The Cable

Wish Obama's New Gitmo Czar Luck; He's Gonna Need It

Today, the Obama administration will announce the appointment of D.C. lawyer Clifford Sloan as the State Department's new envoy tasked with closing the Guantanamo Bay prison facility. One small problem: with some 150 unprosecutable detainees there, shutting down Gitmo is going to be borderline impossible.

Sloan, a former assistant to the Solicitor General in the George H.W. Bush administration and associate White House counsel in the Clinton administration has his work cut out for him. Efforts to close the facility have been stalled since January when the administration reassigned the previous special envy, Daniel Fried, without an immediate replacement.

In a statement on Sunday night, Secretary of State John Kerry said closing Gitmo "will not be easy, but if anyone can effectively navigate the space between agencies and branches of government, it's Cliff."

But Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch and a former colleague of Sloan's told The Cable that the real pressure is on President Barack Obama. "As good as Cliff is, he can only go so far,' said Roth. "He's going to need the president to match the nice words from his speech at the National Defense University to a genuine commitment to close the facility."

As it stands, there are 166 men left in the facility at a costs of $150 million annually to U.S. taxpayers. On Sunday, the Pentagon's chief prosecutor Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins scaled back the number of detainees "who can be realistically prosecuted" to around 20, meaning almost 150 will never be tried.

Last month, Obama denounced the facility as a propaganda tool for America's enemies and a hindrance to U.S. cooperation with allies on joint investigations at a counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University in Washington. "The original premise for opening Gitmo - that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention - was found unconstitutional five years ago," Obama said. "In the meantime, Gitmo has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law."

Administration critics from the left and right will be watching the administration's next moves closely.

Human rights activists want to see an end to both the facility, and its detainment policies. "One choice that shouldn't be an option is continuing a ‘Guantanamo North,'" said Roth, "a facility in the United States that supports detention without trial."

Meanwhile, the administration is wary of having a so-called "Willie Horton terrorist" moment on its hands, in which a prisoner upon release carries out a mass atrocity leaving the politician at least somewhat accountable.

The Cable

Source: U.S. Couldn't Nail Down Chemical Weapons Chain of Custody

When the White House first publicly announced in late April its belief that the Assad regime in Syria had used chemical weapons on its own people, it stressed that this was only a strong suspicion -- not a certainty. Yes, they had blood samples that indicated exposure to deadly sarin gas. But they couldn't say for sure who handled those samples in the two weeks it took to get the blood into Western hands. "The physiological examples are compelling but without being able to determine the chain of custody, that's the key to confirming the use," one unnamed U.S. official told the New York Times earlier this week.

That chain of custody still hasn't been nailed down, an American intelligence source tells The Cable. But U.S. spy agencies nonetheless now feel confident that chemical weapons were used in Syria. And that, in turn, prompted the White House to make its more sure-footed announcement Thursday that Assad had, conclusively, gassed his opponents in Syria's civil war.

After an alleged chemical attack on the city of Aleppo in March, the U.S. and United States came into possession of at least three physiological samples that tested positive for indicators of sarin gas. Now, Western intelligence services have at least twice that number of blood, urine, and hair samples coming from a variety of battle zones around the country.

"The big thing that changed is an increase in the number of incidents," the source says. "It's impossible that the opposition is faking the stuff in so many instances in so many locations."

When the samples were combined with information from signals intercepts, overhead surveillance, and human tipsters, the intelligence community felt it had a powerful case. And once the intelligence community made its conclusion, the White House was, in a way, compelled to act.

It wasn't just that President Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons to be a "red line" (although, of course, that was vitally important for all sorts of geopolitical and strategic reasons). An obscure 1991 law, 22 USC 5604, states that the president shall notify Congress within 60 days if the executive branch determines that a foreign government "has used lethal chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals."

Yet the White House's decision to announce the chemical weapons findings -- and the decision to provide "direct military support" to the rebels -- came rather quickly. "We had less than a week to prepare," the source says. "Nothing indicated a decision before this week."

And that quick move to announce may partially explain why the Obama administration's proclamation was so oddly short on specifics. There was that declaration of direct military support. But what shape that support would take, the administration wouldn't say, at least not on the record.

"Can't you even say small arms, RPGs, heavier weapons?" a reporter asked Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, during Friday's press briefing.

He answered: "We're just not going to be able to get into that level of detail about the type of assistance that we provide publicly here."

A State Department briefing with spokeswoman Jen Psaki added little clarity.

"So the United States has agreed to increase its support and aid to Syria, including direct military assistance," said a reporter. "Are you able to help us in any way explain exactly what is meant by that?"

"I cannot," Psaki said.

The CIA, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Pentagon directed all questions to the White House. ("Please feel free to report the CIA declined comment," one spokesman emailed.) The White House, in turn, refused to verify any order for small arms, ammunition, or any other kind of military support for the Syrian opposition.

One reason for the secrecy could be that the shipment of arms to rebels would fall under the CIA's classified purview. (Providing arms to rebel groups within another nation's sovereign borders presents legal issues in the absence of a United Nations Security Council resolution.) But another reason for the veiled statements and the lack of interagency coordination could be that the rollout of the chemical weapons announcement was done in haste.

Regardless, the U.S game plan in Syria has yet to be explained in full by U.S. officials on record. That reveals a conundrum of American security policy in 2013. Our wars are technically fought in secret. Yet they're announced to the world.