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: On ethics reforms, is Hagel’s push for urgency a nudge for Dempsey?

A possible Taliban prisoner swap; Iran's hacking is worse than you think; Colburn's first day at Penty; and a bit more.  

By Gordon Lubold 

By Gordon Lubold 

Page One: There’s a Taliban prisoner swap possible to get the American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, held since 2009, back. The WaPo’s Anne Gearan and Ernesto Londono: "In an effort to free American captive Bowe Bergdahl before the bulk of U.S. forces leave Afghanistan this year, the Obama administration has decided to try to resume talks with the Taliban and sweeten an offer to trade Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the Army sergeant, current and former officials said.

"Five members of the Afghan Taliban who have been held at Guantanamo for years would be released to protective custody in Qatar in exchange for the release of Bergdahl, who was captured in Afghanistan in 2009 and is thought to be held in Pakistan by the Haqqani network, an allied insurgent group. To refresh the American offer, which has been on the table for more than two years, senior officials from the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies decided within the past month to allow the simultaneous release of all five men. Taliban representatives had objected to the previous plan to release the prisoners by ones or twos as a test of Taliban and Qatari intermediaries’ ability to make sure the men did not return to militancy.

"Two people familiar with the decision stressed that it was the Taliban that broke off negotiations nearly two years ago and that the U.S. door to talks has been open since. The renewed offer has not been formally made, and no State Department or other officials have immediate plans to travel to Doha, Qatar, where any contact facilitated by the Qatari government would take place." The rest here.

AEI’s Michael Rubin’s book, "Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes," about the price of negotiating with bag guys, publishes today. Over the weekend, the WaPo’s Outlook section pub’ed an op-ed from Rubin and his take on "the Obama Dialogues" with such countries: "…While Obama’s embrace of negotiation with America’s enemies seems to have become the norm in U.S. foreign policy circles, it represents a sharp departure from past administrations and from generally accepted statecraft. History shows that this approach offers very high, if unintended, costs." Read the rest of that here.

Page One: The Iranian hacking of U.S. military systems was worse than you thought. The WSJ’s Siobhan Gorman and Julian Barnes: "Iran’s infiltration of a Navy computer network was far more extensive than previously thought, according to officials, and the officer who led the response will likely face questions about it from senators weighing his nomination as the next head of the embattled National Security Agency. It took the Navy about four months to finally purge the hackers from its biggest unclassified computer network, according to current and former officials. Some lawmakers are concerned about how long it took. When Vice Adm. Michael Rogers, President Barack Obama’s choice for the new NSA director, faces his confirmation hearing, some senators are expected to ask whether there is a long-term plan to address security gaps exposed by the attack, congressional aides said. The hearing hasn’t been scheduled yet, but could be next month.

"The Wall Street Journal in September first reported the discovery of the Iranian cyberattack. Officials at the time said the intruders had been removed. However, officials now acknowledge that the attack was more invasive, getting into what one called the ‘bloodstream’ of the Navy and Marine Corps system and managing to stay there until November.

"The hackers targeted the Navy Marine Corps Internet, the unclassified network used by the Department of the Navy to host websites, store nonsensitive information and handle voice, video and data communications. The network has 800,000 users at 2,500 locations, according to the Navy. Officials said there was no evidence the Iranians have been able to break into a network beyond the Navy Marine Corps Internet and no classified networks were penetrated. Network repairs continue to close the many security gaps revealed by the intrusion, not just on Navy computers but across the Department of Defense, the officials said. Said a senior U.S. official: "It was a real big deal… It was a significant penetration that showed a weakness in the system." The rest here.

The U.S. scolds Russia as it weighs options on Syria. The NYT’s Michael Gordon, David Sanger and Eric Schmitt: " Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday sharpened the Obama administration’s mounting criticism of Russia’s role in the escalating violence in Syria, asserting that the Kremlin was undermining the prospects of a negotiated solution by "contributing so many more weapons" and political support to President Bashar al-Assad. Kerry, in Jakarta: "They’re, in fact, enabling Assad to double down, which is creating an enormous problem."

The NYT: "…Mr. Kerry’s tough criticism underscored the erosion of the Russian-American partnership in Syria, and raised questions about the viability of the United States’ diplomatic strategy to help resolve the escalating crisis." More here.

Welcome to Tuesday’s Welcome-Back edition of Situation Report, where we’ll never make anyone cry. If you’d like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at and we’ll just stick you on. Like what you see? Please 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 do follow us @glubold.

Hagel’s assigning a senior officer to his front office on ethics is a sign he wants to see more urgency on the matter, but some say it’s also a nudge to Dempsey. Our story: The Pentagon’s response to the recent spate of ethical lapses rocking the entire U.S. military has been devoid of the kind of dramatic moves that Washington craves: there have been no high-profile firings, no generals publicly rebuked, and no announcements of far-reaching punishments that would indicate that the top officials are taking it all seriously. Those types of measures would typically be carried out by the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took a small step last week when he announced he would assign a senior officer to his own front office to investigate exactly what has gone wrong recently and to help suggest ways of fixing those issues. Hagel’s top military adviser, Army Gen. Marty Dempsey, meanwhile, has been largely invisible. That’s raised questions about why the Chairman hasn’t been more heavily involved in addressing the cheating scandals rocking the Department, including the Air Force and Navy’s nuclear forces and the embarrassing recent release of emails in which top Army commanders crudely discussed the sexual attractiveness of a female congresswoman.

"Dempsey’s defenders say he has been finding ways to reinstill ethical behavior across the armed forces for more than a year and that there are no easy fixes. Still, there are growing concerns inside and outside of the Pentagon that as the nation’s senior military officer, Dempsey has yet to own the issue — or taken the kinds of steps to show that he is seriously addressing it.

Said one former senior defense official, who in in the past has been critical of Chuck Hagel, to Situation Report: "It’s obvious to me that Hagel wants greater results and he’s sending a message to the system: I’m going to change this… Does it send a message to Marty Dempsey? Absolutely."

"Part of the concern about Dempsey’s low profile on the ethics issues has to do with his public demeanor. Dempsey, who is known as the "singing general" for his penchant for breaking out into song, has not embraced the public aspects of the job in the way others have. His immediate predecessor, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, appeared on "The Daily Show" and seemed very much at ease with the press. Dempsey seems to tolerate reporters, though just barely, but prefers to perform his duties unmolested by the whims of the media. That has not helped him to be seen in and outside of the Pentagon as being strong on the ethical issues confronting the Department.

One administration official on Dempsey’s public demeanor: "He’s eloquent, but [Dempsey] has not demonstrated an ability to keep the spotlight on the reforms that he has developed, and that’s been a concern." Read the rest of our report here.

Relevant question: A "guest columnist" on Tom Ricks’ Best Defense asks: "where is the tipping point for Americans’ trust in the military? Jim Gourley: "Back in 2011, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey wondered aloud at a National Guard leadership conference why the U.S. military had scored the highest among Americans polled on what institutions they trusted most. ‘Maybe if I knew what it would take to screw it up, I could avoid it,’ he said. The numbers haven’t wavered outside of statistical error since then. Despite highly unfavorable public opinion of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, polls by Gallup and Pew back in June showed public confidence in the military holding above 75 percent. The implication appears to be that no one blames the military for failing to achieve distinct victory. It leads one to wonder just what the American people will blame the military for. In the last year, the military has run some of the biggest governmental scandals this side of the fiscal cliff." Read that bit, including a breakdown of incidents that pose the ethical challenges to each service, here.

Politico’s Mike Allen tells us about an addition to Pentagon’s press operations in this morning’s Playbook: "Brent Colburn joins the Defense Department today as the Assistant to the Secretary for Public Affairs. As the head of Secretary Hagel’s public affairs operation, Colburn will oversee the Pentagon’s communications, media and public outreach efforts. Colburn, 37, was the communications director for the 2012 reelect, and has become known for taking on big management challenges: He was FEMA’s director of external affairs, the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at DHS, communications director for the 2013 Inaugural, and most recently Secretary Shaun Donovan’s Chief of Staff at HUD… His father, Col. Cork Colburn, was a career officer in the Army."

The interim nuke deal with Iran was a huge deal – a permanent one will be harder to seal. Writing for FP, Tom Omestad in "Iceberg’s Ahead": "The temporary deal to halt or roll back parts of Iran’s nuclear program in return for modest sanctions relief is an impressive, if perishable, success for U.S.-led diplomacy. But the negotiations among Iran, the United States, and five other world powers to find a comprehensive solution on Iran’s nuclear program, which begin Feb. 18 in Vienna, will face far greater challenges. The six months allowed for negotiations by the interim agreement might not be enough to overcome Iran’s hardliners and sway skeptics on Capitol Hill, all while maintaining the unity of the countries involved in talks: the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany (also known as the P-5+1).

‘We don’t in any way underestimate how difficult the comprehensive solution will be,’ said a senior U.S. official. Gary Samore, a Harvard researcher and the top White House nonproliferation expert until last year, similarly said in an interview, "The chances of negotiating a comprehensive solution, particularly in the next six months, are very low." President Obama himself has conceded that the odds of a successful outcome are not more than ’50-50.’"

Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who publicly supports negotiations, on their eve: "I am not optimistic about the talks, and they will reach nowhere." Read the rest of Omestad’s bit here.

IAEA: Just what is Iran doing? It’s hard to tell, writes Breaking Defense’ Michael Adler, who had an exclusive interview with its head: "The international atomic watchdog, the IAEA, will have a hard time answering crucial questions about just what Iran is doing at its nuclear facilities despite recently winning better access for its inspectors, its leader, Yukiya Amano, told Breaking Defense in an exclusive interview Monday at the agency’s headquarters here. Amano said the main problem going forward is that Iran refuses to implement an Additional Protocol that would allow inspections of sites beyond those where the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency knows nuclear material is used or stored. This protocol is the key to making more rapid progress in verifying the peaceful or military nature of Iran’s nuclear work. ‘The implementation of the Additional Protocol is very important to provide assurance that all nuclear activity in Iran is for a peaceful purpose but we are not yet at that point… We are at an early stage of clarifying and resolving the issues,’ he said." More here.

Kings College’s Sir Lawrence Freedman responds to Elliott Abrams’ recent piece on why folks shouldn’t count on containing Iran. Freedman’s BLUF: "History is most useful when trying to work out why a particular situation is different from another to which it bears a superficial resemblance. History can provide context and chronology. It can help explain the origins and character of a country’s power structures, cultural biases, regional networks, sensitivities and vulnerabilities. This can be as true for those historical episodes that we think we know well as for the situations that we are struggling to comprehend. Consider: if one key lesson has come out of the plethora of new books on the origins of the First World War, it is how much is still in dispute and how much can never be known because we can only speculate about the paths not taken. The fact that historical events are so regularly subject to revision and reinterpretation provides good reason for caution in applying ‘the lessons of the past.’" Read that piece in its entirety here.

Freedman was responding to this piece, here,  in the Weekly Standard by Elliott Abrams about why containing Iran won’t work.

So you think the Pivot is empty? Chuck Hagel and Commerce’s Penny Pritzker, writing in the Asia WSJ, say different: "For decades, security and prosperity have flourished throughout the Asia-Pacific region, each reinforcing the other. The astounding growth of trade and industry across the Pacific Rim has transformed nations and lifted millions of people out of poverty, surpassing all expectations while strengthening many crucial relationships. This progress was no accident. America’s security presence in the region and our strong alliances, economic ties and people-to-people contact with nations like Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines have provided the necessary stability for Pacific nations to focus on giving their people a more inclusive, peaceful and prosperous future.

Today, as more and more of America’s trade and defense activities shift toward the Asia-Pacific, and as the region undergoes dynamic changes with the rise of China, Indonesia and India, the United States Departments of Defense and Commerce are working side by side to help keep trends moving in the right direction and promote greater security and prosperity.

Their BL: "The Asia-Pacific’s dynamic growth cannot be taken for granted. Security, stability and prosperity require constant attention, a commitment to shared principles, and the combined efforts of the United States and all Asia-Pacific nations. When nations work together for the benefit of all their people, everything is possible." More here.

Backstory on the op-ed: We’re told that the op-ed marriage between Hagel and Pritzker came about after Pritzker told the Washington Post that Hagel was the secretary she’d "most like to hang out with." That got her an invite to the Pentagon and Hagel and Pritzker hit it off.  Their first "joint initiative" is the op-ed today, but there may be more such initiatives in the future, we’re told.

Speaking of Hagel and Asia: The SecDef found his long lost "brother" in Vietnam, an African American platoon commander he says was "steady, careful never excitable," reports CBS’ David Martin. "It was 1968, the worst year of the Vietnam War, and Sgt. Chuck Hagel didn’t know from one day to the next whether he would live or die. ‘We lost something like 16,000 dead Americans in that year, 1968,’ Hagel says. His life was in the hands of Lt. Jerome Johnson, his platoon commander. ‘Steady, careful, never excitable — and in combat, that’s who you want leading,’ Hagel says of Johnson. Now secretary of defense, Hagel keeps a photo of one of their battles together on his office wall. While the Viet Cong was trying to kill them, racial tensions, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King in April, were threatening to tear the unit apart. ‘It was a terribly difficult racial year in the Army in Vietnam, as well, where African Americans and whites were not getting along,’ Hagel says. Johnson, now retired and living in Chicago, told his men it had to stop." 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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