TRANSGENDER POLICY BACK TO TRUMP: More than six months after President Trump surprised the Pentagon with a series of morning tweets announcing his intention to ban transgender troops from the U.S. military, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has forwarded his recommendations to White House, officials have confirmed to me.
Nothing changed after Trump’s July 26 Twitter burst and subsequent Aug. 25 directive, at first because there was no policy or legal guidance provided, and then because a series of lawsuits blocked the proposed ban in court. It’s now up to the president to decide whether to accept Mattis’ advice, which he is making a point of giving in private. But Pentagon officials tell me they don’t expect Trump to make an immediate decision, because the Pentagon is operating under four separate court orders that prevent any changes to the Obama-era policy that allows transgender troops to serve openly, and provides medical care for conversion therapy for current service members.
WHAT IS MATTIS THINKING? The officials I talked to insist they don’t know precisely what Mattis is recommending, but point to two things that could give a hint of where he may have come down on the question. First were his comments at his January confirmation hearing last year, in which he was asked about allowing LGBT Americans to serve in the military. “I've never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with,” Mattis said. “I believe that military service is a touchstone for patriots of whatever stripe,” an indication that he has no visceral objection to transgender troops in the ranks.
I’m also told it’s no coincidence that a new Pentagon policy on booting non-deployable troops after 12 months was announced as Mattis wrapped up his study of the transgender question. The suggestion is that, given his druthers, Mattis would base any policy on transgender troops on their deployability, not their gender identity. That approach would address one concern expressed by Trump in last summer’s tweets, namely that the U.S. military “must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”
Setting aside the question of the actual cost of medical care, Mattis has said repeatedly that his goal is to increase the lethality of U.S. troops. Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who asked Mattis about LGBT troops in his confirmation hearing, also questioned a Pentagon official last week about the effect that the “deploy or depart” policy would have on transgender troops. “I don't think that there is any particular group that would be unaffected by a close scrutiny of all of our standards for deployability,” said Robert Wilkie, undersecretary for personnel and readiness, at a subcommittee hearing. He said the policy was “an across-the-board standard” that was “not aimed at any group of Americans who are serving.”
The policy that would separate troops who can’t deploy in a 12-month period has only two exceptions: pregnant or postpartum women, and troops wounded in combat. Other medical conditions do not qualify.
THE CONSTITUTIONALITY TEST: An advocacy group, the Palm Center, pointed out in a press release yesterday that “Four federal courts have blocked the ban from going into effect and have ruled that the only constitutional option is to apply the same standards to every service member, meaning that troops who are fit for duty can serve.” A standard based on deployability that applies to all troops could overcome that legal challenge, officials tell me.
SYRIA ‘A CRUCIBLE OF MISERY AND VIOLENCE’: In Syria, the government assault on the rebel-held enclave of East Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, is continuing the slaughter of civilians. “Recent reports indicate airstrikes directly targeted hospitals and what little civilian infrastructure remains, resulting in more than 100 civilian deaths in less than 48 hours,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, who said “siege-and-starve tactics” of the regime of Bashar Assad have left more 1,000 civilians in need of medical attention. The horrors of East Aleppo are being repeated in East Ghouta with the killing of trapped civilians and woefully inadequate access for humanitarian actors.
The U.S. is blaming Russia for its support of Assad’s regime and its allies, while the United Nations is calling for a month-long cessation of violence to allow for the delivery of humanitarian supplies and the urgent medical evacuation of civilians in East Ghouta.
The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, a humanitarian group working in East Ghouta, released this desperate voicemail message from staff member Abdul Rahman Ismail. “I am right in an area with a safe shelter and there is a hospital, but truthfully speaking it is absolutely terrible, airstrikes and barrels dropping like crazy, we don’t even have time to count them, or whether we should count them or to just run away.” A few minutes later he was killed.
The group says eight medical facilities were attacked yesterday in East Ghouta, for a total of 13 hospital attacks in 48 hours, strikes that have “paralyzed the already crippled medical infrastructure” in Ghouta. “At least 200 civilians have been killed and over 700 wounded in the past two days. Many of the victims are women and children,” the group said.
Britain’s Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt said the enclave has become “a crucible of misery and violence,” which he said is “simply unacceptable in the 21st century.”
Good Wednesday morning and welcome to Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense, compiled by Washington Examiner National Security Senior Writer Jamie McIntyre (@jamiejmcintyre) and Senior Editor David Brown (@dave_brown24). Travis Tritten is on leave this week. 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.
NOT HAPPENING TOMORROW AND FRIDAY: We’ll be taking the rest of the week off from publishing Daily on Defense and will be back on Monday. Also, a reminder that we are using a new email distribution service designed to increase the speed and reliability of the delivery of the newsletter to your inbox every weekday morning. If you missed any recent newsletters, check your spam folder. Just mark “not spam” and you should be back in business. Although admittedly if this edition is in your spam folder, you’re likely not reading this. A classic Catch 22. Maybe tell a friend?
MIFFED NORTH KOREANS STIFF PENCE: Remember how Vice President Mike Pence made a point of not ruling out talks with the North Koreans while he was in Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics? Well it turns out the U.S. thought there might be a chance for a brief secret meeting with Kim Jong Un’s sister. But apparently Pence’s harsh condemnation of the North Korean regime, and his brandishing of new sanctions, put the kibosh on any meeting.
The State Department pulled the curtain back on the aborted stab at diplomacy in a series of tweets from Nauert:
“During @VP Pence’s recent visit to South Korea to demonstrate allied resolve and support American athletes, the possibility arose of a brief meeting with the North Korean delegation leaders,” Nauert tweeted. “.@VP Pence was ready to take this opportunity to drive home the necessity of #DPRK abandoning its illicit ballistic missile and nuclear programs. At the last minute, #DPRK officials decided not to go forward with the meeting. We regret their failure to seize this opportunity. We will not apologize for American values, for calling attention to human rights abuses, or for mourning a young American’s unjust death.”
FEAR THE REAPER: A North Korean cyberspy group known as “Reaper” is rapidly expanding its operations and scope of capability posing a global threat to overseas networks, according to a new report from the California cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc.
The group is also identified by FireEye as APT37 and has been active since at least 2012, focusing primarily on the public and private sectors in South Korea. In 2017, the group began attacks on Japan, Vietnam and the Middle East, according to the report.
FireEye said it had “high confidence” the activities carried out by APT37 are on behalf of the North Korean government and include the use of wiper malware and zero-day vulnerabilities, where hackers exploit weak spots in computer software on the same day those problems become known, preventing developers from fixing problems before they occur.
REPLACING THE U.S.: United Nations diplomats should convene an international conference in 2018 to replace the United States as the chief mediator between Israelis and Palestinians, said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Tuesday.
Abbas, in an address to the United Nations Security Council, called for the conference in response to Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He cited that decision as well as Israeli settlement construction as the reason for the stalled peace talks.
“We call for the convening of an international peace conference in mid-2018, based on international law and relevant U.N. resolutions, with broad international participation including the two concerned parties and the regional and international stakeholders,” Abbas said.
HALEY’S RAZOR SHARP TONGUE: U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley issued a sharp response to Palestinians leaders and its top negotiator Tuesday, saying she “will not shut up” after the official made derogatory comments about Haley last month.
Haley addressed the U.N. Security Council during a speech Tuesday, during which she responded to an earlier speech from Abbas, as well as comments made last month by Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator. Erekat said Haley “needs to shut up and realize the Palestinian leadership is not the problem.”
“We welcome you as the leader of the Palestinian people here today,” Haley said of Abbas. “But I will decline the advice I was recently given by your top negotiator, Saeb Erekat. I will not shut up. Rather, I will respectfully speak some hard truths.”
TOUGHER ON RUSSIA? White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump has been “extremely tough” on Russia, tougher in fact than his predecessor Barack Obama. “He has put in, and upheld, sanctions that the Obama administration put in place. He's upheld those. He has closed three diplomatic properties that were Russia's here in the United States. He has taken a number of actions against Russia and put pressure on them. He's helped arm the Ukrainians. There are a number of places that Obama was too weak and refused to take and put pressure on Russia where this president has,” Sanders said.
Not to mention the Trump military buildup. “He helped push through $700 billion to help rebuild our military. I can assure you, Russia is not excited about that,” Sanders said.
RESCUE AT SEA: The Navy’s 7th Fleet says an American patrol plane was dispatched to look for three fishermen whose 19-foot skiff was adrift in the South Pacific for eight days. “The crew flew the Navy’s newest maritime patrol aircraft, the P-8A Poseidon, which is equipped with an advanced APY-10 multifunction radar and MX-20 camera system, ideal for searching the 2,100-square-mile area,” a news release said. The vessel was located after only three hours.
SALLY FORTH: One of the very first aides Mattis brought on board to help him navigate the massive Pentagon bureaucracy is leaving after just over a year. “For over a decade, Sally Donnelly has been my trusted and valued adviser,” Mattis said in a statement yesterday. “She has played a critical role in the Department of Defense throughout this important first year.
“I always knew she would return to the private sector and I am grateful for her service... She departs with my thanks and confidence as she opens the next chapter of her professional career,” he said.
MISSING FROM MUNICH: Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has been a fixture at the annual Munich Security Conference for decades, was honored in absentia last weekend with the Ewald Von Kleist Award, named for the event's founder. His wife Cindy accepted on his behalf, as McCain remains at home battling brain cancer, and read a particularly poignant acceptance speech from the ailing senator.
“My friends: If there is any benefit that comes from advanced age, it is the sense of perspective it affords. I have been blessed with an extraordinary life. I have experienced my share of hardship, and suffering, and conflict. But there is no question that the world I have had the good fortune to live in is more peaceful, more prosperous, and more filled with love, and happiness, and beauty, and the values we all cherish than the world my father and grandfather knew.”
MEDALS FOR HEROES: The Army has awarded medals to the three Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps cadets who were killed during last week's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The family of Alaina Petty was presented her medal during a memorial service Monday, and the family of Peter Wang will be presented his medal at a service Tuesday. The Army said Wang’s family requested the 15-year-old be buried in his JROTC uniform, which will include the Medal of Heroism. The family of the third JROTC cadet, Martin Duque, will receive his medal Saturday.
ARMY CASUALTY: The Defense Department announced yesterday that Sgt. Christina Marie Schoenecker, 26, of Arlington, Kansas, died in Baghdad on Monday from a “non-combat related” incident. She was assigned to the 89th Sustainment Brigade, Wichita, Kansas. The incident is under investigation.
Air Force Times: A light attack aircraft fleet: Could it change the fight or put lives at risk?
Defense News: State clears Dutch Apache upgrades, Kuwait boats, Finnish weapons
Defense One: How to Grow the Military Without Buying More Ships, Planes, Tanks
Air Force Times: What the budget request explains about Cyber Command’s goals
Defense News: Lockheed filed a pre-award protest of the Air Force’s Huey replacement competition. Here’s why
Wall Street Journal: U.S. Chases A Saudi Nuclear Deal
The Hill: Russia concedes 'dozens' of citizens injured in clash with US forces in Syria
Daily Beast: What’s Inside Trump’s Secret War Powers Memo?
Foreign Policy: If America Is First, Is NATO Second?
USNI News: Navy, Marines Step Up Training to Prepare for High-End Fight
BuzzFeed: Hawaii Is Not Prepared For A Missile Attack, Says New Report On False Alert
Stars and Stripes: US, South Korea Say Joint War Games Will Be Held After Olympics ‘As Planned’
BuzzFeed: Newly Obtained Emails Show The Top General's Surprise At Trump's Transgender Military Ban
WEDNESDAY | FEB. 21
1300 Wilson Blvd. PSA Industry Roundtable Luncheon at Orbital ATK. ndia.org
11 a.m. 46870 Tate Rd. NDIA Patuxent River Speaker Series with Gerald Swift, Director for AIRWorks at Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division. Ndia.org
2 p.m. Teleconference. Are Iran and Israel Going to War in Syria and Lebanon? wilsoncenter.org
THURSDAY | FEB. 22
7:15 a.m. 1250 South Hayes St. Special topic breakfast with Rear Adm. Michael Jabaley, Navy Program Executive Officer for Submarines. navyleague.org
9 a.m. 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW. The U.S.-Japan alliance and the problem of deterrence. brookings.edu
12 noon. 214 Massachusetts Ave NE. 10 Years after the Bucharest Summit: Strengthening the U.S.-NATO-Georgia Relationship. heritage.org
3 p.m. 1030 15th St. NW. A Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy with Kentaro Sonoura, an adviser to Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. atlanticcouncil.org
3:30 p.m. 740 15th St. NW. The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the Tragedy in Vietnam. newamerica.org
MONDAY | FEB. 26
10 a.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. Nuclear Posture Review: Continuities and Changes. heritage.org
Noon. 1030 15th St. NW. The Logic of American National Security panel featuring experts. atlanticcouncil.org