May 07, 2013

The presidential agenda: South Korea and some fundraising

President Obama today will host newly-elected South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the White House with discussions expected to include North Korea's recent saber rattling.

The White House points out that the visit comes as the two countries mark the 60th anniversary of their alliance and will "highlight the growth, breadth, depth and strength of our alliance, our increased  global cooperation, the deep economic ties between the United States and the Republic of Korea, and the strong bonds of friendship between the American and Korean people."

The two presidents, along with vice president Joe Biden, will meet in the Oval Office and the three will have lunch in the Cabinet Room. Obama and President Park will later hold a joint press conference.

Obama will close out his day with a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee at the St. Regis Hotel near the White House.

Park, who will also address a joint session of Congress during her visit, has signaled that she'll take a hard line against North Korea. In a CBS interview ahead of her White House visit, she said it's time to end what she called North Korea's "endless continuation of this vicious cycle," -- threatening the use of nuclear weapons and then offering to negotiate.

"North Korea must change," she said she'd tell Korean President Kim Jong Un. "That is the only way for survival and the only way to development."

Asked whether a small-scale attack by North Korea -- like its last one in 2010 -- would result in a military response from South Korea, Park said, "Yes, we will make them pay."

December 12, 2012

White House denounces North Korea missile launch

The White House is decrying North Korea's successful launch of a long range missile, "despite express prohibitions by United Nations Security Council resolutions."

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor called the move a "highly provocative act that threatens regional security, directly violates United Nations Security Council resolutions 1718 and 1874, contravenes North Korea’s international obligations, and undermines the global non-proliferation regime."

He called the launch "yet another example of North Korea's pattern of irresponsible behavior" and said that "given this current threat to regional security, the United States will strengthen and increase our close coordination with allies and partners."

Continue reading "White House denounces North Korea missile launch " »

December 19, 2011

White House reserves judgment on new leader in North Korea

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to speculate Monday on what the death of Kim Jong Il will mean to North Korea, the region -- and the North Korean nuclear program.

And he wouldn't say whether US officials are confident in his son, Kim Jong-un, whom the questioner noted has been described as "untested, inexperienced, and with a volatile personality.

"I think that we will make judgments on the new leadership's disposition, if you will, based on how he and the government handles itself going forward," Carney said. "We have consistently demonstrated that we are open to engagement with North Korea, but we've also made clear that the North Koreans need to take steps towards denuclearization that would demonstrate seriousness of purpose and a willingness to negotiate. And that was our position last week, and it remains our position this week and going forward."

"Nothing has changed in our position, and we will judge, obviously, North Korea and its government based on how they engage on this issue going forward."

November 30, 2010

Jimmy Carter at White House today

The former president has a meeting with Obama's national security adviser Tom Donilon and also was expected to see President Obama, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs confirms. Gibbs could not immediately comment on whether the nature of the meeting was to discuss tensions with North Korea - an area of expertise for Carter - or another issue. Gibbs said he hoped to provide an update later today.

November 23, 2010

White House statement on N. Korea artillery fire on S. Korea

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs issued this statement shortly after 4 a.m., after North Korea shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in response to South Korea conducting military drills:

"We are in close and continuing contact with our Korean allies.The United States strongly condemns this attack and calls on North Korea to halt its belligerent action and to fully abide by the terms of the Armistice Agreement.The United States is firmly committed to the defense of our ally, the Republic of Korea, and to the maintenance of regional peace and stability."

June 26, 2010

Obama: must be consequences for sinking S Korean ship

In his strongest words yet, President Barack Obama says there must be "consequences" for North Korea for sinking South Korean ship.

"There have to be consequences for such irresponsible behavior," Obama said during a meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak at the G20 summit in Toronto.

Obama also said he'll move to win approval of a free trade agreement with South Korea.

February 03, 2010

Blair's threat assessment: Not just about al Qaida

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair traveled to Capitol Hill this week to deliver the U.S. Intelligence Community's annual threat assessment.

Most of the resulting news coverage focused on what the assessment had to say about al Qaida. Not so surprising, they still want to attack inside the United States.

The assessment, however, covers much more than that, from cybersecurity to nuclear proliferation to concerns about global warming. Here's Blair's unclassified testimony prepared for today's appearance before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Some of the more interesting observations:

Cyber Threat

"[A]cting independently, neither the US government nor the private sector can fully control or protect the country's information infrastructure . . . [T]he existing balance in network technology favors malicious actors and is likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future."

Economic Recovery

"Exit strategy missteps could set back the recovery, particularly if inflation or political pressures to consolidate budgets emerge before household consumption and private investment have begun to play a larger role in the recovery. From a geographic perspective, this risk is greatest in Europe, where the recovery is anemic, and some governments are likely to begin consoldiating their budgets despite weak economic conditions." Other problem countries: Pakistan, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. (Blair didn't mention what the threat level for inopportune budget cuts might be in the United States. See today's story on Obama's talk to Democrats).

Oil Prices

"Sufficient OPEC spare production capacity exists . . . to meet oil demand growth in 2010. . . . [M]ost market observers expect the combination of high inventory levels and excess production capacity will limit upward movements in oil prices for the next year."

Terrorist Threats

AL QAIDA -- "The most recent [disrupted] plot for which we knew the target was the London-based aviation plot in 2006 . . .The ongoing investigation into the case of Najibullah Zazi has not yet revealed the intended target(s) of this alleged plot."

BIN LADEN -- "We assess that at least until Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are dead or captured, al Qaida will retain its resolute intent to strike the Homeland."

AL QAIDA AFFILIATES -- "We are concerned that [al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] will continue to try [to attack inside the United States] but we do not know to what extent they are willing to direct core cadre to that effort given the group's prior focus on regional operation. . . . We judge most al Shabaab [Somalia] and East Africa-based al Qaida members will remain focused on regional objectives in the near term."

DOMESTIC THREATS -- "The tragic violence at Fort Hood underscores our concerns about the damage an individual or small number of homegrown extremists can do . . . It is clear, however, that a sophisticated, organized threat from radicalized individuals and groups in the United States . . . has not emerged. Indeed, the elements most conducive to the development of an entrenched terrorist presence -- leadership, a secure operating environment, trained operatives and well developed support base -- have been lacking to date in the United States or, where they have been nascent, have been interrupted by law enforcement authorities."

HEZBOLLAH -- "Hezbollah, which has not directly attacked US interests overseas over the past 13 years, is not now actively plotting to strike the Homeland."


"We do not know of any state deliberately providing CBRN assistance to terrorist groups. Although terrorist groups and individuals have sought out scientists with applicable expertise, we have no corroborated reporting that indicates such experts have advanced terrorist CBRN capability with the permission of any government."


The Korean People's Army's "capabilities are limited by an aging weapons inventory, low production of military combat systems, deteriorating physical condition of soldiers, reduced training, and increasing diversion of the military to infrasutrcutre support. . . Because the conventional military capabilities gap between North and South Korea has become so overwhelmingly great and prospects for reversal of this gap so remote, [North Korea] relies on its nuclear program to deter external attacks . . . Although there are other reasons for the North to pursue its nuclear program, redressing conventional weaknesses is a major factor . . . that Kim and his likely successor will not easily dismiss."


"High wheat prices and low opium prices during the planting season in the fall of 2008 encouraged farmers to grow more wheat at the expense of poppy. . . . Recent price trends may lead to a larger poppy crop this year. Wheat prices have dropped by half . . . in response to an abundant Afghan wheat harvest last year and global price declines, reducing the profitability of wheat and probably making the crop less desirable than poppy to farmers."


"According to the United Nations Development program, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have homicide rates five to seven times higher than the world average of nine per 100,000 people. El Salvador last year had a homcide rate of 71 per 100,000, the highest rate in Latin America."


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's "regional influence may have peaked, but he is likely to continue to support likeminded political allies and movements . . . and seek to undermine pro-U.S. governments. . . .He has developed a close personal relationship with Iranian President Ahmadinejad and they have signed numerous agreements. . . . Following Chavez's lead, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua have increased their ties to Iran."


"The mass killing of civilians -- defined as the deliberate killing of at least 1000 unarmed civilians of a particualr political identity by state or state-sponsored actors in a single event or over a sustained period -- is a persistent feature of the global landscape . . . Looking ahead over the next five years, a number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing. . . . Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan."

December 02, 2009

Blackwater, Erik Prince and CIA assassinations

Did the Bush administration plot the assassination of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist generally blamed for giving the keys to the nuclear club to North Korea, then get cold feet? That's among the allegations in an article in the new issue of Vanity Fair that focuses on the CIA connections of Erik Prince, whose security firm Blackwater became synonomous with reckless adventurism in Iraq.

Prince isn't the source of the A.Q. Khan story -- the article's author, Adam Ciralski, cites an unnamed source -- but in talking about his role with the CIA Prince apparently indicates that the CIA's assassination program had gone much further than the Obama administration let on when it canceled the program earlier this year (here's a Washington Post story and another from McClatchy). Prince indicates the program had one notable success: the death of an al Qaida middle man in Syria. Prince says his Blackwater team found the man, but left the finishing work to the U.S. military.

Prince apparently is talking because he feels burned by congressional leaks about his company's role in the now canceled program. The press release is below. You can read the story here.



NEW YORK, N.Y. — Erik Prince, head of the military contractor Blackwater (renamed Xe in February) and recently outed as a participant in a C.I.A. assassination program, speaks to Vanity Fair writer Adam Ciralsky about his role in the program and his decision to leave the firm.

Prince, the wealthy, 40-year-old heir to an auto-parts fortune, reveals in the new issue of Vanity Fair that, after 12 years building Blackwater, he is resigning from the company and plans to turn it over to its employees and a board. “I’m through,” says Prince. “I’m going to teach high school. History and economics. I may even coach wrestling. Hey, Indiana Jones taught school, too.”

Prince, who says Blackwater now pays $2 million a month in legal bills to fight an array of investigations and charges ranging from bribing Iraqi officials to illegal arms shipments to murder (allegations which Prince and company spokesmen deny), expresses deep anger and resentment in the Vanity Fair story. “I put myself and my company at the C.I.A.’s disposal for some very risky missions,” Prince tells Ciralsky. “But when it became politically expedient to do so, someone threw me under the bus.”

Prince blames Congressional Democrats for revealing his role in the C.I.A. assassination plan. Ciralsky reports that two attendees at a confidential, closed-door Capitol Hill session last June with C.I.A. director Leon Panetta insist the director discussed Prince’s and Blackwater’s parts in the agency’s plan to lethally target al-Qaeda operatives and their allies. Soon thereafter, press accounts surfaced, disclosing Prince and his company’s involvement. (When asked to verify this account, C.I.A. spokesman Paul Gimigliano said, “Director Panetta treats as confidential discussions with Congress that take place behind closed doors.”)

“The left complained about how [C.I.A. operative] Valerie Plame’s identity was compromised for political reasons,” Prince tells Ciralsky. “A special prosecutor [was even] appointed. Well, what happened to me was worse. People acting for political reasons disclosed not only the existence of a very sensitive program but my name along with it.” Prince confesses that he felt betrayed. “I don’t understand how a program this sensitive leaks. And to ‘out’ me on top of it?”

Ciralsky reports that for the past six years, Prince has publicly served as Blackwater’s C.E.O. and chairman, while privately, and secretly, he has been doing the C.I.A.’s bidding, helping to craft, fund, and execute operations ranging from inserting personnel into “denied areas”—places U.S. intelligence has trouble penetrating—to assembling hit teams targeting al-Qaeda members and their allies.

According to sources with knowledge of his activities, Prince has been working as a C.I.A. asset, or spy. While Blackwater earned over $1.5 billion in government contracts between 2001 and 2009, Prince used his access to paramilitary forces, weapons, and aircraft, and his indefatigable ambition—the very attributes that have galvanized his critics—to become a “Mr. Fix-It” in the war on terror.

Ciralsky reports that Prince wasn’t merely a contractor; he was arguably a full-blown asset. Three sources with direct knowledge of the relationship say that the C.I.A.’s National Resources Division recruited Prince in 2004 to join a secret network of American citizens with special skills or unusual access to targets of interest. The C.I.A. won’t comment on this, but, Prince says, “I was looking at creating a small, focused capability, just like Donovan did years ago”—referencing William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who, in World War II, served as the head of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the modern C.I.A. (Prince’s youngest son, Charles Donovan, is named after Wild Bill.)

Two sources familiar with the arrangement say that Prince’s handlers obtained provisional operational approval from senior management to recruit Prince and later generated a “201 file,” which would have put him on the agency’s books as a vetted asset. (Ironically enough, when al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. mainland on 9/11, Prince says, he felt the urge to join the C.I.A.—the very agency that would later woo him—and actually applied. “I was rejected. They said I didn’t have enough hard skills, enough time in the field.”)

According to two sources familiar with his work, Prince, after 9/11, began developing unconventional means of penetrating “hard target” countries—where the C.I.A. has great difficulty working, either because there are no stations from which to operate or because local intelligence services have the wherewithal to frustrate the agency’s designs.

The agency also turned to Prince when time came to train the members of their targeted-killing squad. The team practiced not at Blackwater’s North Carolina compound, but on a separate estate overseen by Prince, an hour outside Washington, D.C., reminiscent of the country estate where O.S.S. intelligence squads were trained during World War II. As Prince puts it, “We were building a unilateral, unattributable capability. If it went bad, we weren’t expecting the chief of station, the ambassador, or anyone to bail us out.”

