The Cable

Kerry gaffe: Tsarnaev radicalized in Russia

Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that deceased alleged Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev became a killer when he traveled to Russia in 2011, but the State Department and the White House had to walk back Kerry's remarks right after he said them.

Kerry was in Belgium on Wednesday for a NATO foreign minister's meeting and made the comments about the 26-year old alleged bomber during a brief interaction with reporters.

"We just had a young person who went to Russia, Chechnya, who blew people up in Boston," Kerry said. "So he didn't stay where he went, but he learned something where he went and he came back with a willingness to kill people."

Those comments suggested that Tsarnaev was not able or willing to commit acts of terror and murder before he traveled to the Russian region of Dagestan for six months in 2011, but made some connections to people there that resulted in a more fervent anti-American ideology that contributed to the Boston Marathon attack.

Tsarnaev's 19-year old brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is talking with law enforcement officials while recovering from injuries, has reportedly said that he and his brother had no contacts with foreign terrorist groups and no international help in executing the attacks. The FBI cleared Tamerlan Tsarnaev after an investigation in early 2011, before his Russia trip. The Russian authorities warned U.S. intelligence agencies about Tsarnaev multiple times, including after he returned to the United States in October 2011, a U.S. senator said Tuesday.

Both the State Department and White House press shops sought to walk back Kerry's comments about the elder Tsarnaev's Russia experience in their daily press conferences on Wednesday, saying that Kerry was not revealing any actual information on the case.

"The secretary was simply expressing broad concern about radicalism and not necessarily offering any more specific information about this case," Spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Wednesday. "I'm clarifying his remarks and saying that he was simply expressing broad concern about radicalism.  This isn't about new details about the ongoing investigation."

Ventrell declined to say whether the administration currently believes that Tsarnaev's time in Russia contributed to his radicalization, despite that Kerry was apparently not intending to reveal anything new. "I'm not in a position to say one way or another on that," he said.

The U.S. embassy in Moscow sent officials to speak with Tsarnaev's parents in Dagestan this week as part of an interagency team, Ventrell said. The two parents are expected to come to the United States soon to visit Dzhokhar , although no firm date has been set.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney urged reporters on Wednesday to set aside Kerry's comments in Belgium and wait for the FBI-led investigation into the bombings to run its course.

"Secretary Kerry was not reflecting any new information or conclusion about the individuals involved. He was speaking generally about the nature of terrorism. But we are in the process of an investigation. Those comments don't reflect any new information," he said. 

Carney defended the FBI's initial investigation into the elder Tsarnaev brother and said there was no indication of terrorist activity or associations with foreign or domestic groups at the time.

He also pushed aside comments by Vice President Joe Biden, who said at the funeral of MIT police officer Sean Collier that the Tsarnaev brothers were "two twisted, perverted, cowardly, knock-off jihadis." 

Carney warned against jumping to conclusions in the case, without referencing Kerry or Biden specifically.

"So I think we saw last week that there is some danger in making -- jumping -- to conclusions, making judgments based on new information that may or may not be true, or partial information that will be developed further as time goes on," he said.

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Sudanese delegation coming to Washington

The Obama administration has invited a senior delegation from the Khartoum regime to visit Washington for high-level discussions, just after the State Department criticized Sudan heavily in its annual country reports on human rights.

The Sudanese Foreign Ministry first announced Tuesday that senior officials from the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) had been invited to Washington for consultations. Sudan Tribune, an émigré newspaper based in Paris, paraphrased a Sudanese official citing the "mere presence of diplomatic missions in both countries and meetings of ambassadors" as representing "some degree of dialogue between Khartoum and Washington."

Sudan is among the most-sanctioned countries in the world. President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court, Sudan has been on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1993, and the United States imposed additional sanctions in 1997 and then again in 2003, following the outbreak of government-sponsored violence in Darfur.

Sudan advocacy-group leaders were quick to criticize the administration's decision to invite the NCP officials to Washington, where they are expected to discuss ongoing tensions with South Sudan, the upcoming referendum in the contested region of Abyei, and the ongoing violence in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.

"United to End Genocide believes that the delegates of Sudan's National Congress Party (NCP) do not deserve to be rewarded by the United States government and invited to Washington, D.C. until they stop committing crimes against the civilians throughout Sudan," said Tom Andrews, the president of the group. "It is imperative that in his new term, President Obama evaluates his previous diplomacy towards Sudan, sets strong policy with clear measures that can help end the suffering of the people of Sudan, and hold the perpetrators accountable before offering rewards."

At Tuesday's State Department press briefing, spokesman Patrick Ventrell acknowledged the invitation but gave few details about why the administration believes it's a good idea to host the Sudanese delegation at this time. He said that presidential adviser Nafie Ali Nafie will lead the delegation, but the exact timing has not been finalized.

"We've planned to receive this delegation for a candid discussion on the conflicts and humanitarian crises within Sudan, including in Darfur and the two areas -- Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, counterterrorism, human rights and other issues of concern to the U.S. government," Ventrell said. "We've also continued to express our deep concern about another -- a number of other issues. While we've had some progress here, you have ongoing aerial bombardment of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and some other areas in terms of Darfur that we're still concerned about. So we've seen some progress, but we still have some concerns and we'll raise them directly with the government."

The delegation announcement comes in the same week that the administration announced it was relaxing some sanctions against Khartoum. The Treasury Department announced April 22 that it would now authorize some professional and educational exchanges with Sudan that had previously been prohibited.

Only three days before relaxing sanctions, the Obama administration heavily criticized Sudan in its annual country reports on human rights practices, released April 19, which documented extreme government-sponsored atrocities and human rights violations.

"The most important human rights abuses included: government forces and government-aligned groups committed extrajudicial and other unlawful killings; security forces committed torture, beatings, rape, and other cruel and inhumane treatment or punishment; and prison and detention center conditions were harsh and life threatening," the State Department report said. "Except in rare cases, the government took no steps to prosecute or punish officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government who committed abuses. Security force impunity remained a serious problem."

Other major abuses in Sudan, according to the State Department, included arbitrary arrest; incommunicado and prolonged pretrial detention; executive interference with the judiciary and denial of due process; obstruction of humanitarian assistance; restriction on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement; harassment of internally displaced persons; restrictions on privacy; harassment and closure of human rights organizations; and violence and discrimination against women. Societal abuses including instances of female genital mutilation; child abuse, including sexual violence and recruitment of child soldiers; trafficking in persons; violence against ethnic minorities; denial of workers' rights; and forced and child labor were also reported.

That report prompted a call from the Sudan advocacy community for the administration to employ stronger pressure mechanisms against Khartoum, rather than offering more incentives like visits to Washington or rewards like an easing of sanctions.

"These atrocities and abuses stem from the many conflicts in Sudan, and point to the need for a comprehensive approach to all of Sudan's conflicts," a group of Sudan advocacy organizations wrote in a letter to Obama April 22. "In addition, given the scale of the atrocities perpetrated by the regime, international donors should not provide significant assistance or debt-relief until real and verifiable steps towards peace and democratic transformation are taken."

These groups, along with several members of Congress, also lament that the president has yet to appoint a special envoy to Sudan to replace Amb. Princeton Lyman, who stepped down late last year. The administration is said to be circling around a couple of candidates, but there's been no announcement as of yet.

"This vacancy is symptomatic of a president that has all but forsaken the people of Sudan," Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) said in a March floor statement. "Candidate Obama purported to be deeply concerned by the crisis in Sudan and committed to bold actions. Have we seen a fraction of that concern or anything close to bold action since he became president?"

ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images