Situation Report

FP’s Situation Report: Pre budget, loose lips at the Pentagon

FP’s Situation Report: Pre budget, loose lips at the Pentagon

By Gordon Lubold

This is why we can’t have nice things: leaks about the budget have dominated the Pentagon. Our story: If loose lips sink ships, this Pentagon is taking on a lot of water. The release of the Pentagon’s massive-yet-smaller budget is just weeks away, but budget decisions like the number of ships the Navy will buy or the size of the National Guard have been dribbling out in the media for months. That has pleased reporters looking for scoops and those defense officials who seek to shape the debate about weapons programs in a budget cycle that has produced much anxiety before it has even begun. But one man is not pleased: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Hagel has told his senior officers, service secretaries, and other senior civilians that he expects they’ll keep it zipped until the budget is unveiled. But the leaks about the budget before it has been unveiled have continued. One day last month — the day after a media report indicated that the Navy’s buy of the prized littoral combat ship would be cut by 40 percent — Hagel walked into a high-level meeting of his service secretaries, chiefs, and combatant commanders to tell them again that he was really unhappy. He wasn’t shrill, said one individual in the meeting, and he was measured. As he looked around the room, he was pointed and he was firm, reminding everyone there again that he expected them to keep quiet.

"The secretary is extremely disappointed in the volume of information that unnamed sources believe is in their purview to share publicly about decisions that quite frankly haven’t been finalized in some cases," Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, told Situation Report. "The secretary has expressed his displeasure over these leaks to the civilian and military leadership of the department on more than one occasion."

"… Hagel is expected to do a soft rollout of the 2015 budget as early as next week. But much of what he has to say may not be news. That’s due largely to the decidedly different approach he took on leaks where he favored trust of his people over strong-arming them.

Hagel’s style has been markedly different. Unlike Gates and Panetta, Hagel did not require senior officers and secretaries to sign nondisclosure agreements, preferring to trust them to keep the secrets of the budget strictly confidential.

A senior defense official said Hagel wasn’t naive about leaks but didn’t want to run roughshod over senior officials entrusted with a wide variety of critical information. "His message to the leadership was: ‘I’m going to trust you,’" the official told Situation Report. Read the rest of our story here.

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Page One:  A tentative accord in Ukraine. The NYT’s Andrew Kramer and Andrew Higgins: "The government of President Viktor F. Yanukovych announced a tentative resolution on Friday to a crisis that has brought days of bloodshed to Ukraine. The agreement, which has yet to be signed, was announced after all-night talks with opposition leaders, Russian representatives and the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France. In a statement later on his website quoted by The Associated Press, Mr. Yanukovych said he would call early presidential elections, form a coalition and reduce presidential powers through constitutional reforms.

"Any deal that does not include the president’s departure, however, is unlikely to get very far with protesters and it was uncertain whether, in the event of a final deal, the protest movement’s political leadership could deliver the support of an angry base comprising many different groups and factions." More here.

It’s not all about politics in Ukraine: the loan that started it all. FP’s own Jamila Trindle: "As the carnage continues in Ukraine – with scenes of wounded protesters, raging fires, and armed police in full riot gear — it’s easy to forget the whole crisis was set off by a disagreement over a loan. Late last year, with Ukraine’s state coffers running low because of overspending on political priorities like subsidizing natural gas and increasing the wages of government workers, President Viktor Yanukovych faced a choice. The European Union offered a trade deal that promised to boost Ukraine’s sluggish economy in exchange for harsh and politically unpopular austerity measures. Russia offered $15 billion and didn’t ask Yanukovych to change much of anything. Unsurprisingly, he rejected the EU deal and opted for Moscow’s bailout instead. Thousands of angry Ukrainians took to the streets in protest, and they haven’t left." Read the rest here.

Chuck Hagel hasn’t been able to engage Ukrainian counterpart, by USAT’s Tom Vanden Brook, here. "Hagel has not been in touch recently with Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedev despite efforts to engage with him, [Rear Admiral John] Kirby said…They have been unresponsive to our requests."

The Pentagon also announced that Hagel was shaking up the office that handles the MIA Accounting Mission. AP’s Bob Burns, who first broke the story on the problems within the MIA office, did a piece on the newest wrinkle on the issue, from yesterday, here.

Read DoD’s transcript of the briefing yesterday with Pentagon spokesman Kirby here.

Follow "Fake Admiral Kirby" on the Tweeters and read @zorching’s wisecracks about the briefing. What’s @zorching’s beef with the press corps’ dress code, anyway? Sheesh.

Did this veteran of the Afghan war channel George Costanza? Robert McKevitt uses a forklift to get a Twix bar out of a vending machine. The DesMoines Register’s Clark Kauffman: "It’s a familiar tableau: an overpriced vending-machine candy bar dangles on a spiral hook, tantalizingly out of reach and refusing to drop. For most of us, that mini-drama usually ends in defeat. But not for Robert McKevitt of Spirit Lake, whose victory over an uncooperative vending machine ultimately cost him his job. McKevitt was working the second shift at Polaris Industries’ warehouse in Milford when he decided to break for a snack last fall. He says he deposited $1 in a vending machine, selected a 90-cent Twix bar, and then watched as the candy bar crept forward in its slot, began its descent and was abruptly snagged by a spiral hook that held it suspended in midair.

‘I was, like, ‘Oh, man,’ " said McKevitt, 27. ‘So I put in another dollar, and then it wouldn’t do anything.’… He reportedly drove up to the vending machine, lifted it 2 feet off the concrete warehouse floor – then let it drop. He allegedly repeated the maneuver at least six times, by which time three candy bars had fallen into the chute for his retrieval… McKevitt, who served in Afghanistan with the Iowa National Guard in 2011, didn’t testify at his Dec. 16 unemployment-benefits hearing." More here.

Remember, Twix is "the only candy with the cookie crunch." Watch George’s "Twix Rage" here.

AFLAC is back: Ben Affleck will testify on Capitol Hill about Congo.  FP’s John Hudson with a little scoopage yesterday: "With a vicious spate of mass killings plaguing the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a Senate panel is calling on experts to appear before U.S. lawmakers next week. One of them is Hollywood actor and serial activist Ben Affleck, The Cable has learned. Affleck is slated to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next Wednesday to discuss the troubled central African country of 75 million people. The Argo director has shown a keen interest in Congo in recent years through his philanthropic organization, the Eastern Congo Initiative. But not everyone thinks Affleck’s resume qualifies him to testify on Capitol Hill. When the Seattle-based advisory firm working for Affleck, WilliamsWorks, tried to set up a similar event in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, Republicans did not accept, according to a Congressional aide familiar with the matter. "It was floated and turned down," said the aide. More here.

It was probably drugs: On ‘Captain Phillips” Maersk Alabama, two former SEALs are dead. The NYT’s Nicholas Kulish in Nairobi and Mark Mazzetti in DC: "Two former Navy SEAL members who had been hired to protect the container ship that was attacked by Somali pirates in 2009 – an episode that became the basis of the Oscar-nominated film ‘Captain Phillips’ – were found dead while the ship, the Maersk Alabama, was docked in the Seychelles, officials said Thursday. While the causes of death were still under investigation, a spokesman for the ship’s owners said a police report indicated that drugs were in the cabin where the two bodies were found. According to a portion of the police report shown to a reporter, the authorities found no injuries on either of the men. On a table near the bodies were ‘brown powder substances’ that were "suspected to be drugs." The two men were taken to Seychelles Hospital, where they were pronounced dead. More here.

From the Seychelles’ Nation: "The two security guards found dead on board container ship Maersk Alabama on Tuesday are Americans Jeffrey Reynolds and Mark Kennedy, the Seychelles police have said.??Jeffrey Reynolds and Mark Kennedy were discovered dead on the ship moored in Port Victoria late in the afternoon of Tuesday February 18.? ?Their bodies were found in Kennedy’s cabin by a colleague who had gone to check on him at around 4.30pm.??Both aged 44, Reynolds and Kennedy worked for Trident Security Firm USA. They were part of a ship crew of 24 members who arrived in Port Victoria on Sunday February 16 and were expected to leave at 9pm on Tuesday night." More here.

Ouch! Stress testing for the Marine Corps’ version of the F-35 may be halted – for as long as a year – after cracks were found in its bulkheads. Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio: "… Testing of the fighter’s durability was stopped in late September after inspections turned up cracks in three of six bulkheads on a plane used for ground testing, said Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the F-35 program office.

"The previously undisclosed suspension of the stress testing may increase scrutiny of the Marine Corps’ F-35B, the most complex of the three versions of the plane, during congressional hearings on the Defense Department’s fiscal 2015 budget. The department plans to request funds for 34 F-35s, eight fewer than the 42 originally planned, according to officials. Six of those planes would be for the Marines."

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, who says a redesign of some of F-35B’s structures, will be required based on a preliminary analysis: "We consider this significant but by no means catastrophic." More here.

Listen up, nation! Stan McChrystal was on Stephen Colbert last night. Watch it here.

Foreshadowing: The chair of the military compensation commission that will recommend big changes to military bennies – but not until 2015 – spoke to Military Times’ Andrew Tilghman about how the commission is thinking. Tilghman: "Proposals to front-load military compensation with more cash now rather than back-loading it with deferred, in-kind benefits later on are gaining traction with the commission tasked with recommending reforms to the current system. ‘Cash is king’ to today’s service members, said Alphonso Maldon Jr., the head of the Military Retirement and Compensation Modernization Commission. In an interview, Maldon offered an early window into the commission’s work, which is slated for completion in February 2015. Many military officials and lawmakers expect the final report to jump-start a push for historic changes. A preference for cash is a ‘trend we’re seeing,’ Maldon said. ‘It could very well, at the end of the day, carry a lot of weight in the direction we might take.’

"While military personnel costs are under mounting pressure, Maldon said his commission is not directly seeking to save money, but rather is focusing on long-term reforms to make military compensation more cost-effective. ‘We believe we can bring about some efficiencies,’ he said. ‘Perhaps in the long run there may even be some cost savings, but that is totally not our objective.’ Read the rest here.

Oddly, State issued a travel warning for Afghanistan yesterday. The State Department often issues travel warnings – and has before for Afghanistan. Is it not still a warzone?

Prospects for peace dim in Pakistan as Pakistani gunships pound Taliban hideouts. The NYT’s Salman Masood and Ihsanhullah Tipu Mehsud: "… The airstrikes took place overnight in North Waziristan and in the Khyber tribal region, and they appeared to be in retaliation for the reported killing of 23 paramilitary soldiers who had been captured by a Taliban faction in the Mohmand region. The government suspended talks with representatives of the Taliban on Monday in reaction to the killings…

"The prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, had been trying to open a channel to negotiate peace with the Taliban, despite a growing chorus of support for beginning a military offensive in North Waziristan, a rugged tribal region that serves a redoubt for militants from the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He named a team of peace representatives on Jan. 29, and the two sides held preliminary meetings starting on Feb. 6. But each side has demanded that the other announce a cease-fire as a precondition for peace talks." Read the rest here.