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.
The resignation of President Barack Obama's chief of staff shows that the White House is unstable and its national security policies remain dangerous, a top surrogate for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney told The Cable today.
"This unexpected move of Bill Daley out points to a lack of stability," said former Senator Jim Talent in a Tuesday interview.
Talent, who is one of Romney's closest advisors on national security, also harshly criticized Obama's decision to revamp U.S. military strategy, which he announced at the Pentagon on Jan. 5. The new strategy review, released only weeks ahead of Obama's fiscal 2013 budget request, calls for a "smaller and leaner" military and backs off from previous strategy documents that mandated the U.S. military maintain the capability to fight two major wars at the same time.
"I think it's going to encourage provocative actions around the world," said Talent. "It's a signal that America's not going to continue exercising a leadership role, it's very dangerous. And you know that one of the amazing things about it is that it's explicitly a budget-driven decision, in other words there's no pretense that this is a change based on strategic analysis."
When announcing the new defense strategy, Obama said, "The tide of war is receding" -- but the Romney team doesn't see it that way at all.
"That sends the wrong message, it encourages other countries to believe that they can provoke and challenge us, and it will end up costing us more money," said Talent. "It's so much an explicit confession of bankruptcy in terms of defense policy, I almost don't know how to respond to it."
In fact, Talent said that Obama's strategic review is more damaging than the military cuts made by President Bill Clinton's administration following the end of the Cold War.
"That two-war standard was continued in the post-Cold War era by the Clinton administration and was deemed necessary in the 1990s -- and that was before the 9/11 attacks, that was before the rise of Chinese power, and that was before Russia reassumed a more aggressive posture," said Talent. "So if it was necessary according to President Clinton in the 1990s before those additional risks ... how could it not be necessary now?"
Talent laid some of the top foreign policy priorities in a Romney administration, framing them as areas where it was necessary to fix Obama's missteps. These include a new policy to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, the importance of channeling China in a direction of peaceful competition rather than aggression, the need to reestablish the strength of traditional allies, the need for the United States to play a larger leadership role in the international community, and the need to reverse Obama-era defense cuts and restore military strength.
"Governor Romney believes that the Obama administration has pursued a policy of weakness across the spectrum of areas," Talent said.
Richard Ellis/Getty Images
A bipartisan group of eight senators are urging the European Union to level an oil embargo on Iran, while back in Washington both parties are preparing for another push on further Iran sanctions legislation.
"We write to you now to express our belief that 2012 will bring a turning point in the confrontation between Iran and the international community," wrote Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Bob Casey (D-PA), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), in a Jan. 10 letter to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton.
"Despite economic sanctions that have been put in place in recent years, the strategic calculus of the Iranian regime with regard to its nuclear program has not changed.... For this reason, we believe that it is necessary now to put additional pressure on the Iranian regime by imposing an embargo on its most important export -- oil -- and sanctions on its primary financial intermediary -- the Central Bank of Iran," the letter said.
The EU has signaled recently that there is consensus in principle to go forward with an oil embargo and impose more Iran sanctions, mirroring those passed by Congress and signed reluctantly by President Barack Obama. The EU Council meets at the end of the month, which likely would be the time for an announcement of new sanctions.
"What was unthinkable just a few months ago is now being seriously debated inside the EU: an oil embargo and Central Bank sanctions against Iran," a senior Senate aide told The Cable. "In order to empower those forces inside the EU who are pushing for tough action on both oil and CBI as quickly as possible, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have an urgent responsibility to send a clear, persistent, and strong message to the Europeans about the importance of this issue in the weeks ahead. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen if the White House is doing so."
The administration is supporting the new EU sanctions in its public statements. "We're encouraged by the signs that we've seen, that they seem to have some preliminary agreement. This is something that we strongly support," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.
Congress is also planning to renew consideration of more sanctions on Iran when it returns from winter recess. The Senate plans to take action on the Iran, North Korea, Syria Sanctions Consolidation Act, which is sponsored by Menendez, Kyl, Lieberman, Kirk, and Gillibrand. That bill, a version of which was passed by the House in December, would tighten current sanctions by doing three main things: 1) remove some of the flexibility the Obama administration enjoys to delay enforcement of certain measures; 2) target Iran's shipping and trade; and 3) push the administration to increase promotion of human rights, democracy, and greater access to information inside Iran.
The bill has been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but Hill aides expect it to be reintroduced and referred to the Senate Banking Committee, which traditionally has jurisdiction over Iran sanctions matters. That could happen as early as next month.
Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is traveling to Beijing this week to try to convince the Chinese to go along with the existing sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), which require the United States to punish any country's central bank if it does business with the CBI. The Chinese preemptively announced that they have no intention of going along with that plan.
The choice of Geithner for the job struck many on Capitol Hill as odd, considering Geithner is on record as opposing the CBI sanctions and was reportedly personally involved in the administration's efforts to water down the legislation, even writing a letter opposing the stricter measures.
"I am writing to express the administration's strong opposition to this amendment because, in its current form, it threatens to undermine the effective, carefully phased, and sustainable approach we have taken to build strong international pressure against Iran," wrote Geithner in December. "In addition, the amendment would potentially yield a net economic benefit to the Iranian regime."
"What a great irony that a month ago he puts his signature to a letter opposing the sanctions that he is now going around the world to seek enforcement of," a senior GOP congressional aide said, adding that the Hill is waiting for Treasury to issue its final rule for implementation of the CBI sanctions.
"We will be watching closely to see if they try to narrow the scope and what they try to do to water down sanctions now that they tried very hard unsuccessfully to water down before."
The State Department tried something new last Friday, answering selected questions posed via Twitter. Today, a Sudan human rights organization that was one of the selected questioners called the answer it got on Sudan policy "unconvincing," "unacceptable," "a broken record," and "condescending."
The Twitter press conference, where State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland will give answers to questions posed over Twitter following each Friday press briefing in January, is an experiment in State's ever-evolving strategy that it has dubbed "21st Century Statecraft."
Act for Sudan, an alliance of grassroots advocacy organizations, suggested one of the five tweets that was chosen and answered by Nuland, but the group is unhappy with the result.
The tweet, sent by @ObSilence but identical to the tweet suggested by Act for Sudan, was: "Why doesn't @StateDept support regime change in #Sudan where government-led genocide continues? Why Syria+Libya but not #Sudan?"
"Well, first of all, ObSilence, each country and each situation is different," Nuland responded. "But I will say that in Sudan, for many years, we have continued to press for concrete, meaningful, democratic reforms and accountability and an end to the violence. We have pushed hard for an end to the fighting in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and a full resolution of the Darfur conflict. Those responsible for crimes and crimes against humanity have to be held accountable."
Nuland went on to say that normalization between the United States and Sudan could only progress when violence ends, and she called on the government to work with civilians to resolve their issues. She also acknowledged that "deplorable human rights conditions and unacceptable practices of bombing innocent civilians and denying humanitarian access continue."
Act for Sudan put out a release today saying that several of its members were wholly unsatisfied by that answer, and believed that Nuland sidestepped the question in a way that downplayed the tragedy of the human rights situation in Sudan.
"Of course, we realize that all countries and situations are different, but does the United States of America have no standards regarding its responsibilities in the face of genocide and crimes against humanity?" said Eric Cohen, an Act for Sudan spokesman.
