US boosts ground force in Iraq, Syria; Ramadi offensive in the works; Gitmo fight not over yet; US-ISIS conspiracy theory, alive and well; and a bit more...

The U.S. is escalating its military role in Iraq and Syria, sending a muscular force of special operations troops to go to town on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This isn’t necessarily a coalition operation, either; the White House has authorized unilateral action. That’s the big takeaway from Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford’s long day before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

“These special operators will over time be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders,” Carter said. “That creates a virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids, and more momentum.”

He also echoed what White House officials have said for weeks: expect additional special operations raids, air strikes, use of local Syrian, Kurdish, and Iraqi forces, and increased intelligence activities, Defense One’s Kevin Baron writes.

Dunford on the unilateral authorization: “The enemy doesn’t respect boundaries; neither do we.”

The new plan, said Carter, “puts everyone on notice in Syria. You don’t know at night when someone’s going to be coming in the window.” Read the rest, here.

Carter hit on that “coming through the window” line again late Tuesday in a discussion at Harvard, explaining the new force’s objective “will be to take out ISIL leadership, to capture ISIL leadership, to rescue hostages, as we've done…And to make ISIL wonder, as the way I put it today was when they go to bed at night who's going to be coming in the window.” Catch footage of that chat with Harvard’s Graham Allison, here.

Opposition to Carter’s plan came fast and from an unlikely source: Iraq, Reuters reported Tuesday. “Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the deployment of such a force was not acceptable without Iraq's approval, raising questions over how closely Washington coordinated the plan with Baghdad.”

Across the front lines of Iraq, fighters and “ordinary people” think the U.S. is in cahoots with ISIS, the Washington Post’s Liz Sly reports from Baiji: “It is not in doubt,” said Mustafa Saadi, who says his friend saw U.S. helicopters delivering bottled water to Islamic State positions. He is a commander in one of the Shiite militias that last month helped push the militants out of the oil refinery near Baiji in northern Iraq alongside the Iraqi army.

The U.S. response: “It’s beyond ridiculous,” said Col. Steve Warren, the military’s Baghdad-based spokesman. “There’s clearly no one in the West who buys it, but unfortunately, this is something that a segment of the Iraqi population believes.” More on that unintentional bit of psyops, here.

In the ISIS-held city of Ramadi, the terrorist group is stopping civilians from leaving for safety. Dunford told U.S. lawmakers Tuesday an assault on the city will come before Mosul’s fall. “Iraqi forces have been airdropping leaflets since Sunday warning residents to get out before they launch an operation to recapture the Islamic State stronghold. Residents said the extremist group, also known as ISIS, wants to use civilians as human shields,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

But in the overall battle for hearts and minds (such as ISIS sees it), the group is failing miserably, the New York Times reports “according to a range of interviews with people who have recently fled.” The ding on their ability to govern and maintain morale has taken the form of “pay cuts, while others have quit and slipped away. Important services have been failing because of poor maintenance. And as its smuggling and oil businesses have faltered, the Islamic State has fallen back on ever-increasing taxes and tolls imposed on its squeezed citizens.” However, notes the Times, none of these indicators “point to its imminent collapse.” More here.

In Paris for the climate summit, President Barack Obama shared an uncomfortable (if hardly novel) assessment of the Islamic State: “ISIL is going to continue to be a deadly organization because of its social media, the resources that it has, and the networks of experiences fighters that it possesses. And it’s going to continue to be a serious threat for some time to come. But I’m confident that we’re on the winning side of this.”

Obama, who met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, also said it was unlikely Russia would change its policy anytime soon: “They have invested, for years now, in keeping Assad in power. Their presence there is predicated on propping him up. So that’s going to take some time for them to change how they think about the issue.” More here.

ICYMI: Obama signed the defense authorization bill last week, which all but freezes his plans to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. “But in his statement accompanying his signature, he signaled the fight’s not over yet,” Defense One’s Molly O’Toole reports.

Obama: “As I have said repeatedly, the executive branch must have the flexibility, with regard to the detainees who remain at Guantanamo, to determine when and where to prosecute them, based on the facts and circumstances of each case and our national security interests, and when and where to transfer them consistent with our national security and our humane treatment policy,” he wrote. “Under certain circumstances, the provisions in this bill concerning detainee transfers would violate constitutional separation of powers principles.”

Where to go from here? O’Toole explains.

The Pentagon’s plan to close GTMO is just too damn expensive, the White House says. “The Pentagon estimated it would require as much as $600 million to close the prison, including a one-time capital investment of as much as $350 million in construction costs, according to officials familiar with the Pentagon plan, which hasn’t been released publicly,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “The annual cost of operating the Guantanamo detention facility now is about $400 million. Under the Pentagon plans, operating a U.S.-based facility would run something less than $300 million, after the one-time costs, a defense official said.”

GTMO is currently housing 107 detainees. “Of those, 48 have been deemed eligible for transfer to other countries,” WSJ notes. “Another 59 detainees are currently considered too great a security risk to transfer. Those detainees would be the most likely to be transferred to a facility in the U.S., should one be built.” More here.

From Defense One

Reserve your seat now for Monday’s Defense One Leadership Briefing with Jeh Johnson: Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson sits for an intimate conversation with Defense One, on Monday, Dec. 7, to discuss how threats are moving from the battlefield to the homefront, and how DHS is working with the military, Defense Department, intelligence community, and other agencies for a whole-of-government defense against terrorism, cyber attacks, and more. Defense One Executive Editor Kevin Baron moderates the event, 8 a.m. EDT at Washington’s District Architecture Center. Register for your spot here.

