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 video of Bergdahl’s release; A full Senate briefing today; Did six really die for Bergdahl?; A healthcare CEO could get the nod for VA; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel The Taliban released a video of Bergdahl’s release in eastern Afghanistan. The first images of the peaceful transfer of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, clad in traditional Afghan dress, looking confused and dazed by the daylight, appeared late yesterday. The Pentagon had no immediate plans to release any such images, but ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

The Taliban released a video of Bergdahl’s release in eastern Afghanistan. The first images of the peaceful transfer of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, clad in traditional Afghan dress, looking confused and dazed by the daylight, appeared late yesterday. The Pentagon had no immediate plans to release any such images, but the Taliban had other ideas. The WSJ’s Maria Abi-Habib in Kabul: "…In the video, an Afghan insurgent, his face hidden by a scarf, tells Sgt. Bergdahl menacingly in Pashto moments before the release: "Don’t come back to Afghanistan. Next time we catch you, you won’t leave here alive." Armed insurgents surrounding the pickup truck laugh as Sgt. Bergdahl bows his head, looking confused and scared. ‘Long live the holy warriors of Afghanistan! Long live the great holy warrior and the leader of the believers, Mullah Mohammad Omar!’ the insurgents chant, referring to the Taliban leader who has eluded U.S. capture since 2001." Watch the video here.

Pentagon Presssec Rear Adm. John Kirby’s statement on the video: "We are aware of the video allegedly released by the Taliban showing the transfer into U.S. hands of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. We have no reason to doubt the video’s authenticity, but we are reviewing it. Regardless, we know the transfer was peaceful and successful, and our focus remains on getting Sgt. Bergdahl the care he needs."

There’s also this from the WSJ’s Adam Entous, Dion Nissenbaum and Michael Crittenden: "Two secret videos showing rapid deterioration in Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s health persuaded reluctant military and intelligence leaders to back the prisoner swap that has stoked a backlash, officials said Tuesday, as the Army launched a new probe into why the soldier disappeared from base shortly before his capture by the Taliban in 2009." See that here.

This evening, the full Senate is invited to a briefing about the controversial Bergdahl release and to get their many questions answered. We’ve learned that all Senators are invited to a 5:30pm briefing at the Capitol Visitors Center for a rare, closed-door briefing for the full Senate.

The individuals expected to brief: The Pentagon’s No. 2, Bob Work, the deputy Secretary of Defense; Jim Dobbins, State’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, or SRAP; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, and Robert Cardillo, deputy director of National Intelligence, or DNI.

If America’s newly freed POW really was a deserter, the White House is in trouble. FP’s John Hudson: "…Rice’s remarks championing Bergdahl effectively boxed the White House in and created daylight between it and the Pentagon as military officials responded to tough questions about Bergdahl’s past. The dramatic speed in which Bergdahl went from hero to something more complicated led to criticisms of the White House. ‘Knowing the background of this soldier to somehow give them this type of hero status, what does that do the mothers and fathers of those other soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan, especially those who were out trying to find [Bergdahl]?’ Rep Peter King (R-N.Y.) said on CNN on Tuesday. ‘And to have Susan Rice say he conducted himself with honor and distinction, it makes you wonder about all of the things the president is saying.’

"…But the issue over how the administration portrayed Bergdahl is just one among many on the minds of Congress members. Many are still furious over being left in the dark about the prisoner exchange itself. ‘It’s very disappointing that there was not a level of trust sufficient to justify alerting us,’ Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday. Other lawmakers pledged to grill the administration on this topic during newly-scheduled hearings at the House and Senate Armed Services Committees." More here.

Dempsey and McHugh both say the Bergdahl case is not closed. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey issued a statement yesterday hinting that Bergdahl could be in hot water. Then The Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, issued his own, essentially agreeing with Dempsey. From the AP: "The nation’s top military officer said Tuesday the Army could still throw the book at Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the young soldier who walked away from his unit in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan and into five years of captivity by the Taliban. Charges are still a possibility, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Associated Press as criticism mounted in Congress about releasing five high-level Taliban detainees in exchange for Bergdahl. The Army might still pursue an investigation, Dempsey said, and those results could conceivably lead to desertion or other charges." More here.

Secretary of the Army John McHugh yesterday: "…As Chairman Dempsey indicated, the Army will… review this in a comprehensive, coordinated effort that will include speaking with Sgt. Bergdahl to better learn from him the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity. All other decisions will be made thereafter, and in accordance with appropriate regulations, policies and practices."

Should Bergdahl be punished? Obama’s Rose Garden appearance on Saturday, with Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s parents, Robert and Jani, seemed to suggest that the G.I. would return to the U.S. a hero. But with new questions over the last few days about the troops who died trying to find Bergdahl – long suspected of having deserted his unit five years ago – and new  statements from senior defense officials indicating that he may still face charges, there’s increasing evidence to suggest that the Pentagon could pursue a legal course of action against him. Alex Berenson on the op-ed page of the NYT: "…As a reporter, I embedded for modest stints with American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. When I’m asked about those experiences, I always say – and mean – that we civilians don’t deserve the soldiers we have. In this case, perhaps, the reverse was true. The White House worked tirelessly to free Sergeant Bergdahl, and did not let the murk around his disappearance stop its decision to trade Taliban detainees for him. I’m no soldier, but that decision seems right to me. No man, or woman, left behind.

"But now that this man is on his way home, what to do with him? The White House clearly erred by pretending that Sergeant Bergdahl was an ordinary prisoner of war and that his return would be cause for unalloyed celebration." More here.

Did President Obama break the law? CS Monitor’s Peter Grier: "…The law in question was enacted as part of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). When he signed that bill into law Obama included a signing statement which warned he might do what he just did. ‘The executive branch must have the flexibility … to act swiftly in conducting negotiations
with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers,’ said the statement at the time.

"Here’s the problem: By themselves, signing statements have no legal force. It may seem odd that Congress didn’t include a little wiggle room for emergency contingencies in regards to prisoner handling, but it didn’t. Some legal analysts thus conclude that it’s pretty clear the swap was illegal under the NDAA language.

Jeffrey Toobin, CNN’s senior legal analyst: "‘…The law is on the books, and he didn’t follow it.’

"The argument doesn’t end there, however. What if the law in question is itself unconstitutional? After all, the president of the United States is also the nation’s commander in chief under the Constitution (Article II, Section 2, Clause I). That invests him with enormous military powers, particularly in regards to tactical and strategic decisions. What if Congress passed a law requiring a 30-day notice before a president could order troops to patrol? That would pretty clearly be unconstitutional. Some analysts argue that a decision to repatriate a captured soldier isn’t much different." More here.

Did six soldiers really die for Bergdahl? Some military officers would tell you the six troops who have been identified as being killed during the search mission for Bergdahl at the time could have been killed regardless of their mission, and to tie it to Bergdahl is thin. The NYT’s Charlie Savage and Andrew Lehren take a look at the murky issues surrounding those claims on Page One, here.

All those soldiers criticizing Bergdahl had some Republican messaging help. Buzzfeed’s Rosie Grey and Kate Nocera: "A former Bush administration official who was hired, then resigned, as Mitt Romney’s foreign policy spokesman played a key role in publicizing critics of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the released prisoner of war. The involvement of Richard Grenell, who once served as a key aide to Bush-era U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton and later worked for Romney’s 2012 campaign, comes as the Bergdahl release has turned into an increasingly vicious partisan issue." More here.

Welcome to Wednesday’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 – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is in Brussels today on about the hump of his 12-day world tour… Marine Commandant Gen. Jim Amos will participate in ceremonies marking the 350th anniversary of the Royal Marines in London… Navy Secretary Ray Mabus will attend D-Day ceremonies in Europe.

First Lady Michelle Obama will announce the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness this afternoon. As part of this announcement, the First Lady will highlight leaders from over 80 cities, counties, and states across the country who have committed to ending veteran homelessness by 2015.Watch it here.

