The Cable

Graham Gets What He Wants on Benghazi... And Still Holds Up Government

Last month, Senator Lindsey Graham vowed to block the confirmation of every Obama administration appointee because the administration was preventing Benghazi survivors from testifying before Congress. Now, three Benghazi witnesses are set to testify for the first time. Their lawyer says the administration never discouraged their testimony, but Graham's office says the holds aren't going anywhere.

"Still have holds in place," Graham's spokesman Kevin Bishop tells The Cable.

It's unclear what further actions might change Graham's calculus on the holds, but the South Carolina Republican maintains that the administration has prevented Benghazi witnesses from testifying before Congress, and until that changes, he'll continue to block the confirmation of top U.S. officials.

When The Cable asked the lawyer representing the Benghazi survivors if his clients had been intimidated or discouraged from testifying, attorney Mark Zaid said he was unaware of anyone who had experienced such problems. "Actually, the executive branch has been very cooperative with us to date," he said.

Zaid, a veteran national security lawyer, declined to confirm or deny his clients' affiliation to the U.S. Government and would only note that the three men served as members of the "elite security team" who were present in Benghazi.

In the highly politicized debate over Benghazi, it remains unclear if the testimony of the three men will benefit the White House or its critics in the Republican Party who maintain that the officials failed to provide adequate security and emergency backup during the attack. Zaid said his clients' motivation for testifying is anything but political.

"My clients, who were never before directly asked to testify to Congress as to what actually happened in Benghazi on September 11-12, have no political ax to grind," he said. "Their testimony will be purely factual in nature and completely truthful."

Still, some Republican lawmakers are likely to zero in on the witnesses' timeline of the attack in order to prove that U.S. officials should've called in for air support during the siege of the U.S. compound.

According to the State Department, the first attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi lasted between 9:45 p.m. and 10 p.m. After midnight, a lull in fighting lasted until 5 a.m., when a second offensive with mortar rounds targeted the CIA annex one mile away from the compound. According to a report by The Daily Beast's Eli Lake, at least one of Zaid's clients will dispute that timeline, saying there was no lull in the fighting between the compound and the annex. That's an issue Republicans such as Rep. Devin Nunes are likely to focus on next week in order to prove that U.S. officials should've called in air support. (Administration officials have given a number of reasons for not calling in air support, including the rationale that it appeared the assault had ended.)

Another inspiration for Graham's hold is a 60 Minutes report on Benghazi that aired last month. "The 60 Minutes piece detailed the people on the ground saw this attack coming. Has anybody been fired for letting the consulate become a death trap?" said Graham. However, the credibility of 60 Minutes' key source, a private security contractor named Dylan Davies, has been called into question after he admitted lying to his bosses about his whereabouts the night of the Benghazi attack. (Davies maintains that the account he gave to 60 Minutes is true.)

Graham has remained single-minded in his attack on the administration, however. "I don't think it's over the top to find out what happened to four dead Americans. I don't think it's over the top for the Congress to be able to challenge the narrative of any administration when an ambassador's killed. I don't think it's over the top for us to be able to talk to the survivors," the South Carolina Republican repeated on Sunday.

Still, Democrats on the House Intel Committee who will hear from Zaid's clients next week are likely to push back on Graham's demands for more witnesses. "It concerns me that it is not a higher priority to make sure that bring these people to justice, than to carry on this political exercise," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) told The Cable.

Meanwhile, the list of Obama administration nominees stuck in confirmation limbo continues to grow. On Wednesday, President Obama announced the nominations of Joseph William Westphal as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Colleen Bradley Bell as ambassador to Hungary, and Madelyn Creedon as a principal deputy administrator for National Nuclear Security Administration at the Department of Energy. Other high profile nominations in purgatory include Jeh Johnson for secretary of homeland security and Janet Yellen as chair of the Federal Reserve.

"Where are the Benghazi survivors?" Graham tweeted from his official account. "I'm going to block every appointment in the U.S. Senate until they are made available to Congress."

The Cable

Syrian Opposition Appalled By Assad's U.N. Gambit

Members of the Syrian opposition reacted in horror on Wednesday to a new report that President Bashar al-Assad has offered his cooperation on the removal of chemical weapons in exchange for armored trucks, advanced communications gear and other equipment with both military and civilian applications. The Syrians warned that the equipment could accelerate the regime's killing of civilians and, at the same time, implicate the international community in the bloodshed.

"After decades of deceit, there is every reason to believe that the Syrian regime will use this equipment to inflict further suffering on the Syrian people," Dr. Najib Ghabdian, special representative from the Syrian Coalition to the U.S. and the United Nations, told The Cable. "The delivery of military-grade equipment to the Syrian regime risks implicating the international community in the murder of innocent Syrian civilians."

On Tuesday, The Cable reported exclusively on a confidential proposal the Assad regime presented to the United Nation's chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), that sought foreign help to secure the road between Damascus to the port city of Latakia, where the weapons would be shipped overseas for destruction. The Assad government said it needed the vehicles and communications equipment to achieve the OPCW's ambitious goal of eliminating all of Syria's chemical weapons by the end of next summer. 

The plan - particularly Assad's request for an advanced communications network linking Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea -- is infuriating a Syrian opposition already suspicious of the UN's chemical weapons deal with Assad.  

"The Syrian Coalition fully supports the removal and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, by credible and neutral international actors," said Ghadbian. "The United Nations must, however, take all necessary precautions to ensure that it does not equip the Assad dictatorship with the means to perpetrate further massacres."

The proposal, conveyed to the head of the OPCW by Syria's foreign minister late last month, puts the United States in a sticky situation: risk providing military equipment to a regime already accused of the killing of tens of thousands of its own people or risk preventing the Assad regime from being able to transfer the chemical weapons out of the country for destruction.

To the opposition, it's a false choice.

"It's ridiculous," Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the pro-rebel lobby Syrian Emergency Task Force, told The Cable. "The regime's feet should be held to the fire, not accommodated."

At the moment, the Assad regime is capitalizing on the growing rifts between Syria's rebels and advancing on rebel strongholds in northern Syria, according to reports. On Friday, pro-Assad forces took control of the strategic town of Safira near Aleppo. The loss precipitated the resignation of Col. Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, a top leader of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. From a strategic standpoint, it also gave the Assad regime a key supply link between Damascus and the north, which could help put Aleppo in play.

Meanwhile, even the beginnings of a diplomatic solution to the crisis remain elusive. Talks between top diplomats representing Russia, the United States and the UN this week failed to produce a date for convening the long-awaited Geneva II peace conference between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime.

"We were hoping that we would be in a position to announce a date today. Unfortunately we are not." Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's special envoy on Syria, said Tuesday. "We are still striving to see if we can have a conference before the end of the year." Brahimi, in part, attributed the scheduling difficulties to the disorganization of the Syrian opposition. "They are divided, that's no secret for anyone, they are facing all sorts of problems," he said.

Despite those divisions, the opposition remains united in its skepticism over the UN's chemical weapons deal with Assad. "The United Nations has stated in the past that it will not provide dual-use materials to the Syrian regime, and it is incumbent upon the international community to ensure that it maintains this commitment," said Ghadbian.