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Security Brief: U.S. Officials Reassure Allies in Munich; Mueller Indicts 13 Russians

Trump administration officials spent the weekend in Munich telling their European counterparts to please ignore President Donald Trump’s tweets and to focus on their more sober-minded statements.

MUNICH, GERMANY : National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster delivers a speech at the 2018 Munich Security Conference on February 17, 2018 in Munich, Germany. Photo by Sebastian Widmann/Getty Images
MUNICH, GERMANY : National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster delivers a speech at the 2018 Munich Security Conference on February 17, 2018 in Munich, Germany. Photo by Sebastian Widmann/Getty Images

By Elias Groll, with Robbie Gramer and Sharon Weinberger

Trump administration officials spent the weekend in Munich telling their European counterparts to please ignore President Donald Trump’s tweets and to focus on their more sober-minded statements.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who led the sizeable American delegation, said evidence of Russian election meddling in the United States was now “incontrovertible,” given Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Friday indictments of 13 Russians accused of participating in the operation to influence the 2016 election.

He also slapped back at a Russian official asking about U.S.-Russia cyber cooperation, saying “I’m surprised there are any Russia cyber experts available based on how active most of them have been in undermining our democracies in the West.”

But the ink hadn’t dried on those speeches before Trump took to his favorite online medium to undermine his lieutenants. “General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. Remember the Dirty Dossier, Uranium, Speeches, Emails and the Podesta Company!” Trump tweeted.

The conference this year left some regulars more despondent about the state of transatlantic relations than ever before: It was big on style (and frenzied networking), but largely bereft of substance.

FP’s Robbie Gramer was on the ground in Munich, and in an interview on the sidelines of the conference, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg sat down with him to talk the future of the alliance under Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine. He spoke of boosts in NATO defense spending, NATO’s tense relations with Turkey, and the stand-off with Russia.

It’s Mueller time. Special Counsel Robert Mueller unsealed a surprise indictment targeting the Russian group that spearheaded the Kremlin social media campaign to boost Donald Trump’s election chances. Trump has spent the weekend railing against the indictment as a challenge to the legitimacy of his election-win. FP’s Emily Tamkin has all the details.

Welcome to this Monday’s edition of Security Brief. As always, please send your questions, tips, and complaints to

Highlights from Munich. Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor, asked Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki about the country’s controversial new law that criminalizes references to Polish death camps (the camps were established and run by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland). Morawiecki drew gasps when he said there were Polish perpetrators, and Jewish perpetrators too. Read Bergman’s account of what happened here. (Bergman is also the author of a recent book on Israeli targeted killings, excerpted in Foreign Policy.)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparred with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif. Both separately took the stage for fiery speeches on the Middle East. But Bibi came armed with props: He waived a piece of what he said was an Iranian drone shot down over Israel at the audience, saying “Mr Zarif, do you recognize this. You should, it’s yours.”

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch warned the audience the world was on the brink of a “biblical” level nuclear war with North Korea, which could be the “the worst catastrophic event in the history of our civilization.” He then immediately ambled offstage to catch a flight, leaving audience members sitting in stunned, awkward silence.

Meanwhile, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize winner Beatrice Fihn of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons took the stage to issue a dire warning about nuclear war. Most of the audience shuffled out as she spoke, leaving an awkwardly empty room and an uncomfortably perfect illustration of how (un)seriously world leaders take global campaigns to abolish nukes.

What happened in Niger. In the most comprehensive public examination to date of what happened to four U.S. troops ambushed in Niger last year, the New York Times reveals a series of commander errors and communication shortfalls that left American soldiers and their Nigerien allies badly exposed on a last-minute raid to capture a suspected militant leader. The Times obtained a draft report examining the incident and helmet video belonging to some of the killed soldiers. On Saturday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the Pentagon’s formal report on the ambush is close to being wrapped up.

‘Skirmish’ over nuclear football. When President Donald Trump visited China in November, Chinese security officials scuffled with the American military official carrying the nuclear “football” containing launch codes for America’s nuclear weapons arsenal, Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports. The scuffle was reportedly over in a “flash,” and a Chinese security official apologized for the incident. “I can’t believe this story hasn’t gotten out, and neither can the very very few people who know about it,” Swan notes.

Chief technologist. The Senate last week voted to confirm former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin as the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, a new position that was created after a congressionally mandated reorganization. Griffin, a physicist by training, is expected to push work on hypersonic weapons, among other advanced technology programs.

Deploy or get out. Defense Secretary James Mattis said that troops that aren’t able to deploy for more than a year are going to have to leave military. Mattis told reporters this weekend it was “unfair” that many troops had gone on multiple deployments, because a significant part of the force can’t deploy at all. Under a new policy, he said, “if you’re not deployable for a year or more, you’re going to have to go somewhere else.” About 11 percent of the current 2.1 million person military force is currently listed as “non-deployable,” and about half of those are due to medical reasons, according to Military Times. Mattis said the policy won’t apply to those wounded in combat, however.

Transgender policy. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is likely set to announce this week the Trump administration’s policy on transgender troops serving in the military, USA Today reports. The policy will replace the Obama era rules that allowed transgender troops to openly serve for the first time in history, and which President Donald Trump announced in a surprise tweet he would roll back.  Trump, Mattis, and Vice President Mike Pence are scheduled to have lunch together today.

Did Russia direct the attack? Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters over the weekend that he still does not know Russia’s level of involvement in an attack on U.S.-backed forces in Syria that triggered a ferocious American military response that reportedly left a number of Russian forces dead. They took direction from someone, with some local direction. Was it from external sources? Don’t ask me, I don’t know,” Mattis said. “I doubt that 250-300 people all just decided on their individual own selves to suddenly cross the river into enemy territory and start shelling the location and maneuvering tanks against it. So whatever happened, we’ll try to figure it out.

Puzzling on the Russian role. With confusion still reigning over what happened in the attack near Deir Ezzour, the New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa tries to get to the bottom of what role Russian military contractors are playing in frontline fighting in Syria. Russian contractors fought alongside government-backed troops in the attack on U.S.-backed forces, which Yaffa describes as emblematic of the frontline role being played by Russian mercenaries in their country’s expeditionary operations.

Equipment shortfalls: Military officials are raising alarms about the state of readiness within the German military, according to Voice of America. German forces are preparing to take command of NATO’s rapid response force, but “German lawmakers and NATO allies have grown frustrated about the slow pace of progress on the military preparedness of Europe’s most populous country and economic powerhouse, with some key weapons systems only available 40 percent of the time, according to VOA.

Houthi missiles at the U.N. Britain, France, and the United States are pushing a resolution at the U.N. Security Council to condemn Iran for allowing Houthi militiamen in Yemen to obtain ballistic missile technology. The resolution would grant the council power to issue sanctions targeting to ballistic missile suppliers providing weapons to the Yemeni conflict, Reuters reports.

Rex on the record. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sat down with CBS for a surprisingly candid interview. In addition to describing his relationship with the president, Tillerson talked tough on North Korea: “We’re not using a carrot to convince them to talk. We’re using large sticks.”

Chinese stealth. China’s new stealth fighter, the J-20, has officially entered service, according to Popular Science. Similar to the F-22 and the Su-57, the fighter provides China with a stealthy fifth-generation fighter for long-range strikes and interceptor missions.

Meet a new APT.  A new report out this morning from computer security firm FireEye describes the activities of a North Korean hacking group dubbed APT 37 — short for advanced persistent threat. The moniker puts the hacking group in the elite company of other state-backed groups to have received the title. FireEye describes the activities of the group, which has been active since 2012, as targeting a variety of public and private sector groups, “including chemicals, electronics, manufacturing, aerospace, automotive, and healthcare entities.”

Korean missile buy. Seoul will buy about $53 million worth of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles to counter the ballistic missile threat from North Korea, according to Defense News.

Today in debacles. The trial of the man accused of masterminding the bombing of the USS Cole suffered yet another setback Friday, when the judge in the Guantanamo Bay trial ordered it shut down because of a lack of defense attorneys on the death-penalty case, the Miami Herald reports.  

Renewed fighting. Activists say at least 98 people died in the rebel-held suburbs near Damascus on Monday as a result of what they describe as government shelling of the area, according to the AP. The bombardment is described as the deadliest day in eastern Ghouta in at least three years and comes as part of a weeks long aerial campaign against the area.

Another one bites the dust. John Hannah, a former top national security aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, will not serve as the American envoy to the Syrian civil war, according to Al-Monitor.  He was reportedly in talks with the Trump administration about taking the position, but ultimately decided against it.

Iran in Syria. This month’s skirmish between Iranian and Israeli forces in Syria illustrates the degree to which Tehran’s forces have embedded inside the borders of its war-torn ally — a military tool that will likely be used against Israel in the event of war. In a new report, the New York Times examines how Iranian proxies might figure into a future conflict with Israel and its allies.

The information war. Hours after a gunman killed 17 students at a Florida high-school, Russian-linked bots picked up the gun control debate on Twitter, the New York Times reports. The campaign follows a now well-known, if hard to counter Russian playbook: Focus on divisive issues in American society and attempt to amplify the rift.  

All quiet on the space front. The National Space Defense Center at Schriever Air Force Base is now open for operations, the Gazette reports. With a staff of 230 and operating 24 hours a day, the center works to keep American satellites safe in what U.S. military officials are describing as an increasingly contested environment beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

Missile alert. Emails obtained by the Washington Post show Pacific Command officers scrambling to respond to last month’s erroneous ballistic missile warning in Hawaii. PACOM immediately blamed Hawaii state officials for the debacle, as they rushed to understand what was happening. PACOM’s director of intelligence, it turns out, was in yoga class when the missile alert arrived.  

New frigate. The Navy has doled out $15 million contracts to four shipbuilders to provide conceptual work for a new frigate, according to Defense News. The first purchase is expected to be made in 2020.  

Zumwalt. Navy officials are asking Congress for additional funds to convert its new Zumwalt class destroyer into a ship destroyer, Defense News reports. The request for $90 million would provide the ship with the SM-6 long-range missile, which would give the stealthy destroyer the ability to hit air and surface targets.

Nuke boss. After clearing Senate confirmation, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty is set to come in as the undersecretary for nuclear security at the Department of Energy. The position puts her in charge of the country’s nuclear weapons complex, which is at the beginning of a modernization program that could cost over $1 trillion.

The best thing we read about the internet last week. If you think fake news is bad now, just wait until emerging artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies gain widespread traction. In a series of doomsday descriptions, the technologist Aviv Ovadya tells BuzzFeed that the current information operations run online will pale in comparison to the sophistication of what is just around the corner, when audio and video can be easily faked and human identities can be easily manufactured online.

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

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