Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief under investigation over Boeing ties | Trump uses visual aids to tout progress against ISIS | Pentagon, Amnesty International spar over civilian drone deaths

Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief under investigation over Boeing ties | Trump uses visual aids to tout progress against ISIS | Pentagon, Amnesty International spar over civilian drone deaths
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Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, 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: Acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanNew Defense chief: Our 'priorities remain unchanged' The Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck Trump urged to quickly fill Pentagon post amid Iran tensions MORE may have hit a bump in the road Wednesday in his bid to take "acting" out of his title.

The Pentagon's inspector general announced Wednesday it is investigating Shanahan, specifically over whether he violated ethics rules and promoted his former employer Boeing while working in the government.

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"The Department of Defense Office of Inspector General has decided to investigate complaints we recently received that Acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan allegedly took actions to promote his former employer, Boeing, and disparage its competitors, allegedly in violation of ethics rules," inspector general spokeswoman Dwrena Allen said in a statement Wednesday.

"In his recent Senate Armed Services Committee testimony, Acting Secretary Shanahan stated that he supported an investigation into these allegations," Allen added. "We have informed him that we have initiated this investigation."

The issue: The announcement comes a week after an outside watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), requested such an investigation.

Prior to joining the Trump administration in July 2017 as the deputy Defense secretary, Shanahan worked for defense contractor Boeing for 30 years.

CREW's nine-page complaint about Shanahan largely centers on the Pentagon's decision to buy Boeing-made F-15Xs for the first time in years and a Politico report that Shanahan disparaged Boeing's competitors in private conversations at the Pentagon.

The Pentagon's fiscal year 2020 request calls for eight F-15Xs, the first time since 2001 the department wants to buy the fourth-generation fighter jet.

Air Force officials have said their original budget plans did not include the F-15X. The Pentagon has said it was former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisNew Defense chief: Our 'priorities remain unchanged' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump targets Iran with new sanctions Trump urged to quickly fill Pentagon post amid Iran tensions MORE' decision.

Meanwhile, Shanahan in private has reportedly bashed Boeing competitor Lockheed Martin's handling of the F-35 fighter jet program, saying the plane is "f---ed up" and that Lockheed "doesn't know how to run a program."

Shanahan's response: In response to the inspector general's announcement, Shanahan's spokesman said he continues to follow the ethics agreement in which he agreed to recuse himself from matters involving Boeing.

"Acting Secretary Shanahan has at all times remained committed to upholding his ethics agreement filed with the DoD," Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino said. "This agreement ensures any matters pertaining to Boeing are handled by appropriate officials within the Pentagon to eliminate any perceived or actual conflict of interest issue with Boeing."

The day after the CREW request, Shanahan testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee at a regularly scheduled budget hearing. Asked at the hearing whether he would support an investigation like the one CREW was requesting, Shanahan said, "Yes I do."

Congressional reaction: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) was the one who asked Shanahan about the CREW request at the hearing. On Wednesday, Blumenthal called the IG investigation "necessary."

"Scrutiny of Acting DOD Secretary Shanahan's Boeing ties is necessary--as he agreed with me in a recent hearing," Blumenthal tweeted. "In fact, it's overdue. Boeing is a behemoth 800-pound gorilla--raising possible questions of undue influence at DOD, FAA, & elsewhere."

Senate Armed Services ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedTrump urged to quickly fill Pentagon post amid Iran tensions Overnight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Shanahan drama shocks Capitol Hill, leaving Pentagon rudderless MORE (D-R.I.) called the issue a "serious matter."

"The investigation must be conducted in a thorough, deliberate manner and the results should be made public," Reed said in a statement. "Acting Secretary Shanahan said he supports an investigation into these allegations and indicated he will cooperate.

"This administration has a history of trying to thwart reviews of potential misconduct and ethics violations," Reed continued. "I stand ready to support the inspector general's efforts and hope they will proceed in a timely manner."

 

TRUMP PULLS OUT VISUAL AIDS ON ISIS: Trump is again claiming victory is near against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), this time relying on visual aides to argue the terrorist group would lose its remaining territory in Syria "by tonight."

The president used maps to show reporters what he called the success of his administration's fight against ISIS. He carried the visual aids as he departed the White House for a trip to Ohio.

One map highlighted in red the parts of Syria that Trump said were held by the terrorist group on Election Day 2016. A second map showed present-day Syria, with one small red spot.

"When I took it over it was a mess," he told reporters. "Now, on the bottom, there is no red. In fact, there's actually a tiny spot which will be gone by tonight."

"This just came out 20 minutes ago," he added. "So this is ISIS on Election Day, my election day, and this is ISIS now. So that's the way it goes."

Troop numbers: During the riff, Trump also confirmed he will leave 400 U.S. troops in Syria in a reversal from his December decision to withdraw all 2,000 troops.

Trump said he will leave 200 troops in Syria and "200 people in another place in Syria closer to Israel for a period of time."

The other place appears to be a reference to the at-Tanf military base near Syria's border with Iraq and Jordan. Administration officials see the outpost as a key buttress against Iran's regional ambitions given its location, and they have previously told news outlets the 400 troops staying would be split evenly between northeast Syria and at-Tanf.

Flashback: Trump has promised that ISIS' territorial defeat was imminent -- or has already happened -- several times in recent weeks.

In early February, he told representatives of the international coalition fighting the terrorist group that the U.S. would announce "sometime probably next week" that "100 percent of the caliphate" had fallen.

In late February, he told U.S. troops in Alaska that 100 percent of the caliphate had already been taken back.

This time, the defeat actually appears close. U.S.-backed Syrian forces said Tuesday they had won control of an ISIS encampment and posted a map showing ISIS forces were pinned down in a tiny sliver of land along the Euphrates River.

While ISIS will lose all its territory, top administration officials have acknowledged that does not mean the group is no longer a threat.

"We know right now that there are ISIS fighters scattered still around Syria and Iraq, and that ISIS itself is growing in other parts of the world," national security adviser John Bolton said earlier this month. "The ISIS threat will remain."

 

MILITARY, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL SPAR OVER SOMALIA STRIKES: Amnesty International was out with a new report Tuesday night saying that U.S. drone strikes in Somalia in the last two years have killed 14 civilians despite U.S. military claims of zero civilian deaths.

A little bit later Tuesday night, U.S. Africa Command released a lengthy statement pushing back on the Amnesty report.

"Our assessments found that no AFRICOM airstrike resulted in any civilian casualty or injury," U.S. Africa Command (Africom) said in a statement late Tuesday, referring to the strikes against the Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab.

"Our assessments are based on post-strike analysis using intelligence methods not available to nonmilitary organizations."

Africom also said Amnesty was faced with security concerns and access restrictions which prevented the group from conducting on-site investigations and "severely limited the organization's ability to freely gather testimonial and physical evidence."

The report: Amnesty International says in investigating more than 100 strikes in Somalia in the past two years, it found "compelling evidence" that five strikes have killed 14 civilians, including children, and injured eight others.

"These five incidents were carried out with Reaper drones and manned aircraft in Lower Shabelle, a region largely under Al-Shabaab control outside the Somali capital Mogadishu," between April 2017 and December 2018, the group writes.

The attacks "may have violated international humanitarian law and could, in some cases, constitute war crimes," it adds.

Amnesty said it reached its conclusions after researchers "conducted more than 150 interviews with eyewitnesses' relatives, persons displaced by the fighting, and expert sources -- including in the U.S. military -- and rigorously analyzed corroborating evidence, including satellite imagery, munition fragments, and photos from the aftermath of air strikes."

 

SPACE FORCE BACK-AND-FORTH: Shanahan said Wednesday he has not yet spoken about the Trump administration's Space Force proposal with the Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who in recent days threw cold water on the concept.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Shanahan said he hasn't "walked through the proposal" with Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithGOP moves to block provision banning use of Defense funds for border wall Texas Republican: Migrant conditions in his state the 'worst' he's seen Trump: Border deal with Democrats 'probably won't happen' MORE (D-Wash.), but added that, in general, conversations on Capitol Hill have found agreement on the military threats in space.

"The feedback I've received is worry about adding, building bigger government," Shanahan added. "That part has been universal, and I don't blame them."

Shanahan is scheduled to testify next Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee, where he is sure to get questions on Space Force.

What Smith said: Last week, Smith indicated his committee would not follow the White House plan for Space Force, saying it's "too expensive and creates more bureaucracy."

"I cannot imagine that what they proposed is going to happen," Smith said.

One key Dem optimistic: Earlier in CSIS's space forum Wednesday, Rep. Jim CooperJames (Jim) Hayes Shofner CooperHouse panel OKs space military branch Overnight Defense: Officials approved sending Saudis nuclear technology after Khashoggi killing | Space Command pick warns of challenges ahead | Lawmakers clash over bill blocking low-yield nukes House panel members butt heads over bill blocking low-yield nukes MORE (D-Tenn.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee's subpanel in charge of space, expressed optimism the chamber would pass some sort of Space Force plan this year. He sidestepped questions about specific changes the House might make to the administration's proposal, however.

Noting the proposal the Pentagon sent to Congress was close to an idea the House passed in 2017, Cooper said "the prospects could hardly be brighter" for the House to pass something.

The Pentagon in February delivered Congress its legislative proposal to make President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question MORE's proposed Space Force a reality. Unlike Trump's original pledge to have the service be "separate but equal" from the Air Force, the final proposal calls for Space Force to remain under the Department of the Air Force in a structure similar to the Marine Corps's relationship to the Navy.

That proposal closely mirrors the House's 2017 idea for a space corps, which the lower chamber approved as part of the National Defense Authorizations Act but was scuttled during negotiations with the Senate.

On Wednesday, Cooper said Trump's original idea was "over the top," but called the one actually sent to Congress "way more modest."

"In fact, it's about as close to our original House proposal as you can get," Cooper added.

Asked about Smith's comments and what changes the committee might make, Cooper did not answer directly.

"My guess is from the administration's standpoint, they mainly care that we call it a Space Force, whatever we're doing," Cooper said.

Asked by The Hill after the panel whether he and Smith have talked about specific changes, Cooper said "no" and that he has yet to review the full budget proposal since the justification books were just released this week.

"I will see the budget book when [my aide] hands it to me right here," Cooper said as an aide handed him a binder. "This is how late the process is."

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and Rep. Anthony BrownAnthony Gregory BrownBipartisan congressmen unveil amendment to block Iran strike without congressional approval 7 in 10 Americans support transgender people serving in military: poll House passes amendment to block funding for transgender troops ban MORE (D-Md.) will talk about Army modernization at 8 a.m. at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://bit.ly/2HuQyTv

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford will speak at the Atlantic Council at 10:30 a.m. https://bit.ly/2Huup7K 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Pentagon agrees to set up McSally's military sexual assault task force

-- The Hill: Opinion: Trump may be blind to foreign aid's merits, but we must not be

-- Stars and Stripes: Moon meets with US spy chief amid stalemate over North Korean nukes

-- Reuters: Afghanistan presidential election postponed to September