National Security

Diplomats leaving Lebanon; The impact of pondering strikes; Did Hagel “low-ball" Syria?; USAID confronts its first known suicide; The Art of (Defining) War; Should Congress go to Syria? and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold 

State orders diplomats and others out of Lebanon. The U.S. is withdrawing all non-emergency embassy workers and their families from Beirut and told Americans not to travel there as the potential of strikes looms larger. State issued travel warnings for Lebanon and also Turkey this morning. State's Marie Harf, in a statement: "The Department of State has ordered a drawdown of non-emergency U.S. Government personnel and family members in Beirut, Lebanon and approved the drawdown of non-emergency personnel and family members who wish to leave Adana, Turkey. Given the current tensions the region, as well as potential threats to U.S. Government facilities and personnel, we are taking these steps out of an abundance of caution to protect our employees and their families, and local employees and visitors to our facilities. We will continue to assess the situation and to adjust our security posture accordingly."

The delay is allowing movement of pieces on the chessboard: Iran is plotting a revenge if the U.S. strikes Syria. The WSJ's Julian Barnes and Adam Entous, this morning: "The U.S. has intercepted an order from Iran to militants in Iraq to attack the U.S. Embassy and other American interests in Baghdad in the event of a strike on Syria, officials said, amid an expanding array of reprisal threats across the region. Military officials have been trying to predict the range of possible responses from Syria, Iran and their allies. U.S. officials said they are on alert for Iran's fleet of small, fast boats in the Persian Gulf, where American warships are positioned. U.S. officials also fear Hezbollah could attack the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and on Friday the State Department ordered nonessential U.S. diplomats to leave Lebanon because of security concerns." Read the rest here.

Upgrading the mission? The debate over Syria is not giving the Syrian regime any tactical advantage, the Pentagon says, even as the White House orders an "expanded list of potential targets." The NYT's David Sanger and Eric Schmitt report, following nuggets in a WSJ report Thursday, that Obama has directed the Pentagon to expand its list of targets after intelligence suggests that the Assad regime is moving troops and equipment. The Times' story: "Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the ‘degrade' part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria - to ‘deter and degrade' Mr. Assad's ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan. For the first time, the administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a renewed push to get other NATO forces involved."

But the Pentagon is adamant: the U.S. military's capabilities can more than address whatever tactical advantage the Syrian regime can achieve during the time it's taking to debate Syria. The Pentagon's George Little, yesterday, to reporters: "We are the strongest military power in the world. We are also one of the most flexibility and adaptable. And we have access to information that will enable us to take effective action at the appropriate time, if called upon. No one in the Syrian regime should take solace from the deliberative process that we're undertaking right now with the United States Congress." Full transcript of briefing, here.

Yet the delay is causing at least one Republican Congressman to change his vote, from strike to don't-strike: "Now that the [President Bashar] Assad regime has seen our playbook and has been given enough time to prepare and safeguard potential targets, I do not feel that we have enough to gain as a nation by moving forward with this attack on our own...Thus, after much thought, deliberation and prayer, I am no longer convinced that a U.S. strike on Syria will yield a benefit to the United States that will not be greatly outweighed by the extreme cost of war." - Rep. Michael Grimm of New York, a former Marine.

Meanwhile, a majority of Americans approve of sending Congress to Syria. The Onion, 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. And 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. That and please follow us @glubold.

At USAID, the first suicide since the agency has been deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq. On Aug. 15, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that one of its employees had died suddenly. The agency didn't mention that Michael C. Dempsey, a senior field program officer assigned as the leader of a civilian assistance team in eastern Afghanistan, killed himself four days earlier while home on extended medical leave. However, the medical examiner in Kent County, Michigan, confirmed to Foreign Policy that Dempsey had committed suicide by hanging himself in a hotel-room shower. His death is USAID's first known suicide in a decade of work in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.

After a decade of development and reconstruction work in two of the world's hottest war zones, USAID now has hundreds of Foreign Service officers who are potentially at risk for post-traumatic mental-health issues. While an enormous amount of resources and attention has been paid to military suicides, comparatively little focus has been given to civilians' struggles. And it's a sign that it's not only members of the armed services who shoulder the emotional burdens of war.

Why it's more troubling: And what makes the suicide particularly striking is that it came a year and three days after Dempsey's close friend and colleague was killed in an improvised-explosive-device attack in Afghanistan. Dempsey's friend and USAID colleague, Ragaei Abdelfattah, an American of Egyptian descent, was killed along with three military escorts and an Afghan civilian in the attack in eastern Kunar province. The death of his friend, who left behind a wife and children, may have contributed to Dempsey suffering from "survivor's remorse," say individuals outside the agency who were close to the matter. Dempsey had been receiving counseling up until the time he died.

