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: Former FISA judge: status quo, good

By Gordon Lubold Status quo is a good thing, the former Spy Court Judge says. FP’s Shane Harris, on how John Bates, the former top judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, sees things: "As President Obama is mulling a series of changes to how the National Security Agency keeps tabs on the world’s communications, ...

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

Status quo is a good thing, the former Spy Court Judge says. FP’s Shane Harris, on how John Bates, the former top judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, sees things: "As President Obama is mulling a series of changes to how the National Security Agency keeps tabs on the world’s communications, the former top judge of the secret court that has approved much of that surveillance made an unusual public appeal Tuesday: keep the process just how it is. John Bates, the former presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, warned against a proposal to include in the court’s proceedings an outside privacy and civil liberties advocate, who might take positions counter to the government when it seeks permission to collect huge swaths of Internet traffic, email addresses, and phone communications. Currently, only government lawyers appear before the court." Read the rest here.

Page One: European intel agencies secretly met with delegates of Syria’s Assad to share information about European extremists operating in Syria. The WSJ’s Maria Abi-Habib: "The meetings were intended to gather information on at least 1,200 European jihadists that Western officials say have joined militant groups in Syria, amid European concerns these citizens will pose a threat when they return home. The talks are narrowly focused on the extremists and on al Qaeda’s growing might in Syria and don’t represent a broader diplomatic opening, the Western and Middle Eastern officials and diplomats said.

"But Mr. Assad’s opponents in Syria and in Istanbul, where the political opposition is based, said they are concerned that the information sharing suggests Western capitals are starting to accept the possibility the Syrian leader will retain power for the foreseeable future. Opposition members also are concerned the contacts-coupled with an international effort under way to remove Syria’s chemical arms-could grow into wider cooperation in fighting terror groups in Syria. That could bolster Mr. Assad’s argument that his leadership is needed to fight al Qaeda, which has gained Syrian territory in recent months." Read the rest here.

Why does it seem like the U.N. is censoring its own Syria news? FP’s Colum Lynch asks the question: "A recent visit to the website of the U.N.-funded news agency IRIN provides a quick tour of the world’s forgotten miseries: reports of child labor in Zimbabwe, profiles of the jobless in Sri Lanka, grisly accounts of ethnic killings in South Sudan and Central African Republic. Absent from this chronology of global grief is anything new about Syria, the world’s bloodiest humanitarian crisis. In November, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which funds IRIN, quietly placed a gag order on its news agency. Its network of journalists were ordered to halt any reporting about the crisis in Syria, which has displaced millions and cost the lives of more than 100,000, according to U.N. sources." More here.

The Israeli Defense Minister isn’t a fan of Kerry’s plan but now he faces criticism. AFP: "Israel’s defense minister accused US Secretary of State John Kerry of an ‘incomprehensible obsession’ with the Middle East conflict, drawing a public rebuke from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon came in for a barrage of criticism after Israel’s top-selling newspaper Yediot Aharonot quoted him as saying a security plan Kerry presented was ‘not worth the paper it was written on.’ Yaalon expressed hope that Kerry, who has visited the region 10 times since taking over as secretary of state in February 2013, would end his peace push and focus his energies elsewhere." More here.

Welcome to Wednesday’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.

Bob Gates often liked to quote Truman, who said something to the effect of in the first six months in Washington, you wonder how you got here. The next six months, you wonder how everyone else got here. We feel that.

Speaking of Truman, new this morning: The Center for National Policy (which is partnered with the Truman Project) will announce a steering committee for its Cyberspace and Security Program. The organization, which is establishing itself as heavily focused on cyber issues, will have 12 cyber experts in their ranks. From a press release from CNP’s Stephanie Dreyer: "…The Steering Committee is comprised of a wide range of experts who gained comprehensive cybersecurity experience while working on Capitol Hill, in the Administration, and in the legal, civil society, and private sectors… The Program is led by Cyberspace and Security Director Matthew Rhoades." More here.

