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July 30, 2010

Three strikes and .... you're out?

As McClatchy first reported back in 2007, First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting Co., whose construction of the mammoth U.S. Embassy in Baghdad became the topic of congressional and Justice Department probes, won U.S. government work to build three other overseas diplomatic facilities

Those three were an Embassy in Libreville, Gabon; a consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; and a consulate in Surabaya, Indonesia.

First Kuwaiti got the work by partnering with a U.S. construction firm known as Grunley Walsh International, even though an internal agreement between the two firms (we have a copy or two of this document) makes clear that First Kuwaiti is the real power in the deal. Grunley-Walsh International was subsequently sold under controversial circumstances to three partners, one of whom was a former First Kuwaiti officer, and renamed Aurora LLC.

Here's what's happened with those other three contracts.

_ Aurora/First Kuwaiti were booted off the job in Libreville, which had gone disastrously awry. It has since been re-bid to another firm.

_ This past May, the pair were "terminated for default" from the contract for the $122 million Jeddah consulate, which was supposed to be done in July, but was only 54 percent complete.

_ Finally, on Thursday, the State Department sent what is known in the trade as a "cure notice" to Aurora giving it 10 days to fix its performance in building the $47 million consulate in Surabaya or risk being thrown off that job, too.

"Aurora has to address their deficient performance within 10 days, or the government can take steps to terminate the contract for default," said Jonathan Blyth, a spokesman for the State Department's office of Overseas Building Operations.

Blyth said the Surabaya facility is 80 percent complete, but that government overseers have determined that, under current circumstances, Aurora and First Kuwaiti are not going to be able to complete the job.

So, to sum up: three jobs, three failures, with likely additional costs to the taxpayers and future legal wrangling/court challenges as well.

To be fair to Aurora, e-mails we obtained and numerous interviews we've conducted indicate that, on the Jeddah project if not the other two, most of the problems seemed to stem from First Kuwaiti and its actions.

The whole First Kuwaiti-Aurora-Grunley-Walsh saga is all the more mysterious given OBO's generally good record of building embassies over the last near-decade, under a multi-billion dollar to replace aging facilities worldwide with safe and secure buildings. Blyth said the department recently broke ground on its 105th project, in Dakar, Senegal.

July 29, 2010

Poll: Taliban, al Qaida and U.S. deeply disliked in Pakistan

If there is a bright spot in the latest public opinion poll in Pakistan, it may be this: ordinary Pakistanis have grown less worried that Islamic extremist groups might seize control of their nuclear-armed country.

The poll of 2,000 adults, conducted April 13-28 by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, found that 51 percent of Pakistanis are concerned about a militant takeover - compared to 69 percent last year. Last year's poll was taken during the failed Pakistani Taliban takeover of the Swat Valley, about 100 miles from Islamabad.

Pakistanis also feel less endangered generally by terrorism, with 54 percent viewing the Pakistani Taliban as a serious threat, compared to 73 percent last year; 38 percent consider al Qaida a serious threat now, compared to 61 percent last year. Both groups remain unpopular, however, with 65 percent giving the Pakistani Taliban a negative rating and 53 percent holding a similar view of al Qaida.

Pakistanis were more mixed in their attitudes toward Lashkar-e-Taiba, the al Qaida-linked group blamed for attacks in India, including the Mumbai rampage in November 2008 that killed more than 160 people, and regarded with rising concern by Western governments as an international terrorist threat. The poll found that just 35 percent of people held a negative view of LeT, one in four expressed a positive view and 40 percent had no opinion.

Pakistanis continue to hold a low opinion about the United States, with only 17 percent having a favorable view - compared to 18 percent for al Qaida - despite the five-year, $7.5 billion development aid program the Obama administration won from Congress as part of an effort to improve relations and boost Pakistani support on Afghanistan. Fifty-nine percent describe the United States as an enemy, while only 11 percent consider it a "partner."

Few Pakistanis are positive about the state of their own nation, with only 14 percent satisfied with internal conditions. Seventy-eight percent say their economy is in bad shape and 50 percent expect the economic situation to worsen over the next year.


July 27, 2010

Senate's Lockerbie hearing postponed

As we noted here 12 days ago, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had scheduled a hearing this week to look into the circumstances surrounding the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Mohamed al-Megrahi.

An angry Senator Robert Menendez announced this afternoon that the hearing has been postponed, because the major witnesses he wanted to testify wouldn't agree to cooperate. Those include outgoing BP chief Tony Hayward; Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary who made the decision last year to release al-Megrahi; the Scottish doctor whose diagnosis prompted the Libyan's release on medical grounds; and former British Justice Secretary Jack Straw.

Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, from where many of the bombed Pan Am flight's victims came, vowed not to be deterred, saying the committee would instead open a lengthy investigation of the circumstances surrounding Megrahi's release.

"We are at place where no witness of consequence has the courage to step forward and clear the air - they would prefer to sweep this under the rug," Menendez said. "We also have not had the time to extract key documents that could help illuminate the issue. As such, we are shifting our efforts to a longer-term, multi-dimensional inquiry into the release of al-Megrahi."

Reports of BP's role in British-Libyan negotiations over a prisoner transfer agreement have threatened to further complicate the U.S.-U.K. "special relationship," already tense in some quarters because of BP's Gulf oil spill.

But while the British oil giant has acknowledged lobbying on behalf of completing the prisoner transfer deal with Libya, where it hoped to conduct offshore deep-water drilling, no evidence has emerged of direct BP involvement in al-Megrahi's case. And al-Megrahi was freed on humanitarian grounds (a move the new British prime minister, David Cameron, said he opposed), not under the prisoner transfer deal.

Menendez excoriated the witnesses for refusing to appear. "It is utterly disappointing that none of these key witnesses will cooperate with our request to answer questions before the Foreign Relations Committee," he said. "They have stonewalled. Each side has claimed innocence. ... Each side has blamed the other. .. It is a game of diplomatic tennis that is worthy of Wimbledon."

"In the case of BP, it is hard to imagine that a company on such thin ice with the American public after devastating our Gulf Coast would not fully cooperate in getting to the bottom of the release of a terrorist who murdered 189 Americans."

July 24, 2010

Gen. McChrystal's retirement ceremony

Last night, former Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal formally retired from the United States Army. The hour-long ceremony at Fort McNair included a 17-gun salute, a stunning performance by the United States Army Band “Pershing’s Own” and speeches by the Secretary of Defense and the Chief of Staff of the Army. It was salute to a man set on the vast Army stage. And while there was a patina of sadness that loomed over the ceremony, it was a lesson in grace and humility as well.

There is a back story behind my ability to report this to you. Early in the week, Gen McChrystal invited a selected number of press –three to be exact – to be guests to his retirement ceremony. To be clear, however public a figure he is, having commanded U.S. forces in America’s current largest military engagement, it is his prerogative to invite whomever he pleases. But when the press learned that those select members of the press were not just personal guests but would be allowed to cover the ceremony it led to brouhaha within the Pentagon press ranks. I was part of the push to get the event either fully open or closed, that is that all reporters be allowed to cover it or that those invited would attend only as guests. Public officials can choose who attend their retirement ceremonies for sure but they cannot dictate the coverage. By allowing on reporters who the commander also considered friends of some kind to cover it, we felt that was exactly what was happening.

As we were meeting with Pentagon officials and sending a flurry of emails to the general’s staff, I felt we were fighting a first amendment principle and for fairness. After all, we were not being cut off from issues central to national security but at the same time, I didn’t want us to set a bad precedent. And by Thursday afternoon, the forces that be relented and let us cover the event.

Until Gen. McChrystal took the stage to address his guests, though, I felt we had simply won a first amendment battle. I hadn’t fully considered the richness of information the public would get from hearing the ceremony.

He gave a moving, thoughtful speech and confronted the thorny issues that led to his departure directly and humorously. He left under less than ideal circumstances a month ago, forced to resign over derogatory comments he and his staff made about top civilian government leaders to a Rolling Stone reporter. He began his speech by saying: “This is frustrating.  I spent a career waiting to give a retirement speech and lie about what a great soldier I was.  Then people show up who were actually there.  It proves what Doug Brown taught me long ago; nothing ruins a good war story like an eyewitness.   To show you how bad it is, I can't even tell you I was the best player in my little league because the kid who was the best player is here tonight.  In case you're looking around, he's not a kid anymore. To those here tonight who feel the need to contradict my memories with the truth, remember I was there too.  I have stories on all of you, photos on many, and I know a Rolling Stone reporter,” he told the hundreds gathered around him, who laughed along with him.

The jokes did not end there: “Annie [his wife] and I aren't approaching the future with sadness but with hope and iPhones.  And my feelings for more than 34 years I spent as an Army officer are a combination of surprise that any experience could have been as rich and fulfilling as mine was and gratitude for the comrades and friends we were blessed with,” he said. “That's what I feel.  And if I fail to communicate that effectively tonight, I'll simply remind you that Secretary Gates once told me I was a modern Patton of strategic communications."

Throughout his 18-minute speech, he reminded everyone there – and by extension the public now allowed to listen – that in the end, matters of war turn on people not policy, that careers span decades and that a less than ideal end to a career does not mean one should hang his head low.

He ended his speech the following: “If I had it to do over again, I'd do some things in my career differently but not many.  I believed in people, and I still believe in them.  I trusted and I still trust.  I cared and I still care.  I wouldn't have had it any other way.  Winston Churchill said we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.  To the young leaders of today and tomorrow, it's a great life,” his voice cracking as the last sentence left his lips.

As a colleague of mine who was there put it, McChrystal “belied the shame portrayed in the some of the press of the man's leaving. It was bravery of a different sort.”

I agree, and I am glad the public got to see it. Here is a link to the entire speech.

July 23, 2010

House Republicans call for U.S. green light to Israeli strikes on Iran

As N&S contributor Warren Strobel reported in February, the Brookings Institution think-tank ran a war game to assess the consequences of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities and the results weren't pretty. Iran responded by hitting Israel directly and through its Lebanese and Palestinian proxies, mining the Strait of Hormuz, the world's main petroleum artery, and battling U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf.

On June 28, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that any attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would "be incredibly destabilizing" to the region.

And earlier this week, a British research organization, the Oxford Research Group, published a report that said the Iranian regime would respond by withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, launching an all-out nuclear weapons program and engaging in "a long war (with Israel) with potential regional and global consequences. Iran could . . . take many other actions, including operations to affect world oil markets and to increase instability in Iraq and Afghanistan," where the lives of U.S. troops and diplomats would be at stake.

The report "concludes that military action against Iran should be ruled out in responding to its possible nuclear ambitions," according to the executive summary.

These forecasts and other similar warnings, however, didn't deter 46 Republicans in the House of Representatives - nearly one-third of the GOP membership - from signing up as co-sponsors of a resolution introduced on Thursday by Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas that would give a U.S. go-ahead to an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear factories and laboratories.

H. Res. 1553 expresses U.S. support for Israel's "right to use all means necessary to confront and eliminate nuclear threats posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the use of military force if no other reasonable solution can be found within reasonable time against such an immediate and existential threat." The measure doesn't define what constitute "a reasonable solution" or "reasonable time."

The resolution caught the attention of the National Iranian American Council, an organization representing Iranian Americans opposed to Iran's theocratic rulers, which urged its members to call on House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Oh, to "denounce this resolution and oppose a third war in the Middle East."

The council's policy director, Jerome Abdi, traced the genesis of the resolution to a column by the Bush administration's former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton that was published earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal. In the op-ed, the neoconservative said, “Having visible congressional support in place at the outset [of an attack] will reassure the Israeli government, which is legitimately concerned about Mr. Obama's likely negative reaction to such an attack.”

This, of course, is the same John Bolton who was among the leading proponents of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the deadly consequences of which the U.S. intelligence community warned about in numerous pre-war forecasts that top Bush administration officials ignored.

Hmmmm. Do we detect a pattern here?

July 21, 2010

New chief of CIA's covert operations service named

CIA Director Leon Panetta has recalled from retirement a veteran undercover intelligence officer with extensive experience in South Asia and Africa to oversee the agency's secret espionage operations.

John D. Bennett, 58, will take over as head of the National Clandestine Service from Michael J. Sutlick, who is retiring, Panetta announced today. The appointment comes only two months after Bennett retired from the CIA, which he joined in 1981 after leaving the Marine Corps.

Bennett, a graduate of Harvard University, spent most of his career in the field, including tours as chief of the CIA stations in Pretoria, South Africa, Islamabad, Pakistan, and two other countries.

He was involved in the fight against al Qaida in Africa and in Pakistan, where the agency works closely with the Pakistani intelligence services and conducts what U.S. officials contend have been highly successful drone strikes against Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, the Pakistani Taliban and allied extremist groups based in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

“Bennett’s a  veteran operator with first-hand experience against a wide range of threats facing the United States," said a U.S. official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "He understands the Af-Pak theater - the challenges and opportunities there - as well as anyone.  He’s had real success there, in everything from counter-terrorism to relationships with the local services.  He knows traditional operations and the paramilitary stuff, too."

With the war in Afghanistan going badly, the Islamic insurgency in Pakistan worsening and al Qaida franchises stepping up their operations in Yemen and Africa, Bennett is going to need all of his on-the-job experience.

"He’s taken one of the toughest jobs in town, but he comes to it well-equipped," said the U.S. official.

July 16, 2010

Iranian opposition group wins round in battle for removal from U.S. terror list

The Iranian exiled opposition group that disclosed the existence of Iran's nuclear program in 2002 scored a victory today in a long legal fight to be taken off the Department of State's list of foreign terrorist organizations.

A U.S. appeals court in Washington, DC, ruled that the department failed to give the Peoples Mujahideen Organization of Iran a chance to rebut charges that it engages in terrorist activities or at least "retains a limited capacity and the intent to use violence to achieve its political goals" of toppling the hard-line Islamic regime in Tehran. The group is also known as the Mujahideen-e-Khalq.

The three-judge panel ruled that the secretary of state "failed to accord the PMOI . . . due process protections" and order the department to reconsider a 2003 decision that kept the group on the list of foreign terrorist organizations, which it was first placed on in 1997. An organization on the list can have its U.S. assets frozen, its members barred from entering the United States and those who provide it funds or other support can be criminally prosecuted.

The PMOI, whose members have been languishing in a camp in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, argues that it should be removed from the list because it has ceased its military activities, renounced violence, disarmed and cooperated with U.S. officials in Iraq, who found that it has broken no U.S. laws, and provided intelligence on Iran's nuclear program.

The British government removed the group, led by the Paris-based Maryam Rajavi, from its list of terrorist organizations in 2008 and the European Union did the same the following year.

The group, which was started by students and fought for the 1979 overthrow of the late Shah Reza Pahlavi, allegedly was involved in anti-American violence in the 1970s and supported the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. It is widely disliked in Iran for supporting the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.


July 15, 2010

Senate Foreign Relations to hold Libya hearings

  Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced Thursday that he will hold hearings on July 29 to look into the circumstances surrounding the release from a Scottish prison last year of Abdel Basset Mohamed al-Megrahi, the only person every convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie airline bombing, which killed 270 people.

  Kerry's announcement of hearings follows a growing uproar over Megrahi, who was released in August 2009 on medical grounds. The Libyan was said to have prostate cancer, and just three months to live. He is still alive, and their are now questions about whether that diagnosis was genuine.

  Adding to the uproar, British Petroleum (BP) acknowledged this week that it had lobbied the British government about a separate, but related, Prisoner Transfer Agreement with Libya. BP said that it was concerned at the time that the slow progress of the agreement could impact a lucrative deal for the oil company to conduct offshore drilling in Libyan waters.

   The latest developments seem sure to stoke cross-Atlantic tensions over the conduct of BP, even as it makes apparent progress in capping the Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

  Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the British ambassador to Washington, issued a statement underlining that the new British government believes Megrahi's release was a mistake. 

  "Claims in the press that Megrahi was released because of an oil deal involving BP, and that the medical evidence used by the Scottish Executive supporting his release was paid for by the Libyan government, are not true," Sheinwald said.

    He added that a Scottish parliamentary inquiry concluded in February "that the Scottish Executive took this decision in good faith, on the basis of the medical evidence available to them at the time, and due process was followed. ...We have to accept that the release licence does not provide a mechanism for a person who has been released on compassionate grounds to be returned to prison if they have survived for longer than the period diagnosed by the relevant medical authorities."

  Four U.S. senators have asked the State Department to investigate. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters that the department will respond to the senators' letter, but would not say whether State will undertake an investigation. Crowley said Megrahi's release, in the U.S. government's understanding, was separate from the prisoner release agreement that was the subject of BP's lobbying.

Vernon Baker, Africa American Medal of Honor recipient dies at 90

Vernon Baker, an Army infantryman during World War II who became the only surviving African-American to be awarded the Medal of Honor 50 years after his heroic actions on the battlefield, died July 13. He was 90.

His life was extraordinary even before President Clinton awarded him the military's highest distinction. His upbringing, his entry into the service, his actions on the battlefield and even the way he got the medal are all so interesting. After working a series of menial jobs he hated, he went to a recruiter who told him: "We don't have any quotas for you people." He came back and the second recruiter allowed him to join. Then he went to war where he led the charge on what most would consider a suicidal mission and instead killed the enemy and demonstrated tremendous courage.

A study commissioned by the U.S. Army in 1993 found widespread discrimination in the service in how it awarded medals to soldiers who served in World War II and recommended several black soldiers who had received the Distinguished Service Cross have their awards upgraded. Baker was the only survivor amongst them, and 52 years after his actions in battle, President Clinton awarded him the Medal of Honor. 

His citation read:
For extraordinary heroism in action on 5 and 6 April 1945, near Viareggio, Italy. Then Second Lieutenant Baker demonstrated outstanding courage and leadership in destroying enemy installations, personnel and equipment during his company's attack against a strongly entrenched enemy in mountainous terrain. When his company was stopped by the concentration of fire from several machine gun emplacements, he crawled to one position and destroyed it, killing three Germans. Continuing forward, he attacked an enemy observation post and killed two occupants. With the aid of one of his men, Lieutenant Baker attacked two more machine gun nests, killing or wounding the four enemy soldiers occupying these positions. He then covered the evacuation of the wounded personnel of his company by occupying an exposed position and drawing the enemy's fire. On the following night Lieutenant Baker voluntarily led a battalion advance through enemy mine fields and heavy fire toward the division objective. Second Lieutenant Baker's fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his men and exemplify the highest traditions of the Armed Forces.

He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

I have added links throughout this posting so you can read more about him. Here is another link to an obituary. I  hope you find his story as captivating and inspiring as I did.

Soldiers Surprising their loved ones

Hey everyone: A few soldiers have passed this video along to me, and I want to share it with you. It is a collection of videos of soldiers coming home from deployment. It puts a face on the soldiers and the families they leave behind, a reminder behind every number of troops deployed is a unnamed number of loved ones who serving just as much. It is touching indeed. Here is a link to it as well:



"Nukes & Spooks" is written by McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay (national security and intelligence), Warren P. Strobel (foreign affairs and the State Department), and Nancy Youssef (Pentagon).

jon, nancy & warren

Landay, Youssef and Strobel.

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