Situation Report

Hagel could be in office by Friday; Carter and company talk sequestration on the Hill; What the North Korean test means; Why Mark Lippert may not leave the Pentagon; The “Iz a-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters” could be the wolf closest to the door and more.

Hagel could be in office by Friday; Carter and company talk sequestration on the Hill; What the North Korean test means; Why Mark Lippert may not leave the Pentagon; The “Iz a-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters” could be the wolf closest to the door and more.

Obama will announce that he will bring home 34,000 troops this year. Multiple news outlets are reporting this morning that President Barack Obama will announce in tonight’s State of the Union address that 34,000 troops will return home this year. Depending on the "slope" of their departure, that would leave a smaller fighting force for this spring, summer and fall. And it would leave just 32,000 American troops on the ground in America’s longest war by the end of the year.

What Hagel is looking at today: Today’s Senate Armed Services Committee vote on Chuck Hagel’s nomination for SecDef is expected to be party-line, Situation Report was told this morning. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is then expected to bring the nomination to the full Senate floor no later than Thursday. Although the political theater could continue, that vote, assuming it is ultimately successful, means Panetta’s last day could be Friday and Hagel would soon thereafter be wheels-up for NATO ministerial in Brussels next week that has produced some anxiety as the Hagel saga dragged on.

 

Ash Carter to Congress: sequestration could be a tragedy. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, along with top Pentagon officials, to discuss the perils of sequestration. We’ve heard this story before. But we are, once again, approaching the witching hour, on March 1. Carter’s testimony: "What is particularly tragic is that sequestration is not a result of an economic emergency or a recession. It’s not because discretionary spending cuts are the answer to our nation’s fiscal challenge; do the math. It’s not in reaction to a change to a more peaceful world. It’s not due to a breakthrough in military technology or a new strategic insight. It’s not because paths of revenue growth and entitlement spending have been explored and exhausted. It’s purely the collateral damage of political gridlock."

 

"We have long argued that the responsible way to implement reductions in defense spending is to formulate a strategy first and then develop a budget that supports the strategy. If the Department were forced to operate under the mechanistic sequestration rules and the CR for the remainder of the fiscal year, it would achieve precisely the opposite effect by imposing arbitrary budget cuts that then drive changes in national security strategy. This is why I continue to urge Congress, in the strongest possible terms, to avoid sequestration by devising a comprehensive and balanced deficit reduction package that both the House and Senate can pass and that the President can sign."

Dempsey, to Congress: In his opening statement to the SASC this morning, Gen. Martin Dempsey pleads for members of Congress to "resist kicking this can further down the road." Dempsey sounded both serious and condescending, asking for budget certainty while reminding the Senate — again — that sequestration

would "break faith" with troops and "reduce our options and increase our risk." Dempsey: "Now, we are only days away from making that risk a reality. We can do better."

Welcome to Tuesday’s edition of Situation Report, where we would never resign in a historic move. Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com. Sign up for Situation Report here or just shoot me an e-mail and I’ll put you on the list. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease.

North Korea says it conducted a third nuclear test. The North announced through its news agency that it had indeed conducted another test, using a "miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force" than had been tested before. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a statement overnight, saying: "The U.S. Intelligence Community assesses that North Korea probably conducted an underground nuclear explosion in the vicinity of P’unggye on February 12, 2013. The explosion yield was approximately several kilotons. Analysis of the event continues."

One expert tells Situation Report that two key questions are whether North Korean used uranium, as opposed to plutonium, in the test and whether it has succeeded in miniaturizing a weapon design that would enable it to put a warhead on a missile. "While there are other hurdles for the Kim Jong-eun regime along this path, the troubling phenomenon is that it’s moving forward," MIT’s John Park told Situation Report this morning. He says that if the U.S. is able to determine that North Korea tested a uranium device this time around, "the North Korean nuclear imbroglio will have mutated into a more complex and dangerous one. Rather than hoarding a dwindling stockpile of weapons grade plutonium, the North Koreans could have amassed a substantial quantity of highly enriched uranium by operating a hard-to-detect uranium enrichment program. That translates into more nuclear warheads," he said, adding that a successful test raises the question of what foreign assistance the North received. "Iran tops that list," he said.

Obama was expected to promote further reductions to the American nuclear arsenal in tonight’s State of the Union address. Now, it’s unclear if talk of downsizing would go over very well. Earlier this morning, the White House released a statement from Obama, saying the nuclear test was a "highly provocative act" that "undermines regional stability." And, he said, it represents a threat to national security. Given that, White House speechwriters may be scrambling to figure out how to convey Obama’s hope to reduce the number of America’s nukes

A rift in Republican ranks over Hagel. While the SASC is expected to vote on Hagel’s nomination this morning, the controversial nom is testing the leadership of the committee’s new ranking member, Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Republican from Oklahoma, who replaced Sen. John McCain. Even as other Republicans step out of the way to allow Hagel’s nomination to go forward, Inhofe remains steadfastly against it. He is insisting that if Hagel can’t get 60 votes, his nomination should not go forward. Hagel has the votes to win a majority, but he may not have enough to overcome a filibuster. Inhofe was quoted by the LAT as saying he, Inhofe, is entitled to 60 votes: "I feel a responsibility, because of all the things we’ve been talking about, to do what I can to see that Chuck Hagel is not confirmed as secretary of Defense." But yesterday McCain seemed resigned to allowing Hagel’s nom to move forward. He issued a statement saying that, while he still shares his Republican colleagues’ many concerns about Hagel, he can no longer justify standing in the way. He cited the "integrity" of the nomination process and the importance of handling noms in a "fair and appropriate manner that is mindful" of the importance of national security positions. McCain even hinted he might vote for Hagel after all. "With this in mind, I have examined the information and responses to Members’ questions that Senator Hagel has provided to the Committee, and I believe that he has fulfilled the rigorous requirements that the Committee demands of every presidential nominee to be secretary of Defense." McCain later told reporters  yesterday: "Someday, we will have a Republican president. Someday, we may even have a majority in the United States Senate. It sets, I think, a wrong precedent."From the Department of Random Appearances: A picture of Panetta, in younger days, on the wall of the National Aquarium. Right next to Betty White. Flournoy and Campbell are joining the CNAS board of directors. The Cable’s Josh Rogin reports that Michele Flournoy and Kurt Campbell will join the board of the Center for a New American Security — the think tank they founded in 2008 — with Campbell becoming chairman. Campbell, known as the chief architect of Obama’s "Asia Pivot," left his position as assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs on Friday. The smart money to replace Campbell at State, Rogin writes, is on National Security Staff Senior Director for Asia Danny Russel. Another possibility, says Rogin: Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Affairs Mark Lippert, who is close to President Obama. Lippert "is a real possibility for the job and is said to want to move over to State," Rogin writes. But a defense official tells Situation Report: "Mark is fully committed to continuing his role in a Hagel Pentagon. Having transformed Asia Pacific Security Affairs during the Panetta years, he has become a crucial regional player and Mark’s 110% focused on growing defense investments in the rebalance."

The threat of cyber-warfare may come in the form of gangs. A cyber militia group likely backed by Iran, Iz a-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters, could pose a real threat to the U.S. and to its economy, writes Rich Andres on FP: "In September of last year, this group announced that it had launched an attack on a collection of U.S. banks in retaliation for the ‘Innocence of the Muslims’ (the video that ignited violent protests across the Middle East on September 11, 2012). Al-Qassam’s attack is one of the largest and most persistent distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks on record, dwarfing the 2007 Russian cyber-militia attack that crippled Estonia. Authorities have described al-Qassam’s capabilities as military-grade and speculated about the organization’s ability to disrupt the already ailing U.S. economy." A new National Intelligence Estimate, due out soon, may or may not finger Al-Qassam. But it’s likely that the kind of attacks of which the group is capable will be featured prominently in the estimate since national security types rightly worry about the real perils of cyber attacks. And cyber attacks, the source of which can be very hard to attribute, are the quintessential form of warfare in an age of asymmetric battles. Andres: "Over the last decade, both China and Russia have nurtured militias dedicated to crime. In Russia’s case, the organizations are tied to mafias loosely connected to the government through a web of corruption, graft, and indirect and intermittent ties to military and intelligence agencies. Russia’s cyber-mafia operations allow organizations to coordinate criminal activity and exploit cyber-wealth around the globe in operations worth billions of dollars each year. The cost to the state is minimal, generally little more than allowing law enforcement to turn a blind eye to theft involving victims outside the country, while harshly punishing criminals that attack Russian political targets. The overall effect is to increase Russia’s GNP and to provide a cloud of cyberattacks emanating from Russia and Eastern Europe large enough to obscure and create plausible deniability for state-launched cyber operations. For instance, while a number of U.S. officials, including President Obama, have denounced countries for planting logic bombs in U.S. critical infrastructure that could knock it offline, the existence of massive criminal cyber operations makes it difficult to blame Russia — even for war-like acts like taking down an electric grid."

Noting

  • Arms Control Wonk:  Obama in situ for SOTU.
  • CNN: World leaders react to North Korea’s test.
  • AP: Timeline on North Korea’s nuclear pursuits.
  • AP: Rebels capture airbase in northern Syria.  
  • USIP: The Institute’s ongoing series on "sleeper risks."  
  • Stripes: Esquire article wrongly says bin Laden shooter denied healthcare.
  • Danger Room: Spec Ops Command isn’t sweating bin Laden shooter’s mag profile.