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.

FP’s Situation Report: Tough times for spies; Take the deal, Iraqi tells Karzai; Ash on getting troops wha they need; Where’s a woman on the Joint Staff?; Inaction in Syria may be more costly; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold Page One: Iraqi foreign minister tells Karzai: take the deal. The NYT’s Azem Ahmed: "With one of the most important chapters of Afghanistan’s history open before him, President Hamid Karzai took time this month for a personal meeting with the longtime foreign minister of Iraq, Hoshyar Zebari… In a moment of candor, ...

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

Page One: Iraqi foreign minister tells Karzai: take the deal. The NYT’s Azem Ahmed: "With one of the most important chapters of Afghanistan’s history open before him, President Hamid Karzai took time this month for a personal meeting with the longtime foreign minister of Iraq, Hoshyar Zebari… In a moment of candor, Mr. Zebari offered a piece of advice to the president that would have been unthinkable from an Iraqi official just two years ago: Get over your differences with the Americans and sign the deal. Zebari told Karzai: "Don’t be under the illusion that no matter what you do the Americans are here to stay… People used to say that about the American presence in Iraq, too. But they were eager to leave, and they will be eager to leave your country as well."

Did Afghan forces intentionally cede ground in Sangin? Marine Corps Times’ Andrew deGrandpre: "U.S. and Afghan officials are investigating reports Afghan forces have given the Taliban control of multiple checkpoints in Sangin, where hundreds of Marines were wounded or killed during a difficult, years-long fight to secure one of Afghanistan’s most violent territories. A story published this week by Khaama Press, an English-language Afghan news agency, suggests members of the Afghan National Army struck a deal with militants to turn over three checkpoints in Sangin, located in Helmand province. It credits the "unconfirmed" report to an unidentified member of Helmand’s provincial council, and notes that a government spokesman, Omar Zwak, disputed the allegation. Reached Tuesday, a Marine Corps spokesman in Helmand, Lt. Col. Cliff W. Gilmore, told Marine Corps Times ‘we don’t have any indicators of a problem there right now, though both we and [the Afghan government] are working to sort any facts from the rumors.’" More here.

Six Americans dead: did the Taliban attack a downed American helicopter – or not? FP’s Dan Lamothe: "Six U.S. forces died Tuesday after their helicopter went down in southern Afghanistan, defense officials said. It marks the single deadliest event for the United States in the war there this year, and already has raised eyebrows because of the conflicting reports coming out of Kabul. An initial statement by the International Security Assistance Force, which oversees coalition military operations, said the crash was under investigation and no insurgents were in the area. At the Pentagon, a defense official initially said an investigation had been launched into potential engine failure — but later switched gears and said it was unclear if that was the case. That came as both CBS News and NBC News reported that defense officials reported on condition of anonymity said the helicopter — reportedly a UH-60 Blackhawk — initially made a ‘hard landing’ in Zabul province and came under attack afterward. At least one person on board the aircraft was injured and survived, U.S. officials told CBS." More here.

Welcome to Wednesday’s edition of Situation Report where the doughnuts don’t make themselves. If you’d like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at and we’ll just stick you on. And if you like what you see, tell a friend.  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, because if you see something, we hope you’ll say something — to Situation Report. And one more thing: please follow us @glubold.

Tough times for spies: Senators think the CIA is misleading the public over the torture report. FP’s John Hudson, on The Cable: "U.S. senators openly castigated the Central Intelligence Agency on Tuesday for delaying the release of a long-awaited report on torture and secret prisons during the Bush era. Despite earlier comments that the committee, which commissioned the report, and the CIA were reaching an agreement on portions the controversial 6,000-page study, progress on its declassification is once again stymied. Meanwhile, long-simmering disagreements about the accuracy of the interrogation report have exploded into public view. Said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), referring to the CIA: "I’m convinced more than ever that we need to declassify the report so that those with a political agenda can no longer manipulate public opinion." More here.

FP’s David Rothkopf: Keith Alexander, the gig is up. Rothkopf: "This is the text of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.’ It is impossible to read this language and then conclude that the National Security Agency (NSA) has not violated this amendment willfully and wantonly. That U.S. District Judge Richard Leon finally declared that the agency’s mass collection of metadata likely violates the Constitution should therefore not be surprising. What should be surprising is that many senior U.S. government officials including the constitutional scholar who is president of the United States could know of this behavior, sanction it, and enable it to go on unchecked." More here.

