A U.S. government-funded foreign aid organization is considering sending hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to countries whose flawed, corrupt or undemocratic governments should almost certainly be ineligible for the money according to the agency's own internal guidelines.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation, or MCC, is an independent U.S. foreign aid agency dedicated to "advancing American values" by reducing poverty, advancing good governance, and weeding out corruption. But people familiar with the matter say that the MCC -- led by Colorado banker Daniel Yohannes (pictured above, left) -- is seriously contemplating giving money to Sierra Leone and Benin, which fail to meet its "control of corruption" requirements, and Liberia and Morocco, which meet less than half of the organization's 20 requirements for civil liberties, sound economic policies, and other measures. If approved, each country could receive hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. government funding over the next few years.
At least one member of the MCC's eight-person board of directors has argued against giving money to the four countries, but it's not clear if that opposition will be enough to sway the rest of the board, which meets next month to review all of its current and potential projects. This is the first time in the MCC's nine-year history that so many potential recipients of its money have failed to meet the grant requirements. And it comes at a sensitive time for Yohannes; on Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considering his nomination to be America's representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
It's far from a simple issue of bureaucratic infighting. If everything breaks right, the MCC money could give a quartet of poor countries the money they need to build new airports and take other steps to juice their economies. If the MCC bets on the wrong countries, by contrast, huge amounts of American money could disappear into the pockets of corrupt government officials or business leaders.
Corruption in Iraq is at an all-time high and several other major indicators of progress in the country are on a downward trend, according to a new U.S. government report.
Earlier this month, the Iraqi government fired Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) Governor Sinan al-Shabibi amid allegations of corruption, a move that is both a symptom and a consequence of increased corruption in Iraq and also a possible power grab by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, according to the report, published Tuesday by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.
"This peremptory and constitutionally questionable move occurred as an audit of the CBI's foreign currency auctions surfaced. The audit purportedly found that perhaps 80% of the $1 billion purchased at weekly CBI-managed auctions was tied to illegal transactions, with the funds subject to those transactions potentially lost abroad to money laundering," the report reads.
It continues: "This development is symptomatic of a troubled year in Iraq, evidenced by increasing corruption, resurgent violence, deepening ethno-sectarian strains, growing apprehensions about the conflict in Syria, and widening divides within the coalition government."
Special Inspector Stuart Bowen, in an interview with The Cable, said it's unclear whether the firing of Shabibi was a direct power grab by Maliki, but it does open up the possibility that Maliki will now have greater access to the vast capital reserves the bank holds.
"The facts are that Governor Shabibi was widely respected around the globe amongst financial ministers for building up Iraq's reserves to about $65 billion. And I did know from my discussions in Iraq there was some desire in Iraq to access some of that money for capital expenditure purposes and Shabibi had exerted a firm hand in preventing its use," Bowen said. "The government of Iraq wanted to access some of those reserves."
The Iraqi government's public explanation is that Shabibi was not diligent enough in combatting the money laundering that was going on at the bank, mostly through weekly auctions of dollars for Iraqi dinars. Bowen said that Abdul-Basit Turki, the head of the Board of Supreme Audit, made that money-laundering determination. Basset is now the acting governor of the Central Bank of Iraq.
"The matter of corruption was brought to me by a number of ministers, who noted to me that it's as bad as it's ever been," Bowen said.
The report points to several other negative indicators. For example, Iraq suffered its worst day of violence in more than two years when Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi was sentenced to death in absentia last month, charges that are widely viewed as political in nature. Iraq's relationship with Turkey is deteriorating, the ongoing violence in Syrian presents both political and humanitarian problems for Iraq, and a temporary resolution of Baghdad's oil revenue sharing dispute with the Kurds has not solved the overall problem, the report said.
Official numbers for staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, America's largest, have actually gone up despite State Department claims that the embassy was in the process of being downsized. Apparently, the number of staff had been underreported in the past.
"U.S. Embassy-Baghdad reported that 16,035 persons supported the U.S. Mission in Iraq at the end of the quarter, including 1,075 U.S. government civilian employees and 14,960 contractor personnel. The Embassy said the discrepancy was due to earlier underreporting of certain staff categories," the report stated.
"My expectation is that it will be shrinking. We had conflicting reporting about the size of the staff at the embassy," Bowen said. "We'll just have to wait to see how that evolves over the next couple of quarters."
SIGIR also announced in its report the conclusion of several investigations that resulted in either guilty pleas or convictions of persons abusing U.S. taxpayer funds in Iraq, including the guilty plea of the former chief of party in Baghdad for USIP of wire fraud.
Earlier this month, two former employees of the contractor Parsons were sentenced to prison for terms of 27 and 15 months for "conspiring to commit kickbacks, wire fraud, and mail fraud, and for filing false tax returns" and will pay about $2 million in restitution to the U.S. government. And Monday, UK-based Iraqi subcontractor Ahmed Sarchel Kazzaz was sentenced to 15 months in prison and ordered to pay about $1 million in restitution and forfeit another $1 million.
The U.S. government has obligated $60.5 billion to Iraqi relief and reconstruction since 2003.
In January, the SIGIR office will release its final lessons report and three more audits, and then the office will begin to roll up its operations unless Congress sees fit to extend its funding past March. If not, the hope is to take about 20 staffers from SIGIR's investigative unit and move them over to the Office for the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Bowen said.
"We have over 80 cases ongoing... the Hill has expressed in continuing the investigative part of SIGIR after the office officially closes down," he said.
Technology and information penetration in China will eventually force the Great Firewall of China to crumble and even lead to the political opening of the Chinese system, according to Google Chairman Eric Schmidt.
Schmidt, who stepped down as Google's CEO last year, remains the head of Google's board and its chief spokesman. He roams the planet speaking to audiences and exploring countries where Google could expand its operations. He has been called Google's "Ambassador to the World," a moniker he doesn't promote but doesn't dispute. He sat down for a long interview with The Cable on the sidelines of the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival last week.
"I believe that ultimately censorship fails," said Schmidt, when asked about whether the Chinese government's censorship of the Internet can be sustained. "China's the only government that's engaged in active, dynamic censorship. They're not shy about it."
When the Chinese Internet censorship regime fails, the penetration of information throughout China will also cause political and social liberalization that will fundamentally change the nature of the Chinese government's relationship to its citizenry, Schmidt believes.
"I personally believe that you cannot build a modern knowledge society with that kind of behavior, that is my opinion," he said. "I think most people at Google would agree with that. The natural next question is when [will China change], and no one knows the answer to that question. [But] in a long enough time period, do I think that this kind of regime approach will end? I think absolutely."
The push for information freedom in China goes hand in hand with the push for economic modernization, according to Schmidt, and government-sponsored censorship hampers both.
"We argue strongly that you can't build a high-end, very sophisticated economy... with this kind of active censorship. That is our view," he said.
The Chinese government is the most active state sponsor of cyber censorship and cyber espionage in the world, with startling effectiveness, Schmidt said. Google and Beijing have been at odds since 2010, when the company announced it would no longer censor search terms on Google.cn and moved the bulk of its Chinese operations to Hong Kong. That move followed a series of Gmail attacks in 2010, directed at Chinese human rights activists, which were widely suspected to be linked to the Chinese government.
More recently, Google has taken an aggressive approach to helping users combat government cyber censorship, by doing things such as warning Gmail users when Google suspects their accounts are being targeted by state-sponsored attacks and telling users when search terms they enter are likely to be rejected by Chinese government censorship filters.
Schmidt doesn't present Google's focus on state-sponsored cyber oppression as a fight between Google and China. Google's policy is focused on helping users understand what is happening to their accounts and giving them the tools to protect themselves, he explained.
"We believe in empowering people who care about freedom of expression," he said. "The evidence today is that Chinese attacks are primarily industrial espionage.... It's primarily trade secrets that they're trying to steal, and then the human rights issues, that obviously they're trying to violate people's human rights. So those are the two things that we know about, but I'm sure that there will be others."
Google still has hundreds of engineers working inside China and maintains a rapidly growing advertising business there. But the Chinese government is likewise doing a lot to make using Google difficult inside China. There are weeks when Gmail services run slow; then mysteriously, the service will begin running smoothly again, Schmidt said. The Chinese censors sometimes issue punitive timeouts to users who enter prohibited search terms. And YouTube, which is owned by Google, is not visible in China.
"It's probably the case where the Chinese government will continue to make it difficult to use Google services," said Schmidt. "The conflict there is at some basic level: We want that information [flowing] into China, and at some basic level the government doesn't want that to happen."
Meanwhile, Schmidt has been circling the globe looking for ways to expand Google's outer frontiers. His last international trip took him to four conflict or recently post-conflict states: Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, and Tunisia.
"I've become particularly interested in the expansion of Google in sort of wacky countries -- you know, countries that have problems," he said. "You can't really know stuff unless you travel and see it. It helps with your impressions and your judgment."
Schmidt believes that smartphone technology can have a revolutionary effect on how people in the developing world operate and he is researching how smartphone use can help fight corruption and bad governance in poor countries. He also sees Google's expansion into the emerging markets as a timely business move.
"The evidence is that the most profitable business in most countries initially is the telecom sector. The joke is that you know the Somali pirates have to use cellphones, and so the strongest and most fastest-growing legal business in Somalia is the telecom industry," he said.
The revolutions of the Arab Spring show that open information systems can encourage and enable political change, according to Schmidt.
"I think that the countries that we're talking about all had very active censorship regimes, and they failed to censor the Internet. They wired the phone systems, the television was controlled, the newspapers were controlled; it was very hard to find genuinely new dissident voices except on the Internet. So you can think of what happened there as a failure to fully censor, and so it's obvious why we feel so strongly about openness and transparency," he said.
Unlike in China, Google has taken a more active role in other parts of the world by developing tools to spread information that could be used to foster more active democracies, such as with its project to organize and disseminate election information and political candidate data in places like Egypt.
"We're helping with the elections. So we're trying to help them with getting information to the candidates, and these are countries where Google is central to the public sphere," Schmidt said.
Google is also expanding its role in compiling data on government actors and their actions to aid people in the fight against corruption, but here Schmidt warns that only when there is a legal system to prosecute bad actors will this data be transformative.
"You need the data, and then you need somebody who's willing to prosecute the person who lies," he said. "All you have to do is have the information and then the penalty that has to be applied in a fair way, and it would change these countries dramatically."
Information is not enough to topple regimes, but in the end, regimes that fight the openness of information are doomed to fail, he said.
"The worst case scenario is the citizens have enormous information and the government is completely unresponsive. That would be Iran, for example. At some point, that's unstable," said Schmidt. "At some point, it gets worse ... but before they overthrow the current leader, they have to have the information to do that. That's why transparency matters."
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
Almost two years ago, The Cable reported on the Pentagon investigation into the actions of former Afghanistan commander Gen. David Barno, who stands accused of abusing his position as head of the Near East South Asia Center (NESA) at the National Defense University (NDU).
The investigation is complete but the Pentagon won't release it, claiming it is under "legal review," angering lawmakers who have been following the issue.
Barno, who is currently a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, ran the NESA center at NDU from 2006 to 2009, following his retirement from the Army as a three-star general. He was the head of Combined Forces Command -- Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.
A special unit of the Defense Department's Inspector General's office (IG) that focuses on senior officials opened an investigation into his leadership at NDU in 2008, following allegations that he presided over an office that misspent taxpayer funds, abused contractor employees and threatened them with termination, awarded jobs based on favoritism rather than merit, and created an overall atmosphere of fear and intimidation at the center.
Congressional efforts to get the Pentagon to share the results of its investigation have stretched on for years -- and so far have been stymied. In a series of letters between the IG's office and one of the lawmakers following the issue, obtained by The Cable, the IG's office claims that the investigation is under "legal review" and therefore the results can't be shared.
"I am concerned with recent news reports that the Director of the Near East South Asia Center, which is part of the taxpayer funded National Defense University, is alleged to have wasted taxpayer funds and hired government employees due to personal relationships and not merit," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), wrote to Inspector General Gordon Heddell, in an April 9, 2010 letter.
Three days later, Assistant Inspector General John Crane wrote to Coburn to tell him the Office of Senior Official Investigations had initiated an investigation into Barno in December 2008, based on anonymous allegations.
"The fieldwork portion of this investigation has been completed and report is being prepared," Crane wrote on April 12, 2010.
In August 2010, Crane wrote to Coburn again to say the Barno investigation report was undergoing an "internal review," and the results would be provided to Coburn after a "final review" was completed. Crane again promised to give Coburn the report in a November 2010 letter.
By February 2011, Crane still had not handed over the report, but claimed in a new letter that the investigation had been reopened due to a new allegation -- but now was finished for real. He promised again to hand over the results as soon as possible.
In May 2011, Crane wrote Coburn yet again and said that the internal review was "taking longer than originally anticipated." The last letter came in August 2011, when Crane told Coburn that the investigation had been reopened to interview one of the accusers but now was under internal review again. "The final results of this investigation will be provided to you as soon as possible," Crane wrote. That was six months ago, and no further information has been provided to lawmakers or the public.
The IG's office and Barno did not respond to requests for comment. The Cable has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for all records related to the Barno investigation and that request is still pending.
The allegations against Barno were described to The Cable by four NESA employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity, out of fear of reprisal. In one example cited by all four employees, a senior staffer close to Barno discouraged the use of Arabic at the center, despite its mandate to engage people from Arabic-speaking countries, creating an abusive work environment. Another focus of the investigators, according to the employees, was Barno's appointment of his chief of operations Rosaline Cardarelli's husband, John Ballard, a former professor of strategic studies at the National War College, as the center's academic dean.
The NESA Center's 2008 alumni symposium, which was held in Prague, also was scrutinized by investigators. NESA employees estimated that more than $250,000 of NESA funds were spent on the trip, but few alumni attended and the reasons for choosing the Czech capital to host alumni from the Near East and South Asia were never clear.
Overall, all four employees reported an atmosphere at the center that was intimidating and unfriendly, where contractors were unable to collect money for overtime hours worked and feared termination if they complained, and where Barno's top staffers monitored email and phone calls of employees to the point of harassment.
"I've never seen a situation in which such a small agency is mismanaged so badly," one NESA employee with decades of government experience told The Cable at the time. "It is to me incredible that you can have, on one hand, such mismanagement and that no one is prepared, evidently, to do anything about it."
It's been almost one year since the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has had a permanent leader ... and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) is not happy about it.
SIGAR Arnie Fields resigned in January following over a year of bipartisan congressional criticism of his stewardship of the oversight office, which is responsible for finding waste, fraud, and abuse in the tens of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars being spent to build Afghanistan. On Aug. 4, acting Special Inspector General Herbert Richardson, Fields's replacement, stepped down after only six months on the job, leaving that troubled office without a leader for the second time this year.
Now, three months later, there are no signs the White House is ready to name a new SIGAR. McCaskiill, who has been leading the drive to improve the office along with Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Susan Collins (R-ME), told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday that the vacancy is troubling and unacceptable.
"I am pushing as hard as I can to get a replacement named," McCaskill said. "Obviously I was very involved in getting General Fields out. I thought the interim [Richardson] was doing much better. I think it's unfortunate that he's gone and we need to get someone else in there."
McCaskill said that she asked the White House for an update on the status of a replacement late last month, and was led to believe a nomination was in the works. But none has materialized. So what's the reason for the inaction?
"I haven't gotten a good answer yet [from the White House]," McCaskill said.
A senior GOP senate aide told The Cable that senate staffs were informed a selection had been made but then that person turned down the job and now the administration is back to square one in looking for a candidate.
McCaskill added that while the auditing at SIGAR continues, the ongoing confusion atop the organization speaks to the need for a new, permanent special inspector general for all overseas contingency operations -- a proposal known as the Office of the Special Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations (SIGOCO), which was recommended by the Wartime Contracting Commission.
McCaskill said there is a need for a top oversight official who is "capable of going and looking wherever the U.S. military is operative."
The SIGOCO idea was first devised by Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) Stuart Bowen, who has been embroiled in a fight with the State Department over that agency's blocking of SIGIR inspectors from assessing the State's multi-billion dollar Iraqi police training program.
"SIGIR is perfectly free ... to audit the reconstruction activities in Iraq. They are not free to audit the base element of the State Department. That is within the jurisdiction of three other entities," Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy told the Wartime Contracting Commission in a hearing last month.
Today, Newsweek reported that Bowen believes the Iraqi Army is not fully prepared to take over security in Iraq as U.S. forces withdraw this year.
"As we pull out of Iraq, the Iraqis will have a difficult time replacing the U.S. role in intelligence, logistics, and air defense," Bowen said. "Whether they can sustain themselves if called upon for significant field operations is a big question mark."
Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Dan Burton (R-IN) have started a new congressional caucus to increase engagement with Russia and to push for action to promote Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization.
