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April 4, 2008
Notes from the Pentagon

Nuclear deal
The Bush administration is set to conclude a nuclear agreement with Russia to be unveiled Sunday during President Bush's meeting with outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Russian resort city of Sochi.

Some in Congress are raising questions about whether Moscow should be rewarded with the "123 agreement" on nuclear materials, so called after a section of the Atomic Energy Act requiring it, because of Russia's role in boosting Iran's nuclear program with technology and weapons transfers over the past decade.

If negotiations go well, the agreement will be signed and the administration will submit it to Congress next week, said U.S. officials familiar with the deal. Under the law, Congress then has 90 days to block the agreement or it enters into force.

An administration official said the nuclear materials deal probably will not be signed unless a broader "strategic framework declaration" is reached this weekend on several issues. The framework will seek to map current and future U.S.-Russia ties and address issues such as missile defense, energy cooperation, further nuclear weapons cuts and economic issues.

It is hoped the Russians will agree to disagree with a planned U.S. missile defense site in central Europe but not disrupt ties over it.

The 123 agreement is required before the United States can cooperate with Moscow on nuclear materials, such as storing or reprocessing spent fuel, or providing technology related to advanced reactors.

"The Russians really want this because it is a seal of approval for their peaceful nuclear program," said one U.S. official.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress are questioning the wisdom of the deal, which appears to be a concession to Moscow aimed at getting the Kremlin to go along with U.S. plans for a third missile defense interceptor site in Poland and the Czech Republic, something officials say is unlikely to happen.

Word of the 123 agreement comes as Congress is debating legislation that would require a presidential certification before any nuclear cooperation with countries involved in supplying nuclear fuel to Iran's nuclear program, or missiles and advanced conventional arms, which Moscow supplied to Tehran for more than a decade.

That legislation has a good chance of passing both houses of Congress because it was drafted, in part, to honor the memory of the late Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat.

The legislation is likely to be opposed by the Bush administration, which views such measures as undermining diplomacy.

Islam cleared
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England cleared his special assistant of any wrongdoing related to a run-in with former Joint Staff analyst Stephen Coughlin, and amid questions about the Muslim aide's background.

"The deputy secretary's office has thoroughly reviewed the issues of concern raised by a few members of Congress and the media and has concluded there is no reason to question Cmdr. Hesham Islam's credibility or his allegiance to his country," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told Inside the Ring.

Mr. Islam, a retired Navy commander, came under criticism after a meeting last fall with Mr. Coughlin, a leading specialist on the relationship between Islamic law and terrorism, when Mr. Islam told associates that Mr. Coughlin was a "Christian zealot with a pen" because of his hard-line views on the ties between extremism and Islam.

Additionally, journalist Claudia Rosett wrote a National Review Online article questioning Mr. Islam's official biography that had been posted on the official Pentagon Web site and was removed after her article ran.

Miss Rosett noted that Mr. Islam claimed to be in Cairo when it was bombed by Israel in 1967, but there are no records of bombing the Egyptian capital, only the airport near Cairo.

Mr. Islam also claimed to have been on board a freighter sunk by an Iranian torpedo in the Persian Gulf, but that could not be verified.

Investigators determined there are some things that are "unknowable" about Mr. Islam's background.

Some defense security officials said the discrepancies raise concerns because Mr. Islam holds a security clearance.

Mr. England's investigators also denied that Mr. Islam or Mr. England got Mr. Coughlin fired from the contractor position as a Joint Staff analyst, which happened after the contentious meeting between Mr. Islam and the analyst. Mr. Coughlin left the Joint Staff last month and is working for the Office of the Secretary of Defense shop for special operations and low-intensity conflict.

Mr. Morrell said Mr. Islam has assisted Mr. England for the past three years and is "a valuable adviser" who helps with Mr. England's contacts with foreign officials.

Mr. England also wrote to three members of Congress who had raised security concerns about Mr. Islam to state his support for Mr. Islam and the diplomatic outreach program he runs.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was one of the three who had asked Mr. England to look into Mr. Islam's background.

Iraq front
A U.S. naval officer working with the Iraqi military wrote a note that provides an up-close look at the story behind the recent efforts by the new Baghdad government to counter the Mahdi militia.

"The Iraqi Army (IA) has gone on the offensive, at the request of the government of Iraq (GoI), against criminal and corruptive elements that in the past they more or less had to find equilibrium with and coexist in an uneasy harmony," the officer stated, adding that the offensive has upset the status quo and stirred chaos like sweeping a dirt floor scatters dust.

"This offensive is not against Sadr or a particular religious sect," the officer stated, noting that the offensive has widespread support from Iraqis at all levels. "Many see this as the right action, as strengthening the government and as courage from the prime minister."

The Washington Times obtained a copy of the Navy officer's note.

Regarding the battle for Basra, reports that the fight is not going well are normal, the officer said. "The Iraq Army has cordoned off the city and is methodically advancing to allow residents to leave the city amidst the fighting, militants to turn over arms while gradually isolating the factions they intend to up root."

The fighting style contrasts starkly from Iraq under Saddam Hussein, when indiscriminate death and destruction were used.

"The use of U.S. air support has been criticized, however, what people need to realize is that while there is a young Iraqi Air Force that has been doing a great deal of reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, the risk of a rogue air weapons element at the moment is too great," the officer said. "U.S. air involvement in Basra has been dictated by the army and has been limited in nature."

The officer said reports of some 40 defectors from the Iraqi police going over to the insurgents are most likely true, "however the [Iraqi police] consists of tens of thousands of personnel and that number equates to less than half of 1 percent of the IPs," a rate that is far lower than defections in the past.

Regarding attacks on Baghdad's Green Zone by insurgents, the Navy officer said: "While I know how to keep myself fairly safe and maintain the highest chance of survival, there is an element of chance that is very tangible, but I like to believe my being Irish is going to assist me on that end. I would much rather be in the cockpit, but my current mission is to maintain relations between the U.S., its allies and my various Iraqi counterparts and I do that to the best of my ability."

The Navy is putting the Persian Gulf War sex scandal involving pregnant sailors to rest -- at the bottom of the ocean.

The Navy's budget for 2009 calls for sinking the Yellowstone class destroyer tender Acadia.

The Acadia was dubbed the "Love Boat" of Operation Desert Storm after 36 crew members, or one-tenth of its female crew, returned to port pregnant after a seven-month deployment for the Gulf War in April 1991.

The Navy has sought to integrate women into combat ships and has dismissed concerns over pregnancy rates on its ships as normal and comparable to rates for civilian women in the 20-to-24 age group.

  • Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202-636-3274, or at

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