The Cable

SitRep: White House Talks North Korea; New USS Carl Vinson Sighting; U.S. Navy Pops Flare Near Iranian Boat;

Tillerson Disses Africa Partners; China Launches New Aircraft Carrier; Turks Bomb Kurds in Iraq, Syria; Army Secretary Nominee Slams Political Left; F-35s to Estonia



With Adam Rawnsley

Today’s the day. The entire U.S. Senate is taking a field trip to the White House on Wednesday for an extraordinary briefing on North Korea, amid rising tensions with Pyongyang and growing questions about how the Trump administration intends to halt the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

What’s next? The secretaries of State, Defense, the U.S. military’s top officer and the head of national intelligence are due to speak to senators. But what’s the point? FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary point out that the last-minute decision to hold the meeting at the White House, “coinciding with tough rhetoric from the White House and bellicose threats from North Korea, took lawmakers by surprise and fueled doubts about the Trump administration’s often disjointed efforts at crafting a policy to neutralize the North Korean nuclear threat. Administration officials have publicly jettisoned long-standing U.S. policy on North Korea but have yet to articulate what will replace it.”

A key part of Washington’s plan, it appears, is to pressure China to take a more active role in leaning on Pyongyang. “All sides understand the stakes and understand what needs to happen,” a White House official told FP, referring to discussions with China. But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it remained to be seen if China would take the necessary steps against North Korea. He added that “there is not infinite patience on our side” but did not elaborate. In case you’re overly focused on Pyongyang’s missiles however, don’t sleep on the 180,000 commandos the regime reportedly fields.

Where’s the USS Carl Vinson today? Still working its way northward, apparently. The U.S. Pacific Command says the carrier took part in exercises with the Japanese navy in the Philippine Sea earlier this week, putting the strike group somewhere south of Japan. The exercises consisted of “combined air training and information sharing to increase interoperability and communication” among the services, the command said. Several other U.S. destroyers are conducting exercises in the Sea of Japan and near the South Korean coast with the Japanese and South Korean navies, according to statements from the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet and Pacific Command.

Close encounter. Over in the Arabian Gulf, the USS Mahan popped off a warning flare near an Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessel that had approached within 1,000 meters on Monday, according to U.S. officials. The U.S. destroyer first tried to turn away from the approaching boat, and the “Mahan made several attempts to contact the Iranian vessel by bridge-to-bridge radio, issuing warning messages and twice sounding the internationally recognized danger signal of five short blasts with the ship’s whistle, as well as deploying a flare to determine the Iranian vessel’s intentions,” Lt. Ian McConnaughey, a spokesman for the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said in a statement to the AP.

Un-diplomatic. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson invited the chairperson of the African Union to Washington for a meeting, then backed out on him at the last minute, infuriating African diplomats, several sources told FP’s Robbie Gramer. The saga began after Tillerson invited African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki to Washington the week of April 17, after Faki ended meetings at the United Nations in New York. Gramer has more:

“Several sources close to the matter say Faki scheduled his trip to Washington on April 19 and 20 while waiting for the details to be sorted out. But then Tillerson’s office went radio silent for several days, and left the head of the 55-nation bloc in the lurch and fuming, the sources said. Tillerson’s team eventually got back to Faki’s entourage as he was about to depart New York and offered a meeting with lower-level State Department officials, but Faki cancelled his Washington visit entirely.”

The other war in Syria. Turkey dramatically ramped up its bombing campaign against Kurdish fighters on Tuesday, bombing U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, killing as many as 20 of the militiamen. Another airstrike in northern Iraq, near Sinjar, killed several other fighters. Ankara gave Washington and Moscow about an hour heads up to the strikes to ensure neither had troops in the area, and then launched the predawn strike. The U.S. military command in Baghdad quickly sent a U.S. Army officer to the scene of the Syria attack, and he arrived to cheers from the Kurds and toured the bombing location.

“These airstrikes were not approved by the coalition and led to the unfortunate loss of life of our partner forces in the fight against ISIS that includes members of the Kurdish peshmerga,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters. He said the United States was “deeply concerned” about the strikes and “we have expressed those concerns to the government of Turkey directly.”

Cyber top threat, CIA lawyer says. During her tenure as the CIA’s top lawyer, Caroline Krass dealt with investigations into the CIA’s enhanced interrogation programs and black sites, unrest in Ukraine and Crimea, the rise of ISIS, normalizing relations with Cuba, the Syrian refugee crisis, and Russian meddling, writes FP’s Jenna McLaughlin. Now that Krass is headed out the door, she says the most challenging threat the United States faces comes from cyberspace. “I think the hardest [legal questions] were those that surrounded cyber,” Krass said on Tuesday at an event at Georgetown University Law School. “It’s an evolving area of the law, trying to determine answers to questions like what constitutes a use of force…what are the measures to combat such a use of force?”

Army Secretary nominee in fight with “liberal left.” The Trump administration’s nominee to be the next Army secretary slammed the “radical left” on Tuesday for calling attention to a public statement he made last year in which he said “transgender is a disease,” and his support for a bill while serving as a Tennessee state senator that allows therapists to refuse to treat LGBT individuals on religious grounds.

Mark Green, a 20-year Army veteran, was nominated for the Army post after Vincent Viola, Trump’s first pick, dropped out after determining he would have to sever his business ties. After the Human Rights Campaign and the American Military Partner Association released the video of Green’s comments last year to the Chattanooga Tea Party, Green let loose in a Facebook post on Tuesday, writing, “the liberal left has cut and spliced my words,” and “I believe that every American has a right to defend their country regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and religion. It’s the radical left that won’t allow the latter.”

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

Intelligence. A declassified French intelligence report seen by Reuters says that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or his inner circle ordered the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun. The report says that French intelligence obtained from environmental samples from the scene of the attack as well as blood samples from victims, confirming the presence of sarin, a nerve agent used as a chemical weapon. French officials believe that only the highest levels of the Syrian government have the authority to order chemical weapons attacks and that rebel groups don’t have the capability to produce sarin by themselves.

Counterpoint. Not to be outdone in signaling from North Korea, the U.S. will test an inert Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reports.  30th Space Wing commander Col. Chris Moss said the test was necessary to “verify the status of our national nuclear force and to demonstrate our national nuclear capabilities.” Emphasis on the demonstration part. The test follows the debut appearance of an apparent North Korean ICBM in a parade to mark the 105th anniversary of North Korean founding father Kim Il Sung’s birthday.

It’s a girl. Watch out for broken champagne shards because China’s second aircraft carrier — and first carrier built in a Chinese shipyard — has officially launched. The ship, the 001A, joins the Liaoning, a Kuznetsov carrier which China purchased from Ukraine in 2012. No real word on what capabilities the ship actually has and when it will be operational, but pictures show it has the same jump ramp as the Kuznetsov.

Venezuela appears to be coming apart at the seams and now experts are worried that the country’s vast stocks of small arms could spark of wave of violence if the government falls. The Miami Herald reports that Venezuela already has a large supply of advanced shoulder-fire Igla-S man-portable air defense systems, which could pose a threat to civilian airliners should they fall into the wrong hands as the increasingly cash-strapped government faces down mounting unrest. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has further stoked proliferation fears by announcing the creation of a 400,000-strong militia to be armed with government-supplied rifles.

Personnel. The Trump administration is finally moving towards filling the many empty chairs in the Pentagon, announcing picks for assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs and principal deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence. The White House announced Tuesday that Trump has tapped Robert Story Karem, a former advisor to Vice President Cheney, for the international security affairs job and House Armed Services Committee policy director Kari Bingen for the deputy intelligence slot.

Lightning strikes. The F-35 stealth fighter jet has touched down in Estonia. The U.S. sent two A-variant F-35s to the Baltic country for training as well as “reassuring” allies in the NATO alliance, according to a statement from U.S. Air Forces in Europe. The appearance of a difficult-to-track strike aircraft on the border with Russia is likely to draw notice in Moscow, with one Estonian official telling the paper that “Russia will be watching the skies quite closely.” Baltic countries have been on edge as Russia has grown more aggressive in the region and the election of President Donald Trump raised doubts about American commitments to the NATO alliance.

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