Washington (CNN)Sixteen US Marines were arrested Thursday for alleged involvement in various illegal activities ranging from human smuggling to drug-related offenses, according to a statement from the Marine Corps.
The arrests took place in a dramatic fashion on Thursday morning at Camp Pendleton, California, during a battalion formation.
“Information gained from a previous human smuggling investigation precipitated the arrests,” the statement said. “None of the Marines arrested or detained for questioning served in support of the Southwest Border Support mission.”
Eight other Marines were also questioned on their involvement in alleged drug offenses unrelated to today’s arrests, the Marine Corps said.
A US official told CNN that Thursday’s arrests are related to an incident that occurred earlier this month in which two Marines from Camp Pendleton were charged with transporting undocumented immigrants for financial gain.
Byron Law II and David Salazar-Quintero, both lance corporals, were arrested after their vehicle was pulled over by Border Patrol agents about 20 miles east of the Tecate port of entry.
Law was driving, and Salazar-Quintero was in the passenger seat. There were three passengers in the back of the car, and they told the agent they were Mexican citizens, had no immigration papers and were not permitted to enter the United States, according to the complaint.
The three immigrants apprehended from the back of Law’s car told Border Patrol agents that they’d made arrangements to be smuggled into the United States and had been told via cellphone to get into Law’s car.
Two of the migrants said they were planning to pay $8,000 to be smuggled into the country, the complaint says. One planned on traveling to Los Angeles, the other to New Jersey.
The driver and passenger, under questioning, began pointing fingers at one another, the complaint says, detailing their involvement in a smuggling operation.
According to their service records supplied by the US Marine Corps, both of the men charged earlier in the month are riflemen with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. They have been awarded the National Defense and Global War on Terrorism service medals.
Capt. Christopher Harrison, Marine Corps spokesman, previously told CNN that the corps is “aware of the charges facing Lance Cpl. Law and Lance Cpl. Salazar-Quintero.”
“We continue to cooperate fully with the investigative efforts into this matter,” he said earlier this month.
Navy seals sent home from Iraq
Thursday’s arrests come one day after the US military took the rare step of sending home an elite team of Navy SEALs from Iraq due to “a perceived deterioration of good order and discipline” that caused a military commander to lose “confidence in the team’s ability to accomplish the mission.”
“The commander of the Special Operations Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (in Iraq) ordered the early redeployment of a SEAL Team platoon to San Diego due to a perceived deterioration of good order and discipline within the team during non-operational periods,” US Special Operations Command said in a statement Wednesday.
“The Commander lost confidence in the team’s ability to accomplish the mission,” the statement added.
A US Defense Department official familiar with the situation told CNN that the unusual step of sending the team home was due to allegations regarding the consumption of alcohol during their downtime, which is a violation of general orders issued to troops participating in overseas campaigns.
The official added that there is no evidence the alcohol consumption happened on missions and there is no evidence of drug use.
A fact-finding investigation has been initiated.
The disciplined service members were members of SEAL Team 7, according to multiple defense officials.
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I am proud of the progress that has been made over the past two years on some of the key goals articulated in our National Defense Strategy: putting the Department on a more sound budgetary footing, improving readiness and lethality in our forces, and reforming the Department’s business practices for greater performance. Our troops continue to provide the capabilities needed to prevail in conflict and sustain strong US global influence.
One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies. Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world. Instead, we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances. NATO’s 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof.
Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions — to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.
My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.
Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position. The end date for my tenure is February 28, 2019, a date that should allow sufficient time for a successor to be nominated and confirmed as well as to make sure the Department’s interests are properly articulated and protected at upcoming events to include Congressional posture hearings and the NATO Defense Ministerial meeting in February. Further, that a full transition to a new Secretary of Defense occurs well in advance of the transition of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in September in order to ensure stability within the Department.
I pledge my full effort to a smooth transition that ensures the needs and interests of the 2.15 million Service Members and 732,079 DoD civilians receive undistracted attention of the Department at all times so that they can fulfill their critical, round-the-clock mission to protect the American people.
I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform.
It was a pitch black Saturday evening at a remote outpost in Syria last February when Sgt. Cameron Halkovich and Cpl. Kane Downey began their rounds, checking Marines on perimeter security.
