Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: White House threatens to veto House Iran bills | Dems ‘frustrated’ after Iran briefing | Lawmakers warn US, UK intel sharing at risk after Huawei decision

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Happy Tuesday 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 White House has threatened to veto a pair of bills the House plans to vote on this week aimed at restricting President Trump’s ability to wage war on Iran.

The veto threats were expected, but provide some additional insight into the administration’s view of the president’s war authorities.

The House is expected to vote Thursday on a bill from Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) to block funding for military action against Iran and another bill from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) to repeal the 2002 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF).

In two separate statements, the White House slammed the bills as “misguided,” arguing their “adoption by Congress would undermine the ability of the United States to protect American citizens, whom Iran continues to seek to harm.”

The background: The 2002 AUMF was passed to authorize the Iraq War and has been used by the Trump administration in its legal justification for the drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, which took place on Iraqi soil.

The administration’s stance: In a statement of administration policy, the White House argued the 2002 AUMF — which authorizes military action to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq” — has “long been understood to authorize the use of force for, among other purposes, addressing threats emanating from Iraq, including threats such as ISIS — a group whose objectives have included establishing an Islamic state in Iraq and using that state to support terrorism against the United States–as well as threats directed by Iran.”

The statement claimed that Iran and Iranian-backed forces “continue to plan and execute attacks against United States forces in Iraq” and that the 2002 AUMF “provides critical authorities for the United States to defend itself and its partner forces.”

Repealing the authorization, the statement added, “would embolden our enemies.”

In a separate statement, the White House argued the bill to block funding for military action against Iran “would undermine the administration’s reestablishment of deterrence with Iran, which could perversely make violent conflict with Iran more likely.”

The statement also asserted the bill would “hinder the president’s ability to protect United States diplomats, forces and interests in the region from the continued threat posed by Iran and its proxies.”

Dead on arrival: Neither bill is likely to make it to Trump’s desk to veto. Both are considered dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Khanna’s bill and Lee’s bill were both in the version of the annual defense policy bill the House passed in July. But they were taken out from the final version that was signed into law during negotiations with the Senate.

In July, Khanna’s proposal was approved 251-170, with 27 Republicans supporting. Lee’s was approved 242-180, with 14 Republican yes votes.

It’s unclear how many Republicans will support the bills this time around. Just three Republicans supported a war powers resolution the House passed earlier this month that was also aimed at reining in Trump’s ability to strike Iran.

Republicans are also upset at the procedural tactics House Democrats are using to bring the Khanna and Lee bills to the floor. The House will vote on the bills as amendments to an unrelated bill — meaning Republicans won’t be able to offer a motion to recommit.


FOREIGN RELATIONS DEMS ‘DEEPLY FRUSTRATED’ AFTER IRAN BRIEFING: Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said a classified briefing Tuesday on U.S. policy toward Iran revealed no new information to clarify the Trump administration’s justification for the drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Most of the criticism came from committee Democrats, but Republican Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) also said he didn’t “think there was anything presented today that was new.” Paul previously fumed that a full Senate briefing on Iran was “less than satisfying.”

Who was there: The Foreign Relations Committee was briefed behind closed doors Tuesday by the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook; principal deputy assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs Joey Hood; and the department’s acting legal adviser, Marik String.

Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) commended Hook in particular for providing “an engaging articulation of their strategy” toward Iran, but said he remains “deeply frustrated” at the administration’s inability to answer Congress’s questions.

“It was a generally deliberate, respectful conversation, but several members were deeply frustrated at clear refusal to provide any meaningful answers,” Coons said, tracing the shape of a zero with his hand when asked if there was any clarification on the justification for the Soleimani strike. “This was an exercise in physically showing up but not actually engaging in any meaningful” discussion. 

Timing: The briefing comes as U.S.-Iran tensions simmer following a spike earlier this month that brought the two sides to the brink of war.

The tensions reached a boiling point after the early January strike in Iraq that killed Soleimani, who led Iran’s elite Quds Force.

Iran retaliated with a missile strike on Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops. The missile strike did not kill anyone, but the Pentagon conceded last week that 34 U.S. troops suffered traumatic brain injuries.

Shifting explanations and lawmaker moves: President Trump and his deputies have offered shifting explanations for why he ordered the strike that killed Soleimani, from citing his past attacks on American forces to claiming without evidence he was plotting imminent attacks on U.S. embassies.

Following the tit-for-tat and frustration at the administration’s explanations, the House passed a war powers resolution largely on party lines aimed at restricting Trump’s ability to wage war on Iran.

A similar war powers resolution from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has secured enough Republican support to pass the Senate, but it has been stalled while the upper chamber conducts Trump’s impeachment trial.

