The State Department is planning a new, sprawling embassy compound in Mexico City, but it has quietly scuttled how it was to select a construction firm for it.
The new complex will be erected on eight acres the U.S. purchased in the city's Nuevo Polanco neighborhood, and cost $400 million to $500 million, State Department officials said. The main building will be about 515,000 square feet, making it one of the U.S.'s largest embassies. There also will be a 281,150 square-foot parking garage with space for 665 vehicles, a 70,900 square-foot warehouse and maintenance facility, a 13,850 square-foot residence for Marine Corps embassy security guards, and an 11,300 square-foot facility to securely allow vehicles and pedestrians to enter.
The new embassy will be built in a country in which drug cartels have operated with "near impunity" in recent years, according to newly declassified U.S. documents. They suggest the U.S. is extremely concerned about drug violence, in which more than 100,000 people have been killed or disappeared since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderón vowed to take on the cartels.
U.S. personnel have come under fire in the process. In one example, two employees from the embassy in Mexico City were wounded about 35 miles south of the city in August 2012 after federal police opened fire on their vehicle. They were reportedly traveling to a Mexican navy base.
In June, the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Building Operations announced that it wanted construction firms to submit qualifications for the new Mexico City embassy in order to pre-qualify them to be involved in the project. It has quietly reversed course, saying its initial solicitation to industry is "cancelled in its entirety" because plans have been altered. The State Department did not explain why in its announcement, but said a new, future solicitation to industry for the project "is under acquisition review.
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Siding with the Brits in their escalating feud with Ecuador about the status of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the State Department declared today that the United States does not believe in the concept of ‘diplomatic asylum' as a matter of international law.
Ecuador dragged Britain into an emergency meeting of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States Friday at OAS headquarters in Washington, calling for a foreign ministers' meeting following the British threat to go into the Ecuadoran embassy in London and get Assange, who is wanted for questioning in connection with sexual assault charges in Sweden.
Ecuador formally granted Assange political asylum Thursday, but today the State Department said the United States doesn't agree that such a thing exists.
"The United States is not a party to the 1954 OAS Convention on Diplomatic Asylum and does not recognize the concept of diplomatic asylum as a matter of international law," the office of Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a Friday statement. "We believe this is a bilateral issue between Ecuador and the United Kingdom and that the OAS has no role to play in this matter."
That statement is a shift from the stance the State Department took yesterday, when Nuland said that Washington would stay out of the dispute and that the American position was that the Brits were making decisions based on British, not international law.
"This is an issue between the Ecuadorans, the Brits, the Swedes," Nuland said Thursday. "It is an issue among the countries involved and we're not planning to interject ourselves."
The United States can only formally grant asylum to political figures once they actually are on U.S. soil, as dictated by the Refugee Act of 1980. But the U.S. has a long record of protecting political targets inside U.S. embassy complexes, most recently with Chinese blind dissident Chen Guangcheng last December.
That might seem like a distinction without a difference to many. However, Chen never sought or was granted asylum; he simply asked to study in the United States and the Chinese government eventually assented.
In 1989, the U.S. granted "temporary refuge" to Feng Lizhi, a leader of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement, who fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and stayed there for 384 days before Chinese authorities allowed him to go to the United States, but officially only for "medical treatment."
Joseph Stalin's daughter Svetlana sought refuge in 1967 via the U.S. Embassy in India and was eventually granted U.S. citizenship.
The war of words between Britain and Ecuador escalated Thursday over the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but the State Department said the United States is staying out of it.
Ecuador formally granted Assange political asylum Thursday as the WikiLeaks founder continues to hole up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where he has been since June avoiding extradition to Sweden for questioning related to allegations of sexual assault. Earlier this week, the British government affirmed its right to go into the embassy and get Assange, provoking a harsh diplomatic response from the Ecuadoran government.
"The United Kingdom does not recognize the principle of diplomatic asylum," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters Thursday. "There is no ... threat here to storm the embassy. We are talking about an Act of Parliament in this country which stresses that it must be used in full conformity with international law."
Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said that he fears if Assange is sent to Sweden he could then be sent on to the United States, where he would not be able to receive a fair trial. Patino called Assange an enemy of the "corrupt" media and U.S. "imperialism."
In Washington, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Thursday that the U.S. government takes no position on the extradition of Assange to Sweden and that the United States is not involved in the issue at the diplomatic level.
"This is an issue between the Ecuadorans, the Brits, the Swedes," said Nuland. "It is an issue among the countries involved and we're not planning to interject ourselves."
Nor has the United States gotten involved on the issue of Assange's current location or where he might end up, Nuland said. She declined to say if the United States supported the British position that it does not recognize the principle of political asylum in the first place.
Reporters at the briefing pointed out that the U.S. has invoked the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in the past, which states, "The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enterthem, except with the consent of the head of the mission." But Nuland declined to get into that issue, saying only that the Brits were invoking British law in this case.
"Well, if you're asking me for a global legal answer to the question. I'll have to take it and consult 4,000 lawyers," Nuland said. "With regard to the decision that the Brits are making or the statement that they made, our understanding was that they were leaning on British law in the assertions that they made with regard to future plans, not on international law."
Pressed on whether or not the United States has been involved in the Assange extradition in any way, Nuland said not as far as she knows. She added that she doesn't think the Justice Department was planning on charging him with anything anyway.
"My information is that we have not involved ourselves in this," she said. "But with regard to the charge that the U.S. was intent on persecuting him, I reject that completely."
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling to Senegal, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa through August 10. She is accompanied by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, and Counselor and Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling to Senegal, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa through August 10. Wednesday, the Secretary met with Senegal President Macky Sall in Dakar. She is accompanied by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Assistnat Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, and Counselor and Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills.
Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman is in New York for the Arms Trade Treaty Conference at the U.N. Observers say the talks are "a week behind schedule" as the July 27 deadline approaches. The National Rifle Association's opposition to the treaty on the grounds that it could violate citizens' Second Amendment rights promises to hinder President Barack Obama's goal of signing the treaty on deadline.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet with World Bank president Dr. Jim Yong Kim in Washington.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Latvian president Andris Berzins, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, and Foreign Minister Edgar Rinkevics in Riga. She will depart for St. Petersburg later today to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation's Women and the Economy Forum with Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer and hold a bilateral meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Clinton is accompanied by Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan. She then heads to Geneva for an emergency meeting on Syria.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, and Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomoja in Helsinki to discuss issues including Russia, energy and the environment, and women in Afghanistan. Clinton, who is accompanied by Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, also attended a Climate and Clean Air Coalition event and toured the Marimekko Factory and Design Space. Next stop: Riga, Latvia.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departs today for Europe, where she will travel to Finland, Latvia, and Russia through June 30. Tomorrow, Clinton will hold bilateral meetings with senior Finnish officials in Helsinki to discuss foreign-policy issues including Syria, Iran, and the European economy. On June 28, Clinton will travel to Riga to meet with senior Latvian officials about NATO missions and the country's economic recovery. From there, the secretary will go to St. Petersburg, where she will lead the U.S. delegation to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation's Women and the Economy Forum. Clinton, who is accompanied by Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, is also scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and civil society leaders.
Assistant Secretary for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Rick Barton is in Central America through June 29, where he will travel to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to meet with embassy partners and key stakeholders about issues related to the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), such as violence, corruption, human rights, and criminal organizations. The U.S. has allocated $260 million to CARSI as the proliferation of narcotics, weapons, and gangs has destabilized the region's local and national governments.
Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Mike Hammer are in Moscow for the final day of P5+1 talks with Iran. The talks "broke no new ground" as of Monday evening, the New York Times reported, and sanctions imposed on Iranian oil by the United States and the European Union are set to begin in July. One Iranian diplomat described Monday's atmosphere as "not positive at all," and many consider the talks deadlocked, but Tehran is reportedly willing to discuss the production of high-grade uranium, which the six powers want to negotiate down to a lower level of purity.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Los Cabos, Mexico, with President Barack Obama for the G-20 summit, where she will participate in discussions focusing on the European economic crisis. Clinton is slated to hold a bilateral meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu this afternoon.
President Obama is expected meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the summit -- a meeting that could be tense after Clinton accused Russia of sending attack helicopters to the Syrian regime. Robert Hormats, Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, is accompanying the secretary and the president.
The Senate voted 62-37 Thursday to approve the nomination of Maria Carmen Aponte to be the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, roughly six months after they rejected her nomination in a vote last December.
Aponte had been sent to El Salvador in late 2010 as ambassador through a recess appointment because her nomination was held up by Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Marco Rubio (R-FL). DeMint had been demanding more information about Aponte's long-ago romance with Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban-born insurance salesman who was alleged to have ties to both the FBI and Castro's intelligence apparatus.
Her recess appointment expired at the end of 2011 and a late December effort to confirm her, led by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) failed. Aponte had to return to Washington and leave her post.
Since December, Hispanic and Puerto Rican advocacy groups have been upping the pressure on Republican senators to abandon their opposition to the Aponte nomination. Congressional sources said that Rubio was confronted by these groups as well as multiple major donors over the issue.
"Senator Marco Rubio's support will be key to overcoming these hurdles and getting Ambassador Aponte confirmed. Without his backing, the U.S. will lose a stellar diplomat in an important part of the world," read a call to action by the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda.
In today's vote, Rubio switched sides and voted for Aponte's confirmation.
Other GOP senators who switched over to support Aponte were Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IL), who has little to lose by bucking his caucus now that he has been voted out of his Senate seat. Still 37 Republican senators voted against Aponte.
After the vote, Reid said that the White House had been intensely engaged over the last few weeks on the Aponte nomination. For the White House, the nomination is a way to show support for and connections with the Hispanic community in an election year.
"I'm so glad she will be able to renew her old job," said Reid. "She's an excellent ambassador. She served with distinction and that's why she was confirmed today."
U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Colombia this weekend, but they won't give any ground on the demand by several regional leaders to move toward a different approach in the war on drugs.
The issue of decriminalizing and perhaps even legalizing cocaine, heroin, and marijuana after decades of fighting a bitter and bloody war on drug cartels in the region will be the "gorilla in the room" when regional leaders meet April 14 and 15 in Cartagena, Colombia for the first Summit of the Americas since 2009, according to regional experts. The issue is not on the official agenda, but several regional leaders plan to raise it, much to the chagrin of the Obama administration.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina demanded a more public debate over Latin American drug policy in January, calling for a regional strategy for decriminalization "as soon as possible." In an April 7 editorial, Perez said, "Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that consumption and production should be legalized but within certain limits and conditions. And legalization therefore does not mean liberalization without controls."
Several other regional leaders have followed suit, seeking to adjust what they see as a failed policy and shift more responsibility toward the world's number one drug consuming country, the United States. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who is hosting the summit, agrees that a having a new drug strategy must be on the agenda.
"Colombia, and I myself, have put this issue on the table, because if there is any country that has suffered more from drug trafficking, that has shed more blood, it's Colombia," he said in a speech last month.
But a White House official said Wednesday that the Obama administration is only willing to discuss law enforcement and drug education, not a wholesale reform of the current approach to drugs.
"U.S. policy on this is very clear. The president doesn't support decriminalization, but he does consider this is a legitimate debate. And it's a legitimate debate because it helps to demystify this as an option," said Dan Restrepo, the National Security Council's senior director for Latin America, on a Wednesday conference call with reporters.
Restrepo referred back to last month's comments by Vice President Joe Biden, who traveled to Mexico and Honduras and said that a drug policy debate was "legitimate" but not likely to change the U.S. position. He also said drug consumption is not just a U.S. problem.
"As the consumption of drugs spreads throughout the Americas, the responsibility to address this challenge needs to spread," he said. "This is a shared responsibility... Brazil is the second largest cocaine consuming country in the world."
According to the 2011 World Drug Report, prepared by the U.N. office of drugs and crime, Brazil has about 900,000 cocaine users, roughly 0.7 percent of adults aged 15-64. In the United States, about 2.4 percent of adults in that age range use cocaine, a total of 5 million people.
Restrepo said the United States would be willing to discuss how to reduce crime and violence surrounding drugs, but not decriminalization or legalization. He also said there was no consensus on the issue in the region one way or the other.
"This is not a debate where one country is standing in a very different place than all the other countries," he said. "The United States is among the countries who does not see this as a solution and does not see this as a viable option because of the problems that come with it and because it won't end transnational crimes."
(The website InSight Crime has put together a map of the drug decriminalization and legalization positions of all the countries in the region.)
On the call, Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes tried to dispel the notion widely held around the region that the president has neglected Latin America and failed to live up to promises he made early in his presidency, such as progress in relations with Cuba and Venezuela.
"Over the course of the last three years, President Obama has significantly bolstered the image of the United States in the region and U.S. leadership, in survey after survey, is far more welcome and respected throughout the Americas," he said. "And we believe that has opened the door to greater economic and security cooperation with the countries of the region."
Cuba's Fidel Castro won't be at the Colombia Summit; Cuba is banned from participating. Venezuelan ailing President Hugo Chávez will be there, but don't expect Obama to shake his hand, as he did at the last summit in 2009. The only U.S. senator confirmed to attend is Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL).
On the way to the summit, Obama will give a speech at the port of Tampa, FL, to talk about trade and export opportunities between the United States and Latin America. He arrives in Cartagena the evening of the 13th and will have dinner with the other regional leaders. On Saturday, Obama will attend a "CEO Summit of the Americas" with Santos and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
The summit plenary sessions will run through the afternoon of the 14th. On the morning of the 15th, there will be a leaders' retreat, but not before the official photo is taken. Many are watching to see if Obama dons one of the signature "guayaberas" that are being tailored specifically for him to wear on his visit.
Before heading home, Obama will meet with Caribbean leaders and then have a bilateral meeting with Santos, a press conference, and one final event at a local church.
Clinton will stay on in the region, traveling to Brasilia April 16 and 17. On April 16, she will lead the U.S. delegation for the third U.S.-Brazil Global Partnership Dialogue. On April 17, Clinton will join with Rousseff at the first annual high-level meeting of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which is an effort to share technology that reduces government corruption.
Clinton will then go directly to Brussels April 18 and 19 to participate in a joint meeting of NATO foreign and defense ministers and to hold a bilateral meeting with Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders. She will also participate in a foreign ministers' meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on April 19.
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Vice President Joe Biden is in Mexico today to meet with all three candidates in that country's presidential election, but the White House isn't taking any sides.
Biden left Washington Sunday night and is in Mexico today, meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderón. But Calderon is barred from running for reelection in July, so Biden is taking the opportunity to visit with his possible successors. On Tuesday, Biden will travel to Honduras to meet with President Pepe Lobo.
"This trip is the latest chapter in the administration's sustained, high-level engagement with our partners in the Americas. The economic security, familial, historic and cultural ties we share with the Americas and particularly with Mexico and Central America, are among the most consequential we have as a country," said Biden's National Tony Blinken on a conference call with reporters.
"The ongoing challenge posed by the drug cartels and transnational criminal organizations is one critical shared responsibility. We strongly support Mexico's efforts in dealing with this challenge, and the United States and Mexico are collaborating as never before."
