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SitRep: Huge New Russia Revelations; U.S. Forces Almost Hit by Russian Bombs; McMaster Making Changes; Trump Wants Critic in His Inner Circle

More Questions Over SEAL Yemen Raid; House Intel Probing Kremlin Meddling; And Lots More

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 12: Members of the US Secret Service stand guard as Marine One carrying  U.S. President Barack Obama takes off from the south lawn of the White House, March 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. President Obama is traveling to Los Angles, California to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live television show, and attend a DNC roundtable. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 12: Members of the US Secret Service stand guard as Marine One carrying U.S. President Barack Obama takes off from the south lawn of the White House, March 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. President Obama is traveling to Los Angles, California to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live television show, and attend a DNC roundtable. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 12: Members of the US Secret Service stand guard as Marine One carrying U.S. President Barack Obama takes off from the south lawn of the White House, March 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. President Obama is traveling to Los Angles, California to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live television show, and attend a DNC roundtable. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

 

Russia ties. Spurred by intel from European allies that Trump associates were meeting with Russian officials in Europe prior to the inauguration, intercepts of Kremlin officials talking about meetings with Trump officials, and fearful that evidence of Russian meddling in the election would be buried or destroyed, the Obama administration rushed to preserve evidence and spread information about Russian efforts in their final weeks in office.

The New York Times reports that former Obama officials say they had two aims: “to ensure that such meddling isn’t duplicated in future American or European elections, and to leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators.” The rush included officials moving to ensure that materials related to Russian activities and contacts with Trump officials were classified at the low levels and information was shared with Congress, in order to ensure the widest audience possible.

 

Russia ties. Spurred by intel from European allies that Trump associates were meeting with Russian officials in Europe prior to the inauguration, intercepts of Kremlin officials talking about meetings with Trump officials, and fearful that evidence of Russian meddling in the election would be buried or destroyed, the Obama administration rushed to preserve evidence and spread information about Russian efforts in their final weeks in office.

The New York Times reports that former Obama officials say they had two aims: “to ensure that such meddling isn’t duplicated in future American or European elections, and to leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators.” The rush included officials moving to ensure that materials related to Russian activities and contacts with Trump officials were classified at the low levels and information was shared with Congress, in order to ensure the widest audience possible.

Double trouble. The report comes at the same time as the Washington Post tells us that while still a serving Senator last year, current Attorney General Jeff Sessions twice met with Russia’s ambassador to Washington, despite telling Congress during his confirmation hearings that he had no contact with Russian officials. Sessions told his confirmation panel that he was unaware of Trump allies having met with Russian officials, and through a spokeswoman, denied that he misspoke to Congress.

The Wall Street Journal adds, “disclosures about Mr. Sessions’ contacts led quickly late Wednesday to demands that he step aside from any investigation involving the Trump administration, or that he resign for failing to tell the truth during his confirmation hearing.”

FP’s Elias Groll writes that the House Intelligence panel has pledged to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, as well as ties between the Trump campaign and Russian government and intelligence officials.

Trump taps critic for post. In a surprising move, “the Trump administration has offered a well-respected scholar and sober critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin the position of White House senior director for Europe and Russia, a White House official told FP’s John Hudson in an exclusive get.

“The decision to hire Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, for one of the government’s top jobs dealing with U.S.-Russia relations is likely to earn bipartisan praise in Congress where Republicans and Democrats have expressed mounting unease with the Trump administration’s apparent contacts with Russian officials during the presidential campaign.”

McMaster makes changes. New National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is shaking things up on the NSC, eliminating positions created by his predecessor Michael Flynn, who was fired by the president for lying to VP Mike Pence over his contacts with Russian officials. “McMaster did away this week with two deputy assistant spots,” Politico reports, “one overseeing the NSC’s regional desks and another overseeing transnational issues, according to a senior White House aide.” At least of of the jobs was held by a longtime Flynn hand.

Yemen raid. The deliberations over Jan. 29 Navy SEAL raid in Yemen that killed a U.S. commando and as many as 31 Yemeni civilians “marked a departure from the more hands-on, deliberative process used by the previous administration,” a Washington Post analysis finds. The raid, which has emerged as a point of contention for the Trump administration, has strained relations with U.S. allies in the region, and has seen the president take the remarkable position of publicly absolving himself of any blame for a mission he approved, laying it all at the feet of his military commanders. U.S. military officials have said that electronic devices gathered during the raid have provided key intelligence about al Qaeda’s movements and tactics, however.

