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Diplomatic sources say they believe that US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is again the Obama administration’s leading choice to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs nominee, but say she wasn’t anxious to come back to Washington.

In the unusually long second term transition shuffle, the rumor mill on top contenders to head the NEA bureau has cycled through a list that had Patterson at the top of the list a couple months ago, and also includes US Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones, Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft, US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, among others. Most recently, some in the bureau wagered Beecroft would  get tapped. But in the past few days, several former senior US officials and diplomats say  they believe Patterson has returned to the top of the list yet again, for a few reasons, despite her rumored reluctance to come back from the field. Continue reading

Associates say National Security Advisor Tom Donilon may leave this summer

Several associates tell the Back Channel they believe that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is planning to leave this summer—several months earlier than previous reports had suggested, and even as the White House said Donilon has no plans to depart.

On the one hand he doesn’t seem to want to leave, but he’s been doing this five long years, one associate, speaking not for attribution, said Friday.

Noting several of Donilon’s recent and upcoming foreign trips and high-profile speeches on Asia and energy, the White House said Donilon’s calendar remains booked into June, including with a late May trip to China.

“Tom has no plans to depart,” NSS spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said by email late Friday. “As you’ve probably seen, he’s fully engaged in managing our national security agenda, from his recent trip to Moscow and major address on global energy, to planning for a trip to China in late May and more upcoming speaking events.”

President Obama recently nominated Donilon’s wife Catherine M. Russell, chief of staff to Jill Biden, to be the next US Ambassador at large for Global Women’s Issues. Some associates suggested a family health issue may be a factor in Donilon’s thinking on how long to stay, but declined to elaborate. The couple have high school age children.

US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice is expected to succeed Donilon as National Security Advisor.

It’s not clear who will be nominated to succeed Rice at the UN—the name the Back Channel has consistently heard is Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, but one official wasn’t certain that Burns wanted to stay. Secretary of State John Kerry would also like to keep Burns, another official said, noting there are too many vacant seats at State for another hole.

Neither Burns, nor Donilon, nor Rice’s office, responded to queries Friday.

While the transition of such a central player in Obama’s national security team as Donilon–-and the resulting shuffle—on the nearer term horizon could seem like one explanation for why several other anticipated senior foreign policy appointments have not yet been announced, foreign policy sources said they did not believe that to be a key factor.

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Appointments: Philip Gordon to White House, Jake Sullivan to OVP

As the Back Channel first reported, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Philip Gordon will be taking over the former Dennis Ross “Central Region” portfolio on Obama’s National Security Staff, the Back Channel has confirmed.

Gordon will have the title of NSS senior director for the Central Region–roughly but not entirely parallel to the military's Central Command region–with senior directors for the Middle East/North Africa, Persian Gulf, and part of South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, but not India) reporting to him.

Still unclear is if NSS Senior Director for Europe and Eurasia Liz Sherwood-Randall will be named to succeed Gary Samore as the White House coordinator for WMD, or if the post will go to Samore’s deputy Laura Holgate. Sources had previously suggested the post may shift in Obama's second term from a “czar”/coordinator role to that of a deputy national security advisor.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, a former US ambassador to NATO, may succeed Gordon as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, officials told the Back Channel. Jen Psaki is heading to State as spokeswoman, Al Kamen reported.

Hillary Clinton’s State Department policy planning director Jake Sullivan will succeed Antony Blinken as national security advisor to Vice President Biden, multiple officials said. (H/T @NatSecWonk.) Blinken was made the new principal deputy National Security Advisor, succeeding Denis McDonough, who President Obama last month named his new White House chief of staff.
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Dave McKeon, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chief of staff, will head State Policy Planning, a former State Department official told the Back Channel Friday.

Under Secretary of State for Policy Wendy Sherman is staying on, as is Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, officials told the Back Channel this week. Continue reading

Benghazi panel: Security at US outpost ‘grossly inadequate’


The head of State Department diplomatic security resigned Wednesday, in the wake of an investigation by a panel looking into the September 11, 2012 killing of four US diplomatic personnel in Benghazi, Libya.

The State Department said Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell has resigned, and three other officials have been relieved of their current duties. “All four individuals have been placed on administrative leave pending further action,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.

Veteran US diplomat Thomas Pickering, who chaired the independent Accountability Review Board (.pdf), said Wednesday that State Department security personnel were “heroic” in their actions after the US compound in Benghazi came under attack, but that security preparations at the facility were “grossly inadequate.”

“They did their best that they possibly could with what they had, but what they had was not enough,” Pickering told journalists at a briefing at the State Department Wednesday.

“Security posture at the Special Mission compound was inadequate for the threat environment in Benghazi, and in fact, grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place that night,” retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served as vice chair of the ARB review, told journalists.

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White House denies report that US and Iran agreed to direct talks

The White House on Saturday denied a report in the New York Times that the United States and Iran had agreed to hold one–on-one talks on Iran’s nuclear program after the US presidential elections next month. But the White House reiterated that the Obama administration has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

And a Washington Iran analyst told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding that a senior US arms control official has held authorized talks with an Iranian official posted to Turkey.

