The D Brief: An American rescued from Yemen?; All the reasons why Hagel wasn’t fired; WH Friendly Fire; Needing a journo on the Pentagon’s wall; Twitter problems for the AF; And a bit more.
By Gordon Lubold with Ben Watson
Update from this morning: U.S. military officials tell The D Brief that despite wide reporting, no U.S. military personnel were rescued in the Yemen operation. More to follow.
Overnight: A person identified as a U.S. service member or “military expert” was rescued along with other hostages from Yemen this morning. A senior defense official told The D Brief this morning it was too soon to say anything about the individual rescued being a uniformed service member or a contractor, but that Pentagon officials were trying to gather more facts.
AP called the individual a “foreigner”: “…The committee did not identify the foreigner's nationality, though a security official told The Associated Press that the expatriate worked as a military adviser at the al-Annad base, where American and European officials help Yemen battle the country's local al-Qaida local branch through drone strikes and logistical support.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists, said the raid was carried out with U.S. logistical support and that the militants have tried several times to attack the air base.” More here.
BBC: “A group of seven Yemenis and a US military expert who were taken hostage by a group linked to al-Qaeda have been freed by Yemeni Special Forces, a local security source has told the BBC.
The eight were captured in Lahij province in southern Yemen.
Seven kidnappers were reported to have killed in the overnight operation. Scores of people have been kidnapped in Yemen in recent years, by tribesmen for ransom, and more recently by Islamist militants as part of their insurgency. More here.
From Al Jazeera: “…The Pentagon said in 2012 that the United States had resumed on-the-ground military training aimed at bolstering Yemen's fight against al-Qaeda following a suspension of such help during a period of intense political upheaval.” More here.
Meantime, Hagel’s perceived weakness served as a fig leaf for a White House determined to show that it was shaking up its national security approach. Just 21 months into his tenure, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was unceremoniously fired at a brief White House ceremony yesterday in what amounted to a surprise move that in other ways wasn’t a surprise.
The WaPo’s David Ignatius had signaled that Obama was looking to shake things up on his national security staff more than a month ago, but it was unclear if Hagel would become the sacrificial lamb. Indeed, Hagel remained loyal and, while not loudly distinguishing himself as Secretary, had had no major stumbles, had tried to assert himself on Middle East war policy and had just hired a new chief of staff, Rexyon Ryu, in August. Just last week, he unveiled a vision for the Pentagon.
But in many ways, it was not a surprise at all that he was forced to resign. The White House has been scrambling for solutions for turmoil in the Middle East, trying to find a strategy that at least appears to be addressing the problem while maintaining President Obama’s political pledge at home to keep “combat boots” out of the fight. That may become impossible, but Hagel was viewed by the White House as unable to find those politically palatable solutions that in fact may not exist.
Hagel initiated a conversation with Obama before Halloween. In total, there were three conversations with the President, all one-on-one, we’re told by a senior defense official, but no conclusions were drawn until last week. On Thursday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough came to the Pentagon – most uncommon for even low-level White House staffers – and met with Hagel, and the decision was finally made for Hagel to “resign.” For the small number of Pentagon officials who knew it was coming, Friday and the weekend were spent planning Monday’s announcement, which was leaked to the New York Times just in time for the 11:10 a.m. ceremony with Obama, Hagel and Biden.
Obama is often criticized for trying to be president of a world he wants, not the world he has, to bastardize a Rumsfeld line. And he hired Hagel for that job – and to make the Pentagon seen and not heard. But then the world changed, and the former Army sergeant was in the White House’s crosshairs. The WaPo’s Greg Jaffe and Rajiv Chandrasekaran: “President Obama tapped Chuck Hagel as defense secretary because he wanted someone who would quietly implement the administration’s policy, avoid controversy and promote no big, sweeping ideas. Hagel was forced to resign Monday for being exactly that defense secretary.” More here.
“White House Friendly Fire:” Many in Washington see Obama’s firing of Hagel as a short-term solution that fixes nothing and, over the long term, comes back to bite the White House. Underscoring that narrative is the poor way the firing was thought to have been handled, and the optics of Obama praising Hagel publicly yesterday as his aides privately bashed the Secretary and made clear he had been sacked. “Part of what we’re all soaking in right now is the disingenuousness of this whole thing, the giddiness of the back-stabbing,” one former government official and a Hagel supporter told The D Brief.
“To handle it this way is tawdry, it’s unseemly,” said the individual. “That’s not to say the guy’s perfect, because who could be?”
Joe Biden’s face at the White House ceremony yesterday seemed to say it all – The Vice President appeared to take no pleasure in Hagel’s departure and indeed seemed visibly upset.
The reasons why Hagel was let go are hard to square since there was no one reason given and administration officials struggled to put their finger on it. To most people inside and outside the national security community there was consensus that his departure, which won’t occur for another couple months at least, is a “head scratcher.” And unless National Security Adviser Susan Rice or Chief of Staff McDonough also depart, singling out Hagel seemed to another former government official like a “not very kind approach to dealing with secretary that wasn’t always up to snuff.”
