Chuck Hagel: Government shutdown ‘astoundingly irresponsible’

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel  (REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool)

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appealed on Saturday for lawmakers to take action to avert a government shutdown next week, saying it was “astoundingly irresponsible” to try to influence policymaking by triggering a funding crisis.

Hagel, speaking to reporters en route to Seoul to mark the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-South Korea defense alliance, said he had spent much of the week working on future spending cuts while planning for a shutdown next week that could force 400,000 civilian defense workers to take unpaid leave.

For many of the civilians it would be the second time in as many months they have been forced to take unpaid leave. More than 600,000 civilian U.S. defense employees were required to take unpaid leave in early August in a bid to reduce spending after across-the-board budget cuts went into force in March.

“When you look at the greatest democracy in the world, the largest economy in the world, and we’re putting our people through this – that’s not leadership, that’s abdication of responsibilities,” Hagel said.

“This is an astoundingly irresponsible way to govern,” he added, saying he hoped members of Congress would work to find “some common ground to govern and at least make the big decisions in the larger interest of this country.”

Funding for many U.S. government operations runs out next week with the start of the new fiscal year on October 1, and unless Congress reaches a deal to pay for its activities, much of the government will be forced to shut down. Only certain activities permitted under law are allowed to continue, officials said.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is expected later on Saturday to vote on a bill to fund the U.S. government in the new fiscal year but with a delay on implementation of President Barack Obama’s 2010 healthcare law.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, has said the Democratic-controlled Senate would not accept any funding measure aimed at derailing “Obamacare” and the White House has promised to veto the legislation if it passes Congress.

Failure to pass a funding bill would close down much of the government for the first time since 1996.

UNPAID LEAVE

A contingency plan released by the Defense Department on Friday said the Pentagon’s 1.4 million uniformed military personnel would continue to report to work in the event of a shutdown. But about half of the 800,000 civilian employees would be placed on unpaid leave.

The plan said contractors working under fully funded agreements awarded before appropriations ran out would continue working, but new or extended contracts could not be executed.

“No funds will be available to pay such new contracts or place additional increments of funding on contracts until Congress appropriates additional funds,” the contingency plan said.

Hagel said treatment of civilians under the law governing shutdowns was short-sighted because civilians provided much of the support structure for the military.

“When you look at the defense of America, it isn’t just the military,” he said. “Our civilian employees, our civilian components, are integral parts of the defense and security of the United States. … The entire support base for our military, the fighters, comes from the civilian community.”

Hagel’s trip to Asia is the third since he took office at the end of February. It comes as Obama’s administration shifts some of its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region following more than a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While in Seoul, Hagel also will take part in consultative meetings on the future direction of the U.S.-South Korea security alliance and attend a change of command ceremony for U.S. forces in Korea.

Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, the former director of the U.S. Joint Staff, will take over as commander of U.S. forces in Korea from Army General James Thurman.

Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, also will be attending the meetings in Korea.

After four days in South Korea, Hagel will travel to Tokyo where he and Secretary of State John Kerry will participate in so-called two-plus-two talks with their Japanese counterparts, the first time they have done so in Japan.

“Especially at a time when the United States in particular is focused on internal domestic issues, beginning with the budget … I think it’s very, very important that we continue to assure our allies in this region of the world that we are committed to these alliances,” Hagel said.
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After Syria debacle, can Obama regain any momentum?

President Barack Obama awaits the start of a meeting with members of his cabinet, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. From left are, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the president, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama awaits the start of a meeting with members of his cabinet, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. From left are, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the president, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

With a military strike against Syria on hold, President Barack Obama tried Thursday to reignite momentum for his second-term domestic agenda. But his progress could hinge on the strength of his standing on Capitol Hill after what even allies acknowledge were missteps in the latest foreign crisis.

“It is still important to recognize that we have a lot of things left to do here in this government,” Obama told his Cabinet, starting a sustained White House push to refocus the nation on matters at home as key benchmarks on the budget and health care rapidly approach.

“The American people are still interested in making sure that our kids are getting the kind of education they deserve, that we are putting people back to work,” Obama said.

The White House plans to use next week’s five-year anniversary of the 2008 financial collapse to warn Republicans that shutting down the government or failing to raise the debt limit could drag down the still-fragile economy. With Hispanic Heritage Month to begin Monday, Obama is also expected to press for a stalled immigration overhaul and urge minorities to sign up for health care exchanges beginning Oct. 1.

Among the events planned for next week is a White House ceremony highlighting Americans working on immigrant and citizenship issues. Administration officials will also promote overhaul efforts at naturalization ceremonies across the country. On Sept. 21, Obama will speak at the Congressional Black Caucus Gala, where he’ll trumpet what the administration says are benefits of the president’s health care law for African-Americans and other minorities.

Two major factors are driving Obama’s push to get back on track with domestic issues after three weeks of Syria dominating the political debate. Polls show the economy, jobs and health care remain Americans’ top concerns. And Obama has a limited window to make progress on those matters in a second term, when lame-duck status can quickly creep up on presidents, particularly if they start losing public support.

Obama already is grappling with some of the lowest approval ratings of his presidency. A Pew Research Center/USA Today poll out this week put his approval at 44 percent. That’s down from 55 percent at the end of 2012.

Potential military intervention in Syria also is deeply unpopular with many Americans, with a Pew survey finding that 63 percent opposing the idea. And the president’s publicly shifting positions on how to respond to a deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria also have confused many Americans and congressional lawmakers.

“In times of crisis, the more clarity the better,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a strong supporter of U.S. intervention in Syria. “This has been confusing. For those who are inclined to support the president, it’s been pretty hard to nail down what the purpose of a military strike is.”

For a time, the Obama administration appeared to be barreling toward an imminent strike in retaliation for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack. But Obama made a sudden reversal and instead decided to seek congressional approval for military action.

Even after administration officials briefed hundreds of lawmakers on classified intelligence, there appeared to be limited backing for a use-of-force resolution on Capitol Hill. Rather than face defeat, Obama asked lawmakers this week to postpone any votes while the U.S. explores the viability of a deal to secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

That pause comes as a relief to Obama and many Democrats eager to return to issues more in line with the public’s concerns. The most pressing matters are a Sept. 30 deadline to approve funding to keep the government open — the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1 — and the start of sign-ups for health care exchanges, a crucial element of the health care overhaul.

On Wednesday, a revolt by tea party conservatives forced House Republican leaders to delay a vote on a temporary spending bill written to head off a government shutdown. Several dozen staunch conservatives are seeking to couple the spending bill with a provision to derail implementation of the health care law.

The White House also may face a fight with Republicans over raising the nation’s debt ceiling this fall. While Obama has insisted he won’t negotiate over the debt limit, House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday said the GOP will insist on curbing spending.

“You can’t talk about increasing the debt limit unless you’re willing to make changes and reforms that begin to solve the spending problem that Washington has,” the Ohio Republican said.

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AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and Associated Press writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.

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Obama’s Syria proposal faces tough hearing in the House

Secretary of State John Kerry, left, talks with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Secretary of State John Kerry, left, talks with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Obama administration is facing a tougher examination of its plans for military intervention in Syria, squaring off against tea party Republicans and other skeptical House members a day after gaining Speaker John Boehner‘s critical endorsement and finding significant support in the Senate.

With President Barack Obama in Europe, his top national security aides were to participate Wednesday in a series of public and private hearings at the Capitol to advance their case for limited strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad‘s regime in retaliation for what the administration says was a deadly sarin gas attack by his forces outside Damascus last month.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee could vote on authorizing the use of force as early as Wednesday. The panel’s top members drafted a resolution late Tuesday that permits Obama to order a “limited and tailored” military mission against Syria, as long as it doesn’t exceed 90 days and involves no American troops on the ground for combat operations.

“We have pursued a course of action that gives the president the authority he needs to deploy force in response to the Assad regime’s criminal use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, while assuring that the authorization is narrow and focused,” said the committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez, R-N.J., who drafted the measure with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the panel’s senior Republican.

“We have an obligation to act, not witness and watch while a humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in plain view,” Menendez said.

While the administration was making progress in the Senate, it also needed to persuade a Republican-dominated House that has opposed almost the entirety of Obama’s agenda since seizing the majority more than three years ago. Several conservative Republicans and some anti-war Democrats already have come out in opposition to Obama’s plans, even as Republican and Democratic House leaders gave their support to the president Tuesday.

Boehner emerged from a meeting at the White House and declared that the U.S. has “enemies around the world that need to understand that we’re not going to tolerate this type of behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it’s necessary.”

Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, also backed action. But he acknowledged the split positions among both parties and said it was up to Obama to “make the case to Congress and to the American people that this is the right course of action.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, will try to make that argument in a public hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. They and other senior administration officials also will provide classified briefings to the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.

The administration says 1,429 died from the attack on Aug. 21 in a Damascus suburb. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-government activists in Syria, says it has been compiling a list of the names of the dead and says its toll has reached 502. Assad’s government blames the episode on the rebels. A United Nations inspection team is awaiting lab results on tissue and soil samples it collected while in the country before completing a closely watched report.

Obama, who arrives in Stockholm early Wednesday, will be hoping to maintain the momentum toward congressional approval that he has generated since Saturday, when he announced he would ask lawmakers to authorize what until then had appeared to be imminent military action against Syria.

On Monday, the president met privately at the White House with the Senate’s two leading Republican hawks, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and persuaded them to support his plans for an intervention on condition that he also seek to aid the Syrian rebels seeking to oust Assad.

A day later, he sat down with Boehner, Cantor and several other senior lawmakers to make a similar case that Assad must be punished for breaching the nearly century-old international taboo of using chemical weapons and for crossing the “red line” Obama set nearly a year ago. After gaining significant support, Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey appeared to get the backing of most senators at Tuesday’s hearing.

“You’re probably going to win” Congress’ backing, Rand Paul of Kentucky, a conservative senator and likely opponent of the measure, conceded in a late-afternoon exchange with Kerry.

However, even proponents of military action urged Obama to do more to sell his plans to an American public that is highly skeptical after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama, who will travel from Sweden’s capital to an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Thursday, has little international support for action right now. Among major allies, only France has offered publicly to join the United States in a strike, although President Francois Hollande says he’ll await Congress’ decision.

A consistent refrain in Tuesday’s Senate hearing was the need for clearer limits on the duration and scope of any resolution that authorizes military force. Chief among them was language barring American soldiers from being sent to fight in Syria, something Obama has said repeatedly he has no intention of doing.

“There’s no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground,” Kerry told lawmakers. “President Obama is not asking America to go to war.”

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Associated Press writers David Espo, Julie Pace, Josh Lederman, Donna Cassata, Alan Fram, Jennifer C. Kerr and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.
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Hagel tries to tone down Obama effect on military sexual assault

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (AP)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (AP)

In a highly unusual move to blunt the legal impact of the president’s comments on military sexual assaults, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is ordering his top leaders to be sure to only base their judicial decisions on facts and their own independent judgment.

The one-page memo tells the military that even though senior U.S. leaders may openly condemn sexual assault, drug abuse, hazing and other crimes, such comments are not intended to sway the outcome of any particular case.

In early May, as high-profile incidents of sexual assault in the military spiked, President Barack Obama — the nation’s commander in chief — declared he had no tolerance for the matter.

“I don’t want just more speeches or awareness programs or training but, ultimately, folks look the other way,” he said. “If we find out somebody is engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable — prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period.”

Obama’s remarks have already affected the outcome in some cases, including the decision by a judge in South Carolina to dismiss sexual assault charges against a soldier. Defense lawyers have argued that the president’s remarks amounted to unlawful command influence on the cases.

“The comments made by the president did result in an impact in some of the cases that were ongoing from the view of the judges,” Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, director of the Joint Staff, said during a Pentagon press briefing Thursday. “As a result, we believed it was necessary … to make a statement, simply to ensure that commanders understood that they act independently, based on the merits of a case, and to ensure that there’s no taint in any of the jurisdiction that takes place or any of the cases that are ongoing now.”

It’s not clear if the memo will effectively limit the legal arguments that defense attorneys have made. But Scaparrotti said that commanders understand their responsibility to act on the merits of a case and will continue to act independently in line with the justice system.

The memo, obtained by The Associated Press, was first reported by The New York Times. Its disclosure comes as the Pentagon on Thursday released additional steps to increase accountability of commanders reviewing sexual assault cases and to improve support for victims of the crimes.

The new measures include the creation of a legal advocacy program to provide legal representation for victims; requirements that pretrial hearings of sexual assault charges be conducted by judge advocate general officers; and new authorities for commanders to reassign or transfer troops accused of sex crimes to eliminate contact with victims.

The changes would also require greater oversight by senior officers, allow victims to give input during the sentencing phase of a court-martial and direct the inspector general to regularly review sexual assault investigations.

In a statement, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the initiatives are a step along a path toward eliminating the crime from the military ranks. He said the president “expects this level of effort to be sustained” as far into the future as necessary.

The measures are being taken under growing pressure from Congress, including a spate of bills that seek to overhaul the military justice system in an effort to stem the surging tide of sexual assaults in the military.

Critics complain that victims don’t trust the system and are worried about retaliation if they come forward and lodge complaints against fellow service members or officers who may be protected by their comrades. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has expressed concern that women in the military are losing confidence that the problem can be solved.

Lawmakers, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., argue that commanders should be removed from the process of deciding which crimes go to trial and be replaced by seasoned trial lawyers with experience in such cases. Military leaders oppose the idea, arguing that removing the decision from their purview would undercut the ability of officers to maintain good order and discipline.

On Thursday Gillibrand went to her Twitter account to warn that while the new policy is a step forward, it is “inadequate to truly address this crisis.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Congress will move ahead with its own reforms, adding, “I think it’s wise for our military leaders to get on this train rather than get run over by it.”

In a recent report, the Pentagon estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2011. The estimates are based on an anonymous survey of military personnel.

The number of sexual assaults that members of the military actually reported rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012, but thousands of victims were still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the report said.
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Pentagon revising same sex benefits

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (AP)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (AP)

The Pentagon is poised to extend health care, housing and other benefits to the same-sex spouses of military members by the end of August, but may reverse earlier plans to provide benefits to gay partners who are not married.

According to a draft Defense Department memo obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, the department instead may provide up to 10 days of leave to military personnel in same-sex relationships so they can travel to states where they can marry legally.

While no final decisions have been made, the memo from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to top defense leaders would reverse an earlier plan that would allow the same-sex partners of military members to sign a declaration form in order to receive limited benefits, such as access to military stores and some health and welfare programs.

The recent Supreme Court decision extending federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples eliminates the need for such a plan, Hagel said in the draft.

“As the Supreme Court’s ruling has made it possible for same-sex couples to marry and be afforded all benefits available to any military spouse and family, I have determined, consistent with the unanimous advice of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the spousal and family benefits far outweigh the benefits that could be extended under a declaration system,” Hagel wrote.

According to a U.S. official, the memo is under legal review by the Justice Department, and the Pentagon will not be able to take any action until that review is finished.

“Although we have bases and installations in all 50 states, not all state laws are equal when it comes to same sex marriage,” a defense official said. “That is why we are looking at providing extra leave for same sex couples who want to get married to travel to a state where same sex marriages are legal.” The officials were not authorized to discuss the memo publicly, so spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pentagon officials would not comment on the specifics of the memo. A Defense Department spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, said only that the Pentagon “is working alongside the Department of Justice to implement the court’s decision as quickly as possible.”

In February, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that by no later than Oct. 1 the Pentagon would extend some limited benefits to same-sex partners of service members. Housing benefits were not included, but the plans called for same-sex partners to get special identification cards granting them access to commissaries and other services.

The benefits would be contingent on the service member and their same-sex partner signing a declaration that they were in a committed relationship.

At the time, officials said that if the Supreme Court ruled on the federal Defense of Marriage Act the issue would be revisited. The act prohibited the federal government from recognizing any marriage other than that between a man and a woman.

In late June, the court cleared the way for legally married gay couples to be recognized under federal law, and also allowed same-sex marriages in California to resume. It did not issue any sweeping declarations that would allow same-sex couples to marry anywhere in the country.

When the ruling was announced, Hagel said the Pentagon would reassess the department’s decisions on benefits for same-sex couples, and also begin the process of extending benefits to same-sex spouses of military members.

In the new draft memo, Hagel says the department intends to treat all married military personnel the same and “make the same benefits available to all military spouses, regardless of sexual orientation.”

But, recognizing that same-sex couples are only allowed to marry in a limited number of states, Hagel said the provision allowing service members to travel to states where the unions are legal is a way to help overcome those challenges.

Defense officials estimate there are 18,000 same-sex couples in the active-duty military, National Guard and Reserves. It’s unclear how many of those are married.

The repeal of the ban on openly gay military service took effect in September 2011.

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Pentagon cuts unpaid leave

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel . (REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel . (REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced on Tuesday he was slashing the amount of unpaid leave that 650,000 civilian employees were ordered take this year to six days from 11 in an effort to limit the pain from across-the-board budget cuts.

The decision means most civilian defense employees, who saw their pay effectively cut by 20 percent, will complete their furloughs next week. Teachers and school staff who were due to take five days of unpaid leave at the start of the school year in late August will not be furloughed, defense officials said.

Hagel ordered the unpaid leave on May 14 after the Pentagon was hit with a $37 billion budget cut in March, nearly halfway through its fiscal year. The cuts led the Navy to halt deployments, the Army to cancel training, the Air Force to ground aircraft and the Pentagon to furlough most civilians.

“This has been one of the most volatile and uncertain budget cycles the department … has ever experienced,” Hagel said in a memo. “While we are still depending on furlough savings, we will be able to make up our budgetary shortfall in this fiscal year with fewer furlough days than initially announced.”

While acknowledging that the reduction in furlough days might lead some people to accuse the department of exaggerating the scope of its earlier problem, senior defense officials said the Pentagon was looking at an $11 billion shortfall when it initially ordered the unpaid leave.

“Time is the best budget analyst. If you wait longer, you’ll know more,” said one official. “There were a whole bunch of things that broke in our favor, but three months ago, with $11 billion short, I don’t think we had a lot of choice.”

Reducing the unpaid leave will cost the department about $1 billion, senior defense officials said.

The Pentagon offset its budget shortfall and compensated for the reduced furloughs in several ways, including getting permission from Congress to shift $9.6 billion between accounts, mainly from acquisitions to daily operations, officials said.

The department was able to reduce spending in some areas, such as the cost of shifting equipment out of Afghanistan as the war draws down. Some funds were shifted among the military service branches and defense agencies, and the furloughs also saved money, the officials said.

“As a result, we were able to accomplish two goals: a reduction in furlough days, and a modest improvement in training and readiness,” Hagel said in the memo.

He noted that in recent weeks, some grounded Air Force squadrons had resumed flying, the Army had added additional training and the Navy had restarted delayed maintenance and ship deployments.

While offering regrets for the need to force civilians to take unpaid leave, Hagel cautioned that continuing uncertainty regarding the budget for the 2014 fiscal year beginning October 1 could lead to further hardship in the coming year. But he promised to do “everything possible to avoid more furloughs.”

The furloughs came as the Defense Department struggles to cut nearly $1 trillion from its projected spending over the next decade under a law passed in 2011 to try to reduce the government’s huge budget deficits.

The law required the department to cut $487 billion over a decade. It also directed the Pentagon to cut $500 billion across the board over the same time frame unless Congress and the White House agree on an alternative package to raise revenues or cut spending.

The sides have been unable to reach a deal, and Congress allowed across-the-board cuts to go into effect for the first time in March, but at a reduced amount of $37 billion because it was five months into the 2013 fiscal year.

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Some 650,000 Petagon workers face a day without pay

A day without pay, the first of 11 through September, comes next week for more than 650,000 people who hold civilian jobs with the Defense Department. Officials worry that the Pentagon will be hit even harder by layoffs in 2014 if automatic budget cuts continue as planned.

Roughly 85 percent of the department’s nearly 900,000 civilians around the world will be furloughed one day each week over the next three months, according to the latest statistics provided by the Pentagon. But while defense officials were able to shift money around to limit the furloughs this year, thousands of civilian, military and contract jobs could be on the chopping block next year.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to provide senators with more details early next week on how the next wave of across-the-board budget cuts will affect the department, said Pentagon press secretary George Little. But while defense officials have not yet released details on the impact of the cuts, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, has warned that as many as 100,000 more active-duty, National Guard and Reserve soldiers could lose their jobs if Congress allows billions of dollars in automatic budget cuts to continue next year.

Initial hopes that the number of furlough days could be reduced have largely been dashed. Instead, talk is focused more on how to slash spending in 2014. The department can only force workers to take 22 furlough days per year, thus the need for possible layoffs.

In the coming weeks, however, civilian employees ranging from top-level policy advisers to school teachers and depot workers will not be answering their phones or responding to emails for one day a week through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The department estimates the savings will be between $1.9 billion and $2.1 billion.

