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.

“Obviously something went wrong”; A new process for clearances; On Syria, did the military “betray” Obama?; JIEDDO’s Tweeter voice, silenced; Rouhani: no war with any country; and a bit more. [presented today by Lockheed Martin.]

By Gordon Lubold  Syria is testing the capabilities of Obama as commander-in-chief. The WaPo’s Ernesto Londono and Craig Whitlock: "…The prospect of a new U.S. military intervention in the Middle East elicited grumbling from a war-weary generation of senior commanders and veterans who share similar reservations to those voiced by the former defense secretaries. Their ...

By Gordon Lubold 

Syria is testing the capabilities of Obama as commander-in-chief. The WaPo’s Ernesto Londono and Craig Whitlock: "…The prospect of a new U.S. military intervention in the Middle East elicited grumbling from a war-weary generation of senior commanders and veterans who share similar reservations to those voiced by the former defense secretaries. Their reluctance was informed by lingering distrust over the administration’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been wound down in ways that have left many in uniform feeling apprehensive, if not bitter. But there was also trepidation about a White House that many career military officers say has monopolized decision-making in a tight circle dominated by civilians and that often deliberates endlessly, seemingly unwilling or unable to formulate decisive policies."

Peter Munson, a retired Marine officer, to the WaPo: "The U.S. military feels it has been burnt with half-measures…There is going to be on the part of our senior military leaders an aversion to using force when you don’t have clear ends and escalation can take on a life of its own."

CSIS’ Tony Cordesman: "These last few weeks have raised serious doubts about [the WH’s] agonizing failure to reach a clear decision…This basically was seen as the president’s worst moment."

WH Chief of Staff Denis McDonough: "I think there is a rhythm to the policymaking that contributes to an opportunity for the military leaders to give him their unvarnished and very candid advice."

An unidentified official, to the WaPo: "From his perspective, he trusted the military and they betrayed him."

The president, Londono and Whitlock wrote, "felt boxed into a political corner by leaks about the troop numbers the generals wanted," and, after that, the unidentified official told the WaPo: "I think this White House made it pretty clear that they intended to run all foreign policy from the Executive Office Building."

Speaking of Obama, he’s got a new Pen Pal in Tehran. "Few American presidents have held a deeper belief in the power of the written word than President Obama. And in few ways has that belief been more tested than in his frustrating private correspondence with the leaders of Iran, a country with whom the United States has had no diplomatic ties for 34 years. This week, Mr. Obama indicated that he might finally have found a pen pal in Tehran. At the core of Iran’s recent diplomatic charm offensive – a process that has included the release of 11 prominent political prisoners and a series of conciliatory statements by top Iranian officials – is an exchange of letters, confirmed by both sides, between Mr. Obama and President Hassan Rouhani. The election of Mr. Rouhani, a moderate, in June kindled hopes that diplomacy might end the chronic impasse with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. But the letters, and the cautious hope they have generated, suggest there is a genuine opportunity for change." The rest here.

Rouhani, on NBC’s Today, says he does "not seek war with any country." Reuters: "His comments came during the second part of an interview with NBC News that aired on Thursday, just days before he travels to New York for an appearance at the United Nations. Rouhani, asked about Israel, said: ‘What we wish for in this region is rule by the will of the people. We believe in the ballot box. We do not seek war with any country. We seek peace and friendship among the nations of the region.’ Read it here.

Welcome to Thursday’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.

Monday Morning Quarterbacking: Voices in his head, a dropped ball, then a devastating shooting. It’s not clear if the call local police made in Newport, Rhode Island six weeks ago about suspected Navy Yard shooter Alexis Aaron could have led to preventing a tragedy. But it contributes to a narrative that maybe the military could have done better and should try to do better in the future. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey appeared before reporters yesterday, announcing new review panels to look at the issue, with Hagel acknowledging simply: "Obviously, something went wrong."

The WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum: The U.S. Navy failed to follow up on a police report last month that military contractor Aaron Alexis was hearing voices, Pentagon officials said Wednesday, missing what could have been a crucial opportunity to intervene and prevent Monday’s shooting spree at the Washington Navy Yard. Six weeks before 12 people were killed and eight more injured at the Navy facility in Washington, police in Newport, R.I., called the local Navy base to report an unusual incident with the suspected shooter, who was working on the base at the time. Mr. Alexis had called the Newport police from his hotel room there on Aug. 7, identified himself as a Navy contractor, and told officers he was hearing voices and being followed by people using a microwave machine to disrupt his sleep."

"Review panels" will be big business in the coming weeks. Hagel announced a series of reviews – three in total – in addition to the one announced by President Barack Obama and the two to commence under Navy Secretary Ray Mabus – five overall. Hagel directed a review of physical security and access procedures at all DOD installations around the globe; then he asked his deputy, Ash Carter, to lead a review of DOD’s "practices and procedures" for granting and renewing security clearances for military personnel and contractors. Hagel: "I’ve also directed that an independent panel be established. This independent panel will conduct its own assessment of security at DOD facilities and our security clearance procedures and practices. The panel’s work will strengthen Secretary Carter’s efforts, and they will provide their findings directly to me."

The issue is that security checks are good for 10 years. So once someone like Alexis is given a clearance, he gets to essentially keep it for 10 years without a thorough re-check. But a lot can happen in 10 years, and there is no clear way to identify problems, criminal, mental or otherwise, that might raise flags in someone’s background. All hat is central to the issue at hand, and one the number of reviews the military is directing will address. Yesterday at the Pentagon, a senior defense official briefing reporters said that when it comes to identifying bad behaviors, self-reporting plays a big role. The official acknowledged that there are few incentives for individuals applying for clearances to report their own problems. But a new system under development may begin to change that. "One of the initiatives that we are working is a continuous evaluation process, which will result in automated records checks taking place, where instead of going out and pulling records, that they would be pushed to us.  So we’d have a population that would be interested in data regarding those individuals… arrest or a conviction or the like, that would be pushed to us," the official said. "This is in the developmental stages.  But clearly, the opportunity to use automated records, to get relevant information is something that we are pursuing."

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, venting on a pet-peeve: lax security clearance procedures: "Clearances are supposed to be updated every five years, but that is not always observed. The process, which grew out of the bitter experiences with spies early in the Cold War, is obsolete. For example, applicants are still asked to identify every home they have lived in, and U.S. workers try to interview neighbors in each place. There is no differentiation between new college graduates and government workers who have held clearances for decades. Recently, a colleague who is a former deputy secretary of a major Cabinet department submitted his SF-86, as the clearance form is known. It ran 256 pages. He has been cleared nine times yet still has to fill out the same form everyone else submits. Once you hold a clearance, however, it is generally carried over if you change jobs. Snowden’s peripatetic career is typical. Snowden should have been under intense, ongoing surveillance, not because of his personal behavior but because of the sensitivity of his position." Read the rest of his bit here.

The VA treated him only for insomnia. The VA put out a statement yesterday saying that Aaron Alexis had received treatment on August 23, 2013, at the VA Medical Center in Providence, R.I. when he complained of insomnia. He was given "a small amount of medication" to help him sleep, and returned to the VA’s emergency room five days later to request a refill. The VA: "On both occasions, Mr. Alexis was alert and oriented, and was asked by VA doctors if he was struggling with anxiety or depression, or had thoughts about harming himself or others, all of which he denied. Alexis enrolled in VA health care in February 2011.  According to VA records, he never sought an appointment from a mental health specialist, and had previously either canceled or failed to show up for primary care appointments and claims evaluations examinations he had scheduled at VA medical centers." That press release here.

But on violent behavior, hindsight is 20:20. The NYT’s Denise Grady: "Research shows that psychiatrists and psychologists do not do well at predicting violence. [Jeffrey W. Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University] described a study in which two groups of psychiatrists were asked to read the records of patients treated for mental health problems. One group was told that the patients had committed murders or suicides, and the doctors were asked to comb over the records and look for warning signs or red flags that might have tipped off a therapist to the imminent threat. A second group read the same records and was also asked to look for warning signs, but was not told about murders or suicides. The group that knew things had ended badly was more likely to find danger signs in the records. The second group, by and large, did not see much out of the ordinary. Still other studies, Dr. Swanson said, have found that psychiatrists are good at predicting which patients will not commit acts of violence, but poor at recognizing those who will. Swanson, to Grady: "I wish I had better news." Read the rest here.

Rosa Brooks is pissed. Our own Rosa Brooks writes about the shooting and says it’s time the U.S. got over the Constitution. Brooks: For a start, we have too many guns sloshing around. A recent Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) backgrounder notes that ‘The United States, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, has about 35-50 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns.’ Reading the news, you might imagine that Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or some other conflict-ravaged nation would be leading the most guns-per-capita race, but nope: That’s us. We’re number one. Yes, you say, but guns don’t kill people, people do. Well, bless your shrunken little NRA heart, that’s true! Last I checked, guns just lying around all by themselves don’t spontaneously start shooting at elementary-school children or random passersby… And why do we have crappy gun-control laws? Because of the Second Amendment, which gives Americans a constitutional right to crappy gun-control laws. That’s why we fought a war against the British: We wanted to the right to kill each other, instead of being killed by foreign enemies. Ah, now we’re getting to the real culprit. Why, oh why are so many Americans killed by guns? In the end, I blame the U.S. Constitution and our weird quasi-religious worship of that antiquated text." More here.