Meeks and Burton, the chairs of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, started the Congressional Russia Caucus last month after returning from a trip to Moscow. They are the only two members of the caucus, just yet, but they're canvassing for new members now. They plan to build connections with Russian officials, increase legislative exchanges with the Russian Duma, and advocate for the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a 1974 U.S. law that prevents the United States from granting Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status.
"When you think about Russia, they are an important nation in an important part of the world. And we have to make sure we begin to work with them in a post-Cold War way," Meeks told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday.
Meeks said he has been coordinating with the Obama administration, which is supporting Russia's WTO bid as part of its overall effort to reset relations with Russia.
"The administration was very appreciative of us starting this caucus; they thought it was a good idea. They said they looked forward to working with us," Meeks said.
Both Meeks and Burton said they were encouraged to start the caucus after meeting with American businessmen and members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow. Both denied they had benefited financially as a result of their efforts on behalf of the U.S.-Russia relationship.
"We want to engage Russians on economics and trade affairs," Burton said in a Tuesday interview with The Cable. Regarding the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, Burton said, "That's something that the Congress has to do for the U.S. to get all the benefits of Russia joining the WTO. If that doesn't happen, Russia would be entitled to all its benefits [as a WTO member] but the U.S. would be disadvantaged."
Russia's accession to the WTO and the repeal of Jackson-Vanik "would be good for Russia and the world," Burton said.
Burton's position on Russian accession to the WTO and Jackson-Vanik puts him in direct opposition to his own committee chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who said in July that repeal of Jackson-Vanik was impossible. And she's no fan of Russia's once-and-future president, Vladimir Putin.
"Putin's present-day Russia is taking on a more Stalin-era appearance every day," Ros-Lehtinen said in July. "The administration must end its string of concessions to the regime in Moscow, which have not resulted in increased cooperation with the U.S. or an improvement in Russia's human rights record."
Meeks and Burton both also said that they could use the caucus to press Russia toward more progress on democratization, human rights, and respect for the rule of law.
"We do care about those things. What we're going to do is open a dialogue on all these things so we can move in the right direction," Burton said.
Cable has learned that Herbert
Richardson, the acting special
for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) is stepping down after only six months on the job, leaving that troubled office without a leader for the second time this year.
Richardson has been running the SIGAR office since the January firing of Arnie Fields, who was finally removed from his position after more than a year of complaints by senior senators including Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Susan Collins (R-ME). Fields was criticized for running an oversight office that failed to produce results in the effort to find waste, fraud, and abuse in the tens of billions of dollars in contracts for Afghanistan reconstruction.
Richardson was never nominated to be permanent SIGAR and was leading the office as acting chief. But he will return to the private sector this month, according to four sources with direct knowledge of his decision. The SIGAR office declined requests for comment and said that Richardson was unavailable, in meetings all day. There's no word yet on who will take over as SIGAR.
On Capitol Hill, concerned lawmakers and staffers were actually hopeful that Richardson was improving the performance of the SIGAR office. Today, those congressional offices are back to voicing their usual disappointment and skepticism.
"He stopped some of the suck that was going on there, but it was only six months," one GOP senate aide told The Cable. "At this point they are supposed to be firing on all cylinders. And now that he's leaving, who knows."
"He came in with such fanfare and their team said there would be a ‘culture change' with his arrival," said a House Democratic staffer. "So much for culture change if it was dependent upon leadership."
Coincidentally, SIGAR officials were on the Hill this morning to brief staffers on their quarterly report. Richardson was expected to attend but did not show up. One staffer who attended the briefing said that SIGAR officials failed to mention that Richardson is leaving and the briefing itself left a lot to be desired.
"It was a weak briefing because they have a weak product," this House staffer said. "They just aren't producing convictions at a pace comparable to the results being produced by their counterparts at [the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction] SIGIR in terms of Iraq."
SIGIR, which was established first and is led by the well respected Stuart Bowen, has a shrinking mission as the U.S. presence in Iraq winds down. Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) are calling for SIGIR and SIGAR to be combined into something called the office of the Special Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations (SIGOCO), an idea that SIGAR has lobbied hard against.
"Rather than a piecemeal and reactive approach to the oversight of billions of dollars in these situations, we need a dedicated shop run by a proven investigator who can report to the National Security Council, and the Defense and State departments, without being cowed by political pressure," Honda told The Cable. "A permanent Office for Contingency Operations, whose mandate would transcend political timetables, would send the message that transparency, efficiency and efficacy are institutional priorities, and waste and corruption will not be tolerated."
One Senate staffer noted that the law that established SIGAR actually gives the president the authority to combine that office with its Iraq counterpart, placing them both under the control of Bowen.
"Everyone is looking for cuts of agencies that are not performing or duplicative," this staffer said. "We could shut down SIGAR, give some of that money to the DOD Inspector General's office, some for debt reduction, and call it a day."
The United States has committed $51 billion to Afghanistan reconstruction since 2001; that endowment will reach $71 billion by the end of 2011, according to the AP.
UPDATE: Late Thursday afternoon, Richardson put out a statement confirming our report. "After more than 37 years of public service, I've decided to accept an opportunity in the private sector, at a time when I'm convinced SIGAR has changed course, is producing results, and is being led effectively by the new leadership team that I've put in place," he said.
The new GOP leadership in the House is promising to aggressively confront the Obama administration on a full range of foreign policy issues. Now, it has reopened the debate over the performance and reform of the United Nations.
"Policy on the United Nations should based on three fundamental questions: Are we advancing the American interests? Are we upholding American values? Are we being responsible stewards for the American taxpayer dollars?" read the opening statement by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) at Tuesday's committee briefing on the U.N. "Unfortunately, right now, the answer to all three questions is no."
Ros-Lehtinen, who didn't attend the hearing because she was in Florida tending to her ill mother, criticized several instances of alleged poor performance or corruption at the U.N. in her statement. She railed against the Human Rights Council (HRC), a U.N. organization the Obama administration joined, as "a rogue's gallery dominated by human rights violators who use it to ignore real abuses and instead attack democratic Israel relentlessly."
She promised to introduce legislation that would withhold U.S. contributions to the U.N. until reforms bear fruit. A previous version of her bill would withhold all funding from the HRC and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which distributes aid to Palestinian refugees.
Former chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) largely agreed with Ros-Lehtinen on her assessment of the problems at the U.N., but disagreed with her on the solutions.
"The flaws, shortcomings and outrages of the United Nations, both past and present, are numerous and sometimes flagrant," he said, citing the HRC, the Oil for Food scandal; sexual violence perpetrated by U.N. peacekeepers in Africa, and problems at the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). But Berman argued that withholding contributions would only lessen U.S. influence there and hasn't worked in the past.
Berman also contended that, though the U.N. still has significant problems, real progress is being made. He argued that many of the reforms called for in a 2005 high level panel report by Newt Gingrich and George Mitchell have been at least partially realized, including the establishment of a U.N. ethics office and a independent audit advisory committee to look into the OIOS.
"We have a much greater chance of success if we work inside the U.N. with like-minded nations to achieve the goals that I think both sides on this committee and in our Congress share," he said.
The United States is responsible for 22 percent of the U.N.'s annual operating budget, which comes to about $516 million in fiscal 2011. Washington is also responsible for 27 percent of the U.N.'s peacekeeping budget, which comes to about $2.18 billion this year. The appropriations bills put forth by Congress last year fully funded these obligations, but since it was never enacted, the issue could come up as early as March, when Congress will need to pass a new continuing resolution to keep the government operating.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee briefing was dominated by witnesses critical of the U.N., who called for tougher reform pressures from both Congress and the Obama administration. "The U.N. may have five official languages, but the bottom line speaks loudest," said the Heritage Foundation's Brett Schaefer, who called for withholding U.S. contributions.
Claudia Rossett, a journalist-in-residence at the right-leaning Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that the problems of corruption and mismanagement at the United Nations is the result of a lack of commitment to oversight and reform from top officials, including Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
Next to speak at the hearing was Hillel Neuer, the director of an organization called U.N. Watch, which monitors U.N. action on human rights and Israel-related issues. He compared the HRC to "a jury that includes murderers and rapists, or a police force run in large part by suspected murderers and rapists who are determined to stymie investigation of their crimes," and said, "the council's machinery of fact-finding missions exists almost solely to attack Israel."
Neuer also drew attention to statements by the HRC Special Rapporteur Richard Falk alleging that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job done with the knowledge of the U.S. government, comments Ambassador Susan Rice called "so noxious that it should finally be plain to all that he should no longer continue in his position."
Finally, the hearing turned to Peter Yeo, Vice President for Public Policy at the U.N. Foundation, a non-governmental organization that advocates for the U.N., who pointed out that the U.N. is working hand-in-hand with the United States in many of the world's most dangerous hot spots, including Afghanistan, Sudan, the Ivory Coast, Haiti, and also was deeply involved in the latest round of sanctions against Iran.
He also pointed out that polls show most Americans support funding the U.N. and American firms receive U.N contracts greater than the sum total of U.S. taxpayer contributions.
"The U.N. is not a perfect institution, but it serves a near-perfect purpose: to bolster American interests from Africa to the Western Hemisphere and to allow our nation to share the burdens of promoting international peace and stability," he said.
Yeo's arguments were bolstered by Mark Quarterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who said that the U.N. needs support because it feeds millions of starving people across the globe, deploys peacekeepers in countries where the United States is not able or interested in sending manpower, and is able to talk to regimes that Washington can't access.
"U.S. leadership and influence in the U.N. results in part from its status as the largest contributor to the organization. We must not return to the days of withholding funds as some have suggested. Withholding funds hurts the U.N. and doesn't advance U.S. interests," he said.
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction retired Gen. Arnie Fields submitted his resignation Monday, ending over a year of congressional complaints about his performance in overseeing tens of billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer reconstruction funding in Afghanistan.
In a statement issued by the press secretary's office, the White House praised Fields' tenure and avoided mentioning any of the criticisms leveled by senior senators, including Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Susan Collins (R-ME).
"Under General Fields' tenure, SIGAR produced numerous critical reports that have improved reconstruction efforts, and helped insure that U.S.-funded programs are achieving their objectives," the White House said. "General Fields' hard work and steadfast determination have established SIGAR as a critical oversight agency... As he moves on to new challenges, he can do so confident in the knowledge that the President and the American people owe him a debt of gratitude for his courage, leadership, and selfless service to our nation."
The resignation on Monday came as a surprise to watchers around Washington, including those on Capitol Hill who had been working on his ouster, according to multiple senate aides who had been following the ordeal. Following a meeting White House staff in mid December, McCaskill told The Cable that she couldn't get any firm answers from the White House on what they planned to do about Fields.
Fields had come under heavy criticism for his leadership of an oversight office that is failing to effectively monitor the allocation of billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer funds that are being invested in infrastructure in Afghanistan. Fields was criticized for running an office that failed to recover significant amounts of funds lost due to waste, fraud, and abuse. The work product from SIGAR, which included investigations and audits, was seen as incomplete and often off target by Congressional overseers. A memo circulated by Hill staffers earlier this year outlined the shortcomings of several of the organization's audits.
In her capacity as chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, McCaskill called Fields to testify on Nov. 18, where she pointed out that the taxpayers have given $46.2 million to the SIGAR office, but their investigations have only resulted in collections of $8.2 million.
Last July, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), which is meant to oversee the overseers, issued a scathing report on SIGAR, which only fueled the fire of lawmakers calling for Fields' removal.
Last week, Fields fired two of his top deputies in an apparent bid to get out ahead of the many criticisms of his leadership at SIGAR, but the move proved not to be enough to save his job. There's no word yet on his possible replacement.
"They better put a rock star in there to replace him, because we are going to keep on watching this one closely," a senior Senate aide close to the issue told The Cable.
The United States has committed $51 billion to Afghanistan reconstruction since 2001; that endowment will reach $71 billion by the end of 2011, according to the AP.
Incoming House Foreign Affairs chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) defeated a bill Thursday evening that would have committed the United States to combating forced child marriages abroad, by invoking concerns about the legislation's cost and that funds could be used to promote abortion. The episode highlights the tough road that the Obama administration will face in advancing its women's rights and foreign aid agenda during the next Congressional session.
Non-governmental organizations, women's rights advocates, and lawmakers from both parties spent years developing and lobbying for the "International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2010," which the House failed to pass in a vote Thursday. The bill failed even though 241 Congressmen voted for it and only 166 voted against, because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) brought it up under "suspension of the rules." This procedure has the advantage of not allowing any amendments or changes to the bill, but carries the disadvantage of requiring two-thirds of the votes for passage.
Even still, supporters in both parties fully expected the bill to garner the 290 votes needed -- right up until the bill failed. After all, it passed the Senate unanimously Dec. 1 with the co-sponsorship of several Republicans, including Appropriations Committee ranking Republican Thad Cochran (R-MS), Foreign Relations Committee member Roger Wicker (R-MS), and human rights advocate Sam Brownback (R-KS).
If passed, the bill would have authorized the president to provide assistance "to prevent the incidence of child marriage in developing countries through the promotion of educational, health, economic, social, and legal empowerment of girls and women." It would have also mandated that the administration develop a multi-year strategy on the issue and that the State Department include the incidence of forced child marriage during its annual evaluation of countries' human rights practices.
So what happened? Ros-Lehtinen first argued that the bill was simply unaffordable. In a Dec. 16 "Dear Colleague" letter, she objected to the cost of the bill, which would be $108 million over five years, and criticized it for not providing an accounting of how much the U.S. was already spending on this effort. The actual CBO estimate (PDF) said the bill would authorize $108 million, but would only require $67 million in outlays from fiscal years 2011 to 2015.
Ros-Lehtinen introduced her own version of the bill, which she said would only cost $1 million. But in a fact sheet (PDF), organizations supporting the original legislation said that Ros-Lehtinen's bill removed the implementation procedures that gave the legislation teeth. "Without such activities, the bill becomes merely a strategy with no actual implementation. And without implementation of a strategy, the bill will have an extraordinarily limited impact," they wrote.
Regardless, the supporters still thought the bill would pass because House Republican leadership had not come out against it. But about one hour before the vote, every Republican House office received a message on the bill from GOP leadership, known as a Whip Alert, saying that leadership would vote "no" on the bill and encouraging all Republicans do the same. The last line on the alert particularly shocked the bill's supporters.
"There are also concerns that funding will be directed to NGOs that promote and perform abortion and efforts to combat child marriage could be usurped as a way to overturn pro-life laws," the alert read.
The bill doesn't contain any funding for abortion activities and federal funding for abortion activities is already prohibited by what's known as the "Helms Amendment," which has been boiler plate language in appropriations bills since 1973.
Invoking the abortion issue sent the bill's supporters reeling. They believed that it was little more than a stunt, considering that Republican pro-life senators had carefully reviewed the legislation and concluded it would not have an impact on the abortion issue.
Rep. Stephen LaTourrette (R-OH) called out the Republican leadership for invoking the abortion issue to defeat the forced child marriage act in a floor speech Friday morning.
"Yesterday I was on the floor and I was a co-sponsor with [on] a piece of legislation with [Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN)] that would have moved money, no new money, would have moved money so that societies that are coercing young girls into marriage... we could make sure that they stay in school so they're not forced into marriage at the age of 12 and 13," LaTourette said. "All of a sudden there was a fiscal argument. When that didn't work people had to add an abortion element to it. This is a partisan place. I'm a Republican. I'm glad we beat their butt in the election, but there comes a time when enough is enough."
But it was too late for LaTourette and other Republicans who had fought hard for the bill, including Aaron Schock (R-IL). The bill is even less likely to pass next year, when the GOP will control the House and Ros-Lehtinen will control the Foreign Affairs committee.
The main author of the bill was Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), who was incensed when the bill failed in the House.
"The action on the House floor stopping the Child Marriage bill tonight will endanger the lives of millions of women and girls around the world," Durbin said in a Thursday statement. "These young girls, enslaved in marriage, will be brutalized and many will die when their young bodies are torn apart while giving birth. Those who voted to continue this barbaric practice brought shame to Capitol Hill."
For the NGO and women's advocacy community, the implications of this defeat extend much further than just this bill. They also saw Republicans invoke the abortion issue when objecting to the International Violence Against Women Act and expect the new Congress to push for reinstatement of the "Mexico City Policy," which would prevent federal funding for any organizations that even discuss abortion.
"Any time a health bill that has to do with women and girls comes to the House floor, we're going to see a debate like the one we just saw," said one advocacy leader who supported the bill. "It's hard to imagine how any development bills are going to pass in this environment."
The protection of women and girls is a major focus of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who promised to elevate the issue Thursday when rolling out the State Department's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. She has said that forced child marriage is "a clear and unacceptable violation of human rights", and that "the Department of State categorically denounces all cases of child marriage as child abuse".
State's Ambassador at Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer has worked hard on the issue behind the scenes. But at the eleventh hour, when the going got tough, the bill's supporters said that the administration was nowhere to be found. In October, the White House decided to waive all penalties under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, another Durbin led bill that the NGO community supports.
