OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Will NSA be part of defense authorization?

The Topline: The defense authorization bill is always filled with contentious policy battles, but there’s one major fight that Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) is looking to avoid.

Levin told The Hill Wednesday that he doesn’t think amendments on the National Security Agency's surveillance programs should be considered during debate on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) because the issue is too large for that venue.

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“I think it’s such a major issue, I would hope it would be not be attempted to be debated during the NDAA,” Levin said. “It’s too big. I’m going to encourage them to take it up separately.”

Whether lawmakers will heed the chairman’s wishes remains to be seen. Levin is already due for a busy debate on the Senate floor when the Pentagon policy bill is considered later this month.

He is fighting to prevent Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) from passing an amendment that would take the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other major cases outside the chain of command.

He’s also trying to keep Republicans from stripping eased restrictions on transferring detainees out of Guantánamo from the bill, which he added during the committee’s markup.

Only portions of the NSA fall under the Pentagon, such as agency operations focusing on cyber warfare. The intelligence community, led by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is responsible for data collection and intelligence analysis conducted by the agency.

But there is precedent this year for opponents of the NSA’s bulk phone collection programs to use defense bills as a vehicle.

The House narrowly defeated an amendment to the defense appropriations bill in June from Rep. Justin Amash’s (R-Mich.) that would have ended NSA’s bulk phone metadata collection.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told The Hill Wednesday that it was too soon to think about those kinds of procedural maneuvers on the floor

Al Qaeda in Iraq now 'transnational,' says White House: Al Qaeda's violent resurgence in Iraq and expansion into Syria now represents a "transnational threat network" that could possibly reach from the Mideast to the United States, according to the White House. 

The teaming of al Qaeda's Iraqi cell and affiliated Islamic militant groups in Syria into the new Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has developed into "a major emerging threat to Iraqi stability ... and to us," a senior administration official told reporters on Wednesday. 

"It is a fact now that al Qaeda has a presence in Western Iraq" extending into Syria "that Iraqi forces are unable to target," the official said. 

That growing presence "that has accelerated in the past six to eight months" has been accompanied by waves of bombings and attacks that threaten to throw Iraq into a full-blown civil war. 

Keeping ISIS from destabilizing the Iraqi government and expanding into other areas in the region is a "major focus" of this week's visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Washington. 

The Iraqi delegation met with Vice President Biden and congressional leaders on Wednesday. 

Iraqi officials reportedly reached out to U.S. intelligence officials to see if American drones could begin conducting airstrikes against ISIS targets in Western Iraq. 

When asked whether the White House was considering expediting those weapon sales to Iraq, the official replied: "I will leave it up to the Iraqis to make that case." 

DHS nomination threatened by Graham’s Benghazi hold: Former Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson is in the crosshairs of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) threat to hold all nominations until U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya, the night of last year’s terrorist attack are made available to Congress.

Graham said Wednesday that Johnson — President Obama’s pick to be the next Homeland Security secretary — was one of the nominees he would hold up, as well as Janet Yellen, to be chief of the Federal Reserve.

At a press conference, Graham said that Johnson was certainly qualified for the position, but that holding up Obama’s nominations was the only way he could get the Obama administration to divulge information on the Benghazi attack.

“It's the only leverage that we have,” Graham told reporters.

Graham and others are demanding access to survivors of the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans more than a year ago. The lawmakers also want the FBI to share with Congress interviews with the survivors that were conducted just days after the attack.

Pacific panel not a sequestration alarm, says Forbes: The House Armed Services Committee renewed oversight of President Obama's strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region is not a veiled attempt to again sound the alarm on sequestration, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) said. 

The committee announced Tuesday it was planning a series of hearings and closed briefings to ramp up oversight of the Pacific shift, and what resources could be needed to make that shift. 

Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said the panel had planned at least five hearings between now and early 2014 on the military’s Asia-Pacific rebalance.

But the rebalance may be out of reach for the Pentagon under the massive, across-the-board budget cuts from sequestration. Programs like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, littoral combat ship and Ford-class carrier have all been seen as potential casualties to the Defense Department budget axe. 

While the House defense panel has sounded the sequestration alarm for months now, Forbes made clear this effort was not one of those times. 

"The driver to this [effort] is not to close sequestration," Forbes told The Hill on Wednesday, noting the Pacific shift was announced by Obama two years before sequestration went into effect. 

That said, the sequestration cuts facing the Pentagon is "another anchor" weighing down the Pentagon's national security goals. And while the budget cuts are not driving the panel's work on the Pacific, "all [of] our trendlines ... don't look good for national security," he said.

 

In Case You Missed It: 

— Justice Department files suit over security checks 

— Afghan, Taliban leaders to hold peace talks 

— White House presses Iraq to block Iranian aid

— Former Defense Secretary Gates to lead Boy Scouts 

 

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