MUNICH - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave opposing public speeches Saturday on what should be done in Syria, and then took their dispute behind closed doors in a heated bilateral meeting, in advance of Saturday's U.N. Security Council action in New York.
"As a tyrant in Damascus brutalizes his own people, the U.S. and Europe stand shoulder to shoulder," Clinton said in her speech at the 2012 Munich Security Conference. "We are united, alongside the Arab League, in demanding an end to the bloodshed and a democratic future for Syria. And we are hopeful that at 10 AM eastern standard time in New York, the security council will express the will of the international community."
Well, the 10 AM deadline has come and gone, but State Department officials insist the U.S. is committed to holding a vote on the latest draft resolution on the situation on Syria today, despite persistent Russian concerns over the text, which were outlined by Lavrov in his speech only minutes after Clinton left the stage.
Lavrov said that Russia stands by the Syrian people but not the "armed groups" in Syria that he alleged were contributing to the violence. He said Russia would not agree to any resolution that amounts to outside interference or presupposes the political outcome in Syria other than supporting a dialogue between the two sides.
"The problem is, the peaceful protesters have our full support, but they are being used by the armed groups, who create trouble. And this is reaching quite dangerous proportions," Lavrov said.
Lavrov said Russia had two main problems with the current draft of the resolution. He said the current draft resolution "left the door open to military intervention to the outside," because it does not include a Russian drafted statement that would explicitly say a military intervention is not authorized.
He also said the draft resolution seeks to prejudge the results of a national Syrian dialogue because it refers to the Arab League Initiative's report and says the process should follow the Arab's League's schedule for resolution of the transition of power in Syria.
"If this resolution is adopted and Assad doesn't go, we asked the Americans and the Europeans ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said.
"It's not a serious policy," he insisted.
Lavrov heavily criticized the Arab League monitoring mission and defended Russian arms sales to the Syrian regime, which continue to this day. Lavrov said the U.N. charter does not allow interference in internal domestic affairs and that without Russian support, any plan devised in the security council would not be viable.
The Cable asked Lavrov whether Russia was concerned about ending up on the wrong side of history in Russia by supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
"We are not friends or allies of Assad," Lavrov responded, "We try to stick to our responsibilities as permanent members of the security council and the security council doesn't by definition engage in the internal affairs of states, it's about maintaining international peace and security."
The Cable followed Lavrov out of the conference hall and into his bilateral meeting with Clinton. Clinton was joined in the meeting by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher, NATO Ambassador Ivo Daalder, and Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
A senior State Department official said the meeting went longer than planned, 45 minutes, and two thirds of that time was spent discussing the U.N. Security Council situation regarding Syria.
"The secretary and the foreign minister had a very vigorous discussion," the official said. "The secretary made clear that the U.S. feels strongly that the U.N. Security Council should vote today."
The official would not going into the details of the bilateral discussion on Syria but said it's safe to assume that Clinton and Lavrov did not resolve their differences over the way ahead.
"Foreign Minister Lavrov did not dispute the urgency of the situation and the action now moves to New York," the official said.
MUNICH - At Saturday's morning session of the 2012 Munich Security Conference, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta clarified that NATO forces will not stop fighting in Afghanistan in 2013, but he confirmed that the U.S. hopes to hand over the combat lead to Afghan forces that year. Many European and NATO officials in the room were still a little miffed they had to learn about the strategy shift in the newspapers two days ago.
On the way to Brussels to attend the NATO defense ministers meeting Feb. 2, Panetta made news by saying that U.S. forces will transition out of a lead combat role next year. "Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013," Panetta said. "Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role."
On Saturday morning here in Munich, sitting beside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Panetta made the same announcement again, but this time with a bit more nuance.
"Our bottom line [in Afghanistan] is ‘in together, out together.' As an alliance, we are fully committed to the Lisbon framework and transitioning to Afghan control by 2014. Our discussions included considerations about how ISAF will move from the lead combat role to a support, advise, and assist role as Afghan security forces move into the lead," he said. "We hope Afghan forces will be ready to take the combat lead in all of Afghanistan sometime in 2013. But of course ISAF will continue to be fully combat capable and we will engage in combat as necessary thereafter."
Prior to Panetta's statements this week, the only public milestone between now and the full transition of responsibility to Afghan forces at the end of 2014, as was announced at the Lisbon conference last year, was the Sept. 2012 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. surge forces, as announced by President Barack Obama last June.
Panetta's remarks this week place a new milestone in the middle of those two dates, by setting a public goal of handing over lead combat responsibility for the last geographical area in Afghanistan, known as Tranche 5, over a year before the full handover of responsibility is set to take place.
European officials here in Munich said they understood the reason for the new milestone, which is to give the Afghans some time to adjust to having the combat lead while NATO forces are still present in large enough numbers to help them out, especially if there are bumps along the road.
But several NATO and European officials were shocked and some were even a little miffed that Panetta had made a major change in the messaging over the Afghanistan war without giving them a heads up.
There are two different theories as to why Panetta decided to announce the 2013 milestone on the plane to Europe, before telling his NATO counterparts about it, despite that he was about to see them only hours later.
Some here in Munich think that Panetta simply spoke too fast and didn't mean to surprise his European colleagues. Others believe that Panetta wanted to announce the news on his own terms, rather than tell the Europeans and then have it leak out to the press, perhaps in an even less articulate way.
One high ranking European official told The Cable that his government was expecting such an announcement at the NATO summit in Chicago in May, not here in Europe in February.
"The feeling was, well we can't say the same thing in Chicago as we said in Lisbon," the official said, referring to the expected May announcement. "It was all carefully planned and now that plan is completely ruined."
European governments had told the Obama administration that announcing a new milestone for drawdowns in Afghanistan was politically difficult for them, but that they were willing to go along with it, albeit reluctantly.
"We said, ‘Okay, if Obama needs this politically, that's fine. But please consider the bad side effects for us. This is hard to explain to our constituencies," the European official said. "Before today we could still say the drawdown was conditions based. Now we can't make the argument that it's anything but politically motivated."
Panetta's main mission Saturday was to reassure European countries that the United States was not abandoning Europe despite the defense budget cuts in the U.S. and the American strategic pivot to Asia. He announced that a battalion sized U.S. military force would rotate to Europe as America's first concrete presence in the NATO Response Force.
"Our military footprint in Europe will remain larger than in any other region in the world," he said.
In the question and answer session following his remarks, Panetta said that the Pentagon was not planning to implement the defense "trigger" set to go into effect in Jan. 2013, which would mandate $600 billion in additional defense cuts over the next ten years.
"Sequestration is a crazy formula," he said. "We're not paying attention to sequester. Sequester is crazy... If sequester happened, the strategy I just developed would have to be thrown out the window."
MUNICH - As part of the opening events Friday evening at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, the German government honored Sen. Joseph Isadore Lieberman (I-CT) with the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit as a tribute to his last year serving as a U.S. senator.
"You know, if I had known I would be so honored upon my retirement from the senate, I probably would have retired before the last term," Lieberman said in his acceptance speech. He thanked Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) for inviting him to co-chair the U.S. Congressional delegation to the conference over 20 years ago. Every year since, McCain and Lieberman have brought a large contingent of American lawmakers and experts to the conference.
The award is officially awarded by German President Christian Wulff and was presented Friday by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Lieberman was quite impressed that Westerwelle knew his middle name.
"I'm usually known as ‘Joseph I. Lieberman' and very few people know what the ‘I' stands for," he said. "In one of my early campaigns for state office, I had a friend who was supporting me who happened to be Irish and Catholic. He was convinced the ‘I' stood for Ignatius."
Lieberman promised to keep on working on behalf of the U.S.-German relationship even after he leaves the Senate.
"I assure you that although I am retiring from the Senate, I'm not retiring," he said. "The U.S. German alliance is an alliance built not on the temporary coincidence of shifting interests, but on the firm values that our two societies share and these are the values of human rights, democracy, free enterprise, the rule of law, and individual freedom."
Westerwelle noted that the Germans have not always agreed with Lieberman, such as when they opposed the war in Iraq, but he praised Lieberman's commitment to the relationship.
"Over the years we've agreed on many issues. Of course I cannot deny we've also had some disagreements on others. And I believe that is the way it should be among friends and allies," he said. "But you always kept talking and we never gave up finding solutions to the problems that lie ahead of us."
Westerwelle then quoted Vice President Joe Biden's speech from the 2009 Munich conference, when Biden said, "When sharing ideas and searching for purpose in a more complex world, Americans and Europeans still look to one another before they look to anyone else."
Saturday, the conference kicks into full gear, with highly anticipated speeches by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, and many others.
Also on Saturday, Lieberman will become the third ever recipient of the Ewald von Kleist Award, named after the man who founded the conference in 1962. The first two recipients were former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was in attendance at Friday's ceremony, and former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana de Madariaga.
Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy
That's right, your humble Cable guy is on his way to Germany to participate in the 48th annual Munich Security Conference, one of the largest gatherings of national security officials in the world.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), and a large delegation of experts and lawmakers led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) will be at the event, which begins Friday. Other senators and former officials from Washington headed to Munich include Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Mark Udall (D-CO), Brent Scowcroft, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalizad, Kurt Volker, Dan Senor, and many others.
"It is arguably the most important security conference of them all," McCain told The Cable. "It's like Davos without the Hollywood aspect."
When McCain learned that The Cable will be at the conference, blogging and tweeting the whole time, he said, "Oh, no.... I'm going to call the German embassy."
Lieberman gave The Cable a little more historical perspective about the conference, which he has been attending for over 20 years, after first being invited by Sen. John Glenn (D-OH). Bill Cohen, who served as senator and later defense secretary, led the U.S. congressional delegation to the conference at that time. Cohen passed the baton to McCain when he left the Senate, and McCain invited Lieberman to be the co-leader of the delegation to give it a bipartisan character.
"For decades, it has been an occasion to discuss critical issues in the U.S.-European alliance. In the past 10 or 15 years it really has been broadened," Lieberman said. Defense ministers and foreign ministers from just about every NATO country attend and recently more and more heads of state are showing up as well, he said.
Among the foreign leaders expected to attend, in addition to U.S. and European officials, are Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jabali, and perhaps even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The interactions with the Russian delegation are always interesting, Lieberman said.
"We've had some very eyeball-to-eyeball matches when President [Vladimir] Putin has come," he said.
The main topics of the formal conference sessions will be the effect of the global recession on defense budgets, what President Barack Obama's so-called pivot to Asia means for U.S.-Europe relationship, and the uprisings in the Arab world.
But a lot of the action happens informally in the hallways and in the bilateral meetings that take place on the sidelines of the sessions. Last year, Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov actually exchanged the final documents of the New START treaty there.
McCain and Lieberman always plan one stop on the way to Munich. This year, they are touching down for a few hours in Madrid to meet with the Spanish government led by newly elected President Mariano Rajoy Brey.
It's a lot of foreign policy packed into only a couple of days, but watch this site for coverage of all the action.
"It's quick," Lieberman said. "We go Thursday and we'll be back Sunday night in time for the Super Bowl."
Photograph by Kai Mörk
The Russian government is following the path of the deposed regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar al-Qaddafi and is setting itself up for a fall from power, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in an exclusive interview with The Cable.
"You need to listen to what Russian leaders themselves are saying. They say ‘We are not Libya, we are not Egypt, Russia will not go down this road,'" Saakashvili said. "I've heard that from other leaders before. I heard it from Soviet leaders. And once you start saying those things it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and then you start to do certain things and to not allow certain things, and those are exactly the kind of actions that promote further sliding down this road [toward losing power]."
Not only is Russia denying the desires of its own people by suppressing protests and real democracy, it is now leading the opposition to the wave of popular revolutions that the world witnessed over the past year, said the Georgian president, who fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008. The latest and greatest example, he said, is Russia's support for the brutal Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad.
"Syria stands as a symbol," Saakashvili said. "[The Russians] fully identify themselves with Libya but they thought that in Libya they were a fooled into action. And now with Syria they think that if Syria falls, it's the last bastion before Moscow. And this is exactly the kind of attitude that will bring problems closer home to Moscow. It's not going to help Syria in any way, but it's certainly damaging Russia a lot."
The anticipated return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency later this year is significant because his term will be marked by opposition to real reform both inside and outside Russia, Saakashvili said.
"Unlike Westerners who think in terms of superficial symbols that he's returning, the middle class in Moscow knew that he never went away," said Saakashvili. "It's not about returning Putin to the presidency, it's about what he said. And what he said was ‘I'm returning because I should stop any attempt to reform and crack down on any mode of reform,' and that's what the middle class in Russia heard."
U.S. engagement with Moscow is useful and efforts to continue the "reset" policy should continue, but all the signals from Russia indicate that it is returning to a pre-reset policy, the Georgian president added. He made the case that Russia showed real flexibility during its drive to get into the World Trade Organization in 2011, but now that it has achieved that goal, its attitude has reverted to one of confrontation.
One example is Russia's constantly stoking the rumor that the United States is planning to deploy missile defense elements to Georgia, something Saakashvili said simply isn't true.
"Vladimir Putin is talking about this all the time. Either he is strongly misguided or he's looking for reasons to say nasty things," he said.
Just minutes before his interview with The Cable, speaking in front of a packed audience in the sparkling new auditorium of the United States Institute of Peace headquarters in Washington, Saakashvili contrasted the reactions of Russia and Turkey to the Arab Spring.
"Two radical different attitudes have emerged, offered by two specific regional powers. On one hand, the Russian Federation reacted with outrage and panic to the Arab Spring and tries to do anything they can to prevent any international support to the democracy movements anywhere. On the other hand, Turkey asserts itself as the model for the post revolutionary countries," he said.
"On the one hand, the government of Vladimir Putin desperately tries to hold back the progress of history. On the other hand, the government of Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan tries to embrace the revolutions of the world. Two very different prime ministers," he said. "It's not a coincidence that Russian influence is decreasing while Turkish leadership is growing in the region every day."
Saakashvili also talked about Georgia's struggles following its separation from the Soviet empire, and the lessons he might offer to new governments undergoing similar difficulties.
"Georgia's experience does not provide a transferable model for many countries that have known or will sooner or later know progressive uprising. There was no freedom textbook for us, and no textbook for our friends was ever written. The real revolution occurs after the cameras from CNN, BBC, and the others have left the country. It consists of the long and difficult process of reform that follows," he said.
"This is a lesson and a message of hope. There is no future for global powers playing against the will of their own people."
The Cable also asked Saakashvili for his opinion of actor Andy Garcia's portrayal of him in the movie Five Days of War, the 2011 film about the Russian-Georgian conflict.
"I only saw parts of it, but what I know is that my English was a little better than his and that was very reassuring," he said.
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images
On Thursday, the Senate Banking Committee will officially start work on a new sanctions bill against Iran, and senators are set to add even more sanctions to the bill as it goes through the legislative process -- including measures that directly target President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Banking Committee will mark up the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, named after committee heads Sens. Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), who will lead Thursday's proceedings. The bill will 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.
President Barack Obama's administration is still working to implement the last round of Iran sanctions that was signed into law, which included the Menendez-Kirk sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran that were added to the defense authorization bill in December by a 100-0 vote. But the Senate has no intention of giving the administration a breather, and Thursday's mark-up is the beginning of a new and aggressive push to tighten the noose on Tehran and further damage the Iranian economy.
"Iran's continuing defiance of its international legal obligations and refusal to come clean on its nuclear program underscore the need to further isolate Iran and its leaders," Johnson said in statement about the bill.
The bill would sanction anyone who provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot control equipment -- as well as jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed related assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.
The legislation would also formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime.
Johnson and Shelby's bill expands sanctions to cover companies involved in joint ventures with Iran that aid the country's energy sector, targets any Iranian joint ventures involving uranium mining, authorizes the administration to target corporate executives of sanctioned firms, and requires U.S. companies to report to the SEC business they have with any Iranian firms that could fall under sanctions.
The Banking Committee bill is a scaled-down version of the Iran, Syria, North Korea Sanctions Consolidation Act, sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Scott Brown (R-MA). The Syria and North Korea provisions in that bill were left out of the Banking Committee's version so there wouldn't be any jurisdictional confusion between the Banking Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee.
Several senators are set to offer amendments on Thursday to strengthen the Johnson-Shelby bill even further. Although negotiations are still ongoing, a list of the amendments in the queue as of Wednesday afternoon was obtained by The Cable.
Among the amendments that could be considered in committee on Thursday is an amendment by Menendez, offered on behalf of himself and Kirk (who is in Chicago recovering from a stroke) that would impose immigration restrictions on Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, and a host of other senior Iranian government officials. The amendment would also trigger visa restrictions on Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, although those restrictions could be waived for U.N. meetings in New York.
A separate amendment by Menendez and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), also offered on behalf of Kirk, would sanction banks with officers on the board of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), the organization that handles the bulk of international electronic bank transfers, if SWIFT doesn't stop processing transactions for Iranian banks.
Another Menendez amendment would require the Treasury Department to determine whether the Iranian National Oil Company and the Iranian National Tanker Company are tied to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. If they are, those two companies would then be sanctioned as well, which could wreak further havoc on Iran's economy.
"This is a reminder that there are still more stones left unturned and there are still more ways to increase the pressure on an already extraordinarily pressured Iranian economy," a senior Senate aide told The Cable. "In bipartisan fashion, the Senate is moving to do just that."
Both leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee told The Cable that $1.3 billion of annual U.S. aid to the Egyptian military is in real jeopardy due to the Egyptian government's harassment of American NGO workers.
Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) both said on Tuesday that a withholding of military aid to Egypt was now on the table due to the Egyptian military's role in the Dec. 29 raids on several NGO groups in Cairo, including three U.S. government-funded organizations: the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Freedom House.
The anger in Washington at the Egyptian government reached a boiling point this week when it was revealed on Jan. 26 that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's son Sam LaHood, the head of IRI's Cairo office, had been barred from leaving Egypt by the government, along with five other U.S. citizens.
The issue has already led to a divorce between the Egyptian government and its Washington lobbyists. The lobbyists said they dumped the Egyptian government over the NGO issue, while the Egyptian embassy claimed it dumped the lobbyists in order to save money.
Both Levin and McCain are set to meet with a visiting delegation of high-level Egyptian military officers next week in Washington, and they both said they will deliver the message that U.S. military aid to Egypt is tied to this issue.
"They should know that this action on their part jeopardizes a normal relationship between us," Levin said in a brief interview on his way out of the Democratic caucus lunch. "They know that, and that includes the impact it could have on aid."
McCain, who happens to be the chairman of the board of IRI, said in his own after-lunch interview that U.S. military aid to Egypt is "certainly a topic that [the Egyptians] have put on the table."
"It's hard to believe. IRI and NDI worked throughout Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union and we helped them with democracy. They're like mechanics. They come in and tell you how to organize voters, how party registration works, and that kind of stuff. They're not advocates of anybody," McCain said.
McCain has been exchanging letters with his contacts in Egypt but there's been no progress yet, he said. "I've known [SCAF leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi for years, and many of the other members of the Egyptian military. It's one of the few benefits of old age," he said.
Freedom House put out a fact sheet on Tuesday, written by its manager of congressional affairs, Sarah Trister, which argues Egypt has not met the legal obligations for receiving the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid this year.
"Per the FY 2012 State and Foreign Operations Bill, before the administration can release the $1.3 billion in military aid for Egypt, it must certify that the government of Egypt is ‘supporting the transition to civilian government including holding free and fair elections; implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.' At this point, it is clear these conditions are not being met," Trister wrote.
Moreover, the Freedom House fact sheet made the case that Egypt should not receive the $300 million it receives from the United States in economic and social assistance, mainly because this money goes through the Ministry for International Cooperation, which is led by the Egyptian official believed to be driving the NGO harassment: Fayza Abul-Naga.
"The ministry that receives this funding, the Ministry for Planning and International Cooperation, is headed by a Mubarak holdover who has been directing the assault against civil society," Trister wrote, referring to Abul-Naga.
Reuters reported Tuesday that the Egyptian Justice Ministry sent back a letter from the U.S. embassy requesting the Americans trapped in Cairo be allowed to leave.
The Washington Post ran an editorial on Tuesday criticizing the Egyptian military delegation for being tone deaf to the seriousness of the crisis, and calling on President Barack Obama's administration to use the military aid as leverage.
"The generals regard this funding as an entitlement, linked to the country's peace treaty with Israel. They appear to believe that Washington will not dare to cut them off, even if Americans seeking to promote democracy in Egypt are made the object of xenophobic slanders and threatened with imprisonment," the editorial said.
"Preserving the alliance with Egypt, and maintaining good relations with its military, is an important U.S. interest. But the Obama administration must be prepared to take an uncompromising stand. If the campaign against U.S., European and Egyptian NGOs is not ended, military aid must be suspended."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Top Obama administration officials briefed eight senior Senate leaders Tuesday on a pending deal to transfer as many as five Taliban prisoners from the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.
The Cable staked out the classified briefing in the basement of the Capitol building Tuesday afternoon. The eight senators who attended the briefing were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Intelligence Committee heads Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Senate Armed Services chiefs Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).
The identities of the administration briefers were not shared, but we were told it was a high-level interagency briefing team.
All of the senators refused to discuss the contents of the briefing as they exited the secure briefing room in the Senate Visitors' Center. But Levin and McCain both discussed the issue in question before entering the briefing, namely the administration's negotiations with the Taliban over transferring the Taliban prisoners into Qatari custody.
Levin told reporters Tuesday that the briefing was "about the ongoing Taliban reconciliation efforts." Levin is open to the idea of transferring Taliban members to Qatar, but said the devil was in the details.
"It depends on what assurances we have from the [Qatari] government that they are not going to be released," Levin said. "But I also think the Afghans have to be very much involved in any discussions and any process. They weren't for a while."
"We're not releasing them. As I understand it they will be imprisoned in Qatar," Levin continued. But can the Qataris be trusted to keep them behind bars? "That's the question," Levin said.
Levin said he didn't know what the United States was getting in exchange for transferring the prisoners to Qatar, where the Taliban are preparing to open an office. But he said the possible transfer was not a significant concession to the Taliban, provided the prisoners remain in custody. "If that's what [the Taliban] are getting, it's not much of a gain [for them], going from one prison to another."
McCain, talking to reporters before the briefing, lashed out at the idea that the prisoners would be moved to Qatar in a possible exchange for a Taliban statement renouncing international violence, as has been reported.
"The whole idea that they're going to ‘transfer' these detainees in exchange for a statement by the Taliban? It is really, really bizarre," McCain said. "This whole thing is highly questionable because the Taliban know we are leaving. I know many experts who would say they are rope-a-doping us."
McCain said that Congress probably can't stop the administration from going ahead with the transfer if that's what it decides.
"I don't think right now we can do anything about it, but these people were in positions of authority. One of them was responsible for deaths of several Americans," said McCain, referring to reports that the prisoners being considered for transfer include Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister, Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan, and former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund.
Is McCain confident that the Qataris will keep the Taliban prisoners locked up? "No I am not. And the Taliban don't think so either, otherwise the Taliban wouldn't want them transferred," he said.
McCain said he was last briefed about the potential deal in December.
Some of the confusion about the negotiations was caused when the State Department's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman said on Jan. 22 that talks with the Taliban were a long way off and that no deal to transfer prisoners had been finalized. Grossman was in Kabul when he made the statements and he traveled to Qatar the next day.
On Jan. 28, several former members of the Taliban government said that talks with the United States had begun over the prisoner transfer. "Currently there are no peace talks going on," Maulavi Qalamuddin, the former minister of "vice and virtue" for the Taliban, told The New York Times. "The only thing is the negotiations over release of Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo, which is still under discussion between both sides in Qatar."
At Tuesday morning's open hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Chambliss pressed Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director David Petraeus, and National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Matthew Olsen to confirm that the Taliban under consideration for transfer were still viewed as too dangerous to release by the U.S. intelligence community.
"It appears from these reports that in exchange for transferring detainees who had been determined to be too dangerous to transfer by the administration's own Guantánamo review task force, we get little to nothing in return. Apparently, the Taliban will not have to stop fighting our troops and won't even have to stop bombing them with IEDs," Chambliss said. "I have also heard nothing from the IC[intelligence community] that suggests that the assessments on the threat posed by these detainees have changed. I want to state publicly as strongly as I can that we should not transfer these detainees from Guantánamo."
Clapper said he stood by the original intelligence community assessments, which concluded that the Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo were too dangerous to be released.
"I don't think anyone in the administration harbors any illusions about the potential here," said Clapper. "And of course, part and parcel of such a decision if it were finally made would be the actual determination of where these detainees might go and the conditions in which they would be controlled or surveilled."
Olsen, who led the review task force that evaluated the Guantanamo detainees in 2009, confirmed that the 5 prisoners being considered for transfer "were deemed too dangerous to release and who could not be prosecuted," but Olsen said he had not evaluated those five prisoners since then.
Petraeus said that his staff had been asked for a more recent evaluation of the five prisoners and that the CIA completed risk analyses based on different possible conditions for the Taliban prisoners' transfer.
"In fact, our analyst did provide assessments of the five and the risks presented by various scenarios by which they could be sent somewhere, not back to Afghanistan or Pakistan, and then based on the various mitigating measures that could be implemented, to ensure that they could not return to militant activity," Petraeus said.
Last month, Barack Obama's administration resisted provisions codifying the right to detain prisoners indefinitely, arguing that putting such language into law was unnecessary and redundant. Now, the administration is using those very provisions to defend its detention of a suspected al Qaeda militant in federal courts.
The provision in question, Section 1021 of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), "reaffirms the military's existing authority to detain individuals captured in the course of hostilities in accordance with the law of war." That authority was given to the administration in the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed by Congress after the 9/11 attacks. The Obama administration initially threatened to veto the defense authorization bill because it contained a stronger version of Section 1021, but then revoked its veto threat after House and Senate negotiators tweaked the language.
The provision nonetheless faced opposition from civil rights organizations and some senators, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), out of concern that it could be used to justify indefinite detention of anyone suspected of terrorism, including American citizens.
President Obama specifically criticized section 1021 in his signing statement on the day the defense authorization bill became law.
"Section 1021 affirms the executive branch's authority to detain persons covered by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note). This section breaks no new ground and is unnecessary. The authority it describes was included in the 2001 AUMF, as recognized by the Supreme Court and confirmed through lower court decisions since then," Obama wrote. "My Administration will interpret section 1021 in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable law."
Now, thanks to Brookings Institution scholar Benjamin Wittes, we learn exactly how the administration is interpreting that section of the law: It is using it to defend the indefinite detention of Musa'ab al-Madhwan, a Yemeni citizen who has been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for years.
"The government has filed its opposition to cert in the case of Al Madhwani v. Obama-a Guantanamo habeas case," Wittes wrote on his Lawfare blog. "Al Madhwani's cert petition seeks review of this DC Circuit opinion affirming his detention. That opinion, in turn, affirmed District Judge Thomas Hogan's earlier opinion. The government's argument is interesting because it explicitly invokes the new language in the NDAA."
In an interview, Wittes noted the irony of the administration using the legal provision it resisted in defending its arguments against Madhwani now, but said the administration had been consistent in how it defines the application of the authority to detain prisoners indefinitely.
"The administration says the provision is unnecessary and redundant and then this shows up in their brief, but merely as support of their interpretation of the prior law. There's no hypocrisy here," Wittes said. "It would be weird of them not to cite an on-point federal statute that supports their argument."
Still, one of the supporters of the provision in Congress, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), told The Cable Tuesday that the administration's embrace of his provision was disingenuous. "I guess it's a high form of flattery," McCain said.
Another sponsor of the provision, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), told The Cable Tuesday that although the administration strenuously opposed earlier versions of the provision, the administration didn't outright oppose the final version, despite the unenthusiastic signing statement. "I'm not at all surprised that they used a provision that they ultimately didn't oppose in their briefs," he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will go the United Nations on Tuesday to press the Security Council to take action regarding Syria, in light of what the State Department is calling a "sharp escalation of regime violence."
The Arab-European draft resolution was discussed on Jan. 27 behind closed doors at the U.N. Security Council and will see public debate on Tuesday. It calls on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his deputy and says additional measures will be taken if he doesn't comply within 15 days. In anticipation of that debate, where Russia is expected to staunchly oppose any resolution calling for Assad's departure, Clinton issued a new statement on the situation inside Syria that many saw as newly aggressive rhetoric from President Barack Obama's administration.
"In the past few days we have seen intensified Syrian security operations all around the country which have killed hundreds of civilians. The government has shelled civilian areas with mortars and tank fire and brought down whole buildings on top of their occupants. The violence has escalated to the point that the Arab League has had to suspend its monitoring mission. The regime has failed to meet its commitments to the Arab League to halt its acts of violence, withdraw its military forces from residential areas, allow journalists and monitors to operate freely and release prisoners arrested because of the current unrest," Clinton said in the statement.
"The Security Council must act and make clear to the Syrian regime that the world community views its actions as a threat to peace and security. The violence must end, so that a new period of democratic transition can begin," she said. "Tomorrow, I will attend a United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria where the international community should send a clear message of support to the Syrian people: we stand with you. The Arab League is backing a resolution that calls on the international community to support its ongoing efforts, because the status quo is unsustainable. The longer the Assad regime continues its attacks on the Syrian people and stands in the way of a peaceful transition, the greater the concern that instability will escalate and spill over throughout the region."
Clinton's statement comes after weeks of careful planning inside the Obama administration on when and how to confront the escalating violence in Syria. National Security Council Senior Director Steve Simon had been leading a small interagency team to game out U.S. policy options, but now the administration's policy machinery has kicked into full gear, meeting often to discuss a range of diplomatic maneuvers that could increase pressure on the Assad regime.
There's no longer any expectation inside the administration that Moscow will support international action aimed at removing Assad from power, even by non-military means. But the U.N. confrontation is meant to isolate Russia diplomatically and make it clear that the Arab League and its Western friends have exhausted all diplomatic options before moving to directly aid the internal opposition, if that decision is ultimately made.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Monday that Clinton, Deputy Secretary Bill Burns, and Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman have all been working the phones hard to build support for the U.N. resolution. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been "unavailable" while traveling in Australia, even though Clinton has been trying to reach him all day.
"The message that we are sending, the message that the secretary will send tomorrow when she goes to New York, is that the Security Council now needs to act, because the spiral of violence is dangerous not only for Damascus, not only for Syria and all Syrians, but it's also dangerous in the region, because obviously, you know, we've now got a cycle of violence that is quite worrying," Nuland said.
"You think there is still a path out for the regime?" one reporter asked.
"Well, that's obviously still on the table," Nuland said. "It requires Assad to step aside. "
MARTIAL TREZZINI/AFP/Getty Image
All three of the lobbying firms representing the Egyptian government in Washington, D.C., dropped Egypt as a client late Friday amid widespread criticism of the ruling military council's raid of U.S. NGOs in Cairo and its refusal to let American NGO workers leave the country.
The Livingston Group, run by former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-LA), the Moffett Group, run by former Rep. Toby Moffett (D-CT), and the Podesta Group, run by Tony Podesta, unanimously severed their combined $90,000 per month contract with the Egyptian government, Politico reported late Friday, quoting Livingston directly. The three firms had formed what is known as the PLM Group, a lobbying entity created to advocate on behalf of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in February 2011 after 18 days of massive street protests. According to the disclosure filings, Egypt has paid PLM more than $4 million since 2007.
The trio came under fire last week for circulating talking points defending Egypt's Dec. 29 raid of several NGOs working to train political parties in Egypt, including three organizations partially funded by the U.S. government. The groups had been working in Egypt for years without being technically registered with the government, but now stand accused of fomenting unrest against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been ruling the country since Mubarak's ouster.
"It is bad enough when the actions of American lobbyists conflict with U.S. national interests. It is far worse when their influence-peddling undermines American values, as the Egyptian government's lobbyists in Washington are doing in this instance," said Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) in a Jan. 24 statement. McCain is the chairman of the board of the International Republican Institute (IRI), one of the groups that had their Cairo offices raided. The other two groups were the National Democratic Institute, whose board is chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Freedom House.
The anger in Washington against the Egyptian government reached a boiling point when it was revealed Jan. 26 that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's son Sam LaHood, the head of IRI's Cairo office, had been barred from leaving Egypt by the government along with five other U.S. citizens.
"To have an American lobbyist lobbying for a government where these activities are taking place -- is there no shame in this town?" said Rep. Frank Wolf on Thursday.
On Friday, Sam LaHood told NPR that he and the other Americans trapped in Egypt could face criminal charges, lengthy trials, and years of prison time.
"If we are referred to trial," LaHood said. "The trial could last up to a year ... and the potential penalty is six months to five years in jail."
The lobbying groups buckled under the public pressure, recognizing that they couldn't influence the SCAF's actions in this case and that their association with the military council was harming their broader image. For years, these firms have been defending the Egyptian military's $1.3 billion annual aid package on Capitol Hill and lobbying for non-military aid to go through the government, and not directly to independent organizations as many democracy advocates urged.
The Cable reported that in late 2010, Bob Livingston personally called Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) to get him to kill a Senate resolution calling for greater respect for human rights and democracy in Egypt. Wicker placed a hold on the resolution and it died in the Senate.
Egypt's lobbyists were also responsible for negotiating an endowment the Egyptian government wanted from the Obama administration. But the Mubarak regime demanded the money be given with no annual Congressional oversight, and the negotiations broke down.
Congress did place new restrictions on military aid to Egypt in the most recent appropriations bill passed in December, as a way of pressing the SCAF to move faster toward handing over its executive powers to an elected government.
According to the legislation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must certify that the Egyptian government is living up to the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty and that the SCAF is supporting the transition to civilian rule. Multiple congressional aides told The Cable Friday that the aid is now in serious jeopardy.
"Needless to say, this whole crisis is going to make it a lot more difficult for the secretary of state to meet the certification requirements to continue providing assistance to Egypt," one senior Senate aide told The Cable. "People up here are completely seized with this issue. They're putting their friends in a really awful spot."
Another senior Senate aide noted that the Obama administration is doing a lot of work behind the scenes to deescalate the crisis, which is threatening to do long-term harm to the official U.S.-Egypt relationship.
President Barack Obama brought up the raids in a call last week with SCAF leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, according to the White House. Clinton, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Lahood have been working the phones hard, calling contacts in Egypt to send strong messages and implore them to change course. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Labor, and Human Rights Michael Posner was in Egypt on Jan. 26 and met with high-level Egyptian officials.
