FP's Situation Report: A Putin pullback?; North Africa increasingly dangerous; Why Shinseki shouldn't be fired; A sting op on sexual predators nets a DOD official; The first day for Maria; and a bit more.
By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel
Is Putin really ordering a pullback? Reuters this hour: "Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered military forces to return to their permanent bases after drills in three regions bordering Ukraine, the Kremlin said on Monday. Putin's office said he had issued the order because the spring maneuvers were over. The move could also be intended to ease tension in Russia's standoff with the West over Ukraine before Kiev holds a presidential election on Sunday."
"In Brussels, however, a NATO military officer said the military alliance had seen no sign of the Russian troops returning to their bases. 'We haven't seen any movement to validate (the report),' the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. The Kremlin said in a statement that Putin had ordered his defense chief to return troops that had been involved in exercises in the border provinces of Rostov, Bryansk and Belgorod to their 'places of permanent deployment.'" More here.
USA Today's Kim Hjelmgaard: "... Russia has about 40,000 troops deployed near the border with Ukraine. On Friday, pro-Russian insurgents retreated from government buildings in the major eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol as steelworkers began citizen patrols. Ukraine is set to go the polls on May 25 to elect a new president. Recent polling cited by the Kiev Post newspaper indicates that businessman Petro Poroshenko, known locally as the 'chocolate king' for his interests in the candy business, is the clear front runner. Moscow has repeatedly said that the results of that election will be illegitimate." More here.
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Who's Where When today - Hagel is back in the building today after his trip to the Middle East... Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey leaves for Brussels this evening, returning Thursday... Air Forces Cyber Commander Maj. Gen. Kevin McLaughlin delivers remarks on "Air Force Operations to Defend and Operate Effectively in the Cyber Domain" at 8:00 a.m. in Colorado Springs... Acting Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright testifies at a Defense Field Hearing on "Immigrant Enlistment: A Force Multiplier for the U.S. Armed Forces" at 9:30 a.m. at Phoenix Military Academy in Chicago... Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia delivers the commencement address to Gulf Shores High School Students at 7:00 p.m in Alabama.
First day at the new job today - Maria Njoku, whose last day at the Pentagon press office was Friday, starts today as the new executive assistant to the Commandant at National Defense University. Congrats to her.
Col. Steve Warren, who heads the press desk at the Pentagon, on Maria: "During her two years of service at the Pentagon she has become the go-to problem solver for leaders, press officers and reporters. The sky is the limit for Maria and while we'll miss her talent and her great attitude, we're delighted to see her move on to bigger and better things."
In saying good-bye at the press gaggle Friday, Warren joked: "There are no hugs allowed the Pentagon."
Situation Report corrects - last week, we referred to outgoing Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns as "Under Secretary of State." Our B, apologies for the wrong title.
Dempsey will be pushing NATO to up security contributions in the Med. Defense News' Marcus Weisgerber: "... Instability and insurgent network activity across Northern Africa in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Morocco and Tunisia - and the proliferation of that type of activity into and across Europe - has been increasingly worrying security officials in recent years. 'My personal advice to my fellow [chiefs of defense] in NATO is that the southern flank of NATO deserves far more attention than it currently receives from NATO,' Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said May 14 at the Atlantic Council think tank. Dempsey will attend NATO chiefs of defense meetings in Brussels this week with top military leaders from across the alliance. The leaders also plan to discuss NATO force posture in Europe amid the security situation in Ukraine and Russia. Security in southern Europe is primarily conducted by Mediterranean nations, including Portugal, Italy, France, Greece and Spain."
Dempsey: "Yet the issues that are emulating into the southern flank from the Middle East and North Africa could quite profoundly change life inside ... not only southern Europe, but well into Central and Northern Europe." More here.
