Overnight Defense: Top general says military must take 'hard look' at Confederate symbols on installations | Milley vows to 'get to bottom' of Russia bounty intel | Woman to join Green Berets for first time

Overnight Defense: Top general says military must take 'hard look' at Confederate symbols on installations | Milley vows to 'get to bottom' of Russia bounty intel | Woman to join Green Berets for first time
© 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 top general in the United States said Thursday the U.S. military must take a “hard look” at Confederate symbols on its installations.

“The Confederacy — the American Civil War was fought, and it was an act of rebellion,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said. “It was an act of treason at the time against the Union, against the stars and stripes, against the U.S. Constitution, and those officers turn their back on their oath.”

“Now, some have a different view of that. Some think it’s heritage. Others think it's hate,” he added.

Milley was speaking at a House Armed Services Committee hearing called to discuss the Pentagon’s response to nationwide protests over racial injustice.

A response to criticism: Milley and Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOne hundred days later, Esper still must explain landmine policy reversal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Harris launch Trump offensive in first joint appearance Overnight Defense: Trump reportedly considering replacing Esper after election | FBI, Air Force investigating after helicopter shot at in Virginia | Watchdog says UK envoy made inappropriate comments on religion, race, sex MORE, who was testifying alongside the general, came under sharp criticism during the height of the protests for their role in President TrumpDonald John TrumpUPS, FedEx shut down calls to handle mail-in ballots, warn of 'significant' problems: report Controversial GOP Georgia candidate attempts to distance from QAnon Trump orders TikTok parent company to sell US assets within 90 days MORE’s response, including accompanying him to a photo-op at church across from the White House made possible after federal law enforcement forcibly cleared the area of protesters. Both Milley and Esper have since expressed regret for accompanying Trump.

Esper and Milley used the hearing to reiterate their defense of the National Guard’s role in responding to the protests and their commitment to upholding the Constitution, including the First Amendment right to peacefully protest. 

The background: Since the protests first erupted last month, institutions across the country have revisited removing Confederate statues and other symbols.

Trump, though, has dug in on defending the display of Confederate symbols, railing against NASCAR for banning the Confederate battle flag and publicly rebuking the Army for considering renaming bases named after Confederate leaders.

The Army had said it was open to changing the names of its 10 bases named after Confederate military officers before Trump tweeted he would “not even consider” doing so. Trump has also threatened to veto a defense policy bill if it includes a requirement to rename the bases.

Both the House and Senate versions of the policy bill include a requirement to rename bases and other properties. The House would demand it be done in a year, while the Senate would require it be done in three years.

Political decisions’: At Wednesday’s hearing, Milley said changing the base names will ultimately be “political decisions.”

But, he added, he recommended the establishment of a commission to study the issue, saying “the way we should do it matters as much as that we should do it.”

“The military equity here is divisiveness and, as you mentioned, cohesion,” Milley told the committee. “And for those young soldiers that go on to a base, a Fort Hood or a Fort Bragg or a fort wherever, named after a Confederate general, they can be reminded that that general fought for an institution of slavery that may have enslaved one of their ancestors. I had a staff sergeant when I was a young officer who actually told me that at Fort Bragg, and he said he went to work every day on a base that represented a guy who enslaved his grandparents.”

Ban on the Confederate flag coming?: In addition to the base names, the military is debating banning the Confederate battle flag. The Marines and U.S. Forces Korea have already done so, and the Navy has said it would follow suit.

Esper sidestepped a question about a department-wide ban of the flag, saying he would defer to reviews that are in progress. Esper announced several reviews on diversity and inclusion in the military last month.

“I have a process underway by which to look at a number of issues, both substantive and symbolic,” Esper said. “We want to take a look at all those things. There is a process underway by which we affirm what types of flags are authorized on U.S. military bases. I want to make sure we have an approach that is enduring, that can withstand legal challenge, but that unites us.”

 

MILLEY VOWS TO ‘GET TO THE BOTTOM' OF RUSSIA BOUNTY INTEL: The top general in the U.S. military vowed Thursday to “get to the bottom” of intelligence on Russia offering bounties for the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan and pledged his “1000 percent commitment” to sufficiently protecting U.S. forces.

“I’ve got three tours in Afghanistan and multiple tours in a lot of other places, and I’ve buried a lot of people in Arlington National Cemetery, so I am committed to the nth degree to protect our force,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told the House Armed Service Committee.

“Units of people are and were informed and will remain informed,” he added about the intelligence on Russia. “We’re going to get to the bottom of all that, but I can assure the families that force protection of our force, not only for me but for every commander all the way down the line, that’s the No. 1 priority for every one of us.”

Taking a hard look: Milley later called the bounties a “unique, discrete piece of information that is not corroborated,” but said Pentagon officials “are taking it serious, we’re going to get to the bottom of it, we’re going to find out if in fact it’s true, and if it is true, we will take action.”

Esper hits on leaks: Defense Secretary Mark Esper similarly vowed force protection, but saved his most impassioned words to rail against leaks to the media.

“We are aggressively pursuing leaks within the Defense Department,” he said. “I’ve launched an investigation that is under way to go after leaks, whether it’s of classified information or unclassified information that is sensitive and also unauthorized discussions with the media. All those things, again, hurt our nation’s security. They undermine our troops, their safety. They affect our relations with other countries. They undermine our national policy. It’s bad.”

A Pentagon first: The comments, made at a House Armed Services Committee hearing originally called to discuss the military’s response to protests over racial injustice, mark Esper and Milley’s first public remarks on the reports that a Russian military intelligence unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. 

Earlier: A firestorm erupted in Washington, D.C., after The New York Times, followed by several other news outlets, reported on the U.S. intelligence assessments that dated back months. Lawmakers, including some Republicans, demanded answers on what Trump knew and what he has done in response.

The White House and President Trump have sought to downplay the controversy, dismissing the intelligence as uncorroborated and arguing he wasn’t briefed because of that. Reports have said the intelligence was included in written material given to Trump known as the President’s Daily Brief.

More to be done?: On Wednesday, Milley said there is no military action on the ground that could be done at this point that hasn’t been, but suggested the administration could be doing more to respond to foreign support to the Taliban at the strategic level such as using diplomatic and economic tools.

“Are we doing as much as we could or should? Perhaps not,” Milley said. “Not only to the Russians, but to others.”

Details of the intelligence: Esper, meanwhile, first told the committee he was never briefed on intelligence that specifically included the word “bounty.”

But later in the hearing, Esper acknowledged that he was briefed on intelligence about “payments” to militants.

Esper said he was first made aware of the intelligence at issue in February. Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Scott Miller, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, were aware as early as January, Esper said, adding “neither thought the reports were credible as they dug into them.”

Esper also said the intelligence was not produced by defense intelligence agencies and that “all of the defense intelligence agencies have been unable to corroborate that report.”

 

WOMAN TO JOIN GREEN BERETS, FIRST IN US MILITARY HISTORY: A woman will join the Green Berets after she successfully completed Army Special Forces training, a first for the U.S. military.

The soldier graduated on Thursday in a ceremony for the Special Forces Qualification Course, U.S. Army Special Operations Command confirmed in a statement.

“From here, you will go forward and join the storied formation of the Green Berets where you will do what you are trained to do: challenge assumptions, break down barriers, smash through stereotypes, innovate and achieve the impossible,” command head Lt. Gen. Fran Beaudette said during the ceremony.

The New York Times first reported in February that the woman, an enlisted National Guard soldier, was in the final stages of the roughly yearlong Special Forces qualification course, or Q Course, as a Special Forces engineer sergeant. The course wrapped up in June.

A first: The woman is the first to complete the training since the Defense Department began accepting women for its special operations jobs in January 2016.’

Her name was not released due to the sensitive nature of missions that are handled by the Green Berets. 

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Intelligence and National Security Alliance will hold a symposium on “The New IC (Intelligence Community): Empowering Women and Engaging Men," with Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Ellen McCarthy; and Stacey Dixon, deputy director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, at 4:30 p.m. https://www.insaonline.org/event/the-new-ic-empowering-women-engaging-men-symposium/?utm_source=Daily%20on%20Defense%2007092020_07/09/2020&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=WEX_Daily%20on%20Defense&rid=78393

 

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