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Syria denies US allegations of coming chemical attack

Robert Burns, Ap National Security Writer

Updated 10:28 am, Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Photo: AP

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FILE -In this Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016 file photo released by the Syrian Presidency, Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks to The Associated Press at the presidential palace in Damascus, Syria. The Syrian government on Tuesday, June 27, 2017 dismissed White House allegations that it was preparing a new chemical weapons attack, as activists reported an airstrike on an Islamic State-run jail in eastern Syria that they said killed more than 40 prisoners. (Syrian Presidency via AP, File) FILE – In this May 18, 2017 file photo, a Syrian National flag hangs out of a damaged building at the mountain resort town of Zabadani in the Damascus countryside, Syria. The Syrian government on Tuesday, June 27, 2017 dismissed White House allegations that it was preparing a new chemical weapons attack, as activists reported an airstrike on an Islamic State-run jail in eastern Syria that they said killed more than 40 prisoners. FILE -In this fie picture taken on Tuesday April 4, 2017, Abdul-Hamid Alyousef, 29, holds his twin babies who were killed during a suspected chemical weapons attack, in Khan Sheikhoun in the northern province of Idlib, Syria. The Syrian government on Tuesday, June 27, 2017 dismissed White House allegations that it was preparing a new chemical weapons attack, as activists reported an airstrike on an Islamic State-run jail in eastern Syria that they said killed more than 40 prisoners. (Alaa Alyousef via AP, File)

White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during a the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, June 26, 2017. White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during a the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, June 26, 2017.

Photo: Alex Brandon, AP

Pentagon: ‘active preparations’ by Syria for chemical attack

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WASHINGTON (AP) The Pentagon[7] on Tuesday said it detected “active preparations” by Syria for a chemical weapons attack, giving weight to a White House statement hours earlier that the Syrian government would “pay a heavy price” if it carried out such an attack. A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis[8], said the U.S. had seen “activity” at Shayrat airfield that “indicated active preparations for chemical weapons use.” That is the same base from which the Syria air force launched an attack in April that the U.S. and others said used lethal chemicals to kill civilians. Syria denied the charge.

President Bashar Assad[9]‘s government and Russia dismissed the White House allegation that Damascus was preparing a new chemical weapons attack. Russian President Vladimir Putin[10]‘s spokesman Dmitry Peskov[11] said that “such threats to Syria’s legitimate leaders are unacceptable.” Russia is Assad’s key backer and sided with him when he denied responsibility for a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of people in Idlib province on April 4. The U.S. responded to that attack by hitting the airfield with dozens of cruise missiles. A Monday evening statement by White House Press[12] Secretary Sean Spicer[13] said the U.S. had “identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children.”

Spicer said the activities were similar to preparations taken before the attack in April, but provided no evidence or further explanation.

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Associated Press writers Jill Colvin[14], Josh Lederman[15], Lolita C. Baldor[16], Vivian Salama[17] and Matthew Lee[18] contributed to this report.

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References

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An unlikely home in DC

Chad Sydnor never in a million years thought he would end up in Washington. Born, raised and educated in North Carolina, Sydnor this month was hired as a vice president at Cassidy & Associates, one of the most succesful lobbying firms in the city and a decidedly D.C. establishment.

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The company counts among its clients defense and technology powerhouses Palantir, BAE Systems, Airbus and Cerner. The last was just named the creator of the Department of Veterans Affairs new electronic health records system, a multibillion-dollar undertaking.

Sydnor, 37, cut his own teeth on defense policy on Capitol Hill, serving most recently as military legislative aide (MLA) to Sen. Richard BurrAn Unlikely Home In DCRichard BurrAn unlikely home in DC Senate intel panel to hold hearing on Russian meddling in Europe The Hill’s Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill MORE[2][3][4][5][6][1] (R-N.C.). He held similar roles under Sen. John BoozmanAn Unlikely Home In DCJohn BoozmanAn unlikely home in DC Lobbying World The Hill’s 12:30 Report MORE[8][9][10][11][12][7] (R-Ark.) and Rep. Joe WilsonAn Unlikely Home In DCJoe WilsonAn unlikely home in DC Lobbying World OPINION: We must reject toxic rhetoric after violence in Virginia MORE[14][15][16][17][18][13] (R-S.C.). His experience is sure to be helpful in his new lobbying role amid a particularly decisive time on Capitol Hill. Congressional defense hawks are pushing back at a young administration, saying its proposed budget falls woefully short on military and homeland security spending.

Sydnor sat down with The Hill at Cassidy & Associates downtown office to discuss his defense-themed journey from the Tar Heel State to the nation s capital.

Through some very fortuitous circumstances while in law school in his home state, Sydnor, who was also a military police officer in the Army Reserve, wound up on a flight next to an Apache helicopter pilot and was offered a spot in the Raleigh battalion to fly for the Army National Guard. Sydnor graduated from flight school in 2011 and was working as a prosecutor when he was called to active duty. He was based in Fort Rucker, Ala., when he met his now-wife on a dating website. But she was nearly 900 miles away, starting her own business in Washington. The two dated long distance and continued to do so when he returned to Raleigh. He held off on returning to his job in the district attorney s office, deciding instead to move to Washington.

I knew a grand total of three people here in D.C., one of whom was a friend of mine from the military who was working at Lockheed Martin at the time, Sydnor recalls. I said, What do I do? I ve got this military background, I ve got this legal background.

His options were at a law firm job or to try his hand at policy. Certain offices do advertise jobs, but many times they are filled by word of mouth. Sydnor put his name in the resume bank and was later contacted by Wilson s then-legislative director, Melissa Murphy.

She called me up out of the blue and asked, Are you interested in being Rep. Wilson s MLA? I didn t know what the acronym meant, but I thought it must be good. I Googled it and figured it out. Wilson hired Sydnor despite his lack of legislative experience. At the time, the lawmaker was chairman of the House Armed Services subpanel on personnel, which isn t the sexiest subcommittee, Sydnor admits. But Wilson s professional staff members were Capitol Hill veterans excellent to learn from.

I didn t have any clue what I was doing for the first six months, he said.

Murphy, who is now chief of staff for Rep. David Rouzer (R-N.C.), said Sydnor s military experience caught her eye. The Army National Guard was and still is a huge priority for Wilson, she told The Hill.

Chad s a great person. He s a quick study, he learned military legislative issues very quickly and he s trustworthy, she said. I really enjoyed working with him. Obviously that professional relationship will continue now that he s at Cassidy. Sydnor worked with Wilson for three years before moving to work under Boozman in 2014. When a job opened up in December 2015 with Burr, North Carolina s senior senator, he jumped at the chance. Under the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sydnor cultivated a background in national security and cybersecurity.

But after six years on the hill, Sydnor said he needed a more stable situation than what a congressional staffer allows a little bit better work-life balance. He interviewed for several legislative affairs positions within the new Trump administration, specifically the Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security, but nothing fit. Through his connections on Capitol Hill, Cassidy & Associates emerged as a potential employer.

After seven interviews, he was hired as vice president this month. Cassidy CEO Kai Anderson called Sydnor a first-rate addition to our team who strengthens our defense and infrastructure capabilities. Sydnor s new portfolio largely deals with his bread and butter from Capitol Hill: defense, intelligence, cybersecurity and veterans healthcare issues.

He says he has his eye on the top lines for defense spending in the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Trump proposed $603 billion in national security spending, but defense hawks in Congress want a number closer to $640 billion. In any case, the numbers are still well above the $549 billion set by sequestration in the 2011 Budget Control Act. That must be repealed before anyone gets their way.

[House Armed Services Committee] Chairman Mac Thornberry [(R-Texas)] is talking about a $640 billion base, $65 billion in [Overseas Contingency Operations]. That would put you at a $705 billion defense bill. It s never been that high, Sydnor said. Thornberry has since changed his top line to $621 billion in base funding and $75 billion in OCO as of Monday.

The House Appropriations Committee, which released their draft of the bill Sunday, wants $584 billion in base funding and $74 billion in OCO for the Defense Department. That budget does not include added dollars for military construction and the Energy Department as the House Armed Services bill does. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAn Unlikely Home In DCMitch McConnellGOP ObamaCare fight faces do-or-die procedural vote Conservative groups hammer Senate healthcare reform bill The Memo: Trump seeks to put his stamp on nation MORE[20][21][22][23][24][19] (R-Ky.) has said that his side is marking the bill to current fiscal year spending levels.

The House Budget Committee has said $621 billion, the president has said $603 billion and the Budget Control Act says $549 billion, Sydnor said.

I m very interested to see we ve had two bipartisan budget agreements what does that look like? Is that going to be in the realm of the politically possible? For now, Sydnor is focused on navigating his new lobbying role, clients and the defense budget in a new age of Washington.

It not a normal year, and everything is on a very compressed time frame, he said.

As for the long-distance relationship that brought Sydnor to Washington, the two are now happily married and live in Arlington, Va. Sixteen months ago, they welcomed twin daughters.

References

  1. ^ Richard Burr (thehill.com)
  2. ^ Richard Burr (thehill.com)
  3. ^ An unlikely home in DC (thehill.com)
  4. ^ Senate intel panel to hold hearing on Russian meddling in Europe (thehill.com)
  5. ^ The Hill’s Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill (thehill.com)
  6. ^ MORE (thehill.com)
  7. ^ John Boozman (thehill.com)
  8. ^ John Boozman (thehill.com)
  9. ^ An unlikely home in DC (thehill.com)
  10. ^ Lobbying World (thehill.com)
  11. ^ The Hill’s 12:30 Report (thehill.com)
  12. ^ MORE (thehill.com)
  13. ^ Joe Wilson (thehill.com)
  14. ^ Joe Wilson (thehill.com)
  15. ^ An unlikely home in DC (thehill.com)
  16. ^ Lobbying World (thehill.com)
  17. ^ OPINION: We must reject toxic rhetoric after violence in Virginia (thehill.com)
  18. ^ MORE (thehill.com)
  19. ^ Mitch McConnell (thehill.com)
  20. ^ Mitch McConnell (thehill.com)
  21. ^ GOP ObamaCare fight faces do-or-die procedural vote (thehill.com)
  22. ^ Conservative groups hammer Senate healthcare reform bill (thehill.com)
  23. ^ The Memo: Trump seeks to put his stamp on nation (thehill.com)
  24. ^ MORE (thehill.com)

