Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

NSA chief wants even more data; Syrian rebels “starved for arms”; Lippert fired the “TSA;” CIA hires an outsider; Finding the next Snowden; A flag on the table: Seemed like a good idea at the time; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold White House scrambles as Syria’s rebels appear outgunned. Amid reports that the Syrian rebels are, in the words of a NYT headline this morning, "starved for arms," and a WSJ story that details just what the top Syrian rebel commander, Gen. Salim Idris, is asking the U.S. to provide him, and a ...

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

White House scrambles as Syria’s rebels appear outgunned. Amid reports that the Syrian rebels are, in the words of a NYT headline this morning, "starved for arms," and a WSJ story that details just what the top Syrian rebel commander, Gen. Salim Idris, is asking the U.S. to provide him, and a WaPo piece that examines the options before the U.S. when it comes to Syria, it all adds up to a stronger sense that as the White House is looking seriously at its options in the Syrian conflict, raging now for more than two years and responsible for nearly 93,000 deaths.

Turtle Bay’s Colum Lynch, writing on FP: At least 92,901 people have lost their lives in Syria’s bloody civil war. And the pace of killing is quickening, with death toll nearly five times what it was in 2011. The latest count of the fallen, released this morning in Geneva by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navy Pillay, marks a dramatic increase in the rate of killing since January, when the United Nations estimated that nearly 60,000 people had died in a conflict that is resulting in the deaths thousands each month and shows no sign of abating. ‘The constant flow of killings continues at shockingly high levels – with more than 5,000 killings documented every month since last July, including a total of just under 27,000 new killings since December,’ Pillay said. ‘Unfortunately, as the study indicates, this is most likely a minimum casualty figure. The true number of those killed is potentially much higher.’

The WaPo:  "President Obama’s top national security aides met at the White House on Wednesday to air options for expanding aid to the rebels after a disastrous battlefield setback last week. Neither [Secretary of State John Kerry] nor White House press secretary Jay Carney would discuss the outcome, but both blamed the widening violence on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The ‘choice of weapons that he has engaged in across the board challenge anybody’s values and standards of human behavior. And we’re going to have to make judgments for ourselves about how we can help the opposition to be able to deal with that,’ Kerry said."

The WSJ:  "A top Syrian rebel commander has issued a desperate plea for weapons from Western governments to prevent the fall of his forces in Aleppo, pushing the Obama administration to decide quickly whether to agree to arm rebels for the first time or risk the loss of another rebel stronghold just days after the regime’s biggest victory. Gen. Salim Idris, the top Syrian rebel commander backed by the West, issued a detailed request in recent days to the U.S., France and Britain for antitank missiles, antiaircraft weapons and hundreds of thousands of ammunition rounds, according to U.S. and European officials and Mr. Idris’s request to the Americans, a copy of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Gen. Idris’s call comes at a pivotal moment in Syria’s war, following rapid-fire gains by Bashar al-Assad forces, including last week’s recapture of Qusayr, a strategic town near the Lebanon border. Fighters from Hezbollah, which were crucial in helping the Assad regime to take Qusayr, are now massing around Aleppo, say rebels and Western officials."

Bill Clinton to John McCain: I agree with you over Syria. Politico reported that in a private event this week, Bill Clinton told John McCain that he agrees that President Barack Obama should act more forcefully to help Syrian rebels, a position McCain has made forcefully over time. Clinton’s legacy is still spotted by his administration’s failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. "Some people say, ‘Okay, see what a big mess it is? Stay out!’ I think that’s a big mistake. I agree with you about this," Clinton told McCain during an event for the McCain Institute for International Leadership in Manhattan Tuesday night. "Sometimes it’s just best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t overcommit – like, as long as you don’t make an improvident commitment."

Welcome to Thursday’s edition of Situation Report. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or a tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease. Please follow us @glubold. And remember, if you see something, say something — to Situation Report.

