U.S. President Barack Obama has made his administration's successes against terrorist groups -- above all last year's killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden -- a central plank of his re-election campaign.
But according to the State Department's latest annual counterterrorism report, al Qaeda affiliates are gaining operational strength in the Middle East and South Asia, even though terrorist attacks worldwide are at their lowest level since 2005.
The report cited 2011 as a "landmark year" due to the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and other key al Qaeda operatives, and noted that the terrorist group's "core," largely based in Pakistan, had been weakened.
"I would not say that we are less safe now than we were several years ago, because the al Qaeda core was the most capable part of the organization by quite a lot, and was capable obviously of carrying out catastrophic attacks on a scale that none of the affiliates have been able to match," Coordinator for Counterterrorism Dan Benjamin said Tuesday at a briefing introducing the report.
Democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa also testified to the terrorist organization's decline, he said, though he offered a few cautionary notes.
"We saw millions of citizens throughout the Middle East advance peaceful, public demands for change without any reference to al Qaeda's incendiary world view," Benjamin said.
"This upended the group's longstanding claim that change in this region would only come through violence. These men and women have underscored in the most powerful fashion the lack of influence al Qaeda exerts over the central political issues in key Muslim majority nations."
Though AQAP benefited from the long and tumultuous political transition in Yemen, Benjamin said he expects the trend lines to go "in the right direction" under new president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Syria, on the other hand, remains a major cause for concern with no solution in sight. The New York Times reported Sunday that Muslim jihadists are "taking a more prominent role" in the resistance.
"We believe that the number of al Qaeda fighters who are in Syria is relatively small, but there's a larger group of foreign fighters, many of whom are not directly affiliated with al Qaeda, who are either in or headed to Syria," Benjamin said.
Iran remains the preeminent state sponsor of terrorism, according to the report, as its Lebanese client, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, is engaging in the most active and aggressive campaign since the 1990s.
Of the more than 10,000 attacks carried out in 70 countries, 64 percent occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but both Afghanistan and Iraq saw a decrease in the number of attacks from 2010.
In Africa, there was an 11.5 percent uptick in attacks, a result of Nigerian militant group Boko Haram's more aggressive strategies and tactics. Despite criticism from Congress, the Obama administration has refused to designate Boko Haram a terrorist organization on the grounds that its attacks are not representative of its general ideology, though the State Department did designate three of its leaders terrorists in June.
The report also mentions the Haqqani network, a Taliban-affiliated group attacking NATO troops in Afghanistan. On Thursday, the Senate voted unanimously to pass a resolution urging the State Department to add the network to the list of terrorist groups, which would become effective with President Barack Obama's signature.
A group of 27 foreign policy, security, and Middle East experts sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama on this week criticizing the administration's counterterrorism-focused approach to Yemen and urging the White House to heed policy recommendations geared toward "achieving a successful democratic transition" in the war-torn Gulf country, which experienced a popular uprising last year that ousted longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Although the United States has "drastically increased the number of drone strikes" against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the letter states, this strategy "jeopardizes our long-term national security goals." A comprehensive focus on Yemen's economic and political problems, it continues, "will better serve the stability of Yemen and, accordingly, our national security interests, rather than ... direct military involvement."
The letter, spearheaded by the Yemen Policy Initiative, a dialogue organized by the Atlantic Council and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), outlines several diplomatic, political, economic, humanitarian, and security policy recommendations that include increasing assistance to democracy-building institutions, working with the international community to immediately address Yemen's "food security needs," sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Yemeni capital Sanaa, and rethinking the strategy of drone strikes, which the signatories argue "could strengthen the appeal of extremist groups."
"The real essence [of the letter] was that we have a new government in Yemen, and what we need to do is recalibrate or rebalance the relationship to make it clear to both the Yemenis and to the American people that our interests and the focus of our efforts there are not solely AQAP," former U.S. ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine told The Cable. "Al Qaeda is a short-term, immediate issue ... we need to took to the medium-term and long-term."
Stephen McInerney, executive director of POMED, argues that while U.S. policy in Yemen is "shortsighted" and "too narrow," AQAP is still a real threat.
"By no means are we downplaying counterterrorism issues," he said in a short interview with The Cable.
U.S. diplomats were actively involved in negotiating the power transfer agreement that resulted in Saleh's official ouster in November 2011, and President Obama signed an executive order in May green-lighting sanctions against parties that try to disrupt the transition. In April, the White House authorized a campaign of stepped-up drone strikes against terrorists in Yemen. The Yemeni military, under new President Abd-Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, has recently concentrated on routing AQAP militants from their strongholds in southern Yemen and claims to be making progress.
There are also indications that the Obama administration is taking a broader approach to its Yemen policy. Earlier this month, a delegation from the U.S. House of Representatives visited Sanaa, where congressmen met with government officials as well as businesspeople, NGO representatives, and civil--society leaders. Last week, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) director Rajiv Shah also traveled to Sanaa and announced that the agency would give an additional $52 million to Yemen in 2012.
It's a start, the letters' signatories say, but they'd like to see more.
"The U.S. does have a broad policy of engaging both in security cooperation and development assistance, but unfortunately most Yemenis don't perceive U.S. engagement to be that way," Danya Greenfield, deputy director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, told The Cable. "We need to clearly articulate that the U.S. is really invested in their long-term development ... to ensure that there is ongoing sustainable security both for Yemen and the U.S."
Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Mike Hammer are still in Moscow after P5+1 talks with Iran failed to make substantive progress. The parties managed to stave off a total breakdown, but the two days of negotiations resulted only in a commitment on all sides to "continue negotiations at a technical level."
Former Vice President Dick Cheney argued on Friday morning that the waterboarding of terror suspects did not amount to torture because the same techniques had been used on U.S. soldiers during training.
"The notion that somehow the United States was torturing anybody is not true," Cheney told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute at an event to promote his new book. "Three people were waterboarded and the one who was subjected most often to that was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and it produced phenomenal results for us."
"Another key point that needs to be made was that the techniques that we used were all previously used on Americans," Cheney went on. "All of them were used in training for a lot of our own specialists in the military. So there wasn't any technique that we used on any al Qaeda individual that hadn't been used on our own troops first, just to give you some idea whether or not we were ‘torturing' the people we captured."
Of course, there are some differences between the waterboarding of troops as part of their Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training and the waterboarding of suspected al Qaeda prisoners. For example, the troops in training are not subjected to the practice 183 times, as KSM was. Also, the soldiers presumably know their training will end, and they won't be allowed to actually drown or left to rot in some dark, anonymous prison.
Some in Cheney's party, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), believe that waterboarding is torture. Malcolm Nance, a counterterrorism consultant for the U.S. government and a former SERE instructor, has argued repeatedly that waterboarding is torture and called for prohibiting its use on prisoners.
"Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration -- usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten[ed] with its use again and again," he said.
Cheney said the George W. Bush administration had received approval for the "enhanced interrogation program" from all nine congressional leaders who had been briefed on its details: this included the leaders of both intelligence committees, the leaders of both parties, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
When asked if they thought the program should be continued, they all said, "Absolutely," Cheney said. And when asked if the Bush administration should seek additional congressional approval for the program, the nine Congressional leaders unanimously told him, "Absolutely not," according to Cheney's account.
Cheney also said the Bush administration's interrogation policies were partially responsible for recent successes in the fight against al Qaeda, includig the killing of Osama bin Laden.
"I'd make the case we've been successful in part because of the intelligence we have, because of what we've learned from men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, back when he was subjected [to enhanced interrogation]," he said.
In the one-hour discussion at AEI with the Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes, Cheney also talked about huddling with his wife and daughter at Camp David on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001. Camp David was the "secure, undisclosed location" that the Secret Service rushed Cheney to just after the attacks. Other top administration officials met him there over the follow days.
When asked if he ever broke down and cried in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, as had President George W. Bush and other top officials, Cheney said, "Not really," and then grinned sheepishly as the crowd giggled.
"You understand that people will find that peculiar," Hayes noted.
"It wasn't that it wasn't a deeply moving event," Cheney responded. "The training just sort of kicked in, in terms of what we had to do that morning and into the next day."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants her new deputy, Bill Burns, confirmed so badly that she called Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) from India and gave in to his demands for a decision on Taiwan arms sales.
Clinton promised Cornyn that the administration would make a call on selling 66 new F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan and release the long overdue congressionally mandated report on Taiwan's air power capabilities. But there's a catch: The administration won't announce the decision and release the report until Oct. 1. But the promise of a decision was enough for Cornyn to lift his hold on Burns' nomination.
"Sen. Cornyn asked the administration to do two things: submit the late Taiwan airpower report and accept Taiwan's letter of request for new F-16C/D fighters," a Cornyn staffer told The Cable today. "Secretary Clinton indicated that on October 1st he would have both the report and an up-or-down decision on the F-16C/D sale, which was satisfactory to Sen. Cornyn."
We've been told by three sources that there was an emergency Principals Committee meeting at the White House on Taiwan arms sales last Friday. A fourth source flatly denied that the meeting took place. Either way, it's clear that there was some frantic administration discussion on this issue that led to the decision to meet Cornyn's demands.
The administration might ultimately say no to the sale of the new C and D models of the F-16 fighter jet, but offer the Taiwanese upgrade packages for their existing fleet of older A and B models. Or they could say yes to the new sales and the upgrades, or no to both options.
Why did Clinton choose the Oct. 1 date? Nobody knows for sure, but one piece of speculation is that it is well past Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Beijing in late August but still well before the November meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries in Honolulu in November. By making its decision then, some speculate that the administration may be trying to minimize the impact of any negative Chinese reaction to the moves.
Rupert J. Hammond-Chambers, the president of the U.S. Taiwan Business Council, told The Cable today that the fact that the report and the decision on new F-16 sales will be announced in October is an indicator that the administration is planning to say no to the new plane sales.
"It's good to know the administration will eventually make the decision on the F-16s. But by delivering the report at the same time as announcing the decision, they negate the importance and effectiveness of the report. And it seems likely that they won't announce a decision to sell Taiwan new F-16s only about a month before Hu Jintao is scheduled to come to the U.S." he said. "We're just not that excited about the way this has played out."
If the answer is no on to new F-16 sales, expect the GOP to step in and criticize the administration for what they see as kowtowing to Chinese complaints.
"If and when the administration makes the wrong decision, we get to beat them up politically for letting China control U.S. arms sales," said a senior GOP Senate aide from another office.
Cornyn also wanted the administration to acknowledge Taiwan's official letter of request for the new planes, which Taipei has been trying to submit since 2006. But if the administration makes a decision on the sale, the letter requesting the sale becomes moot, congressional sources said.
But Burns's road to confirmation isn't in the clear. Sources say there is at least one more hold on his nomination that the State Department is working furiously to resolve. Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) put the Burns nomination on the "Hotline" today, which means he will be confirmed if there are no objections. So if Burns isn't confirmed tonight, that will be a clear indication that not all senators' demands have been satisfied.
Burns is also scheduled to meet with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) next Tuesday, according to congressional sources, to discuss Kirk's concerns about Iran policy and U.S. plans to deploy missile defense radar in Turkey. If Kirk doesn't like what he hears, there could be yet another roadblock to Burns' confirmation.
The White House was also upset by a Wednesday report by Washington Times' columnist Bill Gertz, who blamed National Security Staff Director Evan Medeiros for delaying the F-16 sale decision, the Taiwan air power report, and a related report regarding the Chinese military. Gertz's story, which was sourced to unnamed GOP congressional staff members, alleged that Medeiros was at odds with Asia officials around the government.
"Bill Gertz is the most prolific fiction writer since J.K. Rowling," NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable. "This story has absolutely no basis in fact. Evan isn't holding up a single one of these items. Anyone who is even remotely informed about the process would know that. Unfortunately the anonymous officials cited in this article don't fall into that category."
UPDATE: The Cable regrets that we did not contact Gertz to give him the opportunity to respond to Vietor's assertion that his column was "fiction." Gertz e-mailed his response today, saying, "I stand by my reporting."
The Obama administration and Congress are working busily but separately to update the nation's export control regime, which regulates the export of sensitive technologies abroad and hasn't seen real reform since the Export Administration Act (EAA) was last rewritten in 1979. Today, Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) will unveil a comprehensive bill to update laws on how technology exports are regulated.
"The current export control statute is an out-moded relic of the Cold War that focuses on economic warfare against old adversaries and fails to account for today's threats," Berman said in a statement sent to The Cable. "Updating this law is essential to our national security and necessary to sustain our cutting edge technology sector and create new, high quality jobs. A new export control law is necessary to preserve our competitive advantage."
Berman's bill, which can be found here (PDF) would alter the list of dual-use technologies -- those export items which have both military and civilian uses -- to reflect the changes in technology and the marketplace that have taken place over the last 30 years.
"The U.S. still controls -- unilaterally -- high performance computers and machine tools that are now freely available in global commerce," Berman said. "We need to re-focus our licensing and enforcement resources on items that we can control effectively."
There a bipartisan consensus that the export control regime needs to be updated but no real consensus on exactly what to do. The EAA technically lapsed once from 1994 to 2000 and again from 2001 to the present but the White House has been able to keep the provisions in force by using what's known as emergency presidential authority to extend its provisions every year since.
But those reauthorizations haven't taken into account changes in what particular technologies should or should not be regulated, Berman argues, and restrict the competitiveness of U.S. industries in the evolving global marketplace.
A key feature of Berman's bill is that it "modernizes the definition of national security to include sustaining U.S. leadership in science, manufacturing and our high-tech workforce, and requires the president to balance traditional security goals with maintaining U.S. academic and manufacturing leadership in applying controls," according to a fact sheet (PDF) provided to The Cable.
In some ways, the bill would allow more U.S. technologies to be exported to all countries, such as industrial production machine tools, industrial lasers, high performance computers, some computer chips, and night vision and infared technology, which are now available globally.
In other ways, the bill would tighten controls by adding threats that didn't exist in 1979, such as technologies pertaining to internet crime, cyber warfare, bioengineering, and certain aspects of nanotechnology.
"Berman's bill just doesn't seek to remove things, but it also directs the president to keep the control system current with what technologies need to be restricted," a committee aide said.
Berman, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, knows his bill isn't the only game in town. Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) is also said to be preparing a bill, but her legislation would be more of a reauthorization of the current law with specific tweaks, as opposed to Berman's more comprehensive overhaul.
The White House also has its own ongoing initiative, an intensive interagency process led by Mike Froman, the senior director for international economics at the National Security Council. There have been principal-level and deputy-level meetings on the issue; the technical working group includes representation from Eric Hirshorn's shop at Commerce, Ellen Tauscher's bureau at State, and Jim Miller's staff at the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
The White House is said by congressional aides to be considering a major government reorganization on this issue, which would potentially merge the export regimes under the EAA and Arms Control Export Act, which is not covered in Berman's bill. The White House is also working with former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, who co-chaired a National Research Council study on export controls.
"The national security controls on science and technology are broken. They weaken national security and reduce [economic] competitiveness," Scowcroft testified in 2009.
Berman's staff knows their bill isn't fast tracked to become law but sees it as a way to spur the discussion.
"We're at the stage legislatively of putting ideas on the table against a backdrop of high-level interest in the Congress and in the Obama administration," the committee aide said.
DOHA, Qatar—Senior political and military leaders from around the world are flocking to Manama, Bahrain, Friday for what will be this year's largest and most star-studded meeting on regional security policy, the 2010 Manama Security Dialogue, hosted by the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Institute for International and Strategic Studies.
The U.S. delegation, one of the largest at the conference, is being led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is giving the opening address Friday evening. Other U.S. government delegates include Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro, Assistant Secretary for Defense International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Central Command head Gen. James Mattis, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner, Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Daniel Feldman, and U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Adam Ereli.
Among the non-government delegates attending the conference is none other than your humble Cable guy, who is filing this story from a layover in Doha, Qatar, which just happens to be on the country that was just awarded the privilege of hosting the 2022 World Cup. We'll be reporting throughout the conference.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki will give a speech Dec. 4, only two days before Iran will meet the "P5+1" countries -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States -- in Geneva for the first multilateral discussions about Iran's nuclear program in over a year.
"Last year, in response to a question, Mottaki presented what was known as the ‘Kish Island option' for the Tehran Research Reactor fuel swap," Andrew Parasiliti, executive director of IISS's U.S. office, told The Cable. "This idea didn't get far, but at the time, it signaled the fuel-swap was not dead in Tehran." Mottaki's proposal, which the Iranians had first made privately to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, was to transfer the first 400 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Kish, an Iranian resort island in the Persian Gulf, in exchange for 40-50 kilograms of fuel enriched to 20 percent.
"The presence of both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Mottaki, as well as ministerial delegations from the Gulf and worldwide, could provide an unusual opportunity for the US, Iran, Iraq, and the GCC states to present new initiatives for a Gulf regional security agenda," Parasiliti wrote Wednesday in an op-ed in the National.
Dozens of Arab leaders will also have their first chance to talk face to face with American diplomats about the WikiLeaks diplomatic cable disclosures, which have so far included embarrassing anecdotes about several governments who will be in Manama, including representatives from Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
Another focus of the event will be the future of Iraq. Iraq's Speaker of Parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi was among the latest additions to the list of speakers. The keynote address on Dec. 4 will be given by King Abdullah II of Jordan.
And never count out General Mattis when it comes to the ability to make news. At last year's dialogue, his predecessor Gen. David Petraeus stirred the pot when he stated that the United Arab Emirates' air force had the ability to take out Iran's air force in a head-to-head matchup.
"All of these issues will be discussed in ministerial plenary panels as well as in off-the-record sessions," Parasiliti said.
Much has been written about the State Department's intensive effort to deal with the release of secret diplomatic cables by the website WikiLeaks, but there is also a separate, massive effort to deal with the crisis by the embassies of foreign governments, aided by the paid lobbyists and consultants who represent them.
Working as a Washington lobbyist for a foreign country is usually a pretty sweet gig. These hired guns keep governments informed on anything in town that could affect their country's diplomatic or political interests -- for a hefty monthly fee, of course. Lobbyists apply added elbow grease when relevant legislation needs cheerleading on Capitol Hill. Consultants work harder when foreign officials are in town or there's a pressing bilateral issue. But overall, crises are relatively rare.
Not this week, though: It's all hands on deck on K Street, as firms are fielding frantic and constant requests from diplomats in foreign capitals, trying to make sense of the released and soon-to-be-released WikiLeaks State Department cables.
"When was the last time that every embassy and every consultancy in town went into crisis mode simultaneously," one consultant with clients in Europe and Asia told The Cable. This consultant said that his firm has been totally swamped since Sunday's initial document dump with panicked emails, rushed conference calls, and requests for information.
"Basically you have governments that have absolutely no idea what's in these documents. And everybody from senior officials to embassy personnel to Washington consultants are in a mad scramble to go through each new batch of documents as they come out to identify items that are potential vulnerabilities, paint their bosses in an unflattering light, or reveal some sensitive information," the consultant said. "The entire chain of command is in panic mode with every new release."
Compounding the difficulty of the damage control effort is the fact that nobody knows what new revelations are coming down the pike: Only 291 of the WikiLeaks promised 251,287 documents have been released thus far.
At the embassies themselves, foreign diplomats are working day and night to try to collect as much information as possible about the coming leaks that reference their own country. One European diplomat said that his embassy had set up an around-the-clock monitoring system to make sure that if something breaks, they will be ready to handle it immediately.
"We are in 24-hour mode, somebody is always watching and waiting. When we [at the embassy] sleep they [back home] watch, and when they sleep we watch," the diplomat told The Cable.
Embassies have been getting apology phone calls from the State Department directly, but they aren't waiting for the U.S. government to explain it all; they are working to figure out their exposure themselves or with their hired help.
One of the main tasks asked of diplomats, lobbyists, and consultants dealing with the crisis in Washington is to try and collect cables that haven't been officially released yet, but are nonetheless being circulated inside the diplomatic community. Nobody knows exactly where all the extra cables coming from, but WikiLeaks has said it would give country specific cables to local foreign media outlets.
One Washington lobbyist who represents countries in the Middle East said that local press in several countries he works on is reporting on cables that haven't yet been reported on by the media outlets who had advance access to the documents. The lobbyist speculated that foreign governments may also be selectively leaking cables they've come across in order to spin them in their own favor before WikiLeaks or local media has a chance to weigh in.
"New leaked cables are coming from weird sources, think tanks, the countries involved. There's a lot of stuff being quoted in local press from cables that haven't been released yet and I have no idea where they are coming from," this lobbyist said.
Getting out ahead of stories that are using information in unreleased cables is a big part of what Washington lobbyists and consultants are struggling to do this week. "It's really hard to counter something that nobody has seen," the lobbyist said.
There's some agreement among the beltway bandit community, however, that the disclosures in the cables, while perhaps embarrassing, aren't likely to have significant effects on foreign embassy interactions with the U.S. government. "Our analysis is not whether it will have an effect on bilateral relations, but more what the impact will be on the public perception of that country," said one consultant who represents an embassy that was highlighted in the first tranche of leaks.
That said, the lobbyists and consultants interviewed for this article all had different ideas of how aggressive embassies and their Washington hired hands should be in mitigating the damage.
One consultant who represents countries not in the immediate line of fire right now argued that best approach is to lay low and let the media focus on the most salacious items.
"You just keep your head down and hope that there's so much of it that you don't get the worst of it," the consultant said.
One lobbyist was recommending to her clients not to try to use the leaked information in their dealings with the State Department going forward. "No sane government can use this to their advantage because it would hurt their relations with the U.S.," the lobbyist said.
Another consultant advocated a more aggressive approach. "There is a treasure trove of information and making strategic use of the information will be the job of thousands of people in Washington going forward," said this consultant, who represents a Latin American foreign government not yet implicated in the crisis.
It's only day three of Cablegate and the WikiLeaks revelations show no signs of slowing down as of yet. And though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Kazakhstan for the OSCE summit, in Washington, the foreign embassies and their paid representatives are working overtime to unearth and mitigate documents that might be damaging. The levels of concern are all over the map, one lobbyist said.
"The spectrum goes from panicked to intrigued, optimistic to ape shit."
U.S. diplomats collecting personal information on foreign officials is neither new nor unusual, multiple State Department officials told The Cable, in response to the release of hundreds of thousands of sensitive diplomatic messages by the self-described whistleblower website WikiLeaks.
One of the most discussed of the more than 200 diplomatic cables WikiLeaks has released from its reported cache of over 250,000 is a July 31, 2009 cable sent from Washington to several diplomatic missions entitled, "Reporting and collection needs: The United Nations." Classified as SECRET by Michael Owens, the State Department's acting director for operations at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), the cable outlines a long list of personal information the U.S. intelligence community wanted U.S. diplomats to collect about U.N. and foreign officials, including cell phone numbers, e-mail addresses, internet "handles," passwords, credit card account numbers, and frequent flyer account numbers.
The new National HUMINT Collection Directive was only one of several that asked U.S. diplomats to collect human intelligence around the world, has been roundly portrayed in domestic and foreign media as directing diplomats to act as intelligence assets. The U.K.'s Guardian newspaper's article was entitled, "US diplomats spied on UN leadership." The New York Times said that the cables "appear to blur the traditional boundaries between statesmen and spies."
But in an interview with The Cable on Sunday evening, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that these activities did not mean that U.S. diplomats were being asked to act as intelligence assets.
"Our diplomats are just that, diplomats," Crowley said. "They represent our country around the world and engage openly and transparently with representatives of foreign governments and civil society. Through this process, they collect information that shapes our policies and actions. This is what diplomats, from our country and other countries, have done for hundreds of years."
Another State Department senior official objected to the contention that these directives came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, despite the fact that they are marked as being from "SECSTATE." Germany's Der Spiegel, in their write up of the State Department cables, called them "Orders from Clinton."
"The long-standing practice at the State Department is to include the secretary's name at the end of every cable sent from Washington," Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy told The Cable. "This practice has not included that the secretary review or approve the hundreds of thousands of cables sent each year."
But the leaked directives to U.S. diplomats to report about foreign officials are causing considerable angst inside the State Department, where many officials believe that the nature of the communiqués are being misreported and misinterpreted.
"What this cable represents is an annual wish list from intelligence managers that just highlights for the U.S. government issues of particular interest and just asks if they come across any of these areas in the course of their normal duties that they report it through appropriate channels," one State Department official told The Cable on background basis.
"Overseas, it's being misconstrued that the Secretary of State is tasking diplomats to do intelligence duties, and that's not the case," the official said.
At their Foggy Bottom headquarters, State has set up an internal working group that is working in shifts around the clock, "monitoring the situation and supporting our senior staff and embassies around the world," the official said. "We follow the same process whenever a major event occurs."
Specifically, the cables show that U.S. diplomats in New York were asked to collect Biographic and biometric information on ranking North Korean diplomats. Separate cables disclosed on Sunday show that U.S. diplomats overseas were asked for specific reporting on officials from the Palestinian territories, Paraguay, Bulgaria, and Africa's Great Lakes region.
The State Department officials emphasized to The Cable the distinction between diplomats who collect information as part of a wide range of duties and intelligence personnel, who have a singular and specific mission. The official also argued that other countries do the same thing and that the intelligence gathered by U.S. diplomats also benefits Washington's allies.
"Information collection is something that diplomats of every country do every day. These areas of particular interest, they're not just ours," the official said. "This is information that's of use to us, and to our allies and friends with whom we're trying to solve regional and global challenges."
"We're not asking our diplomats to do anything substantially different from what they've been doing for eons," the official continued. "Every diplomat and mission around the world is doing the same thing."
When Defense Secretary Robert Gates sat down with French Minister of Defense Herve Morin Feb. 8 in Paris, he had a harsh assessment of the Russian government and some severe differences with his French counterpart on several issues of international security.
"SecDef (Gates) observed that Russian democracy has disappeared and the government was an oligarchy run by the security services," read a cable about the meeting classified by Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow and leaked to the self described whistleblower website WikiLeaks. The website posted Sunday just over 200 of the over 250,000 sensitive State Department documents it claims to have in its possession.
"President [Dmitry] Medvedev has a more pragmatic vision for Russia than [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin, but there has been little real change," Gates told Morin, according to the cable.
Gates was pressing Morin to rethink the French sale of the amphibious assault ship the Mistral to Russia, a sale that several NATO member countries and the country of Georgia loudly protested around the time of the meeting. The cable details how strongly Gates pressed the French on the issue and how strongly he was rebuffed.
Gates' comments about the Russian leadership were an attempt to explain why he and many central and eastern European countries couldn't accept Morin's statement that the West must trust the Russians when they claimed the ship would not be used for aggressive purposes. In fact, Morin told Gates that he personally pushed hard for the sale, despite that Russia has not lived up to its agreements following its 2008 war with Georgia. Ultimately, the sale of the Mistral went through and U.S. officials never publicly condemned it.
Gates' frank analysis of the Russian government matches the take of top Russian opposition leaders, such as Russia's former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who told Foreign Policy last month that, "We have no democracy at all. We don't have any future of a democratic state. Everything has been lost, everything has been taken from the people by the authorities."
But the comments go far beyond what top U.S. officials have said in public about their concerns of the retreat of democracy and good governance in Russia. In a separate cable sent in late 2008, the U.S. embassy in Moscow reported that Medvedev "plays Robin to Putin's Batman," the Guardian reported.
In their February meeting, Morin told Gates that expanding NATO to include Georgia would weaken NATO Article 5, which provides for a common defense. In response to that remark, Gates "stated his preference for NATO to focus its efforts in the Euro-Atlantic area, perhaps extending into the Mediterranean," the cable stated.
The cable also reveals how strongly the French defense minister opposed U.S. plans for missile defense in Europe, especially the drive to link the plans with NATO, as was codified at the Lisbon summit only last week. Morin said the Obama administration's new plan would "give publics a false sense of security," and argued for a system based more on deterrence. He asked Gates who the system was aimed at and told Gates European countries don't have "infinite" funds to spend on such a system.
Gates replied that the system did add to deterrence and would have increased the capability as opposed to the Bush administration's plan. The new scheme also allowed Russian participation, which was impossible under the previous design, he said.
On Iran, Gates told Morin that Israel had the capability of striking Iran's nuclear facilities, but "he didn't know if they would be successful." He also told Morin that even a successful Israeli strike would only delay Iran's nuclear program "by one to three years, while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker."
Read the full cable after the jump:
Ten of the new incoming Republican senators Thursday are planning to demand they get a say on the New START treaty, adding ten new voices to the growing cacophony pushing for a delay in consideration of the treaty until next year.
"On Election Day we were elected to represent the constituents of our respective states in the Senate," the incoming Republicans wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), in a letter (PDF) obtained by The Cable. "Out of respect for our states' voters, we believe it would be improper for the Senate to consider the New START Treaty or any other treaty in a lame duck session prior to January 3, 2011."
The letter was organized by Senator elect Roy Blunt (R-MO) and was signed by both moderate and conservative incoming senators such as Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Rand Paul (R-KY).
The letter places yet another obstacle in the way of the Obama administration's intensive drive to hold a debate and ratification vote for the treaty this year. President Obama himself is meeting Thursday with top members of his cabinet and key senators, not including GOP treaty leader Jon Kyl, R-AZ, to devise a strategy to figure out how to take up the treaty now.
Intensive backroom negotiations between Kyl and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) yesterday still did not convince Kyl to back away from his Tuesday statement that there's just not enough time during the lame duck session of Congress to consider the treaty. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Wednesday doubled down on her call for swift consideration of the treaty as a matter of urgent national security, but GOP senators maintain they still haven't received the details of Obama's $84 billion pledge for nuclear modernization and the updated report on modernization that accompanies it.
But all that could be moot if the new GOP argument is to be that the newly elected Senators-to-be have a right to be a part of the process. That's what Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who actually voted for the treaty in committee, told The Cable on Wednesday. And that's what those senators-elect are demanding now.
In the letter, the senators-elect already indicate that they have real concerns with the treaty and might not support ratification. First of all, the letter argues that the New START treaty "would dramatically reduce the U.S. nuclear deterrent in a strategic environment that is becoming ever more perilous." That's an assertion the administration would disagree with strongly.
Secondly, the senators-elect are demanding that the administration turn over the full negotiating record between the U.S. and Russia, which they call "a critically important component in putting the pact in full context." The administration has no intention of meeting that demand.
Overall, the letter shows that if the START treaty is delayed until next year, the path toward ratification in 2011 could be a really slow, long one.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard Lugar (R-IN) told The Cable Wednesday that he believes Senate GOP leadership is simply trying to avoiding debating the treaty altogether, in order to protect members from having to take what they consider a tough vote.
Tea Party groups and the Heritage Action for American lobbying organization have been targeting GOP senators, including Kyl, warning them that a vote in favor of New START could be used against them in a primary challenge in 2012.
"Every senator has an obligation in the national security interest to take a stand, to do his or her duty. Maybe people would prefer not to do his or her duty right now," Lugar said. "Sometimes when you prefer not to vote, you attempt to find reasons not to vote."
Read the full text of the letter after the break
In a stunning rebuke to members of his own caucus, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) said on Wednesday that the GOP is intentionally trying to put off a vote on the New START treaty with Russia, and avoiding a serious discussion about the treaty within the caucus.
"At the moment, the Republican caucus is tied up in a situation where people don't want to make choices," Lugar told reporters in the hallway of the Capitol building Wednesday. "No one wants to be counted. No one wants to talk about it."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a big show on Wednesday morning of doubling down on the administration's drive for a vote to ratify the treaty during the lame duck session of Congress. Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) expressed confidence that a deal with Republicans and their leader on New START, Jon Kyl (R-AZ), was close at hand.
But according to Lugar, the Republican leadership is preventing a debate on the treaty for the rest of the year because they don't want to force their rank-and-file members to take a position on the agreement.
Kerry and Kyl continued to meet on Wednesday, ostensibly to work out a deal based on the $84 billion the administration is promising Kyl for nuclear modernization in exchange for his support of the treaty. Kyl told The Cable that negotiations were going forward "in good faith," but Lugar suggested that's all a smoke screen and that the Republican leadership is committed to avoiding completion of the treaty for the foreseeable future.
"Every senator has an obligation in the national security interest to take a stand, to do his or her duty. Maybe people would prefer not to do his or her duty right now," he said. "Sometimes when you prefer not to vote, you attempt to find reasons not to vote."
Lugar argued that the intransigence within the Republican caucus is a result of the leadership's unwillingness to put current GOP senators in the crosshairs of the debate before the political terrain shifts in the Republicans' favor when the new Congress is sworn in.
"If you're a Republican, you anticipate that the lay of the land is going to be much more favorable in January and therefore would say, ‘If we do not have to make tough choices now, why make tough choices?'" Lugar explained.
Lugar wants the Democratic Senate leadership to cut off negotiations immediately and force a vote on New START now, to compel senators to get off the fence and to end the endless stalling coming from his own side of the aisle.
"I'm advising that the treaty should come on the floor so people will have to vote aye or nay [even if there's no deal]," he said. "I think when it finally comes down to it, we have sufficient number or senators who do have a sense of our national security. This is the time, this is the priority. Do it."
Delaying until next year is a worst case scenario that could delay the treaty's ratification for months or even years as new senators request additional time to study the issue, and the committee process begins all over again, he said.
"Endless hearings, markup, back to trying to get some time on the floor... It will be some time before the treaty is ever heard from again," Lugar said.
Lugar also warned that the failure to ratify the treaty could have drastic consequences for other facets of U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation -- especially the Nunn-Lugar effort to secure loose nuclear materials throughout the former Soviet Union.
If START fails, the cooperation between the United States and Russia on securing loose nukes could be imperiled, representing an even bigger risk for national security, Lugar said.
"There are still thousands of missiles out there. You better get that through your heads," he said, directing his comments to members of his own party.
A joint letter demanding more information about the Obama administration's proposed $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia was sent to top administration officials on Friday with the signatures of 198 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
The letter, first reported on The Cable, was coordinated jointly by outgoing House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) and incoming chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). Addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, it spells out a long list of concerns lawmakers have about the sale and demands answers to several questions about how the deal fits into U.S. national security strategy. The lawmakers question whether Saudi Arabia is acting in conjunction with U.S. interests and whether the deal has enough checks and balances to ensure U.S. as well as Israeli interests.
"We are writing to raise concerns and pose a number of strategic questions about the impact such sales would have on the national security interests of the United States and our allies," the lawmakers wrote. The deal would be the largest arms sale in U.S. history and another $30 billion sale of Naval technology to the Kingdom is also said to be in the works.
The Obama administration defends the deal as vital, and Israel has raised few objections. But although lawmakers haven't said they will move to kill the sale, they aren't forswearing that course of action, either.
"There are a lot of questions to be answered on this," a GOP House aide told The Cable. "If Israel doesn't strongly object that doesn't mean it's not problematic."
Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro, whose office was key in negotiating the deal, told reporters on Oct. 20 that he did not anticipate strong resistance to the deal on Capitol Hill.
"Congress is a big place and there are a lot of members, and there may be differing opinions about the sale. But we feel comfortable that we have done adequate pre-consultations with members of Congress that there will not be a barrier to completing this sale," Shapiro said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's seven-hour marathon meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday in New York could signal a turning point in the effort to revive the stalled Middle East peace talks, as the administration works to resolve the dispute over Israeli settlement building by turning the focus to borders and security.
The Obama administration's latest strategy seems to have two main elements, according to a senior official's read out of the meeting and analysis by current and former officials on both sides. First, the Obama administration is offering Netanyahu as many security guarantees as possible in order to give the Israeli government increased confidence to move to a discussion of the borders that would delineate the two future states. Second, the administration wants to work toward an understanding on borders so that both sides can know where they can and can't build for the duration of the peace process.
"If there in fact is progress in the next several months, I'm confident people will look back at this meeting between Secretary Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu as the foundation of the progress. It was that important," former Congressman Robert Wexler, now the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told The Cable.
Wexler said that President Obama had long been asking both the Israelis and the Palestinians for clarity on the territories they envisioned being part of their future states. The recent meeting, he said, could be an important step in that direction -- at least in clarifying Israel's position.
"I am hopeful that yesterday's meeting was the beginning of clarity in terms of Israel's visions about her own borders -- where does Israel want Israel's borders to be," said Wexler. "Because ultimately, we can't help our close friend until they share with us their own vision."
The meeting was the highest level interaction between the U.S. and Israeli governments since the last round of direct talks in September. Wexler said that while the two leaders didn't sit down with a map and draw lines around particular neighborhoods, the administration's switch to a focus on borders as a means of getting at the settlements problem was clear. "It's the only rational, sane way to proceed," he said. "Talking about borders and territories will by definition minimize the impact of the settlement issue."
Wexler said that by virtue of the fact that the meeting was seven hours, it's reasonable to assume that significant progress was made. "I think we're very close to creating that magic formula that satisfies both the Israelis and the Palestinians to come back to the table."
The head of the PLO mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat, wasn't so sure. He pointed to the boilerplate statement that Clinton and Netanyahu issued after the meeting as evidence that no real breakthrough was achieved.
"Prime Minister Netanyahu and Secretary Clinton had a good discussion today, with a friendly and productive exchange of views on both sides. Secretary Clinton reiterated the United States' unshakable commitment to Israel's security and to peace in the region," the statement read.
But Areikat endorsed the idea of discussing borders ahead of the settlements issue, saying that's what the Palestinian side has been advocating all along.
"The conventional wisdom is that if we deal with the issue of the borders then we will be able, by default, to deal with the issue of settlements -- and if you can define the borders of the two states and agree on these borders, then each party can build in its own territory without being contested by the other party," Areikat told The Cable. "This is what everybody is aiming at.... Now whether the Americans are going to succeed in convincing the Israelis to do it, we have to wait and see."
Of course, the two sides disagree over the order of events even when discussing the border issue.
"The Palestinian position is that we need to agree on the borders, then we will discuss in parallel the security arrangements. The Israelis are saying no, we need to define first what the security arrangements are to project what the final borders will be," Areikat explained.
In what appears to be a recognition of the Israeli position, Clinton and her team apparently spent a good deal of their time with the Netanyahu team spelling out a long list of additional security guarantees the Obama administration is offering to Israel.
In a Friday morning conference call with Jewish community leaders, notes of which were provided to The Cable, the National Security Council's Dan Shapiro described several of the ways America has been advocating on behalf of Israel's security in recent months. They included increased U.S. diplomatic opposition to efforts to delegitimize Israel in international fora, continuing to block efforts to revive the Goldstone Report at the United Nations, promising to block condemnation of Israel at the United Nations for its raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara, and defeating resolutions aimed to expose Israel's nuclear program at the IAEA, and increasing pressure on Iran and Syria to stop their nuclear and proliferation activities.
The U.S. position on settlements has not officially changed, Shapiro said. The United States still believes that the Israeli settlement moratorium should be extended, but that Palestinians should stay in peace talks even if it is not. He said that President Obama -- who said Monday that Israeli settlement construction was "never helpful" to peace talks Israel announced further construction plans in East Jerusalem -- wasn't trying to publicly criticize Netanyahu with his remarks. He simply answered a question put to him in a direct way, said Shapiro.
The Clinton-Netanyahu meeting was the culmination of several days of intensive, personal attention to the issue by Clinton herself. On Tuesday, she held a joint news conference with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to announce $150 million in new U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority. On Wednesday, she met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit and Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman to discuss the Middle East peace process.
But in the Washington press, the seven-hour conversation was somewhat overshadowed by Netanyahu's meeting with incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). Unlike Clinton, Cantor publicly disclosed what he told Netanyahu.
"Eric stressed that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration and what has been, up until this point, one party rule in Washington," read a statement from Cantor's office on the one-on-one meeting. "He made clear that the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and that the security of each nation is reliant upon the other."
Wexler said he didn't see a problem with Cantor's remarks or stance. "It's a perfectly natural, appropriate meeting to have," said Wexler, who pointed out that Netanyahu also met with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). "I don't believe he intended to play the president, the prime minister, or anyone else against one another."
But Areikat saw Cantor's stance as extremely unhelpful.
"This amounts to undermining the efforts of the U.S. to achieve peace," he said. "People like Eric Cantor who blindly oppose the Palestinians, they think they are helping Israeli interests but he is hurting Israeli interests. By making these statements they are hardening Israeli positions."
UPDATE: This story was updated to reflect that Shapiro was describing a list of ways America was already working on behalf of Israel's security, not a new list of incentives discussed in the Clinton-Netanyahu meeting.
The White House has begun its next comprehensive review of the war in Afghanistan. But don't expect it to resolve the political struggle over the course of the war: The review won't examine policy options and won't weigh in on how the war effort should be modified going forward.
The National Security Staff began what they are calling the "annual Afghanistan-Pakistan review" two weeks ago and is now in the "data collection" phase, a senior Obama administration official told reporters on a conference call Tuesday afternoon. NSS staff went on a 12-day trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Brussels recently to gather data for the review, and reports from various agencies and outposts are due this week. When that step is completed, the second phase of the review will begin. In early December, the White House plans to move to the third and final phase, which will be about organizing its findings. Some of those findings will be shared with Capitol Hill and perhaps the public in the second half of December or early January.
But unlike the last administration Afghanistan policy review, which resulted in Obama's troop surge decision last March, this review team is being told not to make policy recommendations. That work will be left to the National Security Staff (the new name for the National Security Council) to deal with after the review is completed.
"The president defined our task, and that is simply that we are to assess how this approach is working," the official said. "He specified that this is a diagnostic look at the strategy. It is not, on the other hand, prescriptive. That is, we are not in the business of formulating policy alternatives or different courses of action or so forth."
The interagency team will focus on two questions in conducting the review. First: Is the strategy on the right path, and are the resources committed producing the desired results? Secondly, is the pace of those results sufficient to match the timelines that Obama set during his March speech on the war effort?
"Our bywords are ‘path' and ‘pace,'" the official said.
Neither the exact findings of the review, nor details of the metrics used by the administration to measure progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan, will be released to the public. But when pressed, the official described the broad categories of metrics the administration is utilizing.
There are eight general categories of metrics, three focusing on Afghanistan, three focusing on Pakistan, and two focusing on the overall counterterrorism effort, the official said. The sub-metrics will gauge a number of factors, including trends in violence, the degree to which local areas are controlled by the Afghan government , and the quality and quantity of Afghan security forces.
The question of whether Pakistan is making progress on combating insurgents operating inside its borders is a "very fundamental underlying question for the review," the official said. "We do not dispute that there are still safe havens in Pakistan which are fundamentally part of the equation for our campaign in Afghanistan and getting at those safe havens is fundamental to our approach."
The official defended the administration's decision to keep most of the details of the metrics as well as the details of the review and its conclusions out of the public view.
"This is designed to be an inside the administration perspective," the official said. "There will some sharing of findings at the end of the process, but there's no intent now to share internal metrics and measurements, because since we're in an active conflict zone, the degree to which we share these kinds of details could put lives at risk and jeopardize the kind of progress we're trying to generate."
At the end of the review process, the review will compile a list of policy issues that need to be addressed and tee those up for the National Security Staff to deal with in the first six months in 2011. But don't expect the White House to voluntarily share the details of those discussions either, the official warned.
"There's a good deal that we don't intend to make public."
Jim Jones was preparing to leave his job as national security advisor in early 2011, according to Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars. Ironically, controversy erupting from that very same book may have contributed to Jones speeding up that schedule by several months; President Obama will announce his departure today, and that his replacement will be his deputy, Tom Donilon.
Immediate reaction within the administration to Jones's resignation was consistent with the long-held view that Jones was never able to be effective as national security advisor because he was outside of Obama's inner circle and was intellectually and sometimes physically cut out of major foreign policy discussions.
"Jones always carried an ‘emeritus' air about him and appeared removed and distant from the day-to-day operations," one administration official told The Cable. "In six months, you will be hard pressed to find anyone in the administration who notices that Jones is no longer there."
In fact, Jones's distance from key White House staff was reported as early as May 2009. But the Woodward book, which included several salacious quotes that allegedly came from Jones, vividly described his tenure as one that was rocky from the start and only continued to deteriorate as he became more and more frustrated with all of the White House staff he was supposed to be working with.
Jones apparently didn't get along with most of the White House political advisors, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, senior advisor David Axelrod, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, and NSC staffers Denis McDonough and Mark Lippert. Woodward reported that Jones called them the "water bugs," the "Politburo," the "Mafia" and the "campaign set." Jones almost quit once when one of the "water bugs" denied him access to Obama during an overseas trip to Europe.
The book revealed that Jones confronted Emanuel for dealing with Donilon instead of him, telling him once, "I'm the national security advisor. When you come down there, come see me."
Jones chose Donilon as his deputy at the insistence of Emanuel, despite having no personal connection to him, and later came to regret the choice. Woodward reported that Jones also worked to oust Lippert, whom he accused of leaking information about him to the media.
According to Woodward, Jones was shocked to be selected for the NSA post in the first place because he had no prior relationship whatsoever with Obama. But the president saw Jones as someone who could help him navigate the military, and perhaps even provide a counterweight to the Pentagon leadership due to his experience as Marine Corps commandant and head of NATO.
But if Obama wanted Jones to help him deal with the military, that also didn't bear out. Woodward details several instances where Jones finds himself in open conflict with the military brass, led by Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen. In the administration's debates over increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, Jones often raised the prospect of sending far fewer troops than the 40,000 requested by Mullen and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, arguing that the military hadn't proven its need for so many new troops.
The last salvo against Jones from Woodward came during the author's Oct. 5 interview with Charlie Rose, where he said that Jones had failed in his fundamental duty to give frank advice to the president because he held back on his assessment that only 20,000 additional troops were needed in Afghanistan.
Woodward heaped praise on Donilon, saying that he ran at 100 miles per hour compared to Jones' 35 mph. But not all of the characters in his book agreed. Woodward quotes Defense Secretary Bob Gates as saying that Donilon would be a "disaster" as national security advisor.
According to all accounts, Donilon has been the machine running the NSC for some time, chairing the crucial deputies committee meetings and making the trains run on time throughout the NSC. But Donilon is not viewed as a strategic thinker along the lines of someone like former NSA Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski.
"Donilon will represent continuity and I can't see any major shifts in policy stemming from the changeover," one administration source said.
On one major issue, Jones and Donilon seemed to agree. Donilon is skeptical about the prospects for success in Afghanistan, for reasons similar to Jones's. Just after Obama announced the decision to add 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, Donilon said to the NSC's Gen. Doug Lute, "My god, what have we got this guy into?," according to Woodward.
The Senate Foreign Relations committee approved a resolution to ratify the New START nuclear reductions treaty with Russia on Thursday, overcoming objections by Sen. James Risch about new top secret intelligence and after reaching a compromise over strategic posture with Sen. Jim DeMint.
The vote was 14-4, with all Democrats voting to approve the resolution along with Republican Sens. Richard Lugar (R-IN), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Johnny Isakson (R-GA). Sens. James Inhofe (R-OK), John Barrasso (R-WY), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Risch voted no.
South Carolina's DeMint, whose attempt to add language on missile defense to the resolution was the focus of intense backroom negotiations, did not return from a break to attend the final vote. Since he did not tell ranking Republican Lugar which way he wanted to vote, his expected no vote was never entered.
Lugar and Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) praised the committee's approval of the resolution and Kerry said he would not rule out holding a Senate floor debate and vote before the November elections.
But a Senate leadership aide ruled it out, telling The Cable, "There's no way we can do it this month, they don't have the 67 votes yet (needed for full Senate ratification)."
All morning, the committee room was abuzz regarding Risch's disclosure that he had received late-breaking intelligence information that he argued should prevent the Senate from moving forward on the New START treaty.
In a brief interview on the miniature subway between the Dirksen building and the Capitol, Risch confirmed to The Cable that the information was contained in a top secret intelligence community document sent to the Intelligence Committee this week and a follow-up letter sent to foreign relations committee members by ranking Republican Kit Bond (R-MO).
Risch confirmed that the information concerned Russian cheating on arms control agreements and said it was only the latest in a stream of documents and information that led him to have grave concerns that the New START treaty could move forward in a credible way.
The Cable pointed out to Risch that allegations of Russian cheating, especially regarding the first START treaty, have been well reported and subsequently addressed by the administration (via The Cable). But Risch responded that the problem was worse than what's publicly known.
"You haven't seen the stuff that I've seen," he said.
Bond's office confirmed the existence of the letter but declined to discuss because it was classified. Kerry convened a Wednesday briefing on the issue for SFRC members and consulted Vice President Joseph Biden on the issue before deciding that he believed the ratification process could proceed.
Before disappearing, DeMint's proposed amendment to "commit" the United States to build a multi-layered missile defense system to defend the American people and deployed U.S. forces from missiles of all ranges became the most controversial amendment brought forth at the committee's business meeting, where the debate and vote on New START was occurring.
Kerry was adamantly opposed to the DeMint amendment, saying it could imperil the treaty altogether. But after Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) said he would support DeMint's amendment, meaning that it could actually pass, Kerry huddled behind closed doors with DeMint, Corker, Isaacson, and Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemeoller (who was hanging out nearby) to iron out a compromise.
The Cable obtained copies of both DeMint's original amendment as well as the compromise that Kerry eventually endorsed and that was added to the resolution of ratification by unanimous consent voice vote.
The compromise version changes DeMint's amendment from an "understanding" to a "declaration," which makes it non-binding. The compromise version also no longer says the U.S. is "committed" to building an expansive all-encompassing missile defense system; the new language says the U.S. is "free to reduce the vulnerability to attack by constructing a layered missile defense system capable of countering missiles of all ranges." The compromise also removes language that makes it seem that missile defense should be aimed at Russia.
In a concession to DeMint, Kerry agreed to language that now says "policies based on mutually assured destruction can be contrary to the safety and security of both countries and the United States and the Russian Federation share a common interest in moving cooperatively as soon as possible from a strategic relationship based on mutually assured destruction."
Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images
When the results of the international investigation into the sinking of the South Korean ship the Cheonan were released in May, the U.S. State Department was adamant that it believed North Korea was responsible -- and that the country would have to face some actual punishment for killing 46 innocent South Korea sailors.
"I think it is important to send a clear message to North Korea that provocative actions have consequences," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said May 21 while visiting her Japanese counterpart in Tokyo.
Fast forward to today, when the United Nations released a presidential statement which not only does not specify any consequences for the Kim Jong Il regime, but doesn't even conclude that North Korea was responsible for the attack in the first place.
The statement acknowledges that the South Korean investigation, which included broad international participation, blamed North Korea, and then "takes note of the responses from other relevant parties, including from the DPRK, which has stated that it had nothing to do with the incident."
"Therefore, the Security Council condemns the attack which led to the sinking of the Cheonan," the statement reads.
The White House's spokesman on such matters, Mike Hammer, issued a statement clearly stating that the Obama administration believes North Korea was responsible and arguing that the U.N. statement "constitutes an endorsement of the findings" of the Joint Investigative Group that issued the report blaming North Korea.
So the U.S. and the South Koreans believe North Korea was guilty but the U.N. isn't willing to go that far. But what about the next step? Will there be any follow up, any "consequences" for North Korea, as Clinton seemed to promise in May?
"I think right now we're just allowing North Korea to absorb the international community's response to its actions," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday.
North Korea's representative to the U.N., Sin Son Ho, called the statement a "great diplomatic victory."
"That doesn't sound like a lot of absorption," one member of the State Department press corps shot back at Toner.
When asked what comes next, Toner said there were no plans to pursue additional measures, other than enforcing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, and there were no outstanding requests from South Korea for additional measures. "We'll wait and let the statement stand," he said.
So what happened between May and now? According to both South Korean and U.S. officials, the countries pushing for actual penalties were serious about it at first, as is shown in the June 4 letter from South Korea, endorsed by the U.S., which urged the Security Council to "respond in a manner appropriate to the gravity of North Korea's military provocation in order to deter recurrence of any further provocation by North Korea."
But as China, ever the defender of the Hermit Kingdom, stalled on making any definitive statements about the incident, officials in Seoul and Washington began to worry that they might not be able to get any U.N. action whatsoever.
Then, toward the end of June, Beijing became nervous about the mounting international pressure and decided to try to wrap up the U.N. discussions as quickly as possible. They calculated that it was a losing game, so moved to get a statement out quickly with a small concession as a means of getting the whole issue behind them.
"This is less than we expected from the beginning," a South Korean official told The Cable, "But it clearly says the Cheonan was sunk by an attack, cites the five-country international joint-investigation result, and condemns it as a deplorable behavior. Even though it did not clarify it was North Korea's torpedo attack, it theoretically points the finger at North Korea as being responsible."
The South Korean official pointed at Russia and China as being responsible for the weakness of the statement.
"Definitely there has been a tough negotiation, especially to persuade the PRC and Russia, and this is result," the official said, "All the other countries except [China and Russia] strongly supported putting pressure on them."
Korea experts and former officials in Washington are sympathetic to the Obama administration's compromise in terms of the statement, but strongly lament that this administration seems not to be in any rush to do anything to engage North Korea or get back to tackling the problem of its growing nuclear arsenal.
"This is a glass one third full, with an explanation to convince you that it's not two thirds empty," said former North Korea negotiator Jack Pritchard, now president of the Korea Economic Institute. The statement was meant not to identify winners, but to allow everyone to avoid being named losers, he said.
"It's not clear cut and it's unsatisfactory, but it may have been the best that we could do," Pritchard acknowledged. The problem as he sees is it that now the Obama administration is back to the status quo, which means no discernable progress on North Korea nuclear discussions, something referred to as "strategic patience."
Joel Wit, another former negotiator who is now a visiting fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said the time is way past overdue to find some way to get back to talking with North Korea.
"The key issue here is, are we ready to turn this corner and try to return to some sort of negotiation, some sort of dialogue that tries to deal with the problems between us, or do we just continue with strategic patience?" Wit said.
Pritchard warned that because Pyongyang has backed off its promise to move towards denuclearization and the Obama administration can't accept a nuclear North Korea, the only way to move forward would be to get North Korea to change its calculus... and that can only be done with Chinese help.
"It requires at least a perception that the Chinese will abide by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874 and that's not currently the case," said Pritchard. "Strategic patience is an attitude, not a policy."
LEE JAE-WON/AFP/Getty Images
House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton said Tuesday that his constituents aren't interested one way or the other in the congressional drive to repeal the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, but he's going to keep opposing it anyway.
During the congressional recess, Skelton toured his home state of Missouri, made numerous speaking appearances, met with several veterans groups, and only one person even mentioned it ... in passing.
"I was everywhere in my district, everywhere. It just wasn't raised," Skelton said. "There are other things on people's minds, like jobs and the economy."
Nevertheless, he pledged to continue to oppose repealing the 1993 legislative language, of which he was the original sponsor, despite the fact that a large majority of Congress has voted to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military. "I oppose it, period," he said.
Not only is Skelton not talking to his voters about his crusade to preserve the ban, he's not talking to the military people his committee represents, either.
"The only feedback I've gotten is from the secretary himself. I have not talked about it with folks in the military at length," he said.
So why is Skelton so determined to keep the law in place, above the objections of the White House, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, the House of Representatives, and the Senate Armed Services Committee? It's about the kids, apparently.
"What do mommas and daddies say to a seven-year-old child about this issue? I don't know," Skelton said. "I think it would be a family issue that would concern me the most ... What they might see in their discussions among the kids."
He also linked the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to the administration's fight to end development of a second engine model for the F-35 fighter plane. Obama and Gates have promised to veto Skelton's defense policy bill if Congress insists on adding more than $400 million for the engine, which the military says it doesn't need.
If Obama wants to repeal the law, he won't want to follow through on his very clear threat to veto the bill over the fighter engine, Skelton suggested.
"It's rather interesting, because there's an item in the bill called 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' that the president thinks keenly strong about. Now will he veto a bill that has that in it?," Skelton wondered aloud. "I'm sure that goes through the creases of his mind."
Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images
When U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday that she believed the attempt to bomb New York's Time Square was a "one-off" event, she wasn't making a judgment about the suspected bomber's associations with other terrorists or groups, according to a DHS official. If she was, she would have called him a "lone wolf."
Napolitano made the new claim to ABC News on Sunday, stating that there was no evidence the failed attack was "anything other than a one-off," based on the information she had at the time. Conservative critics, opinion writers, nonpartisan experts, and even Democratic strategists are comparing the statement to her now-infamous remark just after the attempted underwear bombing on Christmas Day that "the system worked," a statement she later retracted.
By saying publicly that the current view of the incident was that it was a "one-off" event, Napolitano was signaling to local law enforcement groups all over the country that the federal government did not expect an imminent follow-up attack, a Homeland Security official told The Cable.
"She was referencing that at that time, there was no evidence to suggest that there were other trucks parked with explosives in other parts of New York or other cities across the country," the official said. "Law enforcement expects that kind of threat assessment from us."
That's quite different from saying that bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad was acting alone. Leading critics are already complaining that Napolitano's "one-off" comment has been proven wrong by revelations that he has admitted to having trained in Pakistan, according to a complaint (pdf) filed Tuesday in the Southern District of New York, and that he received "a series of calls from Pakistan" after he bought the Nissan SUV that he later used to carry the failed bomb.
If she were alleging that, she would have used the term "lone wolf," according to the official.
"She not afraid to use the term lone wolf and has many times," the official said. "But in this case that was not what she was talking about."`
Making any "definitive statement" about a fresh attack or attempt is unwise, according to Frances Townsend, a former top DHS official and counterterrorism advisor in the Bush White House. Townsend nonetheless praised the overall government response to the incident, as did Napolitano in a press briefing today touting Shahzad's arrest.
"Immediately after an attack you've got to be careful," said Townsend, noting that the New York Police Department took a more cautious tone. "She thinks she didn't go further than the facts at the time. What she made was a very definitive statement and inevitably those statements turn out to be wrong."
"She went through this once before," leading Democratic strategist Paul Begala said on CNN. "The first reports are always wrong. You just don't know where, you don't know how. ... She seemed not to have learned that lesson. We don't know if this is a one-off, yet."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
The U.S. government does not believe that two of the 26 alleged Mossad assassins responsible for the killing of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai came to the United States following the murder, a top Obama administration official said Wednesday.
Rand Beers, the under secretary of homeland security for the National Protection and Programs Directorate, told a roundtable at the Heritage Foundation Wednesday that Monday's Wall Street Journal report, which claimed that "at least two" of the Dubai assassination suspects had entered the U.S., was flatly inaccurate.
"We have no indication and they would have had to have shown that passport and that travel documentation with it to enter this country," Beers said, addressing the Journal story directly. "So we would know if they had entered with that passport and that name and that picture."
Beers acknowledged that the official U.S. government position was not to comment on the Journal report, but confirmed twice he believed the report to be inaccurate.
The Journal report, which had a Dubai dateline, said, "Records shared between international investigators show that one of the suspects entered the U.S. on Feb. 14, carrying a British passport, according to a person familiar with the situation. The other suspect, carrying an Irish passport, entered the U.S. on Jan. 21, according to this person."
Mabhouh was assassinated on Jan. 20.
The story goes on to speculate that UAE officials would seek extradition if any suspects were found in the U.S. and that "the investigation could prove an irritant to U.S.-Israeli ties if Mossad is implicated."
Asked if the U.S. was vulnerable to infiltration using such forged passports, which appeared to be issued by visa waiver countries Britain, Ireland, France, and Germany, Beers said he just didn't know.
"I haven't actually seen a forensic report on the passport itself to know whether or not a good machine-readable system would have determined that was a falsified passport," said Beers. "I'm not saying that it's not possible to get around that with a high technology solution."
The U.S. government has been communicating with both the UAE and Dubai governments, sharing information about the incident, Beers said. He said that DHS was working with Interpol's program to share information about missing or stolen passports, but that will work "only if nations choose to collect the information in a systematic way."
The Senate is preparing to bring up and pass a short-term extension of some key provisions of the Patriot Act, setting aside changes to the law that were carefully negotiated by a Senate committee last fall.
The Judiciary Committee approved a bill last October that would extend key provisions of the controversial law but add new restrictions to the use of so-called national security letters, a procedure used by the FBI to demand records from U.S. businesses. But according to leading senators, those new restrictions might have to wait for another year.
Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, explained the move in an exclusive interview with The Cable. She said it would be a one-year straight extension of the three Patriot Act provisions set to expire at the end of the month.
"I obviously preferred the Judiciary [Committee's] version, it surprises me that Republicans won't let it pass ... We made a number of changes to accommodate them," she said. "The committee version is much better, it's much more precise," she said, adding that she was ultimately OK with just extending the old version.
Senate Judiciary Committee ranking Republican Jeff Sessions, R-AL, confirmed to The Cable that the current thinking was to extend the Patriot Act provisions in their current form, ignoring the changes his own committee approved.
"The Patriot Act has worked and the last thing we should do is weaken it. So I think it's a good development that we are going to continue it as is," said Sessions. "That's the right direction."
Here's the scope of the three provisions that will be extended, according to Congressional Quarterly:
One of the expiring provisions allows the government to seek orders from a special federal court for "any tangible thing" that it says is related to a terrorism investigation. Another allows the government to seek court orders for roving wiretaps on terrorism suspects who shift their modes of communication. The third provision allows the government to apply to the special court for surveillance orders involving suspected "lone wolf" terrorists who do not necessarily have ties to a larger organization."
The extension is expected to come up with a package of other extensions today in the Senate to be passed by unanimous consent. One aide said the extension could be for 30 days and then later this week, the Senate could begin consideration of a longer-term extension that could be for the rest of the year, but no final decisions have been made.
If Senate leaders ultimately want to push for the Judiciary Committee's version, they will face stiff resistance that could complicate passage.
Senate Intelligence Committee ranking Republican Kit Bond, D-MO, when asked by The Cable if the extension would be the Judiciary committee's version, said, "It better not be!"
UPDATE: The extension did not come up on Tuesday but is expected to come up Wednesday. The one-year extension would still have to pass the House, so a one week extension is expected to cover until then, aides said.
The Obama administration's rollout of its new nuclear strategy will be delayed until March, the Pentagon told Congress last week.
The notification came in the form of a letter from Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller to Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain, chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services committee, respectively. The letter, obtained by The Cable, said that the new strategy, known as the Nuclear Posture Review, will be delivered to Congress on March 1, not Feb. 1 as was previously planned.
The announcement comes amid reports that the NPR is mired in an internal administration debate over some key issues, such as whether or not to abandon a "first use" policy, how many nuclear weapons are needed for whatever missions the NPR identifies as crucial, and how far the review will go toward advancing President Obama's stated goal of a future world free of nuclear weapons.
But arms-control advocates see the delay as not so surprising (what review isn't delayed in Washington?) and they argue that the postponement will give the administration more time to give the NPR the senior-level attention it deserves.
"It's not particularly surprising. I believe it's due to the fact that principals haven't been able to really dig in to the substantive issues of the NPR," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
Some who favor sharp reductions and more commitments to a nuclear drawdown see the delay as one last chance to have their views considered by the White House and the National Security Council, which may have a different take than the Pentagon on some issues. For example, the Pentagon is said to be against adopting a "no first use" policy and may still be pushing for a new class of nuclear warhead.
The Bush administration program to build a new warhead, called the Reliable Replacement Warhead, is dead, senior administration officials such as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher have said repeatedly. But Tauscher and other have also indicated that they would present a budget in February that meets Senate Republican calls for "stockpile modernization," although there is no consensus on what that means.
"The trouble in the debate is that the term ‘modernization' gets used to describe a number of things, from new weapons to improvements to the nuclear weapons complex, and other things as well," said John Isaacs, executive director at the Council for a Livable World, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for the goal of zero nuclear weapons that Obama announced in his Prague speech.
All 40 Senate Republicans and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman penned a letter to Obama in December specifically outlining several points they said must be included in the stockpile modernization program, which they are demanding in order to support the follow-on to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which is being negotiated now.
The relationship between the NPR and the START follow-on agreement is an interesting one. It would seem that the administration would have to know its overall nuclear policy before negotiating weapons levels, and yet the START agreement may come out before the NPR.
Administration officials have told The Cable that the NPR tasked out a set of weapons numbers to inform the START negotiations months ago, so there shouldn't be any problem. Besides, the NPR is setting policy for future reductions, not just those to be agreed to in this negotiation, experts point out.
But for Senate Republicans, that explanation is simply not enough.
"The key thing for senators is, they do not understand how officials are in Geneva discussing force-level reductions and meanwhile the NPR is apparently delayed," said one senior GOP senate aide, adding that the GOP was not being briefed on the NPR's progress.
Meanwhile, the aide said that the follow-on START agreement could be ratified in the Senate only if the stockpile-management aspects of the president's budget meet the demands in the letter and if there is no link between START and missile defense, despite statements from the Russian side.
"If we wanted to kill the treaty, we would just let them negotiate a bad treaty and then kill it in the Senate," the aide said. "We're trying to help them come up with a treaty that can pass muster in the Senate."
UPDATE: Lt. Col. Jonathan Withingon, spokesman for the Pentagon policy shop, e-mails in this explanation in response to our request for an explanation for the delay. "As we're nearing completion, the Department requires additional time to appropriately address the range of complex issues under consideration in the Nuclear Posture Review."
The State Department's Nov. 19 reporting on underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab through its Visas Viper cable might not have met the regulatory requirements for such a communication, withholding from the National Counterterrorism Center information that could have flagged him before he boarded his Christmas day flight to Detroit.
The State Department has been pointing to the NCTC as being to blame for not going back into the database and checking on Mutallab's visa status after being sent the Visas Viper cable from the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria.
"Based on what we know now, the State Department fully complied with the requirements set forth in the interagency process as to what should be done when information about a potential threat is known," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday.
But a close look at the rules for compiling Visas Viper cables shows that the information supplied about Mutallab might not have met the existing requirements, leaving out some crucial pieces of information.
A State Department official told The Cable that the Viper cable on Abdulmutallab only had a short bio and one line stating that his father had raised concerns. An intelligence offical told Spencer Ackerman that State provided “very thin information” and “definitely not enough” to yank Abdulmutallab’s visa and put him on the no-fly list.
According to the relevant section of the State Department's Foreign Affairs Manual, Viper cables should include detailed information about the suspect sufficient by itself to allow State or DHS to make the determination to deny (or presumably lift) a visa.
Also, the regulations mandate detailed reporting about the source of the information, including:
1) An evaluation of the credibility;
2) The applicability of the information submitted;
3) A general description of the source; and
4) An assessment of the source's reliability.
Such reporting might have given more weight to the cable, considering the source was Alhaji Umaru Abdulmutallab, not only the attacker's father but one of the richest and most prominent bankers in the country. Apparently that didn't happen.
"The embassy in Nigeria did everything they were supposed to do," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Monday, while saying that the State Department was looking at beefing up the reporting in the cables, including whether or not the suspect already had a visa.
Last week, Kelly told reporters, "The information in this Visas Viper cable was insufficient for this interagency review process to make a determination that this individual's visa should be revoked."
Kelly also said that the fact that the UK denied Abdulmutallab a visa was not a red flag for the U.S. interagency process because there was no terrorism related connection.
"He was denied a visa because he provided false information on his visa application, the kind of thing that happens hundreds of thousands of times all over the world," Kelly said, adding the UK decision, "was not on terrorism grounds. It was on immigration grounds."
Clinton will be among those meeting with the president Tuesday to go over the various agency contributions to the administration's overall review of the incident.
The State Department shuttled the newly revealed third State Dinner party crasher from a local Washington hotel to the White House and aided his entry, State Department sources said Thursday.
The third crasher, whose existence was announced by the Secret Service Monday, snuck into a group of Indian businessmen who had been given State Department logistical assistance at the request of the Indian Embassy, a State Department official said.
"Apparently it was a group of Indian CEOs who were at this hotel. They were people who were important to us and important to the embassy, so they asked for us to facilitate their travel to the White House," the official said, adding that the third crasher was believed to be an American citizen.
It's not common for the State Department to cart foreign businessmen around Washington, the official said, adding that it was not clear how much government resources were used.
The Secret Service released a statement Monday stating that the third crasher did gain entry to the dinner, did go through security, but did not have any interactions with President Obama.
"This is now a matter that's under investigation, it's a very serious ongoing criminal investigation," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters Monday.
"Apparently there was a group that was under our responsibility that went from a local hotel to the White House, and there was a person that was not authorized to be in that group that inserted himself or herself into that group."
Since President Obama has now come out and blamed the security breach that resulted in a near successful attack by underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on "systemic failures," the question becomes: How do we go about fixing that?
For some answers, The Cable turned to Jim Locher, the president and CEO of the Project on National Security Reform, a nongovernmental organization with ties to National Security Advisor Jim Jones that has been sounding the alarm about America's dysfunctional national security infrastructure for years.
"While President Obama said there were systemic failures, our problem has been that we haven't done systemic reform," said Locher. "We've had lots of reforms in the past but they've been marginal adjustments, ad hoc in nature."
"Here we're seeing play out that lack of integration, that lack of cooperation, that lack of collaboration."
Information sharing across the intelligence agencies is just not occurring to the degree necessary, as evidenced by early reports on the Obama administration's forthcoming review of the incident, which point the finger somewhat at the CIA and the Office of the Director for National Intelligence.
Some of the problem is cultural. For years the mantra has been to move from a "need to know" to a "need to share" mentality, but many in the intelligence community still operate from a risk-avoidance perspective. The fact that the CIA had information from Abdulmutallab's father that it failed to pass on is suggestive of that. In the past, the CIA has been criticized for privileging the protection of its sources and methods over sharing intelligence with other agencies.
But on a bureaucratic level, the reforms that Congress has passed have fallen short and succumbed somewhat to the struggles between the actors, Locher said. Meanwhile the Obama administration, which has yet to come out with a National Security Strategy, hasn't matched its rhetoric with results.
"The Obama administration came in and has been talking about collaboration across the national security system, they've talked the need for integrated effort, for the need to make use of all the instruments of national power and influence, but that's not been translated into action," Locher said.
There aren't incentives for people in the system to get on board with cooperation. Interagency mechanisms have been slow to materialize and where they do exist there is confusion over roles and authorities, he added.
Prime examples are the recent conflict between CIA and ODNI over responsibilities, as detailed in this LA Times piece, as well as longstanding conflict between the State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center (State sought to shift blame this week to NCTC).
Perhaps not surprisingly, Locher is calling for more authority over missions and budgets for the ODNI, which is headed by his ally Adm. Dennis Blair. The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which created ODNI, made too many compromises and created confusion as a result, he said.
Overall, the underwear bomber incident "just proves why national security reform is so important," Locher said.
Unfortunately, PNSR's work on the issue was significantly complicated this month, when House Appropriations Defense subcommittee chairman John Murtha, D-PA, moved to completely defund the organization in a move to protect his own bureaucratic turf.
As the Senate negotiates with the Obama administration over Iran sanctions, conflict over a French arms sale to Russia could get caught up in the mix.
The friction between top GOP leaders in Congress and the French government is over the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship, which the French are considering selling to the Russian Federation. As the biggest potential arms sale from a NATO country to Russia, U.S. lawmakers are worried this could set off a chain reaction of NATO arms sales to Russia. Plus, they share the concerns of Georgia and the Baltic states that the ship could allow Russia to increase its aggressiveness in its near abroad.
So what does this have to do with Iran sanctions? Well, The Cable brought you exclusively the story of how the State Department wants changes in the Chris Dodd Iran sanctions bill that's currently pending in the Senate. Basically, the Obama administration wants exemptions for countries that cooperate with American sanctions against Iran. France presumably would be at the top of the list.
But a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable that Republicans negotiating over the Iran sanctions language would not allow an exemption for France or French companies if the Mistral deal goes through.
"Whether or not France gets an exemption could very well depend on whether France decides to sell this ship to Russia," the aide said, explaining that "it's possible to draw that exemption narrow enough so that the president could not possibly exempt France."
One obvious target is the French oil and gas giant Total, which could be caught up in the Dodd bill's restrictions on exporting refined petroleum products to Iran. Total is reportedly in negotiations right now with the Chinese regarding a joint project in Iran's South Pars region.
The petroleum restrictions are also at the core of a companion bill which passed overwhelmingly in the House last week.
Recently, American lawmakers have increased their interest and activity in the Mistral story.
Six GOP senators wrote to French Ambassador Pierre Vimont Monday to express their concerns about the potential sale. House Foreign Affairs ranking Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, introduced a bill last week calling on the French to stand down from the deal.
In a letter dated Monday, obtained by The Cable, Vimont responded to the Senators, telling them basically that France would make its own decisions about selling the ship to the Russians, and thanking them for their interest.
"France has no reason to refuse considering a Russian request, which is being examined, and will be concluded, with all the necessary precautions as part of the French military equipment export control regulatory procedures," Vimont wrote.
Vimont also repeated various French defenses of the sale, as told to The Cable by French embassy spokesmen, which include that the ship has been used for humanitarian missions, has no really advanced technological elements, and would not present a credible threat to the NATO alliance.
But multiple Senate aides reached by The Cable felt unsatisfied with that response and pledged to fight on.
"If France decides to go ahead and do this, which the letter all but says they will, our options are limited but it will have consequences for the NATO alliance," one senate aide warned.
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....
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."
President Obama today nominated of Philip Coyle, a leading critic of Bush administration missile defense schemes, to be a top White House scientific advisor.
Coyle, who was the head weapons tester at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, was nominated to become the Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. There he will lead a team tasked with giving scientific advice to Obama on a range of national security issues and will report to Director John Holdren.
Since his last tour at the Pentagon, Coyle has been a leading analyst on weapons systems for the Center for Defense Information, a component of the World Security Institute, a defense-minded think thank. From that perch, he's been actively involved in several of the national security debates involving advanced technology and a staunch watchdog on the missile defense system the Bush administration rushed to deploy throughout its tenure.
Coyle has often pointed out that the testing done by the Pentagon on ballistic missile defense components since 2001 has been either shoddy or thin. Moreover, he has repeatedly questioned the basic rationale for investing billions to deploy ballistic missile defense around the world, especially in Eastern Europe.
"In my view, Iran is not so suicidal as to attack Europe or the United States with missiles," he testified before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee in February, "But if you believe that Iran is bound and determined to attack Europe or America, no matter what, then I think you also have to assume that Iran would do whatever it takes to overwhelm our missile defenses, including using decoys to fool the defenses, launching stealthy warheads, and launching many missiles, not just one or two."
Coyle has often argued that the Bush administration rushed to deploy missile defense systems around the world to build momentum and keep money flowing into the program. He has repeatedly said that the Missile Defense Agency has been amassing hardware that is either not aligned with the threat or can't be relied on in case of an actual emergency.
Over $120 billion has been spent on ballistic missile defense since its inception during the Reagan administration.
Coyle's views line up with Ellen Tauscher, who was then the subcommittee chairwoman but who is now Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, which oversees missile defense diplomacy.
Tauscher was part of the decision making process that led to huge changes in the Bush administration plans for missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Obama plan now calls for more short and medium range systems, most of them mobile. These are changes Coyle has also supported.
Coyle must now be confirmed by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The vetting and confirmation process could take months.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.