The Cleveland Clinic’s CEO is being considered for the VA post. The names to replace Shinseki at the VA have been floating out there and there are new trial balloons today with the idea that the little known CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, a Vietnam veteran, might be tapped. Veterans groups like the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and others in the know have suggested the ideal successor would have veteran experience from the last 12 years – Iraq or Afghanistan. Others believe the person has to have a depth of knowledge in healthcare.

The WaPo’s Juliet Eilperin: "The White House has approached the Cleveland Clinic’s chief executive, Delos ‘Toby’ Cosgrove, a doctor and Vietnam War veteran, about heading the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to an individual familiar with the discussions. No final decision has been made, according to this individual, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House has yet to formally nominate Cosgrove.

"…The Cleveland Clinic ranks as one of the country’s most renowned medical centers and has won plaudits for the quality of its services and its responsiveness to patients’ needs. The clinic, which Cosgrove has headed since 2004, has a policy of offering same-day appointments to anyone who calls. Bob Kocher, a former White House adviser on health policy who now does venture capital health-care investments, wrote in an e-mail that if the administration brought on Cosgrove, ‘they would be recruiting one of the most successful physician leaders and health system operators to come and turn around the VA. Toby only knows how to do health care at a very high level of quality and will not sleep until he instills a similar ethos into the culture at the VA.’" More here.

Senate Republicans unveiled their plan to repair the VA by weeding out wrongdoing and expanding access to private care. Stripes’ Travis Tritten: "The bill allows veterans to choose a private provider if they live far from VA facilities or have difficulty getting timely care. It also gives the VA secretary more leeway to fire senior executives and forces the department to set new punishments for employees who falsify records, according to McCain and co-sponsors Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
"The Republicans floated the legislation just a day after Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who caucuses with the Democrats, filed a wide-ranging VA reform bill that would also provides wider access to private care and more authority for the VA secretary to remove incompetent executives.

McCain on Sanders’ bill: "Unlike Sen. Sanders’ bill, this addresses the root cause of the current VA scandal." More here.

Fraud may mask the true wait times for vets seeking care. Military Times’ Meghan Hoyer and Gregg Zoroya: "The Department of Veterans Affairs official internal data show it failed to treat three out of five veterans within its 14-day target period for care, VA statistics obtained by USA Today show. But as bad as those numbers are, greater numbers of patients may have been kept waiting, according to an audit released last week that shows rampant fraud in keeping official appointment records. Some 13 percent of schedulers at 216 VA health facilities said they were instructed in how to falsify the wait times they reported to VA headquarters. At least one instance of false scheduling occurred at 64 percent of the facilities, the audit showed. Those reported numbers, made available through a Freedom of Information Act request, showed that even without the fraud, patients were kept wait
ing. In the six-month period ending March 31, the VA’s 150 hospitals and 820 outpatient clinics failed to treat more than 200,000 veterans who came in for first-time primary care appointments in 14 days." More here.

Recidivism: Moroccan militants released from Guantanamo have returned to Syria’s battlefields. The WSJ’s Maria Abi-Habib in Casablanca: "A decade ago, the U.S. released three hardened Moroccan militants from Guantanamo and turned them over to the Moroccan government on the assumption they wouldn’t return to the battlefield. They wound up leading one of the most violent Islamist groups fighting in Syria’s civil war. Their story serves as a cautionary tale days after President Barack Obama released five high-level Taliban figures from the same detention center in a swap for an American soldier held in Afghanistan for nearly five years. By January 2014, about 29% of 614 detainees released from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba had returned to violence, according to the Director of National Intelligence." More here.

Former NSA director Alexander implies that Snowden is working for the KGB. In an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Trish Regan former NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander said, Edward Snowden is working for someone. General Alexander went on to say he "absolutely agrees" with the former KGB officer, General Kalugin, who said if Snowden is in Russia he’s clearing working with the FSB, "I don’t think he got out of the airport without making some agreement." Watch the interview here. 

Don’t get too nostalgic, but we’re at the anniversary of Snowden’s leaks.  Watch Brookings’ experts discuss the international implications today.  Tomorrow at Brookings, the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer and CATO’s Julian Sanchez will face off against former NSA deputy director John "Chris" Inglis and Georgetown Law’s Carrie Cordero on the topic of fundamental surveillance reform. Today’s deets here, and tomorrow’s here.

The NYT’s Michiko Kakutani reviews David Ignatius’ new novel about the CIA, here.

FP’s Elias Groll on the NYT’s James Risen and his case at the Supreme Court, here.

Hagel tells the Europeans it’s time to pay up. The WaPo’s Karen DeYoung: "President Obama’s announcement Tuesday of a new $1 billion fund for military operations to reassure nervous eastern European allies was also part of an effort to pressure – or shame – the rest of Europe into paying their fair share of NATO expenses. The U.S. appeal for increased allied defense spending is not a new one. A staple of NATO conferences, it has been made by successive administrations, to little avail. But administration officials, from Obama on down, believe they have a potent new argument thanks to Russian actions, right at NATO’s doorstep, in Ukraine. The alliance, they argue, needs to return to first principles of defending itself after two decades of operations far afield in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

Hagel told a meeting of NATO defense ministers: "Many nations appear content for their defense spending to continue declining… if the American people do not see European nations stepping forward to invest in their own defense when their own security is threatened we risk eroding U.S. support for the alliance… As President Obama asks the United States Congress and the American people to support increased investment in European security, we are asking our European allies to do the same." More here.

Obama, in Europe, calls for a billion dollar European security fund. The WSJ’s Carol Lee, Julian Barnes and Naftali Bendavid: "President Barack Obama said he would increase joint exercises and send more U.S. military equipment to Eastern Europe, proposing a new $1 billion fund Tuesday to bolster European security and reassure newer U.S. allies worried by what they see as a renewal of Russian aggression. Mr. Obama’s announcement, at the start of a four-day European trip, came alongside a decision by European defense ministers meeting in Brussels to bolster a North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Szczecin, Poland, possibly doubling the current contingent of about 250 troops.

"The billion-dollar fund sought by Mr. Obama would be called the European Reassurance Initiative and would require congressional approval. It would pay for added military exercises in Europe, including further Navy deployments to the Black and Baltic seas. It also could be used to aid the militaries of countries such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, administration officials said. Not all details of the planned U.S. operations were announced Tuesday, including the types of military equipment to be positioned, infrastructure improvements and improvements to local military forces." More here.

A declassified cable from Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. amby to the U.N., reveals the reluctance of the U.S. to respond to the deepening crisis in Rwanda, by the NYT’s Mark Landler, here.

In a preview of Obama’s D-Day remarks, he’ll draw a connection between the Greatest Generation and the 9/11 generation. Reuters’ Steve Holland: "… ‘There’s a continuum of patriotism and sacrifice that you see in this generation and that you saw in the ‘Greatest Generation,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. The president is expected to use his speech to stress the importance of the U.S-European alliance and underscore his government’s commitment to caring for U.S. veterans in the wake of a healthcare scandal at the Veterans Administration." More here.

ICYMI – Who will take on key cyber issues – the White House or Congress? Chris Castelli takes a look for Inside Cybersecurity, here.

Sen. Durbin said the defense appropriations subcommittee should take up the Pentagon spending bill next month. Defense News’ John Bennett: "US Senate appropriators are aiming to take up their 2015 Pentagon spending measure just after Independence Day, says Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. ‘First week of July,’ the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee chairman said as he ducked into an elevator near the Senate chamber. ‘That’s the goal.’ The coming markup will be Durbin’s second since his surprising ascension to subcommittee chairman. Since, defense firms have upped their campaign contributions to the Senate majority whip. The House’s full Appropriations Committee likely will take up its version of the 2015 defense appropriations bill next week, an aide says. Its defense subpanel last week approved a version that would give the Defense Department $570.4 billion. The House version adds monies for fighter jets, electronic-attack planes and maintains 11 aircraft carriers." 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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