Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng entered the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last week in such poor medical condition that U.S. officials suspected he might have advanced colon cancer, pushing them to speed up his exit from the embassy and into a local hospital, a senior administration official told The Cable.
Following Chen's harrowing escape from house arrest and what U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke called a "Mission: Impossible"-style rescue by to get him into the U.S. Embassy, U.S. officials found Chen to be in much worse health that has previously been disclosed, according to the official, who had first-hand knowledge of the episode. Chen's severe medical condition was a factor in the embassy's desire to get him to the local hospital as quickly as possible and was also a reason U.S. officials left Chen alone during a portion of his hospital stay, because he had to undergo extensive testing to determine whether or not he had a fatal disease.
"When Chen entered the embassy and was examined by our doctor, he was found to be bleeding profusely from his rectum," the official said, adding that the American doctor on site concluded that Chen either had a severe case of gastroenteritis or an advanced case of untreated colon cancer. "This gave us a lot of anxiety."
The Chinese were not about to allow any medical equipment to come into the embassy, however, so the need to get Chen to the nearest hospital became a priority throughout the negotiations that eventually saw him walk out of the U.S. Embassy and arrive at a local hospital, where he remains.
The Washington Post reported Sunday that Chen does in fact have a case of gastroenteritis, but U.S officials didn't know that at the time Chen was inside the embassy, the official said. It was clear, however, that his foot was badly damaged, and that Chen had entered the embassy in a state of disorientation, fatigue, and a great deal of pain. The embassy wasn't properly equipped to diagnose his internal ailment or treat his foot properly, the official said.
The U.S. official said that after the Chinese government agreed to a set of understandings that led Chen to walk out of the U.S. Embassy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was prepared to make a public statement detailing all of those understandings, to include the Chinese government's promises to allow Chen to study law and to investigate local officials' treatment of him and his family.
"We were going to use her high-level statement as a way to lock in [the understandings]. That was the game plan," the official said.
But when Chen arrived at the hospital, he had the chance to speak with several activists who urged him to scuttle the deal and leave China for his own safety. Chen's wife also gave him new details of the harassment she had endured since his escape, prompting Chen to change his mind and decide he had to get out of the country.
"We didn't think that he would rethink it all and request to leave China," the official said. "Once that happened, the Chinese went ballistic and we had to start all over again."
The U.S. officials then re-entered intense negotiations with the Chinese government to strike a new set of understandings, under which Chen would be allowed to apply for a visa to study in the United States with his immediate family in tow.
The official's account matches that of Jerome Cohen, Chen's legal mentor and confidant, who explained in detail last week Chen's account of his change of heart.
At the beginning of his hospital stay, Chen's statements to the media expressing dismay that U.S. officials had left him alone in his hospital created the impression that the U.S. officials had been cut off from access to Chen. The official said that in fact there was more direct contact with Chen than has been publicly disclosed but there were some miscommunications that resulted in confusion over the issue.
"For example, on Thursday [May 3] it was always planned that he would have a full day of medical tests," the official said, explaining why U.S. officials had less concern about not being in direct contact with Chen on that day.
Throughout the ordeal, the U.S. officials working on the case believed they were pushing the Chinese government as hard as they could to grant concessions to Chen. They argue that the Chinese government went beyond what it had done in previous such cases, by agreeing to the first and then the second set of understandings about how Chen was to be treated.
Outside commentators have speculated that the impending high-level dialogue involving 200 U.S officials who were in Beijing, called the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, put the United States at a negotiating disadvantage. But the official said the S&ED's existence actually put the Chinese government under more pressure to make a deal that it knew would be supported by the endorsement of senior American officials during a time of intense focus on the U.S.-China relationship.
There were also signs of an internal struggle within the Chinese system between the Foreign Ministry and the organs of state security over how to deal with the Chen case, the official said. But the understandings between the United States and China over Chen were endorsed at the highest levels of the Chinese government at every juncture, the official insisted.
"It's in our interest that this be handled by the Foreign Ministry, because then within the Chinese system it's treated as an issue of foreign policy and not as an issue of internal security," the official explained.
The official said he expects the process of Chen applying for permission to visit the United States to move quickly and that his application will be approved by the Chinese government. The U.S. government is already working with private foundations to secure the financial support Chen and his family will need to live in the United States.
"We think the first set of understandings would have held and we think the second set of understandings will hold as well," the official said.
On Sunday's Meet the Press, Vice President Joe Biden went even further.
"The Chinese have told us that if he files the papers to be able to go abroad, that would be grand. And we're prepared to give a visa right away," Biden said. "He's going to be able to take his family. We expect the Chinese to stick to that commitment."
Chen Guangcheng's friend Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid, told a congressional commission Thursday that Chen only agreed to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after U.S. officials conveyed a threat from the Chinese government that Chen would never see his wife again if he didn't leave the embassy that day.
Fu has been in contact with Chen directly throughout the ordeal and told the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) today that he had spoken to Chen Wednesday night as Chen and his family remained in a Beijing hospital, unable to leave or receive visitors. U.S. officials have insisted that Chen left the embassy of his own volition after agreeing to the terms of a deal U.S. officials struck with the Chinese government.
But Fu said Chen's real motivation was fear.
"According to my conversations last night with Mr. Chen," Fu testified, "the U.S. officials relayed to Chen a message from the Chinese side that they would harm his wife. And it was in response to this threat that Chen reluctantly agreed to leave the embassy."
He continued: "Chen was talked to by a U.S. government official before he left the embassy and he was told it was a Chinese government message, that the Chinese government wanted to convey the message through the U.S. government official that if he did not leave the embassy on May 2, he will not be able to see his wife and children again."
"Chen said, after hearing that message from the Chinese government, conveyed by U.S. officials, his heart was heavy and he felt he had no other choice but to walk out of the U.S. embassy," said Fu.
U.S. officials deny that they conveyed any physical or legal threats to Chen. In a statement issued Wednesday and repeated Thursday by the White House, however, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland acknowledged, "U.S. interlocutors did make clear that if Chen elected to stay in the Embassy, Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification."
Chen may have interpreted those comments as an implicit threat, observers said.
According to Fu, after Chen arrived at the hospital, he heard from his wife that she was abused in recent days at their Shandong home. She was tied to a chair and beaten, Fu said. Upon hearing that, Chen no longer had faith in the Chinese government to honor any deal to keep his family safe and decided to plea for U.S. assistance in leaving China.
"The interrogator told her that if her husband did not walk out of the U.S. Embassy, they would kill her. It should be clear to anyone who uses logic that constitutes a threat," Fu said, adding that Chen has not asked for "amnesty" per se but wants to leave China.
"Secretary Clinton, at least deliver what you have promised and repeatedly said over the last two years: that you want to see Chen and his family in freedom and safety," Fu said.
In an interview with CBS, U.S. Amb. to China Gary Locke said that the United States had worked hard to negotiate a package of concessions from the Chinese government, and that Chen was enthusiastic about the arrangement. Locke also said that Chen's wife and children were brought to Beijing at Chen's request.
"Why can't the Chinese just do something first as a sign of good faith? Why must I trust them to do various things after I leave the Embassy?" Chen told U.S. officials, according to Locke. "Why can't they bring the family from the village to the hospital first so that I can know that they're safe, so I can talk to them on the phone? And if, after that conversation, I'm satisfied, I will leave the embassy and rejoin them."
Locke said that Chen was never pressured to leave the embassy, never expressed a desire to leave China when at the embassy, and rejected other offers from the Chinese government before eventually agreeing to the final offer.
"We were able to get the Chinese government to offer an unprecedented package of care for him -- family reunification. He hadn't seen his son in over two years. They were going to give him a full scholarship at one of seven universities of his choosing with full housing and living expenses for him and his family, and they would conduct an investigation of the abuses that he had suffered," Locke said. "If he had stayed in the embassy, his family still would have been in the village where they have suffered abuse."
Nevertheless, Locke noted that Chen was obviously having a change of heart and said that U.S. officials were working Thursday to determine Chen's wishes and how they could assist him. Chen's wife came out of the hospital to meet with U.S. officials Thursday and officials have had two conversations with Chen over the phone, Locke said.
Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told The Cable that the U.S. government had no choice but to relay the Chinese government's implicit threat to Chen and allow Chen to use that information to make the best decision for him and his family.
"The State Department said there was a particular threat made that they duly informed him about. They did what they had to do in conveying that to Chen," he said. "It would have been wrong if it was the case that they pressed him on that basis in one direction or another, but I don't have any information that they did."
The CECC is chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), the congressman to whom Chen appealed directly for help Wednesday after saying he felt abandoned by the U.S. government. At today's hearing, Smith referred to Chen's comments in an interview with CNN from his hospital bed, during which he said that administration officials lobbied him repeatedly to leave the embassy, kept him from communicating with friends, and reneged on promises to stay with him at the hospital.
"I'm very disappointed in the U.S. government. I don't think U.S. officials protected human rights in this case," Chen said in the interview. (In a more recent interview with the network, Chen chalked some of his earlier comments up to a "misunderstanding.")
Smith said he intends to hold another hearing on the issue next week with U.S. officials.
"Chen's comments portray the U.S. as manipulating him, cutting him off from outside communication, and encouraging him to leave the embassy rather than seek asylum," said Smith. "He said he was denied requests to call friends. He said he felt the embassy officials had lied to him."
There are several questions left unanswered, Smith said, including: How will the U.S. enforce the agreement with the Chinese government on Chen? What happens if Chen or his family suffer retaliation? Where is Chen's nephew Chen Kegui? What happens now to He Peirong, the woman who drove Chen to the embassy?
Smith detailed Chen's fight against alleged abuses of China's family planning laws in Shandong and the abuses he and his wife have endured at the hands of Chinese officials, including beatings and various other forms of intimidation. CECC has been documenting these abuses in detail and held a hearing about Chen's case last November.
"Hu Jia, a human rights and environmental advocate, and Chen Guangcheng, a self-trained legal advocate who publicized population planning abuses, were released from prison this year only to face, along with their families, onerous conditions of detention and abuse with little or no basis in Chinese law," CECC's 2011 Annual Report stated. "In Chen's case, authorities kept him and his wife under extralegal house arrest and allegedly beat them after video footage of their conditions was smuggled out of the house and released on an overseas Web site."
The State Department insists that blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy of his own volition Wednesday and that U.S. officials in Beijing did not convey threats to harm his family by Chinese officials, as Chen claims.
"At no time did any US official speak to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children. Nor did Chinese officials make any such threats to us," said State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. "U.S. interlocutors did make clear that if Chen elected to stay in the Embassy, Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to [their home in] Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification."
Nuland was responding to accounts by Chen supporters, now repeated by Chen himself to the Associated Press, that said Chen was pressured into leaving the embassy via threats to the safety of his wife and family. Chen told the AP that U.S. officials told him the Chinese would take his family back to their home province in Shandong, where they had been under extrajudicial house arrest and in some cases physically abused, if he didn't leave the embassy.
Chen also said a U.S. official told him the Chinese government would beat his wife to death if he didn't leave the embassy and agree to the terms of the deal struck by U.S. and Chinese negotiators, according to the AP's account.
The State Department disputed that version of events.
"I was there. Chen made the decision to leave the Embassy after he knew his family was safe and at the hospital waiting for him, and after twice being asked by Ambassador Locke if he [was] ready to go," said Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who was a key negotiator in the deal. "He said, ‘zou,' -- let's go. We were all there as witnesses to his decision, and he hugged and thanked us all."
The deal, detailed by Foreign Policy's Editor Susan Glasser from Beijing, included a reunion between Chen and his family at a hospital where he could receive attention to the foot he damaged by scaling a wall during his daring escape last week.
The deal also stipulates that the Chinese government would treat Chen and his family humanely, that they would be relocated, and that Chen would be allowed to study at a university. Senior administration officials told reporters in a background briefing in Beijing that Chen called Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the car to the hospital and said, "I want to kiss you."
Glasser noted that Zeng Jinyan, the wife of well-known activist Hu Jia, contradicted that account on Twitter, saying Chen told her he had asked to "see" Clinton, not to kiss her.
Clinton, in a statement, said, "I am pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng's stay and departure from the U.S. Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values."
Chen, according to the AP, said that it was true he had expressed his desire to stay in China. But now that U.S. officials have left him alone in his hospital room, he is having second thoughts.
"I think we'd like to rest in a place outside of China," he said. He then asked to relay a message to Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ). "Help my family and I leave safely."
The Obama administration said Tuesday it is involved in ongoing consultations with various Taliban officials, but said that a long-negotiated deal to transfer five senior Taliban commanders out of the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay is "on hold" indefinitely.
The U.S. plan for Afghanistan took shape today when President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement to extend the U.S. security commitment in Afghanistan until 2024. The agreement was signed during Obama's surprise one-day visit to Afghanistan, which just happened to fall on the anniversary of the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Two senior administration officials briefed reporters today on a conference call from Kabul. Asked by The Cable whether the Obama administration is still negotiating with the Taliban directly and whether the administration sees Taliban participation in the future of Afghanistan, the officials said yes on both counts.
"We continue to remain in contact with various Taliban leaders and we have several indications of intense interest in the reconciliation process," a senior administration official said. "It's quite clear to us that there is a range of interest among Taliban in reconciliation and there's quite a bit of internal political turbulence within the Taliban on that score."
But the official explained that a deal under consideration to transfer five senior Taliban commanders out of Gitmo to "house arrest" in Qatar, in exchange for the release of a Westerner in Taliban custody, was stalled due to internal divisions within the Taliban's ranks.
"For reasons that appear to have to do with internal political turbulence among the Taliban, those efforts have been basically put on hold for the time being," the official said. "The Taliban understand very well what needs to happen in that channel for those talks to restart and we'll see what they do with that knowledge."
Senior U.S. lawmakers in both parties have come out against the proposed transfer of Taliban commanders out of Gitmo, arguing that they were too dangerous to be released and that the Qatari arrangement would not be enough to ensure they did not return to violence. The deal would also have set up a Taliban representative office in Qatar from which the Taliban could operate.
Last month, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told a Washington audience that he also opposes releasing Taliban officials from Gitmo until the Taliban have shown some evidence that they are negotiating in good faith.
The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has expressed some hope that the deal would be a precursor to more positive interactions, although Afghan officials were initially upset that the United States had begun discussions with the Taliban outside their purview.
The Karzai government also has good reason to be suspicious of Taliban peace offers, considering that its most recent peace engagement with the Taliban literally blew up when a supposed Taliban negotiator detonated a suicide bomb that killed the leader of Karzai's peace council, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Former Deputy NATO Senior Civilian Representative at ISAF Mark Jacobson, now with the Truman National Security Project, told The Cable today that the administration's comments represented new openness about its talks with the Taliban.
"I think the White House is increasingly open about U.S. discussions with the Taliban -- an indication to me that we are in a good position to move these talks along," he said. "In the end its going to have to be about Karzai and the Taliban, but both sides feel much more comfortable in direct discussions with us because both sides see us as more reliable than the others. And in the end, any agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government will require the backing and support of the United States."
On the conference call from Kabul, the administration officials rejected assertions that the Obama administration is opening itself up to charges of politicizing bin Laden's killing by signing the agreement on the one-year anniversary of the mission. They said the timing was based on the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago.
"The negotiations were completed in recent weeks... The two presidents set a clear goal for the agreement to be signed before the summit in Chicago," one official said. "It was always the president's intention to spend this anniversary with our troops. What better place to spend that time with our troops here in Afghanistan who are in harm's way."
President Barack Obama has landed in Afghanistan and arrived at the presidential palace in Kabul, where he will sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the Afghan government on the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
"President Barack Obama is in Afghanistan for a whirlwind visit that will culminate in a live, televised address to the American people," a White House pool report said Tuesday.
Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will sign the agreement shortly and Obama is scheduled to address the nation just after 7:30 EDT Tuesday evening (4 AM local time) from Bagram Airbase. The agreement commits the United States to a security presence in Afghanistan for years after the 2014 handover of control to the Afghan government, but exact troop numbers won't be decided until next year.
Obama's plane left Andrews Air Force Base just after midnight Monday and arrived at Bagram Tuesday evening Afghanistan time. He was greeted at Bagram by Amb. Ryan Crocker and Lt. Gen. Mike Scaparotti, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"Senior administration officials said the timing of the trip was driven by the negotiations over the Strategic Partnership Agreement and by the desire of both presidents to sign the agreement in Afghanistan prior to the NATO summit in Chicago later this month," the pool report stated. "However, the officials also acknowledged that the timing coincides with the first anniversary of the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden."
At the Pentagon, defense officials released a new report on the progress of the mission in Afghanistan, required by Congress under section 1230 of the Defense Authorization Act. The report claims continued progress in the effort to defeat the Taliban and train the Afghan National Security Forces to take the lead.
"The year 2011 saw the first year-over-year decline in nationwide enemy-initiated attacks in five years. These trends have continued in 2012," the report stated. "The performance of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the close partnership between the ANSF and ISAF have been keys to this success. As a result, the ANSF continue to develop into a force capable of assuming the lead for security responsibility throughout Afghanistan."
The report did mention the dozen or so attacks on ISAF forces by soldiers in ANSF uniforms, known as "green on blue" attacks, but the report failed to note that some attempted "green on blue" attacks are never reported by ISAF because they were not successful, as reported by the Associated Press Monday.
While the Pentagon report praises the progress of allied forces in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, it excoriates Pakistan for harboring enemies of the Afghan government and accuses Karzai's government of rampant corruption.
"The Taliban-led insurgency and its al Qaeda affiliates still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan. The insurgency's safe haven in Pakistan, as well as the limited capacity of the Afghan Government, remain the biggest risks to the process of turning security gains into a durable and sustainable Afghanistan. The insurgency benefits from safe havens inside Pakistan with notable operational and regenerative capacity," the report states.
"Additionally, the Afghan Government continues to face widespread corruption that limits its effectiveness and legitimacy and bolsters insurgent messaging."
The handover of security control to Afghan government forces continues apace, according to the report. As of March 31, 2012, 20 of 34 provinces, comprising about half the Afghan population, were under Afghan control, the report said.
The report said that ANSF numbers will reach 352,000 by Oct. 2012, which is about when the United States will make decisions regarding how many American troops to leave in Afghanistan when the drawdown of "surge" troops is complete this fall. At that time, 68,000 U.S. troops will remain, with the goal of handing over complete control to the Afghan government in 2014.
The report claims that the insurgency is severely degraded and that Taliban reintegration programs are working well.
"ANSF-ISAF operations have widened the gap between the insurgents and the population in several key population centers, limiting insurgent freedom of movement, disrupting safe havens in Afghanistan, and degrading insurgent leadership," says the report. "Continued success of the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program appears to be amplifying this trend by degrading Taliban cohesiveness."
A senior State Department official said Tuesday that the the Strategic Partnership Agreement Obama is about to sign contains within it mechanisms to get at the problem of Afghan government corruption.
The agreement authorizes "a bilateral commission with a set of working groups that will further assure the donor community, including the United States, that the Afghans are making the kind of progress that they need to make in order to demonstrate to donors that it's worthwhile to continue providing the kind of assistance that we provide," the official said.
But the Pakistan problem remains. A senior Pentagon official said that the share of attacks in eastern Afghanistan has gone up due to the activity of the Pakistan-based Haqqani network.
"The Haqqani network continues to operate networks in Afghanistan and continues to carry out attacks in Afghanistan. When we're talking about the attacks on RC-East, the Haqqani network is the major actor in the major problem area," the official said. "We will continue to work to interdict their ability to act in Afghanistan and continue to make clear to Pakistan that we expect them to take action to prevent violence emanating from its borders, impacting other countries, including its neighbor Afghanistan."
There is no formal planning going on inside NATO to prepare for defending Turkey from the violence spilling over from Syria, even though Turkey is considering whether to formally invoke NATO's chapters on collective defense, a top Obama administration official said Monday.
"Our Supreme Allied Commander [Adm. James Stavridis] can do a certain amount of planning... but there has been no formal tasking and there has been no formal request by the Turks for consultations in an Article 4 or Article 5 scenario," said Liz Sherwood-Randall, the National Security Council's senior director for Europe, in remarks Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu briefed his foreign minister and defense minister counterparts on Syria at a high level meeting in Brussels this month, and reports said that Davotoglu discussed at length a cross border attack by Syrian forces on a refugee camp inside Turkey that killed two. Davotoglu is also reported to have said the Syrian regime has "abused a chance offered by the Annan plan."
The Obama administration also believes that the Annan plan "is failing," is currently searching for a "plan B" in Syria, and is preparing military related options in case diplomacy breaks down. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that NATO might have to get involved earlier this month, during a ministerial meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group in Paris.
"Turkey already has discussed with NATO, during our ministerial meetings over the last two days, the burden of Syrian refugees on Turkey, the outrageous shelling across the border from Syria into Turkey a week ago, and that Turkey is considering formally invoking Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty," Clinton said.
President Barack Obama declined to confirm or deny Monday that blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng is hiding in the U.S. embassy following a daring escape from house arrest, but he did call on China to improve its behavior on human rights.
"Obviously I'm aware of the press reports on the situation in China, but I'm not going to make a statement on the issue," Obama said Monday during a press conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. "What I would like to emphasize is that every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up. It is our belief that not only is that the right thing to do because it comports with our principles and our belief in freedom and human rights, but also because we actually think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system."
"We want China to be strong and we want it to be prosperous, and we're very pleased with all the areas of cooperation that we've been able to engage in," Obama said. "But we also believe that that relationship will be that much stronger and China will be that much more prosperous and strong as you see improvements on human rights issues in that country."
The State Department declined to confirm that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell was dispatched earlier than scheduled to Beijing to deal with the issue, although Campbell was photographed Sunday night arriving at his hotel in Beijing.
"It is not uncommon for Assistant Secretary Campbell or other assistant secretaries to travel in advance of the secretary's trips. So he is involved in preparing the trip," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Monday's press briefing.
Nuland repeated her mantra from Friday's briefing to decline to say anything substantive on the Chen case, such as where he is, whether the U.S. would offer him asylum, or whether the U.S. and Chinese governments are discussing the matter.
"Again, I have nothing for you on anything having to do with that matter," Nuland said.
The State Department again postponed a briefing to preview Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to Beijing to attend the May 3 and 4 U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) and Nuland refused to say if the Chen incident would impact those talks.
"Well, as you know, the secretary is looking forward to her trip to Beijing. We've leaving this evening. This is the fourth round of the S&ED. And further than that, I don't have anything for you," she said. "The plan is that it will go forward."
Reporters at the briefing pressed Nuland to at least repeat past statements in support of Chen and his family or to acknowledge that Chen's family has been subjected to additional abuses since Clinton last publicly spoke out about the case last November.
Nuland wouldn't even mention Chen's name out loud and eventually got fed up with the repeated questioning and shut down the discussion.
"I have nothing further for you on this subject," she said. "I think that was the eighth time I've said that. I want to learn how to say it in Chinese, but I couldn't get a good, clear translation."
The State Department has been silent about what it will do about Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist and self-taught lawyer reported to have fled house arrest and sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. But Chen had good reason to believe America was on his side.
Dating back years before his Thursday escape, the State Department has repeatedly and publicly demanded Chen's release while carefully documenting the Chinese government's abuses of him and his family.
Most recently, in a November speech in Honolulu, entitled, "America's Pacific Century," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singled out Chen's house arrest to complain about China's human rights practices.
"We have made very clear our serious concerns about China's record on human rights," she said. "When we see reports of lawyers, artists, and others who are detained or disappeared, the United States speaks up both publicly and privately. We are alarmed by recent incidents in Tibet of young people lighting themselves on fire in desperate acts of protest, as well as the continued house arrest of the Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng. We continue to call on China to embrace a different path."
Clinton raised the issue of Chen's treatment directly with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during their bilateral meeting that same day, according to a senior State Department official speaking to reporters at the time.
Administration officials won't say anything right now about Chen, shown at left above with dissident Hu Jia, as rumors fly that the U.S. and Chinese governments are having top-level discussions about the case, which threatens to disrupt Clinton's trip to China next week for a major security and economic dialogue. The AP reported that Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was dispatched to Beijing earlier than planned to deal with the crisis.
At Friday's State Department press briefing, Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland repeated variations of the same phrase six times to avoid saying anything substantive about the potential asylum case. "I don't have anything for you on that subject," she said.
A senior White House official repeated that same line on a Friday afternoon conference call to preview Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiki Noda's visit to Washington on Monday. The State Department abruptly cancelled a conference call to preview Clinton's trip to China next week.
Reporters at the briefing pressed Nuland to acknowledge that Clinton had spoken out several times about Chen in the past, but Nuland refused to repeat past calls for Chen's release or say anything substantive about his situation.
"I don't have anything for you on that subject," she said. "I don't have anything on this issue at all."
The State Department has used Chen as a premier example of China's human rights shortfalls, and several U.S. government reports have documented what they see as the unlawfulness and unfairness of Chen's imprisonment and house arrest.
In a press availability at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last April, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Labor, and Human Rights Michael Posner criticized the Chinese government's treatment of Chen and said it was part of a much broader pattern of oppression dispensed on those whose speech or activism run afoul of the Chinese government.
"A particular concern is what seems to be a range of interferences with the work of lawyers who are often courageously working to defend others from charges or to help citizens register their concerns. Lawyers like Teng Biao who has been missing since February; Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who with his wife Yuan Weijing is under house arrest since his release from prison last year," Posner said.
"Our discussions these last two days focused on these lawyers, but also bloggers, artists, NGO activists, journalists, representatives of minority religious communities and others who were asserting their rights and calling for reform... Societies need to give their own people an opportunity to voice and pursue their aspirations."
In a January 2011 speech at the State Department, Clinton pledged to advocate for human rights progress in China despite Chinese government objections, and invoked Chen as a problematic example of Chinese repression.
"America will continue to speak out and to press China when it censors bloggers and imprisons activists; when religious believers, particularly those in unregistered groups, are denied full freedom of worship; when lawyers and legal advocates are sent to prison simply for representing clients who challenge the government's positions; and when some, like Chen Guangcheng, are persecuted even after they are released," she said.
"Now, I know that many in China, not just in the government, but in the population at large resent or reject our advocacy of human rights as an intrusion on sovereignty. But as a founding member of the United Nations, China has committed to respecting the rights of all its citizens. These are universal rights recognized by the international community."
The 2011 Annual Report of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China detailed the conditions of Chen's confinement and treatment by Chinese authorities.
"Hu Jia, a human rights and environmental advocate, and Chen Guangcheng, a self-trained legal advocate who publicized population planning abuses, were released from prison this year only to face, along with their families, onerous conditions of detention and abuse with little or no basis in Chinese law," the report said. "In Chen's case, authorities kept him and his wife under extralegal house arrest and allegedly beat them after video footage of their conditions was smuggled out of the house and released on an overseas Web site."
The State Department's 2010 Human Rights Report on China alleges that Chen's arrest and three year imprisonment was trumped up and politically motivated.
"On September 9, blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng was released after completing a prison sentence of three years and four months on politically motivated charges of ‘disrupting traffic,'" the State Department paper stated. "Since his release, Chen, his wife, and his mother have been under house arrest and prevented from communicating with others. Chen was not allowed to seek medical attention for a gastrointestinal condition he developed in prison."
Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird donned a New York Rangers hockey jersey Friday to fulfill the terms of a bet he made with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month over the playoff series between the Rangers and Baird's home team, the Ottawa Senators.
"The Ottawa Senators lost a heartbreaking Game 7 in their series against the New York Rangers on Thursday night," the Canadian Foreign Ministry said in a Friday statement.
Baird wore the Rangers Jersey in the foyer of the House of Commons. He also congratulated the Senators on their success this season in the House of Commons during Friday's question period, the ministry said.
The Canadian Foreign Ministry did not immediately return requests for comment on your humble Cable guy's contention that in fact, the Philadelphia Flyers, who beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in their first round playoff series in 6 games, are the best team in the NHL.
Canadian Foreign Ministry
In a shift of U.S. policy, the White House said Friday that Taiwan does have a legitimate need for new fighter planes to address a growing gap with the Chinese military and pledged to sell Taiwan an "undetermined number" new U.S.-made planes.
The new White House position could spark a new crisis in the U.S.-China relationship on the very same day that blind Chinese Activist Chen Guangcheng is rumored to have fled his house arrest to seek asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner are also slated to visit China May 3 and 4 to hold the fourth round of the U.S. China Economic and Security Dialogue.
The White House policy shift was codified in a letter sent to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) Friday as part of a deal to get the Texas senator to release his hold on the confirmation of Mark Lippert, a close confidant of President Barack Obama whose nomination to become the top Pentagon official for Asia has been held up since October over the issue of selling F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan.
"We are mindful of and share your concerns about Taiwan's growing shortfall in fighter aircraft as the F-5s are retired from service and notwithstanding the upgrade of the F-16A/Bs. We recognize that China has 2,300 operational combat aircraft, while our democratic partner Taiwan has only 490. We are committed to assisting Taiwan in addressing the disparity in numbers of aircraft through our work with Taiwan's defense ministry on its development of a comprehensive defense strategy vis-a-vis China," Robert Nabors, director of the White House office of legislative affairs, wrote in a letter today to Cornyn.
"This work will be a high priority for a new Assistant Secretary of Defense in his dialogue on force transformation with his Taiwan counterparts. The Assistant Secretary, in consultation with the inter-agency and the Congress, will play a lead role as the Administration decides on a near-term course of action on how to address Taiwan's fighter gap, including through the sale to Taiwan of an undetermined number of new U.S.-made fighter aircraft."
The White House does not explicitly promise to sell Taiwan new F-16 fighter jets, as Cornyn wants, promising only to give the matter "serious consideration." But it does pledge an "underdetermined number" of new aircraft and the White House promised that Lippert would use the U.S.-Taiwan Defense Review Talks to conduct a full review of Taiwan's long-term defense strategy.
"Our decisions will continue to be based on an assessment of Taiwan's needs, taking into account what is needed to support Taiwan's overall defense strategy vis-a-vis China," the letter stated.
Cornyn praised the letter in a statement.
the Administration for recognizing that our friend and ally Taiwan's air force
is woefully undersized and outgunned by Communist China, and their inability to
adequately defend themselves poses a threat not just to their own security, but
to that of the United States," he said. "I look forward to
continuing to work
F-16 fighter planes are largely manufactured in Cornyn's home state of Texas and assembled by Lockheed Martin of Fort Worth.
Arms sales to Taiwan, especially offensive arms like F-16s, are a major irritant in the U.S.-China relationship, as China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and a core interest. The United States has maintained a balance between arming Taiwan and trying to avoid friction with China over the issue since the Taiwan Relations Act was signed in 1979.
Last October, the Obama administration decided to sell Taiwan upgrade packages for its aging fleet of F-16 A/B model planes but the administration never said whether it would sell Taiwan the newer, more advanced planes, claiming it was still under consideration.
At Lippert's November confirmation hearing, Cornyn pressed the nominee on the issue (watch the video here) and then introduced an amendment to the defense authorization bill that sought to force the administration to sell Taiwan new F-16s. That amendment was voted down in the Senate.
Cornyn then wrote a letter threatening to hold the Lippert nomination unless he gets some satisfaction on the issue.
"I remain disappointed by your de facto denial of Taiwan's request to purchase 66 new F-16 C/D fighter aircraft, and I believe it sends a damaging message to nations in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond that the U.S. is willing to abandon our friends in the face of Communist China's intimidation tactics," Cornyn wrote.
In the administration's Feb. 16 response to Cornyn, acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller wrote, "We believe the F-16 A/B upgrade effectively meets Taiwan's current needs." Today's letter changes that analysis.
The Lippert hold is not the first time Cornyn has used his power to hold nominees to press for selling F-16s to Taiwan. Last July, Cornyn held up the nomination of Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed to make a decision on selling the fighter plane to Taiwan.
Lippert's nomination had also been stalled by an objection by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who wanted details on Lippert's reported feud with former National Security Advisor Jim Jones. Lippert was confirmed by the Senate late Thursday evening.
UPDATE: National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor sent the The Cable the following statement on the sale:
The letter to Senator Cornyn is consistent with our current policy on Taiwan, which has not changed. We take very seriously our commitment to Taiwan’s defense as outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act. Our commitment is reflected in our sales of $12.5 billion in arms to Taiwan in 2010 and 2011. In particular, these sales have made a significant contribution to Taiwan’s air defense capabilities including by upgrading the backbone capability of Taiwan’s air force. We do not comment on future possible foreign military sales unless formal congressional notification has taken place. We remain committed to our one China policy based on the Three Joint Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act. The new ASD Mark Lippert will play a central role in working with Taiwan's defen.se ministry on its development of a comprehensive defense strategy and a resourcing plan.
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images
Two top Obama administration officials said today that the diplomatic initiative to end the violence in Syria, led by U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan, "is failing."
Under intense questioning during Thursday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, both Kathleen Hicks, the current deputy under secretary of defense for policy, and Derek Chollet, National Security Council senior director for strategy, said that the Annan plan was headed toward collapse and that new options for confronting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were being prepared.
Asked by the committee's ranking Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, if Assad had complied with the six points of the Annan plan for Syria, which charts a path away from violence toward political negotiations, Chollet acknowledged that violence is actually increasing.
"Do you believe the Annan plan has succeeded or failed?" McCain asked both officials.
"I would say it is failing," Chollet said.
"I would say it is failing and that Annan himself is extremely worried about the plan," Hicks concurred.
Annan lamented reports of increased violence Wednesday but said he still wanted to increase the number of monitors on the ground.
"If confirmed, this is totally unacceptable and reprehensible," said Annan."Equally, a credible political process is required if we are to sustain any long-term calm on the ground."
As The Cable reported last week, Chollet was added recently to the senior leadership of the Syria policy team and is coordinating the interagency process to look for a "Plan B" for U.S. policy for if and when the diplomatic initiatives break down.
Several times during the hearing, McCain complained that the United States was not leading in Syria, waiting for others to request more assertive action and hiding behind the excuse that there was no international consensus on the way forward.
"My view is that the United States is leading diplomatically," said Hicks, pointing to the Friends of Syria group of countries that meets periodically to discuss the issue as well as repeated action at the U.N. Security Council.
"Actually, we have not led the Friends of Syria, at least according to the Friends of Syria, because I have met with them, so that's not a fact," McCain said.
The Pentagon is planning for the possibility that the U.S. military might be called upon to participate in a mission to establish safe zones along the Turkey-Syria border, according to Hicks.
"We are doing a significant amount of planning for a wide range of scenarios, including our ability to assist allies and partners along the borders," she said.
But Chollet said that Turkey has not yet requested a discussion within NATO about setting up safe zones inside Syria, which would require military support. He added that if Turkey did request such a discussion, NATO would be obliged to take up the matter.
"I am unaware of any official or any serious discussions for that matter about how NATO might help Turkey in that regard," Chollet said.
McCain said that expanding the U.N. observer mission, which only has 15 people on the ground right now, would likely not solve the problem. He referred to Thursday's Washington Post editorial, "Where U.N. monitors go in Syria, killings follow."
The editorial noted reports that the Assad regime is sweeping into villages and towns as soon as the monitors leave, killing civilians and punishing those who are suspected of cooperating with the U.N. mission.
McCain was scolding and sometimes sarcastic about what he regards as a feckless U.S. Syria policy.
"I'm glad to hear that we are playing such a ‘leadership role'," McCain said. "I can guarantee you nobody in the Middle East thinks that. I can guarantee you that this is a shameful situation where people are being slaughtered. We are talking about economic sanctions and diplomatic sanctions. We should be helping these people."
Hicks has been nominated to be principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, succeeding acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller, and Chollet has been nominated to be assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, succeeding Sandy Vershbow, who is now NATO's deputy secretary-general.
On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Alan Juppe raised the idea of intervening militarily against the Assad regime in Syria and said that the Security Council might have to consider a Chapter 7 resolution, which could authorize the use of force. "We cannot allow the [Assad] regime to defy us," he said.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
The House Appropriations Committee proposed cutting the State Department and foreign operations budget by more than $5 billion next year, in its annual allocations released Tuesday.
The Obama administration actually requested modest increases in funding for the State Department and USAID for fiscal 2013 when it released its budget request in February. While the Congress doesn't divide up the accounts the same way as the administration, in an apples-to-apples comparison, the House Appropriations Committees' allocation for State and foreign operations for fiscal 2013, $48.4 billion, would represent a 12 percent cut from the administration's $54.71 billion request for the same accounts.
The House proposed fully funding the president's $8.2 billion request for State Department funding related to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. Therefore, the remainder of the funding proposed by the House, $40.1 billion for the base budget, would represent a 14 percent cut to the administration's request for non-war related diplomatic and development activities.
The House proposal would also be a $5 billion or 9 percent cut from the funding levels enacted in fiscal 2012. The Senate Appropriations Committee, in its own allocations, proposed giving the State and foreign operations accounts $53 billion, roughly equal to fiscal 2012 levels, although the Senate proposed shifting $5 billion from the OCO account to the base budget.
Non-governmental organizations that focus on international affairs funding were quick to criticize the House Appropriations Committee's actions.
"Retreat from our engagement in the world is not an option for the sake of our national security, but these cuts to the International Affairs Budget represent just that," said retired Marine Corps Gen. Mike Hagee, co-chair of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition's National Security Advisory Council. "The International Affairs Budget is absolutely critical to our nation's security and economic interests, and the programs it funds are cost-effective ways to prevent conflicts that will eventually require us to put our brave men and women in uniform in harm's way."
The allocations released Tuesday are just the first step in a long appropriations process. Next, the subcommittees will write up appropriations bills to fit within the allocation limits, after which both chambers will ostensibly begin marking up appropriations bills and moving them through the legislative process.
Practically, nobody expects the Congress to actually pass appropriations bills this year through both chambers due to the hyper partisanship of the presidential election season. But the spade work done by the committees could influence what ends up getting funded in the catch-all emergency stop gap spending bill that Congress will have to pass when the fiscal year expires Sept. 30 in order to keep the lights on throughout the government.
The House's proposal could also be just the first step in a multi-year effort by the GOP to steadily reduce funding for diplomacy and development, as is spelled out in the 99 page "Path to Prosperity" document put for by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI).
"I am committed to working together with the Chairman and with our colleagues across the aisle to make sure that we continue to support our critical national security priorities and that there is proper oversight and accountability for all of our foreign assistance," State and foreign ops Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX) told The Cable in a statement.
Subcommittee ranking Democrat Nita Lowey (D-NY) criticized the cuts in her own statement to The Cable.
"I am disappointed by this short-sighted allocation and the Republicans' decision to ignore bipartisan funding levels agreed to in the Budget Control Act," she said. "We must not make cuts that fundamentally weaken our national security interests."
The Pentagon sent officials to brief Senate Armed Services Committee leaders on the military's involvement in the Cartagena prostitution scandal that is roiling the Secret Service, but the lead Republican on the committee ripped the briefers Wednesday for their unpreparedness.
"Chairman [Carl] Levin and I met today with representatives of the Joint Staff with the expectation of receiving information on the ongoing investigation into possible misconduct involving military personnel during the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. We requested this briefing to inform us as to any national security implications resulting from such misconduct," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said in statement.
"Unfortunately, nearly two weeks after the events in Colombia, the briefers sent by the Department of Defense were woefully unprepared to answer even the most basic questions about what happened in Cartagena, and provided appallingly little new information other than the mechanics and timeline of the ongoing investigation."
The DOD briefers did not even know the date President Barack Obama arrived or the name of the senior military commander on the ground in Cartagena, McCain said. The military has to protect the rights of service members, but Congress needs to be able to do oversight as well, he added.
"We need to know the facts. We need to know the impact of this potential misconduct, which occurred less than a day, or perhaps hours, before the president arrived in Cartagena, on the performance of the military Joint Task Force charged with his security. Yet, we are being denied access to the information we need in order to make informed judgments or take needed actions. This is entirely unacceptable," he said.
McCain pledged to explore other means for the committee to get the information they are seeking from the administration. Reuters reported Tuesday that 12 military members are now associated with the scandal, the latest being attached to the White House communications team. Twelve Secret Service personnel are also implicated, six of whom have already left the agency.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was in Colombia this week on a previously scheduled visit. He said he had already suspended security clearances for those involved and promised to punish those found to be guilty of infractions.
"We expect our people, wherever they are, whether they are in Colombia or any other country ... to behave at the highest standards of conduct," Panetta told reporters at Colombia's Tolemaida military base. "If these investigators find that there have been violations ... those individuals will be held accountable.
This past weekend, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was denied entry into Afghanistan due to objections from Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Today, in an interview with The Cable, Rohrabacher recounted the episode, his longstanding feud with Karzai, and the personal intervention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that kept him from flying to Kabul.
Last Wednesday, Rohrabacher was added as a last minute addition to the congressional delegation led by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and including Reps. John Carter (R-TX), Michael Burgess (R-TX), Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), and Michele Bachmann (R-MN). Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) had to drop out at the last minute, so Rohrabacher took the spot. He didn't think there would be a problem.
Following a 13-hour flight to Dubai (Rohrabacher had to fly coach because of the last minute arrangements), he and the rest of the delegation prepared to board a military transport to Kabul. But the military staff on the ground wouldn't let him get on the plane.
"I was informed that the military plane was prohibited from taking off if I was on board," he said. "The State Department had asked the Defense Department not to fly me there."
Rohrabacher, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, didn't need the administration's approval to go to Afghanistan, so he and his staff began searching for commercial flights to Kabul. That's when Clinton called.
"She made the request of me saying that Karzai was personally upset with me and doesn't want me in his country. She said that if I went, there was a real possibility there would be a real crisis on their hands," Rohrabacher said.
Clinton mentioned the recent accidental burning of Qurans on a U.S. military base and the murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier. She told Rohrabacher that she feared Karzai might provoke another minor crisis in the relationship if the congressman went there, and asked him not to go.
"The secretary of state was asking me in a reasonable way so I said I would comply. If she thinks it's better for our country, I would forgo this trip, but not all trips," he said. "She was afraid that Karzai might try to get some of his people out on the streets and start targeting me, so she didn't need that."
The rest of the delegation went on to Kabul and met with embassy staff and members of the leadership of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, but not with Karzai. Meanwhile, Rohrabacher hung back in the United Arab Emirates and met with the emir of Abu Dhabi, the leader of the UAE military, and the UAE's minister of energy. When the delegation got back to Dubai, the representatives went on the Qatar for additional meetings before arriving back in Washington Tuesday afternoon.
Rohrabacher explained that his feud with Karzai goes back years, if not decades, and is based on Rohrabacher's longstanding and vocal support for a decentralization of power in Afghanistan and removal of U.S. financial and diplomatic support for Karzai, whom he sees as a corrupt and illegitimate leader.
Rohrabacher has been traveling to Afghanistan since the 1980s, when he worked in the Reagan White House. In 1988 he even picked up a machine gun and fought alongside the mujahideen on against the Russians near the Afghan city of Jalalabad. During the reign of the Taliban, Rohrabacher, by then a congressman, traveled to Afghanistan several times to meet with the groups that would eventually come to be known as the Northern Alliance.
The latest action to anger Karzai came when Rohrabacher traveled to an Aspen Institute conference in January with Gohmert, Steve King (R-IA), and Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), and met with the Northern Alliance to strategize on the way forward in Afghanistan.
"Serious efforts were made by the U.S. State Department to prevent this exchange of views from taking place," Rohrabacher said in a press release at the time.
It probably hasn't helped relations that Rohrabacher's subcommittee is working on an investigation strategy to bring to light the details of how Karzai and his family have enriched themselves of the last few years.
"Mr. Karzai is a very wealthy man and the tooth fairy didn't leave it under his pillow. If we don't do anything, the Taliban will take over that country and Karzai will disappear and emerge in Csota Rica with suitcases filled with money," he said. "Or even worse, our current government may push Karzai into a coalition government with the Taliban, and that would be a catastrophe and a horrible waste of American lives and resources over the last 10 years."
Rohrabacher said he didn't care much what Karzai thought about him one way or the other and promised to travel to Afghanistan again at a later time. He also claimed that Karzai is trying to prevent any members of the Afghan opposition from having direct contact with members of Congress.
"I think the reason that Karzai singled me out is that when I say something about Afghanistan people take it seriously because of my decades of experience in Afghanistan," he said. "There are few members of Congress who understand how little right Karzai has to the leadership of that government."
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The United States and Japan are nearing completion of a new basing agreement for U.S. troops in Okinawa, but three top senators want to make sure that Congress has a seat at the table before anything is set in stone.
"We have been advised informally that the United States and Japan are preparing to announce an agreement regarding basing issues on Okinawa and Guam as early as this Wednesday, April 25, in advance of Prime Minister Noda's coming visit to the United States," Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI), John McCain (R-AZ), and Jim Webb (D-VA) wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today. "While we have been strongly encouraging a resolution of this complex and troubling issue, we feel compelled to emphasize that no new basing proposal can be considered final until it has the support of Congress, which has important oversight and funding responsibilities."
The 2006 U.S.-Japan agreement to relocate 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam and move the Futenma Air Station to a different part of Okinawa has been stalled for years due to the Tokyo government's failure to secure the buy-in of local Okinawan officials and communities for the new location of the airbase.
Last July, Levin, McCain, and Webb came out with strong objections to the plan due to the upward spiraling costs of the Guam part of the project. They added language to the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act to require a independent study to rethink the whole arrangement. That study is now being conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a non-partisan Washington think tank.
The bill requires the Department of Defense to study the feasibility of relocating some of the Air Force assets at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa to other bases in Japan or to Guam, and moving Marine Corps aviation assets currently at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Kadena Air Base rather than building an expensive replacement facility at Camp Schwab, another base located on Okinawa. This idea is extremely unpopular in Japan.
In February, the United States and Japan announced they would delink the troop location from the base relocation in the hopes of moving at least part of the agreement forward. The senators' letter today said that a new announcement is expected this week in advance of the Japanese prime minister's April 30 visit to Washington. According to Bloomberg, the new announcement will include a drastic scaling back of the number of troops headed to Guam, diverting about half of the 8,000 slated to leave Japan to Australia, Hawaii, or the Philippines.
The senators aren't necessarily opposed to such a plan, but say they haven't been briefed on the announcement and haven't been able to determine if the new plan addresses their concerns as laid out in the legislation last year. The independent assessment hasn't been completed, they pointed out. The bill also prevents any spending on the project until various conditions are met and those conditions have not been met, the senators wrote.
"Based on the information we have received about this emerging agreement, we have many questions that have not been fully addressed," the senators wrote. "We require additional information regarding how this proposal relates to the broader strategic concept of operations in the region, the Marine Corps' concept of operations, master plans, and alternatives to base realignments on Guam and Okinawa, as well as the positioning of U.S. Air Force units in the Asia-Pacific region. We also remain concerned about the absence of firm cost estimates informed by basing plans, an analysis of logistical requirements, and environmental studies related to this new agreement."
The senators said they were mindful of how sensitive basing issues are in the U.S.-Japanese relationship (some say the Obama administration's battles with former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama contributed to Hatoyama's downfall). They also said they support a robust U.S. military presence in the region and a strong U.S.-Japanese security alliance. But they want the administration to delay the announcement nonetheless.
"We remain committed to working with the Administration to resolve this matter to the benefit of both the United States and Japan. But, for the reasons given above, it is our position that any announcement on this critical matter that goes beyond an agreement in principle at this time would be premature and could have the unintended consequences of creating more difficulties for our important alliance," they wrote.
Noda will visit the White House and meet with President Barack Obama on April 30 but he will not get a state dinner like his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao.
"The President looks forward to holding discussions with the Prime Minister on a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues, including the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance, economic and trade issues, and deepening bilateral cooperation. The two leaders will also discuss regional and global security concerns," the White House said in a statement.
A bill to sanction Russian human rights violators will not be taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week after the Obama administration urged Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) to keep it off the committee's agenda, The Cable has learned.
Last month, Kerry indicated that the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 would be brought up for a vote at the April 26 SFRC business meeting and he also endorsed the idea of combining the Magnitsky bill with a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law. "In good faith, we will move as rapidly as we can, hopefully the minute we're back, but certainly shortly thereafter," Kerry said March 27, just before the last Senate recess.
But after what several Senate aides described as intense lobbying from top Obama administration officials, including Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, Kerry decided not to put the bill on the agenda of the next business meeting, delaying consideration of the bill until May at the earliest, after the visit to the U.S. of Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin.
In a statement to The Cable, Kerry said he still supports quick passage of the Magnitsky bill and its linkage to the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, but that he needed more time to iron out differences over the details of the legislation.
"I support this effort and, as I said at the last business meeting, passing the Magnitsky legislation out of our committee is not a question of if, only when. I've been trying to get everyone on the same page because that's how you get the best legislative result, and everyone was explicitly very comfortable with where we were. My goal here is to get the best result," Kerry said.
But several aides told The Cable that not everybody was comfortable with the delay. The Cable obtained an e-mail sent late last week from the staff of committee Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) to several Democratic Senate offices including that of Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the bill's main sponsor, in which Lugar protests the delay strongly.
"We want to reiterate Senator Lugar's position, as he stated at the last business meeting, that he strongly supports having the Magnitsky Act taken up at the next business meeting (i.e. next week)," the e-mail reads.
"As we understand the situation, the White House and State Department have been frantic over the last 24 hours in trying to head off consideration of the bill next week by contacting numerous Democratic offices," Lugar's staff wrote. "Thus, our position remains as it has been: Senator Lugar supports immediate consideration of the Magnitsky bill-next week. If Senators Kerry and/or Cardin do not wish to have it taken up then, that is prerogative of the SFRC Majority, but it is not the position of Senator Lugar."
The Obama administration is on the record opposing the Magnitsky bill and believes that its passage could imperil U.S.-Russian cooperation on a range of issues. The Russian government has even threatened to scuttle the New START nuclear reductions treaty if the Magnitsky bill is passed, which would erase the signature accomplishment of the administration's U.S.-Russia reset policy.
"Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if legislation passes," the administration said in its official comments on the bill last July. "Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes."
Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak said Monday at a lunch with reporters in Washington that passage of the Magnitsky bill would have a "significant negative impact" on the U.S.-Russia relationship and said it was unacceptable for the United States to interfere in the Magnitsky case, which he said was an internal Russian issue.
"It's artificially attached to the whole issue of Jackson Vanik... It's politically motivated," he said. "We do not want to be told what to do within the limits of Russian law."
Kislyak then said there were human rights violations in the United States that Russia could raise in the context of trade negotiations, but chooses not to.
"I could bring up one example that is very much on our minds. Three years of long investigation of the killing of children adopted from Russia, with absolute immunity, but we do not bring that issue into the economic realm," he said.
Cardin, meanwhile, has been working with administration behind the scenes to make changes to the Magnitsky bill, and even came up with a new draft version of the legislation last week, before the delay. The Cable obtained an internal document showing exactly what changed in the bill.
