SitRep: Trump, Intel Community Raise Stakes; Harward Tilts Power Balance at NSC; Trump Tricks Defense Industry
Mattis Tells NATO to Pay Up; Pentagon, Kremlin Trade Jabs, It’s ISIS, Not ISIL
Watchdog. The struggle between the Trump White House and the U.S. intelligence community is very real, and appears to be getting worse. In the wake of unusual leaks about former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s phone conversations with the Russian ambassador, the New York Times reports that Trump is considering naming a New York billionaire (are there any left in New York, or are they all in the Trump administration now?) to lead a review of the U.S. intel community.
The potential gig for Stephen A. Feinberg — co-founder of Cerberus Capital Management and ally of Stephen Bannon — “has met fierce resistance among intelligence officials,” the Times notes, and has “rocked the intelligence community in recent weeks, raising the prospect of direct White House control over America’s spies at a time when Mr. Trump’s ties to Mr. Putin are under investigation by the F.B.I. and congressional committees.”
Spies keeping intel from Trump. And then there’s this. The Wall Street Journal reports that anonymous U.S. intel officials tell them they’re holding back some information when briefing the president. The information deals only with “sources and methods” — how and where the spies obtained the information — out of fear that Trump or his team could leak it.
Both the White House and the DNI deny that this is taking place, and intel officials insist that nothing of importance is being withheld from the president. But the paper’s Shane Harris and Carol Lee report that “the intelligence agencies have been told to dramatically pare down the president’s daily intelligence briefing, both the number of topics and how much information is described under each topic, an official said. Compared with his immediate predecessors, Mr. Trump so far has chosen to rely less on the daily briefing than they did.”
We’re from the Kremlin, and we’re here to help. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin says he just wants to help. “It’s absolutely clear that in the area of counter-terrorism all relevant governments and international groups should work together,” he said. Putin also complained that NATO has been “constantly provoking us in order to embroil us in confrontation,” while pointing to “the ongoing attempts to interfere in our internal affairs and destabilize the social and political situation in Russia.”
The ask. Meanwhile, The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) want the Justice Department to hand over details on Michael Flynn’s resignation. The bipartisan duo sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey asking for a briefing and documents tied to Flynn’s ouster.
New face, old allies. Now that Flynn is out, it looks like the national security advisor job is retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward’s to turn down. “His selection could temper and potentially undercut the influence of Stephen Bannon, Trump’s powerful chief strategist,” writes FP’s Dan De Luce, John Hudson and Paul McLeary, since he would create another power center apart from the Flynn/Bannon axis, one likely more aligned with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who Harward worked with in Afghanistan in 2001.
Harward and Mattis were the first two U.S. combat commanders on the ground to fight the Taliban, and Harward helped Mattis develop Iran contingency plans while his deputy at the U.S. Central Command. There are concerns, however. Like Mattis and DHS secretary John Kelly, Harward only recently retired from the military, sparking concerns over the militarization of the National Security Council.
What happens to Flynn’s NSC? A number of NSC directors who were preparing to come into government under Flynn now find themselves in limbo, the Washington Post reports. Those recruited by Flynn or Keith Kellogg who are awaiting security clearances “are unsure whether their job offers still stand or if they should reconsider a decision to join the administration.” One of those officials noted, “I thought there needed to be somebody there who doesn’t need to get up to speed. Now, I don’t know what’s happening.”
Mattis tells NATO to pay up. Speaking at a NATO conference in Brussels on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a fuzzy ultimatum to NATO allies, demanding they shoulder the burden of defense more but failing to say what the White House would do if they don’t, FP’s Robbie Gramer tells us.
“America will meet its responsibilities. But if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this Alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense,” Mattis said in a speech to open a meeting of NATO defense ministers. The comments made NATO officials sit up. The mood inside NATO is “scared and confused,” a NATO official told FP, speaking on condition of anonymity. But “no more confused than usual,” the official added, citing broad European concerns over U.S. President Donald Trump.
Turtle Bay. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres may be the world’s most visible diplomat. “But he is quickly learning that he is far from the most powerful,” FP’s Colum Lynch writes. “The former Portuguese prime minister is facing stiff resistance from the United States and other key U.N. powers to filling his top cabinet posts with diplomats of his own choosing, raising early concerns about how much independence he will be able to exercise.”
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Business of defense
President Donald Trump made the unorthodox and controversial move of calling the F-35 program manager directly during the presidential transition — and allowing Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg to eavesdrop on the phone call about the Lockheed Martin-made airplane. Bloomberg gets the scoop that Trump phoned up F-35 program manager Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan twice during the transition, letting the Boeing CEO — whose F/A-18 Super Hornet Trump has suggested as an alternative to the Lockheed F-35 — hear parts of the second phone call as Trump posed questions about the relative capabilities of the two jets. More details about the phone call and its impact on the requirements process should be forthcoming as Bogdan is due to testify at the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
The U.S. and Russia will have the highest-level meeting between military officials of the two countries since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Washington Post reports that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford will meet his Russian counterpart, Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov in Azerbaijan. Dunford has reportedly been pressing for a meeting with Gerasimov for some time. It’s unclear what will be on the agenda for the chat but there are a number of front burner issues between the Russian and American militaries, ranging from Russia’s apparent violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty to the war in Syria.
Relations between Russia and America’s top civilian defense officials aren’t going quite as well. In meetings with NATO countries on Wednesday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that the U.S. should negotiate with Russia but do so “from a position of strength.” His counterpart, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, hasn’t taken kindly to the suggestion. Shoigu said trying to negotiate with Moscow from a position of relative strength is “futile,” saying that Russia would press Dunford to explain Mattis’s comments when he meets with Gerasimov on Thursday.
But it’s not just military ties that Russian President Vladimir Putin is hoping are restored under the Trump administration. Reuters reports that Putin spoke in front of Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, early Thursday morning, saying that “it’s in everyone’s interest” for the intelligence services of Russia, the United States, and NATO countries to start talking again. Putin’s suggestion, however, comes at a bit of an awkward time for the Trump administration as it deals with the fallout from the resignation of National Security Advisor Mike Flynn over his calls with the Russian ambassador, allegations that advisors and campaign staff met with Russian intelligence officers, and a congressional investigation into Russian hacking during the 2016 election.
Finland is nixing real estate sales to foreign citizens buying homes and land near military bases over fears that Russia could use the purchases to acquire more than just scenic views. Finnish intelligence issued a warning in 2016 that foreign citizens had been buying up property near key military bases and that the homes could be used to quarter enemy troops in the event of a conflict. The Finnish Ministry of Justice plans to investigate real estate purchases already carried out along Finland’s border with Russia.
A civil case against the architects of the CIA’s torture program could see the Agency’s deputy director, Gina Haspel, testifying in the suit. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the case on behalf of three men who were tortured as part of the program designed by CIA psychologists Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, as well as one man who was frozen to death in CIA custody. President Trump recently named Haspel as the Agency’s number two official. Senators who worked on the Senate investigation have suggested that Haspel, who destroyed recordings of torture sessions on the instructions of CIA deputy director for operations Jose Rodriguez, have suggested that Haspel had a larger role in the program.
Dude, ISIL is not the preferred nomenclature. ISIS, please. The terrorist group formerly known to the U.S. government as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) under the Obama administration will henceforth be referred to at the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) under Trump. USA Today reports that the Pentagon has issued a memo informing employees that President Trump’s use of the ISIS formulation in National Security Presidential Memorandum-3 means that the Defense Department will remain consistent with the president’s preferred acronym for the group.
Tweet of the day
Security footage of one of the suspects in the apparent assassination of the brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un reveals a woman wearing a shirt with the acronym LOL leaving the scene.
RT @goldengateblond There’s cold, there’s ice-cold, and then there’s assassinating someone while wearing a shirt that says LOL.
Photo Credit: Olivier Doulier – Pool/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary