Mitt Romney's foreign trip showed that he can't handle sensitive diplomatic situations, can't even handle relationships with friendly countries, and therefore is failing the commander-in-chief test, according to Obama campaign representatives Robert Gibbs and Colin Kahl.
"He offended our closest ally and triggered a troubling reaction in the most sensitive region in the world. He certainly didn't prove to anyone that he passed the commander in chief test," said Gibbs, the former White House press secretary, on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
Gibbs said the Romney campaign set extremely low expectations for the trip -- and then didn't even meet those expectations. The former Massachusetts governor did not visit any warzones or meet with any U.S. troops, Gibbs observed, as then Senator Barack Obama did when campaigning in 2008.
"Many were surprised that Mitt Romney did not take the opportunity to meet with any members of our armed forces on this trip," said Gibbs.
Gibbs also noted that Romney only took three questions from the reporters traveling with him, sparking frustration between the Romney campaign and the press corps that boiled over with profane comments from one of Romney's aides to reporters in Poland. Obama took 25 questions on his campaign trip abroad, Gibbs said.
"He repeatedly took a pass on explaining his views on foreign policy to the American people," Gibbs said. "Romney's auditioning to be the leader of the free world and it's clear he is unable to represent America on the world stage."
Kahl, who served in the Obama administration for three years as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said that Romney's suggestion that London was not ready to host the Olympics was an unforced error.
"The trip was supposed to be an easy one for Governor Romney, but he couldn't even handle the low bar that his campaign set for him," said Kahl. "If Romney can't handle the special relationship with Great Britain on the eve of the Olympic Games, how can he handle our enemies?"
Kahl said that Romney's trip was devoid of specific policy proposals and that Romney has repeatedly criticized Obama's foreign policy without spelling out exactly what he would do differently.
"The world got to see what it would be like if Mitt Romney was in charge of American foreign policy and it's not a sight they will forget any time soon," said Kahl. "This trip casts serious doubt as to whether Governor Romney has the ability to handle the job."
Gibbs and Kahl also criticized Romney for intimating that culture had something to do with the disparity of wealth between in Israel and the Palestinian territories, comments described as racist by several Palestinian leaders.
"You have to choose your words very, very carefully and Governor Romney just didn't do that," said Kahl. "
"It's up to Governor Romney to explain why those comments would be helpful to resolving the conflict in the Middle East."
Kahl also defended the Obama administration's reluctance to recognize Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there, as Romney promised to do when he was in the Jewish state.
Kahl said that the current policy that the status of Jerusalem is an issue to be negotiated between the two parties represents bipartisan consensus going back decades.
"[Romney] disagreed with past democratic administrations like Bill Clinton's and past Republican administrations like Ronald Reagan's," Kahl said.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a Romney surrogate and rumored candidate to be Romney's running mate, defended the former governor's comments on culture and wealth in a brief interview Tuesday with The Cable.
"I think that certainly you look at the success of some countries and you wonder why are some nations that are right next door to other nations and more successful. I think America has benefited from being a melting pot of cultures," Rubio said. "There's no way you look at Israel and not marvel at what they have accomplished -- their commitment to democracy, their commitment to free enterprise, their commitment to upward mobility -- and I think you find a lot of that in their culture, absolutely."
The Romney campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta promised increased security cooperation with Tunisia during a visit to the North African country Monday, while lawmakers in Washington pressed the administration to do more to build up the U.S.-Tunisia security relationship.
"The U.S. Department of Defense stands ready to help Tunisia to ensuring regional stability, to strengthen the capabilities of its defense institutions," Panetta said after meeting President Moncef Marzouki today in Tunis. "I was pleased to begin a dialogue about how we can deepen that cooperation in the range of common concerns, counter violent extremism and terrorism... There are a number of efforts that we can assist them with to develop the kind of operations, the kind of intelligence that will help effectively deal with that threat."
Last week, a group of bipartisan senators wrote to President Barack Obama to urge him to expand military cooperation and assistance to the new Tunisian government and broaden the economic and strategic relationship as well, in a previously unreported letter obtained by The Cable. They wrote that Tunisia represents a hopeful model for the Arab Spring but that the country's path to democratic prosperity is fragile and needs support.
"We applaud the actions taken by your Administration to aid Tunisia during its transition, including the recent reprogramming of $100 million in direct budget support, the establishment of a Millennium Challenge Corporation threshold compact, the creation of a U.S.-Tunisia Enterprise Fund, loan guarantees, and intensive diplomacy by Secretary of State Clinton to persuade other countries around the world to provide help to Tunis. However, we believe that much more can and must be done," wrote Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Chris Coons (D-DE), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and John Hoeven (R-ND).
In addition to counterterrorism assistance, Tunisia needs help securing its borders and training its police force, the senators wrote. They also urged Obama to begin negotiations immediately with Tunisia on a free trade agreement, an idea floated recently by House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-CA). The senators also want Obama to start a strategic dialogue with Tunisia, to give the relationship more long-term consistency.
"We are concerned that, despite increased U.S. engagement with Tunisia since the revolution last year, much of our interaction with our partners in Tunisia remains unstructured and episodic," they wrote. "As senior officials in your Administration have repeatedly said, the Arab Spring is a historic opportunity to help a critical part of the world move towards greater freedom, stability, and prosperity. When historians look back decades from now, they will judge whether the U.S. government seized or squandered this moment."
Lieberman went to Tunisia most recently in December 2011. McCain and Hoeven went there in February 2012. Lieberman and McCain were also the first senators to visit Tunisia after the "jasmine revolution," traveling there in February 2011.
According to the Congressional Research Service, Tunisia is set to receive $29.5 million in foreign military financing in fiscal 2012 and $1.9 million in military education under the IMET programs, which bring foreign military leaders to the U.S. for short periods of time. The administration has requested $15 million and $2.3 million, respectively, for fiscal year 2013. The administration allocated $13 million in Defense Department-administered funding for a maritime and border security package in fiscal 2011.
By comparison, Egypt receives approximately 50 times more money than Tunisia in security assistance.
House and Senate negotiators have reached a compromise on a new set of Iran sanctions to be brought to the floor of both chambers this week, but some conservative critics say the compromise isn't strong enough to convince the Iranians to change their nuclear calculations.
The Cable has obtained the latest version of the bill, which has not yet been introduced in the House. The bill could be introduced as early as tonight and could come to the House floor as early as Wednesday.
The Senate could take it up and try to pass it Thursday or Friday, before senators leave town for August recess. This version was negotiated behind closed doors between the staffs of Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
The bill would sanction anyone who provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot-control equipment -- as well as jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed related assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.
The legislation would also formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime.
The bill does not contain proposed language offered by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) in the Senate and Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Robert Dold (R-FL) in the House that would expand energy-sector sanctions on Iran by declaring the country a "zone of proliferation concern," thus barring any businesses or service providers from dealing with the Iranian petroleum sector in any way. Instead the bill includes a non-binding "sense of Congress" that Iran is a zone of proliferation concern.
The bill also does not provide for penalties on the board of directors of the international financial transaction clearinghouse SWIFT, penalties that would have punished those directors if SWIFT allowed any banks from any countries to aid Iran in evading international sanctions, as the Wall Street Journal editorial board advocated for today.
"We hear the administration opposes this move for fear that it might prompt such banks to create their own versions of Swift. Yet there aren't many banks that would want to be cut off from the international financial system, much less place themselves in a basket of outlaw or shady banks," the Journal editorial said.
The legislation also does not expand existing sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to apply to all Iranian financial institutions and entities that do business with them, like exchange houses and gold suppliers. Kirk and some House members had been advocating for those provisions.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has been saying that he wants to get the bill passed this month and there's little chance the legislation could be opened up again for changes. The last time Reid brought the bill to the floor, he refused to allow amendments or floor debate and he is expected to try to go for a unanimous consent vote this time as well. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, also has been lobbying in support of the new version to various Hill offices.
For experts that follow Iran sanctions, the bill is a good step toward tightening the noose on Iran's economy but not enough to bring the Iranian economy to its knees in a way that would compel Iran's leaders to abandon their nuclear ambitions.
"This bill is a major step towards economic warfare against the Iranian regime. It closes significant loopholes and tightens U.S. sanctions in key areas including shipping. But Iranian nuclear physics is beating Western economic pressure," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "We need to skip intermediate steps and go to comprehensive economic warfare. Everything must be prohibited unless permitted, and the only transactions that should be permitted are small purchases of Iranian oil and the sale of humanitarian goods. Destroying the regime's energy wealth is the best way to avoid a military confrontation."
"What exactly is this going to do to get the Iranians to the table? This is the time for the mallet, not fine-needle surgery," said Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. "We see this as a do-or-die moment. Our purpose is not to have effective sanctions; our purpose is to bring them to the table to give up their nuclear ambitions."
The House Republican leadership has signed on to the compromise, although the question remains whether all of the Senate GOP caucus will go along. One congressional aide knowledgeable about Iran sanctions defended the compromise.
"We'll inevitably hear voices this week who say this could have gone further on x, y, or z. But it's important not to make the perfect into the enemy of the good, and this sanctions bill is good -- very good, in fact -- and by passing it, Congress can make a real difference," the aide said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended the administration's action on Iran sanctions today during a stop in Tunisia. "I think what we all need to do is to continue the pressure on Iran economically and diplomatically, to take the right steps here to negotiate," he said.
UPDATE: Late Monday evening, Johnson and Ros-Lehtinen each issued statements announcing the compromise. Johnson said he will work to ensure the senate passes the legislation this week.
"I am pleased we could come together and find agreement on this bipartisan and bicameral bill," Johnson said in his statement. "These new sanctions will send a clear signal to Iran's military and political leaders, that unless they come clean on their nuclear program, end the suppression of their people, and stop supporting terrorist activities, they will face deepening international isolation and even greater economic and diplomatic pressure."
Ros-Lehtinen also presented the compromise as bipartisan and bicameral and emphasized that many members of both chambers had input into the process. She also defended the strength and impact of the law's provisions.
"If properly implemented, this bill will impose crippling economic pressure on the Iranian regime in order to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program and other dangerous policies," she said in her statement. "The House and Senate will be taking up the bill this week, and I urge President Obama to quickly sign it and vigorously enforce its provisions."
Kris Connor/Getty Images
A top advisor to Mitt Romney's campaign on Wednesday accused U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon of leaking classified intelligence information to New York Times reporter David Sanger.
The advisor, former George W. Bush envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson, was speaking during a debate at Washington's Brookings Institution with former senior Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy, who has emerged as one of President Barack Obama's top foreign-policy surrogates on the campaign trail.
Williamson was hammering the Obama administration for leaking national security secrets for political gain, a theme of Romney's speech Tuesday before the Veteran of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nevada.
"I believe every reporter in this town knows that at least one of the sources is in the White House," Williamson said. "I think the Obama administration has figured out how to do [intelligence sharing]: Have the national security advisor talk to David Sanger and then all intelligence is shared."
"No one is immune. Nothing is off the table," Flournoy responded. "[Obama] has also said he will pursue the investigations to their logical conclusions and he will prosecute anyone who is found to have leaked."
"There's been no administration that has been more aggressive in pursuing leaks than this one," she added, pointing out that the administration has appointed two U.S. attorneys to investigate the leaks.
That apparently is not enough to satisfy Romney, who on Tuesday called for "a full and prompt investigation by a special counsel" into what he called "a national security crisis."
"Whoever provided classified
information to the media, seeking political advantage for the administration,
must be exposed, dismissed, and punished," he said.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said Monday that the White House should understand the leaks were coming from within its own ranks, but she retracted that comment Tuesday and said she did not know who the leakers were.
Arming the Syrian rebels
Williamson also said Wednesday that Romney firmly supports direct U.S. aid to the Syrian rebels.
"[Romney has] said we should be willing to arm the moderate opposition," Williamson said. "He's said repeatedly he'd be willing and support arming the moderate factions within the opposition."
In fact, Romney has often said that he supports "working with partners" to arm the Syrian opposition, but Williamson was clear that Romney supports the U.S. government directly providing American weapons to Syrian rebels fighting against the Assad regime.
Williamson ripped the Obama administration for being slow to work with the Syrian opposition, leaving the United States largely in the dark and impinging on the U.S. ability to work with rebel leaders now.
Romney does not support the idea of "safe zones" to protect Syrian civilians and rebel fighters, however, and idea championed by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) as well as several of the former Massachusetts governor's own foreign-policy advisors.
"He's said that's not his position, but he feels we should be arming the opposition, but more importantly we shouldn't be leading from behind," Williamson said.
Flournoy countered that the administration has been working with the Syrian opposition for many months, even if it wasn't in the news. But she said that the administration's emphasis has been on diplomacy and sanctions, not adding fuel to what many are now describing as an incipient civil war.
"The way change will ultimately happen in Syria is if you can get parts of the inner circle around Assad to defect, and they're beginning to do that," she said. "Working the political dimensions of this are the most important piece and that's what the administration has been focused on from the get-go."
The debate touched on a range of other international issues, and moderator Marvin Kalb tried to tease out the differences between Romney and Obama on each.
On Iran, Williamson said that Romney does not support any deal that would allow Iran to enrich uranium at even low levels, while administration officials have said Iran has the right to limited uranium enrichment for civilian purposes.
"That would be unacceptable to Romney," Williamson said. He also said Romney would create a "credible threat" of military action against Iran that Obama has not.
"There is no credible threat of force. No one in Tehran or in the region feels that the Obama administration will use force," Williamson said.
Flournoy replied that Obama is serious when he says Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear, but that there is a year or more at least before Iran could reach the nuclear threshold that would trigger any military action.
"He doesn't bluff. That is the policy," she said. "Pentagon planning for this is very robust ... the military option is real. The president's judgment is now is not the time."
On Israel, Flournoy tried to counter Romney's critique that Obama has not visited Israel in his first term. Romney will visit Israel this week as part of his three-nation foreign trip that also includes stops in the United Kingdom and Poland.
"When you judge a president's commitment to Israel, you have to look beyond the itinerary," she said. "Does anybody question Ronald Reagan's commitment to Israel? He never went to Israel."
Williamson responded that Obama's treatment of Israeli leaders has been insulting and he referenced the March 2010 incident when Vice President Joe Biden delayed his arrival at a dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protest the announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem on the day of Biden's arrival.
"The vice president of the United States kept the Israeli head of state waiting 90 minutes for dinner because he was having a temper tantrum. You don't treat any head of state that way, let alone your friend," Williamson said.
The two advisors also clashed over the merits of Obama's "reset" policy with Russia and whether China is being held to account for manipulating its currency.
But Williamson praised Obama's handling of the relationship with India and said, "The president has made good progress [on Chinese human rights] in the governor's opinion."
The Cable asked Williamson to respond to Republican complaints that the Romney campaign has been light on details about its foreign policy and has even downplayed the importance of national security during the campaign. The Weekly Standard's William Kristol wrote Wednesday that the Romney campaign should stop talking about national security as if it's a low priority for a candidate and a president.
"There's an understandable desire to have more and more details," Williamson said. "But in the end what he needs to do is try to present a world vision that is dramatically different from President Obama's, and a thrust of how he would approach it ... and he's done that."
"Bill Kristol will never be satisfied that there are enough details and he's paid to be provocative, but we feel we are laying out a vision for where America should go."
Now that China has announced it intends to build a military garrison on disputed islands in the South China Sea, raising fears about the outbreak of conflict in the contested maritime region, several top U.S. senators are urging China and Southeast Asian countries to return to the negotiating table and solve their disputes peacefully.
Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Richard Lugar (R-IN), John McCain (R-AZ), Jim Webb (D-VA), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), introduced a resolution this week to urge China and ASEAN to complete work on a code of conduct for settling disputes in the South China Sea and other maritime domains before tensions rise any further.
The resolution "strongly urges that, pending adoption of a code of conduct, all parties, consistent with commitments under the declaration of conduct, ‘exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and stability, including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.'"
The Obama administration has been working quietly but in a determined fashion to press Southeast Asian countries to settle their internal disputes and come up with a unified negotiating position for how to complete a code of conduct for settling maritime disputes, as all of the countries of the region agreed to do in 2002.
"We have seen worrisome instances of economic coercion and the problematic use of military and government vessels in connection with disputes among fisherman. So we look to ASEAN and China to make meaningful progress toward finalizing a code of conduct for the South China Sea that is based on international law and agreements," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said July 12 in Cambodia when attending the ASEAN Regional Forum. "As I told my colleagues, this will take leadership, and ASEAN is at its best when it meets its own goals and standards and is able to speak with one voice on issues facing the region."
The senators' resolution supports that process but also reaffirms the U.S. commitment to assist ASEAN countries in remaining strong and independent and pledges to deepen the U.S. partnership with ASEAN nations. The resolution also "supports enhanced operations by the United States armed forces in the Western Pacific, including in the South China Sea, including in partnership with the armed forces of others countries in the region, in support of freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, including the peaceful resolution of issues of sovereignty, and unimpeded lawful commerce."
In a statement given to The Cable, Kerry said that ASEAN's failure to agree on a joint statement regarding the code of conduct at the Cambodia summit added to the rising tensions between China and its neighbors over the issues and convinced senators it was time to weigh in.
"These disputes are real and they're getting more serious. I'd think the least the Senate can do is to go on the record clearly and unequivocally in favor of ASEAN efforts to develop a code of conduct in the South China Sea," Kerry said.
"There should be no doubt that the United States is committed to an enduring presence and deepening partnerships in the region. We have a clear interest in safe and lawful behavior by everyone operating in Asia's maritime commons. We have a huge interest also in the peaceful resolution of all the issues in the South China Sea, consistent with international law and through a multilateral diplomatic process," Kerry continued. "We've got big worries about freedom of navigation and free commerce. Those are principles all states in the region should be able to support, and this resolution makes clear that the Senate's watching and we're focused appropriately."
The State Department said Tuesday that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a U.N. agency, didn't violate sanctions by giving U.S. technology to Iran and North Korea, rebutting a charge by top lawmakers in both parties that the agency is stifling congressional attempts to investigate the matter.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and her Democratic counterpart Howard Berman (D-CA) cancelled a scheduled committee briefing today on the matter and accused WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry of refusing to allow to senior WIPO staffers to testify.
"Director-General Gurry is obstructing this Committee's investigation of WIPO's transfer of U.S.-origin technology to rogue regimes under international sanctions-a transfer that occurred on his watch," both lawmakers said in a joint statement. "By refusing to commission an independent investigation and by obstructing an investigation by the Congress of the United States, whose citizens provide so much of the funds that keep WIPO operating, Director-General Gurry sends the message that he is not committed to transparency, accountability, and reform."
Questioned about the situation at today's State Department press briefing, Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the Obama administration shares congressional concerns about the alleged transfer of U.S. technology to Iran and North Korea. But she also said that the administration doesn't think WIPO broke U.N. rules.
"Our own preliminary assessment -- but we are still seeking more information from WIPO -- is that there doesn't appear to have been a violation of U.N. sanctions," she said. "However, this has now been referred to the sanctions committee for them to make their own determination."
WIPO shipped 20 Hewlett-Packard Compaq desktop computers to Iran in either late 2011 or early 2012 and gave North Korea more advanced computers and data storage devices. The transfers were financed through the Beijing office of the U.N. Development Program.
Nuland said the administration couldn't determine whether the WIPO transfers had violated U.S. law until WIPO comes back to the administration with more information. She also said the administration does not agree with Ros-Lehtinen that WIPO is stonewalling on the issue.
"We have seen a number of positive steps from WIPO with regard to their procedures going forward that are important. For example, they have agreed to a commission that will have an external and independent auditing ability with regard to their projects to try to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future," Nuland said.
Last week, Ros-Lehtinen and Berman wrote to the administration to say that WIPO's own internal investigations would not be enough to satisfy congressional concern over the technology transfers.
"We will accept nothing less than an independent investigation, full cooperation, and complete accountability," Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Berman wrote in the July 20 letter.
"We have written to WIPO demanding an independent, external investigation of how WIPO could have provided sophisticated U.S.-origin technology to rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran. Instead, the WIPO leadership has announced that it will institute a mere 'review,' which falls far short. What's needed is an immediate and credible investigation," they wrote.
In a July 19 statement, WIPO's Gurry reiterated that the transfers were being referred to the U.N. sanctions committee for guidance and that new measures would be put in place to examine future transfers before they take place.
"While the legal advice received with respect to the technical assistance provided to DPRK [North Korea] and Iran was that the technical assistance was not in breach of U.N.sanctions, it is hoped that the measures outlined above will provide assurance that the organization is treating this matter with the seriousness that it warrants," he said.
As the crisis in Syria deepens, top senators in both parties are unable to explain presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney's policy on dealing with the country's deepening civil war.
Romney, who leaves Tuesday evening on a three-nation foreign trip, barely mentioned Syria in his foreign-policy speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference in Reno, and then only as a criticism of President Barack Obama's "reset" policy with Russia.
"I don't know what it is," said Senate Armed Services Committee member John Cornyn (R-TX) when asked to comment on Romney's Syria policy. After The Cable explained it to him, Cornyn said he needed more time to study the issue. Other top senators were similarly befuddled.
On his campaign website, Romney criticizes Obama for reaching out to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the past but stops short of calling for any direct action to force Assad from power such as directly arming the opposition, as his surrogates like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) are demanding, or establishing "safe zones" for the Syrian opposition, as many of his campaign's foreign policy advisors are calling for.
"Mitt Romney believes the United States should pursue a strategy of isolating and pressuring the Assad regime to increase the likelihood of a peaceful transition to a legitimate government. We should redouble our push for the U.N. Security Council to live up to its responsibilities and impose sanctions that cut off funding sources that serve to maintain the regime's grip on power," the campaign website reads.
But the Obama administration is already pursuing a more aggressive strategy than that, announcing this week that it is abandoning the diplomacy track at the U.N. and ramping up various levels of support to the Syrian opposition. CIA teams are also reportedly vetting rebels fighters and aiding in their efforts to get weapons from countries including Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Administration officials say that increased communications and intelligence assistance is also on the way.
Romney has said repeatedly that the United States should "work with partners" to arm the Syrian opposition but has stopped short of calling for Washington to give the rebels direct, lethal aid. On July 19, after the U.N. Security Council again failed to impose punitive measures on the Assad regime following Russian and Chinese vetoes, Romney again criticized the administration's policy without saying what he would do differently.
"Russia's veto again shows the hollowness of President Obama's failed ‘reset' policy with Russia and his lack of leadership on Syria," Romney said. "While Russia and Iran have rushed to support Bashar al-Assad and thousands have been slaughtered, President Obama has abdicated leadership and subcontracted U.S. policy to Kofi Annan and the United Nations. Under this President, American influence and respect for our position around the world is at a low ebb."
On Monday, Romney told CNBC, "I think from the very beginning we misread the setting in Syria... America should've come out very aggressively from the very beginning and said Assad must go. ... The world looks for American leadership and American strength."
On Capitol Hill, senior Republicans and Democrats alike were at pains to describe Romney's policy on Syria, much less say whether they supported it or not.
"I think we need to have a robust discussion about that," Cornyn said. "There's also the concern that Syria is much more difficult than Libya was, for example. So I think the discussions need to continue about what the appropriate response is. I'm interested in learning from others what their response is."
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who admitted last week that he didn't know what Romney's Afghanistan policy was, couldn't name any specifics of Romney's Syria policy Tuesday and instead launched into a monologue about America's role in the world.
"Syria is a really complicated problem in a really complicated part of the world and anybody who says you can have a Syria policy separate and apart from the rest of your foreign policy doesn't know what foreign policy is made of," Kyl told The Cable. "I know that Governor Romney sees the complexities of the world and appreciates the need to have a strong America that has the flexibility to act in complicated and difficult and very troublesome situations like Syria."
Kyl declined to say whether he supported arming the Syrian opposition or establishing safe zones inside Syria, or whether he believed that Romney was supporting either option.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said he supported the administration's efforts to facilitate the movement of arms to the Syrian opposition and he believes the United States should work with Turkey and NATO to establish safe zones for Syrian civilians.
But Levin could not say what Romney's Syria policy was or whether it was substantively different from what the administration is doing now.
"I don't know what his position is and his positions change so frequently, it's hard to keep track," Levin said. "That doesn't mean that he doesn't have one, or that he doesn't have two or three for that matter."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable he has very specific criticisms of the Obama administration's Syria policy and very specific requests, namely that the administration use American military power to protect Syrian civilians and directly arm the opposition to help topple Assad.
"I'm pained every day that goes by and more and more Syrians get killed. We may be doing something through the CIA, but not a lot. Now the Syrians are using fighter plans and threatening to use gas," said Lieberman. "What I'd like to see is the Obama administration lead the coalition of the willing to go after the Assad regime directly, and I think that would end this pretty quickly."