"In Libya, with thousand of civilians in danger, President Obama rightly authorized limited military action to help protect them, and publicly called for Libya's brutal dictator to step aside," said Cohen. "Why then, with millions of civilians endangered in Sudan by their own government, is the U.S. not leading the international community in its responsibility to protect the people of Sudan, by all means necessary, including military options? Why are we not leading the call for the ouster of Sudan's president and his cronies, who are indicted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes?"
Act for Sudan coordinated an open letter in November signed by 66 organizations to President Barack Obama asking the United States to urgently address civilian protection and humanitarian assistance for Sudanese under attack by their own government. Among other recommendations, the letter asked Obama to instruct the National Security Council to accelerate decisions regarding protection of Nuba, Blue Nile, and Darfuri populations from air attacks and to seriously consider the destruction of offensive aerial assets and the imposition of a no-fly zone. It also requests the immediate initiation of a cross-border emergency aid program to the Nuba Mountains, Darfur, Blue Nile and Abyei regions.
The Obama administration may be experimenting with unique ways to engage with the world through this Twitter press conference, but as this latest scuffle shows, social media remains a two-way street. And the Twitter world can now experience what reporters have known all along - answers given during press conferences rarely fully answer the question, much less satisfy the questioner.
A bipartisan group of foreign-policy experts is calling on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to do all she can to ensure the fair treatment and safety of former Pakistani Ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani, who fears for his life in Pakistan due to fallout from the Memogate scandal.
Haqqani, who resigned and returned to Pakistan last November, told the New York Times this weekend that he was under virtual house arrest in the guest quarters of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's compound in Islamabad because he fears he could be murdered if he leaves the grounds. His lawyer said Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) "might pick him up and torture him" to elicit a confession of treason.
Last week, three U.S. senators issued a statement calling for fair treatment of Haqqani and criticizing the Pakistani government's decision to confiscate his passport, despite the fact that he has not been formally charged with any crime. Today, 16 leading regional experts sent a letter to Clinton, obtained by The Cable, asking her to pressure the Pakistani government to make sure Haqqani's rights aren't violated.
"While we, as individuals, may not have always agreed with Ambassador Haqqani's views, we regarded him as an effective presenter of Pakistani positions in the Washington context. In keeping with its traditional support for human rights and its deep interest in a firmly democratic Pakistan, the U.S. government should do all it can to ensure Haqqani receives due process without any threat of physical harm," said the letter, which was organized by Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation and Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution.
"We commend the State Department for its statement on Friday calling for fair and transparent treatment of Ambassador Haqqani in accordance with Pakistani law and international legal standards. We would urge the U.S. government to continue to weigh in with key Pakistani leaders and to make appropriate public statements to ensure that Husain Haqqani is not physically harmed and that due process of law is followed."
The experts noted that Haqqani's lawyer, Asma Jehangir, recently quit, citing her lack of confidence in the judicial commission established by the Pakistani Supreme Court to investigate the case. They also said that Haqqani's case follows an "ominous trend" of pro-democracy figures in Pakistan being silenced by Islamist forces.
"The case against Haqqani follows an ominous trend in Pakistan. The assassinations of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, and journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad this past year have created a culture of intimidation and fear that is stifling efforts to promote a more tolerant and democratic society," the experts wrote. "Significant segments of the Pakistani media have already judged Haqqani to be guilty of treason, which could inspire religious extremists to take the law into their own hands as they did with Taseer and Bhatti."
Riedel led the Obama administration's 2009 Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review, which focused heavily on engaging Pakistan. But since the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Riedel has been calling for a wholesale course change in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
The State Department is continuing to roll out big changes to its bureaucracy, inaugurating today a new "super office" to focus on protecting individuals by working outside of formal state-to-state channels, called the Office of Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.
Similar to last month's rollout of the super office of economics, energy, and the environment, this new office combines new and existing bureaus at State to increase coordination and tackle these issues more efficiently. The changes were spelled out last year in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) and take effect today. The new structure will be described in State's brief shorthand as the "J" family.
The office's main mission is to improve the ways in which the U.S. government can promote the protection of individuals abroad and increase interactions with foreign civilian organizations.
"As we are seeing the increasing importance of using non-military tools to address transnational threats, it is very important for the State Department to develop its own capacity to address civilian security," said Maria Otero, the leader of the new office, in a Thursday interview with The Cable. Otero was previously the undersecretary of State for democracy and global affairs. In her new position, she will be charged with overseeing over 1,500 people all over the world.
"This piece focuses on protecting individuals. It focuses not just engaging state to state, but taking on the bold foreign policy statement that we need to engage also with players and actors outside of the traditional ones we've engaged in."
State will now be able to better coordinate its engagement with civil society, the private sector, and other non-governmental actors, she said. She referenced Egypt, where State works on security sector reform and human rights, as an example. Now officials can coordinate to "be able to engage not only with the SCAF but also with the bloggers," Otero said.
Other regions where Otero is looking to focus the attention of her new super office are Burma, Central America, Africa's Great Lakes region, and North Africa. Otero has visited Central America, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Tunisia, and several other countries over the last year.
Otero said the changes will allow State to do more without an increase in financial resources, but will require a light increase in staffing.
She will now be in charge of 5 functional bureaus and three offices. They are the brand new Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), to be led by nominated Assistant Secretary Rick Barton; the brand new Bureau of Counterterrorism (CT), to be led by Amb. Daniel Benjamin; the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), which is led by Assistant Secretary Michael Posner; the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), led by Assistant Secretary William Brownfield; and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) led by acting Assistant Secretary David Robinson.
Otero already had jurisdiction over DRL and PRM, but is now taking over INL from the office of Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of political affairs. The SCO and CT bureaus were offices reporting directly to Clinton before.
The J family also now includes the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP), led by Ambassador Luis CdeBaca; the Office of Global Criminal Justice (CGJ), formerly the Office of War Crimes Issues (WCI), led by Ambassador-at-Large Stephen Rapp; and the Office of Global Youth Issues, led by future Rhodes scholar, Yale Law graduate, and country-music recording artist Ronan Farrow.
Some in State see the recent bureaucratic changes there as part of Clinton's plan to institutionalize her priorities by turning individual offices that reported directly to her into permanent structures that will remain after her departure, which is widely expected to occur next year. Otero said the changes were a response to the changing diplomatic landscape, which is increasingly influenced by non-state actors.
"This is the implementation of the vision the secretary had," she said. "She's done a strategic review, she's made changes, and now the form is following the substance."
The organizational chart for the new office can be found here.
As the violence in Syria spirals out of control, top officials in President Barack Obama's administration are quietly preparing options for how to assist the Syrian opposition, including gaming out the unlikely option of setting up a no-fly zone in Syria and preparing for another major diplomatic initiative.
Critics on Capitol Hill accuse the Obama administration of being slow to react to the quickening deterioration of the security situation in Syria, where more than 5,000 people have died, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many lawmakers say the White House is once again "leading from behind," while the Turks, the French, and the Arab League -- which sent an observer mission to Syria this week -- pursue more aggressive strategies for pressuring the Assad regime. But U.S. officials insist that they are moving cautiously to avoid destabilizing Syria further, and to make sure they know as much as possible about the country's complex dynamics before getting more involved.
The administration does see the status quo in Syria as unsustainable. Bashar al-Assad's regime is a "dead man walking," State Department official Fred Hof said this month. Now, the administration is ramping up its policymaking machinery on the issue after several weeks of having no top-level administration meetings to discuss the Syria crisis. The National Security Council (NSC) has begun an informal, quiet interagency process to create and collect options for aiding the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.
