One of the Senate's most powerful Democrats has some advice for top Obama administration officials: take your collective feet out of your collective mouths when you're talking about Syria.
Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said recent comments by Secretary of State John Kerry and Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken undercut the Obama administration's negotiating position with Damascus and made it even harder for the White House to sell a war-weary American public on potential military strikes against Syria.
"There are a number of things that have been said that I think are not helpful at all, including some by Kerry," Levin told reporters today.
It was meant to be a softball question. Would the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked, sign off on legislation barring ground troops from being sent to Syria? The White House had been making that exact guarantee for days, and Kerry had been sent to Capitol Hill to reiterate the promise to a panel of skeptical lawmakers. He somehow messed up the answer all the same.
"It would be preferable not to" insert that kind of language into a formal congressional authorization for military strikes into Syria, Kerry said. He cited a range of hypotheticals, from Syria imploding to chemical weapons falling into the hands of the country's Islamist rebels, where the U.S. might need to take strong steps to prevent catastrophe. "I don't want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country," Kerry said.
Kerry realized his mistake almost immediately and quickly assured the lawmakers that the administration was fine with a ban on ground troops. "Let's shut that door now as tight as we can," he said. He wasn't able to put the genie back in the bottle, though. Over the course of the four-hour hearing, Republican after Republican asked Kerry to promise that the administration wouldn't do something it had already promised not to do.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accused Russia of supplying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with chemical weapons, the most eyebrow-raising moment in a long and sometimes strange hearing that included the Obama administration's first estimate of the financial cost of a potential U.S. strike on Syria, a detailed description of the U.S. target list, and a Republican congressman's meandering attempt to link Syria to the consolate attack in Benghazi and the Justice Department's "Fast and Furious" scandal.
First, Russia. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) -- best known for screaming "you lie" at President Obama during a State of the Union address -- made the most news at today's hearing when he asked Hagel where Assad had gotten his chemical weapons.
"Well, the Russians supply them," Hagel responded. "Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves."
Reports that Russia has been selling chemical weapons to Assad -- or at least providing the ingredients and equipment his scientists needed to make them -- have been floating around for years, but Hagel's comments marked one of the first times a high-ranking American official made the charge publicly.
The comments were later walked back by Pentagon Press Secretary George Little, who in a statement to reporters said: "In a response to a member of Congress, Secretary Hagel was referring to the well-known conventional arms relationship between Syria and Russia. The Syrian regime has a decades-old largely indigenous chemical weapons program. Currently, Russia provides the Syrian regime a wide variety of military equipment and support, some of which can be modified or otherwise used to support the chemical weapons program. We have publicly and privately expressed our concern over the destabilizing impact on the Syrian conflict and the wider region of continued military shipments to the Assad regime."
The allegation is likely to further exacerbate U.S.-Russian tensions over Syria, which spiked this week after Russian President Vladimir Putin came out in strong opposition to a potential American intervention into Syria.
Hagel's Russia comments were the most surprising part of the House hearing, but they weren't the only interesting moment on a day when the administration won its first major victory by getting the Senate Foreign Relations Services Committee to sign off, 10-7, on a military strike against Assad. The measure should go to the full Senate next week.
Below, four other highlights from from the House session:
Military Strikes On The Cheap: Hagel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the limited military strikes envisioned by the administration would cost "tens of millions of dollars," the Pentagon's first public estimate of the financial price of hitting Assad.
It's a surprisingly low number given that U.S. air operations in Libya, a country with far less sophisticated air defenses than Syria, cost roughly $1 billion. A U.S. official stood by Hagel's estimate, telling The Cable that "we're taking millions and not billions for this operation." If those numbers are accurate, the potential U.S. strikes on Syria would be exceptionally modest in both scope and duration. Proponents of the strike have talked about an attack that might cost a couple hundred million. Could this plan be even smaller than previously imagined?
Military Strikes On Someone Else's Tab: Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Arab League wasn't willing to formally request a U.S. strike on Syria, but said key Arab powers were prepared to do perhaps the next best thing: pick up the tab for the entire cost of the operation.
"With respect to Arab countries offering to bear costs and to assess, the answer is profoundly yes," Kerry said. "They have. That offer is on the table."
In fact, Kerry said, Arab countries were willing to open their checkbooks wide.
"Some of them have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing the way we've done it previously in other places, they'll carry that cost," Kerry said. "That's how dedicated they are at this. That's not in the cards, and nobody's talking about it, but they're talking in serious ways about getting this done."
Kerry also gamely insisted that so many U.S. allies wanted to take part in a potential strike on Syria that the Pentagon couldn't find a role for all of them. That seems unlikely, since Turkey and France are to date the only major powers to publicly express a willingness to use military force against Assad. But Kerry may have an elastic definition of "participation." Albania, he said later in the hearing, was willing to provide political support for a strike. He didn't say anything about Albania being willing to do much else.
The Target List: Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided one of the most-detailed breakdowns to date of the military's target list for Syria. He said the overall mission would be to degrade Assad's chemical weapons assets by striking targets "directly linked to the control of chemical weapons but without exposing those chemical weapons to a loss of security." Translated from military-speak, that means doing everything possible to ensure that those weapons didn't fall into the hands of the Islamists flooding into Syria to battle Assad.
Dempsey said other targets would include the "means of delivery" for the weapons, like the rockets and artillery shells that allegedly carried sarin gas into rebel-held areas of Damascus last month, and the country's air defense systems, including its longer-range missile and rockets.
That description closely tracks with recent news reports about the administration considering a target list of roughly 50 sites that would be struck over the course of one to two days. The White House has harshly condemned those leaked war plans and vowed to find those responsible.
Bringing the Crazy: The strangest and most contentious moment of the five-hour hearing came during a heated exchange between Kerry and Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), who accused the administration of having a "serious credibility issue" because of what he said were lingering questions about the White House's handling of Benghazi, the alleged IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department's ill-fated "Fast and Furious" program.
His questioning of Kerry quickly turned personal.
"Mr. Kerry, you have never been one that has advocated for anything other than caution when involving U.S. forces in past conflicts. The same is true for the president and the vice president," he said. "Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you would abandon caution in favor for pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?"
The secretary of state, not surprisingly, didn't take well to the charge. Normally even-keeled, a visibly angry Kerry reminded Duncan that he, Hagel, and Dempsey had all served in the military and cut the congressman off when Duncan tried to interject.
"I'm going to finish, congressman," he said, almost shouting. "I am going to finish."
Kerry said that as a senator he'd supported military action in Grenada and Panama -- conspicuously ignoring his early support for the Iraq war -- and made no attempt to hide that he thought the questions were ludicrous.
"I'm not going to sit here and be told by you that I don't have a sense of what the judgment is with respect to this," he said. "We're talking about people being killed by gas and you want to go talk about Benghazi and Fast and Furious!"
It remains to be seen whether Duncan will be the only one who wants to dredge up past administration scandals. With public opinion running sharply against any U.S. strike, Republicans seem likely to use any weapon in their arsenal to attack the White House's case for war.
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There are a lot of good reasons to oppose a United States military strike in Syria. It may do little to change the behavior of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It may invite retaliation on U.S. allies in the region such as Turkey and Israel. It may further entangle the U.S. in a conflict that has little to do with America.
But one rationale is making military experts do a double-take: Sequestration.
As the White House seeks Congressional authorization for a strike, it's facing stiff opposition from a set of lawmakers that typically supports U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. These hawkish lawmakers don't oppose President Obama's geopolitical priorities or chemical weapons evidence. They think the Pentagon doesn't have enough money in its half-trillion dollar budget to carry out a Syria strike given the $500 billion in across-the-board spending cuts facing the military in the next decade.
"We cannot keep asking the military to perform mission after mission with sequestration and military cuts hanging over their heads," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Monday. "We have to take care of our own people first."
Members of the Syrian opposition and their supporters reacted with a mixture of alarm and outrage at President Obama's decision to delay a military strike on Syria while he seeks authorization from Congress.
In brief remarks from the Rose Garden on Saturday afternoon, Obama said the United States should take military action against the Syrian regime in response to a chemical weapons attack in Damascus on August 21, but that he would wait for both houses of Congress to debate the action and hold a vote. The earliest that could happen is the week of September 9, when both chambers will have returned from summer recess.
The unexpected delay added to a sense of disarray and confusion among some rebel factions about U.S. policy and when, or if, the Obama administration will intervene to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for what Obama called "the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st Century." An extraordinary amount of detail about a military strike had been leaking out for days, leading forces on the ground to assume U.S. action was imminent.
"This is absolutely a blow to many in the opposition on the ground who've suffered the brunt of the chemical attacks," said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which has long favored American intervention in the conflict. "The feeling now is that this is really an orphaned revolution and that the regime will feel emboldened to continue its shelling of cities and towns around Damascus."
The White House's push to win Congressional support for a military strike on Syria is running into an unexpected roadblock: lingering anger over the administration's decision to bypass Capitol Hill when it decided to intervene in Libya two years ago.
Senior administration officials briefed the leadership of the House and Senate Thursday night on intercepted phone calls between senior Syrian military officials and other intelligence purporting to show that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs that killed hundreds of civilians. President Obama personally called House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to walk them through the report.
For a growing number of lawmakers, however, that outreach isn't enough. With the prospect of an imminent U.S. military intervention into Syria looming, 140 members of Congress, including 21 Democrats, signed onto a letter demanding that the White House seek formal Congressional approval before using force there. Failing to do so, they say, would be unconstitutional.
Sen. John McCain sounded a civil note at the beginning of his remarks at a Center for a New American Security event on Thursday, April 18. "What Republicans need now is a vigourous contest on ideas on national security and foreign policy," he told a group of military, foreign policy, and business professionals. "This contest can and should be conducted respectfully and without name-calling, which is something an old wacko-bird like me must remember from time to time."
Though he didn't resort to epithets, the rest of the speech featured a series of broadsides against isolationists and non-interventionists of both parties, but especially senators on McCain's own side of the aisle. "When it comes to the politics of national security," McCain said, "my beloved Republican Party has some soul-searching to do."
In particular, McCain singled out his "libertarian friends" who participated in Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster against John Brennan's confirmation as CIA director. "Rather than debate the very real dilemmas of targeted killing," McCain said, "my colleagues chose to focus instead on the theoretical possibility that the president would use a drone to kill Americans on U.S. soil even if they're not engaged in hostilities. As misguided as this exercise was, the political pressures on Republicans to join in were significant, and many ultimately did -- including many who know better."
As a compromise, McCain suggested revising the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which provides the legal justification for the targeted killing program, and codifying drone policy "to preserve, but clarify the commander-in-chief's war powers, while insisting on greater transparency and broader congressional oversight of how these war powers are employed."
He inveighed against the "emergence of a military-industrial-congressional complex that has corrupted and crippled the defense acquisition process," though his critique focused on the runaway costs of projects like the F-35 and Littoral Combat Ship rather than the defense budget writ large, which he has pushed to maintain. He also went after colleagues who have tried to slash foreign aid, pointing out that, "It now seems that every piece of legislation that the Senate considers faces an inevitable amendment that would cut off all our assistance to Egypt or some other critical country. And unfortunately, these kinds of provisions keep winning more and more votes." McCain sounded downright weary as he described "explaining" and "reminding people" of the purpose of foreign aid. "While foreign aid might not make its recipients love us," he noted, "it does further our national security interests and values."
McCain went after colleagues' knee-jerk opposition to the United Nations as well. When asked about the Law of the Sea Treaty, he said, "It's probably not going to come up. Not with the makeup of this Senate, that's the reality. We couldn't even do a disabilities treaty, for God's sake." The problem? Here, McCain got sarcastic. "It's just, you know, it's the 'U.N.' It's the 'U.N.,'" he exclaimed, making air quotes and shrugging.
Despite the critiques of sequestration and U.S. policies on Syria and Iran, President Obama got off pretty easy by comparison. "Right now, the far left and far right in America are coming together in favor of pulling us back from the world," McCain observed. "The president and I have had our differences, many of those differences will persist, but there are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my party."
And while McCain seemed uncomfortable with the many rounds of nuclear negotiations with Iran, he said he didn't envy the president's decision on the use of force. "It's going to be probably one of the most difficult decisions the president of the United States has ever had to make," he argued, "and it's very rarely that I'm glad that I'm not the president of the United States, but this is one of [those times]."
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Four different Senate Republicans have four different ideas on how to alter U.S. aid to Egypt, in a struggle that is also becoming about the future of Republican leadership on foreign policy.
The Senate is working now on the next Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government from April until October -- and aid to Egypt is the main foreign policy issue likely to be attached to the funding measure. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), John McCain (R-AZ), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Rand Paul (R-KY) all have introduced amendments to the CR dealing with Egypt aid, but they all have competing ideas on how to condition it in light of Egypt's changing security challenges and the fragile path to democracy under the government led by Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsy.
Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has also introduced an amendment on Egypt aid, making it five total amendments that are now the subject of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations.
"We have five different amendments that have been offered on Egypt," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said on the Senate floor Thursday, lamenting that the Senate was confronted with tackling the Egypt aid issue in a rush on a temporary funding bill. Reid doesn't really want to do Egypt policy on this bill at all.
"This is a CR for six months. We have a functioning Foreign Relations Committee. That's where this should take place," he said. "We all have concerns about Egypt. Our funding in Egypt, maintaining stability in the region, supporting Israel. We have, as I've indicated, five senators who have filed five separate, distinct amendments. And literally staffs with senators have worked all day coming up with an amendment that Democrats and Republicans could agree on. It hasn't been done. Doesn't mean it can't be done, but it hasn't been done. I would again remind senators that this is a Continuing Resolution. The long-term solution to the situation in the Middle East is not a short-term CR. Whatever we do on this bill would expire in six months anyway."
But despite Reid's reluctance, senators are likely to coalesce around one or two Egypt aid amendments that could get a vote on the Senate floor next week. The first senator to introduce an Egypt amendment was Rubio, who spoke about it in an interview this week with The Cable.
"This is not about cancelling foreign aid to Egypt per se. This is about restructuring it in a way that lines up with the interests of the taxpayers of the United States of America," Rubio said. "Their real security needs are largely internal and we want to recalibrate our military aid to Egypt to meet their actual needs. Egypt doesn't need tanks, it doesn't need jet fighters, it's not going to be invaded by neighbors in the near future."
For Rubio, the Egypt amendment is his opening salvo in what promises to be a year of increasing involvement in an array of foreign policy issues. He promised he would have similar amendments in the future on aid to other countries as well.
"Foreign aid is important because it increases our influence and in particular our ability to influence things around the world to advance our interests. But foreign aid is not charity.... That means that every single dime we give in foreign aid should be conditioned," he said.
Rubio is also concerned about the Morsy government's commitment to the Camp David accords, their unwillingness or inability to maintain security in the Sinai Peninsula, and their treatment of opposition parties and non-governmental organizations.
"We've heard some of the comments of the president of Egypt and some of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. It's downright offensive, and that's their ideology and we've seen some of that come through in their public policy," he said.
Rubio's original amendment would have blocked disbursements of economic support funds (ESF) and new foreign military financing for Egypt until the administration could certify that the Morsy government was enacting economic and political reforms, not restricting religious and human rights, not undermining free and fair elections, improving its treatment of foreign NGOs, fully implementing the peace treaty with Israel, taking all available actions to end smuggling into Gaza and combat terrorism in the Sinai.
The Rubio amendment required the administration to certify that the government of Egypt had apportioned specific amounts of aid to counterterrorism and the Sinai but gave the administration the authority to waive the new aid restrictions every six months.
The McCain amendment takes a different, less confrontational approach. It only would impact foreign military financing, not economic support funds, and clearly states that any change in Egypt military aid should only affect new contracts, not existing contracts for items already in the manufacturing pipeline.
The McCain amendment requires the administration to report back to Congress about how the Egyptian military is spending the money and how it might be spent better in the security interests of both Egypt and the United States. But there's no cut off of aid and no waiver authority. Last year, Egyptians got angry when Congress imposed new restrictions on military aid to Cairo, only to see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waive them anyway.
After McCain filed his amendment, Rubio made some changes to his amendment to bring it closer in line with McCain's. Rubio's new amendment now conditions ESF funds in a way that's closer to what's already in present law. Backroom negotiations between the two offices are ongoing.
The Leahy amendment is seen as the Democrats' attempt to take what they liked of the Republican amendments and try to reach a compromise text. It most closely follows McCain's approach by requiring the administration to report on the military aid spending but also requires the administration to report on political reform, human rights, and NGO treatment in Egypt.
Paul's amendment would cut off all assistance to Egypt until Morsy says in English and Arabic that he intends to uphold the Camp David accords. Inhofe's amendment would conditionally suspend the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Egypt. Inhofe has also co-sponsored the Paul amendment.
"For months, I have been calling for President Obama and his administration to hold president Morsy accountable for failing to promote promised democracy in Egypt and for the instability in the region," Inhofe said on the Senate floor this week. "Under President Morsy and his radical Muslim Brotherhood, the United States' historically good relationship with Egypt is at a standstill."
The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simply not a top priority for Israel at this time, according to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who just returned from a trip to the region.
Rubio traveled to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan last week and spoke about his trip Wednesday to an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"Israel has a number of issues that they are concerned about and at the top of the list is Iran," Rubio said, noting that he believes Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon and that only the threat of losing power, not negotiations, will convince the Iranian government to change course.
"I hope there is a breakthrough in the negotiations ... I really hope that's what happens, but I don't believe that's what will happen," Rubio said.
"The second major concern is Syria with regards to weapons," he continued, noting that Syria is being flooded with weapons that will remain there after the regime falls, mostly in the hands of groups hostile to the United States. He said he supports giving elements of the Syrian opposition ammunition, but not weapons.
"You don't have to give them weapons; they've got plenty of weapons, frankly. What they need is ammunition. They run low on that very quickly," he said.
"The third concern that they have in Israel is Egypt," Rubio went on. He said the Israelis view the Muslim Brotherhood as a very patient group that, in the short term, is willing to be very pragmatic, but has a long-term strategy of fundamentally redefining every entity in Egypt and pushing the country in a more Islamic direction. The worsening security situation in Sinai is also a priority for Israel, and the U.S. government should press Egypt to do more, he said.
"The fourth issue that comes is the Palestinian question with regards to the West Bank," Rubio said. "The sense you get from the Israeli side of that is that is not the No. 1 issue on Israeli minds at this moment."
"It's not that the Palestinian issue isn't important to the Israelis; it's just that in the ranking now, it's lost its place because of all these other issues," Rubio said.
There's a fundamental difference of opinion between the Israeli government and the Obama administration on the priority of dealing with the Palestinian peace process, he said.
"I think the right approach of the U.S. is to view all of these issues through the lens of Israeli security. The more security Israel feels, the likelier it's going to be that these issues move forward to resolution," Rubio said.
Rubio said that Israeli officials were eagerly anticipating the visit next month by President Barack Obama and were curious about whether Obama was coming with a specific plan on the Palestinian peace process or whether he was just going to go to listen.
"I told them I probably wasn't the best source for the president's thinking but my sense of it was the president was probably coming more to listen than to dictate," he said.
This year's election will likely usher in major changes in Congress on foreign policy and national security, regardless of which party ends up on top once all the ballots are counted and the winners declared.
Pollsters don't expect a sea change in either branch of Congress this year. According to the Real Clear Politics website, which compiles polling data on every race, Democrats have 46 safe or non-contested Senate seats heading into the election, compared with the Republicans' 43, with 11 races classified as "toss ups." RCP's House polling discounts virtually any possibility that Democrats could take over there. The site's average "generic ballot" shows that Republicans have half a percentage-point lead among voters in general, further suggesting that there will be no major shift in the balance of power on Capitol Hill.
But several key committee leadership posts are changing hands, influential leaders are exiting Washington, and a new crop of national security lawmakers is looking to fill their void. The result could be a Congress that has less experience and fewer incentives to work across the aisle or cooperate with the executive branch, playing an increasing role of the spoiler in foreign policy.
A number of influential senators are leaving at the end of this year. When they depart, Congress could lose much of the expertise that they and their staffs have accumulated over decades of service. In the House, both the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) could change, as could the GOP leadership slot on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) will have at least one new leader, and maybe two, by the end of 2013.
"There are several lawmakers leaving who had been a leading voice on several foreign policy issues over a long period of time," a senior Senate foreign-policy staffer told The Cable. "It's not just the institutional knowledge; it's the relationships they have around the world as well. The Senate's going to be a profoundly different place without them."
One retiring senator with outsized influence is Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who played a leading role in Republican attempts to thwart President Obama's nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
"One senator can make a difference in this system and when that senator dies, retires, or is defeated, that could have a big impact. Such will be the case with Jon Kyl," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World (CLW), which advocates on issues related to nuclear proliferation.
CLW has been on the opposite side of Kyl on issues including missile defense, nuclear weapons, arms control, and several other topics. The council is also raising funds for several Democratic House and Senate candidates around the country.
But Isaacs has a grudging respect for his chief adversary. "Kyl really was an expert on nuclear weapons and he was effective. He almost single-handedly defeated the Congressional Test Ban Treaty in 1999," Isaacs said. "The anti-arms control crowd will suffer a real loss."
Kyl not only led the GOP caucus on missile defense and nuclear weapons, he used his leadership position to head the opposition to New START in 2010 and he was a key critic of the Russian "reset." His office often held up State Department nominees. Under Obama, he has generally steered the GOP caucus toward confrontation with the White House, commandeering issues away from the ranking Republican on the SFRC Richard Lugar (R-IN), who was more amenable to crossing the aisle.
Lugar won't be returning next year either, as he lost his primary race to Richard Murdouk, who is locked in a tight race with Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-IN). Lugar dutifully led the more realist and less interventionist side of the caucus; he opposed the war in Libya and opposes more U.S. involvement in Syria. Perhaps due to his bipartisan inclinations on foreign policy, he was somewhat marginalized toward the end of his tenure by his own party leadership.
Lugar with likely be replaced as the SFRC's ranking member by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who broadly shares Lugar's worldview but is still building his expertise. "Lugar's a symbol of the way things used to be, bipartisan crossing lines and working with Democrats," Isaacs said, referring to the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction program and Lugar's support for New START. "Corker seems to a pragmatist somewhat in the mold of Lugar."
The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), is also retiring this year. Also leaving the Senate are SFRC Asia Subcommittee Chairman and former Navy Secretary Jim Webb (D-VA), who was hugely active on issues such as Burma and U.S. force structure in Korea and Japan, and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), the longtime former chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee and current chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Government Management.
There's no clear replacement for the role that Webb and Lieberman played on Asia-Pacific issues. Both traveled to the region often and those relationships need to be maintained, staffers say.
"The question in the next Congress will be who steps in and fills that leadership role," the senior Senate staffer said.
On the Democratic side of the SFRC, if President Barack Obama is reelected, Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) stands a chance of being nominated to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton next year. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who would have SFRC seniority, would likely decline the chairmanship to hold on to her chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The next Democrat in line would be Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who is running for his second full term in the Senate this year. Menendez is largely progressive but has been known to challenge the administration regarding his three most prized issues: Cuba, Iran, and the Armenian Genocide. Should he be reelected, Menendez would be in a position for press for Iran sanctions more than the administration wants, and he would likely thwart any progress on changing U.S. policy toward Cuba.
One often overlooked wrinkle on the SFRC: If Obama wins a second term and appoints Kerry secretary of state, Massachusetts would hold a special election. If Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) loses to Elizabeth Warren next week, he would the clear frontrunner for Kerry's vacated seat, if he decided to run again. So there's a political risk in appointing Kerry secretary of state.
There may even be more changes coming on the SFRC, because its members often seek to exit the once-prized panel. The SFRC is perceived on the Hill as the weakest of the "Class A" committees, as it has no real control over money and no domestic constituency.
"It tends to be a dumping ground for senators who can't get on other committees that they want," said Isaacs. "That's too bad, but that's the way it is."
At the Senate Armed Services Committee, ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) has reached his term limit and will have to forgo his committee post if the Democrats retain control of the chamber (though he could keep it if Republicans take power). That would likely elevate Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) to the committee leadership spot, which might spell doom for Kerry's personal passion, ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which Inhofe has pledged to prevent. McCain, a former Navy pilot, was amenable to at least debating the agreement.
A set of younger and newer senators are moving to fill the foreign-policy gap left by the departure of the veterans. On the GOP side, emerging leaders including Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Mark Kirk (R-IL). Under McCain's tutelage, Ayotte has been delving into the nuclear portfolio and national security budgeting. Kirk is already a Senate leader on Iran and Israel, with a particular focus on sanctions.
For the Democrats, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) has used his SFRC Africa Subcommittee Chairmanship to its potential. He's a Swahili-speaking, tough-on-Iran lawmaker who occupies the seat once held by vice president and former SFRC chairman Joe Biden. Sen. Bob Casey, as head of the SFRC's Middle East subcommittee, is also becoming more and more active.
As for the House, where Republicans have spent the past two years passing bills that die waiting for Senate action, the GOP is virtually assured to hold onto the gavel.
A few changes are in the works. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has reached her term limit and cannot be chairwoman again next year. In one of the most bitter races, ranking member Howard Berman (D-CA) is trailing fellow Democrat Brad Sherman heading into the final days of the campaign. The competition to fill the vacancies at both leadership posts would play out after the new session begins next year.
But it's the Senate, through its influence over the nominating process, that truly matters.
According to James Lindsay, vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, power is moving away from committee chairs and toward individual senators. A single senator's ability to thwart a major piece of legislation or place a hold on a nominee empowers senators like Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), who use their hold power liberally and are generally unmoved by the ire of their colleagues.
"Congress far less often shapes policy in a positive direction. Their main method of effectiveness is to say ‘no,'" Lindsay said. "The greatest impact will be with those who are willing to use their ability to slow things down."
The House Oversight Committee is demanding answers from the State Department regarding newly discovered documents found in the wreckage of the U.S. mission in Benghazi that reveal U.S. diplomats noticed a Libyan police officer conducting surveillance of the compound the morning before the Sept. 11 attack and that the Benghazi police department had not responded to requests for more security during the visit of Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died in the attack that night.
Two reporters visiting the burned-out compound more than six weeks after the attack, and weeks after the FBI had visited the site, discovered an array of official and personal items that reveal the state of mind of nervous U.S. officials on the morning of Sept. 11, just hours before a group of well-armed men stormed the compound with heavy weapons, an attack that would ultimate result in the death of four Americans. In an exclusive report for Foreign Policy, journalists Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa revealed two unsigned draft letters written the day of the attack and warning that a Libyan police officer was spotted taking pictures of the compound.
"Finally, early this morning at 0643, September 11, 2012, one of our diligent guards made a troubling report. Near our main gate, a member of the police force was seen in the upper level of a building across from our compound. It is reported that this person was photographing the inside of the U.S. special mission and furthermore that this person was part of the police unit sent to protect the mission," reads the letter, addressed to Mohamed Obeidi, the head of the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs' office in Benghazi.
Obeidi said he never received the letter. Another letter states that U.S. diplomats had asked the Libyan government for added security for Stevens's visit -- security they apparently didn't get.
"On Sunday, September 9, 2012, the U.S. mission requested additional police support at our compound for the duration of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens' visit. We requested daily, twenty-four hour police protection at the front and rear of the U.S. mission as well as a roving patrol. In addition we requested the services of a police explosive detection dog," the letter reads. "We were given assurances from the highest authorities in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that all due support would be provided for Ambassador Stevens' visit to Benghazi. However, we are saddened to report that we have only received an occasional police presence at our main gate. Many hours pass when we have no police support at all."
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and National Security Subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who have been leading a congressional investigation into the security failures surrounding the attack, fired off a letter today to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding the new revelations, obtained by The Cable.
The congressmen are demanding to know whether the Benghazi mission's concerns about Libyan police surveillance and their unanswered requests for more Libyan government security assistance were ever sent to Washington, and if so, why the State Department didn't reveal that before now.
"These documents paint a disturbing picture indicating that elements of the Libyan government might have been complicit in the September 11, 2012 attack on the compound and the murder of four Americans. It also reiterates the fact that the U.S. government may have had evidence indicating that the attack was not a spontaneous event but rather a preplanned terrorist attack that included prior surveillance of the compound as a target," Issa and Chaffetz wrote.
"Given the location where they were found, these documents appear to be genuine and support a growing body of evidence indicating that the Obama Administration has tried to withhold pertinent facts about the 9/11 anniversary attack from Congress and the American people."
The congressmen lamented that important information about the attack is still being discovered by the media and not being given to congressional investigators by the administration. They said the letters call into question repeated State Department claims that there were no warnings before the attack, including when a senior State Department official told reporters Oct. 9 that there had been no security incidents at the consulate that day.
"Everything is calm at 8:30 p.m," the official said during a background briefing. "There's nothing unusual. There has been nothing unusual during the day at all outside."
"These statements appear to be inconsistent with the information included in the documents uncovered by Foreign Policy," Issa and Chaffetz wrote.
The State Department must tell Congress whether the letters were included in any cables, telegrams, or emails and provide copies of those documents "no later than 5:00 p.m. on November 8, 2012," the letter said.
Other documents found at the compound include a printout of an email from Stevens to his political officer regarding the Benghazi visit, a travel itinerary sent to Sean Smith, the other State Department official killed in the attack, and an Aug. 6 copy of the New Yorker addressed to Stevens.
No matter how the election turns out, Tennessee's Bob Corker is likely to be the next top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the entire GOP foreign-policy establishment is gearing up for that now.
With the departure of Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN), who lost his primary race in May, Corker is next in line, and could even become chairman should Republicans take control of the Senate. The ultimate decision is made by the GOP caucus, and while aides caution that nothing is final, Republicans are preparing Corker to be one of their party's leading figures on international affairs.
Not all Republicans are thrilled about Corker assuming control of the GOP side of the committee, however, and there was grumbling at first. Neoconservatives and hawks note that Corker has been a moderate voice on foreign policy as a committee member, often expressing a more cautious and non-interventionist note than some of his more hawkish colleagues, and has bucked the GOP leadership in some cases, such as when he voted in favor of Obama's nuclear arms treaty with Russia, New START, at the end of 2010.
But Corker has been quietly and doggedly reaching out to Republican foreign policy hands of all stripes, meeting them for briefings, salon dinners, and one-on-one encounters, both to hear their views and assure them he will represent the entire caucus if he gets the nod.
In an interview with The Cable, Corker said he wants the job, that he has been making preliminary preparations just in case he gets it, and that he has a vision of restoring the committee to a place of renewed prominence in the foreign-policy discussion in Washington and around the world.
"We understand the decision about who leads the Foreign Relations Committee is up to the caucus, but in the event I end up being the person, quietly we've done a significant amount of travel throughout the world to understand issues more deeply, we've had meetings and briefings with numbers of people with varying backgrounds and have really tried to immerse ourselves in such a way that if I am the person, I have the ability to be effective," Corker said.
Without much fanfare, Corker has visited 48 countries since taking office, often traveling commercial. He has been to Syria, Lebanon, Libya, India, Russia, Georgia, Afghanistan (3 times), Pakistan (3 times), and Iraq (3 times). Here in Washington, he's been meeting with conservatives and realists alike. Some of his briefings and social events have been organized by the American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka, a former staffer for SRFC chairman Jesse Helms, who declined to comment for this article.
Corker has also been thinking hard about new professionals to bring on to the SFRC, be it on the majority or minority staff. Several of Lugar's aides have already departed, and Corker could be building a new team largely from scratch. Right now, Corker is advised on national security primarily by Stacie Oliver, a former staffer for Sen. Chuck Hagel, but he will need a lot more help if and when he becomes a committee leader.
His charm offensive seems to be working. A top GOP foreign-policy hand who was initially wary of Corker said his outreach seems to be convincing even hawkish Republicans that they will have the senator's ear and that Corker would represent the whole caucus, not just its moderate wing.
"Senator Corker's team has done a good job of reaching out to the conservative foreign-policy community and outlining his goals for the committee if he is given the opportunity to serve in a leadership role," the GOP foreign-policy hand said.
Corker is careful not to be too presumptuous about getting the job. One senior GOP senator and avowed hawk, James Inhofe (R-OK), is known to oppose the idea. Inhofe's office did not respond to requests for comment, but multiple GOP Senate aides told The Cable that Inhofe has been considering challenging Corker's ascendancy when the issue comes to a head after the election.
The Cable has learned that Inhofe actually mounted a challenge to Lugar after the 2010 election, forcing a vote among the SFRC Republican members that Lugar narrowly won. Inhofe hasn't yet decided whether to try that again with Corker, but this time the internal caucus politics are more complicated than they were two years ago.
Inhofe, who is on the SFRC, may not want to take the ranking job on that committee because he is slated to be the ranking Republican of the Senate Armed Services Committee next year now that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has reached his term limit. Inhofe is next in line and would naturally prefer a leadership role on SASC, which is far more powerful than the SFRC.
If Inhofe did want to challenge Corker, he would need a proxy to support. The natural candidates are Sen. James Risch (R-ID) and rising star Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). But nothing could be done until at least December and as time goes by, the enthusiasm for mounting a fight against Corker is waning, Senate aides said.
Corker's foreign-policy views are often much more cautious than those of the Senate GOP caucus as a whole. Earlier this year, for example, he questioned whether the Syrian revolution was really about "democracy." In April, he worked to make sure Congress was not endorsing lethal aid to the Syrian opposition and actively supporting the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"I think it's odd to state as a national policy that we want to see Assad gone," Corker said.
His vote for New START was attacked by the conservative Heritage Foundation. He authored an amendment to the Magnitsky bill that would have placed sunsets on the penalties for Russian human rights violators. He later withdrew that amendment.
More recently, however, Corker has been aggressive in challenging the Obama administration to be more transparent and forthcoming about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. He is also pushing for an independent congressional investigation into the matter.
Corker's style is usually not confrontational. He opposed ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty last year, but initially declined to sign a letter joined by dozens of Senate Republicans outright opposing the treaty, instead arguing that it was simply not a priority for the Senate in 2012.
One concern some colleagues have about Corker is whether he would challenge Obama's nominees, should the president be reelected. Corker, who touts his experience as a former executive in business, often defers to the president's prerogative over personnel and has only voted against Obama nominees twice. He is likely to use the power to hold nominees sparingly, but is expected to make sure that nominations that he does hold are duly spiked.
Corker told The Cable that his main project would be make sure the SFRC is fulfilling its mandate of overseeing foreign policy and guiding the State Department's activities. He pledged to make sure the Senate passes a State Department authorization bill, something that hasn't happened since 2005. He also wants the committee to do big thinking over the horizon.
"I hope to be able to work with others to make the Foreign Relations Committee more relevant. We want to review everything that's being done at the State Department, which hasn't been done in decades," he said. "In regard to our national interests, the Foreign Relations Committee could be a place where we look at our national interests in the context of the longer view and be a buffer against the ‘hair on fire' mentality that can exist in White Houses."
For the GOP foreign-policy community, that would be a welcome development.
"There is a lot of interest on and off the Hill in seeing SFRC become a committee once again that senators aspire to serve on, that doesn't pull its punches, and fulfills its oversight responsibilities after years of drift," the GOP foreign-policy hand said.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) suggested Tuesday that President Bill Clinton is getting more and more active in politics this cycle in preparation for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to run for the presidency in 2016.
"I would never think such a thing and I am certainly not Machiavellian, but I am told that there are some that think this may have a lot to do with 2016 and the president's wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton," McCain said Tuesday morning. "Of course I would never suspicion such a thing, but there are some real jerks around who think that might be the case."
McCain was speaking on a conference call following Monday night's debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He said Obama is using President Clinton more and more in the campaign because Romney is gaining in the polls.
"I think [President Clinton's] appeal is obviously there and I don't think it's an accident that as Mitt Romney has surged in the polls there has been increase in the activities of President Clinton," he said.
In a recent interview with Marie Claire, Clinton repeated that she does not plan to run for president in 2016.
"I have been on this high wire of national and international politics and leadership for 20 years," Clinton said. "It has been an absolutely extraordinary personal honor and experience. But I really want to just have my own time back. I want to just be my own person. I'm looking forward to that."
McCain also addressed Obama's comments ridiculing Romney for comparing the size of the U.S. Navy today to its size during World War I.
"I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works. You -- you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets -- because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines," Obama said. "And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's what are our capabilities."
McCain said that Obama's highly touted rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region was an effort that requires robust ship presence and he said that if defense cuts under sequestration are allowed to take place, shipbuilding industries will suffer across the county and jobs will be lost.
"That was both demeaning to Mitt Romney and it also showed a degree of ignorance on the part of the president," McCain said. "You need naval presence the same way you did back then. Then to justify a steady reduction in shipbuilding, it shows a misunderstanding of the size of the challenge we face in the Asia-Pacific region."
McCain said that Romney had passed the commander-in-chief test at Monday's debate.
"The question in a lot of people's minds before this debate was: Is Mitt Romney capable of being the commander in chief?" McCain said. "I think he achieved that goal last night. I think he made it very clear to Americans, principally women, that he's not going to get us into other conflicts, that he understands the war-weariness of the American people over Iraq and Afghanistan. But he has also pointed out that we are weaker than we were four years ago, and of course in the Middle East that's absolutely true."
McCain did not mention that he supports U.S. airstrikes and the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria.
Russia's announcement Wednesday that it will not participate in the Nunn-Lugar program to reduce the threat of loose nuclear materials is a slap in the face to President Barack Obama's effort to make arms control a feature of his "reset" policy with Russia, two top advisors to Mitt Romney said Thursday.
The New York Times described Moscow's move to end the 20 year, $8 billion program, started in 1993 by Sens. Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN), to secure loose nukes in Russia and decommission old Russian military inventories as "a potentially grave setback in the already fraying relationship between the former cold war enemies." In a breakfast meeting with reporters Thursday, the Romney advisors said that the news is only the latest indication that the Obama administration has misread Russia's intentions and actions.
"The reset policy has been a complete disaster, partly because the administration has simply not understood how to deal with Russia," said Romney advisor and former Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim. "Russia is pursuing a classic policy that Russia has pursued since at least Peter the Great... If they perceive you to be strong, they will work with you. They do not perceive us to be strong."
Russia can be worked with, as evidenced by U.S.-Russian cooperation to transfer military supplies through Russia to Afghanistan, he said. But the Russian exit from Nunn-Lugar, as well as Moscow's decision last month to expel the U.S. Agency for International Development, shows that the Kremlin no longer feels the need to work with the United States constructively.
"This administration, because the Russians perceive it to be weak, it not in a position to move these guys," said Zakheim. "The whole reset program is a complete flop."
Dov's son Roger Zakheim, another top Romney advisor who also works on the staff of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), said the end of Nunn-Lugar deals a blow to the administration's overall nonproliferation agenda.
"The administration touted New START and we were critical of that because it was a victory for the Russians, who gave no concessions... This to me is another natural consequence of the fact the Russians are the only ones that gain fruit from this relationship," he said.
"This president is trying to get down to zero and remove WMD from across the world; now he can't even get the bilateral cooperation that's been done for years. [His agenda] is kind of evaporating on his own watch."
As president, Obama has made arms control a central feature of his reset policy with Russia, spending enormous amounts of time and political capital to push for ratification of New START in 2010. He also has made securing loose nuclear material a feature of his foreign-policy agenda, hosting a 44-nation summit on the issue in Washington the same year.
As a senator and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2006, Obama joined with Lugar to sponsor a bill to expand the Nunn-Lugar to include conventional weapons.
In a statement Wednesday, Lugar said that in August meetings with Russian officials, the Russian government told him they wanted changes to the Nunn-Lugar umbrella agreement but that he was surprised by the announcement Russia was ending its participation in the program altogether.
In August alone, the program helped the securing of six nuclear weapons train transport shipments and destroyed 153.2 metric tons of chemical weapons nerve agent, Lugar said.
"The Nunn-Lugar scorecard now totals 7,610 strategic nuclear warheads deactivated, 902 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) destroyed, 498 ICBM silos eliminated, 191 ICBM mobile launchers destroyed, 155 bombers eliminated, 906 nuclear air-to-surface missiles (ASMs) destroyed, 492 SLBM launchers eliminated, 684 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) eliminated, 33 nuclear submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles destroyed, 194 nuclear test tunnels eliminated, 3192.3 metric tons of Russian and Albanian chemical weapons agent destroyed, 590 nuclear weapons transport train shipments secured, security at 24 nuclear weapons storage sites upgraded, 39 biological threat monitoring stations built and equipped," the statement read. "Perhaps most importantly, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus are nuclear weapons free as a result of cooperative efforts under the Nunn-Lugar program. Those countries were the third, fourth and eighth largest nuclear weapons powers in the world."
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that the State Department had proposed an extension for the program that was unacceptable to Moscow. "Our American partners know that their proposal is at odds with our ideas about the forms and basis for building further cooperation in that area," the statement said, adding that Russia needed "a more modern legal framework."
Darrel Issa (R-CA), the committee chairman leading House Republicans' investigation into the Obama administration's handling of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, has concealed witnesses, withheld documents, publicly aired unconfirmed allegations, and excluded Democrats from a hastily planned trip to Libya last weekend, according to his colleagues across the aisle.
"Although Chairman Issa has claimed publicly that ‘we are pursuing this on a bipartisan basis,' the Committee's investigation into the attack in Benghazi has been extremely partisan," reads a memo circulated today by the Democratic staff of the committee and obtained by The Cable. "The Chairman and his staff failed to consult with Democratic Members prior to issuing public letters with unverified allegations, concealed witnesses and refused to make one hearing witness available to Democratic staff, withheld documents obtained by the Committee during the investigation, and effectively excluded Democratic Committee Members from joining a poorly-planned congressional delegation to Libya."
On Wednesday, Issa, who heads the House Oversight Committee, will hold his much-anticipated hearing on the administration's actions leading up to and following the attack that cost the lives of Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The hearing, entitled, "The Security Failures of Benghazi," will feature testimony from Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Programs Charlene Lamb, Regional Security Officer Eric Nordstrom, who was stationed in Libya before the attacks, and Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, a Utah National Guardsman who was leading a security team in Libya until August.
The hearing follows up on an Oct. 2 letter from Issa and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the chairman of the national security subcommittee, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in which Issa said the committee had received information "from individuals with direct knowledge of the events in Libya" that the Sept. 11 attack was "the latest in a long line of attacks" on Western diplomatic assets in Benghazi.
That letter was based on testimony from Nordstrom, according to the memo, who told the committee that the State Department had ignored two cables he send requesting more security. Nordstrom blamed the allegedly low security staffing in Benghazi on Lamb, whom he claims said that only three security agents were needed because there was a "safe haven" nearby. But Issa and Chaffetz sent their letter to Clinton less than 12 hours after interviewing Nordstrom, who was not in Libya at the time of the attack, the memo alleges.
"[Nordstrom's] statements were not confirmed before the letter was sent, and the State Department was not given an opportunity to respond before the allegations were made public," the memo said.
Wood spelled out his allegations in a series of interviews this week, including one with CBS News, in which he alleged that the State Department had declined his request to maintain a "Site Security Team," in Libya past August. But Issa concealed the majority staff's conversations with Wood from the Democratic side of the committee until Oct. 5, the same day he appeared on CBS, according to the memo.
