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.

Terrorists in Kenya put Somalia back on the map; Fight for the future: how much military compensation is too much?; Tammy Haddad and the Pentagon Channel; Power’s issue from hell; Indulge us: Situation Report reaches 50k subscribers: BAM!; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold This weekend’s stunning attack at an upscale mall in Nairobi raises the profile of the thought-to-be-vanquished Shabab and poses yet another challenge for African and Western security officials. The attack, at the hands of what appeared to be well-trained squads of terrorists from The Shabab terrorist group in Somalia, a group linked ...

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

This weekend’s stunning attack at an upscale mall in Nairobi raises the profile of the thought-to-be-vanquished Shabab and poses yet another challenge for African and Western security officials. The attack, at the hands of what appeared to be well-trained squads of terrorists from The Shabab terrorist group in Somalia, a group linked to al-Qaida, has claimed as many as 69 lives and injured 175 more. As the standoff inside the Westgate Premium Shopping Mall entered its third day, there was recognition that The Shabab, based in neighboring Somalia, was signaling that it was making a comeback.

FP’s Shane Harris: "The Westgate mall attack marks an audacious return for al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda linked group that, as recently as last year, U.S. officials claimed was on the run in the face of an American-backed offensive in Africa. More recently, the Obama administration has expanded a secret war against al-Shabab in Somalia, ramping up assistance to Somali intelligence agencies. The United States also runs training camps for Ugandan peacekeepers who fight al-Shabab forces, and at a base in Djibouti houses Predator drones, fighter jets, and nearly 2,000 U.S. troops and military civilians. President Obama called Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta Sunday morning and "reiterated U.S. support for Kenya’s efforts to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice," according to a White House statement. Kenyatta’s nephew and his fiancé are among the dead. In keeping with its established propaganda strategy, al-Shabab is tweeting updates about the attack. On Saturday, the group was sending messages from its main account, @HSMPress, describing the assaults at "retributive justice for crimes committed by [Kenya’s] military." Kenyan forces began military operations in Somalia two years ago. Twitter suspended the account Sunday, but the group apparently moved on to another account, which has also since been suspended." His piece here.

Roger Carstens, a former SF officer who has spent more than a year on the ground in Somalia recently had this to say to Situation Report about the attack yesterday. Carstens sees the attack as "an attempt to push Kenya out of the [African Union Mission in Somalia].  Kenyan troops, supporting AMISOM, currently hold the southern part of Somalia, which includes the charcoal exporting town of Kismayo.  Al Shabaab once flourished in this region and it is reported that a lion’s share of its revenues came from the taxation and management of the charcoal trade.  Since the Kenyan incursion, Al Shabaab has been on the run, suffering from a loss of it key financial and military base." He also sees it as "a bloody announcement that Al Shabaab is still in the game.  After being run out of Mogadishu and later Kismayo, Al Shabaab has been considered to be ‘on the ropes.’"  The recent attack showcases that Al Shabaab still has some combat power. And that: "proof that the power struggle between moderate Somali nationalists and hardline extremists (that includes foreign fighters) that are more aligned with Al Qaeda has been settled in favor of the extremists. Al Shabaab’s moderates – often seen as pragmatic nationalists – have been chased out, killed, or marginalized in recent months and the results are decreased numbers but a renewed focus from those who remain."

Bottom line: "this war is not over.  AMISOM and the Somali Federal Government must strive for unity of effort, increased and steady funding from the European Union, and an increased push to train, equip and employ the Somali National Army (essentially an SNA Development Plan). The United, States, for its part, should remain in the background, assisting in enabling efforts, such as enhancing AMISOM communications, intelligence, tactical cyber, logistics, ISR, precision strike and mobility."

Check out FP’s slideshow from last year, "The Pirates of Puntland": Robert Young Pelton’s story of his trip through Somalia, here.

Meanwhile, welcome to Monday’s Fist Pump edition of Situation Report and indulge us in a brief note of thanks. As of this morning, the number of subscribers to Situation Report has swollen to 50,010. We ran out of the gate just more than a year ago, on September 5, with some nausea and about 13,000 subscribers. That enough was pretty cool. To our happy surprise, we’ve seen more and more of you sign up each week and month. Last night at around 7:30 we watched as the last few people signed up to meet our own, arbitrary milestone, and at 7:38 p.m., the odometer hit 50,000. Many of you work in the Pentagon, or at bases or stations or forts or FOBs around the country and world. Others of you work at State or at embassies, or at USAID or Capitol Hill or – other agencies. Some of you are in academia. Many of you live in far away places. Or are fighting a war. Or not. Or you’re retired. Or just getting started. Regardless, we really appreciate you reading Situation Report each day. As we make the donuts with Situation Report each morning, we always try to earn our inbox privileges. We’re happy to hear from you when we succeed. But we want to hear from you when we fail. We know we do sometimes. If you like Situation Report, tell a friend. And again, thanks much.

Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us at 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 Pentagon Channel may get a little smaller. Sgt. 1st Class Brad Turner was in his element. Standing in a supermarket, with a military band nearby, the man otherwise known as "The Grill Sergeant" was demonstrating how to make a tasty jambalaya. "There’s no magical formula," he bellowed in his Southern twang, playing to the camera during an episode of his eponymous show. "If you don’t have any good taste, then this is not going to work for you." The Grill Sergeants was the cheeky cooking show with a clever name that was for years produced by the Pentagon. It brought cheers and jeers. But none of that mattered since the show was produced when times were good and defense money, like Turner’s jambalaya, poured forth.

The Grill Sergeants, like many other TV programs produced by the U.S. Defense Department, is no more. And soon, the Defense Department’s broadcast network — the one that showed the Pentagon-approved cooking show — may itself be part of military history. Budget cuts and fewer blank checks mean the Pentagon needs to rethink nice-to-have services that were once a given. And the Pentagon Channel, as the network is known, is likely on the brink of a major downsizing, Defense Department sources say. No final decision has been made, however. "The Pentagon Channel is one of the few if not the only one where you can communicate directly to service members and their families," said Bryan Whitman, a spokesman for the Pentagon. "That doesn’t mean we can’t find better ways of doing business." A while back, there had been high hopes for the Pentagon Channel. Fancy, pearl-draped hopes.

Tammy Haddad got $92,000 a couple years ago to recommend improvements to the Pentagon Channel, but it’s unlikely most will see the light of day. Washington society mavens know Tammy Haddad as the bubbly party-thrower and socialite whose prominence peaks each spring for the celebrity-politico-and-journalist-laden brunch she holds before the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Haddad was recently highlighted in Mark Leibovich’s This Town — a book about the intersection of politics, power, and the media — and was portrayed as part of the incestuous, schmooze-and-use culture of Washington. But at the Defense Department, she’s also known for her work for the Pentagon’s public affairs office, which contracted with Haddad, a former television producer, a couple of years back to consult on its media operations, including on the Pentagon Channel. According to defense officials, Haddad, a fundraiser, events organizer, and media consultant, was paid about $92,000 for an 11-month advisory project in which she acted as a "programming consultant" for the Channel, whose shows were regularly evoking ridicule from Congress members and even some military folks. Haddad, a former television producer, was hired by the Pentagon’s top public affairs office at the time, Doug Wilson, "to provide expert advice and recommendations" on how to modernize and expand the Pentagon Channel’s programming, according to a Defense Department spokesman. She worked as a consultant for the Pentagon officially between October 2010 and September 2011. Haddad had grand plans for the channel, making recommendations to infuse it with more sophistication and cool in an attempt to appeal to young and older audiences alike — a mix of VH1 and the History Channel.

But now the Pentagon’s Public Affairs office is weighing whether the Channel in its current form, which costs about $5 million per year to run, could be streamlined, its format standardized, and put online to save millions in satellite fees. A final decision is still weeks or months away. 

After the story ran, Doug Wilson wrote Situation Report, saying he hired Haddad because of her credentials as a TV producer and that "we could see the handwriting on the wall" when it came to shrinking budgets: "Tammy Haddad was not hired because of the events she organizes or who she does or doesn’t invite to them.  To state or allege otherwise is simply wrong. We hired her because of her proven experience and expertise in television management and production in broadcast, network and cable," Wilson wrote us, listing her work as the Vice President of MSNBC’s Washington bureau, her work at Fox News, NBC’s Today show and brining Larry King Live to CNN in 1985. "Tammy did what we asked her to do.   She looked at the Pentagon Channel overall and at all of the various programs – how they were developed, what the purpose was for each program.   She focused on whether the Pentagon Channel could continue to be a vehicle to reach military audiences most effectively at a time of media and Internet proliferation and competition – and, if so, how." Read the rest of our story here.
This week, the United Nations General Assembly and Iran and Syria. 
FP’s Colum Lynch: "Samantha Power, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, once posed an uncomfortable question about America’s repeated reluctance to confront genocide during the 20th century: "Why does the United States stand so idly by" in the face of mass atrocities? The answer, she wrote more than a decade ago in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, is "simply put, American leaders did not act because they did not want to." She meant it as an accusation. But it’s become a kind of premonition. Since her arrival in New York last month, Power has become the public face of an administration that has proven reluctant to exercise the full weight of American diplomatic and military might to halt President Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of more than 100,000 people in Syria. President Barack Obama, who was voted into office pledging to get America out of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has resisted pressure to take military action, even after Syria introduced chemical weapons into the battlefield, crossing a "red line" Obama had drawn more than a year ago. But as one of the country’s most influential advocates of humanitarian intervention, Power now finds herself burdened with the challenge of practicing what she has long preached: wielding America’s power on behalf of the world’s human rights victims, in this case Syrians." The rest of Colum’s piece here.

