August 2nd, 2011
12:42 PM ET

Security brief – August 2, 2011

Compiled by CNN's Tim Lister

What the debt deal means for defense spending: analysts crunch the numbers

Lieberman: "beginning of the end of American power"

Syria: Assad opts for maximum force as Hama assault continues

Libyan rebels finally take Zlitan

US warns Libyan rebels to get act together

US/Pakistan spar over diplomats' movements

Iraq: Kurd/Arab flashpoint could destabilize country

NSA looks for hackers – to hire

Debt and defense – DoD could face cuts of nearly $1 trillion over ten years

DOD will be on the hook for at least $350 billion over the next 10 years as part of the initial round of cuts. Another $500 billion would come as part of an automatic reduction if a House-Senate committee fails to recommend a different mix of savings, though the legislation is written to make sure that doesn't happen.

The deal lumps Pentagon spending into a broader "security" category. The $684 billion security total for 2012 reflects not just the annual Pentagon budget but appropriations for the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, and State, as well as nuclear weapons programs in the Energy Department and all foreign aid.

Measured against the same House Appropriations numbers, it appears to be a net reduction of about $20 billion from what Mike Rogers has proposed. This sets up a competition between the different departments, and while the VA will be hard for the GOP to cut, the State Department and foreign aid will surely be targets.

"I’m not happy" said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), but his friend the speaker later told reporters: "This is the best defense number we are going to get."

"If the American military is cut as much, in the worst case, as the proposal would cut it, it's the beginning of the end of America as a great international power," Senator Joe Lieberman said. "It's the beginning of the end of this system of international security that has undergirded our prosperity and so much of the prosperity in the world."

Defense analyst Jim McAleese tells Politico he expects DOD to take a total hit of about $700 billion to $725 billion over 10 years if the joint committee comes to an agreement on savings, because of pressures to protect entitlements and include revenues in the mix.

Analysts Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information and Christopher Preble of Cato both say the initial $350 billion figure for DOD reductions is dubious and based on cuts to projected increases rather than actual spending. The two also share the skepticism expressed by many other analysts that the automatic $500 billion in cuts would ever occur.

Defense programs at risk

Budget cutters may have to consider slashing costly defense systems like the U.S. military’s replacement fighter jet or increase health-care premiums for working-age military retirees to comply with a debt reduction deal that may cut as much as $900 billion from the U.S. military over 10 years.

"They could do this responsibly," said Todd Harrison, a budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "The reality is that it will be very difficult."

Thomas Donnelly, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said the Pentagon cuts won’t require "long knives so much as chain saws."

Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of a House Armed Services Committee on military readiness, voted against the bill and described the cuts to the military services as "staggering." He said the deal would require the Army and Marine Corps to shed needed troops "in a world that’s not getting any safer."

Among the areas likely to attract budget cutters attention:

•Retirees pay $230 a person or $460 a family each year, along with small co-payments for various types of care. The fees have not gone up since 1995.

•The Joint Strike Fighter, or F-35, is to replace an aging fleet of Harrier jets and protect troops in infantry assaults. The cost: $385 billion for 2,457 jets.

•The size of the ground forces. Army has about 550,000 soldiers, up about 40,000 since 2006. There are about 200,000 Marines, up from 175,000.

The prospect of $600 billion in additional defense cuts over the next decade is enough to make Pentagon generals wince and to compel the U.S. military to make big changes to its global strategy. But the cuts can be made without gutting the current force, defense budget analysts said.

The White House already has ordered the Pentagon to come up with about $400 billion in savings over the next 12 years, a reduction that would slow the growth in defense spending to about the current rate of inflation.

The larger and more painful cuts of an additional $600 billion would be triggered only if Republicans and Democrats cannot come to an agreement on a second round of spending cuts in the next four months.

William Kristol at The Weekly Standard wrote that "members of Congress and their staff who know and care about defense are somewhere between alarmed and panicked at the emerging shape of the debt ceiling deal," asserting that the trigger mechanism "could produce massive defense cuts in the out years."

Yet it wasn’t only conservatives worrying about the impact of the deal on the military. On his blog, Abu Muqawama, Andrew Exum wrote that although he believes military spending can be cut, "I can’t help but shake this sinking feeling that the United States became Europe a little bit yesterday, and not in the good our-espresso-is-now-better way."

"Democrats and moderate Republicans have decided they would rather keep expensive entitlements than rebuild our military after two exhausting ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and turn our focus to the security challenges of East Asia," he wrote. "And conservative Republicans claim to value the military and believe in more robust defense spending, but they refuse to raise taxes to pay for the advanced military capabilities they want."

Syria: heavy casualties in shelling of Hama

Twenty-four people have been killed across Syria as the UN Security Council showed signs of inching towards condemning the violence being unleashed by forces loyal to President Assad

According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 10 people died in the central city of Hama on the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. A further six were reported to have been killed in the eastern Damascus suburb of Arbeen early on Tuesday, three in the central province of Homs, two in the eastern border town of al-Boukamal, two in the coastal city of Latakia and one in Maadamiyah near Damascus.

Describing the attacks in the capital, one resident told Reuters: "People marched after the nightly Ramadan prayers. Security cars and pick-up trucks with machine guns mounted on their beds entered Erbin around midnight and assembled at the main roundabout before branching out in the streets and firing at neighborhoods."

Assad opts for maximum force

The offensive suggests that Assad’s government has not been swayed by sensitivities surrounding deaths in the holy month, during which observant Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset.

Troops did not penetrate the center of the city, which has effectively been under the control of protesters since early June, turning Hama into a beacon of hope for other areas in the country struggling to stage antigovernment demonstrations in the face of harsh suppression.

Hama is also considered uniquely sensitive because it is the site of an infamous massacre in 1982 in which at least 10,000 people died when Assad’s father, Hafez el-Assad, crushed an uprising there.

Activist Omar Habbal, also contacted by telephone, said unarmed residents were continuing to stand at barricades erected to keep troops out and would remain there despite the renewed bombardment.

"They are showing the military that we will defend our city to the last child," he said. "We will never give up, and they won’t be able to enter the city."

Hama becomes focal point of resistance

While Hama's residents remain religiously conservative Muslims, the Muslim Brotherhood or the ideas of political Islam have very little sway.

"Just as then, they [the security forces] treat human beings as dispensable," Mohamed told me. "In the 1980s, I saw bodies tossed aside on rubbish heaps; on 3 June I saw the same. They called it the war of pajamas because they'd take people from their beds at night, that's what they're doing now," he said, referring to late-night raids made by the security forces on the fringes of the city.

Suleiman, who was one year old in 1982, says he grew up knowing his two uncles were killed, although the details are foggy. "I remember my father telling me about it as I grew up; it was a fact like any other," he says. "It influenced how I see this regime, how I see my country – and I am scared of what they will do."

That shared memory has not only fueled Hama's outpouring – the country's largest protest gathering was held at the city's al-Assy Square on 1 July – but also helped them to pull together. When it looked as if the security forces might attack, residents set up the barricades and men sent women and children out of the city to relatives, organizing systems of protection among themselves.

US sees Assad as illegitimate – without future

Critics of the U.S. president's policy, particularly on the right, have long charged his administration with being soft on Assad. But the United States is now unequivocally committed to his ouster, having lost whatever little faith it had in the Syrian leader's willingness to reform. "He is illegitimate," a senior administration official says flatly. "We've definitely been very clear that we don't see Assad in Syria's future."

To that end, the administration is working closely with its European allies and Turkey, seeking to steadily ratchet up the pressure on a regime that analysts, including within the government, increasingly see as doomed. "All of the factors that keep the regime in power are trending downward," the senior official says, pointing to a swiftly collapsing economy and worsening "cohesion" within the regime. "Assad is in on every decision, without a doubt, but as time goes on there's more infighting."

Reuters analysis: The Syrian government is signaling to its growing legion of critics abroad that it will not bow to calls for change that have swept across the Arab world, and to its people that it is prepared to wade through blood to stay in power.

Having embarked on a military drive to crush Syria's democracy protests at all costs, the Assads appear to have decided to raise the cost of protest, just as the Muslim month of Ramadan, which began on Monday, offers the opposition a platform to expand its nearly five-month-old uprising.

"The assault on Hama is an indication of loss of control. They crossed the threshold," said Bassma Kodmani, head of the Paris-based Arab Reform Initiative. "They want to show that they can raise the level of repression to the whole country."

"What has been clear is that the government is prepared to use force without limit," Beirut-based Middle East analyst Rami Khouri told Reuters. "But this is not solving the problem. instead, it is making the rebellion more robust."

Libyan rebels take Zlitan, after a month of fighting 

Libyan rebels have entered the town of Zlitan after a weekend of heavy fighting in which NATO escalated its bombing campaign in the run-up to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

RAF planes dropped 16 Paveway laser-guided bombs in two days around the town, destroying government tanks, rocket launchers, ammunition dumps and command centers, and clearing a path for the rebels.

The UK Ministry of Defense said RAF jets also attacked a railway construction site at Bani Walid, south-west of Zlitan, commandeered for use as a military fuel distribution facility.

Opposition fighters said the town, which they have struggled to capture for eight weeks, was quiet on Monday, with no sign of government troops. We are in the town center and we have the hospital," said rebel fighter Yunus Al-Haq. "It's good for the spirit."

US warns Libyan rebels

From CNN's Elise Labott and Jill Dougherty 

Even as it prepares to hand over the Libyan embassy in Washington to the rebel government, the State Department is warning the Transitional National Council to get its act together.

An administration official told CNN the United States has warned the TNC that this is a "do-or-die moment" for the organization to carry out a credible and thorough investigation of the killing of its military commander, Abdel Fatah Younis. Last week's mysterious assassination has raised concerns that it might have been carried out by feuding groups within the rebels themselves.

"We do welcome the Transitional National Council's move to set up an impartial committee that will investigate the incident and we look forward to hearing the results," deputy spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Monday.

A war that some thought might be over in weeks once NATO forces, backed by a United Nations mandate to protect civilians, started to bomb Gadhafi's military installations in March is instead dragging on into the hot summer and a month of fasting.

"No one should think that after all the sacrifices we have made, and the martyrdom of our sons, brothers and friends, we will stop fighting. Forget it," state television showed Saif al-Islam, the leader's son, saying to families displaced from the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

"Regardless of whether NATO leaves or not, the fighting will continue until all of Libya is liberated," he added, in comments that were made on Sunday but broadcast on Monday evening.

Somalia: Shabaab under pressure

From CNN's Nima Elbagir 

The Ramadan offensive has begun here, an obvious date to rally supporters of the al Qaeda affiliated Al-Shabaab militant group, but this year feels a little different.

I was in the Somali capital two years ago and every night, just before the call to prayer signaled the breaking of the fast, we'd hear a cacophony of mortar rounds and gunfights.

Somali friends told me back then the militants believed dying in battle while still fasting would ensure they "entered heaven without even taking their shoes off."

This year Al-Shabaab's grip on the capital and the loyalty of Somalis feels more tenuous. Since I was last here in 2009 the rains have failed and the drought has spread bringing with it famine and desperation.

US moves toward easing aid restrictions in Somalia

The Obama administration is moving toward easing anti-terrorism restrictions in Somalia that have hampered delivery of urgently needed aid to famine-stricken parts of the country, officials said Monday.

The shift reflects the administration’s alarm about the drought in East Africa, the region’s worst in two decades. About 2.2 million of the 3.7 million people affected by famine live in parts of southern Somalia ruled by al-Shabab, an Islamist extremist group linked to al-Qaeda.

