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Oct. 20, 2016
Notes from the Pentagon

House leaders warn Obama of Russia's 'material breach of INF treaty
Two House committee chairmen wrote to President Obama this week revealing that Russian violations of a key missile treaty had worsened and that Moscow unambiguously cheated on the accord.

“It has become apparent to us that the situation regarding Russia’s violation has worsened and Russia is now in material breach of the treaty,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican, and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, California Republican, wrote Monday.

The lawmakers were referring to Russia’s failure to adhere to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which bans Washington and Moscow from building missiles with ranges of 310 miles to 3,400 miles. Mr. Thornberry and Mr. Nunes did not provide details about what led them to conclude that the treaty breach had worsened.

U.S. officials have said Russian flight-testing of a new cruise missile, identified by the Pentagon as the SSC-X-8, prompted the U.S. initial determination that Moscow had violated the accord. An administration official said the assessment is based on intelligence indicating that Russia moved beyond flight-testing to production of the illegal cruise missile.

Mr. Thornberry and Mr. Nunes noted that the treaty is the only accord to eliminate an entire class of nuclear arms and that its provisions ban flight-testing, production or possession of ground-launched or cruise missiles with intermediate ranges.

“While your administration finally stated in 2014 (as a result of pressure from our committees) what had been well-understood before then — that Russia was illegally flight testing intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles — neither the State Department nor the Defense Department imposed consequences on Russia,” the lawmakers wrote.

The State Department has not imposed sanctions against Russia, and the Pentagon has been blocked from developing military options in response to the treaty breach.

“We understand that your administration is not permitting the military to pursue options recommended to you by the former chairman of the joint chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey,” the lawmakers said.

Mr. Thornberry and Mr. Nunes urged Mr. Obama to abandon his policy to curb U.S. nuclear forces, such as eliminating one leg of the missile-submarine-bomber triad or halting a needed nuclear modernization. They also requested that the State Department hit Russia with sanctions for the treaty violation.

The Russian treaty breach was identified prior to 2014 by U.S. intelligence agencies but was kept secret by the Obama administration in a bid to promote its agenda of seeking additional arms control agreements with Moscow.

“This administration is quick to react when the Russians release information relating to the election, but when it comes to violating nuclear treaties, the president only seems willing to drag his feet,” said Mr. Thornberry. The administration’s failure to confront Russian arms cheating “encourages more Russian misbehavior and leads to a more dangerous world.”

Mr. Nunes called the administration’s failure to respond to the INF violation “another misstep contributing to the spreading perception of American weakness and indecisiveness.”

“The ‘strategic patience’ touted by this administration is a ridiculous euphemism for passivity and paralysis that invites further aggressive actions by Russia and other international pariahs,” he said.

The battle to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul, in its third day Wednesday, is proceeding methodically and is expected to face tough resistance from the insurgents once Iraqi forces reach the city itself in the coming days, Pentagon officials said.

“The initial operation, the movement has gone pretty well,” Army Maj. Gen. Gary J. Volesky, commander of allied forces in Iraq, told reporters. “The Iraqis are ahead of where I thought they would be when this operation started. They continue to move and continue to liberate villages. I think the last count yesterday was 13, and they continue to move toward Mosul.”

Among the major dangers facing Iraqi army troops are new types of improvised bombs and an extensive network of underground facilities that include sleeping and eating quarters and hidden arms and ammunition caches.

The 3,000 to 5,000 Islamic State fighters in and around the city of 1 million are “literally like rats,” said a military officer familiar with reports from Iraq who described the tunnels as similar to a sewer system. “The underground piece [of the operation] is going to be a significant challenge.”

Over the past several days, Islamic State fighters have set off at least six large vehicle bombs against advancing Iraqi forces and Kurdish militias located south, northwest and east of the city. In the past, the terrorists used the car bombs offensively. But in a shift, Islamic State fighters have started using vehicle bombs defensively — to slow the advance of Iraqi forces and buy time for retreat.

Fighting inside the city is expected to be difficult because the terrorists have had two years to prepare defenses against the Iraqi ground assault backed by U.S.-led airstrikes.

U.S. officials outlined several types of defenses that Islamic State fighters are using, including house-borne improvised explosive devices — residences wired with booby traps to use against Iraqi troops as they conduct house-to-house operations. Sniper positions also have been built to slow the Iraqi operations.

The Islamic State terrorists also have what chemical weapons officials describe as a rudimentary form of mustard. The sulfur mustard is in powder form and can be loaded into artillery shells and detonated. The cloud of dust caused by the detonations can cause skin blistering but is not regarded as lethal.

The terrorists have also set up fire pits filled with oil and tires. The pits create thick black smoke that has complicated U.S. and coalition airstrikes on Islamic State targets.

Islamic State fighters have prevented Mosul residents from leaving the city as the assault builds. “The city has been pretty much on lockdown for the past couple of months,” the military official said.

As part of psychological warfare operations, the terrorists have taken prisoners, dressed them in Iraqi military uniforms and then slaughtered them in public executions. Videos of the killings were distributed online in a bid to demoralize Iraqi troops.

Hillary Clinton continues to face criticism over her use of a private email server and the placing of highly classified information on it.

This week, the Democratic presidential nominee and former secretary of state’s views on leaks were outlined in an off-the-record speech three years ago to Goldman Sachs that was made public by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

First, the disclosure of some 250,000 State Department cables disclosed to WikiLeaks “put at risk certain individuals” by identifying people who met with U.S. diplomats overseas, Mrs. Clinton said.

“So we had to identify, and we moved a number of people to safety out of where they were in order for them to be not vulnerable,” she said.

Of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who made off with some 1.7 million highly classified intelligence documents, Mrs. Clinton said much of the information he took was not understood by the reporters who received the documents.

She suggested that the Snowden disclosures would help foreign governments penetrate U.S. information systems by providing hackers with “a blueprint of how we operate.”

“So I do think that there has been a real loss of important information that shouldn’t belong to or be made available to people who spend a lot of their time trying to penetrate our government, our businesses,” she said.

“And even worse, you know, some who are engaged in terrorist activities,” Mrs. Clinton added. “I mean, the Iranians did a disruption of service attack on American banks a year ago. The Iranians are getting much more sophisticated. They run the largest terrorist networks in the world.

“So I think that WikiLeaks was a big bump in the road, but I think the Snowden material could be potentially much more threatening to us.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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