The Cable

Situation Report: Intel problems at Centcom; Carter pushes tech initiative; McCain slams proposed new Pentagon rule; Russia expands; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley A rumor of war. This won’t go over well on Capitol Hill. Outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday that the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is “tactically stalemated,” with no “dramatic gains on either ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

A rumor of war. This won’t go over well on Capitol Hill. Outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday that the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is “tactically stalemated,” with no “dramatic gains on either side.”

We’ve heard this before. There was a moment back in July where the nominee to be the next commandant of the Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, appeared to torpedo his shot at leading the Corps for making just such a statement. His mistake was telling Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sen. John McCain that the Islamic State was locked “in a stalemate” with Iraqi forces and coalition air power. The Arizona senator fumed, “I don’t know where you’ve been. Obviously ISIS is winning in Iraq.”

The stories we tell ourselves. But McCain’s assessment might be a little closer to the truth than some are comfortable with. There are deeply troubling rumblings from a group of U.S. Central Command (Centcom) intel analysts that their analysis of the fight have been repeatedly altered to make the Islamic State appear weaker than they actually reported. The Daily Beast dropped a story Wednesday night which says as many as 50 analysts have complained that their work has been altered by commanders and higher-ups in ways that distort their original meaning.

Specifically, a pair of senior analysts have reportedly sent a complaint to the Defense Department Inspector General alleging their reports “were changed by CENTCOM higher-ups to adhere to the administration’s public line that the U.S. is winning the battle against ISIS and al Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria.” If true, the charges could be the first big leadership challenge for Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who hasn’t had to deal with some of these thorny leadership issues yet in his six-month leadership tenure.

War made new. Carter was in St. Louis on Wednesday to kick off a three-day tech event hosted by Dapra that aims to bridge the divide between the government and some of the sharpest young minds in science and engineering. It’s become his signature initiative, with two visits to Silicon Valley already under his belt, and the opening of a brand-new Pentagon office located near San Jose staffed by a team of military and civilian Pentagon officials who will be working with tech firms full-time.

Opening the Darpa event, the secretary said that he’s trying to change Pentagon policies to build “on-ramps and off-ramps to bring aboard some of the best people in the most promising fields,” even for a short time. The department has to be open to bringing in people from the outside “to promote the free exchange of ideas that drives innovation forward,” Carter said. “So I’m directing that DoD change our policy to make it easier, not harder, for our people to benefit more from these conferences in the future.” So specifics were available.

We’re not cooking our intel assessments over here at the SitRep nerve center. But we are always interested in what you have to say. So please pass on any tips, notes, or otherwise interesting bits of information that you may have at your disposal. Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.   

The business of defense

While the secretary of defense pushes his program to bring innovative tech firms into contact with the Pentagon, one proposed new acquisitions rule, a prominent Senator argues, would actually hurt that effort. Sen. John McCain wrote a letter to Carter on Monday pointing out that the rule would make it harder for commercial firms to work with the Pentagon, by creating a layer of bureaucracy between the innovators and the military.

The Senator wrote that the rule would “create a major disincentive for high-tech commercial firms to venture into the development of innovative new defense capabilities,” because it would require commercial firms “to build entirely new accounting systems just to do business with DOD.” During a speech on Wednesday, Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall defended the department, explaining, “the rule as it’s written is very general. I would like it frankly to be more specific, and I’m working with my contracting people on how to do that.”

Pay to play

The future is in lasers! LaserMax, a Rochester, N.Y.-based company that designs and manufactures laser sights for handguns and rifles, has hired former New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato to lobby Congress on its behalf in the upcoming debates over the 2016 and 2017 defense budgets, according to new lobbying registration documents.

Russia

It’s been a busy week for Russia news. Reuters reports that Russia is building a large base on the border with Ukraine capable of housing up to 3,500 soldiers, a move that suggests the facility is designed to support a lengthy Russian presence in eastern Ukraine. Reporter Anton Zverev found plans for the base in documents posted on a Russian government procurement website. Plans for the facility include a training center and an infirmary as well as amenities such as a swimming pool and a skating rink.

