National Security

John Allen might not go to Europe after all; Hagel nom takes another, heated step; Cruz: “over the line”?; Afghan withdrawal speedier than what Dunford wanted? And more.

There's a reason why John Allen hasn't been re-nominated for the top job in Europe: he's still thinking it over. On Sunday, Gen. John Allen gave up command of ISAF in Kabul, and he was expected to begin preparing for confirmation hearings for his next assignment as head of European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. But three weeks after he was exonerated in an investigation into potentially improper e-mails between him and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, he has yet to be re-nominated. Pentagon officials insist the Obama administration is not having second thoughts about Allen's fitness for the job -- which could put him in line to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- but rather that they are giving him time to weigh the needs of his family and decide if the job in Europe remains a good move for him, Situation Report is told. "The administration has strong confidence in General Allen, and if he wants to be nominated, he's expected to have that chance," the a senior defense official said. "He also deserves a little while to think about things after over [19] months doing an outstanding job in Kabul." A spokesman for Allen said he could not comment on Allen's nomination.

Allen returned to Washington Sunday evening and met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey at the Pentagon yesterday. Both have encouraged him to take the time he needs. In the end, he may still decide to take the job, officials say.

At 19 months, Allen was the longest-serving ISAF commander, and before that he served as deputy commander of Central Command, in Tampa. The investigation into potential wrongdoing also may have taken a toll. After Allen was nominated for the job in Europe last fall, FBI investigators stumbled on e-mail exchanges between him and Kelley as part of the broader investigation into David Petraeus and biographer Paula Broadwell. Allen's nomination had been put on hold so the investigation could take place, even as top defense officials privately expressed confidence that Allen would be cleared. Allen was exonerated on Jan. 22, and the next day White House spokesman Jay Carney said Allen's nomination was expected to go forward. "We hope the Senate will consider it in a timely manner, and we will press the Senate to do just that." Asked when the White House intended to send the nom to the Senate, Carney reiterated: "We intend for the nomination to proceed."

Welcome to Wednesday's edition of Situation Report. Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com. Sign up for Situation Report here or just shoot me an e-mail and I'll put you on the list. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease.

Obama's announcement on Afghanistan troop withdrawal leaves some discretion to the commander, Joe Dunford. The announcement in last night's State of the Union speech that President Barack Obama would bring 34,000 troops home over the next 12 months amounted to a steeper withdrawal of forces than some had expected. As many as 6,000 are already scheduled to come out in the next few months, through attrition, as smaller, specialized brigades of about 2,000 personnel replace conventional brigade combat teams of as many as 4,000 people. Obama and other administration officials say the drawdown squares with the "preferred option" of Gen. Allen. But the WaPo's Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes this morning that Dunford had wanted a more gradual drawdown this year of about 25,000. "This is steeper than we had hoped for," Rajiv quotes an American official as saying. "Pulling out 34,000 leaves us dangerously low on military personnel while the fledgling Afghan army and police still need our support. It's going to send a clear signal that America's commitment to Afghanistan is going wobbly."

If Chuck Hagel is confirmed as defense secretary this week, he will be headed to a NATO ministerial in Brussels, where he will have to explain the administration's position. Some fear that allies will be frightened by American departure and will accelerate their own drawdowns prematurely.

"The president seems to believe that the end goal is the reduced number of troops in Afghanistan rather than the security situation in Afghanistan," said Rep. Mike Turner, R-OH, chairman of Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, in an interview in his office yesterday with Situation Report. "Until he makes a case for how the troops that will be remaining will be used and how they can ensure a stable and secure Afghanistan, I think people will be skeptical," he said. "It also continues to weaken our ability to advocate to our allies that they should stay and they should make certain their troop levels are there while he's taking steps backward."

A new poll shows 56 percent of Americans say they approve when asked this question: "Do you approve or disapprove of the United States conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia?" versus 26 percent who disapprove. Last summer, 55 percent said they approved, and 34 percent said they disapproved. Today, more are unsure.

Chuck Hagel took another step closer to becoming Pentagon chief. In a two-hour debate marked by sharp disagreement and acid exchanges between members of each party, the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday afternoon voted 14-11, along party lines, to forward Hagel's nomination to the Senate floor. The full Senate could take up the measure as early as this afternoon but more likely on Thursday. Some Republican senators are threatening to require a super-majority of 60 votes to get Hagel through, demanding that he provide more details about his financials, and that the administration provide more information about the crisis in Benghazi. But as the E-Ring's Kevin Baron reports, SASC Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, the Democrat from Michigan, said there won't be any 60-vote requirement. "There will not be a 60-vote tally on the final vote," Levin told Baron. Levin to Baron: "[Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid has already made that clear. He made it clear at the meeting. I told him that I totally concur, that you cannot just make a cabinet position, just agree that on a final vote it's anything other than a majority vote. The 60-vote rule has to do with ending debate. It does not have to do with approving a bill or approving a nominee. There's a lot of confusion about that, understandably so." The water cooler wisdom this morning suggests Hagel will be confirmed in the next day or so. "I still think it gets done Thursday," one individual close to the nomination process told Situation Report.

Has freshman Ted Cruz jumped the shark already? Newly-minted senator Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas, is already making a name for himself on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Yesterday he stunned Democrats by saying that Hagel's confirmation as Pentagon chief "will make military conflict in the next four years substantially more likely." As Baron reports, Cruz argued that a Hagel Pentagon would "encourage" Iran to speed up its nuclear program, which would thus require the U.S. to put troops in "harm's way." Cruz and others said Hagel still won't disclose information about money he has received from other countries that oppose U.S. interests. All of that prompted Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to school Cruz. "Senator Cruz has gone over the line. He basically impugned the patriotism of the nominee...about being cozy with Iran," adding that during Hagel's confirmation hearing, former SASC chairman and retired senator John Warner had "visibly winced" during Cruz's line of questioning. Nelson: "There's a certain degree of comity and civility that this committee has always been known for. And clearly, in the sharpness of difference of opinion, to question, in essence, whether somebody is a fellow traveler with another country, I think, is taking it too far." Cruz replied: "In no way shape or form have I impugned his patriotism... his answers could be entirely truthful... my point is not that he has lied, it is that he refused to answer additional questions."

New ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) reiterated his concerns about Hagel, saying that Iran had essentially supported Hagel's confirmation. "You can't get any cozier than that," he said. That fired up Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) who shot a look at Inhofe, who is considered to be still growing into his job as ranking member. McCaskill: "As much as some people in this room don't like it, [Obama] was elected president of the United States by the American people. And he has selected an honorable veteran, a Republican who has served our country in various capacities, including this body."

Obama signed a new cyber executive order that extends information-sharing programs between the government and private sector. Killer Apps' John Reed writes that it establishes voluntary cyber security "best practices" for critical infrastructure providers, but that the administration plans to push companies to comply.

What do cyber execs really want? In anticipation of the White House move, Killer Apps' John Reed asked some cyber executives what they want to see in the new executive order. Reed in this post: "Almost all agreed that the Obama administration -- and Congress -- need to do something to help protect the nation's banks, transport companies, energy firms, defense contractors, and other companies on which millions of people rely, from a crippling cyber attack." Ashar Aziz, chief technology officer of FireEye, told Reed: "It's a public security and a public safety issue, and it needs some level of government oversight because you cannot let market forces completely go in areas where public safety is involved."

Déjà vu all over again: Is it the GOP versus the generals? Baron writes that in yesterday's sequester hearing with the chiefs on the Hill, the looming threat of sequestration in March shows just how tired the Pentagon's top brass is of defense being used as a pawn by Congress to demand non-defense cuts. Baron writes: "Many Republicans are calling on Congress to keep the sequestration threat on the table to pressure the White House into accepting additional non-defense federal spending cuts. But military leaders long ago lost their patience for the sequester threat. Republicans last spring got into trouble when Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) claimed the generals did not really agree with President Obama's defense budget despite their testimony to the contrary. The Joint Chiefs publicly pushed back, arguing they stood by their testimony, and Ryan walked back his allegation. But the message carried through the presidential election campaign -- the generals were not backing conservatives seeking to keep defense spending at historically high levels."

The North

  • Arms Control Wonk: After the (most recent North Korean) detonation, now what?
  • The Guardian: North Korea defiant over nuclear tests, Obama promises swift action.
  • CBS: North Korea action prompts neighbors to mobilize militaries, scientists. 

The Arab Winter

  • AP: Syria death toll: UN Human Rights chief says casualties "probably approaching" 70k.
  • BBC: Lasting scars of Syria's assault on Baba Amr.
  • VOA: Foreign minister: Libya needs help to secure borders.

Noting

  • Reuters: Iraq sets first Kuwait flights since 1990 invasion. 
  • U.S. News: Special Forces soldier, son of fallen firefighter, among 9/11 hearing witnesses. 
  • Defense News: Obama signals end to post 9/11 era in address.

Hageling

 

National Security

Hagel could be in office by Friday; Carter and company talk sequestration on the Hill; What the North Korean test means; Why Mark Lippert may not leave the Pentagon; The “Iz a-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters” could be the wolf closest to the door and more.

Obama will announce that he will bring home 34,000 troops this year. Multiple news outlets are reporting this morning that President Barack Obama will announce in tonight's State of the Union address that 34,000 troops will return home this year. Depending on the "slope" of their departure, that would leave a smaller fighting force for this spring, summer and fall. And it would leave just 32,000 American troops on the ground in America's longest war by the end of the year.

What Hagel is looking at today: Today's Senate Armed Services Committee vote on Chuck Hagel's nomination for SecDef is expected to be party-line, Situation Report was told this morning. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is then expected to bring the nomination to the full Senate floor no later than Thursday. Although the political theater could continue, that vote, assuming it is ultimately successful, means Panetta's last day could be Friday and Hagel would soon thereafter be wheels-up for NATO ministerial in Brussels next week that has produced some anxiety as the Hagel saga dragged on.

 

Ash Carter to Congress: sequestration could be a tragedy. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, along with top Pentagon officials, to discuss the perils of sequestration. We've heard this story before. But we are, once again, approaching the witching hour, on March 1. Carter's testimony: "What is particularly tragic is that sequestration is not a result of an economic emergency or a recession. It's not because discretionary spending cuts are the answer to our nation's fiscal challenge; do the math. It's not in reaction to a change to a more peaceful world. It's not due to a breakthrough in military technology or a new strategic insight. It's not because paths of revenue growth and entitlement spending have been explored and exhausted. It's purely the collateral damage of political gridlock."

 

"We have long argued that the responsible way to implement reductions in defense spending is to formulate a strategy first and then develop a budget that supports the strategy. If the Department were forced to operate under the mechanistic sequestration rules and the CR for the remainder of the fiscal year, it would achieve precisely the opposite effect by imposing arbitrary budget cuts that then drive changes in national security strategy. This is why I continue to urge Congress, in the strongest possible terms, to avoid sequestration by devising a comprehensive and balanced deficit reduction package that both the House and Senate can pass and that the President can sign."

Dempsey, to Congress: In his opening statement to the SASC this morning, Gen. Martin Dempsey pleads for members of Congress to "resist kicking this can further down the road." Dempsey sounded both serious and condescending, asking for budget certainty while reminding the Senate -- again -- that sequestration

would "break faith" with troops and "reduce our options and increase our risk." Dempsey: "Now, we are only days away from making that risk a reality. We can do better."

Welcome to Tuesday's edition of Situation Report, where we would never resign in a historic move. Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com. Sign up for Situation Report here or just shoot me an e-mail and I'll put you on the list. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease.

North Korea says it conducted a third nuclear test. The North announced through its news agency that it had indeed conducted another test, using a "miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force" than had been tested before. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a statement overnight, saying: "The U.S. Intelligence Community assesses that North Korea probably conducted an underground nuclear explosion in the vicinity of P'unggye on February 12, 2013. The explosion yield was approximately several kilotons. Analysis of the event continues."

One expert tells Situation Report that two key questions are whether North Korean used uranium, as opposed to plutonium, in the test and whether it has succeeded in miniaturizing a weapon design that would enable it to put a warhead on a missile. "While there are other hurdles for the Kim Jong-eun regime along this path, the troubling phenomenon is that it's moving forward," MIT's John Park told Situation Report this morning. He says that if the U.S. is able to determine that North Korea tested a uranium device this time around, "the North Korean nuclear imbroglio will have mutated into a more complex and dangerous one. Rather than hoarding a dwindling stockpile of weapons grade plutonium, the North Koreans could have amassed a substantial quantity of highly enriched uranium by operating a hard-to-detect uranium enrichment program. That translates into more nuclear warheads," he said, adding that a successful test raises the question of what foreign assistance the North received. "Iran tops that list," he said.

Obama was expected to promote further reductions to the American nuclear arsenal in tonight's State of the Union address. Now, it's unclear if talk of downsizing would go over very well. Earlier this morning, the White House released a statement from Obama, saying the nuclear test was a "highly provocative act" that "undermines regional stability." And, he said, it represents a threat to national security. Given that, White House speechwriters may be scrambling to figure out how to convey Obama's hope to reduce the number of America's nukes

A rift in Republican ranks over Hagel. While the SASC is expected to vote on Hagel's nomination this morning, the controversial nom is testing the leadership of the committee's new ranking member, Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Republican from Oklahoma, who replaced Sen. John McCain. Even as other Republicans step out of the way to allow Hagel's nomination to go forward, Inhofe remains steadfastly against it. He is insisting that if Hagel can't get 60 votes, his nomination should not go forward. Hagel has the votes to win a majority, but he may not have enough to overcome a filibuster. Inhofe was quoted by the LAT as saying he, Inhofe, is entitled to 60 votes: "I feel a responsibility, because of all the things we've been talking about, to do what I can to see that Chuck Hagel is not confirmed as secretary of Defense." But yesterday McCain seemed resigned to allowing Hagel's nom to move forward. He issued a statement saying that, while he still shares his Republican colleagues' many concerns about Hagel, he can no longer justify standing in the way. He cited the "integrity" of the nomination process and the importance of handling noms in a "fair and appropriate manner that is mindful" of the importance of national security positions. McCain even hinted he might vote for Hagel after all. "With this in mind, I have examined the information and responses to Members' questions that Senator Hagel has provided to the Committee, and I believe that he has fulfilled the rigorous requirements that the Committee demands of every presidential nominee to be secretary of Defense." McCain later told reporters  yesterday: "Someday, we will have a Republican president. Someday, we may even have a majority in the United States Senate. It sets, I think, a wrong precedent."From the Department of Random Appearances: A picture of Panetta, in younger days, on the wall of the National Aquarium. Right next to Betty White. Flournoy and Campbell are joining the CNAS board of directors. The Cable's Josh Rogin reports that Michele Flournoy and Kurt Campbell will join the board of the Center for a New American Security -- the think tank they founded in 2008 -- with Campbell becoming chairman. Campbell, known as the chief architect of Obama's "Asia Pivot," left his position as assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs on Friday. The smart money to replace Campbell at State, Rogin writes, is on National Security Staff Senior Director for Asia Danny Russel. Another possibility, says Rogin: Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Affairs Mark Lippert, who is close to President Obama. Lippert "is a real possibility for the job and is said to want to move over to State," Rogin writes. But a defense official tells Situation Report: "Mark is fully committed to continuing his role in a Hagel Pentagon. Having transformed Asia Pacific Security Affairs during the Panetta years, he has become a crucial regional player and Mark's 110% focused on growing defense investments in the rebalance."

The threat of cyber-warfare may come in the form of gangs. A cyber militia group likely backed by Iran, Iz a-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters, could pose a real threat to the U.S. and to its economy, writes Rich Andres on FP: "In September of last year, this group announced that it had launched an attack on a collection of U.S. banks in retaliation for the ‘Innocence of the Muslims' (the video that ignited violent protests across the Middle East on September 11, 2012). Al-Qassam's attack is one of the largest and most persistent distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks on record, dwarfing the 2007 Russian cyber-militia attack that crippled Estonia. Authorities have described al-Qassam's capabilities as military-grade and speculated about the organization's ability to disrupt the already ailing U.S. economy." A new National Intelligence Estimate, due out soon, may or may not finger Al-Qassam. But it's likely that the kind of attacks of which the group is capable will be featured prominently in the estimate since national security types rightly worry about the real perils of cyber attacks. And cyber attacks, the source of which can be very hard to attribute, are the quintessential form of warfare in an age of asymmetric battles. Andres: "Over the last decade, both China and Russia have nurtured militias dedicated to crime. In Russia's case, the organizations are tied to mafias loosely connected to the government through a web of corruption, graft, and indirect and intermittent ties to military and intelligence agencies. Russia's cyber-mafia operations allow organizations to coordinate criminal activity and exploit cyber-wealth around the globe in operations worth billions of dollars each year. The cost to the state is minimal, generally little more than allowing law enforcement to turn a blind eye to theft involving victims outside the country, while harshly punishing criminals that attack Russian political targets. The overall effect is to increase Russia's GNP and to provide a cloud of cyberattacks emanating from Russia and Eastern Europe large enough to obscure and create plausible deniability for state-launched cyber operations. For instance, while a number of U.S. officials, including President Obama, have denounced countries for planting logic bombs in U.S. critical infrastructure that could knock it offline, the existence of massive criminal cyber operations makes it difficult to blame Russia -- even for war-like acts like taking down an electric grid."

Noting

  • Arms Control Wonk:  Obama in situ for SOTU.
  • CNN: World leaders react to North Korea's test.
  • AP: Timeline on North Korea's nuclear pursuits.
  • AP: Rebels capture airbase in northern Syria.  
  • USIP: The Institute's ongoing series on "sleeper risks."  
  • Stripes: Esquire article wrongly says bin Laden shooter denied healthcare.
  • Danger Room: Spec Ops Command isn't sweating bin Laden shooter's mag profile.