The Cable

Robert Ford: Families of Syrian-American protesters being tortured by regime

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford confirmed to The Cable widely held suspicions that the Syrian government is arresting and torturing Syrians whose family members have spoken out against the regime here in the United States.

The FBI is investigating claims that the Syrian embassy staff in Washington has been collecting information on Syrian-Americans in and around Washington, especially those who dare to protest against the regime. That embassy is led by Ambassador Imad Moustapha, who has updated his blog only intermittently since the outbreak of violence in Syria.

Ford did not directly accuse Moustapha of spying on American citizens and transmitting that information back to the regime, to be used to punish family members as part of an organized campaign of fear and intimidation. But he said that those families are being tortured.

"We know of families here in Syria who have been arrested, who have been beaten, whose homes have been broken into, because of activities against the Syrian government - participation in marches, for example - by family members in the United States," Ford said in a phone call from his post in Damascus.

Ford said he couldn't comment on the Moustapha investigation specifically, but confirmed that the State Department is tracking these cases and has evidence of multiple instances of retribution against Syrian-Americans by the Assad regime.

"We know of at least three instances of that. How does the Syrian government know about [the Syrian-Americans' activities]? You and I can speculate," Ford said.  "We do know of families that were attacked here. It's really serious."

Without directly accusing the Syrian embassy in Washington of spying, Ford said, "It is entirely unacceptable for any foreign embassy in the United States to facilitate the harassment of American citizens."

The Wall Street Journal has reported on several claims by activists of retribution brought down on their Syrian-based family members. Ford's comments represent the highest level public acknowledgment of these activities to date.

At Ford's confirmation hearing in August, Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) spoke about how the regime treats those Syrians who try to maintain contacts in the United States.

"The terrible reach of this regime has directly affected constituents in my home state of Pennsylvania," said Casey, who told the story of Sakher Hallak, a Syrian who traveled to the United States to attend a medical conference with his brother Hazem Hallak, a Syrian-American living near Philadelphia.

"Upon his return to Syria, Sakher was missing. His wife contacted the authority to confirm that he was in their custody but would be released shortly," Casey said. "Two days later, his body was discovered in a village 20 miles south of Aleppo. The authorities then denied that he was ever in their custody and claimed that they found his body in a ditch, by the side of the road."

"Sakher's body was subjected to brutal torture. His bones were broken and his body was mutilated in unspeakable ways," said Casey. "Sakher was not a political activist. He was not involved in the demonstrations. His sole offense appears to be his visit to the medical conference and his visit with his brother in the United States of America."

If the Syrian regime's intention was to intimidate Hazem Hallak, their strategy surely backfired. He became an outspoken and fierce critic of the regime in response to his brother's death.

The Cable

Netanyahu vs. Clinton: Round 3

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded again Sunday to charges that he was responsible for failures in the peace process leveled against him by former President Bill Clinton in remarks reported exclusively on The Cable.

Netanyahu, who first responded to Clinton on Friday evening on ABC News, was again confronted with the former president's accusations on Sunday morning on NBC's Meet the Press. Host David Gregory drew Netanyahu's attention to this passage in our story:

Clinton affirmed that the United States should veto the Palestinian resolution at the U.N. Security Council for member-state status, because the Israelis need security guarantees before agreeing to the creation of a Palestinian state. But the Netanyahu government has moved away from the consensus for peace, making a final status agreement more difficult, Clinton said.

"That's what happened. Every American needs to know this. That's how we got to where we are," Clinton said. "The real cynics believe that the Netanyahu's government's continued call for negotiations over borders and such means that he's just not going to give up the West Bank."

Here's how Netanyahu responded:

You know, I regretfully and respectfully disagree with former President Clinton. He should know, more than anyone else, that in the peace conference he presided in at Camp David in 2000 with [Yasir] Arafat and former Prime Minister [Ehud] Barak, it was the Palestinian side who walked away from his own parameters. And in 2008, President Bush can tell you how the Palestinian side led by President Abbas walked away, just would not close in on another prime minister's suggestions.

In the two-and-a-half years since then, anybody conversant with the facts knows that I made these offers again and again, called for two states for two peoples, froze the settlements -- nobody did that, ever -- for nearly a year. They didn't come. They don't want to come. And they go around to the U.N. I disagree with that.

Gregory asked Netanyahu whether it's true he will never give up the West Bank.

"No, we could arrive at an arrangement that takes care of Israel's security needs and gives the Palestinians a life of dignity for themselves," Netanyahu said. "But they have to have leaders who are prepared to do that. You know what? I hope they do, not just for our sake but for their sake too."

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Netanyahu was so mad about Clinton's remarks that, "he asked his aides to request that the White House issue a statement distancing itself from Clinton's statements."

The White House declined to say whether they had received a formal or informal complaint about Clinton's remarks from Netanyahu's staff. Asked for a response to Clinton's remarks by The Cable, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor sent along this statement, which just repeated the administrations standard talking points.

"President Obama expressed his views clearly Wednesday at the outset of his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he said that peace must be negotiated and cannot be imposed on the parties," Vietor said. "Actions at the United Nations will achieve neither statehood nor self-determination for the Palestinians. The Israelis and Palestinians must negotiate through these very difficult issues that have kept the parties apart for decades to achieve the ultimate goal of two states, side by side, living in peace and security."