National Security

Support solidifies on Syria while American public wary; An odd day at yesterday’s Senate hearing; It’s a game of poker now; al-Qaida forms cells to attack U.S. drones; Rodman to North Korea; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

Support for strikes begins to solidify in Congress. After a reasonably easy day of it yesterday on the Senate side, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey take the stand again today on the House side, as support among House leaders appears to be growing.  Speaker John Boehner, who met at the White House yesterday, emerged to say that he would support Obama's call for strikes. His words were echoed by House majority leader Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia. Meanwhile, members from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed to the wording of a resolution that could be voted on today that would give President Barack Obama the authority to conduct strikes against Syria for a period of 60 days - with one, 30-day extension. Things seemed to be moving in the White House's favor, even if testimony today on the House side will likely be more cantankerous than it was yesterday. The NYT: "Still, the expressions of support from top Republicans who rarely agree with Mr. Obama on anything suggest the White House may be on firmer footing than seemed the case on Saturday, when the president abruptly halted his plans for action in the face of growing protests from Congress."

But yesterday was an odd day. Yesterday's Senate hearing went relatively smoothly, with even Sen. John McCain, now on board in principle with what the administration wants to do in Syria, being relatively tame. The one real gaffe came when Kerry was asked if the administration would sign off on legislation barring ground troops from Syria, and Kerry indicated that it would be "preferable not to" insert that kind of language, later saying he was "thinking out loud" and didn't mean to suggest the administration was thinking about sending in ground troops. FP's newcomer Yochi Dreazen and SitRep teamed up; our story: "Kerry realized his mistake almost immediately and quickly assured the lawmakers that the administration was fine with a ban on ground troops. ‘Let's shut that door now as tight as we can,' he said. He wasn't able to put the genie back in the bottle, though. Over the course of the four-hour hearing, Republican after Republican asked Kerry to promise that the administration wouldn't do something it had already promised not to do. It was that kind of day. Sen. John McCain turned to Kerry's wife, Teresa, and said ‘I apologize for what I'm about to do to John' before ripping off a string of aggressive questions. A Washington Post photographer later captured McCain playing poker on his iPhone. So few questions went to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that he didn't say a word for long stretches of the hearing and looked visibly bored. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked what the U.S. was seeking in Syria, replied ‘I can't answer that.'

But perhaps it was Dempsey who had the hardest job of anyone in the administration. "Dempsey has spent the past two years issuing public warnings about the potential risks of a U.S. strike against Syria. He spent Tuesday trying to persuade a skeptical Congress to sign off on just that kind of attack, arguing that Assad's chemical weapons use posed a direct threat to the U.S. and had altered his personal judgment about whether to recommend military action to the president." Read the rest of our story here.

But for poll readers, here's two. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows little support for strikes in Syria, but slightly more support if the U.S. doesn't go it alone. The poll shows that of all adults, only 36 percent support the U.S. launching a missile strike against the Syrian government based on the assumption that the regime used chemical weapons and 59 percent do not support it. Republicans, Dems are nearly tied: 55 and 54 percent respectively oppose strikes, while 43 and 42 percent support them, according to the poll. Sixty-six percent of independents oppose them. The poll shows, however, that of all adults, 46 percent would support strikes if allies like Great Britain and France participated. Interestingly, a whopping 70 percent oppose the U.S. and its allies supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels.

And in a Pew poll released yesterday, 48 percent oppose the U.S. conducting military airstrikes against Syria in response to chemical weapons use, and 29 percent favor it. According to that poll, 48 percent of Americans do not believe President Barack Obama has explained the reasons for the strikes clearly enough - 32 percent believe he has. Not surprisingly, 61 percent "are likely" to think that American airstrikes in Syria will lead to a long-term U.S. military commitment there. The Pew poll, here. The Washington Post-ABC News poll and story, here. 

Welcome to Wednesday'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.

Is opposing Syrian strikes in the name of sequester legit? FP's own John Hudson, writing under the headline, "Is This the Weakest Argument Against a Syria Attack?": "There are a lot of good reasons to oppose a United States military strike in Syria. It may do little to change the behavior of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It may invite retaliation on U.S. allies in the region such as Turkey and Israel. It may further entangle the U.S. in a conflict that has little to do with America. But one rationale is making military experts do a double-take: Sequestration. As the White House seeks Congressional authorization for a strike, it's facing stiff opposition from a set of lawmakers that typically supports U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. These hawkish lawmakers don't oppose President Obama's geopolitical priorities or chemical weapons evidence. They think the Pentagon doesn't have enough money in its half-trillion dollar budget to carry out a Syria strike given the $500 billion in across-the-board spending cuts facing the military in the next decade." Read the rest here.

