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: VA hid waiting lists, Shinseki feels the heat; No drone strikes in Pakistan since December; Obama: America’s great hammer shouldn’t be looking for a nail; FP wins: Nicole Duran, Kate Brannen aboard; and a bit more.

  The VA scandal worsened yesterday with the release of an IG report and now there’s a new wave of lawmakers calling on Shinseki to resign. FP’s John Hudson: "An array of lawmakers from both parties called on Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign on Wednesday following the publication of a new report describing ...



The VA scandal worsened yesterday with the release of an IG report and now there’s a new wave of lawmakers calling on Shinseki to resign. FP’s John Hudson: "An array of lawmakers from both parties called on Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign on Wednesday following the publication of a new report describing the ‘systemic’ practice of mishandling medical appointments at a Veterans Affairs facility in Phoenix that may have led to the deaths of 23 veterans. The criticism of Shinseki from the lawmakers, which include a pair of Democratic senators facing difficult re-election bids, is certain to lead others on Capitol Hill to call for the secretary’s resignation, putting new pressure on the White House to oust the embattled former general.
"The report,
an internal assessment by the VA’s Inspector General, confirmed a number of allegations plaguing the Phoenix hospital in recent months. It said 1,700 veterans waiting to see a doctor hadn’t actually been scheduled for an appointment or placed on a waiting list, raising questions about how many more remained ‘forgotten or lost’ in the system. It also said that the inspector general has expanded his review to 42 VA facilities, beyond the 26 initially designated. Earlier reports found that the VA manipulated record-keeping that covered up lengthy waiting periods for veterans, some of whom ended up dying in the process. 

House Armed Services Committee Chairman McKeon, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Miller and Sen. John McCain "…demanded that Shinseki resign."

"Sens. Udall and Walsh joined the chorus, making them the first Democratic senators to call for Shinseki’s head.  ‘In light of IG report & systemic issues at @DeptVetAffairs, Sec. Shinseki must step down,’ tweeted Udall." More here.

The NYT’s Richard Oppel and Michael Shear: "… Mr. Shinseki, a soft-spoken former four-star Army general and chief of staff, has had support on Capitol Hill from some lawmakers partly because of his long military career. But the release of the inspector general’s report increased the pressure on him to step down, especially after some Senate Democrats broke with others in the party late in the day to demand his removal. Mr. Walsh, the Montana senator, said that the report ‘confirms the worst of the allegations against the V.A.,’ and that ‘it’s time to put the partisanship aside and focus on what’s right for our veterans.’" More here.

Meantime, an Iraq vet killed by police in a gunfight had been turned away from a VA hospital. Time’s David Von Drehl: "…Tortured by symptoms of PTSD, turned away by an overbooked hospital run by the Department of Veterans Affairs-his mother says she pleaded with doctors to let him sleep on the hospital floor-Sims was shot by Kansas City police on Sunday after they answered a neighbor’s 911 call. Police say Sims was firing a gun from inside his parents’ home and was killed when he moved to the garage and leveled the weapon at the SWAT team. Family members don’t believe that the 23-year-old veteran was a threat to police. ‘With his sniper training, if he was shooting at them he would’ve hit them,’ his sister Shawnda Anderson told TIME.

"But everyone could agree that the root cause of the confrontation was that Staff Sergeant Sims was falling to pieces, and felt like he had nowhere to turn." Read this story here.

Welcome to Thursday’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. 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 – Gen. Ray Odierno will participate in a summit hosted by President Obama on Healthy Kids & Safe Sports Concussion at the White House at 11:05 a.m… Navy Secretary Ray Mabus will host a ceremony naming Tom Hicks and Jodi Greene as Deputy Under-Secretaries of the Navy.

At CSIS this morning, "Citizen-Soldiers in a Time of Transition: The Future of the U.S. Army National Guard" with a keynote by Rep. Tim Walz. Deets here.

We know Jim Mattis isn’t a retired three-star. Thank you for your cards and letters. An item about the VA that we picked up yesterday from Time magazine’s excellent Mark Thompson included a reference to the former CENTCOM commander (a four-star job!) as being a retired three star. Time fixed the error and we’re passing it along here. We’re sure Thompson would apologize to Mattis for the temporary demotion. That story again, here.

Yesterday, Secretary Hagel left on his fourteenth international trip, a 12-day around the world odyssey focused on Asia and Europe. He’s headed to Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue, but he made a stop at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, where he received briefings on missile and homeland defense. From the May 23 briefing with Rear Adm. John Kirby:

In Singapore, Secretary Hagel will deliver remarks at the annual Shangri-La dialogue and hold a series of bilateral and multilateral meetings with other ministers of defense…

From Singapore, the secretary will travel to Brussels to participate in his fourth NATO defense ministers meeting…

The secretary will next travel through Romania, a valued NATO ally. This visit gives him the opportunity to visit sailors aboard a U.S. Navy ship which will be in port there, and to consult bilaterally with Romania’s minister of defense on ways to strengthen NATO’s deterrence…

And then finally, from Romania, the secretary will travel to France to participate in the 70th anniversary commemorations of D-Day, with President Obama, other cabinet officials, and leaders really from around the world."

Staffers on a plane – In addition to Hagel and his wife, Lilibet; Chief of Staff Mark Lippert; Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Honorable Puneet Talwar; Director of Travel James Eby; Assistant Secretary of Defense, International Security Affairs Honorable Derek Chollet; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Dr. Amy Searight; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, APC  Michael Dumont; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Europe/NATO Jim Townsend; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Evelyn Farkas; Country Director, Southeast Asia Lieutenant Col. Scott Dewett; Director, Northeast Asia Chris Johnstone; Special Assistant to the Secretary for Public Affairs Brent Colburn; Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Reporters on a plane – Bloomberg’s Gopal Ratnam; AP’s
Lita Baldor and Pablo Martinez (photographer); the WSJ’s Julian Barnes; CBS Radio’s Cami McCormick; the WaPo’s Karen DeYoung; Reuters’ David Brunnstron; ABC News’ Ali Weinberg, Gary Rosenberg and Hank Disselkamp; the NYT’s Helene Cooper; Defense One’s Kevin Baron.

Major Score: Foreign Policy hires two. The FP news team is growing with the addition of a pair of great journalists with deep experience in the trenches: Nicole Duran, most recently the executive editor of National Journal Daily, began at FP this week as the deputy managing editor for news and Kate Brannen, who writes Politico’s Morning Defense – the other morning newsletter – will start in June as a senior reporter covering the defense industry and its many players. Pumped to have them both on board.

There hasn’t been an American drone strike in Pakistan since Christmas. The AP’s Ken Dilanian: "…The secret targeted killing program that once was the mainstay of President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism effort appears to be winding down. In a major foreign policy speech at the U.S. Military Academy on Wednesday, Obama said the U.S. would continue to carry out occasional drone strikes, but he cited Yemen and Somalia, not Pakistan, where drone missiles once rained down at a rate of two per week.

"Armed U.S. drones are still flying regularly over Pakistan’s tribal areas, and CIA targeting officers are still nominating militants to a kill list, according to U.S. officials regularly briefed on the covert program who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss covert programs publicly. But over the past five months, no missiles have been fired. And while the CIA won’t say the program has ended, Obama announced this week a plan to pull nearly all American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016. The targeted killing program in Pakistan relies on drones flown from, and intelligence gathered in, U.S. bases in Afghanistan that would then be closed.

The New America Foundation’s Peter Bergen: "The program (in Pakistan) appears to have ended." More here.

Obama says just because the U.S. has a great hammer, that doesn’t mean everything has to be a nail. FP’s Lubold: "President Obama told a crowd of cheering cadets at West Point that the U.S. remains an ‘indispensable nation’ that will face down terrorism threats around the world and work to bolster key allies while avoiding costly, open-ended wars. But amid Republican criticism that Obama has diminished America’s standing globally, the high-profile address likely handed his opponents new support for their claim that he’s more interested in a domestic agenda than one in which he’d be willing to intervene in a place like Syria, now in the third year of a bloody civil war.

"Obama, speaking at the U.S. Military Academy’s commencement ceremony, said terrorism remains ‘the most direct threat to America at home and abroad’ and stressed that the U.S. won’t refrain from taking direct action against militants if it has actionable intelligence. He also announced a new $5 billion counter-terrorism fund designed to help the U.S. train allies in the Middle East and North Africa so they could battle their own home-grown extremists with little to no U.S. help. Administration officials pointed to Africa, where the military has ramped up its efforts to help the militaries of countries like Mali, Chad and Niger.

On Syria: "…Although there has been speculation for weeks that the White House would expand its program to train and arm the Syrian opposition, and perhaps Obama would use Wednesday’s speech to outline it, Obama was decidedly non-committal. The administration has long stressed that the U.S. military wouldn’t intervene in the conflict and that it was committed to a diplomatic solution to the brutal civil war. Those efforts have collapsed in recent weeks, but Obama didn’t acknowledge that diplomacy was no longer making any progress and offered only broad brushstrokes about what the U.S. would do to help.

 "…A senior administration official briefing reporters after the speech had few other details, putting the responsibility for authorizing such assistance on Congress’ doorstep and hinting that it could be several more months before Syrian rebels see any new assistance. Asked if the White House had settled on a plan to assist Syrian rebels, the official hinted that it had not." More here.

For the New Yorker, John Cassidy on Obama’s reluctant realism, here.

Are those Republicans throwing stones at Obama’s forpol speech living in glass houses? For the National Interest, Rick Russell writes that while Republicans may be right to criticize Obama’s West Point speech yesterday, they should take a good look at themselves. The GOP has forgotten what a real conservative foreign policy looks like, he argues. Read that bit here.

The president’s much-anticipated foreign policy speech at West Point will set off another round of debate on his ‘doctrine’ – but for Obama, it’s about giving the public what they want by TIME’s Michael Crowley, here.

‘America must always lead,’ Obama tells West Point graduates. The NYT’s Mark Lander: "…Mr. Obama has been deeply frustrated by the criticism of his foreign policy, which during his first term was generally perceived as his strong suit. He has lashed out at critics, whom he accuses of reflexively calling for military action as the remedy for every crisis." More here.

Tara Sonenshine in Defense One’s BLUF on the speech: "For the graduating class of Army cadets, and for ordinary Americans looking for leadership-the president hit the mark-unless, of course, you are an isolationist or someone who wants U.S. troops everywhere. The West Point speech is unlikely to fit neatly on a bumper sticker like ‘containment’ or ‘American exceptionalism,’ but it offers lodestars at a difficult time in the foreign policy galaxy." More here.

The NYT’s Editorial this morning, "President Obama misses a chance on foreign affairs:" "…Mr. Obama’s talk of the need for more transparency about drone strikes and intelligence gathering, including abusive surveillance practices, was ludicrous. His administration had to be dragged into even minimal disclosures on both topics. Just Tuesday, the administration said it wanted to make further deletions from a legal memo on drone strikes that a court ordered it to make public.

"Mr. Obama’s comments on China and Russia barely touched on how he plans to manage two major countries that have turned increasingly aggressive. Pledging anew to close the jail at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which Congress has blocked, was, at this point, little more than a reassuring gesture.

"This was far from Mr. Obama’s big moment. But since he has no office left to run for, what matters ultima
tely is his record in the next two and a half years." More here.

The U.S. is already supporting Syrian rebels, of course. Last night, Frontline aired an exclusive report on how the administration is already secretly supporting rebel groups in Syria with training and weapons. Watch it here.

The WH estimates $20 billion for keeping 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, but the Pentagon budget request will be even bigger. Defense News’ Marcus Weisgerber: "The Obama administration estimates that keeping 9,800 troops in Afghanistan in 2015 would cost about $20 billion, but the Pentagon is still expected to request tens of billions of dollars more for additional security operations in the region, according to sources and experts. The White House said Wednesday that it was finalizing its 2015 overseas contingency operations (OCO) spending plan, one day after a senior administration official revealed a troop-cost estimate." More here.

A new report from Stimson on global trafficking says the U.S. government and the private sector must work more together. The U.S. government and the private sector must increase cooperation to close existing gaps in efforts to detect, reduce, and prevent incidents of illicit global trafficking finds a new report from the Stimson Center. After eighteen months, a task force of national security experts and industry leaders has proposed seven recommendations to close security gaps in global trade by better leveraging market incentives.  One idea is a proposed "trusted exporter" regime, which would leverage several Obama administration initiatives to provide benefits to exporters of dual-use goods and technologies that voluntarily adopted more rigorous due diligence processes. Retired Rear Admiral Jay Cohen (USN) and Stimson Center co-founder Barry Blechman served as the group’s chair and vice chair, respectively. Cohen and Blechman write in the foreword to the task force report that public-private partnerships not only will have increasing relevance to narrow security goals, but also "will go far in shaping the future of US global influence and leadership." Read the full report here.

At a 9 a.m. event this morning, Stimson will launch the report with a keynote from Deputy Assistant to the President for Homeland Security Rand Beers. Deets here.

Al-Sisi wins in Egypt. Reuters this hour: Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the general who toppled Egypt’s first freely elected leader, took more than 90 percent of the vote in a presidential election, provisional results showed on Thursday, joining a long line of leaders drawn from the military. But a lower-than-expected turnout figure raised questions about the credibility of a man idolized by his supporters as a hero who can deliver political and economic stability. Sisi won 93.3 percent of votes cast, judicial sources said, with most ballots counted after three days of voting. His only rival, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, gained 3 percent while 3.7 percent of votes were declared void." More here.

A private firm reveals that Iran-based cyberspies are targeting U.S. officials. The WSJ’s Siobhan Gorman: "Hackers apparently based in Iran have mounted a three-year campaign of cyberespionage against high-ranking U.S. and international officials, including a four-star admiral, to gather intelligence on economic sanctions, antinuclear proliferation efforts and other issues, according to cybersecurity investigators. Using an elaborate ruse involving more than a dozen personas working for a fake U.S. news organization, the hackers developed connections to their targets through websites like Facebook FB +0.05% and LinkedIn to trick them into giving up personal data and logon information, the investigators say.

"The alleged campaign, which dates back at least to 2011 and is still under way, principally has focused on U.S. and Israeli targets in public and private sectors, but also has included similar officials in countries such as the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq, according to the investigators. The campaign was uncovered by the cybersecurity firm iSight Partners, which has been tracking it for six months. The iSight report provides the first detailed public look inside what the investigators say is an extensive cyberespionage campaign against the U.S. by Iranian hackers, and shows to an extent not previously understood their ability to conduct extensive and lengthy targeting of key individuals, much in the mold of Chinese cyberspies." More here.

Meantime, White House officials and Dempsey seem to disagree over whether the U.S. has a coherent cyber strategy. Inside Cybersecurity’s Chris Castelli: "…The rift surfaced when Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently voiced concerns at the Atlantic Council about the nation’s lack of preparedness for a cyber attack, cited strategic shortcomings and assigned blame to Congress. ‘We have sectors within our nation that are more ready than others, but we don’t have a coherent cyber strategy as a nation,’ Dempsey said. ‘And I understand why. . . . There are some big issues involved with achieving that kind of coherence — issues related to privacy and cost, information sharing and all of the liabilities that come in the absence of legislation to incentivize information sharing.’ Dempsey has previously defined strategy not merely as the issuance of high-profile guidance but as the process of balancing ends, ways and means.

"Laura Lucas Magnuson, a spokeswoman for White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Michael Daniel, disputed Dempsey’s critique. ‘Current U.S. cyber strategy is coherent and consistent with U.S. values that support an open, interoperable, secure and reliable Internet,’ she told Inside Cybersecurity. ‘Given that cyberspace permeates every aspect of the economy and national security, no single document can meaningfully capture our strategic direction. Instead, our efforts are informed by specific strategy and policy documents.’" More here.

At the Atlantic Council yesterday, Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave an overview of U.S. missile- defense strategy.  He outlined the fundamental principles behind the U.S. approach: "…If we consider that at the top of our list of national security interests is probably the survival of our nation, then at the top of the list of threats to that interest is a massive nuclear attack from Russia. Because we prefer to use the deterrent of missile defense in situations where it has the highest possibility of being most productive. We’ve told Russia and the world that we will not rely on missile defense for strategic deterren
ce, because it would simply be too hard and too expensive and too strategically destabilizing to even try. Even though Russians have a hard time believing us on this, it has the very great virtue of actually being true.
"Rather, we rely for deterrence of Russia on our ability to respond massively to an attack, and that has worked for a very long time.?But we do have other interests, where what we call ‘limited missile defense’ quickly comes sharply into focus as being very relevant, beginning with our determination to prevent catastrophic attacks on our nation. This is about ensuring we can deny the objectives of any insecure authoritarian state that believes acquisition of deliverable weapons of mass destruction is key to the preservation of its regime." Watch his remarks here.

Meantime, China’s not big on a proposed new missile defense system in South Korea. The WSJ’s Te-Ping Chen and Alastair Gale: "China warned against the deployment of a proposed U.S. missile-defense system in South Korea, saying such a move would unnecessarily raise regional tensions. The U.S. is weighing a plan to deploy an advanced missile-defense system in South Korea as a counterweight to North Korea, according to defense officials. The $950 million Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery is designed to intercept short, medium and intermediate missiles… China, North Korea’s main ally in the region, was less supportive of the prospect of such a system. ‘We believe that the deployment of antimissile systems in this region will not help maintain stability and strategic balance in this region,’ said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang." More here.

Thailand’s military rulers make policy moves. The WSJ’s Warangkana Chomchuen and Newley Purnell: "Thailand’s military stepped up its propaganda effort and tightened its control over the country by appointing hawkish generals to key advisory roles, while recruiting finance officials in a bid to steer the economy away from the brink of recession. Meanwhile, about 90 minutes of Facebook outage to most Thai users on Wednesday sparked fear of a clampdown on the Internet by the junta to stifle dissent, though military officials said the social-networking behemoth was down because of ‘a technical problem.’ … At a news conference, the army showed a video of detainees in army custody, appearing in good spirits in a bid to counter criticism of the coup and subsequent detentions. The military has summoned some 250 people since it seized control May 22, including ex-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her successor, Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan." More here.

General Dynamics pulls out of the AMPV program, for now. Defense News’ Paul McLeary: "On the day that final bids were due for the US Army’s Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV) program, one of the two expected bidders – General Dynamics Land Systems – pulled out of the competition, leaving BAE Systems and its Bradley variant as the sole contender. For now. In a statement, GD didn’t completely close the door on the program." More here.




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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