1. Defense budget update: Conference report complete for $633B defense bill
The final conference version of the annual defense authorization measure (HR 4310), which was approved Tuesday, is set for House passage on Thursday and could clear the Senate as early as Friday.
Compromise began with the overall level of funding that the conference report authorized, $633.3 billion, which was a level between the two chambers' bills.
The House and Senate also reached compromise on an East Coast missile site, opting for a study rather than funding that was included in the House bill. They scaled back language on detainee policies to reach a compromise that guarantees that no one's rights to habeas corpus inside the United States would be denied.
The measure still kept a restriction on transferring Guantanamo detainees to the United States, but scaled back an open-ended ban in the Senate's bill and kept it to one year, which has been the timeline in past versions of the authorization bill.
On biofeuls, the committee removed a ban on the military's use alternative fuels but included a caveat on refinery construction.
One place where one side came out ahead was on social issues. An amendment from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) in the Senate bill to allow TRICARE to cover abortions in the case of rape or incest was included in the final bill.
A provision in the House bill to ban same-sex marriage ceremonies on military bases was stripped, however, although a conscience provision for military chaplains was kept in modified form.
In the end, both chambers' leaders were willing to deal because they were quickly running out of time in the lame-duck session. While there will certainly be some grumbling from all sides over the final bill, the legislation looks poised to pass both chambers easily by the end of the week.
The White House will still have some objections over the bill, and it has threatened to veto both the House and Senate versions.
In the final version, lawmakers still scaled back the administration's proposed increases to TRICARE and cuts to the Air National Guard, and the legislation will kill funding to the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) that the administration wants.
The bill also keeps a one-year restriction on transfers of Guantanamo detainees to the United States, which the administration is opposed to but has signed into law in past years.
On Iran sanctions, the White House did negotiate a longer period to implement the new sanctions in the bill, but lawmakers did not agree to expand exemptions to the sanctions.
An administration official did not comment on how the White House views the final defense bill and wouldn't speculate about whether President Obama would sign the legislation that's likely headed to his desk by Friday.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) downplayed the likelihood of a veto on Tuesday, saying he saw nothing in the legislation that would lead to that.
2. Stolen Valor effort falls short
Despite broad support, a bid to crack down on individuals who lie about having earned medals for combat bravery has fallen short in Congress for this year.
The final defense bill negotiated this week stripped out a section on "stolen valor," shelving efforts to allow criminal charges to be brought against people who misrepresent their military service to obtain veterans health care, a job, or other benefits.
Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., said the section was removed after the House Judiciary Committee and the Justice Department weighed in that it probably would not survive a court challenge.
Senate "stolen valor" bills sponsored by retiring Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., garnered 86 co-sponsors between them, while the House passed Heck's bill by a wide margin in September.
"I believe Congress realizes there is a problem," he said. "I do believe we will see 'stolen valor' legislation in the new Congress."
The Democrat-led Senate earlier this month inserted Webb's bill into the defense measure, rather than the Senate version of Heck's bill that was sponsored by Brown, who had lost re-election.
Heck said the Webb bill was broad to the point where attorneys believed it vulnerable to court challenge on constitutional grounds.
During the 94th National Convention, The American Legion passed Resolution No. 283: "Amend Stolen Valor Act," a copy of which can be found here: http://archive.legion.org/bitstream/handle/123456789/2148/2012N283.pdf?s... 
1. Report on Benghazi attack cites "systemic failures"
An independent review of the September 11 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi released Tuesday cited "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies" at the State Department.
The failures resulted in a security plan "that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place," the 39-page, unclassified version of the report concluded.
The board found that Washington tended "to overemphasize the positive impact of physical security upgrades ... while generally failing to meet Benghazi's repeated requests" to beef up personnel.
The board completed its investigation this week and sent a copy Monday to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said in letters to the heads of those committees that she accepted every one of its 24 recommendations. They include strengthening security, adding fire-safety precautions and improving intelligence collection in high-threat areas.
The report said "there was no protest prior to the attacks," which it described as "unanticipated in their scale and intensity." It also cited the Bureau of Diplomatic Security staff as "inadequate" in Benghazi on the day of the attack and in the months and weeks leading up to it, "despite repeated requests from Special Mission Benghazi and Embassy Tripoli for additional staffing."
The report said there had been a "lack of transparency, responsiveness, and leadership at the senior levels" in Washington, Tripoli and Benghazi.
"Security in Benghazi was not recognized and implemented as a 'shared responsibility' by the bureaus in Washington charged with supporting the post, resulting in stove-piped discussions and decisions on policy and security," it said. "That said, Embassy Tripoli did not demonstrate strong and sustained advocacy with Washington for increased security for Special Mission Benghazi."
