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: The tick-tock on Bergdahl; Derek Chollet in Kiev talking assistance; Shinseki’s successor to have qualities he did not possess; USMC cleared in classification review; Eric Olson (and his mother!) win a prize; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel   It took three years to reach the secret deal that lead to Bergdahl’s release. The news broke over the weekend that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in captivity by militants and held in Pakistan for nearly five years, had been released in a swap for him with five detainees from ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel


It took three years to reach the secret deal that lead to Bergdahl’s release. The news broke over the weekend that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in captivity by militants and held in Pakistan for nearly five years, had been released in a swap for him with five detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – who have now been sent to Qatar. Here’s the story of what went on behind the scenes. The WSJ’s Adam Entous and Julian Barnes: "…Sgt. Bergdahl’s return marks the culmination of a three-year diplomatic effort to bring warring sides in Afghanistan to the negotiating table, according to a reconstruction of events compiled through interviews with administration, defense and intelligence officials, including some directly involved in the negotiations. The goal of reconciliation never materialized, but the prisoner exchange, which sent the five Afghan Taliban to Qatar, has convinced some in Washington that the U.S. and the Taliban could one day find common ground.

"…U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan closed a sizable amount of airspace along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The last thing they wanted was for U.S. or allied aircraft to fire on the Taliban convoy carrying Sgt. Bergdahl, a senior U.S. defense official said. The challenge for the Taliban was transporting Sgt. Bergdahl to a recovery point where the fighters felt safe enough for the handover. "To meet in a direct way like that on the battlefield is not without a great deal of risk," the senior administration official said.

"Both sides wanted to avoid misunderstandings. They agreed on the number of forces they would send to the rendezvous point. The Taliban would call the commander of the Special Operations Forces team directly to say precisely when and where the exchange would take place. The head of the Special Operations Forces team wasn’t able to contact the Taliban.

"As the weekend approached, some Pentagon officials in Washington began to doubt the Taliban would go through with the transfer. A senior U.S. defense official said the Qatari team also seemed nervous. "It didn’t look like the Taliban were delivering for them at first," the official said. On Saturday morning, the Taliban called, and the Special Operations Forces team boarded helicopters for the short flight to the meeting place in eastern Afghanistan. Before the helicopters landed, U.S. surveillance aircraft, hovering overhead, relayed back images that dispelled last-minute U.S. fears of an ambush.

"The helicopters touched down in an open area, and the Taliban waited a short distance away. The two groups cautiously walked toward each other in one of the most unlikely meetings between combatants in 13 years of war. The face-to-face encounter lasted as little as 30 seconds, and the Americans then quickly confirmed they had Sgt. Bergdahl, comparing his appearance to images they carried. ‘It was like clockwork,’ another senior U.S. defense official said. Read the rest of that story here.

Republicans blast the White House over the Bergdahl exchange. TIME’s Nolan Feeney: "…House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard ‘Buck’ McKeon (R-Calif.) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) accused President Barack Obama in a statement Saturday of breaking the law by failing to give Congress proper notice of the transfers. The law requires the White House to tell lawmakers about Guantanamo transfers 30 days in advance. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, however, told Congress about the five Bergdahl transfers Saturday morning, just hours before the prisoners were on a plane and headed to Qatar. ‘In executing this transfer,’ McKeon and Inhofe said, ‘the President … clearly violated laws which require him to notify Congress thirty days before any transfer of terrorists from Guantanamo Bay and to explain how the threat posed by such terrorists has been substantially mitigated.

"Our joy at Sgt. Berghdal’s release is tempered by the fact that President Obama chose to ignore the law, not to mention sound policy, to achieve it.’ … Other Republicans, meanwhile, knocked the White House over what they said was a move that will put U.S. troops at risk in the future. Republican Texas Senator and potential 2016 presidential candidate Ted Cruz pounded home that point Sunday on This Week, saying the administration paid a ‘dangerous price’ to retrieve Bergdahl." More here.