As sergeant and corporal of the guard, their job was to set up the watch schedule, man the radios, and most importantly, ensure Marines on post were watching for signs of ISIS fighters, who for months had been under blistering attack from artillery at the small, Army-run base in Deir al-Zour Province. Besides an Army Special Forces team, it hosted a forward surgical team, more than dozen Marine infantrymen, and a platoon-sized element of Syrian Democratic Forces allied with the U.S.
But on that late-winter night, one of the Americans’ SDF partners would turn on them and fire two shots — marking the first known instance of an insider attack during Operation Inherent Resolve. And while the Pentagon often announces when service members are killed or wounded during these “insider” or “green on blue” attacks, it made no such announcement for Halkovich, a combat engineer, who was shot twice in the leg and survived.
This account of the Feb. 17 shooting of a U.S. Marine by a member of the Syrian militia he was supporting is based on interviews with multiple sources, military award documents, and scant details released by the Pentagon. It has also become an open secret among the 1,000-plus Marines and sailors of the unit Halkovich was attached to — 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, based in Twentynine Palms, California.
“It’s kind of ridiculous that a Marine gets shot and nobody hears about it,” said one source familiar with the incident, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal. “It kind of blows my mind.”
In fact, when asked by Task & Purpose whether there had ever been an insider attack during Operation Inherent Resolve, a coalition statement flatly denied it: “We have no recorded incidents of insider attacks during OIR.”
* * *
The small contingent of Marines from Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment had a boring and often thankless job providing security at the outpost, a so-called “mission support site” which Task & Purpose has chosen not to name for operational security reasons. Though they occasionally left the wire, the Marines spent most of their time on rooftops or in the turret of a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected truck, as Army artillerymen safely pounded ISIS positions and Special Forces soldiers trained and supported the SDF in battle.
They settled into a familiar routine after about five months in Syria: Some Marines slept or ate, while others manned a vehicle-mounted .50 caliber machine-gun or looked for infiltrators in the surrounding desert with night vision and thermal imaging devices. Meanwhile, the SDF had their own routine, manning a gate that served as the main entry point into the camp.
The Marines mostly kept to themselves, except to share an occasional cigarette with the Kurdish-dominated SDF. Sometimes the Kurds would slaughter a goat and cook it up for their American patrons. But for reasons that remain unclear, relations began to deteriorate in early February.
“There was an incident with an SDF guy racking his AK… but the Marine somehow deescalated the situation and nothing was fired,” the source said of a Kurdish soldier who chambered a round in his AK-47 rifle, threatening a Marine about a week prior to the Halkovich shooting. That SDF soldier was subsequently kicked off the base.
“Tensions were super high at this point,” the source added.
But just as one potential insider threat was removed, a new one seemed to present itself just a week later, illustrating the fragile nature of some of America’s partnerships with foreign militaries — which are increasingly being used to fight terror groups through a strategy of “advise and assist.”
It began with a radio call. Alerted to a commotion at the SDF-manned gate, Halkovich and Downey ran to check it out. When they got there, SDF soldiers told the Marines a truck outside the gate was just having car trouble.
It was a lie, one that was quickly exposed when a Syrian civilian in the vehicle held up a dead child that was “soaked in blood,” according to the source. Looking closer, the Marines saw a truck bed filled with about eight dead or wounded civilians. It was a mass-casualty incident, and they knew they had to help.
The SDF told the Marines no, in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions, which strictly prohibits withholding medical assistance or discriminating in providing care.
“SDF was trying to tell us that we weren’t allowed to treat them, but… we’re going to help anybody we can,” the source said, adding that the partner force “was super upset about it.”
Another source, who also spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal, said the injured group, comprised mostly of women and children, was turned away by the SDF because they were not Kurdish.
The first source gave a similar account: “It was purely racial. They refused to give them an ambulance.”
Halkovich and Downey pushed the SDF soldiers out of the way and opened the gate, amid screaming from both sides in English and Arabic. They moved concertina wire aside while another Marine called in a mass casualty to the Army surgical team. Others placed victims on litters and shuffled them in.
Army medics managed to save four of the victims, according to the first source. But the SDF “was not happy,” the other source said. The Kurds even threatened to kick the Marines out of the compound for their humanitarian act.
Eventually, tensions settled and things went back to normal — until dark.
Around 9 p.m. that night, Halkovich and Downey decided to check on Lance Cpl. Jay Smith, who was stationed in the MRAP turret behind a .50 caliber machine gun.
