is by no means alone. Tamara Wittes, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs during Obama's first term, says Obama's refusal to call the military's actions a coup has become indefensible. "I think it's time for the United States to recognize that what we have here is the restoration of a military dictatorship in Cairo," said Wittes, now at the Brookings Institution. "That means that the United States needs to call these events what they are - under American law it needs to suspend assistance to the Egyptian government because this was a military coup and it is a military regime."
Sen. Rand Paul is hammering his fellow senators for keeping billions in financial aid flowing to Egypt's military -- even as Cairo's security forces massacre anti-government activists.
"This is something that those who voted in Congress are going to have to live with," Paul told The Cable on Thursday. "The question is: How does their conscience feel now as they see photographs of tanks rolling over Egyptian civilians?"[[LATEST]]
As the official Egyptian death toll climbs to 638, the legislation the Kentucky libertarian is referring to was an amendment to suspend aid to Egypt until the country holds free and fair elections. Two weeks ago, Republicans and Democrats rejected it by an overwhelming 86-13 vote -- and top lawmakers in both parties protested it loudly.
"This amendment may be good politics, but it is bad policy," Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at the time.
"It would be a terrific mistake for the United States to send a message to Egypt: you're on your own," Republican Senator John McCain added back then. "I urge my colleagues to vote to table the Paul amendment."
The vote has already come back to haunt some lawmakers, such as McCain, who is now advocating a cancellation of aid to Egypt and criticizing White House policies as a "colossal failure."
The obituary of Rep. Justin Amash's amendment to claw back the sweeping powers of the National Security Agency has largely been written as a victory for the White House and NSA chief Keith Alexander, who lobbied the Hill aggressively in the days and hours ahead of Wednesday's shockingly close vote. But Hill sources say most of the credit for the amendment's defeat goes to someone else: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. It's an odd turn, considering that Pelosi has been, on many occasions, a vocal surveillance critic.
But ahead of the razor-thin 205-217 vote, which would have severely limited the NSA's ability to collect data on Americans' telephone records if passed, Pelosi privately and aggressively lobbied wayward Democrats to torpedo the amendment, a Democratic committee aid with knowledge of the deliberations tells The Cable. [[LATEST]]
"Pelosi had meetings and made a plea to vote against the amendment and that had a much bigger effect on swing Democratic votes against the amendment than anything Alexander had to say," said the source, keeping in mind concerted White House efforts to influence Congress by Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. "Had Pelosi not been as forceful as she had been, it's unlikely there would've been more Democrats for the amendment."
With 111 liberal-to-moderate Democrats voting for the amendment alongside 94 Republicans, the vote in no way fell along predictable ideological fault lines. And for a particular breed of Democrat, Pelosi's overtures proved decisive, multiple sources said.
"Pelosi had a big effect on more middle-of-the road hawkish Democrats who didn't want to be identified with a bunch of lefties [voting for the amendment]," said the aide. "As for the Alexander briefings: Did they hurt? No, but that was not the central force, at least among House Democrats. Nancy Pelosi's political power far outshines that of Keith Alexander's."
In a 16-2 vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee overwhelmingly approved the nomination of Samantha Power to be the next U.S. ambassador the United Nations.
The vote clears the way for a final vote in the Senate, and signals a much easier confirmation process than many predicted, given Power's lengthy paper trail as a journalist and human rights advocate. After winning the president's nomination in June, critics dredged up a range of comments from Power's career, including her criticisms of U.S. assistance to Saddam Hussein when he gassed the Kurds; CIA-backed coups in Guatemala, Chile and Congo; and U.S. policy toward Palestine.
But few of those hot-button comments inflicted damage on Power during confirmation hearings on the panel. Not even a 2002 remark in which she said "external intervention" may be necessary to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians came back to burn her -- even though she went on to say that such a move could mean "alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import" (i.e. Jewish Americans.)
Though at the time she was assailed for "malign[ing] the American pro-Israel lobby," she since made her peace with the U.S. Jewish community in a lengthy courtship that included the influential rabbi-to-the-stars Schmuley Boteach, as expertly chronicled by colleague Colum Lynch. Her fortunes have also been unexpectedly buttressed by a range of neoconservatives including Max Boot, former Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sen. John McCain who share her view that the principle of sovereign national borders is not absolute.
The notable snags during her hearings were few and far between. Most notably, there was an off-hand mention of Venezuela as a "repressive" OPEC nation, which triggered loud but ultimately effete protestations by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The only issue that seemed to stick was her reference to U.S. "crimes" in a 2003 article for the New Republic. "We need a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, permitted by the United States," she wrote. "Willie Brandt [the former German Chancellor] went down on one knee in the Warsaw ghetto, his gesture was gratifying to World War II survivors, but it was also cathartic for Germany ... Would such an approach be futile for the United States?"
That lost her the vote of Florida Senator Marco Rubio who last week demanded that she name the crimes she was referring to. She responded with a transparent dodge: "The United States is the greatest country on earth ... [I] would never apologize for America."
Rubio responded: "So your answer to whether we committed or sponsored crimes is that the United States is the greatest country on earth?"
Earlier today, Rubio tweeted: "Voted No on nomination of Samantha Power due to her lack of support for UN reform & comments about US ‘crimes.'"
Still, the exchange did not damper the groundswell of bipartisan support for her that seemed unlikely just weeks ago. Advocates for a stronger U.S. commitment to the United Nations see today as a victory day. "Samantha Power will be a tough, passionate advocate for our nation, with a fierce moral compass," Kathy Calvin, president and CEO of United Nations Foundation, said in a statement to The Cable. "she was a key influencer in the decision for the U.S. to rejoin the Human Rights Council so that we could better stand up for our allies and direct the world's focus to the most critical human rights challenges. Moreover, she has put a needed spotlight on civilian protection, including recently in Libya, and been outspoken when the world has been too slow to respond to atrocities."
Opposition to President Obama's nominee for U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic reached a fever pitch this week as religious organizers stage a "Lunes Negro" or Black Monday protest against James "Wally" Brewster.
If confirmed, Brewster will be the first openly gay ambassador to the country, a prospect that is not going over well with some segments of this conservative Christian country of 9 million people. Local reports indicate that church leaders are pressuring the government to reject Brewster's nomination and calling on the faithful to dress in black on Monday in solidarity against him.
Praise Christian Church Pastor Sauford Medrano is quoted in Diario Libre as saying that Brewster could cause "the U.S. promotion of gender beliefs in the country." That supposedly violates a general education law in the country that "all the Dominican education system is based on Christian principles."
The report was flagged by Cable reader and Dominican expat Will Williams, an architect in New York City. He said he witnessed the animosity toward the ambassador in a visit last weekend. "I could confirm myself that the opposition has been even worse from what have been reflected in the news," he said. "As a Dominican, I feel ashamed this is happening in my country ... The evangelical church is convoking the general public to reject this ambassador ... [It's] asking the public to show a black band, black banner or ribbon on cars or dress showing rejection."
In a statement to The Cable, Monica Trasandes, director of Spanish Language Media at GLAAD, defended the president's pick. "We stand with LGBT advocates in the Dominican Republic, who are calling on leaders to quit categorizing their country's population as homophobic," she said. "We hope that James Brewster will help educate those still adversely affected by homophobia and applaud the work of LGBT advocates in the Dominican Republic."
When news of opposition to Brewster first began, the Dominican embassy in Washington told The Cable that the country supports the president's pick. "The Dominican Republic is a democracy with a vibrant media and a wide diversity of opinions on every conceivable topic," the statement read. "However, it is the position of the Government of the Dominican Republic that a person´s sexual preference is strictly a personal matter and it looks forward to working constructively with Mr. Brewster in his official capacity once his nomination is approved by the U.S. Senate."
In June, the AP spoke with Catholic and evangelical church leaders who opposed the nomination. "If he arrives, he'll suffer and will be forced to leave," Vicar Pablo Cedano, told the AP. He said the pick showed "a lack of respect, of consideration, that they send us that kind of person as ambassador." Rev. Cristobal Cardozo, leader of the Dominican Evangelical Fraternity, said the appointment was offensive. "It's an insult to good Dominican customs," he said.
Brewster was a fundraiser for Obama and currently works at the Chicago consulting firm SB&K.
As Egypt's top brass flirts with a military coup, the Obama administration's reluctant support of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood is exposing it to attacks from the right.
For months, liberal Egyptians have complained that the United States treated President Mohamed Morsy's government with kid gloves as it implemented increasingly authoritarian reforms, from delaying parliamentary elections to forcing through a new constitution. Now, as the Muslim Brotherhood refuses to back down, Republicans are hammering the Obama administration for its Egypt policy. But they're hitting from different angles: some don't like what they see as administration support of an increasingly-authoritarian government in Cairo; others want to increase the amount of military aid to Egypt; while a third, fringe faction is sure that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the White House.
For a number of top Republicans in the House, it's the White House's tacit support of Morsy. "The Egyptian turmoil stems from the Morsy government's predictable power grab, which the Obama Administration has been far too accepting of," Rep, Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tells The Cable. "U.S. aid has failed to compel the Morsy government to undertake the political and economic reforms needed to avert this crisis."
Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, offered a similar condemnation. "Unfortunately, the Obama administration thinks it can woo Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood just as it thinks it can negotiate with Iran's Ayatollah," he told The Cable. "The United States must stand firm on its values and make clear our objectives in the region."
An early target in this week's turmoil is U.S. ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, who was denounced by anti-government activists last month after criticizing street protests and defending U.S. relations with Morsy.
"Some say that street action will produce better results than elections. To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical," Patterson said at a seminar in Cairo. "Egypt needs stability to get its economic house in order, and more violence on the streets will do little more than add new names to the lists of martyrs."
On Sunday, demonstrators held signs of Patterson's face crossed out with red lines with the word "Hayzaboon," an insult akin to the word "crone." Now miffed Egyptian protesters aren't the only ones Patterson will have to contend with. Republicans are sounding off too.
"The Ambassador's remarks [were] a reflection of President Obama's complete disregard for political reality and his administration's failure to leverage our contacts within Egypt's military and support efforts to steer Egypt away from Islamist radicalism," McCaul told The Cable.
Patterson, who is reportedly in line for a promotion as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, also came under criticism from Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), who said she appeared to "offer support for a regime with a rather checkered record of support for democratic processes and institutions."
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment, but at Monday's daily briefing, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell acknowledged the anti-Patterson protest signs. "We find it abhorrent and reprehensible," Ventrell said. "The ambassador has very much stated U.S. policies." He added that "we don't take sides," and that U.S. policy is "focused on the broader goal of reconciliation between the two groups."
Since Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, the U.S. has committed to a $1.3 billion annual package of military assistance to Egypt. Increasingly, this long-standing relationship has divided the neoconservative and anti-interventionist wings of the Republican foreign policy establishment. On the one side is Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who just months ago lobbied for an additional $480 million in budget assistance to Egypt. On the other side, is Sen. Rand Paul and a growing cadre of Republicans advocating for deeper cuts to foreign aid, with Egypt at top of the list.
"How can we have influence in troubled parts of the world when we cuddle up to regimes responsible for much of the trouble?" Paul said in a statement Monday. "The Obama administration announced in March that we no longer had enough money to continue giving White House tours due to the sequester. That same month, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Morsy and pledged $250 million in additional aid to Egypt."
Lastly, a fringe element of the Republican Party is opposed to Obama's Egypt policy for a third reason: The insidious influence of Muslim Brotherhood "advisors" inside the White House. "Since this administration is advised by Muslim Brothers then of course they're going to promote those in the Muslim Brotherhood," Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert told The Cable. Gohmert did not recycle his discredited allegation that former Clinton Aide Huma Abedin is in cahoots with the Brotherhood, but he did mention others who allegedly explain why the "government is supporting the wrong people." Some conspiracy theories die hard.
A new lawsuit brought by a current CIA officer hints at the existence of a secret overseas paramilitary operation that triggered war crimes allegations, The Cable has learned.
On Friday, "John Doe," an undercover paramilitary officer will file suit against the CIA for "unreasonable delay" of an Inspector General investigation into "alleged war crimes committed in an overseas location." (The operation remains highly classified; details about when and where it occurred remain secret.)
According to his lawyer Mark Zaid, Doe was engaged in "offensive operations against individuals designated or viewed as enemies of the United States." His client believes he did nothing wrong, according to Zaid, but witnessed events that "concerned him." Zaid declined to outline what those concerning events might be.