Managers across the department have been given some flexibility in how they schedule the days off during each two-week pay period. But they also are dealing with complex legal requirements that in many cases prevent them from using military personnel to fill in for the absent civilians.

“There’s going to be perhaps some degradation of mission across the department, and because of reduced work schedules for 650,000 employees,” Little said. “We knew that going in, and we knew that would be a problem, and we’ve tried to take steps to ensure that top-priority missions across the department aren’t disproportionately affected.

In some cases, supervisors will try to accommodate workers who manage to find some other part-time, temporary job to help ease the fiscal pain, although they are limited in the types of employment they can take.

Civilians have been getting their furlough letters sporadically for the last few weeks. The letters tell them that during their furlough time, “you will not be permitted to serve as an unpaid volunteer, must remain away from your workplace, and are prohibited from performing any work-related duties.”

Civilians can appeal the furloughs once they have actually taken one of the unpaid days off.

The monetary impact for individuals varies widely, depending on salaries. But workers will effectively receive a 20 percent salary cut each pay period for the rest of the fiscal year. For a civilian making roughly $100,000 a year, that will mean about $1,600 in lost pay each month. Someone making $40,000 a year would get $600 less a month. Health care and other paycheck deductions would not decrease.

The impact also varies dramatically in military installations and defense offices around the world, from the massive five-sided office building near the Potomac River to smaller work places in Guam or Cyprus. Vermont has the fewest Defense Department civilians on furlough, with about 490, while Virginia easily has the most with nearly 72,000. For the most part, the number of furloughed civilians in other countries ranges from a handful to several dozen, but in Germany — where U.S. Africa Command and U.S. European Command are based — the number exceeds 13,000.

The situation in Germany has triggered complaints, including a letter from Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., asking Hagel to halt a pay raise for German civilians working at the U.S. bases in that country. Noting that more than 19,000 civilian workers in North Carolina will be furloughed — for a total loss in pay of about $64 million — she said Hagel should stop the $16 million in pay hikes for the German workers during 2013-14.

Under a union agreement, the German workers will get a one-time payment of 500 euros and a 30 euro-a-month pay increase beginning in January.

According to Army spokesman Paul Prince, the raise does not exceed 1 percent, which is similar to what the president proposed for federal workers.

A bit more than 240,000 defense department civilians are exempt from the furloughs, with the bulk of those being foreign nationals or workers not paid through appropriated funding. Nearly 7,000 defense intelligence workers are exempt, along with about 29,000 workers at Navy shipyards, where officials worried that the harm to shop maintenance would end up costing more than the salary cuts would save.

Congress has set in motion about $500 billion in across-the-board budget cuts over 10 years, forcing the Pentagon to come up with wide-ranging plans for closing bases, raising health care fees and smaller pay raises. But Congress’ adamant opposition to base closures will mean the department will have to find savings elsewhere.

The Obama administration has proposed a base budget of $526.6 billion for 2014 for the Pentagon, about $52 billion more than the $475 billion level established by the spending cuts set in the 2011 budget agreement between Obama and congressional Republicans.

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Pentagon plans to put more and more women in combat

 

female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division train on a firing range while testing new body armor in Fort Campbell, Ky., in preparation for their deployment to Afghanistan. Women may be able to begin training as Army Rangers by mid-2015, and as Navy SEALs a year later under broad plans Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is approving that would slowly bring women into thousands of combat jobs, including those in the country’s elite special operations forces, according to details of the plans submitted to Hagel that were obtained by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
Female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division train on a firing range while testing new body armor in Fort Campbell, Ky., in preparation for their deployment to Afghanistan.
(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

Military leaders are ready to begin tearing down the remaining walls that have prevented women from holding thousands of combat and special operations jobs near the front lines.

Under details of the plans obtained by The Associated Press, women could start training as Army Rangers by mid-2015 and as Navy SEALs a year later.

The military services have mapped out a schedule that also will include reviewing and possibly changing the physical and mental standards that men and women will have to meet in order to quality for certain infantry, armor, commando and other front-line positions across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Under the plans to be introduced Tuesday, there would be one common standard for men and women for each job.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reviewed the plans and has ordered the services to move ahead.

The move follows revelations of a startling number of sexual assaults in the armed forces. Earlier this year, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said the sexual assaults might be linked to the longstanding ban on women serving in combat because the disparity between the roles of men and women creates separate classes of personnel — male “warriors” versus the rest of the force.

