National Security

FP's Situation Report: Hackers may have snagged credit card #s from Pentagon employees

Budget day at the Pentagon; What is a "toggle?"; U.S. working to aid Ukraine; How fake poker chips could fell a naval officer; and a bit more.

 

It's a big budget day at the Pentagon. Today Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveils a $496 billion budget almost exactly a year after he arrived at the Pentagon, a budget that reflects the true post-war thinking of the Defense Department after more than 12 years of war. Hagel's budget includes dozens of decisions, including changes that "slow the growth" to military compensation in the future, but really can't be described as cuts, a senior defense official told Situation Report today.

A year ago, the Pentagon was criticized because the administration told it not to plan for sequestration since no one thought it would really happen. The budget deal in December prevented sequestration this year. However, if sequestration returns, the budget Hagel is proposing today will have a built-in feature essentially to allow Pentagon bean counters to reduce funding for the budget overall and for individual programs. "We've done the work that will show exactly what we're prepared to do should sequestration come back," a senior defense official told Situation Report.

What's a "toggle?" It's the internal word Pentagon folks are using to describe a program that may have to "toggle" from the proposed funding figure to a sequestration-level spending amount.

Will there be a separate part of the budget for overseas operations - a war budget? Nope. Still waiting on resolution to the security agreement issue with Afghanistan.

Pentagon budget marks historic shift in US priorities abroad. The NYT's Thom Shanker and Helene Cooper: "Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since before the World War II buildup and eliminate an entire class of Air Force attack jets in a new spending proposal that officials describe as the first Pentagon budget to aggressively push the military off the war footing adopted after the terror attacks of 2001... The new American way of war will be underscored in Mr. Hagel's budget, which protects money for Special Operations forces and cyberwarfare. And in an indication of the priority given to overseas military presence that does not require a land force, the proposal will - at least for one year - maintain the current number of aircraft carriers at 11." Read more here.

For military compensation growth, it's the end of an era: The budget Hagel reveals today will reflect limits on military pay raises, higher fees for health-care benefits and less generous housing allowances, per the WSJ's Don Nissenbaum and Julian E. Barnes: "...Faced with steadily increasing military personnel costs that threaten to overwhelm an ever-tighter budget, Mr. Hagel is also expected to include a one-year freeze on raises for top military brass-a gesture meant to show that the best-compensated leaders also will make sacrifices.
"...Pentagon officials say that they recognize the political realities, but emphasize that declining military spending makes trimming costs even more important this year." Personnel costs reflect some 50% of the Pentagon budget and cannot be exempted in the context of the significant cuts the department is facing," said Adm. John Kirby, the Defense Department's top spokesman. "Secretary Hagel has been clear that, while we do not want to, we ultimately must slow the growth of military pay and compensation.
"Veterans organizations are expected to oppose many of the proposals. Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said veterans groups understand there is a "finite amount of money," but would like to see the Pentagon focus more on other cost cuts it is seeking, such as closing unnecessary bases and scaling back weapons programs, rather than targeting personnel costs." More here.

FYI, Big meeting: Hagel is meeting with veterans service organizations today to discuss the budget and military compensation issues and essentially ask veterans groups to help him socialize a budget that does reduce compensation for the military over time to help make it more sustainable, Situation Report is told.

"The very key thing, from the start, the promise that Secretary Hagel made to the chiefs - as we make changes to military compensation, we will reinvest them back into the force - we're not going to take cuts and send them over to something completely different in the government," a senior defense official told Situation Report.

New subject: On the Pentagon's big budget day, something quick you didn't know that has nothing to do with the budget: Situation Report has learned that Pentagon police are investigating possible credit card fraud inside the Building that could affect anyone who has used a credit card at any of the Pentagon's shops or restaurants within the last three months. From a message sent out to Pentagon employees Friday from the Pentagon Force Protection Agency Corporate Communications Office: "ALL [Caps theirs] Pentagon Government and Contractor Employees: The Pentagon Force Protection Agency (PFPA) is currently investigating a case of fraudulent use of credit cards belonging to Pentagon personnel. These individuals had fraudulent charges to their account soon after they had legitimate transactions at the Pentagon.  PFPA is working with partner federal and local law enforcement agencies to determine where the credit card numbers have been compromised, as it may ultimately have no connection to the Pentagon.  If you received a fraudulent charge on your credit card bill within the last 120 days that occurred within 48 hours of a purchase at the Pentagon, please report this to us at 571-256-0000."

