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Overnight Defense: Watchdog investigating VA chief | Allegations claim Wilkie tried to discredit aide who reported sexual assault | Dem chair working to restore Pentagon funding taken for wall | Navy chief says loss of shipbuilding funds 'not helpful'

Overnight Defense: Watchdog investigating VA chief | Allegations claim Wilkie tried to discredit aide who reported sexual assault | Dem chair working to restore Pentagon funding taken for wall | Navy chief says loss of shipbuilding funds 'not helpful'
© Greg Nash

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 Department of Veterans Affairs's internal watchdog is investigating Secretary Robert WilkieRobert Leon WilkieHillicon Valley: Department of Justice sues Google | House Republicans push for tech bias hearing | Biden drawing more Twitter engagement for first time House Republicans push VA for details on recent data breach Overnight Defense: National Guard says no federal requests for election security help | Dems accuse VA head of misusing resources | Army official links COVID-19 to troop suicides MORE over allegations that he attempted to discredit an aide to a top Democrat after she reported she was sexually assaulted at the agency's hospital.

The department's Inspector General Michael J. Missal told representatives in a letter Thursday that he plans to open a full probe into Wilkie. 

"This matter is a high priority for our office," he wrote in a letter to lawmakers obtained by The Hill.

The secretary denies he asked people to look up dirt on the woman, Andrea Goldstein. Goldstein is a senior policy adviser on female veterans issue on Rep. Mark TakanoMark Allan TakanoOvernight Defense: National Guard says no federal requests for election security help | Dems accuse VA head of misusing resources | Army official links COVID-19 to troop suicides Pocan won't seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair Democrats accuse VA head of misusing resources to stump for Trump, vulnerable GOP senators MORE's (D-Calif.) team.  

The claim against Wilkie: A senior VA official claimed Wilkie told members of his staff to discredit Goldstein's credibility after she said a man groped and propositioned her in the agency's D.C. Medical Center, The Washington Post reported. 

The secretary allegedly told his staff that Goldstein, who also serves as an intelligence officer in the Navy reserve, filed many complaints of sexual misconduct while serving in the Navy, three current or former senior VA officials told the Post. The sources said Wilkie would share information with his senior staff on at least six occasions. 

Goldstein counters that she filed one formal complaint against a Navy department head, who she said sexually assaulted her multiple times and was removed from his position. 

Who called for an investigation: Takano was joined by six senators on the Senate's Veteran Affairs Committee, in calling for the investigation.

"Secretary Wilkie's decision to cast doubt, paint the individual as dishonest, and discredit her traumatic experience demonstrates VA's continued inability to ensure women veterans are welcomed and supported by the country they have served," the senators wrote in a letter dated Monday.

High-profile lawyer Mark Zaid, who represents the Ukraine whistleblower, is now representing Goldstein, he announced in tweets. In one tweet directed at Wilkie, he said "We intend to ensure @DeptVetAffairs takes her concerns, & those of other assault victims, seriously."

 

NAVY CHIEF: CUTTING SHIPBUILDING FOR NUKES, BORDER WALL 'NOT HELPFUL': Diverting money from the Navy's shipbuilding budget to a nuclear agency and to fund President TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE's border wall is "not helpful," the Navy's top civilian told lawmakers Thursday.

"To be frank, it's not helpful because it takes a ship out of a plan we're driving toward," acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

"It particularly is harmful in the sense that it takes a ship out of a category of ship for which we're going to have a hard time getting to anyway," Modly added in an apparent reference to the Virginia-class submarine.

The Navy plans to have 355 ships in 10 years.

Ship cuts anger lawmakers: Lawmakers in both parties have been fuming that the Pentagon's budget request for fiscal 2021 would cut the Navy's shipbuilding by $4.1 billion from this year to fund just eight new ships. Lawmakers are upset that the budget would fund one Virginia-class submarine, not two as had been previously planned.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon told Congress it was transferring $3.8 billion from various weapons programs to its counter-drug fund in order to build Trump's southern border wall.

Budget requests lay out an administration's priorities for the coming fiscal year, but are not binding, as Congress has the power to set spending levels. Lawmakers have indicated they are unlikely to follow the request for shipbuilding.

The second Virginia-class submarine was cut amid pressure from other lawmakers to increase funding at the National Nuclear Security Administration, which would get a nearly 20 percent boost in funding to $19.8 billion under the administration's budget request.

Navy leaders kept out of loop: Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, told the committee the shipbuilding cut "happened at budget endgame very quickly," adding that Navy officials "were informed after the decision was made."

Even before the cut, Modly said, the Navy was projecting it would take 10 years to get 49 to 50 of the 66 attack submarines it believes it needs.

Modly, Gilday and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger told the committee Thursday they were not consulted before the final decision on the $3.8 billion transfer, though Modly added that "we knew that they were looking at a variety of different options, and then at the end those options were presented to us."

Affected programs: The total transfer for the wall includes $911 million from shipbuilding programs, including the landing helicopter assault ship replacement program and the expeditionary fast transport program.

Navy aircraft were also hit by the reprogramming, including the F-35 fighter jet, the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and the Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol plane.

Navy still committed to goal: Modly insisted the Navy remains committed to its goal of a 355-ship fleet despite the cuts.

"While this budget does slow our trajectory to a force of 355 ships or more, it does not arrest it," Modly said. "You have my personal assurance that we are so deeply committed to building that larger, more capable, more distributed naval force within what I consider a strategically relevant time frame of no more than 10 years."

But committee chair pessimistic: Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithA long overdue discussion on Pentagon spending Overnight Defense: Armed Services chairman unsold on slashing defense budget | Democratic Senate report details 'damage, chaos' of Trump foreign policy | Administration approves .8B Taiwan arms sales Democratic House chairman trusts Pentagon won't follow 'unlawful orders' on election involvement MORE (D-Wash.) said the 355 ship goal is "almost meaningless at this point" since it could take decades to achieve.

"It is great to have goals, I suppose, and we can aspire toward that number, but at this point, it seems like just that; an aspiration doesn't translate necessarily into a strategy," Smith said.

 

SMITH WORKING ON BILL TO RESTORE PENTAGON FUNDING: The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee is working on a bill to "claw back" the $3.8 billion the Pentagon is redirecting from weapons programs to President Trump's border wall, he said Thursday.

"I think we can absolutely pass a bill that says we appropriated this money for these purposes in the FY20 bill, you have taken it out of all these purposes and put it here, put it back," Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told reporters.

"Time is of the essence, and I am right now working with leadership and others to try to get a piece of legislation to the floor as quickly as is possible," Smith added. "They robbed the bank, and they are now running away with the money. We need to stop them before they get too far."

On the Senate side: On Wednesday, Senate Democrats introduced their own bill to reverse the Pentagon's shifting of funds to the wall.

The issue: Earlier this month, the Pentagon notified Congress it was taking $3.8 billion from several programs and putting the money in its counter-drug fund to be used for Trump's wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Among the programs that are losing money to the wall are the F-35 fighter jet, MQ-9 reaper drone, the P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol plane, the C-130J transport plane, the landing helicopter assault ship replacement, the expeditionary fast transport ship and unspecified equipment for the National Guard and reserves.

Separate from NDAA: Smith said the bill he is working on would be separate from the annual defense policy bill, which he said would be "too late." Lawmakers are expected to consider the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in the spring.

Smith said it's "possible" Republicans could support a bill to force the Pentagon to put the money back, but that he "wouldn't bet the mortgage on it."

Specifically, Smith said he's talking over bill language with the staff of Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: Armed Services chairman unsold on slashing defense budget | Democratic Senate report details 'damage, chaos' of Trump foreign policy | Administration approves .8B Taiwan arms sales Chamber of Commerce endorses former White House physician Ronny Jackson for Congress Overnight Defense: Senate passes stopgap spending bill hours before shutdown deadline | Brief military mentions in chaotic first Trump, Biden debate | Lawmakers grills Pentagon officials over Germany drawdown MORE (R-Texas), the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee.

On Wednesday, at a hearing with Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTrump has list of top intelligence officials he'll fire if he wins reelection: report Overnight Defense: Biden nets military family endorsements | Final debate features North Korea exchange | Judge refuses to dismiss sexual assault case against top general Israel signals it won't oppose F-35 sale to UAE MORE and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, Thornberry blasted the Trump administration for "substituting the judgment of the administration for the judgment of Congress."

 

MARINE COMMANDANT ORDERS REMOVAL OF CONFEDERATE PARAPHERNALIA AT BASES: The Marine Corps is calling for all paraphernalia related to the Confederacy to be removed from its bases around the world. 

Commandant Gen. David Berger made the directive in a memo to senior staff that included a list of initiatives that he is "prioritizing for immediate execution," according to a copy obtained by Military.com. It is unclear if there is a deadline for removing paraphernalia containing Confederate symbols.

"Last week, the Commandant of the Marine Corps directed specific tasks be reviewed or addressed by Headquarters Marine Corps staff," Capt. Christopher Harrison, a spokesman, told The Hill. "Many of the tasks were published on Twitter Friday. Other tasks not published previously are mostly administrative matters." 

"Any official policy decisions, changes or implementation plans will be published via appropriate orders and messages," he added. 

A fierce debate: The move comes as the presence of Confederate memorials and statues continues to spark fierce debate in the U.S. The military has also been at the center of that discussion -- 10 Army bases are named after military leaders of Confederate states.

In addition, Military.com noted that the directive came just a week after a congressional hearing focused on a rise in extremism in the military. 

More than a third of all active-duty troops say they have personally witnessed an example of white nationalism or ideologically driven racism from another person within their ranks in recent months, according to survey conducted by The Military Times.

Berger's memo also called for finding additional ways to move more women into combat roles and instructed officials to review the potential of yearlong maternity leave for female Marines. It also called for parental leave policies to be extended to same-sex partners.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for acquisition Will Roper, Space and Missile Systems Center head Lt. Gen. John Thompson and Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskBlue Origin takes one small step toward being a competitor to SpaceX Virgin Hyperloop to build new certification center in West Virginia SpaceX awarded contract to build US military tracking satellites MORE will speak at the Air Force Association 2020 Air Warfare Symposium beginning at 8 a.m. in Orlando, Fla. 

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly will speak at a Brookings Institution discussion on "How a Modernized Navy will Compete with China and Russia," at 9 a.m. in Washington, D.C.

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Bipartisan senators say Pentagon's effort to improve military housing falls short

-- The Hill: US, South Korea delay military exercises as virus spreads

-- The Hill: Majority of troops in survey support transgender service members in ranks

-- The Hill: Saudi military students resume US flight training: report

-- The Hill: Former impeachment managers clash over surveillance bill

-- The Hill: Opinion: To deter war with China, US must commit to defend Taiwan