Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Senators slam Pentagon officials

Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Senators slam Pentagon officials
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It's Tuesday, welcome to Overnight Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

Senate Armed Service Committee lawmakers slammed top Pentagon leaders in a highly anticipated hearing that revealed a number of shortfalls and missteps when it came to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

We’ll break down what lawmakers asked, the answers and what the reaction has been.

For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. Write to me with tips: emitchell@thehill.com.

Let’s get to it.



Pentagon advised Biden to keep troops in Afghanistan 

Top military officials told lawmakers on Tuesday that they had recommended 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, contradicting comments made by President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE earlier this year.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyTrump goes after Woodward, Costa over China Russian military buildup puts Washington on edge Overnight Defense & National Security — Russian military moves cause for concern MORE, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, each acknowledged during public congressional testimony that they agreed with the recommendation of Army Gen. Austin Miller that 2,500 troops be left in the country, though they denied to detail what they advised Biden directly.

Biden announced his decision to end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan back in April.

What they recommended: “I won’t share my personal recommendation to the president, but I will give you my honest opinion, and my honest opinion and view shaped my recommendation. I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. And I also recommended earlier in the fall of 2020 that we maintain 4,500 at that time. Those are my personal views,” McKenzie told the Senate Armed Services Committee under questioning from Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense & National Security — Senate looks to break defense bill stalemate Senate GOP moving toward deal to break defense bill stalemate Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE (Okla.), the panel’s top Republican.

Stay or fall: McKenzie said it had been his view that the full U.S. withdrawal would lead to the collapse of Afghan forces and government.

Milley said he agreed with that assessment and that it was his personal view dating back to last fall that the U.S. should maintain at least 2,500 troops in Afghanistan to move toward a peace agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government. Milley declined to comment directly on his specific discussions with Biden when questioned by Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonConservatives target Biden pick for New York district court GOP anger with Fauci rises Cotton swipes at Fauci: 'These bureaucrats think that they are the science' MORE (R-Ark.).

‘Well-heard’ advice went unfollowed: Asked whether Miller discussed his recommendation with Biden, McKenzie told lawmakers he believed his opinion “was well-heard.”

Did Biden mislead?: Republican lawmakers repeatedly raised the matter in the context of an interview Biden gave to ABC News in August during which he denied that his top military commanders recommended he leave 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.

“Your top military advisers warned against withdrawing on this timeline. They wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos said to Biden in the interview.

“No, they didn't,” Biden replied. “It was split. That wasn't true.”

“Your military advisers did not tell you, ‘No, we should just keep 2,500 troops. It's been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that’?” Stephanopoulos later pressed.

“No one said that to me that I can recall,” Biden replied.

The White House explanation: White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiOvernight Health Care — Presented by March of Dimes — Biden's winter COVID-19 strategy Biden lays out multi-pronged plan to deal with evolving pandemic White House defends travel ban on African countries MORE defended Biden's past comments during an afternoon press briefing, saying he was given a range of advice and that remaining in Afghanistan would have necessitated a further troop increase while risking lives of U.S. service members. 

“The president is always going to welcome a range of advice. He asks for candor. He asks for directness. And in any scenario he’s not looking for a bunch of 'yes' men and women,” Psaki told reporters, adding that it is up to Biden to ultimately decide “what's in the best interest of the United States.”

Read the full story here.

 

BIDEN'S ADVISERS WERE SPLIT, WHITE HOUSE SAYS

Also during the White House briefing, Psaki said Biden received a range of opinions before deciding to withdraw all U.S. troops.

Psaki stressed that Biden told ABC News last month that his advisers were “split” on whether to leave troops in Afghanistan.

“I think that’s a pretty key part of that phrasing there,” Psaki said.

A range of viewpoints: “There was a range of viewpoints, as was evidenced by their testimony today, that were presented to the president, that were presented to his national security team, as would be expected, as he asked for,” Psaki told reporters during a briefing.

“It was also clear, and clear to him, that that would not be a longstanding recommendation, that there would need to be an escalation, an increase in troop numbers,” she continued. “It would also mean war with the Taliban and it would also mean the potential loss of casualties. The president was just not willing to make that decision. He didn’t think it was in the interest of the American people or the interest of our troops.”

But no names given: Psaki declined to offer specific details when asked which of Biden’s advisers recommended he withdraw all U.S. troops. She emphasized repeatedly that the U.S. would have had to ramp up its military presence in Afghanistan if it remained engaged in the 20-year war, and that 2,500 troops wouldn’t have been a long-term solution.

Read about the five takeaways from the hearing here.



A MESSAGE FROM AM GENERAL

AM General has a strong legacy of designing, manufacturing and supporting iconic, high-quality military, commercial, and consumer vehicles. We offer versatile vehicles, innovative product solutions, and end-to-end support that keeps pace with the changing world.



Milley defends calls to China 

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley attends a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley on Tuesday defended contacts with his Chinese counterpart in final weeks of the Trump administration as well as his decision to call a meeting of senior military officials to review the procedures for launching deadly weapons.

Milley said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee the calls were generated by “concerning intelligence” that caused American officials to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the U.S.

“I am certain that President TrumpDonald TrumpBaldwin calls Trump criticism following 'Rust' shooting 'surreal' Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mary Trump files to dismiss Trump's lawsuit over NYT tax story MORE did not intend to attack the Chinese and it is my directed responsibility — and it was my directed responsibility by the secretary — to convey that intent to the Chinese,” Milley said in his opening remarks.

Kept in the loop: Milley also said that, following the Jan. 8 call with his Chinese counterpart, he briefed then-Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoNo time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Psaki: Sexism contributes to some criticism of Harris Mnuchin, Pompeo mulled plan to remove Trump after Jan. 6: book MORE and then-White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsProsecutors say North Carolina woman deserves prison for bringing 14-year-old to Capitol riot Meadows calls Trump's positive COVID-19 test before Biden debate 'fake news' Jan. 6 panel recommends contempt charges for Trump DOJ official MORE, in addition to Christopher Miller, who at the time was serving as acting Defense secretary. 

What he said to Pelosi: In his extraordinary testimony, Milley also expanded on a phone call that he received from Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCongress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight On The Money — Congress races to keep the lights on House sets up Senate shutdown showdown MORE (D-Calif.) later that same day during which she asked about Trump’s ability to launch nuclear weapons. Pelosi raised the concerns two days after throngs of Trump supporters flooded the Capitol, launching a deadly insurrection motivated by Trump’s false claims that he won the 2020 election. 

“I sought to assure her that nuclear launch is governed by a very specific and deliberate process. She was concerned and made various personal references characterizing the president,” Milley told the committee members on Tuesday. 

“I explained to her that the president is the sole nuclear launch authority and he doesn’t launch them alone and that I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the president of the United States,” Milley continued. “There are processes, protocols and procedures in place and I repeatedly assured her there is no chance of an illegal, unauthorized, or accidental launch.” 

What they want: They also demand an “immediate briefing” from the State and Defense departments on Milley’s recent meeting with his Russian counterpart, the Biden administration’s counterterrorism plans in Central Asia and any negotiations or coordination with Russia on such plans.

Read the full story here.

 

MILLEY REVEALS HE SPOKE TO BOOK AUTHORS

Milley also told lawmakers he spoke with several authors for their recent books on the Trump administration, including veteran journalist Bob Woodward for his book “Peril,” which has triggered enormous scrutiny of the four-star general in recent weeks.

Who Milley spoke to: In addition to speaking to Woodward for "Peril," which was co-authored by fellow Washington Post journalist Robert Costa, Milley said he also spoke to Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig for their book “I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year” and to Michael Bender for “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost.”

Accurately portrayed?: When asked by Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnConservatives target Biden pick for New York district court Senators seek to curb counterfeit toys and goods sold online China draws scrutiny over case of tennis star Peng Shuai MORE (R-Tenn.) whether he was “accurately represented” in the books, Milley responded, “I haven’t read any of the books, I don’t know.”

“I’ve seen press reporting of it. I haven’t read the books,” Milley added.

Blackburn then asked Milley to read the books and “let us know if you are accurately presented and portrayed,” to which Milley said he would.

 

GOP lawmakers on the attack

Sen. <span class=Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyFacebook unblocks Rittenhouse searches GOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks MORE (R-Mo.) leaves a meeting with Senate Republicans to discuss the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Wednesday, July 28, 2021." width="645" height="363" data-delta="4" /> 

During the hearing, many Republican lawmakers took the time to criticize the Pentagon leaders, with Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) telling Milley and Austin he thinks they should resign.

In his remarks during the hearing's second round of questioning, Hawley attacked Milley for speaking to authors of political books, implying that he had prioritized being "favorably portrayed by the D.C. press corps."

"But at the same time, we had a rapidly deteriorating, frankly disastrous, situation in Afghanistan which resulted in the death of 13 soldiers including one from my home state. Hundreds of civilians and hundreds of Americans left behind. And in my view, that mission can't be called a success in any way shape or form logistical or otherwise," Hawley said. 

"General, I think you should resign. Secretary Austin, I think you should resign. I think this mission was a catastrophe. I think there's no other way to say it, and there has to be accountability. I respectfully submit it should begin with you," he added.

Angry constitutes: Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanGOP resistance to Biden FCC nominee could endanger board's Democratic majority Man charged with threatening Alaska senators pleads not guilty China conducts combat readiness drill after US congressional delegation arrives in Taiwan MORE (R-Alaska) used his time during the hearing to blast what he called the "obvious falsehoods" at the center of the Afghanistan withdrawal and said he's never seen his constituents "more angry about an issue than this."

"And it's the combination of everybody knowing that this is a debacle and yet people defending it as a 'extraordinary success.' And here's the biggest: No accountability. No accountability," Sullivan said.

"You gentlemen have spent your lives — and I completely respect troops in combat — you've been in combat. You've had troops under your command killed in action. You have been part of an institution where accountability is so critical, and the American people respect that, up and down the chain, where there are instances commanders get relieved, up and down the chain," he said.

Read more on the full hearing here.



A MESSAGE FROM AM GENERAL

AM General has a strong legacy of designing, manufacturing and supporting iconic, high-quality military, commercial, and consumer vehicles. We offer versatile vehicles, innovative product solutions, and end-to-end support that keeps pace with the changing world.



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That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s defense and national security pages for the latest coverage. See you Wednesday.

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