The CIA's paramilitary activities have come under heavy scrutiny in recent months. With the ascension of John Brennan to the top of agency, there have been renewed calls in Congress to rein in the CIA's drone strikes and return Langley to traditional mission of gathering human intelligence. President Obama even took the unusual step in late May of publicly defending the agency's targeted killing operations -- while pledging to subject them to new constraints. Brennan himself has expressed his desire to scale back some of the agency's traditional military activities. "While the CIA needs to maintain a paramilitary capability," Brennan said in February, "the CIA should not be used, in my view, to carry out traditional military activities."
Unlike in the latest string of disclosures about the State Department and the National Security Agency, Doe does not consider himself a whistleblower, Zaid says. The purpose of the suit is to bring an end to the IG's open investigation into the alleged war crimes, which has put Doe on administrative suspension. "It has ruined his career," said Zaid.
But the process of taking legal action has led to the partial disclosure of the operation in question, and other unusual allegations. (The CIA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
For instance, following the operation, Zaid says his client's computer and cell phone were compromised by cyber hackers. At first, the client believed a foreign power was responsible and notified the FBI, which opened an investigation but could not determine the origin of the attack. After working with the FBI in its investigation, and finding it unusually cooperative, Zaid suspects the CIA was spying on his client.
The suit also reveals that the Department of Justice opened, and eventually closed, a criminal investigation into alleged war crimes carried out by CIA personnel. The IG investigation is believed to have been started between 2010 and 2011.
While it's unclear where the mission occurred, covert paramilitary operations by the CIA have become increasingly common in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and Iraq over the past several years. On targeted killing missions, the CIA often collaborates with the U.S. Joint Special Operation Command, which oversees the nation's elite military units. But, as The Washington Post's Greg Miller and Julie Tate have reported, the lines of authority can be murky.
"You couldn't tell the difference between CIA officers, Special Forces guys and contractors," a senior U.S. official who toured through Afghanistan told The Post. "They're all three blended together. All under the command of the CIA." As a result of the overlapping roles, congressional committees covering intelligence and armed services often get an incomplete view of CIA paramilitary operations.
In any case, Zaid's suit opens a small crack into the type of covert missions that rarely see the light of day. Whether more will be uncovered about this specific operation is yet to be seen. Below is a copy of the suit Zaid plans to file tomorrow:
Attorney General Eric Holder baffled lawmakers on Wednesday when he told the House Judiciary Committee he had no idea when he had recused himself from the Justice Department's investigation into classified leaks to the Associated Press.
Didn't he put that decision in writing? Isn't there a memo somewhere with a date and his signature memorializing the transference of power to the deputy attorney general?
The answer to both questions was "no," a response that sent political observers racing to find out if such an oversight violated the law. Turns out, it doesn't -- but it's no way to run the Justice Department, according to former DOJ officials speaking with The Cable.
"There does not appear to be any statutory requirement that the recusal be in writing," Andrew McBride, a partner at Wiley Rein who served 10 years at DOJ, including seven as assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia. "However, it is highly unusual for a recusal not to be in writing, to set out the subject matter of the recusal and therefore the scope of the authority of the DAG to act in the capacity of acting attorney general."
"I worked for two attorneys general, Dick Thornburg and William P. Barr," McBride continued, "and I can attest that this was the standard practice of both those attorneys general."
Dan Metcalfe, the founding director of the DOJ's Office of Information and Privacy, now a professor at American University, agreed that written recusals are standard operating procedure. "Holder, as a matter of practice, should make a recusal in writing," he said.
The issue of legality was raised by bloggers who pointed to a statute requiring the attorney general to put a recusal in "writing," when appointing an independent counsel. But both lawyers speaking with The Cable said the AP leak investigation does not qualify as independent counsel and therefore the statute is irrelevant.
But the practical reasons that attorneys general should put recusals in writing are manifold. For one, as the AP case indicates, when an attorney general recuses him or herself, the deputy attorney general inherits vast powers, such as the authority to approve the secret seizure of numerous phone records from the one of the largest news organizations in the world. That kind of power transfer ought to be documented. For another, the absence of a paper trail could tempt attorneys general to claim prior recusal "whenever a case gets too hot," noted McBride. In that scenario, the attorney general says he recused himself when he never actually did, thus avoiding whatever scandal is headed his way. It's an unlikely circumstance since it requires a fall guy in the form of the deputy attorney general who would under most circumstances refute the attorney general's claim -- but stranger things have happened in government.
In any event, although Holder said he had no idea when the recusal happened and had no documentation, Metcalfe said a date is probably available on the deputy attorney general's document authorizing the subpoena. "If you're deputy attorney general, and providing the authorization, you're going to recite the fact that the attorney general has recused himself. The authorization, in effect, becomes a memorialization of the recusal."
Two months into Secretary of State John Kerry's tenure, a large number of senior State Department positions remain vacant, and the process to fill them seems indefinitely stalled, officials inside the department tell The Cable.
When Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Clinton, came into office, she negotiated for herself 100 percent control over State Department appointments and largely kept Obama campaign officials at arms' length. Kerry has no such deal with the White House, and his office is only one voice in a White House-managed appointment process that is moving as slowly as molasses, several State Department officials and insiders say.
As Kerry prepares to travel to East Asia next week, his third major overseas adventure in his short time in Foggy Bottom, the most glaring opening at State is the post of assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs (EAP), which was vacated by Kurt Campbell in February. NSS Senior Director for Asia Danny Russel has been long assumed the leading contender, but Kerry is said to prefer a non-White House staffer. Meanwhile, Deputy Assistant Secretary Joe Yun has been running the EAP shop.
But the EAP is only one of nearly a dozen bureaus that are working without politically appointed leaders and there are several reports of angst that the vacancies are being left unfilled for so long.
"We must report rising anxiety at senior policy levels at what players characterize as virtual indifference by Sec. St. Kerry and his inner-circle to moving on the Asst. Secretary appointments needed to properly run the Department's many bureaus," reports Chris Nelson of the Nelson Report, an insider's newsletter on Asia policy.
All of the regional bureaus are now being run by acting assistant secretaries or assistant secretaries that come from the Foreign Service ranks, Nelson notes.
"In short, neither White House nor Kerry people are now running the store," he writes. "The system isn't designed to work that way. No matter what the White House may think, it and the NSC can't run everything... Unsurprisingly, some folks now speculate this means Obama and his team are determined to control it all."
Our State Department sources report that there is increasing concern that Kerry is spending so much time out of the building (although his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry has been spotted in the Truman Headquarters on several occasions), leaving the day-to-day management to a select group of senior officials.
The handful of people who are running the show at State these days is largely limited to the very few senior staffers Kerry brought in with him: Chief of Staff David Wade, Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Danvers, Policy Planning Director David McKean, and senior communications advisor Glen Johnson, along with the few holdover senior officials who have regular direct access to Kerry: Deputy Secretary Bill Burns, Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Nuland especially is said to have risen in influence since Clinton, and her longtime communications aide Philippe Reines, departed. A power struggle inside the State Department's public affairs office between Nuland and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Mike Hammer, along with his deputy Dana Smith, has largely been won by Nuland, several State Department sources said.
Although Hammer is technically the head of the bureau, Nuland runs the daily meetings, often travels with Kerry, takes the lead on forming the messages and talking points, and has emerged victorious in several internal battles, including a dispute over who would be on the plane with Kerry during his first trip as secretary. Smith wanted her own people to travel but Nuland insisted on choosing the traveling personnel and got her way.
Nuland, who was recently elevated to the status of career ambassador, the highest rank in the Foreign Service, is expected to be nominated to replace Philip Gordon as assistant secretary of state for Europe. Hammer is expected to be given an ambassadorship soon. Smith is known to want Hammer's job, but the model of having an assistant secretary who is not also the spokesperson is under review, and incoming spokesperson Jen Psaki could be tapped for both jobs.
Psaki was a White House and Obama campaign staffer, but also has longstanding ties to Kerry. Stephen Krupin, the head speechwriter for Obama for America, has begun work as Kerry's chief speechwriter, and the rumor is that the White House is seeking to place more Obama campaign hands at State -- potentially bad news for the Kerry staffers left waiting over at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Meanwhile, a host of State Department offices and bureaus are functioning with temporary leadership.
In the Africa bureau, Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson's last day was March 29. He had been hoping to retire in January but was asked to stay longer by Kerry's staff. That bureau is now being run by Acting Assistant Secretary Don Yamamoto, a Foreign Service officer who has been an ambassador three times. NSS Senior Director Gayle Smith is rumored to be in the running for Carson's job.
The related special envoy for Sudan job is also vacant since Princeton Lyman stepped down last December.There are some names being bandied about, such as former Ambassadors Tim Carney and Cameron Hume, although Sudan advocacy groups are warning the White House against choosing Carney, whom they see as too cozy with Khartoum.
There's also no special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, following the return of Amb. Marc Grossman to the private sector last December. Acting SRAP David Pearce is running the office but there's no word on whether Kerry intends to replace Grossman or when.
The position of assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs has been filled in an acting capacity by Foreign Service officer Beth Jones ever since Jeff Feltman departed for the U.N. last year. The rumor had been that Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson was in line for that job, but lately State Department sources report that there are no firm indications of who might get it.
Rose Gottemoeller is serving as acting undersecretary for arms control and international security while also technically still serving as the assistant secretary for arms control, verification, and compliance. She will have to be nominated again for the undersecretary slot soon, but there's no schedule for what could be a very contentious confirmation process in the Senate.
Michael Posner has left his job as assistant secretary of state for democracy, leaving long time Foreign Service officer Uzra Zeya as acting head of that bureau. There's no word about his replacement, although we hear rumors that Human Rights Watch's Washington director, Tom Malinowski, may be in contention.
The Diplomatic Security Bureau has been leaderless since its top three officials were placed on paid administrative leave following the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Greg Starr is the nominal official in charge.
Melanne Verveer, the ambassador at large for global women's issues, left the department Feb. 8. Sharon Weiner, a career Foreign Service officer, is acting ambassador, but the White House has announced its intention to nominate Cathy Russell to replace Verveer.
There's no word on who will replace Deputy Secretary for Management Tom Nides, who left the department in February to return to Wall Street. There's also no assistant secretary for legislative affairs, which could be a disadvantage for State in the upcoming budget fights.
The State Department also does not have an inspector general to oversee its operations, but that is not the fault of Kerry's team. The last time the State Department had a full-time inspector general was Feb. 6, 2008.
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
Last week in Cairo, seven U.S. senators had a highly contentious meeting with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy during which the Muslim Brotherhood leader implied that he was the victim of an American media run by the Jews.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) led a delegation last week to Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Afghanistan that included Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Kirsten Gilibrand (D-NY). Their stop in Cairo included a 90-minute meeting with Morsy that devolved into an uncomfortable set of exchanges as the senators pressed the Egyptian president to explain his 2010 comments describing Jews as "bloodsuckers who attack Palestinians" as well as "the descendants of apes and pigs."
After the meeting, McCain issued a statement saying that the senators "voiced our strong disapproval of the statement" and that the senators and Morsy "had a constructive discussion on this subject." Morsy's spokesman issued a statement after the meeting saying that Morsy believed in religious freedom and "the need to distinguish between the Jewish religion, and those who belong to it, and violent actions against defenseless Palestinians."
But inside the meeting, the discussion over Morsy's 2010 remarks was much more heated than either side publicly acknowledged afterwards, according to Coons. Addressing the comments was the first item on the senators' agenda, and the discussion did not go well, he told The Cable in an interview.
"We tried to give President Morsy an opportunity, now that he is the president, to put his comments in a different context because he was claiming that he was taken out of context. On their face they seemed to be very offensive and inappropriate," Coons said. "It was a difficult conversation."
Morsy told the senators that the values of Islam teach respect for Christianity and Judaism, and he asserted repeatedly that he had no negative views about Judaism or the Jewish people, but then followed with a diatribe about Israel and Zionist actions against Palestinians, especially in Gaza.
Then Morsy crossed a line and made a comment that made the senators physically recoil in their chairs in shock, Coons said.
"He was attempting to explain himself ... then he said, ‘Well, I think we all know that the media in the United States has made a big deal of this and we know the media of the United States is controlled by certain forces and they don't view me favorably,'" Coons said.
The Cable asked Coons if Morsy specifically named the Jews as the forces that control the American media. Coons said all the senators believed the implication was obvious.
"He did not say [the Jews], but I watched as the other senators physically recoiled, as did I," he said. "I thought it was impossible to draw any other conclusion."
"The meeting then took a very sharply negative turn for some time. It really threatened to cause the entire meeting to come apart so that we could not continue," Coons said.
Multiple senators impressed upon Morsy that if he was saying the criticisms of his comments were due to the Jews in the media, that statement was potentially even more offensive than his original comments from 2010.
"[Morsi] did not say the Jewish community was making a big deal of this, but he said something [to the effect] that the only conclusion you could read was that he was implying it," Coons said. "The conversation got so heated that eventually Senator McCain said to the group, ‘OK, we've pressed him as hard as we can while being in the boundaries of diplomacy,'" Coons said. "We then went on to discuss a whole range of other topics."
Coons stressed that the rest of the meeting was constructive and the Morsy meeting was only one compenent of a visit to Cairo that included meeting with Prime Minister Hesham Mohamed Qandil, Defense Minister Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, and political opposition leaders including Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei.
Morsy and the senators also discussed the peace treaty with Israel, the plight of American NGOs in Egypt, the security situation in the Sinai, various ways to help Egypt's economy, the crisis in Syria, Iran, and several other topics. The senators and Morsy all agreed that the U.S.-Egypt relationship was crucial and that U.S. aid to Egypt was an important piece of maintaining that relationship as long as Egypt continues progressing toward democracy.
"I appreciate that he respects and understands the vital importance of the U.S-Egyptian relationship, but clearly there is a lot of work to be done before we can feel comfortable that he respects American values," Coons said. "Securing a positive relationship going forward is important and in America's national interest, but we also cannot stand by and tolerate bigotry and hatred by foreign leaders."
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
A secret State Department cable has concluded that the Syrian military likely used chemical weapons against its own people in a deadly attack last month, The Cable has learned.
United States diplomats in Turkey conducted a previously undisclosed, intensive investigation into claims that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, and made what an Obama administration official who reviewed the cable called a "compelling case" that Assad's military forces had used a deadly form of poison gas.
The cable, signed by the U.S. consul general in Istanbul, Scott Frederic Kilner, and sent to State Department headquarters in Washington last week, outlined the results of the consulate's investigation into reports from inside Syria that chemical weapons had been used in the city of Homs on Dec. 23.
The consul general's report followed a series of interviews with activists, doctors, and defectors, in what the administration official said was one of the most comprehensive efforts the U.S. government has made to investigate claims by internal Syrian sources. The investigation included a meeting between the consulate staff and Mustafa al-Sheikh, a high-level defector who once was a major general in Assad's army and key official in the Syrian military's WMD program.
An Obama administration official who reviewed the document, which was classified at the "secret" level, detailed its contents to The Cable. "We can't definitely say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23," the official said.
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.
To date, the administration has not initiated any major policy changes in response to the classified cable, but a Deputies Committee meeting of top administration officials is scheduled for this week.
The report confirms the worst fears of officials who are frustrated by the current policy, which is to avoid any direct military assistance to the Syrian rebels and limit U.S. aid to sporadic deliveries of humanitarian and communications equipment.
Many believe that Assad is testing U.S. red lines.
"This reflects the concerns of many in the U.S. government that the regime is pursuing a policy of escalation to see what they can get away with as the regime is getting more desperate," the administration official said.
The consulate's investigation was facilitated by BASMA, an NGO the State Department has hired as one of its implementing partners inside Syria. BASMA connected consular officials with witnesses to the incident and other first-hand information.
The official warned that if the U.S. government does not react strongly to the use of chemical weapons in Homs, Assad may be emboldened to escalate his use of such weapons of mass destruction.
"It's incidents like this that lead to a mass-casualty event," the official said.
Activist and doctors on the ground in Homs have been circulating evidence of the Dec. 23 incident over the past three weeks in an attempt to convince the international community of its veracity. An Arabic-language report circulated by the rebels' Homs medical committee detailed the symptoms of several of the victims who were brought to a makeshift field hospital inside the city and claims that the victims suffered severe effects of inhaling poisonous gas.
Activists have also been circulating videos of the victims on YouTube and Facebook. In one of the videos, victims can be seen struggling for breath and choking on their own vomit. (More videos, which are graphic, can be found here, here, here, here, here and here.)
Experts say the symptoms match the effects of Agent 15, known also by its NATO code BZ, which is a CX-level incapacitating agent that is controlled under schedule 2 of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria is not a party.
"The symptoms of an incapacitating agent are temporary. If someone is exposed to BZ, they are likely to be confused, perhaps to hallucinate," said Amy Smithson, a senior fellow with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "While it is not good news that a chemical agent of any kind may have been used in the Syrian conflict, this Agent 15 is certainly on the less harmful end of the spectrum of chemical warfare agents believed to be in the Syrian arsenal."
The Cable spoke with two doctors who were on the scene in Homs on Dec. 23 and treated the victims. Both doctors said that the chemical weapon used in the attack may not have been Agent 15, but they are sure it was a chemical weapon, not a form of tear gas. The doctors attributed five deaths and approximately 100 instances of severe respiratory, nervous system, and gastrointestinal ailments to the poison gas.
"It was a chemical weapon, we are sure of that, because tear gas can't cause the death of five people," said Dr. Nashwan Abu Abdo, a neurologist who spoke with The Cable from an undisclosed location inside of Homs.
Abdo said the chemical agent was delivered by a tank shell and that the range of symptoms varied based on the victim's proximity to the poison. The lightly affected people exhibited gastrointestinal symptoms, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain, he said. Victims who received a higher concentration of the poison, in addition to the gastrointestinal symptoms, showed respiratory symptoms as well.
"The main symptom of the respiratory ailments was bronchial secretions. This particular symptom was the cause of the death of all of the people," he said. "All of them died choking on their own secretions."
The doctors said their conclusion that the poison was a chemical agent and not tear gas was based on three factors: the suddenness of the deaths of those who were directly exposed, the large number of people affected, and the fact that many victims returned with recurring symptoms more than 12 hours after they had been treated, meaning that the poison had settled either in their nervous systems or fat tissue.
"They all had miosis -- pinpoint pupils. They also had generalized muscle pain. There were also bad symptoms as far as their central nervous system. There were generalized seizures and some patients had partial seizures. This actually is proof that the poison was able to pass the blood-brain barrier," Abdo said. "In addition, there was acute mental confusion presented by hallucinations, delusions, personality changes, and behavioral changes."
The doctors on the scene said they were not able to pinpoint the poison because they lacked the advanced laboratory equipment needed. They took blood, hair, saliva, and urine samples, but those samples are no longer viable for testing because too much time has passed, they said.
"We took many samples, we kept them, but we cannot get them anywhere because we are in the besieged Homs area," he said. "We are not 100 percent sure what poison was used, but we can say with firm statement that it was not tear gas, that's for sure."
The State Department, in response to inquiries from The Cable, declined to comment on the secret cable from Istanbul or say whether or not chemical weapons were used in the Homs attack, but said that the administration believes Assad's chemical weapons are secure.
"I'm not going to comment on the alleged content of a classified cable," State Department Spokesman Patrick Ventrell told The Cable. "As you know, the United States closely monitors Syria's proliferation-sensitive materials and facilities, and we believe Syria's chemical weapons stockpile remains secured by the Syrian government. We have been clear that if Assad's regime makes the tragic mistake of using chemical weapons or failing to secure them, it will be held accountable."
Shifting red lines
The White House's threats to react to Assad's WMD activity have softened over time. In Obama's Aug. 20 statement, he indicated that "a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around" would trigger U.S. action.
Obama then shifted his warning to Assad about red lines in December, after intelligence reports stated that the Syrian regime had moved some precursor chemicals out of storage and mixed them, making them easier to deploy. Now, Obama's red line is that the United States will react if Syria uses these weapons.
"The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable," Obama said Dec. 3, directing his comments at Assad. "If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable." That same day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added: "we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur."
Outside analysts worry that the administration's red line may have shifted again.
"Given the fact you have that in a cable, this indicates that the Obama administration may not simply jump into the conflict because chemical agents are used," said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Assad has a much better idea now of what he can do and get away with."
"This shows that actually the red line on chemical weapons is not clear and that the regime may be able to use some chemical agents, and the response might not be immediate," he said.
On Jan. 11, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said that the U.S. government and the international community doesn't have the capability to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons if he chooses to do so.
"The act of preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable... because you would have to have such clarity of intelligence, you know, persistent surveillance, you'd have to actually see it before it happened, and that's -- that's unlikely, to be sure," Dempsey said. "I think that Syria must understand by now that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. And to that extent, it provides a deterrent value. But preventing it, if they decide to use it, I think we would be reacting."
Abdo, the Syrian neurologist, said that the doctors treating civilians inside Homs have run out of even the basic medicines they have been using to bring a level of comfort to the victims, such as the drug atropine.
"We hope this information will reach the people in the American government so maybe they will help us," he said. "If the regime does this one more time, we don't have the antidote in our hands anymore and we can't treat it. It's very urgent."
A growing number of GOP senators have expressed concerns about the potential nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Obama's next secretary of defense, but only four years ago many of these same Republicans praised Hagel as a statesman and even suggested he would make a good cabinet official.
White House sources insist that President Barack Obama hasn't made his final decision on whom he will choose to succeed Leon Panetta at the Pentagon. Hagel, the former Nebraska senator and current co-chair of Obama's intelligence advisory board, has been fully vetted, as have Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter and former Under Secretary of Policy for Defense Michèle Flournoy, according to multiple sources close to the process. An announcement could come as early as Friday.
Meanwhile, Hagel's critics have been mounting a relentless media campaign against his potential nomination, accusing him of being an anti-Semite, a homophobe, and weak on Iran. A loose conglomeration of interest groups, conservative writers, and national newspaper editorial boards have also attacked Hagel, alleging he wants to cut the Pentagon budget and accusing him of poor management skills. The effort has included documenting the "concerns" of several GOP senators about the nomination.
To "allege that Hagel is somehow a Republican -- that is a hard one to swallow," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said last week, criticizing Hagel's long-ago reference to a "Jewish lobby" and his record on Iran sanctions.
That's quite a change from the sentiments McCain and his GOP Senate colleagues expressed about Hagel the last time his name was mentioned for high office, when he resigned from the Senate in 2008. At that time, presidential candidate McCain said he and Hagel were "close and dear friends" and that Hagel could have a place in a McCain administration.
"I'd be honored to have Chuck with me in any capacity," McCain told the New York Times in 2006. "He'd make a great secretary of state."
In the summer of 2008, Hagel traveled with then candidate Obama and Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) on a trip to Iraq, and rumors swirled that Obama might choose Hagel as his running mate. McCain was all for the idea.
"I don't know anything about that," McCain said about the idea of Obama picking Hagel for vice president, "except to say Chuck Hagel is a distinguished veteran and a very dear and close friend of mine and I cherish his friendship and have for many, many years."
McCain also said it was good that Obama chose to bring Hagel to Iraq, because even though the two Vietnam veterans had developed opposing views on the Iraq war, McCain said Hagel "has military experience (and) knowledge of these issues." He also said Hagel was a "respected leader in America" who "served his country admirably, with honor and distinction."
If nominated and confirmed, Hagel would become the first enlisted soldier to ever lead the Pentagon. But now, as the nomination looms, Republican senators have gone so far as to question Hagel's military experience and his credibility with our troops in uniform.
"I don't know how you can nominate someone and make them secretary of defense who has had so much disrespect for the military," Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) told an Indianapolis radio station last week. "And said so many public things in opposition to the military, what it stands for, the values that it holds. Chuck has alienated an awful lot of people."
Coats's argument, which mimics the attack ads of right-wing groups, is that Hagel is somehow to the "left" of Obama on crucial national security issues and that Hagel has moved away from his conservative principles since leaving office.
"[I]deologically [Hagel] has moved from a conservative Republican coming out of Nebraska to someone that looks like they are out of the most leftist state in the country and exceeding even a lot of Democrats, who also have concerns about his ideology and where he is coming from," Coats said.
But Hagel's positions on things like unilateral sanctions, the use of force abroad, and the role of America are the same as they were in 2008. He has taken no votes that would indicate a policy shift and he has authored no papers that show a departure from his long held views.
By contrast, his former GOP colleagues have completely changed their tune on Hagel in the four years since he left the Senate. During speeches on the floor to commemorate his retirement in 2008, several senior GOP senators praised Hagel effusively.
