SitRep: Obama Vows to Retaliate for Hacks; Trump Pledges Safe Zones in Syria; Russian SOF in Aleppo
Sanctions in Play; North Korean Missile Tests; Cold War Bases Back in Play; And Lots More
Obama pushes back. President Barack Obama has vowed retaliation for the Russian cyber attacks on the Democratic National Committee earlier this year, telling NPR in a remarkable interview, “I think there is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections … we need to take action. And we will — at a time and place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be.”
The Republican National Committee also said this week it was able to thwart hacking attempts during the election, and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that Russian hackers targeted his campaign during the election, as well.
Since the U.S. presidential election, the CIA and FBI have affirmed the view of Russian meddling, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin was involved in directing how the hacked information was used. The CIA has gone a step further, concluding that the hacks were meant to tip the election in the favor of Donald Trump. The DNI and FBI haven’t rallied behind that view, though both have doubled down on Russian culpability.
President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly denied the possibility of any Russian involvement in the hacks.
Pencils down. Obama has ordered the intelligence community to conduct a full investigation into the hacks, with a report due before the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20. And don’t forget, on Oct. 7, the Department of Homeland Security and the office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a remarkable joint statement expressing their confidence that “Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations.”
Moscow in the machine. In his NPR interview, Obama went further than anyone in his administration has publicly on the issue, saying, “what the Russian hack had done was create more problems for the Clinton campaign than it had for the Trump campaign.”
“I don’t think things happen in the Russian government of this consequence without Vladimir Putin knowing about it,” Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security adviser, told MSNBC on Thursday. “When you’re talking about a significant cyber intrusion like this, we’re talking about the highest levels of government.”
Trump and safe zones. For the first time since being elected president, Donald Trump on Thursday night pledged to create “safe zones” in Syria for civilians. “When I look at what’s going on in Syria, it’s so sad,” he told a crowd in Pennsylvania. “It’s so sad, and we’re going to help people.” He said he would ask the Persian Gulf nations to put up money for the project, adding, “we’ll build and help build safe zones in Syria, so people will have a chance.” It is not clear if the PEOTUS plans to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria, and if American aircraft would defend the area from Syrian and Russian airstrikes.
What about those Russia sanctions? The European Union decided in Brussels on Thursday to extend sanctions against Russia until July –sanctions that were imposed after the annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014, FP’s Emily Tamkin writes. “The big question now is whether the United States in the next administration will continue to push Europe to hold Russia accountable — something that is currently in doubt, given President-elect Donald Trump’s open admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his selection of Russia-friendly Exxon Mobil boss Rex Tillerson for secretary of state.”
Russian boots on the ground. “Russian special forces have been in Aleppo for a number of weeks, where they’ve taken on a combat role,” Ruslan Pukhov, the head of Moscow-based defense think tank CAST tells the Wall Street Journal. The presence of the Russian commandos shows just how important it is for Moscow to have Aleppo under the control of the Syrian government by time President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January, when the U.S. government is expected to move to work more closely with Moscow on a range of issues.
“I don’t see any reason for Russian or Syrian forces to get engaged in any negotiations before [Aleppo] falls and it won’t be with an Obama administration, which is now in lame duck mode,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin.
Trump’s NSC. The Trump transition team also announced Thursday that Lt. Gen. Joseph “Keith” Kellogg is being tapped for the National Security Council’s chief of staff, while television analyst Monica Crowley will be the council’s senior director of strategic communications.
Kellogg, who would become the fourth retired general to join the Trump administration, retired from the U.S. Army in 2003. After retirement, he followed the usual path of entering the defense industry, working for Oracle Corp, and then heading to Iraq to be Chief Operating Officer of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the governing authority in Baghdad after the U.S. invasion, where he served for five months. Crowley, who has a Ph.D. in international relations from Columbia University, has been a Fox News host.
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The Wall Street Journal gets the scoop that Russian hackers tried and failed to break into the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) networks. Sources tell the Journal that the RNC’s filters apparently blocked phishing emails sent to targets there. Republican officials only went looking for evidence of a break-in until after the revelation that their Democratic counterparts had been hacked. The revelation follows a statement by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Thursday saying that FBI informed him Russian hackers had broken into his campaign’s emails.
North Korea may have carried out an unannounced test of its submarine-launched ballistic missile sometime in early December according to NHK World. Citing an anonymous U.S. government official, the news outlet says North Korean engineers conducted a cold launch test of its KN-11 missile. The test is designed to gauge the missile’s ability to leave a launch tube using compressed gas before its engines ignite. North Korea didn’t advertise the test but it has trumpeted previous tests of the KN-11, but it has publicized at least three tests of the system so far this year, including another purported cold launch test in April.
California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter has warned the Army to stop efforts to retaliate against a whistleblower who charges a program that sent civilian academics to battlefields was filled with fraud and abuse. In 2015, the Army said it killed off the a program known as the Human Terrain System — but admitted months later that it had merely renamed it the Global Cultural Knowledge Network and continued to fund it. Overall, the pricetag for the program has run about $725 million, but the program has been plagued by charges of fraud and sexual harassment. Hunter wrote to Army Secretary Eric Fanning and chief of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, that Steffany Trofino, a civilian employee had faced retribution for contacting his office.
For those looking for symbols of a renewed Cold War between the United States and Russia, look no further than the Pentagon’s reopening of an armored vehicle storage facility in Eygelshoven in the Netherlands. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Defense Department is now filling the facility back up with tanks decades after they left at the end of the Cold War. The Army is now storing tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and self-propelled artillery at Eygelshoven as part of a $3.4 billion effort to buttress the U.S. military’s footprint in Europe and deter Russia.
There’s another curveball in the story about an attempted coup plot by Russian nationalists against Montenegro’s pro-NATO prime minister. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that Nemanja Ristic, one of the alleged plotters who’s still at large, posted a picture to his Instagram account showing him standing alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a World War II commemoration event in Serbia. It’s unclear why Ristic was at the ceremony or what his intentions in posting the picture were, but it adds to questions about whether Russia had any knowledge or role in the alleged plot.
A new report by the Small Arms Survey claims that the U.N. mission in South Sudan handed over dozens of weapons to rebels in the country as a civil war was underway, the Washington Post reports. The mission allegedly handed over the weapons after acquiring them when rebels brought them into the compound after seeking shelter from the fighting. U.N. peacekeepers disarmed the sanctuary seekers and then reportedly handed the guns over to James Koang because of a warm working relationship the mission had had with him.
Pacific Command wants it some ship killers and wants them yesterday. Fortunately for them, the Pentagon is about to deliver. National Defense magazine reports that the long range anti-ship missiles (LRASM) that Pacific Command asked for in 2009 will be ready for testing on Air Force B-1B bombers as early as next year. That seven year period from request to test firing is a quick one for weapons development, something that acquisition chief Frank Kendall says was helped by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s ability to leverage existing technology in order to cut the development time in half.
The Navy wants took its swarm of unmanned boats out for a spin on the Chesapeake, Defense Tech reports. The rigid-hull inflatable boats demonstrated their ability to carry out a lightly human guided but mostly autonomous patrol mission, including identifying vehicles as threats and divvying up responsibilities among each other accordingly. The Office of Naval Research says the bot boats could one day be used to defend key harbors on behalf of the military.
Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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