Situation Report

Diplomats leaving Lebanon; The impact of pondering strikes; Did Hagel “low-ball” Syria?; USAID confronts its first known suicide; The Art of (Defining) War; Should Congress go to Syria? and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold  State orders diplomats and others out of Lebanon. The U.S. is withdrawing all non-emergency embassy workers and their families from Beirut and told Americans not to travel there as the potential of strikes looms larger. State issued travel warnings for Lebanon and also Turkey this morning. State’s Marie Harf, in a statement: ...

By Gordon Lubold 

State orders diplomats and others out of Lebanon. The U.S. is withdrawing all non-emergency embassy workers and their families from Beirut and told Americans not to travel there as the potential of strikes looms larger. State issued travel warnings for Lebanon and also Turkey this morning. State’s Marie Harf, in a statement: "The Department of State has ordered a drawdown of non-emergency U.S. Government personnel and family members in Beirut, Lebanon and approved the drawdown of non-emergency personnel and family members who wish to leave Adana, Turkey. Given the current tensions the region, as well as potential threats to U.S. Government facilities and personnel, we are taking these steps out of an abundance of caution to protect our employees and their families, and local employees and visitors to our facilities. We will continue to assess the situation and to adjust our security posture accordingly."

The delay is allowing movement of pieces on the chessboard: Iran is plotting a revenge if the U.S. strikes Syria. The WSJ’s Julian Barnes and Adam Entous, this morning: "The U.S. has intercepted an order from Iran to militants in Iraq to attack the U.S. Embassy and other American interests in Baghdad in the event of a strike on Syria, officials said, amid an expanding array of reprisal threats across the region. Military officials have been trying to predict the range of possible responses from Syria, Iran and their allies. U.S. officials said they are on alert for Iran’s fleet of small, fast boats in the Persian Gulf, where American warships are positioned. U.S. officials also fear Hezbollah could attack the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and on Friday the State Department ordered nonessential U.S. diplomats to leave Lebanon because of security concerns." Read the rest here.

Upgrading the mission? The debate over Syria is not giving the Syrian regime any tactical advantage, the Pentagon says, even as the White House orders an "expanded list of potential targets." The NYT’s David Sanger and Eric Schmitt report, following nuggets in a WSJ report Thursday, that Obama has directed the Pentagon to expand its list of targets after intelligence suggests that the Assad regime is moving troops and equipment. The Times’ story: "Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the ‘degrade’ part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria – to ‘deter and degrade’ Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan. For the first time, the administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a renewed push to get other NATO forces involved."

But the Pentagon is adamant: the U.S. military’s capabilities can more than address whatever tactical advantage the Syrian regime can achieve during the time it’s taking to debate Syria. The Pentagon’s George Little, yesterday, to reporters: "We are the strongest military power in the world. We are also one of the most flexibility and adaptable. And we have access to information that will enable us to take effective action at the appropriate time, if called upon. No one in the Syrian regime should take solace from the deliberative process that we’re undertaking right now with the United States Congress." Full transcript of briefing, here.

Yet the delay is causing at least one Republican Congressman to change his vote, from strike to don’t-strike: "Now that the [President Bashar] Assad regime has seen our playbook and has been given enough time to prepare and safeguard potential targets, I do not feel that we have enough to gain as a nation by moving forward with this attack on our own…Thus, after much thought, deliberation and prayer, I am no longer convinced that a U.S. strike on Syria will yield a benefit to the United States that will not be greatly outweighed by the extreme cost of war." – Rep. Michael Grimm of New York, a former Marine.

Meanwhile, a majority of Americans approve of sending Congress to Syria. The Onion, here.

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At USAID, the first suicide since the agency has been deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq. On Aug. 15, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that one of its employees had died suddenly. The agency didn’t mention that Michael C. Dempsey, a senior field program officer assigned as the leader of a civilian assistance team in eastern Afghanistan, killed himself four days earlier while home on extended medical leave. However, the medical examiner in Kent County, Michigan, confirmed to Foreign Policy that Dempsey had committed suicide by hanging himself in a hotel-room shower. His death is USAID’s first known suicide in a decade of work in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.

After a decade of development and reconstruction work in two of the world’s hottest war zones, USAID now has hundreds of Foreign Service officers who are potentially at risk for post-traumatic mental-health issues. While an enormous amount of resources and attention has been paid to military suicides, comparatively little focus has been given to civilians’ struggles. And it’s a sign that it’s not only members of the armed services who shoulder the emotional burdens of war.

Why it’s more troubling: And what makes the suicide particularly striking is that it came a year and three days after Dempsey’s close friend and colleague was killed in an improvised-explosive-device attack in Afghanistan. Dempsey’s friend and USAID colleague, Ragaei Abdelfattah, an American of Egyptian descent, was killed along with three military escorts and an Afghan civilian in the attack in eastern Kunar province. The death of his friend, who left behind a wife and children, may have contributed to Dempsey suffering from "survivor’s remorse," say individuals outside the agency who were close to the matter. Dempsey had been receiving counseling up until the time he died.

The issue AID now confronts: With Dempsey’s death as the first known suicide from either of USAID’s Afghanistan or Iraq programs, the suicide forces the agency to deal with an inescapable problem: how to help its employees who deploy to the same war zones as the military but who don’t always have access to the same kind of assistance. Larry Sampler, who heads USAID’s programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, traveled to Michigan in August to attend the memorial for Dempsey. Sampler said Dempsey’s suicide means USAID must now look at how best to help those who have deployed to war zones for the agency. "The physical and emotional resilience of our staff is of paramount importance to us: To me personally as the leader of the Afghanistan and Pakistan effort," he said in a statement to FP. "In our experience, returning staff often may not even know they’re having difficulty adjusting until they’ve been out of Afghanistan for awhile — and we want them to have and to know about the extended and enduring support network we offer." Read the rest of our story here.

