National Security

FP's Situation Report: Boko Haram suggests a swap; Abdullah Abdullah wins a major endorsement; Syria wants antiaircraft missiles; Hagel wheels up today; The Army's search for a Patron Saint of Public Affairs; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

Boko Haram says it will release the abducted schoolgirls in return for prisoners. Reuters' Matthew Mpoke Bigg, in Abuja this hour: "The leader of the Nigerian Islamist rebel group Boko Haram has said he will release more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by his fighters last month in exchange for prisoners, according to a video seen by Agence France-Presse on Monday.

"Around 100 girls wearing full veils and praying are shown in an undisclosed location in the 17-minute video in which Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau speaks, according to the French news agency... Nigeria said on Saturday it had deployed two army divisions to the hunt for the girls while several nations including the United States, Britain, Israel and France have offered assistance or sent experts. The Nigerian government has been sharply criticized for its response to the abductions but President Goodluck Jonathan said on Sunday that international military and intelligence assistance made him optimistic about finding the girls." More here.

Shekau also claims the girls converted to Islam. CNN: "A Boko Haram video emerged Monday purportedly showing some of the kidnapped Nigerian girls in Muslim headdresses and the terror group's leader declaring they have converted to Islam. The video, released by French news agency Agence France-Presse, was shot in a nondescript bush area and showed about 100 girls." More here.

Sorrow but little progress in the search for girls, on Page One in the NYT here.

Welcome to Monday'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? 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. Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4.

The Saudis allege that Saudi recruits of a radical Islamist group in Syria plotted with others to assassinate leaders. The WSJ's Ellen Knickmeyer: "...The alleged plot, and another involving al Qaeda's Yemen branch, were behind the arrests of 62 terror suspects in Saudi Arabia. Those arrested included 35 previously convicted Saudis, some of them graduates of the kingdom's rehabilitation program for militants, Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al Turki said on Sunday. Saudi officials haven't said when they were arrested." More here.

And, Syrian rebels are lobbying for U.S. antiaircraft missiles. Also from the WSJ; Adam Entous: "The leader of Syria's main political opposition group will ask a reluctant Obama administration to entrust a group of specially trained rebels with a limited number of shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons known as Manpads.

"Ahead of talks at the White House this week, Ahmed Jarba said in an interview that he will ask the U.S. to either provide the advanced antiaircraft weapons directly to the opposition or to give a green light to another country to provide the systems... He said stringent safeguards would be put in place to ensure the weapons can't fall into the hands of al Qaeda-linked militants. He added that he will assure the White House the moderate and secular-leaning Free Syrian Army is committed to defeating al Qaeda's allies." More here.

Meantime, Hagel is wheels up today for a five-day trip to the Middle East. The Pentagon announced publicly on Friday that Hagel was headed to the region starting today. It will be his third trip to the Middle East. He'll first stop in Saudi Arabia, where he'll participate in a U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council defense ministerial.

Pentagon Pressec Rear Adm. John Kirby on Friday: "This meeting agenda will be the first U.S.-GCC defense ministers forum since 2008, and it provides an important and timely opportunity for the United States to step up cooperation with Gulf nations as we confront common regional security challenges related to Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. The ministerial is designed to strengthen multilateral security cooperation in the region focusing on enhanced GCC coordination on air and missile defense, maritime security, and cyber defense. It is also an opportunity for the secretary to underscore U.S. security commitments in the Middle East and to reinforce the United States' unstinting policy of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and further destabilizing the region."

Hagel's next stop this week will be Jordan.

Read the transcript that details the trip here.

Staffers on a plane - Chief of Staff Mark Lippert; Senior Military Assistant Lt. Gen. Abe Abrams; Special Assistant Cara Abercrombie; Trip Director J.P. Eby, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International and Security Affairs Derek Chollet; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Matt Spence; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy Eric Rosenbach; Pentagon Pressec Rear Adm. John Kirby; Assistant Presssec Carl Woog; Chief Speechwriter Jacob Freedman and Speechwriter Tarun Chhabra.

Reporters on a plane - AP's Bob Burns, Reuters' Missy Ryan, Bloomberg's David Lerman, the NYT's Helene Cooper, Fox's Justin Fishel, the WSJ's Adam Entous; the WaPo's Ernesto Londono; the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg; CBS' Margaret Brennan.

Who's Where When today - Defense Information Systems Agency Director Lt. Gen. Ronnie Hawkins, Jr., delivers the keynote at the 2014 Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA) Conference on Joint Information Environment at 12:15 p.m. EDT at the Baltimore Convention Center.

Afghanistan's Abdullah Abdullah secures a key ally ahead of the run-off. The NYT's Alissa Rubin: "Abdullah Abdullah, the front-runner in Afghanistan's presidential election campaign, announced Sunday that he had won the endorsement of Zalmay Rassoul, the third-place candidate, as part of his effort to gather enough support to win in the next round of voting.

"Together the two men's tickets took about 55 percent of the vote in the first round of voting on April 5, but there is no guarantee that voters would vote the same way in a second round, tentatively set for June 14. Adding to the prospect that Mr. Rassoul may not bring all his first-round votes with him is that his team appears to have split, with one of his two vice-presidential running mates declining to support Mr. Abdullah's campaign. Mr. Abdullah's camp and some analysts worry that a runoff could be rife with fraud and that there is a considerable risk that it could be disrupted by the Taliban. The insurgents' campaign of violence failed to have much impact in the first round, but the Taliban could redouble their efforts to intimidate voters in a runoff." More here.

Pro-Russian separatists declare victory in eastern Ukraine after Sunday's vote - but the U.S. says it was illegal.  The WSJ's James Marson, Philip Shishkin and Alan Cullison: "Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine declared victory in a secession referendum Sunday, ratcheting up tensions between the West and Moscow, which by recognizing the results could push the country toward a breakup.
"Ukraine called the vote illegal and riddled with irregularities, and part of a wider campaign by Moscow to punish Kiev for pursuing closer relations with Europe.
"But Sunday's vote saw long lines at some polling places and was immediately hailed as a triumph by separatist leaders and Russian state media. Kiev's fledgling government is scrambling to mount presidential elections May 25, which it hopes will shore up its legitimacy, and faces growing hurdles after losing control of provinces in the east to pro-Russian rebels. Local police in the region are of dubious loyalty, and army units have stalled in their offensive against rebel strongholds.
"...Amid an absence of electoral observers and a heavy presence of separatist gunmen patrolling the streets, the government in Kiev said the results of the vote were certain to be rigged. Just after midnight in Donetsk, the separatists said 89% of ballots had been cast in favor of ‘self rule,' with 10% against and 1% invalid. Turnout was 75%, they said in a statement." More here.

Sunday's Page One ICYMI: Two Americans who were attacked while getting a haircut in Yemen kill the two Al-Qaida-linked attackers. The NYT's Shuaib Almosawa and Eric Schmitt: "The kidnappers pulled up in a pickup truck outside the Taj barbershop in an upscale neighborhood here in the Yemeni capital. One held an AK-47 assault rifle and the other carried a stun gun. As the men went inside, nearby shopkeepers heard shots.
"Then a foreigner - tall, with the physique of a body builder, and holding a black gun - was seen standing over one of the mortally wounded attackers in the doorway of the barbershop, witnesses said. The foreigner kicked an automatic weapon out of the man's hands, looked right and left down the street, jumped into a nearby sport utility vehicle and drove away.
"...While much about the encounter remains unclear, a Yemeni official said Saturday that the two Yemeni assailants were part of a cell linked to Al Qaeda that had planned and executed several attacks on foreigners in the country. Whether by design or chance, the official said, the Americans had apparently disrupted a kidnapping ring that government officials blame for killing a Frenchman last week, kidnapping a Dutch couple last year, trying to assassinate a German diplomat last month, and attacking the central prison here in February, freeing 19 inmates.
"The shooting at the barbershop led Yemeni authorities to the group's leader, Wael Abdullah al-Waeli, said an Interior Ministry spokesman, Col. Mohamed al-Qaidi. Yemeni officials said that they killed Mr. Waeli last Wednesday during a shootout in the capital. The State Department announced Wednesday that it had closed its embassy here to the public because of security concerns." More here.

