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No Exit

BY YOCHI DREAZEN

Faycal Maroufi, a U.S. military translator from Florida, has spent the past three months confined to an American base in the deserts of Kuwait. The local authorities have promised to arrest Maroufi if he leaves the compound, and American officials have so far been powerless to help. Maroufi isn’t wanted for a crime or accused of wrongdoing. He, like more than 50 other U.S. citizens, is instead being effectively imprisoned in Kuwait because of a nasty and complicated business dispute between an American contractor and its local partner.

The histories of the Iraq and Afghan wars are littered with cases of low-paid contractors from countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan being kept in the war zones against their will by companies that forced them to work seven days a week and sometimes confiscated their passports to ensure that they couldn’t return home. The current standoff in Kuwait appears to be the first time that large numbers of American citizens have faced a similar predicament. The contractors are caught in the middle of a fight between two large companies, a battle they didn’t choose and don’t fully understand. For all intents and purposes they’re under house arrest despite not doing anything to deserve it.

Maroufi and his colleagues are currently living in hangars on Camp Arifjan and Camp Buehring, the two main U.S. bases in Kuwait, and using lockers and curtains to carve out small slivers of personal space. Their makeshift barracks are infested with bedbugs, and the nearest bathrooms are in trailers several minutes away. They aren’t allowed to access the bases’ military hospitals or leave the country for personal emergencies. One employee lost his mother but was blocked from returning to the U.S. for the funeral; another lost his father but was similarly confined to the base by Kuwaiti authorities. Iowa resident Majdi Abdulghani was arrested at the Kuwait City airport as he was preparing to board a flight back to the U.S. to see his ailing mother. He was jailed for a week.

“We are prisoners here,” Maroufi said by phone from Kuwait. “We’re pawns in a fight between these two companies. I want to go home and be with my family, but instead I’m stuck here, and I don’t know when they’ll let me leave.”

The linguists are now trying to get even. Late last month, Maroufi and 18 colleagues filed a lawsuit against their employer, Global Linguist Solutions, or GLS, a U.S.-based firm that has a piece of a $9.7 billion Pentagon contract to provide translation services to military personnel across the Middle East. GLS is a joint venture between defense contracting giants DynCorp and AECOM, so Maroufi and the other plaintiffs sued them as well. Joe Hennessey, their lawyer, says he plans to ask for damages “in the tens of millions of dollars, if not higher.”

GLS and DynCorp declined to comment, citing the litigation, but GLS argues that the Kuwaiti subcontractor, Al Shora General Trading and Contracting Co., bears full responsibility for what has happened to their employees. Al Shora couldn’t be reached for comment, either. However, the company’s owner, Reham Aljelewi, told Stars and Stripes earlier this year that she no longer wanted to work with GLS and accused it of making false allegations about her firm to various Kuwaiti officials.

American military and civilian officials say they’re doing what they can for the contractors, but have gone out of their way to emphasize that the entire crisis boils down to a fight between two private companies.

Ron Young, a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, which oversees the GLS contract, said the military was working with the State Department to find a way to get the contractors out of Kuwait. But he stressed that the “current situation regarding the American linguists in Kuwait is a legal matter under Kuwaiti law.”

A State Department official said the American embassy in Kuwait had “reached out to Kuwaiti government officials at a variety of levels in order to seek clarification and identify a path to allow the citizens to depart Kuwait or otherwise address the matter.” The official declined to say whether Ambassador Matthew Tueller had personally lobbied the Kuwaiti government to allow the contractors to return home.

The dispute stems from a Kuwaiti law that requires foreign firms to partner with a Kuwaiti company, or “sponsor,” which is responsible for obtaining work visas for individual employees. GLS had initially partnered with Al-Shora, but chose to work with a different Kuwaiti company when it’s initial contract ended last year and the firm decided to submit a bid for a new one.

Here’s where things get tricky. According to the lawsuit, Al Shora warned GLS that severing the relationship could lead to legal problems for their contractors. GLS, the suit says, “made a conscious business decision” to do so anyway. GLS, for its part, said it had to sever ties with Al Shora because the Kuwaiti firm refused to submit a formal proposal for a share of the new contract. GLS says that Al Shora’s managing director, the sister-in-law of the country’s prime minister, responded by threatening to “destroy” the American company.