Drones, they ain’t just for the military anymore. The WaPo’s Craig Whitlock: Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are increasingly borrowing border-patrol drones for domestic surveillance operations, newly released records show, a harbinger of what is expected to become the commonplace use of unmanned aircraft by police. Customs and Border Protection, which has the largest U.S. drone fleet of its kind outside the Defense Department, flew nearly 700 such surveillance missions on behalf of other agencies from 2010 to 2012, according to flight logs released recently in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties group. The records show that the border-­patrol drones are being commissioned by other agencies more often than previously known. Most of the missions are performed for the Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration and immigration authorities. But they also aid in disaster relief and in the search for marijuana crops, methamphetamine labs and missing persons, among other missions not directly related to border protection." More here.

Apropos of nothing: We came across this news report from 1981 from a San Francisco news station about the Internet-Web, and a newfangled gizmo that allows users to read their newspapers – on their computer – the beginning of "electronic journalism." Our fave part is when The San Francisco Examiner’s David Cole describes what putting the news on the computer means: "This is an experiment. We’re trying to find out what it’s going to mean to us as editors and reporters, and what it means to the home user. And we’re not in it to make money, we’re probably not going to lose a lot but we aren’t going to make much, either. [italics ours]. How right and how wrong he was. All very trippy, here. 

There’s a little thing called the Afghan Presidential Election in April. Najib Sharifi and Mike O’Hanlon on Karzai and the election, on FP: "…With President Hamid Karzai due to step down, after reaching his constitutional limit of two full terms, the country is approaching what political scientists say is always important in a young democracy: the first attempt at a peaceful, constitutional transfer of power. And believe it or not, so far, so good. Most news reaching the United States about Afghanistan is troubling, but the election campaign is going reasonably well. Though much could, of course, still go wrong, the initial period of campaigning and preparation has been fairly promising… How can we be sure that Karzai will really have the confidence to support the upcoming election and its outcome? It is hard to know. But one possibility is to find a way for him to play a prominent role in Afghanistan even after he steps down from office." Read the rest here.

Here’s the question: Did Iran’s spies try to steal secrets from the JSF? FP’s Dan Lamothe: "The apparent downfall of Mozaffar Khazaee began at a freight company in Long Beach, Calif. It was there in November that customs officers cracked open two shipping crates that the 59-year-old allegedly was sending to Iran. Inside, authorities say, was a massive trove of documents for the United States’ next-generation fighter plane, the $392 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Now Khazaee, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Iran, faces a slew of criminal charges, up to 10 years in prison, and a $250,000 fine. Khazaee, a former defense contractor who worked on the high-tech stealth plane, was arrested Jan. 9 at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, where he was in between legs on an international flight. He already had flown from his home in Indianapolis to Newark, and was waiting to catch a connecting flight to Frankfurt, Germany. His final destination? Tehran, authorities say. Already, the case has raised questions about whether more criminal charges may be filed against Khazaee or people with whom he associated." Read the rest here.

War funding actually climbs in the new bill. Defense News’ John Bennett: "A massive US government spending bill introduced Monday evening would ramp up war spending for the first time in four years, and it includes billions for new weapon systems. A trillion-dollar, government-wide omnibus spending measure crafted by the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations committees includes $5 billion more for America’s overseas conflicts than requested by the White House." More here.  IAVA: Protecting medically retired veterans from a lower COLA adjustment in that budget bill isn’t enough; Congress should repeal of the cuts to all retirees. As Situation Report first reported Monday, the omnibus bill released that night included language to protect medically retired veterans from the lower COLA adjustment. The budget deal announced in December had reduced the annual cost-of-living adjustment for military retirees to just 1 percent above inflation, amounting to what IAVA says is a 20 percent cut to retirement benefits over the course of the retirees’ lives. The IAVA estimates that for a retired E-7, that could mean a reduction of $83,000 in retirement savings. IAVA wants Congress to go all the way. "Congress broke its promise to veterans by agreeing to cuts to military retirees," said IAVA CEO and Founder Paul Rieckhoff said in a statement. "Congress is crossing a line in the sand by failing to fully protect veterans benefits. Veterans nationwide continue to demand that Congress listen to us and repeal cuts to military retirees as quickly as possible." A petition is making its rounds across the Internet to that effect. Read more here.

