OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Carter confirmed as Defense secretary

THE TOPLINE: The Senate on Thursday confirmed Ashton Carter as President Obama's new secretary of Defense in a 93-5 vote. 

Carter, 60, will be the 25th secretary of Defense and Obama's fourth. He is expected to be sworn into office next week. 

Five Republican senators voted against Carter -- Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Jim Risch (Idaho) and John Boozman (Ark.).

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No sooner than a few minutes after Carter was confirmed did statements from lawmakers on the Armed Services Committees pour in, praising the confirmation and courting the incoming defense secretary on pet issues.

"During his confirmation hearing, I asked Dr. Carter about the continued injustice our men and women in uniform face after reporting sexual assault and was encouraged that he recognized the problem and expressed his commitment to addressing it," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). 

"I have worked with Ash Carter in the past on vital programs, such as the Joint Strike Fighter, Blackhawk helicopters, submarines being built at Electric Boat in Groton, and the expedited fielding of enhanced body armor to protect our troops in Afghanistan," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). "I look forward to working with him as he does more to reform the contracting process to eliminate waste and fraud." 

"It is well known that former secretaries of defense under this President have been micromanaged by the White House, making their jobs even more difficult. Only time will tell if the President decides to take a new approach in working with Secretary Carter," said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) in a statement. 

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) said, "I believe he will provide strong, straightforward leadership to our nation's Armed Forces, and I am pleased he has been confirmed as our new Secretary of Defense." 

The Aerospace Industries Association President and CEO Marion Blakey said in a statement that the aerospace and defense industry also looks forward to working closely with the new Pentagon chief.

"Our industry stands ready to support Secretary Carter and the country's national defense interests," she said. "It is an important time to ensure the nation has the funding needed to invest in new technology to address rising and unanticipated national security crises around the globe, as well as to keep our industry robust and internationally competitive." 

 

AFGHAN PLAN UNDER REVIEW: The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Thursday said the administration is reviewing the schedule of a troop withdrawal from that country.

Army Gen. John Campbell said the options he provided would allow for more troops throughout the summer fighting season.

"I have provided options to my chain of command," Campbell told lawmakers at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday. 

The administration now plans to drawdown the roughly 10,000 U.S. troops to 5,500 by the middle of this year's fighting season. Troop levels would drop further to 1,000 by the end of next year. 

Republicans have charged that the administration is withdrawing troops too quickly from Afghanistan.

Campbell also confirmed reports that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has spread into Afghanistan, though he said the presence was "nascent" and "fledgling."

He said it partly reflects some Taliban members "rebranding" themselves as ISIS.

The acknowledgment came after the Pentagon confirmed it had conducted a drone strike in Afghanistan's Helmand province earlier this week, killing former Taliban member and Guantánamo Bay detainee Abdul Rauf, who had become an ISIS leader and recruiter. Seven of his associates were also killed.

Pentagon officials played down ISIS's presence in Afghanistan, calling "aspirational." They noted, however, that Rauf was a threat to U.S. forces that needed to be taken out.

"He and his associates were targeted, because we had information that they were planning operations against U.S. and Afghan personnel there in Afghanistan," Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said on Wednesday.

 

WH THREATENS TO VETO GITMO BILL. President Obama will veto a bill that would effectively block the transfer of detainees from Guantánamo Bay for the remainder of his presidency.

The legislation, passed out of the Senate Armed Services Committee on a 14-12 vote, would suspend the transfer of high- or medium-risk terror suspects, and prohibit the president from sending a detainee to a country where a former Guantánamo prisoner returned and reengaged in terrorist activities.

It would also repeal an existing law that gives the president authority to transfer detainees, and reinstate a ban on detainees being returned to Yemen, which is currently undergoing a tumultuous and violent political transition.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the legislation would put "more constraints on a process that should be actually working faster," according to the Associated Press.

He restated the White House's position that the prison at Guantánamo put U.S. national security at risk.

 

SUICIDE PREVENTION BILL SIGNED INTO LAW. President Obama signed a $24 million bill aimed at halting suicide among military veterans.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, named after a 28-year-old Marine Corps veteran who took his life in 2011 after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, calls for third-party audits of suicide prevention programs in the Veterans Affairs Department to determine which efforts are successful or should be cut.

It also creates a centralized website detailing mental healthcare services available from the VA and starts a three-year pilot program to repay student loan debt for those who study psychiatric medicine and commit to working for the agency.

"Today we honor a young man who isn't here but should be here," Obama said during a signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House. "Clay had already done a great deal of good in the world and the truth is he was just getting started."

More than 8,000 veterans commit suicide every year, according to VA estimates.

Obama said the legislation would help fill "critical gaps" but warned that it is not a "complete solution."

Jake Wood, co-founder and CEO of Team Rubicon, who served alongside Hunt in Afghanistan, said the bill signing "marks a historic event for the veteran community."

Obama also pleaded with veterans to seek help if they need it, arguing it is not a sign of weakness.

"If you are hurting, know this, you are not forgotten," he said.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

- House members to inspect Gitmo this month

- Senate bill sets VA health standards for women

- Democratic lawmaker, a Marine veteran, won't back Obama on AUMF

- Pentagon acknowledges ISIS spread to Afghanistan amid US troop drawdown

- Liberal group bashes ISIS war powers proposal

 

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