Tales from the Trail

Iraqi political haggling a big headache for American spies

What keeps U.S. spies awake at night? Iran. Al Qaeda. The bickering of Iraqi politicians.

With the United States officially ending its combat role in Iraq, one senior American spy said he was more worried about the lack of political reconciliation in Baghdad than whether Iran gets more meddlesome in Iraq or al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate makes a new, violent push there.

“I’m more concerned about the internal (Iraqi) situation than Iranian influence or the long arm of al Qaeda, which really doesn’t exist,” the senior intelligence official told reporters. He asked not to be named (as spies do). IRAQ/

Tehran could be expected to try to influence Iraq, because that has been its attitude historically,  he noted.

As for Al Qaeda in Iraq, it  has been “substantially degraded.”  It has  only about 10 percent of the manpower that it had at its peak in 2006 and 2007. And it is only “loosely” affiliated with al Qaeda elements outside the country, he said.

Washington Extra

As the administration focuses on Iran, we take a look today at the fallout – a disturbing deterioration in relations between the United States and Brazil.lula_brazil

Our exclusive report from Washington and Brasilia describes how a row over Iran has pushed relations between the two Western hemisphere economic giants to “rock bottom.” The fallout from Iran remains worse than either side will acknowledge publicly, and there is a real risk of a longer-term drift that could threaten trade and business ties. “They’re in the freezer,” was how an upper-level source in Brasilia characterized relations.

It is especially disappointing, of course, since both sides had anticipated improved ties under President Barack Obama, who made a point of fawning over his Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva last year, calling him “my man” and “the most popular politician on Earth.”

U.S. lawmakers wonder, where did our love go? with Turkey

It almost sounded as if U.S. lawmakers felt jilted by Washington’s long-time NATO ally Turkey.

“How do we get Turkey back?” demanded Representative Gary Ackerman at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing exploring “Turkey’s New Foreign Policy Direction.”

“Why is Turkish public opinion … perhaps one of the most anti-American of any of the countries of the world?” asked the committee’s chairman, Representative Howard Berman.

Iranian scientist saga has message for defectors: big bucks in U.S.

Five million dollars is a lot of money for most people on this planet.

IRAN-SCIENTIST/So the revelation by unnamed U.S. officials that Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri was paid that amount for providing information about Iran may actually end up encouraging others thinking of defecting – that’s one train of thought among some experts.

“It is a great advertisement to folks that if they have good information — $5 million or more may be theirs.  They just need to make up their minds that when they come here — there is no going back,” a former senior U.S. official tells me. “The message to me seems to be: don’t screw with Uncle Sam. We can be a very good friend, but a worse enemy.”

What has been surprising is that U.S. officials seem to have decided to play hardball (instead of going the silent route) by speaking out (anonymously of course) and saying that Amiri started giving information to the United States while living  in Iran, that he was paid $5 million to show he was an important defector, and he disliked his wife and didn’t want to bring his family to the U.S.

The mystery of the homesick Iranian nuclear scientist

The facts are few: Shahram Amiri, an Iranian nuclear scientist, disappeared in June 2009 during a pilgrimage to Mecca. He turned up this week at the Iranian interests section in the Pakistani Embassy in Washington wanting to go home.

What happened during the year inbetween is quite murky and even a timeline of what is publicly known requires much reading between the lines and connecting circumstantial dots.

ABC News reported in March that Amiri had defected to the United States. That would be quite a catch.

Ahmadinejad says bin Laden in Washington

BINLADEN/Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has the answer to the question that has plagued the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. 

He knows where Osama bin Laden is — in Washington. OBAMA/

In an interview with ABC’S “Good Morning America” on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad rejected reports that the al Qaeda leader was in Iran.

“I heard that Osama bin Laden is in the Washington, D.C.,” Ahmadinejad said through an interpreter in a contentious give-and-take with his interviewer, George Stephanopoulos.

The First Draft: Hillary Clinton marginalized? If you have to ask…

IRISH/Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent the weekend in Switzerland and Ireland, but landed on the morning talk shows on Monday, fending off questions about whether she has been marginalized in the Obama administration. It’s not considered a good sign when people start asking this question in Washington, because the implication is that the answer is “yes.”

Clinton had no comment when newscaster Ann Curry on  NBC’s “Today” program asked whether she should be more visible on such hot-button issues as Iran and Afghanistan. But she responded fully when asked about concerns that the “highest-ranking woman in the United States needs to fight against being marginalized.”

“I find it absurd, I find it beyond any realistic assessment of what I’m doing every day,” Clinton said. “I believe in delegating power. I’m not one of those people who feels like I have to have my face in the front of the newspaper or on the TV every moment of the day. It would be irresponsible and negligent were I to say, ‘Oh no, everything must come to me!’”

The First Draft: David Letterman and the Dalai Lama

CANADA/This is one of those Washington days that seems to defy a theme. Consider:

Iran is the topic at the Senate Banking Committee, where officials from the State and Treasury departments are set to testify on economic sanctions against Tehran.

Afghanistan is expected to be front and center when President Barack Obama briefs congressional leaders about his Afghan strategy.

Pakistan‘s foreign minister has a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The First Draft: Iran …and the Olympics

When President Barack Obama was running for president, he was heavily criticized by his rivals — including his current secretary of state, Hillary Clinton — for saying he would be willing to sit down with the leaders of countries like Iran.NUCLEAR-IRAN/

Well, today is the day the United States takes part for the first time as a “full participant” in talks between Iran and six world powers to discuss Tehran’s nuclear program.

Obama is not participating but he will likely be closely following results of the one-day talks in Geneva. U.S. officials have said Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns — the head of the American delegation — would not actively seek a one-on-one meeting with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator but would not reject one if the opportunity arose.

Another Iran mystery, foreign minister visits D.C.

A visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to Washington, D.C., on the eve of the big talks in Geneva has our antennae twitching.

YEMEN/The State Department says Mottaki was just in town to inspect Iran’s unofficial diplomatic office at the Pakistani Embassy and nothing more (since the severing of diplomatic ties, Iran does not have an embassy in Washington).

Mottaki was apparently not in town for any back channel meetings with U.S. officials in D.C. ahead of talks in Geneva on Thursday between Iran and the United States and other powers.