"In two terms in the Senate, Chuck has earned the respect of his colleagues and risen to national prominence as a clear voice on foreign policy and national security," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). "He has consistently fought to expand free trade, particularly with Vietnam. Chuck's stature as a leading voice in foreign affairs has earned him a reputation, in just 12 years in the Senate, as one of Nebraska's great statesmen. This is a tribute to his intelligence, hard work, and devotion to a country that he has served his entire adult life."
"When Senator Hagel came to the Senate, his actions often reflected his experience as a combat veteran. He did what he believed was best for the men and women in uniform, and he defended his positions forcefully," said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ). "Senator Hagel has continued to protect and defend the country, notably through his work on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees. He had strong opinions, and he was never shy about letting them be known."
"Senator Hagel's heroism and service serving side by side with his brother in Vietnam is one of the most fascinating, heroic stories of any member of the Senate," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN). "With that sort of independent background, you can imagine he brought to this body a sense of independence, a great knowledge of the world... [H]e understands the world better than almost anyone, and he works hard at it. He has been independent in his views, willing to criticize those he thought were wrong, including those in his own party. ... We will miss Senator Hagel."
To those who worked with Hagel in the Senate, the GOP's turn against their former boss is a betrayal of the comity and mutual respect the Nebraska lawmaker and his GOP colleagues shared for so many years.
"Hagel and his former GOP colleagues may have differed strongly on some issues, but there was no disputing his deep credibility on matters of foreign policy or national security," one former Hagel staffer said. "These recent attacks amount to a mix of revisionist history and political gamesmanship, not a substantive examination of his record. And I think most of his former colleagues know that. This whole dynamic is a product of the trial-balloon method; it will change dramatically if he is actually the nominee."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel is being vetted for a possible top national security post in the Obama administration, multiple sources told The Cable.
Hagel, who co-chairs President Barack Obama's Intelligence Advisory Board, which provides independent advice on the effectiveness of the intelligence community, could be in contention for either secretary of state or secretary of defense, people familiar with the vetting process say.
Hagel, a moderate realist on foreign policy, would be a comfortable ideological fit for the president. He has publicly supported many of the administration's foreign-policy moves from his perch at Georgetown University, while often excoriating the GOP for what he sees as a takeover by "the extreme right."
Hagel was a harsh critic of George W. Bush's foreign policy, especially his decision to invade and occupy Iraq, which he once called "an absolute replay of Vietnam."
In the years since, he's remained a strong critic of Republicans in Congress.
"Now the Republican Party is in the hands of the right, I would say the extreme right, more than ever before. You've got a Republican Party that is having difficulty facing up to the fact that if you look at what happened during the first 8 years of the century, it was under Republican direction," Hagel told The Cable in a May interview. "The Republican Party is dealing with this schizophrenia. It was the Republican leadership that got us into this mess. If Nixon or Eisenhower were alive today, they would be run out of the party."
"Reagan would be stunned by the party today," Hagel said.
In 2008, the incoming Obama transition team offered Hagel several high-level jobs, all of which he turned down, including secretary of homeland security, director of national intelligence, and ambassador to China.
If appointed, he would likely be the lone Republican in the Obama administration's second-term cabinet: The president's first defense secretary, Bob Gates, is long gone, ex-CIA director David Petraeus is out after a sex scandal, and former congressman Ray Lahood, the current secretary of transportation, is expected to depart next year.
Both Hagel's office and the White House declined to comment on Hagel's potential nomination.
But former Senate staffer Steve Clemons, now editor-at-large at the Atlantic, said that Obama would be smart to pick Hagel.
"Hagel hides his keen understanding of complex strategic realities beneath an every-guy, aw-shucks veneer. He is one of the shrewdest, most well-informed, experienced national security hands who has served as a major force in GOP land in the legislative branch," Clemons said. "Hagel has been feeding tough-love messages to Obama for some time on the Middle East, on Russia, on China, on the design and missions of the armed forces and the intelligence ecosystem surrounding them."
Hagel and Obama have been close since Obama was a candidate for president. His wife Lilibet endorsed Obama in 2008 and Hagel traveled with candidate Obama to Iraq that summer, along with Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI). If selected, Hagel would bring his independent streak into an administration that looks increasingly packed with Obama loyalists, as compared to the "team of rivals" Obama surrounded himself with in 2009, which included outsiders like Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his primary campaign adversary.
"He is not a yes man," Clemons said. "[Obama and Hagel] have maintained a disciplined, honest relationship about real issues. Picking Hagel means Obama is not going to sit on his laurels for round two of his presidency."
The fact that Hagel is being vetted does not ensure that he will be nominated for any job, but it adds his name to a short list of those being considered for top-level national security positions.
Sen. John Kerry's name has also been floated for defense secretary. Inside the Pentagon, most believe the job will go to Deputy Secretary Ash Carter or former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy.
Kerry is also said to be in contention for the secretary of state job, but the consensus among administration watchers is that the White House's vigorous defense of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice in the face of harsh criticisms from several GOP senators indicates that the president intends to pick Rice to replace Clinton in Foggy Bottom.
Rice has been on Capitol Hill this week meeting with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Susan Collins (R-ME), almost all of whom declared they were more inclined to oppose Rice's potential nomination after meeting with her. Many in Congress are expecting a secretary of state nomination to come as early as this week.
Collins said Wednesday that Rice's answers to questions regarding the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi had an "eerie echo" of the twin attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, when Rice was assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
"Those bombings in 1998 resulted in the loss of life of 12 Americans as well as many other foreign nationals, and 4,000 people were injured," Collins told reporters today. "And what troubles me so much is that the Benghazi attacks echoes the attacks on those embassies in 1998 when Susan Rice was head of the African region for our State Department. ... She had to be aware of the general threat assessment and of the ambassadors' request for more security."
If the White House decides not to nominate Rice, some observers speculate, Rice could be appointed national security advisor, a position that requires no Senate confirmation. If that were to occur, current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon could be promoted to be White House chief of staff to replace Jack Lew, who is rumored to be in contention to become Treasury secretary.
Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, who could also replace Donilon, could be moved over the Foggy Bottom as the new deputy secretary of state should Rice move to the White House. That maneuver would allow McDonough to receive a promotion while keeping a close Obama confidant roaming the halls of Foggy Bottom.
Current Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns is rumored to be in contention to replace Rice as U.N. ambassador. Other names that have been floated for that post include Vice President Joe Biden's national security advisor Tony Blinken, White House advisor Samantha Power, and former Congressman Howard Berman.
CHARLOTTE - Following a tumultuous and embarrassing episode Wednesday in which the Democratic National Committee suddenly altered its platform to embrace Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, top Democrats are pointing fingers in every direction.
After defending their decision to keep language on final status issues out of the platform all morning Wednesday, convention leaders reversed themselves Wednesday afternoon and proposed two amendments to the platform adopted on Tuesday, one to add a mention of God and one to add a mention of Jerusalem. That decision followed a full day of pressure brought on the DNC and the administration by lawmakers, AIPAC, and other Jewish elected officials in Charlotte.
"Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel. The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations. It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths," the new platform language states.
An Obama campaign official told The Cable late Wednesday that the change in platform was made to reflect the personal views of the president, who believes that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and who "personally intervened" to ask for the platform change. The official explanation is that the omission of the Jerusalem line was an oversight by platform drafting staff, even though people involved in the drafting said Wednesday that the omission was intentional, as a means of avoiding discussing final-status issues altogether.
"There's a difference between running for president and governing," an official involved in the process told The Cable Wednesday. "And when you govern on this issue, the official position of the United States has been for years and from administrations of both parties that the status of Jerusalem is a final-status issue."
By Thursday morning, top campaign officials took to the airwaves to point fingers at the platform drafters in an attempt to deflect responsibility from the DNC and the Obama campaign leadership.
DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the omission was a "technical error" during the drafting process. David Axelrod blamed the controversy of the Israel platform on unspecified "others" on whom the president was depending to draft the platform and said that Obama had asked for the platform change when he became aware of the issue.
The campaign did not respond to a request for comment on who the "others" were, but it's been well reported that the two officials given the responsibility for overseeing the drafting of the Israel platform plank in July and August were Obama campaign national security advisor co-chair and former Pentagon official Colin Kahl and former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler.
The Cable asked Kahl Thursday whether the campaign was unfairly pointing fingers at him and Wexler in an attempt to deflect blame on the issue. He didn't directly address the question, but said the drafters never meant to say that Jerusalem was not the capital of Israel.
"I don't think there was any intention by the drafters to signal any change in U.S. policy. Clearly, it was misinterpreted that way. So the president intervened to correct the record and they changed the platform," he said. "We are where we are. We should move on. The platform is changed."
Kahl also defended the overall platform plank on Israel, which he said focused on the security and financial assistance the Obama administration has given to Israel and avoided getting into any final-status issues.
"Nobody can read the Democratic platform on Israel and come away with the sense that it's not pro-Israel. It's extraordinarily pro-Israel. More importantly, the administration has been supportive of Israel in an unprecedented manner," he said.
Wexler staunchly defended the original platform language in an interview with The Cable Wednesday and staunchly defended the new platform language in an interview today. He said that the party's position on Jerusalem never wavered.
"The position of the Democratic Party has always been that Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel. I have a 13-year voting record in Congress that is consistent with that," he said. "It's the same platform; now it's got two more sentences. The original language was all pro-Israel language. Now it has the language on Jerusalem, too. I'm glad they did that. The policy hadn't changed. There was confusion, and the president wanted to clear it up. It was as simple as that."
Some people involved in the discussions over the issue here
in Charlotte were upset by what they saw as Kahl and Wexler's poor handling of
the issue, both before the convention and after the platform became a
controversy in Charlotte.
"Colin Kahl and Bob Wexler bear personal responsibility for the platform debacle and the embarrassment caused to the president and the party," said one source involved in the back and forth over the platform change. "They led a secretive, exclusionary process, rather than an inclusive one, recklessly threw out the longstanding platform language, and then attempted to cover their tracks by misleading stakeholders about what they had done and with whom they had consulted."
One Democratic official directly involved in the platform-drafting process rejected that criticism and argued that AIPAC and other critics could have weighed in on the Israel plank of the platform at the time.
"To say that any one or two people were responsible for the language on Israel in the Democratic Party platform is flat wrong," the official said. "This platform was adopted by a committee of over 100 representatives, and numerous advocacy groups had the opportunity to formally participate in the process. It's wrong to point fingers at one or two people, both of whom have been steadfast supporters of Israel and have worked to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship while inside government and out."
At a series of events in Charlotte Wednesday, lawmakers and Jewish elected officials from around the country pressured the administration to do something to sort out the flap. Buzzfeed reported that a full third of the Senate Democratic caucus pressed top officials including White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew and former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy on the issue at a Wednesday lunch hosted by AIPAC.
One Democratic senator told The Cable that he had only become aware of the flap on Wednesday and immediately raised objections to the platform omissions with the administration. Multiple sources told The Cable that several lawmakers pressed the White House directly Wednesday, including Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Shelley Berkley (D-NV), Steve Israel (D-NY), Eliot Engel (D-NY), and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
AIPAC also decided Wednesday to go public about its objections to the platform after Democratic officials said on background that AIPAC had signed off on the original platform, a claim AIPAC strongly denied.
Delegates inside the convention hall Wednesday evening told The Cable they were happy with the platform change, if for no other reason that it would end the controversy over what they believed was a non-issue.
"If those simple changes are going to make people feel more comfortable with our platform and allow us to be more inclusive, than that's what we need to do," said Emily Mixter, a Michigan delegate.
Jeremy Moss, an alternate delegate from Michigan, said the change was needed to assure delegates the policy hadn't changed.
"I'm a Jewish elected official, and this was an important part of the platform that was included in years past," he said. "They excluded language that was in the platform in years prior, which is something that I didn't understand."
Rod Smith, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, told The Cable that there's no contradiction between a party platform that states Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and an administration policy that refused to recognize it.
"The administration's policy is what has been a bipartisan policy, which is that this is an issue to be decided between the parties. So are we going to dictate this? Of course not. But do we prefer Jerusalem as the capital? Of course we do," he said.
Smith also commented on the perception that the crowd inside the hall did not actually vote in favor of the new platform plank but the convention heads ignored the crowd and declared that two-thirds of delegates had voted for it.
