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Overnight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers

Overnight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers

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 Pentagon redirected most of its $1 billion in pandemic funding to defense contractors who exchanged the money for jet engine parts, body armor, dress uniforms and other military needs, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday.

The CARES Act passed by Congress in March granted the Department of Defense $1 billion to both prevent and get ready to respond to the coronavirus, but the Post reported that in the weeks that followed, hundreds of millions of the taxpayer money was instead utilized to obtain military supplies.

This was a change from the intent of Congress, the Post noted.

Pandemic response still struggling: Meanwhile, U.S. health officials are still requesting funding for pandemic response, including $6 billion for states to make vaccines available when they are developed and to address a shortage in N95 masks for hospitals. The Pentagon has also requested that $11 billion be provided in a potential new stimulus bill being debated by Congress. 

Where did the money go?: Congress instructed the $1 billion in the CARES Act to go to Defense Production Act (DPA) efforts, which permits President Trump to direct U.S. companies to manufacture necessary products, such as personal protective equipment (PPE). 

Months after the funding was allocated, department lawyers concluded the money could be used for defense production, including projects that had little to do with responding to the pandemic, the Post reported. Smaller firms received more than a third of the funding for less than $5 million, but hundreds of millions of dollars went to several large companies.

At least 10 of the about 30 contractors awarded with DPA funding also received money from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the Post found. 

Pentagon defends decision: Jessica Maxwell, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense, told The Hill in a statement that the DPA funding and PPP program are not "in conflict or duplicative." 

She said the CARES Act did not restrict the funding to medical resources and certain defense spending was "appropriate as long as they addressed COVID related impacts in the industrial base."

"The law set forth no limitation requiring use only in the medical supply industrial base," she said.

She noted that the law authorized the Department of Health and Human Services to expand the medical resource supply. Maxwell added that economic impacts from the pandemic "necessitated prompt action ... to sustain and strengthen essential domestic industrial base capabilities."

Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, defended the actions in a statement to the Post. 

“We are thankful the Congress provided authorities and resources that enabled the [executive branch] to invest in domestic production of critical medical resources and protect key defense capabilities from the consequences of COVID,” Lord said. “We need to always remember that economic security and national security are very tightly interrelated and our industrial base is really the nexus of the two.”

Dems want investigation: Following the news, two House Democrats pressed for an investigation and public hearings into possible Pentagon funding misuse.

Reps. Mark Pocan (Wis.) and Barbara Lee (Calif.) cited The Washington Post article in calling for congressional action.

“For the Administration to choose to use funds Congress made available to fight COVID-19 on the wish lists of defense contractors, instead of first protecting troops and the general public from the spread of the coronavirus, is unconscionable and should be investigated fully and prosecuted if warranted,” the two Democrats wrote in a letter to the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, House Oversight and Reform Committee and the House Armed Services Committee.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) released his own statement on Tuesday, accusing the Trump administration of carving up its billion-dollar appropriation and spending three times the amount on defense contracts “for every dollar it spent on acquiring health resources.”

“With the safety and lives of our health care, first responder, and essential workforces at stake, the Department must be held accountable to administer the funding in the way Congress intended," Smith said.

 

PENTAGON STARTS PLANNING FOR FULL AFGHANISTAN WITHDRAWAL BY MAY: The Pentagon has started planning to have zero U.S. troops in Afghanistan by spring, though orders have not yet been issued for a full withdrawal, a Defense Department official said Tuesday.

“I’d like to make it clear that [Defense Secretary Mark Esper] has not issued orders to reduce military personnel below this 4,000 to 5,000 level in Afghanistan, although we are conducting prudent planning to withdraw to zero service members by May 2021 if conditions warrant, per the U.S.-Taliban agreement,” David Helvey, the official performing the duties of assistant secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security at a hearing.

Context: The comments come as President Trump has been touting U.S. troop drawdowns in the region in the final stretch of the campaign as evidence he is delivering on his promise to end America’s “endless wars.”

Officials have said they expect to be at about 4,500 troops in Afghanistan by November.

