- 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.
Well, that escalated quickly. In a stunning revelation, U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News they believe with “a high level of confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin “became personally involved in the covert Russian campaign to interfere in the U.S. presidential election.”
The revelation — if proven true – is huge. The NBC team spoke to two officials “with direct access to the information” who say “new intelligence shows that Putin personally directed how hacked material from Democrats was leaked and otherwise used.” The intelligence community and the Obama administration has not provided much public evidence for the repeated claims of a Russian hand in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, and there’s been some disagreement among the intelligence community over the alleged Russian motives.
Beijing’s new look. In the months leading up to the American elections, “Chinese officials viewed the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency as a manageable, even welcome, respite from growing friction with the outgoing Obama administration,” writes FP’s John Hudson. “But that blasé outlook has morphed into outright alarm,” and “now Beijing is flying long-range bombers over the disputed South China Sea, and warning of a collapse of U.S.-Sino relations if the president-elect continues to hint at diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.”
China bulking up islands. The Chinese military on Thursday defended the deployment of military equipment to artificial islands in the disputed Spratlys chain in the South China Sea, releasing a statement claiming, “as for necessary military installations, they are mainly for defense and self-protection and are legitimate and lawful. If someone makes a show of force at your front door, would you not ready your slingshot?”
Aleppo freeze out. Washington was pointedly left out of negotiations this week between Russia and Turkey to establish a ceasefire in Aleppo and open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee the fighting. “We are no longer negotiating. The only thing we are doing is offering urgent pleas to have them stop bombing to allow people to leave,” a senior State Department official told the Wall Street Journal. “We supported these people, and we’ve failed to protect them.”
Russian and Iranian officials appeared to mock the Obama administration on Wednesday, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying cooperation with Turkey “could be more effective” than talks with Washington, which were little more than “fruitless get-togethers.” Iran’s Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a Revolutionary Guard general, added on state television that Aleppo is a great victory for Tehran, and “Iran is on one side of this coalition which is approaching victory and this has shown our strength,” he said. “The new American president should take heed of the powers of Iran.”
Russia urges Trump to keep Iran deal. Meanwhile, a bill extending U.S. sanctions on Iran for 10 years will become law without President Barack Obama’s signature, the White House said Thursday. “This Administration has made clear that an extension of the Iran Sanctions Act, while unnecessary, is entirely consistent with our commitments in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA),” the White House said in a statement.
Moscow isn’t happy about the bill. The head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control said Thursday, “the nuclear deal is well balanced, carefully thought out and justified. The Action Plan is being implemented consistently… however, the situation remains very fragile, and thus all participants in this process are required to exercise discretion and integrity in implementing the deal,” Mikhail Ulyanov told reporters.
From Moscow with… Long time Trump surrogate — and former U.S. Representative from Georgia, Jack Kingston — is in Moscow this week briefing the business community there what to expect from the Trump administration, where he told NPR, “Trump can look at sanctions. They’ve been in place long enough.” He’s referring to the international sanctions slapped on Moscow for the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. He also Tweeted “there was a time that we worried about KBG [SIC] now it’s just hackers.”
Democrats want to investigate hacks, not Trump election. The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, told Foreign Policy’s Den De Luce that America’s democratic system will be tested by the incoming Trump administration but expressed hope that Congress would serve as a check on any potential presidential abuse of power.
“I have great concerns but I have confidence in our system. And I believe this country will come through this, but it’s going to require an independent Congress – not a partisan Congress – an independent Congress,” he said.
Cardin has called for an independent inquiry — similar to the 9/11 commission — to investigate Russia’s cyber hacking and meddling in the U.S. election. But he said he and other Democrats were not casting doubt on the legitimacy of Trump’s electoral victory last month. “Donald Trump was elected president of the United States and he will take the oath of office on Jan. 20. We’re not doing this investigation to challenge the legitimacy of the election,” Cardin told FP.
