US embassy in Libya sought extension of “essential” security team
It is far from clear whether an extension of the security team would have made a difference in protecting the diplomatic post in Benghazi during the attack.
October 8th, 2012
06:29 PM ET

US embassy in Libya sought extension of “essential” security team

By Elise Labott

Amid a growing diplomatic mandate after the revolution and increased concerns about an "uncertain and unstable" security environment, the U.S. Embassy staff in Libya requested a 16-member Special Operations "security support team" remain in the country for several months beyond the end of its scheduled departure in August, calling its work "essential," according to a State Department memo obtained by CNN Security Clearance.

The request was denied.

"Given the unstable security environment, projected staffing increases, lack of physical and technical security upgrades in place and continued high volume of VIP visits, Embassy Tripoli requests an extension" of the security support team for four months, which "will allow us to implement the security transition plans recommended by the Department," reads the February 28 document.

"A loss of SST now would severely and negatively impact our ability to achieve the department's policy and management objectives at this critical time in Libya's transition," it said.


Analysis: Sympathy, but few solutions, regarding Syria
September 29th, 2012
09:10 AM ET

Analysis: Sympathy, but few solutions, regarding Syria

By Elise Labott

Hillary Clinton painted a chilling picture for the 20 or so foreign ministers from the Friends of Syria group meeting Friday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

"We see more bodies filling hospitals and morgues, and more refugees leaving their homeland and flooding into neighboring countries," Clinton said in her address. "The regime of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end so that the suffering of the Syrian people can stop and a new dawn can begin."

Yet ideas on how to bring about that new dawn are in short supply, as the international community remains unwilling to act. Proposals by Qatar to establish an Arab force to stop the bloodshed, and calls by France and Turkey to create a no-fly zone to protest "liberated" areas have met lukewarm resistance by the U.S. and other nations without a U.N. Security Council resolution.

The meeting discussed efforts to create an all-inclusive transitional government and increase aid to address a growing humanitarian crisis. Clinton pledged $30 million to help Syrians affected by the violence - both those inside the country and the tens of thousands of refugees pouring into neighboring Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Clinton also announced $15 million in additional non-lethal aid for communications gear and training. The funding for activists, students and journalists will be used to help the opposition communicate and prepare for political transition. But it will also help train civil servants to deliver essential municipal services in areas that have been abandoned by the regime. That could mean, officials say, anything from ensuring electricity flows to homes, to rebuilding schools to baking bread.

More than eighteen months into the conflict, which activists say has killed around 30,000 people, diplomats say the lack of unity among the opposition regarding a vision for a post-Assad Syria remains one of the greatest challenges. One of the main goals at Friday's meeting was to discuss ways to strengthen coordination among Syria's fractured opposition groups. Members of local groups from across Syria and exiles with the Syrian National Council attended the session.
But complaints about Syria's splintered opposition have been matched by frustration over the international community's own paralysis.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League representative for Syria, warned the Security Council that the situation in Syria continues to worsen. Five weeks into the job, he acknowledged he had a few ideas but no new plan to stop the bloodshed.

Brahiami's predecessor, Kofi Annan, resigned in frustration after Russia and China vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to end the violence and begin negotiations over a political transition. A framework transition plan agreed to in Geneva by the permanent members of the Security Council remains on the table, but can not be implemented before an agreement is struck with Russia over how it's implemented.

"It is no secret that our attempts to move forward at the U.N. Security Council have been blocked repeatedly, but the United States is not waiting," Clinton said. She issued a stern warning to Hezbollah, and its backer, Iran, to stop supporting and arming the Syrian regime.

"There is no longer any doubt that Tehran will do whatever it takes to protect its proxy and crony in Damascus," she said.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil ElAraby told the meeting that it is time for a political transition in Syria because the situation is becoming "more explosive."

"The Syrian people are looking for us here," he said. If those at the meeting truly are the friends of the Syrian people, they must "take concrete and practical steps to end this tragic and indeed dangerous crisis, to save the lives of innocent people and to save Syria and the whole region from the scourge of a more expanded civil war and more tragedies of massive proportions."

September 28th, 2012
01:45 PM ET

Lebanon's premier walks tightrope on Syria

The tightrope Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has been walking on neighboring Syria has gotten more difficult in the past year.

In an interview with CNN's Elise Labott this week at the United Nations General Assembly, Mikati made it clear that his country must stay neutral in the Syrian civil war.

He has had to avoid criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which he believes would upset the political balance in Lebanon.

"We are saying, please, we don't want to interfere," Mikati told Labott. "We cannot do anything. Don't ask from Lebanon things that are beyond our capability to do."

But at the same time, Lebanon will not tolerate the kind of continued violation of its sovereignty by Syria. Mikati has adopted a policy of "disassociation" when it comes to Syria and was quite frank he has to look out for Lebanon first. FULL POST

September 28th, 2012
06:26 AM ET

Analysis: Israel's red line not in line with U.S. view

By Elise Labott

With growing impatience over what he sees as foot-dragging by the Obama administration to explain the so-called "red line" that Iran cannot cross if it wants to avoid war, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his case to the world for where to draw the line.

The prime minister thanked President Obama for his speech before the United Nations two days earlier in which he warned he would do what it takes to prevent Iran from going nuclear. The attempt to show solidarity with the U.S. leader belied a fundamental argument, becoming ever more public, over when military action would be required to take out the nuclear program.

