The State Department believes that supplying any arms to the Libyan opposition to support its struggle against Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi would be illegal at the current time.
"It's very simple. In the U.N. Security Council resolution passed on Libya, there is an arms embargo that affects Libya, which means it's a violation for any country to provide arms to anyone in Libya," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Monday.
Crowley denied reports that the United States had asked Saudi Arabia to provide weapons to the Libyan opposition, and also denied that the United States would arm opposition groups absent explicit international authorization.
Pressed by reporters to clarify whether the Obama administration had any plans to give arms to any of the rebel groups in Libya, Crowley said no.
"It would be illegal for the United States to do that," he said. "It's not a legal option."
Crowley's blanket statement seemed to go further than comments on Monday by White House spokesman Jay Carney, who said, "On the issue of … arming, providing weapons, it is one of the range of options that is being considered."
Crowley maintained that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970, which imposed international sanctions on Libya that included an arms embargo, applied to both the Qaddafi regime and the rebel groups.
"It's not on the government of Libya: It's on Libya," he said.
Britain and France are drafting a new Security Council resolution that would authorize a no-fly zone over Libya. The United States still might support such a resolution, but U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder argued on Monday that a no-fly zone wouldn't likely do much to protect Libyan civilians anyway.
The United States and its international partners have been reaching out to the Libyan opposition, with some mixed results, but the State Department still has not officially withdrawn its recognition of the Qaddafi regime despite President Barack Obama's public call for him to step down.
"As we've said, we think that the Qaddafi regime, having turned its weapons on its people, has lost its legitimacy," Crowley noted. "But as I said last week, there are also legal issues involved in recognizing or de-recognizing governments."
UPDATE: Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) issued a statement Tuesday evening refuting Crowley's claim that arming the Libyan opposition is "illegal" under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970:
Earlier today, the spokesperson of the U.S. Department of State said that, because of the arms embargo imposed by UN Security Council Resolution 1970, it would be ‘illegal' for the United States or any other country to provide military assistance to the opposition forces fighting for their survival against a brutal dictatorship in Libya. In fact, the text of the UN resolution does not impose an arms embargo on ‘Libya,' but rather on the ‘Libyan Arab Jamahiriya,' which is the self-proclaimed name of Qaddafi's regime. We believe this language should be construed narrowly in order to hold open the possibility of providing military aid to the opposition, which presumably does not consider itself part of the ‘Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.'
The President has consistently and correctly said that ‘all options are on the table' in Libya. If the State Department's statement today is correct, however, it means one of the most effective options to help the Libyan people has been taken off the table. We urge the Administration to clarify its position on this important issue.
The Obama administration has decided switch the focus of its Libya diplomacy toward dealing with Libyan representatives in Washington and New York who have decried the regime, after the Libyan government in Tripoli stopped taking its calls.
The Obama administration, and especially the State Department, had been maintaining its relationship with the government of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi until early this week. Even when President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Qaddafi on Feb. 25, the State Department did not break diplomatic relations.
Undersecretary of State Bill Burns and Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman were in regular contact with Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa for the first two weeks of the crisis. But as of yesterday, Kusa won't come to the phone. The State Department therefore has now decided to ignore Kusa's request, sent via fax, that the administration stop dealing with Amb. Ali Aujali, Libya's top representative in Washington, who State had announced they would no longer deal with only days ago.
The United Nations is taking a similar approach, refusing to act on Qaddafi's fax to the U.N. that it expel Libya's two top diplomats in New York, Mohamed Shalgham and Ibrahim Dabbashi.
At first, State appeared willing to honor Qaddafi's request to cut off dealings with dissident Libyan diplomats. On March 1, State Department P.J. Crowley told reporters that Aujali, who had publicly resigned his post on Feb. 22, "no longer represents Libya's interests in the United States" and that State would now deal with the charge d'affaires, who is still loyal to the regime.But yesterday, a State Department official told The Cable that Aujali is still regarded by the administration as the chief of mission at the Libyan embassy, and is now State's top interlocutor there. The official said that State is not acting on a fax it received from Kusa demanding they stop dealing with Aujali.
"We received the fax but we have not been able to verify its authenticity," the State Department official said. "Normally the fax is followed by a diplomatic note, which has not occurred."
But can't State simply verify that the fax is genuine by asking Kusa himself?
"We have tried to reach him since receipt of the fax. He is not taking calls," the State Department official said, implying that if the fax could be verified, they might honor it.
Similarly, in New York, the U.N. and the U.S. mission there have yet to act on Qaddafi and Kusa's demand that they stop dealing with Shalgham and Dabbashi, who have both disavowed the Libyan regime. Dabbashi accused Qaddafi of war crimes on Feb. 21. Shalgham, an old friend of Qaddafi's, followed suit Feb. 25 in an impassioned speech before the Security Council, where he urged the United Nations to act swiftly to save Libya.
Now several days later, Shalgham and Dabbashi are still in charge of the Libyan mission at the United Nations, and are still meeting with senior U.N. and U.S. officials. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice met with Shalgham earlier this week, according to a U.S. official based at the U.N.
The official said that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's office had also received a fax from Kusa, but had not acted on it. Therefore, the U.S. mission still regards Shalgham and Dabbashi as Libya's credentialed representatives -- until Ban's office tells them otherwise.
"It's not entirely clear how it will play out," the U.S. official said. "It's not actually our determination whether they are the representatives to the U.N."
Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the secretary general's office, confirmed to The Cable that Ban had not acted on Kusa's request to strip Shalgham and Dabbashi of their credentials. However, he said that they were expected to be replaced and were no longer attending all U.N. meetings.
"We have formally received the request from the Government of Libya and are studying it. That's where we stand. While that happens, the existing officials remain in their current positions," he said.
The White House said on Wednesday that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh called Obama's top counterterrorism advisor John Brennan this morning to apologize for publicly accusing the United States and Israel of conspiring to destabilize the Arab world.
The office of White House press secretary Jay Carney issued a readout of the call, which said that Saleh "conveyed his regret for misunderstandings related to his public remarks."
In those remarks, delivered at Sanaa University on Tuesday, Saleh said, "There's an operations room in Tel Aviv with the aim of destabilizing the Arab world" and that it is "run by the White House."
Saleh, who receives hundreds of millions of dollars in direct military aid from the United States, also accused President Barack Obama of meddling in the Middle East. "Mr Obama, you're the president of the United States; you're not the president of the Arab world," he said.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley responded on Tuesday via a message on Twitter. "The protests in Yemen are not the product of external conspiracies. President Saleh knows better. His people deserve a better response," he tweeted.
According to the White House readout, Saleh "also said that he is firmly committed to meaningful political reform in Yemen and that he is reaching out to opposition elements in an effort to achieve reform through a democratic, inclusive, and peaceful process."
Meanwhile, anti-government protests hit Yemen again on Wednesday, with protesters reiterating their call for Saleh to end his 32-year rule.
President Obama issued an executive order Friday evening that imposes immediate sanctions on Libyan ruler Muammar al Qaddafi, his sons and his accomplices in the slaughter of civilians. In a letter accompanying the order, Obama declared a national emergency over the situation.
"I have determined that the actions of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, his government, and close associates, including extreme measures against the people of Libya, constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States. The order declares a national emergency to deal with this threat," Obama wrote in the letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
The executive order itself condemns the "wanton violence against unarmed associates" perpetrated by Qaddafi, his sons, his government, and his close associates. Effective immediately, all U.S.-based assets of Qaddafi and his four sons are to be frozen and transactions intended to move those assets are prohibited. The order allows the measures to be expanded to include any member of the Libyan government who are determined to be complicit in Qaddafi's brutality.
In a personal statement issued by the White House at the same time as the order, Obama referenced what he called the Libyan government's continued violation of human rights, brutalization of its people, and outrageous threats.
"By any measure, Muammar el-Qaddafi's government has violated international norms and common decency and must be held accountable," the statement read. "We will stand steadfastly with the Libyan people in their demand for universal rights, and a government that is responsive to their aspirations. Their human dignity cannot be denied."
Earlier Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that more punitive measures against the Qaddafi regime were on the way. "The steps we take in the near future are not the only steps we are prepared to take, if further steps are necessary," Carney said.
The last members of the U.S. embassy staff in Libya were evacuated Friday and the embassy building was shuttered, although the Obama administration still has not broken off relations with the Qaddafi regime or publicly called for Qaddafi to step down.
"The flag is still flying, the embassy is not closed, but operations are suspended," said Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy. "We did not break diplomatic relations."
There's no word yet on how the sanctions will affect the $100 million investment by Al-Saadi Qaddafi, one of the sons, in a film company that's producing a movie entitles "The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer," with Mickey Rourke.
The White House announced on Friday afternoon that the United States will take punitive measures against the government of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, including a weapons embargo, and individual sanctions against key government officials -- but not a no-fly zone.
"We're finalizing the sanctions that we will pursue. The universe of effective sanctions is pretty well known," said White House press secretary Jay Carney, declining to give specifics of the sanctions. He said that these steps could be followed by more steps in the near future.
A skeptical White House press corps asked Carney why the administration would have any confidence that sanctions could influence the decision making of Qaddafi, as he continues to slaughter his own people in a desperate bid to hold on to power.
"Targeted sanctions that affect senior leadership of a country like Libya have been shown to have an effect," Carney responded.
He also indicated that the lack of White House action to pressure the regime until this point was due to the need to maintain ties with the Libyan government until all U.S. personnel were evacuated.
"The focus [President Obama] has had is on our obligation to protect American citizens and also getting the policy right," Carney said, arguing that the administration has acted "with great deliberation and haste" and "there's never been a time when this much has been done this quickly."
