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March 19, 2009
Notes from the Pentagon

Air Congress
A Washington watchdog group has released scores of back-and-forth Congress-Pentagon e-mails revealing the political pressure lawmakers put on the military in wartime to provide them with aircraft to fly domestically and overseas.

The rare glimpse inside "Air Congress" comes compliments of Judicial Watch, which acquired the messages and flying records of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and her predecessor through Freedom of Information Act requests, special correspondent Rowan Scarborough reports.

The pressure was so great in 2007 to find planes to take members of Congress to the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the funeral of a House member that aides to Mrs. Pelosi demanded that the Air Force account for every VIP plane in the fleet.

In another case, an exasperated Pentagon liaison officer responded with a list to show that the Senate had tied up most planes from the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base. He said the Pentagon had located a Navy aircraft that could do the trip.

A Pelosi aide then asked the military if the Pentagon would bump a trip planned by Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, to free up a plane for the funeral of Rep. Charles Norwood, Georgia Republican.

"Senator Kyl's trip leaves tomorrow; [Rep. Silvestre] Reyes departs the next day," the defense official tells the aide. "Thus, it may only [affect] crew rest time for Reyes, while delaying [the congressional delegation for] Kyl would impact his dates in Iraq, jeopardizing the viability of his trip. That leaves us the option of delaying Rep. Reyes' trip. Also, we would be bumping a Senate trip for a House mission, another complicating factor."

In another message, Mike Sheehy, then Mrs. Pelosi's national security adviser, tells the Pentagon the speaker is not happy with the size of the plane provided for another Iraq trip and threatens to take her complaints to the top.

"[A staffer] gave me the bad news on the Speaker's request for a few more seats on the theater aircraft into Iraq and Afghanistan," Mr. Sheehy wrote in Mrs. Pelosi's first month in power. "She is quite insistent on this given the rank of the members traveling, so we are going to need to pursue the matter further within DoD. I did not want to start those efforts without telling [you] first."

The e-mails show the speaker's office, which coordinates members' military travel, took a keen interest in how many planes the Pentagon made available for them.

"Where are the planes?" asked Kay King, director of the House Office of Interparliamentary Affairs, in a May 2007 e-mail to the Pentagon. "It is my understanding that there are NO G-5s available for the House during the Memorial Day recess. This is totally unacceptable. The speaker will want to know where the planes are and why they cannot even support [a planned congressional delegation]. Can you please get us a report on the situation and the exact location of the planes during this time period?"

In an internal e-mail, an unnamed Pentagon official complains that Mrs. Pelosi's office is scheduling planes, then canceling at the last moment, disrupting crew schedules.

A former Pentagon official from former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's era says that, to be fair, there is always extensive pressure from Congress for military aircraft bookings no matter who is speaker.

Judicial Watch also obtained copies of flight logs for Mrs. Pelosi and former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, who was Mrs. Pelosi's predecessor. The group said the logs show Mrs. Pelosi flew on twice as many military flights in a two-year period as did Mr. Hastert in three.

Mr. Hastert, who as speaker was third in line to the presidency, started the practice of using military corporate-type aircraft to fly to and from his home state of Illinois. The reason: increased security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Mrs. Pelosi's press office issued a "Setting the Record Straight" paper to rebut the Judicial Watch report. It pointed to an story that questioned Judicial Watch's flight-log analysis.

"The Department of Defense makes all decisions concerning the use of military aircraft by members of Congress, and the House has complied with all Department of Defense rules in this area," the Pelosi press release says. "It is a function of the speaker's office to coordinate Congressional delegation travel and act as a liaison between the Department of Defense and members of Congress."

Judicial Watch stuck by its findings in a follow-up: "Contrary to what some reports in the media suggest, we found that Pelosi used military jets twice as much in two years as Hastert did in three years."