But PFPA didn't want to comment on the matter, citing it as an "active investigation" and thusly couldn't apparently describe for Situation Report the scope of the investigation, or how many people the agency thinks might be affected, to provide any context for an issue that, potentially, affects thousands of people who use credit cards in the Pentagon every day.

Welcome to Monday's laden edition of Situation Report. If you'd like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com and we'll just stick you on. Like what you see? Please tell a friend.  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, because if you see something, we hope you'll say something -- to Situation Report. And one more thing: please do follow us @glubold.

The Obama administration is now weighing 3k troops for Afghanistan. The WaPo's Karen DeYoung: ne of the four options President Obama is considering for a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond this year would leave behind 3,000 troops, based in Kabul and at the American installation at Bagram, U.S. officials said. Military commanders have recommended 10,000 troops, with more installations across the country. But the military has spent the past several months studying what kind of reduced counterterrorism and training operations it could conduct under the smaller option, which some in the White House favor. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to brief his NATO counterparts in Brussels this week on the status of U.S. decision making. A senior administration official said that no announcement of specific troop numbers was planned but added that 'we'll have to tell people where we stand in our thinking and planning.'" Read the rest here.

21 Afghan solders were killed by the Taliban. The WSJ's Nathan Hodge and Habib Khan Totakhil: " A Taliban attack on an army outpost killed at least 21 Afghan soldiers, a military setback that prompted President Hamid Karzai to put an overseas trip on hold. The attack Sunday morning in eastern Kunar province followed a weekend of backroom political intrigue in the capital. Two leading presidential candidates held talks about uniting their campaigns, which would give them a significant edge in the contest to succeed Mr. Karzai. The president must step down this year. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on an outpost near the village of Shirghaz in the Ghaziabad district of Kunar." Read the rest here.

This morning, a new report provides some understanding about the Afghan population's thinking as 2014 unfolds. The "Perception Survey of the Afghan People Towards the Taliban and their Future Role in Afghanistan" goes online today at the Center for National Policy. Surveyors interviewed 4,219 men and women in 11 provinces. Key findings: 80 percent of the Afghan population perceives the Afghan government to be in control of their area, and 72 percent of Afghans trust the Afghan National Army - and, surprisingly, 64 percent of the Afghan National Police. And - 80 percent of Afghans think there should be a role for the international community within the country. There will be a discussion today at noon at the Center for National Policy. Deets here.

A suicide bombing yesterday takes war among jihadi factions in Syria to a new levelReuters' Mariam Karouny: "A Syrian rebel commander who fought alongside al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and was close to its current chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was killed by a suicide attack on Sunday, intensifying infighting between rival Islamist fighters. The Observatory for Human Rights in Syria said Abu Khaled al-Soury, also known as Abu Omair al-Shamy, a commander of the Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham was killed along with six comrades by al Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It said al-Soury had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Al-Soury's death will fuel the infighting among jihadis fighting President Bashar al-Assad, a violent rivalry that has killed hundreds of fighters in recent months, rebels said." Read more here.

Page One: United States, Europe and Russia continue to jockey for influence in Ukraine. The WSJ's Jay Solomon, Vanessa Mock and Stephen Fidler: "The Obama administration worked Sunday with the European Union to forge a much-needed financial bailout of Ukraine, but also extended an olive branch to Russia by inviting it to join the effort. The U.S. response to the removal of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych drove home the delicate balance the White House is seeking to strike as it tries to cement Ukraine's future with the West without provoking a Russian intervention in a country it has long considered a strategic ally.
"Although the Ukrainian opposition's success in ousting Mr. Yanukovych suggests the West has gained the upper hand for now, the West has studiously avoided a declaration of victory out of recognition that doing so could fuel Russian President Vladimir Putin's determination to bring about a reversal.
"...Ukraine's parliament, after it took steps to weaken Mr. Yanukovych's powers, released on Saturday his staunchest political foe, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed on corruption charges in 2011. The 53-year-old became a darling of the West following the "Orange" revolutions that gripped Ukraine and other former Soviet republics in the mid-2000s. Officials say Washington had grown wary of Ms. Tymoshenko due to widespread allegations of corruption surrounding her government.
"...An EU official said a summit with Ukraine could be convened as early as next month, during which the stalled trade deal with the country could be signed. That pact could come with a large aid package that could exceed the almost €20 billion ($27.5 billion) over seven years that EU officials had previously considered tying to the EU political-and-trade agreement." Read more here.

Yanukovych left without packing his bags. FP's own Shane Harris: "It appears that in his rush to get out of Kiev, embattled Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych left behind quite a paper trail. Protesters arriving at his opulent estate, the Mezhyhirya, a kind of Swiss chalet-meets-Neverland Ranch about 12 miles from Kiev, found hundreds pages of accounting files, receipts, and dossiers on Yanukovych's political opponents floating in a river. The incriminating records were apparently dumped there by whomever was last at the palace before Yanukovych fled for parts unknown, according to multiple reports on social media Saturday and in the Ukrainian press.... The most intriguing piece of paper may be a receipt for a cash transfer of $12 million dated September 2010, about seven months after Yanukovych took office. It's not clear who gave the money, or whether Yanukovych was the recipient." Read the full story here.

The former auto mechanic who steered Ukraine away from civil war. Our story from Saturday: "The man who may be responsible for helping to keep the violence in Ukraine from escalating has reportedly left Kiev and gone to Crimea. But Ukrainian Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedyev's work may essentially be done: by helping to keep the Ukrainian military on the sidelines during the massive protests that have rocked the country in recent weeks, he set the stage for a what could be a relatively peaceful transition to a new government.
"...But despite the battles between security forces and protesters in recent weeks -- fighting that left at least 100 people dead -- the Ukrainian military never got involved. That may be largely due to the efforts of Lebedyev, a thick-necked former auto mechanic and businessman whose complete lack of defense-related experience sparked intense public criticism when his appointment was announced in December 2012. Lebedyev was derided as a Yanukovych crony, which makes his refusal to use military force of behalf of his former benefactor all the more striking."  Read the rest of our story here.

How a naval officer's story about fake poker chips could ruin his career. From the Omaha World-Herald's Steve Liewer: "Playing three phony poker chips last summer at a Council Bluffs casino started Rear Adm. Tim Giardina's troubles. But when Giardina told conflicting stories about how he wound up with the counterfeit $500 chips, things got worse. 'I was not forthright in my response about how I came into possession of the chips in question,' Giardina acknowledged in a signed statement to prosecutors last August. Now Giardina's distinguished Navy career is in limbo. He has lost his job as deputy commander for the U.S. Strategic Command. His retirement and possibly even his freedom are in jeopardy. Until now, authorities had released few specific details of what happened at the Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs last June 15. In an interview Wednesday, Giardina, too, declined to answer questions about those events, but he did talk about the tension and uncertainty in his life ever since." Read the rest here.

Listen and read NPR's Tom Bowman's piece on how the new ethics officer at the Pentagon - yet to be named - will have a full plate, here.

Randy Forbes takes issue with the QDR in the National Interest. Virginia Republican Rep. Randy Forbes' BLUF: ...The challenges here today and just over the horizon are real, but I am afraid our government's intent to plan and resource for them is far from serious. If this coming QDR again fails to meet expectations, it may be time to seriously consider alternative approaches to requiring the Pentagon to conduct long-term planning. Whatever the future of the QDR, I remain a strong supporter of the 2010 Independent Panel that successfully forged a bipartisan consensus on this nation's strategic outlook and the resources required to achieve objectives consistent with the demands of the coming decade. I look forward to reviewing both the coming QDR and QDR Independent Panel, and I will continue to look for new ways for the Congress to work with the Department to successfully construct a long-term national defense strategy consensus." Read the rest here.

The QDR focuses on the Middle East, by Defense News' John Bennett, here.

Can you hear me now? The high failure rate of the Air Force's $1,800 sat phone. Time's Mark Thompson on Swampland: "...Take the Air Force's new URT-44 personnel locator beacon (PLB), designed to help pinpoint aviators who eject or otherwise leave their plane under emergency conditions so they can be rescued. The Air Force has spent $30 million buying 17,000 of the devices since 2009 and deployed them in ejection-seat survival kits and parachute pockets. They're about the size of a fat iPhone (2.6 inches wide, 4.9 inches high, 1.28 inches thick), and weigh a little more than a pound. Mind you, this isn't intended to locate downed pilots behind enemy lines, because it transmits signals to search-and-rescue units via satellite that the bad guys could intercept. The URT-44 is basically an $1,800 satellite phone that automatically rings for aid once a pilot or crew member goes down, and needs help getting home.

That's what made its failure rate during testing last year-100%-so disconcerting." Read the rest of Thompson's bit here.

Marine Corps Times just got some e-mails that show exchanges between Marine officials about what to do with the newspaper amid its coverage of Commandant Gen. Jim Amos. Military Times' Lance Bacon: "The initiative to ban or bury the independent newspaper Marine Corps Times originated in May "on a rather tight timeline" at the behest of Gen. Jim Amos, the service's commandant, newly obtained emails show. The exchange occurred just days before Marine Corps Times published an investigative report spotlighting allegations Amos abused his authority. Marine Corps Times authenticated the internal discussion from May 15, 2013, that contradicts official statements offered recently in response to the service's abrupt and questionable decision in December to relocate the newspaper away from checkout lines at Marine Corps Exchange stores worldwide. Officials have described the move as an effort to 'professionalize' checkout counters, refuting the suggestion it was retaliation for the newspaper's ongoing coverage of allegations surrounding Amos." Read the rest, including exchanges between Marine officials, here.

Hagel's E-Ring is filling up, with more nominees en route. Defense News' Marcus Weisgerber: "The team of US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel - who's entering his second year in office - is finally taking shape. Hagel has surrounded himself with a team of experienced managers tasked with reshaping the Pentagon as defense spending declines following more than a decade of war, experts say. One senior defense official said Hagel has been pumped and energized in recent staff meetings about the prospect of having a full-up staff as he begins chapter two of his tenure at the Defense Department. Some of these undersecretaries and assistant secretaries will begin the confirmation process Feb. 25 when they appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The list of nominees includes: Robert Work, nominated for deputy defense secretary; Michael McCord, for comptroller; and Christine Wormuth, for undersecretary for policy. Also scheduled to testify are Brian McKeon, nominated to be principal deputy undersecretary for policy; David Shear, to be assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs; and Eric Rosenbach, to be assistant secretary for homeland defense. Other nominations pending in the Senate include Jessica Wright, to be the undersecretary for personnel and readiness, and Jamie Morin, to be the director of the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation Office (CAPE)." More here.

No Medal of Honor for Peralta, the Pentagon announced late Friday. The Union Tribune's Gretel Kovach: "A years-long battle to upgrade the posthumous combat award for Sgt. Rafael Peralta to the Medal of Honor appeared to end in defeat Friday, when the Pentagon announced it will not reopen the nomination for the fallen Marine. The 25-year-old San Diegan was awarded a Navy Cross, the nation's second highest medal for valor in combat, after he smothered a grenade blast during house-to-house fighting in Fallujah, Iraq in November 2004.

"Supporters in Peralta's hometown, on Capitol Hill and in the Navy have persistently campaigned for the top award, including Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, a Marine combat veteran who submitted additional evidence in support of a Medal of Honor. The entire California congressional delegation pushed to reopen the nomination, which seems unlikely now that a third defense secretary has declined to upgrade Peralta's medal.

