OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Taliban floats prisoner deal

“They have to be a part of the negotiations,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl LevinCarl LevinA package proposal for repatriation Silencing of Warren another example of hyperpartisan Senate GOP going nuclear over Gorsuch might destroy filibuster forever MORE (D-Mich.).

“That’s done at the completion of an agreement,” said Sen. John McCainJohn McCainPentagon mulling split of NSA, Cyber Command McCain made secret trip to Syria A guide to the committees: Senate MORE (R-Ariz.), a former prisoner of war. “I’m opposed now.”

The talks with the Taliban were already in jeopardy after the new office in Doha flew the flag and a sign that read the “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the name of the Taliban government in power before 2001.

The sign was changed to the “Political office of the Taliban,” The Associated Press reported, in an effort to get Karzai back on board. 

Talks 'worth the risk,’ Hagel says: Defense Secretary Chuck HagelChuck HagelWho will temper Trump after he takes office? Hagel: I’m ‘encouraged’ by Trump’s Russia outreach Want to 'drain the swamp'? Implement regular order MORE on Thursday defended the administration’s decision to launch peace talks with the Taliban, saying the move was “worth the risk” and could ease the withdrawal of U.S. forces out of Afghanistan.

“We've always supported a peaceful resolution to the end of the bloodshed in the war in Afghanistan," said Hagel in a speech at the University of Nebraska Wednesday evening. "I think it's worth the risk."

Hagel cautioned that Taliban leaders would have to "agree to certain things" before Washington would sit down at the table.

Hagel said Karzai would have to play a key role in the talks, insisting that any effort to broker a deal with the Taliban “can't be done without President Karzai [or] without the government of Afghanistan."

Prior to announcing the Taliban talks, U.S. officials had said Kabul would take the lead in peace negotiations with the terror group, working off a plan drafted by the Karzai administration.

Obama downplayed the rift on Wednesday, insisting that Karzai had been kept in the loop about plans for formal peace talks with the Taliban.

Contractor investigated over background checks: The contractor that conducted a background check of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is under investigation by the Office of Personnel Management inspector general, Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillA guide to the committees: Senate Juan Williams: Senate GOP begins to push Trump away Dem senator: I may face 2018 primary from Tea Party-esque progressives MORE (D-Mo.) said Thursday.

McCaskill disclosed the IG investigation into USIS, a Falls Church, Va.-based contractor, at a Senate hearing on security clearances Thursday.

She said the IG had opened up an investigation in 2011 over a systematic failure of the company to conduct proper investigations, and the review covered the period that Snowden received a re-investigation for his security clearance.

IG officials testifying confirmed there was an investigation, although they would not say if it had risen to a criminal level. They said the investigation was initiated after Snowden’s background check was conducted.

The company said in a statement it has “never been informed that it is under criminal investigation.”

“In January 2012, USIS received a subpoena for records” from the IG, the company said, and it complied with the subpoena.

Nelson demands investigations into contractor clearances: In another front on the security clearance-contractor debate that’s been raised in the wake of Snowden’s leaks, Sen. Bill NelsonBill NelsonA guide to the committees: Senate Senate advances Trump's Commerce pick CMS nominee breezes through confirmation hearing MORE (D-Fla.) is demanding congressional investigations into the clearance processes for civilian contractors.

Nelson said he has questions over how a military contractor gained top-secret clearance after a previous fraud conviction.

The 2008 case of Scott Allan Bennett, a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor who got top-secret clearance after being convicted of lying to government officials, raises "serious quality control questions" for the defense and intelligence community, Nelson said in a letter to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinA guide to the committees: Senate Dem: Trump's China trademark looks like a quid pro quo Senate advances Trump's Commerce pick MORE (D-Calif.).

"We may need legislation to limit or prevent certain contractors from handling highly classified and technical data," he said, in light of the Bennett case and that of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who illegally leaked details of the agency's domestic intelligence programs.

Further, the Florida Democrat is demanding a congressional investigation into how private contractors vet and grant top-secret or higher levels of clearance to their employees.

Snowden, who also was a contractor with Booz Allen while at the NSA, leaked classified details of two previously unknown domestic intelligence programs to the media earlier this month.

After the disclosures, Feinstein told reporters she would push for legislation to limit the access that federal contractors have to highly classified information.

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