The inside story of the Obama administration’s Iran diplomacy

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan writes: Covering the path to that deal was the main focus of my beat at Bloomberg News for the past seven years. I traveled more than 140,000 miles and spent months at hotels in Europe, New York, the Middle East and Central Asia, reporting on talks by Kerry and U.S. nuclear negotiators. Now that the deal is done, 12 current and former Obama administration officials intimately involved in the negotiations spoke to me last week, revealing new details for the first time. This story of the behind-the-scenes calculations along a seven-year road to a deal is based upon those accounts, as well as on hundreds of hours of reporting on the talks I did as they unfolded in recent years in capitals across three continents. [Continue reading…]


Russian troops said to join combat in Syria

Reuters reports: Russian forces have begun participating in military operations in Syria in support of government troops, three Lebanese sources familiar with the political and military situation there said on Wednesday.

The sources, speaking to Reuters on condition they not be identified, gave the most forthright account yet from the region of what the United States fears is a deepening Russian military role in Syria’s civil war, though one of the Lebanese sources said the number of Russians involved so far was small.

U.S. officials said Russia sent two tank landing ships and additional cargo aircraft to Syria in the past day or so and deployed a small number of naval infantry forces.

The U.S. officials, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the intent of Russia’s military moves in Syria was unclear. One suggested the focus may be on preparing an airfield near the port city of Latakia, a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. [Continue reading…]

Josh Rogin writes: The State Department had already begun pushing back against the Russian moves, for example by asking Bulgaria and Greece to deny overflight permissions to Syria-bound Russian transport planes. But the president didn’t know about these moves in advance, two officials said, and when he found out, he was upset with the department for not having a more complete and vetted process to respond to the crisis. A senior administration official said Tuesday evening that the White House, the State Department and other departments had coordinated to oppose actions that would add to Assad’s leverage.

For some in the White House, the priority is to enlist more countries to fight against the Islamic State, and they fear making the relationship with Russia any more heated. They are seriously considering accepting the Russian buildup as a fait accompli, and then working with Moscow to coordinate U.S. and Russian strikes in Northern Syria, where the U.S.-led coalition operates every day.

For many in the Obama administration, especially those who work on Syria, the idea of acquiescing to Russian participation in the fighting is akin to admitting that the drive to oust Assad has failed. Plus, they fear Russia will attack Syrian opposition groups that are fighting against Assad, using the war against the Islamic State as a cover.

“The Russians’ intentions are to keep Assad in power, not to fight ISIL,” one administration official said. “They’ve shown their cards now.” [Continue reading…]


American paranoia and govt. red tape creates multiple barriers for Syrian refugees

Olivia Goldhill writes: [O]nce the US agrees, in theory, to resettle a refugee, authorities then begin a laborious vetting process that can take up to two years, a State Department spokesman told Voice of America.

The refugees, who have already been vetted by the UN, must then be screened by US authorities — involving the National Counterterrorism Center, the Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Defense, the FBI, and Homeland Security officers, former State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in February.

Syrians who have been approved for resettlement are often survivors of torture, female-led families without protection, and unaccompanied minors. They can be in danger throughout the vetting process, and delays are common, Daryl Grisgraber, senior advocate for the Middle East and North Africa at Refugees International, tells Quartz.

“Once the person is cleared medically, that medical clearance may even expire while the security check is happening,” she says from Washington. “There’s a whole cycle that makes the process quite slow.”

Syrian refugees face particularly long delays because of anxieties about terrorism in the Middle East. But excessive fears can make the resettlement process redundant. The US does not accept refugees who have given “material support” to armed groups, but this has previously been used to block people for the slightest excuse — a Burundi refugee was detained for 20 months because armed rebels robbed him of $4 and his lunch. The immigration judge decided this counted as “material support.” [Continue reading…]


As Hollywood lobbied State Department, it built free home theaters for U.S. embassies

By Robert Faturechi, ProPublica, July 2, 2015

This story was co-published with The Daily Beast.

Hollywood’s efforts to win political clout have always stretched across the country, from glitzy campaign fundraisers in Beverly Hills to cocktail parties with power brokers in Washington.

Last year, the film industry staked out another zone of influence: U.S. embassies. Its lobbying arm paid to renovate screening rooms in at least four overseas outposts, hoping the new theaters would help ambassadors and their foreign guests “keep U.S. cultural interests top of mind,” according to an internal email.

That was the same year that the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents the six biggest studios, reported it was lobbying the State Department on issues including piracy and online content distribution. Hollywood’s interests 2013 including its push for tougher copyright rules in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact 2013 often put the industry at odds with Silicon Valley.

[Read more…]


As Blackwater threatened to kill a State Dept investigator in Iraq, U.S. officials defended Blackwater

The New York Times reports: Just weeks before Blackwater guards fatally shot 17 civilians at Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007, the State Department began investigating the security contractor’s operations in Iraq. But the inquiry was abandoned after Blackwater’s top manager there issued a threat: “that he could kill” the government’s chief investigator and “no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,” according to department reports.

American Embassy officials in Baghdad sided with Blackwater rather than the State Department investigators as a dispute over the probe escalated in August 2007, the previously undisclosed documents show. The officials told the investigators that they had disrupted the embassy’s relationship with the security contractor and ordered them to leave the country, according to the reports.

After returning to Washington, the chief investigator wrote a scathing report to State Department officials documenting misconduct by Blackwater employees and warning that lax oversight of the company, which had a contract worth more than $1 billion to protect American diplomats, had created “an environment full of liability and negligence.” [Continue reading…]


Families of American hostages held captive in Syria felt U.S. officials had abandoned them

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…]


ISIS is winning the social media war, U.S. concludes

The New York Times reports: An internal State Department assessment paints a dismal picture of the efforts by the Obama administration and its foreign allies to combat the Islamic State’s message machine, portraying a fractured coalition that cannot get its own message straight.

The assessment comes months after the State Department signaled that it was planning to energize its social media campaign against the militant group. It concludes, however, that the Islamic State’s violent narrative — promulgated through thousands of messages each day — has effectively “trumped” the efforts of some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations.

It also casts an unflattering light on internal discussions between American officials and some of their closest allies in the military campaign against the militants. A “messaging working group” of officials from the United States, Britain and the United Arab Emirates, the memo says, “has not really come together.” [Continue reading…]


The diplomatic repercussions of John Kerry’s broken leg

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.


U.S. ‘deeply concerned’ by Egypt’s death penalty decision for Mohamed Morsi

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
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“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.


In a propaganda war against ISIS, the U.S. tried to play by the enemy’s rules

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…]


John Kerry has unannounced meeting at Mogadishu airport

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…]


Americans trapped in Yemen

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…]


Russian hackers read Obama’s unclassified emails, officials say

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…]


Stranded Americans in Yemen get little help from their government

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…]


Four Blackwater guards sentenced in Iraq shootings of 31 unarmed civilians

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.


Americans stuck in Yemen file suit against State, Defense departments

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…]


How the U.S. thinks Russians hacked the White House

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…]


As Yemenis flee, State Department tells U.S. citizens to ‘shelter in place’

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.