The Pentagon deleted the Twitter account of JIEDDO. Pentagon pressec George Little yesterday had the Twitter account of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization deleted after an in appropriate Tweet about a bomb attack in the Philippines that quite literally could have led to an international incident. While social media lends itself to lighter moments, vigilance and judgment is critical. This went beyond the pale. Yesterday afternoon, a staffer at JIEDDO posted this: "@JIEDDO Were they re-showing Gigli? Bomb explosions occur at 2 movie theaters in the Philippines The IED is a global threat," a joke about the crappy movie to illustrate that IEDs are indeed a threat around the world – not just Afghanistan and Iraq. That was followed by RTs from the likes of  The Guardian’s Spence Ackerman and Stripes’ Leo Shane who called JIEDDO out for "bad taste." That led to a response from the person at JIEDDO manning the Tweet machine: "@attackerman Yes, Bad taste-Bad ppl doing bad thing didn’t warrant bad movie reverence. Will punish #socialmedia rep by forcing 2 watch Gigli." An hour later, JIEDDO made it clear it really was sorry, replying and RT "Tweet was in poor taste. We apologize."

But by then, Pentagon Pressec George Little had been alerted by a staffer about the Tweets. He took a look at the exchanges – and previous JIEDDO Tweets and quickly had the account deleted.  Little, to Situation Report: "Department of Defense public affairs professionals must hold themselves and their work to the highest standards, and this and other tweets on this officially managed Twitter account fell well short of those standards. As the leader of the Department’s public affairs community, I will not accept official commentary that is inappropriate and offensive."

Say what you will about me but spell my name right: In the end, however, a quick analytics of the whole thing showed more than one million impressions. Not only are IEDs a global threat, but bad Tweets – as well as the messages they contain – are global as well.

JIEDDO’s Dave Small, in a statement: We have a policy and procedure in place for selecting and crafting our social media posts. That policy and procedure were not followed today. I sincerely apologize to those who took offense at the distasteful comment. Bottomline, there is nothing funny about an IED event. We are looking into the events and will take whatever corrective measures are necessary to ensure this kind of thing doesn’t happen in the future."

Meet the Microsoft billionaire who’s trying to reboot American counterterrorism. FP’s Shane Harris: "Add to Nathan Myhrvold’s already eclectic résumé — which includes ex-chief technology officer of Microsoft, co-founder of one of the world’s largest patent-holding firms, and author of a $625 cookbook — a new credit: terrorism expert. Myhrvold, a famous autodidact, recently published a 33-page paper that he rousingly calls, "Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action." The core of his argument is easy enough to understand, and probably true: The United States is more focused on stopping a guy who blows up an airplane and kills 300 people than on a guy who intentionally spreads smallpox and kills 300,000." The rest here.

Rummy’s still got it. An older, frailer looking Don Rumsfeld (older cuz he is in fact older, 81, but still) signed a bunch of copies of his books yesterday, both Rumsfeld’s Rules and Known and Unknown, at the Pentagon. When he was last there, he ran out of Rules copies, so returned yesterday, and with copies of that and his newer book, Known. The military still loves him, apparently. As one Pentagon observer quipped yesterday at the sight: "He’s still drawing lines!" Rummy stood there between 11 a.m. and  p.m. and signed more than 1,000 books, a spokesman told Situation Report. All the proceeds go to military charities for wounded service members that are supported by the Rumsfeld Foundation.

After the Navy Yard shooting, who’s town is "This Town?" Defense One’s Kevin Baron on the other Town: A decorated Naval officer and graduate of Annapolis. A father of three who spent three years in Iraq, voluntarily. A shipbuilder living his dream. This town? This is our town. This is a glimpse of the defense and national security community’s town. It’s the side of this town that is less interested in the roll call and more interested in end-strength. Less concerned about Obamacare than TriCare. Less worried about what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, says than what Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey says. This town. You won’t see any of them clawing to get on MSNBC. Nobody’s hanging on their every opinion of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, or the sequester, or gun control, or much of anything. They were part of a quiet, dutiful, service-minded community of millions across the greater Washington, DC, area who, perhaps without even realizing it, dedicate their careers and lives to the betterment of the nation, the military and the government." More 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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