"'Secretary (Chuck) Hagel and the department remain forever grateful to Sgt. Peralta for his selfless service to our nation,' the Pentagon said in a news release. But an 'exhaustive' review of the evidence by Hagel - as well as the armed forces medical examiner, the Defense Department general counsel, the acting undersecretary for personnel and readiness, and several high-ranking military officers - concluded that the totality of evidence in Peralta's case did not meet the "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" standard for the Medal of Honor, defense officials said." Read the rest here.

 

 

National Security

FP's Situation Report: Pre budget, loose lips at the Pentagon

The head of the military commission speaks; Cracks in the Marine's JSF; An Afghan veteran channels George's "Twix Rage"; and a bit more.


By Gordon Lubold

This is why we can't have nice things: leaks about the budget have dominated the Pentagon. Our story: If loose lips sink ships, this Pentagon is taking on a lot of water. The release of the Pentagon's massive-yet-smaller budget is just weeks away, but budget decisions like the number of ships the Navy will buy or the size of the National Guard have been dribbling out in the media for months. That has pleased reporters looking for scoops and those defense officials who seek to shape the debate about weapons programs in a budget cycle that has produced much anxiety before it has even begun. But one man is not pleased: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Hagel has told his senior officers, service secretaries, and other senior civilians that he expects they'll keep it zipped until the budget is unveiled. But the leaks about the budget before it has been unveiled have continued. One day last month -- the day after a media report indicated that the Navy's buy of the prized littoral combat ship would be cut by 40 percent -- Hagel walked into a high-level meeting of his service secretaries, chiefs, and combatant commanders to tell them again that he was really unhappy. He wasn't shrill, said one individual in the meeting, and he was measured. As he looked around the room, he was pointed and he was firm, reminding everyone there again that he expected them to keep quiet.

"The secretary is extremely disappointed in the volume of information that unnamed sources believe is in their purview to share publicly about decisions that quite frankly haven't been finalized in some cases," Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, told Situation Report. "The secretary has expressed his displeasure over these leaks to the civilian and military leadership of the department on more than one occasion."

"... Hagel is expected to do a soft rollout of the 2015 budget as early as next week. But much of what he has to say may not be news. That's due largely to the decidedly different approach he took on leaks where he favored trust of his people over strong-arming them.

Hagel's style has been markedly different. Unlike Gates and Panetta, Hagel did not require senior officers and secretaries to sign nondisclosure agreements, preferring to trust them to keep the secrets of the budget strictly confidential.

A senior defense official said Hagel wasn't naive about leaks but didn't want to run roughshod over senior officials entrusted with a wide variety of critical information. "His message to the leadership was: 'I'm going to trust you,'" the official told Situation Report. Read the rest of our story here.

Welcome to Friday's edition of Situation Report. If you'd like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com and we'll just stick you on. Like what you see? Please tell a friend.  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, because if you see something, we hope you'll say something -- to Situation Report. And one more thing: please do follow us @glubold.

Page One:  A tentative accord in Ukraine. The NYT's Andrew Kramer and Andrew Higgins: "The government of President Viktor F. Yanukovych announced a tentative resolution on Friday to a crisis that has brought days of bloodshed to Ukraine. The agreement, which has yet to be signed, was announced after all-night talks with opposition leaders, Russian representatives and the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France. In a statement later on his website quoted by The Associated Press, Mr. Yanukovych said he would call early presidential elections, form a coalition and reduce presidential powers through constitutional reforms.

"Any deal that does not include the president's departure, however, is unlikely to get very far with protesters and it was uncertain whether, in the event of a final deal, the protest movement's political leadership could deliver the support of an angry base comprising many different groups and factions." More here.

It's not all about politics in Ukraine: the loan that started it all. FP's own Jamila Trindle: "As the carnage continues in Ukraine - with scenes of wounded protesters, raging fires, and armed police in full riot gear -- it's easy to forget the whole crisis was set off by a disagreement over a loan. Late last year, with Ukraine's state coffers running low because of overspending on political priorities like subsidizing natural gas and increasing the wages of government workers, President Viktor Yanukovych faced a choice. The European Union offered a trade deal that promised to boost Ukraine's sluggish economy in exchange for harsh and politically unpopular austerity measures. Russia offered $15 billion and didn't ask Yanukovych to change much of anything. Unsurprisingly, he rejected the EU deal and opted for Moscow's bailout instead. Thousands of angry Ukrainians took to the streets in protest, and they haven't left." Read the rest here.

Chuck Hagel hasn't been able to engage Ukrainian counterpart, by USAT's Tom Vanden Brook, here. "Hagel has not been in touch recently with Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedev despite efforts to engage with him, [Rear Admiral John] Kirby said...They have been unresponsive to our requests."

The Pentagon also announced that Hagel was shaking up the office that handles the MIA Accounting Mission. AP's Bob Burns, who first broke the story on the problems within the MIA office, did a piece on the newest wrinkle on the issue, from yesterday, here.

Read DoD's transcript of the briefing yesterday with Pentagon spokesman Kirby here.

Follow "Fake Admiral Kirby" on the Tweeters and read @zorching's wisecracks about the briefing. What's @zorching's beef with the press corps' dress code, anyway? Sheesh.

Did this veteran of the Afghan war channel George Costanza? Robert McKevitt uses a forklift to get a Twix bar out of a vending machine. The DesMoines Register's Clark Kauffman: "It's a familiar tableau: an overpriced vending-machine candy bar dangles on a spiral hook, tantalizingly out of reach and refusing to drop. For most of us, that mini-drama usually ends in defeat. But not for Robert McKevitt of Spirit Lake, whose victory over an uncooperative vending machine ultimately cost him his job. McKevitt was working the second shift at Polaris Industries' warehouse in Milford when he decided to break for a snack last fall. He says he deposited $1 in a vending machine, selected a 90-cent Twix bar, and then watched as the candy bar crept forward in its slot, began its descent and was abruptly snagged by a spiral hook that held it suspended in midair.

'I was, like, ‘Oh, man,' " said McKevitt, 27. 'So I put in another dollar, and then it wouldn't do anything.'... He reportedly drove up to the vending machine, lifted it 2 feet off the concrete warehouse floor - then let it drop. He allegedly repeated the maneuver at least six times, by which time three candy bars had fallen into the chute for his retrieval... McKevitt, who served in Afghanistan with the Iowa National Guard in 2011, didn't testify at his Dec. 16 unemployment-benefits hearing." More here.

Remember, Twix is "the only candy with the cookie crunch." Watch George's "Twix Rage" here.

AFLAC is back: Ben Affleck will testify on Capitol Hill about Congo.  FP's John Hudson with a little scoopage yesterday: "With a vicious spate of mass killings plaguing the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a Senate panel is calling on experts to appear before U.S. lawmakers next week. One of them is Hollywood actor and serial activist Ben Affleck, The Cable has learned. Affleck is slated to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next Wednesday to discuss the troubled central African country of 75 million people. The Argo director has shown a keen interest in Congo in recent years through his philanthropic organization, the Eastern Congo Initiative. But not everyone thinks Affleck's resume qualifies him to testify on Capitol Hill. When the Seattle-based advisory firm working for Affleck, WilliamsWorks, tried to set up a similar event in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, Republicans did not accept, according to a Congressional aide familiar with the matter. "It was floated and turned down," said the aide. More here.

It was probably drugs: On 'Captain Phillips'' Maersk Alabama, two former SEALs are dead. The NYT's Nicholas Kulish in Nairobi and Mark Mazzetti in DC: "Two former Navy SEAL members who had been hired to protect the container ship that was attacked by Somali pirates in 2009 - an episode that became the basis of the Oscar-nominated film 'Captain Phillips' - were found dead while the ship, the Maersk Alabama, was docked in the Seychelles, officials said Thursday. While the causes of death were still under investigation, a spokesman for the ship's owners said a police report indicated that drugs were in the cabin where the two bodies were found. According to a portion of the police report shown to a reporter, the authorities found no injuries on either of the men. On a table near the bodies were 'brown powder substances' that were "suspected to be drugs." The two men were taken to Seychelles Hospital, where they were pronounced dead. More here.

