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Overnight Defense: New Senate Armed Services chairman talks Pentagon policy nominee, Afghanistan, more | Biden reads report on Khashoggi killing | Austin stresses vaccine safety in new video

Overnight Defense: New Senate Armed Services chairman talks Pentagon policy nominee, Afghanistan, more | Biden reads report on Khashoggi killing | Austin stresses vaccine safety in new video
© Greg Nash

Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, 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: Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedOvernight Defense: Pentagon details military construction projects getting .2B restored from wall funds | Biden chooses former commander to lead Navy | Bill seeks to boost visa program for Afghans who helped US Biden taps tech CEO, former destroyer commander to lead Navy Top general: Military justice overhaul proposed by Gillibrand 'requires some detailed study' MORE (D-R.I.) on Wednesday held his first media roundtable since becoming Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, and it was a wide ranging conversation touching on everything from extremism in the ranks to the defense budget to the U.S. military footprint abroad.

Among the committee’s more immediate tasks is to hold a confirmation hearing for President BidenJoe BidenFormer Rep. Rohrabacher says he took part in Jan. 6 march to Capitol but did not storm building Saudis picked up drugs in Cairo used to kill Khashoggi: report Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting MORE’s nominee to lead the Pentagon policy shop, who appears to be running into some opposition from Republicans.

But Reed expressed optimism Wednesday that the nominee, Colin Kahl, will get a “fair shot.”

“I'm hopeful he can get through. I mean, I think he's a very talented individual, no question about that. I think he's got great experience,” Reed said at the virtual roundtable hosted by the Defense Writers Group. “I think he’ll get a fair shot at the hearing, frankly.”

Reed’s comments come after Politico first reported Tuesday night that Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense: Biden participates in NATO summit | White House backs 2002 AUMF repeal | Top general says no plans for airstrikes to help Afghan forces after withdrawal Top Republican proposes leaving 1,000 US troops in Afghanistan into next year The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Citizens' Climate Lobby - Biden floats infrastructure, tax concessions to GOP MORE (Okla.), the top Republican on the committee, has “serious concerns” about Kahl, among growing GOP opposition over Kahl’s involvement in boosting the Iran nuclear deal and other Middle East policy positions.

“Sen. Inhofe is still reviewing Mr. Kahl’s nomination closely and looks forward to hearing from him in the coming weeks. He does have serious concerns with some of the policy positions that Mr. Kahl has taken in the past,” a spokesperson for Inhofe confirmed in a statement to The Hill.

On Afghanistan: Reed also said he believes Biden will extend the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan beyond May, at least for a little bit.

“In the short run … I would expect some extension,” Reed said. “Even operationally, I think the military would make the case they need more time, even if they're coming out.”

May 1 is the deadline for a full U.S. withdrawal under the Trump administration-negotiated deal with the Taliban, and the Biden administration is in the midst of a review of the deal and whether to follow through on the withdrawal.

On extremism: As we know, rooting out extremism from the military has been a hot topic of late, and Reed listed it as one of priorities as chairman.

“My sense right now is that there are likely some individuals with extremist views in the military. They're not a large number. Typically, they're not outspoken when they're on post, in uniform, etc. It's mostly their off-post activities, but those activities are unacceptable,” he said.

Reed added that he’s awaiting the results of Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Biden participates in NATO summit | White House backs 2002 AUMF repeal | Top general says no plans for airstrikes to help Afghan forces after withdrawal Top general: US won't support Afghan forces with airstrikes after withdrawal Biden congratulates newly-formed Israeli government MORE’s “stand-down” and the Pentagon’s inspector general’s report on extremism in the military.

“I'm sure it'll be a thorough, thorough report,” Reed said. “When it comes up to us, if there's any type of legislative options that he suggests or she suggests, and we'll look closely. But we can't tolerate this, and we won't.”

On sexual assault: The other internal issue that Austin has prioritized in his early days is military sexual assault.

Asked about Congress’ role in tackling the issue, Reed raised the possibility of establishing an independent prosecutor to handle sex crimes.

“Over a decade or more, we have tried different approaches to limiting sexual assault, sexual harassment and also retaliation, which is another critical issue. And we haven't seen the progress frankly that we hoped,” he said. “And so I think the idea of separation is once again on the table.”

