Appointments: Econ, Syria, NEA

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Who will oversee US Syria diplomacy, if Robert Ford, as we first reported, is tapped to succeed Anne Patterson as US Ambassador to Cairo?

US officials told us, as far as they know, the decision on that has not yet been finalized. Ford, in any case, “will do Syria for a few more months,” as he prepares to go to Egypt, one official, speaking not for attribution, said Tuesday.

“I think serious thought should be given to moving the position out of the Department and to the field, along with 'team Syria' currently cloistered in NEA”–the State Department Near East Affairs bureau, one former senior U.S. official told us. “A difference can be made in Turkey and Jordan with the opposition and in interacting with partners. Hard to do anything useful in Washington from inside the NEA bureaucracy.”

Syria needs a US government point of contact, who can “manage the whole inter-agency Syria process,” another current official said. That, in addition to “a seasoned diplomat who speaks Arabic and knows the region and could engage the Syrians.”

Meantime, US officials told the Back Channel that former Clinton White House Middle East advisor Rob Malley has been offered the job of National Security Staff Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs, but as yet has not agreed to take it. (The Back Channel previously reported that the current NSS Senior Director for Iran/Iraq and the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar may be nominated to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.)

One possibility is that Malley may instead become a senior advisor on Syria to Secretary of State John Kerry, working out of the front office, a US diplomatic source told the Back Channel. Malley did not respond to numerous queries. He is said to be very close with Frank Lowenstein, Kerry’s deputy Middle East envoy.

Meantime, the Back Channel has learned of several other diplomatic appointments in the works:

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs (NEA) Elizabeth Jones may move to become the deputy to US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) James Dobbins, after her successor Patterson is in place, officials, speaking not for attribution, said. Secretary of State John Kerry last week named deputy SRAP James Warlick, a former US ambassador to Bulgaria, the next US envoy to the OSCE Minsk Group.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for NEA Elizabeth Dibble will become Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in London, US officials tell us. (She didn’t respond to a query.)

US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein is expected to become the next PDAS in the NEA bureau, officials said. Feierstein, who met with Yemen’s president in Sanaa on Tuesday, the State Department said, is expected to serve a few more months there before returning to Washington.

US Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin is expected to be nominated Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment, succeeding Robert Hormats, officials tell the Back Channel. “It’s a done deal,” one official said Tuesday, adding the nomination is expected to be announced the first week of September.

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Obama aims to reduce US drone strikes, close Guantanamo Bay


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

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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Yemeni’s testimony on US drones strikes chord in Washington


Last week, Farea al-Muslimi, a US educated Yemeni youth activist and writer, wrote about what it was like to have his village attacked by US drones, on his Twitter account @almuslimi and at Al-Monitor.

Today, after al-Muslimi’s powerful testimony before a Senate subcommittee Tuesday about the experience, the White House invited al-Muslimi to talk with them too, Wired’s Spencer Ackerman reports:

Before he leaves Washington D.C. on Friday, al-Muslimi will meet with White House officials to tell them what he told a Senate subcommittee yesterday: CIA and military drone strikes are strengthening al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate and making average Yemenis hate America.

“He will meet with a working-level expert on Yemen policy,” a White House official confirms, declining to provide the name of the official or the time of the meeting. […]

Still, it’s a dramatic change from the last time al-Muslimi, a Sana’a-based freelance writer on public policy, came to Washington. In September…al-Muslimi trudged from one drab policymaker’s office to another…while his interlocutors grew uncomfortable when he wanted to talk about the human costs of the drones.

At the Senate hearing Tuesday, al-Muslimi warmed up the room by saying he’d spent some of the happiest years of his life attending high school as an exchange student in California, and considered himself upon his return as a kind of US “ambassador” to Yemen. So our ambassador was upset and horrified, he said, when, sitting at a dinner with American diplomat friends in the capital Sanaa last week April 15th, he started getting calls and texts from people in his remote village of Wessab, a nine-hour drive away. A missile from a US drone had killed a man who village residents told him they had no idea would be a US target, and who could have been easily arrested without endangering the lives of innocent bystanders.

“Just six days ago, this so-called war came straight to my village,” al-Muslimi told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil and Human Rights Tuesday.

“For almost all of the people in Wessab, I’m the only person with any connection to the United States,” al-Muslimi explained. “They called and texted me that night with questions that I could not answer: ‘Why was the United States terrifying them with these drones? Why was the United States trying to kill a person with a missile when everyone knows where he is and he could have been easily arrested?'”

America’s policy of remote, targeted killings is causing psychological terror and anger that is turning people in his village and country against the United Sates, our ambassador to Wessab warned.

The Obama White House did not send an official to testify on the panel, which was chaired by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin. However, another witness who had been active in the Obama administration’s first term national security debates, former Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, did attend, and went to shake al-Muslimi’s hand at the conclusion of the hearing, Ackerman reported.

And in the wake of his testimony, al-Muslimi is being sought by the US media for interviews, following stories on his testimony in the New York Times, Wired, etc. (Apparently deluged with the requests, al-Muslimi on Wednesday tweeted out the email address of a US media handler.) He’ll appear on NBC’s All In with Chris Hayes Wednesday night.

“The US needs to hear someone who looks like him and sounds like him and has his background say what he is saying,” Yemen expert Gregory D. Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen al-Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia, told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“But I am not terribly optimistic that it will make much difference,” Johnsen added. “I hope I’m wrong.”

Why is al-Muslimi’s reception in Washington this time so much more resonant than the gloomy trip he described to Ackerman last fall?

It’s hard to know. Certainly Kentucky Republican Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster put the issue of the White House’s secretive drone policy on a wider public radar. Perhaps at some level too, some here may be wearily mulling, in the aftermath of the bombing of the Boston Marathon (on the same day as the drone strike in al-Muslimi’s village), the perplexing identity of the suspects in the senseless terrorist attack–two brothers of Chechen descent who had been in the US for a decade. For whatever reason, at the moment anyhow, Washington seems newly ready to at least listen to what an articulate, ostensibly US-friendly person on the other geographical end of US drone strikes has to say, and to ponder whether they are the high-tech, low-hassle solution for counterterrorism without boots on the ground, or contributing to the radicalization of a new generation of terrorists we may yet face. Ambassador al-Muslimi seems to have nudged the debate, if only he could offer the White House a better alternative.

Roundup: Chuck Hagel and his enemies

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.

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.)