- 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., Adam RawnsleyAdam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.
More bombs, more targets, still Syria. The U.S.-led air war in Syria is growing its target list. President Obama has told the Pentagon to go after al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, worried that the group, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham — formerly known as Nusra Front — has been allowing al Qaeda leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan to set up a new base of operations in northern Syria. That’s according to what officials tell the Washington Post’s Adam Entous, who writes, “Obama’s new order gives the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, wider authority and additional intelligence-collection resources to go after al-Nusra’s broader leadership, not just al-Qaeda veterans or those directly involved in external plotting.”
Many Syria watchers have long said that Nusra is likely a longer-term threat to the United States than the Islamic State, given the deeper ties it has established in the Syrian communities in which it resides, and the steady stream of alliances it has made with more moderate rebel groups fighting the Syrian regime.
The decision comes after months of debate within the White House, where some opposed widening the war, fearful that hitting Nusra would help the Assad regime by weakening the most effective anti-government forces on the ground. But, as one official told the Post, “the president doesn’t want this group to be what inherits the country if Assad ever does fall…This cannot be the viable Syrian opposition. It’s al-Qaeda.”
The big ask. More bombs means more money to pay for them, and President Obama on Thursday asked Congress for an additional $11.6 billion to fight the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The staggering sum would be split in two: $5.8 billion for the Pentagon, and $5.8 billion for the State Department and USAID, for their counter-ISIS initiatives and humanitarian relief.
The request raises extra-budgetary the price tag for both wars to $85.3 billion for the 2017 fiscal year. Rep. Mac Thornberry, (R-Tx.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was unimpressed with the ask. In a statement, he said the cash “still does not accommodate the increased pace of operations against ISIL and does nothing to begin addressing the readiness crisis.”
Lobbyists, defense execs, filling Trump transition. For all of the talk during the campaign that President-elect Donald Trump was running an outsider campaign, and promises to “drain the swamp” in Washington, his transition team is — by necessity — being led by a group of former Pentagon officials, K street lobbyists, and defense contractors.
The two people running the transition at the Department of Defense – Mira Ricardel, a long-time Boeing executive, and Keith Kellogg, a 12-year veteran of the defense industry – not only have spent years spent selling weaponry and technologies to the government, but are also veteran Pentagon hands.
The two reflect the reality of Washington’s often-derided “revolving door,” where officials move between government offices and the defense and consulting industry with metronomic regularity.
It appears that Ricardel will be doing most of the day-to-day transition work with the Pentagon, though as of Thursday, defense officials tell SitRep, the Trump team has yet to reach out to begin meetings, and receive briefings, from military brass. Ricardel’s work at Boeing saw her managing a variety of missile defense, satellite, and space systems between 2006 and 2015.
Before entering the private sector, Ricardel worked at the Pentagon in the Bush administration from 2001 to 2005, first as a deputy focused on Russia, Eurasia, and the Balkans, then for two years in a more high-profile role as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, where she assumed a wider portfolio over an array of national security issues.
Ricardel currently works as a consultant for the U.S. defense industry with Federal Budget IQ, a consultancy in Alexandria, Va. As for Kellogg, the retired three-star U.S. Army general has worked at a variety of defense contractors since retiring in 2003, taking a brief break in the early days of his retirement in 2003 and 2004 to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, Iraq, overseeing the early days of the U.S. occupation of that country.
He is also one of the first foreign policy advisors that Trump disclosed publicly in March, 2016. Asked about Kellogg’s service in a war that Trump has said he opposed — although he told Howard Stern he supported it in 2002 — Trump said earlier this year he likes “different opinions.”
Good morning and as always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
Post-election hack attack
The election may be over but the hacks from Russia are still coming. Vice reports that the Russian intelligence-linked hackers behind the breach into the Democratic National Committee’s networks are at it again, sending spear phishing emails to news outlets like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, think tanks like the Atlantic Council and the RAND Corporation as well as government agencies like the State Department. Reuters spoke to an anonymous former member of the Obama administration, who says the administration plans to retaliate against Russia now that the election is over but hasn’t made its mind up about what form that will take.
Will President-elect Donald Trump’s relatively warmer relationship with Russia lead to the extradition of Edward Snowden? No one quite knows. In a webchat on Thursday, Snowden himself acknowledged the theoretical possibility it could happen but said he’s not afraid. “If I was worried about safety, if the security and the future of myself was all that I cared about, I would still be in Hawaii.”
With an avowed critic of the nuclear deal with Iran headed to the White House, observers are wondering what the future holds for the nonproliferation agreement. Donald Trump has issued conflicting rhetoric on the issue, promising both to dismantle and re-negotiate the agreement. What form a re-negotiation would take and whether the effort alone would blow up the deal, no one knows. The AP reports that Republican members of Congress are already working on legislation to sanction Iran’s ballistic missile industry and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which could prompt opponents of the deal in Iran to leverage as an excuse to walk away from it.
The Pentagon is walking back a claim that a drone strike carried out in Somalia killed members of the al-Qaeda-linked Shabab group, admitting that the attack instead killed 10 people from its local allies against the terrorist group. The Washington Post reports that the incident was triggered after American advisors embedded with local forces took fire from a suspicious group seen on surveillance imagery. The forces called in a drone strike on the source of the fire. The Pentagon initially reported the strike as having killed Shabab fighters, but has since acknowledged it killed members of allied Galmadug security forces.
Photo Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call