Today's D Brief: Outrage over Blackwater pardons; Miller spotlights SOF; Shutdown watch; Big vaccine buy; And a bit more.
Outrage erupts over Trump pardons of convicted Blackwater murderers and corrupt GOP congressmen. The first of what may be many presidential pardons from Donald Trump’s final weeks in office shocked the military, veteran and national security communities. While the political press focused on Trump setting free two people who pleaded guilty in Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, George Papadopoulos and Alex van der Zwaan, here’s what we were stunned to see…
They massacred civilians in Iraq 13 years ago, but on Tuesday evening, the White House announced Trump had pardoned the four former Blackwater contractors responsible for the murders of 17 people, including two boys aged 8 and 10, in 2007.
“Disgusting,” said Mark Hertling, retired 3-star general who commanded the 1st Armored Division and international troops in northern Iraq during the war: “...in my view the pardon of the Blackwater employees is the most egregious and disgusting of @realDonaldTrump actions. This was a [c]raven war crime that resulted in the death of 17 Iraqi civilians. Shame on you Mr President.”
“This makes me want to throw up,” wrote Claire McCaskill, former senator who served on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “ I am painfully aware of the facts surrounding the Blackwater contractors murdering civilians in Iraq. This pardon dishonors our military in a way that is unspeakable.”
“Monstrous,” wrote Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. “Private Blackwater mercenaries Nicholas Slatten, Paul Alvin Slough, Evan Shawn Liberty, and Dustin Laurent Heard are war criminals. Pardoning monstrous criminals will leave a dark mark on the history of presidential pardons.”
“Shame and horror,” wrote the ACLU in a statement. “President Trump hit a new low with these pardons. These military contractors were convicted for their role in killing 17 Iraqi civilians. Their actions caused devastation in Iraq, shame and horror in the United States, and scandal worldwide. With this disgraceful action, Trump insults the memory of the Iraqi victims and further degrades the office of the president.
Why these guys? “The Trump nexus to Erik Prince has long been evident, and explains this defenseless pardon,” wrote Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s former deputy national security advisor. Recall that Prince has worked Trump’s ear since he came to office, trying to return to relevancy, win Pentagon contracts to run the Afghanistan war (which Jim Mattis laughed out of the building.) And Prince’s sister is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
One likely consequence of pardoning the Blackwater killers: It helps perpetuate a “perception that Americans regard certain lives as more valuable than others and that certain nationalities are somehow more expendable,” CNN’s Vivian Salama tweets, adding, “It takes generations to allay such resentment.”
Trump also pardoned ex-Marine Duncan Hunter and two other indicted former GOP lawmakers.
“Hunter was set to begin serving an 11-month sentence next month,” the New York Times reports. “He pleaded guilty in 2019 to one charge of misusing campaign funds,” including money intended for wounded warriors, which he tried to pin on his own wife. The other two are Chris Collins of New York, who "had been serving a 26-month sentence after pleading guilty in 2019 to charges of making false statements to the F.B.I. and to conspiring to commit securities fraud," the Times reports. And Texas’s Steve "Stockman was convicted in 2018 on charges of fraud and money laundering and had been serving a 10-year sentence."For the record: Trump issued “45 pardons or commutations before Tuesday,” and “88 percent went to people with personal ties to the president or to people who furthered his political aims,” according to Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith. That illustrates an “unprecedented pattern of issuing self-serving pardons and commutations that advance his personal interests, reward friends, seek retribution against enemies, or gratify political constituencies,” Goldsmith said Tuesday.
Update: SecDef Miller also visited SOF outside Kabul. During his Afghanistan visit, the president’s Pentagon placeholder also visited “the Afghan Army’s Special Operations Command at Camp Morehead, in Wardak Province where U.S. special operations forces train Afghan commandos, a program established in 2007,” reports Defense One’s Patrick Tucker overnight. Miller was an operator here, and it’s no surprise he made a point to see his people.
Miller’s spotlight on special operators: The acting SecDef has taken early criticism for being such a cheerleader for the special operations forces from which he came. In one of his first acts on the job, he made a poorly organized trip to Fort Bragg, stood in front of Bronze Bruce to announce some overdue DOD organization changes to boost SOF’s profile, and fawned over the elite units who, lately, are fading into America’s memory of the big war years. (More on that, from Executive Editor Kevin Baron, here.)
What he said in Afghanistan (sounds a lot like what Joe Biden wanted): “I actually walked out of there really confident that we have the right stance,” he said. “I always felt it was a huge strategic error by expanding the war. I thought the war was for special operations, small footprint. And I just personally thought, if we were smart strategically, Afghanistan would always have a special operations force...I think we would have had a different outcome if we had maintained what we were doing then,” meaning the very start of the war with a heavy special operations focus but a small overall force. “Hopefully next Christmas we’re not having this conversation about a whole bunch of people being away from home for the holidays.”
From Defense One
Acting SecDef Miller Visits Troops in Afghanistan // Patrick Tucker: Trump's designee returned 19 years after serving here, this time to oversee a controversial order to rush troops out before Joe Biden is sworn in.
The Big Hack Is Damaging. That Doesn’t Make Russia 10 Feet Tall. // Daniel DePetris: U.S. leaders must not overestimate a country with a weak economy and overrated military.
Why German Troops Won’t Get Armed Drones // Elisabeth Braw: The reasons, which go back to Angela Merkel’s East German upbringing, are leaving the Bundeswehr dependent on allies and partners.
Two Years In, US Quantum-Science Coordinator Lays Out Next Steps // Brandi Vincent, Nextgov: Three agencies involved in quantum research spent 2019 planning and 2020 launching new efforts.
Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief from Kevin Baron and Ben Watson. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1968, 82 sailors from the USS Pueblo were finally released after almost a year of captivity in North Korea.
Shutdown watch: “Trump has 5 days until the government shuts down,” Politico’s Jake Sherman reports today — assuming Trump will keep his promise to veto the $2 trillion spending package that’s been sent to his desk, and which includes a $741 billion defense authorization bill. “It’s two days before Christmas. Congress is home. We’re in a pandemic. Unemployment insurance runs out on Saturday. [The government] shuts down Monday. And the president is suggesting he'll blow up a bipartisan bill to avert this.”
Trump said he’ll veto the bipartisan bill because the checks to Americans are too low. “I am asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000 or $4,000 for a couple,” Trump said in a video tweet Tuesday. What’s more, the president said, “Not enough money is given to small businesses, and in particular restaurants, whose owners have suffered so grievously.” White House and Hill reporters noted the president seemed to be confusing and blending the relief package with the omnibus spending bill for the rest of the federal government.
Now House Democrats plan to “offer a bill increasing stimulus checks to $2,000 using unanimous consent,” The Hill reports, “daring Republicans to bring down the bill by objecting during a Christmas Eve pro forma session.” Pelosi loved it. More on what could happen from here via the Associated Press or Reuters.
The U.S. just bought another 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer. The Pentagon announced the deal, which the Defense Department reached in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services under the procurement program Operation Warp Speed. The new agreement involves the delivery of “at least 70 million doses by June 30, 2021, with the balance of the 100 million doses to be delivered no later than July 31, 2021.”
The U.S. has acquired 100 million vaccine doses already in a deal reached back in July. And today’s agreement “also includes options for an additional 400 Million doses of the Pfizer vaccine,” said DOD. Pfizer’s vaccines are already in use “across the country after the shot won emergency use authorization earlier this month,” Reuters reports.
Pfizer is getting about $4 billion for the 200 million doses, according to the Pentagon. Read more from Operation Warp Speed, the joint DOD-DHHS project, here.
So far, more than 600,000 Americans have been vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthcare workers and nursing home employees are among the first in line for the vaccine.
Vaccinated service chiefs. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger got his on Tuesday. Army Chief Gen. James McConville joined him. And Chief of Naval Operations Mike Gilday appears to have gotten his Monday. Each tweeted the experience in an effort to support vaccinations nationwide.
Meanwhile in Oregon, armed far-right protesters stormed the state capitol building on Monday to protest COVID-19 restrictions. “Among the protesters were members of Patriot Prayer, a far-right group based in Vancouver, Wash., that attracts white supremacists and has engaged in violence,” Oregon Public Broadcasting reported from the scene. State Police had to declare an unlawful assembly in an effort to clear the entrance. Officers eventually arrested three people, "including a 41-year-old man who state police said sprayed bear mace at police," OPB reports.
The protests did not stop lawmakers from moving forward with the new protections. More from OPB — including a reporter getting roughed up by protesters — here.
By the way, the U.S. just reported its second-highest number of coronavirus-related deaths in a single day — 3,401, according to Johns Hopkins University. That makes five days of 3,000-plus deaths from the virus, all in December, CNN reports.
More than 50 veterans are dying every day from COVID-19, making this the deadliest month for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Military Times has the story, here.
One more thing: COVID has now reportedly reached Antarctica, via the Chilean military. (The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Kesling noted on Twitter Tuesday that this was a scenario the U.S. was working hard to avoid.)
President-elect Biden said the Pentagon won’t brief his team on the cyber attack that’s hit multiple federal agencies, including Homeland Security and the State Department. “I see no evidence that it's under control, I see none, heard of none,” Biden said Tuesday.
“The Defense Department won’t even brief us, on many things. So I know of nothing that suggests it's under control,” said Biden. “It is a grave risk and it continues.”
The Pentagon disagreed in a statement, attributed to nobody, that was sent to reporters at about 1 a.m. ET on Wednesday (while Miller was flying home from his Afghanistan trip): “The statement that the ‘Defense Department won’t even brief us, on many things’ is patently false. Since November 23rd, when the [General Services Administration] approved transition activities to occur, the DOD has conducted 163 interviews and 181 requests for information, which greatly exceed what the Biden-Harris team originally requested.”
Lastly today: Happy holidays! Your D Brief-ers are taking a break; we’ll back on Monday, January 4. See you in 2021…