The NYT reports on new documents that show the National Security Agency is "winning its long-running secret war on encryption, using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion to undermine the major tools protecting the privacy of everyday communications in the Internet age." The Times’ Nicole Perlroth, Jeff Larson and Scott Shane: "The agency has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global commerce and banking systems, protects sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world, the documents show. Many users assume – or have been assured by Internet companies – that their data is safe from prying eyes, including those of the government, and the N.S.A. wants to keep it that way. The agency treats its recent successes in deciphering protected information as among its most closely guarded secrets, restricted to those cleared for a highly classified program code-named Bullrun, according to the documents, provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor."

A 2010 memo describing a briefing about NSA accomplishments for employees of its British counterpart, GCHQ: "For the past decade, N.S.A. has led an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies…Cryptanalytic capabilities are now coming online. Vast amounts of encrypted Internet data which have up till now been discarded are now exploitable."

Gobsmacked?!!? The Times story continues: "When the British analysts, who often work side by side with N.S.A. officers, were first told about the program, another memo said, ‘those not already briefed were gobsmacked!’"

Back on Syria. "Tens of millions of dollars" was probably an understatement. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said this week that a potential operation using strikes in Syria would cost "tens of millions of dollars," but that elicited some surprise in some quarters. The actual cost of deploying cruise missiles and keeping ships on station in the Med and other related costs, may be far more. Reuters’ David Alexander: "…if past experience is a guide, the number could be substantially higher than that. It is not uncommon for U.S. forces to open an assault by launching scores of Tomahawk missiles costing over $1 million apiece and dropping bombs from radar-evading B-2 planes that fly 18 hours each way from their base at a cost of $60,000 an hour… Most of the cost of an action against Syria would be for replacing munitions that were used, funds that would not be required until after the 2014 fiscal year begins on October 1. The Pentagon probably would pay for the munitions with a supplemental war-funding request to Congress, which would not be subject to current budget spending caps, Harrison said. ‘If you include the replacement costs of munitions, it (an operation against Syria) could cost half a billion, up to a billion dollars depending on the number of targets they go after," said Harrison. CSBA’s Todd Harrison, to Alexander: "I was surprised when I heard him (Hagel) say tens of millions of dollars. That’s low-balling it." More here.

Why budgetary concerns and sequester are irrelevant to the issue at hand. Writing on FP earlier this week, Gordon Adams: "No sooner had President Obama announced that he would seek congressional approval for launching missiles on Damascus, than the defenders of defense stepped out to say: The Pentagon can’t do this; it has no money; do something about the sequester. This is Washington; nobody misses an opportunity to hang their pet rock on a passing vote. But the thing is, budgetary sequestration is irrelevant to what the president says he intends to do. We already bought the five destroyers now off the Syrian coast. We bought the Tomahawks the president plans to fire off, if he gets the vote he wants, years ago. There are several dozen on each of those ships. And we are paying the sailors who will fire them off. In fact, the president has now twice exempted military pay from the sequester (smart political move)."

It depends on what the meaning of the words ‘is’ is: The Art of Defining War in the Syrian crisis. We invoke Bill Clinton’s famous word dodge as everyone tries to figure out what the administration will call whatever it is it might do in Syria. So far, the White House is loath to call it "war." But it’s not easy calling it something else. Secretary of State John Kerry said this week "we’re not asking America to go to war," saying he doesn’t believe that’s what this is. "That’s not what we’re doing here. The president is asking for permission to take a limited military action, yes, but one that does not put Americans in the middle of the battle." And Pentagon press secretary George Little, yesterday, deflected the moniker: "I’m not going to get into those kinds of labels here today. This would be an action that would be consistent with American law and would absolutely comport with the legitimacy of international norm against the use of chemical weapons," he told reporters in a briefing. Defense One’s Stephanie Gaskell, a.k.a. "Defense Two," writes: "Welcome to a new era of warfare, one borne out of two protracted and deadly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a shrinking budget and a very war-weary American public. To planners at the Pentagon, the mission to ‘deter and degrade’ the use and proliferation of chemical weapons and send a message to Syrian President Bashar al Assad is not war. It’s a ‘limited mission’… The preferred standard operating procedure now is to keep world order through limited engagements, using naval and air assets, cyber and drone technology, small, elite counterterror units — anything but U.S. boots on the ground — to maintain U.S. national security interests across the globe. Syria, with its potential to drag the U.S. into another protracted war, will be this new strategy’s first test." More here.

And also on Syria, limiting public comment for the Congressional Black Caucus. The Cable’s own John Hudson: "As an increasing number of African-American lawmakers voice dissent over the Obama administration’s war plans in Syria, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has asked members to ‘limit public comment’ on the issue until they are briefed by senior administration officials. A congressional aide to a CBC member called the request ‘eyebrow-raising,’ in an interview with The Cable, and said the request was designed to quiet dissent while shoring up support for President Obama’s Syria strategy. The CBC, a crucial bloc of more than 40 votes the White House likely needs to authorize a military strike in Syria, is scheduled to be briefed by White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice on Monday. Until then, CBC chairwoman Marcia Fudge has asked colleagues to ‘limit public comment until [they] receive additional details,’ Fudge spokeswoman Ayofemi Kirby told The Cable. When asked if the White House requested the partial gag order, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said ‘the Administration is reaching out to all Members to ensure they have the information they need to make an informed judgment on this issue.’ Kirby said it was her boss’s request and was aimed at keeping members informed rather than silencing anti-war members." Read the rest here.

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