And Maureen Dowd says these are "bewildering" times: "Nancy Pelosi is the hawk urging military action. Britain refuses to be our poodle. The French are being less supercilious and more supportive militarily. Republicans are squeamish about launching an attack. Top generals are going pacifist. The president who got elected on his antiwar stance is now trying to buck up a skittish Congress and country about why a military strike is a moral necessity. Donald Rumsfeld doesn't want to go to war with the Army Chuck Hagel has. John Bolton is the dove who doesn't think we should take sides, or that it matters ‘what the intelligence shows.' Once more, we're vociferously debating whether to slap down a murderous dictator who has gassed his own people, and whether we have the legit intel to prove he used W.M.D." Her BL: "It's up to President Obama to show Americans that he knows what he's doing, unlike his predecessor." Read the rest here.

Oh, you're gooood, Syrian hackers. A group called the Syrian Electronic Army aren't just cyber thugs, they're a hacker group that is increasingly ambitious and sophisticated and may be getting some outside help, FP's Shane Harris reports, citing experts who have looked closely at their attacks and tactics. Harris: "The SEA has been around since 2011, and so far has been known mostly for relatively simple acts of vandalism like Web site defacements. (Most recently, the group grabbed international attention after commandeering the Web sites of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and yesterday the recruitment Web site for the U.S. Marine Corps.) But in the spring of this year, the group started to up its game. It went after bigger targets, like when it hijacked the Twitter feed of the Associated Press and sent out a false report about a bombing at the White House. But it also hacked into Web based communications services used by Syrian rebels to avoid detection by the regime. The goal presumably wasn't to vandalize those sites, but to gather information about the rebels who were using them." Read the rest here.

ICYMI: RAND issues an analysis of "air power options for Syria." It concludes: destroying the Syrian air force or grounding it "through intimidation" is operationally feasible but would have only marginal benefits; neutralizing the Syrian air defense system would be a challenge but also manageable - but not be an end in itself; creating safe areas in Syria would be predicated on the need for ground forces to prevent attacks; an aerial intervention against the Syrian government and armed forces "could do more to help ensure that the Syrian regime would fall than to determine what would replace it," and finally: "while airpower could be used to reduce the Assad regime's ability or desire to launch larges-scale chemical attacks, eliminating its chemical weapon arsenal" would require a big ground operation. "Any of these actions," the report summary concludes, "would involve substantial risks of escalation by third parties, or could lead to greater U.S. military involvement in Syria." Read the rest here.

Jon Stewart returned to "The Daily Show" last night and poked fun at the Obama administration's push for strikes in Syria, seizing on the notion that the U.S. would look weak without doing it. "Oh, right. We have to bomb Syria because we're in the seventh grade," Stewart said.

Tommy Vietor, Jon Favreau, Robert Gibbs and others, back to the WH over Syria. The WSJ's Carol Lee posts: "In case the White House hasn't underscored just how high the stakes are for President Barack Obama in seeking congressional authority on military action in Syria, some of his longest-serving former aides were summoned to the West Wing Tuesday to help with the president's strategy to win support. David Plouffe, a former White House senior adviser and Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign manager, Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary, Jon Favreau, Mr. Obama's former chief speechwriter, and Tommy Vietor, a former National Security Council spokesman,  were seen arriving at the White House around noon."

How to attack a U.S. drone: Edward Snowden Leaks, Continued. Snowden provided the WaPo with a classified intel report titled "Threats to Unmanned Aerial vehicles," which amounts to a summary of intel assessments that among other things show that al-Qaeda's leadership has assigned groups of engineers to find ways to "shoot down, jam or remotely hijack U.S. drones, hoping to exploit the technological vulnerabilities of a weapons system that has inflicted huge losses upon the terrorist network." The WaPo's Craig Whitlock and Barton Gellman continue: "Although there is no evidence that al-Qaeda has forced a drone crash or interfered with flight operations, U.S. intelligence officials have closely tracked the group's persistent efforts to develop a counter drone strategy since 2010, the documents show. Al-Qaeda commanders are hoping a technological breakthrough can curb the U.S. drone campaign, which has killed an estimated 3,000 people over the past decade. The airstrikes have forced ­al-Qaeda operatives and other militants to take extreme measures to limit their movements in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and other places. But the drone attacks have also taken a heavy toll on civilians, generating a bitter popular backlash against U.S. policies toward those countries." Read the rest by clicking here.

Waiting on a friend: Kim Jong-un hosting Dennis Rodman in North Korea again. The Guardian: "The basketball star Dennis Rodman is heading to North Korea for the second time this year for what he says is a friendly visit to his friend, the communist nation's leader, Kim Jong-un. But he is playing down speculation his trip is aimed at freeing the jailed American missionary Kenneth Bae, saying there's been ‘nothing promised.' Rodman spoke briefly to reporters on Tuesday while transiting at Beijing's airport on his way to Pyongyang. ‘I'm going to North Korea to meet my friend Kim,' he said. ‘It's a friendly gesture... I just want to meet my friend Kim, the marshal, and start a basketball league over there,' Rodman said. ‘I have not been promised anything. I am just going there as a friendly gesture.' Read the rest here.

Dempsey wrote an op-ed (in the Duffel Blog). It's titled: "Opinion: Our Military Exists To Fight And Win Wars - Except In Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, And Korea." The lede: As our nation stands on the brink of another military intervention, I'd like to speak directly to the American people in this moment of grave crisis. On behalf of the entire Department of Defense, I want to reassure you that the men and women of your armed services - your husbands, sons, daughters, and wives - are always ready to defend America, night and day. They are the best trained and equipped military in the world, and will carry out whatever mission our political leadership asks them to, against any threat: foreign or domestic. Well mostly just domestic. In fact any foreign threat at all would be kind of a crapshoot. We're not really in the business of fighting and winning foreign wars." Read the rest here.




National Security

The French say the Syrians have tons of chemical weapons; Hagel, Kerry, Dempsey pitch limited strikes today; Why haven’t arms reached Syrian rebels?; Why conventional prompt global strike weapons matter; Military suicides are up; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

The Assad regime has tons of chemical weapons -- literally. That's the words, at least, according to a newly released French intel report, which is way more detailed than the American and British versions. The new report provides a more comprehensive look at the Syrian chemical weapons program. And it also includes a breakdown of the toxic agents that the Assad regime is believed to have obtained: hundreds of tons of mustard gas, tens of tons of VX gas and several hundred tons of sarin gas. FP's David Kenner:  "Assad's sarin stockpiles, which the United States says were used in the Aug. 21 attack, reveal a ‘technological mastery' of chemical weapons, according to the French. The sarin is stored in binary form -- the two chemical precursors necessary to make the gas are kept separate, and only mixed immediately before use. This technological sophistication may be a key point when U.N. investigators release their report on the Damascus attack: If they find that the toxic agent used in the attack was an advanced form of sarin -- containing chemical stabilizers and dispersal agents -- the weapon will most likely have come from Syrian regime stockpiles." Read the rest of his bit, and link to the French intel report, here.

Hagel, Dempsey and Kerry make the pitch for limited strikes on Syria at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today at 2:30. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey appear before the SFRC today to make their pitch for limited strikes aimed to punish Assad for his using chemical weapons on his own people late last month. They'll get questions on what the administration's overall Syria strategy is, how the strikes will achieve it, and how the U.S. doesn't get dragged into the civil war there. After President Barack Obama expanded the responsibility for pursuing the strike option on Congress, saying he doesn't need its approval but asking for it anyway, he has placed one of the biggest foreign policy decisions Congress will face squarely at members' feet. Now Congress will need to determine if the limited strike option is too limited - or too open ended.

McCain is on board. It appears that the meeting yesterday at the White House with Sen. John McCain may have worked to persuade McCain to back the administration's plan to strike Syria - as long as the U.S. does more to arm the rebels. The NYT's Jackie Calmes, Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt: "In an hourlong meeting at the White House, said Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, Mr. Obama gave general support to doing more for the Syrian rebels, although no specifics were agreed upon. Officials said that in the same conversation, which included Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, Mr. Obama indicated that a covert effort by the United States to arm and train Syrian rebels was beginning to yield results: the first 50-man cell of fighters, who have been trained by the C.I.A., was beginning to sneak into Syria."

