The Cable

SitRep: Bannon’s Rules at the NSC; White House Faces Down First Iran Test, Confusion Over Trump Ban

Mattis to Asia, Moscow to Baghdad; More on SEAL Yemen Raid

A picture shows the new medium-range surface to surface missile, named Sejil-2, at an undisclosed location in Iran prior to its test-firing on May 20, 2009. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had successfully test-fired the new missile, drawing a warning from Israel that Europe too should now worry about the Islamic republic's ballistic programme. AFP PHOTO/STR/FARS NEWS (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture shows the new medium-range surface to surface missile, named Sejil-2, at an undisclosed location in Iran prior to its test-firing on May 20, 2009. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had successfully test-fired the new missile, drawing a warning from Israel that Europe too should now worry about the Islamic republic's ballistic programme. AFP PHOTO/STR/FARS NEWS (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Bannon’s rules. “If here was any question about who is largely in charge of national security behind the scenes at the White House, the answer is becoming increasingly clear: Steve Bannon,” writes FP contributor Kate Brannen in an important new story that peels back the layers of how national security policy is being made at the White House.

Even before he was given a formal seat on the National Security Council’s ‘principals committee’ this weekend by President Donald Trump, Bannon was calling the shots and doing so with little to no input from the National Security Council staff, according to an intelligence official who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution. “He is running a cabal, almost like a shadow NSC,” the official said. He described a work environment where there is little appetite for dissenting opinions, shockingly no paper trail of what’s being discussed and agreed upon at meetings, and no guidance or encouragement so far from above about how the National Security Council staff should be organized.”

Secrets. None of Washington’s top national security officials were told by the White House about the coming refugee and immigration ban announced Friday, and it appears even Trump allies on Capitol Hill were left in the dark.

“At least three top national security officials — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Rex Tillerson, who is awaiting confirmation to lead the State Department — have told associates they were not aware of details of the directive until around the time Trump signed it,” the AP reports. In a dramatic Monday night firing, President Donald Trump removed Sally Yates, the acting attorney general of the United States and a Democratic appointee, accusing her of betrayal after she directed Justice Department attorneys not to defend the executive order.

DoD scrambles. Caught flatfooted by the White House, the Pentagon has scrambled to compile a list of Iraqi nationals who could be granted a waiver by the State Department due to their work with U.S. forces over the past 14 years. But as FP first reported Monday, Iraqi nationals with Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, who served as interpreters for the U.S. military will be treated essentially the same as green card holders. Pentagon officials told FP Monday they weren’t aware of the DHS reading of the presidential order.

The view from Baghdad. On Monday, the Iraqi parliament demanded that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi respond to the White House order, calling for American contractors and journalists to be banned from entering Iraq, a move that could potentially affect operations for the 6,000 U.S. troops currently deployed to the country. The ban on Iraqis is a “betrayal” said Lukman Faily, Baghdad’s former ambassador to Washington. “To be treated like this…to say it’s a betrayal (is) an understatement,” he told AFP.

A group of bipartisan lawmakers sent a letter to Trump yesterday asking him to make an exemption for the Iraqis. Several who signed onto the letter are vets, including Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Seth Moulton (D-Ma.). Reps. Earl Blumenauer, (D-Ore.), Steve Stivers, (R-Oh.), also signed the letter.

State revolt. The State Department is also moving to protest the ban, FP’s John Hudson reports. The number of State Department officials signing memos opposing the move “quickly surpassed 200, Hudson writes. “The exact number of signatures is unknown as several different draft versions are in circulation, but the number far outstrips the 51 signatories who spoke out against former President Barack Obama’s Syria policy last summer, a number viewed at the time as ‘extremely large, if not unprecedented.’”