Carney declined to call for Qaddafi to step down, but did say that the Libyan people deserve a representative government of their own choosing and that "the status quo is neither tenable nor acceptable."
The State Department-sponsored ferry finally left Tripoli on Friday for Malta after being delayed by bad weather. It carries 39 U.S. government personnel, 144 U.S. citizens, and 155 international citizens. A U.S. charter aircraft also left Libya on Friday for Istanbul with more U.S. and international citizens on board.
"Americans who wanted to be evacuated were evacuated," Carney said.
Also on Friday, the State Department "shuttered" the U.S. embassy in Tripoli.
"The flag is still flying, the embassy is not closed, but operations are suspended," said Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy. "We did not break diplomatic relations."
The Libyan embassy in Washington is still up and running, a State Department official said.
Interactions between State Department officials and the Libyan government continue. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns spoke twice over the last two days with Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa and Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman has spoken with Kusa several times, the State Department said.
Spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Thursday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to call Kusa earlier this week, but that the call could not be completed due to technical reasons. No attempts have been made to talk with Qaddafi directly, he said, but the State Department has passed him messages through unidentified third parties.
Clinton and Obama have also been working the phone, contacting friends and allies to coordinate the international response to the escalating tragedy in Libya. Obama spoke on Thursday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday.
Clinton will travel to Geneva on Monday to attend a meeting of the Human Rights Council, which issued a new resolution on Friday condemning the Libyan government and calling on the U.N. General Assembly to suspend the country from the commission. AFP reported that the European Union has also decided to impose various sanctions on the Libyan government.
The EU sanctions roughly match the U.S. sanctions, although neither has disclosed the details. But EU leaders have gone further than the Obama administration in calling for Qaddafi's departure. French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said France and England will combine to call for Qaddafi to be tried in the International Criminal Court.
And on Friday, Sarkozy told a news conference, "Mr Qaddafi must leave."
Vice President Joseph Biden argued on Thursday for forceful and early international intervention to prevent governments from committing atrocities, but didn't explicitly make the case for such intervention in Libya.
"I got in trouble when I said, during the Bosnia crisis, coming back from meeting Milosevic... that when a state engages in atrocity, it forfeits its sovereignty," Biden told an audience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where he was speaking at an event honoring the late Congressman Tom Lantos.
"And it was viewed at the time as somehow being contrary to the notions of the principles of the United Nations Charter that you forfeit your sovereignty," Biden said. "I remember the first person to call me as I was being roundly criticized was Tom Lantos, [who said,] ‘Keep it up, Joe.'"
Biden lauded the Obama administration for creating a senior-level position inside the National Security Council to coordinate what he referred to as new, stronger policies on preventing, identifying, and responding to mass atrocities and genocide.
"Too often in the past, these efforts have come too late, after the best and least costly opportunities to prevent them have been missed," Biden said. "First, we must recognize early indicators of potential atrocities and respond accordingly, rather than waiting until we are confronted by massacres like those in Rwanda or in Srebrenica."
He referenced the same two examples of genocide that Anne-Marie Slaughter, former top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, referred to when calling for international intervention in Libya. Biden criticized the international community for waiting so long to stop the killing of civilians in those cases.
"It's amazing how in the Balkans it took so long," Biden said. "Our administration also believes that holding perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable is an essential component of our prevention efforts. And that's why we have to reinvigorate efforts to bring some of the worst war criminals to justice."
While Biden lamented the international community's slow response to past instances of atrocities, he didn't explicitly name Libya's Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi as a candidate for such a response or explain how the administration's atrocity prevention policy would be applied in the current Arab world crisis. Rather, he repeated the administration's message that the international community must uphold three overarching principles with regards to Libya: an end to violence, protection of universal rights, and progress toward political reform.
"The Holocaust and the legacy are not only a part of our country's history, this country's history, but they continue to inform our approach to events today. They stiffen our resolve and our conscience, God willing, in the face of atrocities wherever and whenever they occur," Biden said.
He also quoted Lantos on the issue.
"‘The veneer of civilization is paper-thin,' Lantos often said. We are the guardians, and we can never rest."
The Obama administration is considering a range of options for pressuring the Libyan regime to stop massacring civilians -- including sanctions, asset freezes, and perhaps even the establishment of an international no-fly zone. But according to a senior NSC official, armed intervention in Libya is not on the table.
The calls are increasing in Washington for the Obama administration to take new, stronger measures to punish the Libyan government led by Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi for atrocities and to protect Libyan civilians.
Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) implored Obama on in a press conference to establish a no-fly zone in Libya, abandon its recognition of the Qaddafi government, transfer recognition to a transitional government formed by the rebels as soon as possible, and provide the opposition with support, including weapons.
"The government of Libya, epitomized by Muammar Qaddafi is massacring some of his people. There is very little doubt about Mr. Qaddafi's commitment to remaining in power no matter how much blood has to be shed," McCain said on behalf of both senators at a Friday press conference in Jerusalem.
"When a government massacres its own people, it loses its legitimacy. So, we should no longer recognize the existing government of Libya."
Lieberman added that the no-fly zone should be organized by NATO and he compared the ongoing killing of civilians in Libya to the genocide perpetrated by Serbia during the 1990s that eventually resulted in a NATO bombing campaign.
"I think in that sense it is very important that we not just make statements about the massacre that is occurring in Libya but that we lead an international coalition to do something," Lieberman said. "What is happening in Libya today reminds me what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. We in the United States decided that we could not simply stand by and watch a government massacre its people."
Back in Washington, Vice President Joseph Biden lamented on Thursday that NATO intervention in the Balkans didn't come sooner, when it could have saved more lives.
"It's amazing how in the Balkans it took so long," Biden told an audience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. "First, we must recognize early indicators of potential atrocities and respond accordingly, rather than waiting until we are confronted by massacres like those in Rwanda or in Srebrenica."
Former State Department Policy Planning Chief Anne-Marie Slaughter also compared the violence in Libya to the Balkans and the 1994 Rwandan genocide in a Thursday tweet.
"The international community cannot stand by and watch the massacre of Libyan protesters. In Rwanda we watched. In Kosovo we acted," Slaughter tweeted.
Also on Friday, a bipartisan group of senior mostly-Republican foreign policy experts penned an open letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to make good on his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, when he said, "Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later."
The experts asked Obama to call on NATO to urgently develop plans to establish an air and naval presence in Libya, freeze all Libyan government assets in the U.S. and Europe, consider halting Libyan oil imports, pledge to hold Qaddafi responsible for any atrocities, and speed humanitarian aid to the Libyan people.
"With violence spiraling to new heights, and with the apparent willingness of the Qaddafi regime to use all weapons at its disposal against the Libyan people, we may be on the threshold of a moral and humanitarian catastrophe," the experts wrote. "Inaction, or slow and inadequate measures, may not only fail to stop the slaughter in Libya but will cast doubt on the commitment of the United States and Europe to basic principles of human rights and freedoms."
The letter was signed by several senior GOP former officials, including Elliott Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, Eric Edelman, Eliot Cohen, Jamie Fly and Scott Carpenter, human rights activities David Kramer and Neil Hicks, and Clinton administration official John Shattuck.
"The United States and our European allies have a moral interest in both an end to the violence and an end to the murderous Libyan regime. There is no time for delay and indecisiveness," they wrote. "The people of Libya, the people of the Middle East, and the world require clear U.S. leadership in this time of opportunity and peril."
Full text of the letter after the jump:
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo was planning to spend $667,200 on a youth soccer mentorship program in Egypt, to be run through the Egyptian Ministry of Interior. However, it withdrew its funding request following the Interior Ministry's brutal crackdowns on Egyptian youth during the anti-regime protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak earlier this month.
The State Department's Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Richard Verma sent out the initial congressional notification about the Egyptian soccer program on Jan. 25, the same day that the massive popular protests broke out in Egypt. The money was to come from the State Department's account for nonproliferation, anti-terrorism, demining, and related programs (NADR) from fiscal 2010 and was to be given to U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey. The program would have operated in conjunction with the Egyptian Ministry of Interior and the Egyptian police.
But on Tuesday, Verma sent a letter to Congress, obtained by The Cable, withdrawing the notification.
"Based on the events of the past week, questions have arisen about the appropriateness and feasibility of proceeding at this time with the proposed youth soccer mentorship program in Egypt," Verma wrote, also noting that embassy personnel were preoccupied now and could not oversee the program.
"Moreover, there are questions about the role of the Egyptian Ministry of Interior and the Egyptian Police in recent events. Before proceeding with a youth engagement activity involving the two organizations, additional time for the situation to settle is needed."
The State Department could resubmit the request for soccer program funding at a later date, Verma wrote.
For longtime critics of the State Department's relationship with the Egyptian government, the fact that a soccer program was being planned in conjunction with the Interior Ministry shows a lack of understanding of the body's relationship with the Egyptian population.
"You could forgive someone for thinking this congressional notification came straight from The Onion," said Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. "If it weren't so pathetic -- in a nutshell what's wrong with U.S. foreign aid -- it would be hysterical."
DOHA, Qatar — The State Department's top Middle East official, Jeffrey Feltman, said Thursday that he was personally "inspired" by the youth-led revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and that the uprisings roiling the Arab world showed "there's a fundamental shift in the relationship of how people in the region view their rulers."
Feltman, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, was in Qatar on one of several stops in the Persian Gulf, where the United States is seeking to reassure nervous allies even as it urges them to embrace meaningful political reform. He was a speaking at a town-hall meeting hosted by Northwestern University in Qatar and billed as a forum on media and Internet freedom in the Arab world.