Speaking of leaks. In 2010, then-Centcom chief Gen. James Mattis oversaw an investigation into then-Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn — now Trump’s national security advisor — into his unauthorized sharing of classified information with foreign officials while serving in Afghanistan. Flynn was called back from Afghanistan, where he was leading the intelligence operation to fight the Taliban, and given an administrative job at the Pentagon until the investigation was complete.
While Mattis ordered the move, it’s important to note that he also later cleared Flynn of any wrongdoing. According to official documents obtained by the Washington Post, the Army found that Flynn did not “knowingly” pass on the classified information, and “there was no actual or potential damage to national security as a result.”
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: email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
Turkey and Russia have reached an agreement to allow besieged civilians and rebels in eastern Aleppo leave the city but Shia militias are blocking any exit from happening. The Guardian reports that Assad regime forces were still shelling in eastern Aleppo and Iranian militias were preventing an estimated one thousand civilians from fleeing at a checkpoint in the city. The refusal comes despite a deal negotiated between Turkey’s intelligence services and Russia to let civilians and fighters flee. Iranian militias are reportedly upset that Russia didn’t include them as part of the talks.
The U.S. military has a message for the Assad regime and its allies in Moscow: take care of your Islamic State problem in Palmyra or we’ll take care of it for you. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said on Wednesday that the U.S. will hit the group’s fighters with airstrikes in the absence of an effective Russian response to the group’s recapture of the city. Russia staged a very public clearance operation of Palmyra in the spring only to see the group recapture the ancient city this week. Townsend said Russia had “failed to consolidate their gains and got distracted by other things.”
After some tough negotiations China will be receiving four Su-35 fighters from Russia under its Christmas tree, according to The Diplomat. The jets will touch down in the People’s Republic on December 25, culminating a deal years in the making. China was initially just interested in purchasing the aircraft’s turbofan engines as its defense industry has had trouble making them indigenously. Russia, however, drove a hard bargain, offering only a full jet purchase. Russian experts say they’re not worried about the prospect of China reverse engineering the technology, with the PIR Center’s Lt. Gen. Evgeny Buzhinsky claiming the prospect is “practically impossible.”
After reports of a Russian-backed coup attempt, Montenegro may hold a vote on whether to join NATO. The AP reports that the country’s defense minister Predrag Boskovic said that pro-NATO members of parliament have enough strength to opt for a parliamentary vote rather than a popular referendum. The move follows the arrest of 20 Russian nationalists from Serbia and Montenegro on charges that they plotted to kill Montenegrin prime minister Milo Djukanovic over his Atlanticist leanings.
Kenya is kicking out two Iranian citizens who authorities say were planning to carry out a terrorist attack in the country. The AP reports that Kenyan police arrested Sayed Nasrollah Ebrahim and Abdolhosein Gholi Safaee outside the Israeli embassy in Nairobi where authorities say they were conducting reconnaissance for an attack on the facility in preparation for an attack. Prosecutors reached a deal with the Iranian embassy to drop the charges and deport the men back to Iran.
Rules of engagement
The Pentagon is changing its Law of War Manual in response to criticism that the old version put civilians in danger. The New York Times reports that the new version of the manual clarifies the rules on proportionality when engaging targets to consider the potential harm to all civilians nearby. The previous version of the guidelines indicated that certain classes of civilians, including human shields and those involved in supportive activities like providing food, did not apply when considering proportionality.
That’s no moon
In the battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire, Raytheon would like you to know that it’s willing to offer its services to the Empire in order to help it improve the security of its merciless, planet-destroying laser. The defense contractor is trying to capitalize on the release of the Star Wars spinoff movie Rogue One this week with an elaborate post touting its insider-threat program and firewall as solutions that could have prevented rebels from obtaining the Death Star’s plans and finding its exhaust port vulnerability. The Bothan Council did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Photo Credit: ALEXEI DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images