The Cable

Ambassador nominee still haunted by Cuban romance

President Obama's nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte to be the next U.S. ambassador to El Salvador still faces Republican opposition due to a relationship she had with a Cuban American more than 15 years ago.

The objections surfaced again during today's business meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which approved her nomination despite "no" votes by several GOP committee members. Led by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, the Republicans are demanding more information about Aponte's long-ago romance with Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban-born insurance salesman who was alleged to have ties to both the FBI and Castro's intelligence apparatus.

DeMint and the other Republicans want access to all of the FBI's records on the relationship. The FBI interviewed both Aponte and Tamayo about the matter back in 1993, but Aponte has admitted she declined to take a lie-detector test. She withdrew herself from consideration to be ambassador to the Dominican Republic in 1998 after then Sen. Jesse Helms promised to ask invasive questions about the relationship at her hearing, citing "personal reasons."

Now, the GOP is making an issue out of it all over again.

"The allegations were apparently serious enough for her to withdraw her nomination in 1998 so I think it's fair to ask some questions," DeMint told The Cable.

"With that many Republicans voting no in the committee, one person is probably going to ask for a debate and a vote," DeMint said. That's the clear code language for a Senate hold, which is often just a senator's promise not to support a simple confirmation by unanimous consent. "I doubt she'll be confirmed without a vote."

Sen. John Barrasso, R-WY, and anti-Castro Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, have both seen at least some of the FBI's material. Barrasso said he supported DeMint's request to see the whole file.

But Menendez came to Aponte's defense at the business meeting and said, "If I thought that after having reviewed the file that Miss Aponte would be a security risk to the United States in any context, but particularly in the context of the Castro regime having access to her, I would oppose her. But that is simply not the case."

He also disputed the existence of a classified memo that was reportedly prepared for Helms with damaging information about the relationship and alleged contacts Amonte had with Cuban intelligence operatives.

"I've talked to people who served with Senator Helms and his staff and there is no memo," said Mendendez. "It's hard to disprove something that doesn't exist."

Chairman John Kerry, D-MA, noted that she has received top-secret security clearance twice since the alleged affair. Not having an ambassador in El Salvador hurts American interests, he added.

"After an exhaustive investigative process, with the entire U.S. intelligence community looking at this twice since these allegations appeared about her former boyfriend, she has been given top-secret clearance," Kerry said. "Either our intelligence community is completely incompetent in looking at these things, or we have to trust them."

At her March 17 confirmation hearing, Aponte gave her most detailed account to date about the relationship and her interactions with Cuban officials in the 1980s.

"Between 1982 and 1994, I was romantically involved with a Cuban American. It was a romantic relationship. In the course of that relationship, he had some contacts with the Cuban Interests Section that arose out of volunteer work that he did for Cuban Americans, who like himself, wanted to travel to Cuba to see relatives," Aponte said.

"Because we were dating, were a couple, on occasion we would go out with other couples from the Cuban Interests Section who helped him and facilitated the paperwork. They were all social contacts. There came a time when the relationship was not working out. We finally broke up in 1994. In 1993, in the Clinton administration, I was visited by the FBI who wanted to discuss the relationship with me," she said.

The FBI later gave Aponte "a clean bill of health," a National Security Council spokesman told the Washington Times in 1999.

The Cable

Over breakfast, Clinton and Tauscher brief on START

In another sign of the State Department's dedication to getting the new START treaty ratified this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted top senators and staff for breakfast Tuesday morning in her private Foggy Bottom digs.

Up on the 8th floor over a menu of fruit, yogurt, and scrambled eggs, Clinton and Under Secretary Ellen Tauscher spoke and answered questions for 90 minutes about the new pact with Russia. Chief negotiator Rose Gottemoeller, State's congressional affairs chief Richard Verma, the Pentagon's James N.  Miller, and the National Security Council's Gary Samore were also there. The congressional side included about a dozen Senate Foreign Relations Committee members and their aides.

The message was: "This treaty is good for national security," our inside sources reported, adding that Clinton wasn't supposed to stay the whole time but extended her appearance because she wanted to make sure she addressed all the questions posed thoroughly.

Some senators who were there include committee heads John Kerry, D-MA, and Richard Lugar, R-IN, as well as Europe subcommittee chair Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, Ben Cardin, D-MD, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY.

"It was a good meeting. We got good answers," Lugar told The Cable. Lugar supports ratification, but some other Republicans, notably Jon Kyl, R-AZ, are still keeping their powder dry.

Kerry told The Cable the breakfast meeting was "a good discussion about the substance of the treaty and how we will proceed."

The SFRC is setting up hearings now, with the chairs of the Strategic Posture Commission, former Defense Secretaries James Schlesinger and William Perry, up first on Thursday. A hearing with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger will follow that.

Our Senate sources say Thursday's hearing will be the chance for several GOP senators to air their objections to the treaty's language on missile defense. The treaty prevents the U.S. from mounting missile-defense interceptors on ICBMs or SLBMs, but the administration is arguing that doesn't "constrain" missile defense because it wasn't planning on doing that anyway.

The Senate GOP caucus held its own meeting on START last week, and we're hearing some GOP senators aren't buying that argument.

As for when the treaty might come up for a vote, Kerry wasn't committing to anything specific, but said he wanted to get it done "as soon as is practical."

"We're not going to have any specific [deadline] date out there, but we're going to move very, very rapidly to put all the hearings together and to put together the draft resolution and begin to move on it," he said.

Gottemoeller gave a hint during a speech Monday at a conference held by the Arms Control Association, saying that State would give Congress all the remaining documents: annexes, protocols, etc. "within the coming weeks."