Situation Report

FP’s Situation Report: U.S. to open spigot of assistance to Syria

A shooting in Norfolk; Why the malware market is thriving; The challenge of finding the black box; Will Sinclair retire as a one-star?; and a bit more.

Overnight: there was a shooting at Naval Station Norfolk aboard the USS Mahan at Pier 1, in which two died, including the civilian suspect. CBS News: "A base spokeswoman says a sailor was shot and killed at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia and security forces killed the male civilian suspect. Terri Davis says the shooting happened around 11:20 p.m. Monday aboard the USS Mahan, a destroyer. Davis would not describe the circumstances of the shooting but said the scene is secure. Davis says the two killed were both males but she didn’t have any other information on them. She could not say if the civilian had permission to be aboard the ship or not. No other injuries were reported."

Meantime, the U.S. is about to open a big spigot of non-lethal assistance to rebel forces in Syria. Our story: "The State Department is about to begin delivering tens of millions of dollars worth of new assistance into Syria, including ambulances, communications gear and Toyota pickup trucks for the country’s beleaguered rebels… despite the violence and fighting across large swaths of the country, State Department officials say that opposition forces have managed to open the supply route into Aleppo from the Syrian-Turkish border that will allow Washington to send in more aid. In January, rebel forces began a more concerted campaign against al Qaeda militias that managed to push the extremists out of strategically important areas. Now, even as the city of Aleppo itself remains under siege by the Assad regime, the route into the city is for the first time in many weeks free of militants.

As a result, U.S. assistance for rebel forces and the Free Syrian Army can get into Aleppo once again, American officials said…The shipments are part of an $80 million non-lethal assistance package to the FSA, underway since 2012, that has largely come to a halt in recent months because of the country’s poor security situation. About one-third of that total aid package has already been delivered to rebel forces; that leaves the remainder of the existing U.S. commitment, more than $53 million of equipment and supplies, that is expected to begin to flow into the country in coming days, weeks, and months, according to a State Department official.

"This will be one of the largest shipments we’ve ever put across," Mark Ward, the State Department’s senior advisor for non-lethal assistance in the region, told FP.

…Some of the shipments now in trucks in the queue along the Syrian border include ambulances, forklifts, trucks, communications gear, mattresses and blankets for the Free Syrian Army. It also includes a few of the Toyota Hilux pickups that Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian Opposition Coalition in Washington, described as one of the most critical types of equipment the rebels could have. "We need them in the hundreds, not in the onesies and twosies," he said.

…one congressional staffer believes that Americans are in the dark about the true nature of the Syrian rebels, many of whom are moderates that the administration knows and quietly trusts. "[The administration] doesn’t want people to know that because if the public finds out, they may say, why aren’t you doing more to help them? And there is no good answer to that question," the staffer said. Read our whole story here.

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G-8 minus one: Russia is cast out. The NYT’s Alison Smale and Michael Shear: "The United States and its closest allies on Monday cast Russia out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies, their most exclusive club, to punish President Vladimir V. Putin for his lightning annexation of Crimea, while threatening tougher sanctions if he escalates aggression against Ukraine. President Obama and the leaders of Canada, Japan and Europe’s four strongest economies gathered for the first time since the Ukraine crisis erupted last month, using a closed two-hour meeting on the sidelines of a summit meeting about nuclear security to project a united front against Moscow. But they stopped short, at least for now, of imposing sanctions against what a senior Obama administration official called vital sectors of the Russian economy: energy, banking and finance, engineering and the arms industry." More here.

How groundbreaking number-crunching found the path of Flight 370. CNN’s Thom Patterson: "Monday’s announcement by Malaysia’s Prime Minister acknowledging that missing Flight 370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean opens the door to a big question: How did new number crunching confirm the Boeing 777’s path? Now we know for sure "there’s no way it went north," said Inmarsat Senior Vice President Chris McLaughlin. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Monday that the plane was last tracked over the middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth, Australia. Malaysian Airlines has informed passengers’ relatives that "all lives are lost," a relative told CNN." More here.

