The Pentagon sent officials to brief Senate Armed Services Committee leaders on the military's involvement in the Cartagena prostitution scandal that is roiling the Secret Service, but the lead Republican on the committee ripped the briefers Wednesday for their unpreparedness.
"Chairman [Carl] Levin and I met today with representatives of the Joint Staff with the expectation of receiving information on the ongoing investigation into possible misconduct involving military personnel during the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. We requested this briefing to inform us as to any national security implications resulting from such misconduct," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said in statement.
"Unfortunately, nearly two weeks after the events in Colombia, the briefers sent by the Department of Defense were woefully unprepared to answer even the most basic questions about what happened in Cartagena, and provided appallingly little new information other than the mechanics and timeline of the ongoing investigation."
The DOD briefers did not even know the date President Barack Obama arrived or the name of the senior military commander on the ground in Cartagena, McCain said. The military has to protect the rights of service members, but Congress needs to be able to do oversight as well, he added.
"We need to know the facts. We need to know the impact of this potential misconduct, which occurred less than a day, or perhaps hours, before the president arrived in Cartagena, on the performance of the military Joint Task Force charged with his security. Yet, we are being denied access to the information we need in order to make informed judgments or take needed actions. This is entirely unacceptable," he said.
McCain pledged to explore other means for the committee to get the information they are seeking from the administration. Reuters reported Tuesday that 12 military members are now associated with the scandal, the latest being attached to the White House communications team. Twelve Secret Service personnel are also implicated, six of whom have already left the agency.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was in Colombia this week on a previously scheduled visit. He said he had already suspended security clearances for those involved and promised to punish those found to be guilty of infractions.
"We expect our people, wherever they are, whether they are in Colombia or any other country ... to behave at the highest standards of conduct," Panetta told reporters at Colombia's Tolemaida military base. "If these investigators find that there have been violations ... those individuals will be held accountable.
This past weekend, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was denied entry into Afghanistan due to objections from Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Today, in an interview with The Cable, Rohrabacher recounted the episode, his longstanding feud with Karzai, and the personal intervention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that kept him from flying to Kabul.
Last Wednesday, Rohrabacher was added as a last minute addition to the congressional delegation led by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and including Reps. John Carter (R-TX), Michael Burgess (R-TX), Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), and Michele Bachmann (R-MN). Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) had to drop out at the last minute, so Rohrabacher took the spot. He didn't think there would be a problem.
Following a 13-hour flight to Dubai (Rohrabacher had to fly coach because of the last minute arrangements), he and the rest of the delegation prepared to board a military transport to Kabul. But the military staff on the ground wouldn't let him get on the plane.
"I was informed that the military plane was prohibited from taking off if I was on board," he said. "The State Department had asked the Defense Department not to fly me there."
Rohrabacher, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, didn't need the administration's approval to go to Afghanistan, so he and his staff began searching for commercial flights to Kabul. That's when Clinton called.
"She made the request of me saying that Karzai was personally upset with me and doesn't want me in his country. She said that if I went, there was a real possibility there would be a real crisis on their hands," Rohrabacher said.
Clinton mentioned the recent accidental burning of Qurans on a U.S. military base and the murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier. She told Rohrabacher that she feared Karzai might provoke another minor crisis in the relationship if the congressman went there, and asked him not to go.
"The secretary of state was asking me in a reasonable way so I said I would comply. If she thinks it's better for our country, I would forgo this trip, but not all trips," he said. "She was afraid that Karzai might try to get some of his people out on the streets and start targeting me, so she didn't need that."
The rest of the delegation went on to Kabul and met with embassy staff and members of the leadership of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, but not with Karzai. Meanwhile, Rohrabacher hung back in the United Arab Emirates and met with the emir of Abu Dhabi, the leader of the UAE military, and the UAE's minister of energy. When the delegation got back to Dubai, the representatives went on the Qatar for additional meetings before arriving back in Washington Tuesday afternoon.
Rohrabacher explained that his feud with Karzai goes back years, if not decades, and is based on Rohrabacher's longstanding and vocal support for a decentralization of power in Afghanistan and removal of U.S. financial and diplomatic support for Karzai, whom he sees as a corrupt and illegitimate leader.
Rohrabacher has been traveling to Afghanistan since the 1980s, when he worked in the Reagan White House. In 1988 he even picked up a machine gun and fought alongside the mujahideen on against the Russians near the Afghan city of Jalalabad. During the reign of the Taliban, Rohrabacher, by then a congressman, traveled to Afghanistan several times to meet with the groups that would eventually come to be known as the Northern Alliance.
The latest action to anger Karzai came when Rohrabacher traveled to an Aspen Institute conference in January with Gohmert, Steve King (R-IA), and Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), and met with the Northern Alliance to strategize on the way forward in Afghanistan.
"Serious efforts were made by the U.S. State Department to prevent this exchange of views from taking place," Rohrabacher said in a press release at the time.
It probably hasn't helped relations that Rohrabacher's subcommittee is working on an investigation strategy to bring to light the details of how Karzai and his family have enriched themselves of the last few years.
"Mr. Karzai is a very wealthy man and the tooth fairy didn't leave it under his pillow. If we don't do anything, the Taliban will take over that country and Karzai will disappear and emerge in Csota Rica with suitcases filled with money," he said. "Or even worse, our current government may push Karzai into a coalition government with the Taliban, and that would be a catastrophe and a horrible waste of American lives and resources over the last 10 years."
Rohrabacher said he didn't care much what Karzai thought about him one way or the other and promised to travel to Afghanistan again at a later time. He also claimed that Karzai is trying to prevent any members of the Afghan opposition from having direct contact with members of Congress.
"I think the reason that Karzai singled me out is that when I say something about Afghanistan people take it seriously because of my decades of experience in Afghanistan," he said. "There are few members of Congress who understand how little right Karzai has to the leadership of that government."
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The United States and Japan are nearing completion of a new basing agreement for U.S. troops in Okinawa, but three top senators want to make sure that Congress has a seat at the table before anything is set in stone.
"We have been advised informally that the United States and Japan are preparing to announce an agreement regarding basing issues on Okinawa and Guam as early as this Wednesday, April 25, in advance of Prime Minister Noda's coming visit to the United States," Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI), John McCain (R-AZ), and Jim Webb (D-VA) wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today. "While we have been strongly encouraging a resolution of this complex and troubling issue, we feel compelled to emphasize that no new basing proposal can be considered final until it has the support of Congress, which has important oversight and funding responsibilities."
The 2006 U.S.-Japan agreement to relocate 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam and move the Futenma Air Station to a different part of Okinawa has been stalled for years due to the Tokyo government's failure to secure the buy-in of local Okinawan officials and communities for the new location of the airbase.
Last July, Levin, McCain, and Webb came out with strong objections to the plan due to the upward spiraling costs of the Guam part of the project. They added language to the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act to require a independent study to rethink the whole arrangement. That study is now being conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a non-partisan Washington think tank.
The bill requires the Department of Defense to study the feasibility of relocating some of the Air Force assets at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa to other bases in Japan or to Guam, and moving Marine Corps aviation assets currently at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Kadena Air Base rather than building an expensive replacement facility at Camp Schwab, another base located on Okinawa. This idea is extremely unpopular in Japan.
In February, the United States and Japan announced they would delink the troop location from the base relocation in the hopes of moving at least part of the agreement forward. The senators' letter today said that a new announcement is expected this week in advance of the Japanese prime minister's April 30 visit to Washington. According to Bloomberg, the new announcement will include a drastic scaling back of the number of troops headed to Guam, diverting about half of the 8,000 slated to leave Japan to Australia, Hawaii, or the Philippines.
The senators aren't necessarily opposed to such a plan, but say they haven't been briefed on the announcement and haven't been able to determine if the new plan addresses their concerns as laid out in the legislation last year. The independent assessment hasn't been completed, they pointed out. The bill also prevents any spending on the project until various conditions are met and those conditions have not been met, the senators wrote.
"Based on the information we have received about this emerging agreement, we have many questions that have not been fully addressed," the senators wrote. "We require additional information regarding how this proposal relates to the broader strategic concept of operations in the region, the Marine Corps' concept of operations, master plans, and alternatives to base realignments on Guam and Okinawa, as well as the positioning of U.S. Air Force units in the Asia-Pacific region. We also remain concerned about the absence of firm cost estimates informed by basing plans, an analysis of logistical requirements, and environmental studies related to this new agreement."
The senators said they were mindful of how sensitive basing issues are in the U.S.-Japanese relationship (some say the Obama administration's battles with former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama contributed to Hatoyama's downfall). They also said they support a robust U.S. military presence in the region and a strong U.S.-Japanese security alliance. But they want the administration to delay the announcement nonetheless.
"We remain committed to working with the Administration to resolve this matter to the benefit of both the United States and Japan. But, for the reasons given above, it is our position that any announcement on this critical matter that goes beyond an agreement in principle at this time would be premature and could have the unintended consequences of creating more difficulties for our important alliance," they wrote.
Noda will visit the White House and meet with President Barack Obama on April 30 but he will not get a state dinner like his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao.
"The President looks forward to holding discussions with the Prime Minister on a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues, including the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance, economic and trade issues, and deepening bilateral cooperation. The two leaders will also discuss regional and global security concerns," the White House said in a statement.
A bill to sanction Russian human rights violators will not be taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week after the Obama administration urged Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) to keep it off the committee's agenda, The Cable has learned.
Last month, Kerry indicated that the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 would be brought up for a vote at the April 26 SFRC business meeting and he also endorsed the idea of combining the Magnitsky bill with a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law. "In good faith, we will move as rapidly as we can, hopefully the minute we're back, but certainly shortly thereafter," Kerry said March 27, just before the last Senate recess.
But after what several Senate aides described as intense lobbying from top Obama administration officials, including Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, Kerry decided not to put the bill on the agenda of the next business meeting, delaying consideration of the bill until May at the earliest, after the visit to the U.S. of Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin.
In a statement to The Cable, Kerry said he still supports quick passage of the Magnitsky bill and its linkage to the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, but that he needed more time to iron out differences over the details of the legislation.
"I support this effort and, as I said at the last business meeting, passing the Magnitsky legislation out of our committee is not a question of if, only when. I've been trying to get everyone on the same page because that's how you get the best legislative result, and everyone was explicitly very comfortable with where we were. My goal here is to get the best result," Kerry said.
But several aides told The Cable that not everybody was comfortable with the delay. The Cable obtained an e-mail sent late last week from the staff of committee Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) to several Democratic Senate offices including that of Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the bill's main sponsor, in which Lugar protests the delay strongly.
"We want to reiterate Senator Lugar's position, as he stated at the last business meeting, that he strongly supports having the Magnitsky Act taken up at the next business meeting (i.e. next week)," the e-mail reads.
"As we understand the situation, the White House and State Department have been frantic over the last 24 hours in trying to head off consideration of the bill next week by contacting numerous Democratic offices," Lugar's staff wrote. "Thus, our position remains as it has been: Senator Lugar supports immediate consideration of the Magnitsky bill-next week. If Senators Kerry and/or Cardin do not wish to have it taken up then, that is prerogative of the SFRC Majority, but it is not the position of Senator Lugar."
The Obama administration is on the record opposing the Magnitsky bill and believes that its passage could imperil U.S.-Russian cooperation on a range of issues. The Russian government has even threatened to scuttle the New START nuclear reductions treaty if the Magnitsky bill is passed, which would erase the signature accomplishment of the administration's U.S.-Russia reset policy.
"Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if legislation passes," the administration said in its official comments on the bill last July. "Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes."
Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak said Monday at a lunch with reporters in Washington that passage of the Magnitsky bill would have a "significant negative impact" on the U.S.-Russia relationship and said it was unacceptable for the United States to interfere in the Magnitsky case, which he said was an internal Russian issue.
"It's artificially attached to the whole issue of Jackson Vanik... It's politically motivated," he said. "We do not want to be told what to do within the limits of Russian law."
Kislyak then said there were human rights violations in the United States that Russia could raise in the context of trade negotiations, but chooses not to.
"I could bring up one example that is very much on our minds. Three years of long investigation of the killing of children adopted from Russia, with absolute immunity, but we do not bring that issue into the economic realm," he said.
Cardin, meanwhile, has been working with administration behind the scenes to make changes to the Magnitsky bill, and even came up with a new draft version of the legislation last week, before the delay. The Cable obtained an internal document showing exactly what changed in the bill.
For example, the new version makes it more difficult to add names to the list of human rights violators that the bill would create. In the previous version, any member of Congress could request to add the name of an alleged human rights violator to the bill. In the new version, both the chair and ranking member of a relevant committee must jointly request someone be added to the list, a high bar in a partisan Congress.
Cardin is caught by between his desire to see his legislation passed without being gutted and his desire to work with the administration. In a brief interview with The Cable last week, he insisted he still wants the Magnitsky bill joined with the legislation that will repeal Jackson-Vanik and grant Russia PNTR.
"There's a growing support in the Senate to make sure it's part of the PNTR debate," he said. "We'd like SFRC to mark it up and then take it to the Senate Finance Committee and make it part of the PNTR bill."