The midterms didn’t cause the departure: The election wasn’t about national security or foreign policy, so canning Hagel addressed no political issue on Capitol Hill – indeed, it’s seen as making it worse, multiple officials said.
Hagel’s perceived incompetence in the end wasn’t an issue, either. Hagel wasn’t necessarily beloved, and he would never have gone down in history as a strong Defense Secretary. But he was also widely seen as an honest broker trying to do the business of the Pentagon. And as he often said, he wanted to leave the Department in better shape than he found it. “I just don’t buy the competence stuff,” said one government official. “I don’t buy that there was some problem.”
Strategy differences were not clearly a problem: There were no substantive strategy differences, necessarily, between the White House and the Defense Secretary. But in sending a pointed memo about Middle East policy to National Security Advisor Susan Rice this fall – arguably asserting himself in a national security process that was considered incoherent – Hagel may have pushed the White House too far.
Small ‘p’ politics: The decision to let Hagel go is, to many, a reflection of the broken process of the national security infrastructure at the White House, characterized widely as being indecisive and given to micromanagement. And Obama’s close advisers saw Hagel as an easy scapegoat. The crux of this issue is found in the process at the “Principals Committee” where Hagel found top-level decision making to be lacking in crispness. “The PC process is not as tight,” as it has been under previous chiefs of staff, said one government official.
Perhaps the real reason why he didn’t get to keep the job was because, as one Pentagon observer noted wryly, he never got to sit at the Kool Kids Table at the White House – they wouldn’t let him in – in a way that similarly felled another military leader, James Jones, the retired four-star, when he was National Security Advisor in the early years of the Obama Administration.
So who’s replacing Hagel anyway as Obama’s fourth SecDef—Ash Carter and Michele Flournoy, but we’re tossing in a few other names, including Air Force Secretary Debbie James, Deputy SecDef Bob Work and Jack Reed even though he’s made it pretty clear he doesn’t want it. Defense One’s own Ben Watson briefly profiled those candidates said to be in the running, here.
Our story in Foreign Policy about Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter, last year: “Two’s a Crowd at the Pentagon,” (behind an FP paywall) here.
The Big Three’s editorial pages took a dim view of Obama’s move.
“Ground Up Chuck”: The WSJ Editorial Page: “Chuck Hagel wasn’t our favorite to run the Pentagon, but it speaks volumes about this Administration’s national security decision-making that even he turned out to be too independent for the job.” Read the rest here.
“A Problem Beyond Mr. Hagel”: “[Hagel] was not the core of the Obama administration’s military problem. That lies with the president and a national security policy that has too often been incoherent and shifting at a time of mounting international challenges, especially in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.”
“New face, fresh ideas: The WaPo this morning: “If the resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel augurs a move by President Obama to shake up his national security team and reconsider his strategy in crisis areas such as Syria and Ukraine, then it will be welcomed. So far, there’s not much sign of it.”
FYI-ing: The yays and nays of the roll call for Hagel’s confirmation, Feb. 26, 2013, here.
In Defense One: The resignation is about Obama, not Hagel. Lawmakers wasted no time pinning the Hagel resignation on the policies of a failing president in Barack Obama. Molly O’Toole writes in Defense One: “Hagel, a former senator from Nebraska, was the only Republican in Obama’s cabinet... Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the expected incoming Armed Services Committee chairman, said Hagel was taking the fall for White House failures. ‘Ultimately, the president needs to realize that the real source of his current failures on national security more often lie with his administration’s misguided policies and the role played by his White House in devising and implementing them. That is the real change we need right now…’”
Recurring theme: Mac Thornberry, the incoming chair of the House Armed Services, said he’s worried about the White House micro-managing: “…Just a few days ago at the Reagan Defense Forum, former Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta were quite explicit in describing the micromanagement of our military by White House staffers and the damage it is doing to our security. Secretary Hagel’s successor must be a person who is strong enough to stand up against such attempts, who is willing to speak up for our men and women in uniform, and who is prepared to advocate for what it takes for them to succeed in the missions they are assigned.”
Buck McKeon, the outgoing chairman of the HASC: “The Obama administration is now in the market for their fourth Secretary of Defense,” McKeon said. “When the president goes through three secretaries, he should ask ‘is it them, or is it me?’” Read the rest of O’Toole’s story here.
In Defense One: While the defense community catches its breath following the Hagel announcement, the larger, inevitable question of how to defeat ISIS in Syria looms over an Obama administration whose chorus of critics are increasing impatient with the current strategy. Senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Defense One contributor Gayle Tzemach Lemmon writes: “Several people inside and outside the administration tell Defense One that moderate Syrian rebel forces feel let down by the West, which has yet to articulate a coherent strategy or match resources to their rhetoric when it comes to supporting Syrian moderates. That lack of resources, they say, has increased ISIS’s appeal as the blood-soaked Syrian civil war grinds on into a stalemate…” Said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security: “This is much more of a long-term management and containment problem then ‘let’s find away to defeat and destroy ISIS.’ I don’t see that happening—and I don’t see that happening without a long-term commitment of American military power…”
ISIS may have pulled in as much as $45 million in ransom payments this past year, a UN expert said yesterday. AP, here.
Not so social media: An administration official trolled Sen. McCain yesterday, pointing out numerous times the Arizona senator was none too pleased with Hagel’s SecDef nomination back in February 2013. WaPo’s Dan Lamothe with more from White House spokesman Eric Schultz’ Twitter feed, here.
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This from Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber on the DoD budget and Hagel’s departure: Despite Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s pending departure from the Pentagon, do not expect a major shift in DOD funding priorities, analysts say. “There isn't a lot of time for a new SecDef to implement major new changes that are different than current program priorities and policies,” Byron Callan with Capital Alpha Partners said in a note to investors Monday morning. The Pentagon’s 2016 budget proposal -- the last spending plan the Obama administration will build, submit to Congress and then defend on Capitol Hill -- is largely complete and planning for 2017 does not begin until next year. Work is overseeing much of the Pentagon’s long-term budget and technology innovation initiatives.
France suspends its Mistral warship deal with the Kremlin, citing tensions in Ukraine, but Paris still stopped short of canceling what would be the largest arms deal with Russia by a NATO member. AP, here.
The Hagel news, which later became buried by the grand jury decision in Ferguson, also muted any impact of the weekend news that Obama had quietly expanded combat operations into 2015 in Afghanistan. Mother Jones, here.
The BBC got rare access to the U.S. military’s hunt for Joseph Kony in Uganda. Watch that here.
You want him on that wall, you need him on that wall. On the Pentagon’s E-Ring wall hangs a set of portraits containing the black-and-white images of the Pentagon press corps, the reporters who regularly cover the building. But the WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum’s pic suddenly disappeared. Why? Cuz Pentagon officials thought he was off the beat, hadn’t been around in awhile. True, but with good reason. He’s been traveling on book leave. When this was pointed out, Pentagon officials put his picture right back up on the wall. You can see Nissenbaum’s pic (so serious!) in a desk outbox here and then back in place on the wall, here.
Truman Project Executive Director Mike Breen on the Iran nuclear negotiations and the missed deadline, in a statement: "Keeping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is of central importance to American security. Achieving this goal through tough diplomacy, while avoiding another war in the Middle East, remains difficult but possible. Today's extension shows that the U.S. and the international community remain committed to these goals."
Twitter troubles: In an issue that’s quietly become a public matter for the Air Force, it’s own public affairs director has come under scrutiny for what’s been described as an errant retweet on Saturday. The “RT” at issue corralled Brig. Gen. Kathleen Cook into the immigration debate in America at an inconvenient time for an Air Force that’s aiming to clean up it’s image. Stephen Losey for Air Force Times: “On Friday evening, Cook's official Twitter account retweeted Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. Kelly's tweet quoted Fox News digital politics editor Chris Stirewalt as saying ‘The president has decided that the last two years of his term are going to be a disaster.’ The tweet also included the hashtags #ImmigrationAction and #KellyFile… In a Monday statement to Air Force Times, Cook said that she was on leave Friday and not on Twitter… [Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Karns] said that Cook typically tweets from a computer, not a phone, though he understands her phone has the capability to run Twitter. Karns said Cook does not have a second personal Twitter account.” Read the rest here.
The VA just fired its hospital chief in charge of the troubled Phoenix system that blew the lid off the wait list scandal in April. AP’s Matthew Daly, here.
ICYMI: Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., announced Monday afternoon he wants Congress to double the period during which the VA provides unrestricted health care for veterans after they leave the military, from 5 to 10 years. Defense One’s Molly O’Toole says Sanders will be using the remaining few days of the session in Congress to pass legislation addressing military suicides—a topic O’Toole dove into at length yesterday. “The suicide rate, especially among young veterans, is tragically high and we have to do everything we can to lower it,” Sanders said Monday.
Also on Monday: Gen. Ray Odierno’s regionally aligned forces concept has brought the 1st Cav to Europe, where the top Army general said he needs more tanks. U.S. Army Europe’s commander, Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges, said he wants two additional armored battalions to help reinforce the Baltics. Jeff Schogol for Army Times: “‘Most common actually is that they would be a mix, where you would have maybe eight tanks and four or five Bradley vehicles in it,’ Hodges said, ‘In terms of size, that's what I would be thinking about in Lithuania or Estonia or Latvia, would be a company of those kind of vehicles that would be here so a unit could fall in on it. But it may turn out that we want to have the whole battalion in one place centrally located and it would then move around.’” More here.
NEXT STORY: The Search for the Plan To Destroy ISIS