Lawrence Wright writes: Five American families, each harboring a grave secret, took their seats around a vast dining table at the home of David Bradley, a Washington, D.C., entrepreneur who owns the media company that publishes The Atlantic. It was May 13, 2014, and in the garden beyond the French doors, where magnolias and dogwoods were in bloom, a tent had been erected for an event that Bradley’s wife, Katherine, was hosting the following evening. The Bradleys’ gracious Georgian town house, on Embassy Row, is one of the city’s salons: reporters and politicians cross paths at off-the-record dinners with Supreme Court Justices, software billionaires, and heads of state.
The families weren’t accustomed to great wealth or influence. Indeed, most of them had never been to Washington before. Until recently, they had not known of one another, or of the unexpected benefactor who had brought them together. They were the parents of five Americans who had been kidnapped in Syria. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had warned the families not to talk publicly about their missing children — and the captors had threatened to kill their hostages if word leaked out — so each family had been going to work and to church month after month and reassuring colleagues and neighbors and relatives that nothing was wrong, only to come home and face new threats and ransom demands. After hiding the truth for so long, the families were heartened to learn that others were going through the same ordeal, and they hoped that by working together they might bring their children home. [Continue reading…]
The official response to news that Secretary of State John Kerry broke his leg in France on Sunday is: business as usual.
“The secretary continues to be in great spirits and active,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said. “He has done a range of phone calls including with the president.”
Buried at the end of an AP report comes this:
The prospect of a lengthy rehabilitation could hamper the nuclear talks [with Iran] and other diplomatic endeavors. Even if Kerry does not need surgery, it was not immediately known when he could fly again after returning to the United States.
Kerry has been the lead negotiator in several marathon sessions with Iran going back to 2013.
And Kerry’s injury comes just days after this news:
President Obama’s chief negotiator with Iran, Wendy R. Sherman, said on Wednesday that she planned to leave the administration shortly after the June 30 deadline for a final deal on limiting the country’s nuclear program.
“It’s been two long years,” Ms. Sherman, the under secretary of state for policy, said in her office on Wednesday. With her departure, all the top officials who have negotiated with Iran over those two years will have left the administration, leaving questions about who will coordinate the complex process of carrying out a deal if one is struck by the deadline.
Reuters: The US is “deeply concerned” about an Egyptian court decision to seek the death penalty for the former president Mohamed Morsi, a State Department official said on Sunday.
The US criticism follows condemnation from Amnesty International and Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after the court ruling on Saturday against the deposed leader and 106 supporters of his Muslim Brotherhood in connection with a mass jail break in 2011.
The ruling against Morsi is not final until 2 June. All capital sentences are referred to Egypt’s top religious authority, the Grand Mufti, for a non-binding opinion, and are also subject to legal appeal.
Islamists warn of backlash over Mohamed Morsi death sentence
“We are deeply concerned by yet another mass death sentence handed down by an Egyptian court to more than 100 defendants, including former president Morsi,” the State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Washington Post reports: As fighters surged into Syria last summer, a video surfaced online with the grisly imagery and sneering tone of a propaganda release from the Islamic State.
“Run, do not walk, to ISIS Land,” read the opening line of a script that promised new arrivals would learn “useful new skills” such as “crucifying and executing Muslims.” The words were juxtaposed with images of the terrorist group’s atrocities: kneeling prisoners shot point-blank; severed heads positioned next to a propped-up corpse; limp bodies left hanging from crosses in public squares.
The source of the video was revealed only in its closing frame: the U.S. Department of State.
“Welcome to ISIS Land” was in some ways a breakthrough for the U.S. government after years of futility in attempting to compete with the propaganda of al-Qaeda and its off-shoots. The video became a viral phenomenon — viewed more than 844,000 times on YouTube — and a cause of significant irritation to its target.
But the minute-long recording also became a flash point in a much broader debate over how far the United States should go in engaging with a barbaric adversary online.
The clip was assembled by a special unit at the State Department charged with finding ways to contain the spread of militant Islamist ideology. The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, or CSCC, had direct backing from President Obama, help from the CIA, and teams of Arabic, Urdu and Somali speakers who were thrust into the fray on Twitter and other social-media platforms.
The center was to function “like a war room in a political campaign — shake things up, attack ads, opposition research,” said Alberto Fernandez, a veteran U.S. diplomat who was put in charge of the group. The video targeting the Islamic State, which is also known by the abbreviations ISIS and ISIL, was emblematic of that edgy approach, using the enemy’s own horrific footage to subvert the idea that recruits were “going off to Syria for a worthy cause,” Fernandez said, “and to send a message that this is actually a squalid, worthless, dirty thing.”
