Overnight Defense: Pentagon asked to house up to 5,000 migrant children | Judge lifts last injunction against transgender ban | Senators voice anger over problems with military housing | General warns ISIS waiting to resurge

Overnight Defense: Pentagon asked to house up to 5,000 migrant children | Judge lifts last injunction against transgender ban | Senators voice anger over problems with military housing | General warns ISIS waiting to resurge
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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. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.


THE TOPLINE: Pentagon officials on Thursday confirmed that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has asked the Department of Defense (DOD) for space to house up to 5,000 immigrant children through the end of the fiscal year.

HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan on Tuesday "requested DOD support to identify space to house up to 5,000 unaccompanied alien children on DOD installations, if needed, through September 30, 2019," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jamie Davis said in a statement.


Davis added that the Pentagon "will work with the military services to identify potential locations for such support, and will work with HHS to assess any DOD facilities or suitable DOD land for potential use to provide temporary shelter for unaccompanied alien children."

What else the plan entails: Should HHS determine it is necessary to use Pentagon facilities or land, the department will submit an additional request to the DOD.

The move, first reported by The Washington Times, also includes a plan to transfer almost $400 million to pay to house the children, according to the outlet.

Should Pentagon leaders agree to open DOD facilities to unaccompanied migrant children, they would be overseen by HHS personnel.

"Nearly full" at existing shelters: HHS is the federal agency responsible for unaccompanied children until an adult relative claims them. The agency currently holds about 11,500 such minors at government detention and processing centers in the United States, according to Time.

A spokeswoman told the outlet that it is requesting help from the Pentagon because of "the overwhelming number" of new unaccompanied children crossing the border and "nearly full" capacity at existing HHS shelters.

The background: The Pentagon confirmed the request a day after Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenActing DHS secretary says he expects Russia to attempt to interfere in 2020 elections House Homeland Security rip DHS's 'unacceptable' failure to comply with subpoena Trump puts Kushner in charge of overseeing border wall construction: report MORE appeared for a tense hearing on Capitol Hill to discuss the administration's policies at the border.

Nielsen was on Capitol Hill to defend the Trump administration policy, enacted last year, that led to the separation of hundreds of migrant families that crossed the southern border.

The request also came the same day the government released data that showed a spike in apprehensions and denials of people attempting to enter the United States in February. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data showed that 66,450 people were apprehended after crossing the border between ports of entry in February, compared with 47,986 the previous month.

Where would they go?: It is not yet known where the Pentagon would house the migrant children should officials agree to fill the HHS request.

HHS last summer completed assessments of potential locations in Texas, including Army base Fort Bliss; Dyess Air Force Base, near Abilene; and Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo; as well as Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas.

That assessment was made after HHS requested that the Pentagon determine its capacity to provide up to 20,000 temporary beds for unaccompanied children at its installations.


FEDERAL JUDGE LIFTS LAST INJUCTION AGAINST TRANSGENDER MILITARY BAN: The last injunction blocking President TrumpDonald John TrumpComey responds to Trump with Mariah Carey gif: 'Why are you so obsessed with me?' Congress to get election security briefing next month amid Intel drama New York man accused of making death threats against Schumer, Schiff MORE's transgender military ban from taking effect was lifted by a federal judge Thursday, moving the administration closer to being able to enforce the policy.

In a six-page order issued on Thursday, U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland Judge George Russell III, an Obama appointee, wrote that he was lifting his injunction because "the court is bound by the Supreme Court's decision to stay the preliminary injunctions in their entirety."

Though courts have now ruled to lift all four injunctions that had been placed on the policy, advocates for transgender troops say one remains in effect due to a stipulation in that court's ruling. 

In a statement, the Pentagon said the existing policy allowing open service by transgender people will stay in place until "further guidance" is issued in the "near future."

The Pentagon's response: "The department is pleased with the district court's decision to stay the final injunction against the department's proposed transgender policy," Pentagon spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell said in the statement. "The 2016 policy will remain in effect until the department issues further guidance, which will be forthcoming in the near future."

A refresher: The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in January to stay two of the injunctions. That followed a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling earlier in January that lifted another of the injunctions.

Transgender troops have been serving openly since June 2016 when the Obama administration lifted the previous ban on their service.

In July 2017, President Trump tweeted he would reverse the open service policy, saying he would "not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military."

Four lawsuits were filed against the ban, and lower courts in all four had issued injunctions blocking the policy from taking effect while the suits work their way through the court system.

In March 2018, then-Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisFed chief issues stark warning to Congress on deficits Why US democracy support matters Hillicon Valley: DOJ indicts four Chinese military officers over Equifax hack | Amazon seeks Trump deposition in 'war cloud' lawsuit | Inside Trump's budget | Republican proposes FTC overhaul MORE released a policy that would allow transgender people to serve if they do so in their biological sex.

Response from the other side: Transgender people and their advocates argue the Mattis policy is still effectively a ban akin to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for gay, lesbian and bisexual service members.

The ruling issued Thursday stemmed from a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of six transgender service members.

The ACLU called Thursday's decision "deeply disappointing" and vowed to continue fighting the Trump policy.

"Each and every claim made by President Trump to justify this ban can be easily debunked by the conclusions drawn from the Department of Defense's own review process," said Joshua Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, in a statement. "Our clients are brave men and women who should be able to continue serving their country ably and honorably without being discriminated against by their own commander in chief."