Mark Lippert fired the "TSA." Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s special assistant Mark Lippert, did away with the antiquated title "The Special Assistant" and now calls himself the "chief of staff," a nod to common sense and a departure from an antiquated time when "the special assistant," or TSA, was the name given to the SecDef’s right-hand-man and others in the front office. TSA grew confusing in part because that’s the name for the four-stars who lead the Army and Air Force ("the Army Chief of Staff, etc.). And within the front office, the main TSA was confusing with the other many special assistants even though there was only one who was considered the special assistant. So Lippert, named by Hagel this spring, made an executive decision and changed it. Besides, "TSA" has been sort of re-branded by another agency that shall remain nameless, and Lippert has never been known to confiscate body lotion or bottled water. Was it Al Gore inspired? A senior defense official tells Situation Report: "It’s simply an attempt to use plain English and not Pentagon-speak."

Brennan appoints an outsider as his No. 2 at CIA. The White House has nominated an agency outsider and the first woman to be the CIA’s No. 2 after career intelligence officer Mike Morell, passed over for the top job earlier this year, resigned. Avril Haines, a White House lawyer who has been a deputy counsel at the NSC and focused on national security issues, will replace Morell Aug. 9, CIA Director John Brennan announced Wednesday. Haines was nominated two months ago to be legal counsel at State but will now go to help lead an intelligence agency in which she has never before worked. In a statement, Brennan said that at the White House, Haines has worked on some of the agency’s most sensitive programs, participating in most of high-level meetings over the past two years. "In every instance, Avril’s command of substance, sense of mission, good judgment, and keen insights have been outstanding," Brennan said. The 43-year-old Haines has enjoyed a meteoric rise from Senate staffer to now the second most powerful position at the agency. On the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she was known for being an effective operator, clearing many treaties that had been stalled in committee by working closely with members of the GOP.

Former CIA Director John McLaughlin, to Situation Report last night on how even outsiders can do well at the agency: "Smart people rise to the occasion." Jeremy Bash who was Leon Panetta’s right-hand man at CIA and the Pentagon: "She has been in the room with the President for the most consequential national security decisions of the past several years.  She has seen the value of timely policy-relevant intelligence.  As a lawyer, her role was to inform and assess, not to advocate.  John Brennan trusts her implicitly." Read the wh
ole piece

How will the government catch the next leaker? FP’s Josh Keating looks at DARPA’s far-out, high-tech plan to do just that. Keating: "Government-funded trolls. Decoy documents. Software that identifies you by how you type. Those are just a few of the methods the Pentagon has pursued in order to find the next Edward Snowden before he leaks. The small problem, military-backed researchers tell Foreign Policy, is that every spot-the-leaker solution creates almost as many headaches as it’s supposed to resolve."

Keating reports that with more than 1.4 million Americans holding top-secret clearance, there’s some needle in the haystack issues when it comes to tracking down the next leaker. But the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has put out a number of requests for research on methods to detect suspicious behavior in large datasets. Keating writes: "The most ambitious of these is known as Anomaly Detection at Multiple Scales (ADAMS), a program that as an October 2010 research request put it, is meant "to create, adapt and apply technology to the problem of anomaly characterization and detection in massive data sets." The hope is that ADAMS would develop computers that could analyze a large set of user-generated data — the emails and data requests passing through an NSA office in Honolulu for instance — and learn to detect abnormal behavior in the system. The tricky part of this kind of analysis is not so much training a computer to detect aberrant behavior — there’s plenty of that going around on any large network — it’s training a computer what to ignore." Read the whole thing, here.

The NSA’s Alexander doubled-down on data collection. Under fire for collecting millions of Americans’ phone records and Internet data, Army Gen. Keith Alexander said yesterday that he wants the feds to snag even more data – and then distribute it more widely throughout government. FP’s John Reed reports that at the hearing yesterday at the Senate Appropriations Committee, Alexander claimed that the intel collected by the NSA has potentially foiled "dozens of terrorist events," without being specific. "It was all part of a Capitol Hill hearing that saw the four-star general pledging more transparency — yet deferring many details on the matter to a classified session" today, Reed writes. Alexander to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy: "The reason I want to get this exactly right, Senator, is I want the American people to know that we’re being transparent in here."

Alexander also promised to give more specific unclassified numbers within a week on the amount of potential attacks that have been thwarted by sifting through millions of pieces of electronic data. Read Reed’s whole piece here.