In seeking to change minds overseas, however, the CSCC also turned heads in Washington. Experts denounced the group’s efforts as “embarrassing” and even helpful to the enemy. Critics at the State Department and White House saw the use of graphic images as a disturbing embrace of the adversary’s playbook. And for all the viral success of “ISIS Land,” even the center’s defenders could never determine whether it had accomplished its main objective: discouraging would-be militants from traveling to Syria. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: “More than 20 years ago, the United States was forced to pull back from your country,” Kerry said [at a meeting with Somalia’s president and prime minister and several regional chiefs and civil society groups], invoking the “Black Hawk Down” debacle when 18 servicemen died after Somali militiamen shot down two U.S. helicopters and a subsequent rescue mission failed. “Now we are returning.”
The trip was made under tight security. Somalia’s government only learned a day ago that Kerry would join the State Department’s top Africa official, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, on the trip. U.S. officials closely controlled access to the conference building where the discussions took place, an edifice encased by 6-foot high piles of sandbags and ringed by fencing wire.
The actual meeting room was bleak and dark, illuminated by a single fluorescent light overhead. Down the street African peacekeeping troops sat at picnic tables as oily streaks of airplane fuel glimmered in the Indian Ocean. [Continue reading…]
The Wall Street Journal reports: Loud explosions and plumes of smoke not far from his father’s house in Yemen about a month ago announced to Talal Hameed that Saudi Arabia’s air bombing campaign had begun.
That was the cue for the 32-year-old American and his wife to leave. But the U.S. government didn’t evacuate them, he said, deeming the mission too risky.
“It was a shock,” Mr. Hameed said. “In the movies, the U.S. doesn’t leave anyone behind. That’s the movies, but it’s not the reality.”
Mr. Hameed, a resident of San Francisco who returned to his country of birth last year to marry, is one of hundreds of Americans trapped in Yemen amid intense fighting and a deteriorating humanitarian situation.
Mr. Hameed, who had been driving cars for Uber and running a cleaning company in San Francisco, said he sent emails over the past month to the State Department and to U.S. officials about the situation, but got no response. Meanwhile, other countries have managed to evacuate hundreds of their own citizens.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said recently that the U.S. has set up an online system where Americans in Yemen can register to receive updates on opportunities to leave. The department has also been talking to other countries about Americans joining their rescue missions, she said.
But the State Department’s assessment is that a rescue with U.S. government assets is too risky. Any evacuation point designated in a country with an active al Qaeda branch and an unstable security picture would put the security of Americans and any U.S. military assets involved at risk, an official said.
The plight of those like Mr. Hameed is a conundrum for the U.S. Authorities must balance a duty to protect Americans abroad against the dangers of a rescue mission that could become a target for armed groups, including an al Qaeda offshoot and anti-American Houthi militants. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Some of President Obama’s email correspondence was swept up by Russian hackers last year in a breach of the White House’s unclassified computer system that was far more intrusive and worrisome than has been publicly acknowledged, according to senior American officials briefed on the investigation.
The hackers, who also got deeply into the State Department’s unclassified system, do not appear to have penetrated closely guarded servers that control the message traffic from Mr. Obama’s BlackBerry, which he or an aide carries constantly.
But they obtained access to the email archives of people inside the White House, and perhaps some outside, with whom Mr. Obama regularly communicated. From those accounts, they reached emails that the president had sent and received, according to officials briefed on the investigation. [Continue reading…]
CNN reports: “My son served in the army for four years. In Iraq. He served because we love our country. As we should. Now look at us?”
Muna Mansour is gesturing around her at the slatted cargo hold she and her family — all nine of them — are trying to get comfortable in. They’re squeezed in with two other families. On the ground by my feet, Muna’s middle grandchild is sleeping, curled up beside an oil drum.
“There’s nowhere to sleep, there’s no food — you can see how people are just thrown around all over the place,” she says.
Muna is from Buffalo in upstate New York. Her family is among the dozens of Americans caught in the crossfire of warring parties in Yemen. And although many other countries evacuated their citizens, India most notably ferrying out around 5,000, the United States has said it is too dangerous for them to directly evacuate American nationals.