The exact logistics for how the Magnitsky bill is moved in conjunction with the PNTR bill are up in the air. It could be joined in the Senate Finance Committee, or on the Senate floor, or just passed at the same time. But what's clear is that there are several senators ready to hold up PNTR for Russia if the Magnitsky bill isn't considered in conjunction.
Among Capitol Hill staffers, there's also concern that the administration may be negotiating to water down the Magnitsky bill now, only to ultimately oppose it later. A similar dynamic played out over sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran last December. Then, it was Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) who carried water for the administration before discovering they would ultimately oppose the bill no matter what. Menendez was livid. That bill passed the Senate 100-0.
"The last thing the Obama administration wants is Magnitsky to pass and not PNTR, but at the rate they are going, it could be likely that neither moves," one senior Senate GOP aide told The Cable. "The administration's strategy is to delay as long as possible any SFRC consideration, in hopes that in a year with few legislative days the window for Magnitsky passage narrows and disappears."
UPDATE: Tuesday afternoon, Kerry's Communications Director Jodi Seth sent the following statement on the delay to The Cable:
"The decision not to put the Magnitsky bill on the agenda for the business meeting on April 26 was made only after consultations with relevant committee offices. At no time during the decision-making process did Lugar staff raise any objection to not adding the bill to the agenda."
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In a speech introducing U.S. President Barack Obama today, Nobel Peace Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel called on the world to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from committing atrocities against civilians.
At a ceremony at Washington's Holocaust museum, Wiesel compared Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the villains who perpetrated the murder of millions of innocent civilians during World War II and asked why America and the international community didn't do more to stop the bloodshed. He then compared the world's inaction then to its failure to stop Assad and Ahmadinejad now.
"It could have been prevented. The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented had the civilized world spoken up, taken measures in 1939, ‘40, ‘41, ‘42. Each time, in Berlin, Geobbels and the others always wanted to see what would be the reaction in Washington and London and Rome, and there was no reaction so they felt they could continue," Wiesel said.
"So in this place we may ask: Have we learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power? How is it that the No. 1 Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad is still a president? He who threatens to use nuclear weapons to destroy the Jewish state."
"Have we not learned? We must know that evil has power. It is almost too late," he said. "Preventative measures are important. We must use those measures to prevent another catastrophe. And when other communities are threatened by anyone, we must not allow them to do what they intend doing."
Wiesel's speech was reminiscent of another speech he made at the Holocaust museum in 1993, at the opening of the complex, when he called on then President Bill Clinton to take action to stop the atrocities against civilians in Bosnia.
Similarly, that speech came at a time when the Clinton administration was resisting getting entangled in a foreign civil war but was under growing pressure to intervene.
"Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something," Wiesel told Clinton then. "I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done."
In his own remarks, Obama touted the fact that his administration determined that the prevention of mass atrocities was a core national security interest of the United States and listed several bureaucratic changes the government was making to address the problem. His board to examine the problem meets today for the first time.
Obama touted his administration's efforts in South Sudan, Ivory Coast, Libya, and Uganda, pledging to extend the limited deployment of U.S. military advisors to help track down remnants of the Lord's Resistance Army. But Obama said that governments are not wholly responsible for preventing mass atrocities.
"You don't just count on officials; you don't just count on governments. You count on people mobilizing their conscience," Obama said. "'Never again' is a challenge to nations. It's a bitter truth: Too often the world has failed to halt the killing of innocents on a massive scale and we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save."
When Obama spoke about Syria, he said the United States would continue increasing diplomatic, political, and economic pressure on the Assad regime, but said the U.S. commitment to end atrocities "does not mean we intervene militarily every time there is an injustice in the world."
"The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up. So with partners and allies we will keep increasing the pressure so that those who stick with Assad know that they are making a losing bet."
Obama announced new financial sanctions against Syrian and Iranian leaders who use information technology to suppress civilian dissent, barring those guilty from entering or doing business in the United States.
"In short, we need to do everything we can to prevent these kinds of atrocities, because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your own people," Obama said. "Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing."
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The White House is unhappy with the options it's been given on Syria and is searching for a new strategy for removing President Bashar al-Assad, The Cable has learned.
"There was a fundamental decision made at the highest level that we need a real Syria policy with more options for the president," one administration official with knowledge of the internal deliberations said. "Our allies were coming back to us and saying ‘What's your next move?,' and we were forced to admit we didn't have one."
The new push includes adjustments in personnel handling the portfolio. Before March, National Security Council Director Steve Simon headed up the internal interagency process. Now, multiple officials confirm that NSC Senior Director for Strategy Derek Chollet has been added to the leadership of the Syria policy team and has been coordinating the interagency process for several weeks. Simon, Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, State Dept. Special Advisor Fred Hof, and Ambassador Robert Ford are still very active on the Syria portfolio.
Simon, Feltman, and Hof have been traveling all week and will be with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Paris Thursday. There she will attend an ad-hoc meeting of foreign ministers where "core" members of the Friends of Syria group will confer on next steps.
Chollet, the former deputy to Anne-Marie Slaughter at the State Department's Policy Planning shop, has also been nominated to be the next assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, replacing Sandy Vershbow, who is now deputy secretary general of NATO. Chollet has taken on the day-to-day management of the interagency process while he awaits confirmation.
New options are now being considered internally, including another discussion of setting up buffer zones inside Syria, one administration official confirmed. The administration has also authorized direct contact with the internal Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and at least one State Department official has met with the FSA's nominal leaders in Turkey.
The rethink comes eight months after Obama explicitly demanded the Syrian leader's removal, saying, "The time has come for President Assad to step aside."
His administration is still struggling to come up with a way to make that call a reality.
There's a growing consensus inside the administration that the violence in Syria is not abating and that multinational diplomatic initiatives such as the plan put forth by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan are not convincing Assad to enter into a political process to transition to democracy, much less yield power and step down.
Clinton hinted Wednesday that fresh options are under discussion.
"We are at a crucial turning point," Clinton said, speaking from Brussels. "Either we succeed in pushing forward with Kofi Annan's plan in accordance with the Security Council direction, with the help of monitors steadily broadening and deepening a zone of non-conflict and peace, or we see Assad squandering his last chance before additional measures have to be considered."
The potential shift in U.S. policy predates the Annan plan, however.
Following a failed effort to convince Russia and China to endorse a resolution condemning Assad in February and the subsequent attempts to convince Russia to play a more constructive role following Vladimir Putin's election to the presidency in March, top levels of the Obama administration began exploring other options, according to multiple U.S. officials, congressional officials, and experts briefed on the discussions.
One administration official said that the hope that Russia could be convinced to reign in Assad has now faded, as has the notion that Turkey and the Arab Gulf states would be willing to bankroll the Syrian opposition and even arm the FSA while the United States largely confined itself to a diplomatic role.
The administration's position had been to look the other way while Arab states armed the Syrian opposition, but pledges of aid by Gulf states have not materialized and the Turkish government, which has committed to an anti-Assad position and is hosting the FSA, is waiting for the United States to chart a clear way forward.
"They are not thinking two steps ahead. That's why there is a demand for a plan B," the administration official said, referring to the White House. "The position they took at the last Friends of Syria meeting is not sustainable."
The United States has pledged $25 million in humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people and communications equipment to the internal opposition. But lawmakers who met with internal opposition leaders last week said that they hadn't gotten that assistance.
"The most stunning, unsettling conclusion I drew from the leaders of the Free Syrian Army was that they have essentially got no help from anyone. They are literally running out of ammunition while Assad's forces are being resupplied by Iran and Russia," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable in an interview.
Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) spent their Senate recess on the Turkish side of the Turkey-Syria border, meeting with Turkish officials, FSA leaders, and refugees.
"What they want us to do is to lead. They want us to lead the Friends of Syria, who have given them increasingly sympathetic rhetoric but not the wherewithal to defend themselves," he said.
The Syrian internal opposition is buying weapons and ammunition on the black market at exorbitant prices and claims that large parts of the Syrian military are demoralized but are unwilling to break with the government until they see the opposition has real international support.
"They are all waiting for the U.S. to say ‘We're in this,'" Lieberman said.
There was at least one State Department official inside the McCain-Lieberman meeting with leaders of the FSA, Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh and Col. Riad al-Asaad, two U.S. officials confirmed. The FSA leaders asked the United States to provide RPGs, anti-aircraft guns, and ammunition. The FSA leaders also said they have proof that the Assad regime is using helicopter gunships to attack civilians in the city of Idlib, as apparently shown in this YouTube video.
Turkish officials told McCain and Lieberman that they were willing to let weapons flow over their borders and consider other more aggressive steps to help the internal Syrian opposition, but that they won't do so unless Washington leads the way.
The Turks told the senators there are currently 25,000 registered Syrian refugees in southern Turkey, although the registrations have not kept pace with the flow of refugees across the border so the actual number could be much higher. The Turks also said that if the refugee total tops 50,000, they will require help.
"They Turks want American leadership and they know American leadership is totally absent. The Turks say they may -- if this flood of refugees continues -- they may need international assistance," McCain said. "Every place we talked to, they want American leadership. It's just disgraceful that they haven't acted so far."
The administration official explained that the White House does not want to become so heavily involved in the Syria conflict, for example by directly arming opposition fighters, because it puts the United States on the hook for their success and would probably require increased levels of commitment as the conflict drags on.
"They've got this half-pregnant position that is offensive to the sensibilities of the people on the ground and confusing to the Turks," the official said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
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A new set of sanctions against Iran is pending in the Senate, but the Obama administration refuses to say whether or not it supports the legislation as negotiations with Tehran resume.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said today that he still intends to move as soon as possible to pass the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, named for Finance Committee heads Sens. Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), that was approved by the committee in February. The bill would pile on more punitive measures against Iran's energy, shipping, and mining sectors, while punishing a broader range of Iranian government officials for their involvement in human rights violations.
Before the latest Senate recess, Reid attempted to pass the bill by unanimous consent, but Republicans objected because several senators want to offer amendments to strengthen the bill. Lawmakers from both chambers and both sides of the aisle want the bill to go through the regular legislative process so that changes can be made before passage, but Reid says the bill should be passed as is.
Reid told reporters today that his staff would be meeting today "to see if something could be worked out," regarding a way forward for the legislation. (After the meeting, a Reid spokesman told The Cable that "nothing" was worked out at today's meeting and there is no definitive schedule for moving ahead with the bill.)
"I think the best thing to do is to move forward with the bill that was reported out of committee on a bipartisan basis, unless we can get agreement from basically everyone," Reid said. "Each day that goes by without Iran feeling more of our sanctions, that's too bad for the world and helpful to Iran. We need to move forward on this as soon as possible."
The Obama administration hasn't said anything positive or negative about the legislation, even though it has been vocal about other Iran sanctions bills being debated in Congress. Administration officials met with Iranian negotiators as part of the P5+1 group in Turkey last weekend and more talks are scheduled for next month in Baghdad.
If the administration supports the new sanctions, it risks upsetting the new negotiations just as they are beginning. If the administration doesn't support the new sanctions, it leaves them open to GOP allegations of weakness towards Iran in the midst of the presidential election season.
National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment today on whether or not the White House supports quick passage of the Johnson-Shelby bill. Late last month, a senior administration official told The Cable, "We're not just taking a position on that particular bill at this point."
House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told The Cable Monday that he supports moving forward with the bill quickly.
"I think it's perfectly appropriate to keep up pressure with the sanctions. I think you've got to keep ramping up the pressure," he said. "If we want to add to the options the president has, I think that's a good idea."
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) said today that without the administration's green light, the bill probably would not move quickly through Congress.
"Unless the administration advocates for that, I think it's less likely," he said.
The United Nations and the State Department have been struggling to convince the Iranian exile group the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK) to move to a former U.S. military base in Iraq, but the real need is for third countries to accept MEK "refugees" on a permanent basis, according to the top U.N. representative in Iraq.
The MEK is a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization opposed to the Iranian regime that has been living in a closed compound in Iraq called Camp Ashraf for years. The Iraqi government has pledged to close Camp Ashraf, using force if necessary, so the U.N. and the State Department are slowly but surely cajoling Ashraf's 3,200 residents to move to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport.
But that's only a temporary solution. Unless other countries start accepting MEK members for relocation, they could face the prospect of being returned to Iran, where they could face retribution from the Iranian regime they have been fighting for decades.
"I have the feeling that the Camp Ashraf residents have made peace with the idea to go to Camp Liberty and they've made peace with the idea that there is no future in Iraq and they will leave Iraq," Martin Kobler, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), told The Cable.
But finding homes for the MEK members when they leave Iraq "is the most difficult part of the story," he said. "The whole process only will succeed if all the 3,200 find countries who will take them into their borders."
The U.N. held a resettlement conference on March 27 in Geneva and the response was "not overwhelming, to say the least," Kobler said.
Part of the difficulty of dealing with the MEK group members at Camp Ashraf is that they have been cut off from the world for years and little is known about their individual histories or whether they would qualify for refugee status. Some reports say that MEK members are still conducting violent attacks inside Iran at the behest of the Israeli government.
