The D Brief: Ash Carter’s troika; Sony about faces; Bin Laden shooter under investigation; The grim reality for U.S. allies in Iraq; An actual war on Christmas?; And a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Ben Watson

Ash Carter has a troika. The Pentagon had announced that transition team had been formed for Ash Carter, nominated to replace Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, which included Hagel Chief of Staff Rexon Ryu and an Assistant Secretary of Defense, Michael Lumpkin. But The D Brief has been told that Carter has designated his own small team of advisers, three people who will assist him from outside of the building through a confirmation process that is expected to run through at least the third or fourth week of January. The troika includes:

Former Defense Business Board Chairman Michael Bayer, who sits on the Defense Science Board currently and who also worked for Bob Gates’ own transition, is considered Carter’s point man;

Sally Donnelly, a former reporter for Time who advised then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Jim Mattis in the Pentagon, is also working closely with Carter;

Dave Copp, a 20-year Navy veteran who also worked for Mullen, is also part of the small team.

Carter, the former Deputy Defense Secretary who spent years inside the Pentagon bureaucracy, is seen as taking a thoughtful approach to the transition but it’s also a low-key one, appropriate for someone who has spent so many years in the building and who just left last year. Carter is relying on just a small group of trusted advisers to accompany him on this leg of the process. Although the Pentagon would have plenty of office space to designate for Carter’s transition, Carter may choose to go a different route and work outside of the building for this period. Gates chose offices inside the Old Executive Office Building, the massive Gothic structure next to the White House for his transition.

Meantime, Reuters earlier this morning: The Islamic State may have downed a warplane over Syria: “Islamic State fighters said on Wednesday they had shot down a warplane in the northeastern Syria province of Raqqa and taken the pilot captive. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said it had confirmed reports the plane was brought down near Raqqa city, a major stronghold for Islamic State fighters. Events in Syria are difficult to verify because of restricted media access to conflict zones.

“Islamic State social media accounts published pictures purportedly of the warplane's pilot being held by the group's fighters and said he was Jordanian. It was not possible to verify the images.” More here.

AP this morning: A suicide attack near Baghdad kills 22, here.

And, the U.S. is preparing to boost the number of private contractors in Iraq as part of the war effort. Reuters’ Warren Strobel and Phil Stewart: “The U.S. government is preparing to boost the number of private contractors in Iraq as part of President Barack Obama's growing effort to beat back Islamic State militants threatening the Baghdad government, a senior U.S. official said.

“How many contractors will deploy to Iraq - beyond the roughly 1,800 now working there for the U.S. State Department - will depend in part, the official said, on how widely dispersed U.S. troops advising Iraqi security forces are, and how far they are from U.S. diplomatic facilities. Still, the preparations to increase the number of contractors - who can be responsible for everything from security to vehicle repair and food service - underscores Obama's growing commitment in Iraq. When U.S. troops and diplomats venture into war zones, contractors tend to follow, doing jobs once handled by the military itself.” More here.

Read about the grim reality faced by U.S. allies in Iraq below.

Welcome to the Christmas Eve edition of The D Brief, Defense One's new, first-read national security newsletter. We’ll be going dark until after the first of the year so enjoy the holidays and remember to be thankful for everything you’ve got.

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Track the fat man in the red suit today and tonight right here.

How to fight an actual war on Christmas, and what it would take to do it, by the Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng, quoting former Army Ranger Andrew Exum, saying: “I have no idea how many elves would remain loyal to Santa Claus, but given the open terrain, you would probably want to surround Santa’s workshop with at least a company of Army Rangers before sending in a team from one of our special missions units to capture or kill Santa himself.” Read that bit here.

Building a better mousetrap: The military wants smarter insect spy drones. Defense One’s Patrick Tucker writes that DARPA is seeking software solutions to help small drones fly better  in tight, enclosed environments. The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, the R&D arm of the Pentagon, put out a broad agency announcement this week for the Fast Lightweight Autonomy program, which the agency said “focuses on creating a new class of algorithms to enable small, unmanned aerial vehicles to quickly navigate a labyrinth of rooms, stairways and corridors or other obstacle-filled environments without a remote pilot.” Defense One’s Tucker: The solicitation doesn’t focus on new drone designs so much as helping very small drones — able to fit through an open window and fly at 45 miles per hour — navigate tight and chaotic indoor spaces without having to communicate with operators, get GPS directions, or receive data from external sensors. All the thinking, steering and landing would be in the drone.”

AP overnight: George H. W. Bush (#41) taken to the hospital, here.

So now Sony will release “The Interview,” but it’s likely only a few small theaters will actually run it. But, it’s likely it will be hard to find a seat in those theaters given the free publicity for the movie. The WSJ’s Erich Schwartzel on Page One: “…The studio’s decision to release the film—and to try to distribute it via video-on-demand—came just six days after the Sony Corp. unit said it was canceling the film’s release, following a devastating cyberattack that the U.S. blames on North Korea. President Barack Obama, who had criticized the studio for pulling the film, welcomed Tuesday’s move.” here.

Here’s how Sony could get “The Interview” online, on re/code, here.

Could the FBI have been wrong about North Korea and Sony? Is it possible the agency fingered the wrong hacker? CBS: “… Cybersecurity experts are questioning the FBI’s claim that North Korea is responsible for the hack that crippled Sony Pictures. Kurt Stammberger, a senior vice president with cybersecurity firm Norse, told CBS News his company has data that doubts some of the FBI's findings.