Russian troops are also participating in direct combat operations in Syria to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, according to another Reuters scoop published on Wednesday. The report, attributed to Lebanese sources, says Russian troops are also establishing two bases in the country. U.S. officials also claim that the Russians have sent cargo planes, landing ships for tanks and a small naval infantry force to the country.

A senior U.S. official tells FP’s Dan De Luce that at least four Russian Condor cargo planes and several naval ships have delivered military equipment and hardware in recent days at an airfield near Latakia on the Mediterranean coast and at the Russian naval facility of Tartus to the south, officials said Wednesday. “What it looks like is they are trying to establish some sort of forward operating base that could accommodate air operations,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

NATO’s reaction to reports of Russia’s increased and direct participation in Syria’s civil war is less than enthusiastic. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters he’s “concerned” about the reports and that Russia’s deepening involvement “will not contribute to solving the conflict.”

Jihadi propaganda

al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has dropped a new audiotape, which alternately blasts the Islamic State while calling for unity of purpose with the group. In the release, Zawahiri criticizes the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate for spreading dissension among the ranks of the world’s jihadists, and reiterates the al-Qaeda chief’s refusal to recognize the Islamic State’s claims to leadership of the Muslim world. But he also leaves a door open to cooperation with the group, saying “I would co-operate with them in killing the crusaders and secularists and Shi’ites even though I don’t recognise the legitimacy of their state,” according to a translation in the International Business Times.

While the love of killing is one thing that might bind the two groups together, it doesn’t looks like an alliance is in the cards any time soon, however. In the latest edition of the Islamic State’s English language magazine, Dabiq, the group says it is holding Ole Johan Grimsgaard-Ofstad, a Norwegian citizen, and Fan Jinghui, a Chinese national. The group also takes aim at its rivals in al-Qaeda and the Taliban in light of the recent revelation of the latter’s coverup of former leader Mullah Mohammed Omar’s death. They mock al-Qaeda as “blind sheep” for their oath of allegiance to the Taliban, which “speaks in the name of a dead man” and brand new Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour an “infamous liar.”

Goodbye, Glomar

The Glomar Explorer, the ship behind one of the CIA’s most expansive and ambitious covert operations, is headed for the scrap heap. In the early 1970s, the Agency used the ship to secretly raise wreckage from a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine from the sea floor in the Pacific. The ship had received a new lease on life doing offshore oil exploration, but now is ending its run, having been sold to the Transocean offshore drilling firm for scrap.

Cyber

Wired‘s Kim Zetter reports that researchers at Kaspersky Lab have linked a suspected Russian government cyberespionage group, which has hacked a number of Eastern European embassies and military networks, to hacked satellite Internet connections. The spy group hijacked the satellite connections of legitimate users in order to use them to shield the location of command and control servers, used to send commands to hacked machines and steal data.

Tweet of the Day

RT @DevlinBarrett amazing job posting at Disney for a counterterror/threat analyst overseeing a unit of Disney intel analysts (link)

Think Tanked

The American Enterprise Institute kicks off the release a new report by senior fellow Katherine Zimmerman on the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen with a panel discussion at 3 p.m. today featuring Gen. Jack Keane, Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), and former Yemeni embassy spokesman Mohammed Albasha, moderated by Frederick Kagan.

The report, “A New Model for Defeating al Qaeda in Yemen,” argues that the Obama administration’s “Yemen model,” which outsourced counterterrorism to the Yemeni government, has failed, and the current Saudi-led campaign to oust them is unlikely to succeed. In its place, Zimmerman suggests the U.S. take a more direct role in negotiating a political solution to resolve the Houthi conflict and address local grievances and deploy American ground forces to Yemen in order to combat AQAP forces.

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