Situation Report: Trump critic poised for senior State Dept. position; Shakeup in Poland; Mexico pushes back; and a bit more.
By FP Staff and Adam Rawnsley
Exclusive: Donald Trump critic and former Mitt Romney foreign-policy advisor Brian Hook is poised for a senior position at the State Department, Foreign Policy’s John Hudson reports. Hook is the co-founder or the John Hay Initiative, a neoconservative group whose leaders organized a prominent “Never Trump” letter signed by 121 GOP national security luminaries last March. Hook is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s preferred choice for director of policy planning at the State Department. GOP aides cautioned, however, that Hook’s appointment has not yet been signed off on by the White House, leaving open the possibility of a last-minute rejection (a la Eliott Abrams).
Bye to brass in Poland. Poland’s defense ministry announced on Wednesday that roughly 90 percent of the country’s top military brass has been replaced. As FP’s Emily Tamkin wrote in early January, this follows a year in which the ministry of defense and the military engaged in something of a power struggle. Poland’s government added 50,000 volunteer troops to report directly to the defense ministry instead of the military; returned military manufacturing to Poland to please the ruling party’s voting base; and saw the ministry of defense make changes to the army without consulting its most senior personnel. In recent months, top army officials resigned.
Bienvenido a Mexico. Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly arrived in Mexico Wednesday. They did not receive the warmest of welcomes as Trump threatens to deport millions. The Wall Street Journal’s Felicia Schwartz and Robbie Whelan: “Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said Mexico wouldn’t accept any policy changes unilaterally imposed by the U.S., such as a new guideline ordering the deportation to Mexico of migrants from third countries.” Tillerson and Kelly are expected to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto today.
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Breaking overnight. From the BBC: “Iraqi security forces have recaptured Mosul airport, a key part of the government’s offensive to drive the so-called Islamic State (IS) from the western half of the city.”
Reorg. The National Security Council (NSC) may be set for its second reorganization in just over two months as President Trump’s new national security advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster looks to undo the changes his predecessor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn made to the organization. The New York Times reports that McMaster is considering two proposed changes to the NSC: putting the director of national intelligence and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff back as full members of the council’s Principals Committee and placing the Homeland Security Council back under the authority of the NSC. Many have called the elevation of Trump’s political advisor Stephen Bannon a mistake that risks politicizing the council but an anonymous Bannon ally tells the Times that McMaster would have to go through Trump in order to remove Bannon from the council.
Recidivism. A former British detainee in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility has reportedly carried out a suicide attack on behalf of the Islamic State in Iraq. The family of Ronald Fiddler, later known as Jamal al-Harith, identified him to NBC News as the man named “Abu Zakariya al-Britani” in a photograph attached to an Islamic State press release claiming al-Britani had driven an explosive-laden truck in a suicide attack in Mosul. The United States detained Harith in Guantánamo Bay after he was found in a Taliban prison in Afghanistan in 2001. The British government awarded him $1 million as part of a settlement with other British citizens detained in the prison.
Threats. The former head of Joint Special Operations Command and quarterback of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden is speaking out against President Trump’s tweet labeling the press an “enemy of the American people.” Retired Admiral William McRaven, now chancellor of the University of Texas (UT), referred to Trump’s tweet at a UT speaker series event by saying “this sentiment may be the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime,” according to the Austin American-Statesman.
Info warriors. In a speech to Russia’s parliament, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu revealed that the country’s defense ministry now employs information warfare troops, according to The AP. Shoigu was mum on the number of staff in the new branch or what its specific responsibilities would be but in a cryptic aside he noted that “propaganda needs to be clever, smart and efficient.” The admission follows concerns in the United States and Europe about Russian information warfare, ranging from covert propaganda to hacking Western politicians in the midst of election campaigns.
Air of mystery. Relax, everyone. Contrary to recent rumors, the Air Force is not sniffing the air over Europe for signs of a recent Russian nuclear weapons test. Last week, aviation geeks noticed an Air Force WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft appear on flight tracking websites. The presence of the WC-135, often used to collect air samples near suspected nuclear tests, combined with reports of increased levels of the radioisotope iodine-131 in Europe have led many to speculate about a possible Russian test. But the Air Force tells DODBuzz that the WC-135’s European flights were part of a “pre-planned rotational deployment scheduled in advance” and experts say the increase in iodine-131 in the air over Europe could be related to increased nuclear power production in the midst of winter.
Drone versus drone. The U.S. military has made targeting the Islamic State’s small, commercial drones a top priority as the terrorist group has used them to drop munitions on Iraqi forces. Military.com walks through a recent Air Force mission which targeted Islamic State’s drone arsenal. An Air Force intelligence analyst noticed an unspecified non-visual “signal” of interest, narrowing its source down to a small patch of urban terrain. After a Predator drone over the area showed a suspected Islamic State fighter emerge from a vehicle carrying a drone, intelligence officials began tracking the vehicle and “pattern of life” movements. The sleuthing led to an airstrike against 10 Islamic State facilities where parts of drones were discovered.
2 p.m. The Stimson Center is hosting an event on the push to regulate the use and export of drones around the world. The event will feature Stimson senior associate Rachel Stohl, Dan Mahanty of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, Wim Zwijnenburg of the Humanitarian Disarmament Project Leader, and Defense News‘s Aaron Mehta.
Correction, Feb. 23, 2017: There have been reports of increased levels of the radioisotope iodine-131 in the air over Europe. A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to the radioisotope as iodine-31 in one reference.