The United States is legally barred from accepting any refugees from members of a foreign terrorist organization. There is also no plan for what happens to those MEK members who do not qualify for refugee status.
"We will find a solution then," Kobler said. "Everybody has Iranian nationality and on a voluntary basis can go back to Iran... The question is what happens to them then."
Kobler disputed the claims made by the MEK and its long list of American advocates that the Camp Liberty site is not fit for human occupation.
"Camp Liberty is a place where 5,500 American soldiers lived for many, many years... What worked for 5,500 people should also work humanitarian wise for 3,200 Camp Ashraf residents," he said.
Kobler declined to comment on reports that the MEK is involved in ongoing attacks on the Iranian nuclear program and its personnel inside Iran. He also declined to confirm that U.N. reports have stated that MEK members were intentionally sabotaging the facilities in Camp Liberty in order to make the camp look worse than it is, saying only, "There were big initial difficulties and a lack of cooperation. However this has improved over the last weeks."
Some advocates of the MEK, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have called Camp Ashraf a "concentration camp," a reference Kobler said is insulting and offensive.
"I am a German citizen. To compare the situation of Camp Ashraf residents to the systematic extermination of European Jews during Nazi dictatorship, this is not only historically totally absurd but is an insult to the victims," he said.
"My message to these supporters is, spend your energies not so much on attacking the United Nations or others. Spend your energies to convince your governments to take them into your countries," he said.
While in Washington, Kobler met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees, Population, and Migration Anne Richards, and Ambassador Daniel Fried, the State Department official in charge of the Camp Ashraf issue.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President Barak Obama's push for engagement with North Korea, which was effectively ended by yesterday's missile launch, was not a failure and actually shows that this administration is tougher on Pyongyang than its predecessor, a top White House official said today.
"What this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we've seen in the past," said Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes, speaking to reporters on Air Force One Friday.
The Cable detailed yesterday the Obama team's extensive efforts over the past year to enter into a new round of negotiations with the North Korean regime, which included offering North Korea 240,000 tons of food aid and asking the North Koreans to refrain from enriching uranium and firing off any missiles. The deal fell through Thursday when North Korea launched an Unha-3 rocket with a "satellite" attached.
Rhodes argued that the Obama administration's stance was tougher than George W. Bush's, given that Bush's top negotiator Chris Hill held several rounds of protracted negotiations with North Korea and even got North Korea to sign an agreement in 2005 to end its nuclear weapons program in exchange for security and economic guarantees from the West.
"Under the previous administration, for instance, there was a substantial amount of assistance provided to North Korea. North Korea was removed from the terrorism list, even as they continued to engage in provocative actions. Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea," Rhodes said.
He also seemed to abandon the administration's claim that the food aid was not "linked" to the nuclear and missile discussions, a claim most observers scoffed at because the two issues were negotiated at the same time by the same people and because the food aid was cancelled after North Korea announced the missile launch.
"When this new regime took power after the death of Kim Jong Il, we had discussions with them about potentially an agreement where they would freeze their enrichment activities and take some other steps towards denuclearization, and that we as a part of that might provide food assistance," Rhodes said. (Emphasis added.)
He also repeated the administration's contention that North Korea could not be trusted to deliver the food aid to its people because the regime in Pyongyang could not be trusted to uphold its international commitments.
Rhodes said the United States would discuss with its allies and partners "additional steps" that might be taken to punish North Korea for its latest provocation, but he couldn't name any specific steps that under consideration. He also said there was concern that North Korea could conduct another nuclear test soon.
The U.N. Security Council issued a statement Friday condemning North Korea for the launch but no new punitive measures were announced. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said it was "premature ... to predict or characterize the form of the reaction."
Speaking to reporters, Rhodes also criticized North Korea for inviting journalists to visit, saying, "The North Korea government is trying to put on this propaganda show over the course of the last several days, inviting journalists in to take a look at this particular rocket launch."
After three years of practicing "strategic patience" with North Korea, which basically amounted to ignoring Pyongyang, the Obama team took a political risk by engaging with the North Korean regime and then announcing an "agreement" even though there was no single set of items that the two sides actually agreed upon. Each side issued its own unilateral statements about what it thought the deal included.
Republicans are already pouncing on what they portray as a naïve mistake by the administration.
"Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naïve as it was short-lived. At the same time, he has cut critical U.S. missile defense programs and continues to underfund them," GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in statement. "This incompetence from the Obama administration has emboldened the North Korean regime and undermined the security of the United States and our allies."
The Obama administration requested $7.75 billion for missile defense in fiscal 2013, which is $810 million less than Congress appropriated for the program this year.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) piled on.
"Once again, Pyongyang has demonstrated its complete disregard for international sanctions and its proclivity for worthless commitments. Moreover, North Korea's actions and gathering of global media to witness the launch make a mockery of the recent ‘Leap Day agreement' with the Obama administration," he said in his own statement. "The administration should abandon its naive negotiations with North Korea (and Iran), and instead focus on fully funding missile defenses that can protect the United States from ballistic missile threats."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
North Korea's apparently unsuccessful launch of an Unha-3 rocket with a "satellite" attached marks not only the 100th birthday of the country's founder Kim Il Sung, but also the end of the Obama administration's year-long effort to open up a new path for negotiations with the Hermit Kingdom.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned earlier Thursday that the promised launch by North Korea would scuttle the deal the Obama administration negotiated with Pyongyang and announced on Leap Day Feb. 29, which would have provided North Korea with 240,000 tons of U.S. food assistance over the next year. She lamented that the North Koreans had thrown away the progress made.
"If Pyongyang goes forward, we will all be back in the Security Council to take further action. And it is regrettable because, as you know, we had worked through an agreement that would have benefited the North Korean people with the provision of food aid," she said. "But in the current atmosphere, we would not be able to go forward with that, and other actions that other countries had been considering would also be on hold."
The Obama administration worked behind the scenes for months on the deal, and had been set to announce it last December, but North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died the day before the announcement was set to be made. In February, administration officials traveled to Beijing to try again and proudly announced on Feb. 29 that Pyongyang had agreed to a host of concessions, including a missile-test moratorium.
Since then, there has been much debate in Washington over whether or not the administration knew that the North Koreans planned all along to go ahead with their "satellite" launch, which had been scheduled before Kim Jong Il's death. The fact that the two sides issued separate statements on Feb. 29, neither of which addressed the issue of a satellite launch, led many close observers to believe the administration erred by not getting Pyongyang to commit to canceling the launch in writing.
Arms Control expert Jeffrey Lewis explained at length how U.S. negotiators Glyn Davies and Clifford Hart might have flubbed the negotiations by assuming that telling the North Koreans a satellite launch would scuttle the deal and hearing the North Koreans acknowledge the U.S. position was tantamount to an agreement.
"Administration officials are screaming to high heaven that Davies told the North Koreans that a space launch was a missile launch...The problem is that telling the DPRK is not the same thing as the DPRK agreed," Lewis wrote.
Regardless, while the North Koreans surely knew that the U.S. side viewed a missile launch as a deal breaker, it's not clear that the North Korean officials sent to negotiate with the United States had the authority to stop a missile launch ordered by the Dear (dead) Leader Kim Jong Il.
It's also true that the North Koreans sent a letter to the Obama administration asking for a resumption of talks following the planned launch and the administration rejected that proposal. In between Feb. 29 and today's launch, U.S. experts and North Korean officials also met for three unofficial "Track 2" meetings to try to salvage the deal, none of which produced any progress.
Lewis participated in one of the Track 2 meetings, held in late March in London. Another Track 2 meeting was held in New York and included experts Victor Cha, Tom Hubbard, Scott Snyder, Evans Revere, Don Zagoria, Frank Jannuzi, and Keith Luse. A separate Track 2 meeting in Germany included Jannuzi, Tom Pickering, Bob Carlin, and Nick Eberstadt.
No progress was made at any of those meetings, partially because neither the U.S. experts nor their North Korean interlocutors were empowered to negotiate.
"Track 2 is useful for what it can do. What it can't do is negotiations. North Korean delegations at that level are on an incredibly short leash. They are at best letter deliverers and receptors of comments," Eberstadt told The Cable.
And so the launch went forward, and despite its failure, the United States and North Korea now find themselves returning to a familiar pattern of diplomatic tit for tat that will lead to another stalemate and crush the prospects of further bilateral negotiations, much less a return to any multilateral discussions such as the defunct six-party talks.
"The North Koreans will stick to the view that it is their sovereign right to launch a peaceful satellite test and let all the rest of the legal argumentation go where it will," said Eberstadt. "The North Korean government is trying to get the world used to treating the DPRK as a nuclear weapons power. So each time they break an agreement we twitch a little bit less than we did the time before."
Cha told The Cable Thursday, before the launch, that there's little the United States or the international community could do about North Korea's missile test aside from going through the motions at the U.N.
"The administration will condemn it and they'll go the United Nations Security Council to try to get a [presidential] statement, not a resolution. That will be it, and it will look horrible," he said. "And privately they will press hard on China to finally play ball and put real pressure on Pyongyang."
China could indeed do more, such as increasing inspections on its border with North Korea to clamp down on proliferation, Cha said. But in the end, no matter what the Obama administration does, there's no politically viable strategy that can solve the problem.
If the administration plays down the launch and tries to act as if it's not significant, it may look incompetent. If it tries to go back to the negotiating table, conservative critics will cry appeasement. If it presses for more sanctions, it will look ineffective and risk wasting political capital needed to press for international sanctions on Iran and Syria.
"All the options are equally bad for the administration," said Cha. "We have to either accept that they are a nuclear-weapons state and figure out how to try to live with it, or we have to go in the other direction and find a way to take this regime down."
The launch destroys the previously held conventional wisdom that North Korea avoids provocative actions while sitting at the negotiating table, Cha said, and whatever strategy the administration had to deal with North Korea has now been overtaken by events.
"This requires a complete reset in how we deal with North Korea," said Cha. "We got ourselves into this and there isn't an easy way to get out of it."
UPDATE: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney's statement on the launch:
Despite the failure of its attempted missile launch, North Korea's provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments. While this action is not surprising given North Korea's pattern of aggressive behavior, any missile activity by North Korea is of concern to the international community. The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations, and is fully committed to the security our allies in the region.
The President has been clear that he is prepared to engage constructively with North Korea. However, he has also insisted that North Korea live up to its own commitments, adhere to its international obligations and deal peacefully with its neighbors.
North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry. North Korea's long-standing development of missiles and pursuit of nuclear weapons have not brought it security - and never will. North Korea will only show strength and find security by abiding by international law, living up to its obligations, and by working to feed its citizens, to educate its children, and to win the trust of its neighbors.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
In an escalation of the United Arab Emirates' crackdown on foreign NGOs, the UAE government has detained foreign employees of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and is preventing at least one of them from leaving the country.
Late Wednesday, the director of NDI's Dubai office, Patricia Davis, an American, and her deputy director Slobodon Milic, a Serbian national, were stopped at the Dubai airport by UAE government authorities as they tried to leave the country, according to three sources briefed on the incident. Davis was eventually allowed to leave the UAE, but Milic was not. He was detained by authorities, and subsequently released but is still barred from leaving the UAE. The UAE government has also notified NDI that they plan to file criminal indictments against foreign NGO workers in the UAE for foreign interference in political affairs, the sources said.
"We understand that the deputy director for NDI in the UAE was briefly detained and then released. We are seeking more information from the government of the UAE on the matter," a State Department official told The Cable. "As the Secretary has said many times, we believe NGOs play a valuable and legitimate role in a country's political and economic development. They should be able to operate consistent with regulations and standards and without constraints."
"We will continue to support civil society in the UAE and across the region. NDI is a respected organization that has been working across the region and beyond to promote civil society development and democratic values. The State Department is a firm supporter of NDI's activities," the official said.
The move mirrors the actions taken by the Egyptian government over the past three months, which included barring over a dozen foreign workers from leaving Egypt -- including Americans working for NDI, the International Republican Institute (IRI), and Freedom House -- and subsequently indicting them on criminal charges.
The U.S. government paid $5 million in "bail" money to secure the March 1 release of American NGO workers trapped in Egypt, including Sam LaHood, the Cairo director of the IRI and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then waived congressional restrictions on the $1.5 billion of annual U.S. aid to Egypt, which would have required that the State Department certify that Egypt was moving toward democracy and upholding civil rights.
Several of the American NGO workers who were indicted by the Egyptian government were not in Egypt at the time, and the National Journal reported Wednesday that the Egyptian government has asked Interpol to issue international arrest warrants for those NGO workers. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is trying to convince Interpol to reject those requests.
The UAE government shut down and revoked the license of the NDI office in Dubai last week, just days before Clinton visited the region and raised the issue in a meeting with Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
"We very much regret it," Clinton said after the meeting. "We are as you know, as anyone who has visited the United States, strong believers in a vibrant civil society ... I expect our discussions on this issue to continue."
A U.S. congressional staff delegation has been in the UAE this week as well, and has been raising the NDI issue with both UAE and American officials on the ground. One congressional staffer in Dubai told The Cable Wednesday that UAE officials argued to the staff delegation that NDI was operating without a license, had no legal right to be operating in UAE, and was writing things that weren't true.
NDI Middle East Director Les Campbell said last week that his organization has no programs in the UAE, and the office "was simply a regional hub which supported programmes in places like Qatar and Kuwait."
The congressional staffers pressed the UAE officials to comment on the rumors that the UAE government was acting on behalf of the Saudi government, which is said to object to NDI's programs for Saudi women. But the UAE officials denied any knowledge of Saudi interference or pressure to the congressional staffers.
The staffer also said U.S. Ambassador to the UAE Michael Corbin downplayed the UAE government's actions in his meeting with the congressional delegation.
"Even more troublesome was [the U.S.] ambassador's statement in response to questions we raised about the shutdown in a meeting on Tuesday. He essentially suggested that it wasn't that big of a deal since NDI doesn't do any work in the UAE," the staffer said. "Moreover, he seemed to sympathize with their concerns given the changing situation in the Middle East and he characterized work that organizations like NDI do as ‘fomenting' political change."
Officials at NDI's Washington office and the UAE embassy in Washington declined to comment.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
When NATO countries meet for their summit in Chicago this May, four countries will be vying for membership in the transatlantic alliance. For the small Balkan country of Macedonia, the only thing holding it back is its name.
Bosnia still has some constitutional reforms to enact before it can be eligible for NATO membership. Georgia, recent named an "aspirant" NATO member, has its bid tied up by the Russian occupation of two of its territories. Montenegro has been granted its NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), the final step before membership, and is moving towards accession at a steady pace. But for Macedonia, which was granted MAP status way back in 1999, there likely won't be any formal membership invitation in Chicago because NATO member Greece is still demanding that the Republic of Macedonia change its name.
"Macedonia's bid was blocked by Greece because of a 17-year row over the country's name," the BBC reported at the time of NATO's 2008 summit in Bucharest. "Athens says it implies a territorial claim on its northern province -- also called Macedonia -- and wants the former Yugoslav republic to change its name to New or Upper Macedonia."
Now, four years later, the dispute is no closer to being solved. Tuesday, 54 members of Congress wrote to President Barack Obama to ask him to break the logjam.
"We strongly urge your administration to make sure that NATO finally offers the Republic of Macedonia its well deserved formal invitation to join the alliance during the Chicago summit," reads the letter, led by Reps. Candice Miller (R-MI) and Mike Turner (R-OH).
The letter points out that Macedonia has achieved all membership criteria to merit a NATO membership invitation and quotes Obama as saying in April 2009: "I look forward to the day when we can welcome Macedonia into the alliance."
Macedonia was the staging area for NATO operations in Kosovo in 1990, offered refuge to 360,000 Kosovars, and has fought alongside NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the letter states. "If Macedonia can protect the tent of NATO, Macedonia should be able to sleep in the tent of NATO," it reads.
Congressional support for Macedoniaa's accession is also codified two bills in Congress. The Senate's version of the NATO Enhancement Act of 2012 was introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) and the House version was introduced by Turner.
But the dispute over the name of the country is still standing in the way.
Vice President Joseph Biden met with Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski in Washington in February 2011, after which the White House said in a statement, "The Vice President expressed the hope that Macedonia and Greece resolve together the longstanding ‘name issue' so that Macedonia can move forward on seeking NATO membership and fulfilling its Euro-Atlantic aspirations."
Last December, advocates of Macedonia's NATO accession thought they had found the solution, when the International Court of Justice ruled by a 15-1 vote that Greece had breached its international obligations by objecting to NATO membership for the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," a name the Macedonians believe is a reasonable compromise.
But for the Obama administration, that ruling hasn't changed the state of the dispute. Asked for comment by The Cable, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor referred to the following statement issued at the 2008 Bucharest summit:
We recognise the hard work and the commitment demonstrated by the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to NATO values and Alliance operations. We commend them for their efforts to build a multi-ethnic society. Within the framework of the UN, many actors have worked hard to resolve the name issue, but the Alliance has noted with regret that these talks have not produced a successful outcome. Therefore we agreed that an invitation to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will be extended as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue has been reached. We encourage the negotiations to be resumed without delay and expect them to be concluded as soon as possible.
"Allies remain committed to this position," Vietor said.
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Several top members of the House of Representatives are fighting for expanded sanctions on Iran, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) opposes any changes to the bill currently before the Senate.
House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), has joined with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) to introduce a bill of Iran sanctions measures they want to see added to the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, which is currently pending before the Senate. Reid has said there is no time to debate or consider amendments to the bill and wants to pass it as is. But Ros-Lehtinen, Sherman, and a slew of senators including Joe Lieberman (I-CT) are urging Reid to allow lawmakers to offer amendments that would strengthen the bill.
Ros-Lehtinen and Sherman's bill, the Iran Financial Sanctions Improvement Act, contains many of the sanctions measures that Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who is recovering from a stroke, included in his proposed amendment to the Johnson-Shelby bill. The Ros-Lehtinen Sherman bill would expand financial sanctions to all Iranian banks, authorize the president to sanction any entity that works with any Iranian bank, expand sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran beyond oil, and expand sanctions on the Iranian insurance sector.
"In particular, I urge Senate leadership to allow a version of an amendment authored by Senator Kirk to be considered by the Senate," Sherman said in Tuesday statement. "After the current district work period the Senate should pass the toughest possible Iran legislation, and it is critical that the Kirk-Sherman language be part of the bill when it leaves the Senate."
Senators come back from their "state work period" on April 16.
Last week, Ros-Lehtinen publicly called on Reid to open up the Senate bill to amendments. The Senate GOP leadership is also calling on Reid to allow limited amendments to the Johnson-Shelby bill.
Today, in a statement to The Cable, House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) said he also supports the Kirk amendmnet.
" I support any proposal, including the Kirk amendment, to tighten sanctions on Iran that will contribute to preventing the regime from developing a nuclear weapons capability - an urgent national security priority for the United States," Berman said.
Other measures found in the Kirk amendment were included by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Robert Dold (R-FL) in a bill they introduced last week called the Iranian Energy Sector and Proliferation Sanctions Act. That bill would expand energy-sector sanctions on Iran by declaring the country a "zone of proliferation concern," thus barring any businesses or service providers from dealing with the Iranian petroleum sector in any way.
"As the Mullahs face an unprecedented level of economic pressure and international isolation, now is the time to intensify this pressure," Deutch said in a statement, referring to Iran's clerical leaders. "This legislation will put the world on notice that Iran's entire energy sector is off limits so long as this regime continues to defy the international community in pursuit of an illicit nuclear weapons program."
Last December, the House passed another Iran sanctions bill, the Iran Threat Reductions Act, which was sponsored by Ros-Lehtinen and Berman. That bill contains a host of sanctions, including another piece of the Kirk amendment that stipulates the president must investigate allegations of sanctions violations made by U.S. government organizations such as the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, and the Energy Information Agency.
The Ros-Lehtinen Berman bill could be combined with the Johnson-Shelby bill in a House-Senate conference, if and when the Senate passes its bill. The language from these various other House bills that seek to add more Iran sanctions into the mix could be added in conference, but they have a much better chance of becoming part of the final law if they are added to the Senate bill as part of an amendment and through a vote.
Senator Reid's office told The Cable that despite the growing number of lawmakers calling for votes on measures to amend the Johnson-Shelby bill, he has no plans to alter his position.
"Sounds like enough House members to round out a research document from a Republican office like Senator Kirk's, but not enough to change Senator Reid's stance on this issue," said Reid's Communications Director Adam Jentleson.
The Obama administration has no position on the Johnson-Shelby bill and no position on the Kirk amendment, a senior administration official told The Cable. Kirk's office is hoping that by the time the Senate gets back to town, Reid will decide to open up the bill to debate.
"Senator Kirk remains committed to a bipartisan process that would allow Democrats and Republicans to come together to strengthen our sanctions against Iran," said Kirk's spokesperson Kate Dickens.
For years, the Washington debate over Georgia has focused on its quarrels with Russia and its aspirations to join NATO. This month, the well-heeled Georgian opposition has succeeded -- with help from a large team of D.C. lobbyists -- in opening the debate to include the Georgian government's handling of human rights and democracy inside the country.
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) brought simmering congressional interest in internal Georgian politics into the public discussion last week by introducing the "Republic of Georgia Democracy Act of 2012," which declares in its list of findings that "Democracy in Georgia is facing serious challenges and political freedom and fair competition between political parties is under assault."
"For example, the government has increased detaining members of the political opposition and civil society nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), limited freedom of the press, undermined the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, and stopped opposition groups from holding demonstrations -- often by violent means," the bill states.
The bill goes on to accuse the Georgian government, led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, of harassing billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom the bill identifies as a Georgian businessman who has launched a new political party called Georgian Dream, "in an effort to unify the Georgian opposition parties and challenge Saakashvili's increasingly dictatorial control over Georgia's government."
The legislation accuses Saakasvili of stripping Ivanishvili of his Georgia citizenship and initiating a campaign of punishing and detaining his supporters in the lead up to the October 2012 Georgian parliamentary elections. The bill seeks an end to U.S. aid to Georgia if the elections are not free and fair or if Ivanishvili and his party are not allowed to fully participate.
"This bill will help shed light on the suppression that has been intensifying in Georgia. I know Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle share my growing concern over the suppression of political parties, nongovernmental organizations and workers in Georgia," McDermott said in a press release.
McDermott has not been known in Congress as being particularly active on the Georgia issue or on foreign policy in general. His last major foray into international diplomacy was a late 2002 trip to Iraq to meet with Saddam Hussein just before the U.S. invasion, a trip that was later discovered to be financed by Saddam's intelligence agencies.
But he is not the only lawmaker who has become recently interested in the internal politics in Georgia. Several senators brought up the issue at the March 21 nomination hearing for the new U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, who was confirmed late last week.
"I strongly believe that advancing our key interest in Georgia's long-term security and stability is directly linked to the government's furthering democratic reforms," said Senate Foreign Relations Europe Subcommittee Chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) at the hearing.
In his opening remarks, Norland praised the Saakashvili government, declared U.S. support for Georgian territorial integrity, and noted Georgian contributions to U.S. national security priorities, including its contribution to the war in Afghanistan.
"As President Obama noted during President Saakashvili's visit to Washington earlier this year, Georgia has made extraordinary progress during this time in transforming itself from a fragile state to one that has succeeded in significantly reducing petty corruption, modernizing state institutions and services, and building a sovereign and democratic country," Norland said.
But then, in response to questioning from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Norland directly tied the conduct of Georgia's upcoming parliamentary elections to U.S. support for Georgia's NATO membership.
"I would just point out given Georgia's interests, Georgia's aspirations to NATO membership, and our support for those aspirations, how these elections are conducted is a very important litmus test, and we'll be watching carefully to make sure that the way these elections unfold are in keeping with NATO standards," he said.
"I just would underscore the issue of qualification of opposition candidates," Cardin said, a not too thinly veiled reference to Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream party. "That's been used in too many European countries as a way of trying to block opposition opportunities, and I would just urge our presence there to have the widest possible opportunities for opposition to effectively be able to compete on a level playing field."
Norlund's comments stunned Georgia watchers because no administration official had directly linked the conduct of parliamentary elections to Georgia's NATO aspirations, and the no other administration official has used the term "litmus test" to connect the two.
The new and expansive congressional interest in Georgia's democratic development coincides with a new and expansive lobbying effort by Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream party in Washington. The effort is led by the powerful D.C. lobbying law firm Patton Boggs, which has filed disclosures for its work on behalf of Ivanishvili and his Cartu Bank under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), rather than the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), as is commonly used for Americans representing foreign politicians.
The Ivanishvili lobbying team also includes several other D.C. firms, including National Strategies, which also filed under the LDA and declared on its form that it is not representing a "foreign entity." Working with National Strategies is the firm of Downy McGrath, which did say it is representing a "foreign entity" in its disclosure forms and stated it is working on behalf of "democratic elections in the Republic of Georgia." The firm of Parry, Romani, Deconcini, Symms is also working on the Ivanishvili lobbying team, according to its own disclosure forms.
Some firms appear to be working on Ivanishvili's behalf even though they haven't registered at all. The firms KGlobal and Peter Mirijanian Public Affairs have been sending e-mails to reporters touting the McDermott bill.
The only firm to register under FARA as representing Ivanishvili is BGR Group, whose disclosure forms for its business representing Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream movement can be found here, here, here and here. BGR also represents leading Georgian opposition politician Irakli Alasania and his Free Democrats party, according to their own FARA disclosure forms. Alasania's political efforts are supported and funded by Ivanishvili, the disclosure forms reveal.
Lobbying firms often prefer to register under LDA rather than FARA because the disclosure requirements are more lenient. The legality of such filings, according to FARA lawyers, depends on whether the client is actively involved in foreign politics and whether U.S. lobbyists are actively involved in lobbying U.S. officials for specific policies related to said politics.
Ivanishvili's critics paint him as a Russia-funded oligarch whose agenda is anti-Western and therefore anti-American. They point to his seemingly soft stance on Russia, such as when he said of once and future President Vladimir Putin, "the Russian people like this man" and that Russia "is not the worst example of an undemocratic state." He has also blamed Saakashvili for the outbreak of war with Russia in 2008.