The process, led by NSC Senior Director Steve Simon, involves only a few select officials from State, Defense, Treasury, and other relevant agencies. The group is unusually small, presumably to prevent media leaks, and the administration is not using the normal process of Interagency Policy Committee, Deputies Committee, or Principals Committee meetings, the officials said. (Another key official inside the discussions is Hof, who is leading the interactions with Syrian opposition leaders and U.S. allies.)
The options under consideration include establishing a humanitarian corridor or safe zone for civilians in Syria along the Turkish border, extending humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels, providing medical aid to Syrian clinics, engaging more with the external and internal opposition, forming an international contact group, or appointing a special coordinator for working with the Syrian opposition (as was done in Libya), according to the two officials, both of whom are familiar with the discussions but not in attendance at the meetings.
"The interagency is now looking at options for Syria, but it's still at the preliminary stage," one official said. "There are many people in the administration that realize the status quo is unsustainable and there is an internal recognition that existing financial sanctions are not going to bring down the Syrian regime in the near future."
After imposing several rounds of financial sanctions on Syrian regime leaders, the focus is now shifting to assisting the opposition directly. The interagency process is still ongoing and the NSC has tasked State and DOD to present options in the near future, but nothing has been decided, said the officials -- one of whom told The Cable that the administration was being intentionally careful out of concern about what comes next in Syria.
"Due to the incredible and far-reaching ramifications of the Syrian problem set, people are being very cautious," the official said. "The criticism could be we're not doing enough to change the status quo because we're leading from behind. But the reason we are being so cautious is because when you look at the possible ramifications, it's mindboggling."
A power vacuum in the country, loose weapons of mass destruction, a refugee crisis, and unrest across the region are just a few of the problems that could attend the collapse of the Assad regime, the official said.
"This isn't Libya. What happens in Libya stays in Libya, but that is not going to happen in Syria. The stakes are higher," the official said. "Right now, we see the risks of moving too fast as higher than the risks of moving too slow."
The option of establishing a humanitarian corridor is seen as extremely unlikely because it would require establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, which would likely involve large-scale attacks on Syrian air defense and military command-and-control systems.
"That's theoretically one of the options, but it's so far out of the realm that no one is thinking about that seriously at the moment," another administration official said.
Although the opposition is decidedly split on the issue, Burhan Ghalioun, the president of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), earlier this month called on the international community to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria.
"Our main objective is finding mechanisms to protect civilians and stop the killing machine," said Ghalioun. "We say it is imperative to use forceful measures to force the regime to respect human rights."
Is the U.S. bark worse than its bite?
Rhetorically, the administration has been active in calling for Assad to step aside and emphasizing the rights of Syrian protesters, despite the lack of clear policy to achieve either result. "The United States continues to believe that the only way to bring about the change that the Syrian people deserve is for Bashar al-Assad to leave power," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Dec. 21.
On Tuesday, Dec. 27, the administration hinted at stronger action if the Syrian government doesn't let the Arab League monitors do their work. "If the Syrian regime continues to resist and disregard Arab League efforts, the international community will consider other means to protect Syrian civilians," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
The SNC, the primary organization representing the opposition, has been very clear that it is seeking more than rhetorical support from the United States and the international community. An extensive policy paper titled, "Safe Area for Syria," edited by SNC member Ausama Monajed, laid out the argument for armed intervention by the international community to aid Syrian civilians.
"The Syrian National Council (SNC) is entering a critical phase in the Syrian revolution whereby the hope of a continued campaign of passive resistance to an exceptionally brutal and unrestrained regime is becoming more and more akin to a suicide pact," the paper stated.
But Washington is uncomfortable acting in concert with the SNC: Officials say there is a lack of confidence that the SNC, which is strongly influenced by expatriate Syrians, has the full support of the internal opposition. U.S. officials are also wary of supporting the Syria Free Army, made up of Syrian military defectors and armed locals, as they do not want to be seen as becoming militarily engaged against the regime -- a story line they fear that Assad could use for his own propaganda, officials said.
There is also some internal bureaucratic wrangling at play. This summer, when the issue of sending emergency medical equipment into Syria came up in a formal interagency meeting, disputes over jurisdiction stalled progress on the discussion, officials told The Cable. No medical aid was sent.
For now, the administration is content to let the Arab League monitoring mission play out and await its Jan. 20 report. The officials said that the administration hopes to use the report to begin a new diplomatic initiative in late January at the U.N. Security Council to condemn Assad and authorize direct assistance to the opposition.
The officials acknowledged that this new initiative could fail due to Russian support for the Assad regime. If that occurs, the administration would work with its allies such as France and Turkey to establish their own justification for non-military humanitarian intervention in Syria, based on evidence from the Arab League report and other independent reporting on Assad's human rights abuses. This process could take weeks, however, meaning that material assistance from the United States to the Syrian opposition probably wouldn't flow at least until late February or early March. Between now and then, hundreds or even thousands more could be killed.
There is also disagreement within the administration about whether the Arab League observer mission is credible and objective.
"This is an Arab issue right now, and the Arab League is really showing initiative for the first time in a long time," said one administration official.
"[The Arab League monitoring mission] is all Kabuki theatre," said another administration official who does not work directly on Syria. "We're intentionally setting the bar too high [for intervention] as means of maintaining the status quo, which is to do nothing."
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the administration was caught offguard by how the opposition became militarized so quickly. The administration's message had been to urge the opposition to remain peaceful, but that ship has now sailed, he said.
"We have a pretty strong policy of not engaging the Syria Free Army directly, because earlier it was agreed that peaceful protesters had the moral high ground over the regime and were more able to encourage defections," he said. "But there was no clear light at the end of that peaceful protest strategy. We assumed, incorrectly, that the civil resistance strategies used in Egypt and Tunisia were being adopted by the Syrian opposition, but that didn't happen."
Most experts in Washington have a deep skepticism toward the Arab League monitoring mission. For one thing, it is led by a Sudanese general who has been accused of founding the Arab militias that wreaked havoc in Darfur. Also, many doubt that 150 monitors that will eventually be in Syria can cover the vast number of protests and monitor such a large country.
The Assad regime has also been accused of subverting the monitoring mission by moving political prisoners to military sites that are off-limits to monitors, repositioning tanks away from cities only when monitors are present, and having soldiers pose as police to downplay the military's role in cracking down on the protesters.
"It seems awfully risky for the U.S. to be putting its chips all in on that mission," said Tony Badran, a research fellow with the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "There never was a serious mechanism for it to be a strong initiative."
Badran said that the Arab League monitoring mission just gives the Assad regime time and space to maneuver, and provides Russia with another excuse to delay international action on Syria.
"Now you understand why the Russians pushed the Syrians to accept the monitors," he said. "It allows the Syrians to delay the emergence of consensus."
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the administration is trying to balance the value of protecting civilians with the interests of trying to ensure a measure of stability in Syria.
"The biggest thing is extensive consultation with as many international allies as possible. That's another feature of this administration," said Katulis. "And when change does come to Syria, the Syrians have to own it."
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
While Washington grappled with the consequences of Kim Jong Il's death, the United States, Japan, and India held the first meeting of what is shaping up to be a robust trilateral dialogue -- but all sides have been quick to say that it's not aimed at isolating China.
The four-hour meeting was held at the State Department on Dec. 19, and the U.S. delegation was led by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Bob Blake. Other U.S. officials in attendance included State Department Policy Planning Director Jake Sullivan, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Affairs Peter Lavoy, and NSC Senior Director for Strategic Planning Derek Chollet.
