The Cable

McCain leading delegation to Egypt

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is leading a congressional delegation to Egypt this weekend and will meet with the head of the Egyptian military in an effort to resolve the crisis over the prosecution of American NGO workers in Cairo, he said Wednesday.

McCain said he will meet with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a man he has known for 25 years, but insisted he was "not Bill Richardson," the former New Mexico governor who has periodically served as an unofficial envoy, swooping in to foreign capitals to rescue Americans held by hostile governments.

McCain explained that he had no intention of demanding the NGO workers' immediate release or negotiating with the Egyptian government directly. Instead, he plans to express the seriousness of the issue to Egyptian military leaders and explain that the organizations are not sowing unrest, as they have been accused of doing, but rather helping Egypt develop civic institutions. He will also try to explain the congressional politics of the moment and the real possibility that Congress will cut off U.S. aid to Egypt over the crisis.

McCain said he realizes that the generals may not be in control of the situation and may not be able to solve the NGO crisis even if they wanted to. That opinion is shared by the State Department, including Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, as The Cable reported last week. That's why McCain is also seeking meetings with Egyptian parliamentarians, civic leaders, and representatives of liberal, secular, and even Islamic groups.

That analysis seemed to be reinforced last weekend when Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey traveled to Cairo and was unable to secure the release of the NGO workers despite meeting with Tantawi for over six hours. There's a realization in the U.S. government and in Congress that the Egyptian government can't make concessions during or immediately after a high-level U.S. visit because the optics of such a move would be politically damaging for them domestically, multiple Senate aides said.

McCain said the issue was probably being driven by Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga, a longtime Mubarak loyalist suspected to be driving the effort to prosecute the aid workers.

McCain is the chairman of the board of the International Republican Institute, one of the three U.S. NGOs affected by the prosecutions. The others are the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House. Several Egyptian NGOs are also being targeted by the Egyptian government.

IRI President Lorne Craner testified at the House Foreign Affairs Committee's hearing on the situation in Egypt Thursday morning.

"Taken in total, the events we are seeing reflect not only an attack on American democracy implementers like IRI, but more importantly, are the tip of the iceberg in an ongoing effort to silence independent Egyptian civil society voices that have been under increasing assault since last fall. The rhetoric employed by Egyptian authorities in doing so is increasingly reminiscent of Mubarak-era propaganda," said Craner.

"The announcement of evidence against those implicated in the investigation by the judges and public statements made by Egyptian decision-makers, including the minister of justice and Minister of International Cooperation Abul-Naga, appear to be a direct violation of Egyptian law."

Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said at the hearing that the SCAF and the ministry run by Abul-Naga should be pressured on the issue.

"While the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces bears ultimate responsibility for this strain in relations, the minister of international cooperation should not be exempt from punitive actions," she said. "This is not about 'sovereignty,' but about patronage and corruption. Therefore, no further U.S. assistance should be provided to any ministry that is controlled by the minister of international cooperation."

Ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not to certify that Egypt can receive its $1.3 billion in military aid unless the NGO situation is resolved.

"Current law requires that, as a condition for the disbursal of military assistance to Egypt, the secretary of state must certify that Egypt is implementing policies that protect freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and rule of law. And, although the law allows for a waiver, I cannot imagine the secretary could either make that certification or waive the requirement, as long as this NGO case moves forward -- and I would not encourage her to do so," Berman said.

The first confrontation over the aid could come this week when a transportation-related bill comes to the Senate floor. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is trying to add an amendment that would immediately cut off aid to Egypt, ahead of the State Department's certification.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, McCain said that the Paul amendment was not helpful at this time and that he would fight to oppose it.

"I want to assure you that we are discussing that and ways to certainly avoid that action at this time," McCain said. He urged the administration to "explain to the rulers who are the military and leftovers from the Mubarak regime that this situation is really not acceptable to the American people."

His delegation, which will include Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and several other senators, will also visit other countries in the region.