Mrs. Pelosi raised eyebrows in the Pentagon when, upon taking office in 2007, she requested a larger plane so she would not have to make refueling stops to and from San Francisco. Today, her office says she uses a 12-seat plane, the same as Mr. Hastert, for her domestic trips.

China ship threat
A recent U.S. intelligence analysis of a state-run Chinese press report that stated U.S. Navy ocean-survey ships would be sunk if they entered Chinese waters was a false story.

However, the March 9 report by the Open Source Center (OSC), an intelligence unit located at CIA headquarters, stated that, in an unusual move, Chinese authorities did not remove the article and permitted it to be circulated widely on the Internet.

The article appeared Feb. 19 in two regional Communist Party newspapers, in Inner Mongolia and Fujian province. The article reported on a Chinese military confrontation with the USNS Bowditch, a survey ship in the Yellow Sea.

The stories stated that "American spy ships entering Chinese territorial waters will be sunk." After publication, the article was circulated on the Internet.

The OSC report says the origin of the article is a mystery despite near total control by the Chinese government over its media, especially Communist Party media organs. It states that occasionally such false stories, however, have been reported in official media but does not say why.

The report says the Inner Mongolian and Fujian reports "contradict each other as to the origin of the story."

The Inner Mongolian paper stated that the article came from the Zhonggou Xinwen She, China's state-run news service for overseas Chinese. The Fujian report stated that the story came from the official news agency Xinhua.

However, neither official news outlet carried the report, the OSC stated.

The report says it was unusual for the article to mention Chinese DF-31 missiles because most official Chinese media do not use that designation. Also, the dissemination of the report on the Internet without mentioning the source indicated that the "origin remains unknown," the report says.

"The unclear origins, contradictory sourcing, and unusual reporting style suggest that the article is likely a false story," the OSC said.

However, considering the tightly controlled Internet, the report notes that "unusual for an Internet false story, PRC authorities do not appear to have taken action to remove the article."

"As of 9 March 2009, the article remained widely available on PRC websites, including those belonging to Neimenggu Ribao and Fujian Ribao."

Asked about the reported threat to sink U.S. ships, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said last week that the statement had not appeared in the Chinese press before. However, the nature of the comments prompted the Pentagon to ask for an official explanation from the Chinese Embassy in Washington during a meeting earlier this month, he said.

The Chinese explanation was that the embassy was "unfamiliar with the article," he said. "We are awaiting their formal response," Mr. Morrell added.

The meeting also was held to protest a later incident of Chinese naval harassment of the USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea.

Any dispute over activities in the 200-mile economic zone from China's coast "in no way authorizes the use of force under UN Charter Article 51," Mr. Morrell said.

Mr. Morrell said all countries enjoy high-seas freedoms in such zones, "including the right to engage in military activities without prior notification to, or consent of, the coastal state."

THAAD test
A missile-defense interceptor of the Army's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, successfully hit a target ballistic missile in Hawaii Wednesday morning.

It was the first time the ground-based system for knocking out incoming missiles was tested against a salvo of two missiles, although only one of the two targets was destroyed. The second target was destroyed by test officials.

"Soldiers operating the system did not know when the target would be launched and reacted to target detection as they would during a tactical situation," said Missile Defense Agency spokesman Rick Lehner. The THAAD interceptor collided directly with a separating warhead from the ballistic missile target just inside Earth's atmosphere.

THAAD is one of the lesser-known of three missile defense systems under development. The other two are the Ground Based Interceptor system, current deployed in Alaska and California, and the Navy sea-based missile defense.

THAAD is considered a highly capable system of sensors, radar and interceptors designed to knock out short- and medium-range missiles as they near the end of their launch cycle. When fully deployed, it will be more effective against incoming missile attacks than the current Patriot missile defense.

"It is a part of the layered, integrated missile defense system, with both land- and sea-based interceptors that can intercept missiles of all ranges, during any phase of flight [-] boost, midcourse and terminal," Mr. Lehner said.

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

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