For example, the new version makes it more difficult to add names to the list of human rights violators that the bill would create. In the previous version, any member of Congress could request to add the name of an alleged human rights violator to the bill. In the new version, both the chair and ranking member of a relevant committee must jointly request someone be added to the list, a high bar in a partisan Congress.
Cardin is caught by between his desire to see his legislation passed without being gutted and his desire to work with the administration. In a brief interview with The Cable last week, he insisted he still wants the Magnitsky bill joined with the legislation that will repeal Jackson-Vanik and grant Russia PNTR.
"There's a growing support in the Senate to make sure it's part of the PNTR debate," he said. "We'd like SFRC to mark it up and then take it to the Senate Finance Committee and make it part of the PNTR bill."
The exact logistics for how the Magnitsky bill is moved in conjunction with the PNTR bill are up in the air. It could be joined in the Senate Finance Committee, or on the Senate floor, or just passed at the same time. But what's clear is that there are several senators ready to hold up PNTR for Russia if the Magnitsky bill isn't considered in conjunction.
Among Capitol Hill staffers, there's also concern that the administration may be negotiating to water down the Magnitsky bill now, only to ultimately oppose it later. A similar dynamic played out over sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran last December. Then, it was Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) who carried water for the administration before discovering they would ultimately oppose the bill no matter what. Menendez was livid. That bill passed the Senate 100-0.
"The last thing the Obama administration wants is Magnitsky to pass and not PNTR, but at the rate they are going, it could be likely that neither moves," one senior Senate GOP aide told The Cable. "The administration's strategy is to delay as long as possible any SFRC consideration, in hopes that in a year with few legislative days the window for Magnitsky passage narrows and disappears."
UPDATE: Tuesday afternoon, Kerry's Communications Director Jodi Seth sent the following statement on the delay to The Cable:
"The decision not to put the Magnitsky bill on the agenda for the business meeting on April 26 was made only after consultations with relevant committee offices. At no time during the decision-making process did Lugar staff raise any objection to not adding the bill to the agenda."
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
In a speech introducing U.S. President Barack Obama today, Nobel Peace Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel called on the world to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from committing atrocities against civilians.
At a ceremony at Washington's Holocaust museum, Wiesel compared Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the villains who perpetrated the murder of millions of innocent civilians during World War II and asked why America and the international community didn't do more to stop the bloodshed. He then compared the world's inaction then to its failure to stop Assad and Ahmadinejad now.
"It could have been prevented. The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented had the civilized world spoken up, taken measures in 1939, ‘40, ‘41, ‘42. Each time, in Berlin, Geobbels and the others always wanted to see what would be the reaction in Washington and London and Rome, and there was no reaction so they felt they could continue," Wiesel said.
"So in this place we may ask: Have we learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power? How is it that the No. 1 Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad is still a president? He who threatens to use nuclear weapons to destroy the Jewish state."
"Have we not learned? We must know that evil has power. It is almost too late," he said. "Preventative measures are important. We must use those measures to prevent another catastrophe. And when other communities are threatened by anyone, we must not allow them to do what they intend doing."
Wiesel's speech was reminiscent of another speech he made at the Holocaust museum in 1993, at the opening of the complex, when he called on then President Bill Clinton to take action to stop the atrocities against civilians in Bosnia.
Similarly, that speech came at a time when the Clinton administration was resisting getting entangled in a foreign civil war but was under growing pressure to intervene.
"Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something," Wiesel told Clinton then. "I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done."
In his own remarks, Obama touted the fact that his administration determined that the prevention of mass atrocities was a core national security interest of the United States and listed several bureaucratic changes the government was making to address the problem. His board to examine the problem meets today for the first time.
Obama touted his administration's efforts in South Sudan, Ivory Coast, Libya, and Uganda, pledging to extend the limited deployment of U.S. military advisors to help track down remnants of the Lord's Resistance Army. But Obama said that governments are not wholly responsible for preventing mass atrocities.
"You don't just count on officials; you don't just count on governments. You count on people mobilizing their conscience," Obama said. "'Never again' is a challenge to nations. It's a bitter truth: Too often the world has failed to halt the killing of innocents on a massive scale and we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save."
When Obama spoke about Syria, he said the United States would continue increasing diplomatic, political, and economic pressure on the Assad regime, but said the U.S. commitment to end atrocities "does not mean we intervene militarily every time there is an injustice in the world."
"The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up. So with partners and allies we will keep increasing the pressure so that those who stick with Assad know that they are making a losing bet."
Obama announced new financial sanctions against Syrian and Iranian leaders who use information technology to suppress civilian dissent, barring those guilty from entering or doing business in the United States.
"In short, we need to do everything we can to prevent these kinds of atrocities, because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your own people," Obama said. "Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing."
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
The White House is unhappy with the options it's been given on Syria and is searching for a new strategy for removing President Bashar al-Assad, The Cable has learned.
"There was a fundamental decision made at the highest level that we need a real Syria policy with more options for the president," one administration official with knowledge of the internal deliberations said. "Our allies were coming back to us and saying ‘What's your next move?,' and we were forced to admit we didn't have one."
The new push includes adjustments in personnel handling the portfolio. Before March, National Security Council Director Steve Simon headed up the internal interagency process. Now, multiple officials confirm that NSC Senior Director for Strategy Derek Chollet has been added to the leadership of the Syria policy team and has been coordinating the interagency process for several weeks. Simon, Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, State Dept. Special Advisor Fred Hof, and Ambassador Robert Ford are still very active on the Syria portfolio.
Simon, Feltman, and Hof have been traveling all week and will be with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Paris Thursday. There she will attend an ad-hoc meeting of foreign ministers where "core" members of the Friends of Syria group will confer on next steps.
Chollet, the former deputy to Anne-Marie Slaughter at the State Department's Policy Planning shop, has also been nominated to be the next assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, replacing Sandy Vershbow, who is now deputy secretary general of NATO. Chollet has taken on the day-to-day management of the interagency process while he awaits confirmation.
New options are now being considered internally, including another discussion of setting up buffer zones inside Syria, one administration official confirmed. The administration has also authorized direct contact with the internal Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and at least one State Department official has met with the FSA's nominal leaders in Turkey.
The rethink comes eight months after Obama explicitly demanded the Syrian leader's removal, saying, "The time has come for President Assad to step aside."
His administration is still struggling to come up with a way to make that call a reality.
There's a growing consensus inside the administration that the violence in Syria is not abating and that multinational diplomatic initiatives such as the plan put forth by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan are not convincing Assad to enter into a political process to transition to democracy, much less yield power and step down.
Clinton hinted Wednesday that fresh options are under discussion.
"We are at a crucial turning point," Clinton said, speaking from Brussels. "Either we succeed in pushing forward with Kofi Annan's plan in accordance with the Security Council direction, with the help of monitors steadily broadening and deepening a zone of non-conflict and peace, or we see Assad squandering his last chance before additional measures have to be considered."
The potential shift in U.S. policy predates the Annan plan, however.
Following a failed effort to convince Russia and China to endorse a resolution condemning Assad in February and the subsequent attempts to convince Russia to play a more constructive role following Vladimir Putin's election to the presidency in March, top levels of the Obama administration began exploring other options, according to multiple U.S. officials, congressional officials, and experts briefed on the discussions.
One administration official said that the hope that Russia could be convinced to reign in Assad has now faded, as has the notion that Turkey and the Arab Gulf states would be willing to bankroll the Syrian opposition and even arm the FSA while the United States largely confined itself to a diplomatic role.
The administration's position had been to look the other way while Arab states armed the Syrian opposition, but pledges of aid by Gulf states have not materialized and the Turkish government, which has committed to an anti-Assad position and is hosting the FSA, is waiting for the United States to chart a clear way forward.
"They are not thinking two steps ahead. That's why there is a demand for a plan B," the administration official said, referring to the White House. "The position they took at the last Friends of Syria meeting is not sustainable."
The United States has pledged $25 million in humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people and communications equipment to the internal opposition. But lawmakers who met with internal opposition leaders last week said that they hadn't gotten that assistance.
"The most stunning, unsettling conclusion I drew from the leaders of the Free Syrian Army was that they have essentially got no help from anyone. They are literally running out of ammunition while Assad's forces are being resupplied by Iran and Russia," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable in an interview.
Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) spent their Senate recess on the Turkish side of the Turkey-Syria border, meeting with Turkish officials, FSA leaders, and refugees.
"What they want us to do is to lead. They want us to lead the Friends of Syria, who have given them increasingly sympathetic rhetoric but not the wherewithal to defend themselves," he said.
The Syrian internal opposition is buying weapons and ammunition on the black market at exorbitant prices and claims that large parts of the Syrian military are demoralized but are unwilling to break with the government until they see the opposition has real international support.
"They are all waiting for the U.S. to say ‘We're in this,'" Lieberman said.
There was at least one State Department official inside the McCain-Lieberman meeting with leaders of the FSA, Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh and Col. Riad al-Asaad, two U.S. officials confirmed. The FSA leaders asked the United States to provide RPGs, anti-aircraft guns, and ammunition. The FSA leaders also said they have proof that the Assad regime is using helicopter gunships to attack civilians in the city of Idlib, as apparently shown in this YouTube video.
Turkish officials told McCain and Lieberman that they were willing to let weapons flow over their borders and consider other more aggressive steps to help the internal Syrian opposition, but that they won't do so unless Washington leads the way.
The Turks told the senators there are currently 25,000 registered Syrian refugees in southern Turkey, although the registrations have not kept pace with the flow of refugees across the border so the actual number could be much higher. The Turks also said that if the refugee total tops 50,000, they will require help.
"They Turks want American leadership and they know American leadership is totally absent. The Turks say they may -- if this flood of refugees continues -- they may need international assistance," McCain said. "Every place we talked to, they want American leadership. It's just disgraceful that they haven't acted so far."
The administration official explained that the White House does not want to become so heavily involved in the Syria conflict, for example by directly arming opposition fighters, because it puts the United States on the hook for their success and would probably require increased levels of commitment as the conflict drags on.
"They've got this half-pregnant position that is offensive to the sensibilities of the people on the ground and confusing to the Turks," the official said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
A new set of sanctions against Iran is pending in the Senate, but the Obama administration refuses to say whether or not it supports the legislation as negotiations with Tehran resume.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said today that he still intends to move as soon as possible to pass the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, named for Finance Committee heads Sens. Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), that was approved by the committee in February. The bill would pile on more punitive measures against Iran's energy, shipping, and mining sectors, while punishing a broader range of Iranian government officials for their involvement in human rights violations.
Before the latest Senate recess, Reid attempted to pass the bill by unanimous consent, but Republicans objected because several senators want to offer amendments to strengthen the bill. Lawmakers from both chambers and both sides of the aisle want the bill to go through the regular legislative process so that changes can be made before passage, but Reid says the bill should be passed as is.
Reid told reporters today that his staff would be meeting today "to see if something could be worked out," regarding a way forward for the legislation. (After the meeting, a Reid spokesman told The Cable that "nothing" was worked out at today's meeting and there is no definitive schedule for moving ahead with the bill.)
"I think the best thing to do is to move forward with the bill that was reported out of committee on a bipartisan basis, unless we can get agreement from basically everyone," Reid said. "Each day that goes by without Iran feeling more of our sanctions, that's too bad for the world and helpful to Iran. We need to move forward on this as soon as possible."
The Obama administration hasn't said anything positive or negative about the legislation, even though it has been vocal about other Iran sanctions bills being debated in Congress. Administration officials met with Iranian negotiators as part of the P5+1 group in Turkey last weekend and more talks are scheduled for next month in Baghdad.
If the administration supports the new sanctions, it risks upsetting the new negotiations just as they are beginning. If the administration doesn't support the new sanctions, it leaves them open to GOP allegations of weakness towards Iran in the midst of the presidential election season.
National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment today on whether or not the White House supports quick passage of the Johnson-Shelby bill. Late last month, a senior administration official told The Cable, "We're not just taking a position on that particular bill at this point."
House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told The Cable Monday that he supports moving forward with the bill quickly.
"I think it's perfectly appropriate to keep up pressure with the sanctions. I think you've got to keep ramping up the pressure," he said. "If we want to add to the options the president has, I think that's a good idea."
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) said today that without the administration's green light, the bill probably would not move quickly through Congress.
"Unless the administration advocates for that, I think it's less likely," he said.
China may be helping North Korea develop long range ballistic missiles that could reach the United States, and one Republican congressman wants the Obama administration to do something about it.
"As you have likely seen, the press is reporting that North Korea unveiled a new mobile missile at a military parade in Pyongyang in honor of the founder of that dictatorship, Kim Il Sung," Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), wrote in an April 17 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, obtained by The Cable. Turner is the Chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee.
"Whether this missile is the new road mobile intercontinental missile (ICBM) the administration has been warning about is, as yet, unclear based on these public reports," Turner wrote. "Of deeper concern, however, are allegations that the missile, unveiled at the recent military parade in Pyongyang, is based on Chinese technology, in violation of international obligations and a threat to the national security interest of the United States."
