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Cable exclusive: The secret Obama administration memo on child soldiers

Cable exclusive: The secret Obama administration memo on child soldiers

Most officials on Capitol Hill and human rights advocates received no warning or explanation prior to the Obama administration’s quiet announcement Monday that it would waive sanctions against four countries that forcibly recruit child soldiers. However, an internal State Department document obtained by The Cable sheds light on the reasons behind the Obama administration’s decision to pull back on a bill that Barack Obama himself co-sponsored as a senator.

The internal document shows that the administration prepared detailed justifications for its decision to waive sanctions against countries that forcibly recruit child soldiers, arguing that working closely with troubled militaries is the best way to reform them and that U.S. security depends on such relationships. But the administration didn’t share those justifications with anyone outside the administration until after the decision had been made.

On Wednesday, after The Cable reported that Obama had decided not to cut off military assistance — as required under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act — against Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Yemen, the White House offered only a terse explanation for the decision. Today, we bring you the internal State Department document dated Monday, Oct. 25 (PDF) that lays out the arguments State made in favor of not implementing these sanctions. The document is signed by Obama, but we’re told it was prepared by State.

The State recommendation to Obama came over the objections of top officials in its Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) bureau, sources told The Cable, but the Political Military affairs bureau (PM) argued in favor of the waivers. We’re also told that the Near Eastern Affairs bureau (NEA) and the Africa bureau (AF) were heavily involved in the discussions although it’s unclear what their exact positions were inside the debate.

Hill staffers and child advocacy leaders who were provided the document after Monday’s announcement told The Cable they were unsatisfied with both the decision and the explanation.

"We’re going to ask for some greater explanation on some of these. To do the waiver on all of the countries certainly caught our attention," said one Democratic Senate aide involved in the issue. "When using American tax money to help governments that use child soldiers, there should be a pretty high bar."

Key Senate offices to watch are those of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), the original sponsors of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. There was broad bipartisan support for the bill when it passed by unanimous voice vote in 2008. Other key co-sponsors at the time included then Sen. Joseph Biden and then-Sen. Obama.

"This was landmark legislation that Obama supported as a senator and now he’s undercutting it. It’s really a shame," said Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch.

"The basic problem here is that the administration is taking an all-or-nothing approach. There’s no doubt that the administration has legitimate interests in these countries. But they should have sought a middle ground that allows them to take the law seriously while still taking our cooperation with these countries seriously," she said.

The justification for each waiver largely tracks what a White House official told us yesterday, but adds new detail and context to the administration’s position on the law and on the violator countries, all of which were identified in the State Department’s own 2010 Trafficking in Persons report as systematically using underage troops.

For all the countries, the document states that progress on moving these armies away from using child soldiers is ongoing and that the United States vets anyone they work with directly to make sure they are of the proper age.

On Chad, for example, the document states that ongoing military training programs that would be cut if the law was enforced "are critical to training and influencing critical and future Chadian military leaders." Similarly, the document argues that cutting off military cooperation with the DRC would "jeopardize the United States’ opportunity to positively affect the negative behavior patterns currently exhibited by the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC)."

In Sudan, ongoing training of the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) would be scuttled if the law were enforced, hurting that army’s progress just before the South votes on a referendum to split from the North, the document states.

Cooperation with Yemen needs to continue because that government is a key partner in the fight against al Qaeda, the document argues. "[C]utting off assistance would seriously jeopardize the Yemeni government’s ability to conduct special operations and counterterrorism missions, and create a dangerous level of in the country and the region," it says.