The Cable

Tag Team: White House Joins With Congress to Take Aim at Ukraine

The Obama administration has been fighting with Congress for months, but the two sides are working together to lay the groundwork for punitive new sanctions against Ukraine.

With the violent political crisis there gathering steam by the day, the administration is working with powerful members of Congress -- including one of their biggest and most vocal critics -- to identify individual members of the Ukrainian government or security forces that could be targeted down the road.

A State Department official said that the administration hasn't determined whether to implement the sanctions. Still, the fact that punitive measures are even under consideration highlights the administration's growing disapproval of the violence spreading throughout the Ukraine -- and its potential willingness to act.

"It's a shot across the bow to those Ukrainian officials who we believe are responsible for the violence," said a congressional aide recently briefed by the State Department, one of the two government agencies that would be involved in any sanctions work.

Formally laying the groundwork for sanctions is no small task given the amount of paperwork involved in identifying the individuals responsible for the fighting and calculating and locating their assets, the aide said. Actually imposing the measures would be even tougher because it would require action both by the State Department, which would be charged with putting travel bans on key Ukrainian officials, and the Treasury Department, which would handle the financial piece.

The sanctions preparations come in response to the bloodshed touched off by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to rebuff a long-awaited trade deal with the European Union. At least five people have been killed since November in violent clashes between security personnel and the protesters who have clogged the streets of the country's biggest cities and occupied key government buildings. The uprising is largely seen as a protest against Yanukovych's efforts to strengthen ties with Moscow.

The U.S. Embassy in Kiev revoked the visas of several Ukrainians linked to the violence last week in response to some of the government violence. A State Department official declined to name the specific individuals targeted.

The decision to prepare sanctions, first reported by Reuters, follows a trip by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) to Kiev last month where they addressed protesters. McCain later said that passing new sanctions legislation was something Congress should consider. The administration's decision also follows the passage of a resolution in the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday calling on all sides to refrain from violence and work toward a peaceful solution.

"This protest movement has since become a struggle between those who want a democratic future based on the rule of law for Ukraine and those who are prepared to use violence to turn the clock back," said California Republican Ed Royce, the chairman of the committee. "This resolution comes at a decisive moment in that struggle." The resolution also encourages the administration to consider targeted sanctions against individuals authorizing the use of force. The State Department briefed the committee on the sanctions package following Wednesday's vote.

President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, also expressed support for the demonstrators' right to free and peaceful expression. "In Ukraine, we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and have a say in their country's future," said the president.

Meanwhile, the Russian government has deferred a $15 billion aid package to Ukraine as ongoing negotiations threaten to install a pro-Western government in the country. Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said Wednesday that Russia would deliver the package "only when we know what economic policies the new government will implement."

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National Security

Intel Chiefs: Syria a 'Huge Magnet' for International Terrorists

The protracted three-year civil war in Syria has created an international hotbed of terrorism that threatens the United States homeland and is likely to grow even worse in the months and years to come, according to the nation's top intelligence officials.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, joined the heads of the FBI and CIA to  warn that Syria was effectively becoming the next Afghanistan -- a safe haven where extremists around the world could recruit new fighters and plan new attacks against Europe and the U.S.

Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that there are an estimated 7,000 foreign fighters in Syria from some 50 countries, including many in Europe. Those extremists are of particular concern to Western security services because they could theoretically use their European passports to travel to the continent freely and carry out new strikes. He also noted that the al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group Nusra Front has "aspirations" for an attack on the U.S. homeland. 

"This is a huge concern to all of us," he said.

Clapper, citing the intelligence community's new Worldwide Threat Assessment, estimated that 1,600 militant groups were operating inside the war-torn country, including a sizable chunk of extremists. Between the 75,000 to 110,000 fighters inside Syria, "about 26,000 we'd rate as extremists," he said.

"Syria has become a huge magnet for extremists," Clapper told the panel.

Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, observed that the threat from Syria had grown from last year's intelligence assessments. "This leads to the major concern of safe haven and the real prospect that Syria will be a launching point or ‘weigh station' for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations," she said.

Clapper's dire briefing about Syria's growing threat to the stability of other countries, including the U.S., highlighted the dilemma facing the Obama administration as it struggles to find a way of gradually winding down a civil war that has already resulted in more than 100,000 deaths.

The sizable presence of extremist actors inside the Syrian opposition poses a particular problem for the United States, which seeks to bolster the strength of more secular anti-government forces without putting weapons in the hands of radical jihadists. At his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Barack Obama mentioned this goal, although analysts dispute whether U.S. weapons can easily be tracked in a conflict involving a complex mix of fighters. "In Syria, we'll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks," Obama said Tuesday night.

The officials also offered assessments on other security risks including the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, the spate of leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and the dispersal of al Qaeda into splintered terrorist cells in the Middle East and North Africa. Clapper condemned Snowden's leaks of classified surveillance programs and requested that he return the stolen information immediately. Meanwhile, FBI Director Jim Comey said he and his Russian FSB counterparts were working together to ensure the safety of athletes and spectators at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The security of the games has emerged as a major concern because a so-called "Black Widow" -- or female suicide bomber -- may already be loose in Sochi.

The mostly cordial atmosphere shifted sharply after Sens. Mark Udall, Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich lambasted CIA Director John Brennan for failing to cooperate with the committee's extensive investigation into Bush-era torture practices. The report remains classified due to CIA concerns that it contains inaccuracies and is overly-critical of agency actions in the aftermath of 9/11. Brennan and Clapper promised that they'd work diligently with the panel to resolve the dispute, despite the fact that it's been over a year since the panel approved the report's findings. Brennan and Clapper declined to get into the details of the disagreement during an open hearing.

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