Indyk staffs up to intensify Israeli Palestinian peace push

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US Middle East peace envoy Martin Indyk is expanding his team as the U.S. prepares to intensify its role facilitating Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“We've agreed that those talks should now be intensified and American involvement should be increased to facilitate these discussions,” Indyk told the J Street conference last week. (Sept. 30). “Our common objective is a final status agreement, not an interim agreement.”

To that end, he has grown his office's ranks.

Julie Sawyer, a career civil service officer who most recently served as Persian Gulf director on the National Security Staff, has joined Indyk’s team as his traveling senior aide. Sawyer previously served as a Middle East advisor to Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns.

Sawyer joins a team that already includes deputy envoy and longtime Kerry confidante Frank Lowenstein. Ilan Goldenberg, a former Middle East advisor at the Pentagon and Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, has joined the office as chief of staff.

USAID deputy assistant Middle East administrator Hady Amr has joined the envoy’s team as an economics advisor.

Michael Yaffe, a career foreign service officer specializing in Middle East and arms control issues, has joined the envoy’s office to do international outreach with organizations such as the Arab League and the Quartet. Yaffe came to the envoy's office—next to the State Department’s Near East Affairs bureau—after serving as a professor and dean at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia center for strategic studies.

The Pentagon has seconded an official to work with the team on security issues. David Wallsh, a Fletcher PhD candidate in Middle East and international security studies, joined Indyk's team last week to work on security issues related to the peace process. In addition, retired Marine Corps Gen. Jon Allen, the former Afghanistan and Centcom commander, has been leading a security dialogue with the Israel Defense Forces to help address Israel’s security requirements, Indyk told the J Street conference.

Indyk’s shop is expected to bring on someone to do outreach to the press, think tanks and the Hill, but sources would not yet disclose who that will be.

The growing ranks signal the seriousness of the negotiations effort, and the commitment to it by Secretary Kerry and President Obama, officials say.

“All core issues are on the table,” Indyk told the J Street conference last week. “Our common objective is a final status agreement, not an interim agreement.”

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking Sunday at Bar Ilan University, said negotiations were stuck over the Palestinian refusal to date to recognize Israel as a state of the Jewish people and to thereby give up the right of return, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly made reassuring comments in a meeting Monday with some members of the Israeli Knesset.

Relatively little has leaked from the talks to date, which have been conducted with little fanfare or publicity in the region since Kerry formally relaunched talks in Washington in July and named Indyk as envoy.

(Photo of US envoy Martin Indyk addressing the J Street Gala September 30, 2013, by J Street.)

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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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Gunmen kill top Yemeni security officer employed by US Embassy

A top Yemeni security official with the US Embassy in Sanaa was killed Thursday by a gunman on a motorbike, in an attack the State Department said appeared to target him.

Qassim M. Aklan, a Yemeni national, served as head of the Foreign Service national investigative unit within the larger Regional Security Office shop at the US Embassy in Sanaa, where he had worked for eleven years, the State Department said Thursday.

Mr. Aklan “was a dedicated professional who will be greatly missed,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at the State Department Thursday. “We condemn this vicious act in the strongest terms possible and extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends at this difficult time.”

In his capacity as head of the Yemeni security staff working at the US Embassy Sanaa, Aklan was “responsible for routine personnel checks,” Nuland said. “He was our liaison on security matters to local authorities.”

Aklan “was not in the Embassy at the time of his killing,” but “off duty….and out with a family member when he was killed,” Nuland said.

The US is in close contact with Yemeni authorities who are investigating the incident, Nuland said.

Reports from Yemen hypothesized that Aklan was targeted by al Qaeda.

Elissa Slotkin named top advisor to Pentagon’s Derek Chollet

Iraq expert Elissa Slotkin has been named Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, effective immediately, defense sources tell Al-Monitor. Slotkin, most recently chief of staff for the Defense Department International Security Affairs bureau, will become the top advisor to Assistant Secretary of Defense for ISA Derek Chollet, in the team reporting to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller.

Colleagues describe Slotkin as a very strong choice, who brings substantial on the ground experience in Iraq and the Middle East to the Defense policy team. Slotkin spent nearly 20 months on the ground in Iraq over several deployments, both as an intelligence analyst and NSC staffer.

She was a key member of the status of forces agreement (SOFA) negotiating team in 2008 while working on the NSC staff. She stayed on in the Obama NSC for the first several months to help run the president’s strategic review on Iraq. Continue reading

Friday reads: War games


Iran war game shows rapid escalation as US, Iran misread others’ moves. (David Ignatius/Washington Post)

State Department rejects Sen. John Kerry’s call to block US funds to Iraq over alleged Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps overflights to supply arms to Syria. (Reuters)

Iraqi government spokesman Ali Aldabbbagh tells Al-Monitor that the Iraqi government has informed Iran that it will not allow its air space to be used to supply either side in Syria’s civil war. “We had informed the Iranians that Iraq will never [allow the] use [of] its airspace to do so.” (Al Monitor)

New AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman once worked as a lobbyist for Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition. (The Forward)

Egyptian author Alaa Al-Aswany writes how the Muslim world can defend the prophet. (Al-Safir/Al-Monitor)

Recent Israeli war games in the Golan Heights are an important signal to Iran, writes former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy (Ydioth Ahronoth/Al Monitor)

Former Israeli spy chief Meir Dagan becomes a dissident. (The New Yorker)

(Photo: An Israeli soldier travels atop a mobile artillery unit during a drill near the northern city of Katzrin in the Golan Heights September 19, 2012. Israel’s military launched the surprise large-scale exercise on Wednesday on the occupied Golan Heights, testing its battle readiness amid tensions over Iran’s nuclear drive and civil war in Syria. REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

Why has so much been revealed about how US/Saudi intel foiled the AQAP bomb plot?

Details are still emerging about the alleged role of an undercover mole in foiling a plot by Al Qaida’s Yemen branch to bomb a US-bound airliner.

But along with the details about the US-Saudi intelligence coup comes the question: why would American officials be seemingly so forthcoming with the methods involved in the highly sensitive counter-terrorism operation, given the threat posed by Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is hardly over.

Among the details that have emerged in gripping reports from the Associated Press, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times among others the past two days: that an apparently Saudi intelligence mole infiltrated AQAP, volunteered for the suicide mission; delivered the sophisticated, metal-free bomb composed of military-grade explosives and sewn into underwear, to the US via the Saudis/UAE;  provided information that allowed the US to target AQAP’s chief of external operations Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso in a drone strike Sunday; and that the Saudis may have several other informants in place inside the terror organization’s Yemen branch.

“Of dozens of AQAP fighters with Saudi backgrounds, ‘at least five or eight of them are undercover’ working for the Saudi service at any point,” the Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing a Middle Eastern official. “’The Saudis have always had a network’ of sources in Yemen, the official said. ‘Now they are expanding its objectives.’”

Former FBI terrorism analyst Matthew Levitt suggested that US officials probably decided to offer more details on the foiled plot only after it was clear the press already had them and was going to report them.

“My instinct is they said as much as they did because it was going to be exposed [in the press] … and they wanted to get ahead of it,” Levitt, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me in an interview Wednesday.

The FBI has opened a leak investigation into the disclosures to the press about the foiled AQAP plot, the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Perez reported Wednesday: “A person familiar with the investigation said the probe, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has been under way for days.”

Levitt said the rather extensive details exposed in press reports, especially concerning the alleged role of Saudi intelligence in infiltrating AQAP, is liable to cause the CIA some real headaches or worse in placating allied Arab intelligence services, which tend to be very discreet.

“I have had calls from people expressing that this is not going to please foreign parters; ‘loose lips sink ships’ and all that,” he said.

Once the operation was going to be exposed in the press, however, he mused, Washington may have resigned itself to “spinning it so that we can inflate ourselves as much as we can,” in the eyes of AQAP, in order to stoke paranoia, fissures and insecurity in the group, he said.

Recently released documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound show that bin Laden thought the US had capabilities beyond what it may have, he noted–microchips, etc..

“It’s clear the enemy does think we are capable,” Levitt said. “At a certain point, we may want to encourage that.”

As to the infiltration operation that reportedly led to the US acquiring AQAP’s latest bomb prototype and to the killing in a drone strike of Quso, Levitt said the achievement “is pretty big.” And he added, we still don’t know all the details of what the US has learned from the operation.

UPDATE: More on this from the Boston Globe’s Juliette Kayyem, a former DHS official, who wonders if a turf battle over control of US CT policy in Yemen explains the leaks:

…What’s worse, the story may not have been the result of a deliberate decision by the Obama administration, but rather prompted by leaks from lower-level officials. That would be a symptom of bureaucratic competition for leadership of the next phase of the fight against Al Qaeda. ….

 

Now, there should be an independent investigation of who, at what agency, was so loose-lipped about a covert mission, and the White House should embrace it. If the leaker was at the CIA, he or she has not only tarnished the agency, but undermined some of the most important tactics that can be used against a flexible enemy.

Turf battles are common, especially in times of transition from one government strategy to another. But rarely do turf battles make someone so easily forget who the real enemy is.

(Photo of Saudi fugitive Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri as seen from a Yemeni police handbook of the most wanted terror suspects. A Saudi bombmaker believed to be working with al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing is suspected of designing the bombs used in at least three attempts to bomb US-bound airliners. REUTERS/Yemeni Police/Handout.)