Things soon deteriorated even further. GLS says that Al Shora promised to transfer all of the U.S. contractors to the company’s new Kuwaiti sponsor, but never did. Instead, Al Shora told Kuwaiti authorities that Maroufi and the other GLS contractors had failed to show up their jobs, violating the terms of their work visas and putting them in breach of Kuwaiti immigration law. GLS said it tried to negotiate with Al Shora to rescind the allegations, only to have the Kuwaiti company demand $22 million in exchange for doing so. When GLS refused to pay, the Kuwaiti government began arresting individual contractors like Abdulghani, the Iowa resident trying to return home to see his sick mother.

The lawsuit claims that after the arrests of Abdulghani and a pair of other contractors, Maroufi and his remaining colleagues found themselves effectively under house arrest at Buehring and Arifjan.

“They were trapped because they could not venture out beyond the compound for fear of arrest by Kuwait authorities,” the lawsuit states. “Moreover, the Kuwait government would not issue exit documents or other papers to such plaintiffs because they were considered to be in the country illegally.”

Three months later, the bulk of the contractors remain marooned at the bases. The Army flies aircraft in and out of Arifjan and Buehring every day, and it’s not clear why the military doesn’t simply take the contractors out of the country on their own. It’s also not clear why the U.S. government, which sells large quantities of weapons to Kuwait and once went to war to restore its independence, isn’t doing more to pressure the Kuwaiti government to let the contractors leave. For the moment, only a lucky few have managed to do so.

Nada Malek has worked for GLS in both Iraq and Kuwait since the summer of 2010. This past February, her husband developed serious health problems and was put into an intensive care unit, but she was told she couldn’t return to her home in Nevada because of the fight between GLS and Al Shora. Malek’s husband eventually recovered, but she suffered a bigger blow last month when her son tried to kill himself. Staffers from the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid interceded on her behalf and she was finally allowed out of Kuwait. She returned home last Sunday.

Despite her family problems, Malek is paradoxically one of the lucky ones. The remaining contractors don’t have powerful political allies and face the real prospect of being stuck in Kuwait for months as the new lawsuit winds its way through the U.S. legal systems and back channel talks with the Kuwaitis plod forward. This Saturday is Maroufi’s birthday, and he will spend it thousands of miles from home.

“I still don’t believe that I can sit in my backyard and watch my husband take care of our garden,” she said. “I still feel like I’m stuck in Kuwait.”

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Dereliction of Duty: Obama Did Nothing to Save American Lives in Benghazi–and Lied About It

by Joel B. Pollak

Nothing. That is what President Barack Obama did on the night of September 11, 2012, as terrorists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and killed four Americans, among them Ambassador Christopher Stevens. President Obama’s inaction was revealed in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday by outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey.

Under direct questioning by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Panetta admitted that he had no communication with President Obama after their “pre-scheduled” meeting at 5:00 p.m. EDT. The attack on the consulate had already been under way for 90 minutes at that time. Neither the president nor anyone else from the White House called afterwards to check what was happening; the Commander-in-Chief had left it “up to us,” said Panetta.

Panetta’s testimony directly contradicts President Obama’s own claim to have issued “three directives” as soon as he learned “what was going on” in Benghazi. As he told a Denver reporter in October:

I gave three very clear directives. Number one, make sure we are securing our personnel and that we are doing whatever we need to. Number two, we are going to investigate exactly what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Number three, find out who did this so we can bring them to justice.

That same claim was subsequently repeated by other Democrats, including Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who came to the president’s defense. But if those directives were indeed given–and proof has never been produced–they were given long after the attack, not while the attack was going on, during which time the president did nothing.

Panetta and Dempsey also admitted, under questioning by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), that they were not in touch with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the attacks, and did not receive a request for help from the State Department. Dempsey also testified that he had been “surprised” at Clinton’s testimony last month that she did not know of an urgent cable from Ambassador Stevens last August about the dire security situation.

To borrow a metaphor from the 2008 Democratic primary campaign: when the 3 a.m. call came (at 5 p.m. in the afternoon), neither Clinton nor Obama were there to respond.

Panetta was also forced to admit, in the face of vigorous questioning by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), that no military action at all had been taken to intervene in Benghazi after the attack had begun, promising only that a similar lapse would not happen again.

Later, on Thursday afternoon, during Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan’s confirmation hearing to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) demanded to know why the administration failed to interview a suspect in the attack.

Brennan’s response was merely that the Tunisian authorities who had arrested him “did not have a basis in their law” for allowing the U.S. to question him about the attack.

In sum: President Obama did nothing to save Americans under attack from terrorists. His Secretary of Defense did nothing. His Secretary of State did nothing. The Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff did nothing. His Deputy National Security Adviser defended doing “nothing” to help bring the perpetrators to justice. And the entire administration participated in an effort to cover up the truth. Because there was an election to be won.

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White House told of militant claim two hours after Libya attack: emails

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON | Tue Oct 23, 2012 9:11pm EDT

(Reuters) – Officials at the White House and State Department were advised two hours after attackers assaulted the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11 that an Islamic militant group had claimed credit for the attack, official emails show.

The emails, obtained by Reuters from government sources not connected with U.S. spy agencies or the State Department and who requested anonymity, specifically mention that the Libyan group called Ansar al-Sharia had asserted responsibility for the attacks.

The brief emails also show how U.S. diplomats described the attack, even as it was still under way, to Washington.

U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Benghazi assault, which President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials ultimately acknowledged was a “terrorist” attack carried out by militants with suspected links to al Qaeda affiliates or sympathizers.

Administration spokesmen, including White House spokesman Jay Carney, citing an unclassified assessment prepared by the CIA, maintained for days that the attacks likely were a spontaneous protest against an anti-Muslim film.

While officials did mention the possible involvement of “extremists,” they did not lay blame on any specific militant groups or possible links to al Qaeda or its affiliates until intelligence officials publicly alleged that on September 28.

There were indications that extremists with possible al Qaeda connections were involved, but also evidence that the attacks could have erupted spontaneously, they said, adding that government experts wanted to be cautious about pointing fingers prematurely.

U.S. intelligence officials have emphasized since shortly after the attack that early intelligence reporting about the attack was mixed.

Spokesmen for the White House and State Department had no immediate response to requests for comments on the emails.

MISSIVES FROM LIBYA

The records obtained by Reuters consist of three emails dispatched by the State Department’s Operations Center to multiple government offices, including addresses at the White House, Pentagon, intelligence community and FBI, on the afternoon of September 11.

The first email, timed at 4:05 p.m. Washington time – or 10:05 p.m. Benghazi time, 20-30 minutes after the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission allegedly began – carried the subject line “U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi Under Attack” and the notation “SBU”, meaning “Sensitive But Unclassified.”

The text said the State Department’s regional security office had reported that the diplomatic mission in Benghazi was “under attack. Embassy in Tripoli reports approximately 20 armed people fired shots; explosions have been heard as well.”

The message continued: “Ambassador Stevens, who is currently in Benghazi, and four … personnel are in the compound safe haven. The 17th of February militia is providing security support.”

A second email, headed “Update 1: U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi” and timed 4:54 p.m. Washington time, said that the Embassy in Tripoli had reported that “the firing at the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi had stopped and the compound had been cleared.” It said a “response team” was at the site attempting to locate missing personnel.

A third email, also marked SBU and sent at 6:07 p.m. Washington time, carried the subject line: “Update 2: Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack.”

The message reported: “Embassy Tripoli reports the group claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter and has called for an attack on Embassy Tripoli.”

While some information identifying recipients of this message was redacted from copies of the messages obtained by Reuters, a government source said that one of the addresses to which the message was sent was the White House Situation Room, the president’s secure command post.

Other addressees included intelligence and military units as well as one used by the FBI command center, the source said.

It was not known what other messages were received by agencies in Washington from Libya that day about who might have been behind the attacks.

Intelligence experts caution that initial reports from the scene of any attack or disaster are often inaccurate.

By the morning of September 12, the day after the Benghazi attack, Reuters reported that there were indications that members of both Ansar al-Sharia, a militia based in the Benghazi area, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African affiliate of al Qaeda’s faltering central command, may have been involved in organizing the attacks.

One U.S. intelligence official said that during the first classified briefing about Benghazi given to members of Congress, officials “carefully laid out the full range of sparsely available information, relying on the best analysis available at the time.”

The official added, however, that the initial analysis of the attack that was presented to legislators was mixed.

“Briefers said extremists were involved in attacks that appeared spontaneous, there may have been a variety of motivating factors, and possible links to groups such as (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al-Sharia) were being looked at closely,” the official said.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Mary Milliken and Jim Loney)

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Report: Obama Administration Is Giving Away 7 Strategic Islands to Russia

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Posted by Jim Hoft on Saturday, February 18, 2012, 12:32 PM

May 1881 US explorers approached Jeannette Island and Henrietta Island and claimed them for the United States. According to some US individuals, including the group State Department Watch, eight Arctic islands currently controlled by Russia, including Wrangel Island, are claimed by the United States. However, according to the United States Department of State no such claim exists. The USSR/USA Maritime Boundary Treaty, which has yet to be approved by the Russian Duma, does not address the status of these islands nor the maritime boundaries associated with them.

The Obama Administration is reportedly giving away Wrangell, Bennett, Jeannette and Henrietta islands in Alaska to Russia. The federal government drew the line to put these seven Alaskan islands on the Russian side

Former senatorial candidate Joe Miller broke this story at World Net Daily:

The Obama administration, despite the nation’s economic woes, effectively killed the job-producing Keystone Pipeline last month. The Arab Spring is turning the oil production of Libya and other Arab nations over to the Muslim Brotherhood. Iraq is distancing itself from the U.S. And everyone recognizes that Iran, whose crude supplies are critical to the European economy, will do anything it can to frustrate America’s strategic interests. In the face of all of this, Obama insists on cutting back U.S. oil potential with outrageous restrictions.

Part of Obama’s apparent war against U.S. energy independence includes a foreign-aid program that directly threatens my state’s sovereign territory. Obama’s State Department is giving away seven strategic, resource-laden Alaskan islands to the Russians. Yes, to the Putin regime in the Kremlin.

The seven endangered islands in the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea include one the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. The Russians are also to get the tens of thousands of square miles of oil-rich seabeds surrounding the islands. The Department of Interior estimates billions of barrels of oil are at stake.

The State Department has undertaken the giveaway in the guise of a maritime boundary agreement between Alaska and Siberia. Astoundingly, our federal government itself drew the line to put these seven Alaskan islands on the Russian side. But as an executive agreement, it could be reversed with the stroke of a pen by President Obama or Secretary Clinton.

The agreement was negotiated in total secrecy. The state of Alaska was not allowed to participate in the negotiations, nor was the public given any opportunity for comment. This is despite the fact the Alaska Legislature has passed resolutions of opposition – but the State Department doesn’t seem to care.

The imperiled Arctic Ocean islands include Wrangell, Bennett, Jeannette and Henrietta. Wrangell became American in 1881 with the landing of the U.S. Revenue Marine ship Thomas Corwin. The landing party included the famed naturalist John Muir. It is 3,000 square miles in size.

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U.S. slaps sanctions on China state oil trader over Iran

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By Andrew Quinn

WASHINGTON, Jan 12 (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on China’s state-run Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp, which it said was Iran’s largest supplier of refined petroleum products, as it sought to impress on Beijing and Tehran its resolve to increase economic pressure over Iran’s nuclear program.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also imposed sanctions on Singapore’s Kuo Oil Pte Ltd and FAL Oil Company Ltd, an independent energy trader based in the United Arab Emirates, the State Department said in a notice.

The State Department said the move was part of a broadening international effort to target Iran’s energy sector and persuade Tehran to rein in its nuclear ambitions.

“The sanctions announced today are an important step toward that goal, as they target the individual companies that help Iran evade these efforts,” the statement said.

The sanction bar all three companies from receiving U.S. export licenses, U.S. Export Import Bank financing or loans over $10 million from U.S. financial institutions, the department said, stressing that the sanctions apply only to the companies and not to their governments or countries.

The U.S. announced the decision after China’s rebuff this week of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who traveled to Beijing to press China on U.S. demands it do more to help curb Iran’s oil revenues.

A Zhenrong spokeswoman and China’s Foreign Ministry both said they had no immediate comment.

‘SHOT ACROSS THE BOW’

Analysts said the U.S. move was largely symbolic, given that Zhenrong was unlikely to have much U.S. business exposure.

But the move will send a signal to Beijing and its state-run oil giants such as China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), China Petroleum and Chemical Corp (Sinopec Corp) and China National Offshore Oil Corp. , they said.

These companies have invested billions of dollars in the U.S. energy sector, and are much more exposed to the impact of potential sanctions.

“It’s a good shot across the bow and signals the U.S. is serious about vigorous sanctions enforcement,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington pressure group that favors stronger sanctions on Iran.

“This could be the beginning of a cascade of more sanctions on Chinese companies if China doesn’t curtail its Iranian trade.”

Zhuhai Zhenrong – one of four dominant Chinese state oil traders – brokered the delivery of over $500 million in gasoline to Iran between July 2010 and January 2011 in contravention of U.S. sanctions law, the State Department said.

While the U.S. move targeted Zhenrong for its gasoline sales, the Chinese company has a broader role in Beijing’s energy dealings with Iran.

It has been a major buyer of Iranian oil since at least 1995, typically selling the oil to Sinopec and PetroChina, the country’s two dominant refiners.

Zhenrong has been buying about 240,000 barrels per day for several years, representing about 5 percent of China’s imports. Sources last week said China would cut crude imports from Iran for a second month in February.

In mid-2010, Zhenrong joined Chinese state energy giants in filling a void left by Western oil companies and trading houses that had halted sales of gasoline to Iran because of toughening U.S. sanctions.

Derek Scissors, an expert in the Chinese economy at the Heritage Foundation think tank, said the action against Zhenrong would send a message to other Chinese state oil majors.

“We don’t want to be taking action against Sinopec, CNPC and CNOOC. They are huge, and politically powerful,” he said.

“But Zhenrong is close enough to them, and won’t really do that much harm beyond sending the signal.”

TARGETING COMPANIES

The U.S. announcement followed Western moves to tighten the economic noose on Tehran through unilateral sanctions.

President Barack Obama has signed a U.S. law imposing sanctions on financial institutions that deal with Iran’s central bank, its main clearinghouse for oil exports, while the European Union is expected soon to agree to a new ban on Iranian oil imports.

Washington has sought to impress on friends and foes that it means business, sending U.S. officials around the world to warn of the dangers of dealing with Iran.

A senior Obama administration official stressed that the purpose of sanctions was to draw Iran back to the negotiating table to discuss curbing its nuclear ambitions, the other half of the ‘two-track’ U.S. policy of pressure and engagement.

“The theory of the case here is that these two tracks will ultimately converge and Iran will make a decision that it is important to come to the table to try to remove some of these sanctions, to improve their economy,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

The other two companies listed by the State Department, both well-known names in the Asian oil trading world, are smaller, private trading firms that typically specialize in shipping bunker fuel or heavy residual products but, like Zhenrong, had also begun doing deals to sell gasoline to Iran.

The State Department said Kuo Oil had provided over $25 million in refined petroleum to Iran between late 2010 and early 2011, while FAL provided over $70 million in refined petroleum to Iran over multiple shipments in late 2010.

Kuo had no immediate comment, a senior official said.

In all cases, individual deliveries were worth significantly more than the $1 million threshold under U.S. law and the total value of the transactions was well above the $5 million threshold for sanctionable activities within a 12-month period, the State Department said.

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U.S. making nice with the Muslim Brotherhood?

The highest-level meeting between a U.S. diplomat and Muslim Brotherhood officials will take place today in Cairo, Egypt.

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U.S. deputy secretary of state, William Burns, will meet officials of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing in the highest-level meeting yet between the two sides. (Chip Somodevilla/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. has long shunned Egypt‘s Muslim Brotherhood, accusing it of links to terrorists. Looks like that is about to change.

The State Department‘s number two diplomat, William Burns, will meet with leaders of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which just won roughly 40 percent of the seats in parliament, AFP reports. (Final results of Egypt’s recent legislative elections have not yet been released).

The meeting marks part of a shift towards rapprochment from a decades-old U.S. policy of hostility toward the Brotherhood, who many in the U.S still fear will pose a threat to Israel and boost support for more extreme Islamists.

Still, the rise of Islamists, moderate and extreme, is a new reality in post-Mubarak Egypt. See Middle East highlights in the Foreign Operations Appropriations Bills from Jul. 2012, when the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved an amendment to limit the Secretary of State from using funds to support the Muslim Brotherhood.

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Obama administration secretly preparing options for aiding the Syrian opposition

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Posted By Josh Rogin

As the violence in Syria spirals out of control, top officials in President Barack Obama‘s administration are quietly preparing options for how to assist the Syrian opposition, including gaming out the unlikely option of setting up a no-fly zone in Syria and preparing for another major diplomatic initiative.

Critics on Capitol Hill accuse the Obama administration of being slow to react to the quickening deterioration of the security situation in Syria, where over 5,000 have died, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many lawmakers say the White House is once again “leading from behind,” while the Turks,  the French, and the Arab League — which sent an observer mission to Syria this week – take the initiative to pursue more aggressive strategies for pressuring the Assad regime. But U.S. officials said that they are moving cautiously in order to avoid destabilizing Syria further, and to make sure they know as much as possible about the country’s complex dynamics before getting more involved.

But the administration does see the status quo in Syria as unsustainable. The Bashar al Assad regime is a “dead man walking,” State Department official Fred Hof said this month. So the administration is now ramping up its policymaking machinery on the issue. After several weeks of having no top-level administration meetings to discuss the Syria crisis, the National Security Council (NSC) has begun an informal, quiet interagency process to create and collect options for aiding the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.

The process, led by NSC Senior Director Steve Simon, involves only a few select officials from State, Defense, Treasury, and other relevant agencies. The group is unusually small, presumably to prevent media leaks, and the administration is not using the normal process of Interagency Policy Committee (IPC), Deputies Committee (DC), or Principals Committee (PC) meetings, the officials said. Another key official inside the discussions is Hof, who is leading the interactions with Syrian opposition leaders and U.S. allies.

The options that are under consideration include establishing a humanitarian corridor or safe zone for civilians in Syria along the Turkish border, extending humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels, providing medical aid to Syrian clinics, engaging more with the external and internal opposition, forming an international contact group, or appointing a special coordinator for working with the Syrian opposition (as was done in Libya), according to the two officials, both of whom are familiar with the discussions but not in attendance at the meetings.

“The interagency is now looking at options for Syria, but it’s still at the preliminary stage,” one official said. “There are many people in the administration that realize the status quo is unsustainable and there is an internal recognition that existing financial sanctions are not going to bring down the Syrian regime in the near future.”

After imposing several rounds of financial sanctions on Syrian regime leaders, the focus is now shifting to assisting the opposition directly. The interagency process is still ongoing and the NSC has tasked State and DOD to present options in the near future, but nothing has been decided, said the officials – one of whom told The Cable that the administration was being intentionally cautious out of concern about what comes next in Syria.

“Due to the incredible and far-reaching ramifications of the Syrian problem set, people are being very cautious,” the official said. “The criticism could be we’re not doing enough to change the status quo because we’re leading from behind. But the reason we are being so cautious is because when you look at the possible ramifications, it’s mindboggling.”

A power vacuum in the country, loose weapons of mass destruction, a refugee crisis, and unrest across the region are just a few of the problems that could attend the collapse of the Assad regime, the official said.

“This isn’t Libya. What happens in Libya stays in Libya, but that is not going to happen in Syria. The stakes are higher,” the official said. “Right now, we see the risks of moving too fast as higher than the risks of moving too slow.”

The option of establishing a humanitarian corridor is seen as extremely unlikely because it would require establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, which would likely involve large-scale attacks on the Syrian air defense and military command-and-control systems.

“That’s theoretically one of the options, but it’s so far out of the realm that no one is thinking about that seriously at the moment,” another administration official said.

Although the opposition is decidedly split on the issue, Burhan Ghalioun, the president of the Syrian National Council, earlier this month called on the international community to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria.

“Our main objective is finding mechanisms to protect civilians and stop the killing machine,” said Ghalioun. “We say it is imperative to use forceful measures to force the regime to respect human rights.”

Is the U.S. bark worse than its bite?

Rhetorically, the administration has been active in calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside and protecting the rights of Syrian protesters, despite the lack of clear policy to achieve that result. “The United States continues to believe that the only way to bring about the change that the Syrian people deserve is for Bashar al-Assad to leave power,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Dec. 21.

On Tuesday, Dec. 27, the administration hinted at stronger action if the Syrian government doesn’t let the Arab League monitors do their work. “If the Syrian regime continues to resist and disregard Arab League efforts, the international community will consider other means to protect Syrian civilians,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), the primary organization representing the opposition, has been very clear that it is seeking more than rhetorical support from the United States and the international community. An extensive policy paper titled, “Safe Area for Syria,” edited by SNC member Ausama Monajed, laid out the argument for armed intervention by the international community to aid Syrian civilians.

“The Syrian National Council (SNC) is entering a critical phase in the Syrian revolution whereby the hope of a continued campaign of passive resistance to an exceptionally brutal and unrestrained regime is becoming more and more akin to a suicide pact,” Monajed wrote.

But Washington is uncomfortable acting in concert with the SNC: Officials say there is a lack of confidence that the SNC, which is strongly influenced by expatriate Syrians, has the full support of the internal opposition. U.S. officials are also wary of supporting the Syria Free Army, made up of Syrian military defectors and armed locals, as they do not want to be seen as becoming militarily engaged against the regime — a story line they fear that Assad could use for his own propaganda, officials said.

There is also some internal bureaucratic wrangling at play. This summer, when the issue of sending emergency medical equipment into Syria came up in a formal interagency meeting, disputes over jurisdiction stalled progress on the discussion, officials told The Cable. No medical aid was sent.

So for now, the administration is content to let the Arab League monitoring mission play out and await its Jan. 20 report. The officials said that the administration hopes to use the report to begin a new diplomatic initiative in late January at the U.N. Security Council to condemn Assad and authorize direct assistance to the opposition.

The officials acknowledged that this new initiative could fail due to Russian support for the Assad regime. If that occurs, the administration would work with its allies such as France and Turkey to establish their own justification for non-military humanitarian intervention in Syria, based on evidence from the Arab League report and other independent reporting on Assad’s human rights abuses. This process could take weeks, however, meaning that material assistance from the United States to the Syrian opposition probably wouldn’t flow at least until late February or early March. Between now and then, hundreds or even thousands more could be killed.

There is also disagreement within the administration about whether the Arab League observer mission is credible and objective.

“This is an Arab issue right now, and the Arab League is really showing initiative for the first time in a long time,” said one administration official.

“[The Arab League monitoring mission] is all Kabuki theatre,” said another administration official who does not work directly on Syria. “We’re intentionally setting the bar too high [for intervention] as means of maintaining the status quo, which is to do nothing.”

Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the administration was caught off-guard by how the opposition became militarized so quickly. The administration’s message had been to urge the opposition to remain peaceful, but that ship has now sailed, he said.

“We have a pretty strong policy of not engaging the Syria Free Army directly, because earlier it was agreed that peaceful protesters had the moral high ground over the regime and were more able to encourage defections,” he said. “But there was no clear light at the end of that peaceful protest strategy. We assumed, incorrectly, that the civil resistance strategies used in Egypt and Tunisia were being adopted by the Syrian opposition, but that didn’t happen.”

Most experts in Washington have a deep skepticism toward the Arab League monitoring mission. For one thing, it is led by a Sudanese general who has been accused of founding the Arab militias that wreaked havoc in Darfur. Also, many doubt that 150 monitors that will eventually be in Syria can cover the vast number of protests and monitor such a large country.

The Assad regime has also been accused of subverting the monitoring mission by moving political prisoners to military sites that are off-limits to monitors, repositioning tanks away from cities only when monitors are present, and having soldiers pose as police to downplay the military’s role in cracking down on the protesters.

“It seems awfully risky for the U.S. to be putting its chips all in on that mission,” said Tony Badran, a research fellow with the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “There never was a serious mechanism for it to be a strong initiative.”

Badran said that the Arab League monitoring mission just gives the Assad regime time and space to maneuver, and provides Russia with another excuse to delay international action on Syria.

“Now you understand why the Russians pushed the Syrians to accept the monitors,” he said. “It allows the Syrians to delay the emergence of consensus.”

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the administration is trying to balance the value of protecting civilians with the interests of trying to ensure a measure of stability in Syria.

“The biggest thing is extensive consultation with as many international allies as possible. That’s another feature of this administration,” said Katulis. “And when change does come to Syria, the Syrians have to own it.”

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment.

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Is the United States a Narco ‘Safe Haven’ for Mexican Drug Lords?

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By: Sylvia Longmire

For years, if not decades, Mexican drug lords and various upper-level members of Mexico’s transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) have resided in the United States. But because the savage drug war in Mexico has become so dangerous for them, they now prefer to spend more and more time at their “vacation” homes in the relative safety of US cities and communities.

Knowing that violent TCO members are living among us is disturbing on many levels, and has begged the question of whether the United States can be equated to Pakistan as a country that allows itself to be a “safe haven” for violent criminals and narco-terrorists?

In April 2006, the Department of State defined terrorist safe havens as follows:

A terrorist safe haven is an area of relative security exploited by terrorists to indoctrinate, recruit, coalesce, train, and regroup, as well as prepare and support their operations… Physical safe havens provide security for many senior terrorist leaders, allowing them to plan and to inspire acts of terrorism around the world. The presence of terrorist safe havens in a nation or region is not necessarily related to state sponsorship of terrorism. In most instances cited in this chapter, areas or communities serve as terrorist safe havens despite the government’s best efforts to prevent this.”

Using the State Department’s own definition, one only has to replace the term “terrorist” with the term “TCO,” and a strong argument can be made that the United States fits technically can be construed to be a narco-terrorist safe haven.

Even Mexican President Felipe Calderón believes the US is a safe haven for leaders of cartels based in his country. In October 2011 he told The New York Times Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera – the capo of the Sinaloa Federation and arguably the most wanted man in the Western Hemisphere – was holed up somewhere north of the border.

“The surprising thing here is that he or his wife are so comfortable in the United States” that it “leads me to ask … how many families or how many Mexican drug lords could be living more calmly on the north side of the border than on the south side?” Calderón asked.

“What leads Chapo Guzmán to keep his family in the United States?” Calderón mussed.

Calderón broached the subject of Guzmán’s wife because in August 2011 Emma Coronel gave birth to twin girls in a Los Angeles hospital. Calderón said reporters ought to be asking why she was never detained.

There are no charges pending against Coronel; therefore, US law enforcement agents have no grounds to detain her. And, unfortunately, the same is true of many other members of Mexico’s TCOs who are residing in the United States.

The fact is many TCO members and individuals working for them have dual citizenship or are legal permanent residents of America. While they may have extensive criminal records in Mexico, as long as they haven’t committed a crime in the United States and Mexico hasn’t sought their extradition, they can lead relatively normal lives north of the border without law enforcement interference. This isn’t to say US law enforcement agencies aren’t aware of their presence or activities; it’s just that there’s not much they can do unless these TCO members commit a crime here.

It’s this situation that ultimately separates the United States from places like Pakistan when it comes to the “safe haven” definition. In April 2009, the State Department wisely updated their definition to read:

Terrorist safe havens are defined in this report as ungoverned, under-governed, or ill-governed areas of a country and non-physical areas where terrorists that constitute a threat to U.S. national security interests are able to organize, plan, raise funds, communicate, recruit, train, and operate in relative security because of inadequate governance capacity, political will, or both.”

There are no areas in the US southwest that can be defined as “ungoverned, under-governed or ill-governed.” The US government is also not actively assisting TCO members living in the country or purposely ignoring their presence. In fact, US southern border region law enforcement agencies are more alert than ever to the potential threats posed by TCO members living in their jurisdictions. But that doesn’t mean the Mexican government will see it that way.

President Calderón has pointed his finger at the United States and blamed the federal government for the violence in his country. He says the drug war is a direct result of Americans’ demand for illegal drugs and US guns laws that allow tens of thousands of firearms to be smuggled across the border every year. Based on his casual statements about “El Chapo” Guzmán possibly living in the US, his next salvo may be to declare the United States a “narco safe haven” and to attempt some sort of legislative (and ultimately symbolic) action to this end.

Hopefully, this isn’t where Calderón is headed. He knows the US government is trying to fight this war as a partner with Mexico, despite its various policy shortcomings. President Obama also knows Calderón’s approval rating has been slipping and that his political party isn’t faring well in the run-up to Mexico’s July 2012 presidential election. It’s possible Calderón may still try to play the “narco safe haven” card, but if he does, it undoubtedly will be rebuffed by Obama.

In the meantime, US agencies can work harder to make America a much more difficult operating environment for TCO members by more aggressively scrutinizing suspicious financial transactions and expanding human intelligence networks to identify future drug smuggling activity.

Mexico’s “narcos” don’t operate in a vacuum on either side of the border. And while their networks are extremely difficult to penetrate, it’s not impossible. US law enforcement agents just need the proper tools and support to ensure that TCO members’ lives here are made as difficult as possible – that they’re made to understand their presence north of the border isn’t welcome.

A retired Air Force captain and former Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Homeland Security Today correspondent Sylvia Longmire worked as the Latin America desk officer analyzing issues in the US Southern Command area of responsibilty that might affect the security of deployed Air Force personnel. From Dec. 2005 through July 2009, she worked as an intelligence analyst for the California state fusion center and the California Emergency Management Agency‘s situational awareness Unit, where she focused almost exclusively on Mexican drug trafficking organizations and southwest border violence issues. Her book, “Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars,” was published in Sept. To contact Sylvia, email her at: sylvia(at)longmireconsulting.com.

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