Obama aims to reduce US drone strikes, close Guantanamo Bay

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President Obama on Thursday outlined a broad overhaul of some of the most secretive and controversial US counter-terrorism policies, from drone strokes to the US detention facility of Guantanamo Bay, but many details remained murky, even as he warned the path to an exit from a war posture against al Qaeda and its affiliates will not be quick or without continued hard choices.

“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University Thursday. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

The speech follows a year-long policy review to try to institutionalize and codify the “rules of the road” for some of the most sensitive US counter-terrorism programs, that was led by then White House counter-terroism advisor, now CIA Director John Brennan, Newsweek's Daniel Klaidman reported.Several of these have come to a critical head in the past few weeks, with the hunger strike of 105 of the 166 prisoners at the US detention facility of Guantanamo Bay, and the revelation last week that the Justice Department had secretly obtained the phone records of more than 20 Associated Press journalists as part of a leak probe into the source for an AP story on a classified intelligence operation in Yemen.

“All these issues remind us that the choices we make about war can impact – in sometimes unintended ways – the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends,” Obama said Thursday. Continue reading

Roundup: Brennan confirmed, Obama: Iran needs way to climb down

(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama salutes as he steps off Marine One at the White House in Washington after visiting wounded military personnel at the Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda, Maryland, March 5, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing.)

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Obama to name John Brennan for CIA, Chuck Hagel for Defense


President Obama on Monday will nominate White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan to head the CIA, and former Senator Chuck Hagel to be his Secretary of Defense.

Brennan, a 25 year CIA veteran who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has served as Obama’s top terrorism and intelligence advisor going back to the 2008 campaign.  He is very close with the President and extremely well-liked by the White House and National Security Council staff.

“When I was in [the White House], I slept better at night knowing that John Brennan never did,” former Obama White House political advisor David Axelrod wrote on Twitter Monday. “He worked 24/7 to keep Americans safe. Extraordinary guy.”

Brennan however withdrew his name from consideration for CIA chief in 2008 amid concerns about whether he had endorsed Bush-era CIA use of waterboarding and other controversial harsh interrogation techniques. More recently, Brennan has reportedly been among the figures arguing inside the administration for more restraint in the use of targeted drone strikes to kill militants.

Hagel, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran who served two terms as Republican Senator from Nebraska, has been co-chairman of Obama’s President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

The nominations are expected to be announced at 1pm EDT.

The administration is gearing up for a tough confirmation battle over Hagel.

Neoconservatives and some right-leaning pro-Israel and gay rights groups have already signaled their opposition to Hagel, while several former diplomats, military officers, and Israel envoys have endorsed him. Among Hagel’s supporters, former National Security advisors Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, former US Ambassador to Israel Tom Pickering, former Defense Secretary  Frank Carlucci, and World Bank President James Wolfensohn.

The administration may have been taking aback by the early opposition to the Hagel nomination, given his distinguished record of service and compelling personal story.  The White House also may have thought the worst was behind it after Obama’s first choice for Secretary of State, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, bowed out amid Republican sniping over her comments on the Benghazi attacks. Obama last month nominated Sen. John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State.

Regarding the preemptive campaign against Hagel, it has been “like picking up a rock and discovering all the nasties underneath,” one Democratic source said. The Obama administration “may not have wanted to have a fight at the outset, but I think at least some want to have this fight now to shine a light on some really awful, blackmail-style politics. They are sick of these groups boxing them in and want a public fight to expose them and hopefully put them in their place.”

“If they win, it may expand space for actual ‘moderate’ voices,” the source continued. “The stakes are really high — so they better go all in and win.”

Hagel’s positions on national security policy are considered similar to those of President Obama, who defended him as a “patriot” in an interview last month.

“I’ve served with Chuck Hagel,” Obama told NBC’s David Gregory last month. “I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate. Somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And is somebody who’s currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job.”

Hagel “is not anti-Israeli and he is not an anti-Semite,” former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas wrote in an article for Al-Monitor Dec. 23.

Describing several meetings he witnessed between Israeli Defense Minister Barak and Hagel, Pinkas asserted that “Barak was thoroughly impressed not only by Hagel’s military background, but by his analysis, knowledge of the Middle East, and his understanding of Israel’s security issues and predicaments.”

“Senator Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the President’s prerogative,” Abe Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League, reportedly said Monday.

(Photo: White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan briefs President Obama on Dec. 14, 2012 on the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The President later said this was the worst day of his Presidency. Pete Souza, White House.)

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Iran envoy blames Israel for Bulgaria bus bombing


Iran’s UN envoy denied on Wednesday that Iran had any role in the July 18th Bulgaria bus bombing that killed five Israeli tourists, and charged Israel with plotting the attack. His comments came as Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor was in Israel to discuss the bombing probe, and as the chairman of the House intelligence panel said he believed Hezbollah carried out the attack under the direction of Iran.

“I believe there were certainly elements of Hezbollah [involved] and I believe it was under the direction of their masters in Iran,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) told The Hill newspaper Wednesday.

“I think the president needs to call Iran on the carpet very publicly and tell them what we know,” Rogers added. “This is his time to stand up and do something bold.”

Iran’s UN envoy Mohammed Khazaee said Iran condemned the Bulgaria bus bombing but then suggested it was part of an Israeli plot to blame Iran.

“The representative of the Zionist criminal regime leveled baseless allegations against my country on the issue of recent terrorist attack in Bulgaria and Iran’s peaceful nature of nuclear activities,” Amb. Mohammad Khazaee said at a UN meeting on the Middle East Wednesday, according to a statement sent to Al Monitor by the Iranian mission to the UN.

“Such terrorist operation could only be planned and carried out by the same regime whose short history is full of state terrorism operations and assassinations aimed at implicating others for narrow political gains.”

