OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Benghazi back in the spotlight

The Topline: Republicans on Thursday hammered the White House over the Benghazi attack, saying a newly disclosed email raised questions about how the administration handled their response and if they withheld key documents from Congress.

“[This email] is all about the presidential campaign. It’s not about trying to find out who committed this heinous crime,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on the chamber floor. “Not a single person who was responsible for the murder of these four brave Americans has been brought to justice.”

Then-United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice at first blamed the incident on protests over an anti-Islamic YouTube video, but the administration later acknowledged that the assault was a planned terrorist attack. 

In an email obtained this week by the conservative group Judicial Watch, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told Rice before her television interviews to “underscore” that the protests were sparked by an anti-Islamist video.

The White House said Rhodes was speaking generally about Mideast unrest and not Benghazi, but GOP lawmakers pounced.

McCain was joined by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said the emails were “the smoking gun” that confirmed the White House attempted to hide the truth immediately following the attack.

“They did not want you to know about this email… because it is the smoking gun,” he said. “That shows they were constantly trying to manipulate the evidence,” he added. “That to me is unacceptable.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called for Secretary of State John Kerry to testify before the House about the email.

The House Oversight Committee also heard testimony from retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Lovell who said the military could have done more to stop the attack that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

He told the panel that military leaders knew “early on” that the attack was not spontaneous but had to wait for the State Department to request help before they could take action.

But House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) quickly challenged Lovell’s claims. McKeon said Lovell did not serve in a capacity that gave him “reliable insight into operational options available to commanders during the attack, nor did he offer specific courses of action not taken.”

McKeon emphasized that his committee had interviewed over a dozen military officials in the chain of command and found there was “no evidence that Department of State officials delayed the decision to deploy what few resources DOD had available to respond.”

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the panel’s ranking member, backed McKeon’s comments.

“It is offensive to claim that our military leaders stood by while Americans were being killed, especially without a shred of evidence to back up the claim,” he said in a statement.’

 

Sexual assault reports surge: A new Pentagon report showing a 50 percent surge in sexual assault reports in the military last year renewed a fight in Congress over whether the military justice system is in need of reform.

While administration officials said the report is evidence that changes to the military justice system have encouraged victims to step forward, lawmakers said the findings called for further action. 

“Today’s report is deeply troubling and shows the scourge of sexual assaults has not been brought under control and our current military justice system remains broken,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in a statement Thursday.

The report found there were a total of 5,061 cases of military sexual assault in 2013, compared to 3,374 reports the year before. Pentagon officials said the startling increase was a result of growing confidence in the military justice system, rather than an increase in assaults, as more servicemembers reported cases.

Still, reform advocates say that the current system, which gives commanders the decision-making authority on whether to prosecute a case, is flawed. They argue that some commanders are too lenient on the accused, or have an incentive not to report such cases, fearing it will reflect badly on their own leadership. 

A proposal by Gillibrand to strip that decision-making authority from commanders and give it to military prosecutors outside the chain of command failed in the Senate this year, but aides said last month that she intends to continue pressing for its passage. 

“The DOD has released no evidence to prove its claim that victims have more trust in the existing military justice system or the treatment they have received,” said Nancy Parish, president of Protect Our Defenders.  

But Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said that although the fight against sexual assault in the ranks was far from over, the rise in reporting showed progress. 

“These numbers show concrete progress as our recent sweeping reforms continue to take root and more victims have the confidence in the system to come out of the shadows and report these crimes,” she said in a statement Thursday.

The report also renewed a divide between Gillibrand and McCaskill, who have been at odds over whether decision-making authority should be taken away from commanders. Instead, McCaskill is proposing further reforms to the current system.

“We know that the majority of survivors, both military and civilian, choose not to report their assaults — but this data suggests that the number of brave men and women in uniform choosing to pursue justice is increasing. Ultimately, one sexual assault is still one too many, so while these numbers represent progress, our fight is far from over,” McCaskill said.

 

Smith to attempt BRAC revival: Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said on Thursday that he will propose an amendment to close excess military bases

The move goes against the recommendation of the panel’s subcommittee on readiness, which has a large say in whether the Pentagon will be able to do so. 

Smith said he expects his amendment to get “crushed” by his colleagues, but that it was “important to start that conversation.” 

This week, the committee began marking up the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which will largely decide how the Department of Defense spends its money. The committee has rejected other major proposed cuts put forth by the Pentagon, including eliminating an aircraft carrier.  

Smith urged his fellow lawmakers to accept some of the proposed cuts, arguing that, if they aren’t made now, the department will be forced to take more drastic measures later, such as not training forces for combat.

“If we don’t take those steps that the DOD puts out, we are creating a completely untenable situation down the road,” he said.

Smith said he expects that even more drastic decisions will have to be made, if full sequestration cuts stay in effect after 2016. 

“If sequestration kicks in, we’re going to have a devil of a time keeping more than eight [aircraft carriers],” he said.

 

Russia an adversary, NATO diplomat says: NATO and its partners should view Russia as an adversary after its actions in Ukraine, the alliance’s deputy secretary general told reporters.

“The Russians have declared NATO as an adversary so we have to begin to view Russia no longer as a partner but more an adversary than a partner,” Alexander Vershbow said during a breakfast event.

That would mean that NATO would have to reconsider potential areas of cooperation with Moscow on security projects and future joint peacekeeping efforts, he added.

The opportunities to collaborate are few “because the Russians have taken a zero-sum approach to the alliance,” according to Vershbow.

He conceded that the “consensus thus far has been that there isn’t a military option for NATO” should Russia decide to invade eastern Ukraine but that the alliance could impose “heavy costs” on Moscow, such as altering its military footprint in Europe.

NATO could “make clear to Russians that the relatively benign security environment that they’ve enjoyed in terms of,” he said.

“NATO not deploying substantial combat forces on the territory of the new members — all bets are off in that regard,” Vershbow told reporters.

 

On Friday:

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will deliver remarks on the future of NATO at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank. His speech is scheduled for 10:00am and can be viewed online.

 

In Case You Missed It:

-Senators fear Russia could leave astronauts stranded in space

-White House: Putin’s military request on Ukraine ‘preposterous’

-Cornyn to Obama: Appoint someone to investigate VA deaths

-Senate confirms Robert Work as deputy Defense secretary

-Ukrainian pop star to Obama: ‘Words cannot stop tanks’

 

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