Why the effort to find Flight 370’s black box will face hurdles. FP’s Dan Lamothe: "The U.S. Navy announced plans Monday to move a "black box locator" to Perth, Australia, in case debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is found in the southern Indian Ocean. The statement was covered breathlessly, with some media outlets calling it a potential game-changer. But a word of caution: the black box locator faces logistical nightmares that prevented it from being effective in other similar searches in the past. Authorities, in other words, may learn where the flight went down — but they’ll have a harder time finding the device capable of explaining why. 

"The high-tech system on the way to Perth is known, in military-speak, as the Towed Ping Locator 25. Like its predecessors, the system uses a high-powered underwater microphone known as a hydrophone to search for acoustic ‘pings’ coming from beacons mounted on the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder in a downed aircraft. They’re commonly known as "black boxes," although they’re usually orange. The ping locator, made by Phoenix International of Largo, Md., is about 30 inches long and weighs 70 pounds. It closely resembles a miniature torpedo, complete with fins, and is pulled on a long underwater cable behind a ship. It can detect pings from up to 20,000 feet under the sea. More here.

Or read the International Business Times’ bit on "Why the U.S. Navy’s Black Box Locator is a Game Changer," here.

McCain won’t block Work’s nomination over the LCS. Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio, here.

The Navy may ban tobacco sales on all ships. Military Times’ Karen Jowers: "The Navy is on the verge of eliminating tobacco sales on all its bases and ships, according to sources inside and outside the Defense Department. Officials are reportedly considering removing tobacco from all sales venues, to include any exchange-operated retail outlets, as well as MWR-operated retail outlets where cigarettes may be sold. Commissaries on Navy bases currently do not sell tobacco products. The decision would be made at the service’s highest levels. Navy officials have been gathering information on the impacts of such a decision, one source said, to include the inevitable drop in profits for the Navy Exchange Service Command – which would reduce the flow of dividends that help fund morale, welfare and recreation programs on installations." More here.

Obama will call for an end to NSA’s bulk data collection. The NYT’s Charlie Savage: "The Obama administration is preparing to unveil a legislative proposal for a far-reaching overhaul of the National Security Agency’s once-secret bulk phone records program in a way that – if approved by Congress – would end the aspect that has most alarmed privacy advocates since its existence was leaked last year, according to senior administration officials. Under the proposal, they said, the N.S.A. would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. And the N.S.A. could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order." More here.

Are you curious about the black market for malware and cyber weapons? FYI, it’s thriving. Our own Shane Harris: "The world of computer hackers who sell stolen credit card numbers, spyware, and cyber weapons is often likened to an ‘underground,’ a word that implies the existence of a place cut off from most Internet users and existing in a corner of the Web that most people never see. But a new report concludes that the markets actually function more like thriving bazaars subject to the same economic forces as legitimate stores. And just like those legitimate stores, the bazaars aren’t that hard to find.

"A simple YouTube search can unearth dozens of videos describing how to use hacker kits to break into Web sites or steal bank account login credentials. Google "buy stolen credit cards" and you’ll eventually get directions to dozens of storefronts that offer up pilfered account data. The cyber black market "has emerged as a playground of financially driven, highly organized and sophisticated groups," conclude the authors of a new report from the Rand Corp., the independent research group that often provides analysis to the Defense Department and U.S. intelligence agencies." More here.

Journalists doing journalism: Some in the military challenge Nebraska Senate candidate Shane Osborn’s decisions in the EP-3 incident in 2001. The Omaha World-Herald Steve Liewer: "Shane Osborn takes pride in his popular image as a Navy hero, the cool-as-ice aviator who pulled his crippled reconnaissance plane out of a fatal dive and landed it safely in China, saving the lives of his 23 crew members. He’s ridden a wave of public acclaim to a term as Nebraska state treasurer, success in business, and a strong position in his bid this year for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. Yet questions have followed Osborn ever since the April 2001 incident – especially from others who have served in the military. Some veterans say, in strong terms, that Osborn should have ditched his four- engine EP-3E ARIES II propeller craft in the South China Sea instead of handing over a highly sensitive electronics platform to Chinese authorities – even if it meant killing himself and much of his crew." Read the rest here.