Five things to look for at the UNGA, according to CNN: "The Syria Conundrum," "The Iran overture," "The Mideast Dilemma," "The LatAm Tension,: the No-show and the Not Wanted." That piece, here.

Marine Corps Times’ Dan Lamothe, reporting an exclusive interview with one of the Marine urinators, in a story that may explain why it all happened. Lamothe, from Jacksonville, N.C.: "At long last, they got him. After weeks of observation, Sgt. Rob Richards and his fellow Marine scout snipers had taken out the insurgent leader in Afghanistan responsible for the improvised explosive devices that had killed two of their fellow Marines. One of the Marines’ bodies had been desecrated by the Taliban, his leg hung in a tree to send a defiant message, Marines said. It was with this history that Richards and his fellow scout snipers bagged the remains of the leader and two other insurgents in Helmand province’s Musa Qala district and brought them back to their nearby forward operating base on July 27, 2011, to collect intelligence, he said. Before they did so, however, Richards and three other Marines made a decision that would erupt into an international controversy five months later: They urinated on the enemy they had just killed, laughing as they did so." Read the rest here.

Speaking of Afghanistan and Dan Lamothe: the command structure will change in Afghanistan next year. Lamothe: "Senior coalition military commanders in Afghanistan will shake up their command structure as part of the ongoing drawdown in forces, eliminating regional commands in favor of smaller headquarters units, U.S. military officials said. The shift will come next year as the International Security Assistance Force overseeing the war shifts from Operation Enduring Freedom to Operation Resolute Support, the new name for the mission as coalition combat operations end and Afghan forces begin to fully manage the war themselves. The personnel at each of the coalition’s two-star headquarters across the country will thin and become known as Tactical Advise and Assist Commands, or TAACs, said Marine Maj. Gen. Joseph Osterman, deputy commander for ISAF Joint Command in Kabul." Read the rest here.

The Air Force doesn’t know how vulnerable its networks are to cyber attack. FP’s John Reed: "The U.S. Air Force’s Space Command is about a quarter of the way through an effort to figure out just how vulnerable its networks are to cyber attack, according to the service’s top officer in charge of network defense.We’re doing reviews of vulnerabilities on every network and this is a significant undertaking so it’s going to take some time,’ said Gen. William Shelton, chief of Air Force Space Command during the Air Force Association’s annual conference just outside Washington. ‘We’re probably 25 percent done, somewhere around there.’ But, rather than focusing on fixing every vulnerability it finds, the service must figure out what data is of vital important and figure out a way of defending that from likely threats. ‘As a commander… I’m gonna have way more vulnerabilities than I can address, so I need to go to the intel community and say, ‘is there adversary that has both the capability and the intent to affect this system that I care about that is my key cyber terrain, that is my most important set of systems right now,’" Williams told Killer Apps." Read more here.

With so many shiny objects out there at the moment, there’s little talk of troop benefits and compensation; but it’s going to get interesting. Military Times’ Rick Maze: "The Defense Department has won an important congressional convert in its push to cut military and retiree benefits to save money. In what could mark a turning point in the efforts of Pentagon officials to sell Congress on cutting benefits, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., who oversees about two-fifths of the defense budget in his role as chairman of the House Armed Service Committee’s readiness panel, said he is ready to consider cutting the compensation package for future troops in order to secure funding for other programs. In an interview that aired Sept. 15 on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers program, Wittman said he does not support compensation or benefits reductions for currently serving members but would consider changes in pay, health care and retirement for people who have not yet started military service.

"’I think that is a place we can go," he said. ‘I am very much in favor of this discussion.’ He would not touch the system for current troops because "we have a moral commitment’ to people who entered with the promise of certain benefits. Asked if he considered current benefits overly generous, Wittman replied: ‘I think it is generous. I think it is fair for what our men and women have been asked to do.’ Wittman said he did not think future troops would be any less dedicated, but that he believed it was fair to provide fewer benefits as long as the future members understood the compensation package they were getting."

But expect some pushback from the likes of Norb Ryan and others. Maze: "Retired Navy Vice Adm. Norbert Ryan Jr. of the Military Officers Association of America said his organization appreciates Wittman’s support for protecting benefits for current service members. ‘However, when it comes to cutting career benefits for future entrants, the current retirement and health care benefit are the key pillars in order to sustain a dedicated and top quality career force,’ he said." Read all of Maze’s piece, 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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