Overnight Defense: White House downplays Iran's capture of sailors

THE TOPLINE: The Obama administration on Wednesday downplayed a fight with Iran over 10 American sailors held by that country after their vessels traveled into Iranian waters.

Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryKerry: Diplomacy isn't 'reducible to 140-character bites' Overnight Defense: Obama defends Manning commutation after backlash | Mattis clears Senate panel Kerry: Trump can’t instantly undo Obama actions MORE thanked Iran for taking care of the U.S. sailors and cast the back-and-forth with Tehran as a victory for diplomacy that ensured their freedom in less than 24 hours.

"I think we can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago," Kerry said during a speech at National Defense University on Wednesday. "And in fact, it is clear that today is a testament to the critical role that diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure and strong."

The administration's critics, however, insist that Iran's seizure of the two American boats is proof that the U.S. has lost the upper hand, mere days before a nuclear agreement between the countries goes into force. 

Indeed, the defining image for many Americans may be one of the sailors on their knees, with hands behind their head, taken from a video released by Iran.

In a separate video, a sailor apologized for "our mistake" entering Iranian waters. It's unclear if the sailor was coerced or under duress, or if the video had been manipulated in any way.

"What I saw on TV was American sailors on their knees before the Iranians. That ticks me off," Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told reporters off the House floor.

"To even say well 'There's a little silver lining in the mushroom cloud of the president's Iranian deal,' I think it just doesn't match up,'" he added.

The sailors' brief detainment threatened to overshadow President Obama's final State of the Union address on Tuesday evening. Obama did not mention their captivity on Tuesday, but instead said that the "world has avoided another war" by striking the agreement with Iran.

The  U.S., Iran and five other world powers reached an accord on Tehran's nuclear program last summer.


HOUSE ARMED SERVICES CHIEF: US MILITARY SUPERIORITY ERODING: The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee pushed back Wednesday on President Obama's State of the Union address, saying it's not "hot air" to warn that America's enemies are growing stronger.

While Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said he agrees with the president's assertion that the United States has the best military in the world, he warned others are catching up.

"Our superiority is eroding," Thornberry said in a speech at the National Press Club.

"We've got lots of evidence and testimony to support that. I will tell you, the one comment that got groans across the chamber last night was when he said this notion that our enemies are growing stronger is 'hot air.' And that provoked a lot of groans. I think that is empirically not true."

One aspect of strength is funding, Thornberry said. He urged the administration to stick to the two-year budget agreement arrived at last fall. The agreement called for $573 billion in base defense funding for fiscal year 2017 and no less than $59 billion for a war fund known as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO).

"I am disturbed at rumors that the administration may not keep to the agreement in the budget submission that it will send to Congress in a few weeks," he said. 

The Armed Services chairman used his address Wednesday to detail his committee's priorities for 2016. 

One goal is to encourage more experimentation and prototyping in the Pentagon's acquisition process. To do that, he'll introduce a stand-alone acquisition bill, solicit feedback and then fold it into the National Defense Authorization Act.

One obstacle to experimentation, he said, is that it's hard to get funding for projects other than programs of record, and it's hard to abandon a project once it's a program of record.

"To do that a cultural shift is needed, not only at DOD, but within the Congress," Thornberry said. "We have to accept, or even expect, regular, small failures in order to have greater success. If every experiment is a success, we're not learning very much."


CARTER SAYS IRAQ RAID FORCE IN PLACE: A special operations strike force is now in place in Iraq and is preparing to work with Iraqi forces to go after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL), Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday.

"The specialized expeditionary targeting force I announced in December is now in place and is preparing to work with the Iraqis to begin going after ISIL's fighters and commanders," Carter said to 101st Airborne Division troops at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. 

The force, referred to as an "expeditionary targeting force" will number about 200 and will conduct raids -- either unilaterally or partnered with Iraqi forces or Syrian rebels -- against ISIS.

The deployment will bring U.S. troops into combat operations in Iraq and Syria.

Carter also said a smaller number of special operators in Syria had established contact with rebels and had identified new targets for airstrikes.

"These operators have helped focus the efforts of the local, capable forces against key ISIL vulnerabilities, including their lines of communication," he said. 

Carter spoke to troops from the 101st Airborne Division. Approximately 1,800 of them will deploy to Iraq in the coming months, largely to train local forces. 


OBAMA VOWS TO WORK TO CLOSE GITMO: President Obama vowed to keep working to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay in his final State of the Union on Tuesday night.

"I will keep working to shut down the prison at Guantanamo. It's expensive, it's unnecessary and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies," he said to applause from supporters.

Obama's comments come as his administration steps up efforts to reduce the prison population at Gitmo. Officials have transferred four detainees in the first two weeks of this year, bringing the Gitmo population down to 103. The administration is expected to release 13 more detainees this month.

The president has less than a year to fulfill his 2008 campaign pledge to close the facility, by transferring detainees approved for release and moving the remainder to a facility in the U.S.

The White House has said the president will work with Congress to close the prison but suggested he could take executive action if lawmakers fail to act. 

Defense officials have scoped out facilities in Kansas, Colorado and South Carolina. In a letter Tuesday night, Republican senators from those states blasted any attempt to move terror suspects to U.S. sites.

"The President's ongoing attempts to relocate dangerous international terrorists to domestic sites on US soil are dangerous, plain and simple," said Sen. Tim ScottTim ScottHaley slams United Nations, echoing Trump DeVos vows to be advocate for 'great' public schools Trump education pick to face Warren, Sanders MORE (R-S.C.). 



-- Benghazi panel chair: Clinton's email setup is a 'smoking gun

-- Cotton blasts White House for thanking Iran

-- Video shows US sailor apologizing for 'mistake'

-- Kerry thanks Iran for care of US sailors

-- GOP senator hits Obama on lack of North Korea talk in SOTU


Please send tips and comments to Kristina Wong, kwong@thehill.com, and Rebecca Kheel, rkheel@thehill.com 

Follow us on Twitter: @thehill@kristina_wong@Rebecca_H_K