The Cable

Situation Report: White House to unveil new hostage plan; jihadist whacked in Mosul; NATO spending in crosshairs; Pentagon official braces for fight with Senate leader; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley We won’t pay, but you can. On Tuesday, the White House will hold a series of meetings with families of Americans taken hostage overseas, ahead of a Wednesday rollout of a new major new hostage policy FP’s Yochi Dreazen and Lara Jakes write in an exclusive report. Changes to ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

We won’t pay, but you can. On Tuesday, the White House will hold a series of meetings with families of Americans taken hostage overseas, ahead of a Wednesday rollout of a new major new hostage policy FP’s Yochi Dreazen and Lara Jakes write in an exclusive report.

Changes to traditional American hostage policy that the White House is expected to announce include a new, FBI-run hostage fusion center that will incorporate elements from the Treasury Department, State Department, and intelligence community to better coordinate Washington’s response to Americans being taken hostage by terror groups. However, the changes “fall well-short of what many families have long demanded: the appointment of a senior official on the National Security Council whose sole responsibility would be overseeing hostage recovery efforts.” While the administration will task the NSC with a “policy oversight role,” it won’t be in charge of operations on a day-to-day basis, or make specific decisions about individual cases, officials said.

Pay up, NATO. Defense Secretary Ash Carter is doubling down on Washington’s commitment to European security by pledging more drones, tanks and other military assets to a new alliance rapid reaction force. NATO’s response? Delivering, once again, a lackluster performance in meeting previously agreed-to defense spending goals.

Just released data for 2014, and projected estimates for 2015, show that many NATO countries continue to miss the goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. This is a habitual problem, but it remains hugely concerning against Russian aggressiveness and talk of more interoperability among the allies. Poland and Estonia, two members that are particularly nervous about Russia’s more aggressive behavior, are expected to clock in above that target, as are the traditional big spenders of Greece, the United Kingdom and the United States. But the majority of the rest of the alliance has other priorities.

It’s another fine morning in Washington as we prepare for the coming onslaught of think pieces about the soon-to-be-decided Iranian nuclear deal.  As always, send along anything interesting, fresh, or strange to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary. A big shout out to fellow early riser Adam Rawnsley who is covering down with SitRep these days, bringing the news to your smartphone with your morning coffee.

Who’s Where When

9:00 a.m. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, will deliver remarks on Russia to The Atlantic Council.

3:00 p.m. The Atlantic Council will also host a cool little event where fiction writers talk about the militaristic dystopian futures they have conjured up in their recent work. Max Brooks, author of World War Z, and John Chang, author of the Black Powder // Red Earth series of graphic novels will sit down to talk about “The Future of Urban Conflict.”

The business of defense

The Defense Department’s top weapons buyer Frank Kendall thinks that right now is the “worst time” for Sen. John McCain — the defense spending activist at the helm of the Senate Armed Services Committee — to start meddling with how the armed services buy new gear.

McCain is a huge supporter of a provision in the 2016 defense bill that was recently passed by the Senate to give the four services’ chiefs more control over what they purchase and how, while stripping some of that authority away from Kendall’s post. The bill “will destroy my ability to lead,” Kendall told Colin Clark from Breaking Defense, “because it will move decision making to the services. They will be able to ignore me and it will send a very, very strong message to the departments that I am not in charge anymore,” he said.

The timing is wrong, he said, because studies show that when money is tight at the Defense Department, people tend to oversell new programs, leading to cost overruns. Kendall’s job, in effect, is to push back against the optimistic views of the services that usually get them into trouble when looking at shiny new weapons systems. Stay tuned, this should be interesting.

Syria

While U.S. forces sent to train “moderate” Syrian rebels in Turkey and Jordan have only so far begun to mentor about 90 fighters, the Defense Department revealed plans Monday to pay them about $250 to $400 a month, depending on their skill level. Of the 6,000 Syrians who have volunteered to take part in the program, about 4,000 have yet to even begin the vetting process. And U.S. officials have admitted they’re not sure exactly how to get those it has secreted out of Syria back in, since they have to get them though Islamic State-held territory.

On the heels of the Islamic State’s defeat at the strategic border crossing of Tal Abyad last week, the Kurdish People’s Protection units (YPG) have reportedly racked up another victory against the jihadist group, capturing the Liwa (Brigade) 93 base at Ain Issa, just north of Raqqa, the effective capital of the extremists’ caliphate.

Yemen

Peace talks between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels are bound to go nowhere, FP contributor Adam Baron writes. The recent collapse of U.N.-sponsored talks in Geneva were part of a larger comedy of errors, complete with shoe-throwing, unreasonable demands, and wildly divergent expectations from each side. “Neither side arrived in Geneva fully prepared,” he writes, “and both still seem to believe they were winning the war, making compromise unlikely.”

Iraq

With 450 new U.S. troops heading to the al-Taqaddum military base between Ramadi and Fallujah to help the Iraqi Army in their fight with the Islamic State, questions are being raised about who their allies are. Bloomberg‘s Josh Rogin and Eli Lake report that U.S. forces are sharing the base with two Shiite militias. The report is more than a little circumspect on which groups, specifically, are located the facility and in what numbers. But the story notes that U.S. intelligence has alerted senior administration officials that “representatives of some of the more extreme militias have been spying on U.S. operations.”

Elsewhere in Iraq, the Pentagon revealed Monday that a U.S. drone strike killed Ali Ouni Harzi, a senior official in the Islamic State and a specially designated global terrorist wanted in connection with the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three American contractors. Video of the attack placed Harzi, a Tunisian citizen who had recruited foreign fighters for travel to Syria and Iraq, at the scene of the attack, according to U.S. officials. However, officials say Harzi was targeted for his a role as an Islamic State commander rather than his ties to the Benghazi attack.

More new faces at the Pentagon

The turnover at the top of the Defense Department’s public affairs and communications shop continues as Brent Colburn, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs prepares to step down. The job — which essentially runs herd over the vast Pentagon public affairs apparatus — will now be the responsibility of Maura Sullivan, who is leaving her current job as spokesperson for Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald. Sullivan takes over an office in flux: Bloomberg TV journalist Peter Cook was only last week named as Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s new spokesman; he’ll take to the podium in July. And Pentagon press operations director U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren is also leaving; his replacement, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, is set to arrive June 29.

All this means that while Carter is in Europe this week, Cook is still on TV, Warren is done holding his regular morning informal press briefings, and Davis has yet to start….so the Pentagon’s “Correspondents’ Corridor” is a little quieter than usual. But not for long. We’re hearing that Cook will be assigned a civilian deputy to help him answer some of the press corps’ more pressing or technical questions, and that Carter’s team is looking for a retired military officer to fill the slot.

Science!

Jill M. Hruby has been named the next president and director of Sandia National Laboratories, the country’s largest national lab. Hruby, who starts on July 17, has the distinction of being the first woman to lead a national security laboratory in the United States.

South China Sea

Ramping up the tension in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, a Japanese P-3C Orion surveillance plane with Filipino observers on board took a spin near the disputed Spratly Islands, which both China and the Philippines claim. The move comes as the United States, Japan and the Philippines separately kicked off a joint military search and rescue exercise in the area, which Chinese officials have characterized as “meddling.”

 

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

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