SAFETY HAZARDS ABOUND AT MILITARY HOUSING AS TRUMP LOOKS TO TAP FUNDING FOR WALL: Military leaders acknowledged Thursday that they did not have a final say in preventing the Trump administration from pulling money for military housing to build a southern border wall, even as the Defense Department reels from widespread reports of mold and vermin-infested family housing.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on poor conditions with military housing, questioned the Army, Navy and Air Force secretaries about the Trump administration's plan to pull $6.1 billion from Pentagon accounts to help fund the president's promised southern border wall.

That amount includes $2.5 billion from counter-drug programs and $3.6 billion in military construction (MILCON) funds, which covers base housing projects. 

The exchange: All three service secretaries said they would recommend to acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanEsper's chief of staff to depart at end of January Defense chief calls on European allies to be wary of China's investments, blasts Russia Pentagon chief approves 20 more miles of border wall MORE that the administration not tap military housing funds for the wall but conceded that it's not their final decision.

"Can you assure me that none of that money will come from funds that were slated to be used to deal with base housing either here in the United States or overseas?" Kaine asked.

"Senator, I can assure you that that is certainly my position as well and I've articulated that to Secretary Shanahan. I think there's general agreement within the department that we should not tap into either military housing or barracks ... but I don't have final say over that, so I can't give 100 percent assurance," Army Secretary Mark Esper replied.

A palpable anger: The bipartisan anger was palpable at the hearing, where service secretaries acknowledged widespread problems with military housing conditions.

The hearing was called after a 2018 Reuters investigation found private military housing was rife with issues including black mold, vermin infestations and lead paint.

Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyTrump seeks to boost vulnerable GOP senator with Colorado rally Democratic Senate campaign arm raised more than .5 million in January On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump MORE (R-Ariz.), an Air Force veteran, blasted the "slumlords, not landlords" for not taking care of troops properly.

Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedLawmakers wary as US on cusp of initial deal with Taliban Pavlich: The Senate defends its integrity Five Senate Democrats make impeachment case in Spanish MORE (D-R.I.), the ranking member, said in his opening statement that a lack of accountability within the Pentagon allowed for privatized housing companies "to deliver lackluster customer service to military families, conduct the bare minimum for routine maintenance, and exercise zero quality control, while accruing sizable profits."

Privatized housing the norm: About 99 percent of on-base housing has been privatized since 1996, when the Military Housing Privatization Initiative was created to address an array of issues with houses in disrepair on bases.

The initiative allowed private contractors to front reconstruction costs in exchange for 50-year leases from the services.

But critics say those leases allowed for the private companies to reap payments year after year with little oversight into how they maintain the dwellings.

Legal action? Angered by the lack of accountability, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called for a criminal fraud investigation into the private housing companies, while Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsOvernight Defense: Pentagon policy chief resigns at Trump's request | Trump wishes official 'well in his future endeavors' | Armed Services chair warns against Africa drawdown after trip GOP chairman after Africa trip: US military drawdown would have 'real and lasting negative consequences' Trump pick for Fed seat takes bipartisan fire MORE (R-S.D.), said he wants to see military officials take troublesome contractors to court.

"There's clear evidence of negligence, perhaps fraud, breach of contract with regard to the contractors and the way that they have in some cases managed their responsibilities," Rounds said.

"Why have we not taken these contractors to court? ... Is the government too cozy with these contractors to show them what they have done wrong?"

The military leaders said they are looking into such options.


TOP GENERAL WARNS ISIS IS WAITING TO RESURGE: The top U.S. general in charge of the Middle East warned Thursday that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is going underground and waiting to resurge as it is on the brink of a territorial defeat.

Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee that taking back ISIS's physical territory is a "monumental military accomplishment." But, he added, the fight against terrorism is still "far from over."

"What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and the preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge," Votel said.

"Recent observations by our men and women on the ground highlight that the ISIS population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remains unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized," he added.

A drawdown looms: Votel's testimony comes at the Trump administration prepares to significantly draw down U.S. forces in Syria.

Late last year, President Trump declared victory against ISIS and announced he would withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. The administration has since reversed on a full-scale withdrawal, saying it will leave behind 400 U.S. troops, split evenly between northeast Syria and a base in southern Syria.

Votel said Thursday he has not been pressured to withdraw by a specific date, but declined to elaborate on details of the planned withdrawal in an unclassified setting.

The fight continues: ISIS's territorial control is down to about "less than a single square mile" from the 34,000 square miles the terrorist group held at its height.

U.S. and American-backed forces have been battling ISIS in the final stronghold of the village of Baghuz, Syria.

Votel stressed the need to "maintain a vigilant offensive" against ISIS at it goes underground.

"Political conditions' don't merit withdrawal yet: Votel also said during the hearing that "political conditions" in Afghanistan do not merit a U.S. military withdrawal right now.

Votel's testimony to the committee comes as the Trump administration's special envoy for Afghanistan negotiations, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been ramping up efforts to reach a peace deal with the Taliban in the 18-year-old war.

As part of that, the Pentagon has reportedly floated a plan that would see all U.S. troops leave Afghanistan in the next three to five years. The Taliban, though, has reportedly rejected the proposal, demanding all foreign forces leave Afghanistan within a year.

No orders yet: On Thursday, Votel stressed that he has not received any orders to withdraw from Afghanistan.

"We've not been directed to withdraw, and there are no orders to withdraw anything," he said.



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