U.S . Secretary of State Rex Tillerson | Alex Wong/Getty Images
US national security officials worked on the language in between meetings in a fast-moving effort to send Syria a message.
6/28/17, 5:03 AM CET
President Donald Trump s blunt, public warning to the Syrian regime late Monday night was cobbled together in a series of hurried discussions, squeezed in between meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and kept among a small, tight circle of top officials. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both arrived at the White House late Monday afternoon, ahead of the Rose Garden ceremony at which Trump and Modi each read a prepared statement . Upon the Cabinet members arrival, according to a senior defense official, they were informed of Trump s plan to issue a public warning to Syrian President Bashar Assad, based on new intelligence the Syrian regime3 was preparing another chemical weapons attack on its own people. National security adviser H.R .
McMaster, who also was at the White House for meetings, had already been briefed and had weighed in on the plan, administration sources said. But no stand-alone principals meeting followed to discuss the intelligence, which Trump received Monday morning, according to two senior administration officials. Rather, over the course of the day, officials said, McMaster, Mattis, Tillerson and a few other top officials had the opportunity to work the language of the statement, in between meetings with Modi . None of them expressed any hesitation or disagreement about the decision to issue a public warning, according to one of the senior administration officials.
But a Defense Department official acknowledged that the events were fast-moving and that there were minimal deliberations about the bold move and that only a limited number of top military officials were aware of the new intelligence and planned response. The episode marked another example of ongoing frustration between administration rank-and-file and leadership, which this time could carry serious consequences if the backbiting appears to weaken the U.S . government s resolve in turning up the pressure on Assad.
It hurts American credibility, said Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department official who served under Secretary of State John Kerry . When the Syrian regime sees a report that government officials have no idea, the message to them is that these guys don t have their act together . And if nobody at State knows, it hurts your ability to follow up and have a diplomatic game plan.
But one former Obama administration official shrugged off the issues of communication between the White House and lower-level agency officials.
There s a broader issue here of effective coordination and communication sometimes the president contradicts his own people, Tom Donilon, President Barack Obama s former national security adviser, said in an interview . But I don t think that s the most important issue here . If, in fact, the United States has evidence that they re preparing a chemical attack, laying down a warning that you intend to follow through on is an appropriate thing to do. The careful language of the 87-word statement which was drafted by the afternoon but not released until close to 10 p.m . was cleared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and the Defense Department before it was blasted out from the press secretary s office.
On Tuesday, the White House insisted that military and State Department officials were not blindsided by the statement, which warned Assad that if he launches another chemical weapons attack, he and his military will pay a heavy price.
In response to several inquiries regarding the Syria statement issued last night, we want to clarify that all relevant agencies including State, DoD, CIA and ODNI were involved in the process from the beginning, the White House said in a statement released Tuesday morning . Anonymous leaks to the contrary are false. Multiple administration officials said people surprised by the statement were simply not senior enough to be clued in and some said they were frustrated that a bold move by Trump, which they believed could save lives, was overshadowed by a side story about leaks and internal disagreements.
The story seems to be about whether or not a public affairs officer on a regional desk at the State Department was notified in what they would consider to be a timely manner, vented a third White House official . If Tillerson knew and some desk officer in the Middle East section didn t know, they need to take that up with Tillerson . It s not their right to know . It s his prerogative if he wants to share the information.
The move, and the frustration were reflective of the Trump administration s approach of making key decisions within a close, inner circle unlike the deliberative, and sometimes paralyzingly inclusive, decision making that defined Obama s process. Despite the confusion and complaints over who was looped in and when, foreign policy experts lauded Trump s choice to make a public statement rather than to try to pressure the Syrian regime through diplomatic back channels. The Trump administration realizes they re being dragged into a very dangerous situation, said Jim Jeffrey, a former U.S .
ambassador to Turkey and Iraq and deputy national security adviser for President George W . Bush . He said the U.S . approach to Assad so far had been a bunch of tit for tats that seemed to have no long-term impact.
The benefit of a public statement is they re now on record as saying, this shall not happen, Jeffrey added . There was a conscious decision made by the people who realize whatever we want to do in the Middle East, we re going to look like fools if they do this again, and we blow up a few more airplanes . We have to react very strongly to them. Trump s own seeming lack of interest in the issue, though, could also diminish the message s effect on Assad.
