The Cable

SitRep: Will Trump Cyber Hawks Hack Back?; Beijing Mocks, Warns, Incoming President

Signals, or Confusion, Over Defense Budget; Aleppo Chaos; And Lots More

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 16:  U.S. President Barack Obama answers questions during a news conference in the Brady Press Breifing Room at the White House December 16, 2016 in Washington, DC. In what could be the last press conference of his presidency, afterwards Obama will be leaving for his annual family vacation in Hawaii.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 16: U.S. President Barack Obama answers questions during a news conference in the Brady Press Breifing Room at the White House December 16, 2016 in Washington, DC. In what could be the last press conference of his presidency, afterwards Obama will be leaving for his annual family vacation in Hawaii. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)


Hack back. There’s a fight brewing in Capitol Hill over opening an investigation into the alleged Russian cyberattacks aimed at swaying the U.S. presidential elections, and it’s pitting John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, against Kentucky Republican, Mitch McConnell.

McCain, Schumer and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are looking to form a Senate select committee to investigate the Russian role, while McConnell insists that existing committees can do the work. The fight is shaping up to be the first wedge issue of the new Congress, and could be a lightning rod for relations between the Hill and Donald Trump, who dismisses the conclusions of the entire U.S. intelligence community that Russia played a role in the election. (On Friday, the Washington Post reported the FBI has now signed on to the CIA’s assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election in part to help Donald Trump win the White House.)

Plan of attack. As FP’s Elias Groll notes, Trump has surrounded himself with a group of advisors and cabinet members who have been hawkish on waging cyber war, however, and he will be taking over the world’s most formidable cyber capabilities on Jan. 20. What his team elects to do with them is a question that remains to be answered.

“The Republicans have been out of power for eight years, which is the exact period of time when cyber-operations have matured,” said Michael Sulmeyer, who advised Clinton and is the director of the Cyber Security Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “It’s a lot harder than it looks and a lot less rewarding than it seems.”

No doubt. On Sunday, appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” McCain said there was “no doubt” Russia interfered with the election. “We need to get to the bottom of this,” he said. “The question is now, how much and what damage? And what should the United States of America do?”

Obama and his study. Before he leaves office in January, Obama said his administration will finish a review of the Russian hack, with an eye toward making it harder for other state actors to interfere with U.S. political institutions, FP’s Groll and Robbie Gramer report. “But on Friday, Obama remained coy about releasing any of the intelligence that forms the basis of the intelligence community’s assessment, and said that a forthcoming review will try to make public as much information as possible without disclosing ‘sources and methods.’” Obama also backed the idea of a bipartisan study into Russian mischief during the campaign.

Why not? Here’s a look at Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), the long-time pro-Putin U.S. lawmaker rumored to be at the top of the list for Trump’s ambassador to Russia

Trump signals on defense budgets? Or maybe not? Defense analysts are raising eyebrows over Trump’s pick of Rep. Mulvaney (R-S.C.) to head his administration’s Office of Management and Budget.

“I think this is another indication that the Trump administration will not be a blank check for defense,” said Todd Harrison who studies defense issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mulvaney has been a fiscal hawk in the Congress and a vocal critic of the supplemental wartime budget in particular, which the Bush and Obama administrations have used to add to the defense bottom line. Harrison told SitRep over the weekend that the Obama administration’s use of that supplemental funding “as a loophole to get around the budget caps may come to an end.”

That doesn’t quite square with the tens of billions in additional defense spending that Trump has signaled he will ask for, which includes tens of thousands of new troops, hundreds of new warplanes, and about 40 additional ships for the Navy.

Byron Callan of Capital Alpha partners said in a note to investors Sunday that Mulvaney likely “won’t tolerate large defense spending increases without finding offsetting cost savings in the DoD, deeper non-defense cuts, or other revenue assumptions.” But — and this is a big but — Callan also told investors that “Trump’s tweets and a relatively inexperienced National Security Council raise the probability, in our view, that a crisis could occur in 2017 that alters defense spending plans and may impinge on deficit discipline.”

Dude, where’s my drone? The U.S. Navy is still waiting for its submarine drone back, after China plucked it out of the waters of the South China Sea last week. “The move represents a brazen effort to further stake out China’s unilateral sway over the South China Sea, coming hard on the heels of new revelations that Beijing has sent more advanced weapons to its fake islands in the region,” FP’s Emily Tamkin and Paul McLeary write.

China’s state-run mouthpiece, the Global Times, swiped at Trump in an editorial Monday, mocking his Saturday Tweet that misspelled “unprecedented” while warning, “Trump is not behaving as a president who will become master of the White House in a month,” adding, “people don’t know if Trump is engaged in a psychological war with China or he is just unprofessional.” While Beijing over the weekend promised to give the drone back, the abduction underscores the point that drones — either in the air or under the sea — are not a cost-free way of waging war, or conducting surveillance.

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: or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley


President-elect Donald Trump is not fond of the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB), the morning intelligence rundown of events and issues around the world that the intelligence community traditionally provides for presidents. The Washington Post reports that Trump’s apparent distaste for the PDB is adding to fears that his relationship to intelligence and the community that provides it will suffer. Trump has been skipping many of the briefings, saying “I don’t need to be told the same thing and the same words every single day for the next eight years.” Republicans, however, counter that Trump’s national security advisor retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn can summarize his daily intelligence summary for him.

Career employees at the National Security Council are also reportedly gearing up for an exodus in anticipation of Flynn’s tenure. In addition to the political appointees administrations bring to the NSC, the council is also home to 400 career staff, many of whom are concerned over the arrival of Flynn after reports of his improper sharing of classified information and penchant for tweeting out bizarre conspiracy theories about the Clintons and pedophilia, according to the Guardian.


Iran’s covert action boss and quarterback for its war in Syria is back in Aleppo. The Long War Journal reports that Qassem Soleimani, the selfie-prone head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s (IRGC) Qods Force, has been seen strutting around recently-captured neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo. Soleimani has been in charge of Iran’s strategy for its many militias and IRGC advisors that have formed much of the Assad regime’s ground forces, particularly in the effort to recapture Aleppo. Russia, Iran, and Turkey will meet in Moscow on Tuesday in another attempt to hammer out a way forward in Aleppo.

Syrian rebel groups set fire to a number of buses intended to evacuate residents of mostly Shiite villages in Syria’s Idlib province on Sunday and killed one bus driver. The New York Times reports that the buses were part of a deal to allow for the mutual evacuation of civilians from formerly rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo and regime-held villages in Idlib. Difficulties in implementing the deal for the evacuation of eastern Aleppo, hammered out by Turkey and Russia, led France to push for a United Nations Security Council resolution allowing international observers to monitor the evacuations. The resolution will come before the council on Monday.

Saudi Arabia

Last week, the Obama administration announced with great fanfare that it was blocking a precision munitions transfer to Saudi Arabia in protest of the kingdom’s conduct in its war in Yemen. On Sunday, however, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Riyadh for a visit with Saudi authorities and seemed almost unaware of the apparent blockage. Reuters reports that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir played down the issue, saying he hadn’t been officially informed of any changes to the arms transfer. For his part, Kerry punted, mumbling about the length of the procurement process and his efforts to expedite arms sales.


Terrorists carried out a terrorist attack at Jordan’s medieval Karak castle over the weekend. The BBC reports that four men wearing suicide belts and firearms pulled off the attack, wounding 27 people in the process. The attackers engaged Jordanian security forces in a shootout before the four men were ultimately killed. It’s unclear yet what the motivation for the attack was or whether the attackers belonged to any specific group.


Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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