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Egypt Tear Gas Report Puzzles Washington

Joshua Hersh   |   February 27, 2013    5:19 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- A report in an Egyptian newspaper that claims the United States has approved new shipments of tear gas to Egypt under the strict, and potentially incendiary, condition that the canisters not indicate where they came from has some arms control experts concerned about a precedent-setting lack of transparency.

The report, which surfaced late last week, cited internal memos between two Egyptian ministries explaining that a recent shipment of CS riot gas had been delayed after American officials allegedly demanded that any reference to the United States be scrubbed from the canisters.

"The US government was stringent in issuing export permits for Egypt," wrote the Interior Ministry's Major Gen. Magdy al-Gohary in one of the memos, according to the Egypt Independent. "The permit from the US government was obtained after removing the company's name and country of origin written on the items."

On Monday, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell confirmed that the shipment had been approved, but denied that any orders to remove identifying language from the canisters came from the U.S. government.

"We did not advise the manufacturer to remove 'Made in the USA' from its labels," Ventrell said. "We refer you to the manufacturer on the labeling of their products. But that was not a request from us."

Combined Systems Inc., the Jamestown, Pa., company that has manufactured tear gas sent to Egypt in the past and that was specifically mentioned in the new Egyptian government memos, declined repeated requests over two days to make an official available for comment. Reached at his home on Monday night, Brenden Frisk, an international account specialist with the company, also declined to discuss the reports. "We have no comment at this time," he said repeatedly.

The murkiness of the issue has prompted at least one lawmaker, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), to write to Secretary of State John Kerry asking for clarification, Leahy's office confirmed on Wednesday. Leahy chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees spending on foreign operations.

The use of American-made tear gas, with the name and address of the manufacturer printed in bold on the canisters, was a source of significant consternation and embarrassment for U.S. officials in the months after the 2011 revolution in Egypt, when police frequently deployed tear gas during clashes with protesters in and around Cairo's Tahrir Square. At the time, spent canisters of American-made tear gas were a ubiquitous sight in Tahrir Square, with many casting blame on the U.S. government for supporting the repression of popular protest.

Human rights monitors have repeatedly decried the sale of tear gas and other nonlethal military supplies to repressive regimes in the Middle East, especially in Bahrain, where those supplies have helped the kingdom tamp down an Arab Spring-style uprising. The vague markings on used canisters of tear gas produced in countries other than the United States have also elevated fears that authorities were firing more dangerous chemical agents, heightening the risk of panic and chaos.

American exports of military-type supplies are regulated by U.S. law and international treaties, the latter of which typically include provisions mandating appropriate labeling of those items. But neither domestic law nor international pacts include tear gas among the items covered by those rules, and the State Department said Tuesday that U.S. law includes "no legal requirements for U.S. defense manufacturers to label the country of origin on their products."

"I think it should be marked, but it's not very realistic," said Efrat Asif, an arms trafficking expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. "Many countries were not interested in an obligation to mark ammunition."

Arms control experts say that if the labeling information was removed from those tear gas canisters sent overseas, the effect would be to make it harder for Egyptians to know what role the U.S. is playing in their country -- and harder for Americans to monitor their government's sale of weapons to foreign countries.

"There is an interest on the part of the civil society community to be able to make some kind of analysis of whether or not these transactions are taking place and whether they meet their own country's standards," said Mark Bromley, a senior researcher in the arms transfer program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

But Oliver Sprague, program director for military security and police at Amnesty International, said that simply scrubbing the manufacturer's name off the canister won't prevent arms analysts from figuring out who produced it. They can identify it through characteristics such as the shape of the shell and the chemical makeup of the smoke.

"Markings of identification of products of this nature are really important, so anything that obfuscates that is a problem," Sprague said. "But if they just took the company details off, we would still eventually find out who actually made it. It's a bit of a hollow gesture."

This story has been updated with Sen. Patrick Leahy's response to the tear gas claims.

Chucky's Revenge: Hagel's Confirmation Battle Wounds Could Linger At Pentagon

Joshua Hersh   |   February 27, 2013   11:13 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- If there's one thing Tom Korologos has learned in four decades of advising officials through sometimes bruising confirmation battles, it's that politicians tend to hold grudges against those who don't vote for them -- even if they win.

"They remember," said Korologos, who has guided luminaries like Antonin Scalia and Henry Kissinger though the high-pressure senatorial process, and now works as a strategic advisor at the Washington law firm DLA Piper. "They remember long and hard."

In the hours after it became clear that Chuck Hagel would be approved as the next secretary of defense on Tuesday, the debate over what would most be remembered about the long and ugly confirmation battle that preceded it began in earnest.

Among the losers, there was a mad dash to claim some scraps of victory: Hagel would be have to work harder to earn the respect of Congress, they contended. He would be chastened in his less desirable views. He would be weakened as a leader.

"He's got some work to do," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, in an exchange with reporters during Tuesday's votes which eventually saw Hagel confirmed by 58-41. "I think he's going to have to work extra hard with us on the committee."

But if Korologos' experience is any indication, the fallout may end up swinging the other way, and it could hinge on what exactly Hagel himself chooses to remember, and for how long.

"'Weakened' is in the eyes of the beholder, but in the end he's the one who's been confirmed," Korologos said. "He'll be back in there, and the first thing they're going to start fighting tonight is sequester, and by Friday everybody will have forgotten the vote. It's not everlasting. Except in the eyes of the guy that didn't get them all."

Indeed, in the days following his confirmation, Hagel has to return to Capitol Hill to help hash out a deal on a budget sequester that would impose massive cuts across the board to the Pentagon. Then he will negotiate with lawmakers over a more restrained budget trim that could affect military spending and jobs in states represented by his chief opponents on the Hill.

All the while, the issues that were elevated above all others by his chief antagonists -- the ones that drove the most vociferous and inventive opposition to his confirmation -- will sit firmly in the forefront of his docket: the military's relationship with Israel, and America's belligerence toward Iran.

For months, these were the terms that dominated the scrap over Hagel. He was accused of not being pro-Israel enough -- of even being anti-Semitic at some points. He was grilled over his personal associations, over the benefactors of organizations he volunteered with and over reports he'd signed his name to years ago.

The rancor grew so heated -- particularly after Hagel's appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he was repeatedly harangued over his supposed disdain for Israel -- that one former Israeli diplomat, Alon Pinkas, decried it as a "venomous and iniquitous" showing.

"An ally doesn't need to be dissected nor questioned, which is why it exudes weakness and insecurities," Pinkas said of the displays of Israel adoration at the hearing. "More than anything, it was saturation pandering and you cannot but ask whether ordinary Americans find this to be disproportionate."

The aim of those questioning Hagel along these lines was to use relentless attacks to batter him down from his most feared policies -- conciliation to a nuclear Iran, for instance, or reducing military aid to Israel.

"The Republican Party is rock solid in its support of Israel and determination to prevent Iran from getting a bomb," wrote Jennifer Rubin, the tireless anti-Hagel crusader, in a Tuesday Washington Post blog post. "In order to be confirmed Hagel had to pretend he was, too. That is called winning the policy war, if not the confirmation battle."

Elliott Abrams, a former Bush administration national security aide, agreed that the fight had been good for the pro-Israel viewpoint, and the GOP as a whole. "The fight against Hagel presents the Republican party as a very pro-Israeli party, which is a good thing," Abrams told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

An alternative view is that the fight only diluted the hardline pro-Israel position on military aid and Iran by making it partisan, and that Hagel, having won, now feels empowered by the hardliners' failure to stop him.

"Celebrating this as a wedge issue is about the worst possible outcome from the point of view of the vast majority of the pro-Israel community," said Dylan Williams, the director of government affairs for J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group that supported Hagel's nomination. "When you have SNL, the Daily Show, Colbert mocking the extent to which conservative members of Congress were falling over themselves to demonstrate the most hawkish positions on Israel, that's something that the true pro-Israel community does not appreciate, and which we have every reason to believe the government of Israel itself does not appreciate."

George Little, the Pentagon's spokesman, insisted none of this will pose a problem. Hagel, he said, is a "team player" eager to work with his counterparts in Congress.

But almost immediately, Hagel faces decisions on Israel that won't benefit from party-line disputes. If nothing else, sequestration will inevitably impact aid to Israel, including possibly leading to cutbacks to the Iron Dome missile defense system, which recently proved so instrumental in protecting urban centers from rockets from Gaza.

And on Sunday, the largest conference of pro-Israel lobbyists and activists, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, convenes in Washington. AIPAC's purpose is to generate bipartisan support for Israel in the U.S. This year, the group's more specific goal is to convince Congress to vote to designate Israel a "major strategic ally" of the U.S. and green-light an attack on Iran.

Hagel's role in all of this will be one of choice. But if AIPAC can pull any of it off, it will be likely in spite of the environment created by his nomination, not because of it.

Luke Johnson contributed reporting.

Kerry Looks To Avoid Major Diplomatic Embarrassment

Joshua Hersh   |   February 25, 2013    1:26 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Top Syrian opposition figures are reportedly considering dropping their boycott of a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry later this week, potentially preventing what had looked like an embarrassing stumble on Kerry's inaugural diplomatic voyage.

The news of the Syrian National Council's willingness to meet with Kerry came on Monday, The Guardian reported, after two days of aggressive courting by the State Department.

"We will reconsider the decision on the boycott in light of the strong message of support we and Syrian people got over the weekend," council leader Moaz el-Khatib said in a message, according to The Guardian.

A State Department official, speaking at a Monday afternoon press conference in Washington, did not confirm that a resolution to the stand-off had been reached.

If the meeting in Rome does take place as planned, it would be a major early coup for a State Department team that has spent two frantic days trying to save the event, including direct phone calls from Kerry, a series of strongly worded official statements and the dispatching of a pair of envoys to plead the case directly with the opposition leaders.

The news that the Syrian opposition coalition might skip the meeting came on Saturday, just as Kerry prepared to set out for London, the initial stop of his first multi-nation tour as secretary of state.

Citing the "shameful international stand," a coalition spokesman told reporters over the weekend that the group would skip meeting with Kerry and other "Friends of Syria" nations out of frustration with the lack of material support for the opposition. The spokesman added that the council was not opposed to a negotiated settlement with the Syrian regime, but only if Syrian President Bashar Assad stepped down and faced prosecution.

When he landed in London on Monday morning, Kerry took the opportunity to state that it was time for Assad to relinquish power, a pointed reinforcement of longstanding Obama administration policy.

Late on Saturday evening, the State Department had released a strongly worded, and oddly timed, statement from spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, condemning a series of brutal attacks against rebels and civilians in the Syrian city of Aleppo, which had taken place a full day earlier.

"The Assad regime has no legitimacy and remains in power only through brute force," Nuland added in a long addendum. "The United States sees no indication that the brave Syrian people fighting against this aggression will accept these regime leaders, with the blood of so many Syrians on their hands, as part of a transition governing authority."

The Obama administration has largely resisted taking more aggressive steps to assist the Syrian opposition, including supplying weapons directly to rebel forces. Before Kerry departed on his trip, State Department officials had seemed keen to downplay how much the secretary of state might be willing to offer.

"He's characterizing this first trip more broadly as a listening tour," Nuland had said early last week.

All that changed over the weekend.

On Sunday, aboard Kerry's plane to London, a senior State Department official told reporters that as part of the effort to save the Syrian meeting, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford had been dispatched to Cairo to meet with the opposition council, and a top Kerry deputy, Assistant Secretary Beth Jones, would travel ahead of schedule to Rome.

"We will continue to make our case that we believe that this meeting is an opportunity for them," the senior official said. "It's also an opportunity for them to meet our new secretary of state, to speak directly to him."

Kerry placed a call directly to el-Khatib, the State Department has confirmed.

In his London appearance Monday morning, Kerry hinted that the Obama administration may be prepared to offer stepped-up support for the opposition when they meet later in the week.

"We are not coming to Rome simply to talk," Kerry said. "We are coming to Rome to talk about next steps."

Hezbollah's Role In Syria's Crisis Poised To Grow

Joshua Hersh   |   February 22, 2013    1:54 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- In October, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, delivered a rare speech to comment on rising rumors about the Lebanese Shiite group's involvement in Syria's ongoing civil conflict.

For weeks, reports had circulated that the bodies of dead Hezbollah fighters had been returning from the battleground in neighboring Syria.

Nasrallah, speaking via a remote transmission as is his custom, vehemently denied the reports. But he also didn't rule out the possibility of Hezbollah joining the battle in the future.

"As of now, we have not fought alongside the regime," he said. "We don't know about the future."

The battle lines in Syria fall neatly along sectarian lines, with most of the Syrian rebels being Sunni Muslims supported by the Sunni countries of the Arabian Gulf, while Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime is being backed by the Shiite government of Iran and by Hezbollah. The latter has been open about its support for Assad -- at least politically.

But since Nasrallah's speech, signs have been growing that Hezbollah's armed wing is being drawn directly into Syria's conflict, raising the specter of the violence spilling over into Lebanon.

Lebanese newspapers reported last week that a handful of Hezbollah fighters had been killed in a battle with Syrian rebels in Al-Qusayr, a Syrian town not far from Lebanon and heavily populated with Shiites.

And on Wednesday, a group of Sunni Syrian rebels made a public threat to bring the fighting to Hezbollah, giving the group 48 hours to cease its incursions into Syria before the rebels would retaliate.

