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Overnight Defense: Pentagon confirms Iran behind recent rocket attack | Esper says 'all options on the table' | Military restricts service member travel over coronavirus

Overnight Defense: Pentagon confirms Iran behind recent rocket attack | Esper says 'all options on the table' | Military restricts service member travel over coronavirus
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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: The Pentagon's top leaders on Thursday confirmed that Iranian-backed militia groups were behind the rocket attack in Iraq that killed two U.S. troops and one British soldier a day earlier, saying that "all options are on the table" for a response.  

"Yesterday's attack by Iranian-backed Shia militia groups consisted of multiple indirect fires that originated from a stationary platform and was clearly targeting coalition and partnered forces on Camp Taji," Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTrump administration official Norquist sworn in as acting Pentagon chief Watch Out: Progressives are eyeing the last slice of the budget Biden needs to fill the leadership gaps on Day One MORE told reporters at the Pentagon.

"Let me be clear, the United States will not tolerate attacks against our people, our interests or our allies," Esper added.

"All options are on the table as we work with our partners to bring the perpetrators to justice and maintain deterrence. ... We will take any action necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region," he said.

The attack: The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq on Wednesday evening announced that 18 Katyusha rockets hit Camp Taji north of Baghdad, killing three and wounding 12. Iraqi forces found a rocket-rigged truck a few miles from the base, the coalition said.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who spoke alongside Esper, echoed that all options are on the table and "we're looking at everything," as a potential response.

"You don't get to shoot at our bases, kill and wound Americans and get away with it," Esper said.

Trump in the loop: The Pentagon chief also said he spoke to President TrumpDonald TrumpMore than two-thirds of Americans approve of Biden's coronavirus response: poll Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor Mexico's president tests positive for COVID-19 MORE on Wednesday about the attack and the president gave him all the authority he needs to possibly respond.

Esper replied that he's "not going to take any option off the table right now," when asked if a U.S. military response could include strikes on Iran.

Earlier…: U.S. officials previously blamed Kataib Hezbollah for a rocket attack in December that struck a base near Kirkuk, killing one U.S. contractor and wounding four U.S. troops.

That December attack set off an escalating cycle that brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war, culminating with a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Iran, in turn, followed with a missile attack on bases in Iraq that gave more than 100 U.S. troops brain injuries.

'Deterrence' in question: U.S. officials have touted the Soleimani strike as having "reestablished deterrence" against Iran.

But Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedOvernight Defense: Austin takes helm at Pentagon | COVID-19 briefing part of Day 1 agenda | Outrage over images of National Guard troops in parking garage Senate confirms Austin to lead Pentagon under Biden Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee MORE (R.I.), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday night's attack appears to undermine that talking point.

"The rocket attack on Camp Taji last night, reportedly carried out by an Iranian-backed militia, would seem to challenge the notion that we have reestablished deterrence with respect to Iran," he said.

McKenzie argued that deterrence has been restored for attacks directly from Iran, but acknowledged proxy groups continue to pose a threat.

"I believe we have reestablished a rough form of deterrence, what I would call contested deterrence with Iran at the level of state-on-state attacks," he said.

Lawmakers voice warnings: Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial Trump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair MORE (R-S.C.) warned Thursday of an "aggressive" response to the Iraq rocket strike.

"I think the president's going to be very aggressive," said Graham, a top GOP defense voice and close ally of Trump "At the time of our choosing, we should hit back."

Asked if he meant retaliation against the militia or Iran itself, Graham said, "the people who actually launched the rockets."

"Put Iran on notice that we're going to hold them accountable in the future for this," Graham added.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJim Elroy RischBiden must wait weekend for State Department pick The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official MORE (R-Idaho) also warned that "if I was the Iran proxy group, I would not sleep well tonight."

 

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Defense Secretary Mark Esper said there are now six confirmed cases of service members testing positive for coronavirus, as well as seven military dependents.

Canceled tours: The news comes the same day the White House and Pentagon announced that tours will be suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak

Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah tweeted that, as of Thursday morning, all tours would be canceled "until further notice."

"We regret the inconvenience to our more than 2,000 visitors a week, but our key priorities are the health of our people & ensuring our ability to continue executing vital national security missions," she said.

Travel cut back: The Defense Department (DOD) on Wednesday night announced that it will implement a 60-day travel ban for service members, DOD civilians and their families to and from countries whose populations have been the most stricken by coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

The restrictions, which go into effect Friday, ban all travel to, throughout and from locations designated as Level 3 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including China, South Korea, Iran and Italy.

In addition, DOD civilians and service members' families are banned from traveling to Level 2 countries, which currently include Japan, for 60 days.

"The Department of Defense's top priority remains the protection and welfare of our people," Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement. "While directing this prudent action, I continue to delegate all necessary authority to commanders to make further decisions based on their assessments to protect their people and ensure mission readiness."

Details on the travel ban: The strict ban in Level 3 countries encompasses "all forms of travel," including reassignments known as permanent changes of station, temporary duty and government-funded leave.

"Service secretaries and commanders may issue waivers to this policy as they determine necessary to ensure mission readiness and address specific cases," the Pentagon said in a statement.  

For the next 60 days, DOD will also implement "enhanced health care protocols" for anyone traveling to Level 2 or Level 3 nations. 

More exercises curtailed: Also on Wednesday the U.S. military said it will reduce the number of troops expected to participate in a multinational exercise in Europe for the "health protection" of forces, citing concerns about the coronavirus.

"After careful review of the ongoing Defender-Europe 20 exercise activities and in light of the current Coronavirus outbreak, we will modify the exercise by reducing the number of U.S. participants," the U.S. European Command said in a statement.

"Activities associated with the exercise will be adjusted accordingly and we'll work closely with Allies and partners to meet our highest priority training objectives."

The news comes the same day the Defense Department announced it would pull U.S. forces from a multinational Arctic exercise in Norway that also has been curtailed.

In addition, several exercises based in South Korea have been canceled, as have two joint drills with Israel. The multinational Operation African Lion has also been pared down.

China pushes conspiracy theory: A spokesman for the Chinese government on Thursday promoted a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was brought to the city of Wuhan by the U.S. military.

"It might be US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan," said Zhao Lijian, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Business Insider reported.

The comment, an alternate explanation Beijing is pushing amid global criticism of the country's failure to mitigate the virus, comes as the Chinese government has increasingly disputed widespread international reporting that the virus was first detected in Wuhan.

The conspiracy theory, which has recently gained steam in China, instead suggests the virus was brought to the country in 2019 by U.S. athletes participating in the Military World Games that were held in Wuhan.

In comments at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday, White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien described China’s response to the virus as a cover up, saying Beijing's response had cost the international community months that could have been used to prepare for the coronavirus.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Special Inspector General John Sopko will discuss "Corruption: A Threat to Rule of Law and Sustainable Peace in Afghanistan" at 8 a.m. at the University Club in Washington, D.C. 

 

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