"Since the NGO raids in late December, the Obama administration has repeatedly provided paths for the SCAF to deescalate this crisis. Instead they keep escalating -- doubling down on a bad bet that, in the end, will prove ruinous to them," the Senate aide said. "Three weeks ago no one in Congress thought there was a chance in hell that aid to the Egyptian military could ever come under serious threat. It is now an increasingly and shockingly real prospect."
Ironically, McCain and Lieberman had been among the U.S. leaders most supportive of the SCAF and its role in maintaining stability during Egypt's fragile transition.
Many in Washington believe that the SCAF is being heavily influenced on this issue by one civilian Egyptian official, Fayza Abul-Naga, the minister of international cooperation and a holdover from the Mubarak era. In a speech this week, she disavowed the SCAF's previous promises to return the NGOs' raided possessions and cease harassing them as she lashed out at the American NGO groups.
Lorne Craner, the president of IRI, said in an interview Friday with The Cable that there is bad blood between Abul-Naga's ministry and the NGO groups. "Some people say that the people who used to get the money, for example the minister of international cooperation, resent the fact that they are not getting all of the funding," Craner said.
Meanwhile, the Americans and several of their locally hired staffers are enduring hours-long interviews as they await a possible arrest, which would only escalate the crisis.
"Things have gone from bad to worse," Craner said. "You start to think about Americans getting arrested on the streets of Cairo and sitting in a cage in some Cairo court ... And these are our allies."
UPDATE: On Sunday the Egyptian Embassy in Washington issued a statement claiming they dumped the PLM Group, not the other way around:
The Government of Egypt had decided to terminate its contractual relationship with the PLM Group. This decision was transmitted to the Group's principals on January 27th 2012 through an official letter, as the contract stipulates, that either party has the right to terminate the relation within a 60 days prior notice.
It is surprising that a distorted version of this fact is being circulated in some media outlets. It is equally disturbing that articles and media coverage of the issue were made without an attempt to contact the Egyptian Embassy to check the factual basis of the stories reported.
This Press Release attempts to clarify the situation in line with the official documents related to the matter including the letter of termination which was recently transmitted by the Embassy to the PLM Group.
The Cable has obtained a copy of the draft resolution on Syria currently being discussed inside the U.N. Security Council. It calls on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his deputy and says additional measures would be taken if he doesn't comply within 15 days.
U.N. Security Council diplomats are meeting behind closed doors on Friday to discuss what's being called the Arab-European draft resolution on Syria. The Moroccan ambassador is presenting the draft resolution, which is designed to implement the recommendations of the Arab League transition plan laid out on Jan. 22.
The draft resolution condemns "the continued widespread and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities," demands that the Syrian government immediately put an end to all human rights violations, and calls on both sides to end attacks and violence immediately.
The resolution then lays out a political roadmap that matches the Arab League initiative intended to pave the way for a transition "leading to a democratic, plural political system" through the formation of a national unity government, the handing over of all presidential authority to Assad's deputy for a transition period, and then the holding of free and fair elections with international supervision.
Importantly, the draft resolution requests that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon report on the implementation of the resolution every 15 days and also directs the Security Council "to review Syria's implementation of this resolution [in] 15 days and, in the event that Syria has not complied, to adopt further measures, in consultation with the League of Arab States."
Representatives from the State Department and the U.S. mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland spelled out the broad goals the United States has for the final version of the resolution.
"We are looking for a resolution that reflects the commitments that the Arab League was seeking from the Syrian government, that -- in its November 2nd agreement, which unfortunately has not been lived up to by the Syrian side," Nuland said.
She indicated the United States was hopeful that Russia, which has been openly supporting Assad and sending him weapons, will work with the rest of the Security Council to produce a resolution that is strong and effective. Russia and China vetoed European resolution on Syria last fall and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Friday that Russia would veto any resolution that seeks to remove Assad from power.
"We continue to want to work with the Russians so that the whole U.N. Security Council is united in sending the strongest possible message to the Assad regime that the violence has got to end, and we've got to begin a transition," Nuland said.
President Barack Obama's administration has been delaying its planned $53 million arms sale to Bahrain due to human rights concerns and congressional opposition, but this week administration officials told several congressional offices that they will move forward with a new and different package of arms sales -- without any formal notification to the public.
The congressional offices that led the charge to oppose the original Bahrain arms sales package are upset that the State Department has decided to move forward with the new package. The opposition to Bahrain arms sales is led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), and also includes Senate Foreign Relations Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee chairman Robert Casey (D-PA), Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), and Marco Rubio (R-FL).
Wyden and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) have each introduced a resolution in their respective chambers to prevent the U.S. government from going through with the original sale, which would have included 44 armored, high-mobility Humvees and over 300 advanced missiles.
The State Department has not released details of the new sale, and Congress has not been notified through the regular process, which requires posting the information on the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) website. The State Department simply briefed a few congressional offices and is going ahead with the new sale, arguing it didn't meet the threshold that would require more formal notifications and a public explanation.
At today's State Department press briefing, The Cable asked spokeswoman Victoria Nuland about the new sale. She acknowledged the new package but didn't have any details handy.
Our congressional sources said that State is using a legal loophole to avoid formally notifying Congress and the public about the new arms sale. The administration can sell anything to anyone without formal notification if the sale is under $1 million. If the total package is over $1 million, State can treat each item as an individual sale, creating multiple sales of less than $1 million and avoiding the burden of notification, which would allow Congress to object and possibly block the deal.
We're further told that State is keeping the exact items in the sale secret, but is claiming they are for Bahrain's "external defense" and therefore couldn't be used against protesters. Of course, that's the same argument that State made about the first arms package, which was undercut by videos showing the Bahraini military using Humvees to suppress civilian protesters.
Regardless, congressional opponents to Bahrain arms sales are planning to fight back. Wyden is circulating a letter now to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating that Bahrain's government continues to commit human rights violations and should not be rewarded with U.S. arms sales.
"The Bahraini government has shown little progress in improving their human rights record over the last few months and in some ways, their record has gotten worse," Wyden told The Cable on Friday. "Protesters are still being hurt and killed, midnight arrests are still happening and the government continues to deny access to human rights monitors. The kingdom of Bahrain has not shown a true good faith effort to improve human rights in their country and the U.S. should not be rewarding them as if they have."
"Supplying arms to a regime that continues to persecute its citizens is not in the best interest of the United States," Wyden said. "When the government of Bahrain shows that it respects the human rights of its citizens it will become more stable and a better ally in the region; only then should arms sales from the U.S. resume."
That point was echoed by McGovern, who pledged to oppose any arms sales to Bahrain.
"The government of Bahrain continues to perpetrate serious human rights abuses and to deny independent monitors access to the country," McGovern told The Cable. "Until Bahrain takes more substantial and lasting steps to protect the rights of its own citizens, the United States should not reward its government with any military sales."
A State Department official declined to give specifics of the new arms package to The Cable but said that Bahrain was moving in the right direction.
"We have seen some important initial steps from the Bahraini government in implementing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's recommendations, but more needs to be done," the official said. "We urge the government of Bahrain to take action on the full range of recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation."
Cherif Bassiouni, the chair of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry that investigated the government crackdown on protests in 2011, recently said in an interview that the administration is not doing enough to pressure the Bahrain regime. "There is merit in naming and shaming and embarrassing, in pushing, in enlisting public opinion, domestic and international. This is not the style of Secretary Clinton or President Obama, and I'm not sure they are necessarily doing the right choice," he said.
Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy for the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), told The Cable on Friday that the new sale will be perceived by both the government of Bahrain and those in the opposition as a green light for the government to continue its repression.
"In the broader picture of the Arab Spring, this further erodes the credibility of U.S. rhetoric about democracy and human rights in the region," he said. "Rewarding regimes that repress peaceful dissent with arms sales simply does not square with the administration's rhetoric. The administration can no longer afford to endorse the status quo in Bahrain."
Maryam al-Khawaja, the head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told The Cable on Friday that the sale of U.S. arms to the Bahraini regime sends the wrong message to the people of Bahrain, and the region in general.
"This message of ‘business as usual' will only strengthen the regime's belief that there will continue to be lack of consequences to their human rights violations internationally," she said. "At a time when the United States is already being criticized for practicing double standards when it comes to the so-called Arab spring, to the protesters in Bahrain, the U.S. selling any arms to the government of Bahrain is exactly like Russia selling arms to Syria. Bahrain has become the United States' test on how serious they are about standing against human rights violations, and they are failing miserably."
UPDATE: Late Friday evening, the State Department sent out a lenghty statement on the arms sales:
We are maintaining a pause on most security assistance for Bahrain pending further progress on reform.
During the last two weeks, representatives from the State Department and Department of Defense briefed appropriate Congressional staff on our intention to release some previously notified equipment needed for Bahrain's external defense and support of Fifth Fleet operations. This includes spare parts and maintenance of equipment. None of these items can be used against protestors.
This isn't a new sale nor are we using a legal loophole. The items that we briefed to Congress were notified and cleared by the Hill previously or are not large enough to require Congressional notification. In fact, we've gone above and beyond what is legally or customarily required by consulting with Congressional staff on items that do not require Congressional notification.
We have and will continue to use our security assistance to reinforce reforms in Bahrain. We have seen some important initial steps from the Bahraini government in implementing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's (BICI) recommendations, but more needs to be done. We urge the government of Bahrain to take action on the full range of recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation.
We will continue to consult extensively with Congress on this policy.
Over the winter break, several senators from both parties went to Myanmar. They all came back cautiously optimistic about reforms there, and ready to consider lifting some of the sanctions on the country.
Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) visited Myanmar earlier this month as part of their whirlwind tour around Southeast Asia, which included stops in the Philippines, Thailand, and the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam, the POW camp where McCain was held during the Vietnam War. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) also visited Myanmar over the winter break on separate trips.
The Cable caught up with McCain and Ayotte in the hallways of the Capitol building this week to get their take on developments in Myanmar. Both said they were genuinely impressed by what they saw as the progress toward reform made by President Thein Sein and his administration.
"There's been significant progress, particularly in the release of political prisoners. There are still some more political prisoners but that was a huge step forward," said McCain, comparing his latest visit favorably to his trip to the country last May.
McCain also noted the increasingly positive and constructive relationship between Myanmar's president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who will take part of the parliamentary elections in April.
"I'm guardedly optimistic that we are seeing a significant change there," McCain said.
In his statement to the press upon returning to Washington, McCain said the U.S. Congress was committed to begin easing and lifting U.S. sanctions as conditions warrant.
"If you had asked me during my last visit here whether I could envision the Congress lifting all sanctions against this country, I would have said that such a scenario seemed faint and distant. Today, however, it appears increasingly possible," he said. "It is our hope that, with further concrete steps toward democratic and economic reform by the government and people of this great country, our nations will be able to open an entirely new and promising chapter in our relationship."
This was Ayotte's first trip to Myanmar, part of her increasing involvement in foreign policy matters as one of the newest members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"I'm increasingly encouraged by the recent progress that they've made," Ayotte told The Cable. The delegation met with Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi.
"What we talked about was a roadmap looking forward, if they continue to make progress, of both the Congress and the administration making a roadmap of when we would lift sanctions," she said.
The elections in April need to free and fair, preferably with international monitors, and there needs to be more legislation that institutionalizes the changes in Myanmar, particularly laws that ensure the freedom of assembly, Ayotte said. Also, she said, the rest of the political prisoners need to be released.
Ayotte said Congress must consult with the State Department to coordinate whether lifting congressionally mandated sanctions or executive branch-driven sanctions should be considered first. She also said the new capital city of Naypyidaw was huge and empty.
"When you go up to the new capital, it's surreal, because you've got two ten-lane highways both ways and we were the only car on the highway," she said.
She also said that parliamentary committees in Myanmar have a lot nicer digs than the congressional committees in Washington.
"Every committee would have its own huge building just for the committee. So they've built capacity in the capital that doesn't quite match where they are right now, so that was interesting," she said.
"We're a counterbalance to China," she added. "That's what we heard from the leaders in these countries."
McConnell also praised the progress in Burma in a floor speech this week
""It appears that Burma has made more progress toward democracy in the past six months than it has in decades," he said. "As one who has taken a strong interest in Burma for over 20 years, and as the lead author in this chamber of an annual sanctions bill aimed at encouraging the Burmese government to reform, this is welcome news."
Office of Sen. John McCain
Following her successful battle with esophageal cancer, Ellen Tauscher is taking a step back and handing over several of her responsibilities as the State Department's top arms control official, State Department officials told The Cable today.
In early February, Tauscher will formally resign as undersecretary of State for arms control and international security and be appointed to a newly created position called the "special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense." She will be working part-time, using her new flexibility to work on cancer patient advocacy and pursuing projects outside of government. Officials told The Cable that after 13 years in Congress and 3 years in the administration, she decided that the time had come for her to take a breather and focus on other interests.
"Ellen has been campaigning, legislating, and working at a breakneck pace for nearly 16 years and, now with a new lease on life, she wants to focus on some new opportunities while still working on critically important national security issues," a State Department official told The Cable today.
Rose Gottemoeller, the assistant secretary of State for arms control, verification, and compliance, is expected to be named as Tauscher's replacement. She will lead the "T" office, as it is known, at least for the duration of the year, multiple State Departments officials said. There's no expectation that the Senate will be able to confirm any arms control officials before the November presidential election, so the administration won't try.
In her new special envoy role, Tauscher will report directly up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and will maintain control of several specific projects she has been working on. She will remain the lead official on the president's bilateral commission on strategic stability with Russia, and will keep her role as lead negotiator for a missile defense cooperation agreement with Russia.
Tauscher will also maintain her role overseeing the implementation of the administration's missile defense scheme in Europe, known as the Phased Adaptive Approach, which was one of her key issues when she led the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee. Tauscher will also maintain her role as the lead U.S. government official on civilian nuclear cooperation around the world, in anticipation of the Nuclear Security Summit this year in Seoul.
Officials told The Cable that Tauscher's work on cancer issues with Duke University, where she was treated, will focus on the standardization of care for cancer patients. She wants to work to ensure everybody has access to the elite level of care she received in her time of need. Her last day as undersecretary will be Feb. 6.
Defense budgeting has been even more convoluted and politicized than usual this year, mostly because of the looming $600 billion in mandatory defense cuts over ten years, known as the "trigger" or "sequestration." Republicans in Congress are pledging to stop the trigger, but there are different competing plans on how to do so.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Cable Tuesday in an interview that he is only days away from unveiling his proposal to roll back the required defense cuts that are mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, signed by President Barack Obama last August. The trigger, which also mandates $600 billion in cuts to Medicaid, was set into motion by the November failure of the congressional bipartisan "supercommittee" to strike a deal to reduce the federal budget by $1.2 trillion over the same period. The cuts are scheduled to go into effect in January 2013.
The only other legislation that has been introduced to avoid sequestration besides McCain's forthcoming proposal is the bill by House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), which would delay sequestration for both defense and entitlements for one year by reducing the federal workforce through attrition - saving money by not allowing agencies to replace workers -- over the next decade. McKeon's plan would save the approximately $120 billion needed to delay the implementation of sequestration from January 2013 until January 2014.
McCain told The Cable that McKeon's proposal was "not good." McCain said his own plan will only protect the defense budget, not entitlements, from sequestration for one year. McCain said he is also working on another plan to roll back the $460 billion of defense cuts over ten years that the Obama administration announced last April and that are being incorporated into the administration's fiscal 2013 budget request, coming next month.
"We're going to work on a one-year plan for just defense, to start with," McCain said. "We're working on one proposal to avoid sequestration. We're working on another proposal specifically on the $460 billion that's going into effect this year."
Meanwhile, the GOP House leadership has yet to endorse either the McCain or the McKeon ideas. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) told reporters Monday that he had wanted to undo the entire 10 years of defense cuts, but would consider tackling the defense cuts for one year if that's the only possibility. Some on Capitol Hill see that as Cantor moving toward the McKeon bill.
"So if ten years is a problem, then let's go back and maybe we can find one year's worth of pay for that can at least stave off the sequester from being implemented Jan. 1, 2013, so that maybe we can have this election take place and be able to avoid it," Cantor said. "I just think the defense of this country is a priority. It is the priority."
Part of the confusion over what to do about the trigger relates to the statement Obama made on the day the supercommittee failed to reach a deal.
"I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off-ramps on this one," Obama declared. "The only way these spending cuts will not take place is if Congress gets back to work to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion [over ten years]. They've still got a year to figure it out."
Many on Capitol Hill view that statement as an indication the administration won't accept efforts to bypass the trigger that only addresses the defense half of the equation.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) has his own idea on how to stave off the deep cuts to both defense and entitlements -- raise taxes.
"We should do something intelligent, which means establish priorities for any reductions but most importantly focus on revenues," Levin told The Cable today. "You've got to have revenues."
But isn't the GOP refusal to raise revenues (read = taxes) the whole reason the supercommittee failed in the first place, we asked Levin? Why does he think it's possible to do it now, in an election year?
"I think the Republicans are going to realize that the public wants fairness in the tax code, they want upper income folks to have their rates restored," Levin said.
While lawmakers decide how to stave off the sequestration cuts, the administration is battling internally over the budget release. Two sources told us that the Pentagon isn't happy about the White House's decision to delay the release of its fiscal 2013 budget request one week, from Feb. 6 to Feb. 13.
The Pentagon is going forward with its plan to preview selected parts of its budget to the public on Thursday, and lawmakers will get special briefings tonight.
Of course, all these discussions could be moot if Congress again fails to pass any appropriations bills in the run-up to the elections in November, as it did in 2010. And after the election, the entire situation could change again... especially if a Republican takes the White House.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The Treasury Department today designated Iran's third-largest bank, Bank Tejarat, as subject to new sanctions, on the same day the EU announced a complete oil embargo of Iran.
"At a time when banks around the world are cutting off Iran and its currency is depreciating rapidly, today's action against Bank Tejarat strikes at one of Iran's few remaining access points to the international financial system," Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said in a statement. "Today's sanction against Bank Tejarat will deepen Iran's financial isolation, make its access to hard currency even more tenuous, and further impair Iran's ability to finance its illicit nuclear program."
Bank Tejarat is being sanctioned for providing financial services to Bank Mellat, the Export Development Bank of Iran (EDBI), the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), and the Ministry of Defense for Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), all of which were previously sanctioned for the involvement in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Treasury also sanctioned Iran's Trade Capital Bank, a Minsk-based subsidiary of Bank Tejarat, bringing the total number of Iranian financial institutions under U.S. sanctions to 23, according to a Treasury Department fact sheet. Because the banks are being sanctioned under the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), any foreign bank that does business with these Iranian banks risks losing access to the U.S. financial system.
In its statement, Treasury accused Bank Tejarat of facilitating the movement of tens of millions of dollars to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) for the purchase of uranium. Treasury also said the bank has helped other Iranian organizations circumvent sanctions, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
"Iran's economic isolation seems to worsen each day as reflected in its plummeting currency, the Iranian rial," a senior Treasury official told reporters in a Monday afternoon briefing."
The official said the Iranian government is going to extraordinary lengths to prop up the rial.
"In recent weeks, the government has tried to ban the sale of Western currency. It reportedly has restricted citizens' ability to communicate by blocking text messages containing the word ‘euro' or ‘dollar.' Plainclothes police officers are reportedly patrolling the currency exchanges to enforce currency restrictions and arrest violators," the official said.
The Treasury and State Departments are also in the process of implementing the Menendez-Kirk sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, which the official said would cause more pain for the Iranian economy.
"The economic hardship it is currently facing will only increase in the months to come, and will continue to increase as long as Iran refuses to meaningfully engage with the international community regarding its nuclear program," the official said.
A reporter asked the official when Treasury would issue the implementation rules for the new CBI sanctions. Lawmakers are concerned the rules may be crafted in a way to allow some partner countries to avoid cutting off all business with Iran.
"As soon as they are ready," the official said.
Almost two years ago, The Cable reported on the Pentagon investigation into the actions of former Afghanistan commander Gen. David Barno, who stands accused of abusing his position as head of the Near East South Asia Center (NESA) at the National Defense University (NDU).
The investigation is complete but the Pentagon won't release it, claiming it is under "legal review," angering lawmakers who have been following the issue.
Barno, who is currently a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, ran the NESA center at NDU from 2006 to 2009, following his retirement from the Army as a three-star general. He was the head of Combined Forces Command -- Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.
A special unit of the Defense Department's Inspector General's office (IG) that focuses on senior officials opened an investigation into his leadership at NDU in 2008, following allegations that he presided over an office that misspent taxpayer funds, abused contractor employees and threatened them with termination, awarded jobs based on favoritism rather than merit, and created an overall atmosphere of fear and intimidation at the center.
Congressional efforts to get the Pentagon to share the results of its investigation have stretched on for years -- and so far have been stymied. In a series of letters between the IG's office and one of the lawmakers following the issue, obtained by The Cable, the IG's office claims that the investigation is under "legal review" and therefore the results can't be shared.
"I am concerned with recent news reports that the Director of the Near East South Asia Center, which is part of the taxpayer funded National Defense University, is alleged to have wasted taxpayer funds and hired government employees due to personal relationships and not merit," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), wrote to Inspector General Gordon Heddell, in an April 9, 2010 letter.
Three days later, Assistant Inspector General John Crane wrote to Coburn to tell him the Office of Senior Official Investigations had initiated an investigation into Barno in December 2008, based on anonymous allegations.
"The fieldwork portion of this investigation has been completed and report is being prepared," Crane wrote on April 12, 2010.
In August 2010, Crane wrote to Coburn again to say the Barno investigation report was undergoing an "internal review," and the results would be provided to Coburn after a "final review" was completed. Crane again promised to give Coburn the report in a November 2010 letter.
By February 2011, Crane still had not handed over the report, but claimed in a new letter that the investigation had been reopened due to a new allegation -- but now was finished for real. He promised again to hand over the results as soon as possible.
In May 2011, Crane wrote Coburn yet again and said that the internal review was "taking longer than originally anticipated." The last letter came in August 2011, when Crane told Coburn that the investigation had been reopened to interview one of the accusers but now was under internal review again. "The final results of this investigation will be provided to you as soon as possible," Crane wrote. That was six months ago, and no further information has been provided to lawmakers or the public.
The IG's office and Barno did not respond to requests for comment. The Cable has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for all records related to the Barno investigation and that request is still pending.
The allegations against Barno were described to The Cable by four NESA employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity, out of fear of reprisal. In one example cited by all four employees, a senior staffer close to Barno discouraged the use of Arabic at the center, despite its mandate to engage people from Arabic-speaking countries, creating an abusive work environment. Another focus of the investigators, according to the employees, was Barno's appointment of his chief of operations Rosaline Cardarelli's husband, John Ballard, a former professor of strategic studies at the National War College, as the center's academic dean.
The NESA Center's 2008 alumni symposium, which was held in Prague, also was scrutinized by investigators. NESA employees estimated that more than $250,000 of NESA funds were spent on the trip, but few alumni attended and the reasons for choosing the Czech capital to host alumni from the Near East and South Asia were never clear.
