SitRep: Trump To Gut Foreign Aid; U.S., North Korea Show Teeth; Washington’s Urgency to Solve Pyongyang
Russia Supplying Taliban?; China Hacking South Korea; F-35 Cost Goes Up Again; National Security Council Shakeup Again; And Lots More
With Adam Rawnsley
Slash and burn. The Trump administration is developing plans to cut assistance programs for developing countries and merge the State Department with USAID, according to an internal budget document and sources obtained by Foreign Policy.
According to a detailed 15-page State Department budget document, “the overhaul also includes rechanneling funding from development assistance into a program that is tied closely to national security objectives,” reports Bryant Harris, Robbie Gramer and Emily Tamkin. The document, which FP has posted, shows that many countries in Central and East Africa in particular — where Washington has long battled al Qaeda and other extremist groups — would see aid wiped out completely. But plan is hardly fully baked, as foreign assistance programs remain popular on Capitol Hill. Senator Lindsey Graham went as far as to declare Trump’s budget “dead on arrival.”
The guns of April. Happy Tuesday, which the regime in North Korea marked by launching a massive live-fire artillery exercise. The South Korean news agency Yonhap said that as many as 400 pieces of long-range artillery participated in the exercise, and were the same type of guns which are stationed along the border with South Korea, putting the 10 million residents of Seoul well within their range.
The exercise marked the 85th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean army and popped off the same day the USS Michigan, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, made a port call in Busan, South Korea intended as a show of force. The Michigan can carry about 150 cruise missiles and launch Special Operations teams while submerged offshore.
Speeding up. The Trump administration has shown a sense of urgency in dealing with the North and its ongoing missile tests, and expected upcoming nuclear test, which would be its sixth in the past decade. The New York Times’ David Sanger and William Broad write that the urgency stems from a “a stark calculus: a growing body of expert studies and classified intelligence reports that conclude the country is capable of producing a nuclear bomb every six or seven weeks.”
In a meeting with members of the United Nations Security Council at the White House on Monday, Trump told the diplomats it is “time to solve the problem” of a nuclear North Korea. That meeting will be quickly followed up on Wednesday by a remarkable gathering of all 100 U.S. Senators at the White House for a classified briefing on North Korea, and a Security Council meeting on Friday chaired by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that will be focused on the rogue nation.
Turtle Bay’s day. The sudden prominence of the United Nations and the U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley has surprised some U.N. watchers who expected the institution to be marginalized under the Trump administration, FP’s Colum Lynch writes. But some diplomats have told him they’re careful not to confuse fiery rhetoric with action, pointing out that Haley has done little but deliver speeches, while the Trump administration policies of pulling support for the World Trade Organization, walking away from the Paris Climate Accords and gutting funding for U.N. peacekeeping missions remain unchanged.
Russia supplying Taliban? During a press conference in Kabul on Monday, the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis declined to refute earlier claims that the Kremlin is supplying weapons to the Afghan Taliban. “We continue to get reports of this assistance,” Gen. John Nicholson said. A U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told reporters the Russians “have increased their supply of equipment and small arms to the Taliban over the past 18 months,” according to the Washington Post. “The official said the Russians have been sending weapons, including medium and heavy machine guns, to the Taliban under the guise that the material would be used to fight the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan. Instead, the official said, the weapons were showing up in some of Afghanistan’s southern provinces, including Helmand and Kandahar — both areas with little Islamic State presence.”
Washington slaps sanctions on Syria. “First, the United States responded to Syria’s chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 6 with missiles,” writes FP’s Emily Tamkin. “Now, it is responding with sanctions.” On Monday, the U.S. Treasury announced one of the largest sanctions actions in history, designating 271 employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) as responsible for “developing and producing non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them.” The sanctions will block any property the Syrians might have in the United States, and bars U.S. persons from any dealings with them.
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Breaking THAAD. China is still steaming mad over the U.S. and South Korea’s decision to deploy a missile defense system that Beijing feels is uncomfortably close to its territory. Now, according the Wall Street Journal, it may be carrying out cyber attacks against South Korean defense and government sites in order to retaliate against the decision. Analysts at FireEye say they’ve seen an uptick in hacking groups connected to the Chinese military and intelligence services break into a series of South Korean networks since Seoul began hosting the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), gaining entrance by sending out spear phishing emails with malicious attachments. China has reportedly retaliated with economic means as well, cancelling tour groups bound for Korea.
Denmark. Denmark says Russian hackers have been camping out in the email accounts of its Ministry of Defense for two years, a charge Moscow denies. Denmark’s Center for Cybersecurity claims that hackers tied to the Russian government managed to make it into Ministry of Defense accounts, making off with unclassified information but were thwarted when they tried to breach the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A spokesman for the Kremlin dismissed the report, saying “Russia does not do hacking attacks.”
Deja vu. Russian hackers have tried to break into French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron campaign networks, according to a new report by the cybersecurity firm Trend Micro. The company says hackers from the “Pawn Storm” group linked to Russian military intelligence sent Macron campaign a spoofed website designed to trick them into spilling their passwords. Macron’s campaign’s top tech staffer Mounir Mahjoubi tells the AP that the campaign was aware of the intrusion attempts and managed to block them.
Bills. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is warning that the F-35 program could rack up over a billion dollars in additional costs if testing is delayed. Investigators say the Pentagon has an overly rosy timetable for testing the stealth fighter jet and that historical flight test data points to testing pushing well into 2018. That delay could cost the Defense Department another $1.7 billion.
Terms and conditions. The Obama administration didn’t tell the whole story about the cost of the Iran nuclear deal, according to a scoop from Politico. After announcing the release of seven Iranian prisoners held on sanctions violation charges, the Obama administration quietly dropped charges against 14 other Iranian fugitives wanted for sanctions-busting. The Justice Department had sought to prosecute the 14 men on charges that they’d smuggled sensitive American military technology and weapons and leased an aircraft to support the terrorist group Hezbollah. Prosecutors complained that the administration also put the brakes on Iran-related cases as the nuclear agreement drew nearer.
Departures and arrivals. Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland is officially out at the National Security Council, but the White House has yet to announce a replacement. McFarland is heading to a new job as ambassador to Singapore, part of what many suspect is a housecleaning by current National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster. Insiders tell Politico that Dina Powell, McMaster’s pick for deputy national security adviser for strategy, is in the running for the job but could end up sharing responsibilities as McMaster’s deputy with the council’s chief of staff Keith Kellogg, who has been with Trump since the 2016 presidential campaign.
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