OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Taliban, US set for talks

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that the U.S. should first state how many troops it will keep in Afghanistan after 2014 so the Taliban knows U.S. forces aren’t going away. Graham and Republicans argued that talking to the Taliban was not the right move because the group has not yet been defeated militarily.

“Talking to them now before we make a commitment about a post-2014 footprint is giving them a wrong signal,” Graham told reporters Tuesday.

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Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) disagreed, however, saying that the Taliban is on the defensive in Afghanistan, despite negative media reports.

“This is the right context to hold it because the Taliban is in a weaker position militarily,” Levin said.

The announcement of new negotiations occurred as NATO forces officially handed off the lead on combat operations to the Afghans. The move to put Afghan security forces in the lead is another key step as U.S. and NATO forces plan to withdraw from combat operations by the end of 2014.

Those forces are likely to be tested by the Taliban in the summer fighting season as the negotiations are ongoing — a point Obama noted Tuesday.

“We don't anticipate this process will be easy or quick, but we must pursue in parallel with our military approach,” Obama said of the negotiations.

Senators urge Obama to take out Syrian air forces: A trio of senior senators on Tuesday urged President Obama to immediately send weapons to the Syrian opposition and take out the air defenses of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

In a letter to Obama, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Syria is at a “critical juncture,” pledging their support if Obama takes “decisive military action in Syria.”

They said that arming Syrian rebels, a step the administration said it is taking soon, is no longer enough because the situation is deteriorating.

“We must also degrade Assad’s ability to use air power and ballistic missiles against civilian populations and opposition forces in Syria,” the senators wrote.

McCain has long been calling on the Obama administration to do more in Syria, and in recent months, Levin and Menendez have been the most prominent Democrats pushing for more action in the two-year conflict.

NSA programs disrupt 50 terror plots against US: Roughly 50 attempts to launch terrorist attacks inside the United States, including a plan to blow up the New York Stock Exchange, were derailed due to U.S. domestic intelligence programs, the National Security Agency's director said Tuesday.

Information on the programs, run by the National Security Agency, were illegally leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden earlier this month.

The 50 stymied terror plots far exceeded the dozen or so attempts Gen. Keith Alexander told the Senate Appropriations Committee were foiled during last Thursday's hearing.

But at Tuesday's hearing, Alexander and officials from the FBI and Office of the Director of National Intelligence provided details of a plot to blow up the Stock Exchange in New York.

Code named "Operation Wi-Fi," NSA and FBI analysts were able to track terror suspects in Yemen and inside the United States who were plotting the attack, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce told the House panel.

Tuesday was the first time the counterterrorism program was discussed in public.

Using intelligence gathered under NSA's PRISM program, which monitors Internet traffic via major service providers, FBI investigators were able to lure terror suspects from Yemen to the United States.

Upon arrival in the U.S., the suspects were taken into custody by federal agents, Joyce said Monday.

FBI counterterrorism investigators were also able to track a top terrorist financier in San Diego who was supporting militant extremist groups in Somalia.

Federal investigators were able to uncover the San Diego-Somalia connection via intelligence gathered from the NSA's program to track overseas cellphone calls made on phones running on the Verizon network.

DOD weigh opening SEALs, special forces to women: Women will have the chance to join the Navy SEALS, Army Rangers and other specialized combat outfits beginning in 2016 under plans approved Tuesday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Female candidates will also be able to join frontline Army and Marine Corps infantry units as part of the department's decision.

“The days of the ‘Rambo’ are over,” Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, head of the force development for Special Operations Command, said Tuesday during a briefing announcing the changes.

Tuesday's announcement builds on former Pentagon chief Leon Panetta's decision in January to end the military's long-standing ban on women in combat. “This is just the next logical step,” said Juliet Beyler, director of the Defense Department’s Officer and Enlisted Personnel Management.

All “gender-neutral” training and operations standards for infantry, special operations and other combat units are due to the Pentagon no later than September 2015, Beyler told reporters Tuesday. Those training and operations standards will put physical and combat fitness requirements for men and women candidates on equal footing.

The programs are likely to test the military’s effort of integrating women and men into combat rules.

The Navy's Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training program at the Naval Special Warfare Training Center in Coronado, Calif., is seen as one of the most intense training programs in the U.S. military. Roughly 70 percent of SEAL candidates fail to complete the program.

The Army's Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga., is just as grueling, and is seen as the main entryway into Army Special Forces.

While there was bipartisan praise for Hagel’s move on Capitol Hill, Sacolick said special operations team members “have some serious concerns” about admitting women into their ranks.

He said the worries are not about whether there are women who will meet the physical training standards, but on the “cultural and social ... aspects” of bringing female soldiers, sailors and marines into SEAL, Ranger and Special Forces teams.

The teams almost exclusively focus on small-unit combat in hostile and austere battle zones, making personal relationships and dynamics among team members critical to a unit's survival.

That kind of specialized combat “requires a unique assessment” of physical and psychological readiness that is unusual among rank-and-file military personnel, Sacolick said.


In Case You Missed It:

— July NDAA Senate debate unlikely

— GOP skeptical of Taliban talks

— Senate GOPers vote no on vets spending bill

— US, Taliban to open peace talks

— Sens. Lieberman, Brown join national security group


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