Overall, all four employees reported an atmosphere at the center that was intimidating and unfriendly, where contractors were unable to collect money for overtime hours worked and feared termination if they complained, and where Barno's top staffers monitored email and phone calls of employees to the point of harassment.
"I've never seen a situation in which such a small agency is mismanaged so badly," one NESA employee with decades of government experience told The Cable at the time. "It is to me incredible that you can have, on one hand, such mismanagement and that no one is prepared, evidently, to do anything about it."
Amid growing concerns about security in Damascus, the Obama administration is considering closing the U.S. Embassy in Damascus unless the Syrian government can guarantee security in the area, The Cable has learned.
An administration official confirmed to The Cable Friday that U.S. officials have been in discussions with the Syrian regime in an effort to negotiate new security agreements for the streets surrounding the embassy, which have become more and more dangerous for U.S. personnel as the violence in Damascus has drawn closer to the central city. Those streets house several other foreign embassies as well, meaning that if the Syrian government does not meet requests for better security guarantees, several countries could be forced to roll up their diplomatic presence in Damascus, despite their preference to stay.
"We've had serious concerns about the fact that the mission is exposed, as have other embassies," the administration official told The Cable. "We've been in to see the Syrians to request extra security measures. They are deciding what they can do. If they can't meet our concerns, we're going to have to consider closing [the embassy]."
Over the past few months, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has worked to keep the embassy open and functioning amid physical attacks on him and the embassy building, usually by groups of thugs who support the Syrian regime. Unlike newer embassy designs, the U.S. facility in Damascus sits right on the street, dangerously exposed.
"He's been working on this for a couple of weeks," the official said. The official declined to specify exactly what the security threats are or how long the Syrian government has to make up its mind.
The embassy staff remains the administration's best eyes and ears on what's going on inside Syria, U.S. officials argue, as they maintain links with both the government and the opposition.
Last week, the State Department announced that more U.S. diplomats would be leaving Damascus due to the deteriorating security situation there.
"Due to security concerns in Syria, in October 2011, the embassy was designated an unaccompanied post with restricted staffing. The Department has decided to further reduce the number of employees present in Damascus, and has ordered a number of employees to depart Syria as soon as possible," stated a Jan. 11 travel warning. "U.S. citizens should avoid all travel to Syria."
We'll bring you more as the situation develops...
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) visited the "Hanoi Hilton" prison today, where he was jailed and tortured for years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
"Touring the Hanoi Hilton this morning - it's been converted
into a museum
#Vietnam," McCain tweeted Friday from the trip through
Southeast Asia he is on with Sens. Joe
Lieberman (I-CT), Kelly Ayotte
(R-NH), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). "Also visited Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi - where
I landed after being shot down in 1967 - & the monument to my capture."
Politico reported that McCain has visited the Hanoi Hilton several times: "A frequent visitor to the Hanoi Hilton, he was last there in 2009.... McCain first returned to the Hanoi Hilton in 1985 -- the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon -- with legendary broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite. He visited again in the early 1990s with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a fellow Vietnam veteran, to promote efforts to normalize relations with the communist country. McCain also made a trip there shortly after losing the GOP presidential primary race in 2000."
Speaking with the New York Times after his 2000 trip, McCain scoffed at the Vietnamese government's whitewashing of what went on at the prison and described the daily torture and propaganda he and other prisoners were forced to endure.
"'I still bear them ill will,'' he said of the prison guards, ''not because of what they did to me, but because of what they did to some of my friends -- including killing some of them.''
McCain also tweeted photographs of the delegation's meeting with the Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang.
The delegation visited the Philippines earlier this week, where they met with President Benigno Aquino III, among others. Lieberman took the lead in tweeting during that leg of the trip.
"1st stop - Philippines. Dawn of a new era in our 60 yr alliance, which grows stronger based on shared history, interests, values, and future," Lieberman tweeted on Jan. 17. "US must support Philippines military, esp maritime domain awareness and territorial defense."
President Barack Obama's administration is working on the details of how it will implement crippling new sanctions against Iran, and the two senators who wrote the legislation warned the White House today not to water down the measures.
"We understand that the administration is drafting rules to guide the implementation of the law and we hereby seek to convey the legislative intent underlying certain terms and phrases in the amendment and to ensure that the positive developments that have occurred as a result of the amendment are buttressed by the administrative rules," wrote Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) in a letter today to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who traveled personally to Japan and China this month to discuss the issue.
The State Department has sent teams to several countries urging them to comply with the new measures imposed by the Menendez-Kirk amendment, but the administration's recent enthusiasm for the sanctions is at odds with their attempts to water down the sanctions language while it was going through Congress. The law would punish any country or bank that does business with the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), or with Iran's state-controlled oil sector.
That's why Kirk and Menendez, along with their allies, are now worried that the Obama administration will try to implement the rules in such a way that will allow some countries that refuse to stop doing business with Iran to wiggle off the hook, by delaying implementation for months or claiming that other countries' adherence is more robust than it really is.
Obama, for his part, has hailed his administration's success in establishing a broad-based coalition aimed at isolating Iran.
"When I came into office, what we had was a situation in which the world was divided, Iran was unified, it was on the move in the region. And because of effective diplomacy, unprecedented pressure with respect to sanctions, our ability to get countries like Russia and China -- that had previously balked at any serious pressure on Iran -- to work with us, Iran now faces a unified world community, Iran is isolated, its standing in the region is diminished. It is feeling enormous economic pressure," the president told Time in an interview released today.
The Menendez-Kirk letter list several concerns about the forthcoming rules, which could be unveiled as early as next week. Their two main worries are that the administration will allow countries to avoid being penalized by saying they have achieved "significant reductions" in their dealing with Iran, and that Obama will postpone implementation of the sanctions on national security grounds.
The implementation rules will define exactly what the term "significant reductions" means. Menendez and Kirk want the administration to use the same definition as was used for the last round of Iran sanctions, as dictated by the Comprehensive Iran Sanction, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), to avoid any confusion.
"To ascribe more variable terminology to the definition of ‘significantly reduced' would diminish the ability of countries to understand and comply with the amendment," the senators wrote. "An unevenly applied interpretation would also call into question the seriousness of the sanctions policy and send mixed signals to both Iran and our allies."
The senators' other main concern is that Obama will avail himself of the "national security waiver" found in the law to postpone implementing the new sanctions altogether for another 120 days. If he doesn't invoke this waiver, sanctions against countries that do business with the CBI could take hold Feb. 29. If Obama uses the waiver, he won't have to sanction any countries until late June, which tracks with the timeline the law specifies for the imposition of the oil-related sanctions.
The senators also don't think Obama should be able to waive all the sanctions with one stroke of the pen. They want him to have to waive sanctions for each country on a case-by-case basis. That's one of the things the forthcoming rules will address.
"We would welcome an opportunity to discuss these points with you prior to the publication of the final rule for the Menendez-Kirk amendment," the senators wrote -- a nice way to complain to the administration that they are not being properly consulted.
A senior Senate aide who works on the issue was more direct with The Cable.
"There's been little to no consultation or communication on this rule," the aide said. "There is growing concern that the administration may be moving toward a broad and non-specific definition for ‘significant reduction,' and the intention of the authors is that every bank that is in violation of the law would need its own national security waiver in order for the president to exempt them."
The actual rule writing is done at Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), run by Adam Szubin.
"The administration is hard at work drafting the regulations implementing the legislation. We are already using this law, in concert with our other efforts, to reduce Iran's access to oil revenue, both by working with our partners to significantly reduce their imports of Iranian crude and by impeding the CBI's ability to receive payment for whatever oil Iran is able to sell," a Treasury Department spokesman told The Cable. "We will continue our intensive engagement to ensure that the maximum amount of pressure is exerted by the international community against Iran's illicit nuclear program."
The Chinese people are increasingly frustrated with the Chinese Communist Party and the political situation in China is "very, very delicate," U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke said on Wednesday.
"I do believe that there is a power of the people, and there is a growing frustration among the people over the operations of government, corruption, lack of transparency, and issues that affect the Chinese people on a daily basis that they feel are being neglected," Locke told NPR's Steve Inskeep during a Wednesday interview, part of a media blitz Locke is conducting during his visit to Washington.
"Do you think that the situation is fundamentally stable in China right now?" Inskeep asked Locke.
"I think, very delicate -- very, very delicate," Locke responded. "But there were calls earlier this year for a Jasmine Revolution and nothing came of it. I think it would take something very significant, internal to China, to cause any type of major upheaval."
Locke said that since he took over the ambassadorship from former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, he has become aware of public demonstrations large and small throughout China that ordinary people were using to pressure the government to address their grievances. He singled out a recent protest in the southern Chinese city of Wukan over the confiscation of land without reasonable compensation.
"[The people] basically prevented anybody from the outside from coming in and brought the city to a halt and forced the Chinese government communist leaders to send people to address their grievances," Locke said.
The discord inside China is partly a result of the income and wealth disparity between China's growing middle class and the masses of poor, rural residents, Locke said. He also said the Chinese government's human rights record was worsening.
"[I]t's very clear that in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and since then, there's been a greater intolerance of dissent -- and the human rights record of China has been going in the wrong direction," said Locke.
Asked for comment at today's State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland backed up Locke's comments on human rights and the rule of law in China.
"[Locke] obviously speaks for the administration in expressing continued concern that we seem to have an increasing trend of crackdowns, forced disappearances, extralegal detentions, arrests and convictions of human rights activists, lawyers, religious leaders, ethnic minorities in China," she said.
But Nuland declined to repeat Locke's assertion that the Chinese government was potentially unstable.
"I think our message to the Chinese government on these issues is the same message that we give around the world when we have human rights concerns, that governments are stronger when they protect the human rights of their people and when they allow for peaceful dissent," she said.
The State Department shot back at the Russian government today following an attack on the new U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Mike McFaul, in the Russian state-owned media.
"The fact is that McFaul is not an expert on Russia. He is a specialist in a particular pure democracy promotion," read a report published on Tuesday on Russia 1, the television channel that is run by the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK).
The Russian state television report also criticized President Barack Obama for appointing McFaul because he is not a career diplomat and accused him of having an agenda of supporting Russian opposition groups in an attempt to destabilize the Russian government.
"This is the second case of the violation of this tradition over the past 30 years. A first exception was [former U.S. envoy to Russia] Bob Strauss, appointed by [former President George H.W.] Bush, which, again, was meant to serve the collapse of the Soviet Union," the report said.
In response to a question at today's briefing posed by The Cable, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland backed up McFaul and said that he isn't going anywhere and isn't going to stop meeting with civil society and democracy activists in Russia, as he did over the weekend.
"With regard to Ambassador McFaul, as the Russian Federation knows very well ... he is one of the U.S. government's top experts on Russia. He was, and remains, a key architect of the president's ‘reset' policy," Nuland said.
"He is obviously going to do his job, which is to continue to look for opportunities to cooperate strongly with the government in our mutual interest, but also to speak out clearly and meet with a broad cross section of Russians, including those Russians who are hopeful that their country will move in an increasingly democratic direction," Nuland added. "So he will continue to do that."
McFaul's meetings with activists just happened to coincide with a visit to Moscow by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who commented extensively on Russia's incomplete transition to democracy in an interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant.
"It is very important for people to be able to continue to express their concerns and their views openly and peacefully. We will continue to support Russians inside and outside the government who stand for transparency and accountability. That's deeply in Russia's self-interest," Burns said.