The Japanese contingent was led by Koji Tsuruoka, deputy vice minister for foreign policy, who was visiting Washington with Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba. The Indians flew in two officials, Joint Secretary for the Americas Jawed Ashraf and Joint Secretary for East Asia Gautam Bambawale.
Two State Department officials described the meeting for The Cable. "What I really loved about it was that it just seemed like a very natural conversation among friends," one of the officials said. "The amazing thing about our governments is that we really have shared values. That's the foundation of it all. That's the glue that binds us together."
The officials defined those shared values as democracy, human rights, rule of law, transparency, open markets, freedom of navigation, and an interest in international development work. "There wasn't a moment of dissonance in the whole thing," the official said. "The challenge now is to figure out what specifically we can focus on."
This was the first trilateral meeting between the three countries; the main objective of which was to set the foundation for future talks, discuss what issues would be on the agenda going forward, and set the goal of meeting again in Tokyo next year.
Topics that were discussed inside the meeting included Afghanistan, where Japan and India are large donors, the recent East Asia Summit, Central Asia, and Burma.
"We talked about how we can work together within all these Asian organizations to advance our shared values ... and what can do to help improve the workings of all these various fora," the State Department official said. "We agreed that we need to focus our collective efforts in Afghanistan to make sure all the values we share in Afghanistan are upheld and observed."
The U.S.-Japan-India trilateral dialogue is just the latest of the "mini-laterals" that the United States has undertaken recently. These groupings, which are smaller than often cumbersome multilateral groups, are becoming a preferred way for the United States to build consensus around policies with friends and allies.
There is another trilateral strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, and Australia that has been ongoing for five years, and now has half a dozen working groups. The United States and India have had a bilateral dialogue about East Asia for over two years now, led by Campbell and Blake. That dialogue has held four official meetings.
The State Department official said the United States is interested in setting up some "mini-lateral" structures that include China. U.S. policymakers also want to start a U.S.-India-China trilateral dialogue, the official said, but the Chinese won't sign on.
"Our Indian friends are happy to do it, we're willing to do it, but our Chinese friends are a little wary," the official said. The Japanese have also put forth the idea of a U.S.-Japan-China trilateral dialogue.
The State Department wants to be clear that this week's meetings were not about China. In fact, they said that the rise of China and how to deal with it wasn't discussed at the Dec. 19 trilateral meetings.
"We did talk about China, but it was in the context of other things," the official said. "We were actually looking for things we could do jointly with China."
Experts said that even if the trilateral dialogue wasn't about China, the fact that all three countries are cooperating in the effort to deal with China's rise looms over the discussions.
"The growing cooperation with India and Japan is driven by China's rise, there's no doubt about that. That doesn't mean it's directly aimed at China," said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). "They are all trying to respond to China's rise but not antagonizing China. From China's perspective, any cooperation is encirclement."
The initial Chinese reaction to the meeting was cautious. "U.S., Japan and India are countries with great influence in the Asia-Pacific region. We hope the trilateral meeting will be conducive to regional peace and stability," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters.
Countries like India are interested in deepening their ties with China as well as the United States, but joining U.S.-brokered diplomatic architectures allows India to approach its engagement with China from a position of greater strength, said Cronin.
He also said that the effort was part of the U.S. goal of increased burden sharing with India, to offset the financial cost of maintaining the U.S. presence in East Asia.
"The U.S. is not looking to spend a fortune, it's looking to be a facilitator," he said. "It brings India into East Asia and Japan into the Indian Ocean and it does that at a very low cost to the United States."
The State Department officials acknowledged that part of the driving force behind encouraging India to take on more responsibility was to shift some of the financial responsibility to countries whose economies are on the rise.
"The Indian government, for the first time in a long time, has money. It's a country that can greatly complement U.S. efforts in the region.... This theme of them being a net provider of security takes on more significance when all of a sudden they finally have the resources to expand their role," the official said.
"The whole world has been a free-rider on the United States for so long, if the Indians can help with that in an era when we face budgetary constraints, the more the better," the official said. "The U.S. has had the luxury in the past of going it alone, but it certainly makes sense to do it with your friends."
Vice President Joe Biden made waves this week when he told Newsweek that "the Taliban per se is not our enemy." The State Department said this week it agrees with that assertion, as new reports surfaced that an initial confidence building deal with the Taliban in the works had fallen apart
"There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests," Biden said. "If, in fact, the Taliban is able to collapse the existing government, which is cooperating with us in keeping the bad guys from being able to do damage to us, then that becomes a problem for us."
Biden went on to say that there is a dual-track policy in place: One track is continuing to put pressure on al Qaeda, and the other is convincing the Taliban that reconciliation and a renunciation of international terrorism is in its best interests.
Republicans pounced on Biden's remarks. GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney tweeted that the comments were "an outrageous affront to our troops carrying on the fight in Afghanistan." Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told Fox News that the comments were an "insult to the men and women who are serving today."
White House spokesman Jay Carney, however, backed up Biden, saying, "It is a simple fact that we went into Afghanistan because of the attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. We are there now to ultimately defeat al Qaeda, to stabilize Afghanistan and stabilize it in part so that al Qaeda or other terrorists who have as their aim attacks on the United States cannot establish a foothold again in that country."
The Cable asked State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland if she agreed with Biden that the Taliban were not "per se" the enemy of the United States.
"Obviously we've made clear that those Taliban who are willing to come off the battlefield, renounce violence, break ties with al Qaeda, support the constitution of Afghanistan, be part of a political process -- we would support reconciliation with them led by the Afghans," Nuland said. "We're less interested in what folks call themselves, as we've said in other parts of the world. We're more interested in what they do and in the actions that they take."
The Washington Post reported today that months-long negotiations between the United States and the Taliban have broken down. According to the Post, the deal would have included the transfer of five Afghans out of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, in exchange for the Taliban publicly renouncing international terrorism. The Taliban prisoners would have been allowed to live under house arrest in Qatar , where the Taliban plan to open an office.
The deal reportedly broke down due to the objections of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. On Dec. 18, Karzai told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that months of negotiations with the Taliban were revealed to be a farce when the purported Taliban negotiators assassinated Karzai's top negotiator, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
"The assassination of President Rabbani brought us in a shock to the recognition that we were actually talking to nobody, that those who came in the name of the peace process were assassins, were killers, were terrorists rather than negotiators," Karzai said.
"We've seen ups, and we've seen significant downs in the Afghans' efforts to create a reconciliation process," Nuland said on Dec. 19, before the reports of the secret negotiations surfaced. "I mean, the Rabbani assassination was obviously a very serious step backwards. With regard to, you know, whether we're going to have serious steps forward, I think, you know, only time will tell."
The Pentagon issued its report on the Nov. 25 raid where NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at an outpost along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, admitting that the U.S. military made mistakes that led to the incident. The Pentagon and State Department "deeply regret" the attack, but refuse to accede to Pakistani demands they issue an explicit apology.
"For the loss of life -- and for the lack of proper coordination between U.S. and Pakistani forces that contributed to those losses -- we express our deepest regret," the Pentagon said in a Thursday statement about the incident, which has pushed U.S.-Pakistani relations to new lows and has resulted in Pakistan cutting off supply lines for NATO forces in Afghanistan, which are still closed.
U.S. and NATO investigators found that the NATO forces "acted in self defense and with appropriate force after being fired upon." The investigators also determined "there was no intentional effort to target persons or places known to be part of the Pakistani military, or to deliberately provide inaccurate location information to Pakistani officials."
