National Security

FP's Situation Report: The mystery of the Malaysia Airlines jet

Ukraine leader to meet Obama; Gates: Russia won't loosen its grip on Crimea; Forbidden love in Afghanistan; McCaskill's meaty sexual assault bill; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

Out of thin air: Three days later, it's still extremely unclear if the missing Malaysia Airlines jet is an international security issue or a horrible tragedy. The NYT's Thomas Fuller on Page One: "More than 48 hours after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 vanished, the mysteries over its fate have only multiplied. The Beijing-bound plane made no distress call, officials said, and the Malaysian authorities suggested it might have even begun to turn back to Kuala Lumpur midflight before it disappeared. Despite an intensive international search in the waters along its scheduled route, there were no confirmed sightings of the plane's wreckage. And electronic booking records showed that the two passengers who were traveling on stolen passports bought their tickets from the same Thai travel agency.

"The seeming security lapse, which Interpol publicly criticized, might have had nothing to do with what happened to the jet and its 239 passengers and crew. Investigators said they were ruling nothing out, including a catastrophic mechanical failure, pilot error, or both. But by late Sunday, the lack of answers - or even many clues - to the plane's disappearance added to the misery of family members left behind." Read the rest here.

From the WaPo this morning: Debris may be from missing jet. The WaPo's Simon Denyer and Chico Harlan: " The two-day, multi­nation search for a vanished Malaysia Airlines passenger jet has turned up unconfirmed debris but delivered few other clues about one of the most confounding aviation disasters in recent memory. Searchers via low-flying planes had spotted a rectangular, door-like object on Sunday and something that looked like a tail portion, but by Monday morning, authorities said their ships were unable to relocate both objects, Malaysian officials said at a Monday press conference." More here.

Rethinking black boxes: Why the plane can't tell anyone where it is. The Guardian's Stephen Trimble: "... In one of the most galling anachronisms of modern aviation technology, the "black box" that carries most if not all of the answers seems to have vanished, too. Depending on the location of the wreckage, it could be days, months or even years before anyone turns up the black box - which is usually orange - and there remains a remote possibility that the device and its precious recordings of audio and flight sensor data will never be found at all. The ongoing mystery of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is the fault of a bizarre quirk in our networked society. Even cars have broadband connectivity now, but the modern jet airliner - perhaps our most technologically evolved mode of transport - still exists in the age of radio." More here.

Welcome to Monday's edition of Situation Report, where we're back in the saddle. And we thank in the extreme FP's Dan Lamothe for sitting in for us for a few days. If you'd like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at 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.

Expect big changes in the Pentagon's five year spending priorities. Defense News' Marcus Weisgerber: "Just before Maj. Gen. Jim Martin, the US Air Force budget director, walked into the Pentagon briefing room on March 4, an aide slipped him a note. The paper said that if a reporter asked about the future of the service's Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) program, say that Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James just made the decision to keep the program alive. Thirty-four minutes into his briefing on the 2015 budget proposal, in which CRH wasn't mentioned, the question came. Martin responded: 'Breaking news, we have made a decision to fund the CRH.'

"... It was an unprecedented break from the time-tested and thoroughly regimented briefings of the past. Decisions about funding or not funding multibillion-dollar procurement programs are typically finalized well in advance of such an important briefing. That's not to mention that in a briefing by Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale earlier that afternoon, it was revealed that the CRH program would be delayed."

The bizarre moment summed up an odd two weeks in which the Defense Department struggled to explain its complicated 2015 budget proposal, sent to Congress on March 4.Reporters, budget analysts and lawmakers and their staffs were all left scratching their heads. It became clear as the week progressed that there would still be revisions to the Pentagon's plans.

Sen. Carl Levin, the Democrat from Michigan and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee: "I think there's a disconnect between the public comments and the budget documents, and I'll leave it at that." Read the rest here.

Also read Defense News' editorial, "A Budget Without Clarity," here.

Meantime, the new head of Ukraine's pro-Western government will meet with President Obama this week amid Russian defiance over Crimea. The WaPo's Anthony Faiola and Carol Morello with a Kiev dateline: "... The announcement of Wednesday's meeting in Washington with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk came as pro-Russian forces extended their reach in Crimea, surrounding a border post in the far west and blocking Ukrainian TV broadcasts to the heavily Russian-speaking region, which lies more than 400 miles southeast of the Ukrainian capital. There were reports of more troop movements into Crimea, with officials in Kiev estimating that 18,000 pro-Russian forces had fanned out across the region, which is about the size of Massachusetts." Read the rest here. ICYMI, Bob Gates was on Fox on Sunday talking Ukraine. FP's Dana Stuster: "The Obama administration is struggling to find a way of forcing Moscow to remove its troops from Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, but former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said [Sunday] it is already too late to prevent the contested region from being absorbed into Russia.

Gates, to Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday: "I do not think that Crimea will slip out of Russia's hand."

Wallace, who pressed Gates to clarify: "You think Crimea is gone?"

Gates: "I do."

Read the rest of what Stuster wrote based on the Sunday shows here.

Read Leon Aron's argument on FP about why Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. (he didn't do it just because he could, he did it because he had to, Aron argues). Read that piece here.

From this morning's White House readout of Obama's talk with President Xi over Ukraine: "...The two leaders agreed on the fundamental importance of focusing on common interests and deepening practical cooperation to address regional and global challenges for the development of bilateral relations. In that context, they affirmed their shared interest in reducing tensions and identifying a peaceful resolution to the dispute between Russia and Ukraine.  The two leaders agreed on the importance of upholding principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, both in the context of Ukraine and also for the broader functioning of the international system.  The President noted his overriding objective of restoring Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and ensuring the Ukrainian people are able to determine their own future without foreign interference."  

Meanwhile, Chinese military spending continues to be a mystery. FP's Issac Stone Fish:  "The People's Liberation Army does not have a website. There is China Military Online, which boasts that it's "approved by the Central Military Commission," (CMC) the 11-member body chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping, which oversees the PLA, and is the military's "only news portal website." There are other Chinese news sites, like Chinamil, which hosts Liberation Daily, a newspaper put out by the PLA's general political department, the shadowy department tasked with running the army's political activities. And there's a website for China's Ministry of National Defense, an organ which is subordinate to the CMC, and which is nominally the public face of the PLA. But the world's largest standing army, and the CMC which oversees it, has decided not to bother.

"On March 5, during an annual meeting of its legislature, Beijing announced that it is increasing its military budget by 12.2 percent, to a total of $131.6 billion in 2014. While still less than a third of the $496 billion that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposed in February for the U.S. military in 2015, it still represents a significant expansion, even after two decades of double-digit growth in the PLA's official budget. But few doubt that the grand total allocated to China's military is yet higher, and many in the U.S. government wish they had more insight into the method to the darkness surrounding the PLA." More here.

Page One: Two Afghans share forbidden love. The NYT's Rod Nordland in Bamian, Afghanistan:  "She is his Juliet and he is her Romeo, and her family has threatened to kill them both. Zakia is 18 and Mohammad Ali is 21, both the children of farmers in this remote mountain province. If they could manage to get together, they would make a striking couple. She dresses colorfully, a pink head scarf with her orange sweater, and collapses into giggles talking about him. He is a bit of a dandy, with a mop of upswept black hair, a white silk scarf and a hole in the side of his saddle-toned leather shoes. Both have eyes nearly the same shade, a startling amber.

"They have never been alone in a room together, but they have publicly declared their love for each other and their intention to marry despite their different ethnicities and sects. That was enough to make them outcasts, they said, marked for death for dishonoring their families - especially hers. Zakia has taken refuge in a women's shelter here. Even though she is legally an adult under Afghan law, the local court has ordered her returned to her family. 'If they get hold of me,' she said matter-of-factly, 'they would kill me even before they get me home.'" Read the rest here.

Here's the beef: Turns out, Claire McCaskill's sexual assault bill is "meatier than advertised." The WaPo's Melinda Henneberger: Sen. Claire McCaskill's bill to overhaul - yes, overhaul - the way sexual-assault cases are handled in the military has routinely been described as more modest, conservative, watered-down and incremental than her Senate colleague Kirsten Gillibrand's measure. The legislation pushed by Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), which would have taken the prosecution of sex crimes in the military out of the chain of command and put it in the hands of military prosecutors, was narrowly defeated Friday.