"I would stress that we have no interest -- zero interest -- in interfering in Russian politics.... Nor do we seek to offer lectures to Russians or preach to them about democracy. I know from my own experience how unenthusiastic Russians are about such lectures. What we can do, and what we will continue to do, openly and unapologetically, is to support universal human rights, to support the evolution of the rule of law and democratic institutions, to support Russia's continuing political and economic modernization."
John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign prepared an extensive opposition research file on Mitt Romney that spelled out several of Romney's flip flops on foreign policy and painted him as naïve and inexperienced on international affairs and national security.
"Romney has no foreign policy experience," reads the first bullet point in the foreign-policy section of the 200-page McCain opposition research file, posted Tuesday night by Buzzfeed. A former senior McCain campaign staffer confirmed its authenticity to The Cable. Twenty pages of the document are devoted to foreign-policy-related quotes and anecdotes the McCain campaign thought could be damaging to Romney during their 2008 primary battle.
The McCain campaign concluded that Romney was vulnerable because of statements he made seeming to endorse a "secret" timetable for Iraq withdrawal and for saying that the death of Osama bin Laden would result in a "very insignificant increase in safety" for America and that such effort was "not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars" to catch one person.
The oppo file notes that Romney's former company Bain Capital received a $2.3 million contract from the National Iranian Oil Company in 2004, after Romney left the firm, and owned a chemicals company called SigmaKalon that still operated an office in Tehran as of the time of the McCain campaign document's writing.
In 2005, Romney endorsed a plan by Citgo, which is controlled by the Venezuelan government of President Hugo Chávez, to give low priced heating oil to Massachusetts residents, the McCain document noted.
Overall, the McCain's campaign's broad conclusion was that "Romney's foreign affairs resume is extremely thin, leading to credibility problems."
Neither Romney nor President Obama served in the military, so Romney's lack of service may not become a 2012 general election issue. But the staff of Navy veteran and former prisoner-of-war McCain documented that Romney received a two-and-a-half year deferment from the Vietnam draft so that he could go on his Mormon mission to France.
Upon returning to the United States, Romney received a three-year student deferment and then drew a lottery number that allowed him to wait out the end of the draft, the document noted. There was never any evidence that Romney's powerful father intervened in any way.
"I didn't go on a mission to avoid the draft ... There was nothing wrong with [the deferments]. I followed the process like any other kid ... I never asked my dad in any way to be involved with the draft board," Romney said at the time.
The McCain research also shows that Romney's ambivalence toward George W. Bush's war in Iraq, which has come up again in recent weeks, actually dates back years. In 2007, Romney rejected the Bush administration's comparison of the U.S. presence in Iraq with the U.S. presence in South Korea and criticized an enduring troop presence there.
"We have communicated to the people in the region and the country that we're not looking to have a permanent presence in Iraq and I don't think we want to communicate that we were just kidding about that," Romney said at the time.
Some of the research Team McCain collected on Romney had little political value, but was funny nonetheless.
In a 2007 speech to Cuban-American activists in Miami, Romney tried out his Spanish and said, "Patria O Muerte, Venceremos," which he didn't realize was a favorite phrase of former Cuban President Fidel Castro that means, "Fatherland or death, we shall overcome."
In the same speech, Romney was also accused of stealing a line from the movie Scarface and mispronouncing the name of then Florida State House Speaker (now senator and rumored vice presidential contender) Marco Rubio. Romney called him "Mario."
After Turkey's Foreign Ministry lashed out at GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry for saying that Turkey is led by "Islamic terrorists," the Perry campaign doubled down on those remarks and told The Cable the incident shows why Perry is bolder than President Barack Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney on foreign policy.
"Governor Perry will not apologize because he doesn't think the comments merit an apology. He will not back down from the comments," Perry's top foreign policy advisor Victoria Coates told The Cable on Tuesday.
Coates was reacting to the Turkey's statement that it "strongly condemned" Perry's comments at Monday's GOP presidential debate, when Perry said Turkey was ruled by "what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists." He continued by saying, "Not only is it time for us to have a conversation about whether or not they belong to be in NATO, but it's time for the United States, when we look at their foreign aid, to go to zero with it."
"Turkey joined NATO while the governor was still 2 years old," the Turkish Foreign Ministry statement said. "It is a member that has made important contributions to the trans-Atlantic alliance's conflict-full history. It is among countries that are at the front lines in the fight against terrorism."
Perry himself defended the comments Tuesday afternoon. "This is a country that's got some explaining to do to the United States," Perry told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "The idea that [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan's regime has somehow or other earned our respect is not correct."
Coates pointed to the question by Fox News Channel's Bret Baier, which referred to the increased murder rate of women in Turkey, the lack of press freedom, and Turkey's support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
"The key to the whole business is to look at the question and the way it was asked," she said. "It's an important distinction that what [Perry is] saying is that the Turkish leadership is engaging in behavior that many people would associate with Islamic terrorists."
She added that Perry, who lived in Turkey as an Air Force pilot decades ago, would prefer to have a good relationship with Ankara, but "the governor's point is that [Turkish bad behavior] is not going to get better if we ignore it."
So would Perry, if elected president, put Turkey on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, along with Hamas supporters Iran and Syria? Not exactly.
"No, we would not list Turkey as a state sponsor of terrorism. We don't have any evidence of them engaging in international terrorist acts," Coates explained. "I think we know they are extremely supportive of Hamas, but these things go in stages."
But what about the new U.S. missile defense installation in Turkey and the Obama administration's efforts to encourage Turkey to push for positive change in Syria?
"We need to be very mindful of how much responsibility we hand over for something as important as the missile defense sites," said Coates. "And up until recent days, Turkey has been quite close to Syria."
Coates then called out the Romney campaign for not yet weighing in on the issue.
"It is not untypical for Gov. Perry to be more forthright about situations like this than Gov. Romney. He has less concern for niceties and is more concerned with the national security of our country," she said.
The Obama administration is ultimately responsible for "appeasing unfortunate Turkish behavior" -- part of its larger foreign-policy flaw of pursuing engagement at all costs, according to the Perry campaign.
"It is a pattern of the Obama administration that [Gov. Perry] finds deeply concerning, that outreach and engagement is the goal, whereas Gov. Perry feels that furthering American interests is the goal."
State Department spokesman Mark Toner defended Turkey at Tuesday's press briefing and said Turkey is not run by Islamic terrorists.
"We absolutely and fundamentally disagree with that assertion," Toner said. "Turkey, as I said, is a strong partner in the region. We've seen it make a very courageous stand against what's going on in Syria, for example. It continues to play a very positive and constructive role in the region. And it is, as often cited, an example of so-called Islamic democracy in action."
The Romney campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on a trip to West Africa this week to promote and encourage new African democracies, while two of her top aides fan out to two countries where democracy is teetering -- Russia and Afghanistan.
"2011 was a good year for democracy in West Africa, as it was for many places across Africa," a senior administration official told reporters on the plane ride to Liberia on Sunday, the first stop before Clinton moved on to Cote d'Ivoire, Togo, and Cape Verde.
"The administration, since it has been in office, has placed a high priority on strengthening democratic institutions, promoting good governance, holding good, free, fair elections, and encouraging conflict reconciliation and post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction. This trip is about all of those agendas and trying to promote them," the official said. "All three of the countries that we are visiting are countries that are now a part of Africa's democratic success story."
On Monday, Clinton led the U.S. delegation to the swearing-in ceremony for the second term of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the only female president in Africa and the shared winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. The large U.S. delegation at the event also included Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer, USAID Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg, AFRICOM Commander Gen. Carter Ham, and many others. Clinton last visited Liberia in April 2009.
Clinton visited Cote d'Ivoire, another West African country struggling with democratic transition, on Tuesday. It was the visit by a secretary of state to Cote d'Ivoire since George Shultz visited in 1986. Clinton is there to show support for Alassane Ouattara, who took power following the forced removal of Laurent Gbagbo, who is now on trial at The Hague for fomenting violence following his refusal to step down after last year's elections. The official who briefed reporters called Ouattara "one of Africa's newest and most dynamic presidents."
Clinton also attended a post-conflict reconciliation event and met with Ouattara, Foreign Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan, civil society groups, and U.S. embassy staff before spending the second half of the day in Togo -- the first-ever visit by a secretary of state to the country. While there, she met with President Faure Gnassingbe and U.S. embassy staff.
The U.S. official who briefed reporters offered cautious praise for Faure, who took power in flawed elections that were mired in violence after his father died in 2005. New elections in 2010 were better, the official said.
"President Faure is determined to break away from the history of his father. He is determined to put in place a strong reform-minded government -- one that is democratic, multiparty, and which opens up the country," the official said.
The official also revealed another motive for their newfound attention from the State Department.
"Equally important for us.... Togo became a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council. It will be on the council for approximately two years. It's an opportunity to develop stronger relations with them as they serve their tenure on the Security Council," the official said.
On the way home to Washington, Clinton stopped in Sal Island, Cape Verde, and met with Prime Minister José Neves.
Special Representative Marc Grossman also left Sunday on a trip that will take him to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, and Qatar, where he reportedly will be finalizing the arrangements for the next step in peace negotiations with the Taliban.
Back in Washington, the State Department has been left in the capable hands of Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides, who has a very full day of meetings, including with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, British Ambassador-designate Sir Peter Westmacott, Pakistani Ambassador Sherry Rehman, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, Japanese Minister Goshi Hosono, Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, and others.
That leaves Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman to represent State at President Barack Obama's Tuesday afternoon meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, where the two leaders are expected to discuss the crisis in Syria.
The United States is planning to send an ambassador back to Burma as President Barack Obama's administration carefully ramps up its engagement with the Burmese junta in the hope of encouraging greater reform there.
"In Indonesia, I spoke about the flickers of progress that were emerging in Burma. Today, that light burns a bit brighter, as prisoners are reunited with their families and people can see a democratic path forward," Obama said in a Friday statement, following the junta's announcement that it would release 651 of the estimated 2,000 political prisoners in the country. "Much more remains to be done to meet the aspirations of the Burmese people, but the United States is committed to continuing our engagement with the government in Nay Pyi Taw."
"I have directed Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and my administration to take additional steps to build confidence with the government and people of Burma so that we seize this historic and hopeful opportunity," Obama said.
Clinton became the first secretary of State in over 50 years to visit Burma when she traveled there in December. In her own statement, she said she has seen progress in the country on several fronts, and emphasized that Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi also welcomed the junta's recent steps as a sign of the government's commitment to reform. Clinton also noted the ceasefire announced Thursday between the Junta and the Karen National Union, an opposition ethnic group that has been fighting the regime for decades.
Clinton noted several indications of progress in Burma, including the government's easing of restrictions on media and civil society, engaging Suu Kyi in a substantive dialogue, amending electoral laws to pave the way for her party to participate in the political process, setting a date for the by-elections this year, passing new legislation to protect the right of assembly and the rights of workers, beginning to provide humanitarian access for the United Nations and NGOs to conflict areas, and establishing its own national Human Rights Commission.
"As I said last December, the United States will meet action with action. Based on the steps taken so far, we will now begin," she said. "An American ambassador will help strengthen our efforts to support the historic and promising steps that are now unfolding."
These steps and optimistic rhetoric is being accompanied by a whole slew of high-level U.S. delegations to Burma. The State Department's Special Representative for Burma Derek Mitchell visited this week, as did the State Department's Ambassador at Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Luis CdeBaca. A senior State Department official said that Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman will travel to Burma next week.
There are also a series of congressional visits to Burma in the pipeline. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) was in Burma this week. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will be there next week. And more lawmakers are planning visits soon after, we're told. Sens. Jim Webb (D-VA) and John McCain (R-AZ) were the only U.S. lawmakers to visit Burma in the past three years.
