Overnight Defense: Officials brief Congress after Iran shoots down drone | Lawmakers fear 'grave situation' | Trump warns Iran | Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales | Bombshell confession at Navy SEAL's murder trial
Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: The U.S. military confirmed Thursday morning that Iran shot down a Navy drone, increasing already high tensions between Washington and Tehran.
U.S. Central Command (Centcom) said an Iranian surface-to-air missile system shot down the drone in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz in an “unprovoked attack.” It denied Iranian claims that the drone was over Hormozgan Province in southern Iran.
Centcom identified the aircraft as an RQ-4 Global Hawk that “provides real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions (ISR) over vast ocean and coastal regions.”
“This attack is an attempt to disrupt our ability to monitor the area following recent threats to international shipping and free flow of commerce, ” Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, said in a statement.
About the attack: Guastella said the drone was operating at a high altitude approximately 34 kilometers away from the Iranian coast.
The Northrup Grumman-made Global Hawk, valued at $130 million, is considered the Navy’s most advanced high-altitude drone.
Guastella called the attack “dangerous and escalatory,” adding that it “occurred in the vicinity of established air corridors between Dubai, UAE, and Muscat Oman, possibly endangering innocent civilians.”
The Pentagon also released video showing the smoke trail from the downed drone.
Trump’s response: Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that Iran “made a big mistake” by shooting down the drone.
Asked later if he planned to strike Iran, Trump said the public “will soon find out.”
But Trump also appeared to give Iran some benefit of the doubt when assigning blame for the incident, saying that “I imagine someone made a mistake.”
Iran’s claims: “Shooting down of the US spy drone has a clear message and it is the fact that the defenders of this country are ready to give decisive response to any aggression,” Major-General Hossein Salami, who commands Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, said, according to the state news agency.
He said that Iran’s “enemies” have “no choice” but to respect the nation’s territorial integrity and interests.
“Iran is not seeking war with any country but its armed forces are ready to defend the country against aggression,” Salami added.
Iranian state broadcaster IRIB reported that the Revolutionary Guard said in a statement that the drone had “turned off all its identifying equipment in violation of aviation rules and was moving in full secrecy,” Reuters noted.
The background: Fears of war between the U.S. and Iran have been heightened in recent days after Washington accused Tehran of being behind the bombings of two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week. The Iranian government denied any involvement in the attacks.
President TrumpDonald John TrumpBooker hits Biden’s defense of remarks about segregationist senators: ‘He’s better than this’ Booker hits Biden’s defense of remarks about segregationist senators: ‘He’s better than this’ Trump says Democrats are handing out subpoenas ‘like they’re cookies’ MORE this week called the oil tanker attacks “minor,” but said he would “certainly go [to war] over nuclear weapons.”
The Pentagon also announced this week that it would deploy an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East to address “air, naval, and ground-based threats” in the region.
“The United States does not seek conflict with Iran,” former acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanThe Hill’s Morning Report – Trump’s reelection message: Promises kept The Hill’s Morning Report – Trump’s reelection message: Promises kept Overnight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn’t want war with Iran MORE said. “The action today is being taken to ensure the safety and welfare of our military personnel working throughout the region and to protect our national interests.”
Lawmakers react: Lawmakers emerging from a closed-door briefing on Iran on Thursday warned the threat of U.S. military action is increasing.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelEngel draws primary challenger in NY Engel draws primary challenger in NY Overnight Defense: Latest on House defense bill markup | Air Force One, low-yield nukes spark debate | House Dems introduce resolutions blocking Saudi arms sales | Trump to send 1,000 troops to Poland MORE (D-N.Y.) said no decisions on military action were presented at the briefing — delivered by administration officials to congressional leaders — but that “it’s a very grave situation.”
“The provocation on behalf of the Iranians is serious,” he said. “I think right now there’s strong analysis going on as to exactly what happened and why, and I think we’ll know more when the analysis is completed.”
“I fear military action because I don’t want to get into a war,” Engel added. “We’ll have to see.”
But some lawmakers who have President Trump’s ear were blunt about what they think needs to happen.
“Here’s what Iran needs to get ready for: Severe pain inside their country,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSecond ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators Second ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators Meghan McCain clashes with Joy Behar as the ‘sacrificial Republican’ on ‘The View’ MORE (R-S.C.) told reporters. “If they’re itching for a fight, they’re going to get one. We’re a lot closer to that today than we were yesterday, and only god knows what tomorrow brings.”
Graham said he spoke with Trump on Thursday morning and has plans to speak with him again in the afternoon.
And earlier today: The Hill broke down how Trump faces skepticism about Iran war authority from both parties. Read about that here.
SENATE VOTES TO BLOCK TRUMP’S SAUDI ARMS SALE: The Senate voted to block President Trump’s Saudi arms deal on Thursday, paving the way for a veto clash with the White House.
The Senate voted 53-45 on resolutions to block two of the sales, with GOP Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate confirms Trump judicial nominee criticized for being hostile to LGBT community Senate confirms Trump judicial nominee criticized for being hostile to LGBT community GOP frets about Trump’s poll numbers MORE (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSecond ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators Second ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators Overnight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn’t want war with Iran MORE (Utah), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranOvernight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of ‘nuclear blackmail’ | Details on key defense bill amendments Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of ‘nuclear blackmail’ | Details on key defense bill amendments Senators revive effort to create McCain human rights commission MORE (Kansas), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiInterior spending bill holds Trump administration accountable for 2017 promises Hillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers’ use of location data Hillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers’ use of location data MORE (Alaska), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate to vote Thursday to block Trump’s Saudi arms deal Senate to vote Thursday to block Trump’s Saudi arms deal Overnight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn’t want war with Iran MORE (Ky.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungOvernight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of ‘nuclear blackmail’ | Details on key defense bill amendments Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of ‘nuclear blackmail’ | Details on key defense bill amendments Senators revive effort to create McCain human rights commission MORE (Ind.) joining Democrats.
They voted 51-45 to block an additional 20 arms sales. Murkowski flipped to vote for the sale, while Lee did not vote.
Details: The 22 arms sales, estimated to be worth more than $8 billion, would provide weapons to Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.
But the sales sparked widespread backlash in Congress after Trump used an “emergency” provision of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) to sidestep the 30-day notification to lawmakers about a pending sale.
Lawmakers’ argument: Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate to vote on blocking Trump’s Saudi arms deal as soon as this week There is a severe physician shortage and it will only worsen Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump’s Deutsche Bank ties MORE (D-N.J.), who sponsored the resolution, argued that Congress needed to send a message that U.S. alliances with Saudi Arabia or the UAE are “not a blank check.”
“For months upon months, this administration has failed to demonstrate how equipping the Saudis with more weapons would improve the Saudis’ respect for human rights in Yemen or advance America’s own values and national security interests,” Menendez said.
Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds Overnight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds Chris Murphy may oppose bipartisan health bill unless it addresses ObamaCare ‘sabotage’ MORE (D-Conn.) added that if lawmakers didn’t try to block the sale they were effectively allowing this administration and future administrations to ignore Congress on arms sales.
“If we don’t take a positive vote here, we are giving away this priority potentially forever, because you know, this emergency in the Middle East is not a new emergency,” he added.
The attempt: Under the AECA, lawmakers can block an arms sale with only a simple majority, instead of the 60 votes normally needed to pass legislation in the Senate.
House Democrats have pledged they will also pass resolutions blocking the sale.
Neither chamber is expected to be able to muster the two-thirds votes necessary to override all-but-guaranteed vetoes from Trump in response.
Unprecedented: But Thursday’s votes are an unprecedented move, reflecting growing frustration on Capitol Hill about the U.S.-Saudi relationship and coming after two votes fell short in recent years to block arms deals with Saudi Arabia. One, in 2016, garnered support from only 27 senators. The other, in June 2017, had the backing of 47.
Since then, U.S.-Saudi relations have soured further amid growing concerns about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the years-long Yemen civil war and the death of Washington Post contributor and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Congress passed a separate resolution earlier this year forcing Trump to remove troops in or affecting Yemen unless they were fighting al Qaeda; Trump vetoed the resolution.
In addition to the arms sale votes on Thursday, Menendez announced that he had reached a deal with Sen. Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischTrump’s UN pick faces Senate grilling Trump’s UN pick faces Senate grilling UN nominee Kelly Craft to face confirmation hearing Wednesday MORE (R-Idaho), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, to hold a committee vote on legislation limiting which countries a president can use the “emergency” provision to sell arms to and a broader Saudi bill being worked on by Risch.
The administration’s stance: The administration has hit back at criticism from Congress over its tactics on the arms deal, arguing that a heightened threat from Iran is its justification in invoking the emergency.
“These sales and the associated emergency certification are intended to address the military need of our partners in the face of an urgent regional threat posed by Iran; promote the vitality of our bilateral relationships by reassuring our partners; and preserve strategic advantage against near-peer competitors,” R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
They’ve been backed up by most Republicans including Risch and Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record Overnight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record Senate to vote Thursday to block Trump’s Saudi arms deal MORE (R-Ky.), both of whom made the case for rejecting the resolutions ahead of Thursday’s votes.
WITNESS DROPS BOMBSHELL CONFESSION AT TRIAL FOR NAVY SEAL CHARGED WITH MURDER: A witness testifying Thursday at the murder trial of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher admitted he killed a teenage Iraqi militant, one of the crimes for which Gallagher was on trial.
The Associated Press reported that Special Operator 1st Class Corey Scott claimed credit for the killing after being granted immunity by a judge in exchange for testimony for the prosecution. Prosecutors reportedly accused Scott of lying in order to protect Gallagher.
“So you can stand up there and you can lie about how you killed the ISIS prisoner so Chief Gallagher does not have to go to jail,” prosecutor Lt. Brian John asked Scott during the trial, according to the AP. “You don’t want Chief Gallagher to go to jail, do you?”
“He’s got a wife and family,” Scott reportedly responded. “I don’t think he should be spending his life in prison.”
What he said: Scott testified Thursday that he asphyxiated the Iraqi militant as an act of mercy after Gallagher, who was treating the militant for injuries sustained in an airstrike, became enraged, stabbing the young man below the collarbone and then walked away without finishing treatment.
The allegations: Gallagher was also accused by a former Navy SEAL during the trial of shooting at civilians out of malice and referring to his captive as “just an ISIS dirtbag.”
Defense attorneys have reportedly argued that the soldiers have fabricated the allegations against Gallagher to prevent him from being promoted, due to his reputation as a demanding platoon leader.
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