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.

Trouble over Syria holds Dempsey up and his and McCain’s exchange; How geese will fix the AF’s fuel bill; What happens if Snowden’s computer has nothing else on it?; Not merry: Marine Col. Christmas, relieved; Ash Carter in jeans; And a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold Over Syria, Dempsey talked himself into a second visit to the Hill. Yesterday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, a reappointment hearing for the second term for both Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey and Vice-chief Adm. Sandy Winnefeld was all supposed to be so pro forma. Then Sen. ...

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

Over Syria, Dempsey talked himself into a second visit to the Hill. Yesterday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, a reappointment hearing for the second term for both Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey and Vice-chief Adm. Sandy Winnefeld was all supposed to be so pro forma. Then Sen. John McCain got into a heated exchange with Dempsey over Syria and McCain got feisty quickly and decided to hold up the reappointment.  Now Dempsey will have to return to the Hill to explain the administration’s position on intervention in Syria and expand on possible scenarios for military action – and the cost of doing so. Here’s part of the exchange:

McCain: "Do you believe the continued costs and risks of our inaction in Syria are now worse for our national security interests than the costs and risks associated with limited military action? … I’d like to know an answer rather than a filibuster. I have six minutes and 10 seconds."

Dempsey: "I assure you, Senator, I won’t filibuster. This is a regional issue, so I would say that the issue in Syria is at — we are at greater risk because of the emergence of violent extremist organizations, as is Iraq."

McCain: "You’re not answering the question, General."

Dempsey: "Yes, sir."

McCain: "Do you believe the continued costs and risks of our inaction in Syria are now worse for our national security interests than the costs and risks associated with limited military action?"

Dempsey:  "With all due respect, Senator, you’re asking me to agree that we’ve been inactive, and we have not been inactive."

McCain: "We have not been inactive."

Dempsey: "That’s correct."

McCain: "This again gives validity to my concern, because obviously we may have not been inactive, but any observer knows that Bashar Assad is prevailing on the battlefield. A hundred thousand people have been killed. Hezbollah is there. Russians are there. And the situation is much more dire than it was two years ago, when you and Admiral Winnefeld came to office. And so your answer is that we haven’t been inactive."

Dempsey: "It’s correct. We haven’t used direct military strengths, but we haven’t been inactive." Read the rest of the exchange, below.

Meanwhile, a Syrian refugee says she’s "not satisfied with the American answers" after John Kerry toured her refugee camp in Jordan yesterday. NYT’s Michael Gordon: "But as frustrated Syrian refugees appealed for Western military intervention to halt the attacks by the Syrian government’s forces, Mr. Kerry’s visit soon became a graphic illustration of the limits of the Obama administration’s policy. ‘We are not satisfied with the American answers,’ said Jamalat Abdulraouf al-Hariri, 43, after her meeting with Mr. Kerry. ‘We just need an action,’ she added, noting that the refugees wanted the United States to establish a no-fly zone or a protected area for civilians inside Syria. ‘We always hear words.’" Read the rest here.

Also, the 82nd Airborne is training for chemical weapons contingencies and commander Mick Nicholson used the ‘S’ word – Syria.  CBS News, at Fort Bragg: "About 1,500 paratroopers dropped out of the night sky from an altitude of just 800 feet, bringing with them nearly 190,000 pounds of equipment. They were the first of some 4,000 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division parachuting into an exercise designed in part to prepare for the worst in Syria. After seizing an airfield in the woods of North Carolina, they launched a helicopter assault on a compound where, for purposes of this exercise, chemical agents were believed to be stored. Their mission: get to the chemicals before they fall into the hands of terrorists who would use them against Americans. 82nd Airborne Commander Maj. Gen. John Nicholson: "As we look at the evolving situation — Syria and other places around the world — we’re preparing to deal with the reality of securing chemical weapons." CBS’ David Martin and producer Mary Walsh’s report, here.

Welcome to Friday’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.

