- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London., Adam RawnsleyAdam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.
Well, that de-escalated quickly. After more than a year of loudly bragging about how his administration would torture suspected terrorists in U.S. custody, President-elect Donald Trump told a roomful of New York Times reporters that he’s open to changing his mind. The admission came after one conversation with retired Marine Corps general James Mattis on Sunday, who Trump said he’s “seriously considering” to head the Department of Defense. Trump added that when he asked Mattis for his views on torture, he was surprised the respected general didn’t support it.
The sudden flip-flop, FP’s Paul McLeary notes, “raises questions over the incoming president’s understanding of the military’s view of waterboarding and torture.” Given Trump’s query to Mattis about torture, it’s also worth asking if “support for waterboarding has emerged as a litmus test for who the president-elect will nominate to be in his cabinet. All of Trump’s picks so far — for national security advisor, CIA director, and vice president — have called for abusive interrogation techniques to be re-introduced to the U.S. government’s counterterrorism toolbox.”
Which way the wind blows. There’s a very good chance Trump will change his mind again about waterboarding, of course, and top officials at the United Nations appear ready to oppose Washington on this and other human rights issues.
FP’s Colum Lynch recently sat down with the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who revealed that he has informed his staff in the weeks following the U.S. election that they will have to serve as the front line in an international effort to check any excesses on the human rights front. “We are going to speak up,” another U.N. official told Foreign Policy. “It’ll be rough, but if [Trump] puts any of those ghastly campaign pledges into action we will condemn.”
There are reports out Wednesday that Trump has asked South Carolina governor Nikki Haley to be his ambassador to the U.N., and she has accepted. Haley has no real foreign policy experience, but is considered a rising Republican star.
Moscow moving. While Washington works its way through the transition process, the rest of the world turns. Moscow has recently deployed anti-ship missiles to disputed islands just north of Japan that Moscow and Tokyo have been arguing over since the end of WWII. The mobile Bastion missile system has a range of about 190 miles, and has also been deployed in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Tokyo is not pleased.
Meanwhile, NATO and Moscow are arguing over the recent Russian deployment of Bastion missiles to its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, along with nuclear-capable Iskander ballistic missiles and S-400 missile-defense systems. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Tuesday that moving the missiles to Kaliningrad was necessary, given NATO’s expansion. “Russia is doing everything necessary to ensure its security in the face of expansion by Nato towards its borders. The alliance really is an aggressive bloc, therefore Russia must do everything it can, and in this case it has the sovereign right to take necessary measures across its whole territory.”
Interesting side note: American director Oliver Stone has made a documentary about Ukraine which recently aired on Russian television. The film blames the CIA and American intelligence as being behind the popular uprising in Kiev that deposed Russian-backed strongman Viktor Yanukovych.
Russian tankers have been smuggling jet fuel to Syria, in violation of European Union sanctions, according to Reuters. “At least two Russian-flagged ships made deliveries – which contravene EU sanctions – via Cyprus, an intelligence source with a European Union government told Reuters. There was a sharp increase in shipments in October, said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.”
Big boom. The Islamic State has been littering the caliphate with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and that’s a huge problem for the non-governmental organizations and explosive ordnance disposal personnel trying to clean them up. Wired spoke to groups clearing IEDs in Syria and Iraq about the challenges of clearing IEDs. Islamic State fighters have been using the weapons differently than their predecessors: planting them like landmines and rigging out cities with booby-traps. Clearance personnel, unaccustomed to the different designs and traps to kill disposal teams, are fighting an uphill battle to decontaminate areas around the former caliphate.
Good morning and as always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
President Obama is offering his successor Donald Trump’s transition team a few words of advice — beware of North Korea. The Wall Street Journal reports that Obama has emphasized to Trump transition personnel that the growth of North Korea’s missile and nuclear warhead programs is placing the U.S. and its allies in East Asia at increasingly greater risk and that countering it should be a top priority for the next administration. White House officials are worried that a trade war with China along the lines Trump promised during the campaign could lead Beijing to cut off cooperation against North Korean weapons of mass destruction, making the problem worse.
In another sign of the thaw in relations between Japan and South Korea, the two countries have finalized an intelligence sharing deal. The Japan Times reports that the General Security of Military Information Agreement will cover information like satellite imagery on North Korea, which has threatened both countries with its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Tokyo and Seoul made another breakthrough in relations earlier this year when Japan agreed to compensate South Korean “comfort women” forced into prostitution during Japan’s occupation of Korea in the Second World War.
The U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for American tourists to be on guard for the possibility of terrorist attacks in public areas in France. CNN reports that the State Department pointed to “credible information” indicating Islamic State-linked attackers may target events in Europe during the holiday season. Officials are on edge about the potential for attacks following the arrest of a cell this week that had considered attacking the popular Christmas market in Strasbourg. Islamic State terrorists attacked numerous sites with active shooters and suicide bombs a year ago this month.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations says Iran has been smuggling weapons to the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah via commercial flights from Iran to Lebanon and Damascus. The Jerusalem Post reports that Ambassador Danny Danon sent a letter to the Security Council saying that Iran’s Mahan Air “‘packs weapons, ammunition and missile technology to Hezbollah in suitcases” and flies them to Hezbollah. Danon accused Hezbollah of having an underground stockpile of missiles larger than that of NATO countries.
A new policy from the Defense Department gives service members the ability to carry their own personal concealed weapons while working in U.S. government facilities, Military Times reports. The push to allow troops and military recruiters to be armed follows a series of attacks on military facilities, including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting carried out by Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan, another attack on Fort Hood personnel in by Spc. Ivan Lopez-Lopez, and the 2015 attack on a recruitment center in Chattanooga Tennessee by Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez. Would-be concealed weapons carriers still have to receive approval from commanders in order to carry.
The election of Donald Trump and the anti-Muslim rhetoric of his campaign has also unnerved many Muslim-Americans serving at the Pentagon and in the national security apparatus, the Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef writes.
The Navy’s $4 billion stealth destroyer just broke down while trying to cross the Panama Canal. USNI News reports that the USS Zumwalt, the Navy’s secretive sci-fi ship, had to be towed into U.S. Naval Station Rodman by tugs after it lost propulsion and took on seawater in its Advanced Induction Motors. Navy officials say it should take ten days to carry out needed repairs to get the Zumwalt moving again.
Business of defense
Defense contractors are pretty stoked about the upcoming Trump administration and the possibility that Congress may ditch budget caps on defense spending. The Baltimore Sun reports that it’s not just the election of Trump that’s boosting Maryland-based defense companies’ hopes, but the arrival of a Republican Congress along with him. Besides getting rid of budget caps, contractors are also looking forward to the possibility of a return to a normal appropriations process rather than the existing pattern of smaller, short-term funding deals.
Photo Credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images