"I've taken some voice votes and I've received some voice votes, and I can tell you it's in the ear of the beholder," he said. "I've been at a lot of conventions. Something will always spring up. It never fails. Something on the floor surprises you. That will never stop."
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Former World Bank President Bob Zoellick has begun work as the head of national security transition planning for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, causing an uproar inside the campaign's foreign-policy advisory team and spawning concern in parts of the greater Republican foreign-policy establishment.
Zoellick, who already moved to Boston to take up a position at Harvard University, is the new head of the team planning national-security appointments in a potential Romney administration, four advisors to the campaign told The Cable. The campaign officially declined to comment on what is known internally as the "Readiness Project," led by Mike Leavitt, former Health and Human Services Secretary under George W. Bush. But several advisors said that top campaign officials are working hard behind the scenes to assuage Republican concerns both inside and outside the campaign about what Zoellick's new and important role would mean for them, for Romney's foreign-policy identity, and for the potential next administration.
The chief complaint among critics is that Zoellick, who served as deputy secretary of state under Bush before being appointed to head the World Bank, is a foreign-policy realist who has seemed too friendly toward China and, as a disciple of former Secretary of State James Baker, not friendly enough toward Israel. Romney's vows to be tougher on China and closer to the Israeli government are key pillars of his foreign-policy platform.
"Bob Zoellick couldn't be more conservative in the branch of the GOP he represents," said Danielle Pletka, vice president at the American Enterprise Institute. "He's pro-China to the point of mania, he's an establishment guy, he's a trade-first guy. He's basically a George H.W. Bush, old-school Republican."
Zoellick declined to comment for this story, but some say he has a reputation for butting heads with others in the GOP national security community, including his former boss Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, two officials often mooted as potential cabinet picks in a Romney administration.
"There aren't too many people who can bring together Condi Rice and John Bolton, but they were united in their dislike of Bob Zoellick," one Romney foreign-policy advisor said. Both Rice and Bolton did not respond to requests for comment.
Zoellick's selection to the new job, which will ramp up after Labor Day when the Romney transition team opens up an office in Washington, caused severe blowback within the campaign's policy team. That team is filled with experts and former officials who disagree with one other and are unhappy with the process run by policy director Lanhee Chen and foreign-policy coordinator Alex Wong. But the Zoellick choice had several advisors up in arms to the point where the political leadership of the campaign went into damage-control mode.
"Mitt Romney's made clear that he has conservative views on foreign policy and defense and those aren't the views of Pragmatic Bob," one campaign foreign-policy advisor who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the issue told The Cable. "I've been reassured that this is walled off from policy, but he's an aggressive guy and he has his sights on being secretary of state, so there is obviously suspicion among people who were close to Romney before he was the presumptive nominee."
The idea that Zoellick will be not be involved in setting campaign policy before the election is central to the campaign's internal argument for keeping him in his new post. Several sources close to the campaign told The Cable that Chen and other top campaign officials have been calling Republican experts and former officials to assure them that Zoellick's role will be firewalled off from the campaign's other activities and will only focus on what happens after Romney's inauguration.
"Zoellick has no influence in the campaign and his appointment really means nothing for anything that happens over the next two and a half months in terms of the campaign," Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol told The Cable. "Bob Zoellick is an extremely able guy who is willing to do this and that's great. The enemies of Zoellick are scared it means something big, but I think it's being way overblown."
Inside the campaign, foreign-policy hands aren't so sure. They say that Zoellick is an extremely ambitious Washington insider who badly wants to run the show in Foggy Bottom. Zoellick reached out to several campaigns during the primaries, even when he was still head of the World Bank, only cozying up to Romney senior staffers once it became apparent the former Massachusetts governor would get the nomination.
"Senior advisers to the campaign are at pains to argue that his role will be ministerial," wrote the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin in a blog post Wednesday. "For foreign policy hawks, Zoellick is an anathema."
Several advisors told The Cable that Brian Hook, former foreign-policy advisor to Tim Pawlenty, will be Zoellick's deputy on the Romney national-security transition team.
Zoellick's critics are still struggling to process what his reemergence as a key player means. But many say that the Romney campaign's apparent lack of awareness and preparedness for the blowback shows that top advisors are still giving short shrift to national security issues.
"It's quite possible they did this without any thought to what that meant," one outside advisor to the campaign told The Cable. "I'm not sure if they had any clue what the reaction would be from everybody."
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America's lawmakers skipped town last week for a five-week recess, leaving several important national security agenda items on the table.
Most, if not all of them, are expected to be ignored until after the election, meaning it could be months before Congress takes action.
Some of the stalled agenda items could be tacked in the short September session, aides say, but most will be left until the lame-duck session in December. And depending on who wins the presidency and which party controls the Senate, several items could be scuttled from the congressional calendar all together.
Here are the top five foreign-policy issues Congress punted on before leaving Washington:
Russia trade and human rights
The House didn't even try to take up two time-sensitive Russia-related bills before leaving town: a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and a bill to sanction Russian human rights violators, named after dead Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
The trade bill is particularly time-sensitive because Russia is set to join the World Trade Organization later this month. Unless Congress grants Russia PNTR status, advocates of the bill warn, U.S. businesses won't be able to take advantage. House Republicans are leery of passing a bill that seems to some like a gift to Russia, although Democrats and the administration argue that the bill does more for the U.S. economy than it does for Russia.
The human rights bill, which would replace an antiquated 1974 law called Jackson-Vanik, is meant to be the sugar that makes the medicine go down sweet for Republicans. But due to GOP anger about Russian actions in Syria and the opposition of House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), House leaders are having trouble corralling the votes for the trade bill, even if the human rights bill is attached.
Look for the business community to ratchet up pressure on Congress to act on the trade bill throughout August. Senate aides, noting that the House must go first on the PNTR bill, predict that House leaders' interest in not offending the business community will trump the awkwardness of passing a trade bill with Russia just before the election. The Senate Finance and Foreign Relations Committees have already approved both bills, so if the House does its part, Senate passage is sure to follow.
One kink in the works could be that the House version of the Magnitsky bill applies only to Russia, whereas the Senate version was broadened to apply to human rights violators throughout the world. The administration supports the Senate version because it is less provocative to the Russians. But for House leaders like Ros-Lehtinen, that defeats the purpose.
National security nominations
The Senate managed to clear a bunch of national security nominations before leaving town, but left a few top jobs behind. Unless Congress acts in September, the United States will have no ambassador in Iraq or Pakistan until after the elections. If Mitt Romney wins in November, all U.S. ambassadors will be given their pink slips and replaced, so it may seem trivial to appoint envoys who might only serve a few months. But the situations in Iraq and Pakistan could not be more sensitive, and most experts agree that U.S. national security interests are harmed by not having an ambassador at the helm of those huge and important embassies.
For Iraq, the administration is not likely to nominate anyone before the election, having learned a brutal lesson when several GOP senators successfully worked to scuttle the confirmation of Obama's original choice for the post, former NSC staffer Brett McGurk. McGurk's nomination was dead in the water when his e-mail exchange with a reporter in Baghdad (who later became his wife) was made public, but senators expressed other concerns about his qualifications for the post as well.
Some in the State Department tell The Cable that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants to appoint Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford to the post, but the White House doesn't want to take him off of the Syria account just yet. Other rumored candidates include the DCM in Baghdad Robert Beecroft and the current U.S. ambassador in Jordan Stu Jones. But there's no time to vet and confirm someone in the six legislative days in September, so the world's largest embassy will probably remain leaderless until 2013.
Obama's nominee to be envoy to Pakistan, Richard Olson, has a fair chance of getting confirmed in September. His nomination is currently held up by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who wants Pakistan to release the doctor who helped the CIA get Osama bin Laden. There's little chance the Pakistani courts will respond to Paul, so his hold will prove useless and will probably be lifted under pressure next month.
The Senate also failed to confirm Carlos Pasqual to be an assistant secretary of state in the energy bureau. That hold relates to congressional angst over the "Fast and Furious scandal," which unfolded while Pasqual was ambassador to Mexico. That issue isn't going away any time soon, so Pascqual will probably have to hold on to his "acting assistant secretary" title for a while.
Law of the Sea Treaty
Republicans senators boasted last month that they had collected enough votes to kill the Law of the Sea Treaty, an international convention that sets rules of the road for navigation, mineral, oil, and mining disputes in international waters. The drive to ratify the treaty is a major pet project of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), some say as a quasi-audition for the Secretary of State job. But the treaty remains opposed by entrenched senators in the GOP caucus, led by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who sees the treaty as yielding American sovereignty.
The Navy supports the treaty because it codifies international navigation practices it is already observing, and business leaders are pushing for ratification because they believe it gives them added leverage to bargain for rights to resources under the oceans. The plan had been to push for ratification in the lame-duck session, as was done in 2010 for the New START treaty with Russia. But this treaty is still a long way from being fully vetted, Republican opponents are confident they have enough votes to stop ratification, and the lame-duck session is already jammed full of urgent tax and economic bills. Moreover, if Democrats hold the Senate, Inhofe is likely to succeed Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, dealing LOST another perhaps fatal blow.
Defense and State Department authorizations
The defense authorization is the perennial and quintessential "must-pass" bill, as no Congress wants to stand accused of failing to support the troops during wartime, so there's a healthy confidence on Capitol Hill that the legislation will get done this calendar year. But the bill won't get done this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, because unlike most legislation these days, senators usually get to offer amendments to the defense authorization and thus the bill requires days of precious floor time. Last year, Congress cleared the bill in late December and that looks like the plan for this year as well.
The bill recommends but does not set funding levels for the military -- the money is actually allocated by the appropriations bill -- but there are still controversial issues in the authorization bill that will require attention. Last year's debate focused on the bill's language authorizing the president to indefinitely detain terror suspects, a fight that is still ongoing in the courts. Last year's bill also included new sanctions on Iran. This year, the fight will be over provisions of the version the House passed in May that provide for indefinite detention, reject some administration cuts to weapons programs, and seek to prevent same-sex marriage ceremonies in the military.
The impending cuts to both defense and entitlement spending mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 have become a hot-button issue in the presidential campaign. And we know what that means: no compromises before the election. For Republicans, the administration's reluctance to negotiate to avoid approximately $54 billion in cuts to the Pentagon's budget that are set to go into effect in January feeds into in their argument that the president is weak on national defense. Democrats, meanwhile, argue that the cuts can only be avoided if Republicans agree to increase revenues.
After the election, three possible scenarios will likely emerge. If Obama wins and the Democrats hold the Senate, they will be able to claim a mandate and popular support for a deal that includes revenues as well as spending cuts to avoid sequestration. If Romney wins, having promised to hold the line on cuts, the Senate will be hard pressed to implement the sequestration bargain no matter which party holds the gavel. If Obama wins and the Republicans take over the Senate, no deal is likely and the cuts could actually go into effect, beginning what would surely be a period of increased and even more acrimonious gridlock regarding national security on Capitol Hill.
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Republican candidate Mitt Romney's policy on the future of U.S.-led war in Afghanistan war is unclear and confusing, complicating attempts to either support or criticize it during the campaign, according to leading senators from both parties.
On Romney's website, the campaign criticizes President Barack Obama for announcing a "timetable" for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and accuses the administration of placing politics over the advice of military commanders by withdrawing 30,000 surge troops by September.
"Gov. Romney supports the 2014 timetable as a realistic timetable and a residual force post-2014. But he would not have announced that timetable publicly, as President Obama did, as doing so encourages the Taliban to wait us out and our allies to hedge their bets," a Romney campaign spokesperson told The Cable.
But when it comes to what a President Romney would do differently from Obama on Afghanistan if and when he became president, the details remain sketchy.
"Mitt Romney will never make national-security decisions based upon electoral politics," the campaign website reads. "Upon taking office, he will review our transition to the Afghan military by holding discussions with our commanders in the field. He will order a full interagency assessment of our military and assistance presence in Afghanistan to determine the level required to secure our gains and to train Afghan forces to the point where they can protect the sovereignty of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban. Withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan under a Romney administration will be based on conditions on the ground as assessed by our military commanders."
Last week, The Cable asked several senior senators from both parties whether they supported Romney's plan for Afghanistan. None was able to articulate exactly what that policy is or what the U.S. force in Afghanistan might look like if Romney is elected.
"What is it?" said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a Romney supporter and senior member of the Armed Services Committee. "I think [Romney's policy is] ‘listen to the commanders' and if it's that, that's OK with me."
