Situation Report: Congress investigating Centcom; terror in Mali; Pentagon worried about data manipulation; SecDef’s personnel problem; new rules for Syria fight?; Senate moves on DoD nominations; and lots more
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Centcom under investigation. Several powerful lawmakers are launching an investigation into whether senior military officials at the U.S. Central Command have manipulated intelligence assessments of the war in Afghanistan, FP’s Dan De Luce reports in an exclusive story. The investigation “adds a new dimension to the politically explosive scandal ...
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
Centcom under investigation. Several powerful lawmakers are launching an investigation into whether senior military officials at the U.S. Central Command have manipulated intelligence assessments of the war in Afghanistan, FP’s Dan De Luce reports in an exclusive story. The investigation “adds a new dimension to the politically explosive scandal hanging over the military’s Central Command, where top officers stand accused of deliberately skewing their analysis of the campaign against the Islamic State to exaggerate successes while downplaying serious setbacks,” De Luce writes.
In particular, lawmakers are expected to pose tough questions to Maj. Gen. Steven Grove, head of intelligence at Centcom since June 2014, who has come under intense scrutiny since the allegations first came to light. One former intel official told De Luce that the investigation is coming after years of tension between civilian spies and military officials running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and “a lot of the analysts at Centcom feel the high command has been sugarcoating their assessments.”
Terror in Mali. In a chilling reminder of the terror attacks in Paris last week and Mumbai in 2008, several gunmen seized control of a Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali on Friday that is said to be popular among foreigners, taking as many as 170 hostages. The Malian military is claiming that 10 gunmen stormed the hotel shouting “Allahu Akbar,” before opening fire. There have also been reports of Chinese and French hostages. Much of northern Mali came under the control of Islamist militants in 2012, but a French offensive pushed them out a year later. The problem hasn’t gone away, however, as Islamist insurgents have continued to attack U.N. peacekeepers and Malian forces. The White House said early Friday morning that National Security Advisor Susan Rice has already briefed President Barack Obama on the incident while he is traveling in Malaysia.
This is not the data you’re looking for. The next big threat keeping U.S. government officials up at night isn’t having hackers steal information, but having them alter information in government and financial systems without users realizing what they’re looking at. FP’s Elias Groll has the rundown on what government officials increasingly say are the kinds of attacks that threaten “military operations, key infrastructure, and broad swaths of corporate America. It’s the kind of attack they say would be difficult to detect and capable of seriously damaging public trust in the most basic aspects of both military systems” and the broader economy.
Rough landing. It looks like Ash Carter’s much-touted “Force of the Future” initiative to reform how the Pentagon recruits, retains, and compensates top talent isn’t receiving the welcome that he had hoped. Well respected defense budget analyst Todd Harrison from the Center for Strategic and International Studies writes that the once ambitious plan will be “a disappointment to many observers because expectations—fed over recent months by senior DoD officials—had been for a much broader and substantive set of proposals.” But those proposals “were effectively killed by senior military leaders this fall,” who see little wrong with the current system. For a refresher on what’s at stake, go back and take another look at Dan De Luce’s excellent profile of Carter in FP that ran last month.
Same war, new fight? Just days after U.S. warplanes destroyed 116 oil tankers being used by the Islamic State to ferry smuggled oil out of Syria — the first such operation in the year-long air war — Defense Secretary Ash Carter admitted that the rules of engagement in the fight might have to change. “We’re prepared to do that,” he said on Thursday. “We’re prepared to change rules of engagement; we’ve changed tactics, as we just did in the case of the fuel trucks.” U.S. defense officials have said that in order to avoid civilian casualties in the strike on the convoy, American warplanes first buzzed the parked trucks at low altitude, then dropped leaflets to the drivers warning them to run. So far, the strike has produced no reports of civilian casualties from Syrian human rights and monitoring groups. The admission of possible changes in tactics comes as Russian and French aircraft have started hitting ISIS targets in and around the city of Raqqa.
Free falling. One day shy of 30 years since his Nov. 21, 1985 arrest for passing sensitive U.S. military secrets to Israel, convicted spy Jonathan Pollard will walk out of a federal prison in North Carolina a free man on Friday, blinking into an uncertain future. Pollard’s lawyers and supporters have for years pushed the government to bend the rules of his parole — which forbid him from traveling outside of the country for five years — to allow him to move to Israel to be with his wife. But President Barack Obama has so far shown little interest in granting their wishes, FP’s Paul McLeary writes, rejecting the personal entreaties of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the subject during his recent visit to Washington.
Netanyahu tweeted his congratulations to Pollard on his release Friday morning, and said in a statement, “the people of Israel welcome the release of Jonathan Pollard. After three long and difficult decades, Jonathan has been reunited with his family. May this Sabbath bring him much joy and peace.”
The Hill to the Pentagon. There is finally some movement in getting a clutch of 14 key civilian Defense Department offices filled, after months of vacancies. The Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday considered four of those appointments, some of which have languished for as long as 10 months without a hearing. The lag had nothing to do with politics or sending a message to the president, one senate staffer told SitRep, but instead came as a result of a constant stream of action, from the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, to working on the defense budget. But with the defense policy bill at least taken care of, the staffer said, “Senator McCain is moving to consider these [nominations] as quickly as we can.”
The folks who got their hearing on Thursday were: Alissa Starzak, nominated in January to be General Counsel of the Army, along with three others nominated in March. They include, Franklin Parker to be Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs; John Conger to be Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller); and Stephen Welby to be Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.
Good morning all, and thanks for showing up yet again this morning. Hope this is helpful as we power through another week of NatSec news from around the globe. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along! Best way is to send them to email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
The AP provides more background on Hasna Aitboulahcen, the woman who blew herself up in with a suicide vest in Paris during Wednesday’s police raid looking for the planner of the Paris attacks. Aitboulahcen drank a fair amount, was not known to neighbors as a regular attendant at religious services and was under surveillance in connection with a drug trafficking case.
France’s Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve is calling on the European Union (EU) to do a better job of coordinating security to combat the terrorist threat in the wake of revelations that the Paris attackers evaded the gaze of a number of European security services. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, whom authorities believe planned the attacks, managed to slip into Europe from Syria despite having open European and international arrest warrants against him. Cazeneuve called on EU members to tighten border security and create a passenger information register to share information across European countries, according to the Guardian.
A Syrian man shot and killed a Tunisian judge from the Islamic State’s sharia court in Manbi, Syria in revenge for sentencing three of his family members to death by beheading — a rare flicker of dissent against the jihadist group’s rule. The Daily Telegraph reports that residents of Manbi subsequently launched a protest of the group’s rule, yelling “Out, out, out – Isil get out” until fighters from the Islamic State opened fire on them.
IHS Jane’s tallies up the gains and losses of the Syrian government following the arrival of Russian jets and additional Iranian troops this fall and find they’ve netted the Assad regime a net total of 0.4 percent more territory. Forces aligned with the Assad regime gained 240 square kilometers of ground, notably around Aleppo, but have lost 120 square kilometers, including in parts of Hama near the Damascus-Homs highway.
The Islamic State
The AP reports that the Islamic State is pouring resources into a dedicated chemical weapons development program. Iraqi intelligence officials say the group has brought in scientists from Saddam Hussein’s former chemical weapons program as well as experts from Chechnya and Southeast Asia to assist in the project. Evidence points to the Islamic State’s use of mustard agents in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iraq and Iraqi officials claim the group is trying to expand its arsenal of chemical weapons, but U.S. officials doubt that the Islamic State has the capability to make nerve agents.
Iraq’s central government and the sprawling network of mostly Shia militias that sprang up in the wake of the Islamic State’s seizure of Mosul in 2014, known as Hashd al-Shaabi, are on a political collision course with Baghdad over funding issues. Declining oil revenue has put the squeeze on Iraq’s budget and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has moved to cut funding for 50,000 Hashd fighters who were expected to register but never did; Hashd advocates want the money allocated regardless.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels have freed three Americans including two employees of the United Nations whom the rebels held prisoner. The Americans arrived safely in Muscat, Oman transported by an aircraft from the Royal Air Force of Oman. Houthi sources told Al-Jazeera that the group detained two Americans on suspicion of espionage, although it’s unclear if that statement applied to the just-released prisoners. The Houthis have in the past detained other Americans as suspected spies.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work says he’s still looking to get a handle on Canada’s position on whether it will purchase the F-35 as it previously intended, Reuters reports. The Canadian government signaled it may backpedal on its purchases of the stealth jet following the recent election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trudeau’s party has said they’d like to revisit the competition that led to the selection of the F-35, hinting that they’d welcome a bid for the cheaper Boeing F/A-18E/F fighter jets.
The U.S. government said it shut down a program which collected metadata on Americans’ email in December 2011 after documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed the program in 2013. But new documents obtained by the New York Times in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit show that claim is misleading. The U.S. continued to gather the same data by collecting it abroad, outside the reach of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s remit.
Tweet of the day
Anyone wanna haul nearly a hundred tons of ammo to Jordan? As the U.S. is looking to arm and equip a Syrian rebel force that can take on the Islamic State, IHS Jane’s Middle East & Africa editor Jeremy Binnie catches a recent U.S. government contract awarded to TransAtlantic Lines to sail 98 tons of ammo from Romania to Jordan for $900,000.
RT @JeremyBinnie US looking for ship to carry 98 tonnes of ammo from Romania to Jordan – for Syrian rebels? fbo.gov/index?s=opport…
More from Foreign Policy
Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?
The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.
Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World
It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.
It’s a New Great Game. Again.
Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing
The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.