“I was there when the Indians picked up 200 of their people from the port. It was embarrassing. We were just sitting there waiting for someone to come and say ‘OK where are the Americans, let’s pick them up,'” she says. [Continue reading…]
McClatchy reports: The Obama administration so far has declined to organize a rescue mission for the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 U.S. citizens in Yemen. U.S. officials have said they believe it is too dangerous for U.S. military assets to enter Yemeni waters and air space. They’ve also suggested that organizing Americans to meet at a single departure point would put them at risk of attack from al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula or other terrorist groups seeking American hostages.
That, however, has left Americans largely on their own to find a way out of the country. The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa has been closed for months, and the last American troops in the country were evacuated last month, a few days before the Saudi bombing campaign began.
In a message posted on its website, the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa advises that an Indian naval vessel will be leaving Hodeidah for Djibouti and that it had been informed that Americans would be welcomed. But the embassy also noted that “unfortunately, we don’t have information on who to contact to board this ship.” [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post: A federal judge Monday sentenced a former Blackwater Worldwide security guard to life in prison and three others to 30-year terms for killing 14 unarmed civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007, an incident that fomented deep resentments about the accountability of American security forces during one of the bloodiest periods of the Iraq war.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the District rejected a claim of innocence by Nicholas A. Slatten, 31, of Sparta, Tenn., who received the life sentence after being convicted of murder in October for firing what prosecutors said were the first shots in the civilian massacre.
The three others — Paul A. Slough, 35, of Keller, Tex.; Evan S. Liberty, 32, of Rochester, N.H.; and Dustin L. Heard, 33, of Maryville, Tenn. — were sentenced to 30 years plus one day after being convicted of multiple counts of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter.
Al Jazeera reports: Hundreds of American citizens trapped in Yemen’s roiling violence have a legal right to be evacuated by the U.S. government, advocacy groups argued in a lawsuit filed Thursday that challenges the State and Defense Department’s perceived inaction on a constitutional basis.
In court documents that name Secretary of State John Kerry and Pentagon chief Ashton Carter as defendants, U.S.-based lawyers acting on behalf of 41 American citizens or permanent U.S. residents stuck in Yemen described Washington’s decision not to provide any flights or ships out of the conflict zone as “arbitrary” and even illegal. The plaintiffs say they are in grave danger from the escalating violence but have received little more from the State Department than emails or calls about possible third-party flights out of the country and recommendations that they take shelter.
Abed Ayoub, national legal policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said his group and two others that formed the Stuck in Yemen legal action group decided to file a suit as a last-ditch effort to compel the U.S. to act. [Continue reading…]
CNN reports: Russian hackers behind the damaging cyber intrusion of the State Department in recent months used that perch to penetrate sensitive parts of the White House computer system, according to U.S. officials briefed on the investigation.
While the White House has said the breach only affected an unclassified system, that description belies the seriousness of the intrusion. The hackers had access to sensitive information such as real-time non-public details of the president’s schedule. While such information is not classified, it is still highly sensitive and prized by foreign intelligence agencies, U.S. officials say.
The White House in October said it noticed suspicious activity in the unclassified network that serves the executive office of the president. The system has been shut down periodically to allow for security upgrades.
The FBI, Secret Service and U.S. intelligence agencies are all involved in investigating the breach, which they consider among the most sophisticated attacks ever launched against U.S. government systems. The intrusion was routed through computers around the world, as hackers often do to hide their tracks, but investigators found tell-tale codes and other markers that they believe point to hackers working for the Russian government. [Continue reading…]
BBC News reports: Dozens of Yemenis have crossed the Gulf of Aden in small boats to get to Somalia, Djibouti and Somaliland to escape fighting and Saudi air strikes, the UN refugee agency has said.
The UNHCR said it was looking for a possible site for the refugees in Djibouti in case the fighting worsens.
At the same time Somali refugees are still continuing to arrive in Yemen to escape violence and poverty at home.
Yemen hosts more than 238,000 Somali refugees, the UNHCR says.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department has expressed its concern but offered no tangible assistance to U.S. citizens in Yemen: The level of instability and ongoing threats in Yemen remain extremely concerning. There are no plans for a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation of U.S. citizens at this time. To avoid placing themselves in greater danger, U.S. citizens are encouraged to shelter in place until the situation stabilizes. If you feel that your current location is no longer safe, you should carefully assess the potential risks involved in moving to a different location.
Reuters reports: Houthi fighters and allied army units clashed with local militias in the southern Yemeni city of Aden on Sunday, and eyewitnesses said gun battles and heavy shelling ripped through a downtown district near the city’s port.