His remarks in Doha come at a time of great upheaval in the Middle East, and most dramatically now in Libya, where anti-government protesters have seized huge swaths of the country and are vowing to march on the capital Tripoli to finish the job.
As Muammar al-Qaddafi again took to the airwaves to accuse the protesters of taking drugs and carrying out al Qaeda's agenda -- while forces loyal to the embattled Libyan leader reportedly continued their campaign of terror in and around Tripoli -- Feltman said it was "not clear that Qaddafi is listening to anybody."
"It's appalling what's happening now in Libya. It's really, really appalling," Feltman said with obvious emotion. But, he noted, echoing remarks made by President Barack Obama on Wednesday evening, that the United States had "a responsibility to our own citizens" in Libya that took immediate precedence over "a general obligation to protect Libyan citizens."
Asked whether the United States could do more in Libya to prevent civilian deaths, he said, "I don't have any answers for you right now, what the right approach is."
The Libyan government officially warned the State Department on Thursday that foreign journalists entering Libya would be arrested and treated as al Qaeda collaborators.
"Be advised, entering Libya to report on the events unfolding there is additionally hazardous with the government labeling unauthorized media as terrorist collaborators and claiming they will be arrested if caught," the State Department said in a press release.
The State Department said that Libyan government officials told U.S. diplomats that approved teams of reporters from CNN, BBC Arabic, and Al Arabiya would be allowed into the country, but any other reporters found in Libya would be in danger.
"These same senior officials also said that some reporters had entered the country illegally and that the Libyan government now considered these reporters Al Qaida collaborators," the State Department said.
It was not immediately clear which Libyan government officials issued the warning, but the State Department said it was a "senior official" of the Libyan government. Reporters would be arrested on "immigration charges" and their safety could not be guaranteed, the U.S. diplomats were told.
The United States is considering punitive measures against the Libyan government for using violence against peaceful protesters, the State Department said. Sanctions and asset freezes are being discussed by U.S. policymakers, but an international no-fly zone over Libya is less likely.
President Barack Obama will make a statement on the situation in Libya at 5:15 Wednesday, following a 3:45 p.m. meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and another meeting at 4:30 at the White House with a range of National Security officials, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said today. Obama's recent silence has drawn criticism among some circles in Washington that his administration has been slow to react to the unfolding crisis, but the administration claims it is acting prudently with limited information and with the interest of U.S. citizens' safety at heart.
A State Department official told The Cable that the United States has needed to maintain its relationship with the Libyan regime in order to ensure that it can safely evacuate U.S. citizens.
"Our highest priority at this point is making sure that all American citizens are allowed to leave the country and able to leave the country in safety. That's the number one issue for us," the official said.
The official also said that the administration has been wary of getting out ahead of unfolding events in Libya due to the lack of reliable information coming out of the country.
"The situation has been complicated by the fact that we don't have the eyes and ears that we have in other countries," the official said. "It's Libya, so getting information is difficult. It's hard to get an accurate readout of what's going on in that country."
The most recent U.S. Ambassador Gene Cretz was recalled following WikiLeaks' disclosure of diplomatic cables he had written about the Qaddafi family, including a description of a "voluptuous blonde" nurse that travels everywhere with Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. Meanwhile Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman has been the administration's point man on Libya, and has spoken multiple times to Libyan Foreign Minister Mussa Kussa.
Clinton tried to call Kussa on Wednesday evening but the call was never completed, another State Department official told The Cable.
At today's State Department briefing, Crowley said the administration was considering a range of options to pressure Qaddafi for his government's attacks on peaceful protesters. He specifically mentioned multilateral sanctions and the freezing of any assets that Libyan officials may have in the United States.
"We're looking at a full range of tools that are available to us... that certainly involves sanctions that could be imposed bilaterally or multilaterally," Crowley said, adding that such discussions would take place with international partners "in the coming days."
Crowley wouldn't comment on calls for an international no-fly zone to be imposed over Libya. Several senior lawmakers have called directly for such action, including Sen. John McCain, (R-AZ), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA).
"The international community should consider all measures to end the carnage, including the possible establishment of a no-fly zone to protect Libyan citizens," Berman said. "Additionally, whatever assets Qaddafi and his henchmen have in the United States should be frozen immediately, and all other nations should take the same action."
Crowley didn't rule out a no-fly zone, but indicated it wasn't in the works in the near future.
"Whatever is contemplated, we do want it to be effective," Crowley said. "Any action that we would take along those lines would require international support. There is obviously a significant degree of difficulty in doing something like that."
Clinton struck a cautious note about the U.S. ability to influence Libyan behavior in this afternoon."[T]here are many countries that have much closer relations with Libya than we do … But everything will be on the table," she said. "We will look at all the possible options to try to bring an end to the violence, to try to influence the government."
The Obama administration has sent a host of senior officials to the Persian Gulf this week as unrest continues in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain.
Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman left on Tuesday for a tour of the region that will include stops in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates; he will return to Washington on March 2. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns and NSC Senior Director David Lipton traveled to Cairo on Monday. And Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen left over the weekend on a prescheduled trip to the region that included stops in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
"During his trip to the Gulf, Assistant Secretary Feltman will reaffirm the United States' commitment to our longstanding partnerships in the region as well as universal human rights, freedom of expression, and the promotion of democratic principles," the State Department said in a statement. "He will also reiterate to leaders that, while each country is unique, recent events in the region underscore the critical need to address calls for social, political, and economic reform in a peaceful, inclusive, and transparent manner."
In Cairo, Burns met with Arab League chief Amr Moussa, praised the beginning of Egypt's "transition to democracy," and called for the interim government to lift the long-imposed emergency law, which the interim government has pledged to do at some unspecified future date.
Mullen, who may also visit Bahrain, told reporters his trip was meant to "reassure, discuss and understand what's going on" with regional leaders. He lauded Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad al-Khalifa for deciding to hold talks with demonstrators, saying "it had relieved a number of [regional] leaders in terms of easing tensions."
Back at the State Department, the unfolding crisis in the Arab world is still being managed largely by Burns, Feltman, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jacob Walles, with a good dose of personal involvement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself, a State Department official told The Cable.
Feltman has been dealing with the Libyan government directly throughout the crisis and has held multiple conversations with officials in Tripoli, including Foreign Minister Mussa Kussa, a State Department official said.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on Tuesday that nobody in the U.S. government had spoken directly to Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, but said that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon had spoken with the Libyan leader. Crowley condemned the ongoing violence but declined to call for Qaddafi's exit.
"It's not for the United States, you know, to choose the leader of Libya or the leader of any other country. It is for the people of Libya who are standing up and protesting the policies and actions of their government," he said. "This is a matter between the Libyan people and the Libyan leadership. Ultimately, they should have every right to choose who leads their country."
Meanwhile, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) are also touring the region this week while Congress is on break. They began their trip in Tunisia and also plan to visit Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Egypt.
The senators offered security aid to Tunisia and called for a no-fly zone to be imposed over Libya to stop the government's air assaults on protesters.
"Some Libyan diplomats have bravely called for a no-fly zone to stop the Qaddafi regime's use of airpower to attack Libyan civilians. We support this course of action. Other steps that should be considered include targeted sanctions and asset freezes against Libyan officials, an arms embargo, and the immediate suspension of Libya from international organizations," they said in a statement.
There's a raging debate on Capitol Hill surrounding huge cuts to foreign aid funding proposed in the House Republicans' latest spending bill. But several senators are looking to add a generous foreign aid package for Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and other Middle Eastern countries when the bill comes over from the House.
"A [continuing resolution] that had full year funding for the troops plus an Egypt, Israel, and Middle East stability package of full year funding would send the right signal from the United States," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) told The Cable in an exclusive interview.
The current version of the continuing resolution, which is needed to keep the government running past March 4, is being debated in the House now. It proposes significant cuts in the State Department and foreign assistance budgets below what the president requested for fiscal 2011, which began last October.
Kirk said several senators on both sides of the aisle supported the new Middle East Stability funding package, which would fully fund foreign aid accounts for a host of countries in the region at the level requested by the president and pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.
"There's not a need to fund the full foreign assistance program but there is a need for Egypt, Israel, and Jordan related programs to receive full funding for fiscal 2011 right now. This is being discussed and I strongly support it," Kirk said.
Back in the House, there is plenty of support for funding Israel aid, which totals about $3 billion per year, but some Republicans are looking to restrict aid to other Middle East countries, such as Egypt. House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has argued that further funding should be withheld from Egypt unless they exclude Islamist groups such as the the Muslim Brotherhood, from participating in the new government.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable in an exclusive interview that new funding for Egypt was needed to bolster secular and moderate political groups that have been marginalized over the past decades under the old Egyptian regime.
Berman supports increased funding for U.S.-based organizations that promote civil society in Egypt, such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
"We need to educate [moderate Egyptian political groups] on how to communicate, how to build a political party, how to organize. There's a way to do that without choosing who you want but giving the secular parties some skills and some resources to get going," Berman said.
Berman said that increased aid to Egypt now should not be held up due to concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood, which he argued is not going to be particularly interested in NDI or IRI programs anyway.
"America can't decide who participates, we shouldn't, and to the extent we try to too clumsily, we are going to hurt the cause we all share," Berman said. "Mubarak is the one who drew the line, ‘it's either me or the Muslim Brotherhood.' Our job is to create an alternative."
If groups have a chance to organize, the vast majority of the Egyptian population will not be receptive to the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda, Berman said. That doesn't mean, however, that he takes the threat posed by Islamist groups in Egypt lightly."Am I concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood? You betcha," he said.
The Obama administration was caught by surprise on Thursday night when President Hosni Mubarak spoke to the Egyptian people and initially declined to step down as leader of the country. Following the speech, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen quickly phoned their counterparts in the Egyptian military.
Today, the military assumed control of the Egyptian government and Vice President Omar Suleiman announced in a recorded statement that Mubarak had stepped down from the presidency. "Secretary Gates spoke with [Defense Minister] Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi again last night," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell confirmed to The Cable.
"It was his fifth phone conversation with the Egyptian defense minister since the situation in Egypt began."
Captain John Kirby, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs, confirmed to The Cable that Mullen called Egyptian Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Anan following the Mubarak speech. Mullen and Anan have spoken four times since Jan. 25, and the last call before Thursday night was on Saturday, Feb. 5, Kirby said.
Both Morrell and Kirby declined to give details on the substance of the calls.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Friday morning that President Barack Obama did not call Mubarak after the speech. The last reported call between Vice President Joseph Biden and Suleiman was Feb. 8, when Biden pressed Suleiman to expand his dialogue with opposition groups.
The Gates and Mullen phone calls are emblematic of the sustained but quiet engagement with their military counterparts that the Pentagon has been undertaking throughout the crisis. That effort has been especially important in recent days, as the military's role has increased and its allegiances have come under closer scrutiny.
The Pentagon even sent out a quiet request to scores of U.S. military officers last week, asking them to contact any Egyptian military members they might know through past associations at American military colleges, the Washington Post reported.
The officers weren't told to deliver any specific messages. The outreach has been rather about collecting information from the Egyptian military and making sure that the military-to-military relationship remained intact, a Pentagon official said, adding that similar outreach has occurred between the Pentagon and its interlocutors in other countries, including Israel.
The White House and the State Department have disagreed on how much pressure to place on Mubarak and Suleiman. The Pentagon has sided mostly with State, arguing for more support of existing Egyptian institutions of power, especially the military. Some observers see the Pentagon as inclined to favor supporting the Egyptian military due its own interests and natural institutional biases.
"The Pentagon is simply so used to letting the Egyptian military have what they want," said one former U.S. official who dealt with the Pentagon on Egypt. "The Pentagon has wanted to keep their involvement at a strictly military-to-military level. So they are reluctant to be part of diplomacy at the top level, but insistent in being engaged in their own diplomacy for their own interest."
Regardless, the direct intervention of top Pentagon and U.S. military officials at key times throughout the crisis may have influenced the Egyptian military's behavior at key junctures, such as when the Egyptian military was implicated in the crackdown of journalists and human rights activists last weekend. Pentagon officials believe their outreach contributed to the relative restraint of the Egyptian Army.
It's unclear whether Gates and Mullen's telephone diplomacy last night actually influenced the events that unfolded only hours later. But the Pentagon's relationships with the Egyptian military are now among the most crucial avenues of communication and influence for U.S. policy toward Egypt going forward.
The State Department confirmed on Thursday that Khairy Ramadan Aly, an Egyptian national who worked as a carpenter at the U.S. embassy in Cairo for 18 years, is dead. He went missing amid the protests on Jan. 28.
"On behalf of all the men and women of the State Department and USAID, I offer our condolences to the friends and loved ones of Khairy Ramadan Aly, a member of our Embassy family in Cairo," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement. "Throughout this period, many Egyptian employees of the U.S. Mission have continued to work alongside their American colleagues in Cairo and Alexandria. The United States is grateful for their contributions, commitment and sacrifice during this difficult time."
Aly went to Tahrir Square in search for his son, who had gone into the square to protest and then went missing. Aly was apparently shot three times, although it's unclear when, in what could have been a random act of violence, according to the Associated Press. His son eventually returned home of his own accord.
Clinton placed the responsibility on the Egyptian government to respect and protect the rights and safety of the protesters on the streets.
"Abuses committed against those seeking to exercise basic freedoms must stop," she said. "There is a clear responsibility by the Egyptian government, including the armed forces, to protect those threatened and to hold accountable those responsible for using violence and intimidation that threatens the aspirations of the Egyptian people."
The Obama administration has gone silent following the latest speech by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in which he seemed to cede some powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman but refused to step down from office.
"We don't have any immediate comment," National Security Spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable. Follow-up requests for information about how the White House was processing the latest news from Cairo went unreturned. The State Department cancelled its daily press briefing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton canceled two scheduled interviews, and State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley's latest tweet on the matter was several hours ago.
"The #Egyptian people will keep coming to #TahrirSquare. #Democracy means that peaceful protesters are both tolerated and protected," Crowley tweeted at about 9 a.m., when news reports were predicting Mubarak would resign.
The administration may be seeking to stem the flood of confusion following a stream of statements on Egypt from senior officials in various testimonies to Congress Thursday morning. CIA Director Leon Panetta was forced to clarify his statement earlier today when he said, "I have heard there's a strong likelihood Mubarak will step down this evening," explaining that his comment was based on news reports, not intelligence data.
At the same hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stunned lawmakers when he declared that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was "largely secular."
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg was able to stay on message, refusing to comment on the ever evolving situation on the ground and repeating the administration's line that change must come -- and be based on -- the core principles of non-violence, respect for universal rights, and real political reform.
But there's no doubt that the White House's delicate balancing act, whereby they have expressed support for the transitional process led by Suleiman while still pressing him for greater openness in that process, has now been overtaken by events. Exactly what the new message will be is what the administration is working on right now.
Mubarak and his ministers have been critical of the statements coming out of the Obama administration and in his speech Mubarak defiantly stated, "I have never ever been accepting any sort of foreign intervention in Egyptian affairs."
In an interview Wednesday with PBS News Hour, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that U.S. statements calling for faster reform were not helpful, "because when you speak about prompt, immediate, now, as if you are imposing on a great country like Egypt, a great friend that have always maintained the best of relationship with the United States, you are imposing your will on him."
Speaking earlier on Thursday in Michigan at a scheduled event, President Barack Obama stayed away from making news on the crisis in Egypt and cautioned that the events in Cairo were still very much up in the air.
"We are following today's events in Egypt very closely and we'll have more to say as this plays out," the president said. "But what is absolutely clear is that we are witnessing history unfold. It's a moment of transformation that's taking place because the people of Egypt are calling for change."
As reports streamed out of Cairo that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may cede power to the Egyptian military this evening, several senior administration officials happened to be testifying on Capitol Hill and were questioned directly about the reports.
"Like you I have heard there's a strong likelihood Mubarak will step down this evening," CIA Director Leon Panetta told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in its first hearing under new chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI). A CIA spokesman quickly clarified that Panetta was not independently confirming this fact.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is holding its second hearing under new chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), refused to comment on the latest reports regarding Mubarak. His opening statement before the committee reiterated the administration's support for a gradual transition in Egypt -- an idea that may soon be overtaken by events.
"Changes must come [in Egypt], but we must be mindful that transitions can lead to chaos, or forms of intolerance, or backsliding into authoritarianism," Steinberg said. "We are urging Egypt's government and opposition to engage in serious and inclusive negotiations to arrive at a timetable, game plan, and path to constitutional and political reform. And as they do, we will support principles, processes, and institutions, not personalities."
Ros-Lehtinen was scathing in her criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the crisis, arguing that it has not been supportive enough of the protesters, that there was no contingency planning done by the NSC to prepare for Mubarak's departure, and that the administration's policy over the last two weeks has been constantly changing and unclear.
Steinberg acknowledged the difficulty of establishing and then communicating a clear policy while the events on the ground continued to unfold.
"What is critical as we see this unfolding dynamic is that we remain in our principles, as well as the values and interests that we bring forward, while remaining nimble to adapt to changing circumstances," he said. "It's a little bit like having a good game plan but also knowing when to call an audible."
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy was originally scheduled to testify at the hearing, but was removed from the list yesterday.
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground in Cairo
remains fluid. Egypt's
armed forces said on Thursday they have started taking
"necessary measures to protect the nation" and "support the
legitimate demands of the people."
Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, voiced the concerns of many in Congress about the role of the Egyptian military and its intentions regarding democracy and transparency.
"Given the military's influence over the regime - a regime that was born in the military, and whose entire leadership is composed of military men -- the democratic transition will happen if, and only if, the military does play a constructive role," he said.
The White House and the State Department have been sending out different messages over the past few days regarding the U.S. position on Egypt. The seeming disparity between the focus and tone of remarks by officials from each part of the government has the Washington community wondering if there's a rift between Pennsylvania Avenue and Foggy Bottom and who's really in charge.
Internal disagreements on how closely to align the United States with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman and his self-interested reform process emerged into public view last weekend, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Munich Security Conference that the U.S. is calling on the international community to support the process initiated by Suleiman. Clinton also had to distance herself from the comments of the State Department's chosen "envoy" Frank Wisner, who called for Mubarak to stay in power when he spoke at the conference in Munich.
Then, three days later, Vice President Joseph Biden spoke with Suleiman and gave him a list of further steps the U.S. wants him to take to open up the process, clearly expressing the official administration position that Suleiman's process is not acceptable in its current form.
On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, the NSC's Ben Rhodes said that the White House and the State Department have been "very closely aligned" and said that the difference between what Clinton said in Munich and what Biden told Suleiman three days later was a reflection of the changing circumstances on the ground.
"[Clinton] was just stating [in Munich] the matter of fact that Vice President Suleiman is the person conducting these negotiations for the government... Our response on Monday and Tuesday was in reaction to [Suleiman's] statements and it was to say that those statements alone were insufficient because they didn't constitute concrete action," Rhodes said. "I think it's entirely consistent to again state support for a process of negotiation... but to then hold the government accountable in terms of identifying the kinds of steps that we believe need to take place and that the Egyptian people are calling for."
Clinton's deputy chief of staff and new director for policy planning, Jake Sullivan, argued that the White House and the State Department have been aligned on the three core principles the U.S. government has been advocating for throughout the crisis: non-violence, respect for universal rights, and the need for political change.
"The theory of the case has remained consistent...and it's something on which the Secretary, the president and all of the other national security team members have been aligned on. And that's been true in the true public messaging. It's been true in the private messaging as well, " Sullivan said. "The situation is changing day by day even as we maintain the same basic core to our approach."
Experts close to the administration agreed with that to some degree, but said that mixed messaging from State and the White House was muddying communication of those core principles. The biases are based in institutional cultures, they said, and the gaps between the two camps are real.
"You had a similar dynamic in the later years of the Bush administration. There was President Bush and [NSC senior director] Elliott Abrams at the White House still trying to push the freedom agenda and Condoleezza Rice at the State Department very much trying to play it down," said Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The messages out of the administration have been extremely confusing and I think they realize that."
Abrams told The Cable that there are probably divisions in both places. "Where the State Department came out of its internal debate is in one place, where the White House has come out is in a different place," he said. "In the end it's about winning the hearts and minds, not of the Egyptian people, but of Obama, Biden, Clinton and Gates."
Deeper down in the administration, several official are playing influential roles in how the policy is being formed on each side. On the White House side, NSC Director Dan Shapiro, NSC Senior Director Samantha Power, and Rhodes have been leading the White House's outreach with the foreign policy expert community and held their latest meeting with experts on Tuesday.
Attendees reportedly included Dunne, Abrams, WINEP's Scott Carpenter, New America's Steve Clemons, CSIS's Jon Alterman, USIP's Dan Brumberg, Johns Hopkins' Fouad Ajami, and Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski.
Inside the State Department, Clinton is being advised on Egypt by several officials who have deep experience with Egypt, including Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, who had suggested Wisner be sent to Cairo to deal with Mubarak, and Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, among others.
"The people whispering in her ears are people like Bill Burns, who is preoccupied with most often trying to save us from ourselves," Carpenter told The Cable. "Burns is legitimately concerned with how this all unfolds, but his interest is in preserving as much of the status quo with the current government of Egypt as possible. Meanwhile, the White House is saying that it's in our interest to build a new relationship because if we don't it's going to lead to something worse when the next government comes. So that leads them to conclude that they have to save State from themselves."
Feltman, a former ambassador to Lebanon, is increasingly seen as someone who understands the wider risks to U.S. foreign policy of being tougher on Suleiman and President Hosni Mubarak but is nevertheless looking for creative ways to square that circle.
"Some people on the inside say ‘Thank God for Feltman,'" because he's trying to prepare State for a changed relationship with Egypt after Mubarak leaves and trying to look over the horizon, Carpenter said.
On the specific policy toward Egypt, the difference between the current thinking at the White House as opposed to at the State Department surrounds exactly how much leeway Suleiman should have in setting up the committees that will negotiate and then oversee the political reform process leading up the elections.
On his blog the Washington Note, Clemons wrote that a senior White House official told him they want to see the emerging transitional process look like a "potluck dinner," where everyone brings their own ideas and has real power off the bat, rather than a hosted "dinner party" where Suleiman decides the guest list, the agenda, and thereby the results.
"The State Department is advocating a hosted dinner, where the power still resides with the incumbents," Clemons told The Cable. "That's not good enough for the White House."
Today's first hearing of the Republican-led House Foreign Affairs Committee was dominated by the question of how much the United States should fear the empowerment of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and what leverage should be used against the Egyptian military to get them to behave in accordance with U.S. interests.
Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) opened the hearing with a broad criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the crisis in Egypt, which she said is now tilting too far in support of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and is failing to counteract the threat posed by the rise of Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Instead of being proactive, we have been obsessed with maintaining short-term, personality-based stability -- stability that was never really all that stable, as the events of the recent week demonstrate," she said.
"Now the White House is reportedly making matters worse by apparently re-examining its position on dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, but also stating that a new Egyptian government should include a whole host of important nonsecular actors. The Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with driving these protests, and they and other extremists must not be allowed to hijack the movement toward democracy and freedom in Egypt."
Ros-Lehtinen repeated her argument that the United States should try to impose strict criteria on the process to ensure only "responsible actors" can participate in Egyptian governance, which she defined as those who renounce violent extremism and pledge to uphold Egypt's international commitments, including its peace treaty with Israel.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Ros-Lehtinen's Democratic counterpart, didn't have any nice things to say about the Muslim Brotherhood either.
"Like many I am skeptical about the Muslim Brotherhood's commitment to democracy. The Brotherhood wants Egypt to be governed by religious law rather than man-made law, a problematic position for a democrat. It has a bloody history," he said. "Even in the best-case scenario where the Brotherhood proves itself fully committed to democracy, there is every reason to believe it will try to influence the Egyptian government in ways that undermine U.S. interests and that will make Egypt a regressive, less-tolerant place."
Prior to the start of the hearing, Berman formally announced the names of the new ranking Democrats on the various subcommittees, including Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) on the Middle East subcommittee. Ackerman offered the most scathing criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the Egypt crisis at the hearing.
"In Egypt I fear that we are snatching failure from the jaws of success," he said. "The Obama administration now appears to be wavering about whether America really backs the demands of the Egyptian people or just wants to return to stability, which is a facade."
Ackerman turned the hearing into a discussion of the Egyptian military's role and the trustworthiness of Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former head of Mubarak's national intelligence agency. Ackerman criticized what he sees as a gap between the administration's rhetoric and its policy, and called on the White House to suspend military aid to Egypt now.
"The people yearn to be free. We must plant ourselves firmly on their side," he said. "We need to suspend our aid to Egypt. We simply cannot afford to be seen in Egypt as being a bankroll to oppression."
For his part, Berman disagreed with Ackerman and said that the United States should continue to use aid as leverage against the military, in order to pressure Suleiman and others to act in ways that support U.S. interests and values.
The foreign-policy experts that appeared before the committee largely agreed that military aid should be continued for the time being, but not if the Egyptian military proves to be impeding rather than advancing the course of reform.
"The Army may not have made up its mind yet. Now is the time to signal to them this aid is conditional," said former National Security Council official Elliott Abrams.
"The United State doesn't have so many levers," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Why would we throw away this arrow before it's absolutely apparent that the Egyptian Army has made a choice to suppress and refuse change? That seems to be unwise."
The experts disagreed on how the United States should handle the Muslim Brotherhood. Abrams said that "conditions that forbid religious parties are actually quite useful." Satloff urged a middle-of-the-road approach.
"Don't exaggerate [the danger of the Brotherhood], and also don't be naive," he said.
Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, argued that there are plenty of other secular political organizations in Egypt for the United States to work with besides the Muslim Brotherhood.
"We have to stop presenting ourselves with the choice that Mubarak gave us. There are groups in the middle," he said.
But Ackerman was skeptical that those groups were ready to take on a leadership role after decades of suppression. "If you over-pesticide your garden, you only get the weeds that survive," he said.
The other ranking Democrats on the committee announced today were Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) on the subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation, and trade; Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) on the subcommittee on oversight and investigations; Donald Payne (D-N.J.) on the subcommittee on Africa, global health, and human rights; Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) on the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific; Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) on the subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia; and Elliott Engel (D-N.Y.) on the subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.
Berman also announced a plan to introduce the "Hezbollah anti-terrorism act of 2011," which would limit U.S. foreign assistance to Lebanon until President Obama certifies that none of the funds will go to Hezbollah-controlled agencies and that the Lebanese government is dismantling Hezbollah's military infrastructure.
Uber-diplomat Frank Wisner won't be making any public remarks on the crisis in Egypt anytime soon; the Obama administration has directed him to steer clear of the press following his command performance in Munich, where he went off the reservation of the Obama administration's policy and forced the administration to distance itself from him and his remarks.
Wisner is back in New York at his day job at Patton Boggs, the lobbying law firm where he has worked since February 2009. He had a busy week, which began Jan. 31 with being dispatched by the Obama administration to deliver a direct message to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He reportedly delivered Obama's tough message that Mubarak must start the transition of power "now." The week ended with him telling the entire Munich Security Conference, which included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the audience, that Mubarak must stay in power to oversee changes in government.
"I believe that President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical -- it's his chance to write his own legacy," Wisner told the conference.
The remarks were so far off of the administration's message, which at this moment is that it's not the U.S. government's place to weigh in on Mubarak's future, that Clinton was forced to clarify on the plane ride home that Wisner was a private citizen and in no way spoke on behalf of the U.S. government.
But was the State Department even aware of what Wisner was going to say in Munich? "He did not give us a heads-up," a State Department official told The Cable.
Wisner was suggested for the "envoy" assignment to talk with Mubarak by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, two administration officials confirmed. Burns is the highest-ranking Foreign Service officer at State and has known Wisner for decades.
Inside the administration's policy process on Egypt, Burns is a key player, having been U.S. ambassador to Jordan and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. He wrote a book called Economic Aid and American Policy Toward Egypt, published in 1985, just before Wisner was named ambassador to Cairo.
But Wisner's embrace of Mubarak goes even further than Burns's position. "The implication that Bill agrees with [Wisner's] public statements since [Wisner's trip to Cairo] … is just plain wrong," an administration official told The Cable.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Monday that the administration knew about Wisner's work for the lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which does business in Egypt, and that his long relationship with Mubarak was an asset, not a detraction.
"We're aware of his employer.… And we felt that he was uniquely positioned to have the kind of conversation that we felt needed to be done in Egypt," Crowley said.
A spokesman for Patton Boggs told the New York Times that Patton Boggs was not doing significant work on behalf of the Egyptian government and that Wisner "has no involvement and has not had any involvement in Egyptian business while at the firm."
The White House on Monday argued that Wisner dutifully completed his assigned task in Cairo, which was "to deliver a specific, one-time message to President Mubarak," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.
"He is not and was not a U.S. envoy. He was not sent to negotiate. He is an individual who has a long history with President Mubarak and thus could deliver a clear message. He spoke to President Mubarak once, reported on his conversation, and then came home," Vietor said.
Nevertheless, don't expect the Obama administration to send any more one-off, high-level envoys anytime soon.
"We are completely confident in our ability to communicate directly with the government of Egypt at the White House, State Department, Pentagon and through our embassy," Vietor said.
CORRECTED: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Patton Boggs was part of the PLM Group, a lobbying entity comprising firms led by Tony Podesta, Bob Livingston, and Toby Moffet. Patton Boggs is not part of the PLM group, which has lobbied extensively on behalf of the Egyptian government.
The State Department now acknowledges that "elements" of the Egyptian military have taken part in the violent crackdown on journalists and activists in Cairo over the past few days, calling into question the positive influence and neutrality of the military, which the Obama administration praised last week.
Human rights activists in Washington and Cairo reported last week uniformed Egyptian military personnel were directly involved in the arrest, detention, and interrogation of human rights activists in Egypt, including the raid on the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, which included the arrest of Human Rights Watch researcher Daniel Williams. In a gripping first-hand account on Monday, Williams explained the extensive role of Egyptian military personnel in his incarceration.
"The initial impression was that the military sided with the demonstrators yet provided order amid the chaos, which is why I was surprised to see the soldier on the chair, harassing the human rights workers about a ‘suspicious meeting' with foreigners bent on ‘ruining our country,' Williams wrote on Monday at The Daily Beast. "There was no doubt that the army was in charge of the raid. At one point, a major general showed up at the Hisham Mubarak center and other officers worked hand in glove with a uniformed policeman, plainclothes state security agents and assorted abusive henchmen."
Williams was brought with other activists and a Japanese photographer to Camp 75, a military headquarters in northeast Cairo, where he was interrogated and held for 36 hours.
"The raid on the Hisham Mubarak Law Center exemplifies the persistence of abusive security practices under a military establishment, which claims it wants transition from the past," he wrote. "But in this and other cases, now being documented by Human Rights Watch, the army was clearly in charge of arbitrary and sometimes violent arrests, even if the beatings and torture had been "outsourced" to other agencies or thugs."
Pressed on the issue by The Cable at today's briefing, spokesman P.J. Crowley said the State Department was aware that some military units participated in the raids but also pointed out that other military units played a role in protecting journalists and maintaining a measure of stability in Tahrir Square.
"To the extent that there were elements within the military that participated in these abuses of journalists and others last week, they should be held fully accountable," Crowley said. "By the same token, when you look at the streets of Cairo over the past several days since the violence on Wednesday, the military did play a constructive role."
Crowley said that the State Department has formally raised the issue of military involvement in the crackdowns with their Egyptian interlocutors but declined to relate the specifics of those conversations.
A State Department official, speaking on background, said that the Egyptian military was acting during the crisis "in some instances constructively, in some instances not." The official suggested that "elements" of the military were involved, specifically military police units, which have ties to the Ministry of Interior, the department believed to be orchestrating the crackdowns.
Regardless, the acknowledgement of Egyptian military involvement in the crackdowns on activists and journalists comes only four days after Crowley praised the military. "We are very impressed with the posture and the professionalism displayed by the Egyptian military," Crowley said at a Feb. 3 press briefing.
The military's involvement in the raids is a troubling indicator for the Obama administration and others that the army is not altogether playing a mediating role during Egypt's transition process.
"It's a worrying sign of things to come," Heba Morayef, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch," told McClatchy, "because the military is going to play a big role going forward."
The Obama administration's message on Egypt and the fate of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been evolving ever since protesters took to the streets of Cairo on Jan. 25, but conflicting messages from different parts of the administration are complicating the U.S. stance going forward.
The White House has been sending out the message that the U.S. is pushing the Mubarak regime to keep making further concessions to the opposition and that the transition to new leaders must begin immediately. Meanwhile, the State Department and its handpicked envoy have been more supportive of Mubarak and his new vice president, Omar Suleiman; and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now has explicitly endorsed Suleiman as the man to oversee the transition process.
The latest sign of this split inside the administration came over the weekend when it was announced that Mubarak's son, Gamal Mubarak, would step down as head of the ruling National Democratic Party.
"As the President has repeatedly said, Egyptians will be the ones that decide how this transition occurs. We welcome any step that provides credibility to that process," Tommy Vietor, National Security Council spokesman told reporters via email.
"We view this as a positive step toward the political change that will be necessary and look forward to additional steps," a senior administration official said, indicating that this official wanted the regime to do more to satisfy the opposition's grievances.
Those comments stand in contrast to statements over the weekend by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her handpicked unofficial envoy to Mubarak, Frank Wisner, who was revealed to be working with a the lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which has Mubarak as a client.
"There are forces at work in any society, and particularly one that is facing these kinds of challenges, that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own specific agenda," Clinton told the Munich Security Conference over the weekend. "Which is why I think it's important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed by now Vice President Omar Suleiman."
At the conference, Wisner went even further than Clinton, endorsing not only the leadership of Suleiman but also outwardly calling for Mubarak to stay in power throughout the transition process.
"We need to get a national consensus around the preconditions for the
next step forward. The president must stay in office to steer those
changes," Wisner told the conference.
"I believe that President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical -- it's
his chance to write his own legacy."
In an interview with NPR on Feb. 6, Clinton was forced to distance herself from Wisner's remarks. "He does not speak for the American government; he does not reflect our policies," Clinton said. She also refused to weigh in on the future of Mubarak: "Now, again, this is up to the Egyptian people."
But even Clinton's comments at the conference, supporting the process put forth by Suleiman, go further than what the White House has said, and further than what Obama said in his Sunday interview with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly.
"The Egyptian people want freedom, they want free and fair elections, they want a representative government, they want a responsive government. So what we've said is, you've got to start a transition now," Obama said.
Clinton spoke on Feb. 5 with Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik and emphasized "the need to ensure that the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people are met, and that a broad cross-section of political actors and civil society have to be a part of the Egyptian-led process," a State Department readout of the conversation stated.
Throughout the weekend, the National Security Council continued to hold 8:30 a.m. morning meetings with senior officials from several agencies at the White House, and President Obama continued to call leaders around the world over the weekend to discuss the situation in Egypt, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
Experts noted that the administration understands that there is a limit to the influence it has with regard to how the Mubarak regime will engage the new process of reform. But, at the very least, the administration must defend the ideas that all stakeholders are included and that the reform process is legitimate and based on sound democratic practices.
"What's most important is for us to have a set of principles for an Egyptian government to support," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Despite what appears to be greater calm on the streets in Egypt over the weekend, the State Department sent out a new Travel Warning on Sunday, Feb. 6, that instructs all American citizens to leave Egypt now.
The new, stronger alert replaces a previous Travel Warning from Feb. 1 that called for the departure of non-emergency U.S. government personnel and their families. The State Department had been chartering planes to help evacuate American citizens from Cairo, but those flights have now stopped. Nevertheless, the new Travel Warning calls for all citizens to leave Egypt, noting the potential for more violence in the offing.
"U.S. citizens should consider leaving Egypt as soon as they can safely do so, due to ongoing political and social unrest," the Travel Warning stated. "Large-scale demonstrations with the potential for violence continue in several areas of the country, and there are periodic overland travel disruptions."
The international airport in Cairo is open and has availability on outgoing flights, the State Department said, adding that travelers can also leave Egypt from airports in Luxor, Alexandria, and Aswan.
"Do not wait for a reply from the embassy or the Department of State before traveling to the nearest airport; further delay is not advised," the warning stated.
The State Department is also calling on U.S. citizens to avoid all demonstrations and to not go near Tahrir Square, for fear that foreigners could again become targets of violence.
Travelers are still encouraged to register in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) at https://travelregistration.state.gov. If you are in Egypt and have an emergency, you can contact the embassy at EmergencyEgyptUSC@state.gov or at 1-202-501-4444 during business hours and after hours at 2797-3300.
As the Obama administration works to encourage the Egyptian government and opposition groups to sit down together and chart a path forward, they are grappling with problem of what to do about a legal system in Egypt that is inherently unfair but that remains the law of the land.
The Obama administration's message is that the path forward in Egypt must be negotiated between all of the stakeholders in Egypt rather than imposed from abroad. However, the administration also has concrete ideals and standards its wants to see included in that process and officials are involved in discussing those details with the Egyptian government.
"The future of Egypt will be determined by its people... That transition must initiate a process that respects the universal rights of the Egyptian people and that leads to free and fair elections. And the details of this transition will be worked out by Egyptians," President Barack Obama said Friday. "What we can do, though, is affirm the core principles that are going to be involved in that transition."
Behind the scenes, administration officials are in fact getting into the details of the process. "[O]fficials from both governments are continuing talks about a plan in which Mr. [Omar] Suleiman, backed by Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, chief of the Egyptian armed forces, and Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the defense minister, would immediately begin a process of constitutional reform," the New York Times reported.
The details of that constitutional reform are crucial because they will determine the transition of power and whether or not the coming presidential elections are free and fair. Also, the process of constitutional reform will be the first test of whether the regime led by President Hosni Mubarak is actually allowing opposition groups to participate in a substantive manner.
The Obama administration, which has placed itself somewhere between the positions of the Egyptian government and the protesters by calling for a transition of government now but not calling for Mubarak's immediate departure, is well aware of these realities, according to experts close to top officials.
"The White House recognizes that there's a legal nightmare looming and that the establishment in Egypt is putting its bet on the fact that its fortunes rise the longer those knots remain tied," said the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons.
He said that the White House would like to see the immediate establishment of a governing council -- made up of a cross section of groups representing various Egyptian political entities -- that would take temporary stewardship of the government and be caretakers as the path forward is determined.
"You either do government and legal reform in one massive fell swoop, which none of the parties will agree to, or you basically say that the current system is so broken, you must give super powers to an anointed group of rivals and co-task them with the responsibility of getting from here to there," Clemons said.
But it will be a Herculean task untangling the Egyptian constitution and legal framework, seeing as so much is weighted toward the regime. For example, Article 5 would need to be amended to allow religiously based political parties to participate. Article 76 must be amended if independent candidates are to be allowed. Law No. 40 for 1977 needs to be changed to ensure that the committee that vets political parties is independent and not filled with government ministers. Law No. 174 for 2005 would have to be amended to allow monitors at election stations.
Voter registration in Egypt is also plagued with problems. The emergency law in place since 1981 significantly constrains political activity that could impact any future elections. Laws and regulations on campaign finance have to be enforced. And the list goes on and on.
The Brookings Institution's Robert Kagan said that basing the next round of elections on exiting Egyptian law is a recipe for disaster. "You wouldn't expect to have elections in Russia after communism based on Soviet laws, would you?" he said in an interview with The Cable.
The Egyptian government can't be left to its own devices to decide what those changes might be, Kagan said.
"This is a transition, there's going to have to be some agreement on the rules of the road. Maybe some of it can be based on Egyptian law," he said. "There's going to have to be agreement from the government, the military and the opposition on how to move forward."
How much of a role the U.S. can play in that process is not yet determined, but in order to support democratic values as well as to try and promote an outcome that protects U.S. interests of regional stability, the Obama administration has to at least try, said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"What's most important is for us to have a set of principles for an Egyptian government to support," Satloff said. "The U.S. has a possibility to help Egypt build a new system that is democratic and stable. Those things are not mutually exclusive and the U.S. should help them build it."
Congress is out ahead of the administration in calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down and for the United States to cut off military aid to his regime. But while some believe the White House is using Congress to send Mubarak tough messages they don't want to -- or can't -- send themselves, it appears that Congress is reacting to events independently from the administration.
Thursday evening, all 100 senators passed a resolution that calls on Mubarak to immediate transfer power to an interim caretaker government, for that government to immediately begin a transparent process toward a free election, for the presence of international election monitors on the ground in Egypt, and "expresses deep concern over any organization that espouses an extremist ideology, including the Muslim Brotherhood."
The resolution was led by two unlikely bedfellows, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ).
Congress's stance is markedly more assertive than that of the Obama administration, which still won't publicly call for Mubarak to leave office immediately. And the administration is not going anywhere near making comments about the Muslim Brotherhood.
Experts said the administration actually benefits from having a Congress that sends stronger messages and places outside pressure on the Egyptian government.
"Whether it's a conscious or unconscious, there's a useful good cop bad cop element to all this. The administration doesn't have to overtly threaten aid to the military, but it's very useful for the Egyptian military to know that their aid could be cut off," said the Brookings Institution's Robert Kagan. "I wouldn't be surprised if the administration, without engineering this, welcomes the pressure from Congress."
But both the White House and the Senate argue strenuously that any benefits from this dual messaging are purely accidental, and Congressional moves such as the Kerry-McCain resolution are not being coordinated with the White House.
"This legislation was crafted by Senators Kerry and McCain without input from the White House," National Security Staff spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.
"The White House was not consulted. The resolution was the product of an agreement between Senator Kerry and Senator McCain," SFRC spokesman Frederick Jones said to The Cable.
Even Kerry's Feb.1 op-ed in the New York Times, which was also out ahead of the administration's message at that time in calling for Mubarak to step aside, was not coordinated with the White House, Jones insisted.
So what about McCain's call on Wednesday for Mubarak to step aside now? At the time, due to McCain's meeting with Obama earlier that day, that seemed like an idea coordinated with the White House. But no, both sides insist that was not a move planned in conjunction with the White House.
"Senator McCain has been closely monitoring the situation in Egypt and the region as a whole - its McCain being McCain," said McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan, who pointed out that McCain sponsored a similar resolution last year with Sen. Russ Feingold. The Cable reported this week that resolution died during the lame duck session.
There are other signs that Capitol Hill's tough message on Egypt is not following a White House lead. On Thursday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Ops, declared that U.S. aid to Egypt was on hold until the crisis gets sorted out.
"The fact of the matter is, there's not going to be further foreign aid to Egypt until this gets settled," Leahy told Congressional Quarterly. "Certainly I do not intend to bring it through my committee."
That's exactly the opposite of the message administration officials are sending to Egypt, considering that they are depending on their relationship with the Egyptian military to provide leverage in helping guide the crisis back to some measure of stability.
"We will evaluate the actions of the government of Egypt in making and reviewing decisions about aid. That continues," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Feb. 3.
The administration's position on aid to Egypt was supported on Thursday by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is expected to become the next ranking Republican on Leahy's subcommittee. On the Senate floor on Thursday, Graham asked lawmakers to "consider the consequences of such an action. Give the Egyptian people a chance to work this out."
Experts who are in touch with the administration agree that while the administration has been consulting with Capitol Hill, the notion that the two branches are working together on coordinating the U.S. government's message to Egypt just isn't true.
"Congress is just being Congress," said the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons.
House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) will bring two top national security officials to Capitol Hill next week to testify on the administration's policy concerning Egypt, and its implications for the escalating crisis there.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy will testify next Thursday before the GOP-led committee. But before Ros-Lehtinen hears from the administration officials, she will first call upon two former Republican officials for their take on the upheaval in Egypt: Former NSC Middle East senior director Elliott Abrams and Lorne Craner, a former assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor during President George W. Bush's first term. Craner is now president of the International Republican Institute.
Ros-Lehtinen, who has already pledged to examine cutting aid to countries that don't support U.S. interests, called this week for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to go further than his promise not to run for president again in September.
"Continuing with the existing timeline for elections
is not going to help stabilize the situation in Egypt. It will only embolden
the extremist elements and frustrate the Egyptian people, who seek peaceful,
legitimate, democratic change," read a statement she released on Feb. 1.
"Far-off promises of change won't cut it after decades of waiting for political
and economic reforms."
But Ros-Lehtinen might also use the hearings to publicize the argument that certain elements of the Egyptian opposition, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, might have be excluded from the new process.
"Further, opposition leaders must categorically reject the involvement of extremist elements who are trying to use this crisis to gain power, hijack Egypt's future, and seriously damage Egypt's relationship with the United States, Israel, and others," she said.
On Jan. 29, Ros-Lehtinen set out what she sees as the standards by which the Obama administration should judge opposition groups.
"The U.S. should learn from past mistakes and support a process which only includes candidates who meet basic standards for leaders of responsible nations: Candidates who have publicly renounced terrorism, uphold the rule of law, recognize Egypt's international commitments including its nonproliferation obligations and its peace agreement with the Jewish State of Israel, and who ensure security and peace with its neighbors," she said in a statement.
When the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo was raided by state security forces on Thursday, Human Rights Watch researcher Daniel Williams was swept up in the arrests. But before he was carted off to prison, Williams had the presence of mind to call a friend in Cairo and leave his cell phone line open, to broadcast the raid as it unfolded.
The Law Center is a hub and meeting space for various human rights and civil society groups in Egypt and has been amazingly active since the protests began Jan. 25. On Thursday morning, a joint squad of police and military personnel in their respective uniforms raided the Center, interrogated all inside, and forcibly transported dozens of Egyptians and foreigners alike to an unknown detention facility, where Williams remains now.
Before his cell phone was confiscated, the person on the other end of the line, who must remain anonymous for his own safety, heard the violent details of the incident. Police and army personnel were heard ordering the activists up against the wall, started yelling at them, and then claimed they were there to protect them from the pro-regime thugs who were assembled and chanting just outside the doors and who harassed the activists as they were escorted from the building.
"We could let you go out in the crowd and they will kill you or you can come with us," the police and army personnel said, according to Human Rights Watch Washington Director Tom Malinowski, who has been working furiously to try to free Williams and the others arrested in Thursday's crackdown by coordinating efforts with administration officials and human rights groups in Washington and Cairo.
Following the on-site interrogations, the police and army personnel accused all the Egyptians working at the Law Center of being affiliated with Hamas and accused all the foreigners at the Center of being affiliated with Israeli intelligence service Mossad.
"So it's a Hamas-Mossad conspiracy apparently," Malinowski told The Cable with a sigh.
Meanwhile, human rights groups in Washington have been working closely though a stream of emails and phone call with the Obama administration to share information, coordinate action, and press the Mubarak regime to halt the arrests and release the imprisoned activists and journalists.
Primarily, this effort by the administration is run out of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, where Ambassador Margaret Scobey has taken the lead on maintaining ties to Egyptian non-governmental organizations and political opposition groups, instructing her staff to reach out to them to make sure they are safe and sharing information about what's going on. There are also officials in the State Department and the National Security Council who have longstanding ties with these groups and are working the phones on a constant basis, an administration official said, declining to provide details of those interactions.
"The Obama administration has raised with the Egyptian government the need to release people who have been detained for peaceful activism or journalism," Malinowski said. The list of foreign journalists reported to be under arrest is changing moment to moment.
For those in the human rights community who have been watching the crisis in Egypt descend into violence, the regime is clearly responsible.
"What we've seen in the last 24 hours is a counter attack by the ruling party and security apparatus of Egypt, which may be willing to concede Mubarak but isn't willing to concede the dictatorship," said Malinowski. "These thugs are part of the ruling party's army, they deploy it routinely on election days to intimidate voters and they deployed it yesterday as well."
The reported direct involvement of the Egyptian military in the raids is unsettling because until yesterday, the military had been largely neutral in the clashes between the pro-Mubarak and anti-regime groups. But it's not known if they are totally complicit in the crackdown or if they are participating in order to prevent the police from becoming too brutal.
The Obama administration is working hard behind the scenes, especially through senior defense officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to impress upon the Egyptian military the need to protect protestors and support a peaceful government transition. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen spoke Wednesday with Egyptian Army Lt. Gen. Sami Enan about the clashes and the military's role.
"He assures me that they're very focused on this, and they will continue to be a stabilizing influence within their country," Mullen said after the call. "So far, the Egyptian military have handled themselves exceptionally well."
But in light of the raid on the Law Center, human rights activists are no longer sure the military is neutral.
"The military's stance toward yesterday's counterattack is ambiguous," Malinowski said. "But as bad as things are, they would be worse if not for the pressure the administration has been putting on the military."
Meanwhile, the Egypt Working Group, a bipartisan team of experts that has been advising the administration, issued a new statement on Thursday calling on the White House to make clear that military aid to Egypt will be suspended if the military fails to protect peaceful protests and the transition doesn't start promptly -- as the administration has demanded.
For those who are working to secure the safety of activists like Williams, how the Egyptian military acts during these crackdowns will expose what their true motivations are going forward.
"This is an important part of the larger picture that the administration is looking at. It's one test of whether the regime, which includes the military, is in fact heeding President Obama's call for transition to orderly democracy."
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) just became the most senior foreign-policy figure in Washington to outwardly call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down from power now.
"Regrettably the time has come 4 Pres. Mubarak 2 step down & relinquish power. It's in the best interest of Egypt, its people & its military," he tweeted Wednesday afternoon.
McCain, who met with President Obama at the White House Wednesday, went further than either the administration or Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who have called for Mubarak not to run again for president but have stopped short of calling for him to relinquish power at this time.
The message from McCain was not some coordinated communications strategy cooked up with the White House, according to our sources, but simply represented McCain's latest analysis of the ever worsening situation on the ground in Egypt and the handling of the crisis by Mubarak and his regime.
Only yesterday, McCain was supporting the administration's official line. On Tuesday, he praised Obama's call for Mubarak to begin an orderly transition to democracy and to not run for reelection.
"I'm not going to try to second-guess the president at this difficult time," McCain told reporters. "I think there should be a transition and an orderly one."
McCain's call for Mubarak to step aside immediately is also notable because McCain has been arguing strenuously in recent days that the Muslim Brotherhood, which stands to benefit from a free election, is a dangerous and violent organization.
"Have no doubt about the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood. They're a radical organization, they support Hamas, and they would be very bad for Egypt," McCain said Tuesday.
Last fall, McCain led a drive to pass a Senate resolution calling on Mubarak to advance political reform and calling on the Obama administration to press Mubarak on human rights. That resolution died before reaching a vote on the Senate floor.
"We've got to be on the right side of history," McCain told The Cable Tuesday. "If you're on the right side of history, everything will turn out OK."
President Barack Obama signed the New START nuclear reductions pact with Russia today at the White House, but no remarks were made and no reporters were allowed into the room.
The White House allowed only still photographs of the signing ceremony, which was attended by Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Richard Lugar (R-IN), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Thad Cochran (R-MS), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Bob Casey (D-PA), Scott Brown (R-MA), and Mike Johanns (R-NE) were invited, but unable to attend.
The private signing ceremony stood in stark contrast to the deluge of high-level publicity the administration gave to the drive to ratify New START, which included press events, speeches, and the like by everybody from President Obama on down through his administration. The White House did not respond to a question about whether the ceremony was closed because of the ongoing crisis in Egypt, but the White House Correspondents Association believes it was only the latest White House maneuver to keep senior officials away from the press as Egypt events unfold.
The WHCA wrote to spokesman Robert Gibbs on Wednesday to complain about the decision.
"On behalf of the White House Correspondents Association we are writing to protest in the strongest possible terms the White House's decision to close the President's Cabinet meeting on Tuesday and his signing of the START Treaty today to the full press pool," the WHCA Board wrote. "The START treaty was held up as one of the President's most important foreign policy priorities for almost a year dating back to the trip to Prague last spring."
The White House press corps, which has had a rocky relationship with Gibbs for a long time, sees this as the latest example of the White House failing to provide the media with regular access to officials and information since the beginning of the Egypt crisis.
"Prior to the President's statement Tuesday night, the press corps had not received a substantive update from the White House all day on the situation in Egypt. In addition, the press corps did not have an on-camera briefing, or an off-camera gaggle, with you yesterday to ask the White House about its decision-making process during this major foreign policy crisis," the WHCA board wrote. "Now for two straight days the full press pool is being shut out of events that have typically been open and provided opportunities [to] try to ask the President a question."
Clinton will exchange the articles of ratification for New START with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Feb. 5 in Munich, after which the treaty will officially enter into force.
Last fall, a bipartisan group of senators led a months-long drive to pass a resolution calling for greater freedom and democracy in Egypt. The resolution died last December due to a fatal mix of divided loyalties, lobbying influence, and secret Senate holds.
Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) led the effort to press Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to move toward more free and fair elections via a Senate resolution (PDF) which called for "supporting democracy, human rights, and civil liberties in Egypt." First introduced last July, the resolution quickly gained the support of a range of senators, including Al Franken (D-MN), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and Sam Brownback (R-KS).
The resolution's supporters tried several times to bring it up for a Senate vote, once before the August congressional recess, again before the Egyptian parliamentary elections in November, and then again during the post-election lame-duck session. But due to the objections of two key senators and secret holds by two other senators, the resolution never saw the light of day on the Senate floor.
"It's too bad; it was blocked by members on both sides of the aisle and the administration opposed it too. It was not helpful; it sent all the wrong signals to Egypt," McCain told The Cable on Tuesday in an interview. "We called for observers to monitor the elections, and we got no support from the administration on that either."
In addition to calling for election monitors, the resolution urged Mubarak to fulfill his promise to lift the emergency law in Egypt, release political prisoners, and respect human rights. It also would have called on the Obama administration to emphasize political reform and human rights in its dealings with the Mubarak regime.
According to three senior Senate aides who worked on the issue, the two senators who were most active behind the scenes to prevent the resolution from moving forward were Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Roger Wicker (R-MS). Feinstein, as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had concerns about the resolution's effect on the U.S. relationship with the Mubarak regime and worried that it would jeopardize U.S.-Egyptian cooperation on a range of sensitive national security issues.
Wicker, these three Senate aides said, worked against the resolution's passage in part due to his long-standing relationship with a top Washington lobbyist, Wicker's former House colleague Bob Livingston, whose firm was being paid by the government of Egypt under a years-long lobbying contract.
Livingston's firm makes up one-third of the entity known as the PLM Group, a lobbying entity created to advocate on behalf of the Mubarak regime. The firm also includes Tony Podesta and former Democratic Congressman Toby Moffett. According to the Washington Post and disclosure filings, Mubarak has paid PLM over $4 million since 2007.
While PLM was lobbying against the resolution, Livingston personally called Wicker to ask him to do what he could to stall the measure. When asked by The Cable on Tuesday about his opposition to the resolution, Wicker said, "I would have to refresh my recollection."
An aide to Wicker confirmed to The Cable that Wicker did in fact talk with Livingston about the resolution, but the aide said that Wicker was simply doing his due diligence to make sure the resolution was not pushed through hastily.
"Senator Wicker's main goal was to make sure the resolution was worded in a way to make sure the resolution was productive and to make sure that Egypt was recognized as an ally and a partner," the aide said.
Phil LaVelle, a spokesman for Feinstein, would not discuss the senator's effort to alter the resolution to make it more acceptable to the Egyptians, but he did acknowledge that her office stood in the way of the resolution for a time.
"Senator Feinstein had initial concerns; we worked with the co-sponsors to get those concerns resolved, and at the end of the day she did not object to its passage," LaVelle told The Cable.
It's true that during the lame-duck session, when a pared-down version of the resolution was being circulated for the third and final time, neither Wicker nor Feinstein formally objected to it. But they didn't have to. In November, two unnamed Democratic senators placed secret holds on the resolution, preventing it from being brought up by unanimous consent and effectively killing its chances of moving forward.
None of the Senate aides who spoke with The Cable know which two Democratic senators secretly held up the resolution in the end. But for the resolution's supporters, the episode is a stark illustration of how Washington policy over Egypt was caught in a tangled mess of competing interests and how broad bipartisan efforts can be torpedoed by a small number of lawmakers.
For McCain, the resolution was a missed opportunity for the U.S. government to put pressure on Mubarak so that the revolt might not have happened and to show the world that America stands behind the principles of democracy and human rights.
"We want to make sure we're ahead of events and not behind," he said. "And we've got to make sure we're on the right side of history."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.