MCCAIN’S POSITIVE THINKING: The big, anxious question for the Pentagon is what will happen in December when Congress runs headlong into another deadline for passing the annual defense budget. Will the military get the big spending hikes being considered in House and Senate, or the more modest but still substantial plus-up requested by President Trump? Or will lawmakers even punt yet again with a stopgap budget resolution if Capitol Hill negotiations crumble?

With uncertainty looming, Sen. John McCain told the Washington Examiner he is “guardedly optimistic” at the prospects of lifting a $549 billion Budget Control Act cap for fiscal 2018 and boosting defense spending. We’ve been discussing and working and we have some agreements already and I believe we are on the path to getting the increase in defense spending,” McCain said.

McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, is spearheading the Senate’s $700 billion annual defense policy bill, which is in conference with the House now. He’s also been fighting in the political trenches this week — tangling with Sen. Rand Paul — over a budget resolution, a nonbinding piece of legislation that nevertheless offers senators a platform for political statements. McCain filed an amendment that rejects any attempt to increase the spending caps for defense and nondefense spending equally. “Defense and nondefense are not of the same urgency,” he said. A proposal like that, if put into action, could make it difficult to negotiate with Democrats, who see that dollar-for-dollar increase as key. But McCain was undeterred. “I don’t care, I don’t care. Why would I care? My first obligation is the men and women wearing the uniform, that’s my first obligation,” he said.

In a Senate with a razor-thin majority, McCain’s own vote is also a powerful instrument of persuasion, illustrated by his now-famous “thumbs down” vote that drove a stake into the Obamacare repeal effort. “I will not vote for anything until we get an increase in defense spending,” he said, referring to budget legislation. So will there be another stopgap budget resolution in December rather than an annual Pentagon budget? “There may be but I’m not voting for it,” he said. “Pigs could fly in December but I’m not in favor of it.”

In the meantime, McCain has pressed for a defense spending hike, saying years of constrained budgets are now leading to military mishaps that are wounding and killing troops. “I believe we have enough problems in the world that there is a majority of the Senate, Republican and Democrat, that we could probably move forward on this issue, exactly how is still being discussed,” he said.

BREAKING THIS MORNING: A U.S.-backed Syrian force has declared victory over the Islamic State group in its former “capital” of Raqqa, declaring the city free of any extremist presence, the Associated Press reports.

At a press conference held inside the city Friday, the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces formally handed over administration of the city in northern Syria to a council made up of local officials and tribal leaders.

“Our victory is one against terrorism,” said Talal Sillo, a spokesman and senior SDF commander.

Good Friday morning and welcome to Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense, compiled by Washington Examiner National Security Senior Writer Jamie McIntyre (@jamiejmcintyre), National Security Writer Travis J. Tritten (@travis_tritten) and Senior Editor David Brown (@dave_brown24). Email us here for tips, suggestions, calendar items and anything else. If a friend sent this to you and you’d like to sign up, click here. If signing up doesn’t work, shoot us an email and we’ll add you to our list. And be sure to follow us on Twitter @dailyondefense.



NIGER AND NOMINEES: Add “answers about Niger” to the reasons McCain is holding up Trump's pick for Army secretary and other nominees. He included the Oct. 4 ambush by fighters in West Africa that killed four soldiers to the list of issues his Armed Services Committee wants answers to in exchange for moving Defense Department nominees. The nomination of Mark Esper, a top Raytheon lobbyist, has languished at Armed Services since July 25, and 18 other nominees are currently before the committee. McCain said he has no timeline for an Esper hearing. "It depends on whether we get the information that we have requested," he said.

The DoD has launched an investigation of the incident in Africa and plans to release the findings to Congress, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump's national security adviser, said Thursday. "If Sen. McCain says we need to do a better job on communicating with him from the departments, from the [National Security Council], we are going to do it. This is a problem we can solve," McMaster said during a security summit. He said the investigation will provide answers to lawmakers, the American public and the families of the soldiers who were killed. "There is a period of time where there is always ambiguity back here in Washington as to what is going on halfway around the world," McMaster said. "On the mission there, the Defense Department will describe what the mission and the circumstances were of that action and of the deaths of those soldiers and all that will come out."

QUESTIONS OVER NIGER: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, meanwhile, said the media shouldn't question the military response to ambush in Niger, nor expect answers to what happened before the Pentagon is ready to provide them.

"One point I would make having seen some of the news reports, the U.S. military does not leave its troops behind and I would just ask you not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once," Mattis told journalists at the Pentagon on Thursday. "And I would also ask you don't confuse your need for accurate information with our ability to provide it immediately in a situation like this."

Mattis also gave more details on the mission in the country, where the U.S. has deployed some 1,000 troops.

"Mostly we're providing refueling support, intelligence support, surveillance support, but also we have troops on the ground," Mattis said. "Their job is to help the people in the region learn how to defend themselves. We call it foreign internal defense training and we actually do these kind of missions by, with and through our allies and the loss of our troops is under investigation."