Ivanishvili's economic ties to Russia run deep. He made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, and still maintains at least a 1 percent stake in Gazprom, the state-controlled energy behemoth. (The Russian Federation and Gazprom are represented in Washington by Ketchum).
In an interview last week with Der Spiegel, Ivanishvili spelled out the goals of his new and expensive lobbying effort, namely to get the U.S. government to end its support for Saakashvili.
"America has chosen Georgia as a junior partner. The United States believes that Saakashvili is creating a democratic Georgia, but these are merely facades," he said. "I want to show the Americans his true face. Saakashvili is pulling the wool over their eyes."
For now, the U.S. government is treading carefully on the issue. In his written responses to questions from Sen. Richard Lugar (R-ID), Norland disputed some of Ivanishvili and McDermott's assertions, but did not dismiss their concerns outright.
"We are not aware of any opposition supporters being detained, although there have been some credible reports of their harassment. In addition, there are indications that Georgia's new campaign finance law is being implemented in a manner which is curbing political speech," he said. "Our focus is on the process and ensuring that all qualified candidates and political parties are able to compete on equal terms; the administration does not support any particular party or candidate."
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President Barack Obama issued a determination Friday that there are enough sources of oil around the world to allow all Iran's customers to stop buying its crude.
The decision was required by a section of the latest defense authorization bill, which included new sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran and any other country that does business with Iran. Countries can be exempted from those sanctions if they "significantly reduce" their oil business with Iran, and the president was required to decide if the world oil market could absorb that demand before the sanctions could be fully implemented.
"[A]fter carefully considering the report submitted to the Congress by the Energy Information Administration on February 29, 2012, and other relevant information, and given current global economic conditions, increased production by certain countries, the level of spare capacity, and the existence of strategic reserves, among other factors, I determine, pursuant to section 1245(d)(4)(B) and (C) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, Pub1ic Law 112-81, that there is a sufficient supply of petroleum and petroleum products from countries other than Iran to permit a significant reduction in the volume of petroleum andpetroleum products purchased from Iran by or through foreign financial institutions," Obama wrote in a Friday memorandum.
"I will closely monitor this situation to assure that the market can continue to accommodate a reduction in purchases of petroleum and petroleum products from Iran."
The State Department exempted 11 countries from the Central Bank sanctions earlier this month and has until June 28 to decide whether to sanction the other 12 countries that buy crude oil from Iran, a list that includes China, India, South Korea, and Turkey. This determination allows that process to continue moving forward.
Today's determination was not a surprise. A Feb. 29 report from the Energy Information Agency stated that Saudi Arabia was pumping more oil than usual but also found that spare capacity in the oil market was modest by historical standards. Energy Secretary Steven Chu seemed to preview the determination March 1 when he said, "There is spare capacity and we believe -- we'll see -- but I think there is sufficient spare capacity."
In a conference call with reporters Friday afternoon, two senior administration officials touted the administration's effort to use the sanctions to persuade other countries to wean themselves off of Iranian oil and said the administration expected South Korea to move away from Iranian oil purchases soon and Turkey announced related moves today.
"It's our belief that these sanctions are having a significant impact on the Iranian government and the Iranian economy and that therefore they present the strongest pressure we've placed to date to effect Iran's political calculus about pursuit of nuclear program, particularly as we move toward P5+1 negotiations," one senior administration official said.
The official neglected to mention that the administration publicly opposed the legislation that created the sanctions, written by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), which was added to the defense authorization bill over administration objections and passed by the Senate by a vote of 100-0.
In a statement Friday, Menendez praised Obama's determination.
"Today, we put on notice all nations that continue to import petroleum or petroleum products from Iran that they have 3 months to significantly reduce those purchases or risk the imposition of sanctions on their financial institutions," Menendez said. "It is my opinion that most countries will significantly reduce their purchases by the June 28 deadline -- either because of the sanctions or because they share the U.S., EU, and IAEA's grave concerns about Iran's verified effort to acquire nuclear weapons capability."
The Cable asked the officials whether they supported the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) tried to speed through the Senate this week without any debate or amendments.
"We're not just taking a position on that particular bill at this point," the official said.
We then asked whether the administration had a position on the right of senators to offer amendments to the Johnson-Shelby bill, in light of Reid's position that there is simply no time to offer amendments to the legislation.
"We've not made any specific determinations with regard to that amendment," the official said.
We didn't ask about any specific amendment, but it's possible the official was referring to a new amendment from the office of Kirk, which would expand sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to include all Iranian banks and would threaten sanctions on any international firms that facilitate those banks' transactions, including the EU-based international transactions facilitator SWIFT and Clearstream, a firm that works with SWIFT to process worldwide money exchanges. Swift announced it would stop processing transactions with Iran's Central Bank earlier this month.
Kirk's new amendment would also target the Iranian insurance industry, expand sanctions against the Iranian energy sector, target Iran's high-tech and telecommunications sectors, and try to narrow the conditions under which the administration can exempt third countries who are still buying oil from Iran from existing sanctions.
"We welcome the president's determination and applaud the administration's faithful implementation of the Menendez-Kirk amendment," a Kirk spokesperson told The Cable. "To build on this momentum, we hope the Senate will consider amendments to the pending Iran sanctions bill that would continue to increase the economic pressure on the Iranian regime."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) came out strongly this week for a bill to sanction Russian human rights violators and urged his committee counterpart John Kerry (D-MA) to stop stalling action on the bill.
At the March 27 SFRC business meeting, Lugar read aloud a long statement in support of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago. Several senators, now including Lugar, have said publicly that unless the Magnitsky bill can become law, they will oppose the repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that currently stands as the only U.S. law specifically aimed at holding the Russian government accountable for its human rights record.
Without repeal of Jackson-Vanik, the United States can't grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and U.S. businesses can't take full advantage of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization. But the senators believe that the Magnitsky bill is needed to ensure the Russian government is not let off the hook for its deteriorating record on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
"Mr. Chairman, several committee members have urged committee consideration of the Magnitsky Rule of Law Act. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Senator [Ben] Cardin (D-MD) for his hard work on the Magnitsky Act. This bill has been pending before the Foreign Relations Committee for nearly a year, and we held a hearing on the bill last December. My office has worked with Senator Cardin's staff to develop a revised version of the bill, which I strongly support. Therefore, I would look forward to the opportunity for the committee to consider this legislation at the next business meeting," Lugar said.
The next SFRC business meeting should be in mid-April. If the committee approves the bill, which is likely, it would then be sent to the Senate floor. Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee is working on a bill to grant Russia PNTR status and repeal Jackson-Vanik. Finance committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MO) traveled to Russia last month on the issue and a finance committee staff delegation leaves for Russia March 31.
If both bills are reported out of their respective committees successfully, supporters of the Magnitsky Act would then advocate for the two bills to be joined together or voted on in rapid succession, so that they would be sent to the president's desk as a package.
The administration opposes the Magnitsky bill and U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul recently called it "redundant" because the State Department has already issued visa restrictions for the officials it believes are guilty in the Magnitsky case. But leading Russian opposition figures argue that the repeal of Jackson-Vanik without some replacement human rights legislation would undermine the fight for human rights in Russia.
Behind the scenes, the administration is negotiating with Cardin, the bill's main sponsor, on changes to the Magnitsky bill that would actually expand it to cover all countries around the globe, not just Russia, two congressional aides close to the issue told The Cable.
The benefit of such a change for the administration would be that the bill could not be seen as targeting Russia only. The risk, according to aides, is that such a change could create conflicts with several other governments whose officials might falls under the bill's definition of human rights violators.
Publicly, McFaul has called for Jackson-Vanik to be replaced by a new democracy fund for Russia. He has said the administration requested to use leftover money -- about $150 million -- from an expired Russia enterprise fund to set up the new democracy initiative.
According to several congressional aides, that request is being held up by two Republican offices, Lugar's and the office of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). Lugar supports the democracy fund, although not exactly as the administration envisions it. Ros-Lehtinen wants the money to be returned to the U.S. Treasury.
Either way, supporters of the Magnitsky bill on Capitol Hill aren't keen on the idea and want to wait and see whether their drive to join the Magnitsky bill to the PNTR bill can succeed.
"Momentum is building for Magnitsky and people aren't really interested in setting up something new," a senior GOP Senate aide said. "We want to see where Magnitsky goes."
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has no intention of entering into negotiations that would allow senators to offer amendments to the Iran sanctions bill facing the Senate, according to his communications director Adam Jentleson.
On Wednesday, Reid attempted to bring up the bring up the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012 for Senate passage by unanimous consent (UC), meaning there would be no debate and no chance for senators to offer amendments. Reid claimed there was no time to consider amendments. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) blocked the move by objecting to the unanimous consent request because he wanted to offer an amendment to the legislation.
Several other senators from both parties also said Wednesday they wanted to offer amendments. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) called publicly for Reid to allow a vote on an amendment by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who caucuses with the Democrats, called on Reid to negotiate with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to allow a package of amendments to the bill to include a bill he is co-sponsoring with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bob Casey (D-PA).
"We're having a discussion with Senator Reid about when to take it up and how many amendments to allow," Lieberman said. "We are a little bit concerned. I'd really prefer to have a bipartisan agreement with a limited number of amendments on both sides. I think that's Senator McConnell's position. So I'm going to talk to Senator Reid and try to work that out."
But in an e-mail to The Cable, Reid's spokesperson Jentleson said that Reid is not planning to negotiate over an amendments package, meaning that senators will have to either pass the bill as is or, barring a floor vote, see it permanently fail on the Senate floor.
"The parties already negotiated the bill during the bipartisan committee process and there are no plans to re-open negotiations," Jentleson said. "This is a routine way for sanctions bills to be passed."
Noting that the bill was reported out of committee on a unanimous vote, Jentleson said that Kirk and others had had ample time to offer amendments in committee, and pointed out that an amendment had been offered on Kirk's behalf and accepted during committee consideration, one that considered penalties on financial transactions firms that do business with sanctioned Iranian entities.
Jentleson also said that "there had been an understanding among stakeholders for weeks that this bill would come to the floor under a UC agreement." But a Senate GOP leadership aide told The Cable that McConnell wasn't aware of any UC agreement on the bill and would still prefer to allow amendments in some form. "We've all known for quite some time that Senator Kirk was intent on offering an amendment," the aide said. "Senator Lieberman said his preference was to have amendments. And we were not approached about a UC."
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) issued a statement Wednesday directly calling on Reid to allow amendments to the Iran sanctions bill.
"It is important that Senate leadership allow senators on both sides of the aisle the opportunity to offer amendments to strengthen the bipartisan Iran sanctions legislation currently making its way to the Senate floor, rather than passing a weaker measure. It is clear that bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate want a stronger bill," she said.
Kirk's office still hopes it will have the chance to offer an amendment to the bill. According to his spokesperson Kate Dickens, "We know that senators on both sides of the aisle have long been urging consideration of amendments that would help strengthen Iran sanctions and we remain committed to moving forward in that kind of bipartisan process."
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images
The United States has halted plans to provide food aid to North Korea after North Korea promised to launch a missile into outer space next month, although the Obama administration maintains there is no "linkage" between the two issues.
Peter Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific security affairs, testified Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee that after North Korea announced it would use a long-range missile to launch a satellite into space, violating the missile moratorium it agreed to last Leap Day, the United States decided not to send the 240,000 tons of food there it had promised in that very deal. But the Obama administration is not using food as leverage, Lavoy insisted. The administration simply can't trust the North Koreans to honor their commitments now, even when it comes to ensuring that the food is delivered to its intended recipients.
"The North Koreans have announced that they will launch a missile. We are working very closely with allies and other partners in the region to try to discourage North Korea from launching this missile as they've intended. But we believe that this reflects their lack of desire to follow through on their international commitments," Lavoy testified. "And so we have been forced to suspend our activities to provide nutritional assistance to North Korea largely because we have now no confidence that the monitoring mechanisms that ensure that the food assistance goes to the starving people and not the regime elite, that these monitoring mechanisms we have no confidence that they would actually abide by the understandings."
Some lawmakers were skeptical that the administration was not punishing the North Koreans for their upcoming missile launch by withholding the food aid, but Lavoy insisted the two issues were not linked, even though they were announced in the same Feb. 29 statement and negotiated at the same time with the same officials.
"We don't believe that nutritional assistance should be a lever to achieve a political outcome. It is a humanitarian effort that we have intended. And again, it's regrettable that this has stopped," Lavoy said. "So the reason, again, why we're not providing that food assistance at this point is because our confidence in their ability to meet their agreements has been diminished. We do not use it as a lever to change their policies."
State Department Spokeswomand Victoria Nuland also said Wednesday that the issues aren't linked, but she implied that the food aid could be restored if the missile launch is scuttled.
"We don't have confidence in their good faith. If they want to restore our confidence in their good faith, they can cancel the plans to launch this satellite," she said. "They are separate issues, but they come together at the point of whether the government's acting in good faith."
During the talks that led up the Feb. 29 statement, the U.S. side made clear to the North Koreans that any missile launch, even a satellite launch, would be a deal breaker, Lavoy said.
Lavoy also warned that the North Korean leadership might do something else provocative on or around the April 15 celebration on the 100th birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, perhaps as a way for new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to establish his power and legitimacy.
"Our suspicions about North Korea using its celebrations this year to enhance its missile program were confirmed when North Korea announced on March 16th that it plans to conduct a missile launch between April 12th and 16th," Lavoy said.
Lavoy also said that the North Koreans intend to launch the missile in a southward direction, although nobody knows where the missile or its debris might land.
"A number of countries are potentially affected. The debris on fall on their countries. It could cause casualties. This affects South Korea, of course, but also Japan, Okinawa, the island of Japan, and the intended impact is probably somewhere close to the Philippines or maybe Indonesia," he said.
HASC Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA) said the upcoming missile launch was further evidence that the North Koreans never had any intention in engaging in real denuclearization talks and that the regime's stance has not changed since the death of Kim Jong Il.
"This is typical behavior shown by the regime, a cycle of provocations and reconciliations designed to get what they want without giving up their nuclear weapons program," McKeon said. "It's becoming clear that the same aggressive, reckless cycle will continue under the new North Korean dictator. Although the Chinese and Russian governments publicly expressed concern about the planned missile launch, they have been unable or unwilling to bring their North Korea ally back to the negotiation table."
Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner (R-OH) pressed Lavoy on President Barack Obama's hot mic comments to Russian President Dmitry Medvdev in Seoul, in which Obama asked Medvdev to ask Vladimir Putin to give him "space" on the missile defense issue until after the November election.
"Are you aware of the deal the president has with Medvedev and with Russia that would be revealed to us after the election that perhaps isn't secret to you that would limit our missile-defense capability, either in deployment use or scope, that, of course, is a serious -- you know, a serious concern to this committee as we look to the rise of North Korea?" Turner asked. "Are you aware of the subject matter of the president's missile-defense deal, secret or not, with the Russians? And if you're not, why are you not?
"No, sir, I am not," Lavoy responded. "And I can assure you that we do believe that missile defense and our phased-adaptive approach to missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region is very much alive. It's very much part of our comprehensive approach to deal with the threat posed by the North Koreans. And it's something we're committed to."
"OK. I would greatly appreciate it if you would ask the president what are the details of his deal with the Russians concerning missile defense that cannot be disclosed until after the election," Turner replied.
Mitt Romney has created an international confrontation over his claim that Russia is America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe," but most national security leaders in Congress, including Republicans, simply don't think Russia deserves that stature.
Romney doubled down on his criticism of Russia and the Obama administration's handling of the U.S.-Russia relationship in a Tuesday op-ed for Foreign Policy, in which he again criticized Obama for telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on a hot mic that he needed "space" on issues such as missile defense because he would have more "flexibility" after the November election. Medvedev said that Romney's comments "smell of Hollywood" and that presidential candidates "need to use one's head, one's good reason."
"It is not an accident that Mr. Medvedev is now busy attacking me. The Russians clearly prefer to do business with the current incumbent of the White House," Romney shot back.
On Capitol Hill, top Republicans have little praise for Medvedev or Russia and maintain that Moscow has played an unhelpful international role and represses its own citizens. But these lawmakers see Russia as a power in decline and therefore not worthy of the title of America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe."
"I don't see them as our No. 1 strategic foe because they've got a weak economy and structurally are not very strong. China could potentially be more harming to our interests because of the growth of their economy and the growth of their military," Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Cable.
Russia is in decline on many fronts, due to a lack of a moral direction by Kremlin combined with rampant corruption and a regime that's desperately trying to hang on to power, Graham said.
"I think Russia is behaving in a manner very inconsistent with being a mature member of the international community, but I see Russia as a declining power because they choose to embrace a model that never ended well in history. Instead of helping the world do things like get rid of Assad, they seem to be ambivalently or actively encouraging people to do bad things," he said.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable that he agreed with Romney that Obama's comments about flexibility on missile defense were alarming, but he wouldn't say Russia was the No. 1 geopolitical foe of the United States.
"I think they are a strategic challenge," McCain said. "They continue to supply [Syrian President] Bashar al Assad while he slaughters Syrians and they continue to obviously oppose our missile-defense systems. They continue to be an oppressive and repressive regime.
"Fortunately in many ways they are declining. But this recent consolidation of power shows a lack of democracy there," McCain said.
In a Wednesday morning appearance on Fox and Friends, McCain expressed more support for Romney's Russia claim.
"I think in many respects [they are the number one geopolitical foe]," McCain said. "Look at what they are doing in Syria right now... they continue to prop up North Korea and obviously now they have a president for life."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), another member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lamented the backsliding of democracy in Russia but also denied that Russia the No. 1 geopolitical foe in the world.
"I wouldn't have put in the way Mitt Romney did, but I don't dismiss his thoughts," Lieberman told The Cable. "China's rising; Russia seems to be in a holding pattern but still quite strong militarily. And they have been in the way of progress in a lot of things going on in the world."
"The developments in Russia have been one of the most disappointing things that have happened in the world over the last 20 years or so," he said. "When the Berlin Wall fell and the first wave of Russian democracy came, I was very optimistic. But both internally they are a very repressive society and externally, it's better than the Cold War but we're still bumping into Russia too many times, as in Syria."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable that the U.S.-Russia relationship is not nearly as bad as Romney makes it seem and actually has potential for productivity and progress.
"Russia's cooperating with us on some things, it's not on others. The threat of religious extremism is not centered in Russia; it's centered in South Asia and the Middle East and that is an enormous and time-consuming challenge for all of our national security enterprises." Kerry said. "So I think [Romney] is vastly and significantly off target as well as in terms of potential of the upsides with Russia if we move forward on a number of things."
In his original interview with CNN, Romney made clear that he doesn't see Russia as the number one immediate security challenge. He said Russia is the greatest American foe "in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world's worst actors. Of course, the greatest threat the world faces is a nuclear Iran."
President Barack Obama on Monday nominated Brett McGurk to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq. But members of the Iraqi and American opposition parties are already criticizing the choice.
In announcing McGurk's nomination, the White House noted that he has served as a senior advisor to the last three U.S. ambassadors to Iraq: Jim Jeffrey, Ryan Crocker, and Christopher Hill, and that he served on the National Security Council, initially as director for Iraq and later as senior director for Iraq and Afghanistan. Prior to 2005, he was a legal advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad.
What the White House didn't mention is that McGurk was the lead negotiator for the 2008 U.S.-Iraq security agreement that extended the U.S. troop presence there until the end of 2011 and he led the failed negotiations in 2011 to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq even longer.
McGurk's perceived closeness to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during those two sets of negotiations is both an asset and a detriment as his nomination moves forward. The Washington office of the main Iraqi opposition bloc, Al Iraqiya, penned a letter to all members of Congress Monday stating that its members would have nothing to do with McGurk if he is confirmed as the U.S. envoy to Baghdad.
"I would like to inform you that Aliraqia Bloc and the liberal trend will not deal with new assigned ambassador to Iraq Mr. Brett Mcgurk for his loyalty and bounds with the Islamic party," wrote Waheed Al Sammarraie, the D.C. representiative of the office of former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the leader of the opposition.
Later Tuesday, Allawi's office sent out another note saying their original message contained "many typos" and they would send out a more official note Wednesday.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers who were frustrated by the failure of the Obama administration to negotiate a follow-on security agreement for American troop presence with the Maliki government are also criticizing the McGurk nomination.
"I will have very significant questions about his qualifications and his positions on the issues... He's not my choice," Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable.
McCain said he won't formally decide on whether to hold up McGurk's nomination until he has a chance to hear from the nominee. But he focused on the fact that although McGurk was deeply involved in negotiating a follow on force in Iraq, today he says he agrees with the administration that no follow-on force is necessary.
"Now he thinks it was a fine idea that we do not have a residual force there. That's not my view," McCain said.
McGurk testified before McCain's committee last November and said that while he did try to negotiate a follow-on agreement to keep some American troops in Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi lawyers determined it could not work unless the Iraqi parliament passed a law giving those troops immunity from Iraqi courts, which wasn't possible politically in Iraq.
"Against this backdrop, the best available policy for the United States was to fulfill the commitment under the  security agreement and elevate the [Strategic Framework Agreement] as the pillar of our long term relationship. Having just returned from Baghdad, I am confident that this policy -- if handled right -- can open a new window of opportunity for relations with Iraq, including close security and defense relations," McGurk testified.
Ramzy Mardini, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told The Cable today the objections to McGurk's nomination are based both on his perceived closeness to Maliki and on the fact that he has no experience running an embassy, much less the largest U.S. embassy in the world.
"Many Iraqi players outside Maliki's circle view McGurk as an advocate for the prime minister. That may not be a fair characterization, but the perceptions are there on the ground. There's the possibility that this sentiment could undermine our perception of neutrality and therefore our ability to effectively mediate disputes between all Iraqi factions," he said.
"It's our largest embassy and it's placed in a hostile environment, where thousands of Iraqis are killed each year in what is still an ongoing insurgency. Some would argue that the ideal candidate for chief of mission would be someone from the Foreign Service who has already run an embassy in the Arab world, understands Iraq and its political culture, and speaks the Arabic language."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is trying to pass a new Iran sanctions bill through the Senate without any amendments or debate in a legislative move many see as designed to prevent both Republicans and Democrats from adding even more sanctions to the legislation.
Reid announced on the Senate floor Tuesday morning that he wanted to bring up the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, a new set of sanctions that would punish 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 Obama administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed related assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.
The legislation, named for Senate Banking Committee heads Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), would 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.
But here's the rub: Reid wants to bring up the bill for passage by unanimous consent, meaning there would be no debate and no amendments offered. The bill could be passed by a simple voice vote if nobody objects, but Reid said the Republicans won't let it happen.
"I'm going to ask consent soon to moving forward on this unanimously reported bill out the Banking Committee. Unfortunately, I have been told that my Republican colleagues will object to moving forward with these new sanctions because they want to offer additional amendments," Reid said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning.
"I have Democrats who want to offer additional amendments also, but we don't have the time to slow down passage of this legislation," he added. "When we put this away, we're not going to be finished with Iran. ... But in an effort to get sanctions in place now, Democrats have agreed to streamline the process and refrain from offering their amendments. We can't afford to slow down the process."
Senate aides from both parties told The Cable that Reid's office is working behind the scenes to prevent more amendments that would strengthen the sanctions in ways the administration and Reid are resisting. The Cable has obtained the text and a detailed summary of one lengthy amendment that would add several new punitive measures to the bill.
The amendment isn't signed but it appears to come from the office of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) because it contains expanded sanctions against all Iranian banks that matches legislation Kirk had already been working on. An aide to Kirk declined to comment on the amendment.
The summary of the proposed amendment includes a direct rebuttal to Reid's argument that the Johnson-Shelby bill should be passed quickly and that there will be plenty of other chances to sanction Iran after that.
"As Iran continues inching closer to ‘red lines' surrounding its illicit nuclear weapons program, S. 2101 will likely serve as the last legislative vehicle to impose further economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic until December," the summary reads. "Therefore, as long as opportunities exist to incorporate new ideas and creative sanctions into the legislation, we should seize upon those opportunities in overwhelming bipartisan fashion. In this way, we keep our promise to the American people and support the President's stated objective to exhaust every available diplomatic option."
The proposed amendment would expand sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to include all Iranian banks and would threaten sanctions on any international firms that facilitate those banks' transactions, including the EU-based international transactions facilitator SWIFT and Clearstream, a firm that works with SWIFT to process worldwide money exchanges. Swift has already taken some actions to cut off Iran's Central Bank.
The amendment would also target the Iranian insurance industry, expand sanctions against the Iranian energy sector, target Iran's high-tech and telecommunications sectors, and try to narrow the conditions under which the administration can exempt third countries who are still buying oil from Iran from existing sanctions. The State Department exempted 11 countries from Iran sanctions last week and has yet to make a determination on 12 others.
There are plenty of other potential amendments out there as well. For example, a bill ruling out containment of a nuclear Iran led by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Bob Casey (D-PA), could also become an amendment.
By calling for unanimous consent on the Johnson-Shelby bill today, Reid is trying to portray the GOP as objecting to quick passage of Iran sanctions. It's likely that after he files for unanimous consent today and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) objects, the two will retreat behind closed doors and negotiate a compromise way forward. A similar dynamic played out over the last round of sanctions when Kirk and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) wanted to sanction the Iranian Central Bank over the administration's objections.
"Sooner or later -- and most likely it will be sooner -- both sides are going to sit down together and figure out a way forward that everyone can live with -- reflecting the overwhelming bipartisan consensus that exists in support of additional Iran sanctions," one senior Senate aide told The Cable.
"Hopefully calm will prevail on all sides after today and the Majority Leader will authorize Chairman Johnson to negotiate with key Democrats and Republicans on the contents of a manager's amendment that includes everyone's best ideas," another senior Senate aide said. "In the end, the president says the window of diplomacy is shrinking and we owe it to the American people to consider every available non-military option."
