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SitRep: Hawaii Missile Alert Caused by Pushing Wrong Button; Nuclear Posture Review Leaks

By Elias Groll, Dan De Luce, Sharon Weinberger, and Robbie Gramer Fat fingers. Officials in Hawaii are beginning to sort through just how the state’s emergency alert system incorrectly told residents on Saturday that a ballistic missile was speeding toward the island. The results aren’t pretty: Early reports indicate that the wrong button was pushed ...

A screen shot take by Hawaiian citizen Alison Teal shows the screen of her mobile phone with an alert text message sent to all Hawaiian citizens on January 13, 2018. 
Hawaii officials swiftly confirmed a cell phone alert warning of an incoming ballistic missile was a "false alarm" on January 13, 2018,  but not before the ominous message unnerved residents and stirred confusion across the US state. The warning -- which came across the Emergency Alert System that authorities nationwide use to delivery vital emergency information -- read: "Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill." / AFP PHOTO / Alison TEAL        (Photo credit should read ALISON TEAL/AFP/Getty Images)
A screen shot take by Hawaiian citizen Alison Teal shows the screen of her mobile phone with an alert text message sent to all Hawaiian citizens on January 13, 2018. Hawaii officials swiftly confirmed a cell phone alert warning of an incoming ballistic missile was a "false alarm" on January 13, 2018, but not before the ominous message unnerved residents and stirred confusion across the US state. The warning -- which came across the Emergency Alert System that authorities nationwide use to delivery vital emergency information -- read: "Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill." / AFP PHOTO / Alison TEAL (Photo credit should read ALISON TEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

By Elias Groll, Dan De Luce, Sharon Weinberger, and Robbie Gramer

Fat fingers. Officials in Hawaii are beginning to sort through just how the state’s emergency alert system incorrectly told residents on Saturday that a ballistic missile was speeding toward the island. The results aren’t pretty: Early reports indicate that the wrong button was pushed by an employee starting his shift.

The employee began work just after 8 a.m. was supposed to initiate a test of the state’s ballistic missile warning system, as is common practice at the start of the work day. But instead of initiating the test — “test missile alert” on a drop down menu — he clicked “missile alert” state officials told the Washington Post. That snafu set off a 38-minute scramble for state officials to retract the warning.

Hawaii residents describe a terrifying panic in the immediate aftermath of the warning, with parents having to choose between which children they would rush toward and families scrambling to shelter in place and track down their relatives.

State and federal officials are promising to get to the bottom of why the erroneous alert was broadcast and to prevent additional such messages from being broadcast. Besides suggesting a two-person verification system for the Hawaii messaging system, officials have so far provided few details on how the system might be overhauled.

And if there’s any doubt about the severity of Saturday’s incident, the New York Times’s Max Fisher walks readers through how such a false alert could lead to an inadvertent exchange of nuclear weapons.

Speaking of nuclear weapons. The Huffington Post got its hands on a draft copy of the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. The document promises more low-yield nuclear weapons as part of a broader expansions of America’s nuclear arsenal.

Welcome to a Tuesday edition of this week’s SitRep! As we mourn the death of Dolores O’Riordan, why don’t you linger?

As we move to a weekly edition of the newsletter, what would you like to see more of (or less of, for that matter)? Please send your comments, suggestions, and tips to elias.groll@foreignpolicy.com.

Cold War 2.0. The threat posed by a resurgent Russia — and its submarines — will be high on the agenda when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, and his NATO counterparts meet on Tuesday, FP’s Dan De Luce reports from Brussels.

NATO defense chiefs, who meet twice a year, are planning to hammer out details of a new command to safeguard shipping lanes in the North Atlantic, a move that carries echoes of the Cold War.

NATO members are increasingly concerned about growing Russian submarine activity, particularly around vital undersea cables that provide Internet and telecommunications connections to Europe and North America.

“The maritime domain is an area of focus,” Dunford told reporters traveling with him to the NATO meeting. “The Euro-Atlantic link must be protected in order for us to meet our alliance commitments.”

The Pentagon is already preparing to spend $14.4 million to refurbish hangars at a Cold War-era base in Iceland to allow more P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft to keep a watchful eye on stealthy Russian submarines, FP reported last month.

Though some NATO members are grousing about the cost, Dunford indicated he favored having at least some forces at the ready. “Some amount of this capability has to be there day to day,” the general said.

Dunford added that there is a consensus among allies about the nature of the Russian threat, but disagreement at times about the best way to address it. The NATO senior officers are also discussing setting up a “rear area” command that would oversee the movement of forces across Europe in case of a war. Germany is in the running to host such a rear headquarters, officials said.