"He'll underscore to each that the United States will continuing working with President Calderon and his administration until the final day that they're in office, and that we look very much forward to working with whomever the Mexican people elect as their next president," Blinken said.
Blinken wouldn't comment on the statements by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) questioning whether one of the Mexican presidential candidates would continue Calderon's commitment to the increased tempo and aggressiveness of the campaign against the Mexican drug cartels.
In a February hearing with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, McCain asked Clapper whether the next Mexican president would keep up the campaign that Calderon began in Dec. 2006. Clapper said yes.
"Well, I might suggest you focus on that question a little more closely, Mr. Director, because I don't believe that's the case, at least with respect to one of the candidates," McCain said, not identifying which candidate he was talking about.
On Tuesday, after meeting with Lobo, Biden will attend a working lunch to prepare for the upcoming Summit of the Americas. At that lunch will be several regional leaders, including the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama.
At that meeting, drug policy is set to be discussed as well, including the increasingly popular proposal in Central America of decriminalizing drug use and altering the current policy regarding fighting the cartels. But the Obama administration is not on board with what would be seen in the United States as a radical departure from longstanding U.S. drug policy.
"The Obama administration has been quite clear in our opposition to decriminalization or legalization of illicit drugs," said NSC Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs Dan Restrepo. "At the same time, we've also been very open -- the president has said it on numerous occasions, in meetings with leaders and publicly -- of our willingness, our interest, in engaging in a robust dialogue with our partners to determine how we can be most effective in confronting the transnational criminal organizations, and, as in the case in Central America, the gangs that are adversely affecting people's daily lives and daily routines."
Candidate Barack Obama promised to end the time-honored American practice of appointing ambassadors who have no experience in foreign policy, but President Obama has completely ignored that promise, appointing fundraisers to dozens of ambassadorships all over the world.
Today, the State Department revealed that another fundraiser turned ambassador ran her embassy into the ground ... only to return to fundraising and leave the State Department to pick up the pieces.
According to a new State Department inspector general's report on the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas, Ambassador Nicole Avant presided over "an extended period of dysfunctional leadership and mismanagement, which has caused problems throughout the embassy" since she was appointed by the president in 2009. Prior to being America's envoy in the Caribbean, Avant was Southern California finance co-chairwoman of Obama's presidential campaign and vice president of Interior Music Publishing.
According to her glowingly positive Wikipedia page, Avant spent her time in the Bahamas "focused on five priority initiatives: Education, Alternative Energy, Economic and Small Business Development, Women's Empowerment and Raising awareness of the challenges facing people with disabilities."
But according to the State Department's internal investigation, Avant was away from the embassy an inordinate amount of time -- mainly shuttling back and forth to her home in Los Angeles -- and when she was in town, she worked from her residence most of the day.
Avant was absent from the embassy 276 days between September 2009 and November 2011, including 102 "personal" days and 77 "work travel" days to the United States, of which only 23 were on official orders.
"Her extensive travel out of country and preference to work from the Ambassador's residence for a significant portion of the work day contributed to a perception of indifference," the report states. "The frequent absences of the Ambassador contributed to poor mission management."
Avant was out of touch partly because she didn't interact often with the State Department or anyone else in Washington, according to the inspector general. She left that to her deputy chief of mission, whom the report identified as also being poor at management and administration.
"The Ambassador had not had frequent policy-level interaction with the Department or other Washington agencies. At the beginning of her tenure, she relied unduly on her former DCM to attend to day-to-day contacts with the desk and other offices in the Department," says the report. "Interviews in Washington likewise revealed that the front office of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs and other Washington agencies were not in regular contact with the Ambassador about the conduct of her mission. This lack of regular contact contributed to the Ambassador's sense of isolation from the Department."
Avant did take several steps to establish the embassy's equal employment opportunity program -- but not until the inspector general's visit. The embassy's program for young Foreign Service officers was neglected, critical security upgrades were not made, and the embassy paid rent on a vacant office for two years.
One might think there aren't important issues to deal with at a tropical post like the Bahamas. But the IG begs to differ, and made clear that the 154 American and 61 locally hired staff need good leadership.
"The Bahamas is a critical partner in ongoing efforts to ensure the security of the south-east flank of the United States. As it fights drug and human trafficking with U.S. and international support, the Bahamas seeks to maintain its status as a global financial center and as an important tourist destination," the report states.
Under Avant's tenure, it goes on, "cables written in the past year show little political reporting or analysis on international crime, drug smuggling, and illegal migration or on prevention of terrorism."
The inspectors visited the embassy in September and October of 2011. Avant resigned in November.
Since resigning, Avant has been active on the campaign trail. According to a Jan. 31 White House pool report, she joined Michelle Obama at a Beverly Hills residence for a fundraiser along with her husband, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Saranados, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steve Bing, Quincy Jones, Harvey Weinstein, and other celebrities.
A Feb. 15 pool report spotted her dining with Obama at a $35,800 per plate dinner that included George Clooney, Jim Belushi, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa.
Avant is only the latest fundraiser cum ambassador who caused trouble for the boss. Fundraiser/Ambassador Howard Gutman caused a controversy in Belgium last year when he made statements appearing to blame Israel for anti-Semitism.
And fundraiser/ambassador Cynthia Stroum left the U.S. Embassy in Luxembourg in a state of dysfunction after creating an environment that was ""aggressive, bullying, hostile and intimidating," according to a Feb. 2011 State Department investigation.
If the Obama administration is looking for a new envoy to the Bahamas who can right the ship, your humble Cable guy would like to put forth himself for the assignment ... we promise not to use up our personal days.
The Senate voted late Monday to confirm Norm Eisen as ambassador the Czech Republic, but held up the stalled nomination of Maria Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador.
Both Eisen and Aponte are already serving at the posts under recess appointments that were due to expire at the end of this year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) called for two cloture votes Monday night to get past Republican holds on the nominees. The Senate voted to overrule the hold on Eisen by a 70-16 vote, and he was confirmed by a unanimous voice vote shortly after. The Senate failed to override the hold on Aponte. The vote on proceeding to debate over her confirmation failed 49-37.
Republicans once again put politics above policy by blocking the confirmation
of a dedicated public servant," Reid said in a statement following the Aponte
vote. "In the fifteen months Mari Carmen Aponte has served as our ambassador to
El Salvador, she finalized an important international, anti-crime agreement and
forged a strong partnership between our nations. The Puerto Rican community and
all Americans are right to be proud of Ms. Aponte's accomplishments as a
diplomat representing our nation, as I am."
"I am disappointed Republicans continued a long-running trend of obstructing qualified nominees just to score political points. Unfortunately, defeating President [Barack] Obama is more important to Senate Republicans than confirming qualified nominees to represent our country in Latin America," said Reid.
There was broad GOP opposition to the Aponte confirmation, led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). It is unlikely Democrats will try to confirm her again before adjourning for the holiday break. There is also no sign yet that Senate Democratic leadership will try to bring up the confirmation of Matthew Bryza, whose recess appointment as ambassador to Azerbaijan is about to expire, or the confirmation of Mike McFaul, whose nomination to be ambassador to Russia is being held up by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL).
Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable Tuesday morning that he would try to move more nominations this week but he didn't have any specifics.
The Senate will debate and vote on two controversial State Department nominations next week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has announced.
On Dec. 13, the Senate will debate and vote on whether to consider the nominations of Mari Carmen Aponte to be ambassador to El Salvador and Norm Eisen to be ambassador to the Czech Republic. Both are sitting ambassadors who were sent to their posts under recess appointments that expire at the end of the year.
"There will be at least two roll call votes at 5:30 p.m. in relation to the Eisen and Aponte nominations," Reid said on the Senate floor on Thursday night. The votes will be to move on to debating the nominations, not on the nominations themselves. If both votes surpass the 60 senator threshold necessary to achieve cloture, both ambassadors could be formally confirmed by the end of next week.
Reid indicated, but didn't say outright, that there could be more nominations moving next week as well. If the Senate doesn't act this month, the recess appointment of Matthew Bryza to be ambassador to Azerbaijan will expire and he will have to come home.
The nomination of NSC Senior Director Mike McFaul to become ambassador to Russia is also stalled due to a hold by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who wants assurances from the administration it will not give sensitive missile defense data to the Russian Federation.
Reid is personally committed to the Aponte nomination, a Senate Democratic aide told The Cable today.
"Reid's a big fan of hers and he doesn't think her nomination should be a Democratic or Republican issue," the aide said. "He thinks her accomplishments in the past should be proof enough that she's qualified for the position. She's done a lot of work to strengthen U.S. ties with Latin America."
Aponte's nomination to be ambassador to El Salvador was initially held up last year in an effort led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who was demanding more information about Aponte's long-ago romance with Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban-born insurance salesman who allegedly had ties to both the FBI and Castro's intelligence apparatus, according to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation at the time.
DeMint shows no signs of backing down, and Aponte was barely approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a 10-9 vote that fell along party lines.
Eisen was sent to Prague through a recess appointment because of objections by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IO). Grassley is still upset over the June 2009 removal of Gerald Walpin as Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a position where he oversaw government programs such as AmeriCorps.
Eisen, the former White House ethics czar, was a key figure in the controversy and defended the White House's actions. He also made the case to Congress that Walpin was unfit for his position, writing in a letter to senators shortly after the sacking that Walpin "was confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior that led the Board to question his capacity to serve." Walpin called those allegations "absolutely amazing."
Grassley, along with Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), has never dropped the issue of Walpin's firing. Grassley's staffers contributed heavily to a joint House-Senate report released last November, which they say alleged not only that Walpin's firing was handled improperly but also that Eisen misled Congress about the matter.
UPDATE: Reid issued the following statement on the Aponte nomination late Friday afternoon:
Mari Carmen Aponte's accomplished record as our nation's current ambassador to El Salvador should be reason enough for the Senate to confirm her on Monday. In 15 months serving our country, Ms. Aponte has already brokered an important transnational, anti-crime agreement and has strengthened our ties with El Salvador. Experts on the region from across the political spectrum support her confirmation. The Puerto Rican community and all Americans are right to be proud of Ms. Aponte's accomplishments as a diplomat representing our nation, as I am.
Unfortunately, a handful of extreme Republicans are threatening to block her nomination just to score political points. I hope Senate Republicans will put politics aside, and do the right thing for our foreign policy by voting to confirm Ms. Aponte.
At least five U.S. embassies could begin the New Year without an official ambassador at the helm, due to the ongoing feud between the State Department and the Senate over several ambassadorial nominees and secret Senate holds.
As of Jan. 1, if Congress doesn't act by the end of the year, there will be no U.S. ambassador in Russia, India, the Czech Republic, El Salvador, and Azerbaijan. Three of the current ambassadors at those posts (Czech, El Salvador, and Azerbaijan) were placed there by President Barack Obama through recess appointments that expire at the end of this month, but face stiff opposition in the Senate and may not be confirmed for their posts. The nominee for the fourth (Russia) is being held up by GOP senators over issues not related to his qualifications for the job. The India ambassador slot is vacant now and nobody has been nominated to fill it.
U.S. ambassador to Moscow John Beyrle will leave Moscow this month and return to the United States, multiple administration officials confirmed. Obama has nominated National Security Council Senior Director for Russia Mike McFaul to replace him, but McFaul's nomination is being held up in the Senate by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who wants the administration to give Congress assurances that the United States will not share sensitive missile defense data with the Russian Federation. Several other senators may also emerge to oppose the McFaul nomination, several Hill sources report, not due to any personal objections to McFaul, but due to their unhappiness with Obama's reset policy with Russia.
Eight prominent conservative foreign policy experts wrote to Obama today to ask the administration to strike a deal with Kirk in order to facilitate McFaul's confirmation and avoid having a vacancy at the top of the Moscow embassy.
"Time is short if Dr. McFaul is to be in Moscow before the New Year. In the aftermath of the deeply flawed Duma election, it is imperative to have Dr. McFaul's voice heard in Russia as soon as possible. We urge you to work with Senator Kirk's office in order both to protect our national security and to expedite Ambassador-Designate McFaul's confirmation," wrote Eric Edelman, Jamie Fly, Bruce Jackson, Robert Kagan, David Kramer, David Merkel, Steve Rademaker and Randy Scheunemann.
The same group wrote a letter last month praising McFaul as a good choice for ambassador to Russia. Conservatives are torn between their desire to see Congress push back against Obama's Russia policies and their support for McFaul personally.
Another U.S. ambassador nominee that has a lot of conservative support is Norm Eisen, the current ambassador to the Czech Republic. Eisen was sent to the Prague as a recess appointment because of objections by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IO). Grassley is still upset over the June 2009 removal of Gerald Walpin as Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a position where he oversaw government programs such as AmeriCorps.
Eisen, the former White House ethic czar, was a key figure in the controversy and defended the White House's actions. He also made the case to Congress that Walpin was unfit for his position, writing in a letter to senators shortly after the sacking that Walpin "was confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior that led the Board to question his capacity to serve." Walpin called those allegations "absolutely amazing."
Grassley, along with Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), has never dropped the issue of Walpin's firing. Grassley's shop contributed heavily to a joint House-Senate report released last November they say alleged not only that Walpin's firing was handled improperly, but also that Eisen misled Congress about the matter.
A slightly different group of conservative foreign policy hands wrote to Senate Foreign Relations Committee heads John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) today to urge them to push the Eisen confirmation process forward.
"Ambassador Eisen's appointment was already delayed after his initial nomination in 2010, leaving us without an ambassador in Prague at a key moment in U.S.-Czech relations. The absence of an ambassador in 2012 would again send the wrong message to our Czech allies," the experts wrote. "While we support the prerogative of senators to raise concerns about presidential nominees, we believe that in this case, the importance of having an ambassador in Prague as well as Ambassador Eisen's record over the last year should ensure his speedy confirmation."
letter was signed by Fly, Jackson, Scheunemann, Rick Graber, Stuart Levey, Michael Makovsky, Clifford D. May, John
O'Sullivan, Gary Schmitt, Kurt Volker, and Ken Weinstein.
The Cable reported last week that Mari Carmen Aponte, the currently serving U.S ambassador to El Salvador, might have to come back to Washington at the end of the year because her re-nomination process is facing a huge amount of pushback from Senate Republicans.
Aponte's initial nomination to be ambassador to El Salvador was held up last year in an effort led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who was demanding more information about Aponte's long-ago romance with Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban-born insurance salesman who allegedly had ties to both the FBI and Castro's intelligence apparatus, according to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation at the time. She wasn't confirmed, but Obama sent her to El Salvador via a recess appointment, which expires at the end of the year.
DeMint shows no signs of backing down and Aponte was barely approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with a 10-9 vote that fell along party lines.
Another U.S. ambassador who may have to pack his bags this month is Matthew Bryza, Obama's envoy to Azerbaijan. His nomination was being held up last year by two Democrats, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who are seen to be representing the Armenian voting constituencies unhappy with the administration's policy opposing a congressional resolution condemning the 1915 Armenian genocide.
The U.S. Azeris Network (USAN), an Azeri diaspora group, has started a public awareness campaign to push for Bryza's confirmation.