United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 60 million girls in developing countries now between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before they reached 18. The Population Council, a group focused on reproductive and child health, estimates that the number will increase by 100 million over the next decade if current trends continue.
Ever since President Barack Obama took office, his administration has refused to sell military equipment to Georgia. In a newly released WikiLeaks cable, the U.S. ambassador to Russia made the argument that U.S. military support to Georgia is unwise because it would upset the U.S.-Russian "reset."
"A decision to move towards a more robust military relationship with Georgia will imperil our efforts to re-start relations with Russia," read a June 2009 cable signed by U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle. "Our assessment is that if we say ‘yes' to a significant military relationship with Tbilisi, Russia will say ‘no' to any medium-term diminution in tensions, and feel less constrained absent reverting to more active opposition to critical U.S. strategic interests."
The U.S.-Russia reset policy is not as important to Russia as its "absolute" priority of expanding its influence in Eurasia, Beyrle wrote. He said that sending military supplies to Georgia would cause Russia to backtrack on other areas of U.S.-Russia cooperation, including joint action to pressure Iran.
Besides, the Russians don't think that the United States possesses the power to force a resolution to the situation in the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia has occupied since the end of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Beyrle explained in the leaked cable.
The Obama administration hasn't actually set forth a policy banning weapons sales to Georgia. They simply haven't sold weapons to Georgia and don't plan on doing so. That de facto ban on arms sales has riled some in Washington, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).
"The United States, under substantial Russian diplomatic pressure, has paused the transfer of lethal military articles to Georgia, and no U.S. assistance since the war has been directly provided to the Georgian Ministry of Defense," Lugar's staff wrote in a December 2009 report. "Consequently, Georgia lacks basic capacity for territorial defense."
Contradicting Lugar, the Beyrle cable argues that arms sales would actually be harmful for Georgian national security, because it increases the likelihood of sparking another war that Georgia would surely lose.
"From our vantage point, a burgeoning military supply relationship with Georgia is more of a liability for Georgia than a benefit," Beyrle wrote. "We recognize that our suggested approach would be deeply dissatisfying to Saakashvili, but we see ... no way to neutralize the advantages of geography, size, and capabilities enjoyed by Russia."
Samual Charap, associate director for the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center of for American Progress, agreed. "Instead of the argument of whether we can fulfill this desire of the Georgian government, we have to step back and say ‘what is the U.S. interest here,'" he said. "There's no such thing as a military balance or a military deterrent in this case."
More broadly, Charap and top administration officials argue that the reset policy with Russia is actually good for Georgia, even if it means that the United States won't sell it weapons.
"I guess the question is: Is Georgia and is the rest of Europe more secure today than they were -- than Europe was when we first got here? And I think our answer is yes," Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia at the National Security Council, said in June.
"The reset protects Georgia because Russia now has a whole lot more to lose," added Charap. "Before, nobody in Moscow was going to think ‘what will they think in Washington,' because they didn't care. Now they care."
Other experts said that while the Beyrle cable reflects just one man's opinion, it fits into a broader pattern of an Obama administration that has ignored Georgia and other parts of central Asia due to a focus on improving U.S.-Russian ties.
"Having a reset policy is fine, but what the administration has not done is create a simultaneous comprehensive policy for the central Asian states," said Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "Right now 100 percent of our Georgia policy is about Russia, where it should be about 25 percent."
Petersen agreed that selling arms to Georgia is not a panacea, but should be combined with other types of assistance, including civil institution building, which is mentioned in Beyrle's cable.
"The Georgians love banging the table and saying give us lots of arms, but they are just as myopic as this cable was," Petersen said. "If you're going to do arms sales, you have to do 10 other things relating to bolstering Georgia."
The cable, by alluding to Russian corruption and heavy handedness in the disputed territories, fits into the larger picture of State Department reporting, as revealed by WikiLeaks, which privately emphasizes Russian misbehavior in Georgia. These cables, including reports on Russian military and intelligence attacks inside Georgia dating back to 2004, go well beyond what U.S. diplomats commented on in public.
Although Beyrle's cable does not represent U.S. official policy, some experts see a White House keen to adopt its candid recommendations.
"As the U.S. ambassador to Russia, naturally he is going to a focus on a better relationship with Russia, so you can't say this necessarily this trickles up to the Obama administration's policy," said Petersen. "But a senior official at State is clearly saying we should throw Georgia under the bus."
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Twenty-nine leading human rights organizations wrote to President Obama on Friday to express their disappointment with his decision last week to waive sanctions against four countries the State Department has identified as using child soldiers.
The human rights and child advocacy community was not consulted before the White House announced its decision on Oct. 25 to waive penalties under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, which was supposed to go into effect last month, for violators Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Yemen. The NGO leaders, along with officials on Capitol Hill, also expressed their unhappiness about the announcement, and their exclusion from the decision making process, in an Oct. 29 conference call with senior administration officials. Today, they backed up their complaints in writing and called on the administration to mitigate the consequences.
"We believe that your waiver undermines the intent of the law and sends an unfortunate message that the administration is not seriously committed to ending the use of child soldiers," the groups wrote to Obama. "By giving a blanket waiver, the administration has also given up the significant leverage that the law provides to influence the child recruitment practices of its military allies."
A secret administration justification memo spelled out the reasons that the White House ultimately decided to forgo the sanctions for each country, explaining why cooperation with these troubled militaries was in the U.S. national interest. But critics countered that these interests could have been maintained without gutting the law.
"We recognize that the United States has a complex set of national interests in each of these countries, including for example, counter-terrorism concerns in Yemen," they wrote. "However, the administration could have accommodated these concerns while also showing that it was taking the Child Soldiers Prevention Act seriously and using its leverage strategically to effectively end the use of child soldiers."
In the administration's conference call reported first on The Cable , the National Security Council senior director Samantha Power argued that staying engaged with these militaries while "naming and shaming" them was actually the most effective way to make progress on the child soldiers issue.
In their letter, the human rights groups rejected that argument. "This approach has been ineffective thus far," they noted. "Continuing existing programs -- as the U.S. has done for years -- without other changes in the approach is unlikely to yield change."
The groups had some specific recommendations for how the administration could mitigate the damage caused by waiving the sanctions. They want the administration to establish benchmarks to gauge whether these troubled militaries are actually making progress on demobilizing child soldiers, publicly commit to not transfer lethal materials to these armies, and start engaging the NGO community and congressional offices about these issues in an organized and transparent manner.
Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch, said the groups are also preparing some specific recommendations for the administration for each of the four countries.
So is the White House dealing well with the NGO groups involved, following last week's botched roll out? "They're certainly paying attention to this issue now," said Becker. "They say this is a priority and we would like to take them at their word."
The letter was signed by the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies, the African Faith & Justice Network, the American Federation of Teachers, Amnesty International USA, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Caring for Kaela, Child Protection International, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, the 3D Security Initiative, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Foreign Policy in Focus , the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Human Rights First, Human Rights Program, the University of Minnesota, Human Rights Watch, the International Labor Rights Forum, International Justice Mission, Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, National Consumers League, the Open Society Policy Center, Oxfam America, Pax Christi USA, Physicians for Human Rights, Presbyterian Church USA, the Ramsay Merriam Fund, Refugees International, Resolve, the United Methodist Church, and the General Board of Church & Society.
The White House spent an hour Friday afternoon trying to convince angry Hill staffers and human rights activists that "naming and shaming" governments that recruit child soldiers, rather than imposing Congressionally-mandated sanctions on them, will better address the problem. But advocacy leaders are upset with the administration and rejected top White House officials' contention that removing sanctions against four troubled states will be a positive move.
The White House began a conference call on the issue Friday afternoon by apologizing to the NGO and Hill community for the decision's botched rollout, which was announced only through a short official presidential memorandum on Monday and then reported on by The Cable on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The call was off the record and not for press purposes, but a recording was made available to The Cable.
"This is a call that should have happened before you read about the administration's child soldiers' posture in the newspaper," said Samantha Power, the National Security Council's senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights. "Given the way you all heard about the implementation of the statute, I can understand why some of the reactions that you had were prevalent."
Power defended the president's decision to waive penalties under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, which was set to go into effect this month, for Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, and Yemen. She argued that identifying these countries as violators while giving them one more year to stop recruiting underage troops would help make progress.
"Our judgment was brand them, name them, shame them, and then try to leverage assistance in a fashion to make this work," said Power, adding that this was the first year the Obama administration had to make a decision on this issue, so they want to give the violator countries one more year to show progress.
