Crocker defends Petraeus, urges US approach Syria opposition with caution

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My colleague Barbara Slavin reports:

One of America’s most distinguished diplomats warned Tuesday against giving military support to Syrian rebels and said the US should have better knowledge of who the fighters are before providing more than humanitarian aid.

Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to six nations – Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan – told NPR’s Steve Inskeep at the annual dinner of the Middle East Institute in Washington, “Be careful what you get into… Who are these guys? What do they stand for? Who’s against them?”

Crocker, whose residence was besieged by a mob when he was ambassador to Syria in the late 1990s, suggested that the US lacks sufficient information about the opposition even after a conference in Qatar brought together various factions to form a new group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

“You have to be on the ground as we were in Libya, influencing and analyzing” the rebel forces, he said. “I’m not sure we have a clear address to pursue a policy of coordinated … assistance.”

“I would like to find more ways to get [US] diplomats into Syria,” Crocker said. Continue reading

Hillary Clinton: ‘I take responsibility’ for Benghazi security lapse

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CNN Monday that she accepts responsibility for the security lapse that led to the death of four State Department personnel in Libya last month.

“I take responsibility” for what happened in Benghazi, Clinton told CNN‘s Elise Labott. “I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha.”

Clinton spoke from Lima, Peru Monday, as Republicans have accused the Obama administrating of giving conflicting accounts of what it knew in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack on the US Benghazi outpost.

Clinton has widely signaled her plans to step down from the job of Secretary of State at the end of Obama’s first term, even if he is reelected. In her role as Obama’s top envoy, she has become the most popular figure by far in the Obama cabinet, one who is widely eyed as a prospective Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.

UPDATE: The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reports Tuesday that Clinton made a similar statement of responsibility in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last Wednesday (Oct. 10), but the paper did not publish it:

On Monday night, the Journal’s Monica Langley reported that Clinton made a similar comment to her in a recent interview. That comment had not previously been published.

“I take responsibility,” Clinton told the Journal. “I’m the Secretary of State with 60,000-plus employees around the world. This is like a big family … It’s painful, absolutely painful.”

Clinton sat for an interview with the Journal last Wednesday and there was no embargo preventing the paper from publishing any part of it, a State Department spokesman told The Huffington Post

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives a speech to the media at the government palace in Lima, October 15, 2012. Clinton is on a two-day official visit to Peru.  REUTERS/Jorge Luis Baca.)

Appeals for more security help in Libya frustrated, agents tell House panel

Two American diplomatic security agents told a House panel Wednesday of their frustrated attempts to get the State Department to assign more security agents to protect diplomats in Libya.

House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) presided at the often contentious, four hour hearing investigating the attacks that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three US diplomatic personnel in Libya last month. Several of the panel’s GOP members insisted US officials should have known immediately that the Sept. 11 2012 attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and not the result of spontaneous protests over a 15 minute anti-Islam video trailer posted to YouTube.

Were initial Obama administration statements that suggested the Benghazi attack was connected to protests over the video the result “of negligence … or something more nefarious?” asked South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy.

The committee also sought to probe why State Department diplomatic security officer Charlene Lamb allegedly discouraged requests from two security agents on the ground for more armed American security agents to be posted to Libya amid a deteriorating security situation that led the British to close their Benghazi mission. But it wasn’t always clear the congress members were so interested to hear the witnesses’ answers in favor of delivering their talking points.

At one point, for instance, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), even scolded one of the Republicans’ star witness for not agreeing with him that the Libyan militia suspected in the attack was affiliated with Al Qaeda.

“Just say it is a terrorist group,” Burton cut off the witness, Col. Andrew Wood, after the Utah national guardsman formerly posted to Libya described the militia, Ansar al-Sharia, as being aligned with the Libyan government. “The Libyan government doesn’t consider them a terrorist group,” Wood said.

Wood and former US Regional Security Officer for Libya Eric Nordstrom repeatedly conveyed their frustration at their sense that State Department bureaucrats were fighting their efforts to keep a team of 16 armed US security officers in Libya.

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Obama to UN: World must reject intolerance

President Barack Obama said the world faces a choice between tolerance and extremism, in a speech to the United Nations Tuesday that vowed the United States will not retreat from the world despite the recent killing of US diplomats in Libya amid protests at US embassies in the Muslim world sparked by an anti-Islam video trailer posted to YouTube.