After walking the 100 meters or so from their quarters, Halkovich stopped to urinate. Not thinking anything of it, Downey kept going. But as he crossed an intersection between buildings near the main gate, he realized something seemed strange.
At the entry control point, at least one SDF soldier normally watched the gate at all times. But nobody was there.
Neither Marine was aware that hidden in the shadows, one of the SDF soldiers had abandoned his post and was lying in wait.
Downey got to the door of the MRAP and reached for the handle. But before he opened it, he heard two gunshots, the distinctive report of an AK-47.
He turned around and saw Halkovich on the ground, his face obscured. Downey would later recount to his fellow Marines and military investigators that he saw a lone SDF soldier, standing over Halkovich with a rifle.
Downey then aimed in with his M4 rifle and dropped the attacker with a “hammer pair” — a well-aimed series of two quick shots to the chest. With the SDF soldier now dead, Downey kicked his weapon away and yelled to Smith in the turret: “Halko was shot! Halko was shot!”
Halkovich took two 7.62mm bullets to the left leg that went clean through — though, in the darkness, Downey initially thought his comrade was dead. With Downey’s red-lens headlamp shining down on his face, Halkovich looked up. Then he looked at his leg, then back at Downey, and finally, he screamed.
According to the award citation for the Joint Service Commendation Medal that Downey would receive in March for what was called a “shooting incident,” the Marine “acted decisively to eliminate the threat to his comrade” before applying a tourniquet to Halkovich’s leg and fireman-carrying him to the surgical facility. (The citation, signed by OIR Commanding General Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, however, takes pains to avoid identifying “the shooter.”)
Smith, for his part, remained at his post and called in the shooting on the radio, prompting the rest of the Marines to respond to the scene. Just as the Marines had done earlier in the day for civilians, they now watched as one of their own was brought to the Army surgeons stationed nearby.
Halkovich was medically evacuated from the post soon after, while Downey was brought back to a larger camp to explain what had happened to military investigators.
But for months afterward, the Marines continued to live side-by-side with the Syrian partners they had come to fear.
“It’s really terrifying,” the first source said. “You’re literally surrounded.”
Spokesmen for the Syrian Democratic Forces did not respond to a request for comment.
The Marines of 2/7 returned with little fanfare from their combat deployment in April. Halkovich received the Purple Heart that same month and is still recovering from his wounds at the Corps’ Wounded Warrior Regiment at Camp Pendleton, California. At Marine Corps Base 29 Palms in March, Downey would receive his Joint Service Commendation Medal for saving Halkovich’s life.
Meanwhile, a new group of Marines has taken 2/7’s place on the Corps’ Special Purpose MAGTF Crisis Response-Central Command, where, like their counterparts, they could potentially deploy to a theater of war where friends can become enemies in the blink of an eye.
Were they warned of the shooting in February? Told to prepare for the possibility of an insider attack by the SDF? A spokesperson for the unit did not respond to those questions.
“They said it would be on the front page of every newspaper in the country and yet no justice was ever done for my wounded brother,” the second source told me. “That is the only reason I’m telling you this because no one knows what happened out there… and nothing came of it.”
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Is There Ever A ‘Right Time’ To Assassinate A Head Of State?
Those of you who know me know that I am a person who wishes only peace and kindness in a world of absolutely no violence at all, for any reason. Now is the problem, in that violence is a very excepted form of our reality today. That first sentence was more like ‘fantasy land’ I know, I know that as long as there are humans in our current form, there will be hate and violence. Today I am asking you to consider the assassination of a Head of State (hopefully not your own), if you think there is ever such a thing as a case where you would give the order or even pull the trigger yourself? The on purpose taking of any life, even the life of a rabbit a cat or a dog should never be done carelessly, or thoughtlessly. The taking of a human life is sometimes a necessity, at least in my mind. Have you heard the question (I didn’t create this question, nor do I know who did), “if you could go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler while he was still a baby, would you do it, could you yourself do it”?
For purpose of argument I want to take us back to pre-Iraq invasion in March of 2003. The people of Iraq hated their leader “Saddam” yet they themselves never struck him down, why? Were Saddam’s security forces that good? There is no doubt that Saddam was a very bad person and that his own people were scared of him, for good reasons. My question with this example is if the American Government (George W. Bush) wanted to bring Saddam to justice (end of a rope) why not have spread out a few of our well-trained snipers and find an opportunity to give Saddam a little gray pill between his ears? Wouldn’t one well placed bullet have been better than an open-ended war where hundreds of thousands have died?
Now let us go to the modern-day situation’s we find ourselves in. Today I am only going to concentrate (for an example) on the ‘living god’ President of North Korea. If you have paid any attention to the world going on around your/our little space, the very evil and obviously insane President of North Korea has been threatening to attack other nations (U.S., Japan, South Korea) with nukes. A Head of State who makes such statements is equivalent to declaring war on you! So, when, if ever, is it okay to give the ‘god king’ a splitting headache?
At what point will the government of China get tired of backing this man and get rid of him themselves? Is there such a point? If China’s President, Xi Jinping were to summon Kim Jung Un to China and once there give Kim personal guarantees of China keeping him in power in North Korea as long as Kim ‘plays ball’ with the U.S. and doesn’t start a war on the Korean Peninsula. There could easily have been offered the two edge sword, Xi could promise Kim that if Kim did not ‘play ball’ that either China would totally shut down all commerce in and out of North Korea and that China would back North Korean assassins to put in a Regime change.
For a moment let us consider Terrorist groups like Hamas who control the Gaza Strip in Israel, should their very top leaders be considered as untouchable Heads of State, or mass murdering wild dogs? Do you doubt that some of/all of, these terrorist groups would kill your country’s leader if they could get the chance to? How about ‘The Supreme Ruler’ in Iran, does he count as a Head of State? The taking of another life should never be done lightly, but my question is whom decides who the order is given to pull the trigger on someone by? Your President, CIA Director, NSA Director, a General at the Pentagon? How about the E-1 Army private who has one of these evil people in their cross-hairs? I did not say that I was giving any answers on this subject matter today, like always, I am just trying to get people to think for themselves. Folks, life is a conversation piece, live it.
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Retired Cmdr. David Fravor spent 18 years as a Navy pilot, but nothing prepared him for what he witnessed during a routine training mission on Nov. 14, 2004.
“I can tell you, I think it was not from this world,” Fravor told ABC News. “I’m not crazy, haven’t been drinking. It was — after 18 years of flying, I’ve seen pretty much about everything that I can see in that realm, and this was nothing close.”
Fravor’s stunning retelling of his encounter off the California coast with what appeared to be a 40-foot-long wingless object that flew at incredible speeds in an erratic pattern comes as the Pentagon revealed the existence of a secret program to investigate sightings of UFOs.
The program was shut down in 2012 because of other budget priorities, according to the Pentagon.
“I have never seen anything in my life, in my history of flying that has the performance, the acceleration — keep in mind this thing had no wings,” Fravor said.
He recalled flying his F/A-18 fighter on a training mission on a beautiful Southern California day 13 years ago when things started to get strange.
Controllers on one of the Navy ships on the water below reported objects that were dropping out of the sky from 80,000 feet and going “straight back up,” Fravor said.
“So we’re thinking, OK, this is going to be interesting,” he said.
As they were looking around for the object that appeared on the radar, another aviator spotted something. “I was like, ‘Dude, do you see that?'” Fravor recalled saying.
“We look down, we see a white disturbance in the water, like something’s under the surface, and the waves are breaking over, but we see next to it, and it’s flying around, and it’s this little white Tic Tac, and it’s moving around — left, right, forward, back, just random,” he said.
The object didn’t display the rotor wash typical of a helicopter or jet wash from a plane, he said.
The planes flew lower to investigate the object, which started to mirror their movements before disappearing, Fravor said. “As we start to cut across, it rapidly accelerates, climbs past our altitude and disappears,” Fravor recalled.
“When it started to near us, as we started to descend towards it coming up, it was flying in the elongated way, so it’s [like] a Tic Tac, with the roundish end going in the forward direction … I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what I saw. I just know it was really impressive, really fast, and I would like to fly it,” he said.
The disturbance in the water also vanished with object, he remembered.
“So we turned around — we couldn’t have been more than about a couple miles away — and there’s no white water at all in the ocean,” Fravor said. “It’s just blue.”
At that point, they decided to return to complete the training exercise when they were told the object or something similar reappeared.
