Today's D Brief: Vaccinated can drop masks; Israel-Gaza battle continues; USMC major arrested; Air Force One, late; And a bit more.

If you’re fully vaccinated, it’s time to remove those COVID masks, the Defense Department announced in an internal memo Thursday, shortly after President Joe Biden delivered that message to the American public from the lawn of the White House. 

“Today is a great day for America in our long battle with the coronavirus,” Biden said. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the CDC — announced that they are no longer recommending that fully vaccinated people need wear masks. This recommendation holds true whether you are inside or outside.”

For the military, that means anyone who is at least two weeks past their final vaccine dose no longer has to wear a mask inside or outside, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said in the memo (PDF) distributed Thursday. 

Critical caveat: “Commanders and supervisors should not ask about an employee’s vaccination status or use information about an employee's vaccination status to make decisions about how and when employees will report to a workplace instead of teleworking,” Hicks advises.

Across the country, “Cases are down in 49 of the 50 states,” Biden said. More than 580,000 Americans have died from the disease to date. But the daily death toll has dropped to its lowest point since April 2020. 

“Over these past 114 days, our vaccination program has led the world,” the president said Thursday. “And that’s due to the incredible hard work of so many people: the scientists and researchers; the drug companies; the National Guard; the U.S. military; FEMA; the nation’s governors, doctors, nurses, pharmacists — everyone who has moved Heaven and Earth to get as many shots into arms of as many Americans as possible.”

  • Need help finding a vaccine site? Text your zip code to 438829. 

BTW: “We’re not going to go out and arrest people” for removing masks before being fully vaccinated, Biden said. “[T]he vast majority of the American people care about the safety of their neighbors and care about the safety of their families...We’ve had too much conflict, too much bitterness, too much anger, too much polarization of this issue about wearing masks. Let’s put it to rest.”

Review the latest state-by-state vaccination stats maintained by the Washington Post here.

From Defense One

Army’s Cybersecurity ‘Greatly Concerns’ Wormuth After Pipeline Attack // Caitlin M. Kenney: Biden’s SecArmy nominee told the Senate she’d fight deep troop cuts and support long-range fires and new measures against sexual crimes and extremism, if confirmed.

It’s Official: New Air Force Ones Will Be Delivered Late // Marcus Weisgerber: “Definitely a setback” said Lt. Gen. Duke Richardson, the U.S. Air Force’s deputy weapons buyer, as Boeing legal battle delays production.

Time Crunch for Afghanistan Withdrawal Is Producing a Big Trash Pile // Jacqueline Feldscher: One senator objects to the way troops are destroying equipment they don’t have time to sort. But there are reasons for it.

Red Cross Calls for More Limits on Autonomous Weapons // Patrick Tucker: Experts said the group’s unique stature might get governments to the negotiating table at last.

Should We Care About That Letter? // Paula Thornhill: Retired generals and admirals are, first and foremost, retirees.

The 2018 Strategy Is Unworkable. We Need a Fundamental Defense Rethink // Dave Oliver and Anand Toprani, Defense One: We can model our efforts to link long-term defense priorities and resourcing on a post-Cold War review.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here

Israel’s military escalated with artillery Thursday as rockets continue to fly from Gaza. The shelling marked a significant escalation to a battle that began on Monday.
Israeli aircraft also attacked “a network of tunnels underneath the Palestinian-controlled territory, through which Hamas is known to deploy militants and smuggle weapons,” the New York Times reported, quoting  Israel Defense Forces spokesman Jonathan Conricus, who described the complex network as a “city beneath a city.”
“The Israeli military said that about 1,800 rockets had been fired into Israel from Gaza,” the Times reports, “while the Gaza authorities reported more than 150 strikes from Israeli jets and drones, wounding more than 50 people overnight.” More, here.
Dramatic photo shows the path of Iron Dome interceptors going after incoming rockets (via AFP).

At least a dozen people have been killed during Afghanistan’s ceasefire: A bombing at a mosque in Kabul claimed the lives of at least 12 people on Friday, including the mosque’s imam, Mofti Noman, who is believed to be the target. So far, no group has claimed responsibility, and the Taliban deny any involvement, the Associated Press reports from the Afghan capital.
Western intelligence agencies are preparing for the fall of Kabul, a “collapse of [its] central government and an inevitable return to civil war,” the New York Times reported Friday. This planning reportedly includes courting 32-year-old Ahmad Massoud, whose father “led fighters against the Soviets in the 1980s and then against the Taliban as head of the Northern Alliance the following decade.” Story here.
The U.S. pulled out of Kandahar Airfield this week, which was the second-largest U.S. base in the country beside Bagram. “At its height, the sprawling military base and airfield were home to more than 26,000 U.S. and international troops,” NBC News reports.
“They left in the night” sometime late Tuesday, said Afghan Gen. Faqir Qowahi to Stars and Stripes.
FWIW: Your D Brief-er was based out of KAF exactly a decade ago, and still recalls the legendary “boardwalk,” a brief Toby Keith concert (kudos to Keith for making that dangerous stop, and on more than one occasion), and even a rave of some sort with laser lights that was organized by a partner nation’s military. (U.S. troops were advised to stay away from that one.)
If you have memorable KAF recollections, feel free to share them with us. 