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
China's oppression of Tibetans and their culture is preventing China from becoming a modern, pluralistic, free, and democratic nation, according to Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of Tibet's government in exile, who added that the current Chinese system and policy in Tibet is destined to fail.
"If Tibet is granted autonomy, that could be a catalyst for moderation of China because if the Chinese government grants autonomy to Tibetans, for the first time they are accepting diversity within and accepting a distinct if not different people," Sangay, who is also known as the Kalon Tripa, told The Cable in an exclusive interview during his visit to Washington last week.
"I think no system which is authoritarian, or one-party rule, can last long. Ultimately, other people have to be taken into consideration, have to be empowered and respected by the system, because universality of freedom is established now," he said. "In that sense I do believe the universality of freedom will prevail and justice will prevail in Tibet as well."
For now, Chinese repressive and violent treatment of Tibetans inside China is increasing and tensions between Tibetans and Han Chinese are reaching new and dangerous levels, Sangay said. The Tibetan people, dedicated to nonviolence, have resorted to self-immolations in record numbers this year to protest their treatment at the hands of the Chinese government, he said. Forty-four Tibetans have self-immolated over the last 18 months and 34 of those have died.
Meanwhile, Tibet has been closed off to foreign tourists, Tibetan visitors are being expelled from the Tibetan capital Lhasa, and thousands of Han Chinese are being brought into Tibet to artificially alter the demographic balance there.
"That means the Chinese government is really cutting off Tibet and Lhasa from the rest of the world," said Sangay, who came to Washington to meet with administration officials and lawmakers to rally support for the region's plight.
Unlike his first visit to Washington since becoming Tibet's first ever competitively elected prime minister last year, when no U.S. officials would meet with him, this year Sangay was able to meet with two top Obama administration officials. The White House confirmed that Sangay met with NSC Senior Director for Asia Daniel Russel and the State Department confirmed he met with Under Secretary of State Maria Otero.
Both meetings happened in non-U.S. government buildings, however, in a likely effort to stave off a diplomatic blast from Beijing. Sangay also met with several lawmakers, including Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
Sangay said there's no reason for U.S. officials to be wary of meeting Tibetans.
"Meeting Tibetans and receiving his Holiness the Dalai Lama is not zero-sum," he said. "Some have this mindset that if I meet a Tibetan I'll be in trouble with the Chinese government, but the Chinese will meet with you and do business with you because they get a good deal. Tomorrow if they get a better deal from some other country, they'll do that too."
"And at the larger level, if Tibetans are ignored, essentially what you're ignoring is nonviolence and democracy," he 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."
During his meetings with officials and lawmakers, Sangay updated them on what he sees as a ramping up of Chinese government persecution of Tibetans, which included the arrest and detention of thousands of Tibetans who traveled to India in January to hear a teaching from the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, and violence against Tibetans who protested in February during the Chinese New Year that resulted in at least 6 deaths.
"Unfortunately, instead of the Chinese government addressing the issues, they're resorting to the blame game and saying these protests are instigated from outside, that self-immolations are happening because of influence from the outside," he said. "But even the generation of Tibetans who grew up under the Chinese system who have not met outside Tibetans and the Dalai Lama are protesting against the Chinese government, which clearly indicates the failures of Chinese government policies."
Chinese repression of Tibetans is not just a human rights issue, he said. The Tibetan plateau houses 10 major rivers that provide water for over a third of the world's population and the Chinese government is damning those rivers in ways that are sure to alter the environment unpredictably. The Chinese government has built the second-largest mine in Asia in Tibet, he complained, destroying historical and also sacred mountains.
"Some experts say that wars were fought over land before, now wars are fought over energy and soon wars will be fought over water, and Tibet constitutes if not the largest than one of the largest sources of freshwater," Sangay said.
Sangay's message to U.S. officials and lawmakers was to ask for a fact-finding mission to be sent to Tibet to investigate the situation there.
He also repeated his call for limited Tibetan autonomy within the Chinese system, similar to how China treats Hong Kong, a former British colony that was returned to China in 1997 but still enjoys some control over its own affairs.
"We are asking for genuine autonomy within China, within the framework of the Chinese constitution. We are not challenging Chinese sovereignty or territorial integrity so we are willing to accept the One China concept," he said.
Chinese officials are in Washington Monday and Tuesday for the semi-regular U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue, a set of talks Washington insists are productive but that critics see as routine and light on deliverables. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly urged the Chinese government to reopen a dialogue with the Tibetan people last week during a meeting in Cambodia.
"The secretary's been forthright, the president has been forthright, that we have serious, ongoing concerns about a variety of human rights issues and rule-of-law issues in China, and we are always open and clear about those with Chinese officials," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at Monday's press briefing.
Sangay wrote in a July 13 Washington Post op-ed that such statements are welcome but not nearly enough to help the Tibetan people.
"The time has come for the world to shut out the noise of China's influence and to hear the Tibetan cries: that repression is unbearable and unacceptable," he wrote. "Because we know that the democracies of the world recognize basic human rights and freedoms to be universal values, we ask the international community to intervene before our situation deteriorates even further."
In his interview with The Cable, Sangay also noted the irony of the Chinese government's attempts to choose the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, even though the Chinese government denies the validity of organized religion.
"The communist party thinks of religion as poison, and his Holiness is called the Devil, so why are the Chinese so interested in the reincarnation of the Devil?" he said. "So we think they have no business in reincarnation because they don't believe in it to begin with, and even if they try to intervene, Tibetans will not believe it. It's like Fidel Castro saying I'll select the next Pope and Catholics should believe it. That's not going to happen, so the Chinese government might try, but it's bound to fail."
The House of Representatives voted 407-5 Thursday to bar the Pentagon from spending any money on deals with Rosoboronexport, the main Russian arms broker that is also providing weapons to the Syrian regime.
The vote came in the context of the debate over the fiscal 2013 defense appropriations bill. Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) offered an amendment to the bill that says the Defense Department may not "enter into a contract, memorandum of understanding, or cooperative agreement with, make a grant to, or provide a loan or loan guarantee to Rosoboronexport."
"It is beyond unacceptable for the United States government to work with a firm that is arming the oppressive Syrian regime," Moran told The Cable. "The United States does not condone the massacre of innocent men, women and children. Furthering contracts with Rosoboronexport contradicts our nation's commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy."
Congressional outrage over the Pentagon's dealings with Rosoboronexport have been building since March, when 17 senators wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to demand an end to U.S. arms deals with the Russian firm.
Russia has supplied more than $1 billion of arms to the Syrian government since the unrest is Syria began, the senators wrote -- including four cargo ships full of weapons that have arrived in Syria since December. Rosoboronexport is Russia's official broker, serving as a middle man for all Russian foreign defense sales. It reportedly signed a new contract with the Syrian regime for 36 combat jets in January.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army is in the middle of buying 21 Mi-17 dual-use helicopters from Rosoboronexport for the Afghan security forces. That $375 million deal was granted to the Russian arms broker through a sole-source contract that was never competitively bid, according to Wired. The administration has said Rosoboronexport was the only broker for the helipcopters, which the Afghan military needs.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who has been leading the congressional fight against Rosoboronexport, tried to add two related amendments to the Russian trade bill approved by the Senate Finance Committee July 18. One would have expanded the Magnitsky Act, a related piece of human rights legislation, to include those involved in transferring weapons to the Syrian government. Cornyn withdrew that amendment at the request of the committee leadership.
A second Cornyn amendment would have delayed the implementation of the U.S. granting Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations status until the administration could certify that Russia had ceased providing the Syrian regime with lethal weapons. That amendment failed by an 8-16 vote.
On Friday, Syrian-American groups in Washington praised the House for moving to end the Pentagon's business with Rosoboronexport.
"The American-Syrian Council has been working hard to emphasize in Congress how important it is that the United States government send a signal to Russia that continued military support for the Assad regime is a red line" said Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a member of the council. "We will work to secure the necessary votes in the Senate and move quickly to have this DoD contract with Rosoboronexport terminated as quickly as possible."
Syrian refugees are pouring into neighboring countries at an alarming and increasing rate, outpacing the international community's ability to assist them, according to State Department and USAID officials.
"The violence is increasing ... and this increase in violence is, of course, leading to more people, and a larger number of people, that are inside Syria and that are along Syria's borders needing more humanitarian assistance," said Maria Otero, the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy, and human rights.
Otero just returned from Turkey and Jordan, where she met with government officials, nongovernmental organizations, international organizations, human rights activists, and youth groups. She traveled there with Kelly Clements, the deputy assistant secretary of State for the bureau of population, refugees, and migration;
Clements said that as of Thursday, between 117,000 and 125,000 refugees had fled Syria to seek refuge in neighboring countries and thousands more were pouring over the borders each day. 8,500 Syrians crossed the border into Lebanon in the last 24 hours, she said.
As of Thursday, there were about 42,600 refugees in the camps along the Turkish border, she said. In Jordan, there are 37,000 refugees, of which about 35,000 have been registered with UNHCR. In Lebanon, there are 32,500; in Iraq about 8,000.
"There are obviously many more Syrians that have crossed that border but have not availed themselves of the need for international assistance," said Clements, adding that in Lebanon, "those numbers are rising very, very rapidly."
There are also 1.5 million Syrians inside Syria need of urgent assistance, including 300,000 to 500,000 internally displaced persons, but aid workers are struggling to reach them.
"Inside Syria, lack of access due to violence by all parties remains the number one limiting factor for humanitarian assistance. International humanitarian agencies simply are unable to reach those most in need," Clements said.
Aid workers are also being harassed and captured, even killed.
"We know it's been widespread, and we know from organizations that we're working with that medical clinics, health professionals have been targeted. We also know people simply trying to get aid in to help people have been targeted, said Mark Bartolini, director of the office of U.S. foreign disaster assistance.
At the Syria Humanitarian Forum last week in Geneva, the U.S. announced another $6 million in assistance to international organizations dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, bringing the total U.S. commitment in 2012 to $64 million, Clements said.
The Obama campaign Thursday called on Mitt Romney to clarify his policy on Afghanistan and highlighted a Romney's advisor's comments downplaying the importance of the issue.
"'Real Americans' care that Romney hasn't outlined a plan for Afghanistan," was the title of an e-mail sent out by the Obama campaign Thursday afternoon on behalf of Rob Diamond, the campaign's director for veterans and military families. Diamond was responding to comments Thursday morning made by Romney Senior Communications Adviser Tara Wall on MSNBC that "real Americans" don't care about Romney's Afghanistan policy.
Wall was responding to questions about an exclusive July 16 report on The Cable, in which we documented that senior senators on both sides of the aisle couldn't articulate Romney's Afghanistan policy, which currently contains sparse specifics on what Romney would do in Afghanistan if elected president.
"You would have to tell me what exactly you mean by ‘his policy.' That's a long discussion that I don't want to get into," Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl told The Cable.
When asked about those comments by MSNBC's Luke Russert, Wall demurred and called the issue a distraction.
"I'm not going to get into the details of that," she said. "Unfortunately it's disappointing that the attacks, these recent attacks on all these issues outside of what the issues are relative to Mitt Romney are diverting away from what real Americans want to talk about. And real Americans want to talk about getting back to work."
Diamond said that real Americans care about the mission in Afghanistan and he criticized Romney for supporting the Paul Ryan budget, which would reduce spending for veterans affairs by $11 billion per year compared to the administration's plan. Overall, the Obama campaign called on Romney to specify exactly what his plan in Afghanistan would be.
"Americans deserve to know what Mitt Romney would do as Commander-in-Chief, and rather than outlining a plan to end the war, he has thus far simply criticized the President for setting a timetable to bring our troops home," said Daimon. "If Governor Romney and his advisors don't have an answer because they don't have a plan, they should let us know that, too."
On Romney's website, the campaign criticizes President Barack Obama for announcing a "timetable" for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and accuses the administration of placing politics over the advice of military commanders by withdrawing 30,000 surge troops by September.
"Gov. Romney supports the 2014 timetable as a realistic timetable and a residual force post-2014. But he would not have announced that timetable publicly, as President Obama did, as doing so encourages the Taliban to wait us out and our allies to hedge their bets," a Romney campaign spokesperson told The Cable.
The Palestine Liberation Organization has denied recent reports that the White House issued a notice threatening to cut all aid to the Palestinian Authority if it launches a renewed drive for recognition at the United Nations.
"This is absolutely not true," PLO representative to Washington Maen Rashid Areikat told The Cable this week. "We do not know what they are saying. It's unfounded."
According to numerous online sources, Palestine National Council political chairman Khaled Mesmar, an Obama administration envoy issued the threat during a recent visit to Ramallah, and Areikat's comments come just days after senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat announced that the Palestinian Authority plans to ask the U.N. General Assembly to recognize Palestine as an observer state. Last year's bid for statehood membership was blocked by the United States, and the top foreign aid leaders in the House of Representatives issued a similar threat in August 2011.
On Capitol Hill, the Palestinian Authority has faced increasing scrutiny since it sought U.N. recognition last September. House Foreign Relations Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has spearheaded congressional efforts to prevent federal budgetary allocations to the Palestinian Authority -- which have averaged nearly $600 million since Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 -- from being released, along with House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX). In March, Ros-Lehtinen agreed to release $88.6 million of $147 million slated for Palestinian development aid in the West Bank and Gaza that Republican lawmakers had placed on hold in August 2011, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton overruled the decision and notified Congress in April that the entire package would be disbursed.
"On the congressional level I think that what we are facing is a total ignorance and lack of understanding of the political dynamics and variables that are involved in U.S. assistance to the Palestinians," Areikat said in a short interview. "We are shocked to know that these members of Congress don't even have the minimum knowledge or understanding of Palestinian positions or the impact of U.S. assistance on improving the living, economic, and humanitarian positions of the Palestinian people. Resorting to this tool to try to influence Palestinian leaders into changing their political position is something that has proven in the past to be counterproductive, and it will not lead to a change in the Palestinian political position."
As Ros-Lehtinen continues to place holds on FY2012 funds, however, the Palestinian Authority is facing financial collapse. Saudi Arabia transferred $100 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority after Israel applied for a $100 million International Monetary Fund loan on its behalf and was refused, but the PA's budget deficit for the current year has already surpassed the $1 billion mark. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Monday that the PA is unable to pay about 150,000 of its employees.
The House's stance on foreign aid to the Palestinians has drawn the attention and ire of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA).
"House Republicans want to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority," he said during a speech at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition's annual conference on Tuesday. "I can't imagine anything that would tumble the Middle East more rapidly into a radical tailspin."
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), a co-signatory of the Cohen-Yarmouth-Connolly letter, which stresses the importance of American leadership to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, agrees.
"No, I do not support cutting off funds to the Palestinian Authority," he said in an emailed statement Tuesday. "I oppose them unilaterally seeking statehood, the deal should be bilateral, but cutting them off would lead to more conflict not less."
Members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, worry increasingly about corruption within the Palestinian government, as a committee oversight hearing last week about the Palestinian Authority's "chronic kleptocracy" demonstrated.
"As a major political donor to the Palestinians, we need to be extremely concerned that our aid will be construed as support for a corrupt regime," House Foreign Relations Committee senior member Gary Ackerman (D-NY) said during the hearing. "If they unintentionally wind up enriching loathsome regime figures ... then we have a hard choice as our support for the people is outweighed by unintended, undesirable consequences of that flow."
Areikat dismissed the hearing as a politically motivated smear tactic.
"By holding these hearings all the time, the House Foreign Relations Committee is ignoring an important fundamental principle in the U.S. system, which is giving the other party the chance to present its case," he told The Cable. "They have been holding all these hearings on the Palestinian Authority while the Palestinian Authority and its representatives are absent, so it's only a charade. It's a politically motivated campaign that has nothing to do with transparency and accountability."
The Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved today a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status as well as a bill to punish Russian human rights violators, but time is running out to pass the legislation through the full House and Senate.
Committee Chairman Max Baucus (R-MT) called on Congress to quickly pass the bills before lawmakers leave town at the end of this month for the long August recess. Russia's accession to the WTO is imminent, and unless the United States grants Russia PNTR status, U.S. businesses won't be able to take advantage, he argued.
"There is no time to waste; America risks being left behind," Baucus said. "If we miss that deadline [of Russia's WTO accession], American farmers, ranchers, workers and businesses will lose out to the other 154 members of the WTO that already have PNTR with Russia. American workers will lose the jobs created to China, Canada and Europe when Russia, the world's seventh largest economy, joins the WTO and opens its market to the world."
Baucus also trumpeted the fact that the PNTR bill is now officially joined with the Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act of 2012, which passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously in June. The bill imposes restrictions on the financial activities and travel of foreign officials found to have been connected to various human rights violations in any country. The House version of the bill, approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, targets only Russian human rights violators.
"By enacting PNTR together with the Magnitsky bill, we are replacing Jackson-Vanik with legislation that addresses the corruption and accountability issues that Russia confronts today. The chairman's revised markup includes the version of the Magnitsky bill that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved last month under [Senate Foreign Relations Committee] Chairman [John] Kerry's leadership," Baucus said.
Baucus and Kerry co-authored an op-ed in Politico today urging Congress to move quickly to pass the PNTR-Magnitsky package.
The Russian government is vehemently opposed to the Magnitsky bill and has threatened broad retaliation. A group of Russian senators came to Washington last week to accuse Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison allegedly by torture, of being a tax cheat.
The next step is for the package to be passed in the House, because PNTR is a revenue-related bill and all revenue bills have to originate in the House. Several congressional staffers told The Cable that Ways and Means committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) is now the biggest obstacle to moving forward quickly because he wants to separate the PNTR bill from the Magnistky bill.
"This has to be done by August recess," one senior senate staffer told The Cable. "It's all coming down to Camp. Camp is taking this line of being a trade purist and wanting a clean bill. The Senate is ready to do this -- the question is whether the House get its ducks in a row."
Camp said in a statement Wednesday that he welcomed "the news that the Finance Committee was able to pass bipartisan Russia PNTR legislation today and will carefully study the bill once legislative text is available."
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has also said she wants to separate the PNTR bill from the Magnitsky bill, but for a different reason. She supports the Magnitsky bill doesn't support PNTR status for Russia.
President Barack Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday morning, but not about the WTO or human rights, according to a White House statement.
"President Obama called Russian President Putin today to discuss the developing situation in Syria," the statement said. "The two presidents noted the growing violence in Syria and agreed on the need to support a political transition as soon as possible that achieves our shared goal of ending the violence and avoiding a further deterioration of the situation."
Huma Abedin, top staffer to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and wife of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, has a new and unlikely champion -- Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
Abedin, who is of Pakistani origin, has been tied to the outlandish conspiracy theory that the State Department has conspired with the Muslim Brotherhood to take over Egypt, a notion that contributed to protests in Alexandria last weekend during which Egyptians pelted Clinton's motorcade with tomatoes and shoes while chanting "Monica, Monica," an apparent reference to Monica Lewinsky.
Several reports said the protesters got the idea of a State Department conspiracy with the Muslim Brotherhood from conservative blog posts and conservative lawmakers like Michele Bachmann, who wrote a letter last week to the inspector generals of five U.S. agencies asking them to investigate the alleged infiltration of the Muslim Brotherhood in the U.S. government.
"It appears that there has been deep penetration in the halls of our United States government by the Muslim Brotherhood," Bachmann said in the letter, which mentioned Abedin by name and accuses her of having three family members connected to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The far-right Center for Security Policy (CSP), led by Frank Gaffney, has also been accusing Abedin of having a nefarious connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. Gaffney's assertion is that Saleha Abedin, Huma's mother, is a leader of the Muslim Sisterhood.
In fact, Saleha Abedin is a leading voice on women's rights in the Muslim world and is a member of dozens of organizations. Her main job is as the director of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs at the Global Peace Initiative of Women, an organization that promotes dialogue and cooperation among women of various relgions.
McCain took to the Senate floor today to defend Huma Abedin and criticize his conservative colleagues. "I know Huma to be an intelligent, upstanding, hard-working, and loyal servant of our country and our government, who has devoted countless days of her life to advancing the ideals of the nation she loves and looking after its most precious interests," he said.
McCain referenced the Bachmann letter and the CSP report by name and said that there is no evidence that Abedin or any of her family members have ever done anything to counter American interests or ideals.
"To say that the accusations made in both documents are not substantiated by the evidence they offer is to be overly polite and diplomatic about it. It is far better, and more accurate, to talk straight: These allegations about Huma, and the report from which they are drawn, are nothing less than an unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable woman, a dedicated American, and a loyal public servant," McCain said. "These attacks on Huma have no logic, no basis, and no merit. And they need to stop now."
McCain, who was the victim of racial smears referencing his adopted daughter during the 2000 presidential campaign, said he understood what it was like to be attacked with lies laced with bigotry. He also said the issue was larger than just one person or one accusation.
"Our reputations, our character, are the only things we leave behind when we depart this Earth, and unjust attacks that malign the good name of a decent and honorable person is not only wrong; it is contrary to everything we hold dear as Americans," McCain said. "I have every confidence in Huma's loyalty to our country, and everyone else should as well."
The State Department is growing increasing frustrated with the MEK and its American lobbyists, and now with two leading lawmakers who are injecting themselves into the cause of the Iranian dissident group.
Tensions between Foggy Bottom and supporters of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization opposed to the Iranian regime, have been building for months. The plan to relocate 3,200 members of the group from its compound in Iraq to a former U.S. military base appear stalled as the group lobbies to be taken off the list of terrorist organizations.
A federal court has ordered the State Department to make a decision on delisting the MEK by October, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has indicated that the group's willingness to complete the move to the former base, Camp Liberty, will be a key factor in the department's decision. State Department officials, however, now believe the MEK is stalling.
"It is past time for the MEK to recognize that Ashraf is not going to remain an MEK base in Iraq," Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, told reporters on a conference call earlier this month. "The Iraqi government is committed to closing it, and any plan to wait out the government in the hope that something will change is irresponsible and dangerous."
Administration officials believe the MEK is getting bad advice and unhelpful support from its team of American advocates, some of whom are paid handsomely to advise the MEK and lobby the administration on its behalf (though all insist they are promoting the MEK's cause out of sincere conviction). The Treasury Department has opened an investigation into the funds paid to these activists, which often come from Iranian-American groups in the United States and are paid through a speakers' bureau.
An administration official told The Cable that the efforts on behalf of the MEK of Americans like Rudy Giuliani, Tom Ridge, Ed Rendell, James Jones, Mitchell Reiss, and now Newt Gingrich represent "sheer irresponsibility and greed which puts people's lives at risk,"
The Brunswick Group, the firm representing the advocates, declined to comment.
The MEK seems to believe it can keep control of Camp Ashraf, its longtime compound near the Iran-Iraq border, and Clinton will still be under pressure to delist the group, this official said.
"What bothers all of us working for a peaceful solution is that the MEK seems to believe all they have to do is hold firm and do whatever they want. They are being encouraged in this view by some of their American supporters," the official said. "If you are [MEK leader Maryam] Rajavi and are surrounded by all these people, you may think they can actually deliver and that is just terrible."
This week, the MEK got the support of two new powerful Americans, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA). The pair are circulating a letter this week to Clinton asking her to improve the conditions in Camp Liberty for the MEK.
"We respectfully request that the Department of State seek the Iraqi government's agreement to and implementation of a number of humanitarian measures. Until these measures are implemented, further voluntary relocation of Camp Ashraf residents would only exacerbate the current dreadful living conditions in Camp Liberty," the lawmakers wrote in the draft letter, obtained by The Cable.
Specifically, the lawmakers are requesting that the MEK residents in Camp Liberty be connected to the Iraqi main water system, be given more power generators, and be given new cars and trucks and other supplies. The administration official said that some of the requests are valid but the characterization of the conditions in Camp Liberty as "dreadful" is unfair.
"Really, are new cars a basic human right?" the official said.
Ambassador Dan Fried, the State Department official in charge of aiding the relocation of the MEK from Camp Ashraf, held a conference call with congressional staffers Tuesday, having just returned from Iraq. One staffer on the call said Fried was "furious" over congressional attempts to interfere in the transfer of MEK members to Camp Liberty. The Iraqi government has set a July 20 deadline for closing Camp Ashraf but the MEK are refusing to go, Fried told the staffers.
Fried said the Ros-Lehtinen letter was deeply unhelpful in that it further hardened the MEK's attitude against compromise, according to one witness sympathetic to his argument.
"From my perspective, these congressional attempts to placate the MEK's refusal to leave Ashraf is nothing short of irresponsible," this staffer said. "It's pandering of the worst sort and completely undermines U.S. policy. It's clear that Ros-Lehtinen and Sherman aren't actually interested in resolving the standoff, but posturing for political purposes by carrying the MEK's water."
Republican candidate Mitt Romney's policy on the future of U.S.-led war in Afghanistan war is unclear and confusing, complicating attempts to either support or criticize it during the campaign, according to leading senators from both parties.
On Romney's website, the campaign criticizes President Barack Obama for announcing a "timetable" for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and accuses the administration of placing politics over the advice of military commanders by withdrawing 30,000 surge troops by September.
"Gov. Romney supports the 2014 timetable as a realistic timetable and a residual force post-2014. But he would not have announced that timetable publicly, as President Obama did, as doing so encourages the Taliban to wait us out and our allies to hedge their bets," a Romney campaign spokesperson told The Cable.
But when it comes to what a President Romney would do differently from Obama on Afghanistan if and when he became president, the details remain sketchy.
"Mitt Romney will never make national-security decisions based upon electoral politics," the campaign website reads. "Upon taking office, he will review our transition to the Afghan military by holding discussions with our commanders in the field. He will order a full interagency assessment of our military and assistance presence in Afghanistan to determine the level required to secure our gains and to train Afghan forces to the point where they can protect the sovereignty of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban. Withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan under a Romney administration will be based on conditions on the ground as assessed by our military commanders."
Last week, The Cable asked several senior senators from both parties whether they supported Romney's plan for Afghanistan. None was able to articulate exactly what that policy is or what the U.S. force in Afghanistan might look like if Romney is elected.
"What is it?" said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a Romney supporter and senior member of the Armed Services Committee. "I think [Romney's policy is] ‘listen to the commanders' and if it's that, that's OK with me."
Graham agreed with Romney's criticism of Obama's plan to withdraw the 30,000 surge troops by September, which means the bulk of them will not be around for this summer's fighting season. But overall, Graham supports the Obama plan to adhere to a 2014 deadline for handing over control to the Afghans while keeping a significant U.S. troop presence there afterwards.
"Generally speaking, the only problem I have with President Obama is the acceleration of the withdrawal of the surge forces," Graham said.
Graham wants Romney to publicly endorse a continued U.S. force presence in Afghanistan after the full handover of power in 2014. Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in May signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement that would extend the presence of U.S. troops another 10 years, an agreement Graham helped to negotiate.
"I hope Romney will tell the American people that we are going to have a follow-on force in Afghanistan." Graham said. "It's in our interest to do it."
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) said he wasn't sure exactly what Romney's Afghanistan policy entailed and didn't want to get into it.
"You would have to tell me what exactly you mean by ‘his policy.' That's a long discussion that I don't want to get into," Kyl told The Cable.
Part of the challenge for the Romney team is that Republican voters are split on Afghanistan, with 48 percent supporting withdrawing all troops as soon as possible and nearly as many, 45 percent, supporting leaving a follow-on force there until the country is stabilized. The electorate as a whole favors bringing the troops home quickly (60 percent) over keeping troops there longer (32 percent).
"These numbers point to Romney's political bind," wrote James Lindsey, vice president of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an online commentary. "He has talked tough on Afghanistan ever since last June, when Republican national security conservatives blasted him for what they saw as his insufficient commitment to the mission there. Romney responded with much tougher rhetoric even though the policies he favors look a lot like Obama's."
For the Obama team and for Senate Democrats, Romney's apparent unwillingness to get more specific on Afghanistan represents a good opportunity to call into question his foreign-policy bona fides and present Obama as tougher on national security because he has committed to another decade of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"Without getting into the campaign rhetoric of what [Romney]'s asserting, I think you've got 50 nations in NATO that agree to a plan in Afghanistan," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on ABC's This Week in May. "It's the Lisbon agreement, an agreement that, you know, others, President Bush, President Obama, everyone has agreed is the direction that we go in Afghanistan."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable that the issue is just one more example of the Romney campaign avoiding tackling tough issues.
"I sure don't know what [Romney's Afghanistan policy] is," Levin said. "From what I've read, I can't fathom his position on Afghanistan any more than I can fathom his position on a whole bunch of other things."
"I don't know that he's flip-flopped on Afghanistan. I don't know that he's ever taken a clear position. It's not like some of the other positions he's so consistently flip-flopped on," Levin said. "Here, I don't know what the flip is or the flop."
Four members of Russia's upper chamber were in Washington last week to ask Congress not to pass human rights legislation targeting Russia and to accuse the late Sergei Magnitsky, for which the legislation was named, of stealing millions through tax fraud.
Russian Federation Council members Valery Snyakin, Vitaly Malkin, Alexey Shernyshev, and Alexander Savenkov were in Washington July 7 through July 13 and met with administration and congressional officials, including Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, NSC Senior Director for Russia Alice Wells, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Bob Corker (R-TN), and Rep. James McGovern (D-MA), among others.
On July 11, the visiting Russian lawmakers held a press conference at the Russian embassy to unveil their parliamentary investigation report on the case of Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died after allegedly being tortured in prison by Russian officials. Their message was that Magnitsky was guilty of tax fraud in Russia and that he died due to medical neglect, not torture.
Last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act of 2012, a bill that would create a list of human rights violators all over the world and impose banking and visa restrictions on them. The bill was initially designed to punish Magnitsky's captors. The House version still only targets Russian officials.
Before his meeting with the Russian senators, McCain told The Cable he would press the Russian lawmakers on why they are so focused on discrediting Magnitsky, who is facing criminal prosecution for tax fraud even though he has been dead for more than two years.
"I'll ask them why they are putting a dead man on trial. That's not a system of justice that I'm familiar with," McCain said.
In their press conference, the Russian senators spent at least 30 minutes detailing how they believe that Magnitsky worked with William Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital, to defraud the Russian government of $230 million in tax revenue. The senators also released extensive autopsy and investigative reports to back up their contention that Magnitsky's death was the fault of his doctors and not Russian government or police officials.
According to that report, the doctors treating Magnitsky in prison made diagnostic errors and didn't prescribe him the right medicines. The report also claims that Magnitsky fought his captors and therefore force had to be used to get him to obey prison orders.
"The injuries on Magnitsky's body were most likely caused by multiple injuring impacts of a blunt object that might be possibly be a rubber baton," the report stated.
Browder told The Cable that the report was part of a new Russian strategy to seem active on the investigation of Magnitsky's death while limiting blame to the medical staff only, rather than the government officials above them.
"From what we have seen in the last few days, the Russians are trying to change their spin from outright threats to being more ‘reasonable,'" Browder said. "They are saying things like ‘please don't rush our investigation' and ‘prosecutions in the Magnitsky case are beginning, we are going after the doctor."
Browder has consistently denied he and Magnitsky are guilty of tax fraud.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) has promised to join the Magnitsky bill to another bill that would grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations status and repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that was meant to punish the Soviet Union for preventing Jewish emigration. His committee will mark up the PNTR bill July 18.
The Obama administration opposes the Magnitsky act, although it acknowledges that with it, Congress is unlikely to grant Russia PNTR status, which is needed for U.S. businesses to take full advantage of Russia's imminent accession to the WTO. The administration has warned that Russia will retaliate and disrupt various aspects of U.S.-Russian cooperation around the world.
Behind the scenes, GOP senators and congressional aides say, the administration is trying to water down the Magnitsky bill, for example by working to get the list of violators classified, and by trying to detach the Magnitsky bill from the PNTR legislation.
Classifying the list of violators would defeat the purpose of shaming them, McCain believes. As for the bill as a whole, "Hillary Clinton is trying to separate it completely. We're not going to let that happen," McCain told The Cable.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), told The Cable that there's no way the GOP caucus will back off its demand to pass the Magnitsky bill as part of any move to grant Russian PNTR status.
"I think we should stand with the Russia people and it's pretty clear that we would be helping the Russia people if we, to the extent that our pressure is meaningful at all with the Russian government, it causes them to rethink their policy of repression against the media and against lawyers like Magnitsky who are just trying to help people and do right," Kyl said. "It has to be part of the trade legislation."
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the main sponsor of the Magnitsky bill, did not meet with the Russian delegation. He said he was not even aware they were in town.
But Cardin told The Cable that he rejects the Russian senators' claims that there should be no human rights sanctions on those Russian officials who were connected to the Magnitsky case.
"I think Russia should take care of these human rights violators and hold them accountable," Cardin said. "They said they would do it. It's been over two years. They should take care of their own business."
At the press conference, the Russian senators claimed they had convinced those U.S. senators they met to alter their stance and consider the possibility of separating the Mangitsky bill from the PNTR legislation. A McCain spokesman told The Cable that's just not the case.
"He gave them a fair hearing and will consider what they had to say, but it will be a cold day in Gila Bend, Arizona, before he changes his position on this," the McCain spokesman said.
Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy
The State Department has gaps in its embassy staffs all over the world, despite several years of hiring increases, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
State "faces persistent experience gaps in overseas Foreign Service positions, particularly at the midlevels, and these gaps have not diminished since 2008," the GAO found in a report to be released Monday, obtained in advance by The Cable.
The State Department increased its hiring of foreign service officers (FSOs) by 17 percent in fiscal 2009 and 2010, but those new FSOs as yet don't have the experience to fill the midlevel openings in diplomatic posts throughout the world. Currently, about 28 percent of midlevel overseas positions are either vacant or filled by under-qualified officers, the GAO found. That percentage is the same as it was in 2008.
The State Department says the staffing shortages are due to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's plan to increase the overall size of the foreign service ranks by 25 percent, an effort called Diplomacy 3.0, but the GAO says even that plan is not set to meet targets due to the budget realities.
The GAO wants State to update its five-year plan to come up with a way to fill the midlevel FSO staffing shortfalls and State said it agreed with that recommendation.
"State acknowledges the need to close midlevel Foreign Service gaps, but it has not developed a strategy to help ensure that the department is taking full advantage of available human capital flexibilities and evaluating the success of its efforts to address these gaps," the report stated.
The largest staffing gaps are in hardship posts and for consular and office management specialist positions, the GAO found.
The report was requested by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management.
"The State Department continues to struggle with staffing, experience, and foreign language gaps, which undermine our diplomatic readiness. State must continue to develop effective workforce strategies and address staffing gaps to effectively respond to quickly evolving diplomatic challenges," Akaka said in a statement. "I commend State for their ongoing efforts to address these staffing shortages. I urge the Department to implement GAO's recommendation."
House Rules Committee chairman David Dreier (R-CA) announced last week during a visit to Tunis that he intends to head an initiative to propose a free trade agreement between the United States and Tunisia, which experienced a popular uprising in 2010 and held democratic elections in October.
"One of the most effective ways the United States can offer support to the Tunisian people as they work to solidify democratic gains is by expanding trade and commercial ties," Dreier, who is also the founding chairman of the House Democracy Partnership, said in an emailed statement yesterday. "Spurring economic growth through increased trade would ... help to create the resources necessary for sustainable democratic development and prosperity in Tunisia."
According to congressional sources, Dreier first discussed the topic with Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali at the Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum in March, just months after Dreier introduced a bipartisan resolution calling for a free trade agreement with Egypt and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative relaunched Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks with Tunisia. Even though Dreier's proposal has yet to gain a substantial congressional base, he is partnering with House Committee on Foreign Affairs senior member Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN).
As Brookings Institute Saban Center on the Middle East director Tamara Wittes noted, there's a growing feeling of congressional support for Tunisia.
"I think there's a tremendous amount of support on the Hill for Tunisia," she told The Cable. "I think members of Congress understand how important it is to have a successful model in North Africa for the other countries struggling with democratic reform."
U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president of Middle East and North Africa affairs Lionel Johnson agrees that Tunisia has a lot of potential.
"The Tunisian government is the one in the region that shows the most promise," he told The Cable. "We'd like to see talks begin in early 2013."
Washington has already pledged to help Tunisia with short-term economic problems like debt and unemployment. In March, it was announced that the United States would transfer $100 million to Tunisia, which faces a $25 billion debt, and in June the parliament in Tunis voted in favor of a bill allowing for a $400-450 million sovereign bond issue "with up to 100 percent of the principal and interest guaranteed by the U.S. government," enabling Tunisia to "borrow at almost risk-free rates." The State Department's Middle East Transitions office is pursuing a series of "smaller but important steps."
"There are investment regulations, border controls, and other regulatory changes that could help facilitate trade between the U.S. and Tunisia," Middle East Transitions program director William Taylor told The Cable. "What we're hoping is that by taking some of these steps earlier on, they might get some of these trade benefits sooner than if they were wrapped into one large negotiation for a free trade agreement."
Ultimately, though, a free trade agreement stands to make a significant economic impact on Tunisia, which counted the United States among its top five trading partners in 2010.
"There's a lot that the U.S. is already doing with economic and technical assistance to support the growth of the private sector in Tunisia, so an FTA would complement that because it would be mutually beneficial," Wittes explained. "Over the long term, we know that Tunisian economic health is going to come through a robust private sector that will help to cement a democratic transition. This is not an FTA that's going to have a massive impact on the U.S. economy. It will, however, have an important impact on the Tunisian side."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) says he thinks Tunisia will become a strong economic partner for the U.S.
"Most successful middle-income countries want deeper bilateral trade relationships," he said at an event on Wednesday. "Countries that undergo successful transitions often ... become our best allies and trading partners."
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
President Barack Obama announced Wednesday he is lifting the investment ban on Burma, allowing U.S. companies to enter Burma's lucrative energy sector, above the objections of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
"Today, the United States is easing restrictions to allow U.S. companies to responsibly do business in Burma," Obama said in a Wednesday statement. "President Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma continue to make significant progress along the path to democracy, and the government has continued to make important economic and political reforms. Easing sanctions is a strong signal of our support for reform, and will provide immediate incentives for reformers and significant benefits to the people of Burma."
Obama said that that entities owned by the Burmese armed forces and the ministry of defense will not be covered by the general licenses to invest in Burma that the administration is issuing to U.S. companies today.
"Burma's political and economic reforms remain unfinished. The United States Government remains deeply concerned about the lack of transparency in Burma's investment environment and the military's role in the economy," he said.
He also noted that U.S. companies will be required to report on their new activities in Burma and adhere to international corporate governance standards. The president signed a new executive order expanding sanctions against human rights violators in Burma at the same time it repealed the investment ban, which has been in place since the Clinton administration.
Wednesday's announcement comes after an intense internal debate over whether to include Burma's energy and natural resource sectors in the new general licenses. Industry groups such as the U.S.-ASEAN business council, working with oil companies like Chevron, lobbied hard and successfully for a full repeal of the investment ban. They were supported by some lawmakers, such as Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and Jim Webb (D-VA).
Human rights groups and other lawmakers, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), cautioned the administration to go slow and issue only a partial repeal of the investment ban. They especially wanted the administration to retain bans on U.S. companies working with the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) the state controlled entity through which all energy sector business flows, which they say is still heavily influenced by the Burmese military.
"We share Aung San Suu Kyi's concerns that MOGE's operations lack transparency, that it remains overly influenced by the Burmese military, and that the large amounts of foreign investment flowing into MOGE are not sufficiently accountable to the Burmese people or its parliament," the senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a July 3 letter.
"We are not opposed in principle to U.S. investment in Burma's oil and gas industry. However, it is critical that foreign investment in Burma be carefully structured to benefit the Burmese people and strengthen the political and economic reforms that are at last underway there."
Suu Kyi, who was elected to Burma's parliament in April after more than two decades of house arrest, last month specifically asked foreign governments not to allow their companies to partner with MOGE at this time.
"The Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) ... with which all foreign participation in the energy sector takes place through joint venture arrangements, lacks both transparency and accountability at present," she said June 14 in a speech in Geneva. "The [Myanmar] government needs to apply internationally recognized standards such as the IMF code of good practices on fiscal transparency. Other countries could help by not allowing their own companies to partner [with] MOGE unless it was signed up to such codes."
The Obama administration has repeatedly said that it would follow Suu Kyi's lead while cautiously opening up to closer ties with the Burmese regime. The new U.S. ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell arrived there today.
But in this case, supporters of a more cautious path of easing Burma sanctions inside the administration lost out. They included the State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), let by Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, and those in the National Security Staff focused on human rights, such as Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power, according to sources familiar with the internal discussions.
Following a Deputies Committee meeting last week, the side that advocated for a broader repeal of the investment ban won out. That side included the State Department's East Asian and Pacific affairs bureau (EAP), led by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, the economics office at State led by Undersecretary Robert Hormats, and the Treasury and Commerce departments. Hormats is set to travel to Burma next week with a contingent of business leaders in tow.
Human rights experts saw today's move as a change from the administraion's original promise to pursue targeted easing of the investment ban. Administration officials promised a sector-by-sector approach whereby the administration would have begun by focusing on sectors of the economy most likely to help the Burmese people, rather than the country's military.
The idea was to encourage development of tourism, banking, agriculture, and manufacturing sectors, while maintaining investment bans on industries such as natural gas, mineral extracting, and timber, which are mostly controlled by the military.
"The pro-industry lobby convinced the administration to back off from the sector-by-sector approach and issue the general license which allows companies to go into any sector, including oil and gas," said Human Rights Watch Washington director Tom Malinowski.
He said that U.S. companies understandably don't want to lose out on market share due to the influx of European corporations now set to do business with Burma's energy and mining sectors, but opening up MOGE to vast new sources of financing could have a negative effect on Burmese political reform.
"All the money the Burmese military uses to finance their wars in the ethnic areas and their procurement of illicit materials from North Korea comes from MOGE. If the military wants to hold on to power and resist civilian oversight, this is what would finance their ability to do that. It represents the bulk of the regime's hard earnings," Malinowski said.
Once corporations make long-term investments in Burma's energy sector, it will be almost impossible to get those countries to abrogate those agreements if the tide turns in Burma and the U.S. government decides it wants to reinstate the investment ban. Chevron's stake in Burma was grandfathered in when the investment ban was originally instituted.
Overall, the concern in the human rights community is that the U.S. government is now making diplomatic decisions about Burma policy based on economic considerations, and not national security or the desire to see the Burmese people live a better life.
"For the last 20 years or so, U.S. policy on Burma was focused on promoting a democratic transition and nonproliferation. The desire of U.S. based companies to get contracts was never on the table until the last couple of months. The fact that is now being balanced against longstanding U.S. interests in Burma really does represent a shift in priorities," Malinowski said.
"The bottom line here is that you have Aung San Suu Kyi asking the administration to hold up on allowing unfettered investment in Burma, and the administration went with Chevron over Aung San Suu Kyi."
NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable that the administration shares concerns about MOGE and views MOGE as meriting closer oversight than other firms in Burma. U.S. investors must alert the U.S. government within 60 days of entering into any contract with MOGE, he said
"We are working very hard with MOGE and the wider Government of Burma to quickly improve its operations. We have been pleased with MOGE's and the Government's commitments in this regard, which include engagement with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI)," Vietor said. "While we share these concerns we believe that there will be benefits both to the people of Burma and to U.S. investors in allowing U.S. companies, in a careful, calibrated and responsible manner, to engage with MOGE."
Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told The Cable today that Obama's action has freed the Burmese regime and military from any fear of being substantively sanctioned going forward.
"I am sure Obama will be appreciated by the Burmese generals, cronies and U.S. corporations, but not by the people of Burma," he said.
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama intends to nominate Ambassador Richard Olsen to be the next U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, three sources with direct knowledge of the pending appointment told The Cable.
Olsen, a senior member of the foreign service, has been serving as the coordinating director for development and economic affairs at U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, since June 2011. If confirmed, he will replace Ambassador Cameron Munter, who announced in May that he would step down from his post after only 18 months on the job. Munter, who presided over the Islamabad embassy during perhaps the worst period in U.S.-Pakistan relations in over a decade, resigned of his own accord and will retire from the foreign service and join the private sector, these sources said.
Before going to Kabul, Olsen was U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2008-2011. He previously served abroad in Mexico, Uganda, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Iraq, and as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. mission to the NATO. His Washington assignments included stints at the State Department Operations Center, NATO desk, the Office of Israel and Palestinian affairs, and the Office of Iraqi Affairs.
Pakistan watchers and experts saw the choice as a reasonable one and generally said Olsen was a competent and safe choice, but that he faces an uphill battle in moving the relationship forward if and when he gets to Islamabad.
"It will help that Olsen understands some aspects of the region. But Kabul is a different place from Islamabad and Rawalpindi, as he will discover rapidly," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. "Pakistan is at once more complex and confounding."
Nawaz said that Olsen's success will depend largely on whether he is given power and influence in the interagency policy process. Munter was reportedly overruled several times when he engaged other administration departments on sensitive issues, such as the use of drone strikes or whether the United States should have apologized for killing 24 Pakistan soldiers last November. As the top U.S. representative in Pakistan, Olsen would also be forced to focus on the U.S. military's pursuit of the Haqqani network and the ratcheting up of the U.S. drone program, both unpopular policies in Pakistan.
"Olsen's biggest challenge will be dealing with a Washington that does not have a clear center of gravity in terms of decisions on relations with Pakistan. That was the biggest obstacle faced by Cameron Munter, who impressed many Pakistanis with his zeal and energy but did not get the support he needed from home," Nawaz said.
Some regional experts think Olsen is being set up for failure because he will never be able to resolve the fundamental disputes between the various parts of the U.S. policy bureaucracy over Pakistan policy. The military and the intelligence community are set to ratchet up their kinetic activities inside Pakistan in advance of the U.S. handover of Afghan security control in 2014, a plan that runs in contrast to the State Department's focus on improving government to government relations and raising the image of the U.S. there.
"The best person in the world will not succeed with a defective policy, which is what we have; more accurately, our policy towards Pakistan is fragmented among several entities," said Stephen Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Will Olsen be accepting or influencing decisions of other agencies, some of which seem to be running their own policy towards Pakistan?"
Administration and congressional sources also confirm that Ambassador James Cunningham is set to be named to succeed Ryan Crocker as the U.S. envoy in Kabul. Crocker's health continues to deteriorate and he is expected to return to the U.S. soon.
In other ambassador news, the White House announced Tuesday that the president intends to nominate Dawn Liberi to be ambassador to Burundi, Stephen Mull to be ambassador to Poland, and Walter North to be ambassador to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Republic of Vanuatu.
There's still no word on who will be chosen to replace Ambassador Jim Jeffrey in Iraq, following the withdrawal of former National Security Council staffer Brett McGurk last month. There is some speculation but no hard evidence that former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is in the running.
Congress directed the State Department and USAID to spend money helping Iraq's minority population but those agencies can't prove they spent the funds appropriately, the Government Accountability Office said in a new report.
"Since 2003, minority groups in Iraq have experienced religiously and ethnically motivated attacks, killings, and forced displacements. Concern for Iraqi religious and ethnic minorities led various congressional committees and Congress as a whole to issue a series of directives to provide assistance to these groups," the GAO wrote. "GAO found that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) could not demonstrate how the projects that it reported to Congress met the provisions of the 2008 directive because of three weaknesses."
First of all, USAID could only demonstrate that about 26 percent or $3.8 million of the $14.8 million in projects USAID conducted were actually spent where Congress directed -- in the Ninewa plain region of Iraq. Second, USAID could not show that minority groups were actually the beneficiaries of those programs. Lastly, USAID did not show it used unobligated Economic Support Funds, as Congress has directed.
Overall, State and USAID spent $26.9 million to respond to two separate congressional directives on the issue, with the vast majority going to essential and humanitarian services and less than $1 million going to cultural preservation.
In its response letter to the GAO, USAID Acting Assistant Administrator for Management Angelique Crumbly wrote that despite the deficiencies the GAO found in USAID's paperwork and record keeping, "USAID met the needs of internally displaced persons and ethnic minorities to a greater extent than what is presented in the GAO report."
Read the entire report here.
The Pakistani military is entitled to the $1.1 billion of U.S. taxpayer money that the Pentagon is asking Congress to approve giving them, according to top Senators from both parties.
The Obama administration has told Pakistan it will release $1.1 billion of Coalition Support Funds (CSF) to the Pakistan military now that Islamabad has reopened the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC) through which the U.S. supplies troops in Afghanistan. The funds are reimbursement money that Pakistan has already spent in the joint effort to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban that were already authorized by Congress.The U.S. government has been holding up the money over the past six months while the supply lines were closed.
Pakistan had closed those supply lines after NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border in November, but opened them this week after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally, publically, said "we're sorry" for the mistakes that led to those killings. The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) could hold up the funds, but its leaders say they don't plan to do so.
"I would approve it," SASC Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable on Tuesday in a short interview. "They've presumably earned it by the money they've laid out in terms of their anti-terrorist activities and protecting our flow of oil."
There are costs incurred by Pakistan in facilitating the movement of oil and training and equipping their own forces engaged in the fight againstinsurgents, Levin said.
"This is not supposed to be a gift, this is supposed to be a reimbursement," he explained. "That's the theory."
But Levin is still not satisfied with Pakistan's level of cooperation when it comes to combatting terrorist safe havens on their soil and protecting their side of the Afghanistan border.
"I think they've done an adequate job in some areas, a spotty job, a job that is not consistent. I wouldn't give them a grade A, I would give them a grade C on the work that they've undertaken," he said. "But the deal was therewould be reimbursement for their costs and that's what's been held up."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, told The Cable today that he also believes the CSF money should go through.
"The money's been stuck in a pipeline and the reason it hasn't flowed faster is that we can't be sure it's going to be spent wisely. If our commanders believe releasing the funds helps the war effort, I don't want to second guess them," Graham said in a short interview.
He said the biggest beneficiary of the opening of the supply lines were U.S. and international troops on the ground and he said the money is one of the only bargaining chips Washington has left when dealing with Islamabad.
"Pakistan on a good day is very hard. They are an unreliable ally. You can't trust them, you can't abandon them," Graham said. "But if you cut the money off, what leverage do you have? There may come a day when we do that, but not yet."
The Pentagon said they have been working with Congressional leaders and they are hopeful the funds will be released. "We look forward to working closely with Congress to process these claims," Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said last week.
There's only one hurdle left for the funds to cross over. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) plans to attempt to force a vote to cut off all aid to Pakistan later this month and will try to include the CSF funding in that effort.
The Obama administration is planning to release more than $1 billion of held-up funds to the Pakistani government this month, following Pakistan's opening of the supply lines to Afghanistan. But Congress can thwart that plan and at least one senator is going to try.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby confirmed to The Cable on Friday that the Pentagon is planning to give Pakistan $1.1 billion in Coalition Support Funds (CSF), reimbursement money that Pakistan has already spent in the joint effort to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban. The U.S. government has been holding up the money over the past six months while the supply lines were closed. Pakistan closed those supply lines after NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border in November, but opened them up again this week after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally, publically, said "we're sorry" for the mistakes that led to those killings.
Clinton didn't mention the funds when she announced the deal to re-open the supply lines. Kirby didn't say the money was a quid pro quo deal in exchange for opening up the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC), as other officials and experts allege, but he did acknowledge that the two issues are linked.
"Now that the GLOCs are open, we intend to submit the approximately $1.1 billion in approved receipts under the Coalition Support Fund for costs associated with past Pakistani counter-terrorism operations," Kirby told The Cable. "Now that the GLOCs are open, we are prepared to move forward with these claims."
Kirby said that congressional leadership was kept in the loop during the discussions with Pakistan about re-opening the supply lines. "We look forward to working closely with Congress to process these claims," he said.
Multiple Senate offices told The Cable that the notification for releasing the $1.1 billion to the Pakistan military has not yet reached Capitol Hill but is expected in the coming days. After Congress receives the notification, lawmakers have 15 days to object to the release or the funds will go through.
Congressional anger at Pakistan is at an all-time high, and not just because of the closing of the supply lines, which have cost U.S. taxpayers about $100 million extra per month, according to Kirby. Lawmakers are upset that the Pakistani military can't or won't eliminate the safe havens in Pakistan where insurgents live and from where they launch cross-border attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Lawmakers are also upset that the Pakistani courts have condemned Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to help positively identify Osama bin Laden. Afridi was sentenced last month to 33 years in jail for treason. Last week, before the deal over the supply lines was announced, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) told The Cable he would force a vote on an amendment to halt all aid to Pakistan this month, due to the Afridi case.
"My goal is that the guy who helped us get bin Laden will not be in prison for the rest of his life," Paul said in an interview.
Afridi has an appeals hearing on July 19, so Paul is planning to wait and see if the Pakistani courts reverse themselves before he uses a rare procedural move to force a vote to cut off all aid to Pakistan.
"I've decided to try to have the vote on July 20 to give them one more chance to review his case," Paul said.
Senate leadership is dead set against letting Paul have a vote on his amendment, out of concern that senators won't want to publically stand up in defense of sending more American taxpayer money to our greatest frenemy. But Paul said he plans to use Senate Rule 14 to force a vote and his office has collected 33 signatures from other senators on a petition to push for that vote. It's not clear if this legislative tactic will work, but Paul is confident.
"I can go around the leadership on that. I don't think they can stop me from having a vote. There will be a vote on Pakistan," Paul said. "It doesn't happen very often, but I have the signatures and I can get a vote."
Paul met with the State Department and Pakistani Ambassador Sherry Rehman last week. After the GLOC deal was struck this week, The Cable asked Paul spokeswoman Moira Bagley if the Kentucky senator would also try to stop the release of the CSF money. She said he would.
"Sen. Paul is dedicated to seeing Dr. Afridi -- an integral figure in finding Osama bin Laden -- released from prison in Pakistan. He is prepared to use all legislative tools possible to obtain this goal, including blocking U.S. taxpayer-funded aid to the government of Pakistan until they cooperate with this request," she said. "Should the opportunity to block these ... funds come before the Senate, Sen. Paul will urge his colleagues to do so."
The funding is technically under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, but the leaders of those committees were out of town this week and their offices declined to comment on the CSF funding because they have not yet received the notification.
Clinton did a great job negotiating the re-opening of supply routes from
#Pakistan to #Afghanistan," Senate Armed Services Committee
ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) tweeted on July 4, but it's not clear if he will support the
release of the $1.1 billion CSF. McCain is currently traveling in Afghanistan
and the Middle East, he could not be reached for comment.
If Congress does let the funds go through, that could be a key confidence-building measure between the two countries, which are trying to dig themselves out of the worst period in the bilateral relationship in over a decade.
If Congress halts the funds, the very short uptick in relations will be scuttled and the two nations will return to their all-too-familiar pattern of retaliation and recriminations. But there's little chance that Pakistan will close the supply lines, now that they are open again.
"Several trucks have gone through, and they will continue," Kirby told Pentagon reporters at a Thursday briefing. "I mean, this will continue now that the gates are open."
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said "sorry" to Pakistan today and announced that Pakistan would resume allowing U.S. military goods to flow through its border with Afghanistan, but her near-apology was only one piece in a much larger set of moving parts in the effort to restore some normalcy to the troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
"We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military," Clinton said in a Tuesday statement, referring to the Nov. 25 incident when NATO forces killed 24 Pakistan soldiers on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. "We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again."
Clinton spoke with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar by phone Tuesday and said that Khar had promised Pakistan would reopen its supply lines for U.S. military flows into Afghanistan, which have been closed down for six months in retaliation for the killings. Pakistan dropped its demand for fees of up to $5,000 per truck and will not even charge the $250 per truck the United States was paying before the incident occurred, Clinton said.
She also indicated that the progress announced today carried with it the prospect of tackling some of the larger issues plaguing the bilateral relationship, namely Pakistan's reluctance to go after the Taliban and other militant groups as well as what the United States sees as Pakistan's refusal to play a useful role in reconciliation talks to end the Afghanistan war.
"Foreign Minister Khar and I talked about the importance of taking coordinated action against terrorists who threaten Pakistan, the United States, and the region; of supporting Afghanistan's security, stability, and efforts towards reconciliation; and of continuing to work together to advance the many other shared interests we have," Clinton said.
Tuesday's announcement came after months of protracted and often excruciating negotiations between the two governments. On the U.S. side of the table, the process was led by Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides, who was in Pakistan Monday, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Peter Lavoy, and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman.
ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen also traveled to Pakistan twice over the past two weeks, once at the invitation of Pakistani Army Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and again as part of larger discussions regarding the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The internal U.S. process that led to today's remarks by Clinton was extensive -- and rocky at times. It has been well reported that the State Department, especially soon-to-be-former U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter, urged the White House to apologize long ago but was overruled due to objections from the Defense Department, where officials were angered by the fact that the Pakstani military accused the U.S. military of killing the soldiers intentionally.
Three administration sources confirmed to The Cable that between December and early spring, the National Security Council convened at least 8 separate high-level meetings to debate the apology, and ultimately, the White House earlier this year decided to issue one.
The Pakistani government in early Spring asked the White House not to issue the apology because the Pakistani parliament was in the middle of its comprehensive review of the bilateral relationship. Then, following deadly attacks in Kabul on NATO forces in April, which were traced back to the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, the White House took the apology off the table.
That's why today's comments by Clinton came as a huge surprise to many Pakistan-watchers. But experts saw in her comments a careful dance that the administration thinks represents a compromise, because Clinton never actually said the word "apology" or "apologize."
"It allows the administration to say to Congress, we didn't ‘apologize,' we said we were ‘sorry,'" said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. He emphasized that discussions about several thorny issues in the relationship are still ongoing.
Asked directly at today's press briefing if the "sorry" comment constituted an "apology," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland wouldn't say that it did.
"The statement speaks for itself, the words are all there, and I'm not going to improve on it here," she said.
In conjunction with Tuesday's announcement, the Obama administration has agreed to hand over about $1.2 billion to the Pakistanis in Coalition Support Funds (CSF) that were owed but delayed as part of the overall unhappiness between the two governments, two administration sources confirmed. Pakistan, which views the funds as reimbursements the United Sates agreed to pay in exchange for Pakistan's help in fighting the war on terror, argues that America owes it a larger sum.
"It's not a coincidence," Nawaz said, referring to the timing of the CSF funding. "This was part of the overall discussion."
The deal may not stop there.
Pakistan might still ask for money to help repair the infrastructural wear and tear that comes along with thousands of NATO trucks traversing its highways. The Pakistanis might also demand a new system that institutes some regularity in the CSF funds because the U.S. government currently demands detailed receipts and then rejects about 40 percent of the Pakistani reimbursement requests.
In the past, the United States has used delays in the CSF funds to punish Pakistan when the administration is frustrated with Pakistani actions.
"Internally on the U.S. side, when the administration has been pissed off at the Pakistanis, they've just said, ‘Oh, we'll slow down the CSF funds and just not tell them,'" one former U.S. official told The Cable.
Getting the CSF funding was always the real goal of the negotiations as far as the Pakistanis were concerned, according to the former official.
"The Pakistani government doesn't care about the transit fees as much as they care about the coalition support funds," the official said. "CSF offers them more of a short-term benefit. The reason they were making such a big deal about the transit fees before was because that was their negotiating position."
The U.S. side still wants concrete steps to show that the Pakistani government is moving more aggressively to stem the flow of fighters from its territory into Afghanistan, where they regularly attack and kill U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces. Both sides want a better system of on-the-ground operational coordination to make sure incidents like the November killings aren't repeated.
Clinton didn't mention the CSF funds in her speech, perhaps because that money could still be held up by Congress, which has been engaged in some serious bipartisan Pakistan-bashing, especially since a Pakistani court sentenced the doctor who helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden to 33 years in prison.
After the administration notifies Congress it wants to release the funds, a notification that could come today, Congress has 15 days to reject it or the money gets released.
A key Republican in the debate over Pakistan will be Sen. Lindsey Graham, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee. In a Tuesday statement, Graham indicated he would support the administration's position.
"These supply lines are essential to supporting our troops in Afghanistan and I believe the terms and conditions negotiated by Secretary Clinton's team are acceptable to American interests throughout the region," he said.
But Graham also indicated that any thawing of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship would only be endorsed by Congress if and when Pakistan gets more serious about helping in Afghanistan.
"This agreement is a good step in the right direction, but more has to be done between the United States and Pakistan in the area of counterterrorism," he said. "If the Pakistani military intelligence services would engage in aggressive efforts to combat terrorism in coordination with coalition forces, it would tremendously enhance our successes in Afghanistan, provide stability to the Pakistani government, and eventually a better life for people on both sides of the border."
Nawaz warned that the relationship is still very fragile and that any number of things could send it spiraling downward once again, including a clumsy drone strike, a U.S. troop incursion into Pakistan, or another attack on NATO forces by Pakistan-based militants.
"This is only a Band Aid for this relationship. Any number of new crises or recurring crises is likely to trigger another round of recrimination," he said. "‘Sorry' was the hardest word, but it's a bit too early to celebrate. We're not yet out of the woods."
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
Accession to the Law of the Sea Treaty is crucial to protecting U.S. economic interests, senators and industry leaders argued during a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday.
"On rare earth minerals, on oil and gas, on whatever unknown minerals or products may be findable under the ocean, we have a choice," said committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA). "We can either join the major industrial nations ... and secure the benefits of the Law of the Sea Treaty for our businesses and our industries, or we can remain on the outside."
The European Union and 161 countries belong to the treaty, which came into force in 1994 and created rules for determining mineral and other rights beneath the ocean floor. Senator Kerry has led the push for ratification, while critics argue that the treaty erodes American sovereignty and diverts royalties to an international seabed authority. Pentagon leaders, including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, have voiced their support for accession, which they say would codify U.S. rights to use international shipping lanes and lay underwater cables, level the playing field for mineral rights, and result in more jobs and revenue.