Republicans aren’t the only one PO’ed. Karzai fumes over the swap. Reuters, this hour: " The Afghan president is angry at being kept in the dark over a deal to free five Taliban leaders in exchange for a captured U.S. soldier, and accuses Washington of failing to back a peace plan for the war-torn country, a senior source said on Monday. The five prisoners were flown to Qatar on Sunday as part of a secret agreement to release Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who left Afghanistan for Germany on the same day." More here.

Susan Rice on CNN’s State of the Union yesterday: "What we did was ensure that, as always, the United States doesn’t leave a man or a woman on the battlefield… If we got into a situation where we said, ‘Because of who has captured an American soldier on the battlefield we will leave that person behind,’ we would be in a whole new ear for the safety of our personnel and for the nature of our commitment to our men and women in uniform…Because it was the Taliban that had him did not mean that we had any less of an obligation to bring him back." More here.

Sgt. Bergdahl has a long path ahead to full recovery. The NYT’s Mark Lander: "For Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the road home to Idaho began with a brief helicopter ride from the rugged frontier of eastern Afghanistan to Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul. His return to anything close to a normal life will take much longer." More here.

Read Lubold’s news story from Saturday for catch-up if you were off the grid and have no idea what we’re talking about this morning, here.

Welcome to Monday’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 ­- President Obama leaves tonight for Poland, then Belgium then France… Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel left Afghanistan yesterday after a very brief stop there to meet with some of the troops who picked up Bergdahl;
today he is in Brussels for a NATO defense ministerial… Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey, on his way home from the Shangri-La security conference in Singapore, is today in Saudi Arabia meeting with Saudi and U.S. embassy officials; he’ll return to Washington Tuesday… Navy Secretary Ray Mabus will speak at the keel laying of USS Illinois (SSN 786) in Quonset Point, Rhode Island.  The First Lady is the sponsor for the submarine and she will deliver remarks.

Also today, the Pentagon’s Derek Chollet is leaving Kiev after talking with Ukraine officials for the last couple days about further U.S. military assistance the U.S. can provide the Ukrainians. As the crisis there settles down, and there is greater evidence that Russian troops have pulled back from the border, Chollet, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, spoke with a number of Ukrainian defense officials in Kiev about the country’s mid- and long-term assistance needs and objectives. The Pentagon is already providing about $18 million in assistance, but the Ukrainians undoubtedly want more. On the "non-lethal assistance" side, they want the usual, including helmets, body armor – and the strategic key every country wants: night vision goggles. But Chollet said Ukraine also seeks long-term assistance in the form of defense reform, institution building and the like. No decisions have been made yet on what form that longer-term assistance might take, he said Friday, before he set out for Kiev.

"We’ll have that conversation about the urgent, near-term needs they have but also the medium- to long-term needs that we want to put into place," Chollet said in an interview with Situation Report on Friday. "How can we assist the military to be more professional, less corrupt and better able to do security?"

Chollet said long-term defense institution building is not all about stuff: "It’s not equipment rolling off the back of a truck, but it is more important in the long run… this is the beginning of a conversation." Chollet will now join the final leg, in Europe, of Hagel’s round-the-world trip.

At CSIS today, half-day-long discussion on the "Evolution of Treasury’s National Security Role," with a keynote from Sec. Jacob Lew and panelists including: Tom Donilon, Keith Alexander, Michele Flournoy, Steve Hadley, Jane Harman and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Starts at 8:30 a.m. Deets here.

Soldier exchange aside, hurdles at Guantanamo still persist. The AP’s Ben Fox: "President Obama has edged closer to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison by swapping five Taliban members for a captured American soldier, but the criticism he faced Sunday for the deal underscores the challenges he faces in emptying out the cells at the U.S. base in Cuba… The remaining 149 prisoners fall into several, somewhat fluid categories. Nearly 80 of them have been approved for transfer to their homelands or a third country. Those moves have gradually resumed after coming to a halt due to security requirements imposed by Congress that were altered last year. Some who have criticized the government for moving too slowly on transfers say the exchange for Bergdahl, which took place without a required 30-day notice to Congress, shows the Obama administration can act more forcefully to close Guantanamo." More here.

