National Security

Yemeni plot foiled?; CIA’s Morell: Syrian war number one issue for U.S.; New images show Syrian devastation; Furloughs, reduced; The Navy: paying the Army’s bills? “Defense Official #1:” Don’t blame the milk!; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

New this hour: Yemeni authorities may have foiled a maritime plot. Security officials said that authorities in Yemen had foiled an "audacious plot" by al-Qaida to seize a port using militants in Army uniforms and kidnap and kill foreigners there, according to the NYT and other outlets. And a new round of drone strikes in the southeast region of the country killed seven people. The NYT's Nasser Arrabyee and Alan Cowell: "The depiction of the foiled plot was the first indication of the reasons behind the growing Western concerns for the safety of their nationals. Intercepts of a secret correspondence between Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of Al Qaeda, and Nasir ul-Wuhayshi, the leader of the Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, inspired deep concern inside the American government about a possible terrorist plot by the group.

"Yemeni security officials said part of the militant operation included a plan to take control of the Canadian-run Mina al-Dhaba oil terminal in the Mukallah region on the Arabian Sea in the southeast of the country. The officials did not say how the plot had been disrupted. The plan would have involved many Qaeda operatives wearing Yemeni Army uniforms to seize the port and then attack, kill or kidnap foreigners working there, the officials said. It was not clear if the disruption of the purported plan was linked to a spate of recent American drone strikes. The security officials said the latest attack hit members of a Bedouin tribe some 40 miles west of Attaq in the south-eastern Shabwah area. It was the fifth known American strike in the last two weeks, part of an intensified campaign to disrupt the suspected plots that led to the embassy closings." Read the NYT story here.

But has the U.S. lost Yemen? Princeton's Gregory Johnsen, writing on FP, says so. Despite American drones firing missiles into Yemen - at least 75 in all that have brought the death toll to at least 600 - al-Qaida's franchise on the Arabian Peninsula - AQAP - continues to recruit more members, growing from about 300 in 2009 to "well over a thousand" today. Johnsen: "Part of the U.S. approach to fighting AQAP is based on what worked for the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where drone strikes have decimated what is often called al Qaeda's core (though as al Qaeda's strength moves back toward the Arab world, analysts will need to start rethinking old categories). Unfortunately, not all lessons are transportable. This means that the United States is fighting the al Qaeda that was, instead of the al Qaeda that is." Read the rest here.

No, al-Qaida is not about to blow up your blouse. Noah Shachtman and Shane Harris, on FP: "The panic over an alleged al Qaeda plot went into overdrive Monday night, when ABC News reported that terrorists in Yemen were experimenting with a new and virtually undetectable bomb-making technique: dipping their clothes into liquid explosive that then dries and can be ignited. The cries of doom began almost immediately after the story went online. But people shouldn't have been so quick to scream. A clothing bomb would almost certainly never work, explosive experts tell Foreign Policy." Read the rest here.  

Welcome to Wednesday'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.

Outgoing CIA's No. 2 says Syria poses the greatest threat to the U.S. The WSJ's Siobhan Gorman sat with Michael Morell as he prepares to leave CIA after 33 years there. He told her that the risk is that the Syrian government will collapse and al-Qaeda establishes a new safe haven there and obtain the chemical and other advanced weapons that now belong to the Assad regime. "It's not so much that al Qaeda has fallen as a threat," Morell told Gorman, but that the threat from Syria has escalated. Gorman: "Mr. Morell's stark assessment shows how much the U.S. has at stake as it reluctantly prepares to arm Syrian rebels in the coming weeks while continuing to confront an al Qaeda that has dispersed across the globe. His forecast is all the more worrisome because it comes from a top official who other officials say is skeptical of current administration plans to arm the rebels." Morell: "I don't remember a time when there have been so many national-security issues on the front burner as there are today." Read the rest here.

There are more signs that Al-Qaeda is dominating anti-Assad forces. Opposition forces in Syria took control Tuesday of a military airport in the northern area of the country that McClatchy reported opened a vital supply line between the rebels in the north and Turkey. McClatchy's Mitchell Prothero reported that the end of the siege, that had clamped down the airport since last fall began Monday when two non-Syrian nationals drove an explosive-laden vehicle onto the airport, devastating the Assad troops defending it, and allowing rebels to overrun the air base in Idlib province. But here's what's significant about it: "Those rebels included multiple units affiliated with the Syrian Military Council, an umbrella group with U.S. backing. That poses an uncomfortable pairing of a group supported by U.S. resources with Islamist organizations Washington has labeled as terrorist. The Syrian Opposition Coalition, the political component of the SMC, announced that the airbase had been ‘liberated' by a mixture of nine rebel groups. They included the al Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, and its Syrian sister organization, the Nusra Front."

Satellite images show the devastation in Syria's Aleppo. Amnesty International released this morning new images that show the impact ballistic missile strikes and other violence have had on Syria. It's a year after AI released a batch of images warning of an impending humanitarian crisis. "That prediction of mass civilian casualties and a humanitarian crisis has come true, as reporting from the ground by Amnesty and the newest satellite images show," according to AI. The images include a "before/after" toggle button to see the destruction.  Click here for the images.

The Pentagon found a way to trim furlough days from 11 to 6 days.  The Pentagon announced yesterday that it had found a way to reduce the number of days that DOD civilians will be furloughed, from 11 to 6. As we first reported July 12, the Pentagon was considering a third reduction in the number of days of furloughs, to as few as eight days. But the Pentagon found a way to trim it back to six in this, the fifth week of furloughs. The reduction is thanks in part to finding money in other areas and transferring them to the appropriate accounts. And during a briefing at the Pentagon yesterday, senior defense officials said it included a $300 million payment the Navy made on behalf of the Army.

Army to the Navy: "THANKS for the $300 million." Well not exactly. But at Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's request, the Navy and Marine Corps did pay a $300 million bill on behalf of the Army, for logistics, according to the defense official briefing reporters yesterday. The official said that the Navy had the authority to do it. Asked if it was a normal thing, the senior defense official said no, not necessarily. "I wouldn't say it's routine, but these are not routine times.  And we've had to look across the department and try to make some shifts in order to get through this year."

Random analogy used to explain where the Pentagon found the money to reduce the number of furlough days that we're not quite sure we understand but somehow it works, from a senior defense official during yesterday's briefing: "I mean, you know, we did a lot of different things.  It reminds me of pouring water and milk in the glass at some time and when it overflows blaming the milk.  I mean, I can't pick one thing."

Full briefing of furlough situation from yesterday here.

Dempsey is headed to Israel and Jordan. From the Joint Staff, this morning: "Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, will be departing this weekend for visits in Israel and Jordan.  The focus of the Chairman's visits will be discussing issues of mutual interest with his counterparts and continuing to build on these important defense relationships.  In Israel, the Chairman expects to discuss the United States' unwavering commitment to Israel's security, including potential threats from Iran, the ongoing civil war in Syria, and uncertainty in the Sinai.  While in Jordan, he plans to visit U.S. troops and to gain a richer understanding of the impact on how the conflict in Syria is impacting Jordan and the region.  The general last visited Israel in October and Jordan in April of 2012."

Good read: David Bax helped save 35 aid workers in a Mogadishu firefight. So why did they turn against him? Read Colum Lynch's piece on FP about what happened to Bax in Somalia: "The tip came early in the day on June 19. Islamist militants had breached the inner sanctum of the United Nations' humanitarian compound in downtown Mogadishu -- and they were trying to slaughter the relief workers inside. It wasn't David Bax's job to respond to such an attack; the former South African soldier was hired by the U.N. simply to defuse explosives in and around the restive city." Read the rest here.

Cover up, pull ‘em up, and straighten up: Fort Irwin bans sexy, vulgar and "disparaging" clothes. Army Times' Joe Gould: "It's time for saggy pants-ed and suggestively attired soldiers, civilians and family members at Fort Irwin, Calif., to straighten up. Baggy pants, do-rags, belly shirts, pajamas, ripped jeans and visible thong underwear are forbidden attire in public, according to the post's new dress code for off-duty troops, which was posted to the garrison Facebook page on Monday. The new policy directs managers of post facilities, like gyms and shops, to deny service to anyone wearing the offending gear. ‘Clothing with obscene, slanderous, drug paraphernalia or related statements, vulgar words or drawings, sexually suggestive [clothes] or clothing which makes disparaging comments concerning the military and the United states government is prohibited," the notice reads. ‘By order of the commander.'" Read the rest here.

Obama won't meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G-20 summit in Russia over the Snowden affair, various news outlets reported this morning. 

What would happen if Edward Snowden magically disappeared from Russia and appeared in an American prison? "Hactivists" would have a field day, speculated Mike Hayden, the ex-CIA and NSA chief. Hayden, to reporters yesterday, on the group Anonymous: "If, and when, our government grabs Edward Snowden and brings him back her to the United States for trial, what does this group do?... They may not go after the U.S. government because frankly, the dot mil stuff is one of the hardest targets in the United States. If they can't go after dot mil, who are they going after? Who, for them, are the [digital] World Trade Centers?" Killer Apps' John Reed: That's right. The former head of the CIA just compared Anonymous - a group best-known for defacing some websites - to the world's most notorious terrorists. And that's not the only insult he hurled. Hayden also labeled such groups as "nihilists, anarchists, activists, Lulzsec, Anonymous, twentysomethings who haven't talked to the opposite sex in five or six years." Read the rest here.

When embassies shut down, there is constant evaluation of the situation. The Cable's John Hudson interviewed a foreign service officer about what it's like when embassies shut down - there are currently at least 19 closed now, due to the security situation in the Middle East. Hudson asked the officer what it's like, about the backlog of work that exists, and how they decide what the situation is at their post. A portion of his Q&A: Hudson Q: What are all the diplomats doing during the closings? A: "What's important to keep in mind is the difference between a temporary closing and an evacuation. When it's a closure, like what we have this week, you're not talking about moving people out of the country. The building is not opened to the public. But people are staying home, and in some cases, people continue to work at the embassy." Hudson: And for evacuations? A: "That's a different extreme. When I was in Munich in 2006, the conflict in Lebanon caused us to pull a number of people out of Lebanon and facilitate an evacuation. We had diplomatic personnel all over the place that were deployed to assist American citizens getting out of the place. Obviously, it requires a lot more activity than a closing." Read Hudson's Q&A with an foreign service officer (who remained anonymous) here.

Chris Castelli wins an important award. Inside Defense's Editor-at-Large Chris Castelli won the National Press Club's Newsletter Journalism Award for a series of stories based on internal documents for which Inside Defense is famous (or notorious, depending) for getting. What the judges said about Castelli: "He won for his riveting series of exclusive stories on strategic administration discussions of U.S. policy on Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Pakistan. In the best traditions of journalism, and newsletter journalism in particular, Chris cultivated sources who repeatedly shared internal national security documents. His stories were picked up and his reporting credited by multiple national news outlets as his work informed greater public understanding of vital national defense issues." Read all about it, including the five stories he wrote, here.

 

 

 

National Security

A pointed threat alert for Yemen; AQAP's new chief is a patient man; Who did Egypt's strongman pick to win the Super Bowl?; A new e-mail address at the Pentagon is FUBAR.mil; Dems frustrated over Syria policy; The two faces of vets; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

New drone strikes, fresh terror warnings; Al-Qaida is back on the map, and it all seems to reinforce that Yemen could be its new strategic home. AP reports that a drone strike fired at a car carrying four men in the al-Arqeen district of Yemen's Marib province, setting it on fire and killing all four. Officials told the AP that one of the dead is Saleh Jouti, a senior al-Qaida member in Yemen. It was the fourth strike in less than two weeks: three others have also hit cars thought to belong to al-Qaida leaders in southern Yemen. Coupled with the terrorist alert over the last few days and a pointed travel alert early this morning for Americans there, Yemen is now front-and-center as a source of immense concern as 19 diplomatic posts across the Middle East remain closed after communications between al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in Pakistan and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who heads the al-Qaida franchise in the Arabian peninsula, were intercepted.

Early this morning, State issued a new travel warning to Americans in Yemen: get out. American personnel have already been flown out of Yemen by an Air Force C-17 transport plane. The State Department declined to say how many non-essential personnel and other government employees were flown out, nor would it say how many remain. Foggy Bottom's statement: "The security threat level in Yemen is extremely high... If you wish to depart Yemen, you should make plans and depart as soon as possible. The airport is open and commercial flights are operating. There are no current plans for U.S. government-sponsored evacuations. U.S. citizens seeking to depart Yemen are responsible for making their own travel arrangements."

Pentagon Press Secretary George Little's statement: "The U.S. Department of Defense continues to have personnel on the ground in Yemen to support the U.S. State Department and monitor the security situation."

We like to turn to Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton and author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia," for help in thinking about the problems there.

Who is Wihayshi, this new AQAP chief? He's soft-spoken and a "diminutive" Yemeni but who has a lot of say within the AQ organization, and his ties to bin Laden - four years as his aide-de-camp - helped him to be named to head al-Qaida in Yemen in 2007 before he was promoted to head AQAP in 2009, Johnsen told Situation Report late last night.

Who people should be talking about but aren't: For Johnsen's money, Qasim al-Raymi, whose mind, Johnsen says, gave birth to "many of the most diabolical plots" in recent years, is the one to watch.

Johnsen's characterization of the threat: "Unfortunately the way we in the US have talked about the terror threat as a society AQAP doesn't have to be particularly good or even successful to constitute a serious threat.  As a society we in the US seem to have a zero-tolerance approach to terrorism instead of weighing its risks against other potential threats.  In such an environment any threat from AQAP could be considered serious.  And the organization does appear to be growing, at least in terms of recruits."

Zawahiri pressed Wihayshi to act. Johnsen says that it's not uncommon for a distant leader to pressure his men on the ground to act, but before they're ready. "It happened with bin Laden and now it is happening with Zawahiri."

But: "Wihayshi is a very patient man, single-minded and devoted.  And he has, I believe, the standing to resist Zawahiri's pressure until AQAP is ready to strike." Check out Johnsen's article on the botched American strategy in Yemen later this morning at FP.

Welcome to Tuesday'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.

Beyond McCain: Now Dems are increasingly frustrated with the administration's Syria policy - and they're taking it out on Dempsey. The Cable's John Hudson: "It's not just Republicans who are now openly wondering whether America's top general is being too timid on Syria. In a letter obtained by The Cable, Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, calls into question Gen. Martin Dempsey's gloomy analysis of U.S. military options in Syria. Specifically, the leading congressman asks whether the Pentagon overlooked an option to fire a limited number of cruise missiles in order to wreck Assad's air force. ‘While I do not profess to be a military expert, it is clear that this analysis does not fully reflect an even more limited option that some have advocated, which would involve cruise missiles or other stand-off weapon strikes,' Engel writes in a letter addressed to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"The letter by Engel, a New York Democrat, adds a bipartisan gloss to the mounting frustration in Congress over the Pentagon's proposed options in Syria. All last week, Dempsey faced withering criticism from Sen. John McCain for a letter he sent to the Arizona Republican and Sen. Carl Levin detailing the military options in Syria -- options that McCain said exaggerated the cost of intervention in Syria in both treasure and blood. ‘In my many years, I have seen a lot of military commanders overstate what is needed to conduct military action for one reason or another. But rarely have I seen an effort as disingenuous and exaggerated as what General Dempsey proposed,' McCain said.

So, why didn't Dempsey include options for more limited stand-off strikes: A senior defense official told Hudson told Dempsey doesn't believe limited stand-off strikes will tip the balance in Syria, so he didn't include them in his analysis. The senior defense official: "The context in which the general provided those options was what might tip the balance in Syria. A host of lower-end options for the use of military force are clearly available. But to what end?"

Ryan Crocker would come out of retirement to help in Syria. Defense One's Stephanie Gaskell (a.k.a. "Defense Two,") on Ryan Crocker's views on Assad and Syria: "[Crocker], the retired career diplomat known for his work as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and in many of the world's hotspots, says he would travel to Syria to try to intervene in the civil war there ‘in a heartbeat.' Crocker told Defense One in an interview that he'd come out of retirement again-- he's now the dean of George Bush's School of Government and Public Services at Texas A&M University -- "if I were asked officially," but he also predicted that the now disjointed and out-gunned Syrian rebel forces ultimately would fail. Crocker: "I have never liked the idea of freelance diplomacy, for non-officials going into Syria. Some journalists do, God bless them. What picture we do have of the place comes from those brave souls, but I would only do it if I was asked... If I was asked, I'd do it in a heartbeat." But Crocker, who's resume rivals that of many hardened combat veterans --  he has served as ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan -- knows that ending the war in Syria won't be easy, if not impossible. He told Gaskell: "We need to be extremely careful before we take positions that may come back to bite us."

osd.pentagon#^%*&*$(&!@wtf.mil That's the address we'll write when we're trying to contact the Pentagon's duty officer - the public affairs watch officer at the Pentagon-- until auto-fill takes over. Yesterday, the Pentagon switched from the logical dutyofficer@osd.mil to this: osd.pentagon.pa.mbx.duty-officer-press-operations@mail.mil adding 39 inexplicable characters to the new duty officer e-mail address and making everyone nuts.

Egypt's Sisi used to be an exchange student at the U.S. Army War College, but he didn't necessarily care much about the Super Bowl. FP's David Kenner and Gordon Lubold: "In 2006, Professor Stephen Gerras hosted a Super Bowl party at his house for the foreign military officers who were taking his courses at the U.S. Army War College. As the Pittsburgh Steelers clobbered the Seattle Seahawks, Gerras kept one eye on a partygoer who wasn't paying much attention to the game -- Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, currently the most powerful man in Egypt. ‘My mother had come to help with the food, and she's this almost 80-year-old Italian mother,' Gerras said. ‘And he grabs her and gives her a tour of all the things in our house that are written in Arabic, and the religious significance of it. Nobody else that I've ever had has ever felt the need to do that.' Some officers use their year at the War College to relax a bit -- they have been plucked out of their military hierarchy, after all, and the senior generals who determine their professional advancement are absent. Gerras, who served as Sisi's faculty advisor and was his professor in three courses at the War College, said his former pupil was nothing like that. And it went far beyond one Super Bowl party."

Gerras added: "He was smart, his English was very good, and he was very serious... He would be the most serious [military fellow] that I've had."

Meantime, despite Sisi's rhetorical broadsides against the Muslim Brotherhood - and the U.S. -  a senior administration official said told us: "...U.S. officials insist their communications channel through Sisi remains strong. According to one U.S. official with knowledge of the dialogue between President Barack Obama's administration and Sisi, the message they reiterate ‘is that we believe in a strong relationship, a strong Egypt.' However, the official added, the United States realizes how the situation on the ground could damage that relationship. But: "If things get out of hand [in Cairo], it's going to be very difficult for us." Read our whole piece on FP, here.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos' imminent purchase of the WaPo, which is huge, does not affect Foreign Policy, which is owned by The Post Co. FP is not part of the sale and will remain a property of The Post Company (albeit soon under a different corporate name) along with Slate.com, TheRoot.com, a string of television stations and real estate holdings.

"Best Tweet and graphic about Bezos buying the WaPo," as per Jim Romenesko, here. We'll save you the click: From Marc Ambinder: "Based on your previous purchases, Jeff Bezos, you might also like: The Los Angeles Times, the Orlando Sentinel, Newsweek."

Ash Carter: Get us out of this ditch, Congress! Ash Carter told USA Today that troop cuts and civilian layoffs aren't out of the question as the Pentagon confronts 2014. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has already outlined the possibility of reducing the force as well as a 20 percent cut to headquarters personnel across the Defense Department, which will likely result in reductions of the civilian force. The Pentagon's No. 2 - Ash Carter, Deputy Secretary of Defense - put a little more meat on the bone in an interview with USAT's Tom Vanden Brook: "Ashton Carter, the deputy Defense secretary, told USA TODAY on Monday that unless Congress and the White House reach a deal to avert the cuts, the Pentagon will have to make a series of tough and dangerous cuts in military and civilian personnel. The cuts, known as the sequester, call for about $500 billion in defense cuts through the end of the decade. ‘We can't rule out reductions in the civilian workforce and involuntary separations of military personnel,' Carter said. ‘That's something none of us wants to do. But again if you have to have reductions this fast and this steep you have to go where it is possible to get money that fast. Those are not the most strategically and managerially sound places.' Carter: "We need the support of Congress to get out of this ditch."

Jeffrey Sinclair sex case: panel selection begins today. The court-martial of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, charged with forcing a subordinate to perform oral sex on him and threatening to kill her if she said anything about the affair, was scheduled to begin around 9am today at the Fort Bragg, N.C. court house. Panel selection is expected to take a few days. The trail begins Sept. 30.

The two portrayals of veterans. The NYT's At War blog posted an important analysis of how veterans are portrayed by the media and society - one, a disciplined, healthy and hard-working force, versus a broken, troubled institution full of people with mental problems after more than a decade of war. Former soldier David Eisler writes: "While advocates and groups are making the case that businesses should hire veterans because they are mostly of the first type, their voices are often undermined by the widespread belief that most veterans fall into the second category, which is only true for a minority. For those without serious issues, the perception that all veterans are struggling has become a stigma that has been difficult to shake. Survey after survey suggests that the United States military is one of the most respected institutions in American society. A Gallup poll in January indicated that 74 percent of Americans are satisfied with country's military strength and preparedness. The military is the only institution to see a notable gain in public confidence since Gallup began taking measurements in the 1970s, while other institutions like big business, the church and Congress have seen their numbers steadily decline. Another recent survey from Harvard's Institute of Politics showed that among young Americans, the military is the only national institution to maintain its level of trust in the last three years, while trust in the media, Wall Street and all levels of local and federal government has dropped."

But society is good with that 1 percent serving, it appears: Eisler continues: "But while institutional confidence and trust remain high in abstract terms, the military as a profession struggles to convince much of society that it is a desirable profession. Although military recruitment has broadly met its goals despite the toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Pew Research study found that 43 percent of people without a family member who had served on active duty would not recommend the military as a career. I suspect that a large part of that view is a result of concerns that most veterans come home forever scarred by their experiences."

He concludes: "The truth lies somewhere in between. Military service changes everyone in some way, and while some veterans face significant challenges as they move to civilian life, others emerge stronger. Both sides vying for control of the story could vastly improve the national conversation by acknowledging the other side's existence. Trying to brand us as the "New Greatest Generation," as some have forcefully done in recent years, is not enough. Only by accepting that the portrayal has two sides can we help veterans and civilians talk to each other at a level above stereotypes and first impressions." Read the whole thing, here.