Overnight Defense: Pentagon warns China after lasers injure US pilots | Trump pushes 'fix' for veterans health program | White House preps talking points for CIA pick

Overnight Defense: Pentagon warns China after lasers injure US pilots | Trump pushes 'fix' for veterans health program | White House preps talking points for CIA pick
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Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond.

 

THE TOPLINE: The United States has issued a formal warning to China after personnel at the Chinese military base in Djibouti used lasers to interfere with U.S. military aircraft, giving two pilots minor injuries, according to the Pentagon.

Top Defense Department spokeswoman Dana White told reporters Thursday that the U.S. is confident the Chinese are behind the "very serious incidents," which have increased in the past few weeks.  

What exactly happened: White said there have been "more than two [and] less than 10" such instances where the Chinese used a high-power laser to disrupt pilots. The incidents have happened in the past but they have picked up in the past few weeks.

"During one incident, there were two minor eye injuries of aircrew flying in a C-130 that resulted from exposure to military-grade laser beams, which were reported to have originated from the nearby Chinese base," according to a notice reported by CNN.

The activity "poses a true threat to our airmen," and there already have been "two minor injuries," cause by the lasers, White said during a Pentagon briefing.

How the U.S. has responded: White said that the U.S. has "formally demarched the Chinese government," meaning Washington has given Beijing a strong warning. The US has also "requested that the Chinese investigate these incidents."

The U.S. government has also warned airmen to be cautious when flying in certain areas in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa.

The Pentagon has about 4,000 personnel based at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa. 

The White House weighs in: During the daily White House press briefing Thursday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked how President Trump will respond to the laser incidents as well as reports that the Chinese have installed new military platforms on disputed islands in the South China Sea.

While Sanders did not respond to the use of lasers in Djibouti, she said the administration is "well aware of China's militarization of the South China Sea" and has "raised concerns directly with the Chinese about this."

"There will be near-term and long-term consequences of this," she added.

 

PENTAGON: 2,000 TROOPS ON BORDER TO COST $182M: Sending 2,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border will cost $182 million through the end of the fiscal year, the Pentagon's top spokeswoman said Thursday. 

Where the money will come from: The money would come from the Guard's operation and maintenance and military personnel accounts, spokeswoman Dana White said.

"These are funds that are for training and so we'll use them, but at this time there are no concerns," she said.

Asked whether there were concerns that dipping into such accounts would affect force readiness, she replied that there were no issues "right now."

The numbers right now: The 2,000 troops represent just half the amount that President TrumpDonald John TrumpPaul Ryan defends Navy admiral after Trump's criticism Trump discussing visit overseas to troops following criticism: report Retired Army General: Trump is ‘acting like an 8th grader’ in attacking ex-Navy SEAL who led bin Laden operation MORE wants to send to the border.

Defense Secretary James Mattis in April authorized up to 4,000 National Guard troops to be sent to the border in Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona as part of Trump's plan for the military to shore up the southern border until his administration builds a border wall.

While Texas, New Mexico and Arizona have sent at least 1,000 troops so far, California rejected the federal government's initial plans for sending guardsmen to the border, as the work was thought to be too closely tied to immigration enforcement.

 

TRUMP WANTS CONGRESS TO 'FIX' VETERANS HEALTH-CARE PROGRAM: President Trump on Thursday urged Congress to "fix" a veterans health-care program hours after the chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee reintroduced a plan to do so.

"This spring marks [four years] since the Phoenix VA crisis. We won't forget what happened to our GREAT VETS," Trump tweeted.

The plan: The Veterans Choice Program allows some veterans to see private doctors. It was created in the wake of the 2014 wait-time scandal that started with the Phoenix Veterans Affairs health-care system.

Earlier Thursday, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) reintroduced a bill that would overhaul private-care options for veterans enrolled in the Veterans Affairs health-care system, as well as expand caregiver benefits for older veterans and create a process for closing excesses facilities.

The bill would expand which veterans are eligible to see private-sector health specialists, as well as entitle veterans enrolled in the system to see a private doctor without a co-pay twice a year.

The bill was originally negotiated as part of the massive government spending bill Congress passed in March. But it was ultimately stripped out before passage after last-minute objections by House Democrats. Democrats are worried the measures move too far toward privatization of the VA.

The debate: The re-introduction of the bill and Trump's tweet come after acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie warned lawmakers in a letter Friday that the Veterans Choice Program will run out of money in the first two weeks of June. Roe's bill contains $5.2 billion to keep the Choice program funded until the new program is implemented.

The debate over the extent to which veterans should get private health care at taxpayer expense has heated up amid Trump's leadership shakeup at the department.

Former Secretary David Shulkin has said he was fired because there are forces in the Trump administration pushing the VA toward full privatization, which he opposed.

 

PENTAGON IDENTIFIES 9 KILLED IN AIR CRASH: The Pentagon on Thursday identified the nine pilots and crew killed a day earlier when their Air National Guard plane crashed near an airport in Savannah, Ga.

"Taking care of our fallen Airmen's families and loved ones is our top priority," according to Adjutant General of Puerto Rico, Brig. Gen. Isabelo Rivera.

"We are fully supporting them and providing all the assistance and resources of the Puerto Rico National Guard during this difficult moment."

What we know so far: The airmen and crew were riding in a C-130 from the Air National Guard's 156th Airlift Wing out of Puerto Rico and had taken off from Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, from which the Air National Guard also operates.

The plane went down while performing a training mission and the crash is under investigation.

 

TALKING POINTS FOR CIA PICK: The White House has drafted a 27-page memo providing talking points to back up CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel's controversial nomination to lead the spy agency.

The document, obtained by The Hill, includes five broad points that Haspel's supporters are urged to use in defending and promoting Trump's nominee, who is expected to face a difficult confirmation fight in the Senate.

The five talking points emphasize the CIA veteran's experience and "common-sense" leadership and note that she would be the first woman to lead the intelligence agency.

The key issue: It also preps defenders to counter attacks on Haspel for her involvement in the agency's use of harsh interrogations techniques, now widely considered torture, in the post-9/11 era.

The final talking point doesn't mention that controversy directly but says that if the White House is "pressed on a specific matter," defenders of Haspel should respond with the following: "She is an 'intelligence and national security expert' who follows the law as written, and has demonstrated strong and clear leadership in very challenging positions."

'Close' vote: The White House said Thursday that it is expecting a "close" vote on Haspel's nomination.

"I think that unfortunately in this environment we accept that every vote is close. ... It's just the dynamic we face," Marc Short, director of legislative affairs, told reporters.

  

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW:

Sen. Edward MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyOvernight Health Care: Top Trump refugee official taking new HHS job | Tom Price joins new Georgia governor's transition | FDA tobacco crackdown draws ire from the right Privacy legislation could provide common ground for the newly divided Congress Bipartisan Senate bill would penalize illegal robocalls MORE (D-Mass.) will speak on the future of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula at 9:30 a.m. at the Atlantic council in Washington, D.C. 

 

ICYMI:

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-- The Hill: Trump hints at progress on North Korean prisoner release

-- The Hill: Opinion: 'Forever war' needs new rules

-- The Hill: Opinion: Stay in the Iran nuke deal to keep America's seat at the negotiating table

-- Defense News: McCain book: U.S. should consider cyberattack to punish Putin