The Houthi forces have been battling to take Aden, a last foothold of fighters loyal to Saudi-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, advancing to the city center despite 11 days of air strikes by a Saudi-led coalition of mainly Gulf air forces.
Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia launched the air strikes on March 26 in an attempt to turn back the Iran-allied Shi’ite Houthis, who already control Yemen’s capital Sanaa, and restore some of Hadi’s crumbling authority.
The air and sea campaign has targeted Houthi convoys, missiles and weapons stores and cut off any possible outside reinforcements – although the Houthis deny Saudi accusations that they are armed by Tehran.
The New York Times reports: Both sides made significant compromises. For the United States, that meant accepting that Iran would retain its nuclear infrastructure in some shrunken form. For Iran, it meant severe limits on its production facilities and submitting to what Mr. Obama has called the most intrusive inspections regime in history.
It is still far too early to tell if the compromises will survive the next and final negotiating round, or review in Washington and Tehran. The timing of sanctions relief remains unresolved, for example, and already the two sides are describing it in different terms.
But the events of the last two years, and particularly the past week, offer some fascinating insights into what happens when two countries that have barely spoken with each other for 35 years — and have a long and troubled history of mistrust, sabotage, lies and violence — all but move into the same hotel room to try to figure out how they are going to get along.
It is fairly certain there will be a lot more wrangling in the next three months as the negotiators seek to wrap up a final, comprehensive treaty. That is because the negotiators left the Beau Rivage Hotel with astoundingly high bills — suites run more than $1,500 a night — but not an agreed-upon document detailing Iran’s commitments and those of the United States and its negotiating partners.
Wherever Wendy Sherman, the lead American negotiator, traveled in the ornate hotel here, she was trailed by a whiteboard, where the Iranians and the Americans marked down their understandings, sometimes in both English and Persian.
The board served a major diplomatic purpose, letting both sides consider proposals without putting anything on paper. That allowed the Iranians to talk without sending a document back to Tehran for review, where hard-liners could chip away at it, according to several American officials interviewed for this article, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
“It was a brilliantly low-tech solution,” one White House official said. (It also had its drawbacks. One American wrote on it with a regular marker, then had to scrub hard to wipe out some classified numbers.) [Continue reading…]
Julian Borger reports: When Kerry first met Zarif at the UN general assembly in September 2013, it was a historic rarity for two countries that had not had diplomatic relations for 33 years. By the time the framework deal was agreed, the two men had spent more time in each other’s company than with any other foreign official. The pressure from hardliners back home gave the negotiators common cause. And Kerry took Zarif’s recommendation on the best Persian restaurant in Switzerland. The US energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, bonded with his opposite number, Ali Akbar Salehi, over physics and shared years teaching and studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When Salehi became a grandfather for the first time during the Lausanne talks, the New York Times reported, Moniz presented him with baby gifts embossed with the MIT logo.
They worked through weekends and holidays. As the talks approached and passed a deadline in July 2014 in Vienna, Zarif worked through Ramadan, but it was impossible to negotiate and fast at the same time. Shia Islam exempts you from fasting for ten days if you are away from home, but if you want to extend the exemption after that you have to travel just over 25 miles a day (equivalent to 8 farsang, an ancient measure of distance) to justify it. So Zarif would get in a car every day and be driven in and out of the Austrian capital until he had clocked up the requisite mileage.
The foreign ministers came and went, but the technical experts often stayed behind, renting apartments in the host cities. One European non-proliferation expert missed most of the early life of his first child, spending three-quarters of his time on the road. A few of the negotiators received lucrative job offers during the course of the talks but had to defer them until the deal was done. Kerry’s deputy and master-negotiator, Bill Burns, had to put off retirement because both the Obama administration and the Iranians insisted that he stay. At critical points along the way, the technical and legal specialists often had to negotiate through the night.
“A lot of time it is not a matter of who is the smartest person in the room. It is a question of who has the most stamina,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former state department official who worked on the Iran dossier. “And Kerry had an incredible amount of stamina.”
The desired end-state of the negotiation was clear enough: Iran’s programme had to be limited so that it would take the country’s leaders at least a year to make a bomb, if they decided to do so, giving the rest of the world time to react. In return, the stifling sanctions regime buildup over the past nine years would be dismantled.
However, getting to that end-state has been endlessly complex. Fixing Iran’s “breakout” time at a year is a function of numbers of centrifuges, their efficiency and the already low stockpile of enriched uranium. To verify their calculations, American scientists constructed mock-up cascades of Iran’s centrifuges, using machines of the same vintage taken from Libya. Working at a classified site, the centrifuges were spun in an effort to determine how long they would take to produce a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium. The UK and Israel, and perhaps other western European states, also had smaller-scale centrifuge mock-ups, and made their own calculations of breakout times.
The complexities were not just scientific. The web of interlocking international sanctions posed dense legal challenges when it came to drawing up a timetable for their lifting that was acceptable to all sides. [Continue reading…]
Business Insider: The speed with which Yemen’s conflict escalated last week has taken many by surprise, with a Saudi-led Arab multinational force launching military operations after president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled the country by boat on March 25th.
And it’s especially awkward for the Obama administration.
Washington has held up Yemen as a counter-terror model, most notably during President Barack Obama’s September 10, 2014 speech announcing military operations against ISIS.
The idea is that the US would provide intelligence and forms of kinetic assistance (drones, special operations raids, and so on) to partner governments without committing ground troops or asking for internally disruptive political reforms.
The Yemen blow-up puts the administration in an awkward position. Saying the increasingly violent and ungoverned country is no longer a counter-terror model is tantamount to admitting that the premises behind the US’s anti-ISIS strategy are deeply flawed. But saying it is still a model means copping to just how narrow the US’s objectives in the Middle East really are.
A remarkable moment of candor on this front came on March 26 as it became apparent that Yemen’s recognized president had fled the country. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and was asked if Yemen’s breakdown in any way diminishes its appeal as a counter-terrorism model.
Earnest conceded that Yemen’s situation is dire, and then said: “The measure of the US policy should not be graded against the success or the stability of the Yemeni government. That’s a separate enterprise.
“The goal of us policy towards Yemen has never been to try to build a Jeffersonian democracy there. The goal of US policy in Yemen is to make sure Yemen cannot be a safe haven than extremists can use to attack the West and to attack the United States, and that involves trying to build up the capacity of the government to help us in that fight.”
IBT reports: The exodus of foreign diplomats and citizens from war-torn Yemen has surged in recent days amid Saudi-led airstrikes targeting Iranian-backed Houthi militias, who have taken over much of the country. China, India, Pakistan and Somalia have sent ships and planes to evacuate their citizens trapped in Yemen. The United States moved its embassy staff out of Yemen after suspending embassy operations in the capital Sanaa last month, and remaining military personnel were airlifted out last week. But the U.S. government has yet to announce any evacuation plans for Americans in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s campaign — which was coordinated with help from the United States — has Yemen landlocked, with the airports and major seaports shut down. Yemeni-Americans said they received no warning of the Saudi attack, and now they are desperate for alternate escape routes.
Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a San Francisco native who is currently in Sanaa, said he never received a response from the State Department. “The U.S. coordinated with Saudi on logistics, so they must have been aware of what was coming,” he told Al Jazeera. “And yet we received no warning. If India and Somalia can find a way to evacuate their nationals, why can’t the U.S.?” [Continue reading…]
Shane Harris writes: The private email address for Hillary Clinton, which became the talk of Washington this week and created her first major speed bump on her road to the White House, has actually been freely available on the Internet for a year, thanks to a colorful Romanian hacker known as Guccifer.
On March 14, 2013, Guccifer — his real name is Marcel-Lehel Lazar — broke into the AOL account of Sidney Blumenthal, a journalist, former White House aide to Bill Clinton, and personal confidante of Hillary Clinton. Lazar crowed about his exploits to journalists, disclosing a set of memos Blumenthal had written to Clinton in 2012, as well as the personal email address and domain she’s now known to have used exclusively for her personal and official correspondence.
Few journalists noticed that at the time, and it caused no ruckus in Washington. But the fact that Clinton’s private email was now public means she was not just putting her own information at risk, but potentially those in the circle of people who knew her private address.
Her email account was the ultimate hacker’s lure. It’s a common technique to impersonate a trusted source via email, in order to persuade a recipient to download spyware hidden inside seemingly innocuous attachments. Indeed, Clinton’s own staff had been targeted with such highly targeted “spear phishing” emails as early as 2009, the year she took office. And according to U.S. authorities, Lazar, who’s now serving a seven-year prison sentence in Romania and is accused of hacking the accounts of other Washington notables like Colin Powell, did commandeer other people’s email accounts. Then he used them to send messages exposing the private correspondence of his other victims.
When her address was exposed, Clinton was running her private email account on equipment in her home in New York, which security experts say is an inherently weak setup that made her more vulnerable to hacking. [Continue reading…]