"Chairman Issa has refused multiple requests to make Lt. Col. Wood available to speak with Democratic Members or staff prior to the hearing on Wednesday. In addition, although Republican staff provided an email address for Lt. Col. Wood after he appeared on CBS Evening News, Lt. Col. Wood has failed to respond to any inquiries from Democratic staff," the memo states.
Issa and Chaffetz also effectively excluded Democratic committee members and staff from joining a congressional delegation to Libya last weekend by concealing the trip until less than 24 hours before it was scheduled to leave, the memo charges.
"Republican staff did not inform the minority until last Thursday that a delegation would be departing the next day, Friday, October 5, 2012, for Tripoli. Due to this inadequate notice, no Democratic Members or staff were able to join," the memo says. "Based on a copy of the itinerary provided to the minority staff, it also appears that this delegation was hastily and inadequately planned. The itinerary did not identify a single U.S. government official, Libyan official, or other individual the Committee planned to interview during the entire delegation. In fact, the itinerary listed as the sole Committee activity in Libya: ‘TBD.'"
The memo also criticizes Mitt Romney and several congressional Republicans for taking issue with the statements of Obama administration officials in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack, especially the Sept. 16 statements by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, in which she said that the assessment at that time was that the attack was spontaneous and inspired by an anti-Islam video.
"The State Department has been cooperating fully with the Committee's investigation. It has agreed to all requests for hearing witnesses, it has offered additional hearing witnesses beyond those requested, it has promptly organized transcribed interviews with Department officials, it has been collecting documents sought by the Committee, and it has offered additional briefings for Committee staff," the memo states, although it notes that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) excluded Oversight Committee leaders from a classified briefing on the issue Tuesday.
"Contrary to House Rules, the Chairman and his staff refused to provide copies of documents obtained by the Committee during this investigation and concealed witnesses, preventing the minority from questioning these witnesses directly in order to gain a more complete understanding of their views and to vet the accuracy of claims made by Chairman Issa," the memo states.
The memo also argues that it was the House GOP that slashed funding for State Department security and embassy protections prior to the attack.
The House passed appropriations bills that cut $248 million from the administration's request for the Worldwide Security Protection account in fiscal 2011 and 2012, and $211 million from the Worldwide Security Upgrades portion of the Embassy Security, Construction and Maintenance (ESCM) account in those years.
The final amounts given to both accounts after the Senate weighed in were $88 million above the House levels, but still $371 million below what the administration requested.
"Since gaining the majority in 2011, House Republicans have voted to reduce embassy security funding by approximately half a billion dollars below the amounts requested by the Obama Administration," the memo states.
Last week, committee ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings (D-MD) expressed concern that partisanship was overtaking the investigation.
"While I fully support careful, responsible, and robust congressional oversight, I do have concerns about rushing to hold a public hearing based on incomplete information if the purpose is to meet some arbitrary political timetable. On such a critically important issue, I believe we should proceed in a bipartisan and responsible manner by gathering the facts before drawing any public conclusions," he said.
A spokesman for Issa did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Two top senators on the Foreign Relations Committee don't want to wait for the State Department to do its own investigation into the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens; they want Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to show them Stevens's diplomatic cables and other correspondence now.
"While we appreciate the sensitivities associated with this ongoing investigation, we must insist on more timely information regarding the attacks and the events leading up to the attacks," wrote Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Johnny Isaakson (R-GA) in a letter to Clinton Tuesday.
They acknowledged that Clinton is in the process of setting up an Accountability Review Board, although its chairman former Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Pickering said Monday that the panel hasn't started it work yet. But the senators don't want to wait for the board to finish its report, which might not be transmitted to Congress until next spring.
"To that end, we request that you transmit to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee all communications between the U.S. Mission to Libya and the State Department relevant to the security situation in Benghazi in the period leading up to the attacks, including, but not limited to, cables sent from Ambassador Stevens," they wrote.
The senators noted that Libya officials have said they warned the U.S. government about rising threats in Benghazi just before the attacks and they referenced the CNN reports, culled at least partially from Stevens's personal diary, stating that the ambassador believed his life was in danger.
"Despite these warnings, the State Department sought and received a waiver from the standard security requirements for the consulate," the senators wrote.
"We are extremely concerned about conflicting reports over the events leading up to the attacks. Specifically, we are concerned over the apparent lack of security preparations made despite a demonstrable increase in risks to U.S. officials and facilities in Benghazi in the period leading up to the attacks."
The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said Monday that the Obama administration has not found any evidence that a former Guantánamo Bay inmate was involved in the Sept. 11 attack on the Benghazi consulate that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) emerged from a classified briefing with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Sept. 21 saying that administration officials had discussed Sufyan Ben Qumu, who was released from Guantánamo into Libyan custody in 2007, as a "person of interest" in the Benghazi investigation. But today in a conference call organized by the left-leaning National Security Network, Smith clarified that he had heard nothing directly tying Ben Qumu to the Benghazi attack.
"All I meant was that the person I mentioned has known al Qaeda affiliations and was in Libya. And really, that's it," Smith said. "Whether or not he was directly involved with the people engaged in the attack, there's no evidence of that."
Smith said the Libyan government had been quick to condemn the attack and help with the investigation. But he slammed Republicans for referencing the Ben Qumu rumor and other reporting about the attack to criticize the administration's handling of the crisis.
"It is fairly disturbing the number of Republicans who have leapt to erroneous conclusions about what this means and have missed no opportunity to bash on the president rather than try to find a common approach to this," he said. "That has been extremely unhelpful."
Former Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Pickering said on the call that he had not yet started work on the Accountability Review Board (ARB) that Clinton appointed him to lead to investigate the Benghazi attack.
"As far as I know no other members have been appointed and obviously the process has not yet begun," Pickering said.
The ARB will have five members, four appointed by Clinton and one appointed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, according to a senior State Department official. The board will investigate, "the extent to which the incident was security related; whether the security systems and security procedures at that mission were adequate; whether the security systems and security procedures were properly implemented; the impact of intelligence and information availability; and such other facts and circumstances which may be relevant to the appropriate security management of the United States missions abroad," according to the law that established the board's mandate.
By law, the board must be convened within 60 days of the incident. Such panels typically take an average of 65 days to complete their work, and Clinton must submit the findings to Congress within 90 days of receiving them. According to that timeline, the board would issue its report in January and Congress could receive it as late as next April.
Both Smith and Pickering emphasized that they did not believe that time had run out to convince Iran not to pursue a nuclear weapon, and both argued that increased U.S. military involvement in Syria would only inflame the violence in the country.
"The situation in Syria is horrific. It is a full scale civil war," said Smith "It's a matter of whether or not there is an option that would make the situation better and reduce the violence in Syria."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was all set to get his full Senate vote today on his bill to cut all U.S. aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan; and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was set to get a vote on his resolution to establish the sense of the Senate that containment of a nuclear Iran is not an option for U.S. policy.
But the entire deal was derailed by a last-minute effort by Senate leaders to add a new bill to the agreement, a "Sportsman Act" sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), who is up for re-election. Tester's bill would ease restrictions on hunting, fishing, and shooting on federal public lands.
On Thursday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said that he had worked out a deal with Paul to move on all of the Senate's outstanding business this afternoon, including a continuing resolution to fund the government past Oct. 1. Under the deal, Paul would get one hour of debate and a vote on his bill to cut all U.S. aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan. There would also be a one-hour debate on the containment resolution, which was also led by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Bob Casey (D-PA). (Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had objected to the deal late Wednesday but lifted his objection Thursday.)
Then suddenly Thursday afternoon, Reid announced there would be no more votes and he took a swipe a Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), accusing him of wanting to avoid his evening debate with challenger Elizabeth Warren.
Multiple senators and staffers said late Thursday that it was Reid, however, who derailed the deal at the last minute by attempting to add the Tester bill, prompting an objection by the GOP Senate leadership.
"Today, [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell has agreed to the same UC [unanimous consent agreement] that was offered last night by Senator Reid, but now Senator Reid wants a UC that includes not just the Paul, Graham, and [continuing resolution] votes, but also a vote on the Tester amendment," Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said Thursday afternoon.
All Senate business is on hold while the leadership of both caucuses negotiates behind closed doors. Paul had repeatedly threatened to oppose unanimous consent to move any legislation unless he got his vote, so without a deal, Senate leaders would have to go through long voting procedures that could keep lawmakers in town well into the weekend.
Senators do hope to leave town this weekend, so a deal Friday is widely expected. A deal would also pave the way for the Senate to confirm a host of ambassadors before leaving Washington, including the nominees for envoy posts in Iraq and Pakistan.
The containment resolution has more than 80 co-sponsors and is expected to pass by a wide margin. The Paul bill to prohibit aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan is not expected to pass.
Lawmakers and Africa hands rallied Thursday behind President Barack Obama's decision to nominate Robert Godec to be the next U.S. ambassador to Kenya.
If confirmed, Godec would follow Obama confidant J. Scott Gration, who resigned in June ahead of a scathing internal report that rated him among the worst ambassadors in the diplomatic corps (Gration insists he was a great ambassador).
Unlike Gration, a political appointee, Godec is a career Foreign Service officer who has previously led an embassy -- in Tunisia -- and has diplomatic experience working in the Nairobi embassy as well. Godec is the charge d'affaires at the Kenya embassy now, and served as the State Department's principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism from 2009 to 2012.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs Subcommittee, told The Cable that he will push to confirm Godec as quickly as possible when the Senate returns for a lame-duck session following the November elections.
"Ambassador Godec is a smart choice and I hope the Senate will move quickly to advance his nomination," said Coons. "Given the emerging threats in the region, his background in counterterrorism and career in the Foreign Service -- even being stationed in Nairobi earlier in his career -- make him unquestionably qualified for this critically important role. One of the United States' top priorities, certainly in the short term, will be helping ensure Kenya's elections in March are free, fair, and peaceful. These elections are critically important not only to Kenya, but to the stability of the region."
The upcoming elections and the potential for explosive political violence are a key focus of Kenya watchers in Washington. Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report stating that politicians seeking office have been complicit on both sides of the growing violence in Kenya's coastal region, with the central government doing little to hold them accountable.
"I'm very pleased to see President Obama officially nominate a new U.S. ambassador to Kenya, particularly a Foreign Service officer with regional and country specific experience like Ambassador Godec. That's going to very important in order to reverse what's been a worrisome U.S. policy of neglect and drift," said Sarah Margon, deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch and co-chair of the Kenya Working Group. "What he's going to need to do is make a clear commitment to a U.S. policy based on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, particularly given the upcoming elections. And he needs to address lack of accountability for the political violence in Kenya."
Prior to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the State Department and the Marines Corps had been discussing deploying Marines to guard the U.S. Embassy in the Libyan capital Tripoli "sometime in the next five years," according to the Marine Corps.