NATO members haven’t decided where to place the command overseeing shipping lanes and how it will be organized, but one option would be to put it in Norfolk, Va.

Russia’s spy subs. The Barents Observer reports that Russia has made significant investments in its submarine force and that it is stepping up activities at its naval base in Olenya Bay. Russia’s naval base there serves as the home port for Russia’s increasingly advanced submarine fleet.

She went to Jared. American counterintelligence officials warned Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, that Wendi Murdoch, the former wife of media magnate Rupert Murdoch, may have been using her relationship with Kushner to advance the interests of the Chinese government, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Journalist Michael Wolff — of Fire and Fury fame — had this to say on the issue last night: “Since their divorce, Murdoch has been telling anybody who would listen that Wendi is a Chinese spy — and had been throughout the marriage.”

The congressional week ahead. The Senate is set to vote at 5:30 p.m. today on a cloture motion for the reauthorization of key foreign intelligence powers, including Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act.

On Wednesday, policy chiefs for Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube will get a grilling from members of the Senate Commerce Committee as part of a hearing on whether the tech platforms are doing enough to curb the spread of extremist content.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee will be carrying out confirmation hearings for President Trump’s picks to serve as the intelligence community and inspector general and general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

At some point this week, former Trump campaign chairman Steve Bannon will likely testify before the House Intelligence Committee’s as part of its investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Bloomberg reports. Bannon has curiously managed to avoid scrutiny in the Russia probe, and we’ll be watching this week whether the former Breitbart honcho’s falling out with the White House leads to renewed attention from investigators. Corey Lewandowski, the former Trump campaign manager, is also set to go before the committee this week.

Trump adviser Hope Hicks may also go before the House Intelligence Committee this week, CNN reports.

Trump condo sales. A BuzzFeed investigation reveals that President Donald Trump’s real estate empire has made sold a large number of properties in all-cash deals that raise money-laundering concerns. The investigation provides the first public examination of money flowing through Trump’s real estate holdings in transactions that experts argue pose a high risk for money laundering and may point toward possible avenues of inquiry for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which has attorneys on staff expert in money-laundering cases.

Ports Open. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are finally allowing in fuel and other commercial shipments to Red Sea ports in Yemen after months of appeals from aid agencies and eleventh hour pressure from the United States.

A top State Department official, David Satterfield, acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that Red Sea ports were now open to humanitarian deliveries.

Riyadh’s change of heart came after President Donald Trump issued a statement in December demanding the Saudi-led coalition lift the blockade on humanitarian access, which has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.

The moves come after Republican Sen. Todd Young of  Indiana held up the confirmation of Trump’s nominee for the top legal adviser in the State Department. Young withdrew his hold last month after the nominee acknowledged the Saudis could be violating international humanitarian law – and a U.S. law – by obstructing aid deliveries. FP has reported extensively about the Saudi blockade and Young’s focus on Yemen’s plight. You can read about it here, here and here.

Go West, young man! Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Vancouver, Canada on Monday for an international summit on countering North Korea. In a show of State-Pentagon solidarity, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is tagging along. State Department Director of Policy Planning, Brian Hook, told reporters last week the meetings will focus on taking stock of the U.S.-led “pressure campaign” to choke economic lifelines to North Korea from around the world and draft a to-do list on the Hermit Kingdom for 2018. Nearly two dozen countries, including South Korean and Japan, are joining the talks.

NotPetya. The CIA concluded that Russian military hackers were responsible for the NotPetya worm, which crippled computers in Ukraine and then spread around the world. According to the Washington Post, the CIA has determined with “high confidence” that hackers working on behalf of Russia’s military intelligence agency GRU created the bug.

How do you solve a problem like Meltdown? When chipmakers learned last year of the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities, they scrambled to solve one of the worst computer security problems ever discovered. In a fascinating new article, The Verge describes how the myriad companies, researchers, and officials tried to coordinate their response — and how those plans were dashed.

The A.I. chip revolution. A slew of start-ups are fueling a billion-dollar industry trying to design a new computer chip for artificial intelligence applications, Cade Metz writes for the New York Times. The massive investments in up-start chipmakers represents a possible sea change in an industry that has been dominated by a few small players and could lead to major advances in AI technology.

We’re jammin’! The U.S. Air Force has deployed at least one of its advanced electronic warfare planes, the EC-130H Compass Call to South Korea, the Aviationist reports. The plane has advanced electronic warfare capabilities and may even be able to hack into adversary networks from the air, a capability that would likely come in handy in the event of a shooting war with North Korea.

