The Cable

Why is Mark Lippert still on the White House payroll?

When the White House published its report of White House staff salaries last month, there was one senior staffer on the list who hasn't actually worked at the White House in almost two years  -- Mark Lippert.

Lippert was listed as receiving $147,500 in 2010 under the title of "deputy assistant to the president and chief of staff for national security operations," according to the disclosure. Lippert was chief of staff at the National Security Council until he left in October 2009 to serve a deployment as a reserve Naval intelligence officer. The chief of staff position was filled in December 2010 by Brooke Anderson.

The widespread speculation at the time was that Lippert, who has been an extremely close advisor to President Barack Obama since his time as a foreign policy aide in Obama's Senate office, left because of a falling out with then National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones. Lippert was widely suspected of leaking salacious and damaging stories about Jones, and Jones was reported to have forced Lippert out before eventually stepping down himself for leaking information about the White House to Bob Woodward.

"In July [2009], Jones laid out his case to Obama and others. All seemed to agree that it was rank insubordination. Obama promised to move on Lippert," Woodward wrote in his book Obama's Wars. "On October 1, the day of the McChrystal speech in London, the White House press secretary issued a three-paragraph statement that Lippert was returning to active duty in the Navy. The statement made it sound as though this had been Lippert's choice. ‘I was not surprised,' Obama said in the statement, ‘when he came and told me he had stepped forward for another mobilization, as Mark is passionate about the Navy.'"

So what is Lippert doing now, and why is he still listed on the White House payroll? A White House official told The Cable that Lippert never officially "detached" from the White House and that's why he was never taken out of the human resource system or removed from the payroll.

Three former NSC staffers said that it was commonplace for staffers to keep their White House billets when they deployed overseas with the military and that all federal employees have the option of keeping their federal salaries when deployed, rather than taking what is often a lower military salary.

But Lippert didn't get any pay or benefits from the White House in 2010, the White House official said. So what happened to that money? It remains in White House coffers and was used for various other salaries, events, and travel expenses, according to the official.

Lippert has always enjoyed a special status in the Obama administration. In fact, the entire position of NSC chief of staff was created for him. Before that, the NSC chief of staff was actually the National Security Advisor. But Obama wanted Lippert close by in a powerful position, so the job was invented.

Now that Lippert has finished his deployment to an undisclosed location, the White House is looking for another job for him. For months, he has been expected to replace Gen. Chip Gregson, who left in April, as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs. But he hasn't been nominated, partially due to private objections from Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), both of whom had issues with Lippert's skepticism regarding Obama's Afghanistan surge.

We're also told that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was opposed to Lippert's appointment at the Pentagon and the White House was waiting until Gates was gone. Gates was a staunch defender of Jones and might have held a grudge against Lippert. Also, Gates might have been wary of having someone who is so close to the White House embedded in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, especially one with a history of leaking and insubordination. Republican critics also say he lacks the qualifications for the job of being the Pentagon's top Asia policy official.

"Lippert is a guy who has no experience working in the Pentagon, no qualifications for leading defense policy on East Asia, and who is super close to the White House," said one Bush administration Asia official. "Other than that, he's perfect for the job."

GOP Senate staffers also see a Lippert nomination as a great chance to take the administration to task for what they see as a China policy that has been too conciliatory to Beijing.

"Mark Lippert's nomination to be assistant secretary of defense for Asia would be tremendous hold bait and an opportunity for the Senate to get a hearing on all of the president's China and Taiwan's policies," one senior GOP senate aide said.

The Cable

Clinton caves to Cornyn, Cornyn lifts hold on Burns

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants her new deputy, Bill Burns, confirmed so badly that she called Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) from India and gave in to his demands for a decision on Taiwan arms sales.

Clinton promised Cornyn that the administration would make a call on selling 66 new F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan and release the long overdue congressionally mandated report on Taiwan's air power capabilities. But there's a catch: The administration won't announce the decision and release the report until Oct. 1. But the promise of a decision was enough for Cornyn to lift his hold on Burns' nomination.

"Sen. Cornyn asked the administration to do two things: submit the late Taiwan airpower report and accept Taiwan's letter of request for new F-16C/D fighters," a Cornyn staffer told The Cable today. "Secretary Clinton indicated that on October 1st he would have both the report and an up-or-down decision on the F-16C/D sale, which was satisfactory to Sen. Cornyn."

We've been told by three sources that there was an emergency Principals Committee meeting at the White House on Taiwan arms sales last Friday. A fourth source flatly denied that the meeting took place. Either way, it's clear that there was some frantic administration discussion on this issue that led to the decision to meet Cornyn's demands.

The administration might ultimately say no to the sale of the new C and D models of the F-16 fighter jet, but offer the Taiwanese upgrade packages for their existing fleet of older A and B models. Or they could say yes to the new sales and the upgrades, or no to both options.

Why did Clinton choose the Oct. 1 date? Nobody knows for sure, but one piece of speculation is that it is well past Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Beijing in late August but still well before the November meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries in Honolulu in November. By making its decision then, some speculate that the administration may be trying to minimize the impact of any negative Chinese reaction to the moves.

Rupert J. Hammond-Chambers, the president of the U.S. Taiwan Business Council, told The Cable today that the fact that the report and the decision on new F-16 sales will be announced in October is an indicator that the administration is planning to say no to the new plane sales.

"It's good to know the administration will eventually make the decision on the F-16s. But by delivering the report at the same time as announcing the decision, they negate the importance and effectiveness of the report. And it seems likely that they won't announce a decision to sell Taiwan new F-16s only about a month before Hu Jintao is scheduled to come to the U.S." he said.  "We're just not that excited about the way this has played out."

If the answer is no on to new F-16 sales, expect the GOP to step in and criticize the administration for what they see as kowtowing to Chinese complaints.

"If and when the administration makes the wrong decision, we get to beat them up politically for letting China control U.S. arms sales," said a senior GOP Senate aide from another office.

Cornyn also wanted the administration to acknowledge Taiwan's official letter of request for the new planes, which Taipei has been trying to submit since 2006. But if the administration makes a decision on the sale, the letter requesting the sale becomes moot, congressional sources said.

But Burns's road to confirmation isn't in the clear. Sources say there is at least one more hold on his nomination that the State Department is working furiously to resolve. Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) put the Burns nomination on the "Hotline" today, which means he will be confirmed if there are no objections. So if Burns isn't confirmed tonight, that will be a clear indication that not all senators' demands have been satisfied.

Burns is also scheduled to meet with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) next Tuesday, according to congressional sources, to discuss Kirk's concerns about Iran policy and U.S. plans to deploy missile defense radar in Turkey. If Kirk doesn't like what he hears, there could be yet another roadblock to Burns' confirmation.

The White House was also upset by a Wednesday report by Washington Times' columnist Bill Gertz, who blamed National Security Staff Director Evan Medeiros for delaying the F-16 sale decision, the Taiwan air power report, and a related report regarding the Chinese military. Gertz's story, which was sourced to unnamed GOP congressional staff members, alleged that Medeiros was at odds with Asia officials around the government.

"Bill Gertz is the most prolific fiction writer since J.K. Rowling," NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable. "This story has absolutely no basis in fact. Evan isn't holding up a single one of these items. Anyone who is even remotely informed about the process would know that. Unfortunately the anonymous officials cited in this article don't fall into that category."

UPDATE: The Cable regrets that we did not contact Gertz to give him the opportunity to respond to Vietor's assertion that his column was "fiction." Gertz e-mailed his response today, saying, "I stand by my reporting." 

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