That quote refers to the Pakistani claim that NATO identified a location for the attack nine miles away from where they were actually attacking, which is what led to Pakistan telling NATO there were no Pakistani troops there troops in the area they were attacking.
The NATO explanation of the incident directly conflicts with the Pakistani military's own account of the incident, as explained by a Pakistani defense official to reporters in Washington last week. Pakistan's military has concluded that the NATO helicopters and planes strafed two Pakistani outposts intentionally, and they say that repeated pleas by Pakistani officials to halt the operation as it was being carried out were ignored.
At a Thursday morning briefing, Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Clark, who led the investigation, acknowledged that NATO was using the wrong map template and therefore gave the Pakistanis the wrong location during the attack
Clark also said there was reluctance to share the information about the ongoing attack with the Pakistani side because of an "overarching lack of trust" between the two militaries. The report said both sides had made mistakes during the incident due to poor coordination and communication.
At the State Department today, reporters pressed spokesman Mark Toner to explain why the U.S. government won't just say "I'm sorry," as the Pakistanis are demanding.
"We've expressed our deep regret for the loss of life and for the lack of proper coordination between the U.S. and Pakistani forces that contributed to these losses. And you know, we do accept responsibility for the mistakes that we made," said Toner. "I think there's a shared responsibility in this incident."
The New York Times reported last month that the State Department and U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter had urged the White House to issue an apology to quell Pakistani outrage, at both the official and the popular level, but the Pentagon objected.
The U.S. government is working hard behind the scenes to smooth over relations. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey called Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani on Wednesday and offered to send a briefing team to Islamabad. CENTCOM Commander Gen. James Mattis also called Kayani. Munter spoke with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.
After being pressed several times on the question of the difference between expressing "regret" and issuing an "apology," Toner finally parsed it out the best he could.
"I think ‘we regret' speaks to a sense of sympathy with the Pakistani people, I mean, in this case, but more broadly with the people affected by any incident or tragedy and, you know, speaks to the fact that we're accepting responsibility for any of our actions that may have contributed to it," said Toner. "I don't know -- an apology -- you know, you can figure that out for your own. I can only say what we're trying to express through this investigation and through the conclusion of this investigation."
"It's pretty clear from this entire conversation that you're under orders not to use the words ‘sorry' or ‘apologize,'" one reporter said to Toner.
Toner's only response to that was: "Ok. Next question?"
The Iraqi government has promised to shutter Camp Ashraf -- the home of the Iranian dissident group Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK) -- by Dec. 31. Now, the United Nations and the State Department are scrambling to move the MEK to another location inside Iraq, which just may be a former U.S. military base.
The saga puts the United Nations and President Barack Obama's administration in the middle of a struggle between the Iraqi government, a new and fragile ally, and the MEK, a persecuted group that is also on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations.
The Marxist-Islamist group, which was formed in 1965, was used by Saddam Hussein to attack the Iranian government during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and has been implicated in the deaths of U.S. military personnel and civilians. The new Iraqi government has been trying to evict them from Camp Ashraf since the United States toppled Saddam in 2003. The U.S. military guarded the outside of the camp until handing over external security to the Iraqis in 2009. The Iraqi Army has since tried twice to enter Camp Ashraf, resulting in bloody clashes with the MEK both times.
Now the United Nations, led by Martin Kobler, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), is working with the State Department to convince the Iraqi government and the MEK to open up a new home for MEK members inside Iraq, at a facility near the Baghdad airport. U.S. officials won't confirm, but also won't deny, that facility is a U.S. military base that was recently handed over to the Iraqis.
"Ambassador Kobler and we are working flat out to put together the deal for the beginning of the implementation of his plan, which is to move the people in Camp Ashraf to a new facility," a State Department official told reporters in a special Monday briefing. The United Nations and State are hoping that if an agreement is reached, the Iraqi government will push back the deadline and not invade Camp Ashraf on Dec. 31 and forcibly extradite the MEK to Iran. But time is running out.
"Time is extraordinarily short," the State Department official said. "Oh yes, we're talking days."
The State Department official said the new facility under discussion is near the Baghdad airport, and has extensive infrastructure that "is very well known to the United States." Pressed by The Cable, the official refused to confirm that it was a former U.S. military base, but wouldn't deny it either. "It's a highly credible facility," the official said.
The official could not say if there was any precedent for a group that the United States labels a foreign terrorist organization being housed in a facility built by the U.S. military with U.S. taxpayer dollars, but emphasized that all U.S. military installations have now been turned over to the Iraqi government. The Victory Base Complex near the airport has several facilities that could be used for the Camp Ashraf residents.
Nobody knows how many people are in Camp Ashraf, because nobody can go inside. The residents are also suspected to be well armed. There could be as many as 3,200 people there, according to the State Department. If they are evicted from the camp, some will voluntarily go back to Iran and some will go to other countries. Others still may not actually be MEK members but could be living there for their own reason, making their relocation easier, the official said. The unknown number of "card-carrying members" of the MEK who can't or won't be relocated are the ones who the United Nations and State are trying to move to the new camp.
The United Nations and the Iraqi government have agreed on the basic way forward, but the MEK is not on board, the State Department official said. The Iraqi government won't talk directly to the MEK, and the MEK leadership living in Paris may have different priorities than the people actually living in Camp Ashraf.
Of course, the Iraqis have been warning for months that they would close Camp Ashraf by the end of the year. So why is everybody scrambling in the last two weeks? The State Department is placing the blame squarely on the MEK.
"For a long time, the MEK position was ‘here we are and here we stay, period,'" a State Department official said. "In recent days we've had the first signs that the MEK is finally, at long last, beginning to engage in a serious way, rather than simply politically through its many, many advocates. This is a good sign."
Reporters at the briefing wondered why the United Nations and State think simply relocating the MEK to another facility will solve the problem of its status as a terrorist group whose members are unable to get refugee status in a country where they are not welcome. The official said the new facility would be better because it would give the Iraqi government some control over what goes on there.
"[Camp Ashraf] is a state within a state. It is run by the MEK and when anybody else tries to enter, well, we've seen what occurs," one State Department official said, explaining that the new camp would have some type of Iraqi government administration and yet not be in total control of the MEK. "Iraqi soveriegnty will prevail with a robust set or arrangements and U.N. monitoring."
Another reason the United Nations and State are pushing for the MEK to be moved from Camp Ashraf to another facility is that the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has refused to give refugee status to Ashraf residents because of the MEK's tight control over the people there.
"Many international observers have regarding the current facility at Camp Ashraf as a coercive environment. Independent observers have called it a cult," the State Department said. "The UNHCR requires an atmosphere in which people can make their own choice free of group pressure. What's happened in Camp Ashraf has not been conducive to this."
Advocating for the MEK is a tricky proposition for the State Department, because the organization is on its list of foreign terrorist organizations. The MEK has been lobbying hard for its removal from that list and State's review of their status has been "ongoing" for years.
As part of its multi-million dollar lobbying effort, the MEK has paid dozens of top U.S. officials and former officials to speak on its behalf, sometimes at rallies on the State Department's doorstep. MEK supporters have been stationed outside the State Department non-stop for months now, and are even showing up at Congressional hearings.
Their list of advocates, most who have admitted being paid, includes Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former CIA Deputy Director of Clandestine Operations John Sano, former National Security Advisor James Jones, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, Gen. Anthony Zinni, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, former Sen. Evan Bayh, and many others.
The State Department officials didn't say outright that these officials are making the challenge of dealing with the MEK worse by shilling for the organization around Washington. But they did call on the MEK's paid representatives to use whatever clout they have to urge the MEK to go along with the relocation now.