“I think we’ve been lucky with regard to Iran in the sense that there hasn’t been a response that lost American lives,” Paul said Tuesday when arguing for the war powers resolution and repealing the existing authorizations for the use of military force.

Other takes from the meeting: Asked if new information was presented Tuesday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said he already knew “a lot of the stuff” that was discussed, but suggested that’s only because he is also on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) called the briefing a “good discussion.” He said he did think there was new information, but acknowledged “there may be some people who disagree with that.”

Democrats on the committee, though, complained there was nothing new, adding there was no reason the briefing should have been classified.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said the briefing covered “nothing that you can’t read in the newspaper,” calling it “absurdity.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) similarly said she didn’t think the briefing needed to be classified, saying there were “a number of us who urged that we think about what needs to be classified and what doesn’t.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) also said there was “very little that was in that meeting that could not have been in open session.”


SERVICE MEMBERS’ BODIES RECOVERED FROM CRASH SITE IN AFGHANISTAN: The remains of the two U.S. service members killed in a jet crash in Afghanistan on Monday have been recovered, U.S. forces in Afghanistan announced.

The identity of the victims aboard the Air Force E-11A will be released this week after their families are notified. 

Though the crash happened in Taliban-occupied Ghazni province, officials reportedly faced no Taliban resistance while searching for the aircraft, and there are no suspicions that foul play caused the crash. 

Air Force spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett confirmed the crash of the U.S. Bombardier E-11A on Twitter Monday.

“While the cause of the crash is under investigation, there are no indications the crash was caused by enemy fire,” he posted.

The details: Provincial government spokesperson Arif Noori told CBS News that the bodies of two pilots were found at the site. He said the plane was thought to have been flying between Kandahar and Kabul.

U.S. Forces Afghanistan said in a statement that the remains of the two killed U.S. service members were found “near the crash site,” and that U.S. forces recovered what is believed to be the aircraft flight data recorder.

An investigation is ongoing but the military said “there are no indications the crash was caused by enemy fire.” U.S. forces destroyed the remnants of the aircraft after retrieving the service members’ bodies as well as the data recorder.


LAWMAKERS QUESTION US, UK INTEL SHARING AFTER HUAWEI DECISION: Lawmakers on Tuesday blasted the British government’s decision to allow controversial Chinese telecom firm Huawei to help build its 5G networks, warning that the decision could threaten the long-standing intelligence sharing agreement between the United States and United Kingdom.

“Here’s the sad truth: our special relationship is less special now that the U.K. has embraced the surveillance state commies at Huawei,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

“The Chinese Communist Party has infected Five Eyes with Huawei,” he added, referring to the intelligence sharing agreement which includes the U.S. and U.K., “right at a time when the U.S. and U.K. must be unified in order to meet the global security challenges of China’s resurgence.”

Background: The U.K.’s National Security Council (NSC) decided to continue allowing the use of Huawei equipment in the “periphery” of its 5G networks, while blocking it in “core” networks central to national security.

But that decision was a sharp blow to the Trump administration, which had pressured the U.K. to cut the company out entirely from 5G networks and raised red flags about continued intelligence sharing between the two countries.

American officials have cited concerns that Huawei, which is one of the largest telecom equipment providers in the world, could serve as a source of intelligence for the Chinese government, and they have urged countries around the world to keep the company out of 5G networks.

From the White House: A senior administration official at the White House told The Hill that the U.S. was “disappointed” by the decision of the British government.

“There is no safe option for untrusted vendors to control any part of a 5G network,” the official said. “We look forward to working with the UK on a way forward that results in the exclusion of untrusted vendor components from 5G networks. We continue to urge all countries to carefully assess the long-term national security and economic impacts of allowing untrusted vendors access to important 5G network infrastructure.”

But on Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers were more vocal in their criticism of the U.K.’s decision, and its repercussions for intelligence sharing and the “special relationship.”

The Hill’s Maggie Miller has more here.




Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Air Force Gen. John Hyten will speak at the Air Force Association Breakfast Series at 7:30 a.m. at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C.  

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly will speak at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment on the new report, “Taking Back the Seas: Transforming the U.S. Surface Fleet for Decision-Centric Warfare,” at 11:30 a.m. in Washington, D.C. 



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— The Hill: Lawmakers warn US, UK intel sharing at risk after Huawei decision

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Tags Barbara Lee Ben Sasse Christopher Coons Cory Booker Cory Gardner Donald Trump Jeanne Shaheen Jeff Merkley Jim Risch Rand Paul Ro Khanna Tim Kaine

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