SitRep: POTUS Says Torture “Works;” DoD and CIA Chiefs Blindsided by Executive Order; Safe Zone in Syria
Secret White House Budget in the Works; North Korea Teetering; Trump’s Unsecure Phone; And Lots More
Trump and torture. In an interview on ABC News Wednesday night, President Trump said again that he’s convinced torture “works,” but he’s willing to defer to his CIA chief Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis on the issue. “If they don’t want to do, that’s fine,” he shrugged. “If they do want to do, then I will work toward that end. I want to do everything within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do legally. But do I feel it works? Absolutely.”
The interview came the same day a series of extraordinary documents claiming to be drafts of executive orders were leaked to the New York Times and Washington Post and quickly flew across the Internet. The one that caused by far the biggest stir would create a pathway for the CIA to re-open the “black site” prisons it once maintained overseas for interrogating and at times torturing suspected terrorists, and orders a review of the Army field manual, which all U.S. agencies must, by law, use when interrogating suspects.
Reports indicate that Pompeo and Mattis had no idea the document existed, and were “blindsided” when they were leaked to the press.
Speed read. White House spokesman Sean Spicer quickly said the document wasn’t theirs, but the New York Times contradicted that account later in the day when it tracked down three Trump administration officials who provided a tick-tock for how the document made it though Trump’s national security staff on Tuesday morning.
“If Trump does follow through with such an order, it would run smack into existing law and the stated views of Trump’s just-confirmed Cabinet secretaries and top national security chiefs, including Mattis and Pompeo,” FP’s Molly O’Toole and Paul McLeary report, and it promises “to revive the searing debates of the mid-2000s over torture and secret CIA prisons where al Qaeda suspects were kept for weeks at a time outside the bounds of international law.”
Safe zones in Syria. Another leaked draft of an executive order that has received less attention would order the U.S. military to create a “safe zone” inside Syria where displaced civilians would be protected from attack. Trump also told ABC News that he “will absolutely do safe zones in Syria.”
International reax. Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu cautiously supported Trump’s comments Thursday, saying, “setting up of safe zones is something Turkey has advocated from the start. The best example is in Jarablus,” in reference to a town near the Turkish border that rebels backed by Turkish troops cleared of ISIS fighters late last year.
Creating safe zones for Syrian civilians to protect them from Syrian — and by extension Russian — bombing had been proposed by both Trump and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign, but had been ruled out by the Obama administration which was wary of potentially engaging Syrian jets and troops directly, and being dragged further into the bloody Syrian civil war. Trump’s draft order provides no details on how the safe zone might be enforced, and if it would require U.S. troops on the ground to protect civilians.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that the White House didn’t consult Moscow on the possible decision, but that “it is important that this does not exacerbate the situation with refugees, but probably all the consequences ought to be weighed up.”
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill. Republican hawks in Congress are already at odds with President Trump’s budget czar, a fiscal conservative who has made clear he will reject spending more on defense if it results in a bigger deficit.
FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce cover down on the brewing fight, which promises to pit defense hawks vs. budget hawks, with the president’s pick to head the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, “a dyed-in-the-wool budget stickler who as a lawmaker repeatedly voted against defense spending hikes,” acting as a referee.
Foreign Policy has also learned that if confirmed, Mulvaney “is prepared to drop what two sources said is being called a ‘skinny budget,’ early next month, which will set topline budget numbers for non-discretionary federal spending for each federal department, but without specific spending lines included.” Details are scarce, but the number for the Pentagon might be as high as $640 billion, which would match the number that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) have called for.
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South Korea is trying not to annoy China any more since its decision to host an air defense system on its territory. Reuters reports that Seoul is hoping to blunt Beijing’s anger over the decision with the U.S. to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery by expanding trade with China and engagement with Chinese officials. The U.S. and South Korea announced the THAAD deployment as a response to North Korea’s ballistic missile threats but China is worried its radar systems could be used to track Chinese activities in the region. China has reportedly retaliated by against the deployment decision by putting the squeeze on some South Korean business ventures in China.
The most senior North Korean official to defect during Kim Jong Un’s tenure as the country’s leader is back on the press circuit predicting the downfall of the Kim dynasty. The New York Times reports that Thae Yong-ho, who served as the deputy ambassador in North Korea’s London embassy before jumping ship and defecting to South Korea, appeared at a press conference in Seoul to say that he expects more senior defectors to follow and for the regime to collapse. As evidence, Thae pointed to what he said was the growth of illicit market activity and increasing access to outside information via smuggled phones and thumb drives from abroad.
Russian intelligence arrested two men on treason charges last month, including a former senior spy for the country’s domestic intelligence agency. USA Today picked up a recent story reported by the Russian-language newspaper Kommersant about the December arrests of Sergei Mikhailov, who worked for the Federal Security Service, as well as Ruslan Stoyanov, who worked for the famous Kaspersky Lab cybersecurity firm. Kaspersky Labs emphasized that Stoyanov’s arrest stems from an investigation that predates his employment with the company but details about the charges and alleged offenses are still unclear.
President Trump is still using his Android phone to tweet from the White House. The Android use, buried in a New York Times piece about the Trump’s adjustment to life in the presidential residence, suggests the president has hung on to his regular old device. Hackers can infect an unpatched Android phone with malware given an errant click or unwise app installation, potentially allowing them to surreptitiously turn on and record from the device’s camera or microphone. During the Obama presidency, the National Security Agency developed a custom, secure Blackberry for unclassified presidential use, followed by a Galaxy S4.
The Trump administration has selected its nominee for Secretary of the Navy, Philip Bilden, a former Army captain and investor. The Washington Post reports that Bilden spent time in leadership positions at Navy research and education organizations after his service in the Army as a board member at the Naval Academy Foundation and a trustee at the Naval War College. Many had pushed for Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), whose district includes the Norfolk Naval Base and who has been an outspoken seapower proponent, to get the job but Bilden will head to the Senate for confirmation shortly.
Congressional oversight of intelligence hasn’t changed much since the 9/11 Commission first recommended changes to how the legislative branch but it’s taken on a new urgency as intelligence issues like Russian hacking have moved to the center of public debate. Over at The Hill, three scholars — AEI’s Phillip Lohaus, Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress, and Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight — penned an op-ed calling for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to mirror their Senate counterparts in receiving a cleared personal staffer to represent their interests on the committee, in addition to the committee staff.
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Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary