Thursday, March 17, 2016

Sequestration Budget Cuts Pose 'Greatest Risk' to DoD

Sequestration Budget Cuts Pose 'Greatest Risk' to DoD

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WASHINGTON — The US defense secretary and Joint Chiefs chairman warned lawmakers that scrapping the two-year budget deal would be catastrophic for US national security interests.


The Russian ‘Withdrawal’ and Putin’s Brilliant Deception in Syria

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In a surprise move, Monday (March 14), President Vladimir Putin announced the Russian military mission in Syria was “mostly accomplished” and ordered an immediate withdrawal of “most of our forces” (see EDM, March 15). The partial withdrawal was announced during a late evening meeting, at the Kremlin, with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Despite the announced pullout, the Russian airbase Hmeymim near the coastal Syrian city of Latakia and the naval base in Tartus will continue to be manned by Russian troops and “steadfastly defended on land, air and sea.” According to Putin, these Russian bases “have traditionally been in Syria for many years and will be used to facilitate the peace process and control the ceasefire,” in place since February 27, while United Nations–sponsored peace talks are planned to begin this week, in Geneva (, March 14).
The Russian naval maintenance and supply base in Tartus has, indeed, been in Syria since 1971. But an agreement with the regime of Bashar al-Assad to establish the Hmeymim airbase was signed only at the end of last August, and it became fully operational in late September, when Russian combat jets and helicopters were deployed there under the cover of the “Tsentr 2015” large-scale Russian military maneuvers. According to Shoigu, Russian jet flew “more than 9,000 combat sorties in Syria since September 30, and Russia for the first time performed massive attacks using sea- and air-based long-range cruise missiles.” The “terrorists” in Syria have suffered heavy losses, according to the defense minister, while the Syrian army of President al-Assad has been advancing, “liberating towns and villages” (, March 14).
With the ceasefire, the Russian bomber force based in Hmeymim has decreased its bombing raids. It would seem reasonable to withdraw the attack jets from the overcrowded Hmeymim base back to Russia to allow the pilots and ground maintenance crews to rest and rejoin their families, while the jets receive good quality maintenance on Russia’s home turf instead of idly sitting in Syria during the spring season of rains and storms. In a brilliant tactical move, Putin seems to have turned a reasonable military move to cut forward air force deployment in response to a cessation of hostilities into a major strategic deception ploy by making the global community believe he is actually withdrawing from Syria.
Sources in the defense ministry have told journalists that the withdrawal of the “main part” of Russian attack jets will be complete by March 20 (Interfax, March 15). This was later echoed by the commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Force, Colonel General Viktor Bondarev: “The withdrawal will be swiftly concluded in a couple of days.” The attack jets are being flown back to their home bases by pilots flying over Iraq, Iran and the Caspian Sea. If not carrying ordinance and with additional fuel tanks, this trip can be done without refueling (Russian tactical jets practically never perform midair refueling, and many of Russia’s military aircraft lack the capability). Some of the helicopters deployed in Hmeymim will be transported to Russia by military transport jets, according to Bondarev (, March 17).
The swiftness of the Russian drawdown is a clear indication that the “main part” of the Russian contingent in Syria—that is, the personnel and heavy equipment—is staying behind. But a sizable part of its firepower—the attack jets—are being withdrawn. The Russian marines, T-90 tanks and armor guarding the bases, and antiaircraft missiles, including the long-range S-400 Triumf systems, will stay. Crews operating Russian drones in Syria are also not being pulled out. Apparently, Russia’s naval task force deployed off the Syrian coast, a squadron of fighter-bombers and some helicopters will also stay, together with supplies of heavy equipment, fuel and ordinance (Kommersant, March 15). Russian attack jets may, of course, be swiftly redeployed to Syria anytime, if needed.
Up to 700 Russian military personnel have been decorated for actions in Syria. On March 17, at a reception in the Kremlin for servicemen involved in the Syria bombing campaign, Putin announced: “After the ceasefire, was agreed the number of attack sorties decreased from 60–80 to 20–30 per day. Our previously deployed task force became disproportionate to the task and, in agreement with al-Assad, we decided to withdraw a substantial part.” Putin recommitted to full support for al-Assad, who will be supplied with additional military equipment, while the Russian antiaircraft S-400 and Pantsyr missile crews will be deployed to Hmeymim in full battle readiness to “destroy any aircraft considered threatening.” The Russian military will be helping al-Assad’s forces to plan operations, will supply them with intelligence and continue attack sorties by jets that will be left in Hmeymim. Putin added: “If need be, we can reinforce [Russian bases] in Syria in several hours to meet any threat, using all our arsenal” (, March 17).
Putin put the cost of the Syrian operation at 33 billion rubles (some $500 million), but added that the cost will still rise as used equipment, ordinance and supplies (including such high-cost items as long-range cruise missiles) are replaced. Yet, Putin implied the costs were worth taking: “Only in real battle could we test our capabilities. It is better to use up resources fighting than training.” Putin believes Russia’s security is stronger today: “If we did not do it [go into Syria] we would have paid a bigger price later” (, March 17).
Putin emphasized the importance of “establishing a constructive relationship with the United States” over Syria (, March 17). Russia is today unready to take on the West in an all-out confrontation, when its budget and economy is under pressure and its strategic rearmament program has not yet achieved its major goals. By cutting back its bombing in Syria in agreement with Washington and publicly announcing a “Syrian withdrawal,” Moscow may hope to be rewarded with much-needed sanctions relief, while keeping its hands free to resume massive bombing. Putin did not abandon al-Assad, but apparently he hopes to induce Washington to further modify the US position on regime change in Syria and keep up the pressure on the Syrian opposition and its regional supporters by the threat of redeployment and resumed massive attacks. At the same time, the immediate costs of the Syrian deployment have been cut by the partial withdrawal, while Putin’s critics abroad and at home have been disorientated and discouraged by the pullout propaganda blitz.
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Dagestani Insurgents Include Former Policemen and Other Officials

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Operations by Russian security forces against militants of the armed Islamist underground movement in Dagestan are less frequent now than in previous years, yet they are still a part of life for local residents. Following a special operation near the village of Avadan, in southern Dagestan, at the beginning of March, the authorities unsuccessfully tried to find the members of the jamaat of southern Dagestan (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 2). On March 11, the government introduced a counterterrorist operation regime in Dagestan’s Khunzakh and Botlikh districts, which are in the vicinity of Chechnya’s mountains of Chechnya (, March 11).
Normally, the government introduces such a regime in an area when the police have information about the presence of militants. This time, the authorities identified a small armed group near the village of Orota in Khunzakh district. The militants fought with government forces and retreated, leaving two militants behind to protect their retreat. The two militants were killed a day later, on March 12 (, March 12). The security forces failed to locate the rest of the group, and the authorities lifted the counterterrorist operation regime on the evening of March 12. An insurgent website quickly confirmed that the two men killed were insurgents (, March 12). They were identified as Hajimurat Gajiev (Abubakr), a 31-year-old resident of Akhvakh district, and Magomed Gajimagomedov, a 32-year-old resident of the Khunzakh district village of Gotsatl. According to the police, Gajiev was the head of the terrorist group in the mountainous sector of the republic (, March 12).
Investigators said that both rebels joined the underground movement in 2014 and were involved in killing two police officers and the imam of the mosque in Gotsatl (RIA Novosti, March 12). The imam in Gotsatl, Magomed Zakaryaev, was killed on April 10, 2014, apparently because he had called for a fight against Salafism and rejected neutrality in regard to Muslims who adopted radical jihadist views (Kavkazsky Uzel, April 11, 2014). Murdering the village imam probably reduced the support the rebels had in the village, since imams are normally among the most respected individuals in a community and are involved in various daily activities of the villagers. When such a murder is committed by a resident of another village, it is perceived as a personal insult to the targeted village, which turns the perpetrators of the crime into outcasts. According to rights activists, one of the slain militants, Magomed Gajimagomedov, was suspected of murdering another Gotsatl resident, Omar Anasov, who was killed near the village mosque’s entrance on July 17, 2014 (Kavkazsky Uzel, July 17, 2014). The authorities charged Gajiev and Gajimagomedov with murder, illegal arms possession by groups, and participation in an illegal armed group.
Yet, Orota residents did not seem to have issues with the rebels, who camped out on the outskirts of the village. Photographs of their camp outside the village show components of an improvised explosive device (IED).
The unusual feature of the slain rebels was their association with government agencies. Magomed Gajimagomedov had once been a police captain, while Hajimurat Gajiev was the son of the republic’s prosecutor general, had a law degree and was employed in the prosecutor general’s office. Gajimagomedov managed to commit the murders in his own village and escape prosecution, using his inside knowledge of the police. It is probably not a coincidence that many insurgents who are killed or arrested were either former police officers (, August 18, 2010) or officials with other government agencies (, August 8, 2012).
Some people in Dagestan claim the police support the militants: otherwise, they say, it is hard to explain how the insurgents move around and manage to escape areas surrounded by government forces. These rumors reflect the tacit confrontation between Russian police officials who are dispatched to Dagestan from other regions of the country and the local police, who often serve as auxiliary forces to seal off certain areas. The police from other Russian regions distrust their Dagestani colleagues and consider them unreliable allies in fighting the rebels.
It is hard to tell whether Hajimurat Gajiev and Magomed Gajimagomedov were members of the Caucasus Emirate or of the so-called Islamic State, since the boundaries between the two organizations are blurred.
In any case, the rebels appear to be recruiting young people, including intellectuals. The fact that there are now fewer rebel attacks does not necessarily mean that the situation in Dagestan is improving. The underground movement is in the process of becoming a branch of the terrorist organization Islamic State and gaining strength by spreading radical ideas and undermining Sufism in the republic. When the Salafis think that they are strong enough to challenge the status quo—as happened in 1999, when they attempted to proclaim the Islamic Republic of Dagestan—they will launch another offensive, which will be far stronger than the current one.
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Russia’s Conflict Against Ukraine and the West: The Religious Dimension

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The conflict Russia is waging against Ukraine has, from the very beginning, had many different dimensions. Currently, it is increasingly assuming the narrative and form of an existential conflict between two antagonistic civilizations with competing ideologies, cultures and religions. The February 12 meeting in Havana, between the Roman Pontiff, Pope Francis, and Russian Patriarch Kirill, is a case in point. The mutually exclusive Ukrainian versus Russian interpretations of that meeting certainly illustrate the way religious rhetoric is being used by the Kremlin against the Ukrainian nation and state—and the West as a whole.
Commentary in Russia and Ukraine on the February meeting between the two religious leaders continued right through until March. Russian media were pointedly enthusiastic, declaring a “breakthrough” in the history of inter-confessional relations (, TASS, February 14). While Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) officials made no secret of their deep satisfaction with the results of the “historic summit” (, February 24).
Furthermore, when speaking about the meeting, Archimandrite Melchisedech, the press secretary of the Synodal Department for Monasteries and Monasticism and a superior at two Moscow parish churches, was apparently trying to convince his parishioners that the Pontiff had allegedly repented the sins of the Catholic Church and was eager to convert to Orthodoxy. “Rumor has it that the Pope is sorry that Catholics failed to preserve the purity of Orthodoxy, and he is about to return to the fold of the Holy Orthodox Church,” Melchisedech claimed (, February 24). According to him, the Pope was penitent for blessing euthanasia, gay parades and same-sex marriages.
Meanwhile, both Ukrainian clergy and the general public expressed disappointed or even shock by the wording of the joint declaration released following Francis and Kirill’s talks (, February 13)—specifically paragraphs 25, 26 and 27 concerning the situation in Ukraine. According to the official statement of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, paragraph 25 of the joint declaration does not take into consideration the opinion of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church; paragraph 26 totally ignores the Russian armed, political, economic and informational aggression against Ukraine as the key reason of the war in Donbas; and paragraph 27 neglects the violation of religious canons by the Moscow Patriarchate in the 17th century as the background for the split in the Orthodox Church. In the opinion of the Kyiv Patriarchate, those paragraphs are written “in the worst traditions of Soviet diplomacy, with numerous ambiguities, biased views and unfounded assertions.” Alluding to the 1938 Munich accords that splintered Czechoslovakia, the Kyiv Patriarchate declared that it wholly rejects any decisions regarding Ukraine or its religious and public life made in the absence of Ukrainian representatives or while ignoring their opinion (, February 15).
Lubomyr Husar, the Major Archeparch Emeritus of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, believes that the wording of the joint declaration is a demonstration of the dramatic psychological effect Moscow has had on the Vatican and the West in general. According to him, Russia has built an extremely effective propaganda machine and, for decades, has used it to shape the opinion of Western publics to be more accepting of Russian narratives. “I am very sorry that the Pope has fallen a victim to it. I am not aware of all details, but as far as I heard there were people, who had in some way outplayed the Pope,” Husar claimed. “The Pope has been eager to establish peaceful contacts with Russia and the Patriarch, but I guess he had been misinformed,” the Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergyman said (, March 7).
Ukrainian commentators also questioned the ROC’s relative global importance versus the Russian narrative claiming the Russian Church to be a comparable peer of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, Yakov Krotov, a Moscow-based priest of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, described the summit as a meeting between an elephant and a mouse. “There are one billion [Catholic] believers on one side and 100 million at most but, in reality, barely 10 million [Russian Orthodox] on the other side,” he wrote (, February 12).
It is, indeed, extremely difficult to properly quantify the Russian Orthodox Church’s believers, since the size and rank of the Russian Church in the Orthodox World is based mainly on the number of parishes under its jurisdiction. As the world’s largest Orthodox Church, the Moscow Patriarchate boasts more than 30,000 parishes. However, only about half of them are based in the Russian Federation itself. For comparison, there are a total of 18,204 Orthodox parishes in Ukraine (as of January 1, 2015), including 12,241 of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate (a self-governing Church of the ROC in Ukraine), 4,738 of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, and 1,225 of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (, May 30, 2015).
However, particularly since the start of the Russian war against Ukraine, increasingly more Ukrainians have been affiliating themselves with the Kyiv Patriarchate. According to some polls, they now outnumber the local Moscow Patriarchate’s faithful, reaching a quarter of the nation’s total population, or more than 10 million people. As a result, many parishes in Ukraine have changed their jurisdiction from the Moscow to Kyiv Patriarchate (, December 12, 2015).
The Russian Church has been doing everything in its power to prevent the possible unification of the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches of Moscow and Kyiv Patriarchates, seeing it as the main threat to its hegemony over Eastern Orthodoxy. Likewise, the ROC has actively tried to keep the two Orthodox Churches in Ukraine not under its control from coming together. The merger of the Kyiv Patriarchate with the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which has been attempted at least five times since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, failed each time. Last year, the two sides were closer than ever to achieving integration. But through its back-channel overtures to the Autocephalous Church’s leaders, the Moscow Patriarchate was again able to block the process (, July 22, 2015).
Nevertheless, Yakov Krotov argues that the Moscow Patriarchate—like the Russian state itself—is entirely dependent on Russian hydrocarbon sales. But as those revenues continue to dwindle due to chronically low oil prices, the Russian Orthodox Church and its reach in Ukraine is bound to continue to weaken as well (, February 12).
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Iran seen escaping U.N. sanctions over missiles due to ambiguous resolution

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Iran will likely escape new United Nations sanctions, though the U.N. Security Council could issue a public reprimand for recent launches of what Western officials described as ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, diplomats said.


Russian Archive Chief Out After Debunking Soviet WW II Legend 

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The longtime director of the Russian State Archive has been removed from his post less than a year after he exposed a popular Soviet World War II legend to be “fiction” and railed against Soviet “myths” in front of top officials.