“We face a choice between the forces that would drive us apart, and the hopes we hold in common,”  Obama told world leaders gathered at the United Nations General Assembly 67th Opening Session Tuesday. “Today, we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations.”

“Understand, America will never retreat from the world,” Obama vowed. “We will bring justice to those who harm our citizens and our friends, and we will stand with our allies.”

On Iran’s nuclear program, Obama restated that he wants to solve the issue through diplomacy, but recommitted the United States to do “what’s needed” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so,” Obama said. “But that time is not unlimited.”

More highlights: Continue reading

Video-maker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula questioned in probation probe

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, one of the people behind a crude video that has set off a storm of protests across the Middle East, has been taken by Los Angeles police for questioning over whether he violated the terms of his probation.

Shortly after midnight, “Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies escorted a man believed to be Nakoula Basseley Nakoula to an awaiting car,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “The man declined to answer questions on his way out and wore a hat and a towel over his face.”

A sheriff’s office spokesman Steve Whitmore “told the (LA )Times that Nakoula was taken in for a voluntary interview with probation officials and has not been arrested or detained”

Nakoula was sentenced to 21 months in prison in 2010 for federal bank fraud.

Reports Friday indicated that Nakoula was also a federal informant. He appeared to receive reduced sentences on several earlier drug and fraud related convictions.

A defense attorney arguing for a shorter sentence for Nakoula in the 2010 bank fraud case told the court that the defendant’s cooperation should be taken into consideration. “He’s undergone extensive debriefings. … He has implicated [Eiad] Salamey.”

“I decided to cooperate with the government to retrieve some of these mistakes or damage,” Nakoula told the judge, according to the court transcript obtained by The Smoking Gun. “I want to cooperate with the government that they can catch with this other criminals who is their involvement.” Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

President Obama condemns the killing of US diplomats in Libya


President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed heartbreak and outrage over the killing of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other US diplomatic personnel in a mob attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya Tuesday.

Stevens was the first US ambassador killed in the line of duty since 1979.

The violent protests in Benghazi and Cairo were reportedly spurred by the 15-minute trailer of an anti-Islam film posted to YouTube that was produced by someone claiming to be an Israeli real estate developer based in California, who called Islam “a cancer.” But it’s not clear the filmmaker is who he says.

“I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens,” President Obama said in a statement early Wednesday.

“Make no mistake: Justice will be done,” Obama said at a Rose Garden ceremony flanked by Clinton Wednesday.

After the ceremony, Obama was to join Clinton for a closed-press visit to the State Department to console State Department colleagues of those killed. In addition to Stevens, they included Foreign Service officer Sean Smith, a husband and father of two who had previously served in Iraq, South Africa, Canada and the Hague.

Stevens was a deeply admired US diplomat who had spearheaded US efforts to support Libya’s democratic transition after the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi last year. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, the Arabic-speaking Stevens, a native of California, had worked as a trade lawyer before joining the Foreign Service in 1991. Among his foreign service postings were Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the Iran desk, before he was confirmed as US ambassador to post-Gadhafi Libya earlier this year. (See the welcome video Stevens made to introduce himself to Libyans).

“Like Chris, Sean was one of our best,” Clinton said in a statement.

Two other US personnel killed in Libya were not yet being identified publicly pending notification of their next of kin, Clinton said.

Stevens died of smoke inhalation from a fire set by RPG attacks on the consulate. He had gone to Benghazi to assist the evacuation of US consular staff under attack, reports said.

Meantime, the man who claimed to have written, produced and directed the $5 million film that reportedly sparked the protests said he blamed lax security at the US government facilities and the protesters for the deaths of the US diplomats.

“I feel the security system (at the embassies) is no good,” the man who identified himself as “Sam Bacile” told the Associated Press in an interview from an undisclosed location Wednesday. “America should do something to change it.”

“Bacile, a California real estate developer who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew, said he believes the movie will help his native land by exposing Islam’s flaws to the world,” the AP report said.

But it’s not clear that Bacile is who he claims. Israeli officials said they would not confirm or deny that he is an Israeli citizen, under that or other names.

And there were some hints that Bacile may be a pseudonym, possibly for someone affiliated with the Egyptian Coptic diaspora. Continue reading