While the sexual assault problem is more complicated than that, he said, the disparity has created a psychology that lends itself to disrespect for women.

Under the schedules military leaders delivered to Hagel, the Army will develop standards by July 2015 to allow women to train and potentially serve as Rangers, and qualified women could begin training as Navy SEALs by March 2016 if senior leaders agree. Military leaders have suggested bringing senior women from the officer and enlisted ranks into special forces units first to ensure that younger, lower-ranking women have a support system to help them get through the transition.

The Navy intends to open up its Riverine force and begin training women next month, with the goal of assigning women to the units by October. While not part of the special operations forces, the coastal Riverine squadrons do close combat and security operations in small boats. The Navy plans to have studies finished by July 2014 on allowing women to serve as SEALs, and has set October 2015 as the date when women could begin Navy boot camp with the expressed intention of becoming SEALs eventually.

U.S. Special Operations Command is coordinating the matter of what commando jobs could be opened to women, what exceptions might be requested and when the transition would take place.

The proposals leave the door open for continued exclusion of women from some jobs if research and testing find that women could not be successful in sufficient numbers. But the services would have to defend such decisions to top Pentagon leaders.

Army officials plan to complete gender-neutral standards for the Ranger course by July 2015. Army Rangers are one of the service’s special operations units, but many soldiers who go through Ranger training and wear the coveted tab on their shoulders never actually serve in the 75th Ranger Regiment. To be considered a true Ranger, soldiers must serve in the regiment.

In January, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Dempsey signed an order that wiped away generations of limits on where and how women could fight for their country. At the time, they asked the services to develop plans to set the change in motion.

The decision reflects a reality driven home by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where battle lines were blurred and women were propelled into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers who were sometimes attached, but not formally assigned, to battalions. So even though a woman could not serve officially as a battalion infantryman going out on patrol, she could fly a helicopter supporting the unit or be part of a team supplying medical aid if troops were injured.

Of the more than 6,700 U.S. service members who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 150 have been women.

The order Panetta and Dempsey signed prohibits physical standards from being lowered simply to allow women to qualify for jobs closer to the battlefront. But the services are methodically reviewing and revising the standards for many jobs, including strength and stamina, in order to set minimum requirements for troops to meet regardless of their sex.

The military services are also working to determine the cost of opening certain jobs to women, particularly aboard a variety of Navy ships, including certain submarines, frigates, mine warfare and other smaller warships. Dozens of ships do not have adequate berthing or facilities for women to meet privacy needs, and would require design and construction changes.

Under a 1994 Pentagon policy, women were prohibited from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level. A brigade is roughly 3,500 troops split into several battalions of about 800 soldiers each. Historically, brigades were based farther from the front lines, and they often included top command and support staff.

Last year the military opened up about 14,500 combat positions to women, most of them in the Army, by allowing them to serve in many jobs at the battalion level. The January order lifted the last barrier to women serving in combat, but allows the services to argue to keep some jobs closed.

The bulk of the nearly 240,000 jobs currently closed to women are in the Army, including those in infantry, armor, combat engineer and artillery units that are often close to the battlefront. Similar jobs in the Marine Corps are also closed.

Army officials have laid out a rolling schedule of dates in 2015 to develop gender-neutral standards for specific jobs, beginning with July for engineers, followed by field artillery in March and the infantry and armor jobs no later than September.

Women make up about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active U.S. military personnel. More than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or neighboring nations in support of the wars.
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Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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Hagel deals with Vietnam memories on Asia trip

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivers his keynote address on “The US Approach to Regional Security” at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue, or IISS Asia Security Summit in Singapore.
(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Forty-five years ago, as the Vietnam war raged on, Army Spc. Chuck Hagel and Nguyen Tan Dung were on opposite sides of combat serving in the Mekong Delta — both wounded more than once as they battled for their countries.

This weekend the two men — now America’s defense secretary and Vietnam’s prime minister — met at a formal dinner at the start of an international security conference here, working to help build America’s growing military partnership with Vietnam.

Hagel’s first trip to Asia as Pentagon chief has been a bit of a walk down memory lane for the former infantry soldier.

While Hagel and Dung knew of each other’s service in Vietnam, they had never met. So when they spoke on the sidelines of the dinner, they had the chance to exchange war stories.

