Need a passport during shutdown? No problem, State Department says
October 1st, 2013
09:15 AM ET

Need a passport during shutdown? No problem, State Department says

By Jill Dougherty

For Americans applying for a passport, or citizens of other countries trying to get a visa to the United States, the current government shutdown won't have any effect, the State Department says.

The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development are "national security agencies," which means they have national security responsibilities such as representing the United States overseas and representing to Americans what the country's foreign interests are.

Therefore, State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki told reporters, they will continue working despite the shutdown.

"Regardless of the challenges a shutdown would create, we will continue to operate to advance national interests and protect the health and safety of American citizens and those living abroad," she said at a press briefing Monday.
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Authors of Benghazi report grilled in Congress
The U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya following an attack on September 11, 2012
September 19th, 2013
08:46 PM ET

Authors of Benghazi report grilled in Congress

By Jamie Crawford

The leader of a review board that investigated the deadly terror attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, lacked sufficient independence to reach an objective finding of fault, a congressional committee chairman said on Thursday.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa told retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering that he failed to see how the Accountability Review Board could have come to an objective conclusion about the September 2012 attack based on Pickering's long career as a State Department official.

"You talked about 42 years in the organization you were overseeing," Issa said to Pickering, who drew on his diplomatic experience to help him lead the panel.

"If we looked at the bank failures of 2007 and brought Jamie Dimon in to head the board, some might say that there was an inherent conflict because of his experience in life," Issa said of the JPMorgan Chase chairman.

"Mr. chairman, with greatest respect, this was not, quote, a 'gotcha' investigative panel," Pickering replied.

He asked why a group looking for answers would be empaneled without understanding the specific minutiae of how diplomacy is carried out.

"I appreciate that," Issa shot back. "Obviously, this was not a 'gotcha' panel, because nobody was 'gotcha-ed.'"

The exchange between Issa and Pickering illustrated the sharp political emotion that has defined many exchanges over the Benghazi attack by armed militants, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Issa's investigation has been a partisan flashpoint as he has pushed the Obama administration hard to get a better understanding of pre-attack security at the diplomatic outpost and why no one at the State Department lost their jobs after Pickering's investigation noted shortcomings.

Earlier this week, the Republican majority staff of the committee released a report that also raised new questions. It noted the relatively short time it took the review board to investigate the attack and issue its findings, and pointed out that those interviewed by the panel were not made available to members of Congress.

The Democratic minority staff, led by its ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, released its own report just as Thursday's hearing got underway. It questioned the findings of the Republican staff report.

"Based on all of the evidence obtained by this committee, this Benghazi review was one of the most comprehensive ARB reviews ever conducted," Cummings said. "I have seen no evidence, none whatsoever, to support these reckless Republican accusations. To the contrary, witness after witness told the committee that the ARB's work was 'penetrating,' 'specific,' 'critical,' 'very tough,' and the 'opposite of a whitewash.'"

But the fireworks were just getting started as a session that ran more than four hours got underway. It examined numerous areas around how and why certain facets of the review board investigation were undertaken.

Former Joint Chiefs Chairman retired Adm. Michael Mullen, who served as Pickering's co-chair, was effusive in his assertions that there were no orders for any military detachments to "stand down" that had already put in motion to try and arrest the assault on the diplomatic building and a nearby CIA annex.

"This is not something you can just wish to happen instantly. There's a lot of planning, preparation, as rapidly - to do it as rapidly as one can do it," Mullen said in reference to questions of how no U.S. military assets made it to Benghazi that night.

"We are not big enough in the military to be everywhere around the world to respond to where every embassy is that might be high-risk. We have to take risks and figure that out," he said.

Questions emerged from multiple members of the committee as to why the review board did not assign any culpability for management and other shortcomings to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as head of the department.

"We had very clear evidence, full and complete to our information, that the authority - responsibility, the accountability rested with the people we identified," Pickering said in explaining why failures in the State Department structure were centered at the assistant secretary level.

"If the secretary (Clinton) wasn't involved, I must be on another planet," Rep. John Mica said in response.

In interviews with media outlets prior to her stepping down earlier this year, Clinton said she took responsibility for the security of diplomats and diplomatic outposts around the world in her role as secretary.

There have been 18 such review boards since 1986 that have investigated attacks on U.S. facilities overseas.

Many members of the panel questioned Pickering and Mullen as to why certain recommendations from the report that looked into the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa were not carried forward.

"Secretary (Madeleine) Albright as a result of that recommendation, met daily with the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security first thing in the morning. And that established a nexus, a chain, which neither her - I think none of her three successors kept. I think that may have been an error," Pickering said.

"I think that in some ways her interest - and put it this way - in no more Nairobis and no more Dar es Salaams was an important instinct. I think that that was a rather good process, and in some ways I'm sorry it wasn't repeated," he said.

The review board led by Pickering and Mullen made 29 recommendations, one of which was to establish another independent review to identify "best practices" in the public and private sectors in security intelligence, risk management and accountability - all areas where problems were identified at the State Department.

That panel, led by former Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, warned that the State Department did not pay enough attention to the bureau overseeing security for 275 diplomatic posts and called for it to be elevated in its importance to deal with a growing threat.

As a result of the Benghazi attack, the State Department created a new position of deputy assistant secretary of state for high threat posts and has begun to beef up security and improve training.

But Issa contended Thursday that it was the purview of his committee and that of Congress to interview many of the same witnesses who were on the ground in Benghazi that spoke to the review board in order to get an understanding of where accountability for the attack lay.

"I am in the process of issuing subpoenas because the State Department has not made those people available, has played hide and go seek, and is now hiding behind a thinly veiled statement that there's a criminal investigation," he said of the FBI probe.

And in the next sentence, Mr. Issa laid out the roadmap for his committee in the Benghazi investigation.

"That's part of the reason that this investigation cannot end until the State Department gives us at least the same access that they gave your board," he said.

CNN's Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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Filed under: Benghazi • Congress • Hillary Clinton • Issa • Libya • Security Brief • State Department
September 9th, 2013
07:28 PM ET

Obama: Russia proposal for Syria 'positive development' - if it's real

By Catherine E. Shoichet and Jamie Crawford

A new possibility for a diplomatic solution in the standoff between Syria and the United States surfaced unexpectedly Monday as the war-torn country said it supported a proposal to hand over control of its chemical weapons.

But a key question loomed: Is that a viable option or simply a stall tactic as President Bashar al-Assad's government tries to stave off U.S. military action?

"It's certainly a positive development when the Russians and Syrians both make gestures towards dealing with these chemical weapons," President Barack Obama told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Monday.
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Following Benghazi, report finds security not State Dept. priority
September 4th, 2013
04:51 PM ET

Following Benghazi, report finds security not State Dept. priority

By Elise Labott

An independent panel has found the State Department has not overall paid enough attention to oversees security for diplomatic posts and called for it to be elevated in importance, several sources familiar with the matter said.

Led by former Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, the panel was created as part of a broad inquiry of last September's deadly terror attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

A separate assessment by the Accountability Review Board, established after the Benghazi attack, criticized the department for failing to provide adequate security and made 29 recommendations.

One was the creation of the latest analysis to identify "best practices" in the public and private sectors in security intelligence, risk management and accountability, all areas where problems were identified at the State Department.

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4 U.S. State employees face reassignment
The U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya following an attack on September 11, 2012
August 20th, 2013
08:35 AM ET

4 U.S. State employees face reassignment

By Jill Dougherty

Four State Department workers who were put on leave after last year's attack on a U.S. mission in Libya will be allowed to resume work, but in different positions, a senior State Department official told CNN on Tuesday.

News of the move irked U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, one of the Republicans who've pressed the State Department to punish employees for what the lawmakers say were ignored security warnings in advance of the September attack on the Benghazi mission, which left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead.

"Instead of accountability, the State Department offered a charade that included false reports of firings and resignations and now ends in a game of musical chairs where no one misses a single day on the State Department payroll," Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Tuesday.

"The Oversight Committee will expand its investigation of the Benghazi terrorist attack to include how a supposed 'Accountability Review Board' investigation resulted in a decision by Secretary Kerry not to pursue any accountability from anyone," Issa added.

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When will current terror threat end?
August 8th, 2013
05:44 PM ET

When will current terror threat end?

There has been no significant new intelligence about potential terror threats against U.S. interests since startling developments tied to al Qaeda that prompted the closure of American embassies throughout the Middle East and Africa this week, multiple sources tell CNN's Barbara Starr and Elise Labott.

But with the terror alert and embassy closings now stretching into a fifth day, a crucial question is how will the United States know when the threat has passed and facilities can re-open?

One senior U.S. official said there is no new threat stream that gives authorities pause. But on the other hand, "we haven't seen anything that turns us off even more."

Officials added that the United States is trying to determine whether its public disclosure of the threat in general and follow up action has disrupted plots or just delayed them.

