SitRep: Pentagon Wins Budget; State Loses; Tillerson Speaks!; Pentagon, NSC Staffing Drama
More Troops to Syria; U.S. and Russian Troops Eyeball in Syria; Hackers Indicted; And Lots More
With Adam Rawnsley
With Adam Rawnsley
Budget busting. The White House is set to deliver a budget proposal Thursday that boosts defense spending by $54 billion next year — along with a $30 billion supplemental for 2017 — while slashing funding for the State Department, USAID, and Washington’s commitment to the United Nations.
The budget would be in line with Trump’s campaign pledges, but it has little chance of making its way through Capitol Hill in its current form, as both Republicans and Democrats have already objected to key areas of the plan.
State of State. The State Department would be in line for a 28 percent cut, seeing its $54 billion budget slashed to $39 billion, a proposal South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has called “dead on arrival.” Other Republicans, including Stephen J. Hadley, President George W. Bush’s national security adviser, say the cuts would weaken national security. “We learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan that our military needs an effective civilian partner if victories on the battlefields are going to be converted into a sustainable peace,” he told the New York Times. “And only a sustainable peace ensures that post-conflict states do not return again to becoming safe havens for terrorists.”
He speaks. The country’s top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, spoke to the press for the first time in nearly two months Thursday. Making remarks after meeting with Japanese leaders in Tokyo, He said he supports the budget cuts, as “the level of spending that the State Department has been undertaking, particularly in the past year, is simply not sustainable,” since the funding was based on wartime levels. He added that the department would undergo a review of programs and would “be much more effective, much more efficient, and be able to do a lot with fewer dollars.” He also called for a “different approach” to handling relations with North Korea, but didn’t provide any details.
War ready. The calls for cuts to State programs comes as the United States and its allies are planning for the “day after” the fall of Islamic State strongholds like Mosul and Raqqa, and the humanitarian crises of hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting.
Before that can happen, the Pentagon is considering sending up to 1,000 more troops to Syria, doubling the number of Americans on the ground there, according to the Washington Post’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff. While the troops would initially be focused on training Arab and Kurdish forces in the north, there’s the chance that they could get closer to the fighting. “One option would be to embed U.S. forces alongside Syrian Kurdish and Arab forces, potentially pushing U.S. soldiers and Marines into a direct combat role. Those American forces could also be supplemented by troops from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.”
Eye to eye. As for the 250 U.S. Army Rangers recently dispatched to the Syrian city of Manbij to keep Turkish-backed militias away from U.S.-trained and equipped Arab and Kurdish forces, things seem to be getting more interesting. Social media has been awash in photos of Russian troops posing with the Kurdish forces, and a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, Col. John Dorrian, told reporters Wednesday that the Americans and Russians are so close “they can observe each other’s movements.” While “they can see each other, they’re not talking to each other and they’re not hanging out together,” he added.
Military brass worry about becoming props. The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan have a worthwhile read on how military officers are trying to figure out President Trump and his scattershot pronouncements.
Job insecurity. There are still hundreds of positions throughout the federal government that the Trump administration has not filled, most critically at the departments of Defense and State. Reports indicate that staffers surrounding Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have grown increasingly vocal about frustrations with Mira Ricardel, a defense advisor on the Trump campaign as a result of the two directly and repeatedly clashing over nominees. The Pentagon remains vastly understaffed, and Defense News’ Aaron Mehta and Joe Gould write, “rumors that the White House is on the verge of announcing a group of DoD nominees at once have circulated for weeks, but have yet to materialize; as of now, the only nominees for the department as Heather Wilson for Air Force Secretary and John Sullivan as general counsel.”
More NSC trouble. Elsewhere, National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is having his own staffing issues. Last week, McMaster told Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a 30-year-old former Defense Intelligence Agency staffer promoted to the NSC director for intelligence programs, that he was being moved to another position.
“McMaster had been told by CIA Director Mike Pompeo that some intelligence officials had problems with Cohen-Watnick and didn’t think he was up to the job,” the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung reports. But the staffer went above McMaster to Jared Kushner and Stephen Bannon, who told McMaster to keep him on, undercutting promises the White House made to allow McMaster to choose his own staff.
