Situation Report

Not convinced: WH, Pentagon respond to report of CW in Syria; Five House chairmen accuse HRC of lying; Hagel in Cairo, Dempsey in China; Cartwright on drones: “we might have ceded some of our moral high ground;” and a little bit more.

Not convinced: WH, Pentagon respond to report of CW in Syria; Five House chairmen accuse HRC of lying; Hagel in Cairo, Dempsey in China; Cartwright on drones: “we might have ceded some of our moral high ground;” and a little bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

The administration confronts the news of what an Israeli official said about chemical weapons use in Syria. Just hours after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel left Israel yesterday came the report that a top Israeli official believed the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons, dampening, to some extent, the goodwill created by Hagel’s goodwill stop there and clearly surprising Hagel and top staffers traveling with him. The White House and Pentagon responded, saying the comments made by an official with the IDF, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, didn’t change their own thinking about whether the Assad regime has used chemical weapons – to the U.S., there is still no conclusive evidence that it has, but that it was taking the claims seriously and was investigating. It’s not uncommon for an Israeli official to use a high-profile visit, such as Hagel’s this week, to make an attention-getting announcement. But this may be more a case of one Israeli agency leaning forward on intelligence and not necessarily a reflection of the broader view of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Steven Simon, a former senior director of the National Security Council who specialized in Middle East and North African affairs, told Situation Report he thinks Brun¹s comments may not be as significant as they had been cast by yesterday’s reports. The fact of the matter, he said, is that there is no incontrovertible evidence that the Syrians have used chemical weapons on any large scale.

"There isn’t dispositive evidence of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime," said Simon, who left the White House at the end of last year. Simon said he knows Brun and views him as "smart and disciplined." But, he said, "my interpretation is that I don¹t think he quite understood the implications of his statement. I think he thought he was being asked for his opinion, I don’t think he was envisaging headlines."

Brun didn¹t appear to have any new or definitive intelligence or other evidence to back up his claims, nor do his comments box the White House in in any way, Simon said. "Just because an Israeli creates some doubts about the administration’s take on chemical weapons use wouldn’t constitute any pressure on the White House to change the rules of the game," Simon said.

Pentagon pressec George Little, traveling with Hagel, on an evaluation into whether Syria has used CWs  – "We are concerned about reports of potential chemical weapons use, which is precisely why we’ve called for a thorough investigation… It’s important that we do whatever we can to monitor, investigate and verify any credible allegations, given the enormous consequences for the Syrian people and given [President Barack Obama’s] clear statement that chemical weapons use is unacceptable."

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Want to know what Assad’s WMD arsenal looks like? Read Killer Apps’ John Reed’s explainer: "The United States’ Intelligence Community’s 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment released last month states that Syria has a ‘highly active chemical weapons program’ maintaining a stockpile of sarin, VX, and the longtime staple of chemical warfare, mustard gas. These weapons can be delivered a number of ways, via cluster bombs dropped from jets and helicopters to chemical warheads placed atop Scud ballistic missiles. They can even be fired via shorter-range artillery guns or missiles systems, like the Soviet-made BM-27 Uragan," he writes. In addition, the intelligence community’s report says that it’s likely the Assad regime has biological weapons, just without dedicated delivery systems.

From the threat assessment: "Based on the duration of Syria’s longstanding biological warfare (BW) program, we judge that some elements of the program may have advanced beyond the research and development stage and may be capable of limited agent production…Syria is not known to have successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system, but it possesses conventional and chemical weapon systems that could be modified for biological agent delivery."

Where in the world is Hagel? In Cairo. Hagel was received by the Egyptian Ministry of Defense with a review of the troops and the playing of national anthems. Earlier this morning, Hagel finished an hour-long meeting with Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and then was expected to have lunch with the minister before laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier and a memorial to former Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat. He will also meet with President Mohammed Morsi. Hagel had told staffers a visit to Egypt, seen as critical to regional stability, was high on his list soon after being confirmed as secretary.

So then where in the world is Dempsey? Still in China. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey, on his third full day in China, visited the 4th Aviation Regiment, where he viewed static helicopter displays and spoke with crewmembers and leaders and saw a flight demonstration. Dempsey then visited the PLA Aviation Academy and spoke with cadets as part of an engagement with China’s current and potential future leaders, Situation Report is told. "Gen. Dempsey discussed leadership attributes – lifelong learning, trust, courage and humility – and answered questions from the roughly 40 students in attendance," Col. Dave Lapan, Dempsey’s spokesman, told us. Then Dempsey and staff ate lunch with hundreds of the academy’s cadets and staff members before making remarks at the National Defense University, where he spoke of "leadership and the profession of arms," we’re told.