Sides still far apart: The comments also come as the Taliban and Afghan government have started peace talks in Doha, Qatar, aimed at ending the 19-year war.

But the two sides remain far apart on issues as basic as a cease-fire and women’s rights. And even as they sit down to talk, violence in Afghanistan rages, with Monday reportedly the bloodiest day of fighting since negotiations began a week ago.

The intra-Afghan talks were called for in the agreement the Trump administration signed with the Taliban in February.

Timeline in place but commitments still unmet: The agreement also laid out a timeline for a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 2021. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to deny safe haven to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to attack the West.

Even as planning has begun for a full withdrawal, U.S. military officials have said the Taliban has not met its counterterrorism commitments.

“The Taliban has still not shown conclusively that they're going to break with al Qaeda,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said earlier this month. “So there are still some things out there that concern me about the Taliban's either ability or willingness to comply with all the terms of the deal.”

Progress as of Tuesday: On Tuesday, Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration’s envoy for Afghan peace talks, said the Taliban has taken “positive steps” toward breaking with al Qaeda, though he said the Taliban has more work to do and would not answer a question in an unclassified setting on whether Taliban leaders have instructed their fighters to break from the terrorist group. 

“We look for more steps before we are satisfied, and I believe that once we reach 4,500, we’d do an evaluation of ties and actions that they have taken and make decisions based on that,” Khalilzad said at the hearing.

The U.S. withdrawal is contingent on the counterterrorism commitment, not the outcome of intra-Afghan talks or the Taliban reducing attacks on Afghan forces.

But Khalilzad said Tuesday that "by any measure, current levels of violence are too high," adding that "we know that reductions are possible."

Lawmakers still skeptical: U.S. lawmakers have been critical of the deal with the Taliban, warning the insurgents cannot be trusted and expressing concerns the drawdown is based more on Trump’s political calendar than national security needs.

“Despite multiple indications that the Taliban have not fully met their commitments under the February agreement, the Trump administration has steadily withdrawn U.S. forces from Afghanistan, which has ceded much of our leverage to help shape the future of Afghanistan for its people and our national security interests,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), chairman of the subcommittee.

“While we are all eager for our sons and daughters in uniform to return home, it is also important that we do not needlessly or recklessly bargain away the rights and freedoms that the Afghan people have gained at such a huge cost in American, Coalition, and Afghan lives,” he added.

Helvey insisted any withdrawal by May will be “fundamentally conditions based.”

 

LINCOLN PROJECT PLACES ANTI-TRUMP ADS IN MILITARY NEWSPAPERS: The anti-Trump GOP group Lincoln Project launched a new ad campaign Tuesday in Stars & Stripes and the Military Times network.

The group known for its targeted ads against President Trump said its latest campaign in military newspapers was created after The Atlantic reported Trump referred "to military service members and veterans as 'losers' and 'suckers,'" The Lincoln Project said in a statement.

The ad plan: A rotation of five military and national security-themed ads aired last week and will run through mid-October.

"It's a complete disgrace that a Commander-in-Chief who dodged serving in Vietnam and denigrated POW's publicly has the audacity to disrespect the millions of brave men and women who volunteered for military service," said Fred Wellman, The Lincoln Project's senior adviser for veterans affairs.

The Lincoln Project said it is delivering its message through its latest campaign to the "military community so that every service member, veteran, and their families know the truth about Donald Trump's betrayal of America's troops."

A reaction to recent reports: Trump lambasted reports of his alleged disrespect to military members reported by The Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, calling the information a lie.

"I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes. There is nobody that respects them more," Trump told reporters at the time.

The Lincoln Project's ads also targeted allegations that Trump selectively chose to ignore intelligence reports about Russian bounties placed on U.S. service members in the Middle East.

The information about Russian bounties was reportedly included in at least one of the president's written briefings in February, though the president has dismissed the reports.

 

ON TAP

 

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– The New York Times: He Killed 2 Marines in 2011. It Almost Derailed Peace Talks This Month.