The Cable

SitRep: Mattis Wants More Pentagon Officials to Stay; Trump Wants to Limit SecDef’s Exposure; New Radar Peeping on North Korea

DNI Reaches Out to Trump; Turks Stall Out in al Bab; And Lots More

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 11:  President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a news cenference at Trump Tower  on January 11, 2017 in New York City. This is Trump's first official news conference since the November elections.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 11: President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a news cenference at Trump Tower on January 11, 2017 in New York City. This is Trump's first official news conference since the November elections. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

 

Mattis on the block. President-elect Trump’s pick for Defense Secretary, James Mattis, appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning amid a bit of controversy over the Trump team’s cancellation of his scheduled testimony before the House Armed Services Committee later in the afternoon.

We’ll see what kind of fallout the cancellation of the HASC testimony brings, but a source with ties to the transition team told SitRep that the incoming administration is trying to limit the exposure of Mattis given his disputes with Trump Tower over staffing at the Pentagon. Mattis has asked to retain as many as ten senior Pentagon officials appointed by President Obama, the source said, something the new administration is mulling. Multiple people in contact with the transition team and close to Mattis have also told SitRep that the retired general has been frustrated by the blanket ban on Republican national security pros who signed the “Never Trump” letters last year, which is severely limiting the talent pool. The Washington Post has already reported that Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work is likely to stay for several months.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Wednesday that Republican HASC chair Mac Thornberry (R-Tx.) and minority leader Adam Smith (D-Wash.)  are “not happy about”  the cancellation, and “without prejudging [the outcome of the waiver vote to allow Mattis to serve], I think you will find Democrats very wary of voting for that if Gen. Mattis has not testified prior to the vote.”

Issues. Like the hearings for nominees Jeff Sessions and Rex Tillerson this week, the Mattis hearing promises to be a grueling slog that’ll hit all the hard questions facing the incoming Trump administration: Russian hacking, U.S. policy toward Moscow under Trump, what’s next in Syria, allowing U.S. troops more leeway in hitting ISIS, Chinese moves in the South China Sea, Iran; and Trump’s plans for a major military buildup that will cost tens of billions in additional defense spending.

There are also some key personnel issues in play like outgoing Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s decision to allow women to serve in combat roles, and his ending the ban on gay and transgender servicemembers. Congressional Republicans, along with Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, have publicly come out against the changes, and FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary have lots more on that here.

When it comes to ISIS, FP has also reported that incoming national security advisor Michael Flynn has previously floated plans to send U.S. ground troops to Syria, and has advocated for a partitioning of the country into sectors controlled by the U.S., Russia, and Arab states.

Olive branch? Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a remarkable statement Wednesday night, divulging that he spoke to Trump earlier in the day, a conversation in which he “expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press, and we both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security.” He also “emphasized that this document is not a U.S. Intelligence Community product and that I do not believe the leaks came from within the IC.” The release might be something of a peace offering to Trump, who has been openly battling with the intelligence community for months, and compared them to Nazis in a tweet earlier in the day.

Trump dodges questions over ties to Russia. During his contentious press conference Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump “furiously denied allegations that Russia had compromising material about him, but avoided answering questions about his campaign’s possible contacts with officials in Moscow before the November election,” FP’s Dan De Luce writes.

The denials come De Luce notes, despite Russian claims to the contrary. “Two days after the U.S. presidential vote in November, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said his government had conversations with Trump’s team during the campaign. And the Wall Street Journal has reported that the president-elect’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., attended a private conference in October in Paris on the Syrian civil war that was hosted by a French institute supporting cooperation with Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”

Tillerson and Trump. Testifying before lawmakers Wednesday, former ExxonMobil boss Rex Tillerson “attempted to lend coherence to President-elect Donald Trump’s vision of foreign policy,” FP’s John Hudson reports, “a doctrine that has confused both Republicans and Democrats as it veers from hawkish military interventionism to dovish isolationism. Ultimately, Tillerson ended up revealing important differences between him and Trump on issues ranging from Russia to NATO to climate change.”

Tillerson, who could take office next week, acknowledged that he has not discussed Russia with the president-elect, which Sen. Bob Menendez (D.-N.J.) called “amazing.” Tillerson’s answers were not aggressive enough for longtime Russia hawks such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.), Hudson writes, “who pressed the oilman to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Tillerson declined to condemn the Kremlin’s treatment of dissidents, and wavered when Rubio pressed him to denounce the Russian military’s indiscriminate slaughter in the Syrian city of Aleppo.”

Spy talk. The New York Times has a great rundown on how a wealthy Republican donor kicked off the investigation into Trump’s contacts in Russia, and how Fusion GPS, a Washington research firm, brought on a former MI6 operative named Christopher Steele — and yes, this all appears to be real — to work with his Russian contacts to develop a raw intel report on Trump. The report, which BuzzFeed leaked this week, included not only lurid alleged personal behavior in European hotels, but accusations that Moscow had been trying to cultivate Trump for years as a source of information on the activities of Russian oligarchs in the United States. (The report, we stress, is unverified.)

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: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

North Korea

The U.S. secretive radar system is leaving Hawaii for the coast of North Korea, Reuters reports. The Sea Based X-band radar system (SBX), which looks something like a large golf ball atop an oil platform, is capable of tracking intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and hovering up intelligence about it in-flight. The move follows reports that North Korea could test an ICBM shortly.

Turkey

Turkey’s fight in Syria to take back the town of al-Bab from the Islamic State isn’t going well, the AP reports. So far, the operation has proved costly both for Turkish troops and al-Bab, with 50 Turkish soldiers killed in the two months of fighting, much of the town destroyed and an estimated 200 civilians dead in the process. Islamic State fighters have put up a fierce, pitched resistance, slowing down Turkey’s local Arab allies and pushing it to reach out to Russia for help with air support, alienating its American allies.

The Islamic State

The Islamic State’s armed drones are still harassing Iraqi forces trying to push the jihadist group out of Mosul, Rudaw reports. U.S. spokesman Army Col. Brett Sylvia tells the outlet that the weapons, which drop small, grenade-sized munitions from commercial hobby drones, have killed civilians and damaged equipment. So far, he says, Iraqi forces have managed to down around a dozen small Islamic State drone as they learn how to counter the weapons.

Libya
Russia hosted Libyan warlord Khalifa Hafter aboard the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier looming off Syria’s coast, the AP reports. The Russian navy offered Haftar a brief tour of the smokey ship followed by a sit down with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to talk about terrorism issues, according to a statement from the Russian Defense Ministry. Russia has been courting Haftar, with some observers suggesting that Moscow is hoping that Haftar could one day take over the country as a strongman ruler.

Think Tanked

The Center for International Policy takes a look at America’s arms relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in a new report, “U.S. Arms Transfers to the UAE and Mideast Security.” The U.S. provides around 63 percent of the UAE’s arms, according to the report, making it the country’s single largest provider of weaponry.

Photo Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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