Graham agreed with Romney's criticism of Obama's plan to withdraw the 30,000 surge troops by September, which means the bulk of them will not be around for this summer's fighting season. But overall, Graham supports the Obama plan to adhere to a 2014 deadline for handing over control to the Afghans while keeping a significant U.S. troop presence there afterwards.
"Generally speaking, the only problem I have with President Obama is the acceleration of the withdrawal of the surge forces," Graham said.
Graham wants Romney to publicly endorse a continued U.S. force presence in Afghanistan after the full handover of power in 2014. Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in May signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement that would extend the presence of U.S. troops another 10 years, an agreement Graham helped to negotiate.
"I hope Romney will tell the American people that we are going to have a follow-on force in Afghanistan." Graham said. "It's in our interest to do it."
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) said he wasn't sure exactly what Romney's Afghanistan policy entailed and didn't want to get into it.
"You would have to tell me what exactly you mean by ‘his policy.' That's a long discussion that I don't want to get into," Kyl told The Cable.
Part of the challenge for the Romney team is that Republican voters are split on Afghanistan, with 48 percent supporting withdrawing all troops as soon as possible and nearly as many, 45 percent, supporting leaving a follow-on force there until the country is stabilized. The electorate as a whole favors bringing the troops home quickly (60 percent) over keeping troops there longer (32 percent).
"These numbers point to Romney's political bind," wrote James Lindsey, vice president of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an online commentary. "He has talked tough on Afghanistan ever since last June, when Republican national security conservatives blasted him for what they saw as his insufficient commitment to the mission there. Romney responded with much tougher rhetoric even though the policies he favors look a lot like Obama's."
For the Obama team and for Senate Democrats, Romney's apparent unwillingness to get more specific on Afghanistan represents a good opportunity to call into question his foreign-policy bona fides and present Obama as tougher on national security because he has committed to another decade of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"Without getting into the campaign rhetoric of what [Romney]'s asserting, I think you've got 50 nations in NATO that agree to a plan in Afghanistan," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on ABC's This Week in May. "It's the Lisbon agreement, an agreement that, you know, others, President Bush, President Obama, everyone has agreed is the direction that we go in Afghanistan."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable that the issue is just one more example of the Romney campaign avoiding tackling tough issues.
"I sure don't know what [Romney's Afghanistan policy] is," Levin said. "From what I've read, I can't fathom his position on Afghanistan any more than I can fathom his position on a whole bunch of other things."
"I don't know that he's flip-flopped on Afghanistan. I don't know that he's ever taken a clear position. It's not like some of the other positions he's so consistently flip-flopped on," Levin said. "Here, I don't know what the flip is or the flop."
Technology and information penetration in China will eventually force the Great Firewall of China to crumble and even lead to the political opening of the Chinese system, according to Google Chairman Eric Schmidt.
Schmidt, who stepped down as Google's CEO last year, remains the head of Google's board and its chief spokesman. He roams the planet speaking to audiences and exploring countries where Google could expand its operations. He has been called Google's "Ambassador to the World," a moniker he doesn't promote but doesn't dispute. He sat down for a long interview with The Cable on the sidelines of the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival last week.
"I believe that ultimately censorship fails," said Schmidt, when asked about whether the Chinese government's censorship of the Internet can be sustained. "China's the only government that's engaged in active, dynamic censorship. They're not shy about it."
When the Chinese Internet censorship regime fails, the penetration of information throughout China will also cause political and social liberalization that will fundamentally change the nature of the Chinese government's relationship to its citizenry, Schmidt believes.
"I personally believe that you cannot build a modern knowledge society with that kind of behavior, that is my opinion," he said. "I think most people at Google would agree with that. The natural next question is when [will China change], and no one knows the answer to that question. [But] in a long enough time period, do I think that this kind of regime approach will end? I think absolutely."
The push for information freedom in China goes hand in hand with the push for economic modernization, according to Schmidt, and government-sponsored censorship hampers both.
"We argue strongly that you can't build a high-end, very sophisticated economy... with this kind of active censorship. That is our view," he said.
The Chinese government is the most active state sponsor of cyber censorship and cyber espionage in the world, with startling effectiveness, Schmidt said. Google and Beijing have been at odds since 2010, when the company announced it would no longer censor search terms on Google.cn and moved the bulk of its Chinese operations to Hong Kong. That move followed a series of Gmail attacks in 2010, directed at Chinese human rights activists, which were widely suspected to be linked to the Chinese government.
More recently, Google has taken an aggressive approach to helping users combat government cyber censorship, by doing things such as warning Gmail users when Google suspects their accounts are being targeted by state-sponsored attacks and telling users when search terms they enter are likely to be rejected by Chinese government censorship filters.
Schmidt doesn't present Google's focus on state-sponsored cyber oppression as a fight between Google and China. Google's policy is focused on helping users understand what is happening to their accounts and giving them the tools to protect themselves, he explained.
"We believe in empowering people who care about freedom of expression," he said. "The evidence today is that Chinese attacks are primarily industrial espionage.... It's primarily trade secrets that they're trying to steal, and then the human rights issues, that obviously they're trying to violate people's human rights. So those are the two things that we know about, but I'm sure that there will be others."
Google still has hundreds of engineers working inside China and maintains a rapidly growing advertising business there. But the Chinese government is likewise doing a lot to make using Google difficult inside China. There are weeks when Gmail services run slow; then mysteriously, the service will begin running smoothly again, Schmidt said. The Chinese censors sometimes issue punitive timeouts to users who enter prohibited search terms. And YouTube, which is owned by Google, is not visible in China.
"It's probably the case where the Chinese government will continue to make it difficult to use Google services," said Schmidt. "The conflict there is at some basic level: We want that information [flowing] into China, and at some basic level the government doesn't want that to happen."
Meanwhile, Schmidt has been circling the globe looking for ways to expand Google's outer frontiers. His last international trip took him to four conflict or recently post-conflict states: Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, and Tunisia.
"I've become particularly interested in the expansion of Google in sort of wacky countries -- you know, countries that have problems," he said. "You can't really know stuff unless you travel and see it. It helps with your impressions and your judgment."
Schmidt believes that smartphone technology can have a revolutionary effect on how people in the developing world operate and he is researching how smartphone use can help fight corruption and bad governance in poor countries. He also sees Google's expansion into the emerging markets as a timely business move.
"The evidence is that the most profitable business in most countries initially is the telecom sector. The joke is that you know the Somali pirates have to use cellphones, and so the strongest and most fastest-growing legal business in Somalia is the telecom industry," he said.
The revolutions of the Arab Spring show that open information systems can encourage and enable political change, according to Schmidt.
"I think that the countries that we're talking about all had very active censorship regimes, and they failed to censor the Internet. They wired the phone systems, the television was controlled, the newspapers were controlled; it was very hard to find genuinely new dissident voices except on the Internet. So you can think of what happened there as a failure to fully censor, and so it's obvious why we feel so strongly about openness and transparency," he said.
Unlike in China, Google has taken a more active role in other parts of the world by developing tools to spread information that could be used to foster more active democracies, such as with its project to organize and disseminate election information and political candidate data in places like Egypt.
"We're helping with the elections. So we're trying to help them with getting information to the candidates, and these are countries where Google is central to the public sphere," Schmidt said.
Google is also expanding its role in compiling data on government actors and their actions to aid people in the fight against corruption, but here Schmidt warns that only when there is a legal system to prosecute bad actors will this data be transformative.
"You need the data, and then you need somebody who's willing to prosecute the person who lies," he said. "All you have to do is have the information and then the penalty that has to be applied in a fair way, and it would change these countries dramatically."
Information is not enough to topple regimes, but in the end, regimes that fight the openness of information are doomed to fail, he said.
"The worst case scenario is the citizens have enormous information and the government is completely unresponsive. That would be Iran, for example. At some point, that's unstable," said Schmidt. "At some point, it gets worse ... but before they overthrow the current leader, they have to have the information to do that. That's why transparency matters."
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
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."
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The Pentagon's new budget request moves $3 billion of military pay and benefits out of the base budget into the war budget in an accounting maneuver experts and congressional staffers say is meant to get around legally mandated budget caps and bolster the administration's plan to cut the size of the Army and Marines.
According to the military personnel section of the Pentagon's fiscal 2013 budget request, released Feb. 13, the cost of pay and benefits for the military next year will go down by $6 billion in the "base budget," which is meant to fund the ongoing costs not related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in the war-funding section of the budget request, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, next year's request for military personnel goes up by $3 billion, even though the actual costs of paying for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan would have no reason to rise as the United States withdraws.
What the Pentagon did was simply to move $3 billion from its regular budget to the war budget, where it does not count against the discretionary spending caps put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and where it does not count against the deficit.
It's a $3 billion accounting trick that allows the Pentagon to wiggle out of the spending caps by manipulating the war budgets, as it has done for years, said Gordon Adams, the former head of national security budgeting at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration, now a professor at American University.
"It's just too much temptation to resist," he said. "Just a little budgetary slight of hand, as DOD tries to create pockets of room for things shrinking budgets make it hard to afford. We've been pouring programs back and forth between the OCO account and the base [budget] for a decade."
Overall, military personnel spending in 2012 totaled $141.8 billion in the base budget and $11.3 billion in the war budget. In the fiscal 2013 request, the Pentagon is asking for $135.1 billion in the base budget and $14.1 billion in the war budget for the same accounts.
Adams said the administration is acting as if its recently released strategy, which would cut the size of the Army and Marines by 67,100 and 15,200 troops, respectively, has already been implemented. The actual troop reductions would take three years to complete and face stiff opposition in Congress, but the administration is trying to cut their pay and benefits out of the base budget now.
"It means pocketing savings from reducing the size of the force by taking them early in the base budget, while the force is only shrinking over three years," he said. "The administration clearly intends to cut end strength by 2015, but scoop out room in the base budget by the slight of hand of jiving the continuing payroll costs over into the war budget."
The accounting manuever does track the amount of money that would be saved by cutting the number of troops in the Army and Marines, as the new strategy envisions. In fiscal 2012 Army personal costs totaled about $53 billion, with about $7 billion in the OCO account. For fiscal 2013, the Pentagon is requesting $52 billion, but this time, $9.4 billion is in the OCO section of the budget.
For the Marines, the fiscal 2013 OCO budget request for military personnel would result in an increase of about $1 billion.
In response to questions from The Cable, Pentagon spokesman George Little confirmed that troops above the level envisioned in the new strategy would now be funded in the war budget, but he disputed that this was an abuse of the war budgeting mechanism or an accounting trick.
"Now that we have clearly identified a long-term end state level for our ground forces, we can more clearly delineate the cost of our current forces in excess of that level, and as a result we do have more funding budgeted for personnel in FY2013 in OCO than we did in FY2012... That is completely consistent with, not an abuse of, the concept of using OCO funds to budget for costs you would not be incurring were it not for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Little.
"People cost what they cost, and the total cost of all Army and Marine Corps personnel, base and OCO combined, is what it is. Even if someone takes issue with our categorization of those costs between the base and OCO budgets, our request to Congress is a comprehensive one that includes both base and OCO funds," Little said. "We are not hiding the costs, either in the base budget or the OCO side. The total size of the defense budget request is not affected by the categorization of these costs."
For military staffers on Capitol Hill, especially those gearing up to fight the troop cuts when Congress tackles the Pentagon budget, the administration is trying to have it both ways by playing games with the money and by shrinking the force in a way that can't easily be reversed.
"The real world requires a large force to meet insurgent threats on the ground -- the defense strategy only has room for a small force to deter neatly drawn challenges. The temporary answer seems to be to push the troops you need and the real conflict you are fighting off the books into OCO," one GOP congressional aide close to the issue said.
"Should the president decide to accelerate withdrawal from Afghanistan, there won't be room to pay for these troops in the base budget. Future presidents will pay for that folly in the years to come, but the troops who get shoved prematurely into the unemployment line will have to pay for it much sooner."
The Russian government is following the path of the deposed regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar al-Qaddafi and is setting itself up for a fall from power, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in an exclusive interview with The Cable.
"You need to listen to what Russian leaders themselves are saying. They say ‘We are not Libya, we are not Egypt, Russia will not go down this road,'" Saakashvili said. "I've heard that from other leaders before. I heard it from Soviet leaders. And once you start saying those things it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and then you start to do certain things and to not allow certain things, and those are exactly the kind of actions that promote further sliding down this road [toward losing power]."
