The Cable

Situation Report: FBI finds Hillary Clinton’s use of private email ‘careless’ but not criminal

South China Sea dispute arrives in Washington; No change in Pentagon strategy after Iraq terror attacks; UK's scathing Iraq war report; and a bit more.

Benghazi

No charges against Clinton: FBI Director James Comey said Tuesday he is recommending no charges be filed against presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server when she served as secretary of state. Comey said investigators spent thousands of hours combing through Clinton’s email servers and found that the private servers contained classified and even top-secret material. But the FBI will recommend to the Justice Department that no criminal charges are warranted.

Taken to task: Comey did not let Clinton off easily. “Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws concerning the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” Comey said.

The FBI director also blasted the State Department. He said the security culture there, “was generally lacking in the kind of care for classified information that’s found elsewhere in the U.S. government.”

FP’s John Hudson and Elias Groll with details on the emails: “The FBI’s investigation revealed 110 emails in 52 chains that had classified information at the time they were sent. Of those 52 chains, eight contained top-secret information, 36 contained secret information, and eight contained information marked confidential. There were also a few thousand more emails that had information that was upgraded to ‘confidential’ after Clinton sent or received them.”

End of the road? It remains to be seen whether Tuesday’s announcement closes the book on the Clinton email scandal — or simply ends the chapter. Republicans sought to paint it as the latter, with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump immediately criticizing the decision as evidence of a “rigged” system. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said the FBI announcement “defies explanation.”

Damage control in the South China Sea: FP’s Dan De Luce reports, “Facing a potentially damaging ruling from an international court in its dispute with the Philippines, China has cranked up a public relations offensive to defend its stance in the court of world opinion. The sledgehammer-subtle PR campaign came to Washington on Tuesday, with a former top Chinese official warning that Beijing will reject the tribunal’s authority and cautioning the United States to tread carefully in the contested waters.”

Staying the course: FP’s De Luce reports the toll from Saturday’s suicide bombing in the Shiite district of Karrada in Baghdad rose to 250, making it the deadliest attack since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

But the Pentagon said Tuesday that the horrific bombing did not mean the United States would change its approach to fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“We believe the strategy to ultimately defeat ISIL is a sound one,” spokesperson Peter Cook told reporters. The attack on Sunday was a “terrible tragedy” but “it doesn’t alter our basic strategy,” he said.

The U.S.-led coalition was tightening the noose around the Islamic State militants and Iraqi government forces — having seized back control of Fallujah in the west — are now pressing the extremists in the environs of Mosul in the north, he said.

The deadly attack in Baghdad has stirred anger at Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government, which had touted the recent recapture of Fallujah as a step that would bolster the security of the capital by cutting off an Islamic State bastion used to stage bombings in Baghdad.

Mistakes were made: A British inquiry has found former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government led the country into the Iraq war based on flawed intelligence that should have been challenged. It’s a damning assessment of the U.K.’s role in the war against Saddam Hussein. More below.

Welcome to your mid-week Situation Report. Your regular presenter, Paul McLeary, is off on a well-deserved holiday. So I remain in charge, with a healthy assist from Adam Rawnsley, for the rest of this week. You can reach me at david.francis@foreignpolicy.com or either me or Adam on Twitter @davidcfrancis and @arawnsley.

Russia

Russia is extending its air defense envelope closer to NATO’s border with a transfer of advanced S-300 missile systems close to Poland. The National Interest reports that new satellite imagery published by Google Earth shows Russia has sent the air defense missiles to Belarus near the city of Polotsk. The S-300, developed in the 1970s, is capable of putting aircraft without stealth capabilities at great risk. Russia has deployed the system to conflict zones like Crimea and sold it to Iran, against the urging of western countries.

The Air Force is training pilots not to take the bait when Russian warplanes carry out dangerous intercepts of American military aircraft. An anonymous senior Air Force official tells Air Force Times that the United States is giving its pilots three basic maxims to remember when confronted by Russian pilots pulling shenanigans: “do not turn into the intercepting aircraft”; “fly the planned route”; and “do not be provocative.” Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa, tells the paper that a “change in focus” is needed as U.S. forces, used to fighting in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, now have to confront the prospect of “full-spectrum, high-velocity combat operations.”

France

France is mulling the creation of a counterterrorism agency along the lines of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in the wake of the November 2015 terrorist attacks carried out by the Islamic State in Paris. A French parliament inquiry into intelligence leading up to the attacks has faulted the country’s counterterrorism services for their performance. Some of the attackers were already under surveillance prior to the attacks and legislators found cooperation with other European countries on counterterrorism wanting, concluding that “Europe is not up to the task.” French parliamentarians are now considering whether to create their own NCTC as the United States did after the 9/11 attacks.

Syria

Amnesty International has published a new report on human rights violations by Syrian rebel groups in Idlib and Aleppo. The report says rebels in those areas have “free rein to commit war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law with impunity” and now use torture methods originally deployed against them by the Assad regime. Amnesty singled out the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, the Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement, al-Shamia Front, and Division 16. The groups have reportedly kidnapped journalists and activists complaining about their harsh rule.

The U.S. Air Force has lost an armed MQ-9 Reaper drone over Syria, Air Force Times reports. Air Force officials say the Reaper was not shot down by the jihadist group and that coalition warplanes destroyed the remaining wreckage on the ground after it crashed. Shortly after reports of the crash surfaced, images published by the Islamic State-linked Amaq news agency appeared on social media, purporting to show members of the jihadist group showing off Reaper wreckage and fragments of the Hellfire missiles it carries.

The Islamic State

The Islamic State is secretly telling its supporters to stay at home and carry out attacks there rather than travel to the caliphate as the U.S.-led coalition against the terrorist group targets it in Iraq and Syria. The Wall Street Journal gets a scoop that Western intelligence services have intercepted messages from Islamic State leaders to affiliates around the globe bearing the “act local” instructions. The global terror strategy comes as the jihadist group has faced increasing setbacks on the battlefield, losing territory, money, and foreign fighters as coalition forces recapture areas taken by the group after the fall of Mosul in June 2014.

Iraq

The furor over security in Iraq has led Iraq’s interior minister to resign. Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, Iraq’s top minister in charge of locking down Baghdad, resigned after an Islamic State suicide bomber managed to kill more than 200 people in an attack on Sunday. Al-Ghabban says the government has failed to secure the capital. Iraqis are livid at the federal government for failing to prevent the attack and for still using fake bomb detectors, exposed as a fraud in 2010.

The U.K. has released the results of an inquiry by Sir John Chilcot, a retired British civil servant and diplomat, into the decision-making that led to the Iraq war. The Chilcot inquiry criticizes British policymakers, including then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, for exaggerating the strength of intelligence on Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction programs, not properly preparing for the conflict, and failing to exhaust diplomatic options before resorting to the use of force. The report reveals that Blair pledged British support for the war to President George W. Bush as early as July 2002 and “overestimated his ability to influence U.S. decisions on Iraq.”

Afghanistan

The United States has spent millions on health facilities in Afghanistan. One slight hitch — it doesn’t know where they are. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has sent a letter to the U.S. Agency for International Development outlining concerns after the agency couldn’t provide accurate coordinates for 29 health facilities it spent more than a quarter billion dollars on in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. Many of the facilities were decaying and some lacked access to basic utilities such as power and water.

Around town

1:00 p.m. The Stimson Center is holding an event to look at the Obama administration’s latest declassification. “Drone Data and Transparency: Putting New Drone Casualty Data into Perspective” is moderated by Stimson’s Rachel Stohl and will feature commentary from Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, and New York Times‘ national security reporter Scott Shane. The event will be streamed live.

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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