TIME Libya

U.S. Evacuates Libyan Embassy

Secretary of State John Kerry blamed the rise of "freewheeling militia violence" in the country where an attack by Islamic militants killed four Americans in 2012

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Updated 10:59 a.m. ET

The State Department relocated all personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, on Saturday following an outbreak of violence between Libyan militias, the department announced.

“A lot of the violence is around our embassy but not on the embassy, but nevertheless it presents a very real risk to our personnel,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Paris, ABC reports.

Kerry blamed the “freewheling militia violence” that has flourished since the ousting of former president Muammar Gaddafi.

“We are committed to supporting the Libyan people during this challenging time, and are currently exploring options for a permanent return to Tripoli as soon as the security situation on the ground improves,” deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said in a statement.

U.S. military assisted in the operation and drove personnel to Tunisia. The relocation took five hours and was “without incident,” according a statement from Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.

Embassy staff will now work out of Washington, D.C., and other locations in the region.

The relocation occurred the same day the State Department issued a new travel warning that strongly advised U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to Libya and to leave immediately if already visiting.

In 2012, an attack on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya, by Islamic militants killed four Americans.

“Securing our facilities and ensuring the safety of our personnel are top Department priorities, and we did not make this decision lightly,” Harf’s statement continues. “Security has to come first. Regrettably, we had to take this step because the location of our embassy is in very close proximity to intense fighting and ongoing violence between armed Libyan factions.”

TIME Israel

U.S. Issues Travel Warning for Israel, Gaza and West Bank

Gaza Strip, Gaza City: Palestinian man stands near a damaged building by Israeli airstrike targeting Hamas police chief Tayseer al-Batsh on July 13, 2014 in Gaza City. ALESSIO ROMENZI
A Palestinian man stands near a damaged building in Gaza City, July 13, 2014. Alessio Romenzi

Secretary of State John Kerry also announced $47 million in aid to Gaza

The U.S. State Department on Monday issued a new travel warning for Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while Secretary of State John Kerry announced a $47 million aid package for Gaza amid growing conflict in the region.

The warning, which replaces the one issued in February of this year, recommends U.S. citizens postpone non-urgent travel to the region if possible, and it upholds previous warnings against traveling to the Gaza Strip, where U.S. government employees are not allowed to travel.

Because of security concerns, the embassy in Tel Aviv is working with a reduced staff and limited service, while the embassy in Jerusalem is operating as normal. The full travel warning contains additional details about which areas and neighborhoods within Israel have been recent targets. On Sunday, Israel escalated its ground operations in Gaza, and the two regions have exchanged rocket fire over the past few weeks.

The humanitarian assistance Kerry announced Monday includes $15 million for United Nations relief efforts, $3.5 million for emergency assistance from the USAID’s OFfice of Foreign Disaster Assistance, $10 million in redirected USAID funding and $18.5 million in new USAID funding to address food, shelter and medical treatments for Palestinians in Gaza.

TIME Foreign Policy

John Kerry Tells Iran and Syria to Back Off Iraq

Secretary of State John Kerry warned U.S. adversaries in the Middle East not to foment unrest in Iraq

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Amid mounting reports of military intervention in Iraq by Syria and Iran, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry strongly advised that surrounding countries in the Middle East step away from any action that might further unhinge the delicate security situation.

“We’ve made it clear to everyone in the region that we don’t need anything to take place that might exacerbate the sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension,” Kerry told a NATO summit. “And so it’s very important that nothing take place that contributes to the extremism or could act as a flash point with respect to the sectarian divide.”

The Syrian government reportedly bombed Sunni militant strongholds on Tuesday, along the western border of Iraq. Meanwhile, Iran has reportedly sent in drones and other military supplies. Kerry added that questions about Iran’s intentions in Iraq should be directed at the Iranian and Iraqi governments.

While the U.S. had a stake in what happens to Baghdad, the American government will not directly pick Iraqi leadership, Kerry said. Iraqi citizens must develop a government that can push back against terrorism and “will not repeat the mistakes of the past.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday opted against forming an interim “national salvation government” in order to unite the sectarian groups butting heads in the region, calling it “a coup against the constitution and the political process.”

“It’s up to Iraqis to decide who has the ability to do that and who represents that future,” Kerry said.

TIME State Department

State Department: Malaysia, Thailand Aren’t Doing Enough Against Human Trafficking

Malaysia, Thailand and Venezuela have not made a substantial effort in the fight against human trafficking over the past year, the U.S. State Department said in a report released Friday.

The State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report ranks countries in terms of the efforts to put a stop to the practice of forcing humans to labor against their will. Thailand, Malaysia, and Venezuela’s status was automatically downgraded this year because they have been on a State Department human trafficking watch list for over four years and have not improved.

Thailand is among the worst offenders, according to the State Department. Recent news reports have highlighted widespread trafficking in the Thai fishing sector, where tens of thousands of migrants have been forced to work on fishing boats often without contracts or stable wages. Many others have been pushed into Thailand’s illegal sex trade.

Ambassador Luis CdeBaca from the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons said Thursday that although the U.S. government has worked well with members of the Thai government, overall there’s a general sense of complicity that his office can’t overlook.

“The widespread official complicity in human trafficking that continues to hinder their performance against sex trafficking and forced labor—the government as a whole did not demonstrate serious efforts to address that,” CdeBaca said on a conference call.

Though the Thai government reportedly paid a U.S. public relations firm $51,000 a month to help it boost its rating on the State Department report, the U.S. downgraded the country to the bottom tier, where it stands alongside 23 others including North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, Libya and Cuba. The 23 countries that were placed in the report’s lowest tier could face U.S. government sanctions on non-humanitarian, non-trade-related aid.

Issues similar to those identified in Thailand were also found in Venezuela and Malaysia, which also had their trafficking status downgraded by the State Department. According to the report, the Venezuelan government didn’t provide updated trafficking data, though its level of anti-trafficking enforcement efforts was about the same as in 2013. Meanwhile, the State Department found that Malaysia failed to adequately prosecute traffickers and protect victims.

Despite the downgrades of a handful of countries, several others, including Afghanistan, Chad and Honduras, saw their status boost as a result of a renewed focus on trafficking. The U.S., meanwhile, remains among the top-ranked nations in terms of combatting trafficking, despite the growing attention on the problem of trafficking in the country and the treatment of victims within the criminal justice system.

“While the U.S. goes overseas and judges other countries on their commitment to trafficking, we also have to be critical and take an honest look at the conditions and the commitment of our government here at home,” Melysa Sperber, Director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, told TIME.

TIME Iraq

Iraq Militants Seize Old Chemical Weapons Facility

The weapons that remain are probably useless

Militants who have advanced across large swaths of Iraq in the past week seized a complex that was once Saddam Hussein’s top chemical-weapons production facility.

The facility still contains a stockpile of old weapons, but they are contaminated and hard to transport, and officials don’t believe the militants could make a chemical weapon out of them, the Wall Street Journal reports. In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion a decade ago, the U.S.-impaneled Iraq Study Group determined that the facility was sufficiently dismantled and that the remaining chemicals were useless.

But the capture of the Muthanna complex, roughly 45 miles northwest of Baghdad, highlights the threats from the advancing Sunni forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its allies.

“We remain concerned about the seizure of any military site by the [ISIS],” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told the Journal. “We do not believe that the complex contains CW materials of military value and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely move the materials.”

[WSJ]

TIME Iraq

State Dept Will Beef Up Security at Baghdad Embassy

A U.S. flag flies in front of the Annex I building inside the compound of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad
A U.S. flag flies in front of the Annex I building inside the compound of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad December 14, 2011. Lucas Jackson—Reuters

Taking action as militant extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) expands its reach and heads toward the city

The U.S. State Department announced Sunday that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will stay open as militant extremists in Iraq continue their offensive toward the city, but it will also take a number of increased security measures to protect its staff.

“As a result of ongoing instability and violence in certain areas of Iraq, Embassy Baghdad is reviewing its staffing requirements in consultation with the State Department,” spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement.

The State Department said it will increase the number of security personnel in Baghdad, while other embassy staff members will be relocated to the Consulate Generals in Erbil and Basra as well as the Iraq Support Unit in Amman, Jordan. Most of the embassy staff will remain on site and “continue to engage daily with Iraqis and their elected leaders — supporting them as they strengthen Iraq’s constitutional processes and defend themselves from imminent threats.”

The Pentagon also announced that the U.S. military would provide security assistance to diplomats stationed in Baghdad. “A small number of DOD personnel are augmenting State Department security assets in Baghdad to help ensure the safety of our facilities,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.

The move to beef up security in Iraq comes after the State Department faced criticism over its lack of security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which was overrun by militants in a 2012 attack that killed 4 Americans including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. But the embassy compound in Iraq has both a far heavier military presence and stronger fortifications than the Benghazi compound had.

TIME

U.S. Confirms Russia Sent Tanks to Ukraine

The U.S. confirmed Friday that Russia sent tanks and military equipment to separatist fighters in Ukraine.

The delivery of military equipment threatens to further escalate tensions between Russia, Ukraine and Ukraine’s Western allies after pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine began an open rebellion in April.

“We are highly concerned by new Russian efforts to support the separatists,” said State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf. “In the last three days a convoy of three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 or Grad multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles crossed from Russia into Ukraine near the Ukrainian town of Snizhne. This is unacceptable.”

Harf said that the U.S. had information indicating that Russia had stockpiled old tanks in southwest Russia and that some of those tanks “recently departed.”

“Russia will claim these tanks were taken from Ukrainian forces, but no Ukrainian tank units have been operating in that area,” Harf said. “We are confident that these tanks came from Russia.”

Pro-Russian rebel leaders said Friday that they had received tanks, even as Ukrainian forces made inroads into driving out separatists from the southern port of Mariupol.

The government in Kiev is still trying to regain full control of eastern Ukraine—and cut off arms deliveries from across the border. On Thursday, amid allegations that the tanks been delivered across the border, newly elected President Petro Poroshenko told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the situation was “unacceptable.”

–With reporting from Zeke J. Miller

TIME National Security

White House Overrode Internal Objections to Taliban Prisoner Release

Pentagon, Intelligence officials used Top Secret intelligence to prevent previous release of Taliban Five, officials tell TIME

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To pull off the prisoner swap of five Taliban leaders for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the White House overrode an existing interagency process charged with debating the transfer of Guantanamo Bay prisoners and dismissed long-standing Pentagon and intelligence community concerns based on Top Secret intelligence about the dangers of releasing the five men, sources familiar with the debate tell TIME.

National Security Council officials at the White House decline to describe the work of the ad hoc process they established to trade the prisoners, or to detail the measures they have taken to limit the threat the Taliban officials may pose. They say consensus on the plan was reached by the top officials of Obama’s national security team, including representatives from the Pentagon, State Department, intelligence community and Joint Chiefs of Staff. “These releases were worked extensively through deputies and principals,” says National Security Counsel Deputy for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes. “There was not a dissent on moving forward with this plan.”

But officials in the Pentagon and intelligence communities had successfully fought off release of the five men in the past, officials tell TIME. “This was out of the norm,” says one official familiar with the debate over the dangers of releasing the five Taliban officials. “There was never the conversation.” Obama’s move was an ultimate victory for those at the White House and the State Department who had previously argued the military should “suck it up and salute,” says the official familiar with the debate.

Obama has broad authority under Article II of the U.S. Constitution to order the prisoner exchange as commander in chief of America’s armed forces. The lengths to which he went to bring it about show how determined he was to resolve the lingering issue of America’s only prisoner of war in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration first considered whether the five men were safe to release at the very start of his term as president. In January 2009, Obama ordered a Justice Department-led review of all 240 Guantanamo Bay detainees. The five Taliban leaders were found to be high risks to return to the fight against Americans, confirming Bush administration assessments of the threat they posed, according to officials familiar with the group’s findings. “These five are clearly bad dudes,” says a second source familiar with the debate over their release, adding that the detainees are likely to return to the fight.

Thereafter, the administration established a regular process for handling the release of detainees from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Releases were considered and approved through the “Guantanamo Transfer Working Group” which comprised officials from the State Department, the Pentagon, the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Over time, 82 detainees have been released by the Obama administration, according to the latest report to Congress by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The question of the release of the five Taliban leaders was a recurrent subject of debate in the administration and was a key element of the behind the scenes effort by the State Department and the White House to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. The transfer of the five was discussed as a possible confidence-building measure to pave the way for a deal. The debates over their release were contentious, officials familiar with them say.

Those opposing release had the benefit of secret and top secret intelligence showing that the five men were a continuing threat, officials familiar with the debate tell TIME. But in the push from the White House and the State Department to clear the men, opponents to release found themselves under constant pressure to prove that the five were dangerous. “It was a heavy burden to show they were bad,” says the second source familiar with the debate.

Opponents of release say absent a peace deal with the Taliban, the release makes no sense. “When our military is engaged in combat operations you’re always going to err on the side of caution,” says the first official familiar with the debate. “Just conceptually, how much sense does it make to release your enemy when you’re still at war with him?”

During previous debates, opponents were aided by a law passed by Congress during Obama’s first term that required the administration to certify to a set of onerous conditions that the administration said were nearly impossible to meet. That changed thanks to the efforts of Sen. Carl Levin, who managed to weaken certification standards in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act to allow the Secretary of Defense to release Guantanamo prisoners when it is in the national security interests of the United States.

That change made it easier for the President to exert his commander in chief powers in effecting the prisoner swap. So far the White House has said little about the measures they negotiated to assure the men would not be a threat upon release. Administration officials have said the men will remain in Qatar under a one-year travel ban. Under existing procedure, released detainees are monitored by the CIA station chief in the country where they reside. On Tuesday, Obama said he had confidence the U.S. would “be in a position to go after them if in fact they are engaging in activities that threaten our defense.”

But Republicans now question whether the president has gone too far, even under the new law, which still requires 30 days’ notice ahead of a release from Guantanamo Bay. Administration officials told members of the Senate armed services and intelligence committees “repeatedly they weren’t going to [release the five men] and they would be notified and consulted if they did,” says a GOP Senate aide. The committees were only notified after the fact.

At least one member of the Senate did have advance notice. “We were notified of the plan to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s release on Friday,” said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. A spokesman for Republican House Speaker John Boehner, however, told TIME that there was no advance notice given to the leader of the House. Senate Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein was not informed in advance, either, and on Tuesday Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken called her to apologize for the oversight, she told reporters.

The White House said Tuesday the President had exercised his constitutional authority out of a sense of urgency for Bergdahl’s safety. “Delaying the transfer in order to provide the 30-day notice would interfere with the Executive’s performance of two related functions that the Constitution assigns to the President: protecting the lives of Americans abroad and protecting U.S. soldiers,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement released to the press. “Because such interference would significantly alter the balance between Congress and the President, and could even raise constitutional concerns, we believe it is fair to conclude that Congress did not intend that the Administration would be barred from taking the action it did in these circumstances,” Hayden said.

Jack Goldsmith, a Bush administration veteran of the battles between the executive branch and Congress over Commander-in-Chief powers in the war against terrorists, says Obama may have been acting legally. On the website Lawfare Tuesday he wrote, “If the statute impinged on an exclusive presidential power, the president properly disregarded it and did not violate it.”

Even many of those who opposed the release in the past accept the president has the power in conflicts to effect a prisoner swap. “We have done prisoner swaps in the past,” says the first official familiar with the debate over the release. But, the official added, “That’s been in international armed conflict where you have a state with which you can negotiate and you can say this guy will not go back to the fight.”

–with additional reporting by Zeke Miller and Alex Rogers/Washington

TIME Somalia

U.S. Will Appoint First Ambassador to Somalia in Over 20 Years

ETHIOPIA-US-AFRICA-SOMALIA-DIPLOMACY-KERRY
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud shake hands prior to a meeting at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport on May 3, 2014. SAUL LOEB—AFP/Getty Images

The appointment will end a vacancy of more than two decades for Mogadishu, capital of the war-torn country in East Africa, though the State Department hasn't yet confirmed it will open an embassy in the city

The State Department announced that it will “soon” name an ambassador to Somalia for the first time in over 20 years as a sign of growing confidence in the fledgling government.

U.S. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said in a Tuesday speech that the decision marks a sign of “faith that better times are ahead.”

Relations between Washington and Mogadishu have warmed since the 2012 presidential election of civil activist Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. The new president has attempted to build a governing coalition that might secure an end to the country’s civil strife, and U.S. diplomats have shuttled into and out of the region from neighboring Kenya.

“Somalis should know, if they choose to continue to come together, they will have enthusiastic and substantial international support,” Sherman said.

Sherman did not acknowledge immediate plans to open a U.S. embassy in Mogadishu, which is still subject to bombing attacks from al-Qaeda splinter group, al-Shabab. The embassy closed its doors in 1995 as civil war engulfed the country in violence and famine.

TIME Benghazi

A Benghazi Scandal That’s Already Been Revealed: The CIA Believed A Media Mistake

Trey Gowdy
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., talks on the phone on the House side of the Capitol. Tom Williams—CQ/Roll Call,Inc.

Analysts relied on news reports of protests, fueling the scandal and revealing the agency's struggle to accurately collect and assess public information, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee on report on Benghazi

Updated 10:06 a.m. E.T. on May 9

Here’s an unsolicited tip for the newly appointed head of the House of Representative’s select committee on Benghazi, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina: A smoking gun explanation for the Obama Administration’s use of false talking points to describe the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack has already been found. And the culprit is not a White House adviser or State Department bureaucrat. It’s the intelligence community’s reliance on the media.