PENTAGON DOING WHAT IT CAN: The Pentagon disputed claims that the military is not being transparent with McCain and the two armed services oversight committees in Congress, particularly on the Niger incident. “We have done all we can and we will continue to strive to do as much as we can to ensure Sen. McCain and all the members of the SASC and HASC have exactly what they need when they need it," Dana White, the chief Pentagon spokeswoman, told reporters during her weekly briefing. A military general briefed McCain's Armed Services Committee on Thursday about the Niger ambush, White said. The briefing occurred behind closed doors and was also delivered to the House Armed Services Committee. The Pentagon notified both committees on the afternoon it learned of the deadly ambush of Special Forces soldiers by ISIS-aligned fighters, and kept the committees up to date throughout with phone calls and emails, White said. Mattis is "personally dedicated" to providing Congress the information it requests, she said.

GOLD STAR CONTROVERSY, DAY 4: White House chief of staff John Kelly offered a solemn defense on Thursday of Trump's outreach to the families of fallen soldiers while also giving a detailed explanation of what happens to military service members after they die in combat.

"There's no perfect way to make that phone call. When I took this job and talked to President Trump about how to do it, my first recommendation was to not do it, because it's not the phone call that parents, family members are looking forward to," Kelly told reporters at the White House.

"I said to him, 'Sir, there's nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families.' But let me tell you what I tell them. Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me, because he was my casualty officer,' " Kelly said of his conversation with Trump. He was referring to the now-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and how he handled the death of his son, 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

"He said, 'Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that one percent. He knew what the possibilities were, because we're at war,' " Kelly said. "And when he died, in the four cases we're talking about in Niger and my son's case in Afghanistan, when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth, his friends," he added. "That's what the president tried to say to four families the other day."

KNOWING THE SUBJECT: During the briefing, Kelly only called on reporters who said they knew Gold Star parents.

STUNNED REACTION: Kelly also unloaded on Rep. Frederica Wilson, who accused Trump of being insensitive to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson this week, and said he couldn't believe she was allowed to overhear Trump's conversation. "It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation," Kelly said. "I thought, at least, that was sacred."

Kelly said he journeyed to nearby Arlington Cemetery after listening to Wilson politicize Trump's call to the Gold Star family, in order to collect his thoughts. “I went over there for an hour-and-a-half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.” You can watch Kelly’s full remarks here.

TRUMP THEN TWEETED: "The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!" Trump tweeted late last night.

Oddly enough, Kelly’s remarks (“he knew what he was getting into”) earlier in the day in Trump’s defense appeared to actually confirm Wilson’s version of the phone call, if not the tone and how it was received.

NORTH KOREA’S ‘UNIMAGINABLE’ STRIKE: North Korea is threatening an “unimaginable” strike on the U.S. as the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and destroyer USS Stethem conduct an exercise with South Korean warships off the peninsula’s coast.

"The U.S. is running amok by introducing under our nose the targets we have set as primary ones. The U.S. should expect that it would face unimaginable strike at an unimaginable time," the Korean Central News Agency said, according to Yonhap News Agency.

BIGGEST THREAT: The majority of voters across the political spectrum believe North Korea poses the greatest immediate threat to the United States, according to a new poll.

The poll from NBC News and SurveyMonkey released Thursday found 53 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters, 53 percent of independents, and 55 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters think the rogue regime is the most immediate threat, more so than ISIS, Russia, China, and Iran.

Overall, 54 percent of Americans fear North Korea the most, compared to 41 percent who did so in July.

ELECTION PROTECTION: The Defense Department should be protecting the U.S. election system against cyberattacks by Vladimir Putin and Russia, in case there is a replay of the 2016 race, McCain said during a tense exchange with a top Pentagon official during a Senate Armed Services Committee. "For you to sit there and say, well but it's not the Department of Defense's responsibility, it is," McCain told Kenneth Rapuano, the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security. "The reason why we are here is because of free and fair elections. If you can change the outcome of an election, that has consequences far more serious than a physical attack."

The U.S. largely leaves the election system in the hands of states and local governments, and the military is restricted from unilaterally engaging in law enforcement operations. "I'm simply saying that based on the state authorities and the state control of the election process in each state, there are issues associated with federal authorities to engage," Rapuano told McCain. He said the Defense Department did not want to “insert itself” without being invited by state authorities. McCain shot back that the seriousness of the threat could require changes to U.S. law that would give the military more leeway in dealing with election attacks. "Those issues could be corrected by legislation. They are not engraved in tablets, OK," he said.

URANIUM QUESTIONS: Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley is demanding the Justice Department allow a former confidential informant to the FBI to speak to Congress, even though the informant is still under a non-disclosure agreement.

Media reports indicate the FBI had evidence Russian officials were working bribery, extortion, and money laundering schemes to expand Putin's atomic energy pursuits inside the U.S., including the partial sale of Uranium One, a Canadian mining company. That information came before the Obama administration approved a 2010 deal that gave Moscow control of significant amounts of America's uranium supply.

The confidential informant Grassley wants to hear from apparently has first-hand knowledge of the extent to which Moscow compromised an American uranium trucking firm.

