Tales from the Trail

AfPak — It’s his baby now

ruggiero

On a day when the most powerful people in Washington were discussing Afghanistan and Pakistan, there was one man who might be excused for looking a little shell-shocked.

Frank Ruggiero, who stepped in as acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) following the sudden death of his boss Richard Holbrooke on Monday, had little time to prepare for his first big outing as President Barack Obama’s  pointman for the biggest foreign policy headache facing the administration.

Ruggiero spoke to the press after Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates formally unveiled  their official review of the year-old Afghan strategy, which said enough progress was being made to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July despite fragile and uneven gains against the Taliban insurgents.

Clinton — accompanied by virtually Holbrooke’s entire office — joined Ruggiero at the press conference in an orchestrated display of continuity and solidarity.

“I have complete confidence in this SRAP team,” Clinton said, adding that Ruggiero had hit the ground running  as he took over the duties of the office.

Lady Gaga, WikiLeaks and :’(

WIKILEAKSWashington has been buzzing for days about Bradley Manning, the 23-year-old U.S. Army intelligence analyst at the heart of the investigation into the leak of a quarter-million State Department diplomatic cables by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks.

And then there’s the Lady Gaga connection.

Manning said he listened to the flamboyantly-dressed singer’s “Telephone” as he pulled the documents off a military server in Baghdad, according to a transcript of online chats Manning had with a former hacker, Adrian Lamo. The chats, which occurred earlier this year, were posted by Wired.com on June 10. Lamo confirmed details of the chats to Reuters.

“i would come in with music on a CD-RW labeled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file … no-one suspected a thing. listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s Telephone while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in american history,” Manning wrote in the uncapitalized, lightly punctuated style of a webchat.

WikiLeaks spill reveals diplomats’ water cooler gossip

Some of the tidbits from the secret U.S. diplomatic cables unleashed by WikiLeaks show that diplomatic analysis can sometimes sound a whole lot like gossip. 

And just as when any private conversation goes public, it can be embarrassing for all involved. USA-CLINTON/

In the Case of the Compromised Cables, the unflattering descriptions of some of the world leaders will require all the diplomatic skill that U.S. officials can muster to soothe some of the world’s healthiest egos.

Washington Extra – Bad behavior

“We will not be drawn into rewarding North Korea for bad behavior,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said today, after revelations that the world’s most reclusive state showed off its latest advances in uranium enrichment. “They frequently anticipate doing something outrageous or provocative and forcing us to jump through hoops as a result. We’re not going to buy into this cycle.”

Those are sound intentions, although analysts are already predicting the United States will find a way to restart six-party talks in the next six months or so if only as a containment strategy,  despite the fact that North Korea appears completely unwilling to talk seriously about denuclearization.

kimJack Pritchard, a former State Department official responsible for dealings with North Korea who visited the country earlier this month, said Kim Jong-il’s effort to build the credibility of his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, meant “they can’t negotiate away what little leverage they have.”

Washington Extra – summer reading

While President Barack Obama went book shopping on Martha’s Vineyard and bought a novel about a family from the Midwest –“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen — Vice President Joe Biden was out in the Midwest talking the talk in St. Louis. OBAMA/

VPOTUS assured Democratic Party leaders that they would retain control of Congress in November because Republicans were out of touch.  ”They are going to look at what the Republican Party is really offering — more of the past, but on steroids,” Biden said.

That brings us to the State Department press corps ALMOST asking George Mitchell about baseball pitcher Roger Clemens, but refraining and sticking to the news at hand – a fresh attempt to jumpstart Middle East peace talks with a meeting in Washington next month.

State Dept seeks new ally vs. North Korea: PETA

North Korea — you have been warned.

The State Department on Monday held out the possibility that the isolated Stalinist state’s belligerent rumblings could earn it a powerful new foe on the world stage:  animal rights activist group PETA.

RTRFRGY_CompAsked at a news briefing about North Korea’s latest move, which saw it fire a barrage of artillery shells into the ocean near South Korea, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley was blunt:

“Well, I’m sure it resulted in a lot of dead fish.  And we certainly hope that PETA will protest,” he said.

Clinton spokesman stands by her words in immigration fracas

OBAMA/Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that the U.S. government would sue to block Arizona’s tough new immigration law raised some eyebrows around town, not to mention in Arizona.

But at the State Department, Clinton’s press people have had little to say — except that “her words speak for themselves.”

And they have said that over and over again.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner was grilled about Clinton’s comments in an interview with an Ecuadoran television station on a trip to Latin America last week.

Does Gulf spill controversy stretch all the way to Canada?

OIL-SPILL/Oil and gas spewing from that broken wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico has spread at least as far as the Florida coast, and could go further. Controversy and questions about the relative safety of different kinds of fuel pipelines may have spread over an even wider area — taking in Washington DC, Alberta, Canada, and a big slice of the U.S. heartland.

Have the ripples from that BP spill reached the U.S. State Department? At least one environmental group thinks that could be the case. The State Department, which approves energy pipelines that cross international borders into U.S. territory, is considering the environmental impact of a massive pipeline that would have stretched from Canada’s oil sands fields all the way to Texas. But on Wednesday, the department extended the public comment period for the Keystone XL Pipeline Project a few weeks, from June 15 to July 2, with additional public meetings on the project on June 18 in Houston and on June 29 in Washington DC.

Fuel made from oil sands, also known as tar sands, appeals to those who favor fuel made by U.S. allies — like Canada — instead of countries that use oil revenues to oppose the United States and U.S. citizens abroad. And given the mess in the Gulf of Mexico, supporters of Canadian oil sands say that getting oil on land is less of a risk than deepwater drilling. But environmental groups argue this method is destructive to terrain and requires lots of climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions to produce.

U.S. officials seek to shelve Karzai tensions

Tensions, what tensions?

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew arrived back from Afghanistan and Pakistan on Friday, touting the performance of several ministers in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government.

OBAMA-AFGHANISTANHis visit came at a particularly tense time in U.S.-Afghan relations after Karzai made some corrosive statements in recent weeks against his donors, blaming the West for much of the corruption in his country and drawing critical comments from the White House.

Hours after landing home, Lew went out of his way to single out several Afghan ministers, including the finance and agriculture ministers, who he said were “extraordinary leaders.”

Two Bills on the Hill. One mission

Bill Clinton and Bill Gates banded together on one mission Wednesday: deliver a message to Capitol Hill that increasing funding for the U.S. Global Health Initiative would be good foreign policy and the right thing to do.

SENATE/The program administered by the State Department works to improve healthcare in poor nations, with a particular focus on women and children. The Obama administration proposes to invest $63 billion in the program over six years. The State Department’s budget request for FY2011 includes $8.5 billion for GHI.

The former president and the founder of Microsoft have more in common than just their first names — they both head foundations that focus on global health. The two Bills testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that while they were aware of the federal budget challenge, adding to the Global Health Initiative now would pay off in the long run.