The Cable

Levin and McCain: Egypt's military aid really is in jeopardy

Both leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee told The Cable that $1.3 billion of annual U.S. aid to the Egyptian military is in real jeopardy due to the Egyptian government's harassment of American NGO workers.

Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) both said on Tuesday that a withholding of military aid to Egypt was now on the table due to the Egyptian military's role in the Dec. 29 raids on several NGO groups in Cairo, including three U.S. government-funded organizations: the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Freedom House.

The anger in Washington at the Egyptian government reached a boiling point this week when it was revealed on Jan. 26 that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's son Sam LaHood, the head of IRI's Cairo office, had been barred from leaving Egypt by the government, along with five other U.S. citizens.

The issue has already led to a divorce between the Egyptian government and its Washington lobbyists. The lobbyists said they dumped the Egyptian government over the NGO issue, while the Egyptian embassy claimed it dumped the lobbyists in order to save money.

Both Levin and McCain are set to meet with a visiting delegation of high-level Egyptian military officers next week in Washington, and they both said they will deliver the message that U.S. military aid to Egypt is tied to this issue.

"They should know that this action on their part jeopardizes a normal relationship between us," Levin said in a brief interview on his way out of the Democratic caucus lunch. "They know that, and that includes the impact it could have on aid."

McCain, who happens to be the chairman of the board of IRI, said in his own after-lunch interview that U.S. military aid to Egypt is "certainly a topic that [the Egyptians] have put on the table."

"It's hard to believe. IRI and NDI worked throughout Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union and we helped them with democracy. They're like mechanics. They come in and tell you how to organize voters, how party registration works, and that kind of stuff. They're not advocates of anybody," McCain said.

McCain has been exchanging letters with his contacts in Egypt but there's been no progress yet, he said. "I've known [SCAF leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi for years, and many of the other members of the Egyptian military. It's one of the few benefits of old age," he said.

Freedom House put out a fact sheet on Tuesday, written by its manager of congressional affairs, Sarah Trister, which argues Egypt has not met the legal obligations for receiving the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid this year.

"Per the FY 2012 State and Foreign Operations Bill, before the administration can release the $1.3 billion in military aid for Egypt, it must certify that the government of Egypt is ‘supporting the transition to civilian government including holding free and fair elections; implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.' At this point, it is clear these conditions are not being met," Trister wrote.

Moreover, the Freedom House fact sheet made the case that Egypt should not receive the $300 million it receives from the United States in economic and social assistance, mainly because this money goes through the Ministry for International Cooperation, which is led by the Egyptian official believed to be driving the NGO harassment: Fayza Abul-Naga.

"The ministry that receives this funding, the Ministry for Planning and International Cooperation, is headed by a Mubarak holdover who has been directing the assault against civil society," Trister wrote, referring to Abul-Naga.

Reuters reported Tuesday that the Egyptian Justice Ministry sent back a letter from the U.S. embassy requesting the Americans trapped in Cairo be allowed to leave.

The Washington Post ran an editorial on Tuesday criticizing the Egyptian military delegation for being tone deaf to the seriousness of the crisis, and calling on President Barack Obama's administration to use the military aid as leverage.

"The generals regard this funding as an entitlement, linked to the country's peace treaty with Israel. They appear to believe that Washington will not dare to cut them off, even if Americans seeking to promote democracy in Egypt are made the object of xenophobic slanders and threatened with imprisonment," the editorial said.

"Preserving the alliance with Egypt, and maintaining good relations with its military, is an important U.S. interest. But the Obama administration must be prepared to take an uncompromising stand. If the campaign against U.S., European and Egyptian NGOs is not ended, military aid must be suspended."

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Cable

Administration briefs Senate leaders on Taliban transfer

Top Obama administration officials briefed eight senior Senate leaders Tuesday on a pending deal to transfer as many as five Taliban prisoners from the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.

The Cable staked out the classified briefing in the basement of the Capitol building Tuesday afternoon. The eight senators who attended the briefing were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Intelligence Committee heads Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Senate Armed Services chiefs Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).

The identities of the administration briefers were not shared, but we were told it was a high-level interagency briefing team.

