Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Biden honors McCain at Phoenix memorial service | US considers sending captured ISIS fighters to Gitmo and Iraq | Senators press Trump on ending Yemen civil war

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. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.


THE TOPLINE: The series of remembrances for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) proceeded Thursday, with former Vice President Joe Biden (D) paying tribute to his longtime friend and international travel companion at an emotional memorial service in Arizona.

Biden spoke with passion and urgency as he recounted a brotherly friendship with McCain that spanned decades and withstood the pressures of the country’s increasingly fractured political system. 

{mosads}The former Delaware senator, wiping away tears at times, said the country is wounded by McCain’s death because he “made it easier for them to have confidence and faith in America.”

“His faith in the core values of this nation made them somehow feel it more genuinely themselves,” Biden said. “His conviction, that we as a country would never walk away from the sacrifices generations of Americans have made to defend liberty and freedom and human dignity around the world … it made average Americans proud of themselves and their country.”


The service: Hundreds of people attending the service at North Phoenix Baptist Church, including 24 sitting U.S. senators and four former senators: GOP Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.), John Cornyn (Texas), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.).

The two-hour memorial service emphasized McCain’s appreciation for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, party affiliation, or gender.

Arizona Cardinals player Larry Fitzgerald Jr. said McCain evaluated other people “on the merits of their character and the contents of their hearts.”

The ceremony ended with remarks written by Meghan McCain and read by the Rev. Joe Garcia.

Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” played as McCain’s casket, draped in an American flag, was carried out of the church.


On to Washington: McCain will lie in state in the U.S. Capitol until a memorial service on Friday. A memorial service will also be held at the Washington National Cathedral the following day. His funeral will be held on Sunday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.


And Pence praises McCain in speech: Vice President Pence on Thursday praised the legacy of McCain in a speech to the American Legion, just days after the veterans group knocked President Trump for the White House’s response to McCain’s death.

The Washington Post reported that Pence spoke to a national conference of the American Legion in Minneapolis, where he highlighted McCain’s service.

“He came from a long line of service in uniform,” Pence said. “He served in the Vietnam War. He spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war, and he did not yield.”


US CONSIDERS GUANTANAMO, IRAQ FOR ISIS FIGHTERS: The Trump administration is considering sending hundreds of captured ISIS fighters held in Syria to an Iraqi prison or the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, NBC News reported Monday.

Five U.S. officials told NBC that several of the highest-value fighters could possibly go to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Those detainees include Alexandar Amon Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, two Islamic State fighters who took part in killing Americans, including journalists James Foley Steven Sotloff, and other Western hostages.


The rundown: A group of about 600 ISIS fighters are currently being held by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in a rebel-controlled area of Syria, the U.S. officials confirmed.

The SDF, a majority Kurdish militia, do not have the resources to detain, prosecute or protect the detainees as it continues its fight against ISIS.

Complicating matters is the fact that many of the prisoners are foreign-born and there has been difficulty in convincing their home countries to repatriate them.

The administration’s proposal would send most detainees to Iraq to be held in Iraqi prisons with Iraqi guards. The U.S. might keep the right to prosecute them if their home countries won’t take them.


Lawmakers push back: The plan — specifically sending new detainees to Guantanamo — has drawn criticism from U.S. lawmakers, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). In July, both visited the prison where the SDF is holding the fighters.

Shaheen, along with other congressional Democrats and human rights groups, says ISIS fighters suspected of murdering Americans should be tried in federal court instead of held indefinitely without charges.

Graham, meanwhile, said the two high-value ISIS prisoners should be sent to Guantanamo only as a temporary move before a possible trial in a civilian court in the U.S.


 SENATORS PRESS TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ON YEMEN: A bipartisan group of senators is urging the Trump administration to adhere to a recently signed law requiring certification that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are meeting certain humanitarian criteria or else cut off some U.S. military assistance.

The letter — addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — is in response to the ongoing civil war in Yemen, which the senators say has led to a “humanitarian crisis” that will threaten U.S. interests as it continues.


Who signed it: The letter was organized by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) and co-signed by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Christopher Coons (D-Del.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).


What’s at issue: A provision in the recently signed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requires the administration to certify within 30 days that Saudi and UAE ARE helping to end Yemen’s civil war, alleviate the humanitarian crisis and protect civilians.

Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition in Yemen’s civil war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels that began in 2015. The United States supports the coalition with intelligence sharing, logistics such as air refueling and billions of dollars in arms sales.

Under the NDAA, if the administration cannot make the certification, it must stop refueling coalition aircraft.

U.S. lawmakers’ patience with the Saudi coalition has been wearing increasingly thin as the civilian death toll mounts. The deaths have largely been blamed on coalition airstrikes.


What the Pentagon says: Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters earlier this week that he is “constantly reviewing” support to the coalition, but did not indicate it will stop any time soon.

“The reality is that that battlefield is a humanitarian field, and we recognize the tragedy there,” Mattis said at a Pentagon briefing.

“But we did review the support for the Arab coalition when we came into office. As you know, it was started before we arrived here. We reviewed it, we determined that it was the right thing to do to support them in the defense of their own countries, but also to restore the rightful government there.”


LAWMAKERS NEAR FINISH LINE ON DEFENSE APPROPRIATIONS: The Senate and the House in September will attempt to merge competing defense appropriations bills once the House returns from its August recess after Labor Day.

It’s an effort to get the Pentagon funded before the start of the fiscal year for the first time in years.


The background: The House passed its version of the $675 billion Pentagon spending bill in June, while the Senate followed in August.

But the Senate’s bill was combined with the spending bill for the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services, potentially complicating bicameral negotiations since the Senate wants to keep the two bills married.

This year, Congress made strides in getting the Pentagon funded on time by passing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) before the start of the fiscal year for the first time in 20 years. President Trump signed the bill into law earlier this month, marking the earliest the bill has become law in 40 years.

But the NDAA is a policy bill, not a spending bill, meaning the dollar numbers it authorizes can’t become reality until Congress passes the finalized appropriations bill.


A time crunch: Congress, though, is facing a legislative time crunch, as it only has until Sept. 30 to pass legislation to avoid a government shutdown, which would be the third of the year.

Another complicating factor is Trump’s threat last month to shut down the government if he does not get funding for his proposed wall on the southern border.

We’ve got more on what to watch for on defense this fall



— The Hill: McMaster: McCain’s legacy should ‘bring Americans together’

— The Hill: Convicted leaker Reality Winner: I can’t thank Trump enough for tweet

— The Hill: Pompeo, Russian counterpart mull meeting at UN: report

— The Hill: UN watchdog: Iran is complying with nuclear deal

— The Hill: Opinion: America needs to face ongoing Russian assault on democracy

— Defense News: Former NATO leaders call for new headquarters to be named after Sen. John McCain

Tags Ben Cardin Bob Corker Chris Murphy Christopher Coons Cory Booker Donald Trump Jack Reed James Mattis Jeanne Shaheen Jeff Flake Jeff Merkley Joe Biden Joe Garcia Joe Manchin John Cornyn John McCain Kirsten Gillibrand Lindsey Graham Mazie Hirono Mike Pompeo Susan Collins Tim Kaine Todd Young

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