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: Russian troops, or Ukrainian defectors?

A new Medal of Honor for Army veteran; New York Times piece explores ties between military and KKK; and a bit more.

By Dan Lamothe with Nathaniel Sobel

Sketchy troops with unclear intentions are now rolling through eastern Ukraine on armored vehicles. That from the Wall Street Journal this morning. From James Marson, reporting from Slovyansk, Ukraine: "An armored column of military vehicles flying a Russian flag and carrying dozens of heavily armed fighters motored into this eastern Ukrainian city early Wednesday, a day after the Ukrainian army launched an operation to clear out pro-Russian separatists who had taken control of cities in the region. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the men were Russian soldiers or local militants who had gotten their hands on military vehicles. A soldier on one said the unit was part of the 25th brigade of Ukraine’s airborne forces that had switched sides and was joining the pro-Russian forces, but that couldn’t be immediately confirmed."

"All of the men appeared to be wearing military uniforms without insignia, similar to the heavily armed uniformed men who have seized government building around the region. Six vehicles took up positions in the center of the city outside the city council building, and dozens of men in fatigues, balaclava masks and carrying automatic weapons milled around. A crowd of about 200 locals gathered around the vehicles and began cheering when one of them showed off by driving in tight circles." More here.

The brewing pro-Russia insurgency is digging in its heels. That seems pretty evident, based on this Foreign Policy report filed by David Patrikarakos. From his story, written from Kiev: "Large contingents of Ukrainian forces are now on the move near Sloviansk and the nearby town of Kramatorsk, where separatists have also seized a government building. But the mood of those in the town and the other occupied areas of eastern Ukraine remains defiant, and greater conflict seems almost a certainty. Over the past few days, Sloviansk — a small, once-insignificant industrial town of just under 130,000 in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border — has become what many there have said will be the first battleground of a larger war."

"As late afternoon fell on Tuesday in Sloviansk, the sound of machine-gun fire grew more regular. The armed men around the police station have become emboldened. These are the men the Ukrainian army will face when it tries to break the siege here, and they have no intention of leaving without a fight." More here.

Meanwhile, we may have a read on what the CIA is really doing in Ukraine. Eli Lake and Josh Rogin add a new theory that would go a long way toward explaining why John Brennan, Langley’s top spook, was in Ukraine last week. From the Daily Beast: "The Obama administration is now considering a new policy to share more real-time intelligence with the interim government in Kiev after pressure from some in the U.S. military, Congress and U.S. allies in Ukraine. Over the weekend, CIA Director John Brennan met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema to discuss the formation of new, more secure channels for sharing U.S. intelligence with the country now fighting pro-Russian secessionists in its eastern cities, according to U.S. and Western officials briefed on the meeting. It’s a vitally important issue because the Ukrainians are badly outmatched by the Russian forces massed on their border and infiltrating their cities. If Kiev is going to have a hope of withstanding the pressure from Moscow, their intelligence on the Russian military’s activities will have to be exquisite." More here.

Good Wednesday morning to you. This is Dan Lamothe, and I’ll continue to man the controls here on Situation Report with Nathaniel Sobel while Gordon Lubold takes some time off. I promise to keep my whining about the 40-degree midday drop across much of the nation to myself. If you have anything you’d like to share with our newsletter, please email me at And If you’d like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send Gordon a note at and he’ll add you on our growing distribution list. 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 consider following us at @DanLamothe, @glubold, and @njsobe4.

Situation Report corrects: Yesterday’s newsletter blew it on when the next Boston Marathon will take place. It is, of course, on Patriot’s Day each year. That’s this coming Monday. Situation Report regrets the error.

 The United States will soon honor another Afghan war hero with the Medal of Honor. The announcement came yesterday from the White House. The recipient is Army Sgt. Kyle White, who will be honored for actions in 2007. Army Times’ Michelle Tan, in an exclusive interview with White: "High in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the enemy ambush was quick and deadly. Spc. Kyle White’s platoon leader was dead, as was a Marine sergeant tasked with advising Afghan soldiers. A fellow paratrooper was wounded, and at least three others were missing. White, already dazed from an explosion, repeatedly ran the gauntlet of enemy fire to get to the wounded and fallen.

"When the shooting stopped and night fell, White, who was barely 20 years old, cared for his wounded brother, called in steady radio reports, directed security and guided in close-air support until the medevac birds were able to come and evacuate the wounded and the dead. For his actions more than six years ago, on Nov. 8, 2007, White will receive the Medal of Honor, the White House announced Tuesday.

White on his Feb. 10 phone call with Obama: "‘It still feels surreal,’ White told Army Times, shortly after getting the call. ‘I know it’s coming and it’s happening, but I don’t really know how you’re supposed to feel. I didn’t have much to say except, Thank you, Mr. President.’" More here.

