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OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Defense nominee steps into the spotlight

THE TOPLINE: Ashton Carter, President Obama's nominee for Defense secretary, will sit before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday morning for his confirmation hearing. 

Carter, a seasoned Pentagon veteran, is expected to be confirmed. He previously served as deputy secretary of Defense and undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. 

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Senators, though, say they will grill him on a number of contentious issues as they including the administration's push to shutter the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, and it's handling of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Carter can also expect to face tough questions about how he will maintain his independence from micro-management by the White House, after previous Defense secretaries raised concerns about the relationship between the Pentagon and White House.

Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteSununu seen as top recruit in GOP bid to reclaim Senate Lobbying world Overnight Defense: NATO expanding troops in Iraq MORE (R-N.H.) said she would press Carter on closing Gitmo, which President Obama has pledged to do before leaving office in 2016. 

Carter, if confirmed as defense secretary, would have responsibility to sign off on any detainee transfers. 

"How is he going to view his role in particular, not so much on the underlying close or don't close the prison, but his responsibility when detainees are released, and reviewing their records and whether they will reoffend and what danger they present," she said. 

"I think he has to answer very strongly," said Ayotte, who has introduced new legislation to slow the transfers, given the nearly 30 percent of released detainees confirmed or suspected to have returned to the fight. 

"When I met with Ash, he very realistically said to me, 'Although I support the president's plan, or view of closing Guantanamo, I don't see how that's going to happen,'" she said. 

Freshman Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said he wanted Carter's honest opinion on whether he agreed with the president's view of international threats. 

He said he would ask, "Do you agree with the assessment that the president laid out with regard to the international environment in his State of the Union address, that I think the vast majority of Americans saw as semi-delusional?"

"Most Americans recognize it's a very dangerous world out there, and yet, when you listen to the State of the Union, it seemed like everything was coming up roses," said Sullivan. 

 

ISIS KILLS JORDANIAN HOSTAGE: The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) released a video on Tuesday showing it had burned alive a Jordanian pilot it captured in December. 

The U.S. immediately pledged its commitment and support for Jordan, one of four Arab partners in the U.S.-led airstrike campaign in Syria and Iraq against ISIS. 

"Today, we join the people of Jordan in grieving the loss of one of their own, First Lieutenant Moaz al-Kasasbeh, cruelly and brutally killed by ISIL terrorists," President Obama said in a statement, using the administration's preferred acronym for the terror group.

Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelOvernight Defense: Navy medic killed after wounding 2 sailors in Maryland shooting | Dems push Biden for limits on military gear transferred to police | First day of talks on Iran deal 'constructive' 140 national security leaders call for 9/11-style panel to review Jan. 6 attack Trump Afghan pullout deal unachievable, says ex-Pentagon leader MORE said the U.S. military stands "steadfast alongside our Jordanian friends and partners."

"Jordan remains a pillar of our global coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, and this act of despicable barbarity only strengthens our shared resolve," he said.

Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, said he reassured Gen. Mashal al-Zaben, chief of staff of the Jordanian Armed Forces, that "we stand with our Jordanian partners and together we will fight this barbaric enemy until it is defeated." 

There was no sign Jordan was reconsidering its participation in the coalition, and senators who met with Jordan's King Abdullah told Al-Monitor that the "gloves are off." 

Other nations conducting airstrikes in Syria alongside the U.S. include Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Al-Kasasbeh's plane went down on Dec. 24 in Syria while flying a mission against ISIS. Jordan had agreed to swap him for a female prisoner who had attempted a suicide attack in Amman, but hope faded after ISIS beheaded two Japanese hostages within the last week. 

 

SENATE PASSES VETERANS' SUICIDE PREVENTION BILL: The Senate on Tuesday voted 99-0 to approve a bill to help stop suicide among military veterans.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act now heads to President Obama's desk.

The House voted 403-0 to pass the legislation last month.

The legislation, named after a Marine Corps veteran who took his life after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, calls for external audits of suicide prevention programs in the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments to determine their effectiveness and creates incentives for those who study psychiatric medicine to work at the VA.

More than 8,000 veterans are estimated to commit suicide every year.

"We are extremely grateful for the Senate passing this bill and all those who have worked so hard on it. While we are a little bittersweet, because it is too late for our son Clay, we are thankful knowing that this bill will save many lives," Susan Selke, Hunt's mother, said in a statement put out by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama would sign the legislation.

"This is something that the president -- that the administration strongly supports and the president will sign," he said.

 

OBAMA OPTS AGAINST ARMS FOR UKRAINE: President Obama will keep up economic sanctions on Russia, rather than provide weapons to Ukraine's military, according to a senior White House official.

"We still think that the best way to influence Russia's calculus is through those economic sanctions that are biting deep into the Russian economy," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told CNN. "We are not going to bring the Ukrainian military into parity with Russia's military, certainly not in the near future."

NATO military commander Gen. Philip Breedlove and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel support giving weapons to Kiev's military after weeks of gains by pro-Russian separatists, according to a recent New York Times report.

Rhodes said the White House is "constantly looking at" whether to offer Kiev military equipment instead of the nonlethal items it has supplied to date.

However, a large bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers appears to be running out of patience.

"Working with our NATO allies, the United States must implement a comprehensive strategy to support Ukraine, deter Russian aggression, and help maintain stability in the region," the 15-member group — led by Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinThe tale of the last bipartisan unicorns Ex-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Trump DOJ demanded metadata on 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses, Apple says MORE (D-Ill.) and Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanPelosi: 'No intention' of abandoning Democrats' infrastructure goals What the Democrats should be doing to reach true bipartisanship The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Bipartisan group reaches infrastructure deal; many questions remain MORE (R-Ohio) — said in a letter to Obama.

Despite sanctions and "mounting international isolation," Russian President Vladimir Putin "appears willing to gamble his country's economy and world standing to further his blatant military invasion of another nation," they wrote.

"Such a dangerous international bully will only stand down when faced with credible resistance," according to lawmakers.

The group pointed to recent gains by separatists and the collapse of peace talks in Minsk as additional reasons for the president to change his policy.

"As Putin's pattern of aggression and provocation has only increased since then, a change in our response is also needed," they said. "We believe it is time to increase military assistance to Ukraine and urge the U.S. and NATO to move quickly."

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

-Defense nominee would rethink Yemen strategy against al Qaeda

-Sparks fly at Senate budget hearing

-GOP rep: Base closures would lock in smaller military force

-VA chief defends proposal to divert funds from 'choice card' effort

-Obama makes modest reforms to NSA

 

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