"McCaskill's bill is expected to pass Monday, a result widely seen as an affront to victims by a Congress that is still too male and overawed by military commanders to meaningfully challenge them. But occasionally the first draft of history is written by the losers, and that's certainly the case for Gillibrand..." McCaskill, meanwhile, has just as clearly lost by winning, with far less attention paid to either her bill or her view.

"The supposed nothing-burger of the bill put forth by McCaskill (D-Mo.) would get rid of the "good soldier" defense that takes irrelevant factors such as the service record of the accused into account. In cases where there is a dual jurisdiction because the crime occurred off of a military base, the victim would get a say in whether the case would be handled in a civilian or military court. It would extend protections to students in service academies. And it would require that in every decision on every promotion in the military, that commander's record on the handling of sexual-assault cases would have to be taken into account." Read the rest here.

Sinclair's accuser was herself ambitious. The AP's Jeffrey Collins and Michael Biesecker: "The Army captain who has accused Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair of sexually assaulting her during their three-year relationship was an ambitious soldier with plans to make the military her career, much like the boss she loved and admired. Stirred by the 9/11 attacks to leave college and join the military, she signed up with the Army, learned the in-demand language of Arabic and showed a laser focus in trying to carve out a reputation as a soldier who could be counted on in the toughest of situations...

"Her credibility is central to the case. Is she a woman whose affair with a charismatic and approachable superior ended with him forcing her to perform oral sex and threatening to kill her and her family? Or is she, as Sinclair's lawyers have portrayed, a jilted lover who fabricated allegations of sexual assault when Sinclair refused to leave his wife?" Read the rest here.


National Security

FP's Situation Report: Can John Brennan really handle the CIA-Senate standoff?

Crimea moves toward secession; The Pentagon’s new controversial retirement plan unveiled; and a bit more.

By Dan Lamothe

Meet John Brennan, who will celebrate his first anniversary as CIA director in the crosshairs.
Foreign Policy's Shane Harris takes a long look at the spy agency's chief, in light of ugly accusations that have emerged this week on Capitol Hill. From his story: "Saturday, CIA Director John Brennan will mark his first year at the helm of America's most storied intelligence agency. But this is probably not the way he planned to celebrate his anniversary: publicly trading recriminations with members of Congress over one of the darkest chapters in the CIA's history. Late Wednesday evening, Brennan issued a combative statement in response to news reports that some lawmakers have accused the CIA of interfering with a three-year long Senate investigation of whether the CIA tortured suspected terrorists and whether brutal interrogation tactics such as waterboarding produced useful information about potential attacks. Lawmakers reportedly also accuse the agency of not disclosing documents that bolster their findings. The Senate report, which remains classified and hasn't been released publicly, is said to be a blistering indictment of the interrogation program and an account of how the CIA misled members of Congress about it. "The report concludes the committee was systematically lied to over a period of years, and that's true," a former intelligence official told Foreign Policy.

The story could get worse for the CIA, however. More form Harris' story: "And yet the most explosive part of the story may be yet to come, and it's one that will put Brennan, and his close ties to President Barack Obama, squarely in the spotlight. The question remains of whether the president or his advisers knew that members of Congress accused the CIA of interfering with their investigation, when they knew it, and what, if anything, the president did in response. On Tuesday, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), alluded to the question in a letter to Obama. ‘As you are aware, the CIA has recently taken unprecedented action against the Committee in relation to the internal CIA review,' a reference to an agency document that reportedly backs up the committee's conclusions and that the CIA allegedly didn't disclose during the investigation. Udall called the action, about which he didn't elaborate, ‘incredibly troubling.' More here.

Life in Crimea just grew even more complicated, thanks to a vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. In essence, it raises the strong possibility that Russia will absorb Crimea against the will of the Ukrainian government, the kind of move that hasn't been pulled since World War II. The Wall Street Journal has the story, with reporting from Lukas I. Alpert in Moscow and Margaret Coker in Simferopol, Ukraine: "Crimea's Moscow-backed government voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia and accelerated a snap referendum to ratify the move, a dramatic escalation of tension that pushed the West closer to imposing sanctions if Russian troops don't withdraw. The scheduling of the vote for March 16 means that Crimea could be absorbed into Russia in a matter of weeks. It also means the referendum could be held while the region is under de facto Russian occupation-with no opportunity for a free and fair campaign." More here.