The issue of security at U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya has been front and center as Congress and others begin to investigate whether or not those facilities were sufficiently protected before the attacks that killed Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The State Department won't discuss the specifics of its security posture in Libya before the attack, but the Marine Corps has briefed congressional staffers on the issue, for example in a Sept. 13 email obtained by The Cable.
"Typically, when a new embassy is established, it takes time to grow a new [Marine Corps Embassy Security Group] detachment," wrote Col. Harold Van Opdorp, director of the Marine Senate Liaison office, in the e-mail. "[In conjunction with] the State Department, there is discussion about establishing a detachment in Tripoli sometime in the next five years."
The State Department did not respond to questions about how high the discussion of deploying Marines to Libya reached, whether that discussion amounted to a recognition that Marines were needed there, or why it might take five years to set it up. A Marine Corps FAST team was deployed to protect the embassy on Sept. 12 after the attack and could stay there indefinitely.
According to the Marines, out of the 285-plus U.S. diplomatic security facilities worldwide, 152 have Marine Corps detachments, primarily to protect the facilities and the classified information they contain.
"Overall, the plan is to grow the number of MCESG detachments worldwide to 173. It is also important to note the detachments are charged with protection of the chancery. Perimeter security is the responsibility of the HN [host nation] police/security forces," Van Opdorp wrote.
Many on Capitol Hill are pressing the State Department for details about the exact security arrangements at the Benghazi consulate, contesting the State Department's repeated assertion that there was a "strong" security presence protecting the facility.
One congressional aide told The Cable that the State Department initially reported to Congress that the security personnel at the embassy consisted of an unarmed local security force and six armed Libyan government personnel.
The Washington Guardian reported Wednesday that the two former Navy SEALs who were killed in the attack were not part of the ambassador's security detail but had unspecified security responsibilities related to the consulate and engaged the attackers after the firefight began.
Lawmakers are still trying to get details about the State Department's security posture in Libya and the heads of the Senate Homeland Security Committee have already called on the department to investigate the security failures surrounding the Benghazi attack.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to brief Congress on the issue Thursday afternoon. Earlier this week, she defended the security presence in Benghazi, saying, "Let me assure you that our security in Benghazi included a unit of host government security forces, as well as a local guard force of the kind that we rely on in many places around the world."
Late Wednesday, Pentagon officials briefed House Armed Services Committee members on the Libya attacks, after which Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) said that he was increasingly concerned about the lack of security at U.S. diplomatic posts in Libya.
McKeon said it was "inconceivable" that that there were no military personnel stationed in Benghazi, despite a June bomb attack on the consulate, and he said he was "really concerned about the lack of support that the ambassador had, the lack of protection."
The State Department is setting up an independent, bipartisan panel to investigate what happened in the Sept. 11 attack on the Benghazi consulate that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Wednesday that Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides told him the State Department had already begun setting up the panel, which Kerry said would be independently appointed and accountable to Congress. Kerry said the panel's existence preempted the need for Congress to quickly pass a bill, put forth by Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), requiring State to report to Congress on last week's attacks in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen within 30 days.
"The State Department must convene an Accountability Review Board (ARB) in instances in which there has been loss of life or significant destruction of property at a U.S. mission abroad. The Secretary must provide the SFRC with a report on the findings and recommendations of the ARB," Kerry said at Thursday's SFRC business meeting.
Kerry said the law requires the panel be convened within 60 days of the attack, would examine all aspects of the attacks, and is required to report to Congress its findings. If the panel does not satisfy Congress's desire for information about the attacks, Kerry would then support legislation calling for more thorough reporting on the attacks as well as security procedures at all U.S. diplomatic posts, he said.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top administration officials will come to Capitol Hill to give a briefing on the attacks to all senators who wish to attend, Kerry said.
"Given all of the information that should be forthcoming already, I did not think it would be productive to take up the reporting bill at this time. But I do want to thank Senators DeMint and Corker for the initiative and let them know that I share their instincts that this warrants our close attention," Kerry said.
DeMint said Wednesday he was willing to wait for the State Department panel's report on the attacks before pressing for new legislation demanding more information. On Sept. 14 when he introduced the bill, DeMint called for transparency and accountability from the administration regarding the attacks.
"The attacks on American embassies and diplomats are outrageous. The administration owes the American people detailed answers on how this happened and how it can be prevented in the future," DeMint said then. "It now appears these violent acts may have been coordinated terrorist attacks against America around the anniversary of 9/11. There may have even been warnings beforehand. Americans need to know if we were properly prepared and what steps must be taken to protect our diplomats in these dangerous environments."
The committee also approved nine ambassadorial nominations at the hearing, including the nomination of Richard Olson to be ambassador to Pakistan. The committee held its hearing for Robert Stephen Beecroft to become the next ambassador in Iraq on Wednesday morning, so he was not on the committee agenda, but aides said that there was broad support for dispatching the Beecroft nomination out of committee without a formal vote so he could be confirmed this week before the Senate leaves town.
All of the ambassador nominations could fall victim to the ongoing dispute between Senate leadership and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) over Paul's demand for a floor vote on his amendment to cut off all U.S. aid to Pakistan, Libya, and Egypt.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) signaled progress but no resolution in the dispute with Paul on Wednesday afternoon and Reid pledged to work to confirm Olson and Beecroft this week.
"I'd love to get the ambassador to Pakistan. We have two countries, Iraq and Pakistan, who do not have an American ambassador because the Republicans have held these up," Reid said. "We're going to be here as long as the Republicans force us to be here. We could finish this stuff tomorrow, but it's up to them."
CHARLOTTE - Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) will lacerate Mitt Romney on foreign policy in a major speech tonight at the Democratic National Convention.
"In this campaign, we have a fundamental choice," Kerry will say, according to speech excerpts provided to The Cable. "Will we protect our country and our allies, advance our interests and ideals, do battle where we must, and make peace where we can? Or will we entrust our place in the world to someone who just hasn't learned the lessons of the last decade?"
Kerry will speak on a night peppered with remarks by national security types, including retired Lt. Gen. Walter Dalton, the lieutenant governor of North Carolina, retired Adm. John B. Nathman, and Delaware attorney general and Iraq war veteran Beau Biden, the vice president's son. Following Kerry will be the final events of the convention, including speeches by Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Vice President Joe Biden, and President Barack Obama.
Kerry will hit Romney on his positions on a range of national security issues and will hammer the former Massachusetts governor for failing to outline a clear policy on the war in Afghanistan, a word that Romney didn't mention once in last week's acceptance speech.
"It isn't fair to say Mitt Romney doesn't have a position on Afghanistan. He has every position," Kerry will say.
Kerry plans to defend Obama's record on Israel, Iran, Russia, and arms control, and he will push back against the Romney campaign's refrain that Obama doesn't believe in "American exceptionalism."
"Our opponents like to talk about ‘American Exceptionalism.' But all they do is talk. They forget that we are exceptional not because we say we are, but because we do exceptional things," Kerry will say. "The only thing exceptional about today's Republicans is that -- almost without exception -- they oppose everything that has made America exceptional in the first place."
Kerry will point out that Romney criticized the idea of going into Pakistan to pursue Osama bin Laden but Obama gave the order that led to bin Laden's death.
"Ask Osama Bin Laden if he's better off now than he was four years ago!" Kerry will say.
Kerry will also make what The Cable believes is the first mention by either campaign of the only war Obama ever started, the 2011 NATO-led attack on Libya.
"When a brutal dictator promised to kill his own people ‘like dogs', President Obama enlisted our allies, built the coalition, shared the burden -- so that today, without a single American casualty -- Muammar Qaddafi is gone and Libya is free," Kerry will say.
Obama inherited a terrible foreign-policy position from the Bush administration and worked to improve it, Kerry will argue.
"So here's the choice in 2012: Mitt Romney -- out of touch at home, out of his depth abroad, and out of the mainstream?" he will say. "Or Barack Obama -- a president giving new life and truth to America's indispensable role in the world, a commander in chief who gives our troops the tools and training they need in war -- the honor and help they've earned when they come home. A man who will never ask other men and women to fight a war without a plan to win the peace."
In anticipation of Kerry's foreign policy speech, the Romney campaign released a long memo penned by campaign policy director Lanhee Chen entitled, "The Foreign Policy & National Security Failures Of President Obama," which lays out 10 separate lines of attack on the Obama administration's national security record.
"President Obama's failure on the economy has been so severe that it has overshadowed his manifold failures on foreign policy and national security," the memo states. "An inventory of his record shows that by nearly all measures, President Obama has diminished American influence abroad and compromised our interests and values. In no region of the world is the U.S. position stronger than it was four years ago... It is a failed record that no amount of bluster in Charlotte can mask."
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Two leading congressmen are calling on the Obama administration to use its leverage in international financial institutions to press for greater fiscal transparency in Burma, formally known as Myanmar, and ensure progress in the human rights situation in the Southeast Asian country as it emerges from decades of isolation.
The two leaders of the House Committee on Financial Services, Chairman Spencer Bachus (R-AL), and ranking Democrat Barney Frank (D-MA) wrote a letter Aug. 22, obtained by The Cable, to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner asking him to safeguard the fragile reform process in Burma and ensure that Burma's opening to the world is done according to international financial management standards and with respect to the welfare of the Burmese people. Today Burmese President Thein Sein reshuffled his cabinet, replacing key ministers with reform minded appointees.
The lawmakers specifically called out the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which saw sanctions relief from the U.S. government despite suspected corruption and ties the Burmese military. Obama lifted the ban on U.S. companies doing business with MOGE in July, over the objections of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, now a member of the circumscribed Burmese legislature.
"We are cautiously optimistic that Burma will continue to implement necessary reforms, but we believe vigilance on questions of government transparency and human rights remain critical," the lawmakers wrote. "We urge the administration to use its leadership at the IFIs [international financial institutions] to emphasize fiscal transparency, systems of accountability and respect for human rights and to insist that the institutions pay close attention to the urgent social needs of the Burmese people."
They want the IMF's Code of Good Practice on Fiscal Transparency enforced on all branches of the Burmese government, including the military and MOGE. The code would require the government and its state enterprises (including MOGE), in essence, to publish their revenues and expenditures and subject them to public and parliamentary oversight, as well as an independent auditing process.
"Such transparency is necessary is necessary not only to allow the IFIs to properly supervise the use of multilateral aid but also to help end corruption and the off budget funding of the Burmese military," the letter states.
Burma is a resource-rich county that could provide for its people but remains mired in corruption and mismanagement, Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told The Cable.
He said that IFI lending for big infrastructure projects, absent fiscal transparency reforms, could reinforce those bad habits, making the promotion of fiscal transparency central to the IFIs' mission. The IFIs hold good leverage over the Burmese government because infrastructure development is one of the regime's key goals.
"The key question in Burma's reform process is whether elected civilians will wrest full control over the country from the military establishment, including control of revenues from Burma's lucrative oil and gas and mineral exports. It's not just Aung San Suu Kyi who wants this - Burma's reformist president and its new parliament also have a huge stake in figuring out where the money is and asserting their authority to oversee how it's spent," Malinowski said. "It would help them if the IFI's prioritized fiscal transparency - providing technical assistance to help the Burmese get there, and holding up lending for big infrastructure projects until they do."