All of the senators refused to discuss the contents of the briefing as they exited the secure briefing room in the Senate Visitors' Center. But Levin and McCain both discussed the issue in question before entering the briefing, namely the administration's negotiations with the Taliban over transferring the Taliban prisoners into Qatari custody.

Levin told reporters Tuesday that the briefing was "about the ongoing Taliban reconciliation efforts." Levin is open to the idea of transferring Taliban members to Qatar, but said the devil was in the details.

"It depends on what assurances we have from the [Qatari] government that they are not going to be released," Levin said. "But I also think the Afghans have to be very much involved in any discussions and any process. They weren't for a while."

"We're not releasing them. As I understand it they will be imprisoned in Qatar," Levin continued. But can the Qataris be trusted to keep them behind bars? "That's the question," Levin said.

Levin said he didn't know what the United States was getting in exchange for transferring the prisoners to Qatar, where the Taliban are preparing to open an office. But he said the possible transfer was not a significant concession to the Taliban, provided the prisoners remain in custody. "If that's what [the Taliban] are getting, it's not much of a gain [for them], going from one prison to another."

McCain, talking to reporters before the briefing, lashed out at the idea that the prisoners would be moved to Qatar in a possible exchange for a Taliban statement renouncing international violence, as has been reported.

"The whole idea that they're going to ‘transfer' these detainees in exchange for a statement by the Taliban? It is really, really bizarre," McCain said. "This whole thing is highly questionable because the Taliban know we are leaving. I know many experts who would say they are rope-a-doping us."

McCain said that Congress probably can't stop the administration from going ahead with the transfer if that's what it decides.

"I don't think right now we can do anything about it, but these people were in positions of authority. One of them was responsible for deaths of several Americans," said McCain, referring to reports that the prisoners being considered for transfer include Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister, Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan, and former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund.

Is McCain confident that the Qataris will keep the Taliban prisoners locked up? "No I am not. And the Taliban don't think so either, otherwise the Taliban wouldn't want them transferred," he said.

McCain said he was last briefed about the potential deal in December.

Some of the confusion about the negotiations was caused when the State Department's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman said on Jan. 22 that talks with the Taliban were a long way off and that no deal to transfer prisoners had been finalized. Grossman was in Kabul when he made the statements and he traveled to Qatar the next day.

On Jan. 28, several former members of the Taliban government said that talks with the United States had begun over the prisoner transfer. "Currently there are no peace talks going on," Maulavi Qalamuddin, the former minister of "vice and virtue" for the Taliban, told The New York Times. "The only thing is the negotiations over release of Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo, which is still under discussion between both sides in Qatar."

At Tuesday morning's open hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Chambliss pressed Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director David Petraeus, and National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Matthew Olsen to confirm that the Taliban under consideration for transfer were still viewed as too dangerous to release by the U.S. intelligence community.

"It appears from these reports that in exchange for transferring detainees who had been determined to be too dangerous to transfer by the administration's own Guantánamo review task force, we get little to nothing in return. Apparently, the Taliban will not have to stop fighting our troops and won't even have to stop bombing them with IEDs," Chambliss said. "I have also heard nothing from the IC[intelligence community] that suggests that the assessments on the threat posed by these detainees have changed. I want to state publicly as strongly as I can that we should not transfer these detainees from Guantánamo."

Clapper said he stood by the original intelligence community assessments, which concluded that the Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo were too dangerous to be released.

"I don't think anyone in the administration harbors any illusions about the potential here," said Clapper. "And of course, part and parcel of such a decision if it were finally made would be the actual determination of where these detainees might go and the conditions in which they would be controlled or surveilled."

Olsen, who led the review task force that evaluated the Guantanamo detainees in 2009, confirmed that the 5 prisoners being considered for transfer "were deemed too dangerous to release and who could not be prosecuted," but Olsen said he had not evaluated those five prisoners since then.

Petraeus said that his staff had been asked for a more recent evaluation of the five prisoners and that the CIA completed risk analyses based on different possible conditions for the Taliban prisoners' transfer.

"In fact, our analyst did provide assessments of the five and the risks presented by various scenarios by which they could be sent somewhere, not back to Afghanistan or Pakistan, and then based on the various mitigating measures that could be implemented, to ensure that they could not return to militant activity," Petraeus said.