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: Americans in Syria recruited for attacks

By Gordon Lubold  Hagel’s morale-booster at an ICBM site in Wyoming yesterday was punctuated by the news that two Minutemen 3 launch control officers were under investigation for illegal narcotics. AP’s Bob Burns: "Moments before he launched a carefully planned pep talk to members of the Air Force’s nuclear missile force, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ...

By Gordon Lubold 

By Gordon Lubold 

Hagel’s morale-booster at an ICBM site in Wyoming yesterday was punctuated by the news that two Minutemen 3 launch control officers were under investigation for illegal narcotics. AP’s Bob Burns: "Moments before he launched a carefully planned pep talk to members of the Air Force’s nuclear missile force, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was undercut by yet another sign of trouble in their ranks: a drug probe of two missile officers. Hagel flew here Thursday to deliver a message he felt needed to be heard by men and women who sometimes tire of toiling in a job that can seem like military oblivion. He wanted to buck them up, while also insisting they live up to their own standards, which he said should never be compromised in a business as potentially dangerous as the launching of the world’s deadliest weapons. ‘We depend on your professionalism,’ he declared to an assembly of members of the 90th Missile Wing, which operates 150 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles, one third of the entire ICBM force.

"What Hagel did not count on was the news – disclosed just as he was preparing to deliver his words of praise and encouragement – that two Minuteman 3 launch control officers at an ICBM base in Montana had been removed from duty because they were under investigation for illegal narcotics. Details of the illegal narcotics case were not released, but the two officers were members of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations was handling the probe. Hagel did not mention the news, which he was told about by aides while he was visiting a missile launch control center in "Flight Echo" of the 319th Missile Squadron at a remote site just across the state line in his home state of Nebraska." Hagel was the first defense secretary since Caspar Weinberger in 1982 to visit an ICBM launch control center, described by Burns as a "pill-shaped capsule" buried at least 60 feet below ground. Read the rest here.

Welcome to Friday’s edition of Situation Report. 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.

Situation Report correctsWe had a typo in yesterday’s edition about Rory Stewart, who of course is an MP – member of Parliament – not a PM, as we typed – Prime Minister. For that matter, we also referenced Time’s Battleland blog, which is defunct. Those posts are all now on Time’s Swampland blog. We’re not the only one who makes mistakes. Yesterday, the Pentagon’s public affairs shop sent out a transcript of one of Hagel’s visits to "Kirkland Air Force Base, N.M." Of course it’s Kirtland and it was quickly fixed.

Les Kodlick retiring. The Air Force’s head of public affairs, Brig. Gen. Les Kodlick, announced his retirement yesterday in a memo to "PA Professionals." He’ll be gone by the end of February. "For almost 30 years, I have had the privilege of serving with you – the world’s best communicators – and every day I am in awe of your professionalism, innovation and skill. You advise, inform, educate, entertain, motivate and inspire people around the country and globe." There are small signs that the Air Force, which has struggled to tell its story over the years, may be embarking on a new era. Leaders have tried to be more accessible, and inculcate that kind of openness across the Force. Under Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning, who up until recently also served as the Acting Secretary, is a former CBS News producer in New York. He has encouraged his Air Force to be as open as possible. Kodlick’s replacement has not yet been named.

The White House is trying to reform NSA surveillance and Shane Harris and John Hudson take you inside the meetings: "President Obama and White House officials met Thursday with members of Congress and privacy and civil liberties groups to discuss potential modifications to NSA surveillance. But the administration gave away little about its plans, which officials said the president could announce as early as next week.

Privacy groups reiterated their call for the administration to end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, according to participants in a meeting with White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler. The White House has not committed to ending the program, but reportedly the president has considered handing over the phone data to a third party and requiring the NSA to obtain court approval when it wants to query a suspicious phone number in the database… The meeting in the Roosevelt Room lasted more than an hour and stayed mostly focused on the collection of phone records. Other concerns, such as those about the NSA’s policy of undermining encryption, received comparatively little discussion, participants said, to the frustration of some privacy reform advocates." Read the rest here.

Meantime, the Pentagon (in the form of the Defense Intelligence Agency) released a report discrediting Edward Snowden. Shane Harris: "A Pentagon review has concluded that the disclosure of classified documents taken by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden could ‘gravely impact’ America’s national security and risk the lives of U.S. military personnel, and that leaks to journalists have already revealed sources and methods of intelligence operations to America’s adversaries. At least, that’s how two members of Congress who have read the classified report are characterizing its findings. But the lawmakers — who are working in coordination with the Obama administration and are trying to counter the narrative that Snowden is a heroic whistleblower — offered no specific examples to substantiate their claims. In harsh language that all but accused Snowden of treason, the top members of the House Intelligence Committee said the report shows that Snowden downloaded ‘1.7 million intelligence files,’ which they described as ‘the single largest theft of secrets in the history of the United States.’"

DNI spokesman Shawn Turner on the disclosures: "Specifically, we have seen in response to the Snowden leaks al Qaeda and affiliated groups seeking to change their tactics, looking to see what they can learn from what’s in the press and seeking to change how they communicate to avoid detection and avoid our surveillance." More here.

Page One: Islamic extremist groups in Syria are recruiting Americans to carry out attacks when they return home. The NYT’s Michael Schmidt and Eric Schmitt: "These efforts, which the officials say are in the early stages, are the latest challenge that the conflict in Syria has created, not just for Europe but for the United States, as the civil war has become a magnet for Westerners seeking to fight with the rebels against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. At least 70 Americans have either traveled to Syria, or tried to, since the civil war started three years ago, according to the intelligence and counterterrorism officials — a figure that has not previously been disclosed.  The director of the F.B.I., James B. Comey, said Thursday that tracking Americans who have returned from Syria had become one of the bureau’s highest counterterrorism priorities."

‘We are focused on trying to figure out what our people are up to, who should be spoken to, who should be followed, who should be charged,’ Mr. Comey said in a meeting with reporters, without referring to specific numbers. ‘I mean, it’s hard for me to characterize beyond that. It’s something we are intensely focused on.’

"Most of the Americans who have traveled to Syria are still there, the officials said, though a few have died on the battlefield. Nicole Lynn Mansfield, 33, of Flint, Mich., a convert to Islam, was killed last May while with Syrian rebels in Idlib Province. Another American, Eric G. Harroun, a former Army soldier from Phoenix, was indicted in Virginia by a federal grand jury last year on charges related to allegations that he fought alongside the Nusra Front, one of the Syrian opposition groups linked to Al Qaeda. In September, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge involving conspiracy to transfer defense articles and services, and was released from custody. Mr. Harroun’s involvement was hardly a secret. Last February, he bragged about his role, posting a photo on his Facebook page saying, ‘Downed a Syrian Helicopter then Looted all Intel and Weapons!’

"American officials say their concerns about the recruitment and training of Americans are based on intelligence gleaned from passenger travel records, human sources on the ground in Syria, intercepted electronic communications, social media postings and surveillance of Americans overseas who have expressed interest in traveling to Syria." Read the rest here.

Are al-Qaeda’s hardliners on the run? Writing on FP, Hassan Hassan: "Al Qaeda’s reign of terror over most of rebel-held Syria may have finally been broken last Friday. On Jan. 3, secular and religious Syrians in various rebel-held towns and cities protested against the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The protests evolved into clashes between ISIS and two rebel groups — the newly formed Jaish al-Mujahideen and the newly organized Syrian Revolutionaries Front. The clashes began in western Aleppo and then spread into at least three other provinces — Idlib, Raqqa, and Deir Ezzor — and groups affiliated with the predominantly Salafi Islamic Front became involved in some of the fighting against ISI." More here.

The Obama WH considers resuming non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. The NYT’s Mark Landler: "The Obama administration is considering the resumption of nonlethal military aid to Syria’s moderate opposition, senior administration officials said on Thursday, even if some of it ends up going to the Islamist groups that are allied with the moderates. The United States suspended the shipments last month after warehouses of equipment were seized by the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist fighters that broke with the American-backed Free Syrian Army and has become an increasingly vital force in the nearly three-year-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. But as a result of the rapidly shifting alliances within Syria’s fractured opposition, some of the Islamists fought alongside the Free Syrian Army in a battle against a major rebel group affiliated with Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That has eased American qualms about resuming the aid, the officials said." Read the rest here.

Read our September story, "The Delivery Man," about Mark Ward, who heads the non-lethal assistance program for State from Gaziantep, Turkey, here. 

Second read: Gates’ book shows that Hamid Karzai’s concerns that the Obama White House has tried to orchestrate his downfall may be justified. FP’s Yochi Dreazen: "Lost in the political controversy surrounding former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ new memoir is a fascinating account of a failed administration attempt to ensure that Karzai was defeated in the 2009 Afghan elections. Gates is harshly critical of the move, which he derides as a "clumsy and failed putsch" that did significant damage to the U.S.-Afghan relationship.  Karzai’s clear distrust of President Obama, regardless of the cause, has contributed to the administration’s inability to win Karzai’s support for a security pact allowing for a long-term American troop presence in Afghanistan. With talks stalled, senior White House officials say they may withdraw all U.S. personnel from Afghanistan if a deal isn’t reached soon. The central players in the backchannel effort to unseat Karzai, according to Gates, were Richard Holbrooke, then the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Karl Eikenberry, then the U.S. ambassador to Kabul." Read the rest here.

Gates also worried about "the influence of the Israelis and the Saudis" on the White House. From the NYT review of the book, by Michiko Kakutani: "…Mr. Gates repeatedly warned of the dangers of ‘looking for another war’ when America was already at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. At one point, he says, he was so worried that Mr. Bush might be persuaded by Vice President Dick Cheney and Mr. Olmert ‘to act or enable the Israelis to act’ (that is, to take military action to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon) that he made an intense private call to Mr. Bush in which he argued ‘we must not make our vital interests in the entire Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia hostage to another nation’s decisions – no matter how close an ally.’

And on Rumsfeld, Kakutani writes of Gates’ book: "…He is also curiously elliptical when it comes to his predecessor at the Pentagon, Donald H. Rumsfeld, whom he replaced in December 2006. Instead, he talks in more general terms about the chaotic war in Iraq he inherited, writing that he was ‘stunned by what I saw as amazing bungling after the initial military success.’ He also confides that Mr. Bush told him in January 2008 that ‘he wished he’d made the change in secretary of defense ‘a couple of years earlier.’ It was the only thing I ever heard him say even indirectly critical of Rumsfeld.’" More here.

Who named Gates’ military jet "The Brisket?" Not the military air crew that flies on the E4-B, as Gates’ book says. That distinction goes to the WSJ’s Julian Barnes and Defense One’s Kevin Baron. Gates book includes a picture of him with traveling press on the E4B military jet defense secretaries typically fly overseas. The caption reads: "A press briefing aboard an E4B en route to Singapore. The plane, a converted Boeing 747, was dubbed by the crew ‘The Big Brisket’ in recognition of my fondness for barbecue, which was often served on these flights. Correction please! It wasn’t the air crew that named it the Big Brisket, but the press, and in particular, Barnes and Baron. The name of course was borne of derision for the sometimes unimaginative and repetitive nature of the food served aboard the plane, eaten by the crew, the press, defense officials, and of course, the SecDef. 

In a brief but exclusive interview with Barnes, Situation Report was told former Pentagon pressec Geoff Morrell, who did some fact-checking for the book pre-publication, should fix the error. "Removal of picture is not acceptable. Credit to Barnes and Baron is a must. How Geoff missed this on his fact check is a mystery. Or an enigma. What did Dr. Gates used to say? They are lucky I am not demanding the first print run be pulped over this egregious error."

Tom Ricks rates SecDefs: The best? He says Robert Gates, William Perry and Dick Cheney in that order. The worst? Donald Rumsfeld, Robert McNamara and Louis Johnson. Slam! Want to know why he thinks that? Click here.

