OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Pentagon prepares for Syria mission

The Topline: The Obama administration has agreed to destroy Syria's most lethal chemical weapons at sea after failing to find a country willing to do it on their soil, according to the White House and Pentagon. 

The MV Cape Ray, a civilian transport vessel, is at the Navy shipyard in Norfolk, Va., being outfitted with field deployable hydrolysis system technology, which will allow U.S. forces to safely dispose of those chemical stockpiles, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said Monday. 

The Cape Ray is currently under the control of the Department of Transportation, according to Warren. It remains unclear whether control of the ship would be transitioned to military command if President Obama gives the mission the green light. 

He could not comment as to when the modifications to the Cape Ray would be complete. 

The ship work being performed aboard the Cape Ray is part of the "prudent planning" being conducted inside the Defense Department in anticipation of the White House order, Warren told reporters at the Pentagon. 

That said, Warren made clear on Monday that American military forces have yet to receive orders to begin assisting with the Syrian disarmament effort. 

However, "if we are tasked with that mission" the Cape Ray will be ready to perform those operations, he added. 

Warren declined to comment on whether the Cape May's possible deployment to the Syrian coast would be the extent of Washington's involvement with the disarmament program. 

Inspectors from the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have already confiscated or destroyed a majority of Syrian President Bashar Assad's chemical stockpile over the past several months. 

Earlier this year, Assad declared his regime owned more than 1,000 metric tons of weaponized chemical agents, including nerve gas, dispersed over 20 sites in the country.

In October, Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelOvernight Defense: Latest on historic Korea summit | Trump says 'many people' interested in VA job | Pompeo thinks Trump likely to leave Iran deal Should Mike Pompeo be confirmed? Intel chief: Federal debt poses 'dire threat' to national security MORE suggested American and NATO forces would play a significant role in the United Nations-sanctioned disarmament program in Syria. That said, Hagel reiterated that even if NATO forces were sent in to back up the OPCW inspectors, U.S. troops would not be part of that operation. 

DOD sends sub hunters into Chinese zone: The Pentagon is deploying several submarine-hunting aircraft to a hotly contested air defense zone in the Pacific, in the latest step of military one-upmanship between Washington and Beijing. 

The first of the Navy P-8 Poseidons arrived in the Asia-Pacific region on Sunday, with additional deployments expected over the coming weeks. The Poseidons will be stationed at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, miles from the so-called "Air Defense Identification Zone" set up by China in recent weeks. 

Chinese leaders instituted new rules for U.S. allied military aircraft operating in the skies above the Diaoyutai islands, called the Senkaku islands in Japan, in the East China Sea. 

U.S. and allied forces are now required to identify themselves and their mission to Chinese forces before entering the no-fly zone, according to Beijing. 

That said, the P-8 and other U.S. aircraft will participate in the Pentagon's "regular" air operations over the the zone, Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren said Monday. 

Those operations, he noted, will not include American aircraft adhering to China's new air defense rules. 

Washington's continued non-compliance with the Chinese air defense zone will continue during Vice President Biden's visit to Beijing. Biden is scheduled to meet with top Chinese officials, in an attempt to quell tensions between the two world powers spawned by the new air defense zone. 

That said, American commanders have no plans to curtail or halt military air operations over the contested zone. 

Last Tuesday, a pair of American B-52 bombers flew unannounced into the air defense zone above the East China Sea, in a direct rebuke of China's asserted authority over the area. That Friday, Beijing sent several fighter jets into the area, to patrol the air defense zone, further fueling concern the ongoing standoff could boil over into outright conflict. 

Iran plans new nuclear reactor: Iranian Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani announced plans to construct a new nuclear reactor in the country, weeks after Tehran and Washington reached a tentative deal to curb the country's nuclear ambitions. 

The second reactor will be located at the country's nuclear facility in Bushehr province, along the country's southeast coastline near Shiraz, according to reports by the state-run Fars news agency.

"Based on our estimates, the second nuclear power plant will be built in the same province and I hope that we can use the facilities of this province,” Rouhani said at the time. 

Tehran will not be obligated to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency access to the second reactor, because notification is only required six months before nuclear material is brought into the facility. 

“We are not obliged to introduce to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the nuclear facilities that we are to build in the future," Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Ali Akbar Salehi said Monday. 

After that three-month window, "we will inform the IAEA of them,” Salehi added. 

News of the new reactor comes weeks after U.S. and Iranian negotiators agreed to a six-month deal calling on Iran to stop enriching uranium above 5 percent for six months, dilute half of the 20 percent enriched uranium and stop upgrading various enrichment facilities.

In return, the Obama White House agreed to lift sanctions on Iran's petrochemical, precious metals and auto sectors.

UN probes Snowden leaks: The senior counterterrorism official at the United Nations will launch an investigation into Edward Snowden’s surveillance leaks. 

Ben Emmerson will assess whether British parliament members were misled about its country’s surveillance activities, according to The Guardian

Based on the review, investigators will submit recommendations to the U.N. General Assembly next fall regarding oversight standards.

Snowden had leaked “issues at the very apex of public interests concerns,” Emmerson wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian published Monday.

“These questions are too important for the UN to ignore,” wrote Emmerson, who’s served as the U.N.’s top counterterrorism and human rights official since 2011.

In late November, Reuters reported Snowden could have access to a “doomsday” cache of highly classified documents stored on a data cloud. Former National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden said Sunday that such a cache would be “catastrophic” for U.S. security and safety.

Snowden has leaked as many as 200,000 documents to the media this year, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander has said.

Snowden has been living in Russia since receiving temporary asylum in August, and faces espionage charges in the U.S. President Obama has ordered a review of the NSA’s surveillance programs, which is due in mid-December.  


In Case You Missed It: 

— GOP fields challenger against HASC chief McKeon 

— Republicans claim Iran deal akin to Nazi appeasement

— White House denies Obama trip to Iran

— Nuke deal boosts trade with Iran


Please send tips and comments to Jeremy Herb, jherb@thehill.com, and Carlo Muñoz, cmunoz@thehill.com.

Follow us on Twitter: @DEFCONHill, @JHerbTheHill, @CMunozTheHill

You can sign up to receive this overnight update via email on The Hill’s homepage.