Not only is Russia denying the desires of its own people by suppressing protests and real democracy, it is now leading the opposition to the wave of popular revolutions that the world witnessed over the past year, said the Georgian president, who fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008. The latest and greatest example, he said, is Russia's support for the brutal Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad.
"Syria stands as a symbol," Saakashvili said. "[The Russians] fully identify themselves with Libya but they thought that in Libya they were a fooled into action. And now with Syria they think that if Syria falls, it's the last bastion before Moscow. And this is exactly the kind of attitude that will bring problems closer home to Moscow. It's not going to help Syria in any way, but it's certainly damaging Russia a lot."
The anticipated return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency later this year is significant because his term will be marked by opposition to real reform both inside and outside Russia, Saakashvili said.
"Unlike Westerners who think in terms of superficial symbols that he's returning, the middle class in Moscow knew that he never went away," said Saakashvili. "It's not about returning Putin to the presidency, it's about what he said. And what he said was ‘I'm returning because I should stop any attempt to reform and crack down on any mode of reform,' and that's what the middle class in Russia heard."
U.S. engagement with Moscow is useful and efforts to continue the "reset" policy should continue, but all the signals from Russia indicate that it is returning to a pre-reset policy, the Georgian president added. He made the case that Russia showed real flexibility during its drive to get into the World Trade Organization in 2011, but now that it has achieved that goal, its attitude has reverted to one of confrontation.
One example is Russia's constantly stoking the rumor that the United States is planning to deploy missile defense elements to Georgia, something Saakashvili said simply isn't true.
"Vladimir Putin is talking about this all the time. Either he is strongly misguided or he's looking for reasons to say nasty things," he said.
Just minutes before his interview with The Cable, speaking in front of a packed audience in the sparkling new auditorium of the United States Institute of Peace headquarters in Washington, Saakashvili contrasted the reactions of Russia and Turkey to the Arab Spring.
"Two radical different attitudes have emerged, offered by two specific regional powers. On one hand, the Russian Federation reacted with outrage and panic to the Arab Spring and tries to do anything they can to prevent any international support to the democracy movements anywhere. On the other hand, Turkey asserts itself as the model for the post revolutionary countries," he said.
"On the one hand, the government of Vladimir Putin desperately tries to hold back the progress of history. On the other hand, the government of Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan tries to embrace the revolutions of the world. Two very different prime ministers," he said. "It's not a coincidence that Russian influence is decreasing while Turkish leadership is growing in the region every day."
Saakashvili also talked about Georgia's struggles following its separation from the Soviet empire, and the lessons he might offer to new governments undergoing similar difficulties.
"Georgia's experience does not provide a transferable model for many countries that have known or will sooner or later know progressive uprising. There was no freedom textbook for us, and no textbook for our friends was ever written. The real revolution occurs after the cameras from CNN, BBC, and the others have left the country. It consists of the long and difficult process of reform that follows," he said.
"This is a lesson and a message of hope. There is no future for global powers playing against the will of their own people."
The Cable also asked Saakashvili for his opinion of actor Andy Garcia's portrayal of him in the movie Five Days of War, the 2011 film about the Russian-Georgian conflict.
"I only saw parts of it, but what I know is that my English was a little better than his and that was very reassuring," he said.
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images
President George W. Bush's administration concluded that a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would be a bad idea -- and would only make it harder to prevent Iran from going nuclear in the future, former CIA and National Security Agency (NSA) chief Gen. Michael Hayden said Thursday.
"When we talked about this in the government, the consensus was that [attacking Iran] would guarantee that which we are trying to prevent -- an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret," Hayden told a small group of experts and reporters at an event hosted by the Center for the National Interest.
Hayden served as director of the NSA from 1999 to 2005 and then served as CIA director from 2006 until February 2009. He also had a 39-year career at the Air Force, which he ended as a four-star general.
Without an actual occupation of Iran, which nobody wants to contemplate, the Bush administration concluded that the result of a limited military campaign in Iran would be counter-productive, according to Hayden.
"What's move two, three, four or five down the board?" Hayden said, arguing that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities was only a short-term fix. "I don't think anyone is talking about occupying anything."
Hayden then said he didn't believe the Israelis could or even would strike Iran -- that only the United States has the capability to do it -- but either way, it's still a bad idea.
"The Israelis aren't going to [attack Iran] ... they can't do it, it's beyond their capacity. They only have the ability to make this [problem of Iran's nuclear program] worse. We can do a lot better," he said. "Just look at the physics, the fact that this cannot be done in a raid, this has to be done in a campaign, the fact that neither we nor they know where this stuff is. [The Israelis] can't do it, but we can."
Hayden then went into some detail about how a U.S.-led strike on Iran's nuclear facilities could be accomplished, and why it would not solve the Iranian nuclear threat. There would first be a movement of aircraft carriers into the area, Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile strikes, a diplomatic effort to get Gulf states to give access to their airspace, and "then you would pound it [with airstrikes] over a couple of weeks," Hayden explained.
But he also said that efforts to slow down the nuclear program, through mostly clandestine measures and encouraging internal dissent, is the better course of action.
"Could we go back to July 2009 and see where that could have led?" he said, referring to the Green Movement protests that raged through Iran then but ultimately failed to alter the regime's course. "It's not so much that we don't want Iran to have a nuclear capacity, it's that we don't want this Iran to have it ... Slow it down long enough and maybe the character [of the Iranian government] changes."
Hayden's comments track closely with the argument made by Colin Kahl, the recently departed head of Middle East policy at the Pentagon, who opposed a military strike on Iran in an article this week in Foreign Affairs.
"Even if a U.S. strike went as well ... there is little guarantee that it would produce lasting results," Kahl wrote. "[I]f Iran did attempt to restart its nuclear program after an attack, it would be much more difficult for the United States to stop it."
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet the Press
Obama confidant Mark Lippert has been nominated to become the Pentagon's top Asia official, but before he can be confirmed, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) wants answers on Lippert's internal feud with Gen. Jim Jones when they both worked at the National Security Council (NSC).
"In several passages of his book Obama's Wars, published in 2010, Bob Woodward discusses your official relationship with [National Security Advisor] General James L. Jones and offers a disturbing portrayal of your actions that could be described as arrogant and disloyal," McCain wrote to Lippert today, in a letter obtained by The Cable.
McCain didn't say outright that he wants to hold up the Lippert nomination, but he strongly implied that his support depends on Lippert's explanations of what went on during his tenure at the White House.
"Your actions while working at the NSC are an important indicator of your fundamental qualification to carry out the duties of the critically important position for which you have been nominated," McCain wrote.
He then listed 21 specific questions for Lippert to answer in written form, dealing with almost every juicy anecdote related to White House infighting found in Woodward's book. McCain wants to know exactly how Lippert interacted with Jones, as well as with political advisors at the White House. He also wants to know if Jones had power over Lippert -- or if it was the other way around.
More specifically, McCain wants Lippert to spell out whether any of the charges of insubordination found in Woodward's book are true, whether Lippert ever leaked to the press about Jones, and whether he tried to cut off Jones' access to President Barack Obama, as Woodward reported. McCain also wants Lippert to detail any and all conversations he may have had with Jones regarding their contentious time working together.
In one part of the letter, McCain asks Lippert to comment on Woodward's contention that Jones viewed him and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough as "major obstacles to developing and deciding on coherent national security policy."
McCain also wants Lippert to answer charges found in Woodward's book that he cut NSC Senior Coordinator for Iraq and Afghanistan Gen. Douglas Lute out of important discussions as well.
Behind the McCain inquiry might lie a bit of political revenge, however. Lippert was one of Obama's earliest and closest advisors on foreign policy, having been with Obama since his days as a senator. He was a key figure in Obama's presidential campaign, leading the foreign policy advisory team, and then served as chief of staff of the NSC, a position that had not existed in George W. Bush's administration but which Obama resurrected in 2009.
According to Woodward's book, Lippert was pushed out of the White House after an internal struggle with Jones, who blamed Lippert for a series of negative leaks to the press about Jones' mismanagement of the NSC.
"In July , Jones laid out his case to Obama and others. All seemed to agree that it was rank insubordination. Obama promised to move on Lippert," Woodward wrote. "On October 1, the day of the McChrystal speech in London, the White House press secretary issued a three-paragraph statement that Lippert was returning to active duty in the Navy. The statement made it sound as though this had been Lippert's choice. ‘I was not surprised,' Obama said in the statement, ‘when he came and told me he had stepped forward for another mobilization, as Mark is passionate about the Navy.'"
Jones was later pushed out himself, after being blamed by top White House officials for a series of his own leaks to the press about the White House's top advisors, whom he called "the water bugs, the "Politburo," "the mafia," and the "campaign set."
The Lippert nomination was an open secret in Washington as early as April, but was delayed for months. The rumor was that Defense Secretary Robert Gates did not want Lippert, a close confidant of the White House clique, burrowed inside the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
At Lippert's Nov. 17 nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain also brought up Lippert's initial opposition to the surge in Iraq, an issue that was front and center during the feisty 2008 presidential campaign between Obama and McCain.
"Mr. Lippert appears to be qualified and I praise his service in uniform. I have serious concerns regarding his nomination. At a meeting in my office I asked Mr. Lippert his views on the success of the surge in Iraq and I find his answers to be less than satisfactory," McCain said on Nov. 17.
Lippert testified at his hearing that he never leaked to the press about Jones and that his departure from the White House was due to his own personal desire to return to active duty military service.
"In terms of the press accounts, I did not leak to the press about General Jones. My departure from the White House was voluntary. I actually turned down a promotion at the White House to return to active duty," Lippert said at the hearing. "General Jones and I worked collaboratively on many issues and I'm proud of what we accomplished, but there was also times we disagreed, but I knew General Jones was the boss."
McCain pressed Lippert to admit that his departure had anything to do with Jones, but Lippert would only say that he left voluntarily after being offered a "promotion" to serve in the White House Military Affairs office.
In addition to McCain, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has also indicated he might oppose the Lippert nomination, due to Cornyn's ongoing unhappiness with the administration's refusal to sell Taiwan new F-16 fighter planes, which are built in Cornyn's home state. Cornyn had filed an amendment to the defense policy bill aimed at forcing the administration to make the sale, but that amendment was spiked this week.
For years, Iraq hearings on Capitol Hill were marked by the often disruptive presence of the anti-war group Code Pink; now their presence at hearings has been replaced by an Iranian dissident group.
About 50 supporters of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) took over the first three rows of the audience at Tuesday morning's hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the Senate Hart Office Building. The hearing was to examine President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year, and featured testimony by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Unlike the Code Pink representatives, who were famous for disrupting Senate hearings, the MEK supporters at the Hart building today sat politely in their bright yellow sweatshirts and ponchos, which had slogans printed on them calling for the State Department to take the MEK off of their list of foreign terrorist organizations -- a move that is supposedly under consideration.
We overheard one staffer at the hearing quip, "When your critics allege you are a cult, you probably shouldn't dress like one."
The MEK, whose ideology fuses Islam and Marxism, was formed in Iran in 1965. It allied itself with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and fought against the Shah and his Western backers during the Iranian Revolution. After falling out of favor with Khomeini, the group was given shelter in Iraq by Saddam Hussein, who used them to conduct brutal cross-border raids during the Iraq-Iran war.
After the fall of Saddam, the United States helped broker an agreement whereby 3,400 MEK members were confined to a complex in northeast Iraq called Camp Ashraf, protected by the U.S. military. The camp was handed over to the Iraqi government in 2009. In an interview this summer with The Cable, Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Samir Sumaida'ie said that the MEK was dangerous and "nothing more than a cult."
Since 2009, the MEK has conducted a multi-million advocacy and lobbying campaign in Washington, with the help of dozens of senior U.S. officials and lawmakers, many of whom have been paid for their involvement. The list includes Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former CIA Deputy Director of Clandestine Operations John Sano, former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, Gen. Anthony Zinni, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, former Sen. Evan Bayh, and many others.
In an August rally outside the State Department, Kennedy declared, "One of the greatest moments was when my uncle, President [John F.] Kennedy, stood in Berlin and uttered the immortal words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,'" Kennedy exclaimed. "Today, I'm honored to repeat my uncle's words, by saying [translated from Farsi] ‘I am an Iranian, I am an Ashrafi.'"
Kennedy admitted he was paid $25,000 to emcee the rally.
Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin (D-MI) called on the administration to protect the MEK from Iraqi government violence in his opening statement at the hearing.