Israel’s deputy UN ambassador Haim Waxman said the comments are “appalling, but not surprising” coming “from the same government that says the 9/11 attack was a conspiracy theory,” UN correspondent Colum Lynch reported.

A spokeswoman for US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the office had no immediate comment. “Our position on the Bulgaria attack has been well documented so far I think,” Erin Pelton, a spokeswoman for Rice, said by email.

Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor John Brennan met with Israeli officials in Jerusalem Wednesday to discuss the Bulgaria bus bombing probe. Earlier in the week he  traveled to Bulgaria for briefings on the investigation. While he deferred to Bulgarian authorities to announce any findings to date, he did add that “there are clear indications that Hezbollah and Iran have been involved in terrorist plotting against innocents in many parts of the world,” he said at a news conference with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov July 24, the New York Times reported.

Analysts said Iran’s use of terrorism had become more aggressive over the past year. Continue reading

White House counterterror advisor in Israel to discuss Bulgaria bus bombing probe

Obama’s top counterterrorism adviisor John Brennan visited Israel Wednesday, after traveling to Bulgaria earlier this week to confer on the investigation into the July 18 Burgas  bus bombing.

Brennan visited Israel July 25 “to consult with senior Israeli officials about a range of shared security concerns, including the recent wave of terrorist plots against Israeli and other interests,” NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement Wednesday.  Brennan also met with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said Tuesday after meeting with Brennan that Bulgarian authorities now believe the suspected suicide bomber in the Burgas bus bombing had been in the country for about a month, and had worked as part of a group with a high degree of discipline.

“These are extremely experienced people who observed absolute secrecy,” Borisov said at a press conference with Brennan July 24th, Agence France Press reported.

The July 18th attack, which targeted a bus of Israeli tourists who had arrived in the Black Sea resort town on a charter flight, killed seven people, including five Israeli tourists, their Bulgarian bus driver, and the suspected bomber.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel has rock-solid evidence the attack was perpetrated  by Hezbollah.

(Photo: US anti-terror adviser John Brennan (left) speaks during a joint press conference with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov in Sofia on July 24. The suicide bomber who killed six people in an attack on Israelis had accomplices and may have entered Bulgaria from Europe’s Schengen passport-free area, Borisov said Tuesday. AFP Photo/Tsvetelina Belutova)

 

White House’s John Brennan in Bulgaria amid bus bombing probe


White House counter terrorism advisor John Brennan has arrived in Bulgaria for consultations with Bulgarian officials about the investigation into the July 18th Burgas bus bombing, the US envoy to Bulgaria said Monday.

Brennan will meet with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov among others on a two-day visit, US Ambassador James Warlick said on Twitter Monday.

Bulgarian authorities have released few details on their investigation into the July 18th attack, which killed seven people, including five Israeli tourists, their Bulgarian bus driver, and the suspected bomber. The attack targeted a bus of young Israeli tourists who had arrived in the Black Sea resort town’s airport on a charter flight.

An autopsy performed on the suspected  suicide bomber determined that he “had a white face, light eyes, and very thick brown hair,” Galina Mileva, a Bulgarian official involved in the post-mortem, told Bulgarian media Saturday, the AFP reported. Officials earlier released airport video surveillance of the suspected bomber who appears to fit that description, as seen in the above video. They believe his backpack contained  3KG of TNT that caused the explosion, although it wasn’t clear if the bomb was detonated remotely.

DNA from the suspected bomber has been sent to the US and Interpol to try to determine his identity, reports said. Bulgarian authorities have determined he was not a Bulgarian citizen, saying they believe he had been in the country from four to seven days.

Unconfirmed local media reports Monday said the authorities are investigating whether the suspected suicide bomber may have had one or more accomplices, including a female companion with whom, according to one report, he stayed at a Varna hotel, the AFP reported. Continue reading

In shift, Obama’s National Security Council staff step up public case for president’s policies

Exercising the White House prerogative to operate mostly in the dark, President Obama’s National Security Council staff have tended to be seldom heard and seen; but in recent weeks, that’s changed, and the Obama national security staff (NSS) have been making the rounds.

Recent appearances include: top White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan discussing drone strikes at the Wilson Center Monday, top NSS Europe hand Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall talking the upcoming NATO summit at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS); a trio of NSC aides led by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes addressed the Chicago Council on World Affairs on the summit last week; White House WMD czar Gary Samore talked Iran and North Korea nukes to a Hill audience last week; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough is due to address a Washington Institute for Near East Policy conference Sunday. And somewhat unusually, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s travel to Moscow was announced in advance by NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor Wednesday rather than after he got back, as has mostly been the pattern previously.

It’s not clear what exactly accounts for these new and welcome stirrings of openness from the White House–the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden? the US presidential campaign?

Brennan, for his part, told the Woodrow Wilson Center Monday that Obama himself had instructed his aides to be more open about U.S. counter-terrorism policies, including the previously universally known, but not officially acknowledged, U.S. use of drone strikes.

“President Obama believes that—done carefully, deliberately and responsibly—we can be more transparent and still ensure our nation’s security,” Brennan said, continuing:

So let me say it as simply as I can.  Yes, in full accordance with the law—and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives—the United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qa’ida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.  And I’m here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts.

Whatever accounts for the NSC’s new spirit of glasnost, however, it has apparently come at a cost. Namely, putting the NSC’s usually low-profile top dog Tom Donilon in the cross-hairs of the parody newspaper the Onion, which cites “White House sources” Thursday to report that Donilon has apparently been feeling a bit left out:

According to White House sources, President Obama gently urged his staff Monday to try to include national security adviser Thomas Donilon a little more in the operation of the U.S. government’s executive branch, having observed the senior aide is still struggling to fit in. … Continue reading