Prediction: The New York Times will take a beating today for an op-ed piece exploring links between military service and white supremacy. It was written by Kathleen Belew, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University, and already set much of the national security community on fire on Twitter last night. From her piece, not so subtly titled "Veterans and White Supremacy": "When Frazier Glenn Miller shot and killed three people in Overland Park, Kan., on Sunday, he did so as a soldier of the white power movement: a groundswell that united Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other fringe elements after the Vietnam War, crested with the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, and remains a diminished but potent threat today. Mr. Miller, the 73-year-old man charged in the killings, had been outspoken about his hatred of Jews, blacks, Communists and immigrants, but it would be a mistake to dismiss him as a crazed outlier. The shootings were consistent with his three decades of participation in organized hate groups. His violence was framed by a clear worldview."

You can’t predict whether an individual will commit violence, Belew writes, but Miller certainly deserved scrutiny based on his history of aggression and racism and affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan. That’s true enough, but it’s there that she appears to run into trouble with veterans, making a maligned 2009 Homeland Security report central to her argument without much other specific evidence. From her piece: "The report singled out one factor that has fueled every surge in Ku Klux Klan membership in American history, from the 1860s to the present: war. The return of veterans from combat appears to correlate more closely with Klan membership than any other historical factor. ‘Military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists carrying out violent attacks,’ the report warned. The agency was ‘concerned that right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.’"

Belew mentions that the nine-page Homeland Security report – actually leaked at the time — drew fire. That occurred mostly because it was thin on statistics and long on anecdotal conjecture. It has been written about by scholars before, including in a 2011 dissertation by Paul Brister at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. From that scholarly work: "In 2009, a leaked report from the Department of Homeland Security briefly brought the issue of non-Islamic domestic terrorism back to the forefront of American concerns, only to be immediately swept aside by politicians who claimed the report was an attack on conservatives and veterans. By early 2010, the DHS section responsible for producing the report was gutted and all links to the report were removed from government websites.

"The report generated more political turmoil than neutral analysis and the report has yet to be either considered or challenged on its merits. To those versed in the history of American domestic terrorism, the report harkens back to multiple dark periods of America’s past. The factors upon which the report draws – economic downturns, the influx of returning military veterans, and the presence or introduction of "left wing" policies and organizations  have long been used to predict terrorism from the right, but are rarely subjected to the types of cross-case analysis needed to determine causality." More here.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will host Chile’s top defense official today at the Pentagon. An "honor cordon" will welcome Jorge Burgos, the minister of defense, to Puzzle Palace at 10:30 a.m., officials say.

Are parachutes needed on U.S. military airplanes? Time magazine explores the issue, highlighting a deadly aviation incident last year: From Mark Thompson: "Putting young, inexperienced pilots into a 50-year-old Air Force plane seems like a risky idea. Even riskier? Getting rid of crew’s parachutes to save money. But that’s what the Air Force did last May 3, when it launched a mission to refuel U.S. warplanes over Afghanistan using a KC-135 Stratotanker delivered by Boeing to the Air Force on June 26, 1964. A problem with the plane’s flight-control system cascaded toward trouble after actions by what the Air Force has concluded was its inadequately-trained crew. In short order, the double-barreled dilemmas ripped the airplane’s tail off three miles above Kyrgyzstan’s Himalayan foothills. The plane quickly entered a steep dive, dooming all three aboard. Both pilots graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2008, shortly after the service decided it couldn’t afford to keep parachutes on KC-135s. ‘A lot of time, manpower and money goes into buying, maintaining and training to use parachutes,’ the Air Force said in March 2008. ‘With the Air Force hungry for cost-saving efficiency under its Air Force for Smart Operations in the 21st Century Program, commonly known as AFSO 21, the parachutes were deemed obsolete.’" More here.

Meet the one-pound drone that fits in a backpack and already has been used by troops downrange. From my FP story: "The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to the widespread and controversial use of drones that can find lurking insurgents and allow U.S. troops to hunt them down. But in addition to concerns about civilian casualties, unarmed surveillance drones are not always available quickly enough to assist U.S. troops when they need them. It’s common for U.S. forces to wait at least 10 or 15 minutes for U.S. aircraft or drones to arrive after they’re called — crucial time when pinned down under gunfire. Enter the backpack drone. Defense contractors have developed several variations, but a new unarmed robot that weighs one pound and relies on four helicopter rotors has quietly made it to U.S. troops in combat.

