The State Department is planning a new, sprawling embassy compound in Mexico City, but it has quietly scuttled how it was to select a construction firm for it.
The new complex will be erected on eight acres the U.S. purchased in the city's Nuevo Polanco neighborhood, and cost $400 million to $500 million, State Department officials said. The main building will be about 515,000 square feet, making it one of the U.S.'s largest embassies. There also will be a 281,150 square-foot parking garage with space for 665 vehicles, a 70,900 square-foot warehouse and maintenance facility, a 13,850 square-foot residence for Marine Corps embassy security guards, and an 11,300 square-foot facility to securely allow vehicles and pedestrians to enter.
The new embassy will be built in a country in which drug cartels have operated with "near impunity" in recent years, according to newly declassified U.S. documents. They suggest the U.S. is extremely concerned about drug violence, in which more than 100,000 people have been killed or disappeared since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderón vowed to take on the cartels.
U.S. personnel have come under fire in the process. In one example, two employees from the embassy in Mexico City were wounded about 35 miles south of the city in August 2012 after federal police opened fire on their vehicle. They were reportedly traveling to a Mexican navy base.
In June, the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Building Operations announced that it wanted construction firms to submit qualifications for the new Mexico City embassy in order to pre-qualify them to be involved in the project. It has quietly reversed course, saying its initial solicitation to industry is "cancelled in its entirety" because plans have been altered. The State Department did not explain why in its announcement, but said a new, future solicitation to industry for the project "is under acquisition review.
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New revelations that the U.S. has been eavesdropping on world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel aren't simply straining Washington's relationship with Berlin. They're also sparking an increasingly public fight between the State Department and the NSA, with the nation's spies and the nation's diplomats trading shots about who's responsible for the mess.
"This is a pretty serious embarrassment for the U.S., and as top officials try to protect their agencies and their reputations, they are not sticking with their talking points," a former senior U.S. official told The Cable.
Secretary of State John Kerry touched off the furor when he said some of the NSA's overseas surveillance efforts -- which also included tapping into tens of millions of calls in France and Spain -- had been carried out without the Obama administration's knowledge or explicit approval. The remarks highlighted what appears to the White House's emerging strategy for dealing with widespread public fury over the programs: blame it on the NSA.
Secretary of State John Kerry is at odds with several senior State Department officials over whether to press ahead with plans for a high-profile peace conference next month that is designed to put negotiators from Syria’s main opposition groups and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into the same room for the first time.
Kerry is strongly committed to holding the talks and has spent the past several days prodding key Syrian opposition figures to take part in the negotiations. But according to several senior State Department officials, some of Kerry's top advisors believe that the conference should be called off because the most important of those opposition leaders are unlikely to come.
“The only person who wants the Geneva conference to happen is the secretary,” a senior U.S. official told The Cable. “Who’s going to show up? Will they actually represent anyone? If not, why take the risk?”
The Geneva conference has been in the planning stages for months, and Western officials have long expressed hopes that it could help pave the way for a negotiated solution to the Syria crisis.
The Obama administration and its top allies believe that the fighting in Syria is largely at a stalemate, with forces loyal to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad unable to fully vanquish the country’s insurgents and the rebels looking to unseat Assad unable to conquer Damascus or oust him by force. Peace talks, Kerry argues, offer the only realistic chance of ending a civil war that has already claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Syrians and forced millions of others from their homes.
There’s just one catch: a growing number of key Syrian opposition leaders say they won’t attend the conference unless Assad promises to transfer power to a transitional government and then step aside. Assad has rejected both of those demands, and Kerry’s critics within the State Department believe that there is a good chance that the main opposition groups will either boycott the conference entirely or send a delegation that has little to no influence over the rebels who are actually fighting Assad’s forces. Some of the officials said the conference should be postponed or canceled to avoid an embarrassing public failure for the U.S.
A far-flung group of geeks, supported by the U.S. State Department, has built a tool for anonymous communication that's so secure that even the world's most sophisticated electronic spies haven't figured out how to crack it.
That's the takeaway from the latest revelations from National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. The NSA has used aggressive computer attack techniques to monitor people using the Tor network, a service that's funded by the U.S. government and allows users to remain anonymous when they're connected to the Internet. But the agency has not been able to undermine the core of the Tor system, which was developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in 2002. It remains a viable means for people to connect to the Internet anonymously. Although Tor's complete reliability has been called into question in light of the NSA's efforts -- which may have begun as early as 2006, according to the Washington Post -- for now it's State Department 1, NSA 0, in the anonymity wars.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an American military strike by giving up his chemical weapons, an unscripted and off-handed remark that triggered a mad day of diplomatic scrambling and raised the first real prospect of a peaceful end to the Syrian crisis.
Speaking in London this morning, Kerry said Assad had one way, and one way only, of preventing the Obama administration from launching a military intervention into his country.
"Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week -- turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting," Kerry said. "But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki tried to walk back Kerry's comments almost immediately after he uttered them, describing the remarks as a "rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used."
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It wasn't long ago that Secretary of State John Kerry was crediting Egypt's generals for their democratic intentions and their role in preventing a full-blown civil war. But that was before Wednesday's bloody crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. Now Kerry is lashing out at the military he was publicly, if cautiously, extolling just weeks before, calling attacks against demonstrators a "serious blow to reconciliation and the Egyptian people's hopes for a transition towards democracy and inclusion."
Speaking on behalf of President Obama, who is on vacation in Martha's Vineyard, Kerry called Wednesday's events "deplorable," saying they "run counter to Egyptians aspirations for peace, inclusion and genuine democracy." Across the country, at least 278 people were killed as Egyptian authorities cracked down on two anti-government sit-ins in Cairo.
Prior to today, few U.S. officials have been more supportive of the Egyptian military than Kerry, who has contextualized its decision to overthrow President Mohamed Morsy in a number of supportive statements.
The Obama administration has invited a senior delegation from the Khartoum regime to visit Washington for high-level discussions, just after the State Department criticized Sudan heavily in its annual country reports on human rights.
The Sudanese Foreign Ministry first announced Tuesday that senior officials from the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) had been invited to Washington for consultations. Sudan Tribune, an émigré newspaper based in Paris, paraphrased a Sudanese official citing the "mere presence of diplomatic missions in both countries and meetings of ambassadors" as representing "some degree of dialogue between Khartoum and Washington."
Sudan is among the most-sanctioned countries in the world. President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court, Sudan has been on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1993, and the United States imposed additional sanctions in 1997 and then again in 2003, following the outbreak of government-sponsored violence in Darfur.
Sudan advocacy-group leaders were quick to criticize the administration's decision to invite the NCP officials to Washington, where they are expected to discuss ongoing tensions with South Sudan, the upcoming referendum in the contested region of Abyei, and the ongoing violence in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
"United to End Genocide believes that the delegates of Sudan's National Congress Party (NCP) do not deserve to be rewarded by the United States government and invited to Washington, D.C. until they stop committing crimes against the civilians throughout Sudan," said Tom Andrews, the president of the group. "It is imperative that in his new term, President Obama evaluates his previous diplomacy towards Sudan, sets strong policy with clear measures that can help end the suffering of the people of Sudan, and hold the perpetrators accountable before offering rewards."
At Tuesday's State Department press briefing, spokesman Patrick Ventrell acknowledged the invitation but gave few details about why the administration believes it's a good idea to host the Sudanese delegation at this time. He said that presidential adviser Nafie Ali Nafie will lead the delegation, but the exact timing has not been finalized.
"We've planned to receive this delegation for a candid discussion on the conflicts and humanitarian crises within Sudan, including in Darfur and the two areas -- Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, counterterrorism, human rights and other issues of concern to the U.S. government," Ventrell said. "We've also continued to express our deep concern about another -- a number of other issues. While we've had some progress here, you have ongoing aerial bombardment of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and some other areas in terms of Darfur that we're still concerned about. So we've seen some progress, but we still have some concerns and we'll raise them directly with the government."
The delegation announcement comes in the same week that the administration announced it was relaxing some sanctions against Khartoum. The Treasury Department announced April 22 that it would now authorize some professional and educational exchanges with Sudan that had previously been prohibited.
Only three days before relaxing sanctions, the Obama administration heavily criticized Sudan in its annual country reports on human rights practices, released April 19, which documented extreme government-sponsored atrocities and human rights violations.
"The most important human rights abuses included: government forces and government-aligned groups committed extrajudicial and other unlawful killings; security forces committed torture, beatings, rape, and other cruel and inhumane treatment or punishment; and prison and detention center conditions were harsh and life threatening," the State Department report said. "Except in rare cases, the government took no steps to prosecute or punish officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government who committed abuses. Security force impunity remained a serious problem."
Other major abuses in Sudan, according to the State Department, included arbitrary arrest; incommunicado and prolonged pretrial detention; executive interference with the judiciary and denial of due process; obstruction of humanitarian assistance; restriction on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement; harassment of internally displaced persons; restrictions on privacy; harassment and closure of human rights organizations; and violence and discrimination against women. Societal abuses including instances of female genital mutilation; child abuse, including sexual violence and recruitment of child soldiers; trafficking in persons; violence against ethnic minorities; denial of workers' rights; and forced and child labor were also reported.
That report prompted a call from the Sudan advocacy community for the administration to employ stronger pressure mechanisms against Khartoum, rather than offering more incentives like visits to Washington or rewards like an easing of sanctions.
"These atrocities and abuses stem from the many conflicts in Sudan, and point to the need for a comprehensive approach to all of Sudan's conflicts," a group of Sudan advocacy organizations wrote in a letter to Obama April 22. "In addition, given the scale of the atrocities perpetrated by the regime, international donors should not provide significant assistance or debt-relief until real and verifiable steps towards peace and democratic transformation are taken."
These groups, along with several members of Congress, also lament that the president has yet to appoint a special envoy to Sudan to replace Amb. Princeton Lyman, who stepped down late last year. The administration is said to be circling around a couple of candidates, but there's been no announcement as of yet.