"Today ... China controls about 97 percent of the production market for these [rare earth] minerals," Kerry said. "Can anybody in their right mind suggest that the U.S. is safer ... in a situation where we're sitting on the outside?"
Ratifying the treaty would significantly increase the potential scope of U.S. domestic energy production by expanding the definition of the outer continental shelf, top industry representatives told the committee.
"It would secure an additional 4.1 million square miles [of ocean floor] under U.S. jurisdiction," said American Petroleum Institute president and CEO Jack Gerard.
But to reap the benefits, Kerry added, the United States needs to act quickly so that U.S. energy companies can compete with foreign firms.
"They want and need certainty in order to invest the billions of dollars required to develop the extended shelf, especially in the Arctic, where the Chinese and Russians are already laying claims," he noted.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Thomas Donahue testified that the treaty is "critical to America's global leadership" and that the benefits of accession outweigh any negative criticism.
"The U.S. has more than any country to gain or to lose," he said. "The treaty is not perfect. It'll be changed like all treaties are, but we better be sitting at the table."
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved a bill to sanction human rights violators around the world, named after Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died after allegedly being tortured in prison by Russian officials.
The Cable has obtained the latest draft of the Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act of 2012, which passed the committee unanimously Tuesday afternoon by a voice vote after a short debate. The bill imposes restrictions on the financial activities and travel of foreign officials found to have been connected to various human rights violations in any country. The House version of the bill, approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, targets only Russian human rights violators. That difference that will have to be worked out between the two chambers before the bill can become law.
"This bill is absolutely motivated by the circumstances of Sergei Magnitsky, but it is universal in its application," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the main sponsor of the bill, after the vote. "The sponsors of the House bill have encouraged me to keep it universal, so I think it will not be difficult to get the House to go along with the universality."
The de-emphasis of Russia in the bill is ostensibly meant to tamp down Russian anger over the legislation. The Russian government has promised widespread retaliation, saying that passage of the Magnitsky Act could negatively affect Russian cooperation with Washington on issues ranging from Afghanistan and Iran to nuclear weapons.
Cardin said the bill will now be joined with legislation introduced earlier this month to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, needed so that U.S. businesses can take advantage of Russia's pending accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The PNTR bill introduced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) earlier this month and co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) would also repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that sanctioned the Soviet Union for denying Jews the right to emigrate.
"When PNTR comes to the floor, that's the driving force behind the timing [of passing the Magnitsky bill in the full Senate]," Cardin said. He added that if it was done in July that would also coincide with pending action by the Russian Duma to formally join the WTO. Whether Baucus would join the two bills in his committee or on the Senate floor is still unclear.
The bulk of the debate inside Tuesday's SFRC business meeting focused on Cardin's amendment to adjust the way the list of names of human rights violators is managed. Cardin's amendment would impose some more requirements on the administration if it wants to keep the names of the human rights violated secret in a classified annex, rather than publish them publicly.
SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) was the lone vote against the Cardin amendment and unsuccessfully tried to get Cardin to withdraw the amendment during the hearing. He is working to preserve more administration flexibility in administrating the classified list of human rights violators and said that there would be more changes in the bill before it reaches the Senate floor.
"We need to be very mindful of the need for the United States not to always be pointing fingers ... in some ways we could be doing better ourselves on a number of things," Kerry said. "Nevertheless, human rights are in our DNA and we will always be a nation that stands up for and fights for human rights."
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) was set to offer an amendment that would sunset the penalties in the bill, meaning that they would expire after five years. Ultimately he decided not to offer the amendment because it was sure to fail, according to multiple Senate aides, but he might offer it at a later stage of the process.
The perception among Hill aides in both parties is that the administration is working hard behind the scenes to weaken the penalties in the Magnitsky bill and provide the State Department greater leeway to keep the names of the violators from becoming public. Kerry and Cardin tried to dispel that idea after the meeting.
"I want as strong a bill as possible," Kerry said, declining to go into specifics of what the administration was telling him about the bill.
Cardin said the administration is still not taking a public position on the Magnitsky Act or the changes being proposed by various senators as the bill moves forward.
"The administration chose not to comment and I think that's where they are," Cardin said.
Earlier Tuesday, McCain sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to use existing executive orders to sanction the Klyuev Group, a Russian crime organization alleged to be involved in Magnitsky's persecution.
In remarks Tuesday morning at a Freedom House event, McCain lashed out against the idea of keeping the names of the human rights violators subject to the Magnitsky bill secret.
"The fact is, our whole effort here is to make public the names and actions of the people that we think are engaged in these crimes, so I really have deep concerns about that," McCain said. "On the Magnitsky issue, the State Department has been less than enthusiastic... I think it's based on an unfounded assumption or optimism that things are going to improve between the United States and Russia. I have not seen that improvement."
Allison Good contributing reporting.
The Justice Department has already summoned hundreds of government officials for interviews in its investigation of national security leaks, meaning that the investigation is already well underway, according to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
"We are three weeks into the investigation by the two prosecutors. Literally hundreds of people have been summoned for interviews," Feinstein said in a short interview Tuesday. "So the process has begun and my view is that the process should be allowed to run."
Feinstein was responding to calls from several GOP senators for an independent special counsel to investigate recent leaks into classified national security program. Thirty-one GOP senators wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling for an independent counsel Tuesday.
The letter was led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC) and signed by Sens. Lamar Alexander (TN), Kelly Ayotte (NH), John Barrasso (WY), Roy Blunt (MO), John Boozman (AR), Richard Burr (NC), Saxby Chambliss (GA), Susan Collins (ME), John Cornyn (TX), Mike Crapo (ID), Jim DeMint (SC), Mike Enzi (WY), Charles Grassley (IA), John Hoeven (ND), Mike Johanns (NE), Mark Kirk (IL), Mitch McConnell (KY), John McCain (AZ), Jerry Moran (KS), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Rand Paul (KY), Rob Portman (OH), James Risch (ID), Pat Roberts (KS), Marco Rubio (FL), Jeff Sessions (AL), John Thune (SD), Pat Toomey (PA), David Vitter (LA), and Roger Wicker (MS).
Feinstein said that if the current process proves ineffective, she would reconsider. She also said that despite reports Tuesday the Defense Department was the subject of the investigation, her information is that the investigation is looking into the actions of officials throughout the executive branch.
"My understanding is that many dozens of FBI personnel have been asked to come in for interviews. I think it is a robust investigation and that's what we want," she said. "A special counsel takes four or five months to get set up and hire staff and become functioning. This is already functioning and has been for three weeks."
In a short interview, Graham rejected that argument and promised to push not only for an independent investigation but one that is expanded to cover more leaks over a greater period of time.
"I cannot believe this is good policy to allow an administration to investigate itself," he said. "[Feinstein] was OK with an independent counsel to investigate [lobbyist Jack] Abramoff and [former CIA case officer] Valerie Plame because the argument was the Bush administration was too tied to the suspected wrongdoing. I can assure you I'm not going to let this go."
Graham called for a special counsel that senators could support, and said that there are Democrats he might endorse for the role but that he won't accept the two Justice Department officials chosen by Holder .
Graham also called for the investigation to be expanded well beyond the two leaks that he said are the subjects of the investigation: U.S. involvement in the Stuxnet virus that disabled Iranian nuclear centrifuges and the details of a foiled airplane bomb plot originating out of Yemen.
He said the investigation should include the leaks of details of the May 2011 raid in Abbotabad that resulted in the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the disclosures of secret U.S. bases in Africa and a secret U.S. drone base in Pakistan, the disclosure of the process the president uses to compile his "kill list," and disclosures of details of negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban over a prisoner swap for Army private Bowe Bergdahl.
The Cable pointed out that two of those leaks were disclosed publicly by Feinstein herself. She disclosed the existence of the Pakistan drone base in an open hearing in 2009 and disclosed the details of the Taliban negotiations in a March interview with The Cable.
"My beef is not with Senator Feinstein. My beef is with a system that's failing," Graham said. "I think that this failure is politically motivated. The leaks have tried to create a political advantage for this president. Nothing Senator Feinstein has done or said has been in that mode."
Feinstein's leaks may have been accidental and her disclosures about negotiations with the Taliban didn't actually compromise any counterterrorism operations in the field, so the investigation should be limited to the actions of administration officials, Graham said.
"This is part of a plan to compromise our programs for political purposes, in my view. That's the allegation I'm making," he said.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee will start work on a State Department authorization bill it hopes can be the first international affairs policy bill to pass Congress in several years.
The Cable has obtained the draft bill, which will be the basis for a debate and amendments Wednesday in a markup session to be led by HFAC Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). In a note sent to committee members, the majority staff emphasized that the 76-page bill was meant to be one that both parties could support and pass without much controversy.
"We appreciate all of the input and forbearance that has gone into the creation of this limited, bipartisan collection of basic authorities on which we can reach consensus, in the hope of being able to authorize the State Department for the first time in a decade," the note read.
Whether or not the bill will remain bipartisan and noncontroversial after the markup remains to be seen. Last year, the House committee marked up a State Department authorization bill and added provisions through amendments that would have done things like defunded American contributions to the Organization of American States and restricted foreign aid to a host of countries -- nonstarters for the Obama administration. That bill never made it over to the Senate.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) marked up a Senate version of the State Department authorization bill in 2010 but that bill was never acted on by the full Senate. The authorization bills are supposed to set policies before the appropriations bills are enacted to distribute funds. The last time a State Department authorization bill was passed by both chambers and signed into law was 2003.
Nearly half the Senate told President Barack Obama today that unless Iran gives three specific concessions at this weekend's talks with world powers in Moscow, he should abandon the ongoing negotiations over the country's nuclear program.
"It is past time for the Iranians to take the concrete steps that would reassure the world that their nuclear program is, as they claim, exclusively peaceful," wrote 44 senators in a Friday bipartisan letter organized by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Roy Blunt (R-MO). "Absent these steps, we must conclude that Tehran is using the talks as a cover to buy time as it continues to advance toward nuclear weapons capability. We know that you share our conviction that allowing Iran to gain this capability is unacceptable."
The senators wrote that the "absolute minimum" Iran must do immediately to justify further talks is to shut down the Fordo uranium enrichment facility near Qom, freeze all uranium enrichment above 5 percent, and ship all uranium enriched above 5 percent out of the country.
"We understand that this was the very proposal that the P5+1 advanced during the Baghdad meeting," the senators wrote, referring to the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. "Were Iran to agree to and verifiably implement these steps, this would demonstrate a level of commitment by Iran to the process and could justify continued discussions beyond the meeting in Moscow."
Few expect the Moscow meeting to yield unilateral steps by Iran of the nature sought by the senators. The letter also makes no mention of what confidence-building measures the United States or the international community could or should take in exchange for Iran's own steps.
On June 11, the P5+1 held a meeting in Strasbourg at the political directors' level to prepare for the upcoming Moscow talks.
The senators urge the president not to ease or delay the embargo, writing that only when the Iranian government believes the sanctions are to be "unremitting and crippling" will a diplomatic breakthrough will be possible.
"On the other hand, if the sessions in Moscow produce no substantive agreement, we urge you to reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time and instead focus on significantly increasing the pressure on the Iranian government through sanctions and making clear that a credible military option exists," they wrote. "As you have rightly noted, ‘the window for diplomacy is closing.' Iran's leaders must realize that you mean precisely that."
The letter is also signed by Charles Schumer (D-NY), Susan Collins (R-ME), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), James Risch (R-ID), Ron Wyden (D-OR), David Vitter (R-LA), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Mark Pryor (D-AR), John Cornyn (R-TX), Robert Casey Jr. (D-PA), John Boozman (R-AR), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Scott Brown (R-MA), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), John Hoeven (R-ND), Jeff Merkeley (D-OR), Daniel Coats (R-IN), Christopher Coons (D-DE), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Patrick Toomey (R-PA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Mike Lee (R-UT), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Rob Portman (R-OH), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Dean Heller (R-NV), Jon Tester (D-MT), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Mark Warner (D-VA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Mark Begich (D-AK).
"The message of this letter is that Congress' patience is running out when it comes to meetings that don't yield results," said a senior Senate aide. "The Iranians have been given every last opportunity to demonstrate their good faith and step back from the brink. Instead, they keep pushing forward with their nuclear program, and we keep asking for yet another round of talks. This is not sustainable."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.