- 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
Facts, secrets, and Tweets. President Donald Trump appears to have declassified a CIA operation to arm Syrian rebels during a furious round of Tweets attacking the Washington Post on Monday night. The president, who previously disclosed classified information to Russian government officials in the Oval Office, (and in another slip-up confirmed the leak himself), complained, without offering evidence, that a recent Post story about the program “fabricated the facts.” The story which broke last week is here. What he paper supposedly got wrong is unclear, since the president himself confirmed that the basic facts were correct.
And Politico’s Hadas Gold found the exact Fox News segment that set the president off.
Jeff Sessions’ no good, rotten week. Trump continued his campaign against his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions Tuesday morning, writing that Sessions “has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!”
Remarkably, Trump also attacked the acting head of the FBI Andrew McCabe: “Problem is that the acting head of the FBI & the person in charge of the Hillary investigation, Andrew McCabe, got $700,000 from H for wife!” McCabe’s wife, Dr. Jill McCabe, actually received funding from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe for her Senate run. Just to remind everyone, Trump beat Clinton over eight months ago in the general election.
Afghan grind fragmenting Trump’s cabinet. There’s little good news coming out of Afghanistan these days, and in Washington, the wheels keep turning on the long-awaited Trump strategy. But two national security officials told Politico’s Susan Glasser that a recent National Security Council Principals Committee meeting about Afghanistan descended into a “shitshow” of disagreements and complaints.
So far, president Trump has refused to sign off on any plan that national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster has given him. The Daily Beast adds that presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner is “deliberately not taking a hard position” on troop levels and potential escalation, according to officials, preferring instead to watch the mood of the president, which “has shifted closer to heavier skepticism regarding deeper military involvement in a conflict that the president often now views as potentially yielding no tangible win for his presidency.”
Burn out. “Frustration is mounting among leading foreign policy officials in President Donald Trump’s administration as they chafe at some policy and bureaucratic defeats and complain they lack independence to do their jobs,” White House officials tell Reuters. “The clash between internationalists urging the traditional U.S. leadership role in the world and advocates of an ‘America First’ approach has worn down foreign policy and intelligence professionals inside the government, according to the officials.”
Tillerson tries again. After losing his fight with the White House over his first choice to become the top U.S. diplomat to Asia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is considering a new candidate with a history in business but little diplomatic experience, BuzzFeed’s John Hudson reports.
“Olin Wethington, a former Treasury Department official and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, is now a contender for the nomination of assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, four individuals familiar with the matter said.” An official warned however, that three other candidates are still in the mix. Tillerson originally wanted to give the job to Susan Thornton, a veteran diplomat who speaks Mandarin Chinese, but the White House vetoed the move, infuriating Tillerson.
Big guns. Defense News dropped its annual list of Top 100 defense companies. And guess what? Lockheed Martin is, as usual, on top. DN’s Aaron Mehta writes that defense revenues for the top defense companies in the world “increased in 2016, ending a five-year slide and signaling that the era of defense austerity may officially be at an end.” The total 2016 revenues for those companies came in at $364.8 billion, an increase of 3.6 percent over 2015.
But! “The top 25 companies accounted for 74 percent of total defense revenues in the year, and the top 10 firms accounted for 54 percent of total defense revenues in the year, identical figures to the 2015 list.”
Buzzed. A U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane had to take “evasive action” to escape a mid-air collision after getting buzzed by a Chinese fighter jet off China’s eastern coast, the Washington Post reports. The Pentagon says that the incident isn’t typical of U.S.-Chinese interactions but it’s one of a handful of close-calls between American and Chinese aviators in recent months. China fired back at Washington o Tuesday, with a spokesman saying the pilots of the two J-10 fighters acted in a way that was “legal, necessary and professional.”
The sweep. A federal judge in Michigan on Monday stopped the deportation of more than 1,400 Iraqi nationals detained during immigration sweeps across the United States last month. “U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith granted a preliminary injunction requested by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued the immigrants would face persecution in Iraq because they are considered ethnic and religious minorities there.”
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Brace for impact. No one knows how the standoff between the U.S. and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear program is going to shake out, but China isn’t taking any chances, beefing up its military and surveillance assets along the border with the North. In addition to fortifying its border areas to prevent a spillover from any conflict on the Korean Peninsula, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Chinese military is also building the capability to seize North Korean nuclear sites and create a buffer zone in the north of the country.
From Russia with love. Videos obtained by CNN show Taliban insurgents packing the latest and greatest Russian small arms, in a sign that Moscow may be providing arms to the group. The weapons in question — Russian sniper rifles, machine guns, and assault rifles — have been stripped of identifying markings but insurgents in the video say that Russia has provided them with the arms via Iran.
Waste. Defense Secretary James Mattis blasted the Pentagon for its “decisions to spend taxpayer dollars in an effective and wasteful manner” in Afghanistan in a memo sent out to employees. Mattis’s missive was triggered by a Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report finding that the Defense Department wasted $28 million on unsuitable uniforms for Afghan troops. Mattis wrote that he expects “all DoD organizations to use this error as a catalyst to bring to light wasteful practices.”
Wrong button. The Missile Defense Agency says a sailor who pressed the wrong button is responsible for the failure of an SM-3 missile to hit its target during a missile defense test. Defense News reports that the sailor mistakenly coded the target as a friendly asset, leading the SM-3 to miss.
Ukraine. The State Department’s special envoy for Ukraine tells the BBC that the U.S. could provide Kiev with weapons but says arms transfers aren’t yet a guarantee. “Defensive weapons, ones that would allow Ukraine to defend itself, and to take out tanks for example, would actually help,” Ambassador Kurt Volker said. The Obama administration stopped short of providing lethal weapons to Ukraine and it’s unclear whether the Trump administration, keen for a reset with Russia, would overturn that policy.
Trouble in the alliance. The growing feud between Turkey and Germany is threatening to undermine NATO’s anti-Islamic State fight, leading officials from the alliance to try and mediate. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has been quietly playing peacemaker, facilitating an agreement that would allow members of Germany’s parliament to visit German troops at Incirlik Air Base after Turkey had prevented them from traveling.
Foreign fighters. Federal prosecutors in Germany are investigating a 16 year-old girl who fled to Syria to join the Islamic State and ended up getting arrested by Iraqi forces in Mosul after its liberation. Linda Wenzel, 16, was found with a gunshot wound in her thigh and told reporters that she wanted to go home. Wenzel was arrested by Iraqi forces along with another German woman.
Switcheroo. If you’re looking for Islamic State propaganda videos on YouTube, the social media site will instead show you results for videos about the cost of terrorist violence and religious figures explaining the ills of jihadist groups. The move is part of a plan by Google to redirect would-be terrorist recruits away from extremist content as terrorist groups try to leverage the reach of social media to host their content.
Syria. Russia has sent military police to patrol buffer zones in Syria as part its negotiated settlement with Turkey, Iran, and the Assad regime. Russian forces have set up checkpoints near the rebel enclave of East Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus and in the south of Syria, eight miles from the border with Israel.
Libya. A video posted to social media purportedly shows troops loyal to eastern Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar carrying out summary executions of 18 suspected Islamic State members, dressing them in orange jumpsuits and shooting them en masse in a twist on an infamous execution videos made by the terrorist group. Haftar lieutenant Mahmoud al-Werfalli is seen in the video pronouncing sentence. VOA News reports that the U.N. has called on Hafar to fire al-Werfalli and investigate the incident.
Photo Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images