By Barbara Starr
Under pressure from Democrats and Republicans, the Joint Staff of the Pentagon and the U.S. Central Command have updated potential military options for intervention in Syria that could see American forces - if ordered - doing everything from bombing Syrian airfields to flying large amounts of humanitarian aid to the region, a senior U.S. military official said.
The first public discussion of the updated options could come soon as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, are scheduled to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee next week.
The military official emphasized the options are for planning and there is no indication President Barack Obama is about to order any military action.
A senior administration official confirmed that the national security staff of the White House has been briefed on the updated planning, but emphasized that it does not differ from what already has been looked at by the administration.
"We've been saying for quite some time now, we are constantly reviewing every possible option that could help end the violence and accelerate a political transition," the administration official told CNN.
By Mike Mount
Reducing the number of Afghan security forces could lead to an increase in Taliban violence inside that country as U.S. forces prepare to leave by the end of 2014, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin said Thursday.
Austin was testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing to confirm him as the next top U.S. commander to oversee military operations in the Middle East. Austin said keeping a larger Afghan force would allow the Afghan government to mature under a bigger security umbrella.
Currently, the U.S.-led NATO operation has plans to reduce the number of Afghan forces from about 352,000 to around 230,000 after U.S. troops leave in 2014.
Afghan security forces were beefed up to improve security in tandem with the surge of U.S. troops in 2009. The larger number of Afghan troops would be too expensive to maintain and would eventually have to be reduced as security improved around the country, according to the NATO plan.
By Matt Smith
When the Senate Armed Services Committee is gaveled into session Thursday, Chuck Hagel is likely to face some sharp questions from many of his old colleagues.
If confirmed as secretary of defense, the one-time infantry sergeant and twice-wounded Vietnam veteran would be the first former enlisted man to lead the Pentagon. The former Republican senator from Nebraska gets his chance to answer questions Thursday morning during his confirmation hearing, and here are five subjects where he can expect them.FULL STORY
By Jessica Yellin and Adam Aigner-Treworgy
When former Sen. Chuck Hagel appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, don’t expect him to dwell on controversial statements from his past. Instead, allies say, he’ll focus on the present.
He will testify that if confirmed to be the next Secretary of Defense, he will be fully supportive of the president’s policies, including a preference for diplomacy but a willingness to use force, an Obama administration official working on the senator’s confirmation hearing told CNN.
Hagel has been slammed for his past opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran, and critics have questioned his support for Israel. This official says Hagel will testify Thursday morning that he believes Iran is a state sponsor of terror; he supports the president’s sanctions strategy against Iran and believes all options should be on the table including the military option. He’ll also testify that it’s his view that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization.FULL STORY
By Ashley Killough
Sen. Jim Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has pledged to oppose President Barack Obama's nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel for secretary of the Defense Department after a sit-down with Hagel on Tuesday.
"We had a very cordial meeting today in which we discussed his nomination," the Republican senator from Oklahoma said in a statement. "Unfortunately, as I told him during our meeting today, we are simply too philosophically opposed on the issues for me to support his nomination."FULL STORY
By Jennifer Rizzo, with reporting from Pam Benson
Former CIA Director David Petraeus testified on Capitol Hill on Friday that the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was an act of terrorism committed by al Qaeda-linked militants.
That's according to Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who spoke to reporters after the closed hearing, which lasted an hour and 20 minutes.
The account Petraeus gave was different from the description the Obama administration gave on September 14, King said.
Then, the attack was described as "spontaneous," the result of a protest against an anti-Muslim film that got out of control outside the compound.
Petraeus told lawmakers Friday that he had discussed the possibility of it being a terrorist attack in his initial briefing in September, according to King.
"He had told us that this was a terrorist attack and there were terrorists involved from the start," King said. "I told him, my questions, I had a very different recollection of that (earlier account)," he said. "The clear impression we (lawmakers) were given was that the overwhelming amount of evidence was that it arose out of a spontaneous demonstration and it was not a terrorist attack."
The "spontaneous" adjective was "minimized" during Petraeus' testimony Friday, King said.
The spiraling scandal that took down David Petraeus has apparently claimed another powerful general, as authorities announced that Gen. John Allen is under investigation for allegedly sending inappropriate messages to Jill Kelley, a woman who has been linked to the Petraeus scandal.
Allen, who is the commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force, has disputed that he has committed any wrongdoing, a senior defense official said.
Details of the latest angle of the scandal that has shaken the highest level of the military were sketchy early Tuesday morning.
Some details about Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, came from a terse overnight statement by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
"On Sunday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation referred to the Department of Defense a matter involving General John Allen, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (or ISAF) in Afghanistan," part of the statement said. "Today, the secretary directed that the matter be referred to the Inspector General of the Department of Defense for investigation."
A defense official told CNN that there is a"distinct possibility" that the investigation into Allen is connected to the investigation that led to the resignation of Petraeus.
Allen will still retain his position as the commander of ISAF as the investigation continues, the Pentagon said.
But Panetta asked that Allen's nomination to become NATO's supreme allied commander be put on hold, the statement said.
The confirmation hearing to see if Allen would get that lofty military post was scheduled for Thursday.
The investigation was in its early stages but authorities were looking into some 20,000 to 30,000 pages of documents, the defense official said.
From Mike Mount
CNN Senior National Security Producer
Congress is asking top U.S. defense contractors to disclose their corporate plans if the military is forced to cut $500 billion from its budget early next year, putting the companies in the middle of a political fight between Republicans and the White House.
In a letter sent Thursday to 15 major defense contractors by U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and six other GOP senators as well as independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut, the companies were asked to answer five questions about the effect the potential massive cuts, known as sequestration, would have on their bottom line, employees and suppliers.
By Larry Shaughnessy
One of the many issues likely to be batted around during this year's presidential election is the status of the U.S. Navy.
Several times on the campaign trail, Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, has criticized the Obama administration's handling of the Navy.
"Do you realize our Navy is now smaller than any time since 1917?" Romney said during a campaign rally in South Carolina last January.
By Mike Mount, Senior National Security Producer
In what is shaping up to be a classic congressional right vs. left fight over defense and war funding, both the House and Senate are gearing up to battle over some expected and not-so-expected items in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.
On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed its version of the bill, showing its hand to members of the House of Representatives on what it felt should be authorized for military spending.
The act authorizes spending limits and sets defense policy, but it does not actually appropriate the funds.
The committee version must still pass a full Senate vote. The House signed off on its bill this month. While a date has yet to be announced, both the final House and Senate versions will go through extensive negotiations to hammer out a final version of the legislation, expected in the fall.
Both bills have numerous amendments that will be debated and fought over in the coming months. Keep an eye on these five if you like political fireworks.