NSA’s spy culture is collapsing, Snowden says in an open letter. The WaPo’s Bradley Brooks: "National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden wrote in a lengthy ‘open letter to the people of Brazil’ that he has been inspired by the global debate ignited by his release of thousands of documents and that the NSA’s culture of indiscriminate global espionage ‘is collapsing.’ In the letter, Snowden commended the Brazilian government for its strong stand against U.S. spying." More here.

The U.S. is pointing the finger at Iranian commandos attacked the MEK in Iraq and then took seven members of the group back to Iran.  FP’s Yochi Dreazen: "U.S. intelligence officials believe that Iranian commandos took part in a deadly attack on a compound of dissidents inside Iraq and then spirited seven members of the group back to Iran, highlighting Tehran’s increasingly free hand inside Iraq in the wake of the U.S withdrawal from the country. The Sept. 1 attack on a base called Camp Ashraf killed at least 50 members of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, or MEK, which had disarmed at the request of the U.S. military after the American invasion of Iraq and received explicit promises of protection from senior commanders. Instead, gory videos released by the group showed that many of its members had been shot with their hands tied behind their backs or in one of the camp’s makeshift hospitals. MEK leaders, backed by an array of U.S. lawmakers, said Iraqi security forces carried out the attack. Why this is important: "…Direct Iranian involvement in the Ashra
f assault is one of the clearest signs yet of Tehran’s growing power within Iraq, a dynamic of deep concern to American policymakers. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government has long maintained close ties with top Iranian leaders, and U.S. officials believe that Tehran prodded Maliki to refuse to sign a bilateral security pact in the fall of 2010 that would have kept some U.S. troops in the country. Perhaps under Iran’s influence, Maliki has alienated Iraq’s sizable Sunni and Kurdish minorities by centralizing power in Baghdad and refusing to share power or fairly divvy up the country’s oil revenues." More here.

Meanwhile, there’s so much violence in Iraq, everyone is tuning it out. Joshua Hersh on HuffPo: "In late November, Prashant Rao, the Baghdad bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, found himself with a terrible, familiar problem. The daily story he had to write on the news in Iraq — a typical one by that country’s standards, full of death and mayhem — contained so many violent incidents that he simply didn’t have room to mention them all. So he took to Twitter. There, over a series of 17 tweets, Rao laid out each of the individual attacks from that single day. In Abu Ghraib, a roadside bomb at a market killed one and wounded five; in Tikrit, police found the bodies of seven maintenance workers on a soccer field, with their throats slit; in Diyala, a man was shot dead in front of his home; and on and on." More here.

Inaction in Syria is costlier than action: The WaPo’s Ed board: "From the beginning of the Syria crisis almost three years ago, the Obama administration has found reasons to remain aloof. Every option for U.S. involvement – arming moderate rebels, enforcing a no-fly zone, carving out humanitarian corridors – entailed risks. But every imperfect option for action must be weighed against the risks of inaction: What happens if the United States fails to help shape or contain a dangerous situation? In that framework, it’s instructive to look at just one day’s news from the region: Syrian government helicopters on Monday dropped ‘barrel bombs’ on residential neighborhoods in the nation’s largest city, rebel-controlled Aleppo. The bombs ‘are typically packed with screws, scrap metal, old car parts, blades and explosives,’ an activist told the Wall Street Journal. Scores of people were killed, including at least 28 children." Read the rest of the WaPo’s argument here.

Dire: Hundreds killed in South Sudan. AP, from Juba: "Fighting in South Sudan has killed up to 500 people, U.N. diplomats said Tuesday, and the United Nations fears the violence in the oil-rich East African country is ‘largely along ethnic lines.’ The United States ordered its citizens to leave South Sudan immediately. The president of South Sudan, which is also the world’s newest country, has blamed the violence on a coup attempt Sunday by soldiers loyal to his former deputy, who belongs to a different ethnic group. As many as 20,000 people have taken refuge with the U.N. mission in the capital, Juba, the president of the Security Council, French Ambassador Gerard Araud, told reporters. Araud said the council received only "patchy information" in a special briefing Tuesday evening by the U.N. peacekeeping chief, with the cause of the violence yet unknown. Said French Ambassador Araud to reporters: "We are extremely concerned… There is a heavy toll, that’s obvious." More here.