The idea has been proposed for years, but Pentagon officials in the past have opposed it, arguing moving the decision to prosecute cases outside the chain-of-command could negatively affect good order and discipline.

Reed said he expects the 90-day commission Austin is planning to establish on military sexual assault will reexamine the proposal.

“Our goal is prevention,” Reed said. “If changes to the judicial system accelerate that prevention, that's good proof that it should be considered.”

On the budget: Reed unsurprisingly rejected across-the-board cuts to the defense budget as “more policy pronouncements than they are good policy.”

But he did predict “tighter,” flatter defense budgets going forward, given a number of factors including the trillions of dollars in COVID-19 spending.

“Within that I think we have to make judicious calls about what is worthwhile,” he said.

“There are legacy systems which all the services have asked us to eliminate, and there’s certain reluctance because they’re stationed in our home states or they have impact,” he added. “We’ve got a look, and if there’s a tighter budget, we have to look harder. That’s one of the realities.”

KHASHOGGI REPORT IMMINENT

The long-awaited unclassified U.S. intelligence report on journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 slaying, suspected to have been ordered by Saudi Crown Mohammed bin Salman, appears poised for release soon.

Several reports have said it could be released as soon as Thursday.

On Wednesday, Biden said he has read the report.

“Yes, I have,” Biden told reporters in the State Dining Room after signing an executive order on the economy, without elaborating further.

Biden also said that he would speak with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, but did not offer a timeline or confirm reports that the call would take place on Wednesday.

“I’m going to be talking to him, I have not spoken to him yet,” Biden said.

MBS implicated: Reuters, citing four officials familiar with the matter, reported Wednesday the report will say Prince Mohammed approved and likely ordered Khashoggi’s killing.

News reports after Khashoggi’s death said the CIA concluded the crown prince ordered his killing, but the Trump administration resisted blaming someone they saw as a critical ally in the region.

AUSTIN TOUTS VACCINE SAFETY

Austin on Wednesday released a video stressing the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine following last week’s revelation that nearly a third of service members who have been offered the shot have refused to take it.

In the video, addressed to the U.S. military workforce, Austin encourages service members and personnel to seek out information on the vaccine from government websites including those of the CDC and the Defense Department. 

“When you do, you’ll see that these vaccines have undergone intensive safety monitoring. You’ll also see that they are safe and they are effective. And you’ll see that millions of your fellow citizens have already taken them with little to no side effects,” Austin said.

Background: The video comes exactly a week after Joint Staff Vice Director of operations Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro told House Armed Service Committee lawmakers that “very early data” found that up to two-thirds of service members accepted the vaccine when offered. 

The Pentagon later stressed that it did not know how many service members had refused the vaccine as it doesn't have a central system in place to track the information due to the vaccine being voluntary. It also noted that officials at the House hearing were citing broad data on vaccine acceptance rates that “mirror” trends in American society, and that the officials went on to say that it is not data that they are specifically following.

In the Navy: Meanwhile, the Navy on Wednesday identified the sailor who recently died of COVID-19 as 39-year-old California native Justin Huf.

Huf died Monday after testing positive for the virus Friday and being admitted to a civilian hospital in Norfolk, Va., on Saturday, according to the Navy.

He was assigned to Assault Craft Unit 4 based at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek in Virginia Beach.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on the Defense Department’s COVID-19 response with testimony from Pentagon officials at 9:30 a.m. https://bit.ly/3dK3zrF

Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond will participate in a fireside chat at 10 a.m. at the Air Force Association's virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium. https://bit.ly/3qYHnhq

ICYMI

-- The Hill: FBI, DHS and Pentagon officials to testify on Capitol riot

-- The Hill: Biden CIA pick pledges to confront China if confirmed, speak 'truth to power’

-- The Hill: Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers

-- The Hill: Opinion: Trump and Obama: The odd couple who broke 'extended deterrence' for the Indo-Pacific

-- Stars and Stripes: Marine from viral video on military sex crimes says her perpetrator was a platoon sergeant and victim advocate

-- Defense News: Lack of Pentagon nominees could be harbinger of slow process

-- Task and Purpose: Fort Hood general fired over Vanessa Guillén’s death given new assignment

-- Reuters: North Korea's Kim calls for tougher discipline in his military: KCNA