Meantime, a December drone attack in Yemen reveals the tension between the CIA and the Pentagon over the program. The LA Times' Ken Dilanian: "Soon after a U.S. military drone killed about a dozen people on a remote road in central Yemen on Dec. 12, a disturbing narrative emerged.
"Witnesses and tribal leaders said the four Hellfire missiles had hit a convoy headed to a wedding, and the Yemeni government paid compensation to some of the victims' families. After an investigation, Human Rights Watch charged that ‘some, if not all those killed and wounded were civilians.'
"Such claims are common in the U.S. drone war, and just as commonly dismissed by Obama administration officials who insist that drone strikes are based on solid intelligence and produce few unintended casualties. But in this case, the CIA and the Pentagon sharply disagreed with each other.
"...According to two U.S. officials who would not be quoted discussing classified matters, the CIA informed the command before the attack that the spy agency did not have confidence in the underlying intelligence.
"After the missiles hit, CIA analysts assessed that some of the victims may have been villagers, not militants. The National Counterterrorism Center, which coordinates terrorism intelligence from multiple agencies, is somewhere in the middle, saying the evidence is inconclusive." More here.

Prosecutors are trying to hold on to whatever is left of the Blackwater case. The NYT's Matt Apuzzo on Page One: ... over the years, a case that once seemed so clear-cut has been repeatedly undermined by the government's own mistakes. Prosecutors are trying to hold together what is left of it. But charges against one contractor were dropped last year because of a lack of evidence. And the government suffered another self-inflicted setback in April when a federal appeals court ruled that the prosecution had missed a deadline and allowed the statute of limitations to expire against a second contractor, Nicholas A. Slatten, a former Army sniper from Tennessee who investigators believe fired the first shots in Nisour Square. A judge then dismissed the case against Mr. Slatten." More here.

Hagel, on ABC on Sunday, says the military should review its transgender ban. From the AP: "The prohibition on transgender individuals serving in the U.S. military ‘continually should be reviewed,' Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Sunday. Hagel did not indicate whether he believes the policy should be overturned. However, he said ‘every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it.' ... A military review of transgender issues could occur as it also deals with questions about how to treat transgender prisoners. Chelsea Manning, a former Army private serving a 35-year prison sentence for providing classified documents to WikiLeaks, is fighting to be treated as a woman. She is seeking a counselor who specializes in gender issues and also wants to get hormone replacement therapy, which the military has said it does not provide." More here.

Hagel also said that medical care for U.S. veterans is 'not good enough' but he backed Shinseki. Reuters' Will Dunham: "Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said on Sunday the care given to U.S. veterans by the Department of Veterans Affairs is ‘not good enough' but offered support for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has rejected calls to resign. ...‘I do support General Shinseki,' Hagel told the ABC program ‘This Week,' referring to the former four-star Army general who lost part of a foot to a land mine during the Vietnam War. ‘But there's no margin here. If this (reported delays in care), in fact, or any variation of this occurred, all the way along the chain accountability is going to have to be upheld here because we can never let this kind of outrage, if all of this is true, stand in this country,' the defense secretary added." More here.

The WSJ's Michael Phillips reports on a woman who still receives a check from the VA for her father's service during the Civil War. Read that here.

Not the Onion, not the Duffel Blog: Army public affairs is looking for a future "Patron Saint of Army Public Affairs." From the Chief of Army Public Affairs Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky last week: "I would like your input as we select the future Patron Saint of Army Public Affairs. The intent is to collect your submissions, convene a review and selection panel, and announce the new Patron Saint of Army Public Affairs by the end of May... Send your submissions in a word document and include any graphics or pictures you can accumulate on your nominated saint... your submissions should include the following: one, the history concerning the saint; two, why that particular saint would serve as an appropriate Patron Saint of Army Public Affairs, and three, graphics, images or art of the recommended saint. Army Strong!"

Hagel to Congress: quit monkeying with my budget. Hagel is "not pleased" with the House Armed Services Committee's mark-up last week of the defense budget. That story here.

The Air Force faces more tough choices in 2016. Defense News' Aaron Mehta: "When the US Air Force unveiled its budget in early March, it presented an unusual two-tier projection. The first was the normal five-year defense program. The second was a list of items that would be endangered if sequestration funding levels were not raised for 2016. The hope for the service was that members of Congress would see future cuts coming and act to raise funding levels to prevent them. But two months later, Air Force officials seem to be coming to grips that a congressional rescue isn't coming.

"At an April 30 event, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said, ‘I am not seeing any indication' that Congress plans to change the 2016 budget plan. Days later, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James echoed his comments. ‘The conversations that I have had in Congress, with both congressmen, senators and staff members, overwhelmingly suggests that it's less than a 50-50 chance,' James said. ‘But... I'm an optimist, so I'm going to continue to push. I'm not going to give up. But realistically we have to think through that if we return to sequestration, how do we manage it?'" More here.

Wanna read about the Navy's new "Expeditionary Fleet?" For Breaking Defense, Rob Holzer: "What's in a name? A lot, especially for the military. Over the next decade, the Navy will take delivery of at least 32 Littoral Combat Ships (LCS); 10 Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSV); three Mobile Landing Platforms (MLP); several Afloat Forward Staging Bases; and new versions of amphibious assault ships and Ship-to-Shore connector craft. New riverine boats, upgraded patrol craft and new versions of Lewis and Clark-class T-AKE ships may also be added to this interesting platform mix." More here.

BTW, what was the White House security detail doing in rural Maryland? The WaPo's Carol Leonning over the weekend: "Top Secret Service officials ­ordered members of a special unit responsible for patrolling the White House perimeter to abandon their posts over at least two months in 2011 in order to protect a personal friend of the agency's director, according to three people familiar with the operation. The new assignment, known internally as Operation Moonlight, diverted agents to a rural area outside the southern Maryland town of La Plata, nearly an hour's drive from Washington. Agents were told that then-Director Mark Sullivan was concerned that his assistant was being harassed by her neighbor, the three people said. Two agents were sent twice a day, in the morning and the evening, to monitor the home of the assistant, Lisa Chopey. The trips began June 30, 2011, and extended through the summer before tapering off in August, according to people familiar with internal shift records." More here.

 

National Security

FP's Situation Report: Iraqis want attack drones; Anbar rages; Obama's war on transparency; House passes a budget; Worries about CIA's Afg plans; Why Geoff Morrell makes the big bucks; and a bit more.

 

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

The Iraqis want armed drones and would accept American operators in the country if that's what it takes. Lubold's story: The Iraqi government is actively seeking armed drones from the U.S. to combat al Qaeda in its increasingly violent Anbar province, and in a significant reversal, would welcome American military drone operators back into the country to target those militants on its behalf, according to people with knowledge of the matter... Iraq has long sought drones for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes and has begun to receive some from the U.S. in limited numbers. But the nature of the fight the Maliki government confronts in western Iraq is such that officials say Baghdad is looking not only for better reconnaissance and surveillance capability, but also for more robust, lethal platforms.

Iraq has been unwilling to accept American military personnel in the country in any operational form, but the willingness to revisit that policy appears now to be shifting. A spokesman for the Iraqi Embassy declined to comment on the issue of allowing American military personnel into the country to conduct drone operations, but acknowledged that the U.S. and Iraq share a "common enemy" in al Qaeda.

... But the Iraqis want more. Specifically, they want armed drones, like the Predators or Reapers Washington uses to target al Qaeda fighters and other militants in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. While selling the Iraqis such systems outright would likely be a political non-starter, at least some officials from the same government that once demanded the withdrawal of all U.S. troops have switched their tune and now want U.S. personnel to come back to Iraq to operate the unmanned aircraft if that's what it would take to obtain the capability.

"There is more willingness to have a discussion" about having American trainers and technicians return to the country to support and operate armed drone systems, said a senior Iraqi official, speaking anonymously due to the sensitive nature of the matter. "We are after a stronger capability," the official said. "We want attack capability."

... Pentagon officials said they could not comment on the matter... A spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan, said such a proposal is not under active consideration.

Andrew Shapiro, who served as the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs until last year: "It's not a crazy idea, but one that would require a lot of work to make a reality," he said. "The question is could you come up with an agreement that would satisfy what the Iraqis are looking for but also address concerns on the Hill and elsewhere." Read the rest of our story here.

Iraq's Anbar has become "a deadly Iraqi battleground," and the Shiite government's war against Islamists threatens to split the country. The WaPo's Loveday Morris, on Page One this morning: "Iraq's acting defense minister looks beleaguered, his face drawn, with deep bags below his eyes from a lack of sleep. For four months, Sadoun al-Dulaimi has been operating from Anbar, the most dangerous province for U.S. soldiers during the Iraq war and one again riven by conflict. The army has dispatched 42,000 troops here in a bid to quell al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists and hostile tribesmen, whose resurgence is posing the biggest test for the Iraqi military and the country's Shiite-led government since the withdrawal of U.S. forces 2 1/2 years ago.

"The battle is filled with potential pitfalls. A government failure to regain control in Sunni-dominated Anbar would jeopardize the country's unity. But an escalated military offensive could deepen anger among the nation's Sunni minority, fanning the flames of sectarian war. The fight has proved tougher than expected. Hundreds of soldiers have died, and the military is facing mass desertions. The government says it is incapable of stemming the flow of hardened militants, who are often better equipped than Iraqi forces, across the border from Syria."

"Like the United States before it, the Iraqi government has been attempting to recruit Sunni tribesmen to help in the fight. Dulaimi, who hails from Anbar's largest tribe, spends much of his time negotiating with tribal leaders. He is also Iraq's culture minister and has a PhD in psychology, and he acknowledges that he prefers 'the academic life.' But for now, his life is consumed by the conflict. 'It's one of the sheiks,' he said, apologizing as he took a phone call on a recent evening. 'We are trying to be nice to the sheiks, because we are supposed to be fighting shoulder to shoulder.'" More here.

Welcome to Friday's edition of Situation Report, where we bid adieu to FP's own Dan Lamothe, our excellent SitRep stand-in when we were out of town and all-around stand-up guy. His last day is today and he's headed to the WaPo to start up a new military blog. Sorry to see him go and wish him luck, kinda-sorta. JK!

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? 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. Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4.

Another seven U.S. military personnel arrive in Nigeria today. They will join the 10 or so that are already on the ground as part of the U.S. government's "interagency" task force that is helping the Nigerian government in the search for the kidnapped school girls.

Boko Haram exploits Nigeria's slow decline, by Reuters this hour, here.

Pentagon Presssec Rear Adm. John Kirby briefs the press at the Pentagon today at 11:30.

The CIA's plan to retrench in Afghanistan worries the Pentagon.  The LA Times' David Cloud: "The CIA is planning to close its satellite bases in Afghanistan and pull all its personnel back to Kabul by early summer, an unexpectedly abrupt withdrawal that the U.S. military fears will deprive it of vital intelligence while thousands of American troops remain in the country, U.S. officials said.
"CIA Director John Brennan informed U.S. military commanders in March that his agency would shutter operations outside Kabul, removing CIA case officers and analysts as well as National Security Agency specialists responsible for intercepting insurgent phone calls and other communications, a rich source of daily intelligence, the officials said.
"Pentagon officials warn that the CIA drawdown after 12 years of war is coming just as insurgent attacks are normally at their peak. As a result, the CIA withdrawal has strained relations between the agency and military commanders in Kabul, the officials said.

"...The Pentagon is seeking to persuade the CIA to slow its withdrawal, arguing that keeping CIA and NSA operators in the field as long as possible will help prevent a surge in insurgent attacks before the end of 2014, when most U.S. troops are due to leave." More here.

The Clapper Clampdown Continues: Now, government officials can't even talk about classified information that is already public knowledge. The NYT's Charlie Savage: "The Obama administration is clamping down on a technique that government officials have long used to join in public discussions of well-known but technically still-secret information: citing news reports based on unauthorized disclosures. A new pre-publication review policy for the Office of Director of National Intelligence says the agency's current and former employees and contractors may not cite news reports based on leaks in their speeches, opinion articles, books, term papers or other unofficial writings.

"Such officials 'must not use sourcing that comes from known leaks, or unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information,' it says. 'The use of such information in a publication can confirm the validity of an unauthorized disclosure and cause further harm to national security.'" More here.

CIA analysts relied on news reports of protests in Benghazi, fueling the scandal and revealing the agency's continuing struggle to accurately assess publicly available information. TIME's Massimo Calabresi: "Here's an unsolicited tip for the newly appointed head of the House of Representative's select committee on Benghazi, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina: A smoking gun explanation for the Obama Administration's use of false talking points to describe the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack has already been found. And the culprit is not a White House adviser or State Department bureaucrat. It's the intelligence community's reliance on the media. Before Gowdy launches another eight month probe into the attack that killed four Americans, it is worth noting that there is a simple, real-world explanation hiding in plain sight. It's tucked inside the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on Benghazi, which reveals a key source of the bad intelligence that made it into Ambassador Susan Rice's famous talking points: the media incorrectly reported that before the attack on Sept. 11, 2012 there were protests outside the U.S. facilities in Benghazi when there weren't." More here.

Syria has exposed the failings of the U.N. Security Council. The NYT's Somini Sengupta: "Since the beginning of the year, the Security Council has discussed Syria no fewer than 18 times and devoted 13 more sessions to Ukraine. That remains about the most substantive action the Council has taken to resolve the conflicts, which flourish unabated. The Council has come up with no diplomatic road maps. In the case of Syria, Russia has vetoed three resolutions in three years. The Council has been dismissed as toothless before, precisely over the right of its five permanent members to block any measure with a veto. But the paralysis over Syria has marked a new level of dysfunction, experts say, and has given a fillip to those who call for a fundamental shake-up of the Council's composition and rules of engagement. It is not just that the Council has failed to halt the civil war, but that it has been unable even to deliver humanitarian supplies like food and medicine to millions of Syrians in need. Instead, Russia and its Western rivals have spent months trading blame over who is blocking aid, all the while failing to persuade their allies on the ground to open a humanitarian corridor." More here.

State congratulates WIPO chief on his re-election, then calls for an investigation into his alleged misdeeds. FP's Colum Lynch: "The United States and other global powers on Thursday elected Francis Gurry, an Australian national, to a second six-year term as the director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an influential United Nations agency charged with protecting patents around the world. Gurry might want to wait to pop the cork off the champagne bottle. The U.S. State Department is seeking to rally support for an independent investigation of Gurry, who has been dogged by numerous allegations of misconduct and mismanagement from current and former senior advisors. U.S. diplomats -- who resisted calls from Gurry's critics to postpone the election until an investigation was complete -- offered up congratulations to the Australian civil servant, while making it clear he would have to submit to an investigation. South Korea made an explicit request for an independent inquiry." More here.

Putin arrives in Crimea for the first time since annexing it, in the NYT this hour, here.

Pro-Russian separatists defy Putin. The WaPo's Simon Denyer, Michael Birnbaum and Fredrick Kunkle on Page One: "Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine vowed Thursday to press ahead with a referendum on independence, defying Russian President Vladimir Putin's surprise call for Sunday's vote to be postponed. Having captured government buildings across eastern Ukraine and vehemently denounced the interim government in Kiev as fascists, the leaders of the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic argued that they would lose credibility if they canceled the vote.

"...The decision to proceed with the vote could be seen as a rebuff to Putin, whose call Wednesday for a postponement struck a more conciliatory tone than his previous statements on Ukraine. It remained unclear what a referendum might look like, who would participate, how fair it might be, or even in how many or which cities it would be held. But the separatists clearly felt they had little choice but to press on: Canceling the vote would leave them without even a fig leaf of popular legitimacy and deflate their movement, perhaps fatally." More here.

Check out pictures of Putin's war room in the WaPo, here.

House Armed Services OKs the NDAA. Defense News' John Bennett: "The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) early Thursday unanimously approved a measure that would authorize just over $600 billion in 2015 US defense spending and block plans to retire the A-10 attack plane.
"After a marathon markup session, the committee easily approved its version of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that includes a $495.8 billion base Pentagon budget level and $79.4 billion more for an overseas contingency operations (OCO) budget.
"The bill, which also authorizes $17.9 billion in Energy Department defense programs and $7.9 billion in mandatory defense spending, could grow even larger. That's because the OCO amount is a placeholder; senior lawmakers expect the White House will send over an exact amount for the war in Afghanistan and other needs before the bill hits the House floor, likely this spring.
"The $495.4 billion - if the final amount authorized and appropriated for the Pentagon - would be cut by around $35 billion because sequestration remains in place. That sequestration cut amount was reduced by $9 billion under December's bipartisan budget deal." More here.

The Joint Chiefs are split over the savings from cutting the commissaries. Stripes' Tom Philpott: All seven members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified Tuesday on the need to slow growth in military compensation and apply dollars saved to underfunded readiness accounts for training, equipment and spare parts. But their united front for easing current budget burdens cracked over the notion of slashing savings for commissary shoppers.

"Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos called the proposal to cut commissary appropriations, from $1.4 billion yearly down to $400 million within three years, and the projected cut in average shopper savings from 30 percent down to 10 percent, 'a sore point for me.' 'That's a 66 percent drop in savings for my Marines.  I don't like that,' Amos told the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Families don't either. 'The commissary issue itself is radioactive,' Amos said." More here.

