Situation Report

Hagel and China today; Mubarak to be released?; It was us the whole time! CIA admits to Iranian coup; Meet the Marine major taking on Corps leadership; Why there is so much fog over sarin in Syria; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

Germany's Bild: al-Qaida plotting attacks on Europe's high-speed rail network. AFP:"The extremist group could plant explosives on trains and tunnels or sabotage tracks and electrical cabling, said Bild, Europe's most widely read daily. Bild said the information came from the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States, which had listened in to a conference call involving top Al-Qaeda operatives.

The attacks on Europe's rail network was a "central topic" of this call, Bild said. Authorities in Germany have responded to the threat with discrete measures such as deploying plain-clothed police officers at key stations and on main routes, according to the daily."


Hagel hosts the Chinese defense minister today. Gen. Chang Wanquan's visit to the Pentagon this morning is the first such visit between he and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. While it might be overshawdowned slightly by the deepening crisis in Egypt, there will be a number of high-profile issues discussed, including missile defense and cyber security, and Hagel will have to articulate the intentions behind the administration's pivot to Asia. The defense minister was expected to arrive at the Pentagon's River Entrance this morning at 9 a.m.; there will be a joint presser at 10:45. Watch it live here.

The AP's Bob Burns: "Among the positive signs cited by U.S. officials are U.S.-China naval cooperation in anti-piracy exercises and China's acceptance of a U.S. invitation to participate in next year's Rim of the Pacific military exercise, the region's largest naval exercise. Hagel has accepted China's invitation to visit Beijing next year. Defense officials attribute the current upswing in U.S.-China military relations in part to the U.S. and Chinese presidents' summit in California in June, which was an attempt to set a positive tone despite Washington's growing anxiety about Chinese cybertheft. Chinese officials have dubbed the summit a new starting point for relations." Read the rest of the AP story here.

Welcome to Monday's edition of Situation Report. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us and we'll stick you on. If you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease. And remember, if you see something, say something -- to Situation Report. Follow us @glubold.

Will Mubarak be released? The NYT: "The judicial authorities in Egypt have ordered the release of former President Hosni Mubarak, who has been detained on a variety of charges since his ouster in 2011, according to state media and security officials on Monday. It remained possible, however, that the authorities would find other ways to keep him in detention and his release did not appear imminent."

Egypt and the U.S. are on a "collision course." WSJ: Egypt's military-led government said it was "reviewing" its strategic relationships with the U.S. and other Western governments critical of its crackdown on Islamists, deepening the divide between the Obama administration and Cairo.Amid expectations of more violence in coming days, the death toll rose on Sunday as dozens of Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed in Cairo in what the government described as a prison-break attempt. The Islamist movement's leaders called for continued defiance against Egypt's generals, despite signs that their supporters were becoming limited in their ability to take to the streets."Full story here.

John McCain on American influence in the Arab world, on CNN yesterday: "We have no credibility. We do have influence, but when you don't use that influence, then you do not have that influence."

Congress split on aid to Egypt. "Democratic leaders have generally supported the president's approach. But on Sunday, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said he would end aid to Egypt. Ellison is the first Muslim elected to Congress and is co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. ‘I would cut off aid but engage in intense diplomacy in Egypt and in the region to try to say, look, we will restore aid when you stop the bloodshed in the street and set up a path towards democracy that you were on before,' Ellison said. ‘In my mind, there's no way to say that this was not a coup. It is. We should say so. And then follow our own law, which says we cannot fund the coup leaders.'" AP, here.

Rosa Brooks on all the ways in which the U.S. has "lost the moral high ground" when it comes to Egypt. Brooks writing on FP: "There was our initial namby-pamby response to the popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak in early 2011: We made vague noises about the virtues of democracy, but we dithered over calling for Mubarak to step down, because we're Dictators R Us -- Mubarak might have been a bastard, but he was our bastard. After Mubarak's ouster, we continued to sit on our hands as Egypt's interim military government grew ever more repressive in the run-up to elections. When the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy won the presidency in the summer of 2012 and began rapidly consolidating power, we remained dithery, coupling the occasional pious call for increased political freedom with expressions of faint support for the entirely unlovable Morsy and faint distaste for the burgeoning secular protest movement."

