A dispute over policy toward Sudan has exposed a significant rift between two of President Obama's closest advisers.
The clash - one of the first to become public in the new administration - came into the open Thursday when the president's special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, told Congress that he did not think there was any evidence to support the continued designation of Sudan as a sponsor of terrorism.
The retired Air Force major general told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he has been having an "honest debate" with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, who served as coordinator for foreign policy in Mr. Obama's election campaign.
The Obama administration's Sudan policy, which Mr. Gration predicted would be rolled out "in the next few weeks," is to include an intricate mix of incentives and penalties.
Mr. Gration has taken a softer line than Ms. Rice toward the regime headed by Sudanese President Omar Bashir, going so far last month as to say that the genocide against the people of Darfur was over and that the world was now dealing with the remnants of the killings.
Ms. Rice has continued to call the situation in Darfur genocide, a label first applied to the situation there by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in 2004 at the height of a campaign against farmers in Darfur by Sudan-government backed fighters known as Janjaweed.
The conflict, which has killed at least 300,000 people and displaced 2.5 million more, has since become more complicated with anti-government fighters in Darfur splintering into several rebel groups.
Ms. Rice also has said that she supports the indictment of Gen. Bashir for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Mr. Gration did not mention the indictment in his testimony Thursday.
Asked about the dispute with Mr. Gration, an aide to Ms. Rice said Thursday that she "is not going to have anything to say about that."
However, a senior administration official, who asked not to be named because he was discussing internal deliberations, acknowledged the rift.
"I am very proud of the open and robust interagency process - on Sudan and many other issues - run by [National Security Adviser] General [James L.] Jones and [Deputy National Security Adviser] Tom Donilon," he said. "Debate strengthens the policy. ... The president views debate as a very good thing - and it is curious that after eight years of a lack of sufficiently robust debate on national security matters that anyone would wish it otherwise."
Like Ms. Rice, Mr. Gration - who met Mr. Obama when he was a senator and visited Africa in 2006 - was in Mr. Obama's inner circle of foreign-policy advisers during the presidential campaign.
"We have some pretty significant actors inside the administration who have very different views about whether robust engagement is backed principally by pressures or backed principally by incentives," said John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough project, an anti-genocide advocacy group affiliated with the Center for American Progress. The Washington think tank has helped staff the administration.
During the hearing Thursday, Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican, asked Mr. Gration about his characterization in June that the genocide had ended in Sudan. Mr. Wicker said that both Ms. Rice and Mr. Obama have said the genocide persists.
Mr. Gration said Thursday that he considered the matter a "definitional issue."
"I am not saying that the genocide is over," he said. "I am focused on what we are doing to help. It doesn't matter what we call it in my view. What matters is that we have people living in desperate conditions. To get involved in a debate that is not required is not as important as fixing the situation, which is required."
Asked about Ms. Rice, he said, "Susan Rice is one of my dear friends. There are few women in the world that I would say, 'I love you' to, and Susan is one of them. I love Susan Rice," he added.
"There has been honest debate, but that's why we had a debate to ensure that we had a good strategy. We are focused on saving lives," he said.
Another point of tension between Mr. Gration and Ms. Rice is over sanctions, which Ms. Rice helped put on Sudan when she served on President Clinton's National Security Council.
Mr. Gration said Thursday that the myriad economic restrictions - imposed on Sudan for its treatment of its own people and support for terrorism - are hindering U.S. ability to build roads and infrastructure in southern Sudan.
A priority for Mr. Gration has been to implement a 2005 peace agreement between North and South Sudan that has been in danger of unraveling.
"At some point, we are going to have to unwind some of these sanctions so that we can do the very things that we need to do to ensure a peaceful transition and a state that's viable in the [south] should they choose to do that," he said.
On the issue of Sudan's designation by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism, Mr. Gration went further.
"There is no evidence in our intelligence community that supports [Sudan] being on the state sponsors of terrorism list. It's a political decision," he said.
As part of an effort to improve ties with the United States, Sudan agreed in 2000 to allow CIA teams to begin surveying the country, which hosted Osama bin Laden and numerous terrorist groups in the 1990s.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Sudanese government turned over reams of files on al Qaeda and bin Laden to the CIA, and the CIA in turn hosted leaders of Sudan's intelligence service in the United States, according to a 2005 Los Angeles Times article.
Nonetheless, the George W. Bush administration did not remove Sudan from the terrorism list.
Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, said Thursday that he had written a "classified letter" to the State Department questioning whether Sudan was out of the terrorism business and was a reliable counterterrorism partner.
The senior administration official said there had been no discussion about taking Sudan off the list in the context of the Sudan policy review.
Mr. Gration has some supporters for his approach. During the hearing, Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, "I believe Gen. Gration is on the right track and his engagement has saved lives."
In March, the Sudanese government expelled most international humanitarian aid groups from Darfur. Mr. Gration managed to get four aid groups into the country. At the time, there were dire predictions of starvation for the people of Darfur but that has not happened.
Ms. Rice, at another congressional hearing on Wednesday, acknowledged that Mr. Gration "helped persuade the government of Sudan to let four new humanitarian [nongovernmental organizations] in."
She added, however, "we continue to urge Khartoum to fill the gaps in critical humanitarian aid services and to improve its cooperation with" a U.N.-African Union mission in Darfur.
Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition, said that the level of killing in Darfur has declined, something Mr. Gration mentioned Thursday.
"What is different between now and 2005 is that there is not systematic destruction of villages because so many villages were destroyed and you've got 2.7 million people who still live in very dire circumstances," Mr. Fowler said.
Betsy Pisik contributed to this report from the United Nations.