ICYMI (we did): Odierno versus the National Guard, Part I: It’s on. Times is tough and the active duty Army, which had praised the Guard and Reserves for years of war because they needed them – well, now they don’t need them so much. As the Army shrinks, and the politically-powerful Guard and Reserve look for their piece, it’s getting a little scrappy out there. Defense News’ Paul McLeary: "In a sharply worded statement released Jan. 13, the president of the National Guard Association called remarks by US Army chief Gen. Ray Odierno ‘disrespectful and simply not true’ while complaining that ‘the Army chief of staff disparaged the Army National Guard last week by telling reporters in Washington, D.C., that, essentially, the Army National Guard just isn’t good enough to be relied upon more in the future.’ Retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett’s statement came in response to Odierno’s Jan. 5 remarks at the National Press Club in Washington, where he said the National Guard would not be capable of taking on more of the active-duty force’s responsibilities if the active force structure falls much below the 490,000 floor that the chief set for 2015. ‘The capabilities are not interchangeable,’ Odierno said, ‘there’s a reason why the active component is more expensive. It brings you a higher level of readiness, because they’re full time…They are trained and ready to do things at a higher level because they spend every day focused on that,’ Odierno said. ‘Our National Guard, [which has] done an incredible job in the last 10 years, trains 39 days a year.’ Read the rest here.

Bob Gates is everywhere. Just one day of his Duty book tour, which puts him in multiple cities, on multiple networks and sit-downs, would be pure fantasy for most authors.  He’s on Fox! Wait, there he is with Judy Woodruff on News Hour! He’ll be at the Pentagon Thursday. Hey, was that Bob Gates at the New York Historical Society with NBC’s David Gregory? In fact, it was. And we hear that he made a few other observations. So much candy, so little time! We hear he wouldn’t answer if he would endorse Hillary Clinton for President in 2016 — even though he treats her extremely well in the book, saying there was only just the one time where she considered politics for a foreign policy issue. Gates as Hillary’s Veep? He says he won’t be returning to Washington in an official capacity — but he’s been wrong about that before.

Meanwhile, Gates has played down some of the nastier things people have taken from the book about other people, and defended publication of the book now, saying this is when it could be most effective – not in 2017, when some of these issues will be past the U.S. government (and books so many years after the fact don’t sell as well).  He wants the book to be seen as containing recommendations for Syria, Iran, Russia, China, Israel and Saudi Arabia, he said last night. Among other things, he also said that he wished Obama had done a better job explaining why winning in Afghanistan was so important — a mission the POTUS has yet to articulate anytime recently.

But remember, Gates called Obama "courageous" as a president. Here’s Gates’ interview with USA Today’s Susan Page in which he termed each of the Presidents for whom he has worked: "LBJ? ‘Tragic figure.’ Richard Nixon? ‘America’s strangest president.’ Gerald Ford? ‘Greatly underestimated.’ Jimmy Carter? ‘Too unfocused, too many priorities.’ Ronald Reagan? ‘Visionary leader.’ George H.W. Bush? ‘Another greatly underestimated president.’ Bill Clinton? He notes Clinton is the only president of the last nine in whose administration he didn’t serve, but he ventures a description anyway. ‘Probably the best politician as president since Franklin Roosevelt.’ George W. Bush? ‘Committed.’ Barack Obama? ‘Courageous.’" Read the piece and watch him be interviewed, here.

What are the options to trim the "bloated" nuclear weapons budget? Arms Control Association’s Daryl Kimball offers some answers: "The United States plans to spend at least $355 billion to maintain and rebuild its nuclear arsenal over the next decade, according to a new report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Over the next 30 years, the bill could add up to $1 trillion, according to another independent estimate. These eye-popping projections come at a time that the defense budget is declining along with the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy. The Pentagon announced last June that it could reduce strategic nuclear forces by one-third below levels set by the 2010 New START Treaty, continuing a historical trend. The U.S. nuclear stockpile has dropped by 80 percent since its peak in 1967, but is still a formidable force of about 4,600 warheads." More at ACA 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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