When it comes to trimming fuel bills, what’s good for the goose is good for the Air Force’s gander, apparently. The Air Force is seriously considering flying planes in formation like geese in order to potentially trim hundreds of millions of dollars off its staggeringly high fuel bill. The idea has been studied and tested. But it may take as much as three years to operationalize the concept, Air Force officials told Situation Report. Technically, the process is known as "vortex surfing." And it is used to great effect today by bike and car racers who capture the energy of the vehicle zooming in front of it, capitalizing, literally, on the vortex created by the lead racer. The Air Force figures that flying its planes in such a way could help to trim up to 20 percent off each trailing plane’s fuel burn rate – or maybe about 10 percent or more off the Air Force’s total fuel bill which in 2012 topped $9 billion-with-a-B.

Here’s how it works: A cargo aircraft headed from the U.S. to Ramstein, Germany, say, joins with another jet headed in the same direction. One flies in the lead, and the other, the trail bird, assumes a position as much as 6,000-7,000 feet behind it, taking advantage of its tail wind and using far less energy. Last week, the Air Force did its first real test of vortex surfing, flying two jets from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii and back again, from July 9-11. Flying this way on the way home cut fuel consumption by as much as 7 percent on the way to Hawaii, according to Air Force officials. The Air Force’s Air Mobility Command’s Chief Scientist Donald Erbschloe, to Situation Report: "I think initially we would be satisfied with savings of up to $10 million annually." Read the rest of our story, here.

Feel like you need to send a message? Buy that furlough T-shirt, from "I heart furloughs" to "Go F yourself," here.

What happens if Snowden’s computer contains no more secrets? FP’s own Noah Shachtman: In a letter to a former senator released this week, NSA leaker Edward Snowden swore that there is no way the Russian government can get any sensitive information from him — despite the fact that he has been camped out in the Moscow airport for the past few weeks, carrying four laptops that he had supposedly used to lift the NSA’s secrets. ‘No intelligence service — not even our own — has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect,’ Snowden wrote. At first glance, the message seems like more braggadocio from a man who has appeared to lay it on thick before. But there’s another possibility: that Snowden is telling the truth. That there really is no way for him to give up any more information, other than the stuff in his head. Snowden may have left the United States with "four computers that enabled him to gain access to some of the U.S. government’s most highly-classified secrets," as the Guardian put it. But he may not have those secrets now. The laptops could very well be empty — and the secrets could be somewhere else… It’s widely assumed in both the business and the intelligence communities that any electronics brought into Moscow (or Hong Kong, for that matter) are going to be compromised by the country’s spy agency. Perhaps he is underestimating the technical prowess of the Russian security services; perhaps he is overestimating his own." Read the rest, here. Snowden’s Revenge: Maybe the Pentagon will stop sharing data to stop the leaks. Our own John Reed reports on DepSecDef Ash Carter’s remarks from the Aspen Security Conference: "The Defense Department has begun requiring its geeks to operate in pairs when accessing highly classified information in order to stop the next massive leak. The next step might be restricting those systems administrators from seeing some sensitive data. The step after that? Possibly rolling back at least some of the military and intelligence community’s measures to swap information — a reversal of one of the national security state’s key reforms after 9/11. The damage control procedures are being put in place anywhere in DOD where there are ‘systems administrators with elevated access’ to highly classified intelligence, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Thursday. These two-person rules along with procedures calling for increased compartmentalization of sensitive intelligence will be put in place at the ‘huge repositories where we have all this stuff,’ added Carter, referring to massive amounts of classified intelligence materials being stored on DOD servers." Read the rest here.

Speaking of Aspen: We’re told by our man in Aspen that it’s been very rainy but still very beautiful. DC Scene – in Aspen: Keith Alexander, Bill McCraven (sipping a big energy drink at one point), Eric Olson, Mark Welsh, Mike Hayden, Mike Chertoff, Matt Olsen, Mike Leiter, Ash Carter (in jeans, at one point), John Allen, Carter Ham, Denny Blair, Reuters’ Phil Stewart, AP’s Kim Dozier, WSJ’s Siobhan Gorman, NYT’s David Sanger, among many others.

How did a CIA officer wanted for kidnapping in Italy wind up arrested in Panama? Good question, glad you asked. FP’s Dana Stuster: "On Wednesday, the story of Robert Seldon Lady, a former CIA station chief in Milan, Italy, took another improbable turn when he was arrested in Panama near the Costa Rican border. Lady has been living quietly in the United States since fleeing an Italian investigation that resulted in him and 22 other Americans being convicted in absentia for their roles in the 2003 abduction of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a radical cleric the CIA believed was helping recruit jihadists to fight in Iraq. Nasr, who also went by Abu Omar, was pulled off a Milanese street during a daily noon-time walk. He was thrown into the back of a van, driven to Aviano Air Base, near Venice, and then flown to Egypt, where he was interrogated and tortured. The practice of seizing suspected terrorists and forcibly removing them to a third-party state for interrogation is often known as extraordinary rendition; in the eyes of the Italian judicial system, though, Nasr’s abduction was kidnapping." More here.

One of the Pentagon’s hardest jobs: Personnel. The job of Pentagon personnel chief, formally known as the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, has many ghosts. It’s thought to be a tough job and it’s been hard to keep filled in recent years. Jessica Wright has been considered to be doing a decent job in an acting capacity – now she may have it permanently. The White House announced yesterday its intention to nominate Wright for the job.

Senate Dems took aim at a story that said the Pentagon was lobbying for legislation they wanted on sexual assault. This week, Politico did a piece on the behind-the-scenes deal making as the Defense Department attempts to stave off a change to addressing sexual assault crimes by removing authority from commanders. But the story is not true, according to Sens. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Claire McCaskill, who was also quoted in the article. McCaskill, yesterday: "But I do want to say, as I close this questioning, that anybody who characterizes me as someone who is protecting the Pentagon, that somehow I’m in cahoots with the Pentagon trying to hurt sexual assault victims or — I — but — with all due respect to you guys — I think you’re terrific. But there is nobody who will be further in front of the line to kick you until you’re senseless if we don’t get this problem under control. And I — this is not victims versus the Pentagon." Politico’s story on Levin’s objection to the article, here. Politico’s original story on back room deals on sexual assault, here. 

Kerry loves the "coup" in Egypt that Hagel tried to stop. The Cable’s John Hudson: "The State Department has a new defense of Egypt’s military coup: It may have prevented a civil war. It’s an odd argument, considering top officials of the American government were trying to talk Cairo’s generals out of deposing President Mohamed Morsy just before the coup went down. And it’s another sign that the Obama administration’s policy towards Egypt is something less than coherent. On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Amman he wasn’t going to "rush to judgment" on Morsy’s ouster. "What complicates it, obviously, is that you had an extraordinary situation in Egypt of life and death, of the potential of civil war and enormous violence, and you now have a constitutional process proceeding forward very rapidly," he added. ‘So we have to measure all of those facts against the law, and that’s exactly what we will do.’ The idea that the coup carried out by Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi may have been justified is supported by many liberal Egyptians and some analysts in the U.S., but it was not the message conveyed to Egypt’s military by key officials in the Obama administration, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey." Read the rest here.

"Lost confidence" in the 22nd MEU’s Col. Christmas. Per Marine Corps Times’ Dan Lamothe: "The commander of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit was removed from his position on Wednesday, less than a week after the force’s subordinate units were first brought together to deploy in 2014, Marine officials said. Col. James Christmas was relieved of command by Maj. Gen. Raymond Fox, the commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., after the general lost confidence in Christmas’ ability to continue commanding the Marines and sailors of the 22nd MEU," according to a Marine spokeswoman. No additional explanation was given for the decision. But Marine spokeswoman Capt. Binford Strickland said: "The II Marine Expeditionary Force is not a zero-defect organization, and the relief of a commander is never an easy decision… However, the commanding general decided this action was in the best interest of the Marines and sailors of the 22nd MEU and the Marine Corps.’" Read the rest here.

Here’s the rest of the exchange between McCain and Dempsey, including a bit about his role as Chairman:

Dempsey (repeated from above for continuity’s sake): "It’s correct. We haven’t used direct military strengths, but we haven’t been inactive."

McCain: "I’ll ask you — will ask you — I will ask you for the third time."
Dempsey: "Yes, sir."

McCain: "Do you believe that we should take military action, rather — which is — which is more — has greater risk, our continued limited action or significant action, such as the establishment of a no-fly zone and arming the rebels with the weapons they need? Which they haven’t been getting, General, I know. I know, perhaps better than you, because I’ve been there. And which do you think is a greater cost, the action that we’re taking now, which is — has had no effect on the battlefield equation, or doing nothing?"

Dempsey: "Senator, I am in favor of building a moderate opposition and supporting it. The question whether to support it with direct kinetic strikes is a president for a — is a decision for our elected officials, not for the senior military leader of the nation."

McCain: "This goes back to my concern about your role as chairman of the Joint Chiefs."

Dempsey: "I understand."

McCain: "Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is supposed to provide the best advice he can as far as our world — national security is concerned. That’s why you are the sole military adviser. You testified this February you had advised the president to arm vetted units of the Syrian opposition. In April you testified you no longer supported the position. Now we read in published reports that the administration has decided to arm the Syrian opposition units. How do we account for those pirouettes?"

Dempsey: "I wouldn’t accept the term "pirouettes" here. I would accept the term that we have adapted our approach based on what we know of the opposition. And if you recall, in the beginning of the year, there was a period where it was pretty evident that the extremist groups were prevailing inside the opposition. So I have not been wavering, because -"

McCain: "Then is your position that the extremist groups are prevailing inside the opposition?"

Dempsey: "In — you asked me about February. In February I had that concern."

McCain: "So that’s your answer to why in February you advised the president to arm them, in April you said that we shouldn’t, and then now obviously we are arming the rebels — support that policy?"

Dempsey: "I support the building of a moderate opposition, and including building its military capability."

McCain: "Here’s an example of my concern. Quote, you told CNN on July 8th, "The war in Syria is not a simple matter of stopping the fight by the introduction of any particular U.S. capability." Quote, ‘It seems to me that we need to understand what the peace will look like before we start the war.’ The war has been going on, General Dempsey, to over a hundred thousand people killed. We didn’t start the war, and we wouldn’t be starting a war. We would be trying to stop a massacre that’s going on. We are — we would try to stop the Hezbollah, with thousands of troops (are in ?). We would try to stop the fact that the Russians continue to supply heavily Bashar Assad’s forces and what would be a great triumph for Iran in the entire region. But you say, "It seems to me we need to understand what the peace will look like before we start the war." Do you think we ought to see how we could stop the war by intervening and stopping the massacre?"

Dempsey: "Senator, would you agree that we have recent experience where until we understood how the country would continue to govern and that institutions of governance wouldn’t fail, that actually, situations can be made worse by the introduction of military force?"

McCain: "Actually, General Dempsey, you and I went through this in 2006, when I said that it wasn’t succeeding and that we had to have a surge and that only a surge could succeed in reversing the tide of battle, and you disagreed me then, way back then. And I think history shows that those of us who supported the surge were right, and people like you who didn’t think we needed a surge were wrong. So I guess my question to you is if — is it — is it in any way a good outcome for this situation on the battlefield to continue as it is, with, obviously, Bashar Assad prevailing and a great victory for Iran and continued slaughter of thousands and thousands of people, the destabilization of Jordan, the destabilization of Lebanon and what is clearly erupting into a regional conflict? Is that your answer?"

Dempsey: "Senator, somehow you’ve got me portrayed as the — you know, the one who’s holding back from our use of military force inside of Syria."

McCain: "No, I’m not saying that, General. I am saying what your advice and counsel is to the president of the United States and your views are very important because that’s your job."

Dempsey: "Sure, it is. And I — and I’ve given those views to the president. We’ve given him options. The members of this committee have been briefed on them in a classified setting. We’ve articulated the risk. The decision to use force is the decision of our elected officials."

McCain: "You know, I just ask the chairman — just asked you if you would give your personal opinion to the committee if asked. You said yes. I’m asking for your opinion."

Dempsey: "About the use of kinetic strikes? That issue is under deliberation inside of the — our agencies of government, and it would be inappropriate for me to try to influence the decision with me rendering an opinion in public about what kind of force we should use."

McCain: "So your answer to the chairman’s question about giving a personal view is circumscribed by decisions that are still being made."

Dempsey: "I will give — render my — let this committee know what my recommendations are at the appropriate time, yes, sir."

McCain: "And when might that be?"

Dempsey: "Sir, if the administration and the government decides to use military force, we have provided a variety of options, and you know that."

McCain: "Well, if it is your position that you do not provide your personal views to the committee when asked, only under certain circumstances, then you have just contradicted what I have known this committee to operate under for the last 30 years. I thank you, Mr. Chairman."

Levin: "Thank you, Senator McCain."

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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