Danger close. Russian and Syrian jets nearly hit U.S. forces in northern Syria on Tuesday when they attacked positions held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a critical American ally in the effort to expel the Islamic State from Syria, the top U.S. general there said Wednesday.

FP’s Paul McLeary writes that the strikes were a situation “U.S. commanders have been trying to avoid since Russia deployed dozens of aircraft to Syria in late 2015. There are about 500 American troops are on the ground training Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria in the run-up to the assault on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, and the Russians have often shown themselves to be indifferent as to who, or what, they strike with their unguided bombs.”

The latest near miss occurred near the city of al-Bab northeast of Aleppo, which Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies recently took from the Islamic State, leaving them in a stare-down with Syrian regime forces who sit just south of the city. Turkey is also threatening to move from al Bab toward the city of Manbij, which is held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Ambassadorship

John Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and Obama administration ambassador to China, may be up for a job as the Trump administration’s ambassador to Russia. The New York Times reports that Huntsman, whose name had been floated for secretary and deputy secretary of state in the administration, recently met with President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The Times also suggests that an appointment for Huntsman, who earned bipartisan respect as ambassador to China, might help take some of the political heat off the Trump administration’s Russia policy and take Huntsman out of the running as a potential challenger to Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.

South Korean Exercises

The U.S.-South Korean Foal Eagle military exercises have kicked off, leaving officials to gird themselves for North Korea’s traditionally aggressive retort to the annual drills. The exercises are a routine source of tension with the North, which often demands that the U.S. and South Korea cancel them and threatens war in response. In the past, Pyongyang has responded to the drills by jamming GPS signals near the border with the South, but North Korea’s recent history of ballistic missile tests and its apparent involvement in the assassination of Kim Jong Un’s brother in a Malaysian airport has officials wondering what North’s retort will be this year.

Drone strike

The U.S. says it killed al Qaeda’s second-in-charge in an airstrike in Syria earlier this week. An anonymous U.S. official tells the New York Times that a drone hit Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a longtime al Qaeda member who had married Osama Bin Laden’s daughter and risen through the ranks of the group to claim the rank of deputy leader beneath Ayman al-Zawahiri. Photos of the strike aftermath that surfaced on social media have led to questions about the munition used in the airstrike. The car al-Masri was traveling in has a large hole above the passenger side but has no apparent marks or damage from explosives, leading to speculation that a new kind of weapon may have been used.

Iran

Iran has sunk the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf. Well, at least in cartoon form. The AP reports that Iranian filmmakers released a new animated feature “Battle of the Persian Gulf II” which shows Iranian forces taking on and defeating the U.S. Navy in a Gulf throwdown. Qassem Soleimani, the selfie-prone leader of Iran’s covert action arm, the Qods Force, even makes a thinly-veiled appearance, commanding a ship at sea. The film’s debut comes amid increased tension between Tehran and Washington, in which U.S officials have put Iran “on notice.”

Iran has carried out a test of its prized Russian S-300 air defense missile system. Hossein Dalirian, defense correspondent for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-friendly Tasnim News, tweeted out the news with some apparent footage of the test. Iran obtained the relatively advanced air defense system after a long and diplomatically tense negotiation process in which Russia briefly cancelled the sale due to pressure from the Obama administration.

Sweden

Sweden is bringing back conscription for the first time in seven years. The BBC reports that 4,000 Swedes born in 1999 will comprise the country’s first group of conscripts starting in 2018 and will serve for up to a year. The move comes as Sweden grows ever more uncomfortable with Russia’s aggressive behavior in the Baltic region.

Drone odyssey

The crash of an Army RQ-7 Shadow in Colorado after operators lost control and lost track of the aircraft is raising questions. One question in particular is puzzling: how did the Shadow end up so far outside its listed range? Stars and Stripes took a dive into the mystery of the drone, which took off from Fort Huachuca during an exercise. The Shadow’s line-of-sight link with its ground control station limits it to a range of 77 miles, but with a full tank and operating autonomously, it could theoretically fly much farther than the range of its link to pilots. The fact that the drone flew towards Colorado rather than loitering in a circle or returning home when it lost contact with its ground control station suggests that its software may have malfunctioned.

Around town

9:00 a.m.: The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is hosting Rep. Joe Wilson, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Readiness, for a discussion entitled “Addressing the military readiness crisis” moderated by AEI’s Thomas Donnelly. For those not able to attend, the event will be livestreamed here.

 

Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

 

Adam 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.

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