Turner wrote that the photographs of the missile "suggest cooperation and support" by the Chinese government and he quotes missile-technology expert Richard Fisher as saying that the 16-wheel transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) was "very likely" a Chinese design and that there was a "possibility" it was actually manufactured in China for North Korea's use.
Turner asked Clinton and Clapper to report back to Congress if the U.S. government has any evidence that China or Chinese companies are helping North Korea acquires mobile launchers for ICBMs. He also wants to know whether the administration has done anything to confront China on the issue, whether the administration believes China is helping North Korea with ballistic missiles at all, and whether the administration will sanction Chinese entities for aiding the North Korean missile program.
"Indeed, the possibility of such cooperation undermines the administration's entire policy of investing China with the responsibility of getting tough on North Korea," Turner wrote.
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
The United Nations and the State Department have been struggling to convince the Iranian exile group the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK) to move to a former U.S. military base in Iraq, but the real need is for third countries to accept MEK "refugees" on a permanent basis, according to the top U.N. representative in Iraq.
The MEK is a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization opposed to the Iranian regime that has been living in a closed compound in Iraq called Camp Ashraf for years. The Iraqi government has pledged to close Camp Ashraf, using force if necessary, so the U.N. and the State Department are slowly but surely cajoling Ashraf's 3,200 residents to move to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport.
But that's only a temporary solution. Unless other countries start accepting MEK members for relocation, they could face the prospect of being returned to Iran, where they could face retribution from the Iranian regime they have been fighting for decades.
"I have the feeling that the Camp Ashraf residents have made peace with the idea to go to Camp Liberty and they've made peace with the idea that there is no future in Iraq and they will leave Iraq," Martin Kobler, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), told The Cable.
But finding homes for the MEK members when they leave Iraq "is the most difficult part of the story," he said. "The whole process only will succeed if all the 3,200 find countries who will take them into their borders."
The U.N. held a resettlement conference on March 27 in Geneva and the response was "not overwhelming, to say the least," Kobler said.
Part of the difficulty of dealing with the MEK group members at Camp Ashraf is that they have been cut off from the world for years and little is known about their individual histories or whether they would qualify for refugee status. Some reports say that MEK members are still conducting violent attacks inside Iran at the behest of the Israeli government.
The United States is legally barred from accepting any refugees from members of a foreign terrorist organization. There is also no plan for what happens to those MEK members who do not qualify for refugee status.
"We will find a solution then," Kobler said. "Everybody has Iranian nationality and on a voluntary basis can go back to Iran... The question is what happens to them then."
Kobler disputed the claims made by the MEK and its long list of American advocates that the Camp Liberty site is not fit for human occupation.
"Camp Liberty is a place where 5,500 American soldiers lived for many, many years... What worked for 5,500 people should also work humanitarian wise for 3,200 Camp Ashraf residents," he said.
Kobler declined to comment on reports that the MEK is involved in ongoing attacks on the Iranian nuclear program and its personnel inside Iran. He also declined to confirm that U.N. reports have stated that MEK members were intentionally sabotaging the facilities in Camp Liberty in order to make the camp look worse than it is, saying only, "There were big initial difficulties and a lack of cooperation. However this has improved over the last weeks."
Some advocates of the MEK, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have called Camp Ashraf a "concentration camp," a reference Kobler said is insulting and offensive.
"I am a German citizen. To compare the situation of Camp Ashraf residents to the systematic extermination of European Jews during Nazi dictatorship, this is not only historically totally absurd but is an insult to the victims," he said.
"My message to these supporters is, spend your energies not so much on attacking the United Nations or others. Spend your energies to convince your governments to take them into your countries," he said.
While in Washington, Kobler met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees, Population, and Migration Anne Richards, and Ambassador Daniel Fried, the State Department official in charge of the Camp Ashraf issue.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President Barak Obama's push for engagement with North Korea, which was effectively ended by yesterday's missile launch, was not a failure and actually shows that this administration is tougher on Pyongyang than its predecessor, a top White House official said today.
"What this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we've seen in the past," said Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes, speaking to reporters on Air Force One Friday.
The Cable detailed yesterday the Obama team's extensive efforts over the past year to enter into a new round of negotiations with the North Korean regime, which included offering North Korea 240,000 tons of food aid and asking the North Koreans to refrain from enriching uranium and firing off any missiles. The deal fell through Thursday when North Korea launched an Unha-3 rocket with a "satellite" attached.
Rhodes argued that the Obama administration's stance was tougher than George W. Bush's, given that Bush's top negotiator Chris Hill held several rounds of protracted negotiations with North Korea and even got North Korea to sign an agreement in 2005 to end its nuclear weapons program in exchange for security and economic guarantees from the West.
"Under the previous administration, for instance, there was a substantial amount of assistance provided to North Korea. North Korea was removed from the terrorism list, even as they continued to engage in provocative actions. Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea," Rhodes said.
He also seemed to abandon the administration's claim that the food aid was not "linked" to the nuclear and missile discussions, a claim most observers scoffed at because the two issues were negotiated at the same time by the same people and because the food aid was cancelled after North Korea announced the missile launch.
"When this new regime took power after the death of Kim Jong Il, we had discussions with them about potentially an agreement where they would freeze their enrichment activities and take some other steps towards denuclearization, and that we as a part of that might provide food assistance," Rhodes said. (Emphasis added.)
He also repeated the administration's contention that North Korea could not be trusted to deliver the food aid to its people because the regime in Pyongyang could not be trusted to uphold its international commitments.
Rhodes said the United States would discuss with its allies and partners "additional steps" that might be taken to punish North Korea for its latest provocation, but he couldn't name any specific steps that under consideration. He also said there was concern that North Korea could conduct another nuclear test soon.
The U.N. Security Council issued a statement Friday condemning North Korea for the launch but no new punitive measures were announced. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said it was "premature ... to predict or characterize the form of the reaction."
Speaking to reporters, Rhodes also criticized North Korea for inviting journalists to visit, saying, "The North Korea government is trying to put on this propaganda show over the course of the last several days, inviting journalists in to take a look at this particular rocket launch."
After three years of practicing "strategic patience" with North Korea, which basically amounted to ignoring Pyongyang, the Obama team took a political risk by engaging with the North Korean regime and then announcing an "agreement" even though there was no single set of items that the two sides actually agreed upon. Each side issued its own unilateral statements about what it thought the deal included.
Republicans are already pouncing on what they portray as a naïve mistake by the administration.
"Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naïve as it was short-lived. At the same time, he has cut critical U.S. missile defense programs and continues to underfund them," GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in statement. "This incompetence from the Obama administration has emboldened the North Korean regime and undermined the security of the United States and our allies."
The Obama administration requested $7.75 billion for missile defense in fiscal 2013, which is $810 million less than Congress appropriated for the program this year.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) piled on.
"Once again, Pyongyang has demonstrated its complete disregard for international sanctions and its proclivity for worthless commitments. Moreover, North Korea's actions and gathering of global media to witness the launch make a mockery of the recent ‘Leap Day agreement' with the Obama administration," he said in his own statement. "The administration should abandon its naive negotiations with North Korea (and Iran), and instead focus on fully funding missile defenses that can protect the United States from ballistic missile threats."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Canada is upset that Washington special-interest groups are thwarting the Keystone XL pipeline, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird told The Cable, forcing the country to move forward to find other customers for its oil.
"There's a great deal of frustration, less with the administration and more that the future prosperity of our country could lie in the hands of some radical environmentalists and special interests," Baird said in a Thursday interview in Washington. "That causes us great concern, so we want to look to diversify our markets, whether that be with Japan, Korea, or China, which has expressed a great interest."
U.S. President Barack Obama rejected TransCanada's permit application to build the pipeline in January after being compelled to issue a quick decision on the application by congressional legislation. He had received pressure from environmental groups, which had organized protests around the country opposing the construction of the pipeline.
No decision is expected on the pipeline this year, although Obama did announce last month that he intends to approve the southern piece of the pipeline soon. On Wednesday, Nebraska lawmakers passed a bill to re-launch a review of the pipeline route.
But Ottawa isn't waiting around for the United States to make a decision. The Canadia government is proceeding to build its "Northern Gateway" pipeline that would end in British Columbia, where the oil could be shipped directly to East Asia.
"It was certainly driven home to the energy sector in Canada that being captive to a special interest can have huge consequences on the future prosperity of our country. That's certainly known and accepted in a way that it wasn't last fall," Baird said.
Canada also knows how to deal with environmental groups, said Baird. The Canadian government has eliminated environmental impact studies for 90 percent of projects and has sped up the approval process, he said.
According to Baird, the United States is losing jobs due to the delay of the pipeline approval in Washington. But in a way, Canada stands to benefit from the impasse.
"Oil sands oil currently sells at a discount because we are a captive market, and if we could diversify that market, that discount could end," said Baird.
"If you look at all the oil around the world, there's precious little of it that is found in stable economies and stable democracies, and we want to share that resource with our closest partner," he said. "We're going to work hard to see the project approved, hopefully early next year."
Baird came to Washington for the G-8 foreign minister's meeting, which focused on the crises in Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Canada supports humanitarian and medical aid to the Syrian people but not arms for the Syrian opposition, Baird said. He also said there's no talk right now within NATO about establishing buffer zones inside Syria using NATO assets.
After Syrian troops fired over the Turkish border this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that Turkey might invoke NATO Article 5, which provides for common defense of any threatened NATO country. Baird said the red line was if Syrian troops actually enter Turkey.
"There will be strong international support for Turkey if Syrian forces cross the border," he said. "Canada is a member of NATO, and if Syria wants to conduct military operations in a NATO country, they will get a strong reaction."
He didn't clarify what that strong reaction might entail.
Baird also shared news of a bet he made Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the NHL playoff series between the Ottawa Senators and the New York Rangers. If the Senators win, Clinton must wear their jersey. If the Rangers win, Baird will sport a Rangers sweater.
"After the Ottawa Senators win, she'll look great in red," he said, noting that in Canada, unlike in the United States, red is the liberal color.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
North Korea's apparently unsuccessful launch of an Unha-3 rocket with a "satellite" attached marks not only the 100th birthday of the country's founder Kim Il Sung, but also the end of the Obama administration's year-long effort to open up a new path for negotiations with the Hermit Kingdom.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned earlier Thursday that the promised launch by North Korea would scuttle the deal the Obama administration negotiated with Pyongyang and announced on Leap Day Feb. 29, which would have provided North Korea with 240,000 tons of U.S. food assistance over the next year. She lamented that the North Koreans had thrown away the progress made.
"If Pyongyang goes forward, we will all be back in the Security Council to take further action. And it is regrettable because, as you know, we had worked through an agreement that would have benefited the North Korean people with the provision of food aid," she said. "But in the current atmosphere, we would not be able to go forward with that, and other actions that other countries had been considering would also be on hold."
The Obama administration worked behind the scenes for months on the deal, and had been set to announce it last December, but North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died the day before the announcement was set to be made. In February, administration officials traveled to Beijing to try again and proudly announced on Feb. 29 that Pyongyang had agreed to a host of concessions, including a missile-test moratorium.
Since then, there has been much debate in Washington over whether or not the administration knew that the North Koreans planned all along to go ahead with their "satellite" launch, which had been scheduled before Kim Jong Il's death. The fact that the two sides issued separate statements on Feb. 29, neither of which addressed the issue of a satellite launch, led many close observers to believe the administration erred by not getting Pyongyang to commit to canceling the launch in writing.
Arms Control expert Jeffrey Lewis explained at length how U.S. negotiators Glyn Davies and Clifford Hart might have flubbed the negotiations by assuming that telling the North Koreans a satellite launch would scuttle the deal and hearing the North Koreans acknowledge the U.S. position was tantamount to an agreement.
"Administration officials are screaming to high heaven that Davies told the North Koreans that a space launch was a missile launch...The problem is that telling the DPRK is not the same thing as the DPRK agreed," Lewis wrote.
Regardless, while the North Koreans surely knew that the U.S. side viewed a missile launch as a deal breaker, it's not clear that the North Korean officials sent to negotiate with the United States had the authority to stop a missile launch ordered by the Dear (dead) Leader Kim Jong Il.
It's also true that the North Koreans sent a letter to the Obama administration asking for a resumption of talks following the planned launch and the administration rejected that proposal. In between Feb. 29 and today's launch, U.S. experts and North Korean officials also met for three unofficial "Track 2" meetings to try to salvage the deal, none of which produced any progress.
Lewis participated in one of the Track 2 meetings, held in late March in London. Another Track 2 meeting was held in New York and included experts Victor Cha, Tom Hubbard, Scott Snyder, Evans Revere, Don Zagoria, Frank Jannuzi, and Keith Luse. A separate Track 2 meeting in Germany included Jannuzi, Tom Pickering, Bob Carlin, and Nick Eberstadt.