"In year one to just say we're out of here, best of luck, we wish you well... Our judgment is we'll work from inside the tent."
But Hill staffers and advocacy leaders on the call weren't buying what Power was selling. They were upset that they learned about the decision via The Cable, and challenged Power on each point that she made.
For example, Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch, pointed out that the law was passed two years ago.
"The law was enacted in 2008, so countries have had two years to know that this was coming down the pike," she said. "So the consequences of the law really shouldn't be taking anyone by surprise, so to say countries need a year to get their act together is really problematic."
She also disputed Power's contention on the call that "there's evidence that our diplomatic engagement and this military assistance has resulted in some changes."
"The U.S. has been providing training for years already with no real change on the ground," said Becker. "We haven't seen significant changes in practice so far from the engagement approach, so that seems to indicate to me we need to change the approach, maybe withholding programs until we see changes on the ground."
"I think the logic of engagement is something reasonable people can disagree on," Power responded. "There's probably empirical evidence on both sides."
Advocates on the call did acknowledge Chad's efforts on child soldier demobilization, but lamented that little or no progress has been seen in the DRC or with South Sudan's Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA). But they wanted to know: If the administration believes that the threat of the sanctions has caused progress, then how does removing that threat keep the pressure on?
"Why remove that leverage now when we've seen it's been so valuable?" asked Scott Stedjan, senior policy advisor at Oxfam America
Jesse Eaves, policy advisor for children in crisis at World Vision, was one of several on the call to wonder why the administration decided to waive all sanctions, rather than using a part of the law that allows the continuation of military assistance to violator countries, along as that assistance goes toward military professionalization.
"Naming and shaming has not worked," he said. "You can give support under the law. Much of the aid that's even discussed in the justification memo that many of us have seen can still be given to these countries if they show a reasonable attempt to demobilize child soldiers."
Overall, Power wanted to point out that the administration is still intent on fighting the use of child soldiers and that waiving the sanctions doesn't mean that all pressures will stop. She promised that if these countries don't shape up, the administration will take a tougher line when reevaluating the sanctions next year.
Power repeatedly attempted to argue that the attention over the president's decision to waive sanctions was exactly the kind of public pressure needed to spur violator governments to change. However, her argument was complicated by the fact that the administration failed to tell anyone about the decision and announced it with no rollout or explanation whatsoever.
"I do think there's something different between what happened in 2008 [when the law passed] versus actually being named this week," she said. "And we're already seeing out in the field via our embassies a huge amount of discomfort and angst on the part of those countries about being branded in this way."
Power said at the end of the call that the administration plans to capitalize on the fallout from its decision. She said that the administration planned on "[u]sing the attention from this moment and the leverage of having abstained from having put the sanctions in effect right now and saying... ‘You're not going to get so lucky next time if we don't see some progress.'"
Overall, the call showed that the White House realized it botched the rollout of the decision but is standing by the decision itself. Next, they will have to defend it on Capitol Hill, where staffers are set to receive a special briefing on the issue next week.
"I think it's unfortunate that the NGO community and those in Congress who wrote the law were not involved in its implementation," said Kody Kness, an aide to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), one of the lead sponsors of the law. "I think that's a missed opportunity."
AFP / Getty Images
The Obama administration quietly waived a key section of the law meant to combat the use of child soldiers for four toubled states on Monday, over the objections the State Department's democracy and human rights officials. Today, the White House tells The Cable that they intend to give these countries -- all of whose armed forces use underage troops -- one more year to improve before bringing any penalties to bear.
The NGO community was shocked by the announcement, reported Tuesday by The Cable, that President Obama authorized exemptions from all penalties set to go into effect this year under the Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2008. The countries that received waivers were Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Yemen.
The failure of the administration to consult or even warn those groups that had worked hard to pass the law caused unease and concern around the advocacy community Tuesday. Child protection advocates worried that the administration was abandoning the tactic of threatening to cut off military assistance as a means to pressure abusive regimes to stop forcibly recruiting troops under the age of 18.
"This took us totally by surprise and was a complete shock to people who are working in the field," said Jesse Eaves, policy advisor for children in crisis at World Vision, a children-focused humanitarian organization.
On Tuesday evening, a White House official explained to The Cable the reasons for the decision and the details of what it means for U.S. activity in the affected countries. Essentially, the administration decided that it could not ensure that the offending countries would be able to abide by the law in time -- the breach of which would have required Washington to pull funding. In the end, the administration's calculus weighed in favor of continuing to fund several ongoing assistance programs like military training and counterterrorism advising. They decided to give each country at least one more year to implement reforms before sanctions are brought to bear, according to the official.
"This is the first year that sanctions were to take effect and part of our thinking here has been to put countries on notice of these legal provisions that are taking effect for the first time and that progress is going to have to be made on these things if these countries are going to continue to receive assistance," the White House official said.
The official also noted that the Obama administration was keen to preserve their relationships with the governments in question and argued that engaging troubled militaries was the most effective way to encourage the reform the law was designed to bring about.
"We still think it's important to maintain a solid relationship with the governments there to ensure they provide protection to those folks," the official said. "One rationale for continuing the assistance is to help them address the very problem that is the source of the sanctions."
Inside the administration, however, The Cable has learned that there was a heated debate over whether to issue the waivers. Apparently, this debate was held inside the State Department, with the bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) and the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons arguing against blanket exemptions. The bureau of Political and Military Affairs (PM) argued for the exemptions. The PM bureau's argument won the day and the State Department submitted recommendations to the White House, which issued the waivers.
The 2008 Child Soldier Prevention Act was originally sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and wrapped into a larger bill sponsored by then Sen. Joe Biden. Durbin's office was not able to comment by deadline and Biden's office deferred to the White House.
Leading human rights activists involved in the issue were skeptical that letting abusive governments evade sanctions would have the effect of producing reform faster.
"This is the first year it's being enacted, so to waive everyone right out of the gate sends exactly the wrong message," said Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch. "By providing a blanket waiver, the U.S. is really giving up all of its leverage to force them to change their approach to using child soldiers."
She also criticized the official's contention that the abusive countries needed more time to become aware of the law, which was signed in December 2008. It became operative in June 2009 but couldn't go into effect until violator countries were identified in the State Department's 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, which came out in June.
"If the State Department was doing its job, governments would have been well aware two years ago that this process was underway," said Becker.
The 2010 Trafficking in Persons report identified six countries that are systematically employing the use of child soldiers. In addition to the four that Obama waived sanctions on, Burma and Somalia are also implicated. But neither of those countries receive U.S. military assistance that could be cut off as a sanction, according to the law. Therefore, Obama's waivers have the effect of preventing the law from imposing any sanctions at all this year.
The White House official said when the next State Department report comes out in June 2011, there will be another assessment of whether to impose penalties on violator countries. He also hastened to underline that the waivers weren't issued to pave the way for new military sales to any of the countries found to be using child soldiers.
In Chad, the U.S. is engaged in counterterrorism activities but also is working with the government's armed forces to deal with the spillover of refugees from the crisis over the Sudanese border in Darfur. In the DRC, the U.S. is providing training of various types, military advisors, and also military vehicles and spare parts to the Congolese army. Over 33,000 child soldiers have been involved in the decade old civil war there and the country leads the world in the use of underage troops, according to UNICEF.
With regard to Sudan, other sanctions prevent the United States from helping the Khartoum government in the North, but the U.S. is giving military training assistance to the Southern People's Liberation Army, which could end up a national army if the South votes to separate in the January referendum. The SPLA has about 1,200 child soldiers, the official said, adding that cutting off such training would only undermine ongoing reform efforts.
Yemen is a recipient of significant direct U.S. military assistance, having received $155 million in fiscal 2010 with a possible $1.2 billion coming over the next five years. Yemen is also a much needed ally for counterterrorism operations. The government is engaged in a bloody fight with al Qaeda (among other separatist and terrorist groups), and estimates put the ratio of child soldiers among all the groups there at more than half. Nevertheless, "the president believes there are profound equities with Yemen in terms of counterterrorism that we need to continue to work on," the official told The Cable.
Several outside experts pointed out the existing law already contains an exemption that would permit the U.S. government to sanction abuser countries while still providing assistance that "will directly support professionalization of the military."
"This exception gives the U.S. government very wide berth to continue to provide assistance to bring these militaries more in line with the American image of what their military should look like," said Rachel Stohl, Associate Fellow at the Washington office of Chatham House, a U.K.-based think tank. "The law allows for professionalization of these militaries, so these waivers are really disappointing and add insult to injury."