Here’s a new one: China has created a new "Fishing ADIZ." Weeks after creating an Air Defense Identification Zone and demanding that non-commercial flights from other countries submit flight plans in advance of flying through the zone, Beijing has created a new zone – for sea. Reuters’ David Brunnstrom: "The United States, already at odds with China over that country’s air defense zone, said on Thursday that new Chinese fishing restrictions in disputed waters in the South China Sea were ‘provocative and potentially dangerous.’ The legislature of China’s Hainan province approved rules in November that took effect on January 1 requiring foreign fishing vessels to obtain approval to enter waters under its jurisdiction. Such a move, if broadly enforced, could worsen tensions in the region. Beijing claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China Sea, rejecting rival claims to parts of it from the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam. ‘The passing of these restrictions on other countries’ fishing activities in disputed portions of the South China Sea is a provocative and potentially dangerous act’ State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a news briefing." More here.

Congress and the White House are clashing over arms for Iraq. Defense News’ John Bennett: "Aides to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez are sharply criticizing the Obama administration, dubbing its inability to engage constructively on sending weapons to Iraq as ‘shocking.’ Administration officials jabbed Congress on Thursday for what they described as an unwillingness among lawmakers to give the Iraqi military the right weapons to fight al-Qaida." More here.

The Navy released the name of the pilot missing after the tragic helicopter accident off the coast of Virginia this week. Navy Times’ Meghann Myers: "The Navy released the name of the crew member who remained missing following Wednesday’s MH-53E helicopter crash off Virginia Beach, Va. – agreeing to a request from his wife that came after media reports identified the pilot. The Coast Guard suspended its active search Thursday for Lt. Sean Christopher Snyder, 39, of Santee, Calif., the only one of five crew members unaccounted for. Two died Wednesday from injuries sustained in the crash: The helicopter’s other pilot, Lt. Wesley Van Dorn, 29, of Greensboro, N.C., had been in the Navy for six years; Naval Aircrewman 3rd Class Brian Collins, 25, of Truckee, Calif., had been in the Navy for two." More here.

A good problem to have: The Army scales back its wounded warrior transition program because there are fewer wounded warriors. Stripes’ Chris Carroll: "With the pace of U.S. operations in Afghanistan slowing and fewer wounded troops coming home, the Army said Thursday it would eliminate some of the special units for soldiers who need long-term medical care and rehabilitation. The Army plans to inactivate five of its 29 active-duty Warrior Transition Units by the end of September. In the wake of a scandal over poor living conditions for some wounded warriors, the units were set up in the United States and Europe in 2007, designed to oversee care for those who need at least six months of recovery time before returning to their Army jobs or transitioning to the civilian world. The Army also will close all nine Community Based Warrior Transition facilities, nonresidential units that primarily serve National Guard and reserve troops regionally. They’ll be replaced with 13 new Community Care Units located on active-duty Army bases."

Brig. Gen. David Bishop, commander of Army Warrior Transition Command: "Fortunately, the population of wounded, ill and injured soldiers across the Army has steadily declined over the last 14 months… There are 7,070 soldiers assigned to Warrior Transition Units and Community Based Warrior Transition Units as of Jan. 2, down from a high of 12,551 in June 2008." Carroll’s story here.

"Concerning to us": Suicide rate jumps among young veterans. Stripes’ Leo Shane: "The number of young veterans committing suicide jumped dramatically from 2009 to 2011, a worrying trend that Veterans Affairs officials hope can be reversed with more treatment and intervention. New suicide data released by the department on Thursday showed that the rate of veterans suicide remained largely unchanged over that three-year period, the latest for which statistics are available. About 22 veterans a day take their own life, according to department estimates. But while older veterans saw a slight decrease in suicides, male veterans under 30 saw a 44 percent increase in the rate of suicides. That’s roughly two young veterans a day who take their own life, most just a few years after leaving the service. ‘Their rates are astronomically high and climbing,’ said Jan Kemp, VA’s National Mental Health Director for Suicide Prevention. ‘That’s concerning to us.’" 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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