SUPPORT FOR IRAQ: Trump might have to revoke support for Iraq due to domestic infighting and the growing influence of Iran, a prominent Republican suggested Thursday.

A clash between the Iraqi central government and a semi-autonomous ethnic minority seeking independence has brought two key U.S. partners to blows. The Trump administration opposed the Kurdish referendum calling for independence and favors the central government maintaining sovereignty. But, the U.S. is also refusing to overtly take sides in the fight, even as Iranian forces partner with the Baghdad to take the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which had been held by the Kurds.

"Should the Government of Iraq continue down this path and effectively act as a puppet of Iran, it would require a reevaluation of U.S. support to the country," Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday.

TOUGH RUSSIA TALK: Russia committed "warfare" against the United States through their 2016 election interference, said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. "When a country can come interfere in another country's elections, that is warfare," Haley said Thursday. "It really is, because you're making sure that the democracy shifts from what the people want to giving out that misinformation.

That denunciation of Russia's cyber-attacks against the Democratic party and Hillary Clinton's campaign is a strident departure from Trump's insistence that claims of election interference are a mere excuse for the Democrats' defeat. But several members of his national security team have agreed Russia did conduct "influence operations" against the United States, though they rebuff the more aggressive suggestion that the Trump team coordinated in that effort.

Haley emphasized Russia conducts such operations around the world, not just against the United States. "They are doing this everywhere," she said. "This is their new weapon of choice."

TECH TITANS: Silicon Valley may be ready to increase cooperation with government officials working on cybersecurity, despite deep-seated privacy concerns, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday.

"There is a willingness to have that conversation that was not there even a few months ago, because this Russian effort has really gotten people's attention in a way that nothing else did," Rice said Thursday during a panel hosted by the George W. Bush Institute.

THE RUNDOWN

Washington Post: CIA director distorts intelligence community’s findings on Russian interference

Roll Call: Trump’s generals had a very emotive day

Wall Street Journal: A U.S. Navy Hospital Ship Was Sent to Puerto Rico—It’s Barely Been Used

Reuters: Putin dials up anti-U.S. rhetoric, keeps mum on re-election

Wall Street Journal: Taliban kills 43 Afghan soldiers in attack on military base

USA Today: North Korea threatens 'unimaginable' strike on United States

New York Times: This is what victory over ISIS looks like

Navy Times: FAKER! Man admits he lied to Fox News about Navy SEAL service

Defense Tech: Eyeing emerging markets, aerospace giant acquires drone startup

UPI: Textron awarded $332.9M contract for mobile strike force vehicles

War on the Rocks: A new strategy for deterrence and rollback with North Korea

Foreign Policy: Some unhappy reasons for why we are on the verge of another war in Lebanon

Calendar

FRIDAY | OCT. 20

10 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. Global leaders forum with H.E. Florence Parly, France’s minister for the armed forces. csis.org

10 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. How Jihadism ends: Comparing state strategies toward violent extremism in Kenya and Uganda. csis.org

1:30 p.m. 529 14th St. NW. The way forward on Iran policy with a keynote speech by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. press.org

MONDAY | OCT. 23

12 p.m. 6715 Commerce St. 20th Annual Systems Engineering Conference with Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, head of Naval Air Systems Command. ndia.org

TUESDAY | OCT. 24

7:45 a.m. 11100 Johns Hopkins Rd. Precision Strike Technology Symposium with Vice Adm. Mat Winter, F-35 program executive officer, and Gen. Stephen Wilson, vice chief of staff of the Air Force. ndia.org

8 a.m. 100 Westgate Circle. 22nd Annual Expeditionary Warfare Conference with Lt. Gen. Bob Hedelund, commanding general of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, and Vice Adm. Kevin Scott, director of Joint Staff force development. ndia.org

11 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Securing democracy: The history of foreign election interference. csis.org

WEDNESDAY | OCT. 25

8 a.m. 2401 M St. NW. Defense Writers Group breakfast with Gen. Petr Pavel, chairman of the Nato Military Committee. centermediasecurity.org

10 a.m. Rayburn 2172. Next steps after the president’s Iran decision. foreignaffairs.house.gov

10:30 a.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. Book discussion of “Vets and Pets: Wounded Warriors and the Animals that Help Them Heal” with authors Kevin Ferris and Dava Guerin. heritage.org

5 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Book launch of “Crashback, The Power Clash Between the U.S. and China in the Pacific” with author Michael Fabey. csis.org

THURSDAY | OCT. 26

8:15 p.m. 1777 F St. NW. Documentary screening and discussion of “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS.” cfr.org

FRIDAY | OCT. 27

8 a.m. 300 1st St. SE. Mitchell space breakfast series: U.S. allies in space with Air Vice-Marshal 'Rocky' Rochelle, of the Royal Air Force, and Wing Commander Steven Henry, Australian exchange officer at the Defense Department. michellaerospacepower.org

2 p.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Inclusion in combat and security: A book event with Maj. M.J. Hegar. wilsoncenter.org