"The status of the residents at Camp Ashraf from the Iranian dissident group MEK remains unresolved," Levin said. "As the December 2011 deadline approaches, the administration needs to remain vigilant that the Government of Iraq lives up to its commitments to provide for the safety of the Camp Ashraf residents until a resolution of their status can be reached."
"We need to make it clear to the Government of Iraq that there cannot be a repeat of the deadly confrontation begun last April by Iraqi security forces against Camp Ashraf residents," Levin said.
Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy
On Oct. 10, Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz dropped a bombshell: Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, he alleged, had offered to replace Pakistan's military and intelligence leadership and cut ties with militant groups in the wake of Osama bin Laden's killing in Abbottabad.
Ijaz also alleged in his op-ed in the Financial Times that Zardari communicated this offer by sending a top secret memo on May 10 through Ijaz himself, to be hand-delivered to Adm. Michael Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a key official managing the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. The details of the memo and the machinations Ijaz describes paint a picture of a Zardari government scrambling to save itself from an impending military coup following the raid on bin Laden's compound, and asking for U.S. support to prevent that coup before it started.
Mullen, now retired, denied this week having ever dealt with Ijaz in comments given to The Cable through his spokesman at the time, Capt. John Kirby.
"Adm. Mullen does not know Mr. Ijaz and has no recollection of receiving any correspondence from him," Kirby told The Cable. "I cannot say definitively that correspondence did not come from him -- the admiral received many missives as chairman from many people every day, some official, some not. But he does not recall one from this individual. And in any case, he did not take any action with respect to our relationship with Pakistan based on any such correspondence ... preferring to work at the relationship directly through [Pakistani Army Chief of Staff] Gen. [Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani and inside the interagency process."
Mullen's denial represents the first official U.S. comment on the Ijaz memo, which since Oct. 10 has mushroomed into a huge controversy in Pakistan. Several parts of Pakistan's civilian government denied that Ijaz's memorandum ever existed. On Oct. 30, Zardari spokesman Farhatullah Babar called Ijaz's op-ed a "fantasy article" and criticized the FT for running it in the first place.
"Mansoor Ijaz's allegation is nothing more than a desperate bid by an individual, whom recognition and credibility has eluded, to seek media attention through concocted stories," Babar said. "Why would the president of Pakistan choose a private person of questionable credentials to carry a letter to U.S. officials? Since when Mansoor has become a courier of messages of the president of Pakistan?"
On Oct. 31, Ijaz issued a long statement doubling down on his claims and threatened to reveal the "senior Pakistani official" that purportedly sent him on his mission. Ijaz quoted Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, telling Zardari and his staff, "If you stop telling lies about me, I might just stop telling the truth about you."
The Pakistani press has given credence to Ijaz's story because it was published in the Financial Times. "The FT is not likely to publish something which it cannot substantiate if it was so required, so any number of denials and clarifications by our diplomats or the presidency will only be for domestic consumption and would mean nothing," wrote one prominent Pakistani commentator.
This is only the latest time that Ijaz has raised controversy concerning his alleged role as a secret international diplomat. In 1996, he was accused of trying to extort money from the Pakistani government in exchange for delivering votes in the U.S. House of Representatives on a Pakistan-related trade provision.
Ijaz, who runs the firm Crescent Investment Management LLC in New York, has been an interlocutor between U.S. officials and foreign government for years, amid constant accusations of financial conflicts of interest. He reportedly arranged meetings between U.S. officials and former Pakistani Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.
He also reportedly gave over $1 million to Democratic politicians in the 1990s and attended Christmas events at former President Bill Clinton's White House. Ijaz has ties to former CIA Director James Woolsey and his investment firm partner is Reagan administration official James Alan Abrahamson.
In the mid-1990s, Ijaz traveled to Sudan several times and claimed to be relaying messages from the Sudanese regime to the Clinton administration regarding intelligence on bin Laden, who was living there at the time. Ijaz has claimed that his work gave the United States a chance to kill the al Qaeda leader but that the Clinton administration dropped the ball. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, who served under Clinton, has called Ijaz's allegations "ludicrous and irresponsible."
Then Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has previously acknowledged that Ijaz brought the Clinton administration offers of counterterrorism cooperation from Sudan but said that actual cooperation never materialized.
So why is Ijaz's story so popular in Pakistan, despite his long history of antagonizing the Pakistani government with such claims? According to Mehreen Zahra-Malik, who wrote about the Ijaz scandal on Oct. 29 in Pakistan's The News, it's all part of the culture of secrecy and conspiracy in Pakistani politics that the current civilian and military leadership in Islamabad has only continued to foster.
"When secrecy and conspiracy are part of the very system of government, a vicious cycle develops. Because truth is abhorrent, it must be concealed, and because it is concealed, it becomes ever more abhorrent. Having power then becomes about the very concealment of truth, and covering up the truth becomes the very imperative of power -- and the powerful," she wrote. "The end result: a population raised on a diet of conspiracy."
Attempts to reach Ijaz for comment were unsuccessful.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
GOP frontrunner Herman Cain has made a number of comments about specific foreign policy issues, but he hasn't yet spelled out his doctrine for restoring U.S. leadership abroad ... until now.
In order to fix what he referred to as America's "foreign foggy policy," Cain told a packed house at the National Press Club today that he would apply the lessons he learned as CEO reviving Godfather's Pizza to U.S. national security issues. Cain noted that Godfather's was about to go bankrupt in 1996 when he joined the organization.
"I had never made a pizza, but I learned. And the way we renewed Godfather's Pizza as a company is the same approach I would use to renew America. And that is: If you want to solve a problem, go to the source closest to the problem and ask the right questions," he said, while the audience dined on cupcakes decorated with pictures of pizzas and the numbers 9-9-9 -- a reference to his much-celebrated plan for tax reform.
Cain went into more detail, explaining that he talked with customers, young workers in the restaurants, managers, assistant managers, the office staff, franchisees, and suppliers. He asked them all why they thought Godfather's Pizza was failing as a business. He then concluded that Godfather's had lost its status as an industry leader because it had tried to do "too much with too little, too fast" -- it lost its focus.
"That's what I believe is America's problem, we have lost our focus. In order to renew that focus, we must address its most pressing problems boldly."
Cain then said his second guiding principle would be to use "foreign policy common sense," which for Cain would mean not announcing the troop withdrawals from Iraq or Afghanistan, and not "send[ing] an e-mail to the enemy about what you are going to do."
He also said he would "listen to the commanders on the ground because they are the closest to the problem." One assumes that this would be the pizza makers?
Cain preempted accusations that he lacked an understanding of U.S. foreign policy. "I don't believe you need to have extensive foreign policy experience if you know how to make sure you're working on the right problems, establishing the right priorities, surround yourself with the right people, which would allow you to put together the plans necessary to solve the problem," he said.
"We have an economic crisis, a national security crisis. We've got an energy crisis, a spending crisis, a foreign foggy policy crisis, a moral crisis, and the biggest crisis we have is a severe deficiency of leadership, in my opinion, in the White House," the GOP presidential hopeful noted. "This is why I believe we need to renew America by fixing the stuff that is broken."
Cain also said that if elected president, he would change the way America doles out foreign aid.
"We need to clarify who our friends are, clarify who our enemies are; and I happen to believe we must stop giving money to our enemies," said Cain.
The only country he identified as a "friend" was Israel. He didn't name any "enemies."
The Obama administration has now met with the North Koreans twice and appointed two new top envoys for North Korea policy, but it has not yet consulted with Capitol Hill and has no plans to seek confirmation of the two new officials.
Glyn Davies, the newly appointed special representative for North Korea policy, attended the Oct. 24 and Oct. 25 talks in Geneva with North Korean government officials, along with his predecessor, outgoing Ambassador Stephen Bosworth. But Davies, who previously served as ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will not have his title of "ambassador" carry over to his new position, because the State Department has no intention of putting him before the Senate for confirmation.
Clifford Hart is the new special envoy to the (now defunct) Six Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear program, the second-ranking U.S. diplomatic position toward North Korea. He also does not enjoy the title of ambassador, because he was not put before the Senate for confirmation. His predecessor, Sung Kim, was confirmed as ambassador to South Korea, and is now on his way to Seoul.
All of the previous top diplomats dealing with the North Korea issue were ambassadors. Robert Gallucci, Chuck Kartman, Jim Kelly, Jack Pritchard, Joe DeTrani, Chris Hill... you get the idea. Not all went through Senate confirmation for their North Korea jobs; some, like Bosworth, were able to keep their ambassador titles from previous gigs if they had reached a certain rank. Davies hasn't reached that level.
But regardless of whether Davies and Hart will actually hold the ambassador title or face a Senate confirmation process, many on Capitol Hill concerned with U.S. policy toward Northeast Asia are unhappy with the fact that neither Davies nor Hart has met with any senators, that there have been no Hill briefings on the administration's new engagement with the North Koreans, and that Senate staffers who have worked on the issue for years had to learn about the new developments through the press.
"State has not reached out to us on these appointments," one Senate aide told The Cable. "They have responded to our requests for briefings on food aid, and they have generally been responsive for briefings when we asked. But there has been no outreach at their initiative ... which helps explain, I think, why they had the House move to prohibit food aid and why they now face a lack of confidence up here, more generally, about their approach."
After multiple rounds of negotiations between The Cable and various State Department offices, State declined to give us a comment for this story.
The law doesn't require that the North Korea special envoy be confirmed. There are laws that require other envoys be confirmed, such as for the special envoy for North Korean human rights, now filled by Ambassador Bob King, and the special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, now held by Derek Mitchell.
Hill aides point out that the jobs of North Korea special representative and special envoy for the Six Party Talks came out of what's known as the Perry Process, an interagency policy review of U.S. policy toward North Korea in 1998 that was led by then-State Department counselor and now Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman.
One of the key recommendations that came out of the Perry Process was that the U.S. government should have "a small, senior-level interagency North Korea working group ... chaired by a senior official of ambassadorial rank, located in the Department of State, to coordinate policy."
Another recommendation of the Perry Process was that the administration should develop its North Korea policies on a bipartisan basis, in consultation with Capitol Hill.
"Just as no policy toward the DPRK can succeed unless it is a combined strategy of the United States and its allies, the policy review team believes no strategy can be sustained over time without the input and support of Congress," the Perry review team, led by Sherman, wrote.
So why won't the administration keep Congress in the loop on what it's doing with the North Koreans? One Asia hand in Washington told The Cable that the administration doesn't want a public debate over its North Korea engagement, which is not likely to produce dramatic results and could be a political liability in an election season.
"They're definitely avoiding going to the Hill with these guys because they're afraid of criticism and they're afraid the senators are going to use it to criticize where the policy is now," the Asia hand said. "It's all part of their management approach, where you keep everything low key and don't want everybody to know what you're doing."
Former National Security Council Senior Director for Asia Mike Green argued in an article for Foreign Policy last week that the Obama administration is downgrading the prominence of its North Korea diplomats in order to lower expectations for the new engagement, and to keep the podium away from more senior diplomats who might act more independently.
"High profile special envoys and message discipline tend not to go together, and the Obama White House is clearing the decks for a major fight for the presidency next year," Green wrote. "Lower key professionals make sense at a time when North Korea is unlikely to yield much ground."
Perhaps the administration doesn't want senators to bring up this 2008 column by the Washington Post's Al Kamen, where he reveals that Davies worked to water down language criticizing North Korea in an internal e-mail. Here's the relevant portion of the column:
So on Friday, Glyn Davies, the principal deputy assistant secretary in the East Asia bureau, sent an e-mail to Erica Barks-Ruggles, a deputy assistant secretary in the DRL bureau, regarding some changes in the introductory language of a report on North Korea.
"Erica," he wrote, "I know you are under the NSC [National Security Council] gun," apparently to get the report done so the NSC can review it, "but hope given the Secretary's priority on the Six-Party Talks, we can sacrifice a few adjectives for the cause.
"Many thanks. Glyn."
And the changes? Eliminated words are in brackets, and additions are in italics:
"The [repressive] North Korean government[regime] continued to control almost all aspects of citizens' lives, denying freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, and restricting freedom of movement and workers' rights. Reports of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and arbitrary detention, including of political prisoners, continue to emerge [from the isolated country]. Some forcibly repatriated refugees were said to have undergone severe punishment and possibly torture. Reports of public executions continued to surface[were on the rise]."
As Hemingway might have written: For Whom the Kowtows?
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.