Apologies: We called Alexander an Air Force general yesterday but of course we meant he is an Army general. We regret the error.

The worst part of the NSA’s programs: Mom always liked you best. The Atlantic Journal Constitution’s political cartoonist Mike Luckovich with a drawing of the NSA building on Fort Meade: "I knew it! Emails and phone records proving Mom likes my brother best!.."

Looking for some fun decorating tips for this holiday season? Just a guess, but we’re thinking you won’t be tempted by this one. HGTV, the popular home decorating and gardening network, removed an idea that had sparked fireworks, especially among the uniformed military. The idea? Drape an American flag over your holiday table to make this year’s Fourth of July more festive. And don’t forget to use a Nylon flag, the decorator suggested. "Drape a large American flag over the table as a bright and festive table runner," the HGTV post said. "Use a nylon flag so spills can be easily wiped off, and the flag can later be hung with pride on a flag pole." Viewers fumed. Military viewers were outraged. HGTV received thousands of nasty grams. By Wednesday, the post had been removed and HGTV issued an apology. "This was a regrettable use of our flag and it never should have happened.  We sincerely apologize and have removed the post from our website.   We want to assure our fans that HGTV is proud of the American flag and everything it symbolizes for our people."

Senate progress on sexual assault. USA Today reports that the Senate Armed Services Committee passed a key provision yesterday designed to punish sexual assault offenders in the military and making changes to the military justice system "appear increasingly likely," according to the paper. "The Senate measure, approved by the Armed Services Committee by a 17-9 vote, includes a provision that would require an automatic review if a commander overrules a military lawyer’s advice to prosecute sex-assault cases. Those reviews would be undertaken by the secretaries of the armed services. And: "Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the committee, proposed the amendment to the defense authorization act that competed with [Sen Kirsten Gillibrand’s. His proposal allowed commanders to retain authority to bring sexual assault prosecutions. He said military prosecutors are less likely to press charges than commanders. Gillibrand’s proposal, he said, "would weaken our response" to sexual assault."

A reader responds to Carl Levin’s proposal on sexual assault. Diane H. Mazur, a law professor at the University of Florida’s College of Law writes to us: "Senator Levin’s proposal is destined to make the problem worse.  It only applies to sexual assault crimes, and then only to ‘declines’ to prosecute.  Cue the screams from defense lawyers and service members that every prosecution is brought for political reasons.  It’s the worst possible solution, and will only cement the impression among too many in the military that the only real problems are lying women and clueless politicians. The wisdom of Senator Gillibrand’s bill is that it applies to all serious crimes, not only sexual assault.  It does not create the perception of unfair ‘ladies’ law’ taking the place of real military law for certain crimes.

"I understand the concern about taking accountability out of the chain of command, and even agree with it.  But decisions about whether and how to conduct investigations and prosecutions are only a small part of accountability for sexual assault.  Perhaps a better division of labor would be for commanders to focus on building a professional climate of respect for all service members and, if that fails, letting military lawyers use their expertise in managing the military justice system."

Today’s WSJ A-Hed: THE NAVY WILL HEREBY STOP YELLING AT YOU.   The WSJ’s Julian Barnes has a front pager on the Navy’s termination of the use of CAPS in internal messages. Someone figured out that it seemed kind of like yelling – and not so easy on the eyes. Barnes: "MESSAGES SENT WITHIN THE U.S. NAVY NO LONGER HAVE TO BE WRITTEN OUT IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Since the 19th century, all official Navy communications have been written that way, a legacy of primitive technology combined with the service’s love of tradition. But in the modern age, young sailors more accustomed to texting on their
phones consider TYPING IN ALL CAPS akin to shouting. Typographers, meanwhile, have long maintained that all-caps text is hard on the eyes. So the Navy, amid a modernization of its communications system, decided it would make its official messages more readable-and potentially less rude.

End of an era: In April, the Navy delivered an order (IN ALL CAPS, of course): U.S. Fleet Cyber Command announced sailors were "AUTHORIZED TO USE STANDARD, MIXED-CASE CHARACTERS IN THE BODY OF NAVY ORGANIZATIONAL MESSAGES." Full story here. Navy Times’ version of the story last week, here.


Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold

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