"We expected something by now. We would not expect them to throw their hands up, but at what point do you reconsider," one official said.
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August 1st, 2013
07:16 PM ET

Security worries trigger embassy closings

The State Department will close a number of U.S. embassies and consulates on Sunday due to "more than the usual chatter" about a potential terrorist threat.

A senior U.S. official said that although the threat does not have a great deal of specificity about time and location, it is being taken "very seriously."

U.S. "interests" including military installations could also see additional security and protection measures. The official, and a second official as well, noted that tensions are rising with the approach of both the holy days at the end of Ramadan and the first anniversary of the September 11 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Several hundred Marines in Spain, Italy and in the Red Sea could provide additional security for U.S. embassies in southern Europe, North Africa or the Middle East if requested by the State Department.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf revealed the closings but gave no details as to the locations of the affected embassies or the nature of the threat.

"The Department of State has instructed certain U.S. embassies and consulates to remain closed or to suspend operations on Sunday, August 4. The department has been apprised of information that out of an abundance of caution and care for our employees and others who may be visiting our installation, that indicates we should institute these precautionary steps. The department, when conditions warrant, takes steps like this to balance our continued operations with security and safety," Harf said.

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Watchdog critical of State Department contracting in Afghanistan
July 25th, 2013
12:30 AM ET

Watchdog critical of State Department contracting in Afghanistan

By Jamie Crawford

A U.S. government watchdog found "serious deficiencies" in how the State Department awarded a contract job in Afghanistan, according to a letter from the organization to Secretary of State John Kerry released Thursday.

In the letter dated Monday, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko, raised a number of concerns on the oversight practices of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) at the State Department and how they awarded a contract for the training of Afghan justice workers.

Sopko said the International Development Law Organization (IDLO), the nongovernmental organization awarded the contract, is "ill-prepared to manage and account for how U.S.-taxpayer funds will be spent," while also criticizing the State Department's role in awarding the contract.
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July 8th, 2013
08:53 PM ET

U.S. avoids calling Egypt's uprising a coup

By Elise Labott

While America's top military officials continue in-depth discussions with their counterparts in Egypt, the Obama administration is looking how to map America's relations with the crucial Middle East ally.

Top officials huddled at the White House again on Monday to discuss the issue.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel once again talked with Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi, Egypt's defense minister.

It's at least the fourth time Hagel has spoken to Sisi in the past week, both before and after his military deposed Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsy, and put him under house arrest.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said the conversations "have been lengthy and very candid."

A defense official, who requested anonymity, says some of the calls "have lasted nearly two hours."

Meanwhile, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey has also had two calls with the chief of staff of Egypt's armed forces, Lt. Gen. Sedki Sobhi.

The importance of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, which has been developing since the Carter-era Camp David Peace Accords, is evidenced by how carefully government officials are avoiding labeling the past week's developments a "military coup."

If Morsy's removal were to be called a coup, under U.S. law, more than $1 billion in military aid to Egypt would have to be slashed.

Israel is concerned that such a cut could jeopardize the peace treaty between the two countries

Israel and Egypt are the two biggest recipients of American military aid.

The determination of whether a coup took place is generally made by the State Department's Legal Advisor Office.

But State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki described it as an interagency process on Monday.

Psaki also said that the fact tens of millions of Egyptians supported the move and did not consider this a coup would be factored into the deliberations.

Senior U.S. officials say the administration is examining three potential options – calling events in Egypt a coup and cutting off aid; calling it a coup and issuing a national security waiver; or not determining it a coup, recognizing that the military has taken steps to move the country toward a civilian transitional government and move toward elections.

White House spokesman Jay Carney suggested what happens next will be very important.

"Our relationship with Egypt is not limited to or defined solely by the assistance that we provide to Egypt. It is broader and deeper than that, and it is bound up in America's support for the aspirations of the Egyptian people for democracy, for a better economic and political future, and we support that," Carney said.

"So our decisions with regards to the events that have happened recently in Egypt will be - and how we label them and analyze them will be made with our policy objectives in mind, in accordance with the law and in accordance with any consultation with Congress," he said.

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State spent more than $600k to attract Facebook fans
July 3rd, 2013
05:10 PM ET

State spent more than $600k to attract Facebook fans

By CNN's Ashley Killough

The State Department has dramatically cut its funding for social media after an inspector general's report found the department spent excessive amounts on advertising for some of its Facebook pages.

"We take the valuable feedback of the (Office of Inspector General) seriously, and we're committed to addressing the recommendations and the concern outlined in this assessment," State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said Wednesday in the daily press briefing.

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