For his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, a Marine Corps major was arrested at Quantico, Va., on Thursday — making him the first active duty service member to face charges (PDF) from that violent attempt to overturn the election that left at least five people dead, including Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick. The Marine in question is 40-year-old Christopher J. Warnagiris, a field artillery officer with about 19 years of service, including back-to-back deployments to Iraq in 2007 and 2008.
The Marine wasn’t pinpointed until mid-March, when someone who worked with him reported his likeness from photos of the insurrection posted online by the FBI. A co-worker at Quantico confirmed his identity in a conversation with a special agent the following day.
According to the Justice Department, “Warnagiris violently entered the Capitol on Jan. 6, after pushing through a line of police officers guarding the East Rotunda doors. Once inside, Warnagiris positioned himself in the corner of the doorway, using his body to keep the door open and pull others inside. When a U.S. Capitol Police officer tried to pull the doors shut, Warnagiris refused and continued pushing it open. Warnagiris can be seen pushing the officer in an effort to maintain his position in the open door in security camera footage and publicly available video footage captured shortly after 2:25 p.m.”
“The Marine Corps is clear on this: There is no place for racial hatred or extremism in the Marine Corps,” the service said in a statement Thursday. “Our strength is derived from the individual excellence of every Marine regardless of background. Bigotry and racial extremism run contrary to our core values...We are proud of the fact that Marines come from every race, creed, cultural background and walk of life. We expect every Marine to treat their fellow Marines with dignity and respect. Those who can't value the contributions of others, regardless of background, are destructive to our culture, our warfighting ability, and have no place in our ranks.”
“It's disturbing,” Marine Corps veteran Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., told Defense One Thursday. “I hope he gets really taken to the woodshed and gets demoted and gets his pension taken away, and everything should be thrown at him. There's no space for insurrectionists in the military.”
Other insurrectionists with a U.S. military background include four Reservists, and 41 veterans, said Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Martin Meiners on Thursday, citing data from the Justice Department.
Bigger picture: About “440 individuals have been arrested on charges related to the Jan. 6 Capitol breach, including over 125 individuals charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement,” the Justice Department said, adding, “The investigation remains ongoing.” Read more here.

For something completely different: Former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster was reportedly the intended victim of a sting operation to discredit critics of then-President Donald Trump, the New York Times’ Adam Goldman and Mark Mazzetti reported Thursday. The plot also included “secret surveillance operations against F.B.I. employees, aimed at exposing anti-Trump sentiment in the bureau’s ranks.”
Members of the conservative activist group Project Veritas were involved in the operations, Goldman and Mazzetti write, citing “more than a dozen interviews with former Project Veritas employees and others familiar with the campaign, along with current and former government officials and internal Project Veritas documents.”
Also reportedly involved: someone “with access to McMaster’s calendar,” according to participant Barbara Ledeen. The intrigue continues, here.

U.S. and Korean defense planners just wrapped two days of talks on Thursday in Washington, the Pentagon announced in the evening. At the conclusion of the talks, “both sides reaffirmed a shared goal of achieving the complete denuclearization of, and lasting peace on, the Korean Peninsula,” the Defense Department said, adding the two nations’ “combined forces would remain ready and postured to defend” South Korea if attacked by North Korean missiles or nuclear weapons.
The next meeting between the two nations’ defense planners is slated for the second half of the year. A bit more here.  

And finally this week: Robert Caslen, a retired Army three-star, stepped down from his post as president of the University of South Carolina. NPR reports that last Friday Caslen “delivered a [commencement] speech so bungled — with the wrong school name and closing remarks lifted nearly word-for-word from another famous commencement address — that it prompted widespread criticism from social media users to state legislators in South Carolina.”
Caslen lifted text from a previous commencement speech by former SOCOM chief, retired Adm. William McRaven, which was delivered just seven years ago. Continue reading, here.

Have a safe weekend, everyone! And we’ll see you again on Monday.