The Cable

It’s the Senate’s turn to beat up on Obama’s Libya intervention

Following the House of Representatives' stunning rebuke of the Obama administration's intervention in Libya last Friday, the Senate will weigh in tomorrow with a host of new proposed restrictions on President Barack Obama's war authorities.

The House voted overwhelmingly Friday not to authorize the Libya intervention and then narrowly rejected a measure that would have cut off most of the funding for the mission. A majority of lawmakers wanted to cut off the funds for Libya, but the vote failed because many congressmen believed that the bill, which left some of the funding in place, amounted to a "back door authorization" for the war.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow with State Department Counselor Harold Koh to examine the administration's claim that the Libya war does not amount to "hostilities," and therefore does not require congressional authorization under the War Powers Resolution.

After the hearing, the committee will hold a business meeting to consider a bill by Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that would authorize the Libya intervention. The committee could very well approve the bill, but not before several changes are made through amendments, most of them coming from ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).

"In this case, President Obama made a deliberate decision not to seek a Congressional authorization of his action, either before it commenced or during the last three months. This was a fundamental failure of leadership that placed expedience above Constitutional responsibility," Lugar will say at Tuesday's hearing, according to prepared remarks obtained by The Cable.

"At the outset of the conflict, the President asserted that U.S. military operations in Libya would be ‘limited in their nature, duration, and scope.' On this basis, the administration asserted that the actions did not require a declaration of war. Three months later, these assurances ring hollow," Lugar will say. "American and coalition military activities have expanded to an all but declared campaign to drive [Col. Muammar al] Qaddafi from power. The administration is unable to specify any applicable limits to the duration of the operations. And the scope has grown from efforts to protect civilians under imminent threat to obliterating Libya's military arsenal, command and control structure, and leadership apparatus." 

Expect Lugar and other senators to challenge Koh on evidence that he was previously a staunch critic of granting the president unilateral war-making authority before joining the Obama administration. Koh reportedly supported the argument that the Libya intervention fell short of "hostilities" during the intra-administration debate on the topic.

When the committee does take up the Kerry-McCain resolution, Lugar will lead off with five amendments -- to limit the funds to only truly supportive functions like refueling and intelligence support, prevent any funding for ground troops, require the president to report every 60 days on the costs and progress of the Libya war, make sure it's clear Congress won't pay for reconstruction, and finally, to establish that it's the Senate's view that the Libya war does include "hostilities" and does fall under the War Powers Resolution. 

Some or all of these could be approved by the committee, but the last one is almost sure to pass, given widespread congressional rejection of the administration's claim that legislative authorization is not required.

"You'll see overall consensus that their finding on a lack of ‘hostilities' doesn't stand," Lugar spokesman Mark Helmke told The Cable. "The overall mood is that you have to have authorization, and the question then is: Do enough Democrats feel comfortable with the other restrictions?" 

Inside the committee, three Democrats have expressed reservations about the Libya war and could join with Republicans to restrict the president's authorities: Sens. Jim Webb (D-VA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and new committee member Richard Durbin (D-IL).

Webb said on Sunday's Meet the Press that he would support Lugar's amendments, and he criticized the Libya mission harshly.

"The president did not come to the Congress, and the reasons that he used for going in defy historical precedent," Webb said. "We weren't under attack, we weren't under an imminent attack, we weren't honoring treaty commitments, we weren't rescuing Americans. So, on the one hand, there's a very serious issue of precedent here."

Boxer pressed Kerry during a back and forth on the Senate floor on June 22, pushing him to confirm that the Libya resolution would not authorize ground troops and would expire in one year. Durbin supports the Kerry-McCain resolution but does not agree with the administration's argument that congressional authorization is unnecessary.

There are several other amendments expected Tuesday. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) has two amendments: one that would require the administration to seek reimbursement of the expenses of the mission from frozen Libyan assets and one that would require the administration to brief Congress every 15 days. Corker wants the authorization for the Libya war to expire after 6 months, as opposed to the 12 months granted under the Kerry-McCain measure.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) will offer an amendment that would call for further action on the investigation of the bombing of Pan Am 103, which was conducted by members of the Qaddafi regime. Going against the grain, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) will offer three amendments: to require the president to consult Congress before deploying ground troops,  use the frozen assets to pay for U.S. operations, and clarify that Qaddafi's removal is the official policy of the U.S.

If and when SFRC finally approves the Kerry-McCain resolution to authorize the Libya war, that will mark the end of the Libya debate in the Senate for a while. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is not expected to begin the full Senate floor debate until after the July 4 recess.