Chinese head scratcher: North Korea execution confounds Beijing. The WSJ’s Jeremy Page: "China’s strategy of encouraging closer economic integration with North Korea has been thrown into confusion by the execution of the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to diplomats and Chinese experts. Jang Song Thaek, whose execution was announced by North Korea on Friday, was seen by Beijing as the most pro-China and pro-business figure in the North Korean leadership, the diplomats and experts say. That made him central to China’s long-term strategy of building up infrastructure along the North Korean border and encouraging cross-border trade and investment through special economic zones in North Korea." More here.

Meanwhile: Amid Chinese assertiveness, Japan seeks more military muscle. The NYT’s Martin Fackler: "Taking Japan a step further from its postwar pacifism, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved a new five-year defense plan on Tuesday that calls for the acquisition of drones and amphibious assault vehicles to strengthen the nation’s military as it faces the prospect of a prolonged rivalry with China over islands in the East China Sea. While Mr. Abe described the spending plan as "proactive pacifism," it continues a trend started earlier this year when Mr. Abe began to reverse a decade of military cuts to help offset China’s rapid military buildup and the relative decline of American influence in the region." More here.

Scoopette: Pentagon is less dependent on China’s rare earth elements. Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio: "China’s virtual monopoly on rare earth elements used in high-technology applications has been loosened, decreasing the risk that supplies to U.S. defense contractors could be disrupted, according to the Pentagon’s latest assessment of the nation’s industrial base." More here.

Ukraine under pressure over Russian financial deal. Reuters’ Gabriela Baczynska: "Ukraine’s president faced calls to resign on Wednesday over a $15-billion bailout from Russia which the opposition and protesters said had sold the country out to its former Soviet masters in Moscow. Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Kiev on Tuesday after President Viktor Yanukovich secured financial assistance and a gas price discount at talks with President Vladimir Putin, and several hundred spent the night in the freezing cold. Russia said it will buy Ukrainian bonds under a deal which keeps Kiev firmly in Moscow’s orbit and out of the European Union’s grasp but sowed doubts in some Ukrainians’ minds about what Yanukovich might have agreed to in secret." Read the rest here.

Movin’ on up: Eric Rosenbach, a key aide to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, will be nom’ed for Assistant Secretary of Homeland Defense. Rosenbach, who had served on Hagel’s Senate staff, has been Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber policy, now appears headed to DHS. We’re told by a defense official that "Eric played a critical role in helping DoD and the nation think smarter about the challenges in cyberspace and is an outstanding pick to served as the new Assistant Secretary for Homeland Defense."


Ash Carter in Foreign Affairs: How to run the Pentagon right. Ash
Carter, former DepSecDef: "…
This is a paradox that would surprise most people outside its walls: the Pentagon is ill equipped to address urgent needs that arise during wartime. The Department of Defense has a fairly good track record of making smart and deliberate long-term acquisitions, as evidenced by the substantial qualitative advantage the United States holds over any potential adversary. Although the department still struggles to contain the costs of military systems, it has come a long way in providing better buying power for the taxpayer. The Pentagon has also, by sad necessity, pioneered advances in medical technology, particularly in such areas as prosthetic limbs and the treatment of traumatic brain injuries and posttraumatic stress disorder. But the same system that excels at anticipating future needs has proved less capable of quickly providing technology and equipment to troops on the battlefield. I have spent much of the past five years, first as undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics and then as deputy secretary of defense, trying to address this shortfall. With the Iraq war over and the war in Afghanistan coming to a close, it is important to understand what prevented the Pentagon from rapidly meeting immediate demands during those wars, what enduring lessons can be learned from its efforts to become more responsive, and how to put in place the right institutions to ensure success against future threats when agility is crucial." More here.

Jim Jones, Chuck Wald, Arnie Punaro and Greg Johnson are all good with the "Bipartisan Budget Act" – even if it means cuts to military retirement. The four former flag and general officers issued a statement through the Bipartisan Policy Center in support of the budget deal, including a provision that amounts to a decrease the cost of living adjustments relative to inflation for working age military retirees. It read, in part: "Since 2000, military personnel costs have doubled, while the active duty force has shrunk by 10 percent. Such cost growth is unsustainable, and the leadership of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines all agree that the costs of benefits for personnel are starting to crowd out other important investments that support training, readiness and modernization. This plan is an important first step in tackling those costs.