Diagrams in hand during his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Netanyahu drew an actual red line through the level at which Iran's ability to build nuclear weapons would be irreversible. By next spring or summer, he said, Iran will have enriched enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon and a "clear red line" must be drawn to make clear to Iran it must halt its uranium enrichment before then.


U.S. post in Benghazi had less than standard security before attack
September 24th, 2012
08:17 PM ET

U.S. post in Benghazi had less than standard security before attack

By Suzanne Kelly, Elise Labott, and Mike Mount

The U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, was operating under a lower security standard than a typical consulate when it was attacked this month, according to State Department officials.

The mission was a rented villa and considered a temporary facility by the agency, which allowed a waiver that permitted fewer guards and security measures than a standard embassy or consulate, according to the officials.

There was talk about constructing a permanent facility, which would require a building that met U.S. security and legal standards, the officials said.

Allowing a waiver would have been a decision made with input from Washington, Libyan officials and the ambassador, according to diplomatic security experts.

September 21st, 2012
10:50 AM ET

First on CNN: Clinton to remove Iranian exile group from terror list

By Elise Labott

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to notify Congress on Friday that she plans to take Iranian exile group Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MEK, off a State Department terror list, three senior Obama administration officials told CNN.

Notification will be followed by formal removal in coming days from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, which includes more than 50 groups like al Qaeda and Hezbollah. Clinton recently designated the Pakistani-based Haqqani network a foreign terrorist organization.

Such a listing attaches a certain stigma and allows the United States to legally go after financing and take other steps against individuals associated with these groups.

MEK was put on list in 1997 because of the killing of six Americans in Iran in the 1970s and an attempted attack against the Iranian mission to the United Nations in 1992.

Israel: U.S. needs more clarity on Iran threshold
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran "will not stop" unless it sees a clearer "red line" over its disputed nuclear program.
September 10th, 2012
05:30 PM ET

Israel: U.S. needs more clarity on Iran threshold

By Elise Labott

Israeli officials were telling CNN's Security Clearance just a month ago that the United States and Israel were cooperating closely on intelligence sharing over Iran.

The latest U.S. assessment gave the two countries their closest understanding yet of the scope and pace of the development of the Iranian effort, the Israelis said.

But the close cooperation belies a heated policy debate – one becoming more public – about when military action would be required to take out the nuclear program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is displaying growing impatience with what he says is a lack of clarity by the Obama administration on so-called "red lines" that Iran cannot cross if it wants to avoid war.

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Filed under: Hillary Clinton • IAEA • Intelligence • Iran • Israel • Nuclear • Obama • Rep. Mike Rogers
Struggling to define the Syrian opposition
Riyad Hijab speaking in Quneitra, Syria in November 2008
August 13th, 2012
01:00 AM ET

Struggling to define the Syrian opposition

By Elise Labott

In the weeks before he defected from Syria, then-Prime Minister Riad Hijab put feelers out to contacts in the United States and other governments.

In addition to ensuring his family got out of the country, Hijab wanted guarantees that he would not be persecuted for his role in the government of President Bashar al-Assad, U.S. officials say.

"He wanted assurances from the opposition that a post-Assad Syria will take into account all Syrians, including minorities, and there will not be revenge attacks on those who at one time supported the regime," one administration official said. The official described Washington's role as that of a "middleman."

The United States was able to produce a chorus of voices from the Syrian opposition promising that Syrians planning for a post-Assad transition are committed to ensuring human rights for all Syrians, including minorities. But that's far from a guarantee for Hijab or for any defector.


Iran: High stakes nuclear poker game?
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inspects centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear site
August 9th, 2012
07:31 PM ET

Iran: High stakes nuclear poker game?

By Elise Labott

There is a cartoon in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot that pretty well sums up the nail-biting showdown facing the United States and Israel when it comes to Iran's nuclear program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are sitting at a table playing poker, sweating and looking at one another, with a nuclear weapon as a big pot in the middle.

Who is bluffing? Will Ahmadinejad go for the bomb? Will Netanyahu take out the Iranian nuclear program before that happens? Will Obama save the day? When it comes to high-stakes nuclear poker, everyone is trying to outsmart the other.

U.S. sweetens offer to Taliban to swap Bergdahl for prisoners
U.S. is offering to transfer Taliban prisoners to Qatar in exchange for captured U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl
August 8th, 2012
02:57 PM ET

U.S. sweetens offer to Taliban to swap Bergdahl for prisoners

By Elise Labott

In an effort to revive peace talks with the Taliban, the Obama administration has sweetened a proposed prisoner swap under which it would transfer five Taliban prisoners to Qatar in exchange for a U.S. soldier held by the Taliban, senior U.S. officials said.

The new proposal involves sending all five Taliban prisoners to Qatar first, before the Taliban releases Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the sources said. The original offer proposed transferring the Taliban prisoners into two groups, with Bergdahl being released in between.

The new offer was first reported by Reuters.

The officials stress that the exchange, should it take place, would be implemented in accordance with U.S. law, which requires consultations with Congress before any detainees are transferred from Guantanamo. FULL POST

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Filed under: Afghanistan • Diplomacy • Gitmo • Qatar • Taliban • Terrorism
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