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Syria Rejects Kurdish Bid For Federal Region

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Syria's Foreign Ministry dismisses the move as "unconstitutional and worthless" and a major opposition group warns against it too.

The bromance between Trump and Putin is over


Europe Grapples With Plan to Return Refugees From Greece to Turkey 

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The Continent’s leaders had challenges reaching a consensus on the crisis as humanitarian groups have called the proposed policy a violation of international law.

These 5 Facts Explain the State of Global Corruption

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You can learn a lot about a country’s politics by looking closely at its corruption scandals. Who is investigating whom? What do the investigators really hope to achieve? And what do the investigations tell us about the country’s true balance of power? These five facts offer examples and answers.
1. Brazil
Brazil’s so-called Car Wash corruption scandal, which appears on the verge of bringing down a president, centers on Petrobras, the state-run oil giant. Last March, a top Petrobras official admitted that the company was awarding contracts in exchange for bribes, some of which were diverted to political slush funds. Brazil’s current president, Dilma Rousseff, was energy minister and chairwoman of Petrobras when the alleged kickbacks took place, though she has yet to be directly implicated in any wrongdoing.
But with an approval rating of just 21.8 percent, plenty of Brazilians see her as guilty by association—55.6 percent of Brazilians want to see her impeached. Former president and Rousseff mentor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was recently detained for questioning by police. Dozens of politicians are now under investigation, the vast majority of whom belong to Rousseff’s party. This is a country with a long history of official corruption: Four of five living former presidents are currently under investigation for one thing or another.
Tensions boiled over this weekend, and some 3 million Brazilians took to the streets. This type of social unrest would be a worrying sign for the country’s economy, but the Brazilian stock market surged 18 percent on news of Lula’s detention and speculation that Rousseff might finally be impeached—speculation that will grow stronger with the news that Rousseff may have offered Lula a cabinet post to help give him greater immunity from foreign prosecutors. And that’s the main takeaway here: Brazil is a country with a genuinely independent and empowered investigator capable of putting the country’s most powerful under a public microscope. Anti-corruption drives can create political chaos in the short-term, but they can benefit the country in the long-term if sunlight is used properly as a disinfectant.
2. Malaysia
That’s not the case with Malaysia. In 2009, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak established a sovereign wealth fund called 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) to help the country attract foreign investment and boost its economy. Long story short, by 2015, 1MDB owed investors $11 billion. As investigations of the state fund got underway, it was revealed that $681 million dollars had been deposited into Najib’s personal account. The prime minister copped to the money transfer, but claimed it was a “gift” from the Saudi royal family, about $620 million of which he says he has returned. Two weeks ago, the 1MDB investigation uncovered that the total routed into Najib’s personal account was actually about $1 billion.
Malaysia is a de facto one-party country. All of the country’s six post-independence prime ministers have come from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). That’s why Najib owes his position to his party, not to the Malaysian people—good news for a man currently polling at 23 percent, the lowest ever for a Malaysian head of government. He has spent the last half-decade strengthening his position within UMNO, and the past year since the 1MDB scandal broke purging his party of potential adversaries. This past summer, Najib fired his attorney general, who had been leading the 1MDB investigation. Malaysia exemplifies how corruption drives can fall short in countries with a single political party and weak governing institutions.
3. South Africa
Half a world away, South Africa tells much the same story. Like Najib, South African president Jacob Zuma has been dogged by corruption allegations for years. Most recently, Zuma has been accused of improperly using taxpayer money for “security upgrades” to his personal residence. These include construction of an amphitheater, a swimming pool, and a chicken run—because you can never be too careful. As of this writing, a South African court is hearing a case to reinstate 783—the actual number—corruption charges against him, which include pocketing kickbacks associated with arms deals. But like Najib, Zuma’s power comes from effective control of his political party rather than directly from the people—just 36 percent of South Africans approve of Zuma’s job performance in 2016, down from 64 percent in 2011. Don’t expect South Africa’s anti-corruption push to amount to much because this is a country where investigators are empowered to bring damaging allegations to light, but not to enforce their judgments. Zuma will probably survive through the end of his term in 2019.
4. China
In China, it’s the leader who runs the investigations. President Xi Jinping has presided over a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign, with a particular emphasis on curbing wasteful government spending. Over the last three years, punishments have been handed down to 750,000—also the actual number—party members. Corruption inspection teams have more than doubled their staff in recent years, and have gotten a boost from the Chinese people—since 2013, corruption inspectors have received more than 270,000 tips from the Chinese public. Beijing even launched a WeChat account in January to make reporting graft easier.
Of course, the anti-corruption push is politically useful for Xi. Aside from dealing with the country’s real corruption problem, the campaign aims to restore public confidence in the ruling party at a time when the Chinese economy is slowing. It also helps that the anti-graft crackdown ensures that Xi can sideline opponents of his political agenda ahead of next year’s leadership transition in which five of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the pinnacle of the country’s leadership, are scheduled to be replaced.
5. Russia
The Kremlin has Russia’s corruption problem fully under control. At least that’s what the 90 percent of Russians who get their news from state-dominated media have been told. Vladimir Putin currently has an approval rating of 83 percent, so the message seems to be getting through. But non-Kremlin sources tell another story. On a scale of 1 to 7 where 7 is “most corrupt”, Freedom House ranks Russia a 6.75. This is a country where corruption investigations are tools used by one political/business faction to cut into another’s market share. These are not the kinds of investigations that strengthen a country or its economy.
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Is Tighter Pentagon Spending Killing Troops? 