The issue AID now confronts: With Dempsey's death as the first known suicide from either of USAID's Afghanistan or Iraq programs, the suicide forces the agency to deal with an inescapable problem: how to help its employees who deploy to the same war zones as the military but who don't always have access to the same kind of assistance. Larry Sampler, who heads USAID's programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, traveled to Michigan in August to attend the memorial for Dempsey. Sampler said Dempsey's suicide means USAID must now look at how best to help those who have deployed to war zones for the agency. "The physical and emotional resilience of our staff is of paramount importance to us: To me personally as the leader of the Afghanistan and Pakistan effort," he said in a statement to FP. "In our experience, returning staff often may not even know they're having difficulty adjusting until they've been out of Afghanistan for awhile -- and we want them to have and to know about the extended and enduring support network we offer." Read the rest of our story here.

The NYT reports on new documents that show the National Security Agency is "winning its long-running secret war on encryption, using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion to undermine the major tools protecting the privacy of everyday communications in the Internet age." The Times' Nicole Perlroth, Jeff Larson and Scott Shane: "The agency has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global commerce and banking systems, protects sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world, the documents show. Many users assume - or have been assured by Internet companies - that their data is safe from prying eyes, including those of the government, and the N.S.A. wants to keep it that way. The agency treats its recent successes in deciphering protected information as among its most closely guarded secrets, restricted to those cleared for a highly classified program code-named Bullrun, according to the documents, provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor."

A 2010 memo describing a briefing about NSA accomplishments for employees of its British counterpart, GCHQ: "For the past decade, N.S.A. has led an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies...Cryptanalytic capabilities are now coming online. Vast amounts of encrypted Internet data which have up till now been discarded are now exploitable."

Gobsmacked?!!? The Times story continues: "When the British analysts, who often work side by side with N.S.A. officers, were first told about the program, another memo said, ‘those not already briefed were gobsmacked!'"

Back on Syria. "Tens of millions of dollars" was probably an understatement. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said this week that a potential operation using strikes in Syria would cost "tens of millions of dollars," but that elicited some surprise in some quarters. The actual cost of deploying cruise missiles and keeping ships on station in the Med and other related costs, may be far more. Reuters' David Alexander: "...if past experience is a guide, the number could be substantially higher than that. It is not uncommon for U.S. forces to open an assault by launching scores of Tomahawk missiles costing over $1 million apiece and dropping bombs from radar-evading B-2 planes that fly 18 hours each way from their base at a cost of $60,000 an hour... Most of the cost of an action against Syria would be for replacing munitions that were used, funds that would not be required until after the 2014 fiscal year begins on October 1. The Pentagon probably would pay for the munitions with a supplemental war-funding request to Congress, which would not be subject to current budget spending caps, Harrison said. ‘If you include the replacement costs of munitions, it (an operation against Syria) could cost half a billion, up to a billion dollars depending on the number of targets they go after," said Harrison. CSBA's Todd Harrison, to Alexander: "I was surprised when I heard him (Hagel) say tens of millions of dollars. That's low-balling it." More here.

Why budgetary concerns and sequester are irrelevant to the issue at hand. Writing on FP earlier this week, Gordon Adams: "No sooner had President Obama announced that he would seek congressional approval for launching missiles on Damascus, than the defenders of defense stepped out to say: The Pentagon can't do this; it has no money; do something about the sequester. This is Washington; nobody misses an opportunity to hang their pet rock on a passing vote. But the thing is, budgetary sequestration is irrelevant to what the president says he intends to do. We already bought the five destroyers now off the Syrian coast. We bought the Tomahawks the president plans to fire off, if he gets the vote he wants, years ago. There are several dozen on each of those ships. And we are paying the sailors who will fire them off. In fact, the president has now twice exempted military pay from the sequester (smart political move)."