State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki, in a statement out Sunday, on violence in Northern Mali: "In recent days, the outbreak of violence in Kidal, Mali, has killed at least one government security official, injured civilians and UN peacekeepers, and resulted in the seizure of government buildings and the taking of hostages. We condemn these acts, which undermine the fragile peace in northern Mali and efforts to bring peace, security, and development to all of its citizens.??We call for the immediate release of all hostages, and urge all parties to refrain from violence and from any acts that place civilians at risk. The way to resolve these issues is through an inclusive and credible negotiation process, not through violence and intimidation."
Meantime, Nigerian hunters join the effort to find the missing girls. The WSJ's Drew Hinsaw in Nigeria: "After a lifetime of chasing rats and antelope through the woods, several hundred hunters carried their rifles to this city last week to plan their biggest hunt yet: the search for 223 kidnapped schoolgirls. ‘I know the forests. I was born in the forests,' said 70-year-old Dan Baba Kano, a huntsman in a purple frock, who added that he wasn't afraid of dying in the forests: ‘At my age? No.' Armed with homemade rifles and bows and arrows, hunters in these parts of northern Nigeria insist they can penetrate the forests where the army has so far refused to enter. Their campaign is low-tech-especially compared with the surveillance drones now part of the operation. And they have yet to leave their dusty, Maiduguri camp. But their offer exposes the one thing Islamist militancy Boko Haram, for all its ferocious weaponry, increasingly lacks: popular support." More here.
People are turning Michelle Obama's #BringBackOurGirls pic into an anti-drone campaign, on Buzzfeed, here.
militias led by a former general attack parliament and declare it dissolved. The WaPo's Hassan Morajea and
Abigail Hauslohner: "Militias allied with a former Libyan general staged
a brazen attack on Libya's parliament on Sunday and declared it dissolved, in
some of the worst fighting the capital has seen since the 2011 revolution. By
Sunday night, those forces announced that the elected General National Congress
was being replaced by an existing constitutional drafting committee. It was far
from certain that the order would be observed. But the power grab threatened to
send Libya hurtling into a full-blown civil war. Tripoli residents and
journalists reported heavy fighting, including rocket attacks and gunfights, in
several central neighborhoods. Dozens of vehicles mounted with antiaircraft
guns could be seen speeding toward the center of the capital from a
southeastern suburb. Plumes of black smoke rose over the city.
"It was unclear whether ex-?general Khalifa Haftar commanded sufficient force to prevail in the showdown in Tripoli - the latest chapter in a struggle for power, land and resources that has raged in this oil-rich country since the fall of longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi. The central government has struggled unsuccessfully to rein in scores of militias that emerged from the anti-Gaddafi uprising. ‘In Libya, there really isn't a party on the ground that is more powerful than the other,' said Essam Gheriyani, a prominent businessman." More here.
At the FBI, no change in focus on terrorism. The NYT's Michael Schmidt on Page One: "When James B. Comey was nominated last June to be director of the F.B.I., it seemed to herald the beginning of a new era at the bureau. His predecessor, Robert S. Mueller III, began the job just days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and Mr. Mueller's years leading the F.B.I. had one overwhelming focus: fighting terrorism. Mr. Comey was appointed a month after President Obama delivered a sweeping speech on the future of the fight against terrorism and said the United States was at a 'crossroads' and needed to move off its wartime footing... By Mr. Comey's own account, he also brought to the job a belief, based on news media reports, that the threat from Al Qaeda was diminished. But nine months into his tenure as director, Mr. Comey acknowledges that he underestimated the threat the United States still faces from terrorism.
But this is what Comey says now of offshoots of Al Qaeda in Africa and in the Middle East: "I didn't have anywhere near the appreciation I got after I came into this job just how virulent those affiliates had become... There are both many more than I appreciated, and they are stronger than I appreciated." More here.
USIP's Robin Wright talked to Iran's nuclear negotiator about the chances for a nuclear agreement in a big new piece called "The Adversary" in The New Yorker that just posted this morning. From The New Yorker: "In his current role, Zarif, formerly Iran's Ambassador to the United Nations, has introduced an unprecedented level of nuclear diplomacy between his volatile government and the world's six mightiest powers-Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States. Senator Dianne Feinstein tells Wright that Zarif 'wants to help his people and lead them in a di?erent direction.' Many Iranians believe that a nuclear deal would remove the threat of regime change, but also that it may open Iran to the outside world in ways that affect the internal balance of power. Zarif-who, though popular, has been criticized by Iranian politicos for denouncing hard-line positions, and for asserting that the Holocaust was a 'horrifying tragedy' -tells Wright, 'In order to practice dialogue, you need to be able to set aside your assumptions and try to listen more than you want to talk.' ... According to Wright, some American skeptics aren't convinced.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former C.I.A. o?cer and now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, tells Wright: "There are worse Islamic revolutionaries out there, but, make no mistake, he's an Islamic revolutionary."
But Ben Rhodes, President Obama's deputy national-security adviser, says: "There is a constituency that now has some degree of power in the Iranian system, that really wants to climb out of this isolation, and is willing to do things that they didn't previously do... We believe that it is real.?.?.?. We are willing to take the risks to get a deal." Find Wright's story at The New Yorker, past all the other pieces about Jill Abramson's firing from the NYT, here.
As the U.S. looks at a nuclear deal with Iran, a new book faults the handling of an Iranian defector, by the NYT's Mark Landler yesterday, here.
The South Korean president vowed to disband the Coast Guard. The NYT's Choe Sang-Hun: "President Park Geun-hye of South Korea vowed on Monday to disband her country's Coast Guard, saying that South Korea owed ‘reform and a great transformation' to hundreds of high school students who died in a ferry disaster last month. Bowing deeply, Ms. Park offered a ‘heartfelt apology' for having failed to prevent the sinking of the ferry Sewol on April 16 and for the Coast Guard's bungling of rescue operations. ‘The ultimate responsibility lies with me, the president,' she said. Although she had apologized a few times over the sinking, Ms. Park's nationally televised speech on Monday was her clearest expression of public contrition. As of Monday, 286 people had been confirmed dead, with 18 missing, making the episode one of the country's worst peacetime disasters. It has also developed into Ms. Park's biggest political crisis; over the weekend, the police detained more than 200 people who had tried to march on her office, calling on her to step down." More here.
A DoD official from the Defense Technology and Security Administration was netted in a sting operation targeting sexual predators. The News Leader's Brad Zinn, in Staunton, Va. from Friday: "A mid-level U.S. Department of Defense official is behind bars in Augusta County after Staunton police ensnared the Fairfax man in a covert sting operation targeting online sex predators.
"Dan Haendel, 64, faces charges of attempted indecent liberties with a child and use of electronic means to solicit sex from a child. It appears that Haendel has had a long career with the defense department. According to a DOD press release in November 2012, a man named Dan Haendel was assigned as the director for strategy and long range planning at the Defense Technology Security Administration in Washington. The DOD said Haendel previously served as senior adviser to partnership strategy and stability operations in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Policy). The National War College, where Haendel was a 1988 graduate, also published the DOD press release concerning the appointment...
"A search warrant said Haendel reportedly made online contact with an undercover officer posing as a 13-year-old girl, first through email and then through instant messenger. Haendel allegedly asked about the bogus teen's sexual history, suggested watching pornography together and exchanged pictures. He also made arrangements to meet the fake girl at Gypsy Hill Park and then go to her house or a hotel, according to court records. 'He said that he would bring chocolate and vodka,' a police officer wrote in the warrant." More here.
The story of the shadowy world of private arms dealers, Syria, Blackwater, and a former Pentagon official. Dion Nissenbaum's Page One story: "An urgent plea for arms by Syrian rebels last summer posed a quandary for the Obama administration. The rebels were facing setback after setback on the battlefield. The administration backed their goal of unseating the Syrian government, but worried about U.S.-supplied arms making their way to fighters linked to al Qaeda. In the end, the U.S. approved a modest arms-supply effort that was slow to gain traction.
"For one group of Americans, that wasn't enough. On their own, the Americans offered to provide 70,000 Russian-made assault rifles and 21 million rounds of ammunition to the Free Syrian Army, a major infusion they said could be a game changer. With a tentative nod from the rebels, the group set about arranging a weapons shipment from Eastern Europe, to be paid for by a Saudi prince. The weapons never made it to Syria. As the private group worked to complete its deal, a surprise showdown in Jordan forced it to put its plan on hold.
"The story of the aborted weapons-supply effort, confirmed by people directly involved, provides a peek inside the normally hidden world of private arms contracting. This one involves an unusual protagonist: a former high-ranking official at the U.S. Defense Department. And waiting in the wings was the founder of the controversial security firm Blackwater Worldwide." Read the rest here.
Ross Douthat on Obama's foreign policy: "nothing is... working out." Douthat, in Sunday's NYT: "Second terms are often a time when presidents, balked by domestic opposition, turn to the world stage to secure their legacy - opening doors to China, closing out the Cold War, chasing Middle Eastern peace. But the global stage hasn't been a second-term refuge for President Obama; it's been an arena of setbacks, crises and defeats. His foreign policy looked modestly successful when he was running for re-election. Now it stinks of failure. Failure is a relative term, to be sure. His predecessor's invasion of Iraq still looms as the largest American blunder of the post-Vietnam era. None of Obama's difficulties have rivaled that debacle. And many of the sweeping conservative critiques of his foreign policy - that Obama has weakened America's position in the world, that he's too chary about using military force - lack perspective on how much damage the Iraq war did to American interests, and how many current problems can be traced back to errors made in 2003. But the absence of an Iraq-scale fiasco is not identical to success, and history shouldn't grade this president on a curve set by Donald Rumsfeld. Obama is responsible for the initiatives he's pursued, the strategies he's blessed and the priorities he's set. And almost nothing on that list is working out." More here.
There's growing evidence of systemic problems in the VA healthcare system. The Los Angeles Times' David Zucchino, Cindy Carcamo and Alan Zarembo: "... The Phoenix VA Health Care System is under a federal Justice Department investigation for reports that it maintained a secret waiting list to conceal the extent of its patient delays, in part because of complaints such as Laird's. But there are now clear signs that veterans' health centers across the U.S. are juggling appointments and sometimes manipulating wait lists to disguise long delays for primary and follow-up appointments, according to federal reports, congressional investigators and interviews with VA employees and patients. The growing evidence suggests a VA system with overworked physicians, high turnover and schedulers who are often hiding the extent to which patients are forced to wait for medical care." More here.
Swimming upstream: Max Cleland on why Shinseki shouldn't be fired in Politico magazine: "...A man at the center of the controversy is the head of the VA, Eric Shinseki, himself a wounded veteran of the Vietnam War. I've known Shinseki for over a decade. He is a truth teller to power. How do I know that? Because he testified, in his previous position as the Army chief of staff, before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee upon which I sat and said that if we went to war in Iraq it would take "hundreds of thousands" of troops, not the small investment Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was talking about. As a result, Rumsfeld announced Shinseki's replacement a year earlier than normal.
The commander of the American Legion, an organization of which I am a member, has called for Shinseki's resignation. This is ill-advised and misguided. We veterans need facts, not a firing."
Things accomplished with Shinseki at the helm of the VA, according to Cleland: "Veterans' homelessness has been reduced by 24 percent; The VA health-care system has enrolled 2 million additional veterans. These are veterans who choose to receive VA health care; The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), an independent customer service survey, ranks the VA's customer satisfaction among veteran patients to be the very best in the nation and equal or better then private-sector hospitals." More here.
Task and Purpose's Ethan Rocke on why Shinseki should stay: "...I hope that Americans will refuse to settle for a changing of the guard at the VA - as if that will solve the organization's systemic deficiencies in the healthcare it provides for those who sacrifice so much to preserve our way of life. I hope more Americans will start being honest with themselves about the fact that fighting long, protracted wars, and even small dirty wars, is a costly business, not just fiscally, but physically and spiritually. I hope America will begin to understand that advocating an aggressive foreign policy while demanding fiscal austerity in the domestic sphere is a contradictory position and one that heightens our economic instability. Most of all, I hope that if you count yourself among the support-the-troops crowd in America, you start thinking a bit more deeply about what that really means in practice. The burden of leadership at this moment in our history lies with you, America." More here.
