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Highlights From the Aspen Security Forum

The fourth annual Aspen Security Forum finished in Colorado, and some of the biggest names in the national security community provided their insights on key trends in defense and foreign policy. Major figures speaking included Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Gen. Keith Alexander, NSA director and U.S Cyber Command commander, and former ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen. Here are some highlights.


Mattis: U.S. Needs to Plan ‘End State’ For Syria Involvement

More planning is needed before the U.S. military gets involved in the ongoing turmoil in Syria, former CENTCOM Commander Gen. James Mattis said Saturday.

He said that any military involvement would cascade into a “very serious war,” and that officials needed to work with countries in the region to determine a course of action before engaging in an operation.

“Otherwise you’ll invade a country, pull down a statue, and say, ‘Now what do we do?’”

Many defense officials, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, have voiced concerns about ratcheting up military involvement in Syria.


John Allen Opposed to ‘Zero-Option’ in Afghanistan

Former ISAF Commander and retired Gen. John Allen said that the administration’s proposed “zero-option” in Afghanistan would set back efforts to train local forces after the planned withdrawal in 2014.

Allen said Afghan leaders “desperately want [the U.S military’s] presence after this war.”

They don’t want us in large numbers, but they want us there in enough numbers to help to continue to develop the ANSF,” Allen said.

Earlier in July, reports in the New York Times indicated that the White House was considering the zero option after relations between Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai and administration officials soured. An earlier attempt to begin peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar was scuttled by Karzai.


NSA to Develop Mechanisms to Prevent Mass Data Theft

The National Security Agency is developing measures to increase security on the Defense Department’s servers to prevent future thefts of classified data. 

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, who also heads U.S. Cyber Command, said the agency will implement safeguards to prevent system administrators from downloading data onto portable drives. “We’ll close and lock server rooms so it takes two people to get in there,” Alexander said. “This makes our job more difficult, it is the main reason we need to jump to the Joint Information Environment, the thin virtual cloud, because in that we can encrypt the data.” 

Alexander defended the agency’s programs, saying that it offered a “reasonable approach” that protected national security and civil liberty concerns. The NSA has been forced to defend its wide-ranging network of surveillance programs since former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Edward Snowden leaked the information through the Guardian and the Washington Post last month.


Congress Needs New Legal Authorities for Counterterrorism, says former DOD Top Lawyer

Former Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson said that the members of Congress needed to go back and reevaluate legal authorities given to counterterrorism professionals since the country was no longer “in a traditional armed conflict with al Qaeda and affiliated groups,” and could not use the tools of the past decade for future conflicts.

In this period, where I think we’re headed in a new direction, we need to evaluate, in Congress, what new authorities our counterterrorism professionals might need,” Johnson said. “We’re not just talking about drone strikes, we’re talking about ability to conduct national security interrogations, pre-Miranda, and other types of things that domestic law enforcement, the intelligence community should have to go forward with the future.” Much of the past decade’s most controversial counterterrorism tools, including drone strikes and the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, base much of their legality on the authorization of use of military force passed by Congress, now considered a target of many in the administration.


Budget No Reason to Avoid Syria, says Carter

The Pentagon’s budget squeeze would not hold back the implementation of a no fly zone in Syria, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in an Aspen Security Forum session on the future of the Pentagon. But any new military commitment would require more money from Congress, and fast.

“We would need supplemental funding, which is normal for a new contingency,” Carter said. Administration officials have so far been divided on how to approach the ongoing chaos in Syria, with factions in the government proposing additional weapons delivery and action to support the Syrian rebels.  As Carter spoke, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., upbraided Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, in a testy exchange for not joining in McCain’s longstanding fervor for more direct U.S. military intervention in Syria. Dempsey was appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing to continue as chairman for another two years. Dempsey said the administration was considering the use of “kinetic strikes” in Syria, according to the Associated Press.

Pentagon officials are in the midst of absorbing $37 billion in mandatory sequestration cuts from the 2011 Budget Control Act. Defense Department civilian employees are being forced to take 11 unpaid furlough days through the end of fiscal 2013, while funding for training and flying hours has been severely curtailed.

Already, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in June to submit a supplemental fiscal 2013 request to fund “unanticipated, underestimated war costs” in Afghanistan.  Congress has rejected part of Hagel’s earlier request to reprogram billions of previously authorized dollars that the Pentagon wanted to shift to pay for the war.

However, it’s unclear if members of Congress would acquiesce. Carter said that political support for defense funding has sharply eroded. In the case of sequestration, he said, “the path of least resistance for the political system” was to allow the cuts to go through for another year. He noted that department officials were looking at budget options that factored in permanent sequestration as a “new normal.”