"This vacancy is symptomatic of a president that has all but forsaken the people of Sudan," Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) said in a March floor statement. "Candidate Obama purported to be deeply concerned by the crisis in Sudan and committed to bold actions. Have we seen a fraction of that concern or anything close to bold action since he became president?"
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Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner will leave government to start a new center for business and human rights at the New York University Stern School of Business.
Posner, who has been at State since September 2009, becomes the latest State Department official to leave since Secretary of State John Kerry replaced Hillary Clinton last month. Other top officials who have already departed include Deputy Secretary Tom Nides, Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills, Undersecretary Maria Otero, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, Policy Planning Director and Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sullivan, and many others. Posner will join NYU in March, the university said in a Thursday release, and will also serve as a professor in the Stern School's business and society program.
"Global businesses are confronting complex human rights challenges that demand approaches that go beyond ‘corporate social responsibility'. We need rules of the road that address companies' responsibilities to respect human rights in their own operations," Posner said in the release.
Sarah Labowitz, Posner's policy advisor at State, will also join NYU Stern as a research scholar and will help Posner set up the new center. Labowitz also worked as an advisor to State Department Cyber Coordinator Christopher Painter.
Posner's last trip as an administration official was last week, when he traveled to Burma and met with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Presidential Advisor Soe Thein, Attorney General Dr. Tun Shin, Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Lt. General Kyaw Zaw Myint, and other high-level government officials in the capital Naypyidaw.
Before joining State, Posner was the founder and president of Human Rights First. He also played a leadership role in several advocacy organizations, including the Fair Labor Association, the Global Network Initiative, and the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.
"At NYU Stern we categorically reject the ‘or' and embrace the ‘and'. Profits and principle must coexist as citizens and consumers around the globe demand both. Mike is respected around the world for his distinguished 30-year career as a lawyer, advocate and policymaker," Stern Dean Peter Henry said in the statement. "His principled, practical approach to some of the world's toughest human rights and foreign policy challenges will break new ground in business education with the creation of the first center at a business school to focus on human rights."
Before Mitt Romney lost his presidential bid Tuesday night to President Barack Obama, he had set up a multi-layered national security transition team with dozens of experts and former officials who were working to prepare for a Romney administration that will never come to be.
Former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt was the overall head of "Project Readiness," the secretive transition planning effort run out of Washington, and former World Bank President Bob Zoellick was in charge of the national security substructure, which included teams to prepare for the transition of the National Security Council, the Defense Department, the State Department, USAID, the Homeland Security Department, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Brian Hook, former foreign-policy aide to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, was Zoellick's deputy in the effort and played a key role in organizing and directing the now-defunct national security transition structure.
Multiple former Romney foreign-policy advisors told The Cable that the national security agency transition teams were not direct indications of who might get what job in a future Romney administration and that they were separate from the transition project's personnel team, which would vet potential senior officials. The agency teams were meant to swoop in after the election, if Romney won, and prepare the national security bureaucracy for the changes President Romney wanted to impose.
"The project moved pretty well," Rich Williamson, the NSC transition team chair, told The Cable today. "Governor Leavitt did a good job of structurally organizing it. He set in course a process of identifying key issues and trying to develop 100-day plans so that if Romney became president he could start on day one to move the things he was committed to. It was further advanced than any other transition efforts I've seen."
Confidence in Romney's victory persisted until the last minute and the planning was extensive. In recent weeks, preparations included the drive to prepare drafts of agency transition plans and policy papers coordinated by interwoven task forces that focused on specific issues. The drafts were due Tuesday, the same day of the election, multiple former Romney foreign-policy advisors said.
"I feel quite comfortable with the analyses and options we teased out that the president elect would have had to begin to address," Williamson said. "Now we go into the loyal opposition and try to do our job raising concerns, improving the dialogue, and trying to influence how the president proceeds."
Had Romney won, Williamson would have been assisted by two NSC transition team co-chairs: former Navy Secretary William Ball and Harvard Professor Meghan O'Sullivan. The NSC "Team Leader," who led the day-to-day activities of the group under the direction of the chair and co-chairs was Foreign Policy Initiative Executive Director Jamie Fly.
The Pentagon transition team had three co-equal co-chairs: Former Sen. Jim Talent, former Navy Secretary John Lehman, and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman. Roger Zakheim, professional staffer for House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), was the Pentagon transition team leader.
Former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff chaired the homeland security transition team, with help from team leader David Howe. The intelligence transition team was chaired by former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and former State Department official Philip Zelikow; Michael Allen, chief of staff for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI), was the team leader.
For the State Department there were four co-chairs: former State Department and NSC staffer Dan Fisk, former Treasury Department official and Goldman Sachs executive John Rogers, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Michael Singh, and former Ambassador to Brazil Clifford Sobel. The team leader was former State Department official Ken Juster.
Several sources involved in the transition said that Zoellick set up the State Department transition team without any cabinet-level leaders because he wanted to set himself up to become secretary of state if Romney was elected. These sources also said that in the last weeks before the election, Zoellick's role in the project had diminished, partially due to the backlash in GOP foreign-policy circles when his role was revealed.
"After the groups were established, Zoellick's involvement appeared minimal. His deputy, Brian Hook, oversaw the work of the agency and policy groups," said one person involved in the transition project. "It was a collaborative process that helped build and strengthen relationships within the conservative foreign-policy community that will hopefully continue to pay dividends for years to come."
Zoellick did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
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The House Oversight Committee is demanding answers from the State Department regarding newly discovered documents found in the wreckage of the U.S. mission in Benghazi that reveal U.S. diplomats noticed a Libyan police officer conducting surveillance of the compound the morning before the Sept. 11 attack and that the Benghazi police department had not responded to requests for more security during the visit of Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died in the attack that night.
Two reporters visiting the burned-out compound more than six weeks after the attack, and weeks after the FBI had visited the site, discovered an array of official and personal items that reveal the state of mind of nervous U.S. officials on the morning of Sept. 11, just hours before a group of well-armed men stormed the compound with heavy weapons, an attack that would ultimate result in the death of four Americans. In an exclusive report for Foreign Policy, journalists Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa revealed two unsigned draft letters written the day of the attack and warning that a Libyan police officer was spotted taking pictures of the compound.
"Finally, early this morning at 0643, September 11, 2012, one of our diligent guards made a troubling report. Near our main gate, a member of the police force was seen in the upper level of a building across from our compound. It is reported that this person was photographing the inside of the U.S. special mission and furthermore that this person was part of the police unit sent to protect the mission," reads the letter, addressed to Mohamed Obeidi, the head of the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs' office in Benghazi.
Obeidi said he never received the letter. Another letter states that U.S. diplomats had asked the Libyan government for added security for Stevens's visit -- security they apparently didn't get.
"On Sunday, September 9, 2012, the U.S. mission requested additional police support at our compound for the duration of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens' visit. We requested daily, twenty-four hour police protection at the front and rear of the U.S. mission as well as a roving patrol. In addition we requested the services of a police explosive detection dog," the letter reads. "We were given assurances from the highest authorities in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that all due support would be provided for Ambassador Stevens' visit to Benghazi. However, we are saddened to report that we have only received an occasional police presence at our main gate. Many hours pass when we have no police support at all."
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and National Security Subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who have been leading a congressional investigation into the security failures surrounding the attack, fired off a letter today to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding the new revelations, obtained by The Cable.
The congressmen are demanding to know whether the Benghazi mission's concerns about Libyan police surveillance and their unanswered requests for more Libyan government security assistance were ever sent to Washington, and if so, why the State Department didn't reveal that before now.
"These documents paint a disturbing picture indicating that elements of the Libyan government might have been complicit in the September 11, 2012 attack on the compound and the murder of four Americans. It also reiterates the fact that the U.S. government may have had evidence indicating that the attack was not a spontaneous event but rather a preplanned terrorist attack that included prior surveillance of the compound as a target," Issa and Chaffetz wrote.
"Given the location where they were found, these documents appear to be genuine and support a growing body of evidence indicating that the Obama Administration has tried to withhold pertinent facts about the 9/11 anniversary attack from Congress and the American people."
The congressmen lamented that important information about the attack is still being discovered by the media and not being given to congressional investigators by the administration. They said the letters call into question repeated State Department claims that there were no warnings before the attack, including when a senior State Department official told reporters Oct. 9 that there had been no security incidents at the consulate that day.
"Everything is calm at 8:30 p.m," the official said during a background briefing. "There's nothing unusual. There has been nothing unusual during the day at all outside."
"These statements appear to be inconsistent with the information included in the documents uncovered by Foreign Policy," Issa and Chaffetz wrote.
The State Department must tell Congress whether the letters were included in any cables, telegrams, or emails and provide copies of those documents "no later than 5:00 p.m. on November 8, 2012," the letter said.
Other documents found at the compound include a printout of an email from Stevens to his political officer regarding the Benghazi visit, a travel itinerary sent to Sean Smith, the other State Department official killed in the attack, and an Aug. 6 copy of the New Yorker addressed to Stevens.
Syrian opposition leaders of all stripes will convene in Qatar next week to form a new leadership body to subsume the opposition Syrian National Council, which is widely viewed as ineffective, consumed by infighting, and little respected on the ground, The Cable has learned.
The State Department has been heavily involved in crafting the new council as part of its effort oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and build a more viable and unified opposition. In September, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a group of Syrian activists who were flown in to New York for a high-level meeting that has not been reported until now.
During the third and final presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney criticized President Barack Obama's Syria policy as a failure to show "leadership" in laying the groundwork for the post-Assad era and called for "a form of council that can take the lead in Syria."
In fact, over the last several months, according to U.S. officials and Syrian opposition figures, the State Department has worked to broaden its contacts inside the country, meeting with military commanders and representatives of local governance councils in a bid to bypass the fractious SNC.
Many in the SNC are accordingly frustrated with the level of support they've gotten in Washington. "The Obama administration is trying to systematically undermine the SNC. It's very unfortunate," one SNC leader said told The Cable.