"It is important for those advocates to support a solution that is feasible. Because maximalist demands and echoing a kind of martyrdom and complex of defiance and blood will produce the results they fear. Now is the time for everybody who says they want a peaceful solution to back that solution right now," the official said.
But what happens after the MEK moves to the new facility, even if the current deal is worked out in time? What's the plan to deal with these people over the long run?
"Right now our priority is in a successful, peaceful relocation," the State Department official said. "One huge problem at a time."
UPDATE: The AP reported has just reported that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has decided to grant a 6-month extenstion on the closing of Camp Ashraf, although he is backdating the start of the extension to November.
MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images
As of last Friday, President Barack Obama's administration was considering announcing a new package of food aid to North Korea and working toward the resumption of talks about North Korea's nuclear program. Today, that whole plan has been upended due to the death of Kim Jong Il, forcing the administration to grapple with a whole new set of North Korea problems.
On Dec. 15-16, the State Department's Special Envoy for Human Rights Bob King met with North Korean foreign ministry official Ri Gun in Beijing to work out the details for monitoring the distribution of huge new shipments of food aid from the United States to North Korea, which claims to be in dire need. The South Korean press reported on Dec. 17 that an agreement had been struck for the United States to send 20,000 tons of food aid a month to North Korea for the next 12 months, or a grand total of 240,000 tons of food assistance.
The U.S. Special Representative on North Korea Glyn Davies was also in Beijing Dec. 15 and 16, coincidentally. On Dec. 17, news reports quoted an anonymous diplomatic source as saying that Pyongyang had agreed to suspend uranium enrichment -- one of Washington's key demands for the resumption of Six Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear program, which have been defunct since 2008. Davies was supposed to travel to Beijing to firm up the details of that arrangement with North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Gwan on Dec. 22.
All of those arrangements are now on hold indefinitely, as the United States regroups with allies Japan and South Korea to try to assess the current situation inside North Korea, prepare for the downside risk of a violent transition, and figure out how to proceed in dealing with a regime that has nuclear weapons and a very uncertain future.
"Where we were headed was the giving of food aid, the restart of the [prisoner of war] remains recovery project (to return U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean war), and these would be the two goodies that North Korea would get to undertake the pre-steps to restarting the Six Party Talks. The administration was going to announce the food aid this week and Davies was supposed to be in Beijing by Thursday," said Victor Cha, former Asia director at the National Security Council, who now holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Now we've got a whole new problem, not just seeing if we can get back to where we were Friday," said Cha. "This transition may not go well. It completely changes the whole character of the North Korea problem overnight. A runaway nuclear program, the sudden death of Kim Jong Il, and we know nothing about the new leadership. You can't imagine a worse problem than this."
At today's State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland emphasized that no final decisions had been made on granting food aid to North Korea or sending Davies to Beijing. In fact, she said that there was supposed to be a high-level interagency meeting today at the White House with King and Davies to make these very decisions.
That meeting did take place early on Monday, but did not focus on food aid, uranium enrichment, the Six Party talks, or any other bilateral issue, according to Nuland.
"Meetings that might have happened today with our travelers who just got back instead were focused on maintaining close contact with our other partners in the Six Party Talks and on ensuring calm and regional stability on the peninsula," Nuland said. "So we have yet to have the internal review of these issues that we need to have."
Nuland also said that the Obama administration wanted "to be respectful of the North Korean period of mourning," so no further negotiations are expected for a while. North Korea does not intend to invite foreign delegations to Kim's Dec. 28 funeral.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was briefed on the situation in North Korea twice on Sunday night by Davies and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. She just happened to be meeting Monday at the State Department with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, after which told reporters, "We both share a common interest in a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea, as well as in ensuring regional peace and stability."
Clinton said that Obama had spoken with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Sunday night, and officials were reaching out to their counterparts in Russia and China as well. Clinton made no mention of the recent U.S.-North Korea bilateral diplomacy, nor did she reiterate calls for North Korea to honor its previous agreements to denuclearize and rejoin multilateral talks on that issue.
Clinton and Gemba took no questions at their post-meeting "press conference."
One Asia hand close to the administration told The Cable today that the bilateral negotiations between the United States and North Korea were even more advanced than had been reported. According to this expert, the North Koreans had also discussed a moratorium on missile testing, which would have been announced after the resumption of the Six Party Talks. The North Koreans were also asking the United States to resume its assistance in building a light water commercial nuclear reactor in North Korea, an idea that has been part of past negotiations but was scuttled when the 1994 Agreed Framework, which was meant to govern North Korea's nuclear program, broke down in 2002.
That 1994 agreement is seen by some as a positive indicator that progress can be made with North Korea despite a leadership transition. The agreement was signed only months after Kim Jong Il took power following the death of his father, Kim Il Sung.
"We want to continue forward and see if there's continuity in their policy," the Asia hand said.. "If we're in a holding pattern for too long, things could shift in the other direction. That's the danger here."
If and when the food aid decision finally comes, it will be controversial here in Washington. Several GOP senators are opposed to what they see as bribing the North Koreans to come back to the negotiating table. In fact, some senators will likely point to assurances the administration gave Congress that it wouldn't bribe North Korea, which were made as part of the deal to confirm the U.S. envoy to South Korea, Sung Kim, in October.
The State Department always claims that food aid decisions are made on humanitarian grounds and not linked to policy decisions, but the timing of the negotiations is not seen as a coincidence by those on Capitol Hill.
"Food aid is always classified as separate, however, if the press reports are accurate it is clear that the administration was prepared to link food aid to a suspension of North Korea's uranium enrichment program," one Senate GOP aide told The Cable. "Of course food aid is a financial reward.... Leave it to North Korea -- Kim's untimely death -- to save the administration from its own worst impulses. How long they can resist repeating the mistakes of 1994 remains to be seen."
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Former National Security Advisor Jim Jones has submitted a confidential affidavit, obtained by The Cable, in which he swears that he has no reason to believe that former Pakistani Ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani had any role in the scandal known as "memogate."
Jones was the go-between in the transmission of a secret memo from Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz to then Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen in the days following the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad. The memo, purportedly from the Pakistani civilian leadership, asked for U.S. government help to avoid a pending military coup in Pakistan and pledged, in return, to reorient Pakistan's foreign and national security policy to be more in line with U.S. interests.
Ijaz has claimed over and over that the memo and the scheme it contained was derived and driven by Haqqani, who has since resigned over the scandal and is now in Islamabad without permission to leave the country. Ijaz also claims that that Haqqani discussed the scheme with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who faces increasing domestic political pressure from opponents and is in Dubai due to what is being described as a recent "mini-stroke."
Haqqani has always claimed that he had no role in the writing or delivery of the memo. Earlier this week, Jones broke his silence on the issue by signing a confidential affidavit about his role in "memogate," which he sent to Haqqani's lawyers as part of their planned libel suit against Ijaz. In the affidavit, Jones states that Ijaz never mentioned to him that the memo came from Haqqani.
"A few days before May 9, 2011, I received a phone call from Mr. Mansoor ljaz. I have known Mr. ljaz in a personal capacity since 2006. During the call Mr. Ijaz mentioned that he had a message from the ‘highest authority' in the Pakistan government which he asked me to relay to then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen," Jones wrote in the confidential affidavit.