And here, a sidebar on how Osborn’s buddy in the Navy wrote a memo endorsing Osborn’s actions during the incident – and how it was distributed by the campaign without clearance from the Navy. Read that here.

Speaking of which: Read this piece about how to avoid a naval war with China, on FP by William Parker and Micah Zenko, here.

Swimming upstream: Pete Hegseth in the WSJ yesterday on the need for military pension reform; an important read ICYMI: "… The system is inequitable as well as expensive. Only members who serve 20 years of active duty are eligible for lifetime retirement pensions and military health care-known as Tricare. The vast majority of enlistees leave the armed forces earlier. That means a U.S. Marine could serve three tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, under combat conditions, and not qualify. Meanwhile, another member of the military who never experiences direct combat or repeated deployment can qualify for full retirement benefits after 20 years. All military service is honorable, but there’s something amiss when the majority of combat veterans leave the service with no long-term benefits." Read the whole bit here.

Naturally: Sinclair may get to retire at his current rank. USAToday’s Jim Michaels: "The attorney for Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who pleaded guilty last week to adultery and having inappropriate relationships with several women, said it is possible that his client could still retire as a general. In a highly charged case, Sinclair was fined $20,000 and reprimanded, but he avoided prison time. Critics, such as Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., called the sentence a ‘mockery.’

The sentence left open an important question. At what rank will Sinclair, 51, be allowed to retire? At stake is a lot of money. Sinclair’s attorney calculated that the difference between his retiring as a lieutenant colonel and a brigadier general would amount to $832,000 if he would retire today and live to age 82." More here.

Peter Bergen takes the NYT’s Carlotta Gall to task for her piece on Pakistan and OBL. Bergen: "…Gall makes two astonishing claims in her Times magazine piece. The first claim: An unnamed Pakistani official told her, based on what he had in turn heard from an unnamed senior U.S. official that "the United States had direct evidence that the ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, knew of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad." ISI is Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence agency.

The second claim: "The ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle bin Laden. It was operated independently, led by an officer who made his own decisions and did not report to a superior. He handled only one person: bin Laden…the top military bosses knew about it, I was told."

It is, of course, hard to prove negatives, but having spent around a year reporting intensively on the hunt for al Qaeda’s leader for my 2012 book ‘Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad,’ I am convinced that there is no evidence that anyone in the Pakistani government, military or intelligence agencies knowingly sheltered bin Laden."

On three reporting trips to Pakistan I spoke to senior officials in Pakistan’s military and intelligence service. They all denied that they had secretly harbored bin Laden. OK, you are thinking: "But they would say that, wouldn’t they?"

Well, what about the dozens of officials I spoke to in the U.S. intelligence community, Pentagon, State Department and the White House who also told me versions of "the Pakistanis had no idea that bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad"?

During the course of reporting for my book I spoke on the record to, among others, John Brennan, now the CIA director and then President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser; then CIA Director Leon Panetta and his chief of staff, Jeremy Bash; then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen; then Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. James Cartwright; then director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael Leiter; then senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, Nick Rasmussen; then head of policy at the Pentagon, Michele Flournoy; Michael Vickers, who was then the civilian overseer of Special Operations at the Pentagon; Tony Blinken, who is now the deputy national security adviser; and Denis McDonough, who held that position before Blinken.

These officials have collectively spent many decades working to destroy al Qaeda, and many are deeply suspicious of Pakistan for its continuing support for elements of the Taliban. But all of them told me in one form or another that Pakistani officials had no clue that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad." Read the rest of Bergen’s piece here.



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