It depends on what the meaning of the words ‘is' is: The Art of Defining War in the Syrian crisis. We invoke Bill Clinton's famous word dodge as everyone tries to figure out what the administration will call whatever it is it might do in Syria. So far, the White House is loath to call it "war." But it's not easy calling it something else. Secretary of State John Kerry said this week "we're not asking America to go to war," saying he doesn't believe that's what this is. "That's not what we're doing here. The president is asking for permission to take a limited military action, yes, but one that does not put Americans in the middle of the battle." And Pentagon press secretary George Little, yesterday, deflected the moniker: "I'm not going to get into those kinds of labels here today. This would be an action that would be consistent with American law and would absolutely comport with the legitimacy of international norm against the use of chemical weapons," he told reporters in a briefing. Defense One's Stephanie Gaskell, a.k.a. "Defense Two," writes: "Welcome to a new era of warfare, one borne out of two protracted and deadly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a shrinking budget and a very war-weary American public. To planners at the Pentagon, the mission to ‘deter and degrade' the use and proliferation of chemical weapons and send a message to Syrian President Bashar al Assad is not war. It's a ‘limited mission'... The preferred standard operating procedure now is to keep world order through limited engagements, using naval and air assets, cyber and drone technology, small, elite counterterror units -- anything but U.S. boots on the ground -- to maintain U.S. national security interests across the globe. Syria, with its potential to drag the U.S. into another protracted war, will be this new strategy's first test." More here.

And also on Syria, limiting public comment for the Congressional Black Caucus. The Cable's own John Hudson: "As an increasing number of African-American lawmakers voice dissent over the Obama administration's war plans in Syria, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has asked members to ‘limit public comment' on the issue until they are briefed by senior administration officials. A congressional aide to a CBC member called the request ‘eyebrow-raising,' in an interview with The Cable, and said the request was designed to quiet dissent while shoring up support for President Obama's Syria strategy. The CBC, a crucial bloc of more than 40 votes the White House likely needs to authorize a military strike in Syria, is scheduled to be briefed by White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice on Monday. Until then, CBC chairwoman Marcia Fudge has asked colleagues to ‘limit public comment until [they] receive additional details,' Fudge spokeswoman Ayofemi Kirby told The Cable. When asked if the White House requested the partial gag order, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said ‘the Administration is reaching out to all Members to ensure they have the information they need to make an informed judgment on this issue.' Kirby said it was her boss's request and was aimed at keeping members informed rather than silencing anti-war members." Read the rest here.

National Security

China, not into it; Senate supports use of force in Syria; Will Dems get in the way?; Military spouses go after CNN’s Barbara Starr to make a point; Hagel on Asia; Mark Milley on the zero option: “we haven’t been told to plan for that;” and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

China isn't into it. Financial Times, this hour: "As the leaders of the world's most powerful nations arrived in St Petersburg on Thursday for a G20 summit that has already been overshadowed by Syria, China said military action against the Assad regime would hurt the world economy and push up oil prices. ‘Military action would have a negative impact on the global economy, especially on the oil price - it will cause a hike in the oil price,' Chinese vice-finance minister Zhu Guangyao told a briefing before the start of the G20 leaders' talks. In Beijing Hong Lei, China's foreign military spokesman, said that any party resorting to chemical warfare should accept responsibility for it, but added that unilateral military action violated international law and would complicate the conflict." More here.

And even as momentum builds in the U.S. Congress to allow Obama to strike at Syria, his own party may be getting in the way. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed President Barack Obama's push to strike Syria as the WSJ reports that the Pentagon prepared to employ "greater firepower" as targets in Syria shift, but the NYT reports this morning that intervention, even in the face-saving name of Syria's apparent use of chemical weapons, is problematic for members of Obama's own party. The WSJ's Julian Barnes, Carol Lee and Adam Entous: "The revised options under development, which reflect Pentagon concerns that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has dispersed his military equipment, include the use of Air Force bombers to supplement the four Navy destroyers armed with missiles that are deployed in the eastern Mediterranean. Initially, Pentagon planners said they didn't intend to use aircraft in the proposed strikes. The Pentagon shift came amid an accelerating tempo toward U.S. military action in response to the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons on a large scale Aug. 21... The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution Wednesday saying a goal of U.S. policy will be to ‘change the momentum on the battlefield' in Syria's civil war and speed a negotiated removal of Mr. Assad. The measure would ban the use of ground forces in Syria "for the purpose of combat operations" and sets a 60-day limit for Mr. Obama to launch strikes. It includes a possible 30-day extension if Mr. Obama determined that was needed to meet the resolution's goals." Read the Journal's piece here.  Read the WSJ's post on who voted for what at the SFRC, here.

But the NYT's Jeremy Peters writes that it's far from a done deal: "Congressional Democrats, torn over involving the United States in another unpredictable Middle East war, are emerging as a major barrier to President Obama's plan to strike Syria. Many of the president's core supporters, especially African-Americans and members of the Democratic Party's liberal wing who voted repeatedly against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are expressing the deepest reservations. With rank-and-file House Republicans showing little inclination to back Mr. Obama on an issue on which he has staked his political credibility, scores of Democratic votes will be needed if a resolution authorizing force against Syria is to pass the House. Democrats say they are being confronted with a difficult choice: Go against the wishes of a president who is popular and well respected in their caucus, or defy voters back home who are overwhelmingly opposed to another United States military intervention overseas. In the first sign of how splits within the party will loom large over the Syria debate, two Democrats voted no and a third voted present on Wednesday when a divided Senate committee approved a use-of-force resolution with senators from both parties crossing over." Read the rest here.