No progress was made at any of those meetings, partially because neither the U.S. experts nor their North Korean interlocutors were empowered to negotiate.
"Track 2 is useful for what it can do. What it can't do is negotiations. North Korean delegations at that level are on an incredibly short leash. They are at best letter deliverers and receptors of comments," Eberstadt told The Cable.
And so the launch went forward, and despite its failure, the United States and North Korea now find themselves returning to a familiar pattern of diplomatic tit for tat that will lead to another stalemate and crush the prospects of further bilateral negotiations, much less a return to any multilateral discussions such as the defunct six-party talks.
"The North Koreans will stick to the view that it is their sovereign right to launch a peaceful satellite test and let all the rest of the legal argumentation go where it will," said Eberstadt. "The North Korean government is trying to get the world used to treating the DPRK as a nuclear weapons power. So each time they break an agreement we twitch a little bit less than we did the time before."
Cha told The Cable Thursday, before the launch, that there's little the United States or the international community could do about North Korea's missile test aside from going through the motions at the U.N.
"The administration will condemn it and they'll go the United Nations Security Council to try to get a [presidential] statement, not a resolution. That will be it, and it will look horrible," he said. "And privately they will press hard on China to finally play ball and put real pressure on Pyongyang."
China could indeed do more, such as increasing inspections on its border with North Korea to clamp down on proliferation, Cha said. But in the end, no matter what the Obama administration does, there's no politically viable strategy that can solve the problem.
If the administration plays down the launch and tries to act as if it's not significant, it may look incompetent. If it tries to go back to the negotiating table, conservative critics will cry appeasement. If it presses for more sanctions, it will look ineffective and risk wasting political capital needed to press for international sanctions on Iran and Syria.
"All the options are equally bad for the administration," said Cha. "We have to either accept that they are a nuclear-weapons state and figure out how to try to live with it, or we have to go in the other direction and find a way to take this regime down."
The launch destroys the previously held conventional wisdom that North Korea avoids provocative actions while sitting at the negotiating table, Cha said, and whatever strategy the administration had to deal with North Korea has now been overtaken by events.
"This requires a complete reset in how we deal with North Korea," said Cha. "We got ourselves into this and there isn't an easy way to get out of it."
UPDATE: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney's statement on the launch:
Despite the failure of its attempted missile launch, North Korea's provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments. While this action is not surprising given North Korea's pattern of aggressive behavior, any missile activity by North Korea is of concern to the international community. The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations, and is fully committed to the security our allies in the region.
The President has been clear that he is prepared to engage constructively with North Korea. However, he has also insisted that North Korea live up to its own commitments, adhere to its international obligations and deal peacefully with its neighbors.
North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry. North Korea's long-standing development of missiles and pursuit of nuclear weapons have not brought it security - and never will. North Korea will only show strength and find security by abiding by international law, living up to its obligations, and by working to feed its citizens, to educate its children, and to win the trust of its neighbors.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
As North Korea prepares to launch a missile, the Asia team in the Obama administration is working around the clock. But over at the Pentagon, several top Asia policy positions are completely vacant, forcing lower-level officials to pick up the slack.
The most glaring vacancy atop the Asia team at the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy, the position of assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, has been empty for a year. Last April, Lt. Gen. Chip Gregson left that job unceremoniously and President Obama nominated his close confidant Mark Lippert soon after. Lippert's nomination is stalled indefinitely, first due to a hold by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that was lifted in February and now due to a hold by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) that remains in place. Cornyn said last month the White House won't even deal with him on the Lippert hold, so that job will remain vacant unless the White House changes its tune or pulls the Lippert nomination and nominates somebody else.
Below that level, former intelligence official Peter Lavoy serves as the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense (PDAS) for Asian and Pacific affairs. He does not hold the title of "acting" assistant secretary but is performing the duties of an acting assistant secretary, such as testifying on Capitol Hill, while also doing the day-to-day management that befalls a PDAS. (Asia hands have praised Lavoy for his handling of the two jobs.) Meanwhile, his PDAS predecessor Derek Mitchell is set to be named the next U.S. ambassador to Burma.
Lavoy's job is made more difficult by the fact that two of the three deputy assistant secretaries under him have left their posts in recent weeks. Former DASD for East Asia Michael Schiffer moved to the Hill to take a job as a senior advisor on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. DASD for South and Southeast Asia Bob Scher moved out of the Asia shop to become DASD for Plans under Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Kathleen Hicks, replacing Janine Davidson. That leaves David Sedney as the only sitting DASD for Asia. He covers Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
Both Schiffer and Scher's jobs are being covered by capable career officials who worked under them. Principal Director Dave Helvey is the acting DASD for East Asia and Brig. Gen. Rich Simcock, the principal director under Scher, is now acting DASD for South and Southeast Asia. But while capable, they are pulling double duty: holding down their old jobs while tackling the work that should be going to political appointees yet to be named, without getting the added benefits.
The Asia shop isn't the only place with vacancies at OSD policy. Jim Miller is serving as the acting under secretary of defense for policy, overseeing the entire staff while still holding the title of principle deputy under secretary until he gets confirmed by the Senate. Hicks has been chosen to succeed Miller as principal deputy under secretary, a position that needs no confirmation, and is said to be doing the job on a day-to-day basis. But she can't take that title or even be named acting principal deputy under secretary until or unless Miller officially vacates the post.
The departure of Sandy Vershbow from the post of assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs -- he's now Fogh Rasmussen's top deputy at NATO -- has left another senior vacancy in the Pentagon's policy leadership. NSC Senior Director for Strategy Derek Chollet has been nominated for that job, but his nomination sits on the pile with dozens of other senior national security nominations awaiting action by the Senate.
These vacancies often accumulate toward the end of a presidential term as officials tire out and the leadership searches for new blood. Some of the blame can be laid at feet of the Senate, according to critics of the current nominating process, which they say abuses its power to hold nominees over unrelated issues.
But the Asia shop at the Pentagon is suffering from a lack of senior personnel not found in other crucial national security offices, especially at a time when the United States is "pivoting" toward Asia, which includes new U.S. basing in Australia, a renewed focus on Pacific naval power, increased military ties with Southeast Asian countries, and a revitalization of the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is not filling the political slots left vacant by the recent departures at OSD, which insiders say sends the wrong message to the region and to those who watch Asia, and tips the balance of power inside the administration from the Pentagon to the State Department, for better or worse.
Over at State, former senior advisor Nirav Patel has started work as the deputy assistant secretary of State in the bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs for strategy and multinational affairs, a newly created position.
UPDATE: Pentagon Press Secretary George Little sent The Cable the following statement:
"There are highly qualified nominees who are ready to take on policy roles for this important regional portfolio, and while we await their confirmation, there's a strong team in place that is doing great work to guide the Department's work in this area."
In an escalation of the United Arab Emirates' crackdown on foreign NGOs, the UAE government has detained foreign employees of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and is preventing at least one of them from leaving the country.
Late Wednesday, the director of NDI's Dubai office, Patricia Davis, an American, and her deputy director Slobodon Milic, a Serbian national, were stopped at the Dubai airport by UAE government authorities as they tried to leave the country, according to three sources briefed on the incident. Davis was eventually allowed to leave the UAE, but Milic was not. He was detained by authorities, and subsequently released but is still barred from leaving the UAE. The UAE government has also notified NDI that they plan to file criminal indictments against foreign NGO workers in the UAE for foreign interference in political affairs, the sources said.
"We understand that the deputy director for NDI in the UAE was briefly detained and then released. We are seeking more information from the government of the UAE on the matter," a State Department official told The Cable. "As the Secretary has said many times, we believe NGOs play a valuable and legitimate role in a country's political and economic development. They should be able to operate consistent with regulations and standards and without constraints."
"We will continue to support civil society in the UAE and across the region. NDI is a respected organization that has been working across the region and beyond to promote civil society development and democratic values. The State Department is a firm supporter of NDI's activities," the official said.
The move mirrors the actions taken by the Egyptian government over the past three months, which included barring over a dozen foreign workers from leaving Egypt -- including Americans working for NDI, the International Republican Institute (IRI), and Freedom House -- and subsequently indicting them on criminal charges.
The U.S. government paid $5 million in "bail" money to secure the March 1 release of American NGO workers trapped in Egypt, including Sam LaHood, the Cairo director of the IRI and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then waived congressional restrictions on the $1.5 billion of annual U.S. aid to Egypt, which would have required that the State Department certify that Egypt was moving toward democracy and upholding civil rights.
Several of the American NGO workers who were indicted by the Egyptian government were not in Egypt at the time, and the National Journal reported Wednesday that the Egyptian government has asked Interpol to issue international arrest warrants for those NGO workers. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is trying to convince Interpol to reject those requests.
The UAE government shut down and revoked the license of the NDI office in Dubai last week, just days before Clinton visited the region and raised the issue in a meeting with Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
"We very much regret it," Clinton said after the meeting. "We are as you know, as anyone who has visited the United States, strong believers in a vibrant civil society ... I expect our discussions on this issue to continue."
A U.S. congressional staff delegation has been in the UAE this week as well, and has been raising the NDI issue with both UAE and American officials on the ground. One congressional staffer in Dubai told The Cable Wednesday that UAE officials argued to the staff delegation that NDI was operating without a license, had no legal right to be operating in UAE, and was writing things that weren't true.
NDI Middle East Director Les Campbell said last week that his organization has no programs in the UAE, and the office "was simply a regional hub which supported programmes in places like Qatar and Kuwait."
The congressional staffers pressed the UAE officials to comment on the rumors that the UAE government was acting on behalf of the Saudi government, which is said to object to NDI's programs for Saudi women. But the UAE officials denied any knowledge of Saudi interference or pressure to the congressional staffers.
The staffer also said U.S. Ambassador to the UAE Michael Corbin downplayed the UAE government's actions in his meeting with the congressional delegation.
"Even more troublesome was [the U.S.] ambassador's statement in response to questions we raised about the shutdown in a meeting on Tuesday. He essentially suggested that it wasn't that big of a deal since NDI doesn't do any work in the UAE," the staffer said. "Moreover, he seemed to sympathize with their concerns given the changing situation in the Middle East and he characterized work that organizations like NDI do as ‘fomenting' political change."
Officials at NDI's Washington office and the UAE embassy in Washington declined to comment.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
The State Department went to lengths today to explain why it issued a $10 million bounty for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) founder Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, only to have Saeed appear in public and mock the United States for it.
On Monday, Saeed became only the fifth wanted criminal to warrant the top-dollar bounty in the State Department's Rewards for Justice Program. "Saeed is suspected of masterminding numerous terrorist attacks, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which resulted in the deaths of 166 people, including six American citizens," the State Department says in its reward notice.
In response, Saeed held a Wednesday press conference in Pakistan to make fun of the bounty.
"I am here, I am visible. America should give that reward money to me," he said. "I will be in Lahore tomorrow. America can contact me whenever it wants to."
At Wednesday State Department press briefing, Spokesman Mark Toner explained that of course the U.S. government knows where Saeed is ... and that wasn't the point of the bounty.
"Just to clarify, the $10 million is for information not about his location but information that leads to an arrest or conviction. And this is information that could withstand judicial scrutiny. So I think what's important here is we're not seeking this guy's location," Toner said. "We all know where he is. Every journalist in Pakistan and in the region knows how to find him. But we're looking for information that can be usable to convict him in a court of law."
Reporters at the briefing pointed out that Saeed has already been indicted in India so presumably the Indians have plenty of evidence to convict him.
"Look, I think we're trying to, you know, get information that can be used to put this gentleman behind bars," Toner said. "There is information, there's intelligence that, you know, is not necessarily usable in a court of law."
The Pakistani Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it needed "concrete evidence" before the Pakistani government would move to arrest Saeed. Toner said such evidence is exactly what the bounty is meant to elicit and should not be an irritant in the already troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
"This is about a process in and of itself, separate and apart from our ongoing bilateral relations with Pakistan," he said.
Outside experts doubt that this separation is either clear or tenable.
"This adds more fire to a relationship that can be called severely dysfunctional," said Bruce Riedel, a former senior National Security Council official now at the Brookings Institution. "I assume the administration believes this bounty will put more pressure on the government of Pakistan to do something about it. It ratchets up the pressure on LeT a little bit. It ratchets up the pressure on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship more."
Saeed deserved the bounty due to his role in the 2008 Mumbai bombings and various other terrorist activities, Reidel said, and the bounty is part of a steady stream of actions against Saeed that included a U.N. special designation in 2008 and a Treasury Department sanctions designation in 2010.
The Pakistani government isn't likely to hand over Saeed any time soon, however, so the administration has added yet another point of contention to an already contentious relationship.
"The next time the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence travels to Washington, the U.S. official now have the obligation to raise this will them. I hope the administration has a plan for what happens when the Pakistanis say no," Riedel said, referring to Pakistan's top intelligence agency, the ISI.