SecDef taps former aide as military adviser. It’s Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Eric Smith, who was commanding Marine Corps Forces, South when Ash Carter asked him to come to Washington to replace Army Lt. Gen. Ron Lewis, whom the secretary fired in early November after learning of allegations of sexual misconduct. Here’s the twist: this is the second time Carter has replaced Lewis with Smith. Global Politics Reporter Marcus Weisgerber has the story, here.

How America can get its mojo back — that’s what National Journal’s Ron Fournier took away from Monday’s Aspen Institute/Defense One panel featuring Stan McChrystal and Michele Flournoy. Read “National service evangelists hope to inspire a cultural shift among millennials,” here. (Catch McChrysal’s oped, and watch the recorded event here.)

Don’t avenge Paris, argues the Truman Project’s Ryan B. Greer, whose former job was keeping track of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria. Instead: “Our leaders must avoid ‘feel-good’ retribution, and instead seek paths that will make us safer.” Read on, here.

Welcome to the Wednesday edition of The D Brief, from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Tell your friends to subscribe here: Want to see something different? Got news? Let us know:

Did Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., just out a U.S. hostage? “A group of Islamist militants aligned with the Taliban has been holding an American man hostage for more than a year, according to U.S. officials and others familiar with his case, which has not been reported previously,” The Daily Beast’s Shane Harris reports. “The exact details of the man’s kidnapping remain unclear. The militants said to be holding him have not made any public demands concerning his possible release. The Haqqani are known to negotiate for their captives and have conducted prisoner exchanges. A former government official in Afghanistan said the American man is alive and in good health, although his precise whereabouts remain unknown both to local officials and those in the United States.”

But there is another known U.S. captive in the region: “Caitlin Coleman, who was kidnapped along with her husband, Joshua Boyle, a Canadian citizen, while traveling in Afghanistan in 2012. Coleman had a child while in captivity, multiple U.S. officials have said.”

The bureaucracy of recovery: “Efforts to recover all U.S. hostages are now under the control of a new Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell established in the wake of the abduction and killing of four Americans at the hands of the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS,” writes TDB. “In his letter to Obama, Hunter said he was concerned that the FBI has been put in charge of the new cell and said the president should appoint a new hostage recovery coordinator, as required by a recently enacted defense bill.”

Hunter: “Given that the FBI is chiefly a law enforcement organization, it remains my belief that the FBI—despite its best intentions and efforts—is neither organized nor developed to lead hostage recovery in hostile areas.” More here.

Kissinger, Albright, Brzezinski, Hayden, Hagel—and more than a dozen other U.S. national security folks oppose blocking Syrian refugees stateside. “We believe that America can and should continue to provide refuge to those fleeing violence and persecution without compromising the security and safety of our nation,” they wrote in a letter to U.S. lawmakers Tuesday. “Refugees are victims, not perpetrators, of terrorism. Categorically refusing to take them only feeds the narrative of ISIS that there is a war between Islam and the West, that Muslims are not welcome in the United States and Europe, and that the ISIS caliphate is their true home.” Click here for the letter and a full list of signatories.

Want to know more about the scary world of electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) warfare? The folks at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments—an elite Washington think tank that’s seen a precipitous decline in Pentagon grant funding—are releasing a new report (available here after 9 a.m.) on how the Pentagon has “failed to keep pace” in its EMS investments. There’s an event marking the report’s launch going on right now at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.

And visit Defense One later this morning for Technology Editor Patrick Tucker’s take on the report.

Dept. of revolving doors: Michael Vickers, the former undersecretary of defense for intelligence who stepped down earlier this year, has joined former DHS chief Michael Chertoff on the board of directors at BAE Systems, the company announced this morning. Vickers’ three-year term on the board began yesterday.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa—the only female veteran in the upper chamber—just retired from the National Guard. She leaves as a Lt. Col. with 23 years behind her. “The decision to hang up my uniform after more than two decades in the military is not one I have made lightly and has been incredibly difficult. However, this decision provides me with a greater opportunity to continue meeting with, hearing from and serving Iowans in my capacity as a United States Senator, as well as spending more time with my family,” she said in a statement. More from The Des Moines Register, here.

China says the historic hack of U.S. federal workers’ data is not a state-sanctioned act—just merely the stuff of criminal activity. “The assertion came in one paragraph midway through a report Tuesday by Xinhua, the state-run news agency, about a meeting in Washington between top Chinese and American law enforcement officials, and it raised more questions than it answered,” the NYTs reports. “The report gave no details on who may have committed the cyberattack or what the motives may have been...The news was only reported on Xinhua’s English-language service, not its Chinese-language service, and did not appear to have been mentioned by other official news outlets in China.”

Maybe those Chinese cyber espionage indictments weren’t so benign after all, writes Benjamin Wittes, editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog. His jumping off point: After the U.S. indictments of Chinese officials, “Chinese military scaled back its cybertheft of U.S. commercial secrets in the wake of Justice Department indictments of five officers, and the surprising drawdown shows that the law enforcement action had a more significant impact than is commonly assumed,” U.S. officials told the Washington Post.

Lastly today—first the “Power-Point Ranger,” now comes the Power-Point Stryker. “The Army’s Mobile Tactical Communications Network to Enable Mission Command on the Move, which goes by the much shorter acronym MCOTM, is testing a Stryker that replaces its main armament” with the ubiquitous presentation program everyone loves to hate, writes WaPo’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff. Worth the click for the “Stripes” clip alone, here.