Back in 1968, Hagel was a specialist in the 2nd Battalion of the 47th Infantry Regiment, fighting in the Mekong Delta. Dung, who joined the Viet Cong around 1961 when he would have been about 12, and served as a corpsman, then later led a surgery unit reportedly operating in the Delta’s U Minh forest.

According to defense officials, the two men talked briefly about their time at war and the fact that both had bled for their countries. Hung invited Hagel to visit Vietnam, and the secretary said he looks forward to going, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the private meeting.

Hagel also recalled family war history during a private meeting Saturday with Philippines Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin. According to defense officials, Hagel noted that his father served in that country during WWII with the 13th Army Air Corps. Officials said Hagel told Gazmin that during a visit to the Philippines in the 1980s, he was surprised to see a photo of his father in a foxhole on display in an exhibit — the same photo that had hung in the Hagel family home.

The secretary’s first stop on this Asia trip was in Hawaii, where he recalled going on leave with his brother Tom during the middle of their Vietnam war tour. Hagel ate at the same — although updated — restaurant in Honolulu during this trip as he had back in July 1968, when he and Tom got together at the Halekulani Hotel with their mother and other family members for the weeklong R&R.

To secure the memory, Hagel stood for a photo at the same large tree that his family had posed in front of during that reunion.

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Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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Sexual assault probe underway at Naval Academy

Did the Navy football team score off the field?
Did the Navy football team score off the field?

The U.S. Naval Academy is investigating allegations that three football team members sexually assaulted a female midshipman at an off-campus house more than a year ago, a Pentagon spokesman said Friday, and a lawyer for the woman says she was “ostracized” on campus after she reported it.

The Pentagon did not make public the names of the players, and the school’s athletic director referred questions to a Naval Academy spokesman, who said the Annapolis military college’s leaders were monitoring the investigation but declined further comment.

Navy criminal investigators have concluded their work and submitted a report with additional corroborating evidence to Naval Academy Superintendent Michael Miller, who closed an investigation into the same allegations last year without charges, said Susan Burke, a lawyer for the female midshipman.

“The entire (Naval Academy) community knows about this,” Burke said in an interview.

The nation’s military academies have struggled for years with sexual assault and harassment allegations, and a string of sexual assault cases has recently drawn attention in Congress and at the Pentagon and The White House.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the chiefs of each military branch are scheduled to testify next week at a Senate hearing, and President Barack Obama raised the problem of sex assaults in the military while recently delivering the Naval Academy commencement ceremony address.

Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren confirmed the investigation of the midshipmen Friday but said he had no further details. He said academy officials are evaluating options for adjudicating the case. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is determined to stamp out the problem, Warren said.

Other Navy football players have faced sex assault allegations in past years.

In 2006, Lamar Owens, Jr., the team’s starting quarterback, was acquitted of rape but found guilty of lesser charges. He was later expelled from the school despite opposition from some alumni. Another one-time member of the team, Kenny Ray Morrison, was convicted in 2007 of sexually assaulting a female classmate at a Washington hotel. He was sentenced to two years in the Navy brig.

The alleged assault occurred in April 2012 at an off-campus house in Annapolis. According to Burke, the woman woke up with bruises after a night of heavy drinking and later learned from friends and social media that three football players — whom she considered friends — were claiming to have had sex with her while she was intoxicated and blacked out, Burke said.

The woman reported the allegations to Navy criminal investigators and was disciplined for drinking while the athletes, one of whom discouraged her from cooperating, were permitted to continue playing, Burke said. The female midshipman remains a student in good standing.

“The institution sent her a message loud and clear about its values,” she said.

The Navy agreed to reopen the investigation this year after the woman sought legal help, Burke said. The new investigation involved wiretapped conversations that Burke said further substantiated her client’s account.

Burke said the scheduled graduation of one of the three students was put on hold because of the allegations, while the other two were not scheduled to graduate this year. But she questioned whether the Naval Academy superintendent could be unbiased in deciding the fate of the three students.

Naval Academy spokesman Cmdr. John Schofield declined to respond to Burke’s statements, saying in a statement, “It is completely inappropriate to make any other public comment on this investigation or any ongoing investigation as we risk compromising the military justice process.”

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Associated Press Writers Robert Burns and Dave Ginsburg contributed to this report.

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Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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