“And the controller comes up and says, ‘Sir, you’re not going to believe this. That thing is at your half point,’ which is our hold point,” Fravor added. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, great.'”
Another plane that launched from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz around the same time had its radar jammed and was able to pick up the object on an infrared channel.
“He gets close enough to see a couple of objects come out of the bottom, and then all of a sudden it takes off and goes right off the side of the screen and, like, takes off,” Fravor said.
He recalled that the speed of the object, which he said had no exhaust trail in infrared scanning, was stunning.
“No aircraft that we know of can fly at those speeds, maneuver like that and looks like that,” ABC News contributor and former Marine Col. Stephen Ganyard said.
Fravor said there is no rational explanation for what they saw that day.
“I don’t know if it was alien life, but I will say that in an infinite universe, with multiple galaxies that we know of, that if we’re the only planet with life, it’s a pretty lonely universe.”
There was no further investigation into the incident, he said.
“You know, you see a lot of interesting things,” Fravor said. “But to show up on something that’s a 40-foot-long white Tic Tac with no wings that can move, really, in any random direction that it wants and go from hovering over the ocean to mirroring us to accelerating to the point where it just disappears — like, poof, then it was gone.”
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According to the Times, the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program was launched in 2007 after the Nevada Democrat spoke to his longtime friend, Robert Bigelow, the billionaire founder of an aerospace company. Bigelow has spoken about his belief in UFOs visiting the United States as well as the existence of aliens.
Among the anomalies the program studied, the paper said, were video and audio recordings of aerial encounters by military pilots and unknown objects, as well as interviews with people who said they had experienced physical encounters with such objects.
In one instance, the program looked at video footage of a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet surrounded by a glowing object of unknown origin traveling at a high rate of speed in a location that officials declined to identify, the paper said.
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The Pentagon says the program has since been shuttered.
“The Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program ended in the 2012 timeframe,” Pentagon spokesman Tom Crosson told CNN. “It was determined that there were other, higher priority issues that merited funding and it was in the best interest of the DoD to make a change.”
But according to the Times, certain aspects of the program still exist with officials from the program continuing to investigate encounters brought to them by service members, while these officials still carry out their other duties within the Defense Department.
The former director of the program told the paper that he worked with officials from the Navy and CIA from his office in the Pentagon until this past October, when he resigned in protest. He said a replacement had been named, but he declined to identify them.
Reid, the Times says, was also supported in his efforts to fund the program by the late Sens. Ted Stevens of Alaska, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, and John Glenn of Ohio, the first American to orbit the Earth, who told Reid the federal government should take a serious look at UFOs.
And working to keep a program that he was sure would draw scrutiny from others, Reid said he, Stevens and Inouye made sure there was never any public debate about the program on the Senate floor during budget debates.
“This was so-called black money,” Reid told the Times regarding the Defense Department budget for classified programs.
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An Air Force review has found that the branch failed to report “several dozen” service members found guilty of violent offenses to the federal gun background check database, with representatives of the service telling the New York Times that the reporting failure that allowed disgraced airman Devin Patrick Kelley to purchase the firearms he used to murder 26 parishioners in a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church on Nov. 5 “was not an isolated incident.”
In the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting, the Department of Defense determined that Kelley’s 2012 court-martial conviction for beating his wife and infant son should have disqualified him from purchasing firearms, but he was not reported to the FBI for inclusion in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the database for firearms-related background checks for private dealers and state outlets. The Air Force review found that since 2002, a whopping 60,000 incidents involving airmen that “potentially” merited inclusion in NICS went unaddressed, according to the New York Times.
“Similar reporting lapses occurred at other locations” besides Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where Kelley was stationed, the Air Force said in a statement. “Although policies and procedures requiring reporting were in place, training and compliance measures were lacking.”
Under federal law, anyone dishonorably discharged from the armed forces is prohibited from possessing or receiving firearms or ammo transported across state lines. The 1996 Lautenberg amendment that extends that prohibition to military personnel with domestic violence convictions.
The Air Force has experienced major lapses in reporting serious crimes committed to essential law enforcement databases like NICS for decades. In 1997, a DoD IG report found that the Air Force had failed to report 38 percent of fingerprint cards and 50 percent of criminal case outcomes to the FBI over a six-month period from 1995 to 1996, according to a Nov. 7 Associated Press report; a 2015 follow-up found the branch didn’t report 39 percent of its fingerprint data over a two year period between 2010 and 2012.