Adm. William McRaven, the head of Special Operations Command and the architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, wrote a memo to the special operations community making clear that using the "special operations" moniker for political purposes is not OK.
McRaven sent an unclassified memo, not released to the public but obtained by The Cable, that began with an admonishment of special operators who write books about secret operations, such as the forthcoming book No Easy Day¸ which was written by a Navy SEAL who claims to have been part of the May 1, 2011 raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. Fox News reported Thursday that the author is 36-year-old Matt Bissonnette, whom defense officials say never cleared the book with anyone in the Pentagon.
But the second half of McRaven's memo referred to the multiple groups of former special operators who have formed political groups to criticize President Barack Obama for what they see as taking undue credit for the bin Laden raid and accusing him of leaking its details to the press. Those groups are made up of former military men who had no connection to the actual raid, who often have Republican political leanings and longtime animus against Obama, and some of whom say the president was not born in the United States.
"I am also concerned about the growing trend of using the special operations ‘brand,' our seal, symbols and unit names, as part of any political or special interest campaign," McRaven wrote in an implicit but clear reference to groups like the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund and Special Operations Speaks (SOS).
"Let me be completely clear on this issue: USSOCOM does not endorse any political viewpoint, opinion or special interest," McRaven wrote. "I encourage, strongly encourage active participation in our political process by both active duty SOF personnel, where it is appropriate under the ethics rules and retired members of the SOF community. However, when a group brands itself as Special Operations for the purpose of pushing a specific agenda, then they have misrepresented the entire nature of SOF and life in the military."
"Our promise to the American people is that we, the military, are non-partisan, apolitical and will serve the President of the United States regardless of his political party. By attaching a Special Operation's moniker or a unit or service name to a political agenda, those individuals have now violated the most basic of our military principles," McRaven wrote.
His remarks are stronger but along the same lines as those by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who said the groups' efforts were counter to the ethos of the military.
"It's not useful. It's not useful to me," Dempsey said Wednesday. "And one of the things that marks us as a profession in a democracy, in our form of democracy, that's most important is that we remain apolitical. That's how we maintain our bond and trust with the American people."
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The head of the Pakistan military's public relations branch told The Cable that a new book claiming a Pakistani intelligence official tipped off the U.S. government about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden is false.
A forthcoming book by journalist Richard Miniter claims that a senior colonel in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate walked into the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad in Dec ember 2010, five months before the bin Laden raid, and told U.S. officials about bin Laden's whereabouts. The book also reports that the bin Laden compound was "carved out" of Abbottabad's Kakul Military Academy and that senior Pakistani military officials may have been briefed on the raid in advance.
Maj. Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa, the recently appointed director general of Pakistan's Inter-Services Public Relations and the top spokesperson for the Pakistani military and intelligence community, told The Cable by e-mail that Miniter's story is just wrong.
"This is a fabricated story," he said. "Any such story will not have basis and is an attempt to malign Pakistan and Pakistan Army."
The tale implies that the ISI had some advance knowledge that bin Laden had been hiding in Abbottabad with several members of his family before the May 1, 2011, U.S. raid, Bajwa said.
"You can find twists in [the Miniter story] to show as if Pakistan was helping terrorists, which is incorrect," he said.
Pakistan's former ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani told a Washington audience Wednesday that although he could not comment on ISI activities the night of the bin Laden raid, he was sure that the civilian government in Pakistan was caught by surprise about the raid and bin Laden's whereabouts.
But Haqqani called on the Pakistani government to complete its long-promised report on who helped bin Laden and his family hide and survive in a secret compound near a military academy for more than five years.
"It's Pakistan's responsibility to the world to say who did it," Haqqani told an audience at the Center for the National Interest, formerly known as the Nixon Center. "It doesn't have to be the government, it doesn't have to be the military, but whoever it is, we have to come clean on that, because that is the only way we will assure the rest of the world that Pakistan's government and Pakistan's state has its hands clean on this whole thing."
North Korean officials threatened to reconsider existing agreements with the United States in a recent meeting in Singapore, two sources familiar with the discussions told The Cable.
The North Korean warning comes as analysts speculate that Pyongyang may be preparing a fresh nuclear test, a development that could raise tensions in Asia and embarrass U.S. President Barack Obama in the middle of a closely fought re-election campaign.
Top U.S. experts held a "track two" meeting in the island nation in late July, during which the North Koreans hardened their negotiating position and rejected any return to the latest deal struck between the two sides, but nevertheless left the door open to further talks with the United States and the international community.
The meeting was the first of its kind since North Korea tried and failed to launch a rocket into space in April, which precipitated a U.S. withdrawal from the Feb. 29 bilateral agreement to give North Korea food aid in exchange for concessions on the country's nuclear and missile programs.
At the secret meetings in Singapore, the North Koreans told two U.S. experts they were no longer interested in resurrecting that arrangement and said they were reconsidering their previous agreements to eventually denuclearize as well.
On the North Korean side of the table were Han Song-ryol, North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations and Choe Son Hui, the deputy director-general of the North American affairs bureau in the DPRK foreign ministry. On the American side were six experts led by Joel Wit, a former U.S. nuclear negotiator, and including Corey Hinderstein, vice president of the international program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Some reports said that there was a also a July meeting in New York between Han and Clifford Hart, the U.S. special envoy to the defunct Six-Party Talks.
"The agenda [in Singapore] focused on a variety of issues. One important topic was the future of U.S.-North Korean relations," said one source familiar with the meeting. "The other topics were nuclear safety, nuclear security, cooperative ways of monitoring denuclearization, and the whole raft of issues people discuss at nuclear summits."
When the conversation was on the future of bilateral relations, the North Korean side made clear it was no longer interested in the Feb. 29 agreement, which included a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, a return of international inspectors, and 240,000 tons of food aid, both sources said.
The North Koreans now want the United States to make concessions up front.
"Their position has shifted. Whereas before, under the Leap Day deal, it was simultaneous actions, as with the September 2005 joint statement, simultaneous actions were one of the key aspects. There is now emphasis on unilateral action by the U.S. and then the North Koreans may respond," one source said.
The North Koreans told their American interlocutors they were thinking internally about whether or not to scuttle the September 2005 joint statement altogether. That statement committed North Korea to eventually getting rid of its nuclear weapons program.
An Aug. 9 article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists written by Frank Pabian and Sigfried Hecker speculated that North Korea may be only weeks away from completing the preparations necessary to conduct a third nuclear test using either a plutonium or highly-enriched uranium (HEU) device or both. At the Singapore meeting, the North Koreans didn't broach the topic.
"They didn't make any explicit statements about their nuclear program," one source said, "but I think it's very clear that their program is moving forward. That doesn't necessarily mean nuclear tests. It's quite likely their HEU program is also moving forward."
The source noted that as part of their formal presentation, the very first point the North Korean officials made was that their new leadership is not changing the late leader Kim Jong Il's line that North Korea has no eternal enemies or eternal friends.
"That's a very clear signal that they still want to make continuing efforts to improve relations with the U.S. and are indeed are interested in that. But they are toughening their position and that's in part because they are feeling pretty good about where they are," the source said.
The North Koreans believe they have weathered the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" -- waiting for Pyongyang to make the first move while strengthening ties with U.S. allies in Asia.
"The North Koreans feel pretty confident in their position. They are still keeping the door open to improving ties with the U.S. but the price is getting higher and it's becoming more difficult," the source said. "At some point somebody will be back to the table with them. They are getting ready for that with a much tougher negotiating position. They think they're sitting pretty."
Of course, North Korea still faces a food crisis, devastating floods, and an economic crisis. Pyongyang might seek to trade nuclear concessions in exchange for aid, as it has in the past. But as long as the country continues to get assistance from China, its motivation to make concessions is low.
"They probably can continue to progress economically while avoiding making concessions on the nuclear front with the support of China and that seems to be the option that they've chosen," the source observed.
Two congressmen who lead on human rights issues wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week to urge her to address the growing crisis in Tibet, where tensions, protests, and self-immolations are mounting.
"We write to urge that you undertake stronger, more coordinated, visible international steps with regards to the People's Republic of China's policies and practices towards Tibetans," wrote Reps. Jim McGovern (D-MA), chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and Frank Wolf (R-VA), in an Aug. 9 letter. "We appreciate your efforts with regards to courageous individuals such as Chen Guangcheng. Yet we believe that the United States can and must significantly increase diplomatic and international pressure on the Chinese government to reverse the crisis in Tibet."
The congressmen noted that more than three dozen Tibetans have self-immolated in protest over the last year alone amid an increasingly restrictive environment that includes arbitrary detention, sham trials, harsh prison sentences, the use of reeducation camps, and a sharp increase in the Chinese military presence in and around Tibet.
They also noted the Chinese crackdown on religious freedom in Tibet, as reported in the 2011 State Department International Religious Freedom Report released last month, and the new Chinese policy of expelling ethnic Tibetans from Lhasa while importing Han Chinese.
"The situation is unambiguously deteriorating, and none of these actions comport with the Chinese government's rhetoric of respect for the rights of ethnic minorities, religious freedom, or a quest for a ‘harmonious society' in the region," the congressmen wrote.
In an interview last month with The Cable, the Tibetan prime minister in exile, Lobsang Sangay, called on the Obama administration to send a fact-finding mission to Tibet.
"At the larger level, if Tibetans are ignored, essentially what you're ignoring is nonviolence and democracy," Sangay said. "So in that sense I think from a democratic point of view, from a nonviolent point of view, supporting Tibet is vital because we are trying to be and we have proven in the last five decades to be a torchbearer of nonviolence and democracy."
The congressmen called on Clinton to convene an international meeting on Tibet, perhaps alongside the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York next month, and to establish a contact group with other countries that are concerned about the situation.
"As the United States continues its ‘pivot' towards Asia, it is important that the U.S. demonstrate that it is not deaf to the desperate appeals for help and support emanating from the Tibetans," they wrote.
Now that President Barack Obama has signed the latest new sanctions bill on Iran, lawmakers are urging him to enforce it, starting with penalties against governments that reflag Iranian tankers, namely Tuvalu and Tanzania.
House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) responded to reports that the government of Tuvalu has reflagged 36 Iranian tankers by writing to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner yesterday that they should enforce the new law and punish the Tuvaluans.
"The legislation makes clear the Congressional intent that sanctions are to be used to counteract Iran's shipping operations that help support its weapons program and terrorism," Berman wrote.
On July 9, Berman wrote to the Tuvalu prime minister to urge him to stop reflagging Iranian ships. The Tuvalu government responded with a letter saying its actions didn't violate U.N. sanctions and that the reflagged ships were only for storing oil and shipping to countries exempted by sanctions.
The Tanzanian government, which has also come under fire for reflagging Iranian tankers, announced this week that it would de-register 36 Iranian ships that had been reflagged. But Berman said that while Tanzania has made progress, Tuvalu is still ignoring the pressure from the international community.
"The U.S. has had some success, most recently with the announcement by the Government of Tanzania that it is de-registering NITC vessels," Berman wrote to Clinton and Geithner. "However, with other governments, the U.S. must take more robust action."
Section 202 of the law, the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, calls for sanctions against any entity that assists Iran in concealing the identity of its vessels. Executive Order 13608 also authorizes sanctions and penalties against such entities.
Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) wrote to Obama today to call on the administration to use both tools now to increase the pressure on countries that may be aiding Iran in reflagging its ships. They want Treasury to designate the Tanzania Zanzibar International Register of Shipping, based in the United Arab Emirates, and the Tuvalu Ship Registry, based in Singapore, for helping conceal the identity of ships belonging to the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC), a sanctioned entity.
"The actions of the Tanzanian and Tuvaluan ship registries directly undermine the international community's ongoing diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear and ballistic missile technology, and appear to be in violation of the legislation you just signed into law," the senators wrote.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, his would-be vice president Paul Ryan, and defense hawks in Congress are wrong that savings can't be found in the U.S. defense budget, according to Grover Norquist, the influential president of Americans for Tax Reform, who said that he will fight using any new revenues to keep military spending high.
"We can afford to have an adequate national defense which keeps us free and safe and keeps everybody afraid to throw a punch at us, as long as we don't make some of the decisions that previous administrations have, which is to over extend ourselves overseas and think we can run foreign governments," Norquist said Monday at an event at the Center for the National Interest, formerly the Nixon Center.
But Ryan's views are at odds with those of Norquist and other budget hawks, who argue that defense budgets can be trimmed. Ryan's budget plan provides for increasing military spending and doesn't suggest any tradeoff or specific defense reforms.
"Other people need to lead the argument on how can conservatives lead a fight to have a serious national defense without wasting money," Norquist said. "I wouldn't ask Ryan to be the reformer of the defense establishment."
Avoiding $54 billion of arbitrary defense cuts next year as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011, in what's known as "sequestration," has been a focus of Romney's campaign and one of his main points of contrast with President Obama. Romney's views align him with defense hawks who are leading that effort on the Hill, such as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who support closing tax loopholes and deductions to avoid sequestration.
"You will get serious conversation from the advocates of Pentagon spending when they understand ‘here's the dollar amount, now make decisions," Norquist said. "They want to argue you have to raise taxes -- you can't solve the problem."
Norquist vowed to fight any effort to use the money saved by tax reform to pay for military spending or to avoid the sequester.
"You have guys saying ‘can we steal all your deductions and credits and give it to the appropriators,' and then when we get tax reform there will be no tax reform," Norquist said, referring to defense hawks. "The idea is that you are going to raise taxes on people to not think through defense priorities."
But Norquist predicted that the defense hawks will lose the battle inside the GOP. The ultimate decision-makers, he said, would be the heads of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, not the respective Armed Services Committees.
"Here's the good news. There's a very small number of them," Norquist said about the defense hawks. "The handful of [Republicans] that support that are either not coming back or they don't know yet that they are not coming back."
The Pentagon wastes money on bloated weapons systems, bases, and programs that are protected by politicians for parochial reasons, he said. Norquist said the defense hawks were not serious about saving money or reforming the Pentagon.
"If you're not looking like you're trying, nobody wants to help you, starting with me... There's a lack of seriousness," he said. "The guys who are saying ‘we're not going to cut Pentagon spending but we want to raise taxes,' they aren't making a sale... They are saying it's not a tax increase. It is, it is, it is."
Norquist said he believes in a non-interventionist foreign policy that eschews nation-building, much like the one former president George W. Bush campaigned on before he decided to invade Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Bush decided to be the mayor of Baghdad rather than the president of the United States. He decided to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan rather than reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That had tremendous consequences," he said. "Rather than doing Doha [the trade round], we did Kabul."
Romney has promised to keep defense spending at 4 percent of U.S. GDP, but Norquist doesn't believe that defense spending should be pegged to the size of the U.S. economy or any other arbitrary number. He argued that the Republican Party needs to reexamine the actual defense needs and then work from there to determine how much to spend.
"Richard Nixon said that America's national defense needs are set in Moscow, meaning that we wouldn't have to spend so much if they weren't shooting at us," he said. "The guys who followed didn't notice that the Soviet Union disappeared."
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
America's lawmakers skipped town last week for a five-week recess, leaving several important national security agenda items on the table.
Most, if not all of them, are expected to be ignored until after the election, meaning it could be months before Congress takes action.
Some of the stalled agenda items could be tacked in the short September session, aides say, but most will be left until the lame-duck session in December. And depending on who wins the presidency and which party controls the Senate, several items could be scuttled from the congressional calendar all together.
Here are the top five foreign-policy issues Congress punted on before leaving Washington:
Russia trade and human rights
The House didn't even try to take up two time-sensitive Russia-related bills before leaving town: a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and a bill to sanction Russian human rights violators, named after dead Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
The trade bill is particularly time-sensitive because Russia is set to join the World Trade Organization later this month. Unless Congress grants Russia PNTR status, advocates of the bill warn, U.S. businesses won't be able to take advantage. House Republicans are leery of passing a bill that seems to some like a gift to Russia, although Democrats and the administration argue that the bill does more for the U.S. economy than it does for Russia.
The human rights bill, which would replace an antiquated 1974 law called Jackson-Vanik, is meant to be the sugar that makes the medicine go down sweet for Republicans. But due to GOP anger about Russian actions in Syria and the opposition of House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), House leaders are having trouble corralling the votes for the trade bill, even if the human rights bill is attached.
Look for the business community to ratchet up pressure on Congress to act on the trade bill throughout August. Senate aides, noting that the House must go first on the PNTR bill, predict that House leaders' interest in not offending the business community will trump the awkwardness of passing a trade bill with Russia just before the election. The Senate Finance and Foreign Relations Committees have already approved both bills, so if the House does its part, Senate passage is sure to follow.
One kink in the works could be that the House version of the Magnitsky bill applies only to Russia, whereas the Senate version was broadened to apply to human rights violators throughout the world. The administration supports the Senate version because it is less provocative to the Russians. But for House leaders like Ros-Lehtinen, that defeats the purpose.
National security nominations
The Senate managed to clear a bunch of national security nominations before leaving town, but left a few top jobs behind. Unless Congress acts in September, the United States will have no ambassador in Iraq or Pakistan until after the elections. If Mitt Romney wins in November, all U.S. ambassadors will be given their pink slips and replaced, so it may seem trivial to appoint envoys who might only serve a few months. But the situations in Iraq and Pakistan could not be more sensitive, and most experts agree that U.S. national security interests are harmed by not having an ambassador at the helm of those huge and important embassies.
For Iraq, the administration is not likely to nominate anyone before the election, having learned a brutal lesson when several GOP senators successfully worked to scuttle the confirmation of Obama's original choice for the post, former NSC staffer Brett McGurk. McGurk's nomination was dead in the water when his e-mail exchange with a reporter in Baghdad (who later became his wife) was made public, but senators expressed other concerns about his qualifications for the post as well.
Some in the State Department tell The Cable that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants to appoint Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford to the post, but the White House doesn't want to take him off of the Syria account just yet. Other rumored candidates include the DCM in Baghdad Robert Beecroft and the current U.S. ambassador in Jordan Stu Jones. But there's no time to vet and confirm someone in the six legislative days in September, so the world's largest embassy will probably remain leaderless until 2013.
Obama's nominee to be envoy to Pakistan, Richard Olson, has a fair chance of getting confirmed in September. His nomination is currently held up by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who wants Pakistan to release the doctor who helped the CIA get Osama bin Laden. There's little chance the Pakistani courts will respond to Paul, so his hold will prove useless and will probably be lifted under pressure next month.
The Senate also failed to confirm Carlos Pasqual to be an assistant secretary of state in the energy bureau. That hold relates to congressional angst over the "Fast and Furious scandal," which unfolded while Pasqual was ambassador to Mexico. That issue isn't going away any time soon, so Pascqual will probably have to hold on to his "acting assistant secretary" title for a while.
Law of the Sea Treaty
Republicans senators boasted last month that they had collected enough votes to kill the Law of the Sea Treaty, an international convention that sets rules of the road for navigation, mineral, oil, and mining disputes in international waters. The drive to ratify the treaty is a major pet project of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), some say as a quasi-audition for the Secretary of State job. But the treaty remains opposed by entrenched senators in the GOP caucus, led by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who sees the treaty as yielding American sovereignty.
The Navy supports the treaty because it codifies international navigation practices it is already observing, and business leaders are pushing for ratification because they believe it gives them added leverage to bargain for rights to resources under the oceans. The plan had been to push for ratification in the lame-duck session, as was done in 2010 for the New START treaty with Russia. But this treaty is still a long way from being fully vetted, Republican opponents are confident they have enough votes to stop ratification, and the lame-duck session is already jammed full of urgent tax and economic bills. Moreover, if Democrats hold the Senate, Inhofe is likely to succeed Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, dealing LOST another perhaps fatal blow.
Defense and State Department authorizations
The defense authorization is the perennial and quintessential "must-pass" bill, as no Congress wants to stand accused of failing to support the troops during wartime, so there's a healthy confidence on Capitol Hill that the legislation will get done this calendar year. But the bill won't get done this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, because unlike most legislation these days, senators usually get to offer amendments to the defense authorization and thus the bill requires days of precious floor time. Last year, Congress cleared the bill in late December and that looks like the plan for this year as well.
The bill recommends but does not set funding levels for the military -- the money is actually allocated by the appropriations bill -- but there are still controversial issues in the authorization bill that will require attention. Last year's debate focused on the bill's language authorizing the president to indefinitely detain terror suspects, a fight that is still ongoing in the courts. Last year's bill also included new sanctions on Iran. This year, the fight will be over provisions of the version the House passed in May that provide for indefinite detention, reject some administration cuts to weapons programs, and seek to prevent same-sex marriage ceremonies in the military.
The impending cuts to both defense and entitlement spending mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 have become a hot-button issue in the presidential campaign. And we know what that means: no compromises before the election. For Republicans, the administration's reluctance to negotiate to avoid approximately $54 billion in cuts to the Pentagon's budget that are set to go into effect in January feeds into in their argument that the president is weak on national defense. Democrats, meanwhile, argue that the cuts can only be avoided if Republicans agree to increase revenues.
After the election, three possible scenarios will likely emerge. If Obama wins and the Democrats hold the Senate, they will be able to claim a mandate and popular support for a deal that includes revenues as well as spending cuts to avoid sequestration. If Romney wins, having promised to hold the line on cuts, the Senate will be hard pressed to implement the sequestration bargain no matter which party holds the gavel. If Obama wins and the Republicans take over the Senate, no deal is likely and the cuts could actually go into effect, beginning what would surely be a period of increased and even more acrimonious gridlock regarding national security on Capitol Hill.
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