The Cable

Situation Report: Pentagon leaders to talk about growing anthrax scandal; NSA spying curtailed; Islamic bomb makers in the clear; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Ariel Robinson My Chemical Romance. A day after the explosive revelation that a potentially live sample of anthrax had been sent to the Pentagon – one of at least 20 incidents of a U.S. Army lab mistakenly shipping spores it thought were inactive – the building is bringing out the big ...

By Paul McLeary with Ariel Robinson

My Chemical Romance. A day after the explosive revelation that a potentially live sample of anthrax had been sent to the Pentagon – one of at least 20 incidents of a U.S. Army lab mistakenly shipping spores it thought were inactive – the building is bringing out the big guns to do some explaining.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and a group of senior officials are expected to give an update Wednesday on the widening scandal that casts serious doubt on the military’s process for handling biological and chemical weapons. But since the Defense Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have just begun looking into the years-long string of incidents of potentially live anthrax being shipped to labs in at least 12 states and three countries, most questions will likely go unanswered due to “an ongoing investigation.”

But the scandal has real legs, and you can bet that Capitol Hill will be paying attention. There hasn’t been much noise from the Hill on the issue so far, but now that members of Congress have finished debate over government surveillance, anthrax is shaping up to be the next big thing.

Freedom’s Patriot? The Senate finally passed the USA Freedom Act in a significant revision to the government’s power to snoop on American citizens, as originally outlined in the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act. The bill – which President Barack Obama signed into law Tuesday night – ends the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of millions of American phone records. Those records, however, are still out there. They’ll now find a home within the archives of the individual phone companies, and the NSA will be required to obtain a warrant to access the records. We’re sure that will go smoothly.

Shipping News. Islamic State sympathizers and profiteers have been smuggling bomb-making fertilizer and chemicals across the Turkish border into Syria for years, and there is little that the U.S. government and its allies have been able to do about it.

But Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) want to change that. The duo sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter asking how the Pentagon can get ahead of the problem, since homemade explosives have killed thousands in Syria and Iraq during the Islamic State’s bloody rampage.

But the lawmakers will likely be disappointed by what they hear, FP’s John Hudson reports. The Pentagon’s anti-bomb unit and other federal agencies don’t have the authority to tackle the issue in Turkey, and a three-year, $5.9 million program funded by the State Department to shut down such bomb-making rat lines is set to run out of cash at the end of 2015.

As usual, we’re looking in several directions at once, and now and again can use a peek at a roadmap. You can provide that map. We’re always open to suggestions, and welcome any tips, job changes, or hints on Beltway up-and-comers you might want to pass along. Remember, it’s paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com, and on Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Yemen

Last week, American officials secretly met with Houthi rebels in Yemen, Jay Solomon and Asa Fitch report for the Wall Street Journal. Top-level Obama officials apparently pressed for a cease-fire with government forces, and sought the release of Americans detained by the group.

Israel

Just a day after FP’s own Colum Lynch reported how U.S. officials are coming to Israel’s defense at the United Nations, President Barack Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 TV on Tuesday that “Israel as a whole loses credibility” whenever Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly rules out the creation of a Palestinian state. It was nice while it lasted. FP’s David Francis has more on where that came from.

Here’s an opening line for you: “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used an annual doomsday drill here to reiterate warnings that a looming deal between world powers and Iran will pave the way for nuclear weapons and could put billions of dollars in the hands of extremist, terrorist-supporting leaders in Tehran.” Defense News’ Barbara Opall-Rome has more.

Iraq

Pentagon officials have confirmed the U.S. has delivered 2,000 anti-tank rocket systems to Iraq to help Iraqi forces stop some of the Islamic State’s Mad Max-style suicide vehicles. The extremists have been loading up abandoned Iraqi armored troop carriers with explosives and smashing them into the Iraqi security forces, whose light weapons can’t stop the beasts. But only 1,000 of those systems will actually go to forces in the field. The other half will remain in the hands of U.S. and coalition advisors to train Iraqi forces. No word on how many of those systems will go to the Kurds in the north.

But the Kurds have their own anti-armor rockets. The National’s Florian Neuhof recently spent some time with the Kurdish Peshmerga, and reports the Germans have provided them with hundreds of anti-tank rockets, which have been put to good use.

And here are some jaw-dropping pictures of a few of those Islamic State suicide vehicles, courtesy of the Long War Journal.

Nigeria

Circling back to the issue of smuggling bomb-making materials to bloody-minded militants, at least 50 people died Tuesday in a series of suicide bombings in Nigeria that were suspected to be the work of Boko Haram. The losses come after another violent weekend in the West African nation, where about 30 people died in fighting.

Sudan

Conflict in South Sudan erupted almost immediately after the 2011 split from Sudan, and has ebbed and flowed ever since. The world’s newest country has continuously accused Khartoum of supplying South Sudanese rebel groups with arms and ammunition, and now, the research organization Conflict Armament Research offers some proof that the Sudanese government’s denials may not hold much water, FP’s Siobhan O’Grady reports.

North Korea

Experts say they’re hearing grumblings that North Korea may be heading for another space launch some time soon. But what is really important here is this fantastic picture of what appears to be a Space Shuttle-shaped inflatable balloon meant to represent the future of the Juche regime’s efforts in space.

The business of defense

The well-funded whiz kids at the Defense Department’s big-think tech arm DARPA are charging ahead on a $308 million development contract with defense giants Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems. The cash is funding a new long-range anti-ship missile (not aimed at China’s new naval capabilities!) that will be able to fight through electronic jamming attacks. The companies have until next July to burn through that cash and deliver the new advanced ship killer.

They tried, and tried some more, but the U.S. Army can’t seem to buy a workable infantry carrier. The problem goes back to the early 2000s when Big Army burned through $18 billion on a now-cancelled modernization program that featured a Manned Ground Vehicle. More recently we had the Ground Combat Vehicle, which was going to cost at least $10 million per truck. It too has been scrapped. But this time they’ve got it all figured out, and the Army has awarded General Dynamics and BAE Systems $28 million each to begin developing design concepts for the Future Fighting Vehicle. Homework is due Nov. 28, 2016.

Snowden

Could Edward Snowden leave Russia? A Norwegian group has awarded the NSA leaker a “freedom of expression” prize, and is petitioning Oslo to let Snowden visit Norway with assurances that he would not be extradited to the United States. Norwegian policy experts gave the idea of Snowden being allowed into the Nordic country a chilly reception, however.

Longform

In a dizzying read, freelance writer Adrian Chen recounts his adventures in tracking down – and being targeted by – a Russian hacking and propaganda group called the Internet Research Agency. He traveled to Russia this spring to meet members of the pro-Kremlin group who storm social media sites to post “propaganda online under fake identities, including on Twitter, in order to create the illusion of a massive army of supporters” for the Putin regime. He got a little more than he bargained for.

 

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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