Ciralsky reveals that the C.I.A. targeted-killing team, according to a source familiar with the program, went further than the agency has previously admitted. The source says they were dispatched to Hamburg, Germany, to surveil Mamoun Darkazanli—an al-Qaeda financier living in Hamburg—going in “dark,” meaning they did not notify their own station, much less the German government, of their presence; the team followed Darkanzali for weeks and worked through the logistics of how and where they would take him down. Another target, the source says, was A. Q. Khan, the rogue Pakistani scientist who shared nuclear know-how with Iran, Libya, and North Korea. The C.I.A. team supposedly tracked him in Dubai. In both cases, the source insists, the authorities in Washington chose not to pull the trigger.

Khan’s inclusion on the target list, however, would suggest that the assassination effort was broader than has previously been acknowledged. (Says agency spokesman Gimigliano, “[The] C.I.A. hasn’t discussed —despite some mischaracterizations that have appeared in the public domain—the substance of this effort or earlier ones.”) Of the public comments that current and former C.I.A. officials have made, the source familiar with the Darkazanli and Khan missions tells Ciralsky, “They say the program didn’t move forward because they didn’t have the right skill set or because of inadequate cover. That’s untrue. They operated for a very long time in some places without ever being discovered. This program died because of a lack of political will.”

Prince tells Ciralsky he and a covert team also helped find and fix a target in October 2008, then left the finishing to others: “In Syria, we did the signals intelligence to geo-locate the bad guys in a very denied area.” Subsequently, a U.S. Special Forces team launched a helicopter-borne assault to hunt down al-Qaeda middleman Abu Ghadiyah. Ghadiyah, whose real name is Badran Turki Hishan Al-Mazidih, was said to have been killed along with six others.

Finally, Vanity Fair reports that up until two months ago—when Prince says the Obama administration pulled the plug—Prince, according to insiders, was running intelligence-gathering operations from a secret location in the U.S., remotely coordinating the movements of spies working undercover in one of the so-called Axis of Evil countries; their mission: non-disclosable.

Adam Ciralsky, an award-winning television producer, has received many of broadcast journalism's highest honors, including three Emmys (two for “news & documentary” and one for “business & financial reporting”), the Polk Award, the Peabody Award, and the Loeb Award. A former C.I.A. lawyer, his contract was not renewed under contentious circumstances in the 1990s before becoming a reporter for CBS and NBC News.

The January issue of Vanity Fair hits newsstands in New York and Los Angeles on December 2 and nationally on December 8.

August 18, 2009

Clintons both at White House today

Former President Bill Clinton meets with President Barack Obama today at the White House, Clinton’s first chance to meet with Obama face to face since traveling to North Korea to secure the release of two American journalists.

The private meeting, scheduled to be held in the White House Situation Room, is likely to cover anything Clinton learned or discussed about North Korea’s nuclear weapons plans. 

Coincidentally, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Obama earlier in the Oval Office, her first meeting with Obama since her trip to Africa.

July 08, 2009

Hu heads back to China, meeting with Obama off

There will be an empty chair – and a big gap in the agenda – when many of the world’s leaders gather in Italy this week.

Chinese President Hu Jintao abruptly returned home from Italy even before the summit started, rushing back as ethnic tensions in Western China have erupted in violence.

That means President Barack Obama will not have a scheduled meeting Thursday with Hu, and he and other Westerners will have to wait to press their case at the highest level for Chinese concessions on such thorny issues as global warming and North Korea’s moves to develop nuclear weapons and long range missiles.

Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo will attend the summit in Hu’s place, but won’t have the stature of his president.

“We have a broad based agenda with China,” Michael Froman, the White House deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, said Wednesday at the summit site in L’Aquila, Italy.

“Since this meeting didn’t happen,” he said of the Obama-Hu summit, “they look forward to the next meeting.”

China is key to several of the top issues facing world leaders, including forging a global response to global warming and pressuring North Korea to stop its moves to become a nuclear power.

In addition to meeting one-on-one with Obama, Hu was supposed to be one of the leaders attending the Major Economies Forum hosted by Obama that will discuss global warming. Thus far, fast-growing China has resisted calls to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases from smokestacks and tailpipes.

China also has refused to go along with tough economic sanctions against North Korea, one of its trading partners.


"Planet Washington" covers politics and government. It is written by journalists in McClatchy's Washington Bureau.

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