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SitRep: Lawmakers Approve $700B Defense Budget, but No Plan to Vote on It

Iran and Saudi talking tough, McCain pushes back on Trump pick who helped on torture memos

By , a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2018.
USS Nimitz , USS Kitty Hawk. and USS John C. Stennis near Guam, August 14, 2007. (U.S. Navy)
USS Nimitz , USS Kitty Hawk. and USS John C. Stennis near Guam, August 14, 2007. (U.S. Navy)
USS Nimitz , USS Kitty Hawk. and USS John C. Stennis near Guam, August 14, 2007. (U.S. Navy)



By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Budget, no budget. Members of Congress on Wednesday hammered out an agreement on a $700 billion 2018 defense funding bill that would add about 20,000 troops, buy dozens more aircraft, and add five more warships than the White House originally requested.

The plan — including $634 billion in base spending — blows past congressionally-mandated budget caps by $85 billion, making its final passage a matter of debate. The negotiators also approved an extra-budgetary $65.7 billion for combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, various places in Africa, and elsewhere.

The full House and Senate still need to vote on the bill (the fiscal year began on Oct. 1), and there is some talk that given other priorities, like a new tax plan, Congress could kick the can down the road until next year.

No Space Corps. The negotiators scrapped plans to establish a new Space Corps, going instead with changes in existing Air Force space programs. The White House and Pentagon had opposed the idea, but the Trump administration is working on a new national plan for space.

A National Security Council spokesperson told FP that the Trump administration is developing a “Space Strategic Framework” that would “deter and when necessary defeat adversary space and counterspace threats that are hostile to the national interests of the United States and our allies,” and partner with the commercial sector on new technologies.

Big three. For the first time in over a decade, three U.S. aircraft carriers are operating together in the Western Pacific, kicking off a round of exercises Nov. 11-14 off the Korean coast.

“It is a rare opportunity to train with two aircraft carriers together, and even rarer to be able to train with three,” Admiral Scott Swift, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, said in a statement. “This exercise in the Western Pacific is a strong testament to the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s unique ability and ironclad commitment to the continued security and stability of the region,” Swift said.

Carrier selfie. The exercise gave the Navy the opportunity for a rare triple carrier strike group selfie featuring the USS Ronald Reagan, USS Nimitz, and USS Theodore Roosevelt.

Turkey wants U.S. out of Syria. Turkish officials are in Washington this week in an another attempt to apply pressure on Washington to give up its support for the Kurds in northern Syria. American officials are unlikely to pull their support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, and Kurdish militias, until the Islamic State is wiped out as a major force in Syria, however, despite Turkish objections.

Saudi and Iran going back and forth. Saudi warplanes are stepping up attacks on Houthi positions in Yemen in retaliation for the missile attack over the weekend that targeted the Saudi capital. The Saudi government has blamed Iran for supplying the Houthis with the missile capabilities, which Tehran has denied. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, however, has given a thumbs up to the missile attack on Riyadh, saying “you stop the bombardment first and see if the Yemenis would not do the same.”

Saudi will open up Yemeni ports. The Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Houthis has allowed work to resume at the southern port of Aden, two days after ordering a nationwide stoppage, an official there said on Wednesday.

Gates supports DACA. In an op-ed in the NYT, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates comes out in support of a Pentagon program that allows non-citizens to join the armed forces, and gives them a path to citizenship. The program is under fire from the Trump administration.

“During the nearly five years that I was secretary of defense, 2,621 immigrants serving in the United States military became naturalized citizens while deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. More than 100 immigrant troops have made the supreme sacrifice in combat during those wars. In that same period, from 2006 to 2011, a total of 45,700 immigrants who wore the uniform of the American military all across the world became American citizens,” Gates writes.

“All of those undocumented immigrants, through their willingness to shed blood to protect the rest of us, have earned the right to call themselves ‘American citizen.’ Let us honor them this Veterans Day. But let’s also give them a pathway to citizenship. Our military will be the better for it. So will the country.”

Torture. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was the lone GOP senator to vote against confirming Steven Engel to lead the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel this week, citing his role in the controversial torture memos produced under the George W. Bush administration. American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter in June expressing concerns over Engel’s “troubling and incomplete answers” over his involvement.

“Mr. Engel reviewed and commented on this memo, which attempted to justify interrogation techniques that violate the Geneva Conventions and stain our national honor,” McCain said in a statement to Politico on Wednesday. “I cannot in good conscience vote for any nominee who in any way has supported the use of enhanced interrogation.”

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Breaking bad. North Korean diplomats in Pakistan were running an illegal booze smuggling operation out of an apartment until corrupt Pakistani cops broke into the home and stole around $150,000 worth of liquor. Pakistani sources tell Reuters that North Korean embassy personnel have likely been using the illicit alcohol trade in the country to raise money for some time, all with a courteous blind eye from the Pakistani government despite repeated U.S. protests about the operation.

Blast from the past. Former Vice President Dick Cheney counseled against a military option in North Korea way back when he was secretary of defense in 1991. Declassified documents obtained by the National Security Archive show Cheney telling U.S. allies that Washington and its friends “should not consider ‘military measures,’ since such discussion could jeopardize our initial diplomatic strategy” to halt the early growth of the North’s nuclear weapons program.

Watch out, Fredo. Former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is sweating the possibility that Special Counsel Robert Mueller could put Flynn’s outspoken, conspiracy theorist son, Michael Flynn Jr, in jail over a failure to register as a foreign agent. Investigators from Mueller’s office have been asking questions about Flynn Jr’s work on behalf of foreign clients while at his father’s consulting company.

Biometrics. U.S. special operations troops in Syria have equipped Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with devices to collect biometric data on Islamic State fighters captured after the fall of the caliphate and its capital in Raqqa. The move was an attempt to put a band-aid on the problem caused when local council and tribal officials pressured SDF troops to let go Islamic State fighters and collaborators captured in the effort to liberate Raqqa. SDF forces released the captives, but collected biometric data to enable tracking later on.

Royal rumble. Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman is putting further pressure on his former rival for the throne in Riyadh, freezing the bank accounts of former Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef amid a crackdown against senior Saudi officials which appears aimed at consolidating power for the Saudi heir apparent.

More dual citizens arrested. Iran has arrested at least 30 dual citizens of the Islamic Republic and European, double the number of arrests reported publicly thus far, according to a Reuters exclusive. Sources in Iran say the arrests are aimed at collecting leverage for use in international negotiations and to pressure foreign companies against investing in competitors to businesses owned by the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.   

Favors for Moammar. The Guardian takes a long look at the covert relationship between British intelligence and Moammar Gadhafi’s secret services before the Libyan uprising. Among the favors carried out for Gadhafi, the CIA and MI6 helped kidnap two Libyan dissidents based in Hong Kong and Thailand and wanted by the Gadhafi regime. The men were flown from Asia back to Libya for torture and interrogation.

Hardcore. Take a moment to appreciate the grit and courage of this Afghan news anchor, who went right back to live broadcasting, bandages and all, after an Islamic State terrorist attack attempted to knock his network Shamshad TV off the air.

Son of Warthog. After talking a good game about finding a close air support platform to succeed the beloved A-10 Warthog, Congress is finally backing up its rhetoric with dollars, setting aside $400 million in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. The money is still dependent on an Air Force decision to invest in a new light attack plane but Senate Armed Services chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) says “the Air Force should procure 300 low-cost, light-attack fighters that would require minimal work to develop.”

280. The Pentagon’s official Twitter account got a little bit carried away in the excitement over the social media site’s increase in characters on Wednesday.


Paul McLeary was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2018.

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