OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Pentagon finds way to pay death benefits

The Topline: The Pentagon announced Wednesday that it would pay death benefits to survivors of service members through a foundation, with House voting to explicitly allow the Pentagon to make the payments during the shutdown.

The death benefits fixes from both the House and the administration came as all sides expressed outrage over the disruption of benefits but cast blame elsewhere in explaining why there was a lapse in the first place.

The good news for the survivors of service members is they will once again receive $100,000 in death gratuities, no matter when the government shutdown ends. 

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Wednesday that the benefits would be paid through the Fisher House Foundation, which provides housing for family members of service members receiving medical care. The Pentagon will reimburse the nonprofit group after the shutdown.

“I am offended, outraged, and embarrassed that the government shutdown had prevented the Department of Defense from fulfilling this most sacred responsibility in a timely manner,” Hagel said in a statement.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said that President Obama was “very disturbed” to learn that the benefits weren’t being paid and wanted a fix on Wednesday.

Carney suggested it was Congress who allowed the lapse to occur.

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“The Department of Defense informed Congress that the Department would be legally unable to pay death benefits were there to be a lapse in DOD appropriations,” Carney said Wednesday. “In other words, informed Congress prior to the lapse that, that would be the case if there were to be a lapse. Unfortunately, this issue was not explicitly addressed as part of the ‘Pay Our Military Act.’ ”

But House Republicans say they did address the death benefits in the bill to pay the military and have accused the Obama administration of ignoring congressional intent.

“Amazingly, Pentagon lawyers seem to have gone out of their way to interpret that death benefits to surviving family members of fallen service members were not covered in this bill,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Wednesday.

“This situation is ridiculous and unnecessary,” he added. “The White House’s failure to develop a solution to a problem that they manufactured before the House forced the issue seems to be further evidence that the administration is on a campaign to make the partial lapse of appropriations as painful and as dramatic as possible.”

The House passed its bill to allow the Pentagon to pay out the death benefits 425-0 on Wednesday. Since the shutdown began on Oct. 1, 26 service members have died.

Obama pulls plug on Egypt: The White House is indefinitely suspending millions of dollars in military hardware and foreign aid to Egypt, in the wake of the interim government's violent crackdown on opponents of the current regime.   

"We have decided to maintain our relationship with the Egyptian government, while recalibrating our assistance to Egypt to best advance our interests," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday. 

Washington will continue to provide assistance to Egyptian-led counterterrorism, counterproliferation and border security operations, Psaki said in a department statement.

The United States will also continue to provide economic assistance to public health, governance and private-sector development initiatives already underway in Egypt, according to one administration official. 

But proposed sales of F-16 fighter jets, M1 Abrams tanks and Apache attack helicopters have been shelved, as well as nearly $260 million in cash assistance to the country. 

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel informed Egyptian defense minister Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of the military aid suspensions on Wednesday. 

The suspension of military aid to Cairo represents a "recalibration" of Washington's long-standing military and diplomatic ties with Egypt and "sends a pretty clear message" the White House needs to see some progress in the Egyptian interim government sooner rather than later. 

But the suspension of U.S. military sales and foreign aid put in place Wednesday is reversible, a second administration official said. 

"This is not meant to be permanent, this is meant to be continually reviewed" and not presented as "definitive end to any specific [military] programs," a White House official said Wednesday. The sales "will be restored at some point," but only after Cairo shows progress toward a peaceful and stable political transition, the official added.  

Three-star admiral fired amid gambling probe: A three-star admiral who was deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command has been relieved of his duties while he faces a gambling investigation.

National Security Council spokesman Jonathan Lalley said President Obama relieved Vice Adm. Tim Giardina of his duties on Oct. 3 on the recommendations of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

They recommended Giardina’s dismissal due to a “loss of confidence in his ability to perform his duties,” Giardina said.

Giardina was suspended last month while he was investigated on allegations that he used counterfeit casino chips.

Pentagon eyes release of Gitmo detainees: A Pentagon review board is assessing whether some of the more than 100 terror detainees at Guantánamo Bay are eligible for release

The Pentagon's Periodic Review Board is conducting "a principled and sustainable process for reviewing and revisiting prior detention determinations ... identifying whether additional detainees may be designated for transfer," according to a department statement. 

The work by the review board is part of President Obama's overall goal of shuttering the military prison in Cuba by the end of his final term in office. 

"The [Defense] Department remains committed to responsibly reducing the detainee population and ultimately closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay," the Pentagon said Wednesday. 

Officials from the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence community, as well as representatives from the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, are heading up the review process. 

Reviewing potential detainee releases from Guantánamo is only the latest effort by the Obama White House to bring the military prison to a close. 

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel named Paul Lewis, a congressional lawyer, as special envoy for closing Guantánamo. He will report to the Pentagon Nov. 1. 

Only two detainees have been transferred from Guantánamo since May, after Obama lifted a moratorium on transfers to Yemen. Another 84 detainees have been cleared for transfer.

 

In Case You Missed It:

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— GOP wants classified sequester brief

— Boeing reworks lobby team

— Millions of payments to vets at risk

 

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