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: Video emerges of a chlorine attack in Syria; The coup in Thailand; DOD wants drone disclosure; On Colbert, Bush’s memo to Obama on the VA; Everything you need to know about Irvine’s new restaurant in the Pgon; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel In Thailand, it’s a coup.  Reuters’ David Brunnstrom and Arshad Mohammed: "The military takeover in Thailand drew swift international condemnation on Thursday, with the United States saying it was reviewing its military aid and other dealings with its closest ally in Southeast Asia. Thailand’s army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

In Thailand, it’s a coup.  Reuters’ David Brunnstrom and Arshad Mohammed: "The military takeover in Thailand drew swift international condemnation on Thursday, with the United States saying it was reviewing its military aid and other dealings with its closest ally in Southeast Asia. Thailand’s army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, seized control of the government two days after he declared martial law, saying the military had to restore order and push through reforms after six months of turmoil. The military declared a curfew from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m., suspended the constitution and detained some politicians. Rival protest camps were ordered to disperse."

Kerry said bluntly yesterday: "‘There is no justification for this military coup… This act will have negative implications for the U.S.-Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military. We are reviewing our military and other assistance and engagements, consistent with U.S. law.’

And, joint US-Thai military exercises are in question: "…The Pentagon said it was reviewing its military cooperation, including an ongoing joint exercise in Thailand involving some 700 U.S. Marines and sailors. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that as much as about $10 million in annual bilateral aid could be cut. For the fiscal year beginning October 1, the White House has asked Congress to give Thailand $5 million in development aid, $1.9 million for anti-drug and law enforcement programs, $2.1 million for military training and $900,000 for arms sales. Only funds going to the government would be affected, not those for non-governmental groups and democracy promotion." More here.

It’s the second coup in a decade, but this one looks different. The NYT’s Thomas Fuller: "…The coup was at least the 12th military takeover since Thailand abandoned the absolute monarchy in 1932. But unlike many previous coups, which involved infighting among generals, Thursday’s military takeover had as a subtext the political awakening among rural Thais who have loyally supported Mr. Thaksin and benefited from patronage and policies such as universal health care and microloans. Critics of Mr. Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon who lives in self-imposed exile abroad, say he also took corruption to a new level.
"…The military and Bangkok establishment now face the question of either retaining the power gained from the coup or returning the country to democracy – with the likelihood that Mr. Thaksin and his proven political machine would again return to power in elections. The coup in 2006 unseated Mr. Thaksin, but his backers came back to win at the polls, leading to his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, becoming prime minister in 2011." More here.

The strange elite politics behind the coup. FP’s Elias Groll: "…The current political stand-off centers on the enduring political divide between the country’s elite and a political movement led by the Shinawatra clan and with its powerbase in rural areas. Shinawatra’s populist political movement has redistributed power in Thailand away from the elite networks that dominate the capital, and this has made the country’s army officers, judges, monarchists, and bureaucrats profoundly worried. The only problem is that Bangkok’s elites are completely incapable of cobbling together an electoral coalition capable of winning a national election." More here.

Meantime in Syria, opposition activists have posted a video of what they say is chlorine gas – the first such footage of what they say is a chemical weapon campaign by Assad. Reuters this hour: "…The village of Kfar Zeita, in the central province of Hama 125 miles north of Damascus, has been the epicenter of what activists and medics call a two-month-old assault in which chlorine gas canisters have been dropped out of helicopters. Damascus denies that forces loyal to Assad have used chlorine or other more poisonous gases and blames all chemical attacks on rebels fighting them in a three-year-old uprising." More here.

Welcome to Friday’s edition of Situation Report – have a spectacularly great long weekend, see you Tuesday. 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? 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. Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4.

Who’s Where When today ­- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will give the commencement address at the graduation and commissioning ceremony at the United States Naval Academy at 10 a.m… Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert and Commandant Gen. Jim Amos will also attend the graduation… Tomorrow, Greenert will head to Japan and Korea for the week to meet with counterparts and talk to sailors across the fleet… Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno will be at the GI Film Festival tonight in Old Town Alexandria, Va., where they are honoring the late actor James Gandolfini for his work on film and in documentaries on veterans and the military. Odierno is expected to be joined by Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, a quadruple amputee, and the actor Gary Sinise, who is active in the military community.

At the Academy today, Hagel will speak to midshipmen about leadership, specifically small unit leadership and about the expectations young sailors and Marines harbor of their junior officers. He’ll talk about the "importance of personal connections, understanding and humility" – and, we’re told, he’ll talk about the importance of accountability. An excerpt of what Hagel will say: "We’re all accountable. From new recruits to four-star admirals and generals, from second lieutenants to the Secretary of Defense, we all have to step up and take action when we see something that hurts our people and our values."

Want to watch the Academy graduation? Click here at 10 a.m. this morning.

Wanna see Ray Mabus on Colbert last night? Watch it here.

Jon Stewart isn’t the only one riffing on the VA. Colbert last night highlighted a memo the Bush White House provided to the incoming Obama administration in 2009 that described the problems veterans were having obtaining timely healthcare. Colbert: "There was a memo. It warned them. Bush even personalized it [cut to shot of doctored memo with Bush 43’s handwritten note scrawled across the bottom, Colbert reads]: "p.s. VA totally f-ed up. See ya, wouldn’t wannna be ya! Smiley face." More here.

Sen. Bernie Sanders defended Shinseki "without pause" and said he
should keep his job.
Defense One’s Kevin Baron this morning, here.

The U.S. military pushes for more disclosure on drone strikes in an effort to counter criticism.  The WSJ’s Julian Barnes and Siobhan Gorman on Page One: "Top military officials are pressing for permission to publicly defend American drone strikes against criticism in the U.S. and abroad, defense officials said. The issue has come to a head after the military concluded last year that long-standing U.S. secrecy surrounding drone operations has bolstered support for al Qaeda in places like Yemen. In coming days, a proposal calling for more transparency, beginning with Yemen, is set to be presented to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, according to senior defense officials. If Mr. Hagel approves the policy, it would be sent to the White House National Security Council.

"…Any significant U.S. policy shift would need to take into account the views of allies. While the Yemeni government has grown more open to discussing the drone program and its partnership with the U.S., defense officials said, other regional allies prefer to avoid attention to their cooperation with the U.S. Officials have yet to decide what kind of information or documentation would be provided on future drone strikes." More here.

Meantime, some Russian troops step back off the border with Ukraine but NATO says a big force remains.  Reuters’ Thomas Grove and Adrian Croft: "Russia said on Thursday it was moving troops and military equipment from border regions near Ukraine, but NATO said a large ‘coercive force’ remained in place. A withdrawal of forces from the border regions could ease tensions before Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday, which the United States and EU hope will strengthen the embattled central government.
"…A NATO general said on Thursday that Russia was moving troops, though he said the size of the movement was unclear and that forces near the border remained a potential threat. ‘The force that remains on the border is very large and it’s very capable and remains in a very coercive posture,’ U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told a news conference. NATO had previously put the number of Russian troops on the border at 40,000 but Breedlove said it was too early to classify their current size.
"Russia’s defense ministry said on Thursday 15 transport planes and 20 trains carrying personnel and military equipment had been moved out of the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk provinces bordering Ukraine after completing military exercises there. It did not say how many troops were being moved or how many were staying behind." More here.

Meanwhile, violence and doubts about credibility loom as Sunday’s election in Ukraine approaches. The NYT’s Sabrina Tavernise and Andrew Roth: "…As Ukraine hurtles toward a presidential election on Sunday, the first national vote since an uprising toppled the elected government this year, Ukraine’s troubled east has emerged as the most serious risk to the vote and the country’s future. A new burst of violence, some of the worst in months, left at least 16 Ukrainian soldiers dead on Thursday, giving new life to what had appeared to be a waning conflict just three days before the critical vote, which Western governments hope will lift the country out of violent upheaval into the relative safety of politics." More here.

NSA reform passed in the House yesterday. FP’s John Hudson: "On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed the most comprehensive reform legislation of U.S. intelligence activities in a decade after a series of last-minute concessions by privacy advocates and civil libertarians. The USA Freedom Act, which passed in a 303-121 vote, limits the National Security Agency’s ability to collect the communications data of Americans en masse. It also adds transparency and oversight safeguards to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the judicial body that oversees the NSA’s surveillance activities… But some early backers of the bill in Congress and the civil liberties community questioned how the NSA in practice might interpret the law, and they withdrew their support for the bill." More here.

The Obama administration is drawing a line between stealing the secrets of companies and nations. FP’s Shane Harris: "…On Thursday, the Justice Department’s top national security official launched a new front in that rhetorical campaign and sought to draw a bright line between the kind of spying the United States does on foreign corporations and the spying that foreign countries do on U.S. firms.

"John Carlin, the assistant attorney general for the department’s National Security Division, said alleged espionage by five Chinese military officials against American companies and a labor union is an act of criminal ‘theft’ meant to give Chinese companies an unfair advantage over their American competitors. And unlike nations spying on each other for strategic or national security purposes, which Carlin defended, economic espionage meant to benefit one company or industry over another is something that governments know to be so far over that line that none are willing to defend it, he argued." More here.

The House has its own ideas for Hagel’s Pentagon budget. FP’s Lubold: "House lawmakers from both parties voted Thursday for a $601 billion defense budget that amounts to a wholesale rejection of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s proposed Pentagon budget, setting up what will likely be months of heated sparring over military benefits and the future of an array of big-ticket weapons programs."
A look at what’s inside: "The House budget bill would provide $496 for the Defense Department’s baseline budget, another $79 billion for Afghanistan and other war operations and another $18 billion for energy programs, but the 325-98 vote restores funding to a number of programs, for the A-10 Warthog close air support plane, for example, and the U-2 spy plane that first began flying during the Cold War. It also provides more funding for troop pay, housing, healthcare and other programs that the Pentagon had sought, under its own proposal, to reduce. The House version of the budget passed Thursday also restored funding for the Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers and other programs the Pentagon said it didn’t need.
The House and the Pentagon disagree over what needs to be cut: "Although the budget bill the House passed meets Congressionally-mandated budget caps, it requires the Pentagon to fund certain programs that it had planned to cut. As a result, the Pentagon will now have to find additional savings, perhaps in acquisition and other troop ‘readiness’ programs, to keep the baseline budget at the $496 billion limit. Top generals routinely warn that such cuts could leave the military ill-prepared to fight an unexpected conflict in a place like Yemen or Syria." More here.

CFR’s Micah Zenko for FP, ten things about the forever war that have hardly budged at all by, here.

Take a look at this immersive look at Arlington National Cemetery, featuring lots of video and photos, an interactive map, and a handful of cinemagraphs by the Military Times’ Mike Morones. From the intro: "Among the rows of headstones blanketing Arlington’s rolling hills, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates sees one common theme. ‘There is a continuity of sacrifice of generation after generation doing their part to protect our country, to hold it together and to protect our people,’ he says. ‘… I think it’s this sense of historical longevity and the fact of, because of its size, because of its location, it’s the one great military cemetery where all Americans can identify with patriotism and with sacrifice.’ ??

"Since the first military burial here May 13, 1864, Arlington National Cemetery has become the final resting place for more than 400,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and their families. Those who on Sept. 11, 2001, died only a few hundred yards away at the Pentagon are buried here, as are the Challenger astronauts. Fifteen thousand soldiers from the Civil War – Union and Confederate – rest in Section 27 and Section 13, known as the Field of the Dead. Four thousand freed slaves, many identified only as ‘Citizen,’ and two presidents also are buried at Arlington. ??

"Up to 30 burials are conducted at Arlington every weekday. Mercifully, the number of casualties from America’s most recent wars is dwindling, but the pace of operations – about 7,000 burials per year – remains steady as veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam pass away." Find it here.

After 35 years in uniform Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger says he will explain where the U.S.’s war strategy failed. TIME’s Mark Thompson: "… recently retired Army lieutenant general Daniel Bolger, who played key roles in Afghanistan and Iraq in his 35-year career, wasn’t coy when it came time to titling his upcoming book Why We Lost… There was a belief in some quarters of the U.S. government that Washington and its allies were going to remake that troubled part of the world. ‘Don’t be so arrogant and think you’re going to reshape the Middle East,’ Bolger says. ‘We’ve basically installed authoritarian dictators.’ The U.S. wanted to keep about 10,000 troops in Iraq post-2011 (the two sides couldn’t agree on legal protections for U.S. troops, so none remain) and a similar sized force is being debated for Afghanistan once the U.S. combat role formally ends at the end of 2014. ‘You could have gone to that plan in 2002 in Afghanistan, and 2003 or ’04 in Iraq, and you wouldn’t have had an outcome much worse than what we’ve had,’ Bolger says." More here. Buy the book here.

Bob Gates is kind, clean and reverent. And now the proud Eagle Scout is the head of the Boy Scouts: But will Gates, who oversaw the preliminary lifting of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in the military, open the BSA to gay leaders? The NYT’s Timothy Williams: "…Mr. Gates, an Eagle Scout, had been serving as the Boy Scouts’ president-elect since his approval by the national executive board in October. On Thursday, he was formally elected by the organization’s national council at its annual meeting in Nashville. Mr. Gates is taking the helm of an organization that has experienced a decline in membership for years as it seeks new ways to compete for attention in a culture far removed from the one Mr. Gates grew up in during the 1950s in Wichita, Kan.

Bob Gates, in a statement: "The Boy Scouts of America had a profound influence on my childhood and helped form the foundation of my career in public service…I’ve had tremendous opportunities in my life, but I can say without hesitation that my memories of scouting are every bit as vivid and meaningful as what came later. I believe every boy deserves an opportunity to experience what scouting offers."

Rich Ferraro, a spokesman for the gay rights organization Glaad, who said that Mr. Gates was aware of the risks of continuing to forbid gays from Boy Scout leadership roles: "If anyone knows that gay and lesbian people can strengthen an institution, it is Secretary Gates," he said. "He saw that the military was left stronger and that all the doomsday fallacies didn’t come true." More here.

ICYMI – Bob Gates talked about China, Russia, Afghanistan, and lessons from his career on CFR’s HBO History Makers series, here.

Jerry Boykin is in trouble again. The WaPo’s Dan Lamothe: "When retired Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, the former commander of the U.S. Army’s elite and secretive Delta Force, published a book in 2008, it detailed some of the Pentagon’s most sensitive operations of the 20th century…Retired military personnel who write about such sensitive issues commonly submit their works to the Pentagon for advance review to ensure that they don’t divulge classified information. But Boykin declined to do so, forging ahead with publication of "Never Surrender: A Soldier’s Journey to the Crossroads of Faith and Freedom."

"The Army struck back last year, quietly issuing him a scathing reprimand following a criminal investigation that concluded he had wrongfully released classified information, according to an Army document obtained by The Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request. More here.

Citing failures in Congress, lags at the Pentagon, the California National Guard could have new rules for assault trials. U.S. News and World Report’s Paul D. Shinkman: "A new initiative in California may succeed where the federal government has so far failed in reforming military sexual assaults. The state is taking another crack at fixing what critics consider an inherent bias among military commanders forced to pass judgment against their own subordinates in these sensitive cases. California State Senate Bill 1422 would turn over some sexual assault cases involving members of its National Guard to the civilian military justice system, removing commanders from overseeing the process. The bill, introduced by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, passed unanimously in the Senate on Tuesday and now awaits the State Assembly for consideration." More here.

Do you work in the Pentagon? Going to work in the Pentagon? Then you care about this: Celeb chef Robert Irvine will open a "Fresh Kitchen" c
asual dining eatery in the Pentagon in the winter of 2015. Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren, to reporters yesterday: "We expect Mr. Irvine’s restaurant will augment and improve an already impressive array of name-brand dining choices available to the 23 thousand employees that work in the Pentagon. It is expected to take the space currently occupied by the Market Basket, which will move into the space formerly occupied by the Pentagon Dining room."

Warren added to Situation Report: "The dates for construction to begin on the Fresh Kitchen concept have not yet been determined.  Design of the space is underway at present and is expected to be completed by the July/August timeframe. Once Market Basket has moved to the renovated Pentagon Dining Room space (late July/August 2014), construction on the Fresh Kitchen (former Market Basket space) will begin.  A winter 2015 opening for the Fresh Kitchen concept is expected.  Fresh Kitchen will offer both counter-service as well as table-service."




Gordon Lubold is a senior writer at FP and author of Situation Report  with help by Nathaniel Sobel, director of research at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. Follow him @glubold and him @njsobe4.

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