"At no time during the call do I remember Mr. Ijaz mentioning Ambassador Haqqani, and he gave me no reason to believe that he was acting at the direction of Ambassador Haqqani, with his participation, or that Ambassador Haqqani had knowledge of the call or the contents of the message."
Jones told Ijaz he would only forward the message to Mullen if it was in writing. On May 9, Ijaz sent the unsigned memo to Jones's personal e-mail account and Jones passed it on to Mullen. Mullen has acknowledged that he received the memo but claims he gave it no credence and took no action on it whatsoever.
"It was my assumption that the memo was written by Mr. Ijaz, since the memo essentially put into writing the language he had used in our telephone conversation earlier," Jones wrote in his affidavit. "I do not recall whether Mr. Ijaz claimed that Ambassador Haqqani had anything to do with the creation of the memo. I have no reason to believe that Ambassador Haqqani had any role in the creation of the memo, nor that he had any prior knowledge of the memo."
The Jones affidavit will be used by Haqqani's legal team to bolster Haqqani's claims that Ijaz was the author's memo, not him. Ijaz's main evidence of Haqqani's involvement is a series of Blackberry Messenger communications that Ijaz claims he had with Haqqani to discuss the memo during its formation. Ijaz has said his Blackberry is being examined by Pakistani forensic experts as part of the ongoing investigation.
Ijaz's activity throughout the scandal has raised several questions about his motives. For example, he publicly disclosed the existence of the memo in an Oct. 10 op-ed in the Financial Times, purportedly to defend Mullen from attacks and slanders in Pakistan. Then, on Oct. 22, he met in London with Pakistan's Gen. Shuja Pasha, the leader of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which Ijaz's memo promised would be replaced with new, U.S.-friendly national security leaders in Pakistan.
Last week, Ijaz claimed in a Newsweek article that Haqqani and Zardari knew of the raid to kill bin Laden in advance and may have given the U.S. military tacit permission to violate Pakistani airspace. Haqqani has initiated legal action against Ijaz over those claims and the Jones affidavit is part of that litigation.
In the most interesting part of the affidavit, Jones states his personal opinion that the memo probably did not come from the Pakistani government at all.
"Upon my reading of the memo that I was asked to forward to Admiral Mullen, it struck me as highly unusual that the ‘highest authority' in the Pakistan government would use Mr. ljaz, a private citizen and part-time journalist living in Europe, as a conduit for this communication," Jones wrote. "My personal opinion was that the memo was probably not credible."
Asked for comment on Friday by The Cable, Jones declined to elaborate.
Ijaz responded to Jones' affidavit with a lengthy comment to The Cable. Here are some excerpts, after the jump:
Former National Security Advisor Jim Jones called today for quick action on the Keystone XL pipeline construction, directly opposing the White House he worked for only a few months ago.
Jones, who rarely speaks in public and almost never contradicts his former boss President Barack Obama, lashed out against the administration in a press call and warned of grave consequences to U.S. national security if the project to build the pipeline doesn't move forward immediately. The call was sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute and Jones was joined on the call by API President and CEO Jack Gerard.
"In a tightly contested global economy, where securing energy resources is a national must, we should be able to act with speed and agility. And any threat to this project, by delay or otherwise, would constitute a significant setback," said Jones. "The failure to [move forward with the project] will prolong the risk to our economy and our energy security" and "send the wrong message to job creators."
The comments come at the worst possible moment for the Obama administration, which is trying to beat back an effort from congressional Republicans to attach language that would force a decision on the pipeline to legislation that extends unemployment insurance and the payroll tax holiday for middle class Americans.
Obama has promised to veto any bill that comes to his desk with the Keystone XL pipeline language, and the State Department has said that if it is forced to come to a quick decision on the pipeline, that decision would be no because there has not been enough time to properly evaluate environmental and logistical considerations.
The Cable asked Jones if he was getting paid by API for supporting its cause. Jones said he was not getting paid, and was speaking out because he believed in the pipeline cause.
"I've known Jack Gerard for a number of years... and when he called me a few days ago and asked me if I was willing to participate in this because of my interest in energy issues, I agreed to do so," Jones said.
Jones said the project was an important piece of the U.S.-Canada relationship and that if the United States doesn't act, Canada may decide to cancel the project and give its energy resources to the Chinese. He also said if they United States doesn't move forward with the pipeline, that would be another signal of fading U.S. leadership in the world.
"If we get to a point where the nation cannot bring itself to do, for whatever reason, those things that we all know is in our national interest... then we are definitely in a period of decline in terms of our global leadership and in terms of our ability to compete in the 21st century," said Jones.
Jones said that he was not in touch with the administration directly on this issue, but that he told Obama personally just before resigning that Obama had a chance to be the "energy president," but was failing to distinguish himself on the issue.
"I do not think the United States has a comprehensive strategy for energy writ large and that's a critical shortfall. Nor do I think we are properly organized," Jones said. "In my last few days I communicated that to the president."
UPDATE: A reader passes on this 2008 article from ThinkProgress that points out Jones was the Institute for 21st Century Energy, a organization closely affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. According to the article, Jones' Transition Plan at the Institute "calls for billions of dollars in subsidies for the nuclear and coal industry, a dramatic expansion in domestic oil and natural gas drilling into protected areas, and massive new energy industry tax breaks and loopholes."
NATO forces deliberately attacked two Pakistani Army outposts and ignored established rules of cooperation in the Nov. 26 assault that resulted in the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers, a senior Pakistani defense official said today.
The attack sparked the latest rift in the sinking U.S.-Pakistan relationship. The Pakistani government shut down NATO's supply lines into Afghanistan in response to the attack, refused to attend the Bonn conference on Afghanistan reconstruction this month, and indicated it would undertake a full review of its security cooperation with NATO and the United States. The U.S. government and the Obama administration expressed private "condolences" for the attack, which is currently under investigation by NATO, but has refused to explicitly apologize.
A senior defense official at the Pakistani embassy in Washington invited a group of national security reporters on Thursday morning to give an extensive briefing on the events of Nov. 26 -- from the Pakistani point of view.
The official placed the blame squarely on NATO forces and said it was completely impossible that the killings were accidental.
"I have a story to tell and this is the story of those brave people who left us in the middle of a cold, November night on a barren mountain top," the official said, before going into intricate details of what he called the "Mohmand Incident," named after the region where the attack took place.
The attack started at about midnight, the official said, with a helicopter assault on the Pakistani outpost named "Volcano," a small bunker on a mountain ridge near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pakistani soldiers at the neighboring "Boulder" outpost responded by firing at the helicopters, after which helicopters and fixed-wing NATO aircraft strafed both outposts, destroying them, the official said.
The Pakistani conclusion that this was a "deliberate" attack is based on the belief that these areas had been cleared of terrorist activity, that there was no indication of insurgent activity at the time, and that there was no way to mistake the Pakistani outposts as terrorist encampments, the official argued.
"This was in plain view on a barren ridge, not a place terrorists would be inclined to use as a hideout," the official said.
Moreover, NATO and Pakistani officials had put in place an intricate system of operational information sharing that was completely violated, according to the official, which reinforced the Pakistani conclusion that the attack was intentional.
The official refused to speculate as to why NATO would deliberately attack and kill two dozen Pakistani soldiers, only saying that this was the official conclusion of the Pakistani military leadership.
The Pakistani official also claimed that the NATO official in charge at the nearby Pakistani-NATO coordination center had apologized for giving the Pakistani Army incomplete and incorrect information regarding where NATO forces were attacking. In fact, the official claimed that the apology came in the middle of the attack, but that the NATO airplanes kept attacking.
