The Complex

SEAL Team 6 Disaster Will Get Congressional Hearing

It was Aug. 6, 2011, when a CH-47D Chinook helicopter carrying Navy SEALs and other U.S. military personnel was shot out of the sky over Afghanistan. The helicopter, carrying elite special operators to reinforce Army Rangers engaged in a firefight, was attacked from the ground by insurgents wielding rocket-propelled grenades, witnesses later told military investigators. The Chinook crashed and exploded in a fireball, and all 38 people and a working dog on board perished.

More than two years later, the incident remains shrouded in mystery, and is still the deadliest day for the United States in 12 years of war in Afghanistan. Now, the case of Extortion 17 - the call sign for the downed helicopter - will get its day on Capitol Hill.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will hold a hearing to probe Extortion 17's demise early next year, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told Foreign Policy. The decision raises the possibility that senior U.S. commanders could be put in the hot seat to answer for a mission that critics say was poorly planned at best and doomed from the start at worst, despite it involving one of the United States' most celebrated military units.

"I hope to be able to get answers that the families have been unable to secure," said Chaffetz, chairman of the oversight subcommittee on national security. "I think they have raised some legitimate questions, and the Pentagon has been inadequate in their response. I hope to be the conduit to come to some sort of resolution. I don't know that I can ever alleviate all their concerns, but if I can shed and illuminate some light on what was the most horrific tragedy of our time in Afghanistan, I hope to do so."

Chaffetz said he wasn't certain yet whether the whole House committee would call the hearing, or whether it would be handled by his subcommittee. He also wouldn't say who may be called to serve as witnesses, but it seems clear it will be senior Defense Department officials. The Washington Times and The Hill reported previously that the oversight committee was researching the Extortion 17 case, but Chaffetz's comments to Foreign Policy mark the first time a member of Congress has confirmed a hearing will occur.

"I want to give the Pentagon an opportunity to respond," Chaffetz said.

The mission killed 30 U.S. service members, seven Afghan commandos, an Afghan interpreter and a U.S. military working dog in Afghanistan's Tangi Valley in Wardak province, west of Kabul, U.S. officials said. The group included 17 SEALs, all but two of whom were from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, popularly known as SEAL Team 6. A different unit within the SEAL team executed the daring raid in which U.S. forces killed terrorist mastermind and al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden in his safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, early May 2, 2011. The other Americans on board Extortion 17 included five special operations support personnel and members of the Army National Guard who manned the helicopter.

The families of the fallen service members received more than 1,000 pages of documentation from the military in 2011 outlining the U.S. investigation into the case. It was led by Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Colt, who is currently the deputy commander of the Army's XVIII Airborne Corps, based at Fort Bragg, N.C. He was a one-star general when he was appointed by now-retired Gen. James Mattis, then the commander of U.S. Central Command, to conduct the investigation.

Family members told Foreign Policy that Colt later briefed the family members in an emotionally charged meeting at Dam Neck, Va., which SEAL Team 6 calls home. It was attended by Adm. William McRaven, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command; Vice Adm. Sean Pybus, then the commander of Naval Special Warfare Command; and other senior military officers, said Charles Strange, whose son, Michael, was a cryptologist with SEAL Team 6 and killed in Extortion 17. The briefing the families received raised as many concerns as it answered, he said.

Among the questions, the families want to know why the SEALs were all placed in one helicopter when a second one nearby was nearly empty, why the mission proceeded with less drone surveillance than normal, and why the men were on a decades-old Chinook, rather than the high-speed MH-60 Blackhawks they typically used. All of those details appear as fact in U.S. military documents reviewed by Foreign Policy.

Strange also questions why the military decided to cremate many of the service members on board. While U.S. military officials initially told him his son's body was burned beyond recognition, he later obtained a photograph from the military that showed his son's remains were recognizable and not seriously burned, the father said. Those details were not released in a five-page executive summary published by CENTCOM in September 2011.

"There are just too many coincidences," the elder Strange said. "There are too many questions left unanswered. I want to know what happened so we can make sure this doesn't happen to someone else's son or daughter."

Colt's investigative team also did not address why the Afghan military was allowed to swap in the seven commandos who participated in the deadly mission at the last minute. They were not on the manifest for Extortion 17, but joined the mission anyway, said Doug Hamburger, whose son, Patrick, was an Army staff sergeant and crew chief on board the helicopter when it went down. The swap has raised questions whether the commandos -- or someone else in the Afghan military -- may have tipped off the insurgents that the SEALs were coming.

"Nowhere in there is there any mention of the Army talking to the Afghan command to find who they were, why they switched in and what they were doing on that Chinook," the elder Hamburger said.

The initial operation that night was launched by Army Rangers who boarded Chinooks from a base in nearby Logar province late Aug. 5, 2011, to kill or capture Qari Zahir, who had assumed a senior role with the Taliban in the region, Colt's team found. The Rangers assaulted a compound where they believed the insurgent leader was, but they couldn't find him.

The SEAL team took off as an additional response unit known as an Immediate Reaction Force, and prepared to land after 2:20 a.m. that morning. That's when disaster struck: A group of insurgents U.S. forces had not observed through aerial surveillance fired two or three RPGs from a second-story tower about 220 meters away from the helicopter, the investigation found. The helicopter was traveling less than 150 feet off the ground at the time.

"The first RPG missed the helicopter, but the second RPG struck one of the blades of the aft rotor assembly and exploded, compromising the structural integrity, and causing a rapid chain reaction resulting in the loss of over 10 feet of the rotor blade," Colt's executive summary states. "... The main fuselage dropped vertically into a dry creek bed. The airframe was immediately engulfed in a large fireball, causing multiple secondary explosions of fuel and munitions until the aircraft burned out several hours later."

Colt's team surmised that the attack was not the result of a "baited ambush" by the Taliban, but the result of insurgents being prepared after more than three hours of coalition military operations that night. Documents among the 1,000 pages released to Gold Star families raise the possibility that the enemy fighters may have used heat-seeking man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADs, but Colt's findings describe the weapons used as RPGs, which are not as accurate.

Regardless, it took until the following afternoon for Army Rangers to recover the remains of all who were on board Extortion 17. As many as 140 people took part in the recovery of the aircraft, which lasted three days. The mission was complicated by a flash flood the afternoon of Aug. 6 that washed some of the wreckage 200 yards downstream, the investigation found.

Still, some of the families remain skeptical that they have the full story. They point out that while the military's investigation found commanders did not allocate enough aircraft to perform surveillance for the mission, no one was held accountable for that mistake. The series of bizarre and ugly details that led to the helicopter's demise make it hard for them to believe that no one in the chains of command -- U.S. or Afghan -- sold out their dead loved ones. A Pentagon official declined to comment on what a  congressional hearing could mean, and referred other questions to Centcom's existing report.

A few of the families, including Strange's and Hamburger's, sought legal representation from Freedom Watch, an advocacy organization run by Larry Klayman, a lawyer closely affiliated with the Tea Party. They met with staff members of the House oversight committee this week, and plan to continue pressuring the government for answers.

"It's a matter of great personal and national importance," Klayman said. "The way our fallen heroes are treated by the administration affects not only the families, but the desire of new recruits to enter the military. Currently, many in the military feel betrayed by the government. Hopefully this congressional investigation will get to the truth and clear the air."

National Security

FP's Situation Report: Hagel's autobiography contains an error

By Gordon Lubold

The biggest story this morning is the revelation that former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007, was actually working for the CIA. AP's Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo: In March 2007, retired FBI agent Robert Levinson flew to Kish Island, an Iranian resort awash with tourists, smugglers and organized crime figures. Days later, after an arranged meeting with an admitted killer, he checked out of his hotel, slipped into a taxi and vanished. For years, the U.S. has publicly described him as a private citizen who traveled to the tiny Persian Gulf island on private business.

But that was just a cover story. An Associated Press investigation reveals that Levinson was working for the CIA. In an extraordinary breach of the most basic CIA rules, a team of analysts - with no authority to run spy operations - paid Levinson to gather intelligence from some of the world's darkest corners. He vanished while investigating the Iranian government for the U.S. The CIA was slow to respond to Levinson's disappearance and spent the first several months denying any involvement. When Congress eventually discovered what happened, one of the biggest scandals in recent CIA history erupted.

"...Details of the unusual disappearance were described in documents obtained or reviewed by the AP, plus interviews over several years with dozens of current and former U.S. and foreign officials close to the search for Levinson. Nearly all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive case. The AP first confirmed Levinson's CIA ties in 2010 and continued reporting to uncover more details. It agreed three times to delay publishing the story because the U.S. government said it was pursuing promising leads to get him home." More here.

 "Worse than a dog:" Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed. FP's Isaac Stone Fish: "Jang Song Taek, the brother-in-law of late Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il, the uncle of current leader Kim Jong Un, and a savvy politician who was thought to have been the second-most powerful man in North Korea, has been reportedly executed for planning a coup. Jang ‘is a traitor to the nation for all ages,' according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the country's main news agency, which released the news on the morning of Friday Dec. 13 Korea time. The English-language article details, in almost Biblical prose, the devastation Jang allegedly wrought on North Korea. He did serious harm to the country's youth by patronizing traitors, or "cat's paws." For Jang's ‘unpardonable thrice-cursed treason,' people throughout the country ‘broke out into angry shouts," hungering for justice, the article claims. And ‘every sentence' of the decision describing his crimes served as a ‘sledge-hammer blow brought down ... on the head of Jang.'" Read the rest here.

Oops! Chuck Hagel's 2008 autobiography includes references to a meeting Hagel had with Hafez al-Assad (father of the current dictator) that never could have happened - Assad had died six months earlier. FP's Yochi Dreazen: "For Chuck Hagel, it was the meeting that wasn't. It was December 2000, and Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska, was traveling the Mideast seeking the answer to a single question. Then-President Bill Clinton had brought Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Camp David in July for intensive negotiations that brought the two sides tantalizingly close to a full peace treaty. Arafat would have received a sovereign state of Palestine with its capitol in Jerusalem, just as he had demanded for decades.  Clinton and Barak both thought they had a deal, but Arafat backed away at the last moment. Why, Hagel wondered, wouldn't Arafat take yes for an answer? ...Hagel believed that [Haez al-Assad] was trying to pass along an important lesson about the modern Mideast: the Israel-Palestine issue was so important to the region's other Arab leaders that Arafat couldn't sign a treaty without their approval.

There is just one problem with Hagel's account of the meeting: it never happened. Assad died in June, six months before purportedly sitting down with Hagel and one month before the Camp David talks had even begun. The book vividly recounts a conversation that couldn't have taken place... There is no reason to think that he intentionally fabricated the meeting with the elder Assad or tried to mislead his readers. All the same, the book - co-written with Peter Kaminsky - contains a significant error on the subject of Mideast peace, a topic that Hagel has worked on for years ... Carl Woog, a Pentagon spokesman, said the mistake stemmed from a ‘simple editing error.' Hagel, Woog said, met with Assad in Damascus in August 1998 to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Syrian leader made his comment about Arafat lacking the authority to make a deal with Israel during that meeting. Hagel returned to Damascus in December 2000 and discussed the failed Camp David talks with senior Syrian government officials, including then-Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara. Woog said that Hagel's editors at his publisher, Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint, mistakenly combined the two trips into a single one." Read the rest here.

Welcome to Friday's edition of Situation Report, where we'll play it safe and lamely split it down the middle: Go Army! Go Navy! If you'd like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com and we'll just stick you on. And if you like what you see, tell a friend.  And if you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease, because if you see something, we hope you'll say something -- to Situation Report. And one more thing: please follow us @glubold.

Eric Fanning, you can take a deep breath: Deborah Lee James was confirmed as Secretary of the Air Force by the Senate this morning at around 7AM, 79-6. That's a sigh of relief for Eric Fanning, Under Secretary of the Air Force, who has been dual-hatted as the Acting Secretary of the Air Force, too. He can now return to his day job. We're told by Acting Press Secretary Carl Woog that Hagel has already called James to congratulate her.