From the Seychelles' Nation: "The two security guards found dead on board container ship Maersk Alabama on Tuesday are Americans Jeffrey Reynolds and Mark Kennedy, the Seychelles police have said.??Jeffrey Reynolds and Mark Kennedy were discovered dead on the ship moored in Port Victoria late in the afternoon of Tuesday February 18.? ?Their bodies were found in Kennedy's cabin by a colleague who had gone to check on him at around 4.30pm.??Both aged 44, Reynolds and Kennedy worked for Trident Security Firm USA. They were part of a ship crew of 24 members who arrived in Port Victoria on Sunday February 16 and were expected to leave at 9pm on Tuesday night." More here.

Ouch! Stress testing for the Marine Corps' version of the F-35 may be halted - for as long as a year - after cracks were found in its bulkheads. Bloomberg's Tony Capaccio: "... Testing of the fighter's durability was stopped in late September after inspections turned up cracks in three of six bulkheads on a plane used for ground testing, said Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the F-35 program office.

"The previously undisclosed suspension of the stress testing may increase scrutiny of the Marine Corps' F-35B, the most complex of the three versions of the plane, during congressional hearings on the Defense Department's fiscal 2015 budget. The department plans to request funds for 34 F-35s, eight fewer than the 42 originally planned, according to officials. Six of those planes would be for the Marines."

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's acquisition chief, who says a redesign of some of F-35B's structures, will be required based on a preliminary analysis: "We consider this significant but by no means catastrophic." More here.

Listen up, nation! Stan McChrystal was on Stephen Colbert last night. Watch it here.

Foreshadowing: The chair of the military compensation commission that will recommend big changes to military bennies - but not until 2015 - spoke to Military Times' Andrew Tilghman about how the commission is thinking. Tilghman: "Proposals to front-load military compensation with more cash now rather than back-loading it with deferred, in-kind benefits later on are gaining traction with the commission tasked with recommending reforms to the current system. 'Cash is king' to today's service members, said Alphonso Maldon Jr., the head of the Military Retirement and Compensation Modernization Commission. In an interview, Maldon offered an early window into the commission's work, which is slated for completion in February 2015. Many military officials and lawmakers expect the final report to jump-start a push for historic changes. A preference for cash is a 'trend we're seeing,' Maldon said. 'It could very well, at the end of the day, carry a lot of weight in the direction we might take.'

"While military personnel costs are under mounting pressure, Maldon said his commission is not directly seeking to save money, but rather is focusing on long-term reforms to make military compensation more cost-effective. 'We believe we can bring about some efficiencies,' he said. 'Perhaps in the long run there may even be some cost savings, but that is totally not our objective.' Read the rest here.

Oddly, State issued a travel warning for Afghanistan yesterday. The State Department often issues travel warnings - and has before for Afghanistan. Is it not still a warzone?

Prospects for peace dim in Pakistan as Pakistani gunships pound Taliban hideouts. The NYT's Salman Masood and Ihsanhullah Tipu Mehsud: "... The airstrikes took place overnight in North Waziristan and in the Khyber tribal region, and they appeared to be in retaliation for the reported killing of 23 paramilitary soldiers who had been captured by a Taliban faction in the Mohmand region. The government suspended talks with representatives of the Taliban on Monday in reaction to the killings...

"The prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, had been trying to open a channel to negotiate peace with the Taliban, despite a growing chorus of support for beginning a military offensive in North Waziristan, a rugged tribal region that serves a redoubt for militants from the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He named a team of peace representatives on Jan. 29, and the two sides held preliminary meetings starting on Feb. 6. But each side has demanded that the other announce a cease-fire as a precondition for peace talks." Read the rest here.