Trump’s first test. Here it is. Iran has once again tested a medium range ballistic missile, leaving the Trump administration to show its cards on how to approach the thorny legal issue of whether such tests violate U.N. sanctions against the Islamic Republic. U.N. Resolution 2231, passed just after the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran negotiated by the Obama administration, calls on Iran to cease the tests. Emphasis on the “calls upon” bit. After previous tests, Iran’s allies in Moscow argued that the language is more a suggestion than a firm ban, blocking any potential action against Tehran in the U.N. Security Council

In another possible Iranian-backed attack, Houthi militants hit a Saudi ship with three suicide boats off the coast of Yemen on Monday, according to Reuters. Video of the incident surfaced on social media showing a large explosion. The explosion killed two members of the vessel’s crew. The Saudi-led coalition cited explosive-laden boats as the method of attack but Iranian state media, citing Houthi sources, reported that the an unspecified guided missile had hit the ship. An anonymous U.S. defense official tells Stars and Stripes that the ship appeared to be hit by something other than suicide boats.

Response? It’s not clear yet how the Trump administration will navigate the issue. National security advisor Mike Flynn’s book, Field of Fight, portrays Iran as “the linchpin” of a global terrorist alliance, and Defense Secretary James Mattis, as FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary have pointed out, is also a longtime Iran hawk. So much so that the Obama administration nudged him aside as commander of U.S. Central Command over his calls to strike Tehran’s military over attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

SecDef

Defense Secretary James Mattis is headed to Asia for talks with allies in Japan and South Korea. In Tokyo, Mattis will meet with his Japanese counterparts but he won’t be asking them to cough up more to pay for protection from the U.S., as President Trump suggested during the campaign, according to the Japan Times. Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said that the trip will be more of a listening tour than anything else. Mattis also spoke by phone with South Korean Defense Minister Shortly before the visit, which includes a stop to South Korea Han Min-Koo before the trip. Hoo and Mattis both reaffirmed their commitment to the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to defend against North Korean ballistic missiles despite recent pressure from China to cancel the deployment.

Moscow to Baghdad

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dropped some heavy hints that Moscow may be open to pitching in with some tips for the fight against the Islamic State. Lavrov said that Russia would be willing to provide extra intelligence help to Iraqi officials if they “show interest” in the proposal. In 2015, Russia announced that it had formed a joint coordination center in Baghdad with representatives from Iraq, Syria, and Iran to focus on fighting the Islamic State.

Yemen

NBC News has more information on the special operations raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL and an eight year old Yemeni girl. An official tells the news outlet that “almost everything went wrong” on the raid. Anonymous military officials say the girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, the daughter of former al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Anwar al-Awlaki, died in the confusion of a firefight that began as several Yemeni women opened fire on a SEAL Team approaching their camp. Nawar al-Awlaki’s family disputes that account, telling NBC that SEALs killed all the women inside a house and that Nawar died alongside other children killed in the raid.

Canada

Canada’s CBC News has learned more about the man behind what Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is calling a terrorist attack. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have accused Alexandre Bissonnette of killing six people by gunning them down in front of the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec. A Facebook account allegedly belonging to Bissonnette show he was a fan of far-right French politician Marine Le Pen and other right wing political causes.

Baltics

American tanks are on their way to the Baltics to take up positions along the Russian border and reassure NATO allies nervous about the prospect of Russian aggression. The Wall Street Journal reports that the tanks will head from Poland, where they’ve been used in exercises with the Polish military, onward to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, where they’ll stay for a brief rotation. The trip was planned during the Obama administration so there’s not many tea leaves to read for Baltic leaders, anxious about the pro-Russian tilt of the Trump administration.

Syria

The Syrian government is tamping down rumors that President Bashar al-Assad has suffered a stroke or is otherwise medically incapacitated, according to Reuters. Versions of the rumor vary as to the nature of the ailment, ranging from a stroke to a gunshot wound to the head, but none bear any proof. Nonetheless, the clamor rose to the level of an official denial from Syrian state media, saying that Assad is in “excellent health” and that he spoke with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Monday.

Business of defense

President Trump claimed on Monday that he struck a deal with Lockheed Martin to shave $600 million off the price of the F-35 program. But when Popular Mechanics crunched the numbers, it found less than meets the eye to the president’s math. At issue is a statement from Air Force General Chris Bogdan last year that the cost of the jet would come down six to seven percent as it moved through the development process. That six to seven percent amounts to around $570 to $665 million or about the amount of money that Trump is claiming to have negotiated off the cost of the program.

 

Photo Credit /AFP/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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