Welcome to Thursday's edition of Situation Report. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us and we'll stick you on. And 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.

The cost of a Syrian operation would be in the "tens of millions of dollars," the administration said publicly for the first time yesterday, but Arab powers might be willing to pick up the whole tab. That was some of the news out of yesterday's hearing on the House side at which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey and Secretary of State John Kerry appeared, their second such hearing in as many days. There was a bit about what Hagel said about Russia and Syria's chemical weapons, and more. But Dempsey spoke for the first time about the target list, perhaps the most interesting bit from the hearing. FP's Yochi Dreazen: "[Dempsey] said the overall mission would be to degrade Assad's chemical weapons assets by striking targets "directly linked to the control of chemical weapons but without exposing those chemical weapons to a loss of security." Translated from military-speak, that means doing everything possible to ensure that those weapons didn't fall into the hands of the Islamists flooding into Syria to battle Assad. Dempsey said other targets would include the "means of delivery" for the weapons, like the rockets and artillery shells that allegedly carried sarin gas into rebel-held areas of Damascus last month, and the country's air defense systems, including its longer-range missile and rockets. That description closely tracks with recent news reports about the administration considering a target list of roughly 50 sites that would be struck over the course of one to two days. The White House has harshly condemned those leaked war plans and vowed to find those responsible."

Also, yesterday was a tough day for Hagel after he tied Syria's chemical weapons to Russia. Dreazen: "Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) -- best known for screaming ‘you lie' at President Obama during a State of the Union address -- made the most news at today's hearing when he asked Hagel where Assad had gotten his chemical weapons. ‘Well, the Russians supply them,' Hagel responded. Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves.'

Reports that Russia has been selling chemical weapons to Assad -- or at least providing the ingredients and equipment his scientists needed to make them -- have been floating around for years, but Hagel's comments marked one of the first times a high-ranking American official made the charge publicly." Pentagon press secretary George Little, walking Hagel's comments back: "In a response to a member of Congress, Secretary Hagel was referring to the well-known conventional arms relationship between Syria and Russia. The Syrian regime has a decades-old largely indigenous chemical weapons program. Currently, Russia provides the Syrian regime a wide variety of military equipment and support, some of which can be modified or otherwise used to support the chemical weapons program. We have publicly and privately expressed our concern over the destabilizing impact on the Syrian conflict and the wider region of continued military shipments to the Assad regime." Read Dreazen's whole piece here.

CNN Reporter Barbara Starr, called on the carpet by military spouses. Longtime CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr spoke on camera last Thursday about the impact a Syria operation would have on the military. Here's what Starr said: "Well, I think there's no question that they can. And I don't think it's really going to affect military families at all. This is going to be, if it is ordered, a cruise missile strike, no U.S. troops on the ground, Navy ships out in the eastern Mediterranean that would be on deployment anyhow. So the capability is there. The money is there. Because what we're talking about is something that will last, we are told, just potentially a couple of days."

It was a fair point in terms of explaining to the American public that such an operation isn't envisioned (for now, at least) to require any boots on the ground. And Starr was well within her purview to say as much - the American public, clearly wary of military intervention anywhere, should understand that the operation under discussion does not literally mean sending troops into Syria. But all that didn't sit so well with a couple of military spouses, Rebekah Sanderlin and Molly Blake, who wrote an "open letter to CNN Reporter Barbara Starr," on HuffPo. It reads, in part: "Dear Ms. Starr, We are writing to let you in on a secret. It's a big one -- so get to a fresh page in your reporter notebook and have your pen poised and ready... Here's some inside information for you: There is no such thing as a person-less war. Our military cannot afford for Americans to forget that wars and battles and military strikes are fought by troops, that troops are people, and that those people have families."

Their beef: "In our military communities this summer we couldn't even afford to pay federal employees for a five-day work week. Military families can't get doctors' appointments and can't get the counseling services needed to grapple with the problems we already have, problems largely created by almost 12 years of war. And while Congress was busy sending a warning letter to the president to ensure they get to sign off on whether or not we go to war, they managed to ignore military families when the sequester hit. Today clinic hours are being slashed -- along with pretty much every other service military families need. Walking around our communities lately, it doesn't look like we can afford much of anything -- and certainly not a whole new war. And that's just taking 'afford' literally. Figuratively, the picture is even grimmer..."

