SitRep: Intel Chiefs, Senators Push Back on Russia Hack; Russian Carrier Going Home
New DNI Chief Coming Soon; U.S. Troops Wounded Fighting ISIS; South Korean Commandos; And Lots More
Tough talk. Senators from both parties, along with the chiefs of the U.S. intelligence agencies, pushed back forcefully against President-elect Donald Trump’s repeated denials that the Russian government directed hack attacks intended to influence the U.S. presidential election, during a dramatic hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday.
“There’s a difference between skepticism and disparagement,” James Clapper, director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Our assessment now is even more resolute” that the Russians were behind the breaches and the handoff of information to Wikileaks. The hearing came just a day before Clapper, along with the other intel chiefs, travel to New York to present their findings on Russian involvement to Trump, who has repeatedly blasted them on Twitter, while praising Vladimir Putin and approvingly quoting Julian Assange.
Overheard in the Kremlin. Senior U.S. officials told the Washington Post that they’ve intercepted communications between members of the Russian government celebrating Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton “as a geopolitical win for Moscow…The ebullient reaction among high-ranking Russian officials — including some who U.S. officials believe had knowledge of the country’s cyber campaign to interfere in the U.S. election — contributed to the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow’s efforts were aimed at least in part at helping Trump win the White House.” The U.S. spy agencies also say they’ve identified specific “actors” involved in delivering stolen Democratic emails to WikiLeaks, according to CNN.
New boss. On Thursday, multiple media outlets reported that Trump was likely to name former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats to replace Clapper, “installing a relative novice at the head of a body some Trump advisors want to gut,” FP’s Elias Groll reports. A former ambassador to Germany, Coats served on the Senate Intelligence Committee before his retirement this year.
Trump advisors have floated a plan to strip the office Coats will lead of funding and perhaps to also make cuts at the CIA, reforms that Coats may lack the experience to effectively carry out. “If you’re going to do some surgery, you need to understand how it works,” a former senior intelligence official told Groll, adding that Coats’s predecessors have typically had experience serving as intelligence officers.
Bye bye! It looks like the eventful deployment of Moscow’s sole aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean to support operations in Syria is coming to an end. While the ship managed to avoid catching fire like its last deployment, two of its planes did crash into the sea over the past two months. The announcement comes days after Russia and Turkey negotiated a ceasefire in Syria which is largely holding, according to the United Nations. Moscow still has dozens of aircraft on the ground in Syria.
Commander of Russian forces in Syria, Colonel-General Andrei Kartapolov, told the state-run TASS news agency that “over the two months of their participation in combat operations, naval aviation pilots have carried out 420 sorties, including 117 in nighttime. A total of 1,252 terrorist facilities have been destroyed,” he said. We should note that Russia chalks up anything it hits in Syria as a terrorist target, including civilian apartment blocks and hospitals in Aleppo and elsewhere.
Wounded in action. Of the 30 U.S. troops wounded in action in Iraq and Syria since August 2014, at least 14 American have taken place since October, the Military Times reports. “Of the 14 wounded-in-action reports since October, eight stem from unspecified incidents recorded in December. That’s the highest monthly tally since March 2016.”
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President-elect Donald Trump’s Twitter account is a security disaster waiting to happen, according to Buzzfeed. Trump penchant for policy pronouncement in all-hours tweetstorms have made his account a must-watch for those looking for clues about where the administration stands. They’ve also made his account a tempting target for crooks looking to profit off spikes and dips in the stock market or politically-motivated attackers aiming to spark a geopolitical conflict. Twitter, however, hasn’t offered any extra security measure for high-profile political accounts, according social media managers for notable politicians.
China is putting the screws to South Korea in retaliation for its decision to host a U.S. missile defense battery, Reuters reports. South Korean Finance Minister Yoo Il-ho cited “indirect responses” from Beijing without specifying and retaliatory measures in particular. Nonetheless, reports of China denying permission for South Korean companies to fly charter flights to China have circulated as a possible example of China’s ire. The U.S. and South Korea greed to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery to protect against North Korea’s growing ballistic missile program, earning the displeasure of China which believes the system could be used against it.
South Korea is ramping up the rhetoric on its special operations assassination squad that’s aimed squarely at Kim Jong Un. CNN reports that an anonymous South Korean defense officials says the ministry is speeding up preparations for the unit so that it’ll be ready in 2017 instead of 2019. In the event of war, the commandos would have the responsibility of killing Kim and other senior figures in the North Korean chain of command. The announcement follows similar rhetoric from the North, including a recent video showing a fictionalized attack on the Blue House, where South Korea’s president resides.
The U.S. Navy is sending E-2 Hawkeye reconnaissance planes to Japan. Defense Tech reports that the move is one of the last steps in the departing Obama administration attempt at a “Pivot to Asia,” a bid to refocus American diplomatic attention and military resources to the Pacific. The planes headed to Japan will be updated E-2D Hawkeyes with a new radar system and data links.
The Brits are getting a laser. The BBC reports that the British defense ministry is embarking on a project to build a laser, and so far, the project is focused on building a demonstrator rather than a production model designed to be used on a specific platform. The development, however, is a sign of advanced militaries’ growing interest in directed energy weapons.
Amnesty International released a new report looking into Iraqi militias getting supplies of U.S., European, Russian, and Iranian weapons. The report looked at four prominent Iraqi Shia militias — the Badr Brigades, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, and Saraya al-Salam — and found that international arms shipments that have reached the groups “have fuelled enforced disappearances, abductions, torture, summary killings, and deliberate destruction of civilian property.” Iraq’s “haphazard and shoddy weapons tracking systems,” the report says, makes it difficult to trace where arms sent to Iraq end up.
The Obama administration is coming to a close and observers are trying to summarize the president’s legacy. Over at the Council on Foreign Relations, FP contributor Micah Zenko takes a different approach, viewing Obama’s tenure through the lens of the 26,171 munitions American aircraft dropped in the last full year of Obama’s presidency. Not surprisingly, the vast majority or around 24,000 of these were dropped in Iraq and Syria, where the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve has sought to defeat the Islamic State. Other strikes in declining order were carried out in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia.
(Sub)Tweet of the day
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (ret.) Gen. Martin Dempsey gave a shout out to the intelligence world, saying “Intelligence is hard, thankless work. Fortunately, we have dedicated, patriotic, and courageous men and women on the job. Thanks.” The comment comes amid a brewing clash between President-elect Donald Trump, his administration and the intelligence community over their conclusion that Russian hackers intervened in the 2016 election on his behalf.
Photo Credit: SAVO PRELEVIC/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary