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February 1, 2002
Notes from the Pentagon

Trials in Cuba
Administration insiders say it is virtually certain President Bush will OK military tribunals (technically called "commissions") for some al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. They also say it is all but certain that the commissions, in lieu of civilian court trials, will be held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Sources said the administration has ruled out holding the proceedings on ships or in the United States, where security preparations would be more costly.

"It just makes sense to hold them in Cuba," said one source. "The detainees are already there."

The U.S. has transferred 158 captives from Afghanistan to cells on the isolated Navy base. More will arrive shortly.

Mr. Bush has yet to approve rules for the tribunals. They likely would be presided over by military officers not military judges who would be advised by judge advocate generals (JAGs). JAGs are military attorneys.

A dispute has broken out inside the administration over whether the detainees have a legal status under the Geneva Convention, which dictates the rules for holding prisoners of war. Mr. Bush decided on Jan. 18 that the terrorists do not quality for such a status.

But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell asked the president to reverse his decision, according to an internal White House memo obtained last week by The Washington Times. Mr. Bush, after a National Security Council meeting on the issue, told reporters this week he will make a final decision.

Mr. Powell's proposal has plenty of opponents within the administration. They argue that declaring the detainees a legal entity under the convention will give symbolic special status to a group of thugs.

Mr. Powell, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, worries that our enemies will use the U.S. classification of detainees as an excuse not to follow the Geneva Convention just in the case American GIs are taken prisoner.

Chinese sub test
China is set to conduct a test of its new sea-launched ballistic missile, the JL-2. U.S. intelligence agencies said preparations for the test were spotted at a naval port on the north China coast. The Chinese have modified an older Russian-made submarine for what the officials described as a "pop-up" test of the JL-2. The test involves ejecting the intercontinental ballistic missile out of the submarine launch tube.

China carried out an earlier pop-up test of the JL-2 in October.

The JL-2 is believed to be a naval version of the 5,000-mile range Dong Feng-31 missile. China recently conducted a test of the DF-31 warhead delivery stage, known as a re-entry vehicle, which exploded in midflight.

Procurement boost
The Pentagon is budgeting $69 billion in its latest proposal for military modernization, a boost of roughly $9 billion from last year, according to defense officials.

A priority will be to replace fighter jets worn out by use in various conflicts and other military operations. But one problem for Pentagon weapons buyers is what to buy. Warplanes under development, namely the advanced F-22, are not ready yet, and the Pentagon does not want to buy any more F-16s.

Officials tell us the modernization budget is expected to increase to more than $90 billion in the coming years and will include purchases of new aircraft, ships and ground-force equipment.

Another major boost in funds will go to the operations and maintenance budget, to meet the actual needs of the military forces. In the past, other funding accounts were raided to pay for operations and maintenance.

A large military pay raise also is in store in the next budget, which will include money for fixing military base facilities that fell into disrepair during the Clinton administration. Officials said those repairs could be delayed until after the next round of base closings is completed. "We don't want to put money into bases that could be closed [in the near future]," one official told us.

Delta Force
The raids last week on a large compound of Taliban fighters near Hazar Qadam marked the largest mission by the super-secret Delta Force since its November mission against Mullah Mohammed Omar's home in Kandahar.

In the Jan. 24 raids, military sources tell us 30 to 40 Delta and Army Special Forces soldiers infiltrated the remote mountain area and then stormed two buildings at the sprawling compound. They arrived in low-flying Black Hawk and "Little Bird" helicopters.

A fierce firefight ensued after the Taliban fired the first shots. The result: 20 to 30 enemy killed, and 27 held as captives.

Delta Force, the Pentagon's anti-terror commando unit based at Fort Bragg, N.C., has engaged and killed al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in other encounters not discussed publicly by the Pentagon.

Rumsfeld's respect
Military officers sense that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has developed a new sense of respect for the top brass after watching their performance in the war against terrorism.

Bush civilian appointees came into the building bent on taking control of a bureaucracy they believed had been run by the admirals and generals during the Clinton administration. Some officers experienced what they considered disrespect from civilian political appointees who dismissed the officers' concerns about canceling new weapons.

But the war, sources say, showed Mr. Rumsfeld that the generals are highly competent war planners and diplomats. The war also showed that the top brass' focus on developing precision-guided weapons and battle communication and surveillance links paid off big-time in Afghanistan.

Mail bag
Our item last week on Mr. Rumsfeld's writing lessons elicited a humorous e-mail from a Defense Department employee. We had noted that Mr. Rumsfeld likes tightly written memos that are light on military acronyms.

Wrote the employee to Inside the Ring: "MILPERS and CIVPERS on PCS, PCA or TDY orders to the Pentagon advised a Washington-based printed news outlet that SECDEF has expressed a preference for sentences structured with simple and non-passive voice words and phrases and has expressed a non-preference for memoranda utilizing approved but unclear abbreviations and contractions of common military usages."

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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