Read FP's Rosa Brooks' piece on the why plans for the future of the Army is awesome sauce. The header: "The service's plan to revamp itself for the post-post-9/11 world is ambiguous and rife with contradiction. That's what makes it brilliant." Read all that here.

Apropos of nothing, but BP! This is why former Pentagon pressec Geoff Morrell makes the big bucks, literally. Morrell, now a senior exec at BP, appeared on CBS' 60 Minutes last Sunday. With the mastery he used to brand former Defense Secretary Bob Gates as what some would consider to be one of the best modern defense secretaries - an arguable point to others - Morrell was actually able to get CBS' Scott Pelley to portray the oil giant as a victim in the post-oil rig explosion amid the pay-out of claims to those supposedly impacted by it. Morrell exhibited the kind of outrage and anger for which he's known in what some PR types would say was a failure, yet he got the point across and made people wonder if BP really was the victim. We should have run this days ago, but from "Over a Barrel:"

Morrell, on claims that have been paid out: "...We're talking about a wireless phone company store that burned to the ground and shut down before the spill. An RV park owner that was foreclosed upon before the spill. And I love this one. A Pontiac dealer [Morrell's voice rising in typical fashion] who could no longer sell Pontiacs because GM had discontinued the line before the spill."

Scott Pelley: Those are all real examples and they are people who actually got a check?

Morrell, outraged, eyes piercing: "Those are all real examples and are, frankly not exceptions but rather emblematic of a far larger problem. There are more than a thousand claims just like them that had glaring red flags associated with them that should have been picked out by the claims administrator and instead were ultimately awarded more than $500 million." Read and watch here.

China is making trouble in the South China Sea. The WSJ's Brian Spegele and Vu Trong Khanh: "When China parked a giant oil rig in disputed waters off Vietnam, it confirmed what Washington and regional governments have long feared: Beijing is taking a major leap in the defense of its territorial claims, testing the resolve of rattled neighbors-as well as the U.S. At the heart of the latest maneuvering for control in the South China Sea is China's most modern oil rig, deployed by a state-owned oil company off the contested Paracel Islands over the objections of Hanoi, whose coast guard has sought to obstruct the rig's work.

"The standoff over the rig has built over several days, bursting into open conflict on Wednesday when Vietnamese officials said that about 80 Chinese vessels had moved into disputed areas near it and that six Vietnamese crew members had been injured in scuffles. Rear Adm. Ngo Ngoc Thu, vice commander of the Vietnamese coast guard, said Thursday that the situation at the site remains tense, with many ships still there. Officials from both countries allege its vessels have been rammed by the other. A Chinese Foreign Ministry official demanded on Thursday that Vietnam withdraw its ships." More here.

Outside satellite experts say investigators could be looking in the wrong ocean for Flight 370. Ari Schulman for the Atlantic: "Investigators searching for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight were ebullient when they detected what sounded like signals from the plane's black boxes. This was a month ago, and it seemed just a matter of time before the plane was finally discovered. But now the search of 154 square miles of ocean floor around the signals has concluded with no trace of wreckage found. Pessimism is growing as to whether those signals actually had anything to do with Flight 370. If they didn't, the search area would return to a size of tens of thousands of square miles. Even before the black-box search turned up empty, observers had begun to raise doubts about whether searchers were looking in the right place." More here.

What today's digital defenders must learn from cybersecurity's early thinkers. A new report by Brookings' Richard Bejtlich: "...The focus on change and speed, driving the desire to reengineer Internet technology, prompted action by the National Science and Technology Council within the Executive Office of the President. In December 2011 they released a report titled Trustworthy Cyberspace: Strategic Plan for the Federal Cybersecurity Research and Development Program. The document introduced the concept of "Trustworthy Cyberspace," claiming that the idea ‘replaces the piecemeal approaches of the past with a set of coordinated research priorities whose promise is to ‘change the game,' resulting in a trustworthy cyberspace... we need enduring cybersecurity principles that will allow us to stay secure despite changes in technologies and in the threat environment.' This document and the research effort behind it seek to ‘change the game' and identify ‘enduring cybersecurity principles' in order to counter the change and speed of the technology environment. However, it may not be necessary to embark upon another government or private effort to determine how to ‘secure cyberspace' through technological means. The early days of computer security have much to teach modern practitioners and policymakers. An historical review of security lessons may be a cheaper and more effective way to identify and promote security measures." Full report here.