The two spouses then explain the cost of "an entire generation of military kids" who have grown up with a parent they know "primarily through Skype," and the impact on couples "trying to piece together marriages" fractured by years spent apart. Sanderlin and Blake: "We grew hopeful that better days were coming as we watched the end of the Iraq war, and we're thrilled that the end of our involvement in Afghanistan is nigh, and yet now all of cable news is breathless and giddy with talk of war in Syria." They continue: "You see, Barbara, there's no such thing as 'no boots on the ground.' We in the military community sigh and shake our heads when we hear talk like that from the people on TV. Perhaps you consider a relatively small number of troops to be the same as zero -- but we don't. We know that each of those service members is somebody's somebody...Sincerely, Rebekah Sanderlin and Molly Blake, Military Spouses." Read their whole letter here.  We reached out to Starr and will print a reply from CNN in tomorrow's edition.

There are a number of reasons why the position in which Obama finds himself on Syria is, to quote FP's Rosa Brooks, "painful." But in her piece on FP, "Obama Can't Win," Brooks outlines three scenarios, none of which are good for the President. Brooks: "One: Congress votes against authorizing military action in Syria, so Obama decides not to move ahead with military action. But wait: Obama already informed the nation that as commander-in-chief, he has "decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets ... based on what I am convinced is our national security interests." If that's true -- and if Obama also believes he has the authority to act without congressional authorization -- how can he possibly refrain from military action merely because he can't get enough votes in a famously dysfunctional, do-nothing Congress? Two: Congress votes against authorizing military action in Syria, and Obama -- the one-time constitutional law professor -- goes ahead with airstrikes anyway, ignoring the clearly expressed will of Congress. Three: Congress votes in favor of authorizing military action in Syria, leaving Obama permanently beholden to congressional Republicans. This means the White House can kiss its domestic legislative agenda goodbye." Read the whole piece in which Brooks cites her grandfather, a former Communist who loved quoting Marxist aphorisms, here.

Don't forget about Afghanistan, Version 9.4: ISAF's operational chief, Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, briefed Pentagon reporters yesterday in the middle of the Syrian crisis. It seemed like funny timing, but Milley, known for candor, also sat down with a Stripes reporter in Kabul this week and essentially said a "zero option" just isn't accurate. Stripes' Josh Smith:  "The commander of NATO ground forces in Afghanistan says there has been no discussions that the coalition would completely withdraw after 2014, despite continued uncertainty in political negotiations over the future of the international military effort. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the No. 2 commander for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, calls the term "withdrawal" a misnomer. ‘We have no indication whatsoever of a withdrawal completely from Afghanistan,' he told Stars and Stripes in a Monday interview at his headquarters in Kabul. ‘We are going to change our mission, and we are going to reduce in size and scope.'"

And at the Pentagon yesterday, he told reporters that the conditions are set to win the Afghan war. AP's Bob Burns: "The No. 2 American commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday he believes the stage has been set for winning the war, but hard fighting lies ahead for Afghan forces now suffering heavy casualties. [Milley] also told reporters by video teleconference from his headquarters in Kabul that he thinks the Taliban no longer are capable of overthrowing the U.S.-backed Afghan government. But, he said, the insurgents are resilient and capable of continuing to fight ‘for a fairly long period of time.' The U.S. and its NATO allies are due to complete their combat mission in Afghanistan in December 2014. ‘Right now I would say that the conditions are set for winning this war. But it is not yet won, and it is not yet over,' Milley said. He said the Taliban have failed to achieve their 2013 strategic goal of regaining lost ground." Read AP here. Read Stripes' bit here.

Hagel explains the pivot and why engaging in Asia is important.  Hagel, who recently returned from a week-long trip to Asia, talked on a youtube video produced by the Pentagon about what he did on his recent trip to Asia and why it's critical. Hagel: "There's an entire universe of issues that you're dealing with, challenges, threats, problems, and so you have to balance those, work through those, and so Egypt, Syria, big issues, immediate issues, I deal with those on this trip. Just because I'm in Asia and the Pacific, it doesn't mean you divorce or leave behind all these other issues. They're with you all the time. This trip, in particular, is an important trip for our security interests, for our geopolitical interest, for our economic interests, the United States is intricately connected to the Asia Pacific, so the more I can reach out to them, have their people in their countries understand what our intentions are... that communication is important, that exchange is important. It's like visiting the troops: the best way to do it is just to go out and do it." See the video, with stills from the trip, here.