Sunday, August 4, 2013

US extends closures of 19 embassies, consulates in Muslim world - Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Citing "an abundance of caution" in response to a potential threat to Western interests from Al Qaeda, the Obama administration announced Sunday that it would extend until next weekend the closures of numerous U.S. embassies and consulates in the Muslim world.

A total of 19 diplomatic facilities are to be affected, although "a number" of those already were scheduled to be closed in deference to the conclusion of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, said Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department.

"This is not an indication of a new threat stream, merely an indication of our commitment to exercise caution and take appropriate steps to protect our employees, including local employees and visitors to our facilities," Psaki said.

The closures will apply to facilities in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. The State Department first ordered the closures Thursday in response to intelligence information suggesting a plot by Al Qaeda. Psaki said that nine of the originally shut embassies or consulates would reopen for normal business Monday.

Officials who have received classified briefings from the administration told television interviewers Sunday that, although the recent intelligence has not identified specific targets, they viewed the threat as credible.

"This is the most serious threat that I've seen in the last several years," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He spoke on ABC's "This Week."

Some of President Obama's usual critics in Congress praised his administration's response to the intelligence information.

"The administration's call to close these embassies … was actually a very smart call," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. McCaul appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, noted his own past reservations about Obama's foreign policy decisions. Yet in this instance, King said on "This Week," "What they are doing now has to be done."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another frequent critic of the administration — most notably related to its handling of the September attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens — also voiced praise.

"I appreciate what the administration is doing with this," Graham told CNN's "State of the Union," adding, "The administration is doing this right."

Appearing later on the same program, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he believed "we're taking the precautions we should."

But Schiff differed with officials who have credited unspecified intelligence gathering by the National Security Agency with yielding information that prompted the current closures of diplomatic facilities. Schiff said there is no basis to say the closures are based on the NSA's collection of records of phone calls, emails or other communications conducted within the United States.

david.willman@latimes.com


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