UPDATE: In a short interview, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) said he does want to offer an amendment to the Johnson-Shelby bill and does not want to see it go through the senate via unanimous consent.
"Senator Graham and I are the lead sponsors of a bipartisan resolution that says containment is not an acceptable policy against Iran. With regard to the bill coming out of the banking committee, we're having a discussion with Sen. Reid about when to take it up and how many amendments to allow," Lieberman said.
"We are a little bit concerned. I'd really prefer to have a bipartisan agreement with a limited number of amendments on both sides. I think that's Sen. McConnell's position. So I'm going to talk to Sen. Reid and try to work that out."
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) said this afternoon that Republicans will continue to object to moving forward on the bill until Kirk's amendment gets a hearing.
"I just wanted to say that Senator Kirk is doing a lot of homework but he's not here, would like to add an amendment -- a change to the proposal and therefore, would hope that we could work out something with the leader so that we could accommodate Senator Kirk's desire in that regard," Kyl said.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) filed the formal objection to unanimous consent on the Johnson-Shelby bill, due to his desire to be able to offer an amendment of his own.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has decided to use a national security waiver to allow over $1.5 billion of U.S. aid to Egypt, bypassing Congressional restrictions even while the Egyptian government's assault on NGOs in Cairo continues.
The State Department hadn't planned to announce the waiver decision today. "We're still expecting a decision this week, but she hasn't made it yet," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Thursday's press briefing. But apparently Clinton had decided, because Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the author of the restrictions, got a call from the State Department today notifying him of the waiver. In a statement Thursday afternoon, he announced the waiver and criticized Clinton's choice.
"I am disappointed by this decision. I know Secretary Clinton wants the democratic transition in Egypt to succeed, but by waiving the conditions we send a contradictory message," Leahy said. "The Egyptian military should be defending fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, not harassing and arresting those who are working for democracy. They should end trials of civilians in military courts and fully repeal the Emergency Law, and our policy should not equivocate on these key reforms."
Leahy's office has been urging Clinton not to use the waiver authority that Leahy himself added to the most recent appropriations bill. Now that the waiver has been exercised, Leahy is arguing that, just because the restrictions on the aid have been removed, that doesn't mean the U.S. government necessarily has to deliver the aid -- at least not all of it up front.
"Now that Secretary Clinton has decided to use the law's waiver authority, she should use the flexibility the law provides and release no more taxpayer funds than is demonstrably necessary, withholding the rest in the Treasury pending further progress in the transition to democracy," said Leahy.
We were told by multiple Congressional sources that the State Department is considering delaying part of the $1.3 billion of military aid and most of the $250 million in economic aid, at least for a while. The Pentagon has been urging Clinton to release some of the military aid because existing contracts with U.S. defense firms were dependent on the funds, multiple Congressional aides said.
Leahy's House counterpart, House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX), also came out against Clinton's decision to waive the restrictions today and said that she had been told it was in fact a partial waiver.
"I am disappointed by the timing of the Secretary's decision to issue a partial waiver of restrictions on FMF funds for Egypt while the Egyptian government's transition is ongoing," Granger said in a statement to The Cable. "The State Department needs to make the case that waiving the conditions is in the national security interest of the United States. I expect the Secretary to follow the law and consult the Appropriations Committee before any funds are transferred."
Critics of providing further military aid to the Cairo government have raised concerns over the actions of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which allegedly played a role in the December raids on several NGOs in Cairo, including three funded by the United States: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House.
A number of Americans who worked for NGOs in Egypt were temporarily banned from leaving the country and charged with crimes, but they were eventually allowed to depart earlier this month. Prosecutions against both the foreign workers and the local staffs of the NGOs continue.
The non-military aid is under particular scrutiny because it would be given largely to the Egyptian Ministry of International Cooperation, which is run by Fayza Abul Naga, the official who is suspected to have played a lead role in the raids and the prosecutions.
"The decision to waive the conditions, partially or in full, on military aid sends the wrong message to the Egyptian government -- that U.S. taxpayers will subsidize the Egyptian military while it continues to oversee the crackdown on civil society and to commit human rights abuses," said David Kramer, president of Freedom House. "A resumption of military aid at this point also sends the wrong message to the Egyptian people -- that we care only about American NGO workers, not about the aspirations of the Egyptian people to build democracy."
Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, agreed with that assessment. The announcement of the waiver, he said, was "extremely disappointing, particularly as Egyptian and American organizations working to support Egypt's transition to democracy remain very much under threat."
The restrictions in the bill were conditioned on Clinton certifying that the Egyptian military is making progress on the transition to democracy, and that the Egyptian government is allowing freedom of expression and assembly. McInerney said the United States can still hold Egypt accountable for those promises.
"I very much hope, as Senator Leahy has expressed, that the administration will still elect to delay the disbursement of the majority of the fiscal year 2012 funds to Egypt's military until further progress in Egypt's transition to democratic civilian rule has been achieved," he said.
Not all senior lawmakers and officials connected with the issue are so eager to cut off U.S. funding to the Egyptian government. Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of IRI, has been deeply involved in the issue and traveled to Egypt in the midst of the crisis.
He told The Cable in an interview that the aid served as a valuable form of influence that the United States must use carefully.
"We've got to weigh all the aspects of this issue, it's very complicated and complex. We want to be on the same page as the administration," he said. "In general, I think its two steps forward and one step back in Egypt. But there's also the overall issue of the delicate political situation in Egypt today."
Senate Foreign Relations Middle East Subcommittee Chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) told The Cable that the issue wasn't black and white, and that there should be a way to provide some aid while still keeping the pressure on Egypt to continue reforms.
"We've got to have a measure of accountability. But I think the idea of cutting off aid doesn't make sense," Casey said. "We just have to figure out a better way to make the aid conditional based on those measures of accountability, and I think we can achieve that. I think, in this case, it's a mistake to take an either/or approach."
UPDATE: Read Nuland's full Friday statement on the waivers after the jump:
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
It's not every day that groups supporting a State Department-listed foreign terrorist organization hold a party in the U.S. Congress, but that's exactly what happened today when the friends of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK) threw their Nowruz party in the hearing room of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Members of Congress will join Iranian Americans in wishing the Iranian people a Happy Nowrouz and address the humanitarian rights of Iran's main opposition in Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty, in Iraq," reads the flyer for the party, which was held Thursday at the Rayburn building in room 2172, where the foreign affairs committee holds all of its public events.
The flyer says that the event is sponsored by "Iranian American communities" from around the United States, but the mention of Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty is a clear reference to the MEK, a group designated by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization that has about 3,000 members living in the secretive Ashraf compound in Iraq.
The U.N. and the State Department are working to move them to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport, but the MEK is resisting that move, and has enlisted its many supporters in the United States to decry the conditions at the former military base. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani even went so far as to call Camp Liberty a "concentration camp."
House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) spoke at the event and discussed human rights in Iran, but did not mention the MEK by name. Former Homeland Security secretary and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, a paid advocate of the MEK, also spoke.
"The event was not sponsored by the MEK," Ros-Lehtinen's spokesperson Brad Goehner told The Cable. "The room was requested by the Iranian-American Society of South Florida and sponsored by the Iranian-American communities of 39 cities for an event commemorating the Iranian New Year. Space in Congressional office buildings is routinely made available to organizations wishing to hold events on issues important to members of Congress."
The flyer doesn't say the party is being thrown by or for the MEK, and aides who attended told The Cable that there were no MEK signs or banners at the event, as one usually sees wherever the MEK is camped out.
That could be a result of the revelation that the Treasury Department's counterterrorism unit has issued a subpoena to former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell for records related to his paid advocacy of the MEK, as part of an investigation into the web of organizations that support the terrorist group.
There is a long list of Iranian-American organizations that fund pro-MEK events and pay speakers fees to MEK supporters. Many of these organizations - such as the "Global Initiative for Democracy, whose homepage is entirely devoted to the MEK's concerns and who hosted an MEK conference in January -- seem to have no other function other than to advocate for the MEK, and the actual sources of their money is unclear.
Receiving funding from a terrorist organization or even providing it with "material support," which could include advocacy, is a crime.
The campaign by the MEK's supporters to disparage Camp Liberty and lobby for the MEK's removal from the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations has included huge rallies outside the State Department, massive sit-ins at Congressional hearings, and an ongoing vigil outside the State Department's C Street entrance.
Those supporters, many of them paid, include Giuliani, Rendell, Vermont Governor Howard Dean, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. John Lewis (D-GA), former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, and former Sen. Evan Bayh.
Congressional aides attended the event on Thursday in the hearing room both out of curiosity and hunger for free food. But multiple aides told The Cable the event was bizarre, even by Congressional standards.
"Looks like you just have to be the ‘right' terrorist organization to hold a fancy party in the halls and hearing rooms of Congress," one House aide told The Cable. "Hope everyone who ate their kabobs doesn't get hit with material support subpoenas."
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) is holding up the nomination of President Barack Obama's confidant, Mark Lippert, to become the Pentagon's top Asia official, but the White House won't negotiate with him to resolve the dispute, Cornyn told The Cable.
Lippert was nominated to succeed Gen. Wallace "Chip" Gregson as the assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs last October. However, his nomination was soon stalled by an objection by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who wanted details on Lippert's reported feud with then National Security Advisor Jim Jones. McCain lifted his hold on Lippert last month, but Cornyn stepped in with a hold of his own over the issue of selling F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan.
The administration decided to sell Taiwan upgrade packages for its aging fleet of F-15 A/B model planes last October, but the administration never said whether it would sell Taiwan the newer, more advanced planes, claiming it was still under consideration. Cornyn then wrote a letter promising to hold up the Lippert nomination unless he gets more clarity on the issue.
In the administration's Feb. 16 response to Cornyn, acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller wrote, "We believe the F-16 A/B upgrade effectively meets Taiwan's current needs."
Now, over a month after Cornyn placed his hold on Lippert, he says the White House won't engage him at all over the issue.
"It's crickets," Cornyn said, explaining that the White House has not contacted him at all and that he sees no signs they are interested in negotiating over the hold.
"More than anything, I'd like to engage in a discussion over how do we solve this problem," he said. "So far they seem to act like they can just ignore it and it's going to go away, but I'm not planning on going away."
Cornyn said his ultimate goal is to see the United States sell Taiwan the new fighter jets, but he also said there is a deal to be struck that could address his concerns about Taiwan's security and allow the Lippert nomination to go through.
"If we could sit down and talk, maybe we could reach some sort of compromise," Cornyn said. "I would be open to that."
We asked Cornyn if he would like to communicate the outlines of the compromise to the White House via The Cable, since they don't seem to be on speaking terms. "No, sir," he replied.
President Barack Obama is off to South Korea this weekend to attend the second biannual Nuclear Security Summit, which seeks to build on the event he hosted in Washington in April 2010.
"This trip I think intersects with two of the president's leading national security priorities," Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes said Tuesday. "The first is the focus he has put on nuclear security along with non-proliferation since the beginning of his time in office. And the second is, of course, our increased focus on the Asia Pacific as a region of great importance to the United States."
Rhodes called South Korea "one of our strongest allies in the world and, of course, the cornerstone of our approach to Asia" -- a characterization the Japanese might not be thrilled about, but consistent with Obama's recent declaration that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is one of his world leader best buddies.
Obama will arrive in Seoul on March 25, and his first activity will be to visit the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. After that, he will have a bilateral meeting with another one of his buddies, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where the two will discuss Iran, Syria, and the broader upheaval in the Arab world. Following that meeting, Obama will meet with Lee, hold a press conference, and then attend a dinner with the South Korean leader.
On the morning of March 26, Obama will give a speech at Hankuk University. He is expected to discuss the drive to secure loose nuclear material around the world and to halt nuclear proliferation, the importance of peaceful nuclear energy, and the strength of the U.S.-South Korean relationship, said Rhodes.
Following that speech, Obama will hold a series of bilateral meetings, beginning with his last official meeting with soon-to-be former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev -- who Obama does not consider a buddy, even though they went to Ray's Hellburger together during Medvedev's visit to Washington.
Obama will then meet with President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and President Hu Jintao of China before attending a working dinner related to the summit. The Syria crisis will be on the agenda of Obama's meeting with both Medvedev and Hu, according to Rhodes.
The summit will take place on March 27. Gary Samore, the president's WMD czar and the U.S. sherpa for the summit, said that several countries made commitments in regards to the securing of nuclear material at the 2010 Washington summit and were making good on those promises.
"We think the Seoul summit will provide an opportunity for us to harvest many of those commitments. In the two years since the Washington meeting, governments have been very effective in carrying out commitments they made in Washington two years ago," Samore said, placing the rate of commitments fulfilled at 80 percent.
Several countries will be making new commitments in Seoul, and there will be an added theme this time around of combating nuclear smuggling, Samore said.
NSC Senior Director for Asia Daniel Russel said that the personal relationship between Obama and Lee was stronger than ever. This will be Obama's third trip to South Korea as president, and Lee has visited Washington twice. "I think that the two leaders have forged an unprecedentedly close relationship," he said.
