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Overnight Defense: Top admiral says 'no condition' where US should conduct nuclear test 'at this time' | Intelligence chief says Congress will get some in-person election security briefings

Overnight Defense: Top admiral says 'no condition' where US should conduct nuclear test 'at this time' | Intelligence chief says Congress will get some in-person election security briefings
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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 top military officer in charge of the U.S. nuclear arsenal said Thursday there is “no condition” right now where he would recommend conducting an explosive nuclear test, though that could change in the future.

“At this time, there is no condition — nothing has changed, right — there is no condition where I would recommend the need for nuclear testing,” Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing.

“But I would say though that it is important for the nation to maintain an ability to do a nuclear test should an issue arise in the future, and I’ve been formally documented in making that recommendation,” he added.

Opposite approaches: Richard’s comments come as lawmakers are preparing to reconcile competing versions of the annual defense policy bill that take opposite approaches to nuclear testing.

The Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes $10 million to “carry out projects related to reducing the time required to execute a nuclear test if necessary.”

The House’s NDAA, however, would prohibit funding from being used “to conduct or make preparations for any explosive nuclear weapons test that produces any yield.”

A conference committee to reconcile the two bills has not been formally convened, but staffers on the House and Senate Armed Services committees have been conducting informal negotiations since the chambers passed their bills in July.

Unprecedented for decades: The idea of the United States conducting its first explosive nuclear test in decades became a flashpoint after reports that the Trump administration raised the possibility of performing a test as a negotiating tactic in arms talks.

The administration is seeking a new arms control agreement with Russia and China to replace an expiring arms treaty between Washington and Moscow known as New START. Beijing has repeatedly rejected joining the talks.

Opponents of the House language argue it is too restrictive, preventing any tests that might be necessary in an emergency and thereby emboldening U.S. enemies.

But opponents of resuming nuclear testing argue doing so would trigger an arms race and be detrimental to human health and the environment while providing no practical benefit because the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is checked with other technology.

During the hearing: Meanwhile, Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee also fumed at Thursday’s hearing about several other proposed changes to budgeting for the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC) and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in the House NDAA, as well as in the House version of the annual Energy Department spending bill.

Among the changes at issue, the House-passed Energy Department spending bill would block funding for the NWC “to guide, advise, assist, develop or execute a budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeHouse Democrat optimistic defense bill will block Trump's Germany withdrawal EPA gives Oklahoma authority over many tribal environmental issues GOP lawmakers gloomy, back on defense after debate fiasco MORE (R-Okla.), who has advocated for increasing the role of the Pentagon-led NWC in developing the NNSA’s budget, railed against the proposed changes, accusing the Energy Department of conspiring with House Democrats to “undermine” the NNSA’s relationship with the Defense Department.

CONGRESS TO GET IN-PERSON ELECTION SECURITY BRIEFINGS: Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeHillicon Valley: Twitter tightens rules before election | Intelligence chief briefed lawmakers on foreign influence threats | Democrats launch inquiry into Pentagon's moves on a national 5G network The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems ruffle feathers with POTUS fitness bill The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Debate chaos as Trump balks at virtual format MORE on Wednesday said that his office will provide in-person election briefings to some members of Congress while emphasizing his position that the intelligence community (IC) will primarily provide congressional updates in the form of written finished intelligence products.

Ratcliffe in a statement argued that his position has not changed from last month and that the intelligence community is moving to largely use written intelligence products when updating Congress.

"In order to protect sources and methods, the IC will not provide all-member briefings, but we will work to provide appropriate updates primarily through written finished intelligence products,” Ratcliffe said.

‘Extensive public criticism’: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffCensoring the Biden story: How social media becomes state media Porter raises .2 million in third quarter Schiff: If Trump wanted more infections 'would he be doing anything different?' MORE (D-Calif.) underscored that House members on his panel would continue to receive in-person briefings following Ratcliffe's announcement, noting it came after "extensive public criticism.”

“This morning, after extensive public criticism, the Office of Director of National Intelligence [ODNI] committed to providing the cancelled in-person briefing to both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. We are now working to confirm a date and time with ODNI," Schiff said in a statement.

Schiff emphasized, however, that "these briefings for the intelligence committees must not obviate the need to keep all Members and the American people appropriately and accurately informed about the active threats to the November election." 

The background: Ratcliffe faced fierce backlash after he announced in an Aug. 28 letter to congressional leaders that the intelligence community was primarily shifting to written intelligence products as updates, arguing that it would help protect sources and methods as well as prevent leaks.

"The ODNI will primarily meet its obligation to keep Congress fully and currently informed leading into the Presidential election through written finished intelligence products," he said at the time.

Democrats alleged that the move demonstrated a politicized effort by the Trump administration to withhold election-related information from Congress and the general public at a crucial time, with the 2020 presidential election just weeks away.

For their part, the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee have said that Ratcliffe has pledged since last month to continue holding in-person briefings with their panel about election security threats.

Earlier this month: House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPush to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw Schumer labels McConnell's scheduled coronavirus stimulus vote as 'a stunt' Pelosi: White House made 'unacceptable changes' to testing language during negotiations on coronavirus stimulus MORE (D-Calif.) earlier this month called on the intelligence chief to not only resume in-person briefings with congressional leadership and intelligence panels but also reinstate a series of briefings for all House members, which she said was previously on the books for later this month.

Schiff and Pelosi in a joint statement late last month also threatened that they will "consider the full range of tools available to the House to compel compliance" if the ODNI did not resume briefings, claiming it was a "shameful" attempt by the Trump administration to "withhold election-related information from Congress and the American people at the precise moment that greater transparency and accountability is required."

Ratcliffe at the time defended the changes and emphasized that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence intended to continue supporting Congress with its oversight efforts. 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. John Hyten will speak at the Defense Department’s 2020 National POW/MIA Recognition Day commemoration to honor those who were held captive and returned, as well as those who remain unaccounted for from past conflicts, at 2 p.m. on the Pentagon River Terrace Parade Field. The ceremony will also be streamed on www.defense.gov/Watch/Live-Events

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