Getty Images

The Cable

Pentagon hides $3 billion in budget accounting maneuver

The Pentagon's new budget request moves $3 billion of military pay and benefits out of the base budget into the war budget in an accounting maneuver experts and congressional staffers say is meant to get around legally mandated budget caps and bolster the administration's plan to cut the size of the Army and Marines.

According to the military personnel section of the Pentagon's fiscal 2013 budget request, released Feb. 13, the cost of pay and benefits for the military next year will go down by $6 billion in the "base budget," which is meant to fund the ongoing costs not related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in the war-funding section of the budget request, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, next year's request for military personnel goes up by $3 billion, even though the actual costs of paying for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan would have no reason to rise as the United States withdraws.

What the Pentagon did was simply to move $3 billion from its regular budget to the war budget, where it does not count against the discretionary spending caps put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and where it does not count against the deficit.

It's a $3 billion accounting trick that allows the Pentagon to wiggle out of the spending caps by manipulating the war budgets, as it has done for years, said Gordon Adams, the former head of national security budgeting at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration, now a professor at American University.

"It's just too much temptation to resist," he said. "Just a little budgetary slight of hand, as DOD tries to create pockets of room for things shrinking budgets make it hard to afford. We've been pouring programs back and forth between the OCO account and the base [budget] for a decade."

Overall, military personnel spending in 2012 totaled $141.8 billion in the base budget and $11.3 billion in the war budget. In the fiscal 2013 request, the Pentagon is asking for $135.1 billion in the base budget and $14.1 billion in the war budget for the same accounts.

Adams said the administration is acting as if its recently released strategy, which would cut the size of the Army and Marines by 67,100 and 15,200 troops, respectively, has already been implemented. The actual troop reductions would take three years to complete and face stiff opposition in Congress, but the administration is trying to cut their pay and benefits out of the base budget now.

"It means pocketing savings from reducing the size of the force by taking them early in the base budget, while the force is only shrinking over three years," he said. "The administration clearly intends to cut end strength by 2015, but scoop out room in the base budget by the slight of hand of jiving the continuing payroll costs over into the war budget."

The accounting manuever does track the amount of money that would be saved by cutting the number of troops in the Army and Marines, as the new strategy envisions. In fiscal 2012 Army personal costs totaled about $53 billion, with about $7 billion in the OCO account. For fiscal 2013, the Pentagon is requesting $52 billion, but this time, $9.4 billion is in the OCO section of the budget.

For the Marines, the fiscal 2013 OCO budget request for military personnel would result in an increase of about $1 billion.

In response to questions from The Cable, Pentagon spokesman George Little confirmed that troops above the level envisioned in the new strategy would now be funded in the war budget, but he disputed that this was an abuse of the war budgeting mechanism or an accounting trick.

"Now that we have clearly identified a long-term end state level for our ground forces, we can more clearly delineate the cost of our current forces in excess of that level, and as a result we do have more funding budgeted for personnel in FY2013 in OCO than we did in FY2012... That is completely consistent with, not an abuse of, the concept of using OCO funds to budget for costs you would not be incurring were it not for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Little.

"People cost what they cost, and the total cost of all Army and Marine Corps personnel, base and OCO combined, is what it is.  Even if someone takes issue with our categorization of those costs between the base and OCO budgets, our request to Congress is a comprehensive one that includes both base and OCO funds," Little said. "We are not hiding the costs, either in the base budget or the OCO side.  The total size of the defense budget request is not affected by the categorization of these costs."

For military staffers on Capitol Hill, especially those gearing up to fight the troop cuts when Congress tackles the Pentagon budget, the administration is trying to have it both ways by playing games with the money and by shrinking the force in a way that can't easily be reversed.

"The real world requires a large force to meet insurgent threats on the ground -- the defense strategy only has room for a small force to deter neatly drawn challenges. The temporary answer seems to be to push the troops you need and the real conflict you are fighting off the books into OCO," one GOP congressional aide close to the issue said.

"Should the president decide to accelerate withdrawal from Afghanistan, there won't be room to pay for these troops in the base budget. Future presidents will pay for that folly in the years to come, but the troops who get shoved prematurely into the unemployment line will have to pay for it much sooner."

Getty Images