Under current restrictions, U.S.-funded groups could face prosecution if they pay "taxes" or tolls demanded by al-Shabab on food shipments. Humanitarian groups say that has only added to the severe difficulties of working in southern Somalia, where al-Shabab has killed and threatened Western aid workers.

Yemeni strikes against Islamists continue 

Yemeni war planes bombed a village in south Yemen on Monday, killing at least 13 people who a local official said were Islamist militants challenging army control in the flashpoint province of Abyan.

The army has launched an offensive against militants whom they suspect of ties to al Qaeda and who have seized several areas in Abyan in recent months - including the provincial capital Zinjibar, which lies east of a strategic shipping lane where some 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.

But it has yet to recapture any significant territory other than an army camp near the coastal provincial capital.

Residents and a local official said warplanes twice bombed the village of al-Khamila, about 10 km (six miles) from Zinjibar.

Inside the OBL operation

From the New Yorker: During the ninety-minute helicopter flight, James and his teammates rehearsed the operation in their heads. Since the autumn of 2001, they had rotated through Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa, at a brutal pace. At least three of the SEALs had participated in the sniper operation off the coast of Somalia, in April, 2009, that freed Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, and left three pirates dead. In October, 2010, a DEVGRU team attempted to rescue Linda Norgrove, a Scottish aid worker who had been kidnapped in eastern Afghanistan by the Taliban.

Taliban target security firm in Kunduz

Three guards belonging to a private security company have been killed in a suicide attack in northern Afghanistan.

The incident happened near a building in Kunduz city when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance. Two other militants entered the building and engaged in a firefight with security forces, which left nine others injured.

Local officials told the AFP news agency that the firefight between the security forces and the two militants who entered the building finished after the latter blew themselves up in "quick succession".

In June three civilians were killed and 11 others wounded in a suicide car bomb attack on a German military convoy near Kunduz city. The Taliban said they carried out the attack.

The building that was attacked has for several months housed the offices of Lant Defence, a German security firm that protects workers from the German GIZ development agency. The GIZ told news magazine Der Spiegel that a suicide bomber had detonated his car loaded with explosives at the gate of the building.

This was then followed by an attack by two other gunmen. All three were killed, along with three policemen, in the two-hour gun battle that followed. Der Spiegel reported.

US-Pakistan spar over diplomats' travel

The United States has warned the Pakistani government that its diplomats in the U.S. could be hit with travel restrictions similar to those recently imposed on American diplomats in Pakistan unless Pakistan lifts its restrictions, U.S. officials said Monday.

The State Department said the U.S. and Pakistan were working to end the spat, the latest irritant in already strained ties, and it was confident the dispute would be resolved quickly. But the officials said Pakistan had been told the Obama administration would consider reciprocal steps to retaliate for the restrictions set down last month by Pakistan's foreign ministry if they are not rescinded.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the delicacy of the matter.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner declined to comment on the warning but said "reciprocity is always a consideration" when dealing with such matters.

Soldier reaches plea deal on plot to murder Afghans

A soldier who tried to blow the whistle on a plot to murder Afghan civilians last year — only to later say he was pressured into taking part himself — has reached a plea deal under which he will serve no more than eight years in prison, a person familiar with the case said Monday.

Spc. Adam Winfield of Cape Coral, Fla., will plead guilty on Friday to a charge of involuntary manslaughter, a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because Winfield had not yet entered the plea.

Karachi violence escalates 

From CNN's Nasir Habib : At least 30 people were killed in Karachi on Monday night and Tuesday, the latest deaths in cycle of ethnic and political violence in Pakistan's commercial capital.

On Sunday, 60 motorcycles and five vehicles were burned in the city, said Murtaza Ali, a Karachi police official.

The violence has killed more than 1,000 people this year, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Nearly 200 people were slain in July alone.

The rampant violence appears to have little to do with the Taliban and other Islamist extremist groups that are viewed by western leaders as Pakistan's most pressing security problem.

Rather, police and government officials say the violence is fueled by bitter ethnic rivalries and political parties vying for power in this mega-melting pot, home to roughly 15 million people from at least a half-a-dozen ethnic groups.

Car bomb targets Catholic Church in Iraq

A car bomb exploded outside a Catholic church in central Kirkuk early Tuesday, wounding at least 20 people, authorities said.

The attack took place in Kirkuk's Shatterlo neighborhood around 5:30 a.m., according to a police official who spoke to CNN on condition anonymity, because he's not authorized to speak to the media.

The wounded included staff from the Holy Family Church and people with homes nearby.

Police said at least 20 people were injured in the attack, while the Interior Ministry put the number at 23.

The explosion damaged the church and a number of nearby houses, police said. Kirkuk is an ethnically divided mixed city located about 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Baghdad.

Attacks by insurgents in Iraq using what American analysts say are advanced Iranian weapons have dropped significantly over the last few weeks, senior American military officials said Monday, citing a two-track campaign of allied raids on Iranian-backed militants and official Iraqi protests to Tehran.

Powerful roadside bombs that can puncture armored vehicles and lethal rockets fired at American military positions have caused a noticeable increase in violence this summer, including the highest number of American combat fatalities in three years. Top American officials say Iran is supplying the weapons in order to claim credit for driving out the withdrawing American forces.

Arab/Kurds flashpoint could destabilize Iraq

American military leaders believe that long-standing differences between the Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq will lead to violence if all U.S. troops leave that area by Dec. 31, as planned, according to a new study by the Rand Corp.

"Without significant U.S. involvement — and perhaps even with it, given enough time — Arab and Kurdish participants will eventually have a dispute that leads to violence, which will cause the mechanism to degrade or collapse," according to the Defense Department-funded study for the U.S. command in Iraq that Rand released last week.

The study concludes in part that "unless and until [Iraqi] politicians succeed in addressing the strategic challenges that destabilize the region, a U.S. military presence will be needed in northern Iraq to prevent such a breakdown."

This reminder of trouble in northern Iraq arrives as Shiite and Sunni elements are continuing to commit violent acts against each other in the southern part of the country, illustrating the problems facing the Baghdad government as it wrestles with the political impact of seeking a residual U.S. combat force to remain in the country after year’s end.

Breivik makes list of bizarre demands

The confessed killer in Norway’s twin terror attacks that claimed 77 lives has presented a long list of "unrealistic" demands, including the resignation of the government and that his mental condition be investigated by Japanese specialists, his defense lawyer said Tuesday.

Geir Lippestad told the Associated Press his client has two lists of demands. One consists of requests common among inmates such as for cigarettes and civilian clothing. The other is "unrealistic, far, far from the real world and shows he doesn’t know how society works," Lippestad said by telephone.

It’s unlikely that Breivik will be declared legally insane because he appears to have been in control of his actions, the head of the panel that will review his psychiatric evaluation told The Associated Press.

Lippestad said 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik links this second list to his willingness to share information about two other alleged terrorist cells that Breivik has mentioned during questioning.

NSA looks for hackers

The National Security Agency has a challenge for hackers who think they're hot stuff: prove it by working on the "hardest problems on Earth."

Computer hacker skills are in great demand in the U.S. government to fight the cyber wars that pose a growing national security threat - and they are in short supply.

For that very reason an alphabet soup of federal agencies - DOD, DHS, NASA, NSA - are descending on Las Vegas this week for Defcon, an annual hacker convention where the $150 entrance fee is cash only - no registration, no credit cards, no names taken. Attendance is expected to top 10,000.

The National Security Agency is among the keen suitors. The spy agency plays both offense and defense in the cyber wars. It conducts electronic eavesdropping on adversaries and protects U.S. computer networks that hold super secret material - a prize target for America's enemies.

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