The House voted 232-186 Thursday to set up the select committee on Banghazi, but before Gowdy launches an eight month probe into the attack that killed four Americans, it is worth noting that there is a simple, real-world explanation hiding in plain sight. It’s tucked inside the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on Benghazi, which reveals a key source of the bad intelligence that made it into Ambassador Susan Rice’s famous talking points: the media incorrectly reported that before the attack on Sept. 11, 2012 there were protests outside the U.S. facilities in Benghazi when there weren’t.

And the CIA believed those reports, resulting in talking points that were delivered to Ambassador Susan Rice, who told the nation on several Sunday news programs Sept. 16 that the attacks in Benghazi were “a spontaneous reaction” to protests that had occurred on the same day in Cairo against an anti-Islamic video published in the U.S. “People gathered outside the embassy and then it grew very violent and those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya and that then spun out of control,” Rice told Fox News Sunday, incorrectly. “We don’t see at this point signs this was a coordinated plan, premeditated attack.”

Think of it as a really bad game of telephone. To draw up those talking points, the CIA relied on at least six early press reports that said the Benghazi attacks grew out of protests against an anti-Muslim film that had appeared on the Internet, according to the SSCI report. The source of the mistake looks clear in retrospect. For starters, violence targeting U.S. diplomatic facilities did take place in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia in reaction to the video. Protests against the film occurred in over 40 countries around the world. Furthermore, reporters for western news organizations interviewed people at the scene after the attacks in Benghazi who said they were angry about the same film. And Libyan government officials repeated the reports. (A TIME story on Sept. 12 referred to “protests” in Benghazi against the film).

But the reports of spontaneous protests preceding the attacks in Benghazi turned out to be wrong. The attacks were launched by well-armed militants rather than spontaneously emerging from demonstrations. And while the CIA had multiple sources, like signals intercepts, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the Senate investigation found the agency “relied heavily on open source press reports.”

The subsequent analyses produced by the CIA and others in the U.S. intelligence community were likewise affected by the initial reporting in the media, the SSCI report finds:

[A]pproximately a dozen [intelligence] reports that included press accounts, public statements by [terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia] members, HUMINT reporting, DOD reporting, and signals intelligence all stated or strongly suggested that a protest occurred outside of the Mission facility just prior to the attacks.

The most famous of these reports formed the basis of talking points provided to members of Congress by the CIA Sept. 15, 2012. They began, “The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US diplomatic post and subsequently its annex.”

This was despite the fact that on Sept 15 the CIA’s chief of station in Tripoli sent top CIA officials an e-mail that said the attacks were “not/not an escalation of protests” and that survivors recovering in Germany did not refer to protests in interviews. Last month the CIA’s former deputy director, Michael Morrell, testified in front of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that it was only after the Libyan government said on Sept. 18 that video footage showed no protests that the CIA concluded they had got it wrong.

This lead to Finding #9 of the SSCI report:

In finished reports after September 11, 2012, intelligence analysts inaccurately referred to the presence of a protest at the Mission facility before the attack based on open source information and limited intelligence, but without sufficient intelligence or eyewitness statements to corroborate that assertion. The IC took too long to correct these erroneous reports, which caused confusion and influenced the public statements of policymakers.

The intelligence community’s inability to collect, analyze and assess the value of information that is not secret has been a dangerous weakness of American spook services for a long time. It’s not just that the CIA is bad at catching errors in public news reports. The agency also has a bad track record at finding and prioritizing accurate information that originates not from highly secret sources but from publicly available ones.

A famous example of the agency’s blindness to facts that aren’t secret came when India tested a nuclear weapon in May 1998, catching American policy makers off-guard even though Indian politicians had publicly said they intended to go nuclear. That blindness has apparently continued in the age of Facebook. In the case of Benghazi, the SSCI reported that the CIA missed open source communications in social media around Benghazi that “could have flagged potential security threats”:

Although the IC relied heavily on open source press reports in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the IC conducted little analysis of open source extremist-affiliated social media prior to and immediately after the attacks.

In the short term, that means that even if the Obama White House and the Clinton State Department were as political and self-serving as their most vehement critics believe, they would still have protection against accusations they misrepresented what happened in Benghazi—they can claim, rightly, to have been reacting to the CIA intelligence analysis.

To avoid even more costly intelligence mistakes in the future, the CIA and its sister agencies need to do better at handling open source intelligence. Concludes the SSCI:

The IC should expand its capabilities to conduct analysis of open source information including extremist-affiliated social media particularly in areas where it is hard to develop human intelligence or there has been recent political upheaval. Analysis of extremist-affiliated social media should be more clearly integrated into analytic products, when appropriate.

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