AFP / Getty images
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, became the second senator to call for the ouster of Arnie Fields, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, whose office received a failing grade in a new report on its investigations into the use of billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funds.
"The recent findings of the independent review of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) are appalling and confirm that there is clearly a lack of competent senior leadership in this agency," Coburn said. "Fraud, corruption and wasted resources are placing our soldiers and the mission in Afghanistan in danger. The president must take swift action and replace the Inspector General and his top staff and immediately appoint an aggressive and independent watchdog who will oversee the billions of dollars the United States is sending there."
Earlier this week, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), which serves as an oversight board of all inspectors general in the U.S. government, issued a scathing report on the work of SIGAR, which came after months of congressional angst over what certain lawmakers see as the organization's shoddy work product.
"In our view, the safeguards and management procedures in this organization did not provide reasonable assurance of conforming with professional standards in the conduct of its investigations from the inception of SIGAR to April 16, 2010," the panel wrote.
Fields responded in a letter that funding delays had prevented him from "building the capacity necessary to address my investigative mandate," and said he had already taken measures to address the panel's concerns.
Coburn had requested the review, along with Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, and Susan Collins, R-ME. McCaskill called for Fields to be fired on the day the report was issued.
On Tuesday, The Cable caught up with McCaskill and she said she wanted to see the entire SIGAR office reorganized and folded into its sister organization, the Office of the Special Inspector for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).
"We need one inspector general that covers all crisis situations so we can have some accountability and consistency in this mission," she said.
SIGIR head Stuart Bowen has suggested a Special Inspector General for Overseas Contingecy Operations (SIGOCO) as a minor part of its lessons learned project, although his office has not been involved in the current imbroglio regarding SIGAR.
On a separate track, his office has been shopping around town his idea for a new U.S. government agency that would manage all reconstruction efforts in areas where the military is deployed. He calls it the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations.
"It assumes that over time, contingencies will occur," Bowen told The Cable last November, "It's sort of like FEMA. FEMA is set up to address disasters, but disasters aren't continuous. The history of the last 50 years, with 15 contingencies or so, indicates that the next 50 years will probably have more contingency operations."
The SIGAR office Tuesday declined to comment on Coburn's statement.
Top House appropriators are promising to resist the award of a huge Afghanistan training contract to the firm formerly known as Blackwater.
In an interview before leaving on his trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Rep. James Moran, D-VA, now the third ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee, said he will lead a charge to deny the company Xe, Blackwater's new moniker, from an estimated $1 billion funds if they are somehow awarded the contract.
"There is substantial sentiment among the Democratic subcommittee members to resist if the Defense Department were to award this contract to Blackwater," Moran told The Cable. He is traveling now with new subcommittee chairman Norm Dicks, D-WA, who took over for the recently deceased John Murtha.
If Secretary Robert Gates were to allow the contract to go Blackwater, "I think the issue would just escalate," Moran said, adding, "He'd have to be political brain dead to award them this."
Moran raised the issue with Gates last week, as did Senate Armed Service Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-MI, who spent 90 minutes with Gates only days before sending him this scathing letter about the company and its prospects.
In the letter, Levin wrote that Blackwater was already performing some of the duties under a contract vehicle issued by the Counter-Narcoterrorism Technology Office, part of the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command. The use of that contract for training Afghan's police is already a violation, according to a company protesting the contract, Levin wrote.
Regardless, when the State Department transitions the mission fully over to Pentagon responsibility with the new $1 billion award, Blackwater is said to be a competitive bidder, raising concerns due to their seemingly constant string of scandals involving the use of lethal force in Iraq and Afganistan.
"It would really be a travesty if any federal agency contracted with Blackwater again," explained Moran, "They'll be seen as representing America. They don't. They're not what the American people are about."
Moran said there are several defense firms that are in competition for the contract, including Lockheed and Northrop Grumman. "The Defense Department has some fine choices available. Blackwater is not one of them."
As part of his criticism of Blackwater, Levin also wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether Blackwater created a shell company called Paravant, at the request of Raytheon Corporation, in order to secure government contracts without having to use Blackwater's tarnished name.
From Levin's letter to Holder:
Fred Roitz, Blackwater's Vice President for Contracts and Compliance, testified at the Committee's hearing that Blackwater had changed its name to Paravant at the request of Raytheon, the Defense Department's prime contractor. In his interview with Committee staff, then-Paravant Vice President Brian McCracken said that Paravant was created to be a "company that didn't have any Blackwater on it ... so they could go after some [government] business that Raytheon was getting ready to hand out."
Cable readers already know the pernicious role that illicit cash can play in the U.S. politics, but it's nothing compared to what goes on in Japan, where the mafia organization known as the yakuza has deep ties to even the country's top leaders.
The recently-released Tokyo Vice, by American reporter Jake Adelstein, is the most in-depth look at the group published in English. In 2008, Adelstein broke the blockbuster story of top yakuza boss Tadamasa Goto, the "John Gotti of Japan," who made a deal with the FBI to rat out his cohorts in exchange for a liver transplant at UCLA.
He literally risked his life while writing Tokyo Vice and remains in constant danger as he continues to break news all over Japan. A great explanation of the yakuza can be found in this excerpt, titled, Bury Me In a Shallow Grave: When the Yakuza Come Calling (pdf).
Jake's introduction to the chapter, written for The Cable, explains how one current cabinet minister in Japan is alleged to have deep and longstanding ties to the mafia there:
This chapter from the book deals with the first time I ever met a yakuza boss as reporter and is also an introduction the role of the yakuza in modern Japanese society. I hope people find it elucidating.
As noted in the text, Japan's longest ruling political party, the Liberal Democrat Party, was originally founded with yakuza money. Associations with the yakuza don't seem to be much of a deterrent to holding political office in Japan.
Kamei Shizuka, the current Minister of Financial Services, according to the Weekly Economist, at one time received 40,000,000 yen from a stock-speculating front company Cosmopolitan--which was run by the notorious yakuza crime boss, Ikeda Yasuji. He also received political donations from the late nineties until 2001 from Kajiyama Susumu, a Yamaguchi-gumi Goryokai member and so-called emperor of loan sharks. Kajiyama himself laundered millions of dollars in Switzerland and the US. When I asked a reporter at one major newspaper why Kamei's past associations with yakuza members wasn't an issue--he simply replied, "The Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) makes it difficult to write about these things."
Minister Kamei is in the unusual position of being the de facto boss of the Financial Services Agency (FSA) in Japan, which is responsible for uncovering corporate malfeasance and making sure that the yakuza make no further incursions into Japan's already tainted financial markets...
The law was put in place after former Prime Minister Mori became distressed about numerous periodicals writing about his social connections to yakuza figures and touching upon the possibility that he had been arrested in a prostitution raid in his youth. He initiated the movement to create the law and the LDP delivered. In a way, the yakuza are responsible for that legislation---which has successfully muzzled the press and according to lawyers specializing in dealing with organized crime interventions in civil affairs, "has only protected politicians and made it increasingly difficult to discern whether a business is a legitimate entity or a yakuza front company."
In my humble opinion, if you want to understand the nitty-gritty of Japanese politics, you can't avoid dealing with yakuza issues on one level or another. There have been a great number of politicians with associations to them, though most of the politicians with yakuza ties usually conveniently kill themselves after an investigation begins. I've always taken this to mean that suicidal politicians somehow find it very enticing to do business with organized crime. I suppose you could argue that they actually wind up getting killed and having their suicides staged. Possible.
The other reason that yakuza can't be ignored in the political sphere is they have lots of money. The Yamaguchi-gumi, with 40,000 members is probably the second or third largest private equity groups in Japan and as the Japanese say, ????????? (jigoku no sata mo kane shidai) ---" Even in the depths of hell, money talks." When money talks, politicians listen.
The White House has now confirmed that President Obama will announce the addition deployment of 30,000 new U.S. troops to Afghanistan, as well as a plan to start withdrawing troops in July of 2011.
Two administration officials briefed reporters on a conference call Tuesday afternoon ahead of Obama's Tuesday evening speech at the West Point military academy. The officials called the increase a "surge" and said that while the withdrawal would begin in July 2011, the pace and end point of the withdrawal would be determined by Obama at a later time.
"This surge will be for a defined period of time," one of the officials said, "What the president will talk about tonight is a date ... by which he will begin to transfer the leadership role to our Afghan partners."
"He will not tonight specify the end of that process or the pace at which he will proceed. That date and process will be determined by conditions on the ground."
The idea of a time frame for withdrawal of U.S. forces is a controversial one, especially among lawmakers, who reacted strongly to reports of a three-year time frame Tuesday morning. The White House later denied those reports to The Cable.