The United States had an ambassador in Burma from 1947 until 1990, when career Foreign Service officer Burton Levin left the post but was not replaced. Since 1990, the U.S. mission in Burma has been led by a chargé d'affaires, currently Michael Thurston.
A senior State Department official, speaking with reporters Friday, warned that it might take a while to actually place an ambassador in Burma. The nominee has to be selected, vetted, and then confirmed. Confirmations this year could be difficult due to the GOP fight with Obama over his recess appointment of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray, which Republicans believe is legally suspect.
Two names that were floated in the past for Mitchell's job -- and now therefore may be up for the ambassador's position -- were former NSC Senior Director for Asia Mike Green, now with CSIS and Georgetown, and Human Rights Watch Washington Executive Director Tom Malinowski, a leading writer on Burma. Green is close to Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affair Kurt Campbell, the architect of the administration's Burma policy, as is Mitchell. Malinowski is set to travel to Burma next week.
In October, The Cable reported on the details of the State Department's plan for engaging Burma through "step for step" actions that could lead to a relaxing of international and U.S. sanctions. The conventional wisdom is that the administration would first focus on relaxing those sanctions that don't require going through Congress, such as executive orders against Burmese individuals and restrictions on lending to Burma through international financial institutions.
The State Department official emphasized that Congress would be consulted every step of the way and he singled out Webb for special recognition.
"He has pioneered many of these actions. He was one of the first senators on the ground, pushing for the release of prisoners, asking the United States to engage actively. And the secretary wanted me to underscore his service ... basically as a diplomat in the Senate," the official said.
Campbell clashed with Webb early in the administration because Webb was out ahead of the administration's Burma policy, pushing for more robust engagement. Webb also gave Campbell grief during Campbell's confirmation process, but the two have made up now and, more significantly, their approaches to Burma are now in alignment.
The Burmese government has also signed a ceasefire with ethnic Karen rebels, and is reportedly pursuing deals with other rebel groups. The Cable asked the official if there are signs that the junta has actually halted its violence against ethnic minorities, considering that it has broken ceasefires in the past and reports on the ground point to continued and widespread violations of human rights.
"It's difficult to fully ascertain whether or not there's been a diminution of violence in ethnic areas ... but there still are unacceptable levels of violence in ethnic areas and that continues," the official said.
CNN wanted to know when the U.S. government will stop calling the country "Burma" and start using the junta's preferred name, "Myanmar." The official said the United States would discuss that with stakeholders both inside and outside Burma.
"There are many factors that go into that," the official said. "We adhere to the reference of the country as Burma. The secretary and Aung San Suu Kyi discussed this when they were together and this is an issue that will be addressed in due course."
President Barack Obama is prepared to give the order to strike Iran to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon if sanctions and international pressure prove ineffective, said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who just returned from a whirlwind trip around the region.
"[Obama] is definitely capable of ordering a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities," Lieberman told The Cable in a Friday interview. "Do I know that he will? No. But the Iranians and others will be foolishly mistaken if they assume that he will not in any circumstance order a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if the sanctions don't work."
"I don't know that the president will order a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities even if the sanctions don't work, but I know that he's capable of doing that and I believe he's prepared to do that," he said, adding that he doesn't think Obama would ever send ground troops to Iran.
Over the New Year's break, Lieberman visited Israel, Iraq, Tunisia, and Libya, and he said Iran was the number one concern of leaders in the region. In previous meetings, Israeli officials had focused almost entirely on U.S. red lines and their concern over whether Obama would really attack Iran if push came to shove, emphasizing that Israel would attack if the United States doesn't. But now the Israeli government seems more willing to let the sanctions strategy run its course, Lieberman said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview this week that Iran is beginning to show signs of cracking under the international sanctions regime.
"Not only do the Israelis believe the U.S. and the international community has to go through every economic effort to change the mind of the Iranian leadership, but now they believe it might actually work. They believe that the economic sanctions are having an effect on the Iranian economy and beginning to have an effect on the regime," he said.
Lieberman himself doesn't believe that the Iranian regime will ever transform into a constructive member of the world community, but he holds out hope that the sanctions, due to their effect on the Iranian people, could force the regime to rethink its strategy.
"The only thing the Iranian government cares more about than the development of their nuclear weapons is the survival of the regime," he said.
The Obama administration has been adamant that regime change per se is not the goal of U.S. sanctions. On Wednesday, a Washington Post article initially quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying "regime change" was the goal, but then was quickly corrected to say "public ire" was the sanctions' goal, not regime change. Today, a U.S. official told AFP that the goal of the sanctions was to "close down" the Central Bank of Iran (CBI).
When the Menendez-Kirk amendment -- which imposed sanctions on the CBI and eventually became U.S. law -- came up the Senate, the administration resisted the measure, warning it could harm the U.S. economy and aid Iran's economy. These days, the administration has changed its stance and is now embracing the sanctions.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner traveled to Japan and China this week to encourage them to cut off their dealings with the CBI, and the State Department instructed all of its ambassadors to meet with their host governments to explain the new law and express the administration's intention to enforce it.
Back in Washington, pro-sanctions senators aren't taking any chances that the administration might back off its newer, tougher stance vis-à-vis Iran. Congress is encouraging the EU to implement a full oil embargo, and the Senate plans to bring up a new round of Iran sanctions legislation for consideration as early as next month.
Lieberman and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also plan to introduce a new Senate resolution to express the sense of Congress that a containment strategy for Iran that falls short of doing everything possible to stop the Islamic Republic from obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable.
"Now the Iranians are clearly hurting. We have to make clear to them that if they don't respond to the economic and diplomatic pressures, that containment is not an option. We're not going to just sit there and let them become a nuclear power," Lieberman said about his forthcoming resolution. "I think is a way for Congress of saying with all the options on the table, containment cannot be one [of the options]."
But isn't the Senate's action also directed at the Obama administration, to make it clear to the White House that Congress does not accept a containment strategy for a nuclear Iran?
"Yes, exactly," Lieberman said. "But the first target of the resolution is Iran."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
The United States and Russia will conclude a missile defense cooperation agreement eventually as a result of the "strategic stability" talks between the two powers, according to the State Department's top arms control official.
"We will get a missile defense agreement for cooperation with Russia," Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher told a meeting of the Defense Writers Group on Thursday. "I believe that missile defense is the metaphor for the opportunity of getting things right [in the U.S.-Russia relationship]. It's been an irritant in our relationship for 30 years. It's also the place where great European powers, including Russia, can work together cooperatively."
Tauscher talked at length about her ongoing discussions, which she dubbed "strategic stability" talks, with Russian officials over missile defense. These have centered around cooperation on the Obama administration's European missile defense program, known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, she said.
"Almost everything else that you work with on European security has been settled, decided, and worked on together for decades. The only thing that's new where you can bring the Russians in is missile defense," Tauscher said. "This is the place where we can begin to put aside the Cold War and ‘mutually assured destruction' and move toward ‘mutually assured stability.'"
Your humble Cable guy asked Tauscher why the Obama administration's optimism about a missile defense agreement with Moscow seems so far removed from the pessimism of leading Russian officials. In a November speech, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggested talks had broken down and he threatened several retaliatory measures, including Russia's potential withdrawal from the New START nuclear reductions agreement.
Tauscher responded that these statements were part of the Russian campaign season and that progress would speed up once the March Presidential elections in Russia had subsided. She also acknowledged that the Russians are demanding a legally binding document from the Obama administration promising U.S. missile defenses in Europe will not impact Russia's strategic deterrent, which Tauscher said they will never get.
"We will never do a legally binding agreement because I can't do one. I can't get anything ratified. Even if I wanted to I'm not sure I would.... ‘Legally binding' doesn't mean what it did before," Tauscher said. "What they are looking for really is a sense that future administrations are going to live by [Obama's commitments]. And you can't really do that."
GOP senators fought hard against during the New START debate against giving Russia any assurances that could be seen as limits on the U.S. missile defense system. Tauscher said the only way for Russia to be assured about the U.S. system was to cooperate fully in its implementation.
"The only way they are going to be assured ... the system does not undercut their strategic deterrent is to sit with us in the tent in NATO and see what we are doing. They will only be their own eyes and ears," she said. "Is it a political leap of faith? Yes. Are they ready to do it? No. But we are hoping that these strategic stability talks over the next 8 months will start to loosen these old ties that have been binding everybody in the old way of thinking."
Tauscher also said implementation of New START with Russia was going extremely well, one year after ratification. There have been 1,700 notifications [of missile movements, etc] and each side has done near the maximum allowed number of inspections, she said.
"We have a very good treaty. Nobody claimed it was the best or the biggest treaty in the world. But it's a modest treaty that has served us in so many different ways," she said. "New START is just doing great."
Tauscher said the Obama administration hopes the "strategic stability" talks will establish reliability and durability in the U.S.-Russia relationship, which will lead to further nuclear reduction talks following Russia's presidential election, including discussions about reducing Russia's tactical nuclear stockpile.
"We want to get back to the table with the Russians both on strategic and non-strategic, deployed and non-deployed. That means everything," she said "We need the elections can pass so that both sides can get back to the table."
Overall, Tauscher disputed the contention that U.S.-Russia relations have peaked, and she dismissed those who have pointed to official comments from either side that seem to indicate the U.S.-Russia "reset" policy is coming to an end.
"While you might pick little data points out and say well there's a little bit of snotty talk here or there... the truth is everything is moving along, nose up, things are good."
The State Department is further scaling down the staff at the U.S. embassy in Damascus, citing increased violence and the inability of U.S. diplomats to effectively do their jobs there.
"Due to security concerns in Syria, in October 2011, the embassy was designated an unaccompanied post with restricted staffing. The Department has decided to further reduce the number of employees present in Damascus, and has ordered a number of employees to depart Syria as soon as possible," stated a Jan. 11 travel warning. "U.S. citizens should avoid all travel to Syria."
Airline services into and out of Syria are also cutting operations and U.S. citizens should leave now if they can, the travel warning stated. The consular section at the U.S. embassy in Damascus is no longer going to be open to the public, so American citizens will now have to make an appointment. Moreover, the embassy is warning Americans that if they get in trouble in Syria, they might be on their own.
"Our ability to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency is extremely limited and may be further constrained by the fluid security situation," the warning said. "Syrian efforts to attribute the current civil unrest to external influences have led to an increase in anti-foreigner sentiment. Detained U.S. citizens may find themselves subject to allegations of incitement or espionage. Contrary to the terms of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, of which Syria is a signatory, Syrian authorities generally do not notify the U.S. Embassy of the arrest of a U.S. citizen until days or weeks after the arrest. Moreover, in the past, security officials have not responded to U.S. Embassy requests for consular access, especially in cases of persons detained for ‘security' reasons. There have been numerous credible reports of torture in Syrian prisons."
One embassy official who won't be leaving, however, is Ambassador Robert Ford, who continues to engage Syrians both in person and on the U.S. embassy's Facebook page. In his Jan. 5 post, Ford acknowledged that terrorists may be attacking the Syrian regime but said that the regime was broadly responsible for the violence.
"Indeed there are terrorists attacking people in Syria. I'm the American ambassador and I just acknowledged it; in fact we've acknowledged and condemned violence all along," wrote Ford. "We strongly condemned the December 23 suicide car bomb attacks. But the question is what started all this violence and how to stop it? Can the Syrian government oppress a large part of the population that demands dignity and respect of basic human rights or is its violence making things even worse?"
French journalist Gilles Jacquier was killed in the city of Homs today on a government-sponsored trip of the city, becoming the first Western reporter killed during the Syria conflict. The perpetrators of the attack remain a mystery.
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