SitRep: Comey Sacked; Russia At The White House; Arms For the Kurds; NATO Readies for Big Russian Exercise
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
With Adam Rawnsley
Comey sacked. President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday, removing from office the veteran head of the agency tasked with carrying out a wide-ranging investigation into whether the president and his staffers conspired with Russian agents to swing the 2016 election in the Republican candidate’s favor. FP’s Elias Groll has more.
“Not since Watergate has a president dismissed the person leading an investigation bearing on him, and Mr. Trump’s decision late Tuesday afternoon drew instant comparisons to the “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973, when President Richard M. Nixon ordered the firing of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor looking into the so-called third-rate burglary that would eventually bring Nixon down,” writes the New York Times’ Peter Baker.
Reports indicate the move came after Trump grew increasingly frustrated Comey wouldn’t publicly clear Trump’s name. Tensions had been building in the West Wing, with aides to the president telling Politico that Trump “had grown enraged by the Russia investigation…frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.”
The move came as a surprise not only to the FBI and Capitol Hill, but also for White House staffers. And it led to calls from both Democrats and some top Republicans for an independent prosecutor to launch an investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
It was also revealed Tuesday by CNN that Federal prosecutors have issued grand jury subpoenas “to associates of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn seeking business records,” for transitions Flynn conducted after he was fired by president Obama from his positions as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Investigators have been looking into possible wrongdoing in how Flynn handled disclosures about payments from clients tied to foreign governments including Russia and Turkey.”
Trump has also recently hired a law firm to tell Senators that he has no business deals in Russia.
Perfect timing. The turmoil comes as Trump prepares to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the White House on Wednesday to discuss Syria and other issues, in the highest-level meeting between the two countries since Trump assumed office.
Guns for the Kurds. The Comey firing obscured what was the big news of the day: the Trump administration’s decision to begin supplying Kurdish YPG forces in Syria with weapons and equipment, over the objections of NATO partner Turkey, who considers the fighters terrorists. The move will boost the capabilities of the Kurds as they push toward the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa.
Foreign Policy first reported that the move was coming last week. In order to attempt to mollify the Turks, a Defense official told FP that equipment will likely be metered out on a need-to-have basis, and that the force that moves on Raqqa will be mostly Syrian Arab, with almost all leadership positions being filled by Kurds. Ankara has remained largely silent in the wake of the announcement, but Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said Wednesday his government “cannot accept the presence of terrorist organizations that would threaten the future of the Turkish state. We hope the U.S. administration will put a stop to this wrong and turn back from it. Such a policy will not be beneficial, you can’t be in the same sack as terrorist organizations.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with Turkish officials Tuesday in Denmark, later telling reporters, “our intent is to work with the Turks, alongside one another, to take Raqqa down, and we’re going to sort it out and we’ll figure out how we’re going to do it.” After meeting with other NATO allies involved in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Mattis pledged to “further accelerate” the campaign to take Raqqa and push the terrorist group out of Iraq and Syria, though he offered no details.
Afghanistan. NATO is also taking a hard look at how many more troops its members are willing to send to Afghanistan, as president Trump weighs sending 3,000 to 5,000 more Americans to the 16-year old fight. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in London on Wednesday that the alliance is “assessing” the American request for more troops, and a decision is expected “on the scale and scope of the mission within weeks but this is not about returning back to a combat operation in Afghanistan…it will continue to be a train, assist and advise operation.”
Neither the Pentagon or White House have articulated a new strategy in Afghanistan, where government forces are losing group to the Taliban and other groups, like ISIS, have taken root. But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Tuesday, “I expect to see a strategy to win. And that’s going to require more troops, thousands more. It’s going to require more effort, it’s going to require more money.” Washington has spent $71 billion on training and equipping Afghan forces since 2002.
Russian exercise. American and NATO officials are keeping a close eye on an upcoming exercise by Russian troops in the Baltic region that could include as many as 100,000 troops. “We will deploy whatever capability is necessary here,” Mattis said Wednesday during a visit to Lithuania to reaffirm U.S. support for the Baltic states. “We will talk to the leaders of each of the [NATO] nations and we’ll work this out in Brussels.”
Mattis said the Pentagon might send Patriot missile batteries to the Baltics on a temporary basis, following an FP report that Lithuania and possibly Sweden are looking to buy the anti-air systems to protect against Russian missiles and aircraft.
Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to email@example.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
Sub tweet. North Korea has been lashing out at the U.S. over its deployment of a submarine capable of covertly delivering Navy SEALs. The USS Michigan was once used to hold nuclear missiles, but it has since been converted into a conventional guided missile submarine. In April, the sub showed up in South Korea with a dry deck shelter, which could be used for it to launch SEALs onto the shores of the North. Kim Jong Un has become increasingly wary of the threat of assassination plots since South Korea announced that it had established a special operations unit whose job would be to decapitate the North Korean leader at the onset of war. The North threatened the Michigan, saying its forces would turn it into an underwater ghost if it approached North Korean shores.
Elections. South Korea has a new president, one that might take a less aggressive approach to North Korea than Washington has favored so far. President Moon Jae-in win in Tuesday’s election to succeed Park Geun-hye, ousted following a string of corruption allegations. Moon seems willing to take a softer approach, announcing that he’s willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. During the campaign Moon also suggested opposition to the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system to the South, warning that it wasn’t worth the risk of aggravating neighboring China.
En garde. When hackers came looking for President-elect Emmanuel Macron’s emails, French and American spies were watching and Macron’s campaign staff were ready. National Security Agency chief Adm. Mike Rogers testified before Congress Tuesday that American cyber spies saw the attack unfolding in real time while surveilling their Russian counterparts and offered assistance to the French government. Macron campaign officials, however, had gotten an inkling that they were a target for hackers once spear phishing emails laden with malicious files spoofed to look like they came from campaign staff began showing up in inboxes. As far back as March, Cybersecurity firms also tracked a group of hackers connected to Russian intelligence setting up websites designed to spoof websites from the Macron campaign and trick users into entering their credentials.
Assassination plot. The German army has a worrying extremism problem in its ranks as indicated by the revelation that a cell in its ranks allegedly plotted to kill the country’s president and justice minister. The Wall Street Journal reports that German police arrested the ringleader of the plot, a German soldier, accusing him of leading a plot intended be carried out with two other accomplices arrested last month. The three men had planned to try and pin the attack on Syrian migrants by falsely registering as refugees. The revelation of the plot comes at an awkward time for the German military, which is trying to expand its ranks and budget.
Do you like American music? The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has shelled out $3.7 million for counter-extremism programs in Kenya, but Buzzfeed reports that the program has run into trouble. In one program, USAID paid a Somali Muslim musical group $100,000, with the idea that the group’s counter-extremist message could help inoculate Kenya’s young Muslim community from the message preached by the al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab terrorist group. But the group took the money and fled to Netherlands, where it sought asylum. The group’s fears of persecution, experts tell Buzzfeed, is symptomatic of the drivers of extremism in Kenya that U.S. foreign policy and counter-extremism programs aren’t addressing.
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