Dutch sleuth hopes for breakthrough in biggest US art heist

Dutch Sleuth Hopes For Breakthrough In Biggest US Art Heist FILE – In this Thursday, March 11, 2010 file photo, a plaque marks the empty frame from which thieves cut Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” which remains on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. A Dutch sleuth has his sights set on what he calls the Holy Grail of stolen art: A collection worth $500 million snatched in 1990 in the largest art heist in U.S. history from Boston s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds, File)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) A Dutch art sleuth who says he s following two possible leads in the largest art heist in U.S. history is hoping a $10 million reward will help track down the collection stolen from a Boston museum in 1990. Arthur Brand thinks a decision last month to double the reward for information could prompt the return of 13 works stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, though the museum s director of security says the leads Brand is following have already been pursued and are considered dead ends. The $10 million reward announced in May by the museum s trustees is on offer only until the end of the year, when it will likely revert to $5 million.

All the lights are on green, said Brand, whose past searches for purloined paintings and sculptures have led to Ukrainian militiamen and Nazi memorabilia collectors. If the people do not bring them back this year, it s now or never.

The stunning theft at the Gardner Museum was remarkably simple. Two men masqueraded as Boston police and got into the museum by telling a security guard they were responding to a disturbance. Once inside, the thieves handcuffed two guards on duty and put them in the museum s basement before snatching masterpieces that included paintings by Dutch masters Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer and French impressionist Edouard Manet. Investigators have followed an array of leads and suspects mobsters, Irish gunrunners, local thieves and even a Hollywood screenwriter.

The FBI told The Associated Press in 2015 that two suspects Boston criminals with ties to organized crime were dead, but the deaths did not end the search for the Gardner s stolen art. The FBI said investigators believe the collection moved through organized crime circles to Connecticut and Philadelphia, but its exact whereabouts remains a mystery. The missing pieces include Rembrandt s only known seascape, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, and his A Lady and Gentleman in Black; Manet s Chez Tortoni; and Vermeer s The Concert, one of fewer than 40 known paintings by the 17th century Dutch painter. Neither of the leads Brand is following is new, but the tenacious sleuth hopes the bigger reward will help. He has a record of success he helped German police seize a huge stash of art in 2015 that included two bronze horse sculptures crafted for Adolf Hitler. He also helped recover art stolen from a Dutch museum that had ended up with a militia in Ukraine. He runs a Dutch agency that helps track the provenance of works of art and advises buyers on their authenticity.

One of the leads focuses on a Dutch criminal who was reportedly in possession of photos of the stolen art and tried to sell the works in the Netherlands and the Belgian city of Antwerp in the early 1990s. Brand has not seen the photos, but says sources tell him they were taken after the theft. He declined to identify the criminal involved, or his sources. The lead sounds old, but if he can tell us who gave him these pictures at the time we could trace it back, Brand said.

The other lead is one that U.S. law enforcement authorities have followed and discounted: That a former member or members of the Irish Republican Army, which was responsible for a 27-year campaign of violence in Ireland and the United Kingdom, may have information about the works.

We are talking with some people about getting more information and trying to make a deal, Brand said, again refusing to elaborate. Anthony Amore, the Isabella Stewart Gardner s director of security, says the FBI already has pursued Brand s leads.

We ve explored the leads Arthur is discussing extensively in the past, and we re confident that we closed them without further need for investigation, Amore said. He added, There s never been any evidence presented to us of any value that the art left the United States.

Brand says he and other experts haven t given up on the Irish angle.

We all think we have very good leads in Ireland, but we still didn t see the paintings, so you never know for sure, he said. The possibility that whoever now has the art may not face prosecution could also help, along with the huge reward, to get the art back to the Boston museum. The five-year statute of limitations on crimes associated with the actual theft expired more than 20 years ago, so the thieves can no longer be prosecuted.

Federal prosecutors in Boston have not offered blanket immunity for whoever has the paintings now, but they are willing to consider immunity for anyone who can help them recover the stolen works.

At this point, our primary focus is to get the paintings back, Acting U.S. Attorney William Weinreb told The Associated Press. Brand says that could be enough incentive to make him the middle man who brings the works back to the museum.

If you have something in your house, even if it s stolen, and they offer you $10 million and immunity and anonymity, who will hold you back? Asked to rank his chances of success on a scale of one to 10, Brand said. So in a logical world, I would say 10. But the art world is not logical.

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Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie in Boston contributed.