Why isn’t Dempsey’s Facebook page getting daily updates from China? The E-Ring’s Kevin Baron wanted to know. Baron: "Everyone knows that China blocks Internet access to Facebook, but even, it seems, for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. Dempsey’s Facebook status, which usually actively shares the chairman’s daily public appearances, has not updated since Sunday, when he was still in Seoul, South Korea. Dempsey is in the middle of a rare visit to China, but judging from his Facebook page and most mainstream news outlets, you probably wouldn’t know it.

Lapan e-mailed Baron from China to say the Chairman’s office expects to update the page with the China visit all at once and that the lack of posts have nothing to do with any issue to do with cyber-security.

The GOP is laying the groundwork for HRC’s potential presidential run: the chairmen of five House Committees accuse her of lying outright to Congress over Benghazi. The chairmen of Oversight, Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, Intelligence and Judiciary accused former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of lying to Congress about reducing security in Benghazi, Libya, before last September’s attacks. The chairmen vowed to continue reviewing what the report described as a "cover up" over the nature of the attacks and hold administration officials accountable, the E-Ring’s Baron reports. The report is a compilation of investigations by the Republican staff of each
of the five committees, which have not yet officially adopted it. According to the report, the three main findings are that security reductions in Benghazi were "approved at the highest levels of the State Department, up to and including Secretary Clinton." The report also says that in the days following the attacks, White House and senior State Department officials altered accurate talking points drafted by the intelligence community to protect the State Department, and, finally: "Contrary to administration rhetoric, the talking points were not edited to protect classified information. Concern for classified information is never mentioned in email traffic among senior Administration officials."

ICYMI: FP’s Rosa Brooks told the Senate what’s wrong with drones, what’s not wrong with them, and describes the costs associated with American policy on drones. Brooks testified yesterday before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee about drones. From her statement, in part: "Here is an additional reason to worry about the U.S. overreliance on drone strikes: Other states will follow America’s example, and the results are not likely to be pretty. Consider once again the Letelier murder, which was an international scandal in 1976: If the Letelier assassination took place today, the Chilean authorities would presumably insist on their national right to engage in "targeted killings" of individuals deemed to pose imminent threats to Chilean national security — and they would justify such killings using precisely the same legal theories the US currently uses to justify targeted killings in Yemen or Somalia. We should assume that governments around the world-including those with less than stellar human rights records, such as Russia and China-are taking notice." And: "Right now, the United States has a decided technological advantage when it comes to armed drones, but that will not last long. We should use this window to advance a robust legal and normative framework that will help protect against abuses by those states whose leaders can rarely be trusted. Unfortunately, we are doing the exact opposite: Instead of articulating norms about transparency and accountability, the United States is effectively handing China, Russia, and every other repressive state a playbook for how to foment instability and -literally — get away with murder."

Defense News’ take on the testimony by Brooks and former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Jim "Hoss" Cartwright, who said at one point during the proceedings: "I’m concerned we might have ceded some of our moral high ground." Read Defense News’ story here. Transcript of Brooks’ prepared remarks, here.

Today at USIP at 2 p.m., a discussion on civil-military relations in Afghanistan. Panelists include: John Agoglia, vice president for government services for IDS International; Ashley Jackson, research fellow for Humanitarian Policy Group; Lisa Schirch, director of 3P Human Security, research professor at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, and policy advisor for the Alliance for Peacebuilding; and Ann Vaughn, senior policy advisor at Mercy Corps. USIP’s Bob Perito will moderate.  

Brett Lambert, the deputy assistant secretary for defense for manufacturing and industrial base policy, talks tomorrow at CSIS at 1pm. What will he talk about? Expect him to be peppered with these kinds of questions: "What is the right way to think about the ground force industrial base, and how is it best sustained overtime? What policies best support the continued viability of second- and third-tier suppliers as acquisitions become less frequent and smaller in scale? And finally, how can the relationship between DOD and the private sector be strengthened?" More deets, here.  

Newsbreakers and makers: network, drink and enjoy some rooftop fun. Tomorrow night the DC Hack & Flack gathering will be held atop the building at 600 Maryland Ave. SW, West Tower Penthouse. Usual group of reporters and public relations and public affairs officer-types from government and the private sector. To go send a note to RSVP@harris.com.

Noting

  • AP: Bomb suspect influenced by mysterious radical.
  • Al-Monitor: The unpredictable succession plan of Saudi Arabia.
  • Defense News: Navy seeks to decommission more ships.
  • Khaama Press (Afg.): Civilian casualties increased by 30 percent: U.N. 

Travels with Hagel and Dempsey

  • AP: Israeli focus on Syria gives Hagel respite on Iran.
  • CS Monitor: Hagel goes to Israel bearing gifts of Ospreys and radar. 
  • China Daily: (opinion) More military interaction.
  • Bloomberg: Chinese general with Dempsey compares cyber-attack to nuke. 
  • DOD: Dempsey engages senior leaders in China.