The next day, a top Free Syrian Army commander reiterated the warning. "As soon as the ultimatum ends, we will start responding to [Hezbollah] sources of fire," Gen. Selim Idriss, chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, told Agence France-Presse. "Hezbollah is abusing Lebanese sovereignty to shell Syrian territory and Free Syrian Army positions."

That deadline was set to end Friday, and there have been some early, unconfirmed reports of Syrian rebels attacking Hezbollah positions.

The reports of Hezbollah's incursions into Syria date back many months. However, in public remarks -- whether by official channels or through news reports -- Hezbollah party leaders and officers have always downplayed those stories and have spoken of their possible entry into the fighting as a reluctant and defensive measure. Officially, the group has called for the Lebanese government to become more involved in shaping a political settlement to the violence in Syria.

In his October address, for instance, Nasrallah denounced specific claims that a top commander with Hezbollah had died in a clash in a Syrian town not far from Lebanon, saying that the man had been killed in a weapons accident while helping guard a Lebanese border town.

"Abu Abbas is a commander of the group's infantry unit in the Bekaa," Nasrallah said, by way of explaining the commander's death. "He is then responsible for the Hezbollah members in that area, and because these border towns continue until this day to be attacked [by Syrian rebels], martyrs have fallen and Abu Abbas was one of them."

A pseudonymous Hezbollah commander undermined this claim in a recent New Yorker article, insisting that Abu Abbas had indeed perished in battle and that "a lot of bodies" have been coming back from the Syrian battleground.

But he also characterized the fight as the front line of a Shiite and Lebanese defense against a surge of Sunni Salafism pushed by the Syrian rebels and their allies in the Gulf. "You wait and see," he said. "You're going to have Salafists in Syria attacking the Golan Heights. What are you going to do then?"

His remarks echoed those of another unnamed Hezbollah fighter, who told McClatchy this week that while fighters had been going in and out of Syria in a supporting role, the extent of Hezbollah's involvement in the conflict was greatly exaggerated and remained focused on defending their own country from a flood of Sunni extremists.

The Free Syrian Army is not the only group to have launched broadsides against Hezbollah since the start of the Syrian uprising. Last September, a commander with an al Qaeda offshoot in Syria posted a message to online message boards denouncing the group for its reported involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and promising retaliation.

Late last year, the United States designated another Syrian rebel faction, Jabhat al Nusra, as a terrorist group for its ties to al Qaeda in Iraq.

U.S. Official's Harsh Words For Syrian Regime

Joshua Hersh   |   February 20, 2013    5:55 PM ET

In 2011, when Robert Ford was Ambassador to Syria and still living in Damascus, he often took to the embassy's Facebook page to deliver blunt messages to the Syrian government about its management of the brewing uprising there, and words of encouragement to the opposition.

It was a seeming break from protocol for normally aloof top diplomats, but Ford always saw the direct communications -- which occasionally extended to directly responding to anonymous internet critics -- as an essential tool of his job.

"One of my roles I think now is to remind them they have a lot of support from the international community," Ford told HuffPost at the time. "I think any good American ambassador should be able to write something and understand what the policy is and be able to put it up on a Facebook page."

Since closing the embassy and returning to Washington, where he has run the Syria shop at the State Department, Ford has had a lower profile, and his usual candor has been largely reserved for Middle East policy panels and backroom deliberations.

But on Wednesday, after an apparent government launched rocket attack destroyed a wide swath of residential buildings in Aleppo, Ford returned to Facebook with zeal. (At least 19 people were reported killed in the attack.) Beneath a photograph of the carnage that had been provided to news outlets by an opposition group, Ford condemned the regime for its "appalling" actions in terms that left no doubt about his personal level of outrage.

"This is a clear sign of the regime's ongoing disregard for human life and its deliberate attempts to harm Syrians, for which it feels no remorse," Ford wrote on the Damascus embassy page. "Like so many Syrian cities - Homs, Dara'a, Deir az-Zour, Hama, Damascus, and Rif Damascus - Aleppo has been devastated by the regime's brutality."

He went on:

And to think, amidst this carnage, that the regime has the audacity to demand reparations from the West for the effects of our sanctions. Our sanctions - which are aimed at people like Bashar al-Asad, Rami Makhlouf, Jamil Hassan, and Ali Mamluk who fire the SCUDs - are intended to disrupt the regime's ability to finance its violence against the Syrian people. They are designed to target the regime, its state-owned entities, and its sources of revenue so it is harder for it to buy military equipment for the army, the shabiha, the jaysh-ash-shaabi.

So our message to the regime is simple: stop the repression, stop the attacks on cities, and step aside so that a transition can go forward. The world is watching, and the regime's officials who order such attacks like the one on Aleppo will be held accountable.

See the whole post here.

John Kerry Offers Major Defense Of Oft-Disparaged Foreign Effort

Joshua Hersh   |   February 20, 2013    1:22 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- John Kerry used his first public address as secretary of state to focus on the domestic side of foreign policy, delivering a full-throated defense of foreign aid spending as a boon to American interests.

"In today's global world, there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy," Kerry said in a speech Wednesday at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "How we conduct our foreign policy matters more than ever before to our everyday lives."

It was a speech heavy on the domestic upside of foreign aid -- at one point, he segued into a discourse on a Virginia-based satellite company that had benefited from a deal negotiated by an American embassy abroad -- but Kerry also touted foreign aid as a means to advance America's most fundamental values, from marginalizing religious extremism to protecting the environment.

"Foreign assistance is not a giveaway. It is not charity," he said. "It is an investment in a strong America and a free world."

The U.S. spends less than 1 percent of the federal government's budget on foreign assistance programs -- a figure that is usually wildly overestimated by the public and often reviled by politicians looking to score points on budget restraint.

That approach is short-sighted, Kerry said, as he noted that the amount of money spent on conflict stabilization efforts -- about $60 million per year -- is comparable to the amount of money earned by a Hollywood film, "The Avengers," in a single day on opening weekend.

"The difference is the folks we have on the ground doing this job are actually real superheroes," Kerry said, of the U.S. diplomatic corps.

"Deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow. We need to remember that," he went on. "As Senator Lindsey Graham said, 'It's national security insurance.'"

In the coming days, Kerry will turn his attention to the diplomatic portion of his job as he embarks on his first international trip as a Cabinet official, with stops across Europe and much of the Middle East. There, he is expected to focus on Syria and other nations still undergoing revolutionary transformations, matters he only briefly touched on during his speech Wednesday.

"He's characterizing this first trip more broadly as a listening tour," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Tuesday. "But I think he'll look forward to hearing from the Syrian Opposition Coalition what more they think we can do and also to hear from counterparts who are deeply involved in supporting the opposition."

An early report that Kerry's trip would include a visit to Israel turned out to be incorrect. Nuland told reporters Tuesday that Kerry would go to Israel on a separate trip with President Barack Obama later in March.

Chuck Hagel Filibuster Draws Cries Of Hypocrisy

Joshua Hersh   |   February 14, 2013   12:01 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- As the nomination of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense is caught up in a Republican filibuster, the self-serving use of the tactic is getting a second look.

Hagel's nomination, which has stalled over GOP concerns about his views on Israel and extensive inquiries into his speeches and past affiliations, is due for a vote by the full Senate on Friday. But with Republican senators using parliamentary procedure to force a supermajority vote to end debate, Democratic leaders fear they don't have the 60 supporters they need to confirm him.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took the floor on Thursday to demand an up-or-down vote on Hagel, a former Republican senator himself.

"It is tragic that they have decided to filibuster this qualified nominee," Reid said. "In less than two hours, our country will be without a secretary of defense."

His words may sound familiar to some across the aisle, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who in 2005 decried the threat of a filibuster against an array of President George W. Bush's nominees.

"I think the president is entitled to an up-or-down, that is simple majority, vote on nominations both to his Cabinet and to the executive branch and also to the judiciary," McConnell said on CNBC back then. "The filibuster was not used for 200 years. The country did just fine."

At the time, Senate Democrats were in the minority and Reid was the one considering filibustering what was likely to be a pair of Supreme Court nominees by Bush, prompting debate over a "nuclear option" to supersede the hold.

Thursday's uproar was thus the latest bout in a long cycle of posturing and hypocrisy over the use of the filibuster. But the threat to hold up a national security nominee offered a new wrinkle.

The Senate has never filibustered a nominee for secretary of defense before -- it has never successfully filibustered a presidential nominee of any sort, although a small number have been compelled to withdraw. While some national security nominees have produced controversy in the past, the candidates were usually confirmed by a wide final margin.

Condoleezza Rice, Bush's nominee for secretary of state in early 2005, faced stern Democratic opposition over her role years earlier in pushing bad intelligence that helped lead to the war in Iraq. Still, she was eventually confirmed by a vote of 85 to 13.

A few months later, Rice herself decried Democratic demands that John Bolton, Bush's nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, produce more information before they would vote to confirm him.

"What we need to do is we need to get an up-or-down vote on John Bolton," Rice said on ABC at the time. "Let's find out whether, in fact, the Senate, in its whole, in its entirety, intends and wants to confirm him. That's all that we're asking."

Bolton was ultimately driven to withdraw.