The Cable

Exclusive: Top Afghan oversight official stepping down

The Cable has learned that Herbert Richardson, the acting special inspector general
for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) is stepping down after only six months on the job, leaving that troubled office without a leader for the second time this year.

Richardson has been running the SIGAR office since the January firing of Arnie Fields, who was finally removed from his position after more than a year of complaints by senior senators including Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Susan Collins (R-ME). Fields was criticized for running an oversight office that failed to produce results in the effort to find waste, fraud, and abuse in the tens of billions of dollars in contracts for Afghanistan reconstruction.

Richardson was never nominated to be permanent SIGAR and was leading the office as acting chief. But he will return to the private sector this month, according to four sources with direct knowledge of his decision. The SIGAR office declined requests for comment and said that Richardson was unavailable, in meetings all day. There's no word yet on who will take over as SIGAR.

On Capitol Hill, concerned lawmakers and staffers were actually hopeful that Richardson was improving the performance of the SIGAR office. Today, those congressional offices are back to voicing their usual disappointment and skepticism.

"He stopped some of the suck that was going on there, but it was only six months," one GOP senate aide told The Cable. "At this point they are supposed to be firing on all cylinders. And now that he's leaving, who knows."

"He came in with such fanfare and their team said there would be a ‘culture change' with his arrival," said a House Democratic staffer. "So much for culture change if it was dependent upon leadership."

Coincidentally, SIGAR officials were on the Hill this morning to brief staffers on their quarterly report. Richardson was expected to attend but did not show up. One staffer who attended the briefing said that SIGAR officials failed to mention that Richardson is leaving and the briefing itself left a lot to be desired.

"It was a weak briefing because they have a weak product," this House staffer said. "They just aren't producing convictions at a pace comparable to the results being produced by their counterparts at [the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction] SIGIR in terms of Iraq."

SIGIR, which was established first and is led by the well respected Stuart Bowen, has a shrinking mission as the U.S. presence in Iraq winds down. Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) are calling for SIGIR and SIGAR to be combined into something called the office of the Special Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations (SIGOCO), an idea that SIGAR has lobbied hard against.

"Rather than a piecemeal and reactive approach to the oversight of billions of dollars in these situations, we need a dedicated shop run by a proven investigator who can report to the National Security Council, and the Defense and State departments, without being cowed by political pressure," Honda told The Cable. "A permanent Office for Contingency Operations, whose mandate would transcend political timetables, would send the message that transparency, efficiency and efficacy are institutional priorities, and waste and corruption will not be tolerated."

One Senate staffer noted that the law that established SIGAR actually gives the president the authority to combine that office with its Iraq counterpart, placing them both under the control of Bowen.

"Everyone is looking for cuts of agencies that are not performing or duplicative," this staffer said. "We could shut down SIGAR, give some of that money to the DOD Inspector General's office, some for debt reduction, and call it a day."

The United States has committed $51 billion to Afghanistan reconstruction since 2001; that endowment will reach $71 billion by the end of 2011, according to the AP.

UPDATE: Late Thursday afternoon, Richardson put out a statement confirming our report.  "After more than 37 years of public service, I've decided to accept an opportunity in the private sector, at a time when I'm convinced SIGAR has changed course, is producing results, and is being led effectively by the new leadership team that I've put in place," he said.

The Cable

Pressure on Obama to get tougher on Syria coming from all sides

As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, lawmakers and activists are stepping up their efforts to convince the White House to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power.

The U.N. Security Council issued a presidential statement on Wednesday afternoon condemning the violence in Syria and calling for those responsible for human rights violation to be held accountable. The statement did not call for an international investigation into the crimes, as some members had wanted, and does not carry the force of a Security Council resolution, which was ultimately unattainable.

"It is clear that President al-Assad is not committed to pursuing the reforms that would meet these goals. As such, the United States and the international community must hold the regime accountable, and pressure them to change course," 68 U.S. senators wrote in a new letter to President Barack Obama today. "Implementing additional sanctions would show the Syrian people that we stand with them in their struggle for human rights and a more representative government, while also making it clear to the Syrian regime that it will pay an increasing cost for its outrageous repression."

The senators are calling on the administration to prohibit U.S. businesses from operating or investing in Syria, impose stringent sanctions on Syria's banking sector, restrict the travel of Syrian diplomats within the United States, and block property transactions in which the Syrian government has an interest. In addition, the senators are calling on Obama to engage with European allies on ending purchases of Syrian oil, and cutting off investments in Syria's oil and gas sectors.

The letter comes only one day after Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) introduced a bill that would authorize Obama to close off the U.S. financial system, markets, and federal contracts to companies that invest in Syria's energy sector, purchase the country's oil, and sell gasoline to Syria.

Obama's Syria team, which is centered at the State Department, has been increasing its rhetoric and activity against the Assad regime, having now made the internal calculation that Assad will have to leave sooner or later. "We've definitely been very clear that we don't see Assad in Syria's future," a senior administration official told Foreign Policy this week.

Another administration official who does not work directly on sanctions predicted that new designations of Syrian officials for targeted sanctions could be coming in "days, not weeks." Still that movement is not enough for the administration's critics.

"I don't understand their Syria policy," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a SFRC member who is calling for a tougher administration stance. "I wish there was a little more clarity on it, I'm sorry there isn't."

Other observers beg to differ. "The administration has been criticized as muddled, I think this is no longer the case," said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Now the idea has crystallized inside the administration that the Assad regime is on its way out and all options are on the table, short of military action."

At his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said that, additional U.S. unilateral sanctions "probably aren't going to have that big of an impact," because "the big companies working in the energy sector in Syria are from Europe or Syria's neighbors."

But the administration isn't opposed to the new congressional legislation, Tabler said. Ford was simply acknowledging the fact that the United States doesn't have much leverage in Syria and therefore must work through other countries to increase pressure on Assad.

"[T]he point that Ford was trying to make was that in order to get the change on the ground, you have to get the European countries to join in," Tabler said. "The question is whether this congressional action will lead to more European action or not."

"It's foreign companies, in particular those based in the EU, that the U.S. needs to persuade to pull out of Syria. Ford is absolutely right about that," said a senior Senate aide who works on Syria. "In fact, that's precisely why the congressional sanctions introduced yesterday don't target U.S. companies. They target the foreign energy companies that are doing business with Syria."

Regardless, the administration still has yet to issue an outright call for Assad to step down now, as it did with Egypt's Mubarak and Libya's Qaddafi. That's one of the main requests of Syrian opposition activists, several of whom met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department on Tuesday. They want Obama to be more public in his support of the Syrian opposition.

"The president had remarks on Egypt and Libya, but no speech on Syria," said Radwan Ziadeh, a George Washington University professor who was part of the group. "Also we need the United States to lead international action on Syria at the United Nations Security Council level."

Ziadeh said that Clinton promised to throw her support behind the condemnation of Syria just passed at the United Nations, but did not pledge that the administration would do the other things the activists are requesting, including leading a drive for Syrian officials to be charged with war crimes at the International Criminal Court.

The one hour meeting was also attended by Syria activists Marah Bukai and Mohammad Alabdalla, as well as Ford, Special Advisor Fred Hof, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tamara Wittes, and a deputy of Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner.

The activists had been requesting a meeting with Clinton for over a month, Ziadeh said. They have seen greater senior administration attention on Syria in recent days, which they view as positive, but are waiting for that attention to be translated into a more bold and public stance, he noted.

"She said that they want a transition in Syria to start as soon as possible," said Ziadeh. "It's important to see how much Secretary Clinton is personally involved. But now we need to push the White House to have a speech by President Obama very soon."