According to the official, NATO officials notified the Pakistani side of the operation just before it began, but gave Pakistan incorrect coordinates that indicated it was actually taking place nine miles to the north of the actual attack site. The Pakistanis asked NATO to delay the operation amid the confusion, the official said, but the NATO official in charge refused, only to apologize later as the attack was taking place.
About an hour into the attack, at approximately 1 a.m., NATO then told the Pakistani side the attack had stopped, the official said, but the Pakistanis later discovered it continued until about 2:15 a.m.
"This was at least one hour and 10 minutes beyond when our friends in NATO told us that the helicopters had pulled back," the official said. "The actual magnitude of this tragedy we knew only when day broke."
Well-established operating procedures should have dictated that the attack stop as soon as communications with the Pakistani forces in the area were established, but that didn't happen, the official said.
"We are supposed to share information about impending operations regardless of size.... And in case we are fired upon, the responsibility to take action is on the country from where the fire is originating," the official said. "It's not for the U.S. military to engage. NATO is supposed to pass on the information regarding the point of origin [of the fire]."
The official also rejected the idea that the NATO helicopters were responding to fire coming from the Pakistani side or chasing insurgents as part of some sort of hot pursuit.
"There was no prior firefight," the official said.
NATO is expected to release the results of its own investigation into the assault next week, and the Pakistani claims today could be an attempt to pre-empt that announcement by establishing its own narrative beforehand.
Either way, the fallout from the incident has already had a detrimental effect on Pakistani military and popular opinion toward cooperation with NATO and U.S. military forces.
"There is a sense of outrage," the official said. "It's there on the street, amongst the leadership -- political as well as military -- and among the rank and file of the military. The sheer magnitude of this thing is unbelievable."
PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images
The nomination of Mike McFaul to become ambassador to Russia cleared one major hurdle Thursday as Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) lifted his hold. The administration was working hard Thursday to satsify other GOP senators' concerns as the Senate prepares to adjourn for the year.
If McFaul is not confirmed by the Senate this month, there will be a vacancy atop the U.S. embassy in Moscow as of next week, when Amb. John Beyrle leaves. Kirk had been very public about his reasons for placing a hold on the McFaul nomination, saying that he was seeking written assurances that President Barack Obama's administration will not provide Russia with any currently classified information on the U.S. missile defense system. Several other members of Congress -- and some experts outside Congress, such as former Missile Defense Agency head Lt. Gen. Trey Obering - echoed Kirk's concern.
On Tuesday, Robert Nabors, director of the White House office of legislative affairs, wrote a letter to Kirk on the matter that was obtained by The Cable.
"We will not provide Russia with sensitive information about our missile defense systems that would in any way compromise our national security. For example, hit-to-kill technology and interceptor telemetry will under no circumstances be provided to Russia," wrote Nabors. "However, in the event that the exchange of classified information with Russia on missile defense will increase the president's ability to defend the American people, the president will retain the right to do that."
In a Thursday interview with The Cable, Kirk said that this assurance, combined with new language in the defense authorization bill requiring 60 days notice before any classified missile defense data is shared with Russia, was enough to reassure him that no classified missile defense data will ever be shared. The law also requires the president to certify in writing that Russia won't share the data with any third parties, such as Iran.
Kirk said that the administration can't possibly certify that Russia won't share the information, so there won't be any way for the administration to meet the defense bill's requirement. If the administration does try to notify Congress it plans to share classified missile defense data with Russia, Kirk promised there would be hearings, legislative action, and a full-court press to oppose it.
"They would have a two-month all out fight on their hands," he said.
Kirk also pointed out that the Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitri Rogozin, who has been insulting Kirk on Twitter, is set to travel to Iran next month. "There is no doubt that Iran will share with Russia the technologies found in our RQ-170 drone," Kirk said. "It's extremely troubling that Russia's top official on missile defense is deepening his relationship with Iran."
Kirk praised McFaul and said his record on promoting democracy and human rights will be an asset if and when he takes over the U.S. embassy in Moscow. The hold was never about McFaul personally, Kirk said.
With Kirk's hold gone, that leaves four other GOP senators who had expressed public or private objections to the McFaul nomination: Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN), James Risch (R-ID), Jim DeMint (R-SC), and Richard Burr (R-NC), who has threatened to hold all State Department nominees until State designates the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization..
Corker had placed a hold on McFaul to ensure that the United States fully funds the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) budget, which includes funding for the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, for FY 2012. If Congress passes the omnibus bill with full NNSA funding this week, that should take care of Corker's concerns.
DeMint's objection, which is especially important because he controls the Republican Steering Committee, is over the administration's refusal to share internal documents related to its negotiations with Russia over missile defense. Examples of documents sought by DeMint include the draft of the U.S.-Russia Defense Technology Cooperation Agreement.
DeMint has taken multiple hostages in his fight with the State Department over these documents, including holding the nomination of Mike Hammer to be assistant secretary of State for public affairs.
DeMint and the other GOP senators met with McFaul in the Capitol today for a briefing and McFaul showed the senators the draft DTCA. The hope is that this meeting was enough to satisfy their concerns about U.S. policy toward Russia and information sharing with Congress.
Meanwhile, 36 conservative foreign policy experts wrote to top senators today to plead for the confirmation of Matthew Bryza as ambassador to Azerbaijan. Bryza is currently serving under a recess appointment that expires next month.
His nomination was being held up last year by two Democrats, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who are seen to be representing the concerns of their Armenian constituencies, which are unhappy with the administration's policy opposing a Congressional resolution condemning the 1915 Armenian genocide.
"It is understandable that Armenian Americans and even some Senators will disagree with the U.S. policy concerning whether to call the events of 1915 a genocide. That is an argument to be hashed out with the U.S. Administration on the merits," the experts wrote. "But holding up a qualified career nominee who is already serving in a key position will not change U.S. policy, and does a disservice to U.S. interests in a critical region."
The Obama administration may not be getting a whole lot of love from the pro-Israel community these days, but tonight, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations is giving their annual National Service Award to U.N. Representative Susan Rice.
Rice plans to use her acceptance speech at tonight's event in New York to both defend the Obama administration's record on Israel and spell out the increased military and security cooperation that's taken place on Obama's watch. Previous winners include House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD).
Here are some excerpts of Rice's speech, obtained by The Cable:
"America remains deeply and permanently committed to Israel's peace and security. It is a commitment for this president and this Administration. It spans generations. It spans political parties. It is not negotiable. And it never will be," Rice will say.
"From the moment he took office, President Obama's guidance has been clear: to strengthen and deepen that commitment. He has been clear all along that our special relationship with Israel is deeply rooted in our common interests and our common values."
"That's why we've increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels. That's why, even in these tough fiscal times, we've increased foreign military financing to record levels. That's why we've also included additional support for the lifesaving Iron Dome anti-rocket system -- which saw action just days ago in defense of innocent Israelis who live near the Gaza frontier."
"That's why we're working jointly to toughen up Israel's security through the Arrow system; and through David's Sling; and through joint military exercises that have never been more robust."
"That's why, if you ask members of the uniformed military of Israel or the United States, if you talk to leaders at the Kirya or the Pentagon, you'll hear the same assessment: the American commitment to Israel's qualitative military edge has never been stronger. That's a fact, plain and simple."
"Of course, the Arab world is undergoing unprecedented political change, and the calls for freedom across the region have brought legitimate security concerns. But let there be no doubt: we are doing all we can to ensure that Israel remains secure even as the region becomes more free."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.