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: New Coke: Will the Gates Brand suffer now?

By Gordon Lubold The Gates stellar brand may suffer from Duty. Robert Gates had a nearly five-year run at the Pentagon in which he cultivated an image of himself as the consummate professional, the reluctant, bureaucratic hero with the steel trap for a brain, the discreet adviser who was as humbled by the office he ...

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

The Gates stellar brand may suffer from Duty. Robert Gates had a nearly five-year run at the Pentagon in which he cultivated an image of himself as the consummate professional, the reluctant, bureaucratic hero with the steel trap for a brain, the discreet adviser who was as humbled by the office he held as he was by his meetings with the young troops fighting the wars he was brought in to fix.

It were those characteristics that helped define him, prompting the incoming Obama administration to make history by asking Gates, President Bush’s last secretary of defense, to remain in his job. It led White House officials and members to Congress to brand him as one of the best defense secretaries the Pentagon had ever seen. And that reputation helped lift his stature above that of so many of the other Washington officials who were so often seen as small-minded, ego-driven and politically petty. Gates seemed to stand out in Washington because he seemed so unlike the rest of the city’s politicians and administration officials. Until now.

Gates, 70, has unmasked himself as just another former Washington official writing just another kiss-and-tell in the soon-to-be-released Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, in which he takes shots at a sitting commander-in-chief, his top aides and Congress, an institution with which he often expressed frustration – but also respect. Gates was known for being discreet and sharp-minded, loyal to the office he occupied and careful about what he said in public. So deliberate were his public pronouncements about wars or national security policy or budgets that he became the E.F. Hutton of the Pentagon — everyone leaned in every time he had something to say.

But now his brand seems diminished by the scrappy, petty nature of many of his criticisms — even though some are substantive and legitimate — and a legacy he seemed quietly determined to protect may be permanently reduced to something less than what it once was.

Norm Ornstein, an expert on Congress and politics at the American Enterprise Institute, said he was struck by Gates’ ability to keep up a facade of calm despite his clearly strong, and often negative, feelings about his administration colleagues. Ornstein said Gates did the administration a significant favor by waiting until after the 2012 elections before releasing the book, but said the work would still "alter the perception of a man" who’d always been praised for his discretion and ability to work with politicians of both parties.

"It will tarnish, to a degree, his entire reputation," Ornstein said. "It takes someone who left with a sterling reputation across the board and it leaves a little bit of bad taste." Read the rest of our story in which we teamed up with Yochi Dreazen and got assists from John Hudson and Dan Lamothe, here.

The White House and its proxies attempted to contain the damage from the Gates memoir. WH pressec Jay Carney said the President had intentionally brought together a ‘team of rivals’ with differing views. Carney: "When you pick a team of rivals, you do so because you expect competing points of view."

The White House is wishing Gates took his own advice: "Never miss a good chance to shut up," as Gates was fond of saying. But can he say this? Time’s Mark Thompson says yes on Time’s Battleland blog: "…National security types are in a tizzy over the story line, orbiting around a detached Obama, a cabal of power-hungry White House aides, and a Vice President who kept warning the commander-in-chief that those in uniform couldn’t be trusted. Jane Average, along with GI Joe, may be scratching their heads and wondering: isn’t writing a book like this illegal for such a high link in the chain of command? Especially when the nation is at war? Perhaps a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice? Bad manners? By all accounts, legal and otherwise, Gates is free to publish such a tell-all, assuming it has been scrubbed of any classified information. In other words, it passes the tell test, if not the smell test. ‘It’s a question of political good taste,’ says Eugene Fidell, a lecturer on military law at Yale University and former president of the National Institute of Military Justice. Gates, as a civilian, isn’t subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s ban on a soldier’s ‘contemptuous words’ toward the President, he says. ‘But I think he might have well waited a little longer.’ The volume also sends up a red flag about the wisdom of a new President reaching across the political aisle for help." More here.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is touring U.S. nuclear facilities, was asked about the propriety of Gates writing the book about a sitting commander-in-chief. His answer: "I’ve never second-guessed motivations on why people do things…I think it’s up to each individual to make that judgment on his or her own."

Welcome to Thursday’s edition of Situation Report, where Bob Gates’ eyes are boring into us because the copy of the 594-page "Duty" with his solemn mug on the cover just arrived by FedEx this morning. 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.