The causes of that the gap? “Ambiguous Pentagon guidelines and a lack of interest among the military services in submitting information to an FBI viewed as chronically overburdened with data,” according to the AP report, language echoed in the Air Force’s Nov. 28 statement.
In the wake of Kelley’s rampage and subsequent revelations regarding his troubled history, the Pentagon has been racing to overhaul its background check and criminal reporting procedures. Among the new measures pushed by branch officials, according to the New York Times: a mandate that Air Force Office of Special Investigations personnel “confirm that reportable cases have been entered in the federal database by seeing either a printout or a screenshot from the database.”
U.S. on collision course with Syria and Iran once de facto Islamic State capital falls
Graduates of a U.S.-trained Syrian police force, which expects to be deployed in Raqqa, salute during a graduation ceremony Saturday near Ain Issa village, north of the de facto Islamic State capital in Syria. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
Trump administration officials, anticipating the defeat of the Islamic State in its de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa, are planning for what they see as the next stage of the war, a complex fight that will bring them into direct conflict with Syrian government and Iranian forces contesting control of a vast desert stretch in the eastern part of the country.To some extent, that clash has already begun. Unprecedented recent U.S. strikes against regime and Iranian-backed militia forces have been intended as warnings to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Tehran that they will not be allowed to confront or impede the Americans and their local proxy forces.
As regime and militia forces have begun advancing eastward, senior White House officials have been pushing the Pentagon to establish outposts in the desert region. The goal would be to prevent a Syrian or Iranian military presence that would interfere with the U.S. military’s ability to break the Islamic State’s hold on the Euphrates River valley south of Raqqa and into Iraq — a sparsely populated area where the militants could regroup and continue to plan terrorist operations against the West.
Officials said Syrian government claims on the area would also undermine progress toward a political settlement in the long-separate rebel war against Assad, intended to stabilize the country by limiting his control and eventually driving him from power.
The wisdom and need for such a strategy — effectively inserting the United States in Syria’s civil war, after years of trying to stay out of it, and risking direct confrontation with Iran and Russia, Assad’s other main backer — has been a subject of intense debate between the White House and the Pentagon.
Some in the Pentagon have resisted the move, amid concern about distractions from the campaign against the Islamic State and whether U.S. troops put in isolated positions in Syria, or those in proximity to Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, could be protected. European allies in the anti-Islamic State coalition have also questioned whether U.S.-trained Syrians, now being recruited and trained to serve as a southern ground-force vanguard, are sufficient in number or capability to succeed.
One White House official, among several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Syria planning, dismissed such concerns, saying: “If you’re worried that any incident anywhere could cause Iran to take advantage of vulnerable U.S. forces . . . if you don’t think America has real interests that are worth fighting for, then fine.”
The official said the expanded U.S. role would not require more troops, comparing it to “The Rat Patrol,” the 1960s television series about small, allied desert forces deployed against the Germans in northern Africa during World War II.
“With our ability with air power . . . you’re not talking about a lot of requirements to do that,” the official said. “. . . You don’t need a lot of forces to go out and actually have a presence.”
This official and others played down reports of tensions over Syria strategy. “No one disagrees about the strategy or the objectives,” said a second White House official. “The question is how best to operationalize it.”
The Pentagon, not the White House, made the decision to shoot down Iranian drones and a Syrian fighter jet in response to their approaches to or attacks against U.S. forces and their Syrian allies, this official said. “They shot down an enemy aircraft for the first time in more than a decade. That’s accepting a high level of risk,” the official said. “. . . We’ve done quite a lot since April that the previous administration said was impossible without the conflict spiraling.”
Ilan Goldenberg, a former senior Pentagon official now in charge of the Center for New American Security’s Middle East program, agreed that the Obama administration “over-agonized” about every decision in Syria.
But Goldenberg faulted the Trump administration with failing to articulate its strategy. “It has been the worst of all worlds,” he said. “A vagueness on strategy, but a willingness to deploy force. They are totally muddying the waters, and now you have significant risk of escalation.”
“I know the president is fond of secret plans,” Goldenberg said. “But this situation requires clarity about our objectives and what we will or won’t tolerate.”