Stammberger, who is not involved in the Sony case but whose company nonetheless has done its own investigation: “Sony was not just hacked, this is a company that was essentially nuked from the inside… We are very confident that this was not an attack master-minded by North Korea and that insiders were key to the implementation of one of the most devastating attacks in history.” More here.

Despite what “cyber-cynics” say, the North was indeed behind the cyber-attack. Slate, here.  

Read Vox’s bit on the Seven Craziest Things North Korea’s state-controlled media has said about the U.S., here.

Eric Sayers, a staffer for Virginia Republican Rep. Randy Forbes, is moving to the Senate for Asia policy. We’re told that in January, Sayers will go to work for the Senate Armed Services Committee to manage Pacific Command and Asia Policy for Sen. John McCain, working for Chris Brose, the committee’s soon-to-be new staff director.

Meantime, the man who claims to be the Bin Laden shooter is now under investigation for having loose lips when talking about the mission. The Daily Beast’s Shane Harris with a little scoop: “The former Navy SEAL who ignited a controversy when he publicly claimed credit for killing Osama bin Laden is under investigation for possibly leaking official secrets, The Daily Beast has learned. When reached for comment, Ed Buice, an NCIS public affairs officer, confirmed ‘The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) is in receipt of an allegation that Mr. O’Neill may have revealed classified information to persons not authorized to receive such information. In response, NCIS has initiated an investigation to determine the merit of the allegations.’ More here.

Back to Iraq: There are numerous costs to war, but for U.S. allies in Iraq, there is a particularly grim one. The WSJ’s Adam Entous on Page One: “… War forces people to make choices, and many of them don’t work out. With large swaths of Iraq under control of Islamic State, many of the Iraqis who put their lives on the line to aid the U.S. during the nearly nine-year war are being marked for death by militants as collaborators. The Americans who counted on them and are now safe at home can only wait, wonder and worry. One Iraqi begged a retired Marine general he had gotten to know during the war: ‘Come quickly or we’re all dead.’

“Retired Marine Gen. John Allen, put in charge by President Barack Obama of assembling the international coalition to fight Islamic State, gets the desperate notes for help in his personal email account. They are “heart-wrenching,” says Gen. Allen, who forwards them to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and military officers running airstrikes against Islamic State.”

“Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, twice the Marine commander in Fallujah, says the Iraqis ‘did so much for us’ and are paying a horrible price for it. In replies, he urges the Iraqis to stay safe and strong. The retired general who got the plea to ‘come quickly’ has responded four times but heard nothing.” More here.

Embedded with the teachers, farmers and fathers battling ISIS: Vocativ journalists, we’re told, were among the first to enter Kobani, where a prisoner of the Free Syrian Army told them he was on a suicide mission for ISIS. On another assignment, while embedded with the FSA in Aleppo, they met soldiers who were making their own war wagons—driven by a Sony Playstation controller. Finally, they spent time with the women volunteering to fight with the Peshmerga. Watch that little here.

A peak behind the scenes with Clint Eastwood’s staff on what they changed in “American Sniper.” The WaPo’s Dan Lamothe: “Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle is on the roof of a building in Iraq partway through the forthcoming film ‘American Sniper’ when he takes aim at an insurgent who is about to launch a rocket-propelled grenade at U.S. Marines. Kyle drops the would-be attacker with gunfire from his powerful rifle, but the SEAL is then faced with a new challenge: A boy, perhaps 8 years old, picks up the launcher instead and aims it at the unknowing Americans.” Spoiler alert if you click, here for more.

Russia said today that NATO was turning Ukraine into a “frontline of confrontation” and it threatened to sever remaining ties if that country ever joined the alliance. Reuters: “…The Kiev parliament's renunciation of Ukraine's neutral status on Tuesday in pursuit of NATO membership has outraged Moscow and deepened the worst confrontation between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.NATO countries pushed Kiev to this counterproductive decision, trying to turn Ukraine into a front line of confrontation with Russia,’ Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov told the Russian news agency Interfax.” Read the rest of that here.

ICYMI: The detainee issue aside, this is why Washington shouldn’t give in to Havana’s expected pressures to shutter the U.S. Naval Air Station at Guantanamo Bay. Jim Stavridis, writing for FP, his BLUF: “The normalization of relations with Cuba is — on balance — the right decision, and one that I have long publicly supported. But we should not rush to close a vital naval station as part of whatever deal is struck. Guantanamo Bay is much more than a detention facility.” More here.

Most troops are going to see more green next year. Government Executive’s Kellie Lunney writes that the 2015 pay and compensation rates for troops will give them slightly more: “…Along with the 1 percent pay increase for most troops – Congress froze pay for general and flag officers next year – service members also will receive boosts in their basic housing allowance and basic subsistence allowance in 2015. The BAH will increase on average $17 per month, or 0.5 percent, according to Defense. The basic allowance for subsistence, a nontaxable payment to service members to help them buy food, will rise 2.9 percent in 2015 from 2014. For enlisted members, that will be $367.92 per month, effective Jan. 1; for officers, it amounts to $253.38 per month.”

The former Marine held in an Iranian prison has suspended his hunger strike. The NYT’s Rick Gladstone, here.

The firing of a VA official in Phoenix is upheld. The WaPo’s Emily Wax-Thibodeaux: “The government agency charged with making sure federal employees are treated fairly upheld this week the Department of Veterans Affairs decision to “formally remove” Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix Department of Veterans Affairs’ Health Care System and the leader at the center of the biggest scandal in the agency’s history.

“But the ruling by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) could not substantiate that Helman knew or should have known that employees at her hospital lied about health-care wait times for former troops seeking treatment for everything from cancer to post-traumatic stress disorder.” More here.