Everyone knows chemical weapons are being used in Syria. But "as long as they keep body count low, we won't do anything." That's an American intelligence officer tells FP's Noah Shachtman and Colum Lynch. One possible reason why: the Syrian regime has been clever at disguising its chemical attacks. "U.S. analysts speculate that Assad's military has been using an atypical mix of chemical arms, so-called 'riot control agents,' and conventional munitions on the battlefield. In December, one former chemist for the Syrian regime told Al Jazeera that this blending of weapons was done, in part, to create a confusing blend of symptoms -- and mask their source. "Traditionally, militaries launch chemical attacks separately from ordinary ones. Not so in Syria. In a single bombing run near Aleppo last May, for instance, U.S. intelligence believes that a single Syrian warplane dropped bombs loaded with tear gas, sarin, and conventional explosives. "'When we first started hearing about this, we didn't understand. Why one sarin bomb in the middle of a major bombardment?' asks one U.S. intelligence official. 'We think it's strange, but whatever the Syrians have been doing, it's been very effective,' the official adds. After all, the government appears, for now, to be winning the war." Read it here.

Sixty years ago today, the U.S. and U.K. backed a coup in Iran -- a move that has "haunted its orchestrators" for years. Now, finally, the CIA admits its role, writes Malcolm Byrne, on FP. "Published here today... is a brief excerpt from The Battle for Iran, an internal report prepared in the mid-1970s by an in-house CIA historian.... this new version formally make[s] public, for the first time that we know of, the fact of the agency's participation: ‘[T]he military coup that overthrew Mosadeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy,' the history reads. "Why the CIA finally chose to own up to its role is as unclear as some of the reasons it has held onto this information for so long... But U.S. government classifiers, especially in the intelligence community, often have a different view on these matters. They worry that disclosing 'sources and methods' -- even for operations decades in the past and involving age-old methods like propaganda -- might help an adversary. They insist there is a world of difference between what becomes publicly known unofficially (through leaks, for example) and what the government formally acknowledges. (Somehow those presidential admissions of American involvement seem not to have counted.)." Read the rest here.

Meet the Marine major who is standing up to the Corps' top generals. Marine Corps Times is out with a 4,000-word cover story today on the man who is taking the Corps leadership to task. Maj. James Weirick raised concerns with the Pentagon's Inspector General over the case of the Marines accused of urinating on the bodies of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in July 2011. The story helps to provide a better understanding of the concerns the Marine major has with against top officers over their handling of the Marine scout sniper case, even if Marine officials dispute some of the conclusions drawn from Marine Corps Times reporting of the story. MCT's Dan Lamothe: "[Weirick] had seen enough. In March, after months of observing how the Marine Corps was prosecuting eight Marines implicated in war-zone controversy, he sent a six-page complaint to the Pentagon's investigative agency alleging a variety of malfeasance by the service's top general and his senior advisers. The major, a staff judge advocate in Quantico, Va., assigned to the cases, urged the Defense Department inspector general to investigate how the Corps was handling its cases stemming from a video showing four scout snipers urinating on dead insurgents in Afghanistan. He alleges Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, or others working on his behalf, sought to ensure harsh punishment for the Marines facing charges and suppress evidence. Weircik, in a statement, about the Marines accused of urinating on the bodies of Taliban fighters:  "I can say that Marines are expected to act in a manner befitting the title we have earned, which includes acting in an ethical manner at all times... These Marines, despite what they were accused of, fought and nearly died in defense of the Constitution. I could not allow these Marines to be deprived of rights they are guaranteed by the document they swore to defend." Read the rest here.


National Security

Spying blind: NSA’s mistakes; Bright Star, CANX; Hagel’s plan to stamp out sexual assault; U-2, Area 51, revealed today!; About face at the Warrior Café; Greenert’s navigation; Even small wars are hell; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold 

Supersized surveillance. It turns out that an internal National Security Agency audit identified some 2,776 "incidents" in which the rules of court orders for surveillance of Americans or foreign targets in the U.S. were violated, according to a big story in the WaPo today. That means that the NSA has broken privacy rules "or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year," according to the audit and other top-secret documents cited by the Post. "Most of the infractions involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by statute and executive order. They range from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. e-mails and telephone calls. The documents, provided earlier this summer to The Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, include a level of detail and analysis that is not routinely shared with Congress or the special court that oversees surveillance. In one of the documents, agency personnel are instructed to remove details and substitute more generic language in reports to the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence."

In the meantime, according to intelligence historian Matthew Aid, writing on FP, the NSA collects so much information that its mistakes are enormous. "Every day, it actively analyzes the rough equivalent of what's inside the Library of Congress and ‘touches' - to use an agency term - another 2,990 Libraries' worth of data. That kind of volume of data means that if it makes mistakes, that produces terabytes and terabytes of improperly-harvested data, and that means that thousands of people are wrongly caught in the surveillance driftnet."

"Spying Blind." FP's Shane Harris: "The Obama administration's claim that the NSA is not spying on Americans rests on a fundamental assertion: That the intelligence agency is so good at distinguishing between innocent people and evildoers, and is so tightly overseen by Congress and the courts, that it doesn't routinely collect the communications of Americans en masse. We now know that's not true. And we shouldn't be surprised. The question is, why won't the NSA admit it?  ... One of the reasons that the NSA has been able to gather so much power is that the agency has built a reputation over the years for super-smarts and hyper-competence. The NSA's analysts weren't just the brainiest guys in the room, the myth went; they were the brightest bulbs in the building. The NSA's hackers could penetrate any network. Their mathematicians could unravel any equation. Their cryptologists could crack any cipher. That reputation has survived blown assignments and billion-dollar boondoggles. Whether it can outlast these latest revelations is an open question." Read the rest here.

Welcome to Friday's edition of Situation Report. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us and we'll stick you on. If you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease. And remember, if you see something, say something -- to Situation Report. Follow us @glubold!

Hopes for Bright Star were dimming, then Obama cancelled it. The big military exercise the U.S. holds with Egypt known as Bright Star, held every other year and scheduled for next month, was considered low-hanging fruit when it comes to suspending assistance and engagement with Egypt. Bright Star won't happen now, though the administration isn't making any substantial changes yet to the $1.3 billion aid package it maintains with Egypt, where the crackdown against dissidents and the turmoil overall is getting worse.

Obama, from Martha's Vineyard, yesterday: Let me say that the Egyptian people deserve better than what we've seen over the last several days.  And to the Egyptian people, let me say the cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop... America cannot determine the future of Egypt.  That's a task for the Egyptian people.  We don't take sides with any particular party or political figure.  I know it's tempting inside of Egypt to blame the United States or the West or some other outside actor for what's gone wrong.  We've been blamed by supporters of Morsi.  We've been blamed by the other side, as if we are supporters of Morsi.  That kind of approach will do nothing to help Egyptians achieve the future that they deserve."

Battleland's Mark Thompson: "‘This exercise is an important part of U. S. Central Command's theater engagement strategy,' the Pentagon routinely says when discussing Bright Star's importance. It "is designed to improve readiness and interoperability and strengthen the military and professional relationships among U.S., Egyptian and participating forces.' But the U.S. currently has no clout among Cairo's power brokers - the generals it has sought to woo for years - and pretending that it does by going ahead with Bright Star would only highlight American impotence. The notion that such military cooperation can give the U.S. influence over a foreign military is dubious. The emperor, you might say, has no uniform - despite the $1.3 billion in military aid the U.S. gives to Egypt annually, a bounty for signing the Camp David accords with Israel in 1978. Bright Star, also stemming from the peace pact, began in 1981, and generally has been held every two years. Thousands of U.S. and Egyptian troops, along with soldiers from several other nations, participate in war games and training exercises in locations around Egypt." His post here.

The Cable's John Hudson on Rand Paul and funding for Egypt's generals: "how does your conscience feel now?" Hudson: Sen. Rand Paul is hammering his fellow senators for keeping billions in financial aid flowing to Egypt's military -- even as Cairo's security forces massacre anti-government activists. ‘This is something that those who voted in Congress are going to have to live with,' Paul told The Cable on Thursday. ‘The question is: How does their conscience feel now as they see photographs of tanks rolling over Egyptian civilians?'" Read the rest here.

Thanks to Fox News, the Pentagon reversed itself on reducing hours for the "Warrior Café" at Walter Reed. Fox News' Justin Fishel and Jennifer Griffin reported yesterday that the military in August had decided to invalidate meal tickets and reduce hours for the sole dining facility in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda in an apparent cost-cutting move. But after Fox reported it, the Pentagon reversed itself and the dining facility will remain open. Fox: "Initially, the military moved to close the cafe on weekends, shorten its hours and invalidate meal tickets. The decision would mean wounded warriors who would normally have a government-funded meal just down the hall would have to walk, wheel or limp nearly a half-mile across the Walter Reed campus to the temporary "food trailer" for breakfast, lunch and dinner."

Sgt. Josh Wetzel, who lost both legs when he stepped on a pressure plate IED outside Kandahar, Afghanistan in May, on the café he visits daily: "I mean it's called the Warrior Cafe, you would think it is for us." Then, from his wife, Paige, later that day: "Josh just received the news from his squad leader that the Warrior (Cafe) will now be open again on the weekends and meal cards have been reinstated!" She added that Fox's reporting "influenced positive change here and our soldiers are getting what they deserve again." Whole story here.

The CNO has a plan to navigate the Navy forward. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert is out with a "Navigation Plan" for the next five years. The plan, based on a "sailing directions" metaphor, describes the Navy's budget submission for fiscal years 2014-2018 and how it "pursues the vision of the CNO's Sailing Directions. It highlights our investments that support the missions outlined in our defense strategic guidance... This Navigation Plan defines the course and speed we will follow to organize, train and equip our Navy over the next several years." Interested? Click here.

The Pentagon takes steps to stamp out sexual assault. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is directing "immediate implementation" of a series of moves that the Pentagon says will provide victims additional rights, protections and legal support, as well as "help to ensure that sexual-assault related investigations and judicial proceedings are conducted thoroughly and professionally." They include: Each military service will now have a legal advocacy program (Situation Report first wrote about a successful Air Force program here.); Judge advocates general will now conduct all pretrial investigative hearings of sexual assault-related charges; Commanders will have options to reassign or transfer a member accused of committing a sexual assault or related offense; "timely" follow-up reports on sexual assault incidents are now required for the first general or flag officer within the chain of command; DOD's Inspector General will now regularly evaluate closed sexual assault investigations; Prohibitions on inappropriate behavior between recruiters and trainers and their recruits and trainees will now be standardized; and proposed changes to the Manual for Courts-Martial will be made to allow victims to provide input for the sentencing phase of courts-martial involving sexual assault. DOD has also established an independent panel that is currently looking at the legal and programmatic systems used to investigate, prosecute and adjudicate sexual assault crimes under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Hagel, on eliminating sexual assault from the armed forces being one of the Department's top priorities: "Sexual assault is a stain on the honor of our men and women who honorably serve our country, as well as a threat to the discipline and the cohesion of our force.  It must be stamped out.  I will continue to meet weekly with DoD's senior leadership team to personally review our efforts and ensure that directives and programs are being implemented effectively.  We are all accountable to fix this problem, and we will fix it together."

An investigation showed that the Chief had an inappropriate relationship. Navy Times: "The chief of the boat aboard a Bangor, Wash. based submarine was relieved Thursday because of an inappropriate relationship." More here.

A new report today from the CIA pulls the covers off America's most famous spy plane - the U-2 - and Area 51. Writing on FP, Jeffrey Richelson: On February 21, 1955, Richard M. Bissell, a senior CIA official, wrote a check on an agency account for $1.25 million and mailed it to the home of Kelly Johnson, chief engineer at the Lockheed Company's Burbank, California, plant. According to a newly declassified CIA history of the U-2 program, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the National Security Archive, the agency was about to sign a contract with Lockheed for $22.5 million to build 20 U-2 aircraft, but the company needed a cash infusion right away to keep the work going. Through the use of "unvouchered" funds -- virtually free from any external oversight or accounting -- the CIA could finance secret programs, such as the U-2. As it turned out, Lockheed produced the 20 aircraft at a total of $18,977,597 (including $1.9 million in profit), or less than $1 million per plane. In other words, the project came in under budget, a miracle in today's defense contracting world. Fifteen years later, the CIA has become considerably less reticent about revealing details of the program, as demonstrated by the newly declassified The Central Intelligence Agency and Overahead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Program, 1954-1974, from which the 1998 volume was drawn. This report, which the National Security Archive is posting today, openly credits Chinese Nationalist pilots with numerous missions over the People's Republic of China to gather intelligence on both military facilities and industrial areas, although details of a flight over a nuclear facility are deleted. British participation in the program is also now spared from redaction -- participation that included flights over the Soviet Union. The history also notes President Dwight Eisenhower's belief that the British role would confuse the Soviets as to who was behind the program." Click here for more.

ICYMI (we did): War is hell - in miniature. Photographer Dave Levinthal likes to play with toy soldiers. But his playing is serious. And FP has this cool slide show of toy soldiers in battle in Afghanistan. According to art critic Dave Hickey, in his foreword to War Games, a soon-to-be-published book featuring Levinthal's full body of "toy-soldier work," Levinthal's art is "a kid's solution to an adult dilemma." Levinthal, Hickey writes, has "combined the aggression of battle, the visual aggression of photography, and the built-in cultural aggression of 'serious' art to create a lethal cocktail -- a body of objects that are admirable, affecting, beautiful, and not comfortable at all."  Click bait to see what he's done to show war in Afghanistan. Click here.