Overnight Defense & National Security — Governors on notice over vaccine mandate

American Age Official

It’s Tuesday, welcome to Overnight Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has told seven GOP governors that their state’s National Guard members must comply with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

We’ll break down his response to their concerns, plus Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comments on security demands and the Pentagon deciding to appeal an order to drain fuel tanks at a Hawaii storage facility.

For The Hill, I’m Jordan Williams. Write to me with tips at jwilliams@thehill.com.

Let’s get to it.

Austin warns governors over vaccine mandate

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has informed seven GOP governors that their state’s National Guard members must be vaccinated against COVID-19, the latest in the ongoing dispute between Republican leaders and the Pentagon over the mandate.

Austin sent nearly identical letters last week to each of the governors who in mid-December asked him to drop the mandate, saying he had no power to implement it to Guard members, who are under state authority.

In his response, Austin said he had the power to implement the mandate “regardless of duty status,” adding that concerns over the vaccine “do not negate the need for this important military readiness requirement.”

Who got a letter? Austin sent letters to Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Idaho Gov. Brad Little, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, all of whom signed on to a letter in mid-December asking him to drop the requirement.

He also sent a letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who separately sent a letter in protest of the mandate and then sued the Pentagon, seeking to block it.

Dunleavy joined Abbott’s litigation last week.

What Austin said: Austin warned that failing to comply “will lead to a prohibition on participation in drills, training, and other duty conducted under title 32 and will jeopardize the member’s status in the National Guard.”

The Pentagon chief told Abbott and Dunleavy that he couldn’t comment further on the “substance” of their concerns due to the ongoing litigation.

“COVID-19 takes our Service members out of the fight, temporarily or permanently, and jeopardizes our ability to meet mission requirements,” he wrote.

“To ensure that we maintain a healthy and ready military force capable of accomplishing our mission to defend this Nation and to protect the American people, vaccination against COVID-19 is an essential military readiness requirement for all components and units of the military,” he continues.

The fight started in Oklahoma: Austin mandated vaccinations for the military in late August but left it up to each service to implement their own deadlines. Air National Guard members had until December to be inoculated, while Army National Guard members have until June 30 to comply.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) was the first to publicly oppose the mandate in November, when he asked Austin to exempt his state’s National Guard from the mandate.

Stitt later appointed a new adjutant general of the Guard, who wrote a memo stipulating that no member was required to get the shot.

Austin turned down that request, and the state of Oklahoma then unsuccessfully sought to have a federal court enjoin the mandate.

Read the full story here.

Putin: US, NATO ‘ignored’ security concerns

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking to the mediaRussian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking to the media

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday accused the U.S. of leading it into a conflict with Ukraine that Moscow did not want while also lamenting demands for influence in Eastern Europe he said were being ignored.

Putin said in a news conference that the U.S. was trying to lead Russia into conflict in order to impose stiffer sanctions.

It was clear “that the principal Russian concerns turned out to be ignored,” he said, according to The New York Times reported.

Exchanging demands: Russia has demanded that NATO not expand any more toward the east and also ban Ukraine from joining the military alliance. The U.S. has deemed these conditions to be non-starters.

On Monday, Russia delivered a written response to the United States’ proposal, with the contents left undisclosed. The State Department stated that it would be “unproductive to negotiate in public.”

A written response by the U.S. last week was also not disclosed, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov indicated it had not satisfactorily addressed Russia’s demands.

“The document contains no positive response on the main issue” of Russia’s demands, Peskov said, though he added that it contained elements that could lead to “the start of a serious talk on secondary issues.”

Blinken speaks with Russian counterpart: Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the latest diplomatic outreach in the United States’ effort to stave off what officials fear is an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Blinken “emphasized the U.S. willingness, bilaterally and together with Allies and partners, to continue a substantive exchange with Russia on mutual security concerns,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.

The secretary reemphasized U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and called for Russia to draw down an estimated 100,000 troops stationed near its border with Ukraine.

“He emphasized that further invasion of Ukraine would be met with swift and severe consequences and urged Russia to pursue a diplomatic path,” Price said in the statement.

Something to watch for: The White House is dispatching its top cyber official to Europe for meetings with allies on countering cyberthreats from Russia, a senior Biden administration official said.

Anne Neuberger, the deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, is expected to meet with her European Union counterparts and NATO representatives in Brussels this week, according to the official.

Neuberger will also travel to Warsaw to meet with Polish and Baltic officials and members of the Bucharest Nine, which includes the NATO members Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.

Read today’s coverage of the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Pentagon fights order to drain fuel tanks

The Pentagon has decided it will fight Hawaii’s order to drain fuel from tanks at a storage facility following a leak that contaminated Pearl Harbor’s drinking water, a top Defense official said Monday.

The Defense Department first said earlier this month that the Navy would comply with the emergency order from the Hawaii Department of Health to empty the underground tanks at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The order came after the facility’s leak contaminated the Navy’s drinking water system for 93,000 people, sickening numerous military families.

But after a Monday meeting with Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) to discuss “how we can work together through some pending legal matters,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said the Pentagon would file an appeal to fight the state order.

Previously on Red Hill: The order was initially released in December and stipulated that the Navy must drain the fuel tanks and not use them again until it can prove it can do so safely.

Navy officials earlier this month told lawmakers that the service would “comply” with the order to defuel the facility, with U.S. Pacific Fleet Deputy Commander Rear Adm. Blake Converse calling it a “lawful order.”

So, what now? Hicks said DOD officials are still working to address the fuel contamination and would submit a work plan and implementation schedule for a “qualified, independent third party commercial firm” to assess Red Hill’s system integrity by April 30. The plan is due by Wednesday, as required by the emergency order.

She also said the department “will continue to do everything that we can to protect the population, the environment, and the security of the nation,” and hasn’t ruled out “the option of permanently defueling Red Hill.”

In addition, the Pentagon is working on a separate assessment to scrutinize the distribution of its fuel reserves in the Pacific, to be completed within 60 days to “enable the Secretary of Defense to make a decision on the role of Red Hill moving forward.”

Lawmakers react: Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz (D) said the move is a “grave and unforced error that undermines public trust.”

“Fortunately, we have civilian oversight of the military, and this inexplicable and maddening resistance to the defuel order will not succeed. They will lose in court, and they will lose in Congress,” Schatz wrote on Twitter.

Rep. Ed Case (D), who represents the districts the fuel leak affected, said in a statement that he strongly disagrees with the military’s decision.

“I will do everything I can to fully effectuate the order and, if necessary, to confirm that Hawai’i and any other state is legally entitled to protect its drinking water,” Case said in a statement.

Rep. Kai Kahele (D), meanwhile, called the Pentagon’s appeal “a betrayal to the people of Hawaii.”

“There is no more precious resource than our water,” Kahele wrote on Twitter. “If they are incapable of being a good neighbor and stewards of our environment, they must shut down Red Hill. I will do everything I can to protect Hawai’i’s drinking water.”

Read the full story here



That’s it for today! Check out The Hill’s defense and national security pages for latest coverage. See you on Wednesday.

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