Trump promised during his campaign to announce within his first month in office a new strategy for defeating the Islamic State. That strategy remains unrevealed, and for several months Trump appeared to be following Obama’s lead in avoiding Assad, Iran and Russia and continuing a punishing assault on Islamic State strongholds elsewhere in Syria, as well as in Iraq.
In April, Trump broke that mold with a cruise-missile attack on regime forces after their use of chemical weapons against civilians. Assad and his allies protested but did little else.
More recently, however, there have been direct clashes between the United States and the regime. Trump’s campaign calls to join forces with Russia against the Islamic State have largely disappeared amid increased estrangement between Washington and Moscow and investigations of Trump associate’s contacts with Russian officials.
Despite U.S. warnings, regime and militia forces have moved toward the Syrian town of At Tanf, near the Iraq border, where U.S. advisers are training Syrian proxies to head northeast toward Deir al-Zour, the region’s largest city, controlled by the regime and surrounded by the Islamic State. It is a prize that the regime also wants to claim.
At the end of May, Syrian and Iranian-backed forces pushed southward to the Iraq border, between At Tanf and Bukamal, where the Euphrates crosses into Iraq. In Iraq, Iranian-backed militias have, in small but concerning numbers, left the anti-Islamic State fight and headed closer to the border, near where regime forces were approaching.
On at least three occasions in May and June, U.S. forces have bombed Iranian-supported militia forces approaching the At Tanf garrison. Twice this month, they have shot down what they called “pro-regime” armed drones, including one on June 8 that fired on Syrian fighters and their American advisers.
On Sunday, two days before the most recent drone shoot-down near At Tanf, a U.S. F/A-18 shot down a Syrian air-force jet southwest of Raqqa.
In response, Russia said it would train its powerful antiaircraft defense system in western Syria on farther areas where U.S. aircraft are operating and shut down the communications line that the two militaries have used to avoid each other in the crowded Syrian airspace.
“The only actions we have taken against pro-regime forces in Syria . . . have been in self-defense,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week.
Dunford also made clear that victory against the Islamic State in Raqqa, and in Mosul, where the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces are in the last stages of a months-long offensive, will not mark the end of the war.
“Raqqa is tactical. Mosul is tactical,” Dunford said. “We ought not to confuse success in Raqqa and Mosul as something that means it’s the end of the fight. I think we should all be braced for a long fight.”
In a report Wednesday, the Institute for the Study of War, referring to intelligence and expert sources, said that the Islamic State in Raqqa had already relocated “the majority of its leadership, media, chemical weapons, and external attack cells” south to the town of Mayadin in Deir al-Zour province.
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Neither the U.S.-led coalition and its local allies nor what the institute called the “Russo-Iranian coalition” can “easily access this terrain — located deep along the Euphrates River Valley — with their current force posture,” it said.
At the White House, senior officials involved in Syria policy see what’s happening through a lens focused as much on Iran as on the Islamic State. The Iranian goal, said one, “seems to be focused on making that link-up with Iran-friendly forces on the other side of the border, to control lines of communication and try to block us from doing what our commanders and planners have judged all along is necessary to complete the ISIS campaign.” ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.
“If it impacts your political outcome, if it further enables Iran to solidify its position as the dominant force in Syria for the long haul,” the official said, “that threatens other things,” including “the defeat-ISIS strategy” and “the ability to get to political reconciliation efforts.”
“For us,” the official said, “that’s the biggest concern.”
Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to this report.
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On April 11, acting DODIG Glenn Fine notified the House committee’s chairman, Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, in writing that the Pentagon had initiated an investigation to determine “whether [Flynn] failed to obtain required approval prior to receiving any emolument from a foreign government.”
Flynn was fired from his position as national security adviser to President Donald Trump in February after revelations he misled the White House, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his pre-inauguration contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. His tenure as chief security adviser to the president was the shortest in modern political history.
Flynn, through a lawyer, has vehemently rebuffed allegations of wrongdoing. “Notwithstanding his life of national service, the media are awash with unfounded allegations, outrageous claims of treason, and vicious innuendo directed against him,” Flynn’s lawyer said in March, as the former sought immunity in exchange for congressional testimony. (His request was denied.) “He is now the target of unsubstantiated public demands by Members of Congress and other political critics that he be criminally investigated.”
Well, with good reason! According to documents released by HOC’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, was warned by Pentagon officials as early as October 2014 “not to take foreign government-sourced money without ‘advance approval’ from the Pentagon,” the Associated Press notes. Yet Flynn reportedly continued to take on foreign contracts without clearing his connections with the appropriate channels.
“These documents raise grave questions about why General Flynn concealed the payments he received from foreign sources after he was warned explicitly by the Pentagon,” Cummings said in a statement. “Our next step is to get the documents we are seeking from the White House so we can complete our investigation. I thank the Department of Defense for providing us with unclassified versions of these documents.”
The letter comes just days after both Chaffetz and Cummings announced that Flynn “may have broken the law” by receiving payments from foreign groups.
Let’s remember for a second that, during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last July, Flynn made a big show out of grilling then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton about her mishandling of classified information as Secretary of State. “Lock her up, that’s right!” Flynn chanted along with the crowd. “Damn right, exactly right… And you know why we’re saying that? We’re saying that because, if I, a guy who knows this business, if I did a tenth of what she did, I would be in jail today.”
Karma’s a bitch, Mike — and according to these documents, you should have known better.
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National Security Adviser Michael Flynn arrives before a joint news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Trump at the White House on Feb. 13. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
The Pentagon’s top watchdog has launched an investigation into money that former national security adviser and retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn received from foreign groups, members of the House Oversight Committee said Thursday.
The Pentagon office will try to determine whether Flynn “failed to obtain required approval prior to receiving” the payments, according to an April 11 letter from Defense Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine to Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the committee chairman. In the past, the Pentagon has advised retiring officers that because they can be recalled to military service, they may be subject to the Constitution’s rarely enforced emoluments clause, which prohibits top officials from receiving payments or favors from foreign governments.
Flynn received $45,000 to appear in 2015 with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a gala dinner for RT, a Kremlin-controlled media organization. He also worked as a foreign agent representing Turkish interests for a Netherlands-based company, Inovo BV, which paid his company, Flynn Intel Group, $530,000 in the fall.
Defense Department guidelines warn that the department’s top financial officer, the comptroller, “may pursue debt collection” if a retired officer does not seek permission to accept foreign payments before doing so. Any debt collection due to an emoluments clause violation is capped at no more than what an individual makes in retirement pay during a period of unauthorized employment. In Flynn’s case, that is more than $35,000 for the three months of the Inovo project.
Flynn was fired as national security adviser in February after revelations that he misled Vice President Pence about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States. The pugnacious retired officer, who once led “lock her up” chants about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during Donald Trump’s White House campaign, filed paperwork as a foreign agent about three weeks later, on March 7.
Flynn’s lawyer, Robert K. Kelner, has argued that the retired general briefed the Defense Intelligence Agency, from which he retired in 2014, before and after his 2015 Russia trip.
But a letter DIA sent the House committee said that the agency has no record of Flynn seeking permission or approval to accept money from a foreign source, potentially countering Kelner’s argument. He could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.
Flynn also did not seek permission from the U.S. government to work as a paid foreign agent for Turkish interests, U.S. defense officials said last month, raising the possibility that the Pentagon could dock his retirement pay. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said then that the Defense Department was reviewing the issue.
The issue involving Turkey emerged after Flynn retroactively registered in March with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for work that his company, Flynn Intel Group, carried out on behalf of Inovo BV. It is owned by Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin, who is not a part of the Turkish government but has links to it.
Flynn’s company received three payments between September and November from Inovo BV before Trump was elected president and the arrangement was discontinued, according to Flynn’s filings. Flynn is the majority owner and chief executive officer of the Flynn Intel Group.
On Thursday, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, also released an Oct. 8, 2014, letter in which a Defense Department lawyer warned Flynn upon his retirement from military service that he was forbidden from receiving payments from foreign sources without receiving permission from the U.S. government first.
“These documents raise grave questions about why Gen. Flynn concealed the payments he received from foreign sources after he was warned explicitly by the Pentagon,” Cummings said. “Our next step is to get the documents we are seeking from the White House so we can complete our investigation. I thank the Department of Defense for providing us with unclassified versions of these documents.”
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Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for the Defense Department inspector general, said Thursday that the investigation into Flynn began April 4. The watchdog’s office did not discuss the investigation publicly until after the House Oversight Committee released documents about it, and it typically does not disclose what it is reviewing while an investigation is underway.