Worst kept secret: Hagel has a new face and voice - it's John Kirby. Situation Report has learned that Rear Adm. John Kirby will be Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's new press secretary, in effect replacing George Little, who departed the Pentagon before Thanksgiving. Most insiders thought Kirby, who is currently the Chief of Information for the Navy, or CHINFO, would be named to man the podium in the briefing room for Hagel, but various factors delayed the announcement. He'll begin sometime next week.

Kirby is best known for his work for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, with whom he was extremely close. Kirby's access to his principal often gave reporters covering the Chairman the next best thing to sitting down with the Chairman himself and helped them to understand the way the Chairman was thinking or tell a better story. One can only expect that if Kirby agreed to work for Hagel he will have the same kind of relationship to the Secretary. But Kirby won't be completely filling Little's shoes. Hagel has decided to return to a controversial model in which there is one individual is his press secretary and another who will run the Department's massive public affairs apparatus - sometimes referred to as a "two headed monster" in the halls of the Building because the model doesn't always work well. Hagel is expected to name a civilian head to be Assistant to the Secretary for Public Affairs, but that could be still weeks away. Kirby's bio here.

In the meantime, Assistant Press Secretary Carl Woog, who has been Acting Press Secretary since Little left, will continue in the position. But perhaps not for long.  A senior defense official close to the Secretary told Situation Report last night: "Secretary Hagel has tremendous trust and confidence in Carl Woog and believes he's doing a very effective job as spokesperson. The Secretary intends to promote Carl to a more senior position in the coming months and at the appropriate time."

Overnight: A U.S. drone struck a wedding convoy in Yemen, killing 14.  For CNN, Hakim Almasmari, in Sanaa: "A U.S. drone mistakenly targeted a wedding convoy in Yemen's al-Baitha province after intelligence reports identified the vehicles as carrying al Qaeda militants, two Yemeni national security officials told CNN on Thursday. The officials said that 14 people were killed and 22 others injured, nine in critical condition. The vehicles were traveling near the town of Radda when they were attacked. ‘This was a tragic mistake and comes at a very critical time. None of the killed was a wanted suspect by the Yemeni government,' said a top Yemeni national security official who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to talk to media. U.S. officials declined to comment on the report." More here.

War on the Rocks has a holiday season reading list. War on the Rocks' Ryan Evans asked his regular contributors and editors to name a few books on strategy, war, international politics or history that they like. The List here.

The more you know: Syria's chemical war continued, even as the West threatened retaliation. FP's Colum Lynch and Noah Shachtman: "When it became clear that Syrian troops had killed large numbers of civilians with nerve gas on Aug. 21, their commanders screamed at them to call off the attack, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts. Yet the chemical warfare continued in Syria for several days after the attack that nearly dragged the U.S. into a war there. That's one of many surprising findings from a U.N. investigation into chemical weapons in Syria, which concludes that chemical weapons have been used at least five times in the country's ongoing conflict -- and at least twice since the Aug. 21 nerve gas strike in the Damascus suburbs that the U.S. claimed killed as many at 1,400 people. But what's particularly confusing is that it was the Bashar al-Assad's supporters, and not his opponents, who claimed publicly that chemical weapons were used in the towns of Jobar on August 24 and Ashrafiat Sahnaya on August 25." More here.

Did Idris flee from Syria - or not? Syrian opposition leader Salim Idris is denying he fled Syria after an Islamic takeover of warehouses near the Turkish border. Reuters: "...Idris is in northern Syria working with field commanders and overseeing military operations, the FSA said in response to the reports. The Free Syrian Army also denied that their top commander had fled the country. "These unfounded rumors are intended to weaken the morale of the fighters at a time they need to be focused on dealing with the Assad regime's gangs," the statement said." More here.

The State Department's suspension of non-lethal aid as a result of the attack means nearly $260 million in non-lethal support to the Syrian opposition and the Supreme Military Council is on hold, according to the State Department. Read our piece in September about Mark "Mr. Mark" Ward, from USAID, who is the face of all U.S. non-lethal aid to the Syrians, here.