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Ever since Congress and the White House put caps on federal spending starting in 2013, there have been calls to lift them for the Pentagon. The military’s pain has so become acute, both lawmakers and generals are now warning the cuts could kill more American troops in wartime—and already are killing more in peacetime, because of a lack of training.
“Our nation will deploy young Americans into battle without sufficient training or equipment to fight a war that will take longer, be larger, cost more and ultimately claim more American lives than it otherwise would have,” Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the armed services committee, said Thursday.
But it’s also a peacetime problem, far from the danger zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last year, 12 non-combat helicopter crashes killed 30 troops. Twelve more perished in January when two Marine CH-53s collided off Hawaii during a night-time training mission. Most of the deaths, including those in Hawaii, occurred during training missions. Funding for such missions has been cut in recent years as money has been funneled to units readying for deployment to war zones instead.
The Marine Corps’ Class A mishap rate—any crash that has injured or killed someone, or destroyed an aircraft—has jumped from 2.15 per 100,000 flying hours for much of the past decade to 2.67 in 2014 and 3.96 so far in 2016. Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Armed services committee, asked General Robert Neller, the Marine commander, about the rise at a Wednesday hearing. “We track this very closely,” Neller told him. “The simple fact is that we don’t have enough airplanes to meet the training requirements for the entire force.”
The Army faces a similar problem. “Aircraft accidents have increased and we are very concerned about it,” General Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff, said at the same hearing, according to Stars and Stripes. The service wants to boost monthly flying hours per pilot from 10 to 12 to increase training. “Ideally we want them [boosted] to 14-15 hours per month, but we can’t get there with the budget.”
The generals aren’t crying wolf, according to Alan Diehl, a long-time military-aviation accident investigator. “I think the generals are correct about funding limitations being a factor in their increased mishap rates,” says Diehl, a former Air Force Safety Center research psychologist. “Most of these mishaps have involved helicopters and have occurred during night ops, and require skills that can quickly deteriorate when not frequent practiced.”
Using the prospect, or fact, of dead Americans is a long-standing tradition in Pentagon budget wars. But when you’ve got 1.4 million troops training with huge machines moving at high speeds, there are going to be casualties. The Pentagon always insists that any peacetime death is unacceptable. But the military routinely deploys weapons that could be made safer, or funds training at lower levels that makes operating aircraft and other weapons more dangerous.
The key question always has been when do those levels become unacceptable, and to what degree can more spending make such operations safer. The caps were imposed by Congress and the White House, and can be lifted by them, as well. But enough lawmakers believe the spending limits are the only thing restraining the growth of the national debt, which now stands at $19 trillion.
On Thursday, McCain criticized Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for endorsing defense budgets that are sapping U.S. military readiness. Dunford, nicknamed “Fighting Joe” for his command of the 5th Marine Regiment during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, countered with a rhetorical jab of his own. “We have made the best decisions that we can,” he said, “within the top-line that we were given from Congress.”
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Largest Oval Blue Diamond to Be Auctioned in Hong Kong

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The largest oval blue diamond ever to appear at auction is to be sold April 5 in Hong Kong. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports on a recent press event in London that showcased the rare gemstone.

U.S. to declassify intelligence, military records on Argentina's 'Dirty War'

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States government will declassify documents from U.S. military and intelligence agencies related to Argentina's 1976-1983 "Dirty War," the seven-year period when Argentina cracked down on left-wing opponents, U.S. officials said on Thursday.


Cost of Russia's Syrian Campaign Revealed as $480 Million

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Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday the military operation in Syria has cost Russia approximately 33 billion rubles ($484 million).
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Песков: Путин встретился с экс-премьером Италии Проди - РИА Новости

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РИА Новости

Песков: Путин встретился с экс-премьером Италии Проди
РИА Новости
Экс-председатель Совета министров Италии Романо Проди находится в России с частным визитом, сообщил пресс-секретарь главы российского государства Дмитрий Песков. Президент РФ В. Путин. Архивное фото. © РИА Новости. Алексей Никольский | Купить иллюстрацию.
Сближению России и ЕС помогут четыре пространстваКоммерсантъ
Путин встретился с экс-премьером Италии Романо ПродиВзгляд
Путин провел частную встречу с экс-премьер-министром Италии ПродиРосбалт.RU
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Почему референдум не сохранил СССР? 

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From: SvobodaRadio
Duration: 54:00

25 лет назад – 17 марта 1991 года состоялся единственный за всю историю существования СССР всесоюзный референдум, на котором гражданам тогда еще почти единой страны было предложено высказаться за сохранение Советского Союза как обновленной федерации равноправных суверенных республик.
В РСФСР, Белорусской ССР, Украинской ССР, Узбекской ССР, Казахской ССР, Азербайджанской ССР, Киргизской ССР, Таджикской ССР, Туркменской ССР были созданы центральные республиканские комиссии референдума, образованы округа, сформированы окружные и участковые комиссии.
Против проведения на своей территории всесоюзного референдума высказались высшие органы власти Грузии, Латвии, Литвы, Молдавии, Армении и Эстонии; в них не были созданы центральные республиканские комиссии референдума. Тем не менее, голосование в этих республиках было проведено – в тех населенных пунктах, где были созданы участковые избирательные комиссии, а также в воинских частях.
В референдуме из 185,6 миллиона (80%) граждан Советского Союза с правом голоса приняли участие 148,5 миллиона (79,5%); из них 113,5 миллиона (76,43%) высказались за сохранение обновленного СССР. Но в Москве и Ленинграде только около половины жителей проголосовали за Союз.
Почему позитивный результат референдума как выражение высшей воли советского народа не предотвратил распад СССР? – обсуждают народные депутаты СССР Виталий Коротич, Аркадий Мурашев, Николай Травкин, народный депутат РСФСР Виктор Аксючиц.
Ведущий – Владимир Кара-Мурза-старший.
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Democrats use ‘nuclear option’ to kill immigration bill

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The bill involved a plan to punish cities and towns that prohibit police from asking about a person's immigration status.

AP NewsBreak: FBI Investigating Virginia Stun Gun Incident - ABC News

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Obama Admin Stalling Investigation Into U.S. ‘Ransom Payment’ to Iran 

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The Obama administration is being accused of stalling a congressional investigation into a purported $1.7 billion taxpayer-funded “ransom payment” to Iran in exchange for the release of several U.S. prisoners, according to documents and information provided to the Washington Free Beacon by sources familiar with the matter.
The administration initially came under fire from congressional critics in January, when it was announced that the United States had settled a longstanding legal dispute with Iran over the breakdown in a decades-old arms sale.
Under the terms of the settlement, Iran was to be paid a $400 million balance and an additional $1.3 billion in interest from a taxpayer fund maintained by the Treasury Department, a State Department official confirmed to the Free Beacon in January.
The settlement was reached outside of the recently implemented nuclear deal and is separate from the $150 billion in unfrozen cash assets the United States is obligated to give to Iran under that agreement, the official said.
The $1.7 billion payment was announced just prior to the release of five U.S. prisoners who had been held in Iran, leading to accusations that the deal is tantamount to a ransom payment. Iranian officials, at the time, independently described the transaction as a form of ransom.
While the Obama administration immediately denied that the two issues were linked, lawmakers remained skeptical and pushed for more answers.
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.) reached out to Secretary of State John Kerry on Jan. 21 to outline his concerns and request further disclosures about what he called a “ransom payment” to Iran, according to a letter sent by the lawmaker and obtained by the Free Beacon.
The State Department has not responded and is said to have ignored multiple follow-up requests from Pompeo’s office, according to sources familiar with the situation.
When asked Thursday whether a response is in the works, a State Department official told the Free Beacon, “We take seriously all correspondence from Congress and respond accordingly.”
The administration’s delay is causing frustration on Capitol Hill and prompting accusations that the State Department is stalling congressional efforts to investigate how the settlement with Iran was reached.
“The State Department likes to drag its feet on responding to Congress, particularly on issues related to the Iran nuclear deal,” one source familiar with the situation said. “This stonewalling is reminiscent of recent testimony by a senior Department of Homeland Security official who would not answer members’ questions on refugees and visas.”
“Congress is only trying to do its job of holding President Obama accountable and ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent wisely,” the source added. “The Obama administration’s refusal to answer legitimate questions leaves the American people to wonder what they are hiding.”
In Pompeo’s case, the State Department initially confirmed its receipt of the letter in January but did not provide information as to when officials might respond. The administration subsequently failed to respond to further requests for a response issued over the following months, sources said.
Pompeo’s investigation surrounds “the timing and details” of the cash transfer to Iran of $1.7 billion, according to his letter.
The administration’s behavior “indicates it might be a ransom payment and it is likely interpreted as such by our adversaries,” he wrote. “We may be seeing a dangerous precedent in action as three Americans, reportedly kidnapped by Iranian-backed Shia militias in Baghdad, remain missing.”
“Many find this timing suspicious,” he said. “I fear this payment is the latest incident that is establishing a dangerous precedent that will lead to more Americans being captured abroad.”
The lawmaker sought further information on “the relationship” between the $1.7 billion settlement and the release of the five American prisoners. He also wants to determine whether the lawsuit was ever discussed in “conversations with the Iranians about the release of American hostages.”
“Did you secure an assurance from the Iranians that they will not use this $1.7 billion to fund terrorism?” he asked.
Pompeo goes on to request details about additional legal claims by Iran, asking: “How much money does Iran assert we still owe them? How many more billions can we expect the Obama administration to hand to the Ayatollah?”
Other sources familiar with the matter also chastised the administration for dragging its feet.
“This is one of the main ways the Obama administration hides its Iran foreign policy,” said one foreign policy consultant who works intimately with Congress on the Iran portfolio. “Sometimes they over-classify information to keep it secret, sometimes they mislead lawmakers about their intentions, but a lot of the time they engage in this kind of sandbagging.”
“By the time anyone gets any answers, whatever catastrophic policy they were hiding has become the new normal,” the source said.
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Inside the Ring: Targeting Islamic State’s al-Baghdadi

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President Obama wants to kill or capture Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and has made striking the self-proclaimed caliph one of the highest priorities for his final year in office.
That goal was disclosed in a revealing interview with the president in The Atlantic magazine. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg quotes the president and a number of senior aides including Ben Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser. The lengthy piece relates how the president and his aides define their foreign policy doctrine as: “Don’t do stupid sh—.”
According to the lengthy article, the president is intent on leaving office with a “clean barn” for the next president. But his most urgent priority is fighting the Islamic State that has taken over large parts of Iraq and Syria and is expanding to several other parts of the world. Mr. Obama regards the group as a direct but not existential threat to U.S. national security.
Read the entire article at the Washington Times.
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Strong Intelligence Oversight Can Happen Within the Executive Branch 

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That the American public is divided on the current showdown between Silicon Valley and the national security state is to be expected. What is more striking, at least at first blush, is that the government — and in particular, the executive branch — is itself of multiple minds. Obviously the FBI and the Justice Department have staked out clear-cut positions. But, as has been reported, certain other national security agencies (notably the Pentagon and the NSA) have pushed a softer line. And other departments like Commerce and State, by reason of their missions, find themselves in a more moderate place.
This sort of internal dissent may seem like a recipe for governmental paralysis. But, in fact, it has the potential to produce sounder and more rights-protective security practices. As I argue in a recent article, the ability of the White House to hear from multiple stakeholders — inside and outside of government — is a defining feature of the emerging landscape of intelligence oversight. And it represents a major opportunity to make some headway in this area. Last generation’s oversight mechanisms involved secret tribunals and committees purporting to assess the work of our spy agencies. Increasingly, however, the oversight process looks more like policymaking within the regulatory state, with disparate interests making their case to the White House, which then must decide how to weigh the competing strategic, economic, political, and ethical issues.
This sort of holistic approach is welcome. A president who is mindful of the myriad tradeoffs entailed in this area can ask skeptical questions of his intelligence chiefs. But he can also appear before a tech-savvy audience at South by Southwest and register his disagreement with privacy “absolutism.” In other words, and most fundamentally, the White House can optimize on intelligence practices that are simultaneously effective and command the respect of the public.
For a useful contrast, consider the situation in Europe, which nowadays is schizophrenic when it comes to issues of surveillance and security. On the one hand, its privacy technocrats (and the judges on both the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights) have staked out stark positions on both American and European security practices. But this pro-privacy bent coincides with the rise, in a place like France, of relatively unchecked security measures. Europe’s spies, it seems, pay its privacy regulators no heed.
Empowering the White House in shaping surveillance policy is not a panacea. But some well-rehearsed potential concerns, for example the perennial fear of intelligence politicization, should not stand in the way of its acceptance. In a world in which the complex tradeoffs entailed by surveillance policies now dominate the headlines, an integrated approach to intelligence oversight should be embraced, not feared.
Read on Just Security »
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Putin orchestrated success in Syria

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From the narrow vantage point of Russian self-interest, Putin has pulled off another coup and shown that he is a more adept international poker player than his counterpart in Washington.

NATO commander: Russia withdrawal could be step to Syria peace deal

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NATO’s top military officer on Thursday expressed hope that Russia’s plan to end military operations in Syria could be an important step toward a comprehensive peace deal in war-torn Syria.


Dunford: Iran Remains the Same ‘Malign Influence’ It Was Before Nuclear Deal 

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Gen. Joseph Dunford testified Thursday that, even after the Iran nuclear deal spearheaded by the Obama administration, Iran remained the same malignant influence in the Middle East that it was before the agreement.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) asked Dunford during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the defense budget about Iran’s behavior in the wake of the deal.
“Post-agreement, is Iran becoming a better actor in the region, or [has] their behavior gotten worse?” Graham asked.
“Senator, Iran was a malign influence in the region prior to the agreement,” Dunford said. “Iran remains a malign influence today.”
Iran, the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, received billions in sanctions relief as part of the nuclear deal, and the nation has conducted ballistic missile tests in defiance of a U.N. Security Council resolution that “calls upon” Iran not to engage in such acts.
In an interview with NPR in December 2014, President Obama expressed optimism that the nuclear deal would push Iran to join the international community and desist its belligerent behavior.
“They have a path to break through that isolation and they should seize it,” Obama said. “Because if they do, there’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules, and that would be good for everybody. That would be good for the United States, that would be good for the region, and most of all, it would be good for the Iranian people.”

Putin Pays Iran Back for Withholding Ground Troops from Syria

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March 17, 2016, 7:37 PM (IDT)
Putin is settling accounts with Tehran for reneging on its promise of ground troops for Syria by leaving Iran in the lurch.

Russia Pulls out of West Syria, Leaves US to Face ISIS in the East

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March 17, 2016, 7:37 PM (IDT)
Russia pulls the bulk of its forces out of Syria after achieving its purpose, with hardly a shot fired against ISIS, whose strongholds in the eastern sector are left for the US-led coalition to fight.
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Obama Hikes Post-Presidency Payments 

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President Obama sought to increase the amount of money available for the federal government to spend on former presidents in advance of his White House exit.
In his budget requests for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, Obama proposed hikes in the appropriations for expenditures of former presidents, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service published Wednesday.
The report, which discusses the pensions and other federal benefits offered to former commanders-in-chief by way of the Former Presidents Act, specifies that Obama’s 2017 budget proposes a nearly 18 percent hike in appropriations for expenditures of former presidents. He successfully requested an increase in such appropriations for fiscal year 2016.
“The President’s FY2017 budget request seeks $3,865,000 in appropriations for expenditures for former Presidents, an increase of $588,000 (17.9%) from the FY2016 appropriation level. The increase in requested appropriations for FY2017 anticipates President Barack Obama’s transition from incumbent to former President,” the report reads.
“For FY2016, President Obama requested and received appropriations of $3,277,000 for expenditures for former Presidents–an increase of $25,000 from FY2015 appropriated levels.”
The Former Presidents Act, enacted in 1958, provides living former presidents with a pension, office staff and support, funds for travel, Secret Service protection, and mailing privileges. It also provides benefits for presidential spouses. Currently, former presidents are awarded a pension equal to the salary of cabinet secretaries, which totaled $203,700 for the 2015 calendar year and was boosted by $2,000 for the current calendar year.
Critics of the act argue that it financially supports former presidents who are not struggling. Many of them, alternatively, have gone on to profit from writing books about their time in the White House or delivering paid speaking engagements.
Former President Bill Clinton, for example, earned $132 million for delivering paid speeches between February 2001 and March 2015, according to an analysis from CNN. Clinton received $924,000 in taxpayer dollars last year by way of the Former Presidents Act.
Republicans in the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would cap annual pensions for former presidents at $200,000. Additionally, the bills would cut each pension by a dollar for every dollar the former president earns over $400,000 in the private sector in a given year. The measure was approved by the House in January with bipartisan support.
“It’s pretty simple. You want a retirement and pension, it’s there. But if you’re going to go out and make enormous sums of money, then you don’t need taxpayer subsidies,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), who introduced the bill in the House, told ABC News in an interview.
“The former presidents are making gobs of money speaking and writing books, more power to them, but that doesn’t mean they need more taxpayer dollars on top of that,” Chaffetz added. “It’s embarrassing that they take that money.”
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Kremlin Unaware of Iraqi Kurds Allegedly Receiving Russian Arms

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The Kremlin spokesman said he could not comment on the reports about Russian arms deliveries to Iraqi Kurds.

Sequestration Budget Cuts Pose 'Greatest Risk' to DoD

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WASHINGTON — The US defense secretary and Joint Chiefs chairman warned lawmakers that scrapping the two-year budget deal would be catastrophic for US national security interests.


The Russian ‘Withdrawal’ and Putin’s Brilliant Deception in Syria


Libya's U.N.-backed government to move to Tripoli within days: PM

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya's U.N.-backed unity government will move to Tripoli from Tunis "within a few days", its prime minister said in a television interview broadcast on Thursday.


US Senators Call to Counter Russian, Chinese Propaganda

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U.S. Senators Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, and Chris Murphy, a New York Democrat, have introduced a bill aimed countering propaganda from to Russia, China and other countries. According to its sponsors, the legislation, called the "Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act,” is aimed at improving the ability of the United States to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation, and help local communities in other countries protect themselves from manipulation from abroad. Speaking during a conference Wednesday at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research institute, Portman said he believes the U.S. is not making sufficient efforts to counter "destabilizing" foreign propaganda and disinformation. "While much of the public discussion of these issues is focused on the urgent need to counter extremist messaging, and I understand that, I think it is equally important to address the extremely sophisticated, comprehensive and long-term efforts by nation states to manipulate and control information in order to achieve their national objectives, often at the expense of U.S. allies; our interests, our values," Portman said. "These countries spend vast sums of money on advanced broadcast and digital media capabilities, targeted campaigns, funding of foreign political movements, and other efforts to influence key audiences and populations.” According to the Ohio Republican, the scale of spending on the U.S. government's Voice of America, and that of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is funded by the U.S. Congress, is dwarfed by the money spent on RT, a  Kremlin-funded satellite TV channel, and the Chinese government's CCTV. There also is a need to restructure U.S. counter-propaganda efforts, Portman said. “Surprisingly," he said, "there is currently no single U.S. governmental agency or department charged with the national level development, integration and synchronization of whole-of-government strategies to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation.” Murphy said the proposed legislation seeks to restructure U.S. government counter-propaganda efforts to allow for better coordination. "The simple suggestion in our bill is to have an umbrella strategy that unites all of the different agencies that are playing roles, so that we can have a coordinated strategy." Kristin Lord, a former acting president of the U.S. Institute of Peace and now CEO of IREX, a non-profit organization that promotes global change, told the conference an important feature of the legislation is that it proposes giving resources to invest in what “credible” local actors are doing in communities around the world. “Whether it’s counter-propaganda, whether it’s counter-extremism, we just really have to come to terms with the fact the United States government is not always the most credible voice in these debates,” she said. “So we have to invest in the people who are making the credible arguments.” Under the bill, a new Center for Information Analysis and Response would play the coordinating role. This center, Portman said, would be led by the U.S. State Department, but with the "active participation" of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (which oversees VOA and RFE/RL, among others), "the intelligence community and other relevant agencies." The bill also would set up an Information Access Fund, which would assist in the training of local journalists, as well as award grants and contracts to non-government and civil society organizations, research centers, private sector companies, media organizations and other experts outside the U.S. government that have experience in identifying and analyzing disinformation methods used by foreign governments. This fund, said Murphy, would "simply seek to seed good information efforts -- telling the truth, telling counter-narratives to the Russian story, to the Chinese propaganda stories all around the world." The legislation, he said, also would "beef up" support of U.S. State Department exchange programs, "which have been so vital to the growing move toward self-determination all around the world."

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