The Cable

McFaul nomination vote postponed

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has delayed consideration of Michael McFaul to become the next U.S. ambassador to Russia due to objections by U.S. senators that aren't related to his personal qualifications for the position.

Two Senate sources confirmed to The Cable that the committee decided Monday not to consider the nomination of McFaul, the current National Security Council senior director for Russia, at today's committee business meeting as had been planned. In fact, early Tuesday afternoon  the entire meeting was cancelled due to the McFaul objection as well as separate objections on the nominations of Roberta Jacobson to become assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Mari Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador. A planned resolution giving the sense of the Senate on Libya also faced criticism, our two Senate sources said.

"Today's business meeting has been postponed due to last-minute requests to holdover several of the agenda items," SFRC spokeswoman Jennifer Berlin told The Cable.

For McFaul, two staffers have confirmed that the objection is coming from Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). Corker isn't objecting to McFaul's personal qualifications for the position, but is using the nomination to press for administration assurances that the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee will be fully funded for fiscal year 2012. Corker also wants assurances over funding for nuclear warhead life-extension programs, which were part of the deal the administration struck with Congress during the debate over the New START nuclear reductions agreement with Russia.

Other GOP senators want to use the McFaul nomination to press the administration on a host of issues, including the current U.S.-Russia talks over missile defense cooperation, Russia's poor record on human rights, its continued occupation of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and a perceived lack of Russian cooperation on key international issues, such as confronting the Iranian nuclear threat.

"Objections have been raised by enough Republicans to warrant holding [McFaul] over until the next business meeting. Likely, strong concerns over administration negotiations with Moscow over missile defense play a large role in taking him off the business meeting agenda," one Senate Republican committee staffer said. "It may be the case Mr. McFaul is not confirmed, given the weight of these concerns."

Another staffer for a committee member said today that further objections to McFaul's nomination would probably come during floor consideration, because they would be raised by Republicans not on the committee. The objections have little to do with McFaul himself, who is generally liked and well-respected by the GOP, in part due to his decades of activism on democracy and human rights.

"He's about as good of a nominee as Republicans can expect from this administration, but there is a huge gap between the administration and the GOP about how the ‘reset' with Russia is going," said this staffer. "Republicans will use his nomination to air their concerns about a range of issues. That's just how it is."

The committee will likely have only one more business meeting this year, and it is unclear whether the administration will get McFaul a hearing on the next agenda.

Meanwhile, the State Department, aware of the potential problems with the McFaul nomination, sent around a fact sheet yesterday to Senate offices, which was obtained by The Cable, seeking to assuage senators' concerns about U.S.-Russia missile defense cooperation discussions. One GOP Senate aide reacted to the fact sheet by telling The Cable, "If the administration thinks this is what constitutes giving Congress access to information about the negotiations, they are sorely mistaken."

Some GOP offices also wanted Kerry to add a bill to penalize Russia for its treatment of human rights lawyers and activists to today's business meeting agenda. The legislation, called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, is named after the anti-corruption lawyer who was tortured and died in a Russian prison in 2009. The bill targets his captors, as well as any other Russian officials "responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights."

Republicans want passage of the Magnitsky bill to be the cost of repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which currently prevents Russia from getting Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status. Without PNTR, U.S. businesses will be disadvantaged when Russia joins the WTO later this year. The administration is avoiding linking Magnitsky to this trade status, and is proposing a fund to support a new democracy and human rights foundation in Russia instead. Republicans are cool on that idea.

Meanwhile, we've confirmed that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is objecting to the Jacobson nomination, and we're told that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is holding up the Aponte nomination.

The Cable

The MEK is the new Code Pink

For years, Iraq hearings on Capitol Hill were marked by the often disruptive presence of the anti-war group Code Pink; now their presence at hearings has been replaced by an Iranian dissident group.

About 50 supporters of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) took over the first three rows of the audience at Tuesday morning's hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the Senate Hart Office Building. The hearing was to examine President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year, and featured testimony by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Unlike the Code Pink representatives, who were famous for disrupting Senate hearings, the MEK supporters at the Hart building today sat politely in their bright yellow sweatshirts and ponchos, which had slogans printed on them calling for the State Department to take the MEK off of their list of foreign terrorist organizations -- a move that is supposedly under consideration.

We overheard one staffer at the hearing quip, "When your critics allege you are a cult, you probably shouldn't dress like one."

The MEK, whose ideology fuses Islam and Marxism, was formed in Iran in 1965. It allied itself with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and fought against the Shah and his Western backers during the Iranian Revolution. After falling out of favor with Khomeini, the group was given shelter in Iraq by Saddam Hussein, who used them to conduct brutal cross-border raids during the Iraq-Iran war.

After the fall of Saddam, the United States helped broker an agreement whereby 3,400 MEK members were confined to a complex in northeast Iraq called Camp Ashraf, protected by the U.S. military. The camp was handed over to the Iraqi government in 2009. In an interview this summer with The Cable, Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Samir Sumaida'ie said that the MEK was dangerous and "nothing more than a cult."

Since 2009, the MEK has conducted a multi-million advocacy and lobbying campaign in Washington, with the help of dozens of senior U.S. officials and lawmakers, many of whom have been paid for their involvement. The list includes Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former CIA Deputy Director of Clandestine Operations John Sano, former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, Gen. Anthony Zinni, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, former Sen. Evan Bayh, and many others.

In an August rally outside the State Department, Kennedy declared, "One of the greatest moments was when my uncle, President [John F.] Kennedy, stood in Berlin and uttered the immortal words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,'" Kennedy exclaimed. "Today, I'm honored to repeat my uncle's words, by saying [translated from Farsi] ‘I am an Iranian, I am an Ashrafi.'"

Kennedy admitted he was paid $25,000 to emcee the rally.

Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin (D-MI) called on the administration to protect the MEK from Iraqi government violence in his opening statement at the hearing.

"The status of the residents at Camp Ashraf from the Iranian dissident group MEK remains unresolved," Levin said. "As the December 2011 deadline approaches, the administration needs to remain vigilant that the Government of Iraq lives up to its commitments to provide for the safety of the Camp Ashraf residents until a resolution of their status can be reached."

"We need to make it clear to the Government of Iraq that there cannot be a repeat of the deadly confrontation begun last April by Iraqi security forces against Camp Ashraf residents," Levin said.

Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy