The D Brief: Pentagon: troops exposed to chems; Robin Raphel under investigation; Austin on ground troops; JIEDDO to Iraq; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Ben Watson

More than 60 Russian tanks and trucks entered Ukraine overnight. BBC this hour, here.

Chemical weapons exposure during the last Iraq war may be a much bigger issue than previously thought. In mid-October, C.J. Chivers of the NYTs broke the story of U.S. troops’ exposure to nerve or mustard gas during the war in Iraq. A follow-up to that story revealed that that number had grown to more than 25 exposed American troops. But according to a Page Oner this morning, Chivers reports that Pentagon officials are now looking into concerns that the number of those exposed to Iraq’s degraded 1980s chemical weapons stocks could rise by more than 600, including one Navy EOD tech who “was instructed not to discuss [his possible exposure] due to mission classification.”

“Military officers said the previously unacknowledged data was discovered when, at [Defense Secretary Chuck] Hagel’s prodding, the Army’s Public Health Command examined its collection of standardized medical-history surveys, known as post-deployment health assessments… The new data has prompted the Public Health Command to take further steps, [Army Surgeon General spokesman Col. Jerome] Buller said. These will include identifying all veterans who reported a possible chemical exposure, gathering their medical records, contacting them for a structured interview and perhaps inviting them for a medical exam.

“Veterans, medical officers and exposure victims said that it was impossible to analyze the new data immediately and predict how many troops who reported exposure would have suffered medical problems… “[Buller] said the Department of Defense had also revived a telephone line, 1-800-497-6261, for veterans to notify the Pentagon that they may have been exposed.” More here.

In Defense One: Don’t write off JIEDDO yet: IED attacks in Iraq last month were double the number reported in Afghanistan—so the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, is headed to back to Iraq. Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber lays out the tools in JIEDDO’s kit, here.

Lloyd Austin says there are between 9,000 and 17,000 core fighters in the Islamic State and that he will recommend a U.S. ground component to the war there if need be. Central Command Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin appeared at the Atlantic Council yesterday in a camera-free zone to talk about the Middle East and the fight against the Islamic State. After a slew of questions from CNN’s Jake Tapper dominated the Q&A, retired Sen. John Warner asked the first really hard question: a circuitous one about whether Austin needed U.S. ground troops. That was sometime after Austin acknowledged that “HUMINT” – human intelligence – is very difficult without U.S. troops on the ground.

Austin, on what he would do if he needed ground troops: “If I think that we need to do more things, or we need more or better capability, I won’t hesitate to make that recommendation to my boss. It’s what mil leadership should do…  If more capability is required then I will of course make that recommendation.”

U.S. News’ Paul Shinkman on Austin, ground troops, and IS fighters, here.

A note about Austin, as a friend to the D Brief pointed out yesterday: Austin gets flack for not being very press friendly, but the reality is that he is relatively smooth, if not just guarded, answering questions from the press. If he were all uhs-and-ohs-and-umbs and he stepped in it frequently, the nat-sec community might understand why he was always kept under wraps. But he fields questions with ease. Although Tapper’s questions were pretty straightforward, even Tapper complimented Austin for answering them all.

Secret pen pals: Obama and the Ayatollah over the Islamic State. The U.S. has taken pains to say it is not cooperating with Iran militarily in any way on fighting the Islamic State.  And U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Lloyd Austin reiterated that again yesterday at the Atlantic Council. But in the Middle East today, there is a lot of the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my friend. The WSJ’s Jay Solomon and Carol Lee with this Page Oner: “[Obama] secretly wrote to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei… last month and described a shared interest in fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria…The letter appeared aimed both at buttressing the campaign against Islamic State and nudging Iran’s religious leader closer to a nuclear deal. Mr. Obama stressed to Mr. Khamenei that any cooperation on Islamic State was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with global powers on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by a Nov. 24 diplomatic deadline, the same people say.”

“…The correspondence underscores that Mr. Obama views Iran as important—whether in a potentially constructive or negative role—to his emerging military and diplomatic campaign to push Islamic State from the territories it has gained over the past six months.” More here.

House Speaker John Boehner on collaborating with Tehran on the battle against ISIS: “I don’t think we need to bring them into this.” More reax from The Hill, here.

Syrian rebels challenge the U.S. on the identification of the militant group it’s targeting, The WaPo’s Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly and Missy Ryan on Page One, here.

But the French bombmaker was apparently killed in the U.S. strikes there. CNN, here.

The Islamic State is suffering setbacks, even if the tide has yet to turn. AP last night with a story that is probably not as momentous as it reads: “…Gone are the days when Islamic State, also known as ISIS, was able to seize territory in both countries with relative ease. Its newfound problems, including a loss of oil revenue, raise questions about the extent to which it will be able to continue recruiting fighters who want to be with a winner.” More here.

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In Defense One: Too many drones, so few countermeasures. Defense One’s Patrick Tucker explores a recent RFI out of the Pentagon asking for new tech to counter commercial drones which could carry chemical, biological, or high payload weapons. “As many as 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles will be darkening America’s skies by 2020, according Todd Humphreys of the University of Texas at Austin. They could be engineered to carry dangerous payloads or simply used as weapons.”

Bilingual drones? The U.K. and France are beginning a two-year study to decide how to share drones between the two nations. AFP, here.

Who's doing what today? Hagel welcomes his Danish counterpart Nicolai Wammen to the Pentagon at 10:30 a.m. ... U.S. Ambassador to the UN Sam Power hits up AEI at 1 p.m. to talk reform to the UN peacekeeping mission ... At the same time, VA Secretary Bob McDonald has a Q&A session at the National Press Club ... DepSec Bob Work talks at a Pentagon Hall of Heroes ceremony to honor Civil War Medal of Honor recipient Army 1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing, also at 1 p.m. ... and a half hour later Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright and DOD's Director of Administration and Management Michael Rhodes are slated to speak at the Civilian Service Awards at 1:30 p.m. at the Pentagon.

McCain has another book up his sleeve. We weren’t tracking John McCain’s new book, “Thirteen Soldiers,” due to hit bookshelves Tuesday. Hat tip to The National Press Club for dropping it on our radar—along with a McCain discussion and book signing that evening at 6:30 p.m.

Heads up for Pakistan hands: Veteran diplomat Robin Raphel is under investigation as part of a counterintelligence probe. The WaPo’s Anne Gearan and Adam Goldman: The FBI searched the Northwest Washington home of Robin L. Raphel last month, and her State Department office was also examined and sealed, officials said. Raphel, a fixture in Washington’s diplomatic and think-tank circles, was placed on administrative leave last month, and her contract with the State Department was allowed to expire this week. Two U.S. officials described the investigation as a counterintelligence matter, which typically involves allegations of spying on behalf of foreign governments. The exact nature of the investigation involving Raphel remains unclear. She has not been charged.”

This part of her life has always been intriguing “… As a prominent woman among a generation of mostly male diplomats and the former wife of a storied U.S. ambassador, Arnold Raphel, she was among the most recognizable State Department officials and a well-liked and often outspoken career diplomat. Arnold Raphel was U.S. ambassador to Pakistan when he was killed aboard a plane carrying then-Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in 1988. The cause of the mysterious plane crash has never been proved, but the crash is widely assumed to have been an assassination of the military dictator. More here.

It’s getting weird now: Another former SEAL says no, he shot Bin Laden. The NYT’s Nicholas Kulish, Chris Drew and Sean Naylor: A former member of the Navy SEALs has come forward claiming to have shot the Qaeda leader during the daring operation in Pakistan in 2011. Two years ago, another SEALs member said he was among those who shot Bin Laden. Meanwhile, multiple military officials and fellow SEALs have said that it was a third person, the point man on the darkened staircase that night, who fired the first shot that felled the terrorist leader.

The SEAL ethos is now more in question: “…The public claims have antagonized senior officials, prompted a criminal investigation over disclosing classified information and alienated fellow SEALs, who object to individuals taking credit or cashing in on team efforts.” More here.

The WaPo broke the story on Robert James O’Neill stepping forward as the SEAL who shot Bin Laden: “I didn’t think I would survive.” Read that here.

Sharyl Attkisson writes about how CBS stopped her from writing bad stuff about the Obama White House. From Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber, who attended a ritzy Georgetown house party last night for investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson's new book Stonewalled. The long-time CBS correspondent writes in the book about how the network blocked her critical reports on the Obama administration. She also claims to have had her computer hacked by the federal government. During brief remarks, she urged young journalists to push government officials to release more public information.

The event was held at the Georgetown home of Michael and Susan Pillsbury. Michael Pillsbury has held numerous Pentagon posts over the past four decades and currently does work for the Office of Net Assessment.

DC Seen: Darrell Issa, Gregory Hicks, Grover Norquist, Juan Williams, Howie Kurzt, Byron York, Charlie Hurt, Eli Lake, Betsy Woodruff, Juleanna Glover, Keith Urbahn, Matt Latimer, Jonathan Lang, Jason Gorey and Lauren Ehrsam.

Get to know the eight new post-9/11 veterans elected to Congress. Task & Purpose’s Stephen Carlson on the new freshmen vets from Alaska to Massachusetts, here.

It’s a cultural change at the VA: Secretary Bob McDonald says that’s the key to changing health care system for vets, the NYT, here.

Air Force and Coast Guard search teams located the pilot's body in yesterday's F-16 crash into the Gulf of Mexico, according to a statement from Tyndall Air Force Base released last night. Reuters with that tragic update, here.

As part of its aviation restructuring, the Army is adding ground-based radars to five bases so its new MQ-1C Grey Eagle UAVs won’t collide with one another during future training. Joe Gould for Defense News, here.

A throwback just in time for Christmas: G.I. Joe now has a new comrade at the National Toy Hall of Fame—“little green army men” made the cut yesterday after two previously failed bids. AP, here.

Alleged war crimes hanging over Israel when the IDF stormed an aid ship headed for Gaza in 2010, killing nine and injuring others on board, lack “sufficient gravity,” the ICC said yesterday. Los Angeles Times’ Batsheva Sobelman from Jerusalem: “’Without in any way minimizing the impact of the alleged crimes on the victims and their families ... the ICC shall prioritize war crimes committed on a large scale or pursuant to plan or policy,’ said [ICC prosecutor Fatou] Bensouda, who declared the preliminary investigation closed.” More here.

Syria-bound jihadists are booking tickets on cruise lines to bypass escalated protections out of Ankara. AP’s Jamey Keaten from Monaco, here.

The battle against ISIS has awoken the Gulf Cooperation Council, which “raises several implications for the future of the region’s security,” writes CFR and CSIS fellow Melissa G. Dalton in Defense One: “Where GCC members want to see a dual-track approach in Syria against ISIL and President Bashar al-Assad, the United States is prioritizing counter-ISIL efforts in Iraq in the near-term. The absence of a coalition strategy to compel Assad to relinquish power may motivate GCC members to withdraw support from the counter-ISIL mission over time or to reinvigorate their support for disparate and conflicting Syrian militant groups opposing Assad, perpetuating the Syrian civil war.”