DIY Drones. Homemade drones attacked Russian forces and a Saudi-flagged merchant vessel in recent weeks, a type of assault that arms experts argue will only increase as drone technology becomes more easily available, USNI News reports.

Stuxnet leak probe. Prosecutors examining how New York Times reporter David Sanger revealed the existence of the Stuxnet operation against Iran’s nuclear program secured a court order to examine the private email account of retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who pleaded guilty in 2016 to lying to the FBI but was ultimately pardoned by President Barack Obama.

Facebook’s fake news problem. Social media giant Facebook is tweaking the way News Feed — the main stream of information on its site and app — works by favoring material posted by friends and family. The change in Facebook’s algorithm represents a potentially huge loss in traffic for media outlets and may magnify the prevalence of fake news on the platform in emerging democracies, the New York Times reports.

French CFIUS equivalent for AI. French officials are looking at additional powers to block foreign acquisitions of firms working on data protection and artificial intelligence, Reuters reports. The possible move by the French government comes as European security leaders are examining efforts by China to acquire intellectual property through business acquisitions.

Syrian chemical attacks. The medical relief organization UOSSM reports that it observed a suspected gas attack in eastern Ghouta of Syria. The attack injured five women and a child, and “victims were treated with symptoms consistent with chemical exposure, including difficulty breathing, discreet dyspnea, mild exaltation, no change in the iris, and the odor of chlorine on their clothing,” according to the charity.

The wisdom of Erik Prince. The notorious founder of Blackwater reemerged briefly last week on SiriusXM’s Breitbart News Tonight to defend Donald Trump’s highly reviled comments describing some countries as “shitholes.” Prince recalled being sent to a Haiti as a Navy SEAL in 1994, where he encountered raw sewage. “So if the president says some places are shitholes, he’s accurate,” Prince said. “Literally.” Prince, who tried unsuccessfully to lobby President Trump last year on a plan to privatize the Afghanistan war, has been rumored to be considering a run for the Senate in Wyoming.

Ships that go pew-pew. The Navy is getting ready this fall to bolt a laser weapon to the deck of a San Antonio class amphibious ship, according to Defense News.  The USS Portland will be equipped with the new Laser Weapon System, knows as LaWS, which is designed to target drones. Don’t get too excited, though. Defense News says the Navy captain in charge of integrating the weapon “didn’t know the specific power level or capability of the laser” and “is still awaiting drawings” from the Office of Naval  Research. The laser won’t even be integrated into the ship’s warfare system.

The SR-72 is back. A senior official from Lockheed Martin’s secretive Skunks Works division hinted last week that the company has made progress on the long-rumored hypersonic successor to the SR-71 Blackbird. Lockheed’s Jack O’Bannon showed a side depicting a notional SR-72 at an aeronautics conference, and seemed to allude to the aircraft having already been built, according to a series of tweets by aviation reporter Stephen Trimble, of Flight Global. “We couldn’t have the engine itself, it would have melted down into slag if we had tried to produce it five years ago,” O’Bannon said. ”Now we can digitally print that engine.”

Renewed violence in Baghdad. Two suicide bombers struck the heart of Baghdad on Monday, leaving 27 dead and scores wounded, according to the Washington Post. The attack is the first of its kind since the Iraqi government declared victory over the Islamic State.

The deal of the century. The fallout from President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital intensified on Monday, as Palestinian leaders voted to no longer recognize Israel until that country recognizes Palestine as a state.

About those Houthi missiles. A U.N. report found that Iran violated the arms embargo on Yemen by failing to keep Iranian missiles out of the hands of Houthi rebels. The report was delivered to the U.N. Security Council last week.

To the shores of Tripoli. Fighting in the Libyan capital of Tripoli left at least 20 people dead and shut the city’s airport. Libyan officials speaking to Reuters said the fighting was part of an attempt by militants to free their jailed comrades from a prison near the airport.

The Marines get a new rifle! The Marine Corps has decided to equip its troops with the Heckler & Koch M27. The weapon has already seen action in Afghanistan and comes as part of a broader overhaul of Marine Corps gear.

NATO budgets. The Danish government will seek a significant increase in defense spending to counter what Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen describes as an increased military threat from Russia. The spending hike — as much as 20 percent over five years — still needs parliamentary approval.

Gulf spat. Authorities in the United Arab Emirates accused Qatari fighter jets of intercepting two civilian airliners, a claim Doha dismissed as “baseless.”

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

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