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May 13, 2010
Notes from the Pentagon

NATO code compromise
The recent crash of a Polish military transport that killed most of Warsaw's senior civilian and military leaders was not only a human catastrophe for a key U.S. ally. NATO sources said that, in addition to the loss of nearly 100 pro-U.S. Polish leaders, the crash provided Moscow with a windfall of secrets.

The crash killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski in western Russia on April 10 and decapitated Poland's military, killing two service chiefs, key military aides and several national security officials, many of whom were carrying computers and pocket memory sticks that contained sensitive NATO data.

Perhaps the most significant compromise, according to a NATO intelligence source, is that the Russians are suspected of obtaining ultrasecret codes used by NATO militaries for secure satellite communications.

The compromise of the codes is considered what electronic spies call a "break" for Moscow code-breakers. New NATO codes almost certainly were issued to allied militaries immediately after the crash.

But if the Russian electronic intelligence service, known as the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information, was able to recover and use the communication key code from the wreckage, electronic spies will be able to decode months' or perhaps years' worth of scrambled communications that are routinely gathered electronically for just such an occasion.

The coded communications, if decrypted, would reveal some of NATO's most intimate secrets, such as plans for defenses and even the identities of agents or allied eavesdropping sources.

Other Polish and NATO secrets also were believed to be aboard the jet, and so far Russia's government is refusing to cooperate fully with Poland's government in providing details on the cause of the crash, or even to turn over the Polish jet's black boxes.

Additionally, Poland's interim government has not pressed the Russians for answers to questions about the crash, such as why Russian aviation authorities, without any investigation, ruled that pilot error caused the crash minutes after the jet crashed short of the runway in fog at Russia's Smolensk airport. Polish security and aviation authorities also were denied access to the crash site.

Public pressure is mounting on Warsaw to call for an international commission to investigate the crash. Tens of thousands of Poles already have signed a petition calling for the international probe.

Many Poles, who need little encouragement to be critical of the Russians based on past enmity, have taken to calling the crash the "second Katyn," after the 1940 Katyn Forest massacre when Russian agents killed more than 21,000 Polish officers in an effort to decimate the Polish military.

Mr. Kaczynski, who was viewed as politically more anti-Russian than current leaders, was on his way to Katyn, about six miles from Smolensk, to mark the anniversary of the massacre.

Afghan update
Amid the glad-handing and friendly atmospherics surrounding this week's meeting between President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a senior military officer in Afghanistan provided Inside the Ring with a situation report on the conflict that presents a sober background assessment.

The officer said the biggest problem in Afghanistan remains corruption within the Kabul government, a problem that if left unaddressed "will defeat our mission there faster than the Taliban."

The U.S. strategy for stabilizing the war-torn country is developing legitimacy for the Afghan government, the officer said.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in the country, is banking on a major shift of focus, from establishing national institutions to working at the district and local level to create government organs that are pro-U.S. and anti-Taliban. As for the enemy Taliban forces, "They are there, they are fighting and they have [improvised explosive devices] networks as their biggest weapon," the officer said.

To limit IED attacks, the Afghan government recently banned the importation of ammonium nitrate, the key ingredient in homemade bombs, mainly from Pakistan. Replacement fertilizers have been brought in for Afghan farmers.

According to the officer, the problem in the past was that U.S. and allied forces conceded too much freedom of movement to the Taliban at the local level, as national institutions were set up.

"The focus has now shifted to the local, tactical level," the officer said. "If we can win at the local level and bring legitimacy to local government, the Taliban will become weaker."

The Taliban does not enjoy widespread popular support, and local Afghans are "hedging their bets" by tacitly supporting the Taliban at the same time expressing support for the Afghan national government and the allied coalition.

"There are lots of Afghans sitting on the fence," the officer said. "They'll do their smiley face with us, but if it looks like the Taliban are ahead, they'll do the smiley face with them."

As for efforts to convert some Taliban to support Kabul, the officer said there are some enemy groups that want to demobilize, but at a high price.

"The Taliban leaders [who want to switch sides] want to bring their organizations and clans over but they want to be placed in positions of political or security influence, such as positions within the police forces," the officer said, noting that any such move might actually create more problems for the Afghan government.

Mixon's gay counseling
Army Secretary John McHugh has put the matter of Army Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, and his rebellious letter to the editor, to rest.

Gen. Mixon angered the Obama administration in March by writing a letter to Stars and Stripes newspaper revealing his opposition to repealing the ban on open homosexuals in the ranks. He also urged soldiers and their families to express their opposition.

Washington's military hierarchy came down hard on the combat veteran, who now commands the U.S. Army, Pacific.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs chairman, both publicly admonished Gen. Mixon for urging opposition to one of President Obama's pet projects.

Their stern language led some to believe Mr. McHugh might discipline Gen. Mixon, whose letter stirred sympathy among the rank and file.

But the secretary told a group of defense reporters recently the matter was handled quietly with phone calls to Gen. Mixon from himself and Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, reports special correspondent Rowan Scarborough.

"I think it is both the chief of staff of the Army's and my judgment that he went beyond what can be fairly described as the norms of command in those kinds of circumstances," Mr. McHugh said. "His actions, at a minimum, exceeded the spirit of the directive that the chief and I sent out on the way ahead a number of weeks ago."

Mr. McHugh said Gen. Mixon confessed that he had crossed the line.

Gen. Mixon "recognizes it was inappropriate for him to become an advocate and to try to shape the opinion of the force rather than to reach out and ascertain the opinion of the force, [and] that he has said he is perfectly capable and willing and will make every effort to carry forward within the manner we expect in the future," Mr. McHugh said.

Air Force suicides
Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, said the service is facing a "surge" in suicides in a May 4 speech to a conference of senior enlisted airmen.

"This includes active, Guard and Reserve airmen, as well as Air Force civilians and family members," Gen. Schwartz said. "We have more suicides so far this year than we did last, which itself exceeded each year before that. We collectively in this room have to act to arrest this trend."

He urged the airmen to care for their fellow airmen, noting that "now is the time."

"Make it your business to identify stress and failed relationships among your people," the general said. "Encourage our people to ask for help, and intervene in cases where they are reluctant to do so. Do not for a single moment accept the needless loss of a teammate as the cost of doing business. It isn't not now, not ever."

According to the Air Force website, the suicide rate for 2009 was 12.5 suicides for every 100,000 airmen.

The problem is not limited to the Air Force.

The Marine Corps in 2009 had the highest suicide rate in the military, with 24 per 100,000. The active-duty Army had 21.7 per 100,000. Analysts attribute the high rates for the Army and Marines to those services' roles in ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Navy also has suffered from high suicide rates. Its suicide rate for 2009 was 13.8 per 100,000 sailors.

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