"Armenians are working to get Bryza [to] return to America in January 2012, seeking thereby to paralyze the mission of the US ambassador to Azerbaijan and to show that the Armenian lobby has a veto in relation to who will be the next U.S. ambassador to Baku," USAN said in a statement on Tuesday.
Former Ambassador to India Tim Roemer left his post in June for family reasons. The Obama has yet to nominate anyone to replace him in New Delhi.
The Obama administration keeps on naming new ambassadors, but several key State Department nominees remain stalled in the Senate.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama announced his intention to nominate Joseph Macmanus to be U.S. envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), William Todd to be ambassador to Cambodia, Jonathan Farrar to be ambassador to Panama, and Phyllis Powers to be ambassador to Nicaragua.
Macmanus, who is now principal deputy assistant secretary of state (PDAS) for legislative affairs, replaces Glyn Davies, the new special coordinator for North Korea policy. Previously, Macmanus has served as the executive assistant to Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice.
Todd, who spent the last year in the U.S. embassy in Kabul coordinating development and economic affairs, was previously the U.S. ambassador to Brunei. Joe Donovan, the recently departed PDAS for East Asian and Pacific affairs, had been rumored to be in line for the Cambodia post -- a consolation prize after he was considered as U.S. ambassador to Seoul but then was not selected. Inside South Korea, there was some criticism of Donovan's relatively low profile compared to other U.S. ambassadors in East Asia.
The Obama administration eventually picked Sung Kim as the U.S. envoy to Seoul and he's been welcomed warmly by the South Koreans as he's the first Korean-American to hold the post. Donovan is now working at the National Defense University. We're told that Tokyo Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Jim Zumwalt is expected to return to Washington as the new deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, although nothing has been formally announced.
Meanwhile, several State Department nominations remained stalled in the Senate due to various objections by GOP senators. The Cable has confirmed that Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) placed a hold Thursday on the nomination of National Security Council Senior Director for Russia Mike McFaul, who has been nominated as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia. Kirk and McFaul met on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Apparently, the meeting did not go well.
Kirk told the Associated Press on Thursday that "he wants written assurances that the United States will not provide Russia with any currently classified information on the missile defense system."
Other State Department nominations currently facing GOP Senate opposition include the nominations of Norm Eisen to be ambassador to the Czech Republic, Mari Carmen Aponte to be ambassador to El Salvador, and Roberta Jacobson to become assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. Eisen and Aponte are currently serving in their posts under recess appointment that expire at the end of this month.
Mari Carmen Aponte is currently serving as the U.S ambassador to El Salvador, but she might have to come back to Washington at the end of the year, as her re-nomination process is facing a huge amount of pushback from Senate Republicans.
Aponte's initial nomination to be ambassador to El Salvador was held up last year in an effort led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who was demanding more information about Aponte's long-ago romance with Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban-born insurance salesman who was alleged to have ties to both the FBI and Castro's intelligence apparatus. She wasn't confirmed, but Obama sent her to El Salvador via a recess appointment, which expires at the end of the year.
At today's business meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Aponte's nomination was narrowly approved by 10-9 vote that fell along party lines.
"This nomination needs a vote by the end of the year otherwise we won't have an ambassador in El Salvador," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) at the meeting. Other senators that spoke up for Aponte included chairman John Kerry (D-MA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Ben Cardin (D-MD).
Menendez and Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) were initially the only senators allowed to review Aponte's FBI file, but DeMint eventually got permission to view the file. He said at today's meeting that the file was incomplete and that it hadn't been updated since 1998. He asked for a closed hearing on Aponte, but Kerry said that was not an option.
"She has done a solid job as ambassador," Kerry said today, pointing out that under Aponte's tenure, El Salvador became the first Latin American country to send troops to aid NATO forces in Afghanistan. He asked at the hearing for DeMint to work with him to move the nomination but the other GOP committee members backed up DeMint's objection.
"There are legitimate questions about Miss Aponte," DeMint said, arguing that his concerns were not limited to her relationship with Tamayo. "This is not a witch hunt."
Durbin pointed out that, since 1998, when Aponte withdrew herself from consideration to be ambassador to the Dominican Republic after then Sen. Jesse Helms promised to ask invasive questions about the relationship at her hearing, she has twice received Top Secret security clearances. "Obviously, many tough questions have been asked and answered," Durbin said, arguing that Aponte's personal background was no longer an issue.
DeMint alleged that political people in the Obama administration overruled intelligence officials in granting Aponte security clearances, but he offered no evidence of that in the public business meeting.
Boxer said she suspected DeMint's problems with Aponte stemmed from a June 2011 op-ed that Aponte wrote in a Salvadorian newspaper promoting tolerance and acceptance of people in the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) community.
"Ms. Aponte's decision to publish an opinion piece hostile to the culture of El Salvadorans, presents even more doubts about her fitness for the job," DeMint wrote in a response on the Human Events conservative news and opinion website. "The Senate should reject her nomination when her recess appointment expires at the end of this Congress and force the president to appoint a new nominee who will respect the pro-family values upheld by the people of El Salvador."
But Durbin said at today's business meeting that Aponte was simply following a State Department cable sent to all diplomatic posts that they publish op-eds in support of LGBT awareness month.
Regardless, Aponte's re-nomination bid seems to be in serious trouble.
Meanwhile, SFRC approved the nominations of Mike McFaul to become ambassador to Russia and Roberta Jacobson to become assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. Two Republicans voted against the McFaul nomination: Bob Corker (R-TN) and James Risch (R-ID).
Corker didn't object to McFaul's personal qualifications for the position, but rather used the nomination to press for administration assurances that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which includes the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, will be fully funded for Fiscal Year 2012. He told The Cable today that he was working with the administration on the issue.
"I just want to see the administration work with us to follow through on commitments made to us last December," said Corker.
Risch, however, is one of several GOP senators who want to use the McFaul nomination as leverage to press the administration to hand over information on various aspects of the U.S.-Russia relationship, such as the details of missile defense cooperation discussions with Russia. It's not clear whether the administration is willing to give those senators enough information to facilitate the McFaul nomination.
The McFaul nomination is now headed to the senate floor, where several GOP senators not on the committee are expected to voice objections. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is expected to place a formal hold on the McFaul nomination due to ongoing concerns on the lack of disclosure of documents related to U.S. missile defense cooperation and questions as to whether the administration will be sharing classified missile defense data with the Russian Federation, a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable.
As for Jacobson, only one senator, Marco Rubio (R-FL) objected to the nomination. He said at the meeting that he was concerned with the Obama administration's overall policy in Latin America and that he would hold all related nominees until the administration engages with him more directly on these issues.
SFRC was also supposed to bring up a resolution expressing the sense of the Senate on the Libya war, but that resolution was not offered at today's meeting and no explanation was given as to why it has disappeared.
The Senate is almost set to consider a three-bill spending package that includes all the funding for the State Department and foreign operations, but two senators are refusing to go along because of language related to Cuba.
The Senate was stalled on Monday evening as senators started debate on the energy and water appropriations bill, which Senate Democratic leaders want to combine with the State and foreign ops and financial services appropriations bills into a miniature omnibus measure that's affectionately known on the Hill as a "minibus." By packaging three bills together, the Senate hopes to be able to get more work done faster. However, two senators won't let that happen until their concerns about language allowing U.S. banks to do business in Cuba are addressed.
"There is concern among a group of senators on both sides of the aisle with longstanding concerns for human rights and democracy in Cuba with regard to the loosening of restrictions on Cuba in the financial services bill," a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable Monday afternoon. "If that language was taken out, those senators would drop their objection to bringing up foreign ops for consideration."
Procedurally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has already brought up the energy and water appropriations bill and wants to add the other two bills (state/foreign ops and financial services) as an amendment. But Reid needs unanimous consent in order to do that without a lengthy cloture process, and we're told by Senate sources that Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) are objecting.
"Senator Rubio is objecting to a provision in the bill that would allow Cuba to become the only country on the State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism list with a general exception for access to U.S.-based financial institutions," Rubio's spokesman Alex Conant told The Cable. "Under Cuban law, the Castro regime has a monopoly on all banking, commerce and trade, so this amendment would allow Cuba's totalitarian regime to directly open corresponding accounts in U.S.-based financial institutions, and vice versa."
The senators don't have any problem with the State and foreign ops section of the minibus, but Reid's attempt at adding both bills as one amendment has embroiled them in the dispute.
We're told by Senate sources that Reid plans to bring up the amendment containing both the State and foreign ops and financial services bills anyway and call for a unanimous consent vote, forcing any senators who object to show their cards. When the objections are made, Reid will be ready with a new amendment that doesn't contain the disputed Cuba provisions, which is likely to achieve unanimous consent.
After all this plays out, the real debate over the State and foreign ops appropriations bill can begin. When that happens, which will probably be late Monday evening or early Tuesday, senators will begin offering a host of amendments to the State and foreign ops bill.
Sen. Orin Hatch (R-UT) has introduced an amendment that would reinstate a ban on U.S. funding for foreign organizations that even discuss abortion. The amendment's language is a version of what has been known since 1984 as the Mexico City policy, named for the city where President Ronald Reagan first announced it. It's been a partisan ping-pong issue ever since: President Bill Clinton rescinded the policy in 1993, President George W. Bush reinstated it in 2001, and President Barack Obama rescinded it again in 2009. Republicans have since been trying to restore the policy under the Obama administration.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) introduced an amendment that would bar any funding for the administration to negotiate a United Nations arms trade treaty if it "restricts the Second Amendment rights of United States citizens."
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is expected to introduce an amendment to mandate sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran in response to the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and in light of a new International Atomic Energy Agency report, which states that Iran has made significant progress toward constructing a nuclear weapon.
And Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) introduced an amendment late on Monday that would prevent the president from trying to get around a law barring U.S. funding for UNESCO. The United States automatically cut off contributions to UNESCO this month when the organization overwhelmingly voted to admit Palestine as a member.
"Despite our legal obligation to suspend funding ... there have been some discussions, some speculation, that it may be possible to find alternative ways to financially support U.N. agencies like UNESCO that have taken this step of admitting the Palestinians as a member," Coats said on the Senate floor late Monday.
"That would be a total mistake and I want to reiterate the fact that it would be a violation of the law. And so, therefore, I come to the floor today to introduce a bill that serves as an emphatic statement, restatement of that."
Several more amendments are expected on Tuesday in what should be a lively debate over foreign affairs funding, if and when the Senate gets around to it. Of course, the Senate action is just a precursor to the House-Senate conference over the bill, where all the final decisions are made behind closed doors.
Honduran President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo will meet President Barack Obama today to renew the friendship between the two countries, and ask for help in fighting Honduras's drug war. The meeting comes two years after the Obama administration sided against the process that brought Lobo to power, before reversing itself and embracing the Lobo presidency.
Lobo sat down for an interview with The Cable on Tuesday to talk about his country's 2009 political crisis, the role of the United States in that drama, and the need for strong ties between Washington and Tegucigalpa, which he described as two like-minded democracies fighting together against drugs and for democracy.
"The United States is our most important foreign ally, it's our strongest relationship and it has been so historically," Lobo said. "That's the way it is and I'm sure it will continue to be so."
Back in 2009, the State Department sided strongly with former President Manuel Zelaya, who was seized by the military and taken out of Honduras in what some called a coup. Zelaya snuck back into Honduras in September 2009 and holed up in the Brazilian embassy while the Obama administration worked to restore him to power.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even met with Zelaya in Washington, suspended aid to Honduras, and revoked the visas of Honduran officials. Later, Honduras was cut off from Millennium Challenge Corporation assistance.
Eventually, it became apparent that the de facto regime in Tegucigalpa, led by Roberto Micheletti, was winning the internal struggle and that new elections would take place. The administration began shifting its position in October 2009 and finally threw Zelaya under the bus when Lobo won the election and Zelaya rejected a deal that would have returned him temporarily to power.
Zelaya hurt his case and alienated the Obama administration when he starting accusing "Israeli mercenaries" of poisoning him with mind-altering gas and radiation while he was inside the Brazilian embassy.
But that's all water under the bridge as far as Lobo is concerned.
"The Unites States has always supported democracy and the rule of law. Whether it is Zelaya, whether it is Lobo, this is what the United States has always looked for," Lobo said. "They always said that as soon as there are elections and the Hondurans elect the president, the situation with Honduras would be the same as it had always been, and this is the way it happened."
Most U.S. trade and assistance to Honduras has been restored, although they are still not able to receive grants from the MCC.
We asked Lobo if he forgave the Obama administration for sticking with Zelaya for so long and initially opposing the process that led to his election.
"They haven't done anything to us!" Lobo exclaimed. "The United States was the only country that maintained an ambassador in Honduras and was extremely helpful in eventually finding a path out of the crisis."
Lobo is meeting with a host of senior officials in addition to Obama, including Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Attorney General Eric Holder. He'll also hold meetings with leaders at the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Dialogue.
His main goal is to seek financial and technical assistance for Honduras's worsening problem with drug cartels, which have increasingly moved into Central America due to the crackdown in Mexico.
"[W]e need to have help to do more investigations and we need to seek reforms in the national police as well as in the armed forces," Lobo said. "We have a strong ally in the U.S. because this is the market, this is where the consumers are. We are basically on the corridor and this we cannot change. We also seek the United States to launch an effective fight against consumption."
On Tuesday morning, Lobo had breakfast with Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Marco Rubio (R-DL). DeMint was key in shifting U.S. policy away from Zelaya and traveled to Honduras in the middle of the crisis, against the State Department's objections, to meet with Zelaya's foes.
DeMint told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday that the Lobo government had made progress in repairing its relationships around the world but that more attention from the United States was needed.
"If we focus on Mexico and Columbia, the criminals move to places like Honduras," DeMint said. "They are a good friend and they are very pro-American and there aren't many pro-American countries left in the world."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is temporarily bringing back U.S. ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon to serve as acting undersecretary of state for political affairs while the State Department awaits the confirmation of President Barack Obama's nominee for the post, Wendy Sherman.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed to The Cable that Shannon will begin work next week as the temporary successor to Bill Burns, who was promoted to replace Jim Steinberg as deputy secretary of state. Shannon, a well-respected career member of the Foreign Service, served as assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs from 2005 to 2009 and was the National Security Council senior director for the same region from 2003 to 2005.
Shannon will lead an office that has oversight of the State Department's regional bureaus and has responsibility for the day-to-day management of regional and bilateral issues. In a way, Shannon's return to Foggy Bottom temporarily solves two problems for Clinton, as he also will be able to keep an eye on the western hemisphere bureau, which remains leaderless since the May departure of Arturo Valenzuela.
Nuland emphasized that the State Department intends to return Shannon to Brazil as soon as Sherman is confirmed. She said that Shannon will return "for what we hope will be only a few weeks ... until the Senate acts on the president's nomination of Wendy Sherman."
"This stop-gap measure will help the secretary and department officials manage business until the confirmation of Ambassador Sherman. We have every expectation that the Senate will act quickly on Ambassador Sherman's nomination as soon as possible after Labor Day," Nuland told The Cable.
But Sherman's nomination still faces resistance by some GOP senators. They have three main concerns. One is due to Sherman's time as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's counselor and North Korea policy coordinator. Some in the Senate GOP caucus are upset that the Obama administration has begun meeting bilaterally with the North Koreans and might use this nomination, along with the nomination of Sung Kim to be ambassador to Seoul, to make their point.
Second, senators are poised to demand that Sherman disclose her private client list as a vice president at the consulting firm of Albright-Stonebridge. There's suspicion, but as of yet no evidence, that Sherman worked on behalf of Chinese state-owned firms. Senators will demand full disclosure.
Lastly, senators will criticize Sherman for being president of the Fannie Mae Foundation from 1996 to 1997. Fannie Mae practices, mostly outside the Foundation, contributed to the financial meltdown, although those abuses occurred largely after she left.
State Department officials feel they have a strong candidate in Sherman and are prepared to fight for her confirmation. It's too early to see exactly how strong the GOP opposition to her confirmation will be, but there is more than one Republican senator opposed to her confirmation.
No Senate holds have been placed on the nomination yet -- that can only happen after Sherman is approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sherman has yet to receive a hearing before the committee, which will only occur after Congress returns from vacation in September.
Meanwhile, Shannon will keep her chair warm. Another Latin America hand at State, Brian Naranjo, has been managing the staff of the office of undersecretary for political affairs office in Burns' and Shannon's absence. He will continue on in his job as the acting executive assistant to the undersecretary, placing him as Shannon's right hand man and head of the office staff.
It's not that unusual for an acting undersecretary to be put in place when there's a prolonged vacancy. During former President George W. Bush's administration, Assistant Secretary Chris Burnham served as acting undersecretary for management under then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Assistant Secretary John Rood worked as acting undersecretary for arms control for about 18 months from 2007 to 2009.
State is hoping that Shannon won't have to serve in his acting capacity that long. He will keep his diplomatic credentials in Brazil. Todd Chapman, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Brazil, will mind the store as chargé d'affaires during Shannon's absence.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee began its Wednesday markup of the State Department authorization bill by voting to end funding for the Organization of American States (OAS), with Republicans lambasting the organization as an enemy of freedom and democracy.
The one-hour debate over the GOP proposal to cut the entire $48.5 million annual U.S contribution to the OAS is only the beginning of what looks to be a long and contentious debate over the fiscal 2012 State Department and foreign operations authorization bill written by chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). Democrats accused the Republicans of isolationism and retreat for their proposal, while the Republicans accused the OAS of being an ally of anti-U.S. regimes in Cuba and Venezuela. The OAS Charter was signed in 1948 at a conference led by U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall.
"Let's not continue to fund an organization that's bent on destroying democracy in Latin America," said Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL), the head of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and the sponsor of the amendment. "You will support an organization that is destroying the dreams of the people of Latin America."
Other GOP members piled on, accusing the OAS of supporting Fidel Castro, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.
"The OAS is an enemy of the U.S. and an enemy to the interests of freedom and security," said Rep. David Rivera (R-FL). He compared U.S. support of the OAS to a scene from the movie Animal House, where a fraternity pledge is being paddled on his rear end and humiliatingly asks for more punishment.
"How much longer will we say to the OAS ‘Please sir, may I have another," Rivera said.
Panel Democrats had a hard time holding back their astonishment and frustration with the GOP for forcing a vote that they argued would signal America's retreat from multilateral engagement around the world.
"I might offer an amendment to pull out of the world, to build a moat around the United States and put a dome over the thing," said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), sarcastically. "This is getting ridiculous."
"Here we are for a lousy $48 million willing to symbolically turn our backs on our own hemisphere... This is folly. it's more than folly, it's dangerous," Ackerman said. "And you've got the votes to do it, that's the frightening thing. But what we should be looking at are opportunities to reach out to the world."
Ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) pointed out that the United States has a treaty obligation to pay its dues to the OAS, and argued that the body has made a positive contribution to progress toward democracy since the 1960s.
"The OAS is an enemy? We are really living in two different worlds," Berman said.
Rep. Gregody Meeks (D-NY) and Gerald Connolly (D-VA) also gave impassioned defenses of the OAS. Meeks praised its help in supporting elections in Haiti, while Connelly made the point that no international organization is going to support U.S. policy at every turn.
But by and large, the two parties couldn't even agree on whether Cuba was a member of the organization. In fact, the organization lifted its ban on Cuban membership in 2009 but stated that the present Cuban government could only join if it adheres to the group's democratic principles.
The defunding amendment passed 22-20 along party lines.
Berman criticized the process Ros-Lehtinen is using to move the bill and said that its provisions restricting foreign aid and the expected amendments would prevent it from gaining traction in the Senate or becoming law.
"Regrettably, I get the sense that what I already consider to be a bad bill is going to get much worse in this markup and on the floor. That will simply ensure that this is a one-house bill," Berman said in his opening statement.
Specifically, Berman criticized the restrictions that Ros-Lehtinen's bill would place on U.S. assistance to Pakistan, notably the $1.5 billion provided by the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid package.
"On Pakistan, you tie all economic assistance to the certification in Kerry-Lugar that applied to security assistance, toughen the certification, and eliminate the waiver," Berman said. "I agree that we need to get tough with Pakistan on security assistance, but I fundamentally disagree with your approach on economic aid."
Ros-Lehtinen said that her bill would put Islamabad on notice "that it is no longer business as usual" when it comes to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. She promised that the Pakistani government "will be held to account if they continue to refuse to cooperate with our efforts to eliminate the nuclear black market, destroy the remaining elements of Osama Bin Laden's network, and vigorously pursue our counter-terrorism objectives."
"I think the prospect of a cutoff of assistance will get their attention and that the games being played with our security will finally stop," she said.
The State Department's Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela will soon leave the administration and return to his teaching post at Georgetown University.
"As you may know the University gave me a two year leave of absence to serve in the administration -- and those two years have come to an end this Spring. Although the exact date of my departure has not been set, it will take place sometime later this Summer," he wrote on May 5 in an email to friends, obtained by The Cable.
Valenzuela's tenure at the State Department is viewed critically by many in the diplomatic community and some in Congress. House Foreign Affairs chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) issued a statement saying that Valenzuela's time at State was "marked by abject failure by the U.S. to stand up to the attacks against democracy and fundamental freedoms.... U.S. interests have suffered as a result."
He has been criticized for being out of the loop on high-level administration policy making, lacking strong relationships with regional leaders, and ineffectively maneuvering through the State Department's complicated and politicized bureaucracy, according to two Latin America hands based in Washington.
By the end of his two years at State, Valenzuela was somewhat sidelined in the policy process, as regional ambassadors bypassed him to work directly with the office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg, or the NSC Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs Dan Restrepo.
Clinton is said to have preferred to deal with two ambassadors in the region who were extremely active and well-respected -- Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon, who had previously served as assistant secretary, and U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual, these experts said.
"It was not that difficult to marginalize [Valenzuela] because he was already marginal," said one Washington based Latin America hand.
Pascual recently left his post in Mexico City following the breakdown of his relationship with Mexican President Felipe Calderon due to the WikiLeaked revelation that Pascual had criticized Calderon's handling of the Mexican drug war -- and also because Pascual was dating the daughter of a major opposition leader in Mexico.
The State Department announced today that Pascual will be named the new special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs, succeeding David Goldwyn, who left the administration in January.
So who will succeed Valenzuela? Multiple Latin America hands said that one name was on everybody's short list: Bill Brownfield, former U.S. ambassador to Colombia and current assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs (INL).
Many experts said that, whatever his faults, Valenzuela was not solely to blame for the administration's Latin America policy, which is widely viewed in Washington as standoffish, unimaginative, and ineffective.