The State Department maintains that the timing of the bounty, more than three and a half years after the Mumbai attack, was simply the result of the bureaucratic process. Riedel isn't so sure. He pointed out that new information about Saeed's links to al Qaeda was discovered in the material retrieved from Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad hideout.
Saeed's ties to the al Qaeda leader go back decades. Bin Laden helped fund the creation of LeT in the 1980s. On the Friday after bin Laden was killed, Saeed gave a very public eulogy praising him.
"If the administration is going to be putting out more of the Abbottabad material, if one of the things they found was more linkage between Saeed and bin Laden, it's quite plausible and that may have been the spark that pushed them over the edge regarding the bounty," Riedel said. "Like everybody else, I'm waiting to see what their plan is for the day after."
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
Several top members of the House of Representatives are fighting for expanded sanctions on Iran, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) opposes any changes to the bill currently before the Senate.
House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), has joined with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) to introduce a bill of Iran sanctions measures they want to see added to the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, which is currently pending before the Senate. Reid has said there is no time to debate or consider amendments to the bill and wants to pass it as is. But Ros-Lehtinen, Sherman, and a slew of senators including Joe Lieberman (I-CT) are urging Reid to allow lawmakers to offer amendments that would strengthen the bill.
Ros-Lehtinen and Sherman's bill, the Iran Financial Sanctions Improvement Act, contains many of the sanctions measures that Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who is recovering from a stroke, included in his proposed amendment to the Johnson-Shelby bill. The Ros-Lehtinen Sherman bill would expand financial sanctions to all Iranian banks, authorize the president to sanction any entity that works with any Iranian bank, expand sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran beyond oil, and expand sanctions on the Iranian insurance sector.
"In particular, I urge Senate leadership to allow a version of an amendment authored by Senator Kirk to be considered by the Senate," Sherman said in Tuesday statement. "After the current district work period the Senate should pass the toughest possible Iran legislation, and it is critical that the Kirk-Sherman language be part of the bill when it leaves the Senate."
Senators come back from their "state work period" on April 16.
Last week, Ros-Lehtinen publicly called on Reid to open up the Senate bill to amendments. The Senate GOP leadership is also calling on Reid to allow limited amendments to the Johnson-Shelby bill.
Today, in a statement to The Cable, House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) said he also supports the Kirk amendmnet.
" I support any proposal, including the Kirk amendment, to tighten sanctions on Iran that will contribute to preventing the regime from developing a nuclear weapons capability - an urgent national security priority for the United States," Berman said.
Other measures found in the Kirk amendment were included by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Robert Dold (R-FL) in a bill they introduced last week called the Iranian Energy Sector and Proliferation Sanctions Act. That bill would expand energy-sector sanctions on Iran by declaring the country a "zone of proliferation concern," thus barring any businesses or service providers from dealing with the Iranian petroleum sector in any way.
"As the Mullahs face an unprecedented level of economic pressure and international isolation, now is the time to intensify this pressure," Deutch said in a statement, referring to Iran's clerical leaders. "This legislation will put the world on notice that Iran's entire energy sector is off limits so long as this regime continues to defy the international community in pursuit of an illicit nuclear weapons program."
Last December, the House passed another Iran sanctions bill, the Iran Threat Reductions Act, which was sponsored by Ros-Lehtinen and Berman. That bill contains a host of sanctions, including another piece of the Kirk amendment that stipulates the president must investigate allegations of sanctions violations made by U.S. government organizations such as the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, and the Energy Information Agency.
The Ros-Lehtinen Berman bill could be combined with the Johnson-Shelby bill in a House-Senate conference, if and when the Senate passes its bill. The language from these various other House bills that seek to add more Iran sanctions into the mix could be added in conference, but they have a much better chance of becoming part of the final law if they are added to the Senate bill as part of an amendment and through a vote.
Senator Reid's office told The Cable that despite the growing number of lawmakers calling for votes on measures to amend the Johnson-Shelby bill, he has no plans to alter his position.
"Sounds like enough House members to round out a research document from a Republican office like Senator Kirk's, but not enough to change Senator Reid's stance on this issue," said Reid's Communications Director Adam Jentleson.
The Obama administration has no position on the Johnson-Shelby bill and no position on the Kirk amendment, a senior administration official told The Cable. Kirk's office is hoping that by the time the Senate gets back to town, Reid will decide to open up the bill to debate.
"Senator Kirk remains committed to a bipartisan process that would allow Democrats and Republicans to come together to strengthen our sanctions against Iran," said Kirk's spokesperson Kate Dickens.
For years, the Washington debate over Georgia has focused on its quarrels with Russia and its aspirations to join NATO. This month, the well-heeled Georgian opposition has succeeded -- with help from a large team of D.C. lobbyists -- in opening the debate to include the Georgian government's handling of human rights and democracy inside the country.
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) brought simmering congressional interest in internal Georgian politics into the public discussion last week by introducing the "Republic of Georgia Democracy Act of 2012," which declares in its list of findings that "Democracy in Georgia is facing serious challenges and political freedom and fair competition between political parties is under assault."
"For example, the government has increased detaining members of the political opposition and civil society nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), limited freedom of the press, undermined the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, and stopped opposition groups from holding demonstrations -- often by violent means," the bill states.
The bill goes on to accuse the Georgian government, led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, of harassing billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom the bill identifies as a Georgian businessman who has launched a new political party called Georgian Dream, "in an effort to unify the Georgian opposition parties and challenge Saakashvili's increasingly dictatorial control over Georgia's government."
The legislation accuses Saakasvili of stripping Ivanishvili of his Georgia citizenship and initiating a campaign of punishing and detaining his supporters in the lead up to the October 2012 Georgian parliamentary elections. The bill seeks an end to U.S. aid to Georgia if the elections are not free and fair or if Ivanishvili and his party are not allowed to fully participate.
"This bill will help shed light on the suppression that has been intensifying in Georgia. I know Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle share my growing concern over the suppression of political parties, nongovernmental organizations and workers in Georgia," McDermott said in a press release.
McDermott has not been known in Congress as being particularly active on the Georgia issue or on foreign policy in general. His last major foray into international diplomacy was a late 2002 trip to Iraq to meet with Saddam Hussein just before the U.S. invasion, a trip that was later discovered to be financed by Saddam's intelligence agencies.
But he is not the only lawmaker who has become recently interested in the internal politics in Georgia. Several senators brought up the issue at the March 21 nomination hearing for the new U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, who was confirmed late last week.
"I strongly believe that advancing our key interest in Georgia's long-term security and stability is directly linked to the government's furthering democratic reforms," said Senate Foreign Relations Europe Subcommittee Chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) at the hearing.
In his opening remarks, Norland praised the Saakashvili government, declared U.S. support for Georgian territorial integrity, and noted Georgian contributions to U.S. national security priorities, including its contribution to the war in Afghanistan.
"As President Obama noted during President Saakashvili's visit to Washington earlier this year, Georgia has made extraordinary progress during this time in transforming itself from a fragile state to one that has succeeded in significantly reducing petty corruption, modernizing state institutions and services, and building a sovereign and democratic country," Norland said.
But then, in response to questioning from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Norland directly tied the conduct of Georgia's upcoming parliamentary elections to U.S. support for Georgia's NATO membership.
"I would just point out given Georgia's interests, Georgia's aspirations to NATO membership, and our support for those aspirations, how these elections are conducted is a very important litmus test, and we'll be watching carefully to make sure that the way these elections unfold are in keeping with NATO standards," he said.
"I just would underscore the issue of qualification of opposition candidates," Cardin said, a not too thinly veiled reference to Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream party. "That's been used in too many European countries as a way of trying to block opposition opportunities, and I would just urge our presence there to have the widest possible opportunities for opposition to effectively be able to compete on a level playing field."
Norlund's comments stunned Georgia watchers because no administration official had directly linked the conduct of parliamentary elections to Georgia's NATO aspirations, and the no other administration official has used the term "litmus test" to connect the two.
The new and expansive congressional interest in Georgia's democratic development coincides with a new and expansive lobbying effort by Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream party in Washington. The effort is led by the powerful D.C. lobbying law firm Patton Boggs, which has filed disclosures for its work on behalf of Ivanishvili and his Cartu Bank under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), rather than the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), as is commonly used for Americans representing foreign politicians.
The Ivanishvili lobbying team also includes several other D.C. firms, including National Strategies, which also filed under the LDA and declared on its form that it is not representing a "foreign entity." Working with National Strategies is the firm of Downy McGrath, which did say it is representing a "foreign entity" in its disclosure forms and stated it is working on behalf of "democratic elections in the Republic of Georgia." The firm of Parry, Romani, Deconcini, Symms is also working on the Ivanishvili lobbying team, according to its own disclosure forms.
Some firms appear to be working on Ivanishvili's behalf even though they haven't registered at all. The firms KGlobal and Peter Mirijanian Public Affairs have been sending e-mails to reporters touting the McDermott bill.
The only firm to register under FARA as representing Ivanishvili is BGR Group, whose disclosure forms for its business representing Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream movement can be found here, here, here and here. BGR also represents leading Georgian opposition politician Irakli Alasania and his Free Democrats party, according to their own FARA disclosure forms. Alasania's political efforts are supported and funded by Ivanishvili, the disclosure forms reveal.
Lobbying firms often prefer to register under LDA rather than FARA because the disclosure requirements are more lenient. The legality of such filings, according to FARA lawyers, depends on whether the client is actively involved in foreign politics and whether U.S. lobbyists are actively involved in lobbying U.S. officials for specific policies related to said politics.
Ivanishvili's critics paint him as a Russia-funded oligarch whose agenda is anti-Western and therefore anti-American. They point to his seemingly soft stance on Russia, such as when he said of once and future President Vladimir Putin, "the Russian people like this man" and that Russia "is not the worst example of an undemocratic state." He has also blamed Saakashvili for the outbreak of war with Russia in 2008.
Ivanishvili's economic ties to Russia run deep. He made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, and still maintains at least a 1 percent stake in Gazprom, the state-controlled energy behemoth. (The Russian Federation and Gazprom are represented in Washington by Ketchum).
In an interview last week with Der Spiegel, Ivanishvili spelled out the goals of his new and expensive lobbying effort, namely to get the U.S. government to end its support for Saakashvili.
"America has chosen Georgia as a junior partner. The United States believes that Saakashvili is creating a democratic Georgia, but these are merely facades," he said. "I want to show the Americans his true face. Saakashvili is pulling the wool over their eyes."
For now, the U.S. government is treading carefully on the issue. In his written responses to questions from Sen. Richard Lugar (R-ID), Norland disputed some of Ivanishvili and McDermott's assertions, but did not dismiss their concerns outright.
"We are not aware of any opposition supporters being detained, although there have been some credible reports of their harassment. In addition, there are indications that Georgia's new campaign finance law is being implemented in a manner which is curbing political speech," he said. "Our focus is on the process and ensuring that all qualified candidates and political parties are able to compete on equal terms; the administration does not support any particular party or candidate."
Win McNamee/Getty Images
The State Department is supposed to be testing its high-security employees to see if they are getting high, but testing has fallen way below the required levels and no overseas diplomats are getting drug tested at all, according to a new internal report.
Former President Ronald Reagan established the rule back in 1986 that federal employees aren't allowed to use illicit drugs either on or off the job, due to the risk of coercion of employees entrusted with national security information, loss of productivity, and impairment of their health and well-being. The State Department's Foreign Affairs Manual dictates that all department employees with a "secret" level or above should be subject to random drug tests because they posses sensitive information and mandates that the State Department have a detailed plan for drug testing.
But the State Department's plan doesn't include testing for anybody stationed overseas, even though more than 40 percent of the highly sensitive jobs are located outside the United States, the State Department's inspector general (IG) found.
"Moreover, the number of employees in sensitive positions subject to testing is only 1 percent, or approximately 190 employees, while the plan calls for 10 percent, or approximately 1,503 employees. Additionally, there are no formal procedures to ensure that all personnel selected for drug testing are in fact tested and that any employee who seeks a deferral of testing has a legitimate reason for seeking a deferral," the report stated.
"As a result, the Department cannot ensure that it is achieving its goal of having a drug-free workplace."
The IG made four specific recommendations which, if implemented, could mean that the party is over for diplomats who might be taking advantage of the local wares in places like Afghanistan, Thailand, and Colombia. The IG recommended that State develop and implement an overseas drug testing program, make sure that drug testing is actually random, develop a new methodology for drug testing to be approved by the Department of Health and Human Services, and ensure "the Department is placing appropriate management emphasis and resources toward achieving the objective of a drug-free workplace."
The IG blamed the problem on the lack of program supervision and oversight by the drug program coordinator, who is a deputy assistant secretary for human resources, and the drug program manager, who is a nurse in the office of medical services.
Neither the Bureau of Human Resources nor the Office of Medical Services responded to the draft report.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.