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.

Support solidifies on Syria while American public wary; An odd day at yesterday’s Senate hearing; It’s a game of poker now; al-Qaida forms cells to attack U.S. drones; Rodman to North Korea; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold Support for strikes begins to solidify in Congress. After a reasonably easy day of it yesterday on the Senate side, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey take the stand again today on the House side, as support among ...

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

Support for strikes begins to solidify in Congress. After a reasonably easy day of it yesterday on the Senate side, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey take the stand again today on the House side, as support among House leaders appears to be growing.  Speaker John Boehner, who met at the White House yesterday, emerged to say that he would support Obama’s call for strikes. His words were echoed by House majority leader Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia. Meanwhile, members from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed to the wording of a resolution that could be voted on today that would give President Barack Obama the authority to conduct strikes against Syria for a period of 60 days – with one, 30-day extension. Things seemed to be moving in the White House’s favor, even if testimony today on the House side will likely be more cantankerous than it was yesterday. The NYT: "Still, the expressions of support from top Republicans who rarely agree with Mr. Obama on anything suggest the White House may be on firmer footing than seemed the case on Saturday, when the president abruptly halted his plans for action in the face of growing protests from Congress."

But yesterday was an odd day. Yesterday’s Senate hearing went relatively smoothly, with even Sen. John McCain, now on board in principle with what the administration wants to do in Syria, being relatively tame. The one real gaffe came when Kerry was asked if the administration would sign off on legislation barring ground troops from Syria, and Kerry indicated that it would be "preferable not to" insert that kind of language, later saying he was "thinking out loud" and didn’t mean to suggest the administration was thinking about sending in ground troops. FP’s newcomer Yochi Dreazen and SitRep teamed up; our story: "Kerry realized his mistake almost immediately and quickly assured the lawmakers that the administration was fine with a ban on ground troops. ‘Let’s shut that door now as tight as we can,’ he said. He wasn’t able to put the genie back in the bottle, though. Over the course of the four-hour hearing, Republican after Republican asked Kerry to promise that the administration wouldn’t do something it had already promised not to do. It was that kind of day. Sen. John McCain turned to Kerry’s wife, Teresa, and said ‘I apologize for what I’m about to do to John’ before ripping off a string of aggressive questions. A Washington Post photographer later captured McCain playing poker on his iPhone. So few questions went to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that he didn’t say a word for long stretches of the hearing and looked visibly bored. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked what the U.S. was seeking in Syria, replied ‘I can’t answer that.’

But perhaps it was Dempsey who had the hardest job of anyone in the administration. "Dempsey has spent the past two years issuing public warnings about the potential risks of a U.S. strike against Syria. He spent Tuesday trying to persuade a skeptical Congress to sign off on just that kind of attack, arguing that Assad’s chemical weapons use posed a direct threat to the U.S. and had altered his personal judgment about whether to recommend military action to the president." Read the rest of our story here.

But for poll readers, here’s two. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows little support for strikes in Syria, but slightly more support if the U.S. doesn’t go it alone. The poll shows that of all adults, only 36 percent support the U.S. launching a missile strike against the Syrian government based on the assumption that the regime used chemical weapons and 59 percent do not support it. Republicans, Dems are nearly tied: 55 and 54 percent respectively oppose strikes, while 43 and 42 percent support them, according to the poll. Sixty-six percent of independents oppose them. The poll shows, however, that of all adults, 46 percent would support strikes if allies like Great Britain and France participated. Interestingly, a whopping 70 percent oppose the U.S. and its allies supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels.

And in a Pew poll released yesterday, 48 percent oppose the U.S. conducting military airstrikes against Syria in response to chemical weapons use, and 29 percent favor it. According to that poll, 48 percent of Americans do not believe President Barack Obama has explained the reasons for the strikes clearly enough – 32 percent believe he has. Not surprisingly, 61 percent "are likely" to think that American airstrikes in Syria will lead to a long-term U.S. military commitment there. The Pew poll, here. The Washington Post-ABC News poll and story, here. 

Welcome to Wednesday’s edition of Situation Report. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us and we’ll stick you on. If you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease. And remember, if you see something, say something — to Situation Report. Follow us @glubold.

Is opposing Syrian strikes in the name of sequester legit? FP’s own John Hudson, writing under the headline, "Is This the Weakest Argument Against a Syria Attack?": "There are a lot of good reasons to oppose a United States military strike in Syria. It may do little to change the behavior of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It may invite retaliation on U.S. allies in the region such as Turkey and Israel. It may further entangle the U.S. in a conflict that has little to do with America. But one rationale is making military experts do a double-take: Sequestration. As the White House seeks Congressional authorization for a strike, it’s facing stiff opposition from a set of lawmakers that typically supports U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. These hawkish lawmakers don’t oppose President Obama’s geopolitical priorities or chemical weapons evidence. They think the Pentagon doesn’t have enough money in its half-trillion dollar budget to carry out a Syria strike given the $500 billion in across-the-board spending cuts facing the military in the next decade." Read the rest here.

And Maureen Dowd says these are "bewildering" times: "Nancy Pelosi is the hawk urging military action. Britain refuses to be our poodle. The French are being less supercilious and more supportive militarily. Republicans are squeamish about launching an attack. Top generals are going pacifist. The president who got elected on his antiwar stance is now trying to buck up a skittish Congress and country about why a military strike is a moral necessity. Donald Rumsfeld doesn’t want to go to war with the Army Chuck Hagel has. John Bolton is the dove who doesn’t think we should take sides, or that it matters ‘what the intelligence shows.’ Once more, we’re vociferously debating whether to slap down a murderous dictator who has gassed his own people, and whether we have the legit intel to prove he used W.M.D." Her BL: "It’s up to President Obama to show Americans that he knows what he’s doing, unlike his predecessor." Read the rest here.