"The problem is ... having a sustained, high-level focus on the region's agenda," Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, told the Miami Herald. "That's what's been lacking. It's a policy of fits and starts."
"Latin Americans feel disappointed as the new U.S. president, challenged by domestic problems and distracted by international emergencies, has failed to meet their high and clearly unrealistic expectations about a major redefinition of U.S. policies toward its southern neighbors," wrote Moises Naim of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a recent article in the journal Americas Quarterly. "They are right. President Obama would be hard-pressed to describe in which fundamental ways his government's policies toward Latin America differ from those of his predecessor."
Restrepo defended the administration's approach to the region in the same publication.
"In keeping with the president's National Security Strategy, we are leveraging our deep ties and working as equal partners to enhance common security, expand economic opportunity, secure a clean energy future, and defend shared democratic values," he wrote.
Attorney General Eric Holder blamed Congress on Monday for preventing the Obama administration from closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and forcing the United States to prosecute 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Cuba through a military commission and not in a civilian court. The move effectively ended Obama's promise to close the prison, by ensuring that it will be needed for trials for years to come.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a former Air Force judge advocate general who once supported closing the Guantanamo prison, said on Tuesday that it was the administration that refused to work with its allies on Capitol Hill, including himself, to establish a bipartisan legal framework to facilitate holding detainees indefinitely without trial, conduct military commissions, and in some cases, civilian trials. He said that administration officials sabotaged his negotiations with the White House in early 2009.
"We came really close, quite frankly. I just think there are people in the White House, second-level down, who were very resistant to the idea of legitimizing that we were at war," Graham told The Cable in an exclusive interview on Tuesday.
"When I met with then President-elect Obama there was a way forward. But you had to prove to the American people that you could find a new jail site with a legal system that was national security-centric, and they've never been able to embrace a national security-centric legal system," Graham said.
The sticking point, according to Graham, was that the Obama administration could never reach a solution to the problem of how to deal with prisoners that cannot be tried but who are too dangerous to release. If they were to be brought into the United States, the civilian legal system could not indefinitely detain them.
"We need an indefinite detention statute that can give these people some due process but also recognize this is legitimate during war," said Graham. "All things being equal, I wish we could have found a new jail to get that chapter behind us."
Either way, Graham said, there was no way that Congress would have allowed the trial of KSM to be moved into the federal criminal court system, also known as Article 3 trials.
"There are plenty of places for Article 3 trials in this war on terror, just not with him," said Graham. "If he's not an enemy combatant, who would be?"
Graham is not alone in his contention that the Obama administration never seriously engaged Congress to help close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Throughout 2009, Democratic supporters of closing the prison at Gitmo felt abandoned as they unsuccessfully fought attempts by the GOP to insert language into congressional appropriations bills that prevented the government from spending any money to move Guantanamo prisoners to the United States.
During those debates, leading advocates of closing the facility, such as Rep. James Moran (D-VA), often complained that they could not get proper communication from either the Defense Department or the Justice Department to help them make the case.
White House counsel Greg Craig was fired at the end of 2009 for failing to implement Obama's Guantanamo promise, but Moran told The Cable at the time that the White House never really put a strong effort behind the policy.
"Greg Craig shouldn't have taken the fall over this issue," Moran told The Cable in Nov. 2009. "He thought that people would understand why it was in our nation's interest to close Guantanamo. But when things started to unwind, Greg was left there holding the ball all by himself."
The White House announced a new policy on Monday for moving forward with the trials of some prisoners at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, while also setting forth a new process for keeping tabs on the prisoners who won't be tried or released anytime soon.
President Barack Obama's administration is framing the move as a continuation of its pledge to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But by restarting new military commission trials and reforming the procedures to deal with prisoners who are set to remain there for years, the administration is implicitly acknowledging that the prison isn't being shuttered in the near future.
"Today, I am announcing several steps that broaden our ability to bring terrorists to justice, provide oversight for our actions, and ensure the humane treatment of detainees," Obama said in a statement. The new policy will be implemented through an order by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates allowing for the resumption of military tribunals, and an executive order that updates the process for reviewing the threat posed by prisoners at Guantanamo.
Five senior administration officials explained the details of the new policy in a conference call with reporters on Monday afternoon. They made the case that the president is still committed to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, as he affirmed in his May 2009 speech at the National Archives.
"The President does remain committed to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, based on the judgment of our military commanders and our national security team that it hinders our security in the long run," a senior administration official said.
For those prisoners who the U.S. government is not prepared to prosecute but cannot be released due to concerns they still pose a threat, the administration is establishing a new "periodic review board," made up of representatives from the Departments of Defense, Justice, State, and Homeland Security, to assess whether each prisoner's detention "is necessary to protect against a significant threat to the security of the United States." Every prisoner will receive a full review within one year of today and another full review every three years.
The new prisoner periodic review boards are an effort to reform the administrative review boards, which have been used to judge whether prisoners should be held without trial up until now. However, it is still unclear how this policy will be implemented.
The administration contends that civilian courts could still be used for terror trials, but there are no definite plans to do so right now.
"We are reaffirming our commitment to Article III (civilian) courts as a fundamental tool of American justice and as a tool that the government has to bring terrorists to justice has been the case frequently in recent months and years," another senior administration official said.
In a related move, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today that she asked the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to begin work to ratify Additional Protocol II to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which mandates stricter enforcement measures to guarantee the humane treatment of prisoners. She also announced that the United States will voluntarily adhere to the norms established under Article 75 of Protocol I in international armed conflicts, which also prohibits inhumane treatment of prisoners.
"These steps we take today are not about who our enemies are, but about who we are: a nation committed to providing all detainees in our custody with humane treatment," Clinton said in a statement.
Military law experts said that the Obama administration's moves represent progress in its efforts to break the legal logjam at Guantanamo Bay, but also an admission that the president's stated goal of quickly closing the prison will be again delayed.
The administration's decision to implement its new policy through executive order also bypassed efforts to involve Congress in the decision-making process.
Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that the administration had promised to work with Congress to establish a new process for military commissions that updates the 2006 military commissions law, but now they've decided to simply push forward on their own.
"It's the beginning of a breaking of a paralysis that has been devastating for this administration on this subject," said Wittes. "But it's only a beginning and whether they break further free remains to be seen."
Following last week's unanimous vote by the Senate in support of political reform in Egypt, a group of House Democrats are calling on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to follow suit and pass an emergency resolution on Egypt.
"In view of the tragic violence unfolding in Egypt, we write to request that the House take up an emergency resolution in support of the Egyptian people and their struggle for freedom and democracy as soon as possible upon returning to session," wrote Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and Keith Ellison (DFL-Minn.) in a Feb. 7 letter to Boehner.
The lawmakers said the resolution should call on the Egyptian government to halt the violence, stop blocking communications inside Egypt (which the regime already largely did last week), and call on the military to intercede on behalf of the civilians.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime has "exhausted its credibility," the lawmakers wrote, but stopped short of calling on Mubarak to step down immediately. Our sources report that the letter was crafted so as to have the best chance to build widespread bipartisan support, in the hope of moving ahead with House action at the soonest opportunity.
"This is a new day not only for Egypt and the Middle East, but for democracy worldwide," the lawmakers wrote. "The House of Representatives has an opportunity to show its support for the Egyptian people during their time of need and further their efforts to achieve freedom by passing the aforementioned resolution."
Boehner supported the Obama administration's handling of the crisis in his most recent remarks about Egypt on Feb. 4. However, he also warned about empowering some groups that are part of the opposition, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. "What we don't want are radical ideologies to take control of a very large and important country in the Middle East," he said.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images.
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