Russia, meanwhile, signaled Friday that they will embrace Crimea if it wants to break away from Ukraine.
From the New York Times, with reporting from Steven Lee Myers in Moscow, David M. Herszenhorn in Ukraine, and Alan Cowell in London: "Leaders of both houses of Russia's Parliament said on Friday that they would support a vote by Crimea to break away from Ukraine and become a new region of the Russian Federation, the first public signal that the Kremlin was backing the secessionist move that Ukraine, the United States and other countries have denounced as a violation of international law. Valentina I. Matviyenko, the chairwoman of the upper house, the Federation Council, compared the vote to a scheduled referendum in Scotland on whether to become independent from Britain, omitting the fact that London has agreed to the ballot. Ukraine's new interim leaders have fiercely opposed splintering the country. The speaker of the lower house, Sergei Y. Naryshkin, echoed Ms. Matviyenko's remarks. ‘We will respect the historic choice of the people of Crimea,' he said." U.S. officials, of course, don't see that as a legitimate option. More here.

Obama's Ukraine choices, defended. Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow for the Center of American Progress and noted Obama supporter, offers up the following analysis in a blog post post for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: "Although President Obama would doubtless like to see Putin pay a price for his illegal invasion and occupation, the United States has bigger fish to fry with the Russian government, namely, the need for continued Russian support for the sanctions against and negotiations with Iran and the implementation of the new START agreement. The United States also needs Russian buy-in for a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict, including the continued destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, as well as for the transportation of supplies into and out of Afghanistan via Russia and former Soviet Republics." Read the rest here.

Republicans don't seem to agree, however. There is plenty of grumbling on Capitol Hill about Crimea, FP's John Hudson notes on The Cable: "Under a streamlined process, the House of Representatives voted 385-23 to allow the administration to guarantee private-sectors loans to Kiev's cash-strapped government. The move allows for previously appropriated funds for Jordan to be used to cover loan guarantees for Ukraine -- but does not deal with the contentious issue of punitive measures against Russia. Legislation authorizing the sanctions could be taken up as early as Friday but is more likely to be debated next week. The vote marks the first Congressional action to bolster Ukraine, which is undergoing a geopolitical crisis following Russia's occupation of its Crimean peninsula. On Thursday, House leadership expressed frustration that it had taken heat for being a ‘do-nothing Congress,' when it acted faster than the Democratically-controlled Senate. ‘The president knew this was being voted on this afternoon and he goes into the Brady Room and says Congress has to act on my words?' a Republican House leadership aide said. ‘For God's sake. We're doing what you want.' More here.

Welcome to Friday's edition of Situation Report. I'm Dan Lamothe, and I'm wrapping up a three-day stint filling in for your usual master of ceremonies, Gordon Lubold. If you'd like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send him a note at and he'll stick you on. And if you like what you see, tell a friend.  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 somethingwe hope you'll say something -- to Situation Report. One more thing: please follow me at @DanLamothe and Gordon at @glubold for delightful wit and national security analysis. You can also always reach me at Thanks for reading this week.

The cat's out of the bag on the Pentagon's controversial new plan to cut back military retirements. Military Times' Andrew Tilghman has the details in an exclusive report posted last night: "After years of silence on the intensely controversial issue of military retirement reform, the Pentagon on Thursday unveiled a detailed proposal for fundamental, far-reaching changes to the current pension system, Military Times has learned. The changes would preserve the current system's defining feature of a 20-year, ‘cliff-vesting,' fixed-income pension. But it would ultimately provide smaller monthly checks, according to documents obtained by Military Times. To compensate for that, the new proposal would offer three new cash payments to be provided long before old age - a 401(k)-style defined contribution benefit awarded to all troops who serve at least six years; a cash retention bonus at around 12 years of service; and a potentially large lump-sum ‘transition pay' provided upon retirement to those who serve 20 years or more."

And the troops will be good with this? More from Tilghman's story: "The proposal is based on a deeper level of analysis than other plans drawn up outside the Pentagon. Manpower experts used complex computer models to help gauge how subtle adjustments in compensation affect troops' decisions about their own careers. ‘Unlike some of the proposals in the past, we were able to model various concepts to determine their impact on recruitment and retention,' [a] senior defense official said. Those retention models show that previous proposals calling for the elimination of the fixed-benefit pension and replacing it entirely with a 401(k)-style investment account would have a ‘devastating' effect on retention." More here.

Afghanistan's mining potential, unveiled. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Pentagon's Task Force for Business and Stability Operations are set to unveil the latest in hyperspectral photos of Afghanistan to the public in events at the Afghan embassy in Washington at 10:30 a.m. Monday. The information is important to the country because of its rich deposits of minerals, defense officials tell Situation Report. It will be closely analyzed by gas, oil, and mining companies looking to make money there -- a potential spot for investing in the war-torn country. Mohammad Akbar Barakzai, Afghanistan's minister of mines and petroleum, is expected to speak, along with TSBSO's director, Joseph Catalino, and USGS's acting director, Dr. Suzette Kimball.

Here's how Iran hacked the U.S. Navy's NMCI network. The Wall Street Journal's Siobhan Gorman has a troubling story this morning raising questions about how the Navy's computer network allowed Iranian hackers in. From her story: "A major infiltration of a military network blamed on Iran was facilitated by a poorly written contract with computer-services provider Hewlett-Packard Co., said people familiar with the matter. H-P's contract with the military didn't require it to provide specific security for a set of Navy Department databases, and as a result, no one regularly maintained security for them. That eased access for hackers, who used the opening to penetrate deep into the Navy Marine Corps Intranet network, said people familiar with the matter. The findings of the Navy's investigation are being closely watched by lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who next week are set to evaluate the nomination of Vice Adm. Michael Rogers as National Security Agency director. Adm. Rogers was the Navy cyber chief who oversaw the response. The intrusion, which officials said didn't compromise classified information or email, took about four months to clean up." More here.

The U.S. military takes another hit on sexual assault, thanks to allegations against the Army's top sexual assault prosecutor. Yes, really. From Stars and Stripes' Chris Carroll and John Vandiver: "The top Army prosecutor for sexual assault cases has been suspended after a lawyer who worked for him recently reported he'd groped her and tried to kiss her at a sexual-assault legal conference more than two years ago. Two separate sources with knowledge of the situation told Stars and Stripes that the Army is investigating the allegations levied against Lt. Col. Joseph "Jay" Morse, who supervised the Army's nearly two dozen special victim prosecutors - who are in charge of prosecuting sexual assault, domestic abuse and crimes against children. Attempts to reach Morse via phone and email for comment have thus far been unsuccessful. Morse was removed from his job when the allegations came to light, one source said. To date, no charges have been filed in the case."

A bit more on the allegations: "Sources told Stars and Stripes that the Army lawyer alleged that Morse attempted to kiss and grope her against her will. The alleged assault reportedly took place in a hotel room at a 2011 sexual assault legal conference attended by special victims prosecutors in Alexandria, Va., before he was appointed as chief of the Trial Counsel Assistance Program. The lawyer reported the incident in mid-February, and Morse was suspended shortly thereafter, according to one source." More here.

The Council on Foreign Relations has a new blog, and its beginning by taking on critics of planned force cuts in the military. It will be manned by Janine Davidson, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans. Among her jobs in the Pentagon, she led policy efforts for the military's rebalance to the Pacific. From her post yesterday: "Cutting the army by about 19 percent seems severe; until one considers that the Army has actually grown by about 14 percent in the last ten years. There were 490,000 soldiers serving on active duty at the start of the Iraq ‘surge' in 2006, about the same in 2001. Reducing to 450,000 after over a decade of fighting is a net reduction of 40,000. This 8 percent cut will still bite, but it is quite small compared to the 35-50 percent drops that took place after other big wars." More here.

Cow PTSD, explored. Oregon Public Broadcasting has an unusual story today outlining research by Oregon State University. The headline? "Bovine PTSD? Scared Cows Cost Ranchers Too." From their story: "When driving by cows grazing along the highway, it seems like the animal's highs and lows of life are based on where they'll get their next meal. But researchers believe that when cows experience particularly stressful situations, like being stalked or attacked by predators, they can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. An Oregon State University study finds that cows that have suffered trauma or stress-related illness experience more difficulties getting pregnant in comparison to cows that haven't. For much of the population this doesn't mean much, but for ranchers it means lost profits. ‘Cattle that are exposed to wolf depredation will produce less calves, which translates to a reduction in the amount of food produced for human consumption,' says David Bohnert, director and associate professor at OSU's Eastern Oregon Agriculture Research Center in Burns. More here.