The report said the short-term nature of the mission's staff, many of whom were inexperienced U.S. personnel, "resulted in diminished institutional knowledge, continuity and mission capacity."
The mission was also "severely under-resourced with regard to certain needed security equipment," it said.
The full report can be read here: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2012/images/12/18/202446.pdf 
2. Boosting Turkey's defenses against Syria
The United States plans to send two Patriot missile units and roughly 400 troops to Turkey as defense against a possible Syrian missile attack. The batteries will be part of a broader push to bolster Turkey's defenses, which will also see the deployment of four other Patriot batteries--two from Germany and two from the Netherlands--all of which will be under NATO's command and scheduled to be operational by the end of January. The reports came as U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Turkey last Friday, and a week after NATO approved Turkey's request for Patriot missiles to defend its border with Syria.
"But NATO nations do not have enough batteries to cover all of the sites. With tensions building with Iran and North Korea defying the United States and its Asian allies by launching a long-range rocket, American officials did not want to send more than a few Patriot batteries to Turkey, especially since it is not clear how long they will be needed," write Eric Schmitt and Michael Gordon for the New York Times.
"Considering the fact that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is on the outs with Chancellor Angela Merkel, it is interesting to see that there are no objections coming from Germany. Behind this silent agreement probably lies the desire of German soldiers to use the Trabzon port for withdrawal from Afghanistan," writes Nihat Ali Özcan for The Hurriyet.
"The surface-to-air missiles could technically be used to enforce a no-fly zone over northern Syria, but NATO officials have stressed that they are not gearing up for such a move, which would mark a sharp escalation in the West's involvement in Syria's conflict," writes Ernesto Londoño for the Washington Post.
3. POW/MIA Update
• SOLDIER MISSING FROM KOREAN WAR IDENTIFIED
On December 4, 2012 The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced that the remains of a U.S. serviceman, killed in action during the Korean War, had been identified and was returned to his family for burial with full military honors.
Army Sgt. Bobby R. King, 19, of Seymour, Texas, will be buried on Dec. 7, in Dallas. In August 1950, King and his unit, Battery A, 90th Field Artillery Battalion, were fighting against North Korean forces in a battle known as the "Bloody Gulch," near Pongam-ni, South Korea. After the battle, on Aug. 12, King was listed as missing in action.
In late 1950, U.S. Army Graves Registration Service personnel recovered remains of service members from that battlefield, including nine men who were unidentified. These men were buried at the 25th Infantry Division Cemetery in Masan, South Korea. In 1951, the U.S. consolidated cemeteries on the peninsula and the remains were sent to the U.S. Army's Central Identification Unit in Kokura, Japan, to determine whether they could be identified. When scientific analysis determined identification wasn't possible, King's remains were transferred to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii and re-interred as "unknown."
In 2011, due to advances in identification technology, analysts from DPMO and Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) reevaluated the information associated with the remains interred in Hawaii and concluded that if exhumed they could likely be identified. Based on available evidence such as metal identification tags, military clothing, and wartime records, analysts confirmed that the remains were a soldier who died at Pongam-ni.
The remains were exhumed and scientists from JPAC successfully identified King using circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools.
• SOLDIER KIA DURING VIETNAM WAR IDENTIFIED
On December 7, 2012 The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced that the remains of a U.S. serviceman, killed in action during the Vietnam War, had been identified and was returned to his family for burial with full military honors.
Army Capt. James M. Johnstone, 28, of Baton Rouge, La., was buried Dec. 12, in Arlington National Cemetery. On Nov. 19, 1966, Johnstone was the pilot of an OV-1A Mohawk aircraft that crashed while conducting a daytime reconnaissance mission over Attapu Province, Laos. Nearby U.S. aircrews reported seeing the wing of Johnstone's aircraft hit a tree during a climb to avoid a nearby ridgeline. No parachutes were seen exiting the aircraft. Heavy enemy presence in the area prevented recovery efforts.
From 1993 to 2009, joint U.S./Lao People's Democratic Republic (L.P.D.R.) teams, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), interviewed multiple witnesses, and conducted several investigations and excavations of the crash site in Attapu Province. The teams located human remains, military equipment, an identification card bearing Johnstone's name, and aircraft wreckage of an OV-1A, which correlated with the last known location of Johnstone's aircraft.
To identify the remains, scientists from JPAC analyzed circumstantial evidence and used forensic identification tools, such as dental comparisons.
Today, the U.S. government continues to work closely with the governments of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to recover Americans lost during the Vietnam War.