The Cable

Gates and Mullen: Stop leaking details of the bin Laden raid!

The nation's top civilian and military defense officials are calling on their government colleagues to shut up about the details of the May 1 raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen held their first press conference on Wednesday since the mission to kill bin Laden. Gates stood by a remark he made May 12 at Camp Lejeune, in which he said there was an agreement by top Obama officials in the Situation Room to not reveal details of the raid -- but that the agreement fell apart the next day.

"My concern is that there were too many people in too many places talking too much about this operation. And we had reached agreement that we would not talk about the operational details, and as I said at Camp Lejeune, that lasted about 15 hours," Gates said on Wednesday. "And so I just -- I'm very concerned about this because we -- we want to retain the capability to carry out these kinds of operations in the future. And when so much detail is available, it makes that both more difficult and riskier."

Neither Gates nor Mullen called out any Obama administration officials by name, but Mullen, sounding even more frustrated, implied that the breaches of security by administration officials are ongoing and still a problem to this day.

"We have, from my perspective, gotten to a point where we are close to jeopardizing this precious capability that we have, and we can't afford to do that," Mullen said. "This fight isn't over, first of all. Secondly, when you now extend that to concern with individuals in the military and their families, from my perspective it is time to stop talking. And we have talked far too much about this. We need to move on. It's a story that, if we don't stop talking, it will never end. And it needs to."

Mullen said that multiple parts of the government had been leaking details, and that retired military officials were also not being helpful by giving their take on such operations to the media.

Gates said that the U.S. government so far has no evidence that senior-level Pakistani officials were aware that bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad, but that he suspected either retired Pakistani military officers or low-level officials were involved. He also said the Pakistani government had already paid a price in terms of humiliation, and that he did not see a benefit in punishing them further.

"It's hard to go to them with an accusation when we have no proof that anybody knew," Gates said. "It's my supposition -- I think it's a supposition shared by a number in this government -- that somebody had had to know, but we have no idea who, and we have no proof or no evidence."

Economic and military aid to Pakistan should probably go forward, although not without scrutiny, Gates said. Mullen explained that Pakistani officials have often promised to go after violent domestically based Islamic extremist groups, such as the Haqqani network, but there was no agreement on when such missions would occur.

"I'm not trying to give [them] an excuse, but matching those clocks has been pretty difficult," Mullen said.

Gates began the press conference by laying out his plan to review all Pentagon programs and develop strategies that will give Obama options to achieve the $400 billion in cuts to "security" spending over 12 years that the president announced last month. The review will be led by Mullen, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, and Christine Fox, director of cost assessment and program evaluation.

The review will be divided into four parts: finding internal efficiencies in the Defense Department, examining defense entitlements like healthcare, eliminating marginal missions, and rethinking the United States' overall strategic posture. Gates said that last part -- which he described as the most difficult -- would require politicians to take responsibility for increased risk if they decide to cut the force.

"What I am really working against here is what we did in the '70s and in the '90s, which was these across-the-board cuts that hollowed out the force," said Gates. "But the consequence of avoiding that is everybody -- from the services to the chairman to the secretary of this department -- making tough decisions, and then the president and the Congress making tough decisions, because they have to accept responsibility for risk."

Getty

The Cable

Obama administration in full court press ahead of Middle East speech

The Obama administration has been furiously advancing its regional diplomatic efforts on a wide range of issues in the run-up to the Middle East speech that President Barack Obama will deliver at the State Department on Thursday.

Top administration officials have been meeting with Arab leaders, preparing new announcements on aid to the region, finalizing sanctions on bad actors, and closely coordinating the president's message in the last few days. Obama's mission is a tough one -- to clarify a consistent U.S. approach to the region despite his administration's varied responses to the uprisings that have occurred throughout the region this year. And there's a lot on his plate.

"Specifically, a successful speech will need to align America with the most positive aspects of Arab rebellions against autocracy; reflect a balance between the hope and fear triggered in equal parts by seismic political change; signal American support for a process of democratic choice without suggesting indifference to the outcome of free and fair elections; project both disapproval and understanding -- but not endorsement -- toward those U.S. friends, especially in the Gulf, who refuse reform and repress its advocates; and explain why the maniacal dictator in Libya merits NATO bombing while the capo di tutti capi in Damascus does not even merit specific personal opprobrium for his outrageous behavior," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The administration ratcheted up its response to Damascus today, announcing that the United States will expand sanctions to include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and six senior Syrian officials for human rights abuses over their brutal crackdown on anti-government protests. The administration sanctioned some Syrian officials last month, but this is the first time Assad himself is the target of such measures.

On Monday, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Jordan's King Abdullah in Washington in a potential preview of the speech's message on Middle East peace. "We both share the view that despite the many changes, or perhaps because of the many changes, it's more vital than ever that the Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table," Obama said after the meeting.

The speech is not expected to delve into the details of any plan to resume negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, a process that ended formally with the resignation of Special Envoy George Mitchell, but the administration has also been in close contact with the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to coordinate messaging. Netanyahu will meet with Obama on Friday in Washington, and will also deliver a speech to Congress on May 24.

Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg is in Israel and the West Bank today, meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Steinberg will participate in the U.S.-Israel Strategic Dialogue on Thursday, which will firm up progress on U.S.-Israel security cooperation.

Steinberg was in Bahrain on Tuesday, along with Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, reinforcing the explicitly different tone the administration has taken with that regime, which is also implicated in human rights abuses against protesters.

"During his meetings, Deputy Secretary Steinberg affirmed the long-standing commitment of the U.S. to a strong partnership with both the people and the Government of Bahrain and stressed the importance of full respect for universal human rights," the State Department said in a read out. "He urged all parties to pursue a path of reconciliation and comprehensive political dialogue."

Meanwhile, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan has been busily firming up the administration's stance on Yemen, where protesters have been pressing the government to fulfill promises of a leadership change. Brennan called President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Wednesday to urge him to implement the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered agreement, which would see Saleh step down from power.

"Brennan noted that this transfer of power represents the best path forward for Yemen to become a more secure, unified, and prosperous nation and for the Yemeni people to realize their aspirations for peace and political reform," the White House said in a statement about the call.

What about Egypt and Tunisia? The State Department has been working to finalize a new aid package for Middle East countries transitioning to democracy, the Wall Street Journal reported today, just in time for Thursday's speech.

On Libya, Obama is expected to claim limited success in the mission to protect civilians, pledge additional support for the Transitional National Council, and repeat calls for Col. Muammar al Qaddafi to step down.

Obama is also planning a series of events following the speech to drive home his message. On May 20, he will go to CIA headquarters to thank the agency for its work in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. On May 22, he'll address the AIPAC conference in Washington.

The relationship between the Arab Spring and the drive for Middle East peace is one area of the speech lawmakers are listening for closely. Does the president think the wave of democratic revolutions across the region make the peace process easier or harder?

"I think in some ways it makes it harder and in some ways it makes it easier," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable. "The thrust of the Arab Spring is democratic and not really religious so that makes it easier. But it's also harder because when you have a population in a state of upset it's kind of hard to lead to that population."