"It’s called the InstantEye, and it allows ground troops to quickly get eyes in the sky to track the movement of nearby attackers through lightweight cameras. Looking something like a kitchen-counter appliance with propellers, InstantEye arrived in the hands of U.S. forces with little fanfare in recent months. Videos released by the company that makes it — Physical Sciences Inc., of Andover, Mass. — show an individual launching the quad-copter robot less than a minute after pulling it from a bag, sending it 400 feet overhead within 10 seconds, and tracking targets that are fleeing both on foot and in vehicles. The InstantEye also can be used at night and to map tunnels, the company says." Full story with videos here.

The Pentagon cuts some F-35s, but the $391.2 billion Lockheed program rolls on. Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio: "The Pentagon will cut 17 of the 343 F-35 fighters it planned to buy from Lockheed Martin Corp. in fiscal 2016 through 2019 unless Congress repeals automatic budget cuts, according to a new Defense Department report. The move would save about $1.7 billion from $45.5 billion in planned spending for the F-35, the costliest U.S. weapons program. The report spells out an array of cuts in other projected purchases, from air-to-air missiles made by Raytheon Co. (RTN) to aerial refueling tankers from Boeing Co. (BA) The report, obtained by Bloomberg News, "Estimated Impacts of Sequestration-Level Funding," provides the Pentagon’s most detailed breakdown yet on the impact of the cuts. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the military service chiefs have been pressing Congress to avert the process called sequestration, which is scheduled to take full effect again in fiscal 2016 after two years of temporary relief. ‘Reviewing these cuts illustrates the additional war-fighting risk that the department will incur’ if ‘automatic reductions persist,’ according to the 37-page report." More here.

Air Force Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, address the threats U.S. airfields face in an interview with Popular Mechanics. The general’s remarks, as reported by Joe Pappalardo: "‘Our airfields indeed face very real threats. They are large, stationary, known targets vulnerable to a range of threats. But we’re not helpless. We have layered defenses and have been developing a new concept of operations for complicating the targeting efforts of those who would attack or otherwise choose to disrupt our operations. As a global force, our relationships with allies also enable us to have access to more airfields. The more airfields we have access to, the more options we have for basing, allowing us to rapidly move from one to another, which complicates any potential adversary’s targeting plan. The Air Force is working with the rest of the Department of Defense to solve these problems. However, in the future, I think we need to accept the fact that we may have to fight from airfields while under attack. This isn’t a new concept, and we’re working on the capabilities that make it possible.’" Full interview here.

Iraq just shut down the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, citing security concerns. From the NYT’s Duraid Adnan and Tim Arango, reporting from Baghdad: "The Iraqi government said Tuesday that it had closed the Abu Ghraib prison, the site of a notorious prisoner abuse scandal during the American occupation of Iraq, because of fears that it could be overrun by Sunni insurgents who have gained strength over the last year. In a statement, the Justice Ministry said it had moved 2,400 prisoners to other high-security prisons in central and northern Iraq, adding that Abu Ghraib’s location – west of central Baghdad and on the edge of insurgent-controlled areas of Anbar Province – had become a ‘hot zone.’ It was not clear whether the closing was permanent, or if the prison might reopen if the Sunni insurgency is tamed. But it nevertheless underscored the rapid deterioration of security in Iraq since the beginning of the year, when insurgents captured Falluja, a short drive from the prison, from which hundreds of inmates escaped last year." More here.

A video of an outdoor al-Qaeda meeting surfaces. From the Washington Post’s Greg Miller: "A video that recently surfaced on Islamist militant Web sites shows a large group of al-Qaeda fighters – including the terrorist network’s second in command – taking part in a brazen open-air gathering, apparently unconcerned about the prospect of being struck by a U.S. drone. U.S. officials said that the video appeared to be both recent and authentic and that analysts at the CIA and counterterrorism agencies are scrutinizing it for clues to potential plots. The officials declined to say why there had been no U.S. strike or whether U.S. spy agencies were even aware of the gathering before the video emerged. A CIA spokesman declined to comment. At one point in the footage, al-Qaeda’s leader in Yemen, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, issues a warning that the organization remains focused on attacking the United States. ‘We must eliminate the cross,’ Wuhayshi said, according to a translation of the video, adding that ‘the bearer of the cross is America.’" Full article and video here.

Dan Lamothe is an award-winning military journalist and war correspondent. He has written for Marine Corps Times and the Military Times newspaper chain since 2008, traveling the world and writing extensively about the Afghanistan war both from Washington and the war zone. He also has reported from Norway, Spain, Germany, the Republic of Georgia and while underway with the U.S. Navy. Among his scoops, Lamothe reported exclusively in 2010 that the Marine Corps had recommended that Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer receive the Medal of Honor. This year, he was part of a team of journalists that exposed senior Marine Corps leaders' questionable involvement in legal cases, and then covering it up. A Pentagon investigation is underway in those cases. Twitter: @DanLamothe

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