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The Cable

David Cohen nomination back on track

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) has lifted his hold on the nomination of David Cohen to be the top sanctions official at the Treasury Department following the administration's announcement of several targeted sanctions against Iran.

Cohen, whose nomination to replace Stuart Levey as undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence had been stalled in the Senate, now could be confirmed as early as this week. Kirk, who had issued the hold late last month due to concerns over the administration's lack of enforcement of sanctions against Iran, released his hold late last week after Treasury designated Iranian companies such as Iran Air and Tidewater Middle East for sanctions under the Comprehensive Iran Sanction, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA).

"I applaud Acting Under Secretary David Cohen for moving decisively to designate Iran Air and a major Iranian port operator responsible for facilitating Iran's illicit transfer of weapons and other proliferation activities. Both designations will significantly restrict shipping to and from Iran and put even more pressure on the Iranian economy," Kirk said in a June 23 statement. "Under Secretary Cohen has proven himself to be a worthy successor to former Under Secretary Levey. He has my confidence."

A Kirk aide confirmed to The Cable that this statement was an acknowledgement that Kirk had removed his hold on Cohen's nomination. The aide said that Kirk, Cohen, and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), had a series of meetings and exchanged letters over the last month. Kirk was also reassured by their most recent meeting about two weeks ago.

"After their last meeting, Sen. Kirk lifted his hold and decided to back the nomination," the Kirk aide said. "[The nomination] has already gone through Finance and Banking so it could be hotlined for Senate confirmation before the Fourth of July recess."

"Hotlined" is shorthand for a Senate practice wherein the Senate majority leader sends around a message notifying all senators that a nomination is coming to the floor forthwith. If nobody objects, the nomination can quickly be confirmed by voice vote.

In fact, one Senate source told The Cable that the Cohen nomination could reach the Senate floor as soon as Tuesday, as part of a large nominations package the Senate leadership is preparing now.

Last week's Treasury Department action against Iran Air and Tidewater is just the latest in a series of administration moves to use the tools under CISADA to increase pressure on various parts of the Iranian government and the Iranian economy.

On May 24, the State Department rolled out sanctions against seven companies accused of doing business with Iran's energy sector. Those designations came one day after the Senate unveiled an entirely new Iran sanctions bill -- though that legislation doesn't appear to have the administration's support, as then Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg told The Cable it was totally unnecessary.

Steinberg also announced on May 24 that the administration had separately decided to impose sanctions on 16 additional foreign firms and individuals, including three Chinese firms, under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA), which prohibits involvement of foreign companies in those countries' missile and WMD programs..

Then, on June 9, State announced sanctions on three Iranian government entities involved in human rights abuses, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Basij Resistance Force, and Iran's Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) -- as well as LEF Commander Ismail Ahmadi Moghadam.

The June 23 action against Iran Air and Tidewater was a joint State/Treasury effort. It was significant because it targeted the IRGC's main shipping companies, and because the administration also promised to continue imposing more sanctions.

"The steps we have taken this week seek to limit Iran's ability to use the global financial system to pursue illicit activities. We have made important progress in isolating Iran, but we cannot waver," State and Treasury said in a joint statement. "Our efforts must be unrelenting to sharpen the choice for Iran's leaders to abandon their dangerous course."

One issue Kirk has been pushing in recent days concerns the huge contracts between the Defense Department and Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Company (KGL), which may have ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), an entity long accused of operating a web of shell companies to evade sanctions, and three other Iranian companies already on the banned list of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

KGL was recently awarded a nearly $750 million contract by the U.S. Army and another $42 million sole-source contract by the Defense Logistics Agency. Kirk now wants to know if the U.S. military is indirectly putting money into Iranian government coffers.

"I am certain you agree that a prompt investigation is warranted due to the sensitive nature of the contracting work conducted by KGL for our men and women in uniform," Kirk wrote in a June 21 letter to OFAC Director Adam Szubin.

That letter was a follow-up to another letter Kirk sent May 26 to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, where he pointed out that KGL helped operate the ports used for Iran's nuclear program and also has influence and control over U.S. military supply lines. Gates has yet to respond to Kirk.

Kirk's research staff has also compiled an extensive file on KGL's suspicious activities and associations, which can be found here.

One senior GOP senate aide said it was ironic that the Obama administration has designated for sanctions the Israeli firm Ofer Brothers Group for doing business with Iranian entities that are suspicious but not designated as banned by OFAC, while allowing the U.S. military to do business with similarly suspect firms.

"We're now at a place where the Defense Department is holding itself to a lower threshold of due diligence for military contracts than the standard applied to foreign governments and foreign corporations in business dealings with regard to Iran sanctions legislation," the aide said.