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.

Whoa! Gates, Panetta criticize Obama on Syria; Navy Yard: A flawed security system and a broad review; Forbes to Mabus: ensuring UCLASS is right; Welsh: US needs a lot of JSFs; and a bit more. [Presented today by Lockheed Martin.]

By Gordon Lubold The massacre this week is begging more questions about background checks. A more detailed portrait of the man suspected of conducting the shooting Monday at the Washington Navy Yard is emerging. And it highlights how someone so troubled could have received secret security clearance and been allowed to walk in the door ...

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

The massacre this week is begging more questions about background checks. A more detailed portrait of the man suspected of conducting the shooting Monday at the Washington Navy Yard is emerging. And it highlights how someone so troubled could have received secret security clearance and been allowed to walk in the door at the Navy Yard to carry out his depraved plan. A DOD Inspector General report, sent to Capitol Hill Monday at about the same time as officials were scrambling to determine if there were still shooters on the loose, portrayed the Navy’s security system as lax and potentially the result of the service trying to reduce its security costs. Since then, Navy officials, as well as the IG’s office, have taken pains to show that the system the IG report pertains to is different from the circumstances that allowed the suspected shooter, Aaron Alexis, to enter Building 197 and begin shooting. Alexis had a common access card, while the DOD IG report details issues surrounding the commercial access card, which is different.

Still, the IG report has fed the narrative that the security systems in place are lax and need review. And indeed they may be. President Barack Obama has ordered a review, as has Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. And yesterday, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus ordered a quick, two-week review – due by Oct. 1 – of Navy and Marine Corps security procedures in the U.S., as well as a longer, more comprehensive review for the Navy and Marine Corps. Gen. Richard Tryon and Adm. Bill Gortney will lead those reviews for the Marine Corps and Navy, respectively.

Despite his troubled past, Alexis’ background would not have raised any red flags under the current system. Pentagon officials say the government began a routine investigation to give Alexis, who entered the Navy in 2007, security clearance. That was conducted by the Office of Personnel and Management, and he was he was given the clearance the following year. When he left the Navy, that clearance went with him. "In accordance with national reciprocity standards, his eligibility was reciprocally accepted when he moved to Industry," the Pentagon said in a statement. "In the absence of unadjudicated derogatory information and/or a break in employment greater than 24 months, contractors may be reciprocally granted eligibility and access based on an existing eligibility," a Pentagon statement said. In fact, under current regulations, "an individual with Mr. Alexis’ non-critical level of eligibility would only need to be reinvestigated once every ten years," according to the Pentagon. FP’s Yochi Dreazen, citing information from a military official: "The official’s account may be part of the military’s early attempts to avoid blame for the shooting, but it nevertheless offers a detailed look into the reasons Alexis may have been able to carry out his rampage. The official said the Navy did a background check on Alexis when he enlisted in May 2007, but it turned up no irregularities. He received a ‘secret’ clearance in March 2008 after completing an SF-86, the lengthy government-wide form that requires applicants to disclose if they have criminal convictions, financial problems or ongoing treatment for mental issues unrelated to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Alexis didn’t have any of those issues to disclose. Read the rest here.

What role did sequestration play in all of this? Nada, a Navy official tells Situation Report this morning: "Sequestration had absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Alexis’ ability to get access to the Navy Yard. He was a credentialed contractor with authorized access. The DoD IG report that is being cited refers to an access control system that would not and did not apply to Mr. Alexis. And the ‘cost controls’ cited as a deficiency in the report were not alleged to have been sought because of sequestration. The two are absolutely and completely unrelated."

But how far does the country want to take it? Although Navy officials counter the DOD IG’s report by saying it’s not completely germane to the issue at hand, the report does raise fundamental questions about the cost of security – fiscally and socially. "I think we have to ask ourselves how much security can we afford and how much can we stand," said one individual familiar with the investigation to Situation Report. "Do we want to search every single car, every single bag, thoroughly… how much of our freedom are we willing to give up? Because I think that’s part of the equation."

Welcome to Wednesday’s edition of Situation Report and sorry for our tardiness. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us and we’ll stick you on. And 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. That and please follow us @glubold.

The Navy Yard shooting will come up today, natch, at a presser at the Pentagon with Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey, at 11:15 a.m. Watch it live, here.

Whoa! Panetta and Gates are questioning Obama’s policy on Syria and don’t think seeking congressional approval was a good idea. AP reports: "Speaking at a forum in Dallas, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta disagreed on whether the United States should ultimately carry out a military strike in retaliation for a chemical attack that the U.S. says killed 1,400 people. But both men said Obama shouldn’t have asked Congress to approve a strike, and both were skeptical and sometimes sarcastic about the current Russia-backed negotiations to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons. Panetta said he supported a strike because Obama needed to enforce the "red line" he set over Syria’s use of chemical weapons. ‘When the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word,’ Panetta said. But Gates said a strike would be like ‘throwing gasoline on an extremely complex fire in the Middle East.’ He brought up past interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya as examples of how American military action can lead to unintended consequences. He also dismissed attacking Syria to enforce a red line. Gates: "I believe to blow a bunch of stuff up over a couple of days to underscore or validate a point or principle is not a strategy." AP story here.