“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement Saturday. “We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister also issued a statement Sunday denying direct talks with the United States. “Talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations,” Ali Akbar Salehi said at a press conference Sunday. “Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States.”

The Iran analyst, who asked not to be named, told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore has had talks with an Iranian official posted as a diplomat to Turkey. The Iranian official was not identified.

US officials did not respond to requests for guidance from Al-Monitor late Saturday on the allegation a US official has had talks with an Iranian official or in what capacity.

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Clinton: Middle East “did not trade tyranny of dictator for tyranny of mob”


A somber Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the transfer of remains ceremony for four US diplomatic personnel killed in Libya Friday, called on the people and leaders of the Middle East to reject mob violence.

“The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob,” Clinton said at the solemn ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland Friday, flanked by President Obama.

“Reasonable people and responsible leaders in these countries need to do everything they can to restore security and hold accountable those behind these violent acts,” she continued.

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns accompanied the remains of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith, and US diplomatic security officers Tyrone “Rone” Woods and Glen Doherty on the flight from the region to Andrews Air Force Base.

“We will bring to justice those who took them from us,” President Obama vowed at the ceremony.

Clinton, clearly grieving, recounted the great affection and genuine respect she, State Department colleagues and the Libyan people had for Stevens. “People loved to work with Chris, and as he rose through the ranks they loved to work for Chris,” Clinton said. “He was known not only for his courage but for his smile.”

She cited as but one example of the affection with which Stevens was held by Libyans the hand-written sign carried by one veiled woman in Benghazi: “Thugs and killers don’t represent Benghazi nor Islam.”

“We will wipe away our tears, stiffen our spines, and move forward undaunted,” Clinton vowed.

Protests, sometimes violent, against American and Western targets spread to several countries Friday, including Tunisia, the West Bank, Sinai and Sudan. This Google map captures the extent of the protests. The demonstrations have been spurred in part by anger over a crude anti-Islamic video trailer posted to YouTube by an Egyptian American convicted felon, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula.

A cameraman for Al-Monitor filming a mob of thousands protesting at the US Embassy in Tunisia Friday was surrounded and assaulted by a group of bearded Salafi men.

Black smoke rose from the US Embassy north of the capital Tunis after an explosion. The angry mob also pillaged the American school next door, he recounted in a dispatch.

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US-Israel strategic dialogue meets in Israel

Senior American and Israeli officials met in Israel Thursday as part of the semi-annual U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue.

The US delegation to the high-level diplomatic consultations was led by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and the Israeli by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.

“Special attention was paid to the ongoing changes in the region, which present both challenges and opportunities for progress,” a joint readout from Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Department said Thursday.

A chief focus of the consultations was “Iran's continued quest to develop nuclear weapons, which the United States and Israel are both determined to prevent,” the readout continued. The two delegations also discussed the  humanitarian crisis resulting from Syria violence, and its potentially destabilizing implications for the region, particularly Israel's neighbor Jordan.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to arrive in Israel on Monday for two days of meetings (July 16-17), her first visit in over two  years. She will also travel to Egypt.

Full readout on the Strategic Dialogue below: Continue reading

Senior Obama officials travel to Israel for consultations

A “cavalcade” of high-ranking Obama administration officials will travel to Israel over the next two weeks for strategic consultations, diplomatic sources told The Back Channel. Among them, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who will participate in the US-Israel strategic dialogue.

While the high-level American-Israeli consultations will cover the range of security issues, the most pressing focus of the consultations will be Iran. Israel is skeptical of the prospects of achieving a near-term diplomatic solution, and is pressing for tougher sanctions to be imposed and for the U.S. to issue a credible military threat against Iran over its nuclear program. It has not ruled out taking military action on its own if Iran does not agree to curb its most sensitive nuclear work, particularly its 20% enrichment activities at the fortified Fordo enrichment site.

Clinton will travel to Israel July 16-17, “where she will be meeting with the Israeli leadership to discuss peace efforts and a range of regional and bilateral issues of mutual concern,” the State Department previously announced. Clinton, who met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris Friday and will visit Egypt July 14-15, will also discuss with her Israeli counterparts prospects for resumed Israeli-Palestinian contacts, if not full fledged peace talks, Egyptian-Israeli relations after the election of Islamist president Mohammed Morsy, and the Syrian conflict and its impact on Jordanian stability.

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns will lead the U.S. delegation traveling to Israel this week for meetings of the U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue, a State Department official told Al Monitor Monday. The semi-annual dialogue, involving days of intense, inter-agency meetings among senior officials from both countries, is formally co-chaired on the U.S. side by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and on the Israeli side by National Security Advisor Gen. Yaakov Amidror.

Several high-ranking U.S. officials from other agencies will also participate in the consultations, the diplomatic sources said. The White House, which has not yet announced nor confirmed the trip, did not respond to a query on who from the National Security Council may travel from the American side. Diplomatic sources told Al Monitor it would include senior officials below the president and vice president.

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