But U.S. officials are equally frustrated with an SNC they say has failed to attract broad support, particularly from the Alawite and Kurdish minorities. The new council is an attempt to change that dynamic. Dozens of Syrian leaders will meet in the Qatari capital, Doha, on Nov. 3 and hope to announce the new council as the legitimate representative of all the major Syrian opposition factions on Nov. 7, one day after the U.S. presidential election.
The Obama administration sees the new council as a potential interim government that could negotiate with both the international community and - down the line - perhaps also the Syrian regime. The SNC will have a minority stake in the new body, but some opposition leaders are still skeptical that the effort will succeed.
The Qatar meeting will include dozens of opposition leaders from inside Syria, including from the provincial revolutionary councils, the local "coordination committees" of activists, and select people from the newly established local administrative councils.
"We call it a proto-parliament. One could also think of it as a continental congress," a senior administration official told The Cable.
U.S. officials and opposition leaders are calling the initiative the "Riad Seif plan," named after the former Syrian parliamentarian and dissident who was imprisoned after he signed the Damascus Declaration on respect for Syrians' human rights in 2005. He was released in 2011, beaten up by a Shabiha gang in Noember 2011, and finally allowed to leave Syria in June 2012.
Seif is central to the formation of the new council and is seen as a figure with broad credibility with both the internal and external Syrian opposition.
"We have to get [the internal opposition] to bless the new political leadership structure they're setting up and not only do we have to get them to bless the structure, but they have to get the names on it," the official said, noting that the exact structure of the council will be determined in Qatar, not before.
"We need to be clear: This is what the Americans support, and if you want to work with us you are going to work with this plan and you're going to do this now," the official said. "We aren't going to waste anymore time. The situation is worsening. We need to do this now."
Secretary Clinton's personal involvement came when she met with select members of the 80-member "Friends of Syria" group in New York, which included internal opposition figures and several foreign ministers from the Friends of Syria "core group" of 22 countries.
"The New York meeting was designed to tee up the idea that there has to be a new political structure, not just the SNC," the official said.
Two SNC leaders attended the meeting along with four representatives of the internal opposition, although only one such leader actually came from inside Syria. Of the other three, one traveled from Sweden, one from Jordan, and one from Kuwait. They all spoke briefly and then left the room while the foreign ministers discussed the road ahead.
"We wanted more [from inside Syria] but we couldn't get them out. The other people were chosen by people from the inside," the official said.
Even bringing that individual from within Syria proved to be a major undertaking, however, because he didn't have a passport. It took high-level intervention between the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. The Syrian caught his flight to New York for the meeting -- but only at the last minute.
The U.S. government will be represented at the Nov. 7 Qatar meeting by Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who has been dealing with various opposition groups and weighing in on the composition of the new council, a senior administration official said. For example, Ford pressed for the council to have 50 members in order to include 20 representatives of the internal opposition alongside 15 members of the SNC and 15 other representatives of various Syrian opposition organizations.
The idea is also to create an eight- to 10-member executive body -- made up of technocrats who are not on the new council -- that would be able to work directly with foreign governments on a day-to-day basis on practical items such as the delivery and direction of humanitarian assistance.
"We could finally have an interface to say ‘The needs of this place are greater than the needs of people in that place, so please direct assistance here or there,'" the official said.
The U.S. government is coordinating with governments in Europe and the region to forge consensus on the way ahead with the political opposition inside Syria and outside, the official added.
The Turkish government has been wary of the new effort because it has been heavily invested in the SNC, and the new council intentionally puts the SNC in a minority position.
But Washington's relationship with the SNC has been deteriorating for several months, officials said, and the administration believes the Turks will ultimately come around to embrace the new body.
The mutual recriminations between the Obama administration and the SNC reached a tipping point over the late spring and summer, when two official visits by the SNC to Washington were canceled, one in May and one in July. The May meeting was canceled by the U.S. side because the administration wanted the SNC to visit Moscow first -- a visit that didn't go well, the official said. The July meeting was scuttled by the SNC itself.
But the SNC isn't going away. The group's leaders will hold their own meeting in Qatar on Nov. 3 to establish a new 15-member executive council and potentially a new president.
Other Syrian activists warn that the new council is far from a sure thing.
One external opposition activist with ties to military leaders inside Syria told The Cable there's a risk the Doha meeting could be only the latest example of the opposition's failure to coalesce around a common vision and plan for a post-Assad Syria.
"Right now, the opposition groups are very vague and there's no agreement on who's representing who and what and where," this opposition activist said. "Right now there is a lot of risk that this will be another failed approach that will not achieve anything."
But the Obama administration's efforts go beyond the attempt to stand up the new council.
Although members of Ford's staff have been in communication with representatives of the opposition Free Syrian Army for some time, in July, Ford made his first in-person contact with the FSA during a visit to Cairo. A special conference call was arranged earlier this month between Ford and several FSA commanders, the official confirmed.
The Obama administration is well aware of the growing influence of opposition military commanders and the effort by Islamist extremists, including groups linked to al Qaeda, to gain influence over the direction of Syria's burgeoning civil war.
"There's a rising presence of Islamist extremists. So we need to help these [military council leaders], the majority of them are secular, relatively moderate, and not pursuing an overly vicious agenda," the official said.
But the Obama administration remains reluctant to directly provide weapons to the FSA and has all but ruled out committing U.S. military assets to the fight, despite the hopes of many Syrian opposition figures that the Nov. 6 election will mark an inflection point.
"We are providing to the political opposition all kinds of assistance and we're going to ramp that up, as the secretary has said," the official said. "I don't think there's going to be a big change after the election."
Corruption in Iraq is at an all-time high and several other major indicators of progress in the country are on a downward trend, according to a new U.S. government report.
Earlier this month, the Iraqi government fired Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) Governor Sinan al-Shabibi amid allegations of corruption, a move that is both a symptom and a consequence of increased corruption in Iraq and also a possible power grab by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, according to the report, published Tuesday by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.
"This peremptory and constitutionally questionable move occurred as an audit of the CBI's foreign currency auctions surfaced. The audit purportedly found that perhaps 80% of the $1 billion purchased at weekly CBI-managed auctions was tied to illegal transactions, with the funds subject to those transactions potentially lost abroad to money laundering," the report reads.
It continues: "This development is symptomatic of a troubled year in Iraq, evidenced by increasing corruption, resurgent violence, deepening ethno-sectarian strains, growing apprehensions about the conflict in Syria, and widening divides within the coalition government."
Special Inspector Stuart Bowen, in an interview with The Cable, said it's unclear whether the firing of Shabibi was a direct power grab by Maliki, but it does open up the possibility that Maliki will now have greater access to the vast capital reserves the bank holds.
"The facts are that Governor Shabibi was widely respected around the globe amongst financial ministers for building up Iraq's reserves to about $65 billion. And I did know from my discussions in Iraq there was some desire in Iraq to access some of that money for capital expenditure purposes and Shabibi had exerted a firm hand in preventing its use," Bowen said. "The government of Iraq wanted to access some of those reserves."
The Iraqi government's public explanation is that Shabibi was not diligent enough in combatting the money laundering that was going on at the bank, mostly through weekly auctions of dollars for Iraqi dinars. Bowen said that Abdul-Basit Turki, the head of the Board of Supreme Audit, made that money-laundering determination. Basset is now the acting governor of the Central Bank of Iraq.
"The matter of corruption was brought to me by a number of ministers, who noted to me that it's as bad as it's ever been," Bowen said.
The report points to several other negative indicators. For example, Iraq suffered its worst day of violence in more than two years when Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi was sentenced to death in absentia last month, charges that are widely viewed as political in nature. Iraq's relationship with Turkey is deteriorating, the ongoing violence in Syrian presents both political and humanitarian problems for Iraq, and a temporary resolution of Baghdad's oil revenue sharing dispute with the Kurds has not solved the overall problem, the report said.
Official numbers for staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, America's largest, have actually gone up despite State Department claims that the embassy was in the process of being downsized. Apparently, the number of staff had been underreported in the past.
"U.S. Embassy-Baghdad reported that 16,035 persons supported the U.S. Mission in Iraq at the end of the quarter, including 1,075 U.S. government civilian employees and 14,960 contractor personnel. The Embassy said the discrepancy was due to earlier underreporting of certain staff categories," the report stated.
"My expectation is that it will be shrinking. We had conflicting reporting about the size of the staff at the embassy," Bowen said. "We'll just have to wait to see how that evolves over the next couple of quarters."
SIGIR also announced in its report the conclusion of several investigations that resulted in either guilty pleas or convictions of persons abusing U.S. taxpayer funds in Iraq, including the guilty plea of the former chief of party in Baghdad for USIP of wire fraud.
Earlier this month, two former employees of the contractor Parsons were sentenced to prison for terms of 27 and 15 months for "conspiring to commit kickbacks, wire fraud, and mail fraud, and for filing false tax returns" and will pay about $2 million in restitution to the U.S. government. And Monday, UK-based Iraqi subcontractor Ahmed Sarchel Kazzaz was sentenced to 15 months in prison and ordered to pay about $1 million in restitution and forfeit another $1 million.
The U.S. government has obligated $60.5 billion to Iraqi relief and reconstruction since 2003.
In January, the SIGIR office will release its final lessons report and three more audits, and then the office will begin to roll up its operations unless Congress sees fit to extend its funding past March. If not, the hope is to take about 20 staffers from SIGIR's investigative unit and move them over to the Office for the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Bowen said.
"We have over 80 cases ongoing... the Hill has expressed in continuing the investigative part of SIGIR after the office officially closes down," he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot produce about $1 billion of receipts for fuel and other supplies it bought in Iraq using Iraqi money, a government investigation has found.
The total amount of funds unaccounted for has now reached a staggering $7 billion, officials say -- and they warn that the Iraqi government is likely to demand at least some of that money back.
The United States has been managing billions of dollars of Iraqi money through the U.N.-created Development Fund for Iraq (DFI) since 2003, money that was the result of Iraqi oil and gas sales or was left over from the "oil-for-food" program. The Army Corps of Engineers has been spending that money on energy and infrastructure programs in Iraq, but its recordkeeping was so poor that the Corps cannot prove it actually received goods for about $1 billion of the money it spent, according to the report, which was released Friday by the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR).
SIGIR reviewed $1.1 billion of DFI-related transactions by the Corps and found that a key document, the receiving report -- which documents that the goods or services were actually delivered to the intended recipients -- was missing for 95 percent of the transactions.
"Missing receiving reports involved commodities vulnerable to fraud and theft, such as fuel, televisions, and vehicles. SIGIR has not concluded that fraud or theft occurred, but the absence of receiving reports raises questions," the report stated. "Instead of using the required receiving reports to document fuel deliveries in Iraq, USACE officials told us that they maintained a fuel delivery log book. However, the log book is missing. In the absence of receiving reports and the fuel delivery log book, USACE has no evidence that shows whether fuel products paid for with DFI funds were received."
The Corps also didn't have enough trucks with meters to determine how much fuel was being delivered to more than 100 sites around Iraq. Nor has the Corps completed the required financial audits, so it's impossible to determine the status of all the DFI contracts, SIGIR says.
"Without these audits, USACE cannot close out these contracts and task orders and assess whether the contractor owes the U.S. money, whether the U.S. owes the contractor money, and ultimately, whether the U.S. needs to return unused DFI funds to the [government of Iraq]," the report said.
In an interview with The Cable, Deputy Inspector General Glen Furbish said that even though there's no evidence of fraud, there's a good chance the Iraqi government will try to seek some or all of this money from the U.S. government.
"Our inability to show that goods were received will always leave that question in the minds of the Iraqis as to whether we used their money appropriately," Furbish said. "We've sensed for some time that there is probably going to be an effort to make a claim against the U.S. for the unaccountable funds and this will probably be a piece of that ultimate claim."
This latest report is only the latest in a series of reports that delve into how the DFI money was used, and the total amount of money not properly accounted for is around $7 billion, Furbish said. SIGIR will release a final report on the U.S. government's handling of the DFI funds in January.
"This primarily means that our administrative handling of this money was not good," he said. "[The Iraqi government] may assert that our failure to keep records creates a claim for them."
The SIGIR office also released today a final report on the State Department's handling of Quick Response Funds (QRF), money that was handed out in Iraq, often by Provincial Reconstruction Teams, for projects that may or may not have ever materialized.
The State Department and USAID managed about $258 million in QRF funds but the results of the projects funded are unclear.
"From the available records, we could generally determine how funds were intended to be used, but we could not assess whether all of the goods and services were actually purchased, received, or transferred to beneficiaries," the report stated.
Furbish said that for many of these projects, the money was handed out but nobody ever followed up on the programs, largely because it was too dangerous to check on small reconstruction projects in the middle of the war.
"They have always maintained that we are asking a bit too much for a wartime program, in terms of us being bean counters and asking if people got something for their money," Furbish said. "Call us bean counters if you want, but if you can't show us what you spent the money on, I think you've got a control weakness."
State has made improvements in its handling of the QRF funds going forward, but department officials told SIGIR that it's impossible to go back and figure out what happened to the money spent in the early years on these projects, Furbish said.
"Cash on the battlefield is problematic in so many ways. It probably shouldn't even be allowed," he said.
Vice President Joseph Biden speaks only for himself and President Barack Obama, and neither man was aware that U.S. officials in Libya had asked the State Department for more security before the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, a top White House official told The Cable.
Biden has come under fire for saying at Thursday night's debate, "We weren't told they wanted more security. We did not know they wanted more security there."
The Cable asked Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes whether Biden was speaking for the entire Obama administration, including the State Department, which acknowledged receiving multiple requests for more Libya security in the months before the attacks. Rhodes said that Biden speaks only for himself and the president and neither of them knew about the requests at the time.
The State Department security officials who testified before House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa's panel Wednesday never said they had made their requests to the president, Rhodes pointed out. That would be natural because the State Department is responsible for diplomatic security, not the White House, he said. Rhodes also pointed out that the officials were requesting more security in Tripoli, not Benghazi.
"All of us at post were in sync that we wanted these resources," the top regional security officer in Libya over the summer, Eric Nordstrom, testified. "In those conversations, I was specifically told [by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb] ‘You cannot request an SST [Site Security Team] extension.' I determined I was told that because there would be too much political cost. We went ahead and requested it anyway."
Nordstrom was so critical of the State Department's reluctance to respond to his calls for more security that he said, "For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building."
"We felt great frustration that those requests were ignored or just never met," testified Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, a Utah National Guardsman who was leading a security team in Libya until August.
Issa released the unclassified cables containing those requests.
At Thursday night's debate, Rep. Paul Ryan seemed to suggest that the requests were for Marines to go to Libya, which was not the case. The requests were to extend the tours of a Mobile Security Detachments [MSD] and the Site Security Team [SST] at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, which are teams of military personnel, not Marines, who can help protect an embassy and its personnel.
"What we should not be doing is rejecting claims for calls for more security in our barracks, in our Marine -- we need Marines in Benghazi when the commander on the ground says we need more forces for security," Ryan said. "There were requests for extra security. Those requests were not honored."
In his prepared testimony, Nordstrom said that "because of Libyan political sensitivities, armed private security companies were not allowed to operate in Libya." Instead, the Benghazi mission, through a British company, hired unarmed Libyan guards to work inside the compound and a local Libyan militia patrolled the exterior of the compound.
Ryan also erred when he criticized the State Department for assigning Marines to protect the ambassador in France but not Amb. Chris Stevens, who died in Benghazi on Sept. 11.
"Our ambassador in Paris has a marine detachment guarding him, shouldn't we have a Marine detachment guarding our ambassador in Benghazi?," Ryan said.
According to the U.S. Embassy Paris website, there is a Marine Security Guard Detachment in the embassy, but they are there primarily to protect classified information and are not part of the ambassador's personal security detail.
Russia's announcement Wednesday that it will not participate in the Nunn-Lugar program to reduce the threat of loose nuclear materials is a slap in the face to President Barack Obama's effort to make arms control a feature of his "reset" policy with Russia, two top advisors to Mitt Romney said Thursday.
The New York Times described Moscow's move to end the 20 year, $8 billion program, started in 1993 by Sens. Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN), to secure loose nukes in Russia and decommission old Russian military inventories as "a potentially grave setback in the already fraying relationship between the former cold war enemies." In a breakfast meeting with reporters Thursday, the Romney advisors said that the news is only the latest indication that the Obama administration has misread Russia's intentions and actions.
"The reset policy has been a complete disaster, partly because the administration has simply not understood how to deal with Russia," said Romney advisor and former Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim. "Russia is pursuing a classic policy that Russia has pursued since at least Peter the Great... If they perceive you to be strong, they will work with you. They do not perceive us to be strong."
Russia can be worked with, as evidenced by U.S.-Russian cooperation to transfer military supplies through Russia to Afghanistan, he said. But the Russian exit from Nunn-Lugar, as well as Moscow's decision last month to expel the U.S. Agency for International Development, shows that the Kremlin no longer feels the need to work with the United States constructively.
"This administration, because the Russians perceive it to be weak, it not in a position to move these guys," said Zakheim. "The whole reset program is a complete flop."
Dov's son Roger Zakheim, another top Romney advisor who also works on the staff of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), said the end of Nunn-Lugar deals a blow to the administration's overall nonproliferation agenda.
"The administration touted New START and we were critical of that because it was a victory for the Russians, who gave no concessions... This to me is another natural consequence of the fact the Russians are the only ones that gain fruit from this relationship," he said.
"This president is trying to get down to zero and remove WMD from across the world; now he can't even get the bilateral cooperation that's been done for years. [His agenda] is kind of evaporating on his own watch."
As president, Obama has made arms control a central feature of his reset policy with Russia, spending enormous amounts of time and political capital to push for ratification of New START in 2010. He also has made securing loose nuclear material a feature of his foreign-policy agenda, hosting a 44-nation summit on the issue in Washington the same year.
As a senator and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2006, Obama joined with Lugar to sponsor a bill to expand the Nunn-Lugar to include conventional weapons.
In a statement Wednesday, Lugar said that in August meetings with Russian officials, the Russian government told him they wanted changes to the Nunn-Lugar umbrella agreement but that he was surprised by the announcement Russia was ending its participation in the program altogether.
In August alone, the program helped the securing of six nuclear weapons train transport shipments and destroyed 153.2 metric tons of chemical weapons nerve agent, Lugar said.
"The Nunn-Lugar scorecard now totals 7,610 strategic nuclear warheads deactivated, 902 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) destroyed, 498 ICBM silos eliminated, 191 ICBM mobile launchers destroyed, 155 bombers eliminated, 906 nuclear air-to-surface missiles (ASMs) destroyed, 492 SLBM launchers eliminated, 684 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) eliminated, 33 nuclear submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles destroyed, 194 nuclear test tunnels eliminated, 3192.3 metric tons of Russian and Albanian chemical weapons agent destroyed, 590 nuclear weapons transport train shipments secured, security at 24 nuclear weapons storage sites upgraded, 39 biological threat monitoring stations built and equipped," the statement read. "Perhaps most importantly, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus are nuclear weapons free as a result of cooperative efforts under the Nunn-Lugar program. Those countries were the third, fourth and eighth largest nuclear weapons powers in the world."
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that the State Department had proposed an extension for the program that was unacceptable to Moscow. "Our American partners know that their proposal is at odds with our ideas about the forms and basis for building further cooperation in that area," the statement said, adding that Russia needed "a more modern legal framework."
Darrel Issa (R-CA), the committee chairman leading House Republicans' investigation into the Obama administration's handling of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, has concealed witnesses, withheld documents, publicly aired unconfirmed allegations, and excluded Democrats from a hastily planned trip to Libya last weekend, according to his colleagues across the aisle.
"Although Chairman Issa has claimed publicly that ‘we are pursuing this on a bipartisan basis,' the Committee's investigation into the attack in Benghazi has been extremely partisan," reads a memo circulated today by the Democratic staff of the committee and obtained by The Cable. "The Chairman and his staff failed to consult with Democratic Members prior to issuing public letters with unverified allegations, concealed witnesses and refused to make one hearing witness available to Democratic staff, withheld documents obtained by the Committee during the investigation, and effectively excluded Democratic Committee Members from joining a poorly-planned congressional delegation to Libya."
On Wednesday, Issa, who heads the House Oversight Committee, will hold his much-anticipated hearing on the administration's actions leading up to and following the attack that cost the lives of Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The hearing, entitled, "The Security Failures of Benghazi," will feature testimony from Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Programs Charlene Lamb, Regional Security Officer Eric Nordstrom, who was stationed in Libya before the attacks, and Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, a Utah National Guardsman who was leading a security team in Libya until August.
The hearing follows up on an Oct. 2 letter from Issa and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the chairman of the national security subcommittee, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in which Issa said the committee had received information "from individuals with direct knowledge of the events in Libya" that the Sept. 11 attack was "the latest in a long line of attacks" on Western diplomatic assets in Benghazi.
That letter was based on testimony from Nordstrom, according to the memo, who told the committee that the State Department had ignored two cables he send requesting more security. Nordstrom blamed the allegedly low security staffing in Benghazi on Lamb, whom he claims said that only three security agents were needed because there was a "safe haven" nearby. But Issa and Chaffetz sent their letter to Clinton less than 12 hours after interviewing Nordstrom, who was not in Libya at the time of the attack, the memo alleges.
"[Nordstrom's] statements were not confirmed before the letter was sent, and the State Department was not given an opportunity to respond before the allegations were made public," the memo said.
Wood spelled out his allegations in a series of interviews this week, including one with CBS News, in which he alleged that the State Department had declined his request to maintain a "Site Security Team," in Libya past August. But Issa concealed the majority staff's conversations with Wood from the Democratic side of the committee until Oct. 5, the same day he appeared on CBS, according to the memo.
"Chairman Issa has refused multiple requests to make Lt. Col. Wood available to speak with Democratic Members or staff prior to the hearing on Wednesday. In addition, although Republican staff provided an email address for Lt. Col. Wood after he appeared on CBS Evening News, Lt. Col. Wood has failed to respond to any inquiries from Democratic staff," the memo states.
Issa and Chaffetz also effectively excluded Democratic committee members and staff from joining a congressional delegation to Libya last weekend by concealing the trip until less than 24 hours before it was scheduled to leave, the memo charges.
"Republican staff did not inform the minority until last Thursday that a delegation would be departing the next day, Friday, October 5, 2012, for Tripoli. Due to this inadequate notice, no Democratic Members or staff were able to join," the memo says. "Based on a copy of the itinerary provided to the minority staff, it also appears that this delegation was hastily and inadequately planned. The itinerary did not identify a single U.S. government official, Libyan official, or other individual the Committee planned to interview during the entire delegation. In fact, the itinerary listed as the sole Committee activity in Libya: ‘TBD.'"
The memo also criticizes Mitt Romney and several congressional Republicans for taking issue with the statements of Obama administration officials in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack, especially the Sept. 16 statements by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, in which she said that the assessment at that time was that the attack was spontaneous and inspired by an anti-Islam video.
"The State Department has been cooperating fully with the Committee's investigation. It has agreed to all requests for hearing witnesses, it has offered additional hearing witnesses beyond those requested, it has promptly organized transcribed interviews with Department officials, it has been collecting documents sought by the Committee, and it has offered additional briefings for Committee staff," the memo states, although it notes that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) excluded Oversight Committee leaders from a classified briefing on the issue Tuesday.
"Contrary to House Rules, the Chairman and his staff refused to provide copies of documents obtained by the Committee during this investigation and concealed witnesses, preventing the minority from questioning these witnesses directly in order to gain a more complete understanding of their views and to vet the accuracy of claims made by Chairman Issa," the memo states.
The memo also argues that it was the House GOP that slashed funding for State Department security and embassy protections prior to the attack.
The House passed appropriations bills that cut $248 million from the administration's request for the Worldwide Security Protection account in fiscal 2011 and 2012, and $211 million from the Worldwide Security Upgrades portion of the Embassy Security, Construction and Maintenance (ESCM) account in those years.
The final amounts given to both accounts after the Senate weighed in were $88 million above the House levels, but still $371 million below what the administration requested.
"Since gaining the majority in 2011, House Republicans have voted to reduce embassy security funding by approximately half a billion dollars below the amounts requested by the Obama Administration," the memo states.
Last week, committee ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings (D-MD) expressed concern that partisanship was overtaking the investigation.
"While I fully support careful, responsible, and robust congressional oversight, I do have concerns about rushing to hold a public hearing based on incomplete information if the purpose is to meet some arbitrary political timetable. On such a critically important issue, I believe we should proceed in a bipartisan and responsible manner by gathering the facts before drawing any public conclusions," he said.
A spokesman for Issa did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Two top senators on the Foreign Relations Committee don't want to wait for the State Department to do its own investigation into the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens; they want Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to show them Stevens's diplomatic cables and other correspondence now.
"While we appreciate the sensitivities associated with this ongoing investigation, we must insist on more timely information regarding the attacks and the events leading up to the attacks," wrote Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Johnny Isaakson (R-GA) in a letter to Clinton Tuesday.
They acknowledged that Clinton is in the process of setting up an Accountability Review Board, although its chairman former Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Pickering said Monday that the panel hasn't started it work yet. But the senators don't want to wait for the board to finish its report, which might not be transmitted to Congress until next spring.
"To that end, we request that you transmit to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee all communications between the U.S. Mission to Libya and the State Department relevant to the security situation in Benghazi in the period leading up to the attacks, including, but not limited to, cables sent from Ambassador Stevens," they wrote.
The senators noted that Libya officials have said they warned the U.S. government about rising threats in Benghazi just before the attacks and they referenced the CNN reports, culled at least partially from Stevens's personal diary, stating that the ambassador believed his life was in danger.
"Despite these warnings, the State Department sought and received a waiver from the standard security requirements for the consulate," the senators wrote.
"We are extremely concerned about conflicting reports over the events leading up to the attacks. Specifically, we are concerned over the apparent lack of security preparations made despite a demonstrable increase in risks to U.S. officials and facilities in Benghazi in the period leading up to the attacks."
The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said Monday that the Obama administration has not found any evidence that a former Guantánamo Bay inmate was involved in the Sept. 11 attack on the Benghazi consulate that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) emerged from a classified briefing with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Sept. 21 saying that administration officials had discussed Sufyan Ben Qumu, who was released from Guantánamo into Libyan custody in 2007, as a "person of interest" in the Benghazi investigation. But today in a conference call organized by the left-leaning National Security Network, Smith clarified that he had heard nothing directly tying Ben Qumu to the Benghazi attack.
"All I meant was that the person I mentioned has known al Qaeda affiliations and was in Libya. And really, that's it," Smith said. "Whether or not he was directly involved with the people engaged in the attack, there's no evidence of that."
Smith said the Libyan government had been quick to condemn the attack and help with the investigation. But he slammed Republicans for referencing the Ben Qumu rumor and other reporting about the attack to criticize the administration's handling of the crisis.
"It is fairly disturbing the number of Republicans who have leapt to erroneous conclusions about what this means and have missed no opportunity to bash on the president rather than try to find a common approach to this," he said. "That has been extremely unhelpful."
Former Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Pickering said on the call that he had not yet started work on the Accountability Review Board (ARB) that Clinton appointed him to lead to investigate the Benghazi attack.
"As far as I know no other members have been appointed and obviously the process has not yet begun," Pickering said.
The ARB will have five members, four appointed by Clinton and one appointed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, according to a senior State Department official. The board will investigate, "the extent to which the incident was security related; whether the security systems and security procedures at that mission were adequate; whether the security systems and security procedures were properly implemented; the impact of intelligence and information availability; and such other facts and circumstances which may be relevant to the appropriate security management of the United States missions abroad," according to the law that established the board's mandate.
By law, the board must be convened within 60 days of the incident. Such panels typically take an average of 65 days to complete their work, and Clinton must submit the findings to Congress within 90 days of receiving them. According to that timeline, the board would issue its report in January and Congress could receive it as late as next April.
Both Smith and Pickering emphasized that they did not believe that time had run out to convince Iran not to pursue a nuclear weapon, and both argued that increased U.S. military involvement in Syria would only inflame the violence in the country.
"The situation in Syria is horrific. It is a full scale civil war," said Smith "It's a matter of whether or not there is an option that would make the situation better and reduce the violence in Syria."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was all set to get his full Senate vote today on his bill to cut all U.S. aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan; and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was set to get a vote on his resolution to establish the sense of the Senate that containment of a nuclear Iran is not an option for U.S. policy.
But the entire deal was derailed by a last-minute effort by Senate leaders to add a new bill to the agreement, a "Sportsman Act" sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), who is up for re-election. Tester's bill would ease restrictions on hunting, fishing, and shooting on federal public lands.
On Thursday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said that he had worked out a deal with Paul to move on all of the Senate's outstanding business this afternoon, including a continuing resolution to fund the government past Oct. 1. Under the deal, Paul would get one hour of debate and a vote on his bill to cut all U.S. aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan. There would also be a one-hour debate on the containment resolution, which was also led by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Bob Casey (D-PA). (Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had objected to the deal late Wednesday but lifted his objection Thursday.)
Then suddenly Thursday afternoon, Reid announced there would be no more votes and he took a swipe a Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), accusing him of wanting to avoid his evening debate with challenger Elizabeth Warren.
Multiple senators and staffers said late Thursday that it was Reid, however, who derailed the deal at the last minute by attempting to add the Tester bill, prompting an objection by the GOP Senate leadership.
"Today, [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell has agreed to the same UC [unanimous consent agreement] that was offered last night by Senator Reid, but now Senator Reid wants a UC that includes not just the Paul, Graham, and [continuing resolution] votes, but also a vote on the Tester amendment," Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said Thursday afternoon.
All Senate business is on hold while the leadership of both caucuses negotiates behind closed doors. Paul had repeatedly threatened to oppose unanimous consent to move any legislation unless he got his vote, so without a deal, Senate leaders would have to go through long voting procedures that could keep lawmakers in town well into the weekend.
Senators do hope to leave town this weekend, so a deal Friday is widely expected. A deal would also pave the way for the Senate to confirm a host of ambassadors before leaving Washington, including the nominees for envoy posts in Iraq and Pakistan.
The containment resolution has more than 80 co-sponsors and is expected to pass by a wide margin. The Paul bill to prohibit aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan is not expected to pass.
Lawmakers and Africa hands rallied Thursday behind President Barack Obama's decision to nominate Robert Godec to be the next U.S. ambassador to Kenya.
If confirmed, Godec would follow Obama confidant J. Scott Gration, who resigned in June ahead of a scathing internal report that rated him among the worst ambassadors in the diplomatic corps (Gration insists he was a great ambassador).
Unlike Gration, a political appointee, Godec is a career Foreign Service officer who has previously led an embassy -- in Tunisia -- and has diplomatic experience working in the Nairobi embassy as well. Godec is the charge d'affaires at the Kenya embassy now, and served as the State Department's principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism from 2009 to 2012.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs Subcommittee, told The Cable that he will push to confirm Godec as quickly as possible when the Senate returns for a lame-duck session following the November elections.
"Ambassador Godec is a smart choice and I hope the Senate will move quickly to advance his nomination," said Coons. "Given the emerging threats in the region, his background in counterterrorism and career in the Foreign Service -- even being stationed in Nairobi earlier in his career -- make him unquestionably qualified for this critically important role. One of the United States' top priorities, certainly in the short term, will be helping ensure Kenya's elections in March are free, fair, and peaceful. These elections are critically important not only to Kenya, but to the stability of the region."
The upcoming elections and the potential for explosive political violence are a key focus of Kenya watchers in Washington. Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report stating that politicians seeking office have been complicit on both sides of the growing violence in Kenya's coastal region, with the central government doing little to hold them accountable.
"I'm very pleased to see President Obama officially nominate a new U.S. ambassador to Kenya, particularly a Foreign Service officer with regional and country specific experience like Ambassador Godec. That's going to very important in order to reverse what's been a worrisome U.S. policy of neglect and drift," said Sarah Margon, deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch and co-chair of the Kenya Working Group. "What he's going to need to do is make a clear commitment to a U.S. policy based on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, particularly given the upcoming elections. And he needs to address lack of accountability for the political violence in Kenya."
Prior to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the State Department and the Marines Corps had been discussing deploying Marines to guard the U.S. Embassy in the Libyan capital Tripoli "sometime in the next five years," according to the Marine Corps.
The issue of security at U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya has been front and center as Congress and others begin to investigate whether or not those facilities were sufficiently protected before the attacks that killed Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The State Department won't discuss the specifics of its security posture in Libya before the attack, but the Marine Corps has briefed congressional staffers on the issue, for example in a Sept. 13 email obtained by The Cable.
"Typically, when a new embassy is established, it takes time to grow a new [Marine Corps Embassy Security Group] detachment," wrote Col. Harold Van Opdorp, director of the Marine Senate Liaison office, in the e-mail. "[In conjunction with] the State Department, there is discussion about establishing a detachment in Tripoli sometime in the next five years."
The State Department did not respond to questions about how high the discussion of deploying Marines to Libya reached, whether that discussion amounted to a recognition that Marines were needed there, or why it might take five years to set it up. A Marine Corps FAST team was deployed to protect the embassy on Sept. 12 after the attack and could stay there indefinitely.
According to the Marines, out of the 285-plus U.S. diplomatic security facilities worldwide, 152 have Marine Corps detachments, primarily to protect the facilities and the classified information they contain.
"Overall, the plan is to grow the number of MCESG detachments worldwide to 173. It is also important to note the detachments are charged with protection of the chancery. Perimeter security is the responsibility of the HN [host nation] police/security forces," Van Opdorp wrote.
Many on Capitol Hill are pressing the State Department for details about the exact security arrangements at the Benghazi consulate, contesting the State Department's repeated assertion that there was a "strong" security presence protecting the facility.
One congressional aide told The Cable that the State Department initially reported to Congress that the security personnel at the embassy consisted of an unarmed local security force and six armed Libyan government personnel.
The Washington Guardian reported Wednesday that the two former Navy SEALs who were killed in the attack were not part of the ambassador's security detail but had unspecified security responsibilities related to the consulate and engaged the attackers after the firefight began.
Lawmakers are still trying to get details about the State Department's security posture in Libya and the heads of the Senate Homeland Security Committee have already called on the department to investigate the security failures surrounding the Benghazi attack.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to brief Congress on the issue Thursday afternoon. Earlier this week, she defended the security presence in Benghazi, saying, "Let me assure you that our security in Benghazi included a unit of host government security forces, as well as a local guard force of the kind that we rely on in many places around the world."
Late Wednesday, Pentagon officials briefed House Armed Services Committee members on the Libya attacks, after which Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) said that he was increasingly concerned about the lack of security at U.S. diplomatic posts in Libya.
McKeon said it was "inconceivable" that that there were no military personnel stationed in Benghazi, despite a June bomb attack on the consulate, and he said he was "really concerned about the lack of support that the ambassador had, the lack of protection."
The State Department is setting up an independent, bipartisan panel to investigate what happened in the Sept. 11 attack on the Benghazi consulate that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Wednesday that Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides told him the State Department had already begun setting up the panel, which Kerry said would be independently appointed and accountable to Congress. Kerry said the panel's existence preempted the need for Congress to quickly pass a bill, put forth by Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), requiring State to report to Congress on last week's attacks in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen within 30 days.
"The State Department must convene an Accountability Review Board (ARB) in instances in which there has been loss of life or significant destruction of property at a U.S. mission abroad. The Secretary must provide the SFRC with a report on the findings and recommendations of the ARB," Kerry said at Thursday's SFRC business meeting.
Kerry said the law requires the panel be convened within 60 days of the attack, would examine all aspects of the attacks, and is required to report to Congress its findings. If the panel does not satisfy Congress's desire for information about the attacks, Kerry would then support legislation calling for more thorough reporting on the attacks as well as security procedures at all U.S. diplomatic posts, he said.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top administration officials will come to Capitol Hill to give a briefing on the attacks to all senators who wish to attend, Kerry said.
"Given all of the information that should be forthcoming already, I did not think it would be productive to take up the reporting bill at this time. But I do want to thank Senators DeMint and Corker for the initiative and let them know that I share their instincts that this warrants our close attention," Kerry said.
DeMint said Wednesday he was willing to wait for the State Department panel's report on the attacks before pressing for new legislation demanding more information. On Sept. 14 when he introduced the bill, DeMint called for transparency and accountability from the administration regarding the attacks.
"The attacks on American embassies and diplomats are outrageous. The administration owes the American people detailed answers on how this happened and how it can be prevented in the future," DeMint said then. "It now appears these violent acts may have been coordinated terrorist attacks against America around the anniversary of 9/11. There may have even been warnings beforehand. Americans need to know if we were properly prepared and what steps must be taken to protect our diplomats in these dangerous environments."
The committee also approved nine ambassadorial nominations at the hearing, including the nomination of Richard Olson to be ambassador to Pakistan. The committee held its hearing for Robert Stephen Beecroft to become the next ambassador in Iraq on Wednesday morning, so he was not on the committee agenda, but aides said that there was broad support for dispatching the Beecroft nomination out of committee without a formal vote so he could be confirmed this week before the Senate leaves town.
All of the ambassador nominations could fall victim to the ongoing dispute between Senate leadership and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) over Paul's demand for a floor vote on his amendment to cut off all U.S. aid to Pakistan, Libya, and Egypt.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) signaled progress but no resolution in the dispute with Paul on Wednesday afternoon and Reid pledged to work to confirm Olson and Beecroft this week.
"I'd love to get the ambassador to Pakistan. We have two countries, Iraq and Pakistan, who do not have an American ambassador because the Republicans have held these up," Reid said. "We're going to be here as long as the Republicans force us to be here. We could finish this stuff tomorrow, but it's up to them."
CHARLOTTE - The State Department sponsored a group of international youth leaders to visit both national conventions this year. Every single one of them interviewed by The Cable prefers President Barack Obama over GOP candidate Mitt Romney.
U.S. embassies around the world selected youth leaders for an all-expense paid trip to Florida and Charlotte to see the American political process up close. Many of the youth leaders had obvious predispositions towards the Democratic party, while others said they were convinced to be in favor of the Democrats after seeing both conventions and hearing from both teams.
Alex Buliga is a member of the political executive board of the youth organization of Moldova's Democratic Party. He told The Cable that the Moldovan Democratic Party is similar to the American Democratic Party in many ways.
"We are keeping in close touch with the [American] Democratic Party and our vice president and the chief of foreign affairs of our parliament are here [in Charlotte] and are supporting President Obama," he said. "For the last four years, the relationship between the USA and Moldova is much better in comparison to how they were in the Bush administration. Mitt Romney is a Republican like Bush, so that's why we support Obama."
The U.S. Embassy in Moldova called him personally and asked him to write an essay to apply for the trip, Buliga said. He said that after his Tampa experience, he can't trust the Republicans.
"We saw how many lies the Republicans tell. We watch Politifact and we saw how they lie and if you tell lies you don't deserve to become president," he said, referring to the independent fact-checking website Politifact.com.
Sara Ibrahim is a barrister in London and was invited by the U.S. Embassy there to attend the conventions. As a former liaison between the embassy and the Young Fabians, a group full of what she called "well-known left leaning figures," her political inclinations were not a secret.
"I'm very much supporting President Obama," she said. "I think Obama actually understands the economy. I have been amazed how the Republicans have been saying things which are completely contrary to the economic orthodoxy... In the UK, we've got a conservative government and a lot of cuts, and let me say to the American people it's not very pretty when you've got to face austerity."
Amadu Gallow is the founding of a youth advocacy and pro-development group called This Generation in Gambia. Unlike other State Department guests, he was not supporting Obama before the trip, but he is now. Gallow said the Romney team didn't impress him on foreign policy.
"Before I came here I wasn't sure, but now I'm with Obama," he said. "I have not heard anything concrete from the Romney team on foreign policy, especially their readiness to give aid to Africa. There was nothing said on Afghanistan. At least a minute of silence should have been given to those people who are fighting and dying out there."
Romney's singling out of China and Russia as foes also turned him off to the Romney campaign, Gallow said.
The guests' experiences were colored by the fact that the State Department couldn't get them actual credentials to enter the arena in Tampa, so they had to watch the convention events on a television and get periodic briefings from GOP officials. They do have credentials here in Charlotte and are looking forward to attending Obama's speech Thursday.
Gobi Alam from Bangladesh runs an NGO and teaches youth there. He sits on the U.S. ambassador's youth council and was nominated by the embassy for the Tampa-Charlotte experience. He said he is also supporting Obama, partially because he thought the Republicans didn't treat him and the rest of the group well in Tampa.
"I think Obama didn't do great over the last four years but he did enough to secure his place," Alam said. "We tried to reach out to Republican speakers and very few of them responded. But we are here in Charlotte and we have a lot of contacts and we have tickets as well."
Qiu Chen is a journalist from Hong Kong whose magazine pushes for freedom of expression and focuses on youth issues. She was nominated for the trip by the U.S. consulate there. She said the trip has convinced her to support Obama over Romney and most of the other State Department guests feel the same way.
"All my friends in the program like Obama," said Chen.
The Cable asked the State Department contractor in charge of the program, Karen Shatin, what she thought about the fact that all the guests seem to be Obama supporters. She said there were some right-leaning guests who were just not around at the moment. She also said the GOP didn't give the international guests enough foreign-policy information to go on.
"I think they've already heard a lot more about foreign policy here in Charlotte in a few minutes than they heard the whole time in Florida," she said. "The Obama campaign seems to be talking a lot more about foreign policy."
The group is a guest of the International Visitor Leadership Program, which is part of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
"The goal of the program is to expose the group to the U.S. political process. It's really a person-to-person exchange program, building relationships between the visitors and their U.S. counterparts," Shatlin said.
One of the Republicans who did meet with the group was Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, and several of the guests said Norquist heavily criticized Romney's policies.
"It didn't seem like he was a huge fan of Mitt Romney but he is definitely not a fan of President Obama," said Shatin. "He definitely knows what he stands for, and that's about all I can say."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as a sitting administration official, does not have any role at the Democratic National Convention next week in Charlotte. But she seems to gone out of her way to avoid the festivities, as she is traveling this week and next to the Cook Islands, Indonesia, China, Timor-Leste, Brunei, and Russia.
"The Cook Islands this year are the hosts of one of the most important institutions of the Pacific called the Pacific Island Forum," a senior State Department official said Thursday. "It's a group that meets yearly with a number of working groups. It's been in existence almost half a century; it's very significant."
It's not Charlotte, but it is a big gathering. Last year, the administration sent 50 officials to the forum, representing 17 different federal agencies. Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides led the delegation in 2011. The official said this trip was part of the administration's rebalancing toward Asia, with a special focus on the smaller countries around the region's periphery.
"Sometimes when we talk about the Asia Pacific, the A is the capital and P is small. And our attempt here is to underscore that we have very strong, enduring, strategic, moral, political, humanitarian interests across the region. It's an area in which we invested substantially historically -- blood and treasure," the official said.
"I just returned about two weeks ago from my own trip around the Pacific," the State Department official said. (Your humble Cable guy did did not attend the briefing, so we have no direct knowledge of the identity of the briefer, but the State Department publicly announced the foreign travel of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell earlier this month.)
Clinton will meet in the Cook Islands with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and will be joined by Pacific Command head Adm. Sam Locklear, the anonymous State Department official said.
In Indonesia, Clinton will meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. Expect her to press Indonesia to work better with other ASEAN countries to come to a consensus position on how to confront China over the South China Sea. ASEAN failed to come to a consensus position at the ASEAN Regional Forum in July, despite Washington's urgings.
Next, Clinton is off to Beijing to meet with President Hu Jintao, Vice President Xi Jinping, and State Councilor Dai Bingguo. She will also have "intense meetings" with Foreign Minister Yang Jiachi, the official said. Topics on the agenda include the South China Sea, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan.
"I think the secretary intends very clearly to underscore our continuing interest in maintaining a strong, positive relationship between our two countries," the official said. "We recognize how critically important that is, and one of the challenges before us is to demonstrate how we deal with areas in which we have differing perceptions and where we face challenging issues on the ground, or in this case in the water."
After Beijing, Clinton will go to Timor-Leste and visit a coffee plantation. Next is Brunei, which will host the East Asia Summit in 2013, probably after Clinton leaves office. Then, she will go to an island off the shore of Vladivostok for the APEC summit, where she'll lead a large U.S. delegation and will likely hold a series of high-level bilateral meetings.
Pressed to explain exactly how the administration plans to advance U.S. and allied interests related to the South China Sea dispute on the trip, the official offered few specifics.
"I would say that the United States has sought to articulate a very clear set of principles that animate our strategic approach to the Asia Pacific region, and particularly to the South China Sea. Those will continue," the official said.
"We have had very intense consultations with every key player in the Asia Pacific region. I think one of the messages that we seek to carry on this trip is that it is absolutely essential that cooler heads prevail in every capital, and that great care be taken on these issues, and that, in fact, all of these complex territorial matters have existed for decades. They have been managed generally effectively for decades, and during this period we've seen some of the most manifest Asian prosperity. We need that to continue. This is the cockpit of the global economy, and so care must be taken across the board."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
The biggest looming question about how a President Mitt Romney would steer the American ship of state is whether he would favor the realist tendencies of the Republican Party establishment or the neoconservative leanings of its younger generation.
Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, mooted by some as a possible secretary of state in a Romney administration, told The Cable in an exclusive interview Wednesday that Romney won't choose either side and would rather chart his own foreign-policy vision based on his core beliefs about how the world works and what American's role should be in it.
"I would put him in the Mitt Romney school," Pawlenty when asked to which school of foreign policy the former governor adheres.
Romney won't choose between one camp or the other and will chart out his policies on international issues on a case-by-case basis, Pawlenty said. But the evidence so far shows that Romney is more certainly more hawkish and aggressive than President Barack Obama, he said.
"If you look at [Romney's] philosophical and directional comments and policy positions, you see him speak to the importance of a strong America and that strength being backed up by the capabilities provided by a robust funding of the military," Pawlenty said.
"I think you've seen Romney take a more robust approach [than Obama] on issues such as how you deal with Russia, how you deal with China, how you deal with arming and equipping the rebels on the ground in Syria without putting American boots on the ground," Pawlenty said. "In terms of where that falls within the gradations of conservative foreign policy, I put him in the Mitt Romney's school, not somebody else's school."
The questions over Romney's foreign-policy core identity is paramount because he has little hands-on experience on international affairs, the former governor's critics say.
At a Wednesday event hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neoconservative-leaning organization, Pawlenty argued that Romney's chief national security credential is his core confidence in his foreign- policy vision and knowledge.
"Knowing Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan quite well, I would say to you that they are directionally and foundationally sturdy and sound, and quite Reaganesque in that regard," Pawlenty told the audience. "Mitt Romney is a prolific reader and a student of history ... I'm highly confident it will not be amateur hour."
Pawlenty, the co-chair of Romney's campaign and a top surrogate, holds well-formed foreign policy views on a range of issues and spoke often during his bid for president about his views on foreign policy, which combines a hawkish approach to dealing with enemies with an emphasis on soft power and support for foreign aid.
He is among a few names rumored to be in contention for the job of secretary of state in a future Romney administration, along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass. Lieberman skews toward neoconservatism, Haass toward realism, with Pawlenty somewhere in between. The head of national security transition planning on the Romney campaign's "Readiness Project" is former World Bank President Bob Zoellick, a devout realist who may want the Foggy Bottom job for himself.
Pawlenty said he is not working with the "Readiness Project" in a formal way yet and declined to say whether he would accept a top job in a future Romney administration.
"I don't know what my future holds but I will tell you I'm thoroughly enjoying my time in the private sector," he said.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of The Cable's exclusive interview with Pawlenty, which includes new information on how a Romney administration would deal with the challenges of Iran, Syria, Middle East peace, and the looming defense budget cuts.
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TAMPA - In a move that is sure to ignite a firestorm of speculation about who would be Secretary of State in a second Obama administration, President Barack Obama has chosen Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) to deliver a key national security themed speech on the final night of the Democratic National Convention.
An Obama campaign official told The Cable Tuesday that Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a highly rumored candidate to replace Hillary Clinton in Foggy Bottom when she steps down next year, will headline a special segment of the program on Thursday, Sept. 6, focusing on national security. The Sept. 6 program will take place at Bank of America stadium and will conclude with Obama's speech accepting his party's nomination for a second term.
The move is a reflection of the Obama campaign's growing confidence in the area of national security versus a candidate in Mitt Romney who is seen as being light on national security and foreign policy experience and whose campaign has deprioritized discussing national security in an effort to keep the focus on Obama's economic record.
"President Obama's strong record on national security and veterans issues is clear - from ending the war in Iraq responsibly, to refocusing on al-Qaeda and decimating its leadership, to taking care of our men and women in uniform when they return home. These issues will play a significant role throughout the week of the Democratic Convention," the Obama campaign official said.
Kerry has always denied he is lobbying for Clinton's job, but insiders say he is on a short list along with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. Rice is rumored to be the front runner, due in part to her longtime personal relationship with Obama, which dates back to his time as a senator.
Donilon's chances are said to have diminished since he became the focus of accusations that the Obama White House has been leaking classified national security information for political purposes. Those accusations could make Donilon's Senate confirmation difficult.
Rice and Donilon are not speaking at the convention, but that's not an indication of their stature or chances for promotion. Sitting national security officials aren't permitted to engage directly in election-related political activities.
The Kerry speech in Charlotte is also a chance for the Obama campaign to push back against the groups of special operations veterans that are mobilizing a campaign to attack Obama's national security record by pointing to the leaks and accusing Obama of spiking the football after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
When Kerry ran for president unsuccessfully in 2004, his service in Vietnam, during which he was awarded three purple hearts, was attacked by a series of well-funded groups such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Some of those same veterans are the ones organizing the anti-Obama veterans groups this year.
The Obama campaign official described Kerry as "a decorated combat veteran, and a tribute to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces."
Overall, the message Kerry will deliver will be that Obama has made progress in correcting what Democrats see as the foreign policy failures of the George W. Bush administration and that Romney would return America to those policies.
"The American people understand that President Obama has been a strong commander-in-chief, and we're looking forward to highlighting these important issues at the convention," the Obama campaign official said. "Senator Kerry will speak to how the President has restored America's leadership in the world, has taken the fight to our enemies, and has a plan to bring our troops home from Afghanistan just like he did from Iraq. He will contrast the President's strong leadership in this area with Mitt Romney, who has embraced the go-it-alone, reckless policies of the past that weakened America's place in the world and made us less secure here at home."
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TAMPA - Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was right when he called Russia America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe" and a Romney administration would confront Moscow on its poor record on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, two top foreign-policy advisors to the GOP candidate said Tuesday.
"Russia is a significant geopolitical foe. Governor Romney recognizes that," Romney advisor Rich Williamson said at a Tuesday afternoon event hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative. "That's not to say they are the same sort of direct military threat as they were."
Williamson, joined on the panel by top advisor Pierre-Richard Prosper, said that the Russian government under Vladimir Putin has made strategic opposition to the West and the United States in particular a premier plank of its agenda. A Romney administration would end the Russian "reset" and confront Russia on Syria, Georgia, Iran, and several other issues, he said.
"They are our foe. They have chosen a path of confrontation, not cooperation, and I think the governor was correct in that even though there are some voices in Washington that find that uncomfortable," he said. "So those who say, ‘Oh gosh, oh golly, Romney said they're our geopolitical foe' don't understand human history. And those who think liberal ideas of engagement will bend actions also don't understand history. We're better to be frank and honest."
Ronald Reagan called Russia an "evil empire" but was still able to negotiate nuclear reductions with the Soviet Union, Williamson said.
"They weren't so precious and sensitive not to work with us when we have mutual interests," he said. "The reset has failed. They are crowding out civil society, they are trampling human rights, and they are opposed to us in a number of interests... We have to reset the failed reset policy."
Prosper focused on the controversial elections that returned Putin to the presidency last December and the ongoing clampdown on opposition and activist groups.
"Russia is calling itself a democracy but it is not behaving like a democracy," he said. "When is the last time we have seen Russia on the side of peace? When is the last time we have seen Russia on the side of humanity?"
Also on the panel were Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of jailed Russian tycoon Mikhail Khordokovsky, and Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian journalist blacklisted for his support of the Magnitsky bill, legislation to sanction Russian human rights violators that is being linked in Congress to a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations status.
The GOP draft platform makes it the official policy of the Republican Party to support passage of the Magnitsky bill.
"Russia should be granted Permanent Normal Trade Relations, but not without sanctions on Russia officials who have used the government to violate human rights," the platform states. "We support enactment of the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act as a condition of expanded trade relations with Russia."
Two leading congressmen are calling on the Obama administration to use its leverage in international financial institutions to press for greater fiscal transparency in Burma, formally known as Myanmar, and ensure progress in the human rights situation in the Southeast Asian country as it emerges from decades of isolation.
The two leaders of the House Committee on Financial Services, Chairman Spencer Bachus (R-AL), and ranking Democrat Barney Frank (D-MA) wrote a letter Aug. 22, obtained by The Cable, to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner asking him to safeguard the fragile reform process in Burma and ensure that Burma's opening to the world is done according to international financial management standards and with respect to the welfare of the Burmese people. Today Burmese President Thein Sein reshuffled his cabinet, replacing key ministers with reform minded appointees.
The lawmakers specifically called out the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which saw sanctions relief from the U.S. government despite suspected corruption and ties the Burmese military. Obama lifted the ban on U.S. companies doing business with MOGE in July, over the objections of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, now a member of the circumscribed Burmese legislature.
"We are cautiously optimistic that Burma will continue to implement necessary reforms, but we believe vigilance on questions of government transparency and human rights remain critical," the lawmakers wrote. "We urge the administration to use its leadership at the IFIs [international financial institutions] to emphasize fiscal transparency, systems of accountability and respect for human rights and to insist that the institutions pay close attention to the urgent social needs of the Burmese people."
They want the IMF's Code of Good Practice on Fiscal Transparency enforced on all branches of the Burmese government, including the military and MOGE. The code would require the government and its state enterprises (including MOGE), in essence, to publish their revenues and expenditures and subject them to public and parliamentary oversight, as well as an independent auditing process.
"Such transparency is necessary is necessary not only to allow the IFIs to properly supervise the use of multilateral aid but also to help end corruption and the off budget funding of the Burmese military," the letter states.
Burma is a resource-rich county that could provide for its people but remains mired in corruption and mismanagement, Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told The Cable.
He said that IFI lending for big infrastructure projects, absent fiscal transparency reforms, could reinforce those bad habits, making the promotion of fiscal transparency central to the IFIs' mission. The IFIs hold good leverage over the Burmese government because infrastructure development is one of the regime's key goals.
"The key question in Burma's reform process is whether elected civilians will wrest full control over the country from the military establishment, including control of revenues from Burma's lucrative oil and gas and mineral exports. It's not just Aung San Suu Kyi who wants this - Burma's reformist president and its new parliament also have a huge stake in figuring out where the money is and asserting their authority to oversee how it's spent," Malinowski said. "It would help them if the IFI's prioritized fiscal transparency - providing technical assistance to help the Burmese get there, and holding up lending for big infrastructure projects until they do."
Carjackings, robberies, kidnappings, and militia violence all are on the rise in Libya, prompting the State Department to warn U.S. citizens to stay away from the North African country, nearly a year after Libyan rebels seized the capital Tripoli from Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces.
Ironically, the State Department resumed full consular services for travel to and inside Libya today, but simultaneously advised Americans the country was too dangerous to visit. Militias are rounding up foreigners with little regard to the actual law or due process and the State Department has little influence with them, the department is warning.
"The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Libya," reads the new travel warning issued today. "The incidence of violent crime, especially carjacking and robbery, has become a serious problem. In addition, political violence in the form of assassinations and vehicle bombs has increased in both Benghazi and Tripoli."
The warning is the first the State Department has issued since September 2011 and the first since the July 7 elections in Libya, which saw the Transnational National Council, which has been running the country since Qaddafi's fall, replaced this month by the General National Congress. Those elections were deemed to be free and fair, but now political uncertainly has been replaced by insecurity on the streets of Libya's major cities.
"Despite this progress, violent crime continues to be a problem in Tripoli, Benghazi, and other parts of the country," the travel warning said. "In particular, armed carjacking and robbery are on the rise. In addition, political violence, including car bombings in Tripoli and assassinations of military officers and alleged former regime officials in Benghazi, has increased. Inter-militia conflict can erupt at any time or any place in the country."
The State Department noted the kidnapping of 7 members of the Iranian Red Crescent delegation by an Islamic Libya militia late last month. The delegation had been invited by the government but was being questioned by the militia "to determine whether their activities and intentions aimed to spread the doctrine of Shiite Islam," a Libyan official told AFP.
Islamic extremists are also blamed for a string of attacks on historical and sacred religious sites over the past days aimed at Muslims of the Sufi sect and conducted in some cases with the help of uniformed members of Libya's Interior Ministry. Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel A'al resigned due to the scandal Sunday night.
Militias are also apprehending foreigners for "perceived or actual violations of Libyan law," and the State Department might not be able help because the militias may not be sanctioned or controlled by the government.
Adm. William McRaven, the head of Special Operations Command and the architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, wrote a memo to the special operations community making clear that using the "special operations" moniker for political purposes is not OK.
McRaven sent an unclassified memo, not released to the public but obtained by The Cable, that began with an admonishment of special operators who write books about secret operations, such as the forthcoming book No Easy Day¸ which was written by a Navy SEAL who claims to have been part of the May 1, 2011 raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. Fox News reported Thursday that the author is 36-year-old Matt Bissonnette, whom defense officials say never cleared the book with anyone in the Pentagon.
But the second half of McRaven's memo referred to the multiple groups of former special operators who have formed political groups to criticize President Barack Obama for what they see as taking undue credit for the bin Laden raid and accusing him of leaking its details to the press. Those groups are made up of former military men who had no connection to the actual raid, who often have Republican political leanings and longtime animus against Obama, and some of whom say the president was not born in the United States.
"I am also concerned about the growing trend of using the special operations ‘brand,' our seal, symbols and unit names, as part of any political or special interest campaign," McRaven wrote in an implicit but clear reference to groups like the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund and Special Operations Speaks (SOS).
"Let me be completely clear on this issue: USSOCOM does not endorse any political viewpoint, opinion or special interest," McRaven wrote. "I encourage, strongly encourage active participation in our political process by both active duty SOF personnel, where it is appropriate under the ethics rules and retired members of the SOF community. However, when a group brands itself as Special Operations for the purpose of pushing a specific agenda, then they have misrepresented the entire nature of SOF and life in the military."
"Our promise to the American people is that we, the military, are non-partisan, apolitical and will serve the President of the United States regardless of his political party. By attaching a Special Operation's moniker or a unit or service name to a political agenda, those individuals have now violated the most basic of our military principles," McRaven wrote.
His remarks are stronger but along the same lines as those by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who said the groups' efforts were counter to the ethos of the military.
"It's not useful. It's not useful to me," Dempsey said Wednesday. "And one of the things that marks us as a profession in a democracy, in our form of democracy, that's most important is that we remain apolitical. That's how we maintain our bond and trust with the American people."
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The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.