"My hat is off to the VA": A gay widow of a soldier killed in Afghanistan has been told from the VA that she will receive the same benefits that heterosexual widows and widowers receive. The Military Times' Karen Jowers: "...It's even more significant, said Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Tracy Dice Johnson, because the benefits will be retroactive, dating back to her wife's death in October 2012. That was before the Supreme Court's ruling in the summer of 2013 overturning parts of the Defense of Marriage Act. 'My hat's off to the VA,' Johnson said. 'It was a long, drawn-out process, but at the end of the day, hearts and minds prevailed.' Among the benefits are the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, generally paid to spouses and children and some parents of those who died while on active duty. The rate for DIC in 2014 is $1,233.23 a month; Johnson will receive that retroactively to the date of her wife's death. Johnson, who changed her name legally after her wife died, will also receive medical, education and other benefits." More here.
24 countries will take part in wargames in Jordan next week. From Agence France-Presse: "More than 13,000 troops from 24 countries are to take part in the annual ‘Eager Lion' military exercise in Jordan, state news agency Petra said Sunday. It said ‘ground, air and naval forces comprising a total of more than 13,000' troops are to be deployed during the May 25-June 10 wargames, with ‘around 24 countries' taking part. The maneuvers are ‘aimed at tackling terrorism and insurrection' and to prepare armies to ‘develop their capacity to plan and carry out joint operations,' the agency added. Some 8,000 troops from 19 countries including the United States, Britain, Egypt, France, Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia took part in last year's ‘Eager Lion' exercises in the kingdom." More here.
The Army is fielding a laser target designator that incorporates its own GPS to determine its location, along with a digital compass, thermal imager and camera. Stars and Stripes' Seth Robson: "Dismounted troops soon will be able to use a lightweight laser target designator to call for accurate hits by GPS-guided rockets, mortars and artillery. ‘They call this system the ‘Eye of God,'' Scott McClellan, fire support branch chief at Fort Sill, Oklahoma's Fires Center of Excellence, said of the newly fielded Lightweight Laser Designator Rangefinder (LLDR) 2H. So-called ‘smart' munitions - which use the Global Positioning System (GPS) to guide themselves directly onto targets - have been used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan and are credited with saving the lives of civilians on the battlefield by reducing collateral damage. However, the high-tech rockets, shells and bombs require precise information about their targets. Until now, portable laser target designators weren't accurate enough. Troops often have had to ‘talk fire' onto a target by providing updated coordinates after the first rounds land. ‘The new system with the improved accuracy you can get first-round effects,' McClellan said. ‘You don't have to keep bracketing and say: ‘Drop 50, right 400.' You can get an accurate target location first time.'" More here.
Laos declares days of mourning after the fatal plane crash on Saturday that killed Defense Minister Douangchay Phichit. The WSJ's Nopparat Chaichaleammongkol: "...The cause of the accident is under investigation, the government statement said. It didn't specify the number of passengers aboard the Antonov 74TK-300 aircraft or details about other casualties. The news agency has published several photos of the accident. Landlocked Laos is one of Asia's most secretive countries and remains under the heavy hand of communist rule, which was enforced by some of the people aboard the plane. The regime deals harshly with dissent and doesn't face a visibly large and organized opposition, though ethnic groups with ties outside the country are repeatedly accused of trying to foment unrest." More here.
Hagel's statement on the passing of Laos Defense Minister Phichit who was killed, along with his wife, in a plane crash May 17. From the Pentagon: "...We had the pleasure of hosting Minister Douangchay and Madam Thanda Phichit at the U.S.-ASEAN defense forum last month in Hawaii. I appreciated the opportunity to work with the minister to help advance our two countries' emerging defense relationship, and to strengthen the U.S.-ASEAN partnership.'" More here.