Random piece of history about when Obama asked Gates to stay on as SecDef on page 269: It’s been reported for some time that when President Obama asked Gates to stay on, they had a clandestine meeting in the fire house of National Airport just outside Washington, D.C. Gates told reporters about the meeting after he agreed to stay on. But the anecdote has always had an Only-in-Washington feel to us. Gates, who liked such details, describes in the book how the fire trucks were cleared out to allow both motorcades, his and the President’s, to pull in. He says how the meeting was set up initially by Mark Lippert, now Hagel’s chief of staff, who at the time was one of Obama’s closest aides. Gates describes the meeting that day, in which he was led across the spotless firehouse to a small conference room that had been set up for the special meeting. "There was an American flag in one corner. On the table were bottled water, almonds, two bananas, two apples and a bottle of green dragon tea."

But Gates remembered what he was thinking that day, one day after Obama was elected: "I had e-mailed my family the day after the election and foreshadowed what was to come: ‘regardless of one’s political leanings, yesterday was a great day for America – at home and around the world. The land where dreams come true. Where an African-American can become president. And where a kid from Kansas, whose grandfather as a child went west in a covered wagon… became the secretary of defense of the most powerful nation in history.’"

Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio posted a little treatment of how Gates liked to drop the f-bombs: "…With McChrystal, Gates asked ‘what the f*** were you thinking’ in giving a Rolling Stone reporter access to write an article that led to his 2010 resignation.

‘Deeply fearful of its impact, for once I couldn’t contain my anger,’ he said. explaining the outburst," Capaccio writes of Gates’ description of the meeting. There’s more, like how Gates liked the White House’s homemade tortilla chips, and how the "Green Lantern" figure played into why the WH didn’t release photos after the bin Laden raid. Read it all here.

It’s time to fight: Maliki can take back Anbar. Doug Ollivant, writing on FP: "…The fundamental problem is that significant numbers of Anbaris have not yet reconciled themselves to the loss of power — and the privileges that came with it — after the fall of Saddam Hussein. This has spawned two results: demonstrations to express demands that are politically impossible outside an authoritarian system and a return to the violence that al Qaeda has been trying for years to precipitate.

These next weeks will give the people of Anbar an opportunity. They can demonstrate that — whatever they may think of the central government — they reject violence, terrorism, and the nihilistic Islamism of al Qaeda and its affiliates. (Anbar’s governor, Ahmed Khalaf al-Dulaimi, has taken this route, calling for the return of the Iraqi Army to push out ISIS.) Or they can reinforce the narrative that some of their fellow nationalists are pushing: That whenever the Sunnis don’t get their way politically, they will resort to the kind of violence and terrorism that killed over 8,000 Iraqis in 2013, most of them Arab Shiites. Anbar’s much-discussed tribes are currently on both sides of this equation, with some clearly aligned with Baghdad, others fighting alongside al Qaeda and ISIS, and still others trying to maintain distance from both or to al Qaeda on their own." More here.

The Iraq war has a grim sequel: American limits come as the killing in Anbar province rages. The NYT’s Peter Baker’s lede: "For two years, President Obama has boasted that he accomplished what his predecessor had not. "I ended the war in Iraq," he has told audience after audience. But a resurgence by Islamic militants in western Iraq has reminded the world that the war is anything but over. What Mr. Obama ended was the United States military presence in Iraq, but the fighting did not stop when the last troops left in 2011; it simply stopped being a daily concern for most Americans. While attention shifted elsewhere, the war raged on and has now escalated to its most violent phase since the depths of the occupation.

"The turn of events in a country that once dominated the American agenda underscores the approach of a president determined to keep the United States out of what he sees as the quagmires of the last decade. In places like Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and Syria, Mr. Obama has opted for selective engagement and accepted that sometimes there will be bad results, but in his view not as bad as if the United States immersed itself more assertively in other people’s problems." More here (and you’ll see the NYT’s freaky new italicized headlines).  

Craig Franklin, the Air Force three-star under pressure for the way in which he handled sexual assault cases, is out. The WaPo’s Craig Whitlock: "Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, the commander of the Third Air Force in Europe, acknowledged that he had become a "distraction" for the Air Force because of controversial cases in which he overturned a sexual-assault conviction of a star fighter pilot and decided that there was not enough evidence to court-martial an accused rapist… Franklin’s decision to grant clemency in February to a convicted fighter pilot at Aviano Air Base in Italy helped spark a national debate over sexual assault in the armed forces and about whether military leaders took the problem seriously enough.

"The pilot, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, had been found guilty in November 2012 by an all-male jury in what was seen as a test of the Air Force’s willingness to tackle such crimes. Franklin’s decision to grant clemency infuriated many female lawmakers and activists, who said the outcome would discourage victims from reporting abuse."

Franklin, in a statement: "Public scrutiny will likely occur on every subsequent case I deal with… The last thing I want in this command is for people to feel they cannot bring a sexual assault case forward or feel like it won’t be dealt with fairly." The rest of the WaPo story here.

First there was the Air Force helicopter crash in the U.K. this week that killed four. Then this, yesterday: a Navy helicopter flying off the Virginia coast went down, killing two, injuring two more – and one crewmember is still missing. Navy Times’ Meghann Myers: "Two crew members are dead and a third remains missing after the Wednesday-morning crash of a Norfolk, Va.-base MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia Beach, the Navy said. The service announced the death of the second crewmember via Twitter on Wednesday night. Two other crewmembers remain hospitalized, according to a report from WVEC-TV – one in serious condition, one in fair condition. The search continues into the night for the fifth, with Navy surface assets, helicopters and dive boats working alongside the Coast Guard and Virginia Beach Fire Department… Flannery said he did not know whether safety issues that contributed to a fatal 2012 MH-53E crash in the Middle East were a factor. The Navy is investigating Wednesday’s crash; Flannery said he did not know whether remaining MH-53s will be grounded to determine their safety." The rest here.

High wash rate: Techies are boycotting the big security conference because of NSA conference. Our own Shane Harris: "The annual RSA conference in San Francisco, founded by the computer security company of the same name, is a marquee event for the security industry and has long been a forum for some of the most vocal opponents of government surveillance to discuss ways to keep personal data safe from prying eyes. But this year, talk of betrayal is in the air. At least eight prominent attendees are pulling out of the conference, which begins next month, and are canceling planned talks and presentations to protest RSA’s alleged covert collaboration with the National Security Agency. At issue is a $10 million deal that RSA reportedly struck with the spy agency to include a deliberately flawed algorithm in one of its security products, which effectively gave the agency a backdoor to spy on RSA’s customers.

The alleged deal, which was reported last year by Reuters, shocked many security experts and technologists, who have long seen RSA as a pioneering defender of privacy-enhancing technologies like encryption and a historic adversary of the NSA. The company’s products are used by people, companies, and governments around the world to shield their communications and data." More here.

A life worth living: Rory Stewart, who walked 6,000 miles across Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, talks to The Guardian about his life now as a British MP and says foreign interventions don’t work. The Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead: "…Stewart came home when he realized that even the least-educated Afghan housewife in a mountain village knew more about the country than he did. Fluent in Dari, along with nine other languages, he’d thrown himself into the coalition mission with great conviction, but had to conclude that: ‘In the end, the basic problem is very, very simple. Why don’t these interventions work? Because we are foreigners. If things are going wrong in a country, it’s not usually that we don’t have enough foreigners. It’s usually that we have too many.’" More of this story here.

His bad: Rodman apologizes for TV interview outburst. AlJazeera: "Former NBA star Dennis Rodman has apologized for his televised outburst about a US missionary detained in North Korea, explaining that he had been stressed and drinking at the time. Rodman was roundly criticized for his angry tirade in an interview with CNN, in which he appeared to suggest that the missionary, Kenneth Bae, had merited the prison sentence of 15 years handed down last year. ‘I want to first apologize to Kenneth Bae’s family,’ Rodman said in a statement released on Thursday by his publicist and cited by CNN. ‘I embarrassed a lot of people," said Rodman, who was in the North Korean capital for an exhibition basketball match he had organized to mark the birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un." More here.

The House Armed Services Committee’s John Chapla dies. Rick Maze, who covered Capitol Hill for Military Times since 1980, making a special return to Military Times from Army magazine just to write the story: "The Jan. 5 death of Vietnam combat veteran and longtime House Armed Services Committee staff member John D. Chapla has left the influential panel without its longtime expert on military personnel and benefits policy. Chapla, a rifle platoon leader with the 173rd Airborne Brigade during the Vietnam War who later wrote a book about sacrifices and heroism of his company, was an example of someone dedicated to public life. He spent almost 22 years in the Army, retiring as a lieutenant colonel, and worked for the House Armed Services Committee almost uninterrupted from 1994 until his death from cancer at age 66. His long tenure on the staff – from the finishing stages of the post-Cold War drawdown through the buildup in forces for what was called the Global War on Terrorism, and now the post-Iraq and Afghanistan drawdowns – provided lawmakers with a steady hand and quiet adviser on key issues. ‘He was the compass and guidepost for the military personnel subcommittee,’ said Jeanette James, a fellow staffer on the personnel panel." 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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