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SitRep: Trump Offers New Story on Comey Firing; President Confuses the Navy, Conjures F-35 Mission Over Tokyo; More Afghan Trouble

SitRep: Trump Offers New Story on Comey Firing; President Confuses the Navy, Conjures F-35 Mission Over Tokyo; More Afghan Trouble

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Trump flips. Thursday was another confused and contradictory day in Washington, as President Donald Trump offered a new explanation for why he fired FBI director James Comey.

The president told NBC News he was thinking of “this Russia thing with Trump” when he decided to dump Comey, who was leading the investigation into Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election. This new account directly contradicts the White House’s previous version of how the president came to the decision, sweeping away days of public denials by aides that the move had anything to do with the Russia probe. In the interview, Trump also claimed Comey had told him several times that the president was not under investigation, an account that some in the bureau, and legal experts, said sounded unlikely.

The bureau’s acting director on Thursday vehemently defended the agency’s Russian counterintelligence investigation before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Andrew McCabe shot down Trump’s rationale for firing Comey, and defended the agency’s “significant” Russian counterintelligence investigation before a Senate panel, writes FP’s Jenna McLaughlin.

Afghan troubles. Defense and intelligence officials are warning that the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is likely to get worse before it ever gets better, despite the presence of thousands of U.S. troops and tens of billions invested in building and funding the faltering Afghan security forces.

“The intelligence community assesses that the political and security situation in Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through 2018, even with a modest increase in military assistance by the United States and its partners,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a Senate hearing Thursday. The Pentagon is looking to add another 3,000 troops to the effort there in the coming months, pushing American advisors closer to the front lines to work directly with Afghan forces in the fight. Washington is also trying to enlist NATO’s help, and is preparing to ask the Atlantic alliance to send more trainers, as well.

Turkey. In remarks made after attending a conference in London meant to build international support the Somali government, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the U.S. and Turkey — despite their differences over American support for Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria — are on the same page when it comes to the Kurdish PKK, considered a terrorist group by both countries.  

“We agree 100 percent with Turkey’s concern about PKK,” the secretary said. “And we support Turkey in its fight against PKK as a fellow NATO member, just like all the NATO countries stand with Turkey against the PKK.”

“What is Digital?” President Trump also made some interesting comments about a new Navy technology in his NBC interview. The service has been working on a new catapult system to launch aircraft from its Ford-class aircraft carriers, ditching the old steam-powered system for the the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), which costs more during the building process, but promises to shave tens of billions off maintenance costs in the decades to come.

Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt, “it sounded bad to me. Digital. They have digital. What is digital? And it’s very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out. And I said — and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said, “What system are you going to be—” “Sir, we’re staying with digital.” I said, “No you’re not. You going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.”

Several Navy and Defense officials declined to comment to SitRep on the president’s statement, citing confusion over what his comments meant to convey. But Acting Navy Secretary Sean Stackley did chat with USNI News on Thursday afternoon, saying, “we have not briefed the president on the Ford program. He did go down to Newport News and visited the ship, was onboard the ship. And so I wasn’t present for that visit, I don’t know what his source of information was.”

FP’s Robbie Gramer adds that Trump’s criticism is a bit too late. “Experts say it’s virtually impossible to sort out how to replace the existing EMALS system with the old steam-powered system, and that could cost billions of dollars.”

Stealthy. During the interview, Trump also claimed that the U.S. flew 35 of its F-35 joint strike fighters over Tokyo in early February, and they were so stealthy, “nobody knew they were coming.” But no one at the Pentagon is sure where that story came from. The president said the demonstration occurred during Defense Secretary Mattis’ visit to Tokyo, but at the time, the U.S. Marine Corps only had 10 F-35s deployed to Japan, about 500 miles south of Tokyo, and we could find no record of a Tokyo flyover.

Ghost in the machine. President Donald Trump signed a long-awaited executive order on cybersecurity on Thursday, which aims to hold agency heads more accountable for digital security and orders several reviews of cybersecurity issues. The order requires government agencies to adopt the cybersecurity framework developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Among the reports commissioned by the order are examinations of how to deter American adversaries in cyberspace, how to plug critical infrastructure vulnerabilities, and how to better combat botnets.

The order tasks Jared Kushner’s American Technology Council with drafting a report addressing how to move the federal government toward “more consolidated network architectures.” By pooling resources and security features, the order tries to create efficiencies, eliminate outdated technologies, and plug the gaping gaps in the federal IT system.

Experts are applauding the order but say it breaks little new ground. “I don’t see anything unusual or that really goes in a different policy direction,” said Michael Daniel, former President Barack Obama’s top cybersecurity adviser. “This order is more of a plan for a plan.” — Elias Groll

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

Love buzz. The delicate dance of airborne diplomacy between the U.S. and Russia continues, once again over the Black Sea. The Washington Examiner reports that a Russian Su-27 Flanker buzzed a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft on Tuesday, closing to within 20 feet. Despite the proximity, Navy officials say the engagement was “safe and professional” but the U.S. has been more critical of other Russian close encounters, such as when another Flanker barrel rolled over an Air Force RC-135 over the Baltic in April of last year.

Nein thanks. The U.S. might want more troops from NATO for the war in Afghanistan or even an alliance role in the anti-Islamic State fight, but they’re not going to get any more soldiers or equipment out of Germany, says Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel made an appearance alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday, telling reporters that Germany is happy to continue training Afghan forces in northern Afghanistan but won’t be plussing up its contribution in response to reports that the U.S. is looking to surge forces there. Merkel also went out of her way to “state very clearly” that Germany won’t be expanding its contribution to the anti-Islamic State fight if NATO takes on a more direct role in the conflict.

Cybersecurity. America’s top spies say they’re keeping a wary eye on a popular Russian cybersecurity firm’s software in response to questions from Congress. Reuters reports that both National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Vincent Stewart both testified that they’re monitoring the use of security software made by Kaspersky Lab on U.S. government networks. The questions were prompted by reports released this week suggesting that government officials, including the Department of Homeland Security, are worried that Russian intelligence services could leverage the use of Kaspersky software for hacking. Kaspersky company officials, however, strenuously deny the allegations, telling the wire service that “the company has never helped, nor will help, any government” with espionage.  

Blood bots. Army drones are about to get kinda metal, raining blood from the sky onto needy troops down below. Well, sort of. Flight Global reports that the Army is looking for a cargo drone that can ferry blood and other crucial supplies to troops in the field. The program, dubbed the joint tactical autonomous resupply system or JTARS, will be built or a medium-sized drone that can carry a payload of 300-800 lbs to distances as far as 100 kilometers. The goal is to allow soldiers to travel farther and faster while, unencumbered by the need to haul all of its supplies with it on the ground.

Mission Accomplished. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is declaring mission accomplished in Syria, or at least a part of it. The terrorist leader made an appearance to followers via videoconference, according to the AP, telling them that the group’s work securing Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria is complete. Nasrallah also took the opportunity to threaten Israel, saying Israel is fearful about the next war with Hezbollah because it “knows that it could be inside the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Fake news. The U.S. and Jordan are about to kick off on their annual Eager Lion as social media and propaganda outlets have tried to gin up fake reports about a U.S. invasion of Syria. Military Times reports that both Jordan and U.S. Central Command is tamping down rumors that the build-up for the exercise is a prelude to an invasion. Rumors spread as imagery from a hobby drone, purportedly taken above U.S. and Jordanian forces in the Kingdom, spread on social media, later amplified by Iran’s Fars News. “All speculation on social and traditional media are completely false and without merit,” a Central Command spokesman tells the news outlet.

Photo Credit: PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images