OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: House passes Defense bill

The Topline: The House passed the Defense authorization bill on Thursday in its final roll-call vote of the year, taking the first step to extending a 51-year streak.

The House voted 350-69 to approve the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which was quickly developed earlier this week by House and Senate Armed Services negotiators. The "no" votes came from 19 Republicans and 50 Democrats.

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Now the bill heads to the Senate, where there’s been Republican resistance to approving the bill without considering more amendments like the House did.

But with the House leaving for the year, senators have no choice if they want to send the Defense bill to the president’s desk this year.

The bill was finalized on Monday by Armed Services leaders, who met in an informal conference committee after the Senate failed to pass the Defense bill before Thanksgiving.

The leaders of the House panel made the same arguments on the floor Thursday that Senate panel leaders are making to their skeptical colleagues to convince them to back the clean bill.

“To not pass this at this point is to jeopardize national security and to not support our troops,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services panel.

The bill has been passed 51 years in a row, and the defense lawmakers have warned that failing to clear the bill this year would disrupt key provisions like special pay for troops.

There is resistance among some Senate Republicans over proceeding on the bill without amendments, however, including from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Senate Armed Services ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) acknowledged Thursday that some of his colleague would oppose the bill over the amendment process, but he predicted half of Senate Republicans will ultimately support moving forward.

“The defense bill is different than all other bills,” Inhofe said. “It’s the one bill that you have to have to give the recourses to our kids who are out fighting battles, and so it has to be treated differently. That has to have priority over process.”

The bill authorizes $607 billion in spending for the Department of Defense: $526.8 billion in base spending and $80.7 billion on war funding for Afghanistan.

GOP hawks object to budget deal: Republican Senate defense hawks are objecting to the budget deal that would provide sequester relief to the Pentagon because it includes cuts to military pensions.

While the Senate overwhelmingly passed the budget agreement by a 332-94 vote Thursday, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), all members of the Armed Services Committee, came out against it.

“I’m for pension benefit reform but what they’re doing here is just unacceptable,” said Graham, who is up for reelection next year.

“I don’t know how you could look the retirement force in the eye and people about to retire and say this is not disproportionate,” he said.

Ayotte said that the deal “fails to address the long-term drivers of our debt, but it instead is going to pay for more federal spending on the backs of our military through cuts to their retirement pay.

The deal, which provides the Pentagon $32 billion in sequester relief over two years, includes $6 billion in savings through cutting the cost-of-living adjustment for working-age military retirees.

Not all hawks are opposed to the deal. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was still leaning toward voting for the budget agreement, though he had “serious concerns” about the benefit cuts.

“That has to be done through the proper NDAA process, not inserted in some budget agreement,” he said. “They don’t have the talent, the expertise, the authority to make these changes.”

If the military benefit cuts were replaced with something else, Ayotte said she could reconsider her stands. 

“I think if the pay-for gets replaced, I certainly would look at the agreement differently, and I’d take a look at it,” Ayotte said. 

US drones kill civilians in Yemen: American drones killed at least 13 Yemeni civilians in an errant airstrike in the country on Thursday, further calling into question the Obama administration's aggressive use of the controversial counterterrorism tactic.

Roughly 10 civilians were killed immediately in the strike, after U.S. drones mistook the group traveling through al-Bayda province in central Yemen for an al Qaeda convoy.

Ten other members of the group, which Yemeni officials say were en route to a wedding party nearby, were injured during the attack.

Of those 10 Yemeni civilians hurt in the attack, five later died from their injuries after being evacuated to a nearby hospital, according to Reuters.

It remains unclear how U.S. forces tagged and targeted the 10-car convoy as an al Qaeda target.

More than 80 percent of all U.S. armed drone strikes are targeted in Pakistan and Yemen.

The Obama administration claims the controversial counterterrorism tactic has been invaluable to decimating senior leaders within al Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups in those regions.

Previous American-led drone strikes in Yemen have often targeted and taken out individual vehicles or small groups of vehicles suspected of ferrying al Qaeda fighters across the country.

US prisoner in Iran was CIA operative: A U.S. citizen incarcerated by Iranian intelligence for the past several years was a longtime CIA operative tasked with gathering information on the Iranian regime and other American adversaries across the globe, The Associated Press reports.

Former FBI agent Robert Levinson has reportedly been in Tehran's custody since disappearing during a business trip to Kish Island in March 2007.

At the time, the State Department claimed Levinson was a private citizen conducting business with Iranian-based firms at the time of his disappearance.

However, an investigation by the AP showed Levinson was an employee of the CIA, handled by a team of U.S. intelligence analysts who sent the former FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agent into Iran and elsewhere to spy for the United States.

Three senior intelligence analysts were forced out of Langley, while seven others were reprimanded for their role in intelligence operations carried out by Levinson, the AP reports.

The CIA also reportedly handed over a $2.5 million payout to Levinson's family and tightened its restrictions on how intelligence analysts are allowed to interact with operational assets.

The last known evidence that Levinson is still alive came in late 2010, according to the AP. Another so-called "proof-of-life" documentation arrived in the United States in early 2011.

Since then, there has been no other correspondence or documentation that Levinson, now 65 years old, is still alive.

National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden issued a statement after the AP published the story Thursday:

“Without commenting on any purported affiliation between Mr. Levinson and the U.S. government, the White House and others in the U.S. Government strongly urged the AP not to run this story out of concern for Mr. Levinson’s life. We regret that the AP would choose to run a story that does nothing to further the cause of bringing him home. The investigation into Mr. Levinson’s disappearance continues, and we all remain committed to finding him and bringing him home safely to his family.”

 

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