National Security

Trouble over Syria holds Dempsey up and his and McCain’s exchange; How geese will fix the AF’s fuel bill; What happens if Snowden’s computer has nothing else on it?; Not merry: Marine Col. Christmas, relieved; Ash Carter in jeans; And a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

Over Syria, Dempsey talked himself into a second visit to the Hill. Yesterday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, a reappointment hearing for the second term for both Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey and Vice-chief Adm. Sandy Winnefeld was all supposed to be so pro forma. Then Sen. John McCain got into a heated exchange with Dempsey over Syria and McCain got feisty quickly and decided to hold up the reappointment.  Now Dempsey will have to return to the Hill to explain the administration's position on intervention in Syria and expand on possible scenarios for military action - and the cost of doing so. Here's part of the exchange:

McCain: "Do you believe the continued costs and risks of our inaction in Syria are now worse for our national security interests than the costs and risks associated with limited military action? ... I'd like to know an answer rather than a filibuster. I have six minutes and 10 seconds."

Dempsey: "I assure you, Senator, I won't filibuster. This is a regional issue, so I would say that the issue in Syria is at -- we are at greater risk because of the emergence of violent extremist organizations, as is Iraq."

McCain: "You're not answering the question, General."

Dempsey: "Yes, sir."

McCain: "Do you believe the continued costs and risks of our inaction in Syria are now worse for our national security interests than the costs and risks associated with limited military action?"

Dempsey:  "With all due respect, Senator, you're asking me to agree that we've been inactive, and we have not been inactive."

McCain: "We have not been inactive."

Dempsey: "That's correct."

McCain: "This again gives validity to my concern, because obviously we may have not been inactive, but any observer knows that Bashar Assad is prevailing on the battlefield. A hundred thousand people have been killed. Hezbollah is there. Russians are there. And the situation is much more dire than it was two years ago, when you and Admiral Winnefeld came to office. And so your answer is that we haven't been inactive."

Dempsey: "It's correct. We haven't used direct military strengths, but we haven't been inactive." Read the rest of the exchange, below.

Meanwhile, a Syrian refugee says she's "not satisfied with the American answers" after John Kerry toured her refugee camp in Jordan yesterday. NYT's Michael Gordon: "But as frustrated Syrian refugees appealed for Western military intervention to halt the attacks by the Syrian government's forces, Mr. Kerry's visit soon became a graphic illustration of the limits of the Obama administration's policy. ‘We are not satisfied with the American answers,' said Jamalat Abdulraouf al-Hariri, 43, after her meeting with Mr. Kerry. ‘We just need an action,' she added, noting that the refugees wanted the United States to establish a no-fly zone or a protected area for civilians inside Syria. ‘We always hear words.'" Read the rest here.

Also, the 82nd Airborne is training for chemical weapons contingencies and commander Mick Nicholson used the ‘S' word - Syria.  CBS News, at Fort Bragg: "About 1,500 paratroopers dropped out of the night sky from an altitude of just 800 feet, bringing with them nearly 190,000 pounds of equipment. They were the first of some 4,000 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division parachuting into an exercise designed in part to prepare for the worst in Syria. After seizing an airfield in the woods of North Carolina, they launched a helicopter assault on a compound where, for purposes of this exercise, chemical agents were believed to be stored. Their mission: get to the chemicals before they fall into the hands of terrorists who would use them against Americans. 82nd Airborne Commander Maj. Gen. John Nicholson: "As we look at the evolving situation -- Syria and other places around the world -- we're preparing to deal with the reality of securing chemical weapons." CBS' David Martin and producer Mary Walsh's report, here.

Welcome to Friday's edition of Situation Report. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or a tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease. Please follow us @glubold. And remember, if you see something, say something -- to Situation Report.

When it comes to trimming fuel bills, what's good for the goose is good for the Air Force's gander, apparently. The Air Force is seriously considering flying planes in formation like geese in order to potentially trim hundreds of millions of dollars off its staggeringly high fuel bill. The idea has been studied and tested. But it may take as much as three years to operationalize the concept, Air Force officials told Situation Report. Technically, the process is known as "vortex surfing." And it is used to great effect today by bike and car racers who capture the energy of the vehicle zooming in front of it, capitalizing, literally, on the vortex created by the lead racer. The Air Force figures that flying its planes in such a way could help to trim up to 20 percent off each trailing plane's fuel burn rate - or maybe about 10 percent or more off the Air Force's total fuel bill which in 2012 topped $9 billion-with-a-B.

Here's how it works: A cargo aircraft headed from the U.S. to Ramstein, Germany, say, joins with another jet headed in the same direction. One flies in the lead, and the other, the trail bird, assumes a position as much as 6,000-7,000 feet behind it, taking advantage of its tail wind and using far less energy. Last week, the Air Force did its first real test of vortex surfing, flying two jets from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii and back again, from July 9-11. Flying this way on the way home cut fuel consumption by as much as 7 percent on the way to Hawaii, according to Air Force officials. The Air Force's Air Mobility Command's Chief Scientist Donald Erbschloe, to Situation Report: "I think initially we would be satisfied with savings of up to $10 million annually." Read the rest of our story, here.

Feel like you need to send a message? Buy that furlough T-shirt, from "I heart furloughs" to "Go F yourself," here.

What happens if Snowden's computer contains no more secrets? FP's own Noah Shachtman: In a letter to a former senator released this week, NSA leaker Edward Snowden swore that there is no way the Russian government can get any sensitive information from him -- despite the fact that he has been camped out in the Moscow airport for the past few weeks, carrying four laptops that he had supposedly used to lift the NSA's secrets. ‘No intelligence service -- not even our own -- has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect,' Snowden wrote. At first glance, the message seems like more braggadocio from a man who has appeared to lay it on thick before. But there's another possibility: that Snowden is telling the truth. That there really is no way for him to give up any more information, other than the stuff in his head. Snowden may have left the United States with "four computers that enabled him to gain access to some of the U.S. government's most highly-classified secrets," as the Guardian put it. But he may not have those secrets now. The laptops could very well be empty -- and the secrets could be somewhere else... It's widely assumed in both the business and the intelligence communities that any electronics brought into Moscow (or Hong Kong, for that matter) are going to be compromised by the country's spy agency. Perhaps he is underestimating the technical prowess of the Russian security services; perhaps he is overestimating his own." Read the rest, here. Snowden's Revenge: Maybe the Pentagon will stop sharing data to stop the leaks. Our own John Reed reports on DepSecDef Ash Carter's remarks from the Aspen Security Conference: "The Defense Department has begun requiring its geeks to operate in pairs when accessing highly classified information in order to stop the next massive leak. The next step might be restricting those systems administrators from seeing some sensitive data. The step after that? Possibly rolling back at least some of the military and intelligence community's measures to swap information -- a reversal of one of the national security state's key reforms after 9/11. The damage control procedures are being put in place anywhere in DOD where there are ‘systems administrators with elevated access' to highly classified intelligence, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Thursday. These two-person rules along with procedures calling for increased compartmentalization of sensitive intelligence will be put in place at the ‘huge repositories where we have all this stuff,' added Carter, referring to massive amounts of classified intelligence materials being stored on DOD servers." Read the rest here.

Speaking of Aspen: We're told by our man in Aspen that it's been very rainy but still very beautiful. DC Scene - in Aspen: Keith Alexander, Bill McCraven (sipping a big energy drink at one point), Eric Olson, Mark Welsh, Mike Hayden, Mike Chertoff, Matt Olsen, Mike Leiter, Ash Carter (in jeans, at one point), John Allen, Carter Ham, Denny Blair, Reuters' Phil Stewart, AP's Kim Dozier, WSJ's Siobhan Gorman, NYT's David Sanger, among many others.

How did a CIA officer wanted for kidnapping in Italy wind up arrested in Panama? Good question, glad you asked. FP's Dana Stuster: "On Wednesday, the story of Robert Seldon Lady, a former CIA station chief in Milan, Italy, took another improbable turn when he was arrested in Panama near the Costa Rican border. Lady has been living quietly in the United States since fleeing an Italian investigation that resulted in him and 22 other Americans being convicted in absentia for their roles in the 2003 abduction of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a radical cleric the CIA believed was helping recruit jihadists to fight in Iraq. Nasr, who also went by Abu Omar, was pulled off a Milanese street during a daily noon-time walk. He was thrown into the back of a van, driven to Aviano Air Base, near Venice, and then flown to Egypt, where he was interrogated and tortured. The practice of seizing suspected terrorists and forcibly removing them to a third-party state for interrogation is often known as extraordinary rendition; in the eyes of the Italian judicial system, though, Nasr's abduction was kidnapping." More here.

One of the Pentagon's hardest jobs: Personnel. The job of Pentagon personnel chief, formally known as the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, has many ghosts. It's thought to be a tough job and it's been hard to keep filled in recent years. Jessica Wright has been considered to be doing a decent job in an acting capacity - now she may have it permanently. The White House announced yesterday its intention to nominate Wright for the job.

Senate Dems took aim at a story that said the Pentagon was lobbying for legislation they wanted on sexual assault. This week, Politico did a piece on the behind-the-scenes deal making as the Defense Department attempts to stave off a change to addressing sexual assault crimes by removing authority from commanders. But the story is not true, according to Sens. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Claire McCaskill, who was also quoted in the article. McCaskill, yesterday: "But I do want to say, as I close this questioning, that anybody who characterizes me as someone who is protecting the Pentagon, that somehow I'm in cahoots with the Pentagon trying to hurt sexual assault victims or -- I -- but -- with all due respect to you guys -- I think you're terrific. But there is nobody who will be further in front of the line to kick you until you're senseless if we don't get this problem under control. And I -- this is not victims versus the Pentagon." Politico's story on Levin's objection to the article, here. Politico's original story on back room deals on sexual assault, here. 

Kerry loves the "coup" in Egypt that Hagel tried to stop. The Cable's John Hudson: "The State Department has a new defense of Egypt's military coup: It may have prevented a civil war. It's an odd argument, considering top officials of the American government were trying to talk Cairo's generals out of deposing President Mohamed Morsy just before the coup went down. And it's another sign that the Obama administration's policy towards Egypt is something less than coherent. On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Amman he wasn't going to "rush to judgment" on Morsy's ouster. "What complicates it, obviously, is that you had an extraordinary situation in Egypt of life and death, of the potential of civil war and enormous violence, and you now have a constitutional process proceeding forward very rapidly," he added. ‘So we have to measure all of those facts against the law, and that's exactly what we will do.' The idea that the coup carried out by Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi may have been justified is supported by many liberal Egyptians and some analysts in the U.S., but it was not the message conveyed to Egypt's military by key officials in the Obama administration, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey." Read the rest here.

"Lost confidence" in the 22nd MEU's Col. Christmas. Per Marine Corps Times' Dan Lamothe: "The commander of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit was removed from his position on Wednesday, less than a week after the force's subordinate units were first brought together to deploy in 2014, Marine officials said. Col. James Christmas was relieved of command by Maj. Gen. Raymond Fox, the commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., after the general lost confidence in Christmas' ability to continue commanding the Marines and sailors of the 22nd MEU," according to a Marine spokeswoman. No additional explanation was given for the decision. But Marine spokeswoman Capt. Binford Strickland said: "The II Marine Expeditionary Force is not a zero-defect organization, and the relief of a commander is never an easy decision... However, the commanding general decided this action was in the best interest of the Marines and sailors of the 22nd MEU and the Marine Corps.'" Read the rest here.

Here's the rest of the exchange between McCain and Dempsey, including a bit about his role as Chairman:

Dempsey (repeated from above for continuity's sake): "It's correct. We haven't used direct military strengths, but we haven't been inactive."

McCain: "I'll ask you -- will ask you -- I will ask you for the third time."
Dempsey: "Yes, sir."

McCain: "Do you believe that we should take military action, rather -- which is -- which is more -- has greater risk, our continued limited action or significant action, such as the establishment of a no-fly zone and arming the rebels with the weapons they need? Which they haven't been getting, General, I know. I know, perhaps better than you, because I've been there. And which do you think is a greater cost, the action that we're taking now, which is -- has had no effect on the battlefield equation, or doing nothing?"

Dempsey: "Senator, I am in favor of building a moderate opposition and supporting it. The question whether to support it with direct kinetic strikes is a president for a -- is a decision for our elected officials, not for the senior military leader of the nation."

McCain: "This goes back to my concern about your role as chairman of the Joint Chiefs."

Dempsey: "I understand."

McCain: "Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is supposed to provide the best advice he can as far as our world -- national security is concerned. That's why you are the sole military adviser. You testified this February you had advised the president to arm vetted units of the Syrian opposition. In April you testified you no longer supported the position. Now we read in published reports that the administration has decided to arm the Syrian opposition units. How do we account for those pirouettes?"

Dempsey: "I wouldn't accept the term "pirouettes" here. I would accept the term that we have adapted our approach based on what we know of the opposition. And if you recall, in the beginning of the year, there was a period where it was pretty evident that the extremist groups were prevailing inside the opposition. So I have not been wavering, because -"

McCain: "Then is your position that the extremist groups are prevailing inside the opposition?"

Dempsey: "In -- you asked me about February. In February I had that concern."

McCain: "So that's your answer to why in February you advised the president to arm them, in April you said that we shouldn't, and then now obviously we are arming the rebels -- support that policy?"

Dempsey: "I support the building of a moderate opposition, and including building its military capability."

McCain: "Here's an example of my concern. Quote, you told CNN on July 8th, "The war in Syria is not a simple matter of stopping the fight by the introduction of any particular U.S. capability." Quote, ‘It seems to me that we need to understand what the peace will look like before we start the war.' The war has been going on, General Dempsey, to over a hundred thousand people killed. We didn't start the war, and we wouldn't be starting a war. We would be trying to stop a massacre that's going on. We are -- we would try to stop the Hezbollah, with thousands of troops (are in ?). We would try to stop the fact that the Russians continue to supply heavily Bashar Assad's forces and what would be a great triumph for Iran in the entire region. But you say, "It seems to me we need to understand what the peace will look like before we start the war." Do you think we ought to see how we could stop the war by intervening and stopping the massacre?"

Dempsey: "Senator, would you agree that we have recent experience where until we understood how the country would continue to govern and that institutions of governance wouldn't fail, that actually, situations can be made worse by the introduction of military force?"

McCain: "Actually, General Dempsey, you and I went through this in 2006, when I said that it wasn't succeeding and that we had to have a surge and that only a surge could succeed in reversing the tide of battle, and you disagreed me then, way back then. And I think history shows that those of us who supported the surge were right, and people like you who didn't think we needed a surge were wrong. So I guess my question to you is if -- is it -- is it in any way a good outcome for this situation on the battlefield to continue as it is, with, obviously, Bashar Assad prevailing and a great victory for Iran and continued slaughter of thousands and thousands of people, the destabilization of Jordan, the destabilization of Lebanon and what is clearly erupting into a regional conflict? Is that your answer?"

Dempsey: "Senator, somehow you've got me portrayed as the -- you know, the one who's holding back from our use of military force inside of Syria."

McCain: "No, I'm not saying that, General. I am saying what your advice and counsel is to the president of the United States and your views are very important because that's your job."

Dempsey: "Sure, it is. And I -- and I've given those views to the president. We've given him options. The members of this committee have been briefed on them in a classified setting. We've articulated the risk. The decision to use force is the decision of our elected officials."

McCain: "You know, I just ask the chairman -- just asked you if you would give your personal opinion to the committee if asked. You said yes. I'm asking for your opinion."

Dempsey: "About the use of kinetic strikes? That issue is under deliberation inside of the -- our agencies of government, and it would be inappropriate for me to try to influence the decision with me rendering an opinion in public about what kind of force we should use."

McCain: "So your answer to the chairman's question about giving a personal view is circumscribed by decisions that are still being made."

Dempsey: "I will give -- render my -- let this committee know what my recommendations are at the appropriate time, yes, sir."

McCain: "And when might that be?"

Dempsey: "Sir, if the administration and the government decides to use military force, we have provided a variety of options, and you know that."

McCain: "Well, if it is your position that you do not provide your personal views to the committee when asked, only under certain circumstances, then you have just contradicted what I have known this committee to operate under for the last 30 years. I thank you, Mr. Chairman."

Levin: "Thank you, Senator McCain."

National Security

Navy assaulting sexual assault; Dempsey, Winnefeld, up for re-confirmation; Hagel to consider streamlining POW/MIA efforts; Why is the DOD IG exempt from furloughs?; New leadership at Dempsey’s CAG; Watch the wait at the Pentagon; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

Today, the Navy will announce a series of new initiatives aimed to combat sexual assault. As the Pentagon scrambles to address sexual assault issues across the Department, each service is weighing in with their own, service-specific programs. While there is a sense that DOD is working hard to stave off Congressional attempts to make fundamental changes to the way the military approaches such cases, the steps are seen as genuine attempts to mitigate the problem. Situation Report is told that this afternoon, the Navy will announce that it is hiring specialized investigators to help resolve sexual assault investigations more efficiently, will begin to publish regularly information about courts-martial that involve sexual assault and will expand to the fleet a number of local programs that are thought to be effective. And since Navy officials in particular have linked sexual assault with alcohol, it will also take steps to "deglamorize" and limit sales of alcohol at Navy Exchanges with a memo it's releasing today that spells it all out.

Also today, Dempsey and Winnefeld face the music. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey and his vice, Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, appear on Capitol Hill this morning at 9:30 to get re-confirmed for their second, two-year terms. No one expects the two to be ambushed by ugly questions, but they'll face a number of critical issues. Guessing the budget, sexual assault and Syria might come up. Read Dempsey's opener here. Read Winnefeld's opener, here.

And in Syria, is Assad's upper hand even stronger? The Assad regime in Syria is experiencing a comeback of sorts, as the U.S. and other countries show "a new reluctance" to get involved by providing rebel forces with the arms they need, according to the NYT. Even if Assad is not thought to be capable of controlling the entire country ever again, his ability to maintain a tight grip on power is becoming indisputable. The NYT's Ben Hubbard, in Beiruit: "In recent weeks, rebel groups have been killing one another with increasing ferocity, losing ground on the battlefield and alienating the very citizens they say they want to liberate. At the same time, the United States and other Western powers that have called for Mr. Assad to step down have shown new reluctance to provide the rebels with badly needed weapons. Although few expect that Mr. Assad can reassert his authority over the whole of Syria, even some of his staunchest enemies acknowledge that his position is stronger than it has been in months. His resilience suggests that he has carved out what amounts to a rump state in central Syria that is firmly backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah and that Mr. Assad and his supporters will probably continue to chip away at the splintered rebel movement." More here.

Welcome to Thursday's edition of Situation Report. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or a tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease. Please follow us @glubold. And remember, if you see something, say something -- to Situation Report.

In a sea of "command think tanks," this one floats to the top - and it's got a new director. Dempsey's Commander's Action Group, or CAG, has a new head, Situation Report is told. He is Army Col. Dave Horan, who hails from the National Security staff and this week started as director of Dempsey's CAG. The CAG, of course, is that resident group of big brained officers on call who advise a commander on anything he or she needs them to. Dempsey's group, on the Pentagon's D-Ring, tackles anything from sexual assault issues to officer ethics to budgets to Syria. Horan has worked for Dempsey in a similar capacity when Dempsey was at U.S. Central Command, the Army's Training Command and the Office of the Chief of Staff of the Army, where Dempsey served only briefly. Horan was an Army War College fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and was a director for defense policy and strategy on the National Security Council staff before rejoining Dempsey's team this week. He succeeds Air Force Col. Troy Thomas, who will remain on staff as Dempsey's special assistant for now. Few would dispute that Dempsey is entitled to having a dream team dedicated to looking at the issues he confronts. But CAGs have proliferated across the military in recent years, with multiple CAGs and even some lower-level commanders having them. As budget-tightening hits - and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's 20 percent cut announced this week takes effect over the next several years - the CAG phenomenon may change. Read FP's coverage of Dempsey's CAG, with an interview of Thomas, from last fall, here.

Doug Lamborn, the defense civilians' best new friend. Rep. Doug Lamborn, the Colorado Republican, is seeking exemptions for furloughed workers - all of them - after scoring a victory in which the DOD has at least said it would grant exemptions to furloughed workers who are directly affected by the wildfires in Colorado. After Lamborn made the request, DOD said it would work to protect families and individuals affected by the big Black Forest fire. But Lamborn is turning it up: he wants DOD to grant permanent exemptions to all furloughed workers, and we think may be the only member of Congress pushing for same. Lamborn, in a statement - "These sequestration furloughs are unnecessary and I believe an attempt by the Obama Administration to inflict maximum pain in order to gain some perceived political advantage. My amendment would prohibit the Department of Defense from doing any more sequestration furloughs after October 1 of this year. The nation's budget problems would be better addressed by making modest reforms to our massive entitlement programs, not by cutting the pay of hard working, middle class Americans who are strengthening our nation's defense."

When it comes to furloughs, the DOD IG exempted itself. The Office of Management and Budget allowed some agencies to exempt themselves from the much-maligned furlough program in which civilians are forced on an unpaid vacation. So as most other defense civilians deal with their second week of furloughs, the Defense Department's Inspector General's office, which is independent, has exempted itself. A spokeswoman from the IG's office this morning confirmed that the IG office was in fact exempted, saying "our budget permitted it, allowing us to continue our mission fully" and citing OMB's directive that independent agencies - and all Inspectors General across the government due to their unique mission - were allowed to exempt themselves. But at the Pentagon, where defense leaders have had to defend the "one-team, one-fight" approach in which all the services had to furlough their civilians regardless of their budgetary situation (and Hagel himself this week defended the move, to troops) there was confusion. The DOD IG's office's exemption is "one of the great head-scratchers of the furlough period," one Pentagon official told Situation Report. "They have an important responsibility to investigate cost overruns, but apparently aren't willing to chip in themselves on cost savings. A real disappointment when civilian employees like some Department first responders are subject to furlough."

From the Don't Forget Your Pentagon Badge Department ­- We're revisiting this issue because we can. There's a new sign up outside the Pentagon's Metro entrance that warns visitors and badge holders who don't have their badges that the wait to get into the building could be as much as an hour between now and Sept. 21 - the period of the furloughs. Today's high? 96 degrees.

Reading Rosa: she swims upstream, making a case for American propaganda. FP's Rosa Brooks wonders if Uncle Sam does a better job of journalism than the media. Wait, wuh? Brooks: "My fellow Americans, you're a pretty weird bunch of people. I say this with love. But really, what's up with your attitude toward government? On both the left and the right, Americans oscillate between a peculiar, irrational deference toward the government and an equally peculiar, irrational suspicion of it. On the left, a touching faith in the federal government's ability to solve domestic social problems (poverty, ill health, etc.) by spending money is generally coupled with an absolute conviction that when it comes to foreign policy and national security, everything emanating from the federal government is a tissue of lies, probably for the purpose of covering up a sinister imperialist conspiracy and/or destroying domestic civil liberties. Meanwhile, on the right, a touching faith in the absolute rightness and virtue of the military and the absolute need to pour additional tax dollars into national security is usually coupled with an equally deep conviction that when it comes to federal spending on domestic programs, the government is a) lying, b) incompetent, and c) determined to subvert our freedoms." Read the rest, here.

A "drone" crash in Florida. A QF-4 drone crashed at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., causing no injuries but backups on a closed, remote road. No word yet on the cause. But Fox quoted James Lewis, who contributes to FP, as a military technology expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "[He] said the QF-4 was likely used for target practice by Tyndall's F-22 Raptor pilots. ‘It is an older fighter plane they have modified for use as a target," Lewis said. ‘The QF-4 is not a drone in the way we normally think of drones. It is not used for anything other than to be shot down. It is an old aircraft that would otherwise be sold for scrap.' Read more here.

This time, Yemen's No. 2 al-Qaida leader may just be dead. FP's Dana Stuster: "Said al-Shihri, the second-in-command of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has reportedly been killed. But unlike previous (and premature) reports of his death -- and there have been many -- this time the news came straight from the source, in an announcement by AQAP. Maybe this time Shihri will actually stay dead." More here.

Read "The drone that killed my grandson" in the NYT, by Nasser al-Awlaki: "I visited the site later, once I was able to bear the pain of seeing where he sat in his final moments. Local residents told me his body was blown to pieces. They showed me the grave where they buried his remains. I stood over it, asking why my grandchild was dead. Nearly two years later, I still have no answers. The United States government has refused to explain why Abdulrahman was killed. It was not until May of this year that the Obama administration, in a supposed effort to be more transparent, publicly acknowledged what the world already knew - that it was responsible for his death." More here.

On Iran, act now and avoid the rush, say Pickering, Luers and Walsh. The departure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the arrival of Hassan Rouhani in Iran, coupled with the distinct fear that a Shiite-Sunni conflict spills over from Syria, threatening Iran's interests, may make this an excellent time for the U.S. to engage with Iran, argues Thomas Pickering, William Luers and Jim Walsh in a new piece published in the New York Review of Books. But this opportunity may not last. Pickering, et al: "Iran and the United States have many important differences, but an agreement on Iran's nuclear capability should be a critical priority. This could open the door to conversations with Iran regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. A functioning US-Iranian relationship could also help advance diplomatic efforts on Syria. Despite the new opportunities and incentives, the US and Iran have deep-seated and justifiable suspicions about each other. Their shared history has been one of missed opportunities and misperceptions. To overcome this distrust will require strong leadership at a time when the stakes are growing larger. Iran's nuclear program continues to advance, and events in Syria could well move further out of control. Without a change in direction, the US could find itself in another war in the Middle East that would further weaken its economy and its political influence."

They suggest: Obama send a message of congratulations to Rouhani; the WH should indicate that it would be open to a meeting between Obama and Rouhani, maybe in September; and a new effort could begin to reach the trial agreement. Also, they recommend, that the administration establish regular, "even routine," bilateral discussions with Iran - without preconditions. Read the rest, here.

And Iraqi ambassador says: help me help you. The Cable's John Hudson: "For months, the Obama administration has tried and failed to persuade Iraq to block flights over its territory from Iran to Syria -- a corridor the U.S. believes is sustaining Syria's military advantage over the rebels. Though U.S. officials insist Iranian flyovers present a critical lifeline for the Assad regime, Iraqi officials say they can't stop Iran's military airlift: Iraqi air defenses are too weak. Now, Iraq's newly-minted ambassador to the U.S. has a plan to bridge the diplomatic impasse: Help me help you." Read that post, here.

Benghazi saga: Is George Bristol retired yet or not? In the ongoing Benghazi hearing brouhaha, Marine Col. George Bristol, who held a key post in the region as commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara, was in a position to know something about what went down and what options the U.S. had at its disposal as the attacks on Sept. 11 unfolded. Many American officials have testified, but not Bristol, described by Marine Corps Times as a "salty Marine" whose task force was responsible for that area. The Pentagon has said Bristol cannot be forced to testify because he retired after stepping down from that command in March. But MCT's Dan Lamothe wrote that actually, Bristol is on active duty until the end of July, when his formal retirement occurs from the Corps. Read the rest here.

And, how did Virginia attorney general and GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli's service as a Marine really end? The Virginian-Pilot takes a look at what Cuccinelli's office says about his service - and what the Corps says, in the Pilot's story, "Cuccinelli, Marines disagree on why his duty ended," here. And read the e-mail from Marine Maj. Shawn Haney to Cucchinelli's office re: his service, here.

The Pivot

  • WSJ: U.S. seen losing to China as a world leader. 
  • NBC News (blog): North Korea to Panama: release our ship. 
  • USAT: North Korean ship has a colorful past. 
  • Noting
  • Time: About that counterinsurgency contract.
  • CS Monitor: Can special counsels for sexual assault victims in the military help?
  • Al-Monitor: The Closer: Why Ron Dermer may be Bib's perfect peace envoy.

The Stans

  • WaPo: Flow of military gear across Afghan border halts over dispute.
  • WSJ: Malala Yousafzai is no longer seen as a hero at home in Pakistan.