This is why some vets don't like the budget deal: it means a loss of money for them over the lifetime of their retirement. The budget deal reached this week - and which the House overwhelmingly passed last night - would modify the annual cost of living adjustment for working age military retirees, says groups like the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, by making the adjustments equal to inflation minus one percent. IAVA's Tom Tarantino, to Situation Report, who says otherwise the budget agreement is good: "This is the one thing that we absolutely object to. But this is so egregious that we can't support the package with this in there, we just can't do that."

Tarantino says "everyone has to sacrifice," but those who have been fighting the wars for more than 10 years "while the American public has been unengaged" shouldn't have to sacrifice more. "How many times are you going to squeeze the people who have been fighting these wars?"

According to the Military Officers Association of America: "The cuts will have a devastating and long-lasting impact. By age 62, retirees who serve a 20 year career would lose nearly 20 percent of their retired pay. An E-7 retiring at age 40 today would experience a loss of $83,000 in purchasing power - an O-5 would lose $124,000." More here.

By the way, the budget deal doesn't mean a "diminished sequester" doesn't still loom. CAP's Larry Korb, Kate Blakeley and Max Hoffman: "The budget deal announced by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) is an important step forward but leaves important long-term questions unresolved for the Department of Defense, or DOD. If enacted by the House and Senate, the deal could pave the way for an omnibus appropriations bill to fund the federal government, including DOD, before January 15 when the current continuing resolution expires. This preliminary agreement offers an opportunity for Congress to return to a semblance of regular order. After several years of last-minute continuing resolutions and partial appropriations, this is an important chance to realign government funding with government priorities." More here.

Just asking: Is DARPA's new X-Plane the future of aviation? We don't know, but Zach Rosenberg, writing on FP, asks the question, here.

Clarifying: We linked to a story yesterday in Aviation Week about the A-10 which set up criticisms of the plane as a strawman that then writer Bill Sweetman pulls down. Our clumsy excerpt made it look different and apologies for the confusion. The full story can be read here.

An NCIS agent implicated in the burgeoning Navy corruption scandal is gonna sing.  The WaPo's Craig Whitlock: "A senior law enforcement agent accused of taking bribes in a Navy corruption scandal has agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with investigators, a major break in a case that has ensnared half a dozen Navy officers and threatens to tar more. John B. Beliveau II, a supervisory special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, is scheduled to enter a guilty plea Tuesday in U.S. Federal Court in San Diego, according to court records and his attorney. Beliveau was arrested in September and charged with helping a Singapore-based Navy contractor, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, dodge multiple criminal investigations by leaking inside information about NCIS probes in exchange for prostitutes, cash and other favors.

"Two people involved in the case, speaking on condition of anonymity because details have not been presented in court yet, said Beliveau had agreed to share information with federal prosecutors about his extensive relationship with Leonard Glenn Francis, the president of Glenn Defense Marine and a co-defendant in the case, as well as others involved in the investigation. Beliveau's guilty plea would mark a big advance for investigators, who are trying to determine the scope of the alleged corruption involved in the awarding and administering of lucrative Navy contracts for port services in Asia. Read the rest here.

The first commander of Gitmo says: close it down. Writing in the Detroit Free Press, Col. Michael Lehnert, USMC, Retired, writes: In 2002, I led the first Joint Task Force to Guantánamo and established the detention facility. Today, I believe it is time to close Guantánamo. In the coming week, Congress will lay the foundation for whether and to what extent Guantánamo can be closed. The annual defense bill appears to have compromise language that would give the president some additional flexibility to transfer detainees to their home or third countries, though it maintains an unwise and unnecessary ban on transferring detainees to the United States. Still, this is a step forward toward closing our nation's most notorious prison - a prison that should never have been opened. The whole piece here.

Noting: When we were a newbie military reporter we went to Panama in 1999 to report on the turnover of the Canal to Panama and the last U.S. servicemembers to leave there - Lehnert, who was in Panama when strongman Manuel Noriega was deposed, drove us around on a fascinating tour to show us how that dramatic chapter all went down.