Indeed, three months after the CIA was given authorization to arm Syrian rebels, the rebels are still waiting. The WSJ's Adam Entous and Nour Malas, this morning: "The delay, in part, reflects a broader U.S. approach rarely discussed publicly but that underpins its decision-making, according to former and current U.S. officials: The Obama administration doesn't want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate. U.S. officials attribute the delay in providing small arms and munitions from the CIA weapons program to the difficulty of establishing secure delivery ‘pipelines' to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands, in particular Jihadi militants also battling the Assad regime. Allied rebel commanders in Syria and congressional proponents of a more aggressive military response instead blame a White House that wants to be seen as responsive to allies' needs but fundamentally doesn't want to get pulled any deeper into the country's grinding conflict."

Would the Pentagon do a better job? The WSJ report touches on the calls to shift the job of arming rebels in Syria from the CIA to the Pentagon. People like Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who may raise the issue during testimony today. The WSJ: "Putting the Pentagon in charge would allow the U.S. to do ‘industrial strength' arming and training, [Corker]... said in an interview Monday. Some lawmakers accused the White House of failing to deliver on its promises because of concerns it would get blamed if the effort went wrong and for fear of getting trapped in a proxy fight that pits Mr. Assad and his backers-Iran, Russia and Hezbollah-against an array of opposition groups, some linked to al Qaeda and others supported by the U.S. and some Arab allies.

Corker, who recently visited Syrian rebel leaders in Turkey: "There's been a major disconnect between what the administration has said it's doing relative to the rebels and what is actually happening... The (CIA) pipeline has been incredibly slow. It's really hurt morale among the Syrian rebels."

Read our report, earlier this summer, that asks just who in the administration is in charge of Syria policy. The confusion is still relevant today as the U.S. thinks about ramping up its delivery of lethal and non-lethal aid. Read it here.

Bruce Riedel argues for why the U.S. should focus on al-Qaida in Syria. Writing on al-Monitor, Riedel says: "Any military intervention that attacks Assad forces and degrades their capabilities will inevitably influence the balance of power in the civil war. The more the regime is weakened, the more the opposition gains. Indeed, critics of President Obama who want greater involvement in the civil war argue for a large-scale attack precisely to assist the opposition. Since the opposition includes a strong and growing al-Qaeda component, such an approach could mean inadvertently helping that organization. A stronger al-Qaeda in Syria - especially one with the possibility of gaining control over some of that country's chemical arsenal should Assad be weakened - is clearly not an American interest. Whatever policy Congress endorses, it should include a robust effort to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Syria before it becomes an even greater threat to US interests." Read the rest of his piece here.

Welcome to Tuesday's Welcome-Back edition of Situation Report and apologies for the technical challenges that have dominated our morning - and delayed arrival 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.

When it comes to intelligence gaps and the U.S. "black budget," there is everybody else - and then there's Pakistan. The WaPo's Greg Miller, Craig Whitlock and Barton Gellman: "The $52.6 billion U.S. intelligence arsenal is aimed mainly at unambiguous adversaries, including al-Qaeda, North Korea and Iran. But top-secret budget documents reveal an equally intense focus on one purported ally: Pakistan. No other nation draws as much scrutiny across so many categories of national security concern. A 178-page summary of the U.S. intelligence community's ‘black budget' shows that the United States has ramped up its surveillance of Pakistan's nuclear arms, cites previously undisclosed concerns about biological and chemical sites there, and details efforts to assess the loyalties of counter­terrorism sources recruited by the CIA. Pakistan appears at the top of charts listing critical U.S. intelligence gaps. It is named as a target of newly formed analytic cells. And fears about the security of its nuclear program are so pervasive that a budget section on containing the spread of illicit weapons divides the world into two categories: Pakistan and everybody else."

And: "The disclosures - based on documents provided to The Washington Post by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden - expose broad new levels of U.S. distrust in an already unsteady security partnership with Pakistan, a politically unstable country that faces rising Islamist militancy. They also reveal a more expansive effort to gather intelligence on Pakistan than U.S. officials have disclosed." Husain Haqqani, who until 2011 served as Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., to the WaPo: "If the Americans are expanding their surveillance capabilities, it can only mean one thing... The mistrust now exceeds the trust."

Today, Carnegie unveils a new report on a pesky issue to the Pentagon: how to get weapons on targets speedily without making the Russians and others fear the U.S. is using nukes. A new report by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's James Acton looks at Conventional Prompt Global Strike weapons and the "capability gap" the Defense Department confronts when it comes to places like Iran or North Korea, where the U.S. would likely want to put weapons on distant targets quickly. But in such scenarios, there are only two options, analysts argue: cruise missiles or bomb-laden jets that are slower to get on target, and ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. But missiles with nuclear warheads can stir fears among other countries who might misidentify an incoming missile as nuclear-armed and launch a nuclear strike of their own. Otherwise known as "warhead ambiguity," the issue has long concerned Congress.  Enter Conventional Prompt Global Strike weapons, which DOD strategists believe could fill the capability gap by providing the U.S. arsenal with such weapons with conventional warheads. "I think the administration has been entirely focused on this warhead ambiguity problem, as has Congress to an extent, and hasn't been looking at all of the risks associated with these weapons," Acton told Situation Report this morning. Acton is out with what Carnegie says is one of the first detailed analyses of the issue, today.

Who will be reading the new report? Likely a bunch of people, but also staffers for Alabama Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby, who are both pushing on the issue because one of the CPGS systems would be built in Alabama.

Acton's recommendations: "A scenario-based approach to CPGS acquisition would maximize value for money. Before embarking on the acquisition process, the Department of Defense should decide upon the specific missions for which CPGS weapons might be acquired in order to identify clear military requirements. A comparison of the ability of CPGS weapons and non-prompt alternatives to meet mission requirements is needed to determine whether to procure CPGS weapons at all. This comparison has been absent from the debate. It should account for the relative costs and the implications of potential countermeasures. CPGS acquisition decisions should take into account the need for U.S. enabling capabilities. The continued failure to consider this issue could lead the United States to procure CPGS weapons incapable of fulfilling mission requirements. The debate about the strategic ramifications of CPGS should include the full range of risks and benefits. Warhead ambiguity does not pose the biggest escalation risk in a conflict with Russia or China. All risks should be weighed against the potential benefit of enhanced deterrence. The negative characteristics of boost-glide weapons for managing escalation in a conflict should be recognized. These risks are serious and have been overlooked. Whatever CPGS technology the United States chooses, it should pursue cooperative confidence-building measures with Russia and China. Cooperative measures, which could be treaty based or politically binding, would more effectively mitigate the strategic risks posed by all CPGS technologies than unilateral measures." Read the report here.

Military suicides are on the rise despite efforts, especially within the Army, to stop them. HuffPo's David Wood: "... the number of military and veteran suicides is rising, and experts fear it will continue to rise despite aggressive suicide prevention campaigns by the government and private organizations. The Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), already struggling to meet an increasing demand from troops and veterans for mental health services, are watching the suicide rates, and the growing number of those considered ‘at risk' of suicide, with apprehension."

The warning signs, according to Wood: "While the rate of suicides has traditionally been lower for the military ranks than for civilians, that trend has begun to reverse; The number of suicides among active-duty troops of all services remains relatively low, at 350 last year, Pentagon data show. But that number has more than doubled since 2001, while in the Army's active-duty ranks, suicides have tripled during the same period, from 52 soldiers in 2001 to 185 last year."

And: "Roughly half of active-duty troops who die by suicide never served in Iraq or Afghanistan. But there is growing evidence that war trauma weighs heavily on those who did. In one indication of deep emotional stress, the suicide rate among U.S. troops deployed to Iraq between 2004 and 2007, a period of intensified fighting, jumped from 13.5 to 24.8 per 100,000, according to a report issued in 2009 by the Army surgeon general."

And: "Some 8,000 veterans are thought to die by suicide each year, a toll of about 22 per day, according to a 2012 VA study. The VA acknowledged the numbers might be significantly underestimated because they're based on incomplete data from 21 states, not including Texas or California. Even so, the data documents an increase of nearly 11 percent between 2007 and 2010, the most recent year of data in the study.

And: "The population of veterans over 50 -- more than two-thirds of all veterans -- is swelling with aging baby boomers. Mostly men, they are considered more at-risk of suicide because they tend to be socially isolated, struggle with physical or mental deterioration, and possess easy familiarity with firearms." Read Wood's whole report here.