Instead of using the megaphone of his Twitter feed to amplify the White House statement, marked by his press office as urgent, Trump took to Twitter minutes after its release to harp on one of his personal obsessions . From @FoxNews Bombshell: In 2016, Obama dismissed idea that anyone could rig an American election . Check out his statement Witch Hunt ! the president tweeted.
He s very undisciplined, said Jeffrey . He does this all the time .
That s a separate problem .
But what s clear is that in the end, he goes along with what his top advisers tell him.
Bryan Bender contributed to this report.
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Police have launched a massive security operation around places of worship throughout Britain following the North London van attack1. Extra officers have been deployed to patrol mosques, churches, synagogues and temples to combat hate crimes and terror attacks.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan2, said: The Met have deployed extra police to reassure communities, especially those observing Ramadan. But Labour called for a massive boost to security checks on all mosques in a bid to stop another attack.
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott took to Twitter about policing (Photo: Getty) Home Secretary Amber Rudd said 2.4million was designated last year (Photo: Getty Images Europe)
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott tweeted: Shocking terror attack outside Finsbury Park mosque . Police must urgently review security for all mosques.
Amber Rudd3, the Home Secretary, stressed that 2.4mllion had been designated to protecting places of worship last year. She said more than a dozen mosques were being given special attention by police.
Officers at MI5 are stepping surveillance operations on right-wing organisations suspected
of wanting to launch attacks against Islamic targets like mosques and community centres.
Gun cops stood guard at Finsbury Park mosque (Photo: EPA) Armed officers are a more common sight on Britain’s streets (Photo: PA)
But both police and MI5 are hugely stretched by the ongoing terror threat, with the Security Service having to prioritise some surveillance jobs over others.
Intelligence gathering can be very methodical and painstaking but the pace of threat at the moment is speeding that process up.
That means mistakes could be made and certain things overlooked.
LONDON Often frivolous and meandering, the British election campaign has found a clear focus in these closing days: It s security and Theresa May s record on it. The shock of two terrorist attacks in as many weeks is casting a spotlight on policing, intelligence and counterterrorism and May s oversight of this domain, first as the longest-serving home secretary since World War II and for the past year as prime minister . The closing arguments concern what she did or didn t do, and who s best placed to lead the U.K . into the future. Notably and somewhat incongruously, the prime minister and her opponent Jeremy Corbyn seem to see in security a winning hand for themselves .
Both can t be right, of course . But their ability to tap into the national mood in a way that resonates before Thursday s election may help decide the outcome, and shape the British approach to fighting terrorism for years to come.
Duelling press conferences
To the Tories, the prime minister s strength is her reputation as an experienced and tough securocrat, which her campaign contrasts with Corbyn s perceived weaknesses on security . His alleged associations with the IRA and past opposition to anti-terror laws leave him exposed to Tory attacks . Yet the Labour campaign has turned the attention as well to what it perceives as May s own underappreciated vulnerability: her responsibility for cuts in police funding1 pushed through by her successive Conservative governments.
Theresa May during a campaign rally on June 5, on the first day of resumed campaigning after the attacks | Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images
Neither May nor the Labour leader wasted any time to pivot hard to security hours after three assailants killed seven people2 near London Bridge . Early on Sunday, the prime minster made an angry and to most ears, unusually political statement outside Number 10 Downing Street that enough is enough 3 and pledged a crackdown on Islamist extremism . Later that evening, Corbyn responded4 in political kind, accusing May of shortchanging police and attempting to protect the public on the cheap. The two kept it up in duelling press conferences on Monday .
May returned to the Whitehall library where a year ago she launched her bid to lead the Conservative party5 to talk about leadership . Corbyn would have no time for learning on the job, she said . Corbyn, in turn, pointed to a fall of almost 20,000 in the number of police officers since 2010 even calling on May to resign over the issue6.
Jeremy Corbyn during a minute silence for victims of the Manchester terror attack, before making a speech on defense | Carl Court/Getty Images
Soon after, Labour gathered union leaders to highlight the cost of austerity to frontline emergency services imposed by Conservative governments . Nobody here will say: If it wasn t for this cut, that wouldn t have happened , Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, which represents the police, said at the event . It would be folly to say so . But what we can say is that the figures speak for themselves and questions need to be asked.
Police cut, MI5 protected
If facts matter, Labour s attack line on cuts is well-founded insofar as the police are concerned . Government figures show the total number of officers in England and Wales fell from 143,734 in March 2010 to 124,066 in March 2016 . In the same time period, the number of armed officers fell from 6,653 to 5,639.
The commissioner of London s Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, was careful not to wade into a political row when she appeared BBC Radio 4 s Today program7 Monday, but did say that the police and security services had to step up their game in countering terrorism and that included the need to look at resourcing. But in defending her record during her press conference, May pointed out that despite the wider cuts, counter-terrorism budgets had been protected . The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has said that the Met is well-resourced, and they are, and that they have very powerful counter-terrorism capabilities, and they do . We have protected counter-terrorism policing budgets, she told journalists gathered at the headquarters of the Royal United Services Institute.
The same goes for the domestic intelligence services, said Malcolm Rifkind, a former Conservative foreign secretary and ex-chair of Parliament s intelligence and security committee . The resources for the security services have increased dramatically over the last 10 years since the 2005 London bombings, he said.
Conservative government cuts to police showed a callous disregard for our safety Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the TSSA union that represents British Transport Police staff
According to government figures, spending on the security and intelligence agencies domestic security service MI5, foreign intelligence service MI6 and surveillance agency GCHQ increased from 1.93 billion in 2010/11 to 2.6 billion in 2015/16. Praising May s record at the Home Office, Rifkind said that the security services would be deeply disappointed they had been unable to prevent the recent attacks, but said there was a limit to what additional resourcing of police and security services could do.
The real practical issue is not the number of police, he added . The practical problem is that MI5 and the intelligence agencies have literally thousands of individuals on their books who are known to have radical opinions Even when they have reason to suspect such individuals to be moving in that direction, the law does not allow the security services to take action and you can never have sufficient manpower to have 24-hour surveillance of thousands of people, or hundreds of people. David Wells, a former intelligence officer at GCHQ, said that it was too early to pin any blame on the intelligence services, but warned that the next government, of whichever stripe, would find no quick fixes to the terror threat facing Britain.
As of the London Bridge attack it s too early to determine if it was a failure of security services Yes, you could hire new personnel but it would take time to train and vet them, he said.
Dereliction of duty
While chinks is May s armor are hard to find with regards to the security services, she may be more vulnerable to questions about the austerity agenda s impact on frontline public services during her years at the Home Office. The strategy of linking the attacks to austerity is not universally backed within Labour. In his first speech after the attack, Corbyn on Sunday night attempted to capture the mood8 of gratitude to the police and other emergency services by reminding voters that he was the candidate promising to give public sector workers a pay rise .
They cannot just get warm words for their heroism, they deserve our respect every day, he said. The strategy of linking the attacks to austerity is not universally backed within Labour, with one senior party figure with expertise in security matters saying that if it weren t for the election campaign, police cuts would not be on the agenda . We just don t know enough about it, said the former Labour parliamentarian who asked to remain unnamed.
But at the union event Monday Serwotka, the union chief, was clear that it would be a dereliction of duty for him and his colleagues not to speak out and Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the TSSA union, which represents British Transport Police staff, said the cuts had shown a callous disregard for our safety. Such attacks on May s record from the Labour party and its backers are familiar . Whether or not they have more cut-through in the wake of recent tragedies will be clearer Friday morning when the vote tally comes in.
Related stories on these topics:
- ^ cuts in police funding (www.politico.eu)
- ^ killed seven people (www.politico.eu)
- ^ enough is enough (www.politico.eu)
- ^ Corbyn responded (www.politico.eu)
- ^ a year ago she launched her bid to lead the Conservative party (www.politico.eu)
- ^ May to resign over the issue (www.politico.eu)
- ^ when she appeared BBC Radio 4 s Today program (www.politico.eu)
- ^ attempted to capture the mood (www.politico.eu)