SitRep: Leaked Docs, Russian Intel, and Trump; Flynn and Tillerson Diss Obama; China Flies, Taiwan Scrambles
- 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 was something. Welcome to the New Normal, where the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee personally delivers memos to the FBI director, alleging the President-elect’s team has been in contact with Russian intelligence, which has compromising personal and financial material. That was the bombshell dropped Tuesday by Buzzfeed, which published the documents, calling them “unverified, and potentially unverifiable.”
Quickly. The memos, first disclosed by CNN, were written by a former high-ranking British intelligence official hired by Republicans last year to collect information on Trump, were delivered by Sen. John McCain to FBI chief James Comey in December. While the FBI has not verified the accuracy of any of the claims, “U.S. officials had evaluated the sources relied upon by the private firm, considered them credible, and determined that it was plausible that they would have firsthand knowledge of Russia’s alleged dossier on Trump,” the Washington Post reports.
Briefing book. The information was included in the classified report the U.S. intel officials briefed to President Obama and Trump last week.
The first elements of the story were published in October by Mother Jones’ David Corn, but as The Guardian’s Julian Borger points out, Trump’s staffers have been an object of interest for the U.S. intel agencies for months. “The FBI applied for a warrant from the foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court over the summer in order to monitor four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials. The Fisa court turned down the application asking FBI counter-intelligence investigators to narrow its focus. According to one report, the FBI was finally granted a warrant in October, but that has not been confirmed, and it is not clear whether any warrant led to a full investigation.” On Wednesday, Moscow denied having any compromising information on Trump.
Talk, talk. FBI chief Comey refused to say on Tuesday whether the bureau has investigated ties between Russia and associates of President-elect Donald Trump, “raising questions about whether the intelligence community has disclosed the full scope of its investigation into Moscow’s multifaceted interference in the U.S. election,” FP’s Elias Groll reports from Capitol Hill.
Trump Tower. Amid all this, let’s not forget that for now at least, President-elect Trump is scheduled to give his first news conference at 11:00 a.m. in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York.
Team Trump hits weak White House. On the Hill today, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to try and allay lawmakers’ fears over the incoming administration’s ties with Russia. “Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia,” Tillerson will say before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to his prepared remarks obtained by Bloomberg. He softens that, however, by blaming Washington for Russia’s aggressiveness, noting “weak or mixed signals with ‘red lines’ that turned into green lights.”
Incoming national security advisor Michael Flynn spoke for a few short minutes at the U.S. Institute for Peace on Tuesday, where he also hit Obama for being weak, saying the American people have been “faced with some of the darkest days of civil and foreign wars, economic depression . . . weak leadership at home and hostile threats abroad.” Flynn, who was careful to not say anything newsworthy, added that the Trump administration will pursue a “policy of peace through strength as we examine and potentially re-baseline our commitments around the globe.”
Farewell. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, joined by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, held his last news conference that the Pentagon Tuesday. Asked if the U.S. should shoot down North Korean missiles being tested near Japanese waters, Carter said it would happen only if the missile was a threat to the U.S. or it allies. It’s a better idea to “save our interceptor inventory, and to gather intelligence” instead.
Dunford — who, don’t forget, is staying at the Pentagon — deflected a question about women serving in combat roles during the presser. As head of the Marine Corps, he opposed Carter’s initiative to open combat jobs to women, and he famously did not attend Carter’s press conference last year rolling out the plan. “I can’t talk to the next administration,” Dunford said Tuesday. “I mean, right now, I know what the policy is and we’ve been implementing the policy. I certainly can’t comment on anything that might happen in the future.” FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary recently ran through the possible changes for female and transgender troops under a Trump administration, and a Mattis Pentagon.
Pass go. Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis should get his waiver to serve as the next defense secretary, several experts told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday. Eliot Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University told the panel, “there is no doubt in my mind that a Secretary Mattis would be a stabilizing and moderating force, preventing wildly stupid, dangerous or illegal things from happening.”
Fear vs. Democracy. While Trump was firing off tweets dismissing the salacious allegations that the Russians had damning video of him with prostitutes in Moscow, President Barack Obama, was delivering his valedictory speech in Chicago before he leaves office. The biggest threat to America did not come Russia, China or from Islamic State terrorists, Obama said, but from ourselves — if Americans lose touch with democratic values and allow corrosive inequality, toxic partisanship and intolerance to take hold.
“Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are,” Obama said, adding: “Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world – unless we give up what we stand for, and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.” — Dan De Luce
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: email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
South China Sea
China took one of its strategic bombers out for a spin around the Spratly islands, Reuters reports. China claims the Spratlys as its own, sending arms to Fiery Cross Reef where it has a troop presence but the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam also claim parts of the archipelago as their own. The flight is the second time China has flown an H-6 in the South China Sea this year.
We’re also learning more about Taiwan’s response to another debut of Chinese weaponry in the waters around east Asia. Reuters reports that Taiwan’s defense ministry scrambled fighter jets to the Taiwan Strait as China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier headed home following exercises in the South China Sea. Taiwanese officials tell the wire service that the scramble was prompted by the Liaoning’s passage through Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
The Islamic State
American special operations forces claimed another top Islamic State leader in Syria, according to ABC News. U.S. commandos reportedly killed Abu Anas al-Iraqi, who ran the jihadist group’s finances, in Deir Ezzour. Defense officials have yet to confirm the raid publicly, but the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State has focused heavily on disrupting the group’s financial operations recently, targeting cash stores and oil infrastructure.
The Washington Post takes a closer look at a bizarre book that reportedly inspired the secretive SEAL Team 6. Earlier this week, the Intercept reported that the special operations unit has a number of fans of George Robert Elford’s pulp novel Devil’s Guard, about a Nazi SS officer who flees Europe for the French Foreign Legion after World War II and ends up fighting in Vietnam. The Post reports that the book, though fiction, is allegedly based on true historical events but that historians have taken a dim view of its disturbingly flattering (and inaccurate) portrayal of the Nazis.
Australia’s navy has released pictures of Iranian arms seized by an Australian warship off the coast of Yemen. An open records request from the arms monitoring nonprofit Small Arms Survey prompted the release. Iranian-made rocket propelled grenade launchers are visible In the images of weapons seized from a dhow off the coast of Yemen, alongside a number of assault rifles, machine guns, and mortars. The photos add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that Iran has been supplying its Houthi allies in Yemen with weapons in the war with the Saudi-led coalition there.
Retired Marine Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright is looking at a potential two year prison sentence for lying to the FBI in its investigation of who leaked classified information for the New York Times’s story on the Stuxnet malware that disrupted Iran’s nuclear program. The Washington Post reports that prosecutors have submitted a sentencing request for two years of imprisonment, saying that the sentence was important to send a message to those with security clearances that leaks have “severe consequences.” Others have been more fortunate, however, including former CIA director and retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who received probation after a plea deal for providing classified information to his mistress and biographer, admitted lying to the FBI during the investigation.
Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images