By Mike Mount
With little fanfare Monday, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford was confirmed by the Senate as the newest commander for the international forces in Afghanistan, charged with overseeing the final two years of the U.S.-led war and executing the White House plan to phase out troops and leave a small number behind after 2014.
Dunford, much like his confirmation, has made a career of flying under the radar, but he will be front and center as the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, replacing Gen. John Allen. He is well-known in the tight-knit Marine Corps community as a thoughtful and calm leader and has 22 months of commanding in Iraq.
Until his name emerged in August as the nominee for the top job in Afghanistan, few people had heard of him.
His first real position in the public spotlight came at his confirmation hearing last month, which was notable mostly for Sen. John McCain's rant that Dunford lacked Afghanistan experience. McCain seemed amazed that Dunford was not part of the planning phase of the Afghanistan drawdown.
The Arizona senator's concern about Dunford's lack of experience in Afghanistan is quickly refuted by those close to Dunford, who said his work as assistant commandant of the Marine Corps took him to Afghanistan many times. He is no stranger to the country operationally because he was also the head of the Marine Corps command that handles operations and logistics in Afghanistan. He also spent time in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he focused on Afghanistan.
Dunford would not be the first ISAF commander with no real Afghanistan ground experience. When then-Gen. David Petraeus took the position, he had commanded Central Command, which oversaw the war from the U.S., but had never commanded troops on the ground inside Afghanistan. Petraeus's experience was in Iraq.
By Suzanne Kelly
A conciliatory meeting between U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Republican critics backfired following revelations that the CIA removed terrorism references in unclassified talking points about the U.S. consulate attack in Libya.
Rice, who serves as the top U.S. envoy to the United Nations, met with Republican senators Tuesday over the September 11 attack against the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
She asked for the meeting with Republican Sens. John McCain, Kelly Ayotte and Lindsey Graham after their sharp criticism of her response to the Benghazi attack. The Republican senators have maintained that they are concerned about her explanation on what caused the attack.
At the time of the attack that left four Americans dead this year, Rice said an anti-U.S. demonstration led to the violence, an assertion later disproved by intelligence officials and reports from the ground.
By Pam Benson
The nation's counterterrorism chief told Congress on Wednesday the assault on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans was a terrorist attack.
But National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen said at a Senate hearing the best information so far indicates that armed extremists did not plan in advance to assault the Benghazi consulate last Tuesday, but took advantage of an opportunity to do so during a demonstration over an anti-Muslim film.
Olsen said the investigation continues and facts are being developed. But he said it "appears that individuals who were certainly well armed seized on the opportunity presented as the events unfolded that evening and into the morning of September 12.
"We do know that a number of militants in area, as I mentioned, are well armed and maintain those arms. What we don't have at this point is specific intelligence that there was a significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack," he said.
By Pam Benson
President Barack Obama is keeping all options on the table to help the Syrian opposition in its battle to oust the regime of Bashar al-Assad, including the possibility of implementing a no-fly zone, Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser said Wednesday.
John Brennan, deputy national security adviser, said the administration already is providing support in various ways to the rebels, including humanitarian aid. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Brennan said the United States is looking at scenarios and making contingency plans as the situation evolves in Syria.
"These are things that the United States government has been looking at very carefully, trying to understand the implications, trying to understand the advantages and disadvantages of this, and the president has kept us all quite busy making sure that we're able to do everything possible that's going to advance the interests of peace in Syria and not again going to do anything that is going to contribute to more violence," Brennan 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 Pam Benson
A group of Republican senators continued to fire away Tuesday at the Obama administration for its failure to appoint a special counsel to investigate leaks of classified information.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, once again led the charge at a Capitol Hill news conference, criticizing Attorney General Eric Holder for his decision to appoint two Justice Department prosecutors to investigate the recent leaks to the media.
"To think that two people appointed prosecutors from Mr. Holder's office, overseen by Mr. Holder, is also offensive," McCain said. "We need a special counsel. We need someone who the American people can trust and we need to stop the leaks that are endangering the lives of those men and women who are serving our country."
Holder responded to the accusations at a June 12 congressional hearing. He said the Justice Department and the FBI are keeping a careful eye on any potential conflict of interest, but said of the prosecutors, "We have people who have shown independence, an ability to be thorough, and who have the guts to ask tough questions. And the charge that I've given them is to follow the leads wherever they are ... wherever it is in the executive branch or some other component of government."
By Larry Shaughnessy
Sequestration is like the weather in Washington - everybody talks about it, no one likes it, and no one knows what to do about it.
But the Senate has agreed to find out exactly how bad it - sequestration, that is - will be.
Sequestration is the name given the automatic across-the-board spending cuts mandated by Congress if planned budget cuts could not be agreed to.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, a vocal critic of sequestration, teamed with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, to offer an amendment passed by the Senate Thursday examining what sequestration would really mean. FULL POST
By Ted Barrett
Sen. John McCain on Tuesday accused Democrats of "hypocrisy" for opposing the appointment of a special counsel to investigate recent national security leaks, saying they supported such independent investigations in the past when Republicans were in the White House.
McCain's comments came on the same day he pushed for a Senate vote calling for a special counsel but was blocked by Democrats. He spoke to reporters after being told Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-California, preferred the investigation be carried out by two U.S. attorneys appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder.
"I am shocked, shocked. I am shocked to hear Sen. Feinstein now opposes" a special counsel, McCain said in a voice thick with sarcasm.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, defended the Democrats' handling of the leaks and said it was the actions of Republicans like McCain that are "strictly political."
Read the full CNN.com story here.
by Suzanne Kelly
As lawmakers call for formal investigations into the sources of recent leaks that have divulged details of highly classified national security programs, Sen. Dianne Feinstein is looking to the Intelligence Authorization Bill as a way to make people who leak such information more accountable.
In an interview with Wolf Blitzer on the Situation Room, Feinstein said, "I think what we're seeing, Wolf, is an avalanche of leaks and it is very, very disturbing. It's dismayed our allies. It puts American lives in jeopardy. It puts our nation's security in jeopardy."
Ranking members of both the Senate and House Intelligence Committees have joined Feinstein, D-California, in her calls for adding provisions that would require that lawmakers be notified in a more timely fashion when authorized disclosures are made, and for individuals to report the rationale behind those decisions. Other provisions are expected to call for more robust investigations of unauthorized disclosures of information and are expected to ask for additional authorities that would make it easier to drill down on the source of leaks and then prosecute those found to be responsible.
Government employees with access to highly classified information are violating federal laws and nondisclosure agreements if they pass classified information to persons who have not been cleared to receive it.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to add the leak provisions when it takes up the FY13 intelligence authorization bill later this month. The plan is for the full Senate to vote on the measure before the summer recess. Although the House has already passed a version of the bill without the leak provisions, they would likely be added during a conference with the Senate.
CNN's Pam Benson contributed to this report
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.