And the WSJ’s editorial page says that other Americans will pay the price for the terrorist hostage swap, here.

Meantime, re: the other story that was big on Friday, Shinseki resigning… so who will the administration tap to lead the VA now? FP’s Lubold and John Hudson: "The search for former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s replacement will require finding an individual who understands the plight of today’s veteran, can influence a massive bureaucracy, and, many believe, is willing to assume a high public profile — a person who possesses some of the very qualities that Shinseki did not have — and then getting that person to agree to take a job few would want.
"…But a fundamental challenge confronting the White House now is finding someone able to do what is widely seen as a virtually impossible job — and then persuading them to actually take it. Members of Congress, individuals associated with veterans groups and others were disinclined to name publicly individuals who should replace Shinseki, but a handful of names have emerged, including a slew of retired general or flag officers, from Mike Mullen to Stanley McChrystal or Peter Chiarelli. John McHugh, a former Congressman and now the sitting Army secretary, and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus were also on the lips in Washington on Friday. And Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, and James Webb, the former senator, Marine, and Navy secretary have all been mentioned as a possible successors. Someone with corporate leadership experience, coupled with a military background, could also be seen as a good fit. That very short list would include someone like Fred Smith, the chairman and CEO of global mailing giant FedEx, who served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1966 to 1970." More here.

Will Congress be as brave as Shinseki? The WaPo’s E.J. Dionne Jr.: "If you want a prime example of what’s wrong with our politics, study the response to the veterans’ health-care scandal. You would think from the coverage that the only issue that mattered to politicians was whether Gen. Eric Shinseki should be fired. Shinseki is a true patriot, and his resignation as Veterans Affairs secretary on Friday calls Congress’s bluff. He played his part in a Washington sacrificial ritual. Will the politicians now be honorable enough to account for their own mistakes?

"… you can at least hope that we will move on to the underlying questions here, to wit: Why was the shortage of primary care doctors in the VA system not highlighted much earlier? Why did it take a scandal to make us face up to the vast increase in the number of veterans who need medical attention? And why don’t we think enough about how abstract budget numbers connect to the missions we’re asking government agencies to carry out?" More here.

IAVA will attempt to frame answers to those very questions at a press conference this morning.  From the advisory: "Following the resignation of Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Friday, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) Founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff will lay out a plan to restore confidence within the VA and ensure all vets get the care and support they’ve earned. IAVA will address a new Secretary, accountability at the VA, and the top priority for veterans – combating suicide." More here.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee introduces a bill to overhaul the VA; The WaPo’s Ed O’Keefe, here.

For the WSJ, Peggy Noonan on the VA scandal, here.

How Donald Rumsfeld complicated Shinseki’s last administration exit by the National Journal’s Tom DeFrank, here.     ?

The Marine Corps has been cleared in a review that looked at whether it improperly classified videos in connection with the incident in which Marine snipers urinated on the bodies of Taliban militants.  This is part of a broader investigation into wrongdoing in connection with the video made in Helmand province in Afghanistan in July 2011 and what Marine officials did or did not do wrong in the aftermath. Results of a Department of Defense Inspector General report on the issue, and Commandant Gen. Jim Amos’ role, are due out soon. Meantime, an agency known as the Information Security Oversight Office, which falls under the National Archives, conducted a review of the classification of the controversial video and found that the Marine Corps, in classifying the videos, did not violate any laws.

From ISOO Director John Fitzgerald, in a letter to Marine Maj. James Weirick, one of the complainants: "I have completed my review of this matter and my conclusion is that there is no reason to make such a report… I want you to know that I reviewed your complaint thoroughly and in good faith. I consider the reporting of perceived wrongdoing or poor performance by those trusted with implementing the Order as being critical to the underpinning of the classification system. Without new information that contradicts my above findings, I will consider this issue now closed." Read the full ISOO letter here.

From the Marine Corps, late Friday: "The ISOO initiated its review after receiving allegations that Marine Corps officials improperly classified information in violation of Executive Order 13526. After thorough scrutiny of all relevant facts and circumstances, the ISOO determined that classification of these materials was within the Executive Order’s scope and authority as the classification decision was motivated by the safety of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and the protection of specific tactics, techniques, procedures, and equipment. Accordingly, the Marine Corps views any matter involving the appropriateness of having classified the materials as closed."

After the announcement that Clark Stevens was leaving the Department of Homeland Security as chief of public affairs last week, we learned that Tanya Bradsher, long rumored to be taking over over there, will serve as Acting Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at DHS. Bradsher, a former Army officer, also worked at the White House’s National Security Council’s public affairs office.

U.S experts are banking on a $50-$70 billion overseas contingency ops budget. Defense News’ Marcus Weisgerber: "Even though US President Barack Obama announced last week that the Defense Department would leave only 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan in 2015, experts expect the Pentagon to ask Congress to approve $50 billion to $70 billion for war-related efforts. That range is lower than the $79 billion placeholder submitted to Congress in March, but higher than the $20 billion it will take to fund those troops in Afghanistan. The high estimate, despite the removal of more than 22,000 troops in the coming months, these experts said, shows the Pentagon will continue using the overseas contingency operations (OCO) funding to soften the blow from defense spending caps in 2015 and beyond." More here.

The United States has favored counterterrorism over building Afghan state institutions and promoting the rule of law. New America’s Anand Gopal in Sunday’s NYT: "…Afghans tell similar tales about other American-backed commanders, who hold sway over villages, districts or provinces. In southern Afghanistan’s Khas Oruzgan district, residents accuse Abdul Hakim Shujayee of going on multiple killing and raping rampages. Afghan officials in Kabul said their government tried to arrest him, but failed because he was protected by American Special Operations Forces. American officials say they have cut their ties with him, a claim that has been met with skepticism from residents. In 2011, in the village of Khosh Khadir in Daikundi Province, villagers told me that an American-supported strongman known as Lalay let his forces rampage through the village in response to a Taliban attack, hanging civilians from trees, abducting women, and setting homes and shops ablaze." More here.

Hagel celebrated Bergdahl’s release with a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Sunday. The NYT’s Helene Cooper: "Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had departed for Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany eight hours before, but that did not stop Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel from taking a figurative victory lap around this base to celebrate the release of the lone remaining American prisoner of war in the Afghan conflict. For Mr. Hagel, who made an unannounced stop in Afghanistan on Sunday, the release of Sergeant Bergdahl after nearly five years in captivity was the high point of his tenure so far as defense secretary, made doubly so by the fact that he is the first enlisted soldier to serve in the Pentagon’s top job.
"Like Sergeant Bergdahl, Mr. Hagel was a sergeant, when he served in Vietnam. He has friends who were prisoners of war during that time, he said, including Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. ‘When you can bring one of your own people home, when you think of what he has endured the last five years – my own experiences in Vietnam as we had P.O.W.s taken,’ Mr. Hagel told reporters aboard his flight to Afghanistan, appearing to struggle for words. ‘I am intensely happy and gratified.’" More here.

