Soldier sets record for mile run, with a twist!
September 24th, 2013
11:13 PM ET

Soldier sets record for mile run, with a twist!

Ask yourself how fast can you run a mile? Be truthful, no one is checking. Can you beat 11 minutes and 6 seconds?

Maybe you could beat 11 minutes, if you had good sneakers, comfortable shorts a light weight t-shirt.

Now, imagine wearing 75 pounds of explosive resistant protective gear from the top of your head to your toes. Now could you run a mile in 11:06?
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Putin looks on as Kerry and Lavrov meet at UN
September 24th, 2013
10:42 PM ET

Putin looks on as Kerry and Lavrov meet at UN

By Elise Labott, reporting from the United Nations

In a tiny room at the United Nations under a portrait of Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov,  flanked by a team of men in dark suits,  welcomed Secretary of State John Kerry  into his meeting room.

Kerry was flanked by a team of women: U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Victoria Nuland.

A highly-anticipated 45-minute meeting went twice that long and was described by Kerry as "very constructive."

One senior State Department official said the two men had pencils in hand as they marked up a text of a U.N. resolution on dismantling Syria's chemical weapons.

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What did Obama mean on Iran?
September 24th, 2013
03:59 PM ET

What did Obama mean on Iran?

By Elise Labott, reporting from the United Nations

So what did President Barack Obama mean when he said he was instructing Secretary of State John Kerry to negotiate a deal with Iran on its nuclear program?

Basically it’s to show that the United States is ready to play ball.

Senior administration officials said it wasn't to indicate a new initiative, as negotiations with Iran are already technically already taking place.

Instead, it was meant to show an increased emphasis and importance the president is putting on improved relations.
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September 24th, 2013
03:25 PM ET

No pilot! No problem: Pentagon uses mothballed jets for UAV training

The Pentagon is spending billions on unmanned aerial vehicles or “drones” so it’s understandable if military pilots feel like an endangered species.

And now there’s a new reason for pilots to worry.

Instead of designing UAVs from the ground up, Boeing is taking old mothballed jets and tweaking them so they can fly without a pilot.
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U.S., Iranian presidents share U.N. spotlight
September 24th, 2013
12:56 AM ET

U.S., Iranian presidents share U.N. spotlight

United Nations (CNN) - For years it was a United Nations General Assembly annual ritual: Iran's president would denounce the United States, and the American president would fire back. But this year the talks in New York are brimming with the possibility of diplomacy.

A meeting has not been scheduled between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, both of whom will speak Tuesday before the General Assembly. Both sides, however, remain open to possibilities.

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Troops could face delays in pay if government shuts down
September 23rd, 2013
06:55 PM ET

Troops could face delays in pay if government shuts down

By Barbara Starr

U.S. troops throughout the world - including those fighting in Afghanistan - could face delays in getting their paychecks if the government shuts down, according to the Defense Department.

On Monday, all 1.4 million active-duty personnel and 800,000 civilians were informed the department is now preparing for a shutdown if a budget deal with Congress is not reached.

Read the DoD memo to its personnel here.

The department has been "directed to review and update plans" for a shutdown that could result in delayed pay for all members of the department, according to DOD Press Secretary George Little. Depending on how close a shutdown might be to a pay period for DOD personnel, paychecks could be delayed for up to two weeks, or the next pay period, some officials said.

All uniform military personnel will be required to report to work, and will be paid eventually, according to Little and other DOD officials, because under the law it is required the military is paid. The war in Afghanistan will continue with operations, Little said.

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Police union, Navy at odds over security staffing when D.C. Navy Yard attacked
FBI van outside scene of deadly Navy Yard shooting.
September 23rd, 2013
05:55 PM ET

Police union, Navy at odds over security staffing when D.C. Navy Yard attacked

One week after the attack at the Washington Navy Yard, the labor union that represents security forces at the installation and the U.S. Navy have widely differing views on whether the yard was fully staffed by the required number of security forces.

Both sides agree on one thing, though - that the staffing situation would not have prevented Aaron Alexis from entering the facility because he had a legal badge to get through the gate.
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Al-Shabaab breaks new ground with complex Nairobi attack
An image grab taken from AFP TV shows a member of the Kenyan security forces taking position inside a shopping mall following an attack by masked gunmen in Nairobi
September 23rd, 2013
07:12 AM ET

Al-Shabaab breaks new ground with complex Nairobi attack

By Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister

The Al-Shabaab assault on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, is alarming for its audacity, its scale and the sophisticated planning that went into it. Both the choice of target and method of attack exactly fit the new al Qaeda playbook.

Few counterterrorism experts are surprised that the Somali group launched another attack in the Kenyan capital. It has threatened to take revenge ever since Kenyan forces entered Al-Shabaab's heartland in southern Somalia. Small-scale attacks, frequently with hand grenades, have already brought bloodshed to Nairobi's streets. Back in September of last year, Kenyan authorities said they had disrupted a major plot to attack public spaces in Nairobi in its final stages of planning. Authorities also broke up a plot by the group against Western tourists in the city in late 2007.

But the scope of the assault on the Westgate Mall - and especially its eerie similarities to the attack in Mumbai, India, in 2008 - show that Al-Shabaab has taken its ability to strike outside Somalia to a new level.

Only once before has the group caused such carnage in East Africa, when bombers attacked bars and restaurants in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, on the night of the World Cup Final in 2010. More than 60 people were killed. Al-Shabaab said the attacks were in retaliation for Uganda's leading role in the African Union force supporting Somalia's weak government in Mogadishu.

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Photos show North Korea likely testing more rocket engines
September 23rd, 2013
12:00 AM ET

Photos show North Korea likely testing more rocket engines

By Jamie Crawford

North Korea more than likely tested a long-range rocket engine late last month, according to analysis of new satellite imagery over the site.

In the photos released by 38 North, a blog run by the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, indicators of a probable test are seen through the presence of a probable rocket stage, propellant tanks, as well as the appearance of burned vegetation around the launch stand.

The photos were taken between August 25 and 30.

"These are not in and of themselves indicators that there is going to be a rocket test six months from now," Joel Wit, a former North Korea specialist at the State Department who is now with 38 North, told CNN about the photos.
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Russia on Syria – No more ‘nyet’?
September 22nd, 2013
09:45 AM ET

Russia on Syria – No more ‘nyet’?

By CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty

Moscow moved with lightning speed to seize the idea raised unexpectedly by Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria should give up its chemical weapons, and seasoned Kremlin watchers believe that deft maneuver could mark a turning point in Moscow’s broader diplomatic strategy in the Middle East – and beyond.

“It’s the first time in 20 years, since Russia became a new state, that they’ve taken an initiative like that,” says Georgetown University’s Angela Stent, author of a new book “The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.”

“It’s part of a broader Russian goal to re-assert itself as a major player,” she told me at the Valdai Discussion Club, a yearly gathering of leading Russian and international experts.

“I think they really were worried about the impact of the potential U.S. military strike on Syria - what it would do to Syria and the instability it could cause.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, says Stent, also was worried about how it might affect Russia itself and the population in the North Caucasus where Moscow has faced an insurgency, especially in Chechnya - “and they saw an opportunity.”

Since Putin came to power, one of Russia’s major goals has been to have a seat at the table on all important international issues, and Russia’s veto power at the United Nations was the vehicle for that.

Now, Stent says, Russia is “beginning to set an agenda,” after two decades of the United States setting the agenda. “This is the beginning of something where, if there is a strategy behind it, it could lead to a … more influential role globally.”

What does Russia really want?

Up to now, Russia’s international strategy was driven more by what it did not want, than what it did want, says Toby Gati, former Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research. “The only word that every American knows in the Russian language is ‘nyet.’ And that means no.”

Russia’s traditional diplomatic role, she says, “is to be wary of what happens in the international system because they can’t control it.”

“They are used to watching the United States, watching us stumble, or not know what’s going to be the next step, and sitting on the sidelines, saying either ‘We told you so,’ which Putin is very good at doing, or ‘We would have done it differently,” or ‘You Americans have to be constrained because you’re the crazy uncle in the attic.’”

Putin’s proposal to rid Syria of chemical weapons puts Russia back on stage, with the Russian president in the new role of initiator. “It’s a very unusual position for Russia and, I think, one they are very happy having,” Gati says.

“But also a very difficult position for them because it means, for the first time, they actually have to prioritize their interests. Is it getting rid of the chemical weapons? Is it having cooperative relations with the U.S.? Is it keeping Assad in power? Is it, perhaps, having to put boots on the ground? Is it actually come to the point that the Security Council will have to vote, perhaps, on Chapter 7 enforcement?”

Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter leaves open the possibility for the Security Council to consider use of force against Syria.

Russia’s goals in Syria

Russia’s aims in Syria have been consistent and “quite straightforward” for some time, says James Sherr of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and author of “Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia’s Influence Abroad.”

“Russia wants to protect and defend its ally – a very important ally in a very critical state, one of only two now in the Middle East – which affords Russia an enormous amount of influence - in Lebanon, in Israel, in the wider region, in Iran - that it might not otherwise have,” says Sherr.

Russia also, he says, is determined to block any form of Western intervention “because Russia’s experience leads them to believe that even if something starts with non-military intentions, it escalates into a military intervention. And this (chemical weapons) agreement, from their point of view, put an immovable spanner in the works of U.S. military intervention.”

Russia is committed, not just in Syria, but globally, Sherr says, “to diminishing the influence of Western values in the world as a whole and, of course, at home.” Moscow may not approve of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s “bestiality,” but it does believe that authoritarian states “have much the same rights of sovereignty under international law as those states we consider democratic.”

Russia sees the chemical weapons framework agreement as a means of beginning to pursue its wider ambitions about “changing the architecture in the region,” Sherr says. “And that is why they are now publicly putting on the table the issue of Israel’s nuclear stockpile.”

Israel’s nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip

Sherr, Stent and Gati all point to Putin’s comments at the Valdai Discussion Club, in which he said that Syria built up its chemical weapons in order to counter Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons. Two other Russian officials at the conference made similar comments.

“He made it clear that Israel … now has to agree, sign a nonproliferation treaty, and give up its nuclear weapons, and this is going to be a condition for any further progress in this area,” says Stent. “That, of course, is a nonstarter as far as the United States is concerned. But that’s where Russia has put its mark.”

Sherr does not believe Russia’s fundamental aim is to weaken Israel but rather “to promote (Moscow’s) own position; everything else is secondary to that.” Nor does he believe Russia can put Israel’s nuclear weapons on the bargaining table. It can, however, “put Israel in a more defensive position, which in turn makes Israel more reliant on Russia and makes it as important for the Israelis to conduct their diplomacy in Moscow as in Washington,” Sherr says.

And if Israel’s nuclear weapons are now part of the discussion about Syria, so is Iran. “They’re in a strong position to say that we cannot proceed constructively without Iran being at the table,” Sherr says. “And if you want a wider solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, then you also need our support and you also then need to bring Israel into that equation.”

“Russia wants everyone to understand that there can be no peace, or even substantial improvement of conditions in the Middle East, if Russia is not at the top table in a critical condition,” Sherr says. “Russia is letting everyone know: ‘We are the country in the key role. We are the only country here who can talk to all the parties that matter.’”

“Iran is the big prize,” Gati agrees. “That’s what we keep forgetting.”

Putin’s recent offers to build a second nuclear reactor at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant, as well as supply Iran with S-300 air defense missile systems, are part of Putin’s overall strategy in the region, Gati says. “I think that was a way of saying to the Iranians: ‘Don’t rush to open up to the Americans. We can provide things now and you don’t have to change internally. You don’t have to meet any demands. If you start negotiations with the Americans what’s going to happen is, ‘What are you doing at home? What are your policies toward Israel?’”

Stent heard something new – and concerning – from Russia’s foreign minister, who also spoke at the Valdai conference. “We also heard from Mr. [Sergey] Lavrov that maybe we won’t get all the chemical weapons from Syria, we may get some of them.”

“I’m sure that the U.S. condition on this is that we have to get all of them,” Stent says. “If you only get some of them, then you really haven’t achieved your objective. So there are many ways this can come unstuck.”

All three experts concur: the agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons has set loose an avalanche of diplomatic moves that could have profound implications for Russia and the West.

“This step arose suddenly, says Sherr. “It is, in fact, an improvisation, but it stems from something the Russians are very good at, which is studying the other side, in this case us, very carefully, studying the logic of our positions, studying our mistakes, and seizing an opening when it suddenly appears. And that’s what they have done.”

Russia pounced on a diplomatic opportunity, Gati says, but it could turn out to be a challenge for Moscow, precisely because Russia is not used to making the first move. “And it will be hard for America,” she says, “because we are usually the ones putting out the ideas, leading the parade, and finally, usually getting the solutions. In this case, that hasn’t happened. Inaction hasn’t worked. The American policy hasn’t worked. And now we’re going to see if the Russian one does.”

Syria, she says, could be a unique instance where the Russians take the lead, or it might be a harbinger of things to come. “One thing that will be very interesting to watch,” she says, “ is whether or not it leads to the development of some ideas for some type of new type of relationship with the United States, what I would call ‘Reset a la Russe.’”

Russia’s last-minute move

It’s too early to predict whether the Russian proposal will help bring the war in Syria to an end. But several Russia experts at the Valdai conference criticize Russia for not using its influence at the outset of the conflict to help stop it.

“Before the opposition was militarized, before the influx of foreign fighters, before the dominance of jihadists, before 100,000 people were killed, before there were half a million refugees,” says Sherr, “the country that had the most convincing combination of nonmilitary means of pressure to apply against Assad to produce meaningful changes and compromises, was Russia. And those means were not used.”

“So Russia does have a considerable responsibility for how this conflict has evolved. Whether they recognize that responsibility or not, anyone on the outside assessing the conflict today or in the future will have to come to that conclusion. They are at least as responsible for everything which has gone awry here as the United States and some other significant actors.”

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