One of the administration officials sought to preempt criticisms of a set date for withdrawal by saying that leaving the withdrawal endpoint flexible would prevent Afghans from simply stalling until American troops leave.
"If the Taliban thinks they can wait us out, they are misjudging the president's approach," the official said, while adding, "It does put everyone under pressure to do more, sooner."
Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, has already come out against the White House plan to begin withdrawal in 2011.
The 30,000 figure includes two or three full combat brigades plus one full brigade-sized element focused exclusively on training Afghan security forces. All new combat troops will be partnered with Afghan forces in some fashion.
The new strategy will also include a beefed-up commitment to Pakistan, although the administration officials declined to give specifics. More on that later....
Between 2005 and 2009, more than $567 million was spent on one contract in Iraq to build up the logistical capabilities of the Iraq security forces, with almost no oversight whatsoever. When an audit was finally done on the invoices, it found that 14 percent of the money examined in sampling -- that's more than $4.2 million -- was completely unaccounted for.
The audit was conducted by the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), which found in one example that the contractor, a company called AECOM, charged $196.50 for a package of 10 washers that should have cost $1.22, a markup of 16,000 percent. "There just weren't enough people to look at this contract, which was a half a billion dollars," Deputy Inspector General Ginger Cruz told The Cable.
The contract is one of the hundreds of investigations done in recent years by SIGIR. But as the U.S. military withdraws from Iraq, SIGIR is losing its funding and its staff, begging the question of how the U.S. government will be able to discover such abuses going forward. Special Inspector General Stuart Bowen has been meeting with various government officals and groups to try to create a permanent organization to oversee reconstruction projects in warzones, an idea that hasn't gotten any official traction so far but could be included in any of a number of government reform efforts now ongoing.
Since its inception in 2004, SIGIR claims to have produced $82 million of direct savings, $49 million of seizures and restitution payments, $224 million of funds put to better use, 31 criminal indictments, and 25 convictions. Right now, SIGIR has 96 ongoing investigations. But SIGIR's budget is being cut in half over the next two years and the organization will cut its staff correspondingly. The office could close completely as soon as 2012.
"The ramp-down has begun," said Bowen told The Cable. "A year from now, we will be in a serious windup mode and in two years from now there will be 30 people left," meaning basically no investigations will be able to move forward.
SIGIR has almost gone out of business five times since 2004. First it was created as the Inspector General for what was then the Coalition Provisional Authority. Congress has extended its mandates, albeit temporarily, several times since then. But with the clock running down on the U.S. military presence in Iraq, SIGIR's nine lives are just about up.
There is $6 billion left to spend of the $52 billion appropriated by the U.S. Congress for reconstruction in Iraq. The law stipulates that when the money runs out, so too will SIGIR's mandate.
Bowen is currently searching for a way to keep SIGIR's institutional knowledge and expertise in the government and to keep his staff employed. He has been shopping around town his idea for a new U.S. government agency that would manage all reconstruction efforts in areas where the military is deployed. He calls it the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations, which would exist in perpetuity and stand independent of either the State or Defense Departments, as SIGIR does now.
"It assumes that over time, contingencies will occur," said Bowen, "It's sort of like FEMA. FEMA is set up to address disasters, but disasters aren't continuous. The history of the last 50 years, with 15 contingencies or so, indicates that the next 50 years will probably have more contingency operations."
Bowen met with Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg on Thursday and plans to meet with Policy Planning chief Anne Marie Slaughter's office soon. The hope is that his proposal will find its way into the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Defense Review (QDDR) ongoing inside State now.
"The idea is contribute to the ongoing efforts to reform how the United States approaches this critical issue," Bowen said.
If that's too ambitious, Bowen has a scaled-back idea that he hasn't yet proposed, creating a Special Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations. This would be a version of his other proposal, but focused on oversight and investigations, rather than actually managing contracts.
"It makes sense to have a body that can look at both pots of money without resistance. That ‘s the genius of this organization, there's no door we can't get through."
SIGIR's top officials point to $100 billion spent by the U.S. on reconstruction in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. When Lebanon and Georgia are added, more than $16 billion will be spent in fiscal 2010. Afghanistan alone will see at least $1 billion in reconstruction money coming next year, and very few of the 68,000 troops there are trained as program managers, much less contract oversight specialists.
The Pentagon office for Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics, run by Ashton Carter, is working to rapidly increase the contracting staff in Afghanistan now, "but are they going to be able to ramp up fast enough so that when you start moving all this money really fast in Afghanistan, that it is properly managed?" asked Cruz. "You run the risk of it being wasted or stolen."
The two battling sides in the Honduran crisis have come to an agreement that would allow ousted President Manuel Zelaya to return to office, after a parliamentary vote and with the prior approval of the Supreme Court.
Also included in the deal are terms for a power sharing government, an agreement to respect the results of November 29 elections, and the establishment of a trust commission to weigh in on how the crisis started in the first place.
A U.S. delegation has been in Tagucigalpa since Wednesday, led by Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon, principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Craig Kelly, and National Security Council Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs Dan Restrepo.
Zelaya was deposed June 28 by force and replaced with a de facto regime led by Roberto Micheletti. Zelaya snuck back into Honduras last month and has been hiding out in the Brazilian embassy in Tagucigalpa ever since.
Here are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's congratulatory remarks, delivered while traveling in Pakistan:
I'm very pleased to announce that we've had a breakthrough in negotiations in Honduras.
I want to congratulate the people of Honduras as well as President Zelaya and Mr. Micheletti for reaching an historic agreement. I also congratulate Costa Rican President Oscar Arias for the important role he has played in fashioning the San Jose process and the OAS for its role in facilitating the successful round of talks.
As you know, I sent Assistant Secretary Tom Shannon and his deputy Craig Kelly and the White House NSC representative for the Western Hemisphere Dan Ristreppo to Honduras yesterday after speaking with both President Zelaya and Mr. Micheletti last Friday to urge them finally, once and for all to reach an agreement.
I cannot think of another example of a country in Latin America that having suffered a rupture of its democratic and constitutional order overcame such a crisis through negotiation and dialogue.
This is a big step forward for the Inter-American system and its commitment to democracy as embodied in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. I'm very proud that I was part of the process, that the United States was instrumental in the process. But I'm mostly proud of the people of Honduras who have worked very hard to have this matter resolved peacefully.
We're looking forward to the elections that will be held on November 29, and working with the people and government of Honduras to realize the full return of democracy and a better future for the Honduran people.
Lawmakers are actively but secretively trying to get to the bottom of the CIA's relationship with Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in light of the stunning New York Times article which cited unnamed sources stating he has been on the CIA's payroll for years while simultaneously facilitating massive drug trade in his region.
CIA Director Leon Panetta met with several Senators on both sides of the aisle Thursday behind closed doors and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, has submitted a formal request for information detailing the Agency's relationship with Karzai the brother.
Following his meeting with Panetta, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-MI, said that he would not disclose what Panetta told him but that on the question of Ahmed Wali Karzai's relationship with the CIA, he had gotten some clarity.
"I think we know [about his relationship with the CIA] but I can't share that with you," Levin said, adding mysteriously, "I don't know that Karzai's brother is on the CIA payroll."
On the issue of whether or not the President's brother is facilitating the drug trade near Kandahar, lawmakers who are in the loop seem more confident and willing to publicly express their concerns.
"According to credible people, the President's brother is involved in various illicit activities," said Armed Services ranking Republican John McCain, R-AZ, "We can't have that."
McCain reiterated his call that Ahmed Wali Karzai should leave the country immediately.
Kerry was the only senior lawmaker to issue a statement expressing his frustration about not being aware of the relationship.
In an interview with The Cable, Kerry said although the CIA relationship with Karzai might not necessarily be nefarious, Congress had a right to know the details.
"If the CIA has a deal, I want to know what the realities are," he said, "I want to examine the relationships and know what the terms are and understand what's the impacts of that might or might not be."
"It may not be something you want to deal with publicly, but we have to be absolutely certain that nothing we are trying to do is being compromised," said Kerry.
The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee have been notably mum on the subject, presumably working behind the scenes.
Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, refused to comment and a spokesperson for ranking Republican Kit Bond, R-MO, said that Bond would only say the news shouldn't result in any delay in President Obama's decision on how to move forward in Afghanistan.
Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, the immediate past chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said that he was not aware of the CIA's relationship with Karzai during his tenure but should have been.
"You know what the problem is? We on the committee own no intelligence," he said, "We only get what they choose to give us. That's why we are always fighting."
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.