In Singapore, Hagel gave it to China for its actions in the South China Sea. Bloomberg’s Gopal Ratnam, Sharon Chen and Isabel Reynolds: "U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spelled out a series of Chinese actions in parts of the disputed South China Sea and said they were destabilizing the region, drawing a rebuke from a Chinese General. While China has said it wants a ‘sea of peace, friendship and cooperation,’ in recent months it ‘has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,’ Hagel said in prepared remarks at the annual Shangri-La security conference in Singapore. ‘It has restricted access to the Scarborough Reef; put pressure on the long-standing Philippine presence at the Second Thomas Shoal; begun land reclamation activities at multiple locations; and moved an oil rig into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands’ off the coast of Vietnam, Hagel said, listing for the first time Chinese infractions in the region that are alarming Southeast Asian nations.
"The step
ped-up U.S. comments
follow Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s appeal for a ‘stronger voice’ from the U.S. against China after clashes between coast guard vessels near the rig placed in contested waters. The Philippines, dwarfed militarily by China, has sought support from the U.S. and the United Nations to counter China’s encroachment into shoals off its coast." More here.

But the Chinese gave it back to Hagel. The WSJ’s Chun Han Wong: "A senior Chinese general on Sunday accused U.S. and Japanese officials of making provocative statements toward China, rebutting criticism of Beijing’s recent actions in disputed Asian waters. The comments by Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, the Chinese military’s deputy chief of general staff, marked a robust riposte to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who used speeches at a weekend security summit to rebuke China for allegedly acting outside of international law in asserting claims in the East and South China seas." More here.

This story had Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby and Pentagon Chief of Staff Mark Lippert’s fingerprints all over it: Hagel, in Asia, is in his comfort zone. The WaPo’s Karen DeYoung, traveling with Hagel, ICYMI: "While much of the Obama administration’s foreign policy remains focused on what the president this week called emerging threats "from South Asia to the Sahel," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has laid claim to this corner of the world. Hagel, who has made five trips to the Far East in the past year, has sustained President Obama’s long-touted tilt toward Asia, even as he has been a nearly invisible player in the unending crises elsewhere that have eclipsed it. By interest, history and temperament, Hagel appears to feel a sense of ownership in Asia. Despite the stalling of the Pacific trade agreement that is another cornerstone of Obama’s Asia ‘rebalance,’ Hagel can claim steady progress in the military’s role of building regional alliances and partnerships. But those gains risk being overtaken by China’s rapidly worsening relations with its neighbors and escalating belligerency from North Korea." More here.

Former SOCOM commander Eric Olson and his mother, Dawn Lucien, won a prize. From a press release: "She helped bring a peaceful end to a long-simmering dispute in her community. He spent a lifetime building up the special operations forces that are first to the fight when conflicts develop overseas. Together, former Tacoma City Councilwoman Dawn Lucien and her son, retired Adm. Eric Olson [and former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command] are this year’s co-recipients of the Greater Tacoma Peace Prize. The annual honor, usually given to a single individual, is bestowed in the manner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

"Lucien is being recognized for her work in former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks’ office helping to resolve disputed land claims between the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and private developers. She gives the credit to now-retired Dicks, who was one of the people who nominated her and her son for the peace prize. The 1988 settlement, she said, resulted in long-term financial stability for the tribe.

"Olson rose to the rank of four-star admiral and chief of the Defense Department’s Special Operations Command in his 38-year military career. He retired in August 2011, and received plaudits from Dicks and other political leaders for nurturing the Special Operations teams that killed Osama bin Laden in May of that year. Olson now teaches graduate courses at Columbia University in New York. He visited Tacoma last year and gave a speech in which he called for the military to invest in human intelligence so it could better understand emerging threats in ungoverned parts of the world.

"Lucien called the prize an honor for her family. She said it recognized that her son was "always trying to work things out so we didn’t have to exchange bullets" while he was in the military. They are to receive the award at a ceremony in September. They’ll be flown to Norway in December to participate in Nobel Peace Prize events.

About the prize: The Greater Tacoma Peace Prize, in its 10th year, was developed by Iraq veteran Thomas Heavey. Its recipients are chosen by representatives of the Sons of Norway, Daughters of Norway and Pacific Lutheran University. Congrats to Eric Olson and Dawn Lucien.


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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