But Gates two weeks ago urged Congress to vote yes to a strike. Politico’s Mike Allen, on Sept. 5: "[Gates]… is urging Congress to back the administration on Syria – and says a defeat for the White House would have ‘dangerous consequences’ for the U.S. around the world. Gates, in a statement to POLITICO Sept. 5: "I strongly urge the Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, to approve the president’s request for authorization to use force in Syria. "Whatever one’s views on current U.S. policy toward Syria, failure by Congress to approve the request would, in my view, have profoundly negative and dangerous consequences for the United States not just in the Middle East but around the world both now and in the future." That bit here.

Did Gates contradict himself? Probably not, but something may have been lost to nuance. Although Gates urged Congress to act, his statement to Politico is based on his position that once Obama asked Congress to vote on the authorization of force, Congress should act. That’s one thing. But Gates’ own views on Syria policy are another, and came out last night: the administration’s attempt to adhere to its redline isn’t a strategy.

Randy Forbes to Ray Mabus: please monitor the path of the UCLASS program carefully. Rep. Randy Forbes, the Republican from Virginia, sent Navy Secretary Mabus a letter yesterday about the Unammned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System, or UCLASS, saying he hopes the Secretary will watch it carefully. "We request that you remain vigilant and monitor the path of this program closely because we believe the current path could limit the capability growth of the system in the future," Forbes wrote in the Sept. 17 letter, obtained by Situation Report. "We believe UCLASS should be designed to be an integral part of the [Carrier Air Wing] that can employ in the full-spectrum of the Navy’s power-projection mission. For this reason, we encourage you to draft a technology development request for proposal that does not focus on just one particular key performance parameter, but enables competition and capability tradeoffs on a spectrum of attributes such as range, payload, survivability and affordability." Forbes added: "We also encourage you to closely examine the unconventional acquisition strategy proposed for the UCLASS program. While we strongly support fielding this capability to the Navy, we have concerns about the Navy’s proposal to field up to four CVWs of capability for operational employment before achieving normal milestone B approval or conducting full-system operational testing and evaluation."

The Air Force needs thousands of F-35s by the 2020s. FP’s own John Reed, covering the Air Force Association’s annual conference like the dew covers Dixie, writes: "The U.S. Air Force will lose dominance of the skies within ten years to mass produced Chinese and Russian stealth fighters unless it gets thousands of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters by the 2020s. That’s the pitch service officials made today during the Air Force Association’s annual conference outside Washington. However, if budget constraints brought on by sequestration continue, the service may only be able to buy these new, so-called ‘5th generation" jets if it retires hundreds of older, ‘4th generation’ fighters that it had planned on keeping. A ‘4th generation fleet by itself will be irrelevant,’ said the Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of the service’s Air Combat Command, during a speech here while showing a picture of Russian and Chinese stealth fighters. ‘A 4th generation aircraft meeting a [Chinese or Russian] 5th generation aircraft in combat may be cost effective, but it will be dead before it ever knows it is in a fight,’ said Hostage, making the case as to why the service must buy new fighters. Retiring large numbers of the service’s 4th generation F-16s, F-15s and A-10s soon would allow Air Force leaders to buy 1,763 F-35s as well as roughly 100 new stealth bombers in time to defeat Chinese or Russian-made stealth jets and advanced air defenses, according to Hostage.

Hostage, during his speech: "1,763 is not a luxury, its national defense priority." Reed’s story here.

Meanwhile, Reed tells Situation Report that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh says that Iranian fighter pilots have met the F-22 Raptor. Reed: "It looks like Iranian fighter pilots have met the U.S.’s premier fighter jet, the F-22 Raptor, at least that’s what that’s what Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh says. "Did you see the news clip not long ago about Iranian F-4s that intercepted a remotely piloted aircraft out of the Arabian Gulf and then they were warned off? This is guy who warned ‘em off,’ said Welsh yesterday speaking about an Air Force Reserve F-22 pilot from Alaska during the Air Force Association’s annual conference just outside Washington. ‘He flew under their aircraft to check out their weapons load without them knowing that he was there, and then pulled up on their left wing and then called them and said ‘you really ought to go home.’ The incident Welsh was referring to happened on March 12 when Iranian F-4 Phantom fighters got too close to an American MQ-1 Predator and were warned off by Lt. Col. Kevin "Showtime" Sutterfield and his stealth F-22. In November 2012, Iranian Su-25 ground attack jets fired on, and missed, an American Predator drone flying over the Persian Gulf. Hostage told FP that this was the first time the Iranian’s had met an F-22 up close. Hostage also revealed that he has personally flown F-22 missions over the Persian Gulf during air combat exercises there. "That’s the first time the Iranians have [met the F-22] that I know of; you’ll have to go ask the Iranians" if they’ve seen it up close before, quipped Hostage. "I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t know" if they had met the stealthy American jet before. "That’s one of the neat things about the F-22; rarely do the bad guys even know they’re there."

Want to engage with Iraq’s new ambassador on the Tweeters? You can, today, at 11 a.m. Iraq’s new ambassador to the U.S., Lukman Faily, will respond to questions on Twitter for the first time since taking his post in July. Faily returned from Baghdad just last week. Submit questions to @FailyLukman on Twitter using the #AskIraq prior to and during the Q&A. More information?

Assad could cling to power for years. A Reuters report, from occupied Jerusalem, cites Israel’s top commander on the frontier with Syria as saying Assad won’t be going away anytime soon. Reuters: "Major-General Yair Golan’s remarks, published on Wednesday in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, reflected debate in Israel over Assad’s fate, 2-1/2 years into Syria’s civil war, after a U.S.-Russian agreement to force him to give up his chemical weapons.He will stay on for years. I don’t see any force toppling him tomorrow morning – though he deserves to pass from this world, and the quicker that happens, the better,’ Golan said. In separate remarks breaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public fence-straddling about the civil war next door, the Israeli ambassador to Washington said on Tuesday that Israel "always wanted Bashar Assad to go", in order to break up Syria’s alliance with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas. The envoy, Michael Oren, did not say if or how Israel was promoting Assad’s ouster. Golan, who heads the military’s northern command, forecast the Syrian leader would weather his military and territorial deadlock with the rebels. Israel says Assad has lost control over 60 percent of the country but can hold off the rebels thanks to his superior, Russian-supplied army." The rest here.

Did State’s nominee for diplomatic security shoot himself in the foot – literally and figuratively? FP’s John Hudson: "This week, the Senate is poised to confirm Gregory Starr as the State Department’s chief of diplomatic security. The once-obscure position of protecting American diplomats overseas became a lightning rod last year following the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. But current and former State Department officials told The Cable that confirming Starr could be a mistake and raised a string of fresh allegations against him. Among them: that the man who is supposed to oversee thousands of new security agents has shot himself in the foot. And not just figuratively. On paper, Starr has an impressive resumé. Before becoming the director of the Diplomatic Security Service in February, Starr served as the head of safety and security at the United Nations starting in 2009. He began his career at State in the 1980s as a special agent, and climbed the diplomatic security ranks to become a senior foreign-service official in 2000. The State Department today praised Starr as exceptionally-talented and deserving of a quick confirmation. But his rise was not without hiccups.

A current State Department official, referring to an incident in 1981: "Starr literally shot himself in the foot when drawing an unauthorized small caliber weapon out of his ankle holster." More here.

State yesterday released a report on U.S. conventional weapons destruction. The report, "To Walk the Earth in Safety," comes on the 20th Anniversary of U.S. conventional weapons destruction, an effort State officials say is led by State and the Department of Defense and USAID and the CDC.  From State: "Since 1993, the United States has invested more than $2 billion for the safe disposal of small arms, light weapons, and munitions, as well as for removal of landmines and explosive remnants of war in more than 90 countries, making it the world’s single largest financial supporter of conventional weapons destruction. We have helped 15 countries to become mine-impact free and to destroy over 1.6 million small arms and light weapons and over 90,000 tons of munitions around the world since 2001. We have also destroyed over 33,000 excess or poorly-secured man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), shoulder-fired missiles that pose a serious potential threat to global aviation in the hands of terrorists or insurgents. Proactive community outreach through our Mine Risk Education programs have prevented countless injuries while U.S.-funded Survivor Assistance has provided essential medical and rehabilitation services to more than over 250,000 people injured by landmines and unexploded ordnance." The report, here.

Today, a panel on sexual assault prevention efforts. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is hosting an event today in Washington on combatting military sexual assault. The event is at the Hart Auditorium at Georgetown Law Center at 5:30 p.m., with a reception to follow. Who’ll be there? John Altenburg, Jr., a retired Army two-star judge advocate, Eugene Fidell, former president of the National Institute of Military Justice and Jennifer Long, director of Aequitas: the Prosecutors’ Resource on Violence Against Women. The event will be moderated by Alexander Nicholson, IAVA’s legislative director.

CSIS is on "iTunes U." The Center for Strategic and International Studies is, according to CSIS, "the first think tank in the world" to be featured on the iTunes University homepage. In fact, so far this year, CSIS’ podcasts have been downloaded from iTunesU more than 1.1 million times. Now, the "University" is featuring CSIS’s Ground Forces Dialogues, a series of discussions led by CSIS’ Maren Leed that is meant to stimulate thinking about the future of… wait for it… ground forces. More here.

Come together: A base in Afghanistan that seems like a microcosm. McClatchy’s Jay Price: "The very nature of the exotically multinational force at Camp Marmal in northern Afghanistan seems to mock the notion that war makes any sense. Of the 17 nations represented here, the main northern base for the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, most were at war with at least one of the others at one time or another. There are troops here who tried hard to kill each other in the former Yugoslavia. Several who were rivals during the Cold War are present, as are forces that fought on opposite sides in both world wars. Some can trace their enmity back much further. Who, after all, could forget the war between Sweden and Norway in 1814? Well, apparently the Swedes and Norwegians can. And that’s one of the messages of this base, in a country where ethnic and tribal rivalries are a source of tension and violence." 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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