Oh, you’re gooood, Syrian hackers. A group called the Syrian Electronic Army aren’t just cyber thugs, they’re a hacker group that is increasingly ambitious and sophisticated and may be getting some outside help, FP’s Shane Harris reports, citing experts who have looked closely at their attacks and tactics. Harris: "The SEA has been around since 2011, and so far has been known mostly for relatively simple acts of vandalism like Web site defacements. (Most recently, the group grabbed international attention after commandeering the Web sites of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and yesterday the recruitment Web site for the U.S. Marine Corps.) But in the spring of this year, the group started to up its game. It went after bigger targets, like when it hijacked the Twitter feed of the Associated Press and sent out a false report about a bombing at the White House. But it also hacked into Web based communications services used by Syrian rebels to avoid detection by the regime. The goal presumably wasn’t to vandalize those sites, but to gather information about the rebels who were using them." Read the rest here.

ICYMI: RAND issues an analysis of "air power options for Syria." It concludes: destroying the Syrian air force or grounding it "through intimidation" is operationally feasible but would have only marginal benefits; neutralizing the Syrian air defense system would be a challenge but also manageable – but not be an end in itself; creating safe areas in Syria would be predicated on the need for ground forces to prevent attacks; an aerial intervention against the Syrian government and armed forces "could do more to help ensure that the Syrian regime would fall than to determine what would replace it," and finally: "while airpower could be used to reduce the Assad regime’s ability or desire to launch larges-scale chemical attacks, eliminating its chemical weapon arsenal" would require a big ground operation. "Any of these actions," the report summary concludes, "would involve substantial risks of escalation by third parties, or could lead to greater U.S. military involvement in Syria." Read the rest here.

Jon Stewart returned to "The Daily Show" last night and poked fun at the Obama administration’s push for strikes in Syria, seizing on the notion that the U.S. would look weak without doing it. "Oh, right. We have to bomb Syria because we’re in the seventh grade," Stewart said.

Tommy Vietor, Jon Favreau, Robert Gibbs and others, back to the WH over Syria. The WSJ’s Carol Lee posts: "In case the White House hasn’t underscored just how high the stakes are for President Barack Obama in seeking congressional authority on military action in Syria, some of his longest-serving former aides were summoned to the West Wing Tuesday to help with the president’s strategy to win support. David Plouffe, a former White House senior adviser and Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary, Jon Favreau, Mr. Obama’s former chief speechwriter, and Tommy Vietor, a former National Security Council spokesman,  were seen arriving at the White House around noon."

How to attack a U.S. drone: Edward Snowden Leaks, Continued. Snowden provided the WaPo with a classified intel report titled "Threats to Unmanned Aerial vehicles," which amounts to a summary of intel assessments that among other things show that al-Qaeda’s leadership has assigned groups of engineers to find ways to "shoot down, jam or remotely hijack U.S. drones, hoping to exploit the technological vulnerabilities of a weapons system that has inflicted huge losses upon the terrorist network." The WaPo’s Craig Whitlock and Barton Gellman continue: "Although there is no evidence that al-Qaeda has forced a drone crash or interfered with flight operations, U.S. intelligence officials have closely tracked the group’s persistent efforts to develop a counter drone strategy since 2010, the documents show. Al-Qaeda commanders are hoping a technological breakthrough can curb the U.S. drone campaign, which has killed an estimated 3,000 people over the past decade. The airstrikes have forced ­al-Qaeda operatives and other militants to take extreme measures to limit their movements in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and other places. But the drone attacks have also taken a heavy toll on civilians, generating a bitter popular backlash against U.S. policies toward those countries." Read the rest by clicking here.

Waiting on a friend: Kim Jong-un hosting Dennis Rodman in North Korea again. The Guardian: "The basketball star Dennis Rodman is heading to North Korea for the second time this year for what he says is a friendly visit to his friend, the communist nation’s leader, Kim Jong-un. But he is playing down speculation his trip is aimed at freeing the jailed American missionary Kenneth Bae, saying there’s been ‘nothing promised.’ Rodman spoke briefly to reporters on Tuesday while transiting at Beijing’s airport on his way to Pyongyang. ‘I’m going to North Korea to meet my friend Kim,’ he said. ‘It’s a friendly gesture… I just want to meet my friend Kim, the marshal, and start a basketball league over there,’ Rodman said. ‘I have not been promised anything. I am just going there as a friendly gesture.’ Read the rest here.

Dempsey wrote an op-ed (in the Duffel Blog). It’s titled: "Opinion: Our Military Exists To Fight And Win Wars – Except In Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, And Korea." The lede: As our nation stands on the brink of another military intervention, I’d like to speak directly to the American people in this moment of grave crisis. On behalf of the entire Department of Defense, I want to reassure you that the men and women of your armed services – your husbands, sons, daughters, and wives – are always ready to defend America, night and day. They are the best trained and equipped military in the world, and will carry out whatever mission our political leadership asks them to, against any threat: foreign or domestic. Well mostly just domestic. In fact any foreign threat at all would be kind of a crapshoot. We’re not really in the business of fighting and winning foreign wars." Read the rest 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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