New job. McMaster has also tapped Trump’s senior counselor for economic initiatives Dina Powell as his deputy national security adviser for strategy, according to Politico. “In her new role, Powell is expected to work closely with national security adviser H.R. McMaster and focus on long-term issues. She is also expected to help lead an interagency policy process working with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis.” The move likely partly pushes aside KT MacFarland, the Fox News talking head that McMaster inherited as his No. 2.
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Hack back. The Justice Department on Wednesday alleged that two Russian intelligence agents joined forces with criminal hackers to pull off one of the largest computer breaches in U.S. history, the 2014 hack of internet giant Yahoo, which exposed the usernames and passwords of some 500 million users.
The indictment, FP’s Elias Groll reports, unveiled by prosecutors at a Washington press conference, “highlighted the symbiotic relationship between Russian security services and its criminal hacker underground — and how the two have combined to become a crucial tool of the Kremlin’s foreign policy.” The high-profile indictments “can also serve to put foreign governments on notice. Almost three years ago, then-Attorney General Eric Holder strode a Washington podium to announce what was then an unprecedented indictment: charges against three People’s Liberation Army officers for their role in a campaign of intellectual property theft targeting American firms.”
Two of the men charged, Dmitry Dokuchaev and Igor Sushchin, worked for Russia’s domestic intelligence service, the Federal Security Service (FSB). Prosecutors claim Dokuchaev and Sushchin hired two criminal hackers to carry out the hack in order to gain access to gain access to the private email accounts of reporters, politicians, and people of interest.
Bad trade. Shooting a multi-million dollar missile at a $200 toy drone is a suboptimal way to go about air defense but it’s what one anonymous U.S. ally did, according to an Army general. Speaking at the AUSA Global Force Symposium, Gen David Perkins, head of Training and Doctrine Command, said that the $3 million Patriot missile managed to take out the drone but admitted “I’m not sure that’s a good economic exchange ratio.” The imbalance, he said, incentivizes an enemy to use cheaper drones en masse in order to bleed an adversary of expensive missiles.
Artillery. Human Rights Watch is concerned that Iraqi Federal Police use of unguided improvised rockets and mortars (IRAM) in densely-populated Mosul poses a severe risk to civilians. Images of Federal Police barraging Mosul’s Old City with three IRAM launchers surfaced on social media and in reporting by the BBC. The use of such weapons in heavily populated areas, according to Human Rights Watch, amounts to a “serious violation of the laws of war, and may even amount to a war crime.”
We are never ever getting back together. America’s U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is taking a tough line on Russia, telling NBC that “We cannot trust Russia. We should never trust Russia.” Haley’s broadside came in response to a question from Matt Lauer about the Justice Department’s indictment of Russian intelligence-linked hackers who were allegedly behind a massive breach into Yahoo user accounts. Haley has consistently taken a tough line against Russia, often much tougher than other parts of the Trump administration. In her debut at the Security Council, Haley insisted that Crimea remains a part of Ukraine despite Russia’s annexation and that U.S. sanctions will remain in place until Russia hands it back.
Chemical weapons. Doctors and medical personnel treating civilians injured by the fighting in Mosul believe that the Islamic State used chemical weapons in their pyrrhic battle to hold onto the city. Dr. Tony DeBari, a doctor working at a charity hospital on the outskirts of the city, tells Stars and Stripes that the hospital treated at least eight civilians who had symptoms consistent with exposure to mustard agent. The Islamic State has used mustard agent in attacks in Iraq before. Investigations by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concluded that the terrorist group used mustard agent in attacks in northern Iraq.
Pirates. Somali pirates surprised the world with the seizure of an oil tanker and its crew on Monday, years after Somali piracy was largely viewed as a solved problem. Nonetheless, local authorities aren’t letting the hijacking slide, with police from Puntland State surrounding the ship and threatening an assault if negotiations fail. Reuters reports that the fighting may already be underway, with reports that maritime police opened fire on a boat ferrying supplies to pirates aboard the tanker. Pirates claim to have killed one policeman in the exchange, a charge denied by police.
Insider threat. Pentagon IT staff are worried about threats to the Defense Department’s network from within. It’s March Madness and that means Pentagon employees are often prone to live-streaming daytime college basketball games to their work computers. But CBS News reports that an email from the department’s Joint Service Provider (JSP) warns users that a large number of employees streaming video all at once could gobble up finite bandwidth. “Please keep in mind,” the email reads, “if you’re streaming video to watch your favorite player shooting free throws, you’re consuming network resources that could be served to support the Warfighter.
Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Paul McLeary was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2018.
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