Of course, it's impossible to have a nuclear conference on the Korean Peninsula without the subject of North Korea's nuclear program coming up, especially as North Korea plans to launch a long-range missile next month in direct violation of the agreement it struck with the United States last month.
"Clearly, in Korea, in his bilateral meetings with world leaders, the president will discuss this," said Russel. "But the situation that they face isn't fundamentally different than what the president and the other leaders have been dealing with in terms of North Korean behavior all along. It is precisely because of the North Korean penchant for backtracking that we and our partners have insisted on them taking irreversible steps and do not reward promises. The North Korean tactics haven't paid off for them in three years, and we hope that they choose to make the right decision."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
The State Department announced on Tuesday that it would exempt 10 European countries and Japan from penalties for doing business with Iran's central bank, because those countries are making significant progress toward weaning themselves off of Iranian oil.
"I am pleased to announce that an initial group of eleven countries has significantly reduced their volume of crude oil purchases from Iran -- Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom. As a result, I will report to the Congress that sanctions pursuant to Section 1245 of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 (NDAA) will not apply to the financial institutions based in these countries, for a renewable period of 180 days," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a Tuesday statement. "The actions taken by these countries were not easy. They had to rethink their energy needs at a critical time for the world economy and quickly begin to find alternatives to Iranian oil, which many had been reliant on for their energy needs."
The European Union banned all new purchases of Iranian crude oil as of Jan. 23 and will phase out existing contracts by July 1, Clinton said. Japan was able to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil even despite energy shortages created by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
"We commend these countries for their actions and urge other nations that import oil from Iran to follow their example," said Clinton. "Diplomacy coupled with strong pressure can achieve the long-term solutions we seek and we will continue to work with our international partners to increase the pressure on Iran to meet its international obligations."
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who co-authored the sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and those who do business with it, praised the State Department's move in a Tuesday statement of his own.
"The sanctions are working," he said. "Countries and companies are stepping up in recognition of the real threat that Iran poses to its neighbors and the global community and are terminating business relationships with Iran. On Saturday, SWIFT - the financial messaging service provider - cut off services to the Central Bank of Iran and 30 designated Iranian banks, and as a result -- for the first time -- we are seeing a real impact on the Iranian economy."
A senior State Department official said Tuesday that there are 12 countries left who import Iranian oil and could be sanctioned but didn't get exemptions today. Butthe official said that if those countries are going to be sanctioned, it won't be for a while.
Since the CBI sanctions didn't actually go into effect until Feb. 29, any case for implementing sanctions against those 12 countries would have to be based on evidence from that date forward, which would take time.
On March 30, President Barack Obama will have to make a determination as to whether price and supply conditions in the energy market allow for countries to switch from Iranian crude oil to other suppliers. If he determines they do, then a new set of harsher sanctions would go into effect on June 28 against any countries that don't have exemptions by then.
The main countries that the United States might be forced to sanction at that time include China, Turkey, India, and South Korea, none of which received exemptions today. The State Department official admitted that the conditions for receiving an exemption are vague.
"On the case of the other countries, the legislation specifies ‘significantly reduce.' It doesn't define what ‘significantly reduce' is," the official said.
The official said that Japan represents a model for how other countries could act to avoid sanctions. But under questioning, the official refused to say exactly how much Japan has committed to reducing its dependence on Iranian oil, calling that "commercially protected information." He said Japan reduced its intake of Iranian oil between about 15 to 22 percent over the last half of 2011, depending on how you look at the data.
One senior Senate aide called into question the State Department's decision to issue Japan an exemption. The aide pointed out that the law requires countries to reduce their intake of Iranian oil in 2012, not 2011, and it's not clear if Japan is going to continue that trend ahead of the June 28 deadline.
"The bottom line is that if Japan has in fact committed to reducing their purchases of Iranian oil by 15 to 22 percent in 2012, this exemption is fully warranted. But if this is just a get out of jail free card issued on the basis of past performance alone, this would not be a faithful application of the law," the aide said.
The aide also pointed out that the 10 EU countries are no-brainers for exemptions, because the EU is in the process of implementing a full Iranian oil embargo anyway.
"This is no diplomatic success, this is just cover to make sure that those EU countries that are complying with the embargo have cover from the sanctions."
The State Department's top official for Afghanistan is touring Europe this week, and he's got his tin cup out: His mission is to persuade the international community to contribute to the long-term funding of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Marc Grossman left Washington on Sunday for a trip to Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Warsaw, The Hague, Berlin, Paris, and Brussels. The trip is meant to consult and coordinate with allies on the path forward for Afghanistan in advance of the NATO summit this May in Chicago. At that summit, President Barack Obama's administration wants to announce a plan to keep Afghanistan's army equipped and fed long after the U.S. and coalition forces draw down.
"In the lead up to the summit, we are focused on how best to support sustainable and sufficient Afghan National Security Forces for Afghanistan's future and how we can further strengthen the NATO-Afghanistan Enduring Partnership," a State Department notice said. "Chicago will therefore be a critical milestone in our effort in Afghanistan, as leaders come together to discuss the transition and the future of our support for Afghanistan and its security forces."
The competence and sustainability of the ANSF is crucial to forging the conditions that will allow the United States to draw down in Afghanistan without sacrificing whatever security gains international forces have made there. Since 2002, the United States has spent over $43 billion to train, equip, and sustain the ANSF, according to the Government Accountability Office. Of that total, about $14 billion went to the Afghan National Police, with the rest going to the Afghan National Army.
The current goal is to build up the ANSF to 352,000 personnel by the end of 2014, when the handover of security to the Afghan government is set to be completed. But the international community understands that there's no way the Afghan government could afford to keep a force that large on its own and expectations that the international community will foot the bill are low.
Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller testified Tuesday morning before the House Armed Services Committee that it will make sense to reduce those levels after the 352,000 personnel goal is reached.
Grossman might have some surprise stops at the end of his trip, possibly in "Central Asia," State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said at Monday's press briefing. He probably won't be going to Pakistan, which is reevaluating its relationship with the United States in parliament this week, but he could make a stop in Kabul.
Another possible stop for Grossman is Qatar, the presumed destination of five Taliban commanders the administration is considering transferring from Guantanamo Bay and the possible location of a new Taliban representative office. Grossman met the Taliban in Qatar earlier this year.
"We are still working on that itinerary, so stand by," Nuland said.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
Senate Armed Services Committee heads Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday to tell him they believed the Pentagon was already moving to implement force structure reductions the administration proposed in next year's budget, and that he should stop until Congress has a chance to weigh in.
"In our preliminary review of the fiscal year 2013 budget request, it has become clear that the Department intends to begin implementing decisions under this budget request by taking actions in fiscal year 2012. It is also clear that there are programs where the Department plans to implement actions in 2012 before any of the congressional defense committees will have had an opportunity to act on the fiscal year 2013 budget request," wrote Levin and McCain. "While we understand that doing so may help the Department achieve more ‘savings' than might be otherwise realized, the Department should avoid taking actions that would restrict Congress' ability to consider and act on the fiscal year 2013 budget request."
"We request that you not take actions to implement decisions that would be difficult or impossible to reverse by anticipating congressional approval of what may turn out to be very contentious proposals before the committees have had an opportunity to produce bills reflecting their responses to the fiscal year 2013 budget request," they wrote.
A note from McCain's spokesperson about the letter specified that it was meant to convey to Panetta that "he not begin implementing force structure reductions until the fiscal year 2013 defense budget proposal has been authorized by Congress."
The 2013 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, but in the past few years, the defense authorization bill has not been passed until late December. The accompanying appropriations bill for defense may also not be passed this fall, because Congress is not expected to have a spending debate and negotiation in the run-up to the presidential election.
Regardless, Congress has a tradition of defending programs the administration wants to cut -- especially when it comes to force structure, as military bases and manufacturing plants have local support from various lawmakers. A McCain staffer explained to The Cable exactly what the administration is doing.
"In their FY 2013 budget request, the administration lays out actions it intends to take that may reduce or change force structure, such as cancelling C-27J Spartan light cargo aircraft contract, retiring C-27J aircraft, retiring an E-8C JSTARS aircraft, ship decommissions, etc., in 2012," the staffer said, adding that they may become aware of even more actions as briefings continue. "Senators McCain and Levin are requesting that Secretary Panetta not begin implementing these force structure reductions until the FY 2013 defense budget request has been reviewed, shaped and approved by Congress."
Fourteen people were arrested last Friday on the walkway outside the Sudanese embassy. While George Clooney stole all the headlines, Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) was also arrested and recounted the experience in an interview with The Cable.
"Sometimes no matter how serious the issue, unless you keep the public focused on it, really bad things can keep happening and even get worse," Moran said about what he called an act of "civil disobedience" to protest the Khartoum government's violence against innocent civilians in the Nuba Mountain and Blue Nile regions of Sudan.
"The North has conducted a scorched earth strategy. They've wiped out all their fields, they've forced them up into the mountains. They've got no food," Moran said. "And once the rainy season starts, which will be in about a month, that will be it, because you won't be able to get any convoys in. So they will starve to death. And that is kind of the idea."
Moran said the plan was always to get arrested, and the group alerted the DC metro police of their plan ahead of time. First, Clooney and others made speeches in front of the embassy. Then they proceeded up the walkway, which constituted trespassing. After refusing three police instructions to leave the embassy grounds, those who were willing to be arrested held their ground.
"We're just trying to say, look, these are hundreds of thousands of innocent people who should not be forced to suffer and die because of an irresponsible ruler and because of a world that looks away from it, that refuses to get engaged," Moran said. "I think it was the right thing to do, to try to bring the world's attention to a serious situation."
Along with Clooney, nine activists and four Congressmen were arrested. That group included Moran, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), Rep. John Olver (D-MA), Rep. Al Green (D-TX), Martin Luther King III, former head of the NAACP Ben Chavis, NAACP President Ben Jealous, Nick Clooney, activist Dick Gregory, former congressman and leader of United to End Genocide Tom Andrews, and Director of the Religious Action Center Rabbi David Saperstein, Moran said.
They were carted off in paddy wagons, processed and fingerprinted, stripped of their personal belongings, and put in a cell together for about 5 hours. They all pleaded guilty to trespassing, disturbing the peace, and refusing to obey a police order. They each paid a $100 fine and were released.
"We needed to get arrested in front of the Sudanese embassy, and since George was willing to do that we knew we would get some media coverage," Moran said.
That was the first time Clooney had been arrested, but Moran was arrested once before protesting on behalf of the people of Darfur, he said. Overall, he considered the mission a success.
"I think it worked," he said. "If we can get some attention focused on this real humanitarian crisis, then spending a few hours in jail and coming up with $100 in cash to bail ourselves out was well worth it."
So what do four congressmen, five activists, and a Hollywood star do in prison for 5 hours?
"We enjoyed talking about everything," Moran said. "There's nothing to read, so we talked, and we all got to know each other pretty well."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Four more senators joined the opposition to repealing the Jackson-Vanik trade sanctions law against Russia on Friday, unless that repeal is accompanied by a new law specifically targeting human rights violators inside the Russian government.
Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), and Roger Wicker (R-MS) wrote a letter Friday to Senate Finance Committee heads Max Baucus (D-MT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to let them know that they oppose Baucus's effort to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law unless it is replaced with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 -- legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago.
Without repeal of the Jackson-Vanik law, U.S. businesses can't take full advantage of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization, but the senators believe that the Magnitsky bill is needed to ensure the Russian government is not let off the hook for their deteriorating record on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
"In the absence of the passage of the Magnitsky legislation, we will strongly oppose the lifting of Jackson-Vanik," the senators wrote. "Human rights abuses in Russia are widespread and severe, and a legitimate area of focus for U.S. foreign policy. For this reason, what is urgently needed is not merely the elimination of Jackson-Vanik, but its replacement with legislation that is appropriately tailored to the contemporary human rights problems facing the people of Russia. That is precisely the role that the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act would service."
The opposition to a straight repeal of Jackson-Vanik now includes these four senators, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), large portions of the Washington human rights community, and leading Russian opposition figures such as Solidarity movement leader Boris Nemtsov. Those who support repealing Jackson-Vanik without any replacement human-rights legislation include the Obama administration, large sections of the business community, and the Russian government.
Moscow has already praised and promoted the officials accused of torturing Magnitsky for their investigation into the case, and has now begun retrying Magnitsky for criminal tax violations -- even though he is dead.
"While some in the Russian government may be upset if the United States adopts the Magnitsky bill, we believe most Russians will be happy to see us deny the most abusive and corrupt individuals in their country the ability to travel and move their ill-gotten gains overseas," the senators wrote.
UPDATE: A Baucus spokesperson sent in the following statemet regarding Baucus's position on human rights in Russia as it relates to the repeal of Jackson-Vanik:
Chairman Baucus certainly shares the concerns about the human rights situation and he is working with his colleagues to find the best ways to address them. He has met with democracy and human rights activists in Russia and heard directly from them that one way to help improve both democracy and human rights is to repeal Jackson-Vanik and pass PNTR to remove an anti-America propaganda tool and open Russia to transparency. And he has expressed willingness to consider other legislation as well.
YANA LAPIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.