And: "The provisions in the Bipartisan Budget Act will only slow the rate of increase in pension payments to working – age military retirees – those who are under the age of 62. It will not cut initial retirement benefit payments for anyone – nor will it affect any retirees who are 62 or older. Such a change is much needed – but it’s only a first step. Additional reforms to compensation to ensure benefits are both fair and sustainable will be essential to slow the rise of personnel costs and to ensure the military is able to make the necessary investments to maintain sufficient capability to fight and win wars."

Meanwhile, the Pentagon just announced housing allowances – the amount service members are paid to offset their housing costs – and they went up on average 5 percent – or about $79 per month. The DoD announced yesterday the new rates for 2014, which take effect Jan. 1. Overall, rates will jump by an average of five percent this year – $79 on average per month for members with dependents and $76 per month for members without dependents. In Washington and other expensive-to-live-markets, "basic housing allowance" can top $3,000 per month. It’s a cornerstone of military compensation package. It’s also ripe for scrutiny as the Pentagon looks for ways to trim its escalating personnel costs. Naturally, the question here will be how to trim such costs without breaking faith with service members after 12 long years of war. But there’s no question this aspect of military compensation costs a lot: in 2014, about $20 billion-with-a-B will be spent paying out housing allowances to about one million service members, the Pentagon says.

Not a crazy question: Larry Korb: ya ever gonna get a woman on the JCS? Writing an op-ed for Defense News, CAP’s Larry Korb: "The seven officers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff have different backgrounds and experiences, but they have one thing in common: they are all men. Even though women make up 16 percent of the armed forces, no woman has ever been appointed to the JCS. The question is: When will this change? Many of those defending the all-male status contend that there has not yet been a female candidate qualified to become a JCS member, that the military’s women do not yet have the background or experience to join the nation’s highest military body.

How about an officer who graduated from a service academy 34 years ago, holds a master’s degree in aeronautics from Stanford, is a flight test engineer who has flown in 30 different types of U.S. and Canadian aircraft, has been a wing and Air Force commander, and was responsible for developing the nation’s strategic war plan? What if this person had also been an astronaut, served as a crew member on five space shuttle missions, lived on the International Space Station for five months, and held the record for the longest spacewalk? That sterling resume would seem to qualify such an officer for an appointment to the JCS." More here.

Space geeks partay: There is a lot good to Wolf’s legacy. But he will also be remembered for the prominent way in which he blocked the U.S. and China exploring space together. Writing on FP’s The Complex, Zach Rosenberg:  "Long-serving Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia announced his retirement on Tuesday — a move that’s being met with cheers across America’s, and the world’s, space community. The congressman has repeatedly, consistently used his position as chairman of the relevant appropriations subcommittee to thwart international cooperation in space. Perhaps his most consequential — and most ridiculous — legacy: Year after year, Wolf did everything he could to utterly prevent NASA from working with China in any capacity… Under legislation sponsored and largely championed by Wolf, NASA is wholly prohibited from spending money on any collaboration with China. That means no NASA employees attending Chinese-sponsored conferences, it means no calls to the Chinese National Space Agency on NASA phones, it definitely means no putting components or scientific instruments on one another’s spacecraft (for reference, NASA’s Curiosity rover has crucial parts and instruments from Canada, Germany, Spain, Finland, Russia, and many others). "If my Chinese counterpart comes here, I’m forbidden to even buy him a cup of coffee," said one high-ranking NASA employee after yet another Wolf missive landed on his desk." More here.

The Duffel Blog: Navy Town Celebrates Return of Drunk-Driving, Bar-Fighting Miscreants: "Waving flags and hoisting colorful hand-made signs, community members gathered today on Norfolk Naval Station to welcome home the men and women of the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, who tonight, sources say, will unquestionably get drunk, break stuff, and drive. ‘We’re out here to let these patriots know how much we appreciate everything they do for us,’ said local bartender Stan Donnelly, ecstatic for the returning business but unaware of the shattered clavicle he’ll receive later when he refuses to serve an already visibly intoxicated Quartermaster First Class Jacob Buntz." 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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