The Cable

SitRep: Trump Puts JSOC in Overdrive; Tillerson Wants Talks With North Korea

By Elias Groll, Adam Rawnsley and Robbie Gramer JSOC in overdrive. President Donald Trump has ramped up the use of lethal counterterrorism operations since taking office, carrying out at least 92 strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. That’s a fivefold increase over the Obama administration during a comparable period in its final days in office, ...

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers remarks August 1, 2017, from the briefing room of the US State Department in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS        (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers remarks August 1, 2017, from the briefing room of the US State Department in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

By Elias Groll, Adam Rawnsley and Robbie Gramer

JSOC in overdrive. President Donald Trump has ramped up the use of lethal counterterrorism operations since taking office, carrying out at least 92 strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. That’s a fivefold increase over the Obama administration during a comparable period in its final days in office, FP’s Micah Zenko writes.  

“This overreliance on lethal force is not just exhausting America’s special operators; it is wholly insufficient to comprehensively confront the underlying causes of militancy and terrorism,” Zenko argues.

Tillerson on North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised eyebrows on Tuesday when he said Washington was ready to talk to Pyongyang to walk back from the brink of a nuclear stand-off. “We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime,” Tillerson said at a State Department press briefing. “We hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them.”

Tillerson’s remarks break sharply with other members of the administration promising a muscular response to North Korean missile and nuclear tests. In a speech last month, CIA Director Mike Pompeo indicated he would like to topple Kim Jong Un from power.

Venezuela deteriorates. Venezuelan authorities detained two leading opposition figures, Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma, on Monday, drawing a sharp rebuke from Washington. In a statement late Monday, President Donald Trump said he holds Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro “personally responsible for the health and safety of Mr. Lopez, Mr. Ledezma, and any others seized.”

The arrest of Lopez and Ledezma comes on the heels of Sunday’s vote to replace the Venezuelan legislature with a group of lawmakers hand-picked by Maduro and may signal intensified oppression of the political opposition in Venezuela.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to elias.groll@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @eliasgroll and @arawnsley.

Will Trump sign sanctions package? After the White House said President Donald Trump plans to sign an aggressive sanctions package targeting Russia, North Korea, and Iran, Trump backtracked on that pledge in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the transcript of which leaked to Politico. “I haven’t seen them in final form,” Trump said of the sanctions. “I will say this, Congress, if they’re going to negotiate, they make the worst deals I’ve ever seen. They made NAFTA.” The president added, “I make good deals. I don’t make bad deals.”

Tit for tat. Iran is hitting back at the U.S. over that sanctions package Trump is expected to to sign into law. Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s parliament, filed a complaint with the joint commission created in the 2015 nuclear deal, arguing that the sanctions are a violation of the agreement. Larijani’s move follows recent comments from President Trump suggesting that he may not certify Iranian compliance with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as is required every 90 days.

Breaking: Afghanistan isn’t doing so great. The United States’ watchdog on Afghanistan just released its latest report on the stagnating reconstruction of Afghanistan, with some more depressing numbers. Among the stats: There was a 21 percent increase in security incidents from the first quarter of the year; 2,531 Afghan service members were killed and 4,238 wounded in the first five months of 2017; more than 12,000 Afghan Ministry of Defense Personnel are “unaccounted for”; the country’s domestic revenues declined 25 percent in the first six months of the year, yet opiate production went from $1.56 billion to $3.02 billion between 2015 and 2016. This report is the latest bad sign things aren’t going well in Afghanistan, as Trump and his closest advisors look for an escape hatch from the forever war.

Meanwhile in Kandahar. Unidentified militants attacked a NATO convoy in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, leaving an unknown number of casualties.

Dissent. Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft has come out swinging against President Trump’s apparent ban on transgender service members, telling an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that he “will not break faith” with transgender coasties despite the ban.

New sheriff in town. The Senate confirmed Chris Wray, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the FBI, by a 92 to 5 vote. A veteran of the George W. Bush Justice Department, Wray takes over the FBI at a time of intense turmoil for the bureau. Among the key early questions for Wray: Can he win the confidence of the FBI rank and file? And will he retain his embattled deputy, Andrew McCabe, whom Trump has repeatedly attacked for campaign contributions made to his wife?

Lineup change. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has hired retired Army Col. Michael Bell to serve as the National Security Council’s top Middle East aide, Politico reports. Bell takes over for the recently-fired Derek Harvey, who reportedly clashed with McMaster over his hawkish views on Iran.

Mueller’s dream team. Special Counsel Robert Mueller added yet another heavyweight investigator to his team of lawyers probing Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with aides to President Donald Trump. The latest addition is Greg Andres, a DOJ veteran and an expert in fraud and foreign bribery, Reuters reports.

Thanks for telling us, Lindsey. “There will be a war with North Korea over their missile program if they continue to try to hit American with an ICBM. He has told me that. I believe him. If I were China, I would believe him, too, and do something about it.” — Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), warning that President Trump is willing to go to war with North Korea over its weapons of mass destruction.  

North Korea hacking. Russia may not have been the only country looking to break into Hillary Clinton’s campaign networks during the 2016 presidential election. Anonymous researchers tell Cyberscoop that North Korean hackers broke into email accounts used by the Clinton campaign’s Asia advisors. Those compromised accounts were then used to send more plausible spear phishing emails intended to trick campaign staffers into opening a document containing malware. The Clinton campaign, however, was alerted to the hacking attempt and there’s no evidence it was successful in accessing campaign networks.

Air Force один. President Trump’s stated desire for a cheaper presidential aircraft has led the Air Force to buy two 747-8 planes from the boneyard in the Mojave Desert. The planes, which cost around $390 million each, were previously owned by former Russian airliner Transaero. Those hunting for links between Trump and Russia, however, will be disappointed — Transaero went bankrupt before ever taking delivery of the aircraft.  

East Bound and Down. Iran has changed up its smuggling routes for the weapons it sends to allies in Yemen, anonymous Iranian officials tell Reuters, skipping shipments from Iran to Yemen or through Somalia and opting to transfer arms to smaller, Yemen-bound boats off the coast of Kuwait. Smaller vessels reportedly face less scrutiny when transiting from the north of the Gulf while shipments originating in Iran have been seized by U.S. and European warships.

Saudi Arabia. Fighting between Saudi authorities and Shia militants has killed seven people and caused hundreds to flee the town of Awamiya in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, according to the BBC. The clashes started after Saudi police tried to demolish the city’s Awamiya section, claiming its winding passages had acted as a safe haven for militants.

The new spy game. Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab have identified two new instances of spyware from the Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group targeting Mexican activists. This time, the digital sleuths identified attempts to infect the phones of two prominent lawyers working on behalf of the families of murdered Mexican women.

Lost. The U.S. Navy is conducting a search for a missing lieutenant who may have gone overboard from the USS Stethem, a destroyer currently operating in the South China Sea.  

Gun running. The Justice Department indicted a California man for sending export-restricted rifle scopes to rebels in Syria.

The thrill of sport. The third annual International Army Games, a kind of war Olympics, kicked off in China’s Xinjiang province this week. The games, attended by Russia, Iran, Venezuela and others, feature competitions like the tank biathlon and surface-to-air missile marksmanship. Russia says it invited NATO countries to send a team but received no takers.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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