- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
With Adam Rawnsley
Information and belief. They’re not the “tapes” President Donald Trump recently threatened former FBI director James Comey might exist of their conversations, but they’re something.
In the latest in a week’s worth of bombshells, the New York Times reported Tuesday that Trump asked Comey to close the federal investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn during an Oval Office meeting in February. The vehicle for the revelation? A memo Comey had written directly after the meeting.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said, according to the memo. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
The Times’ Michael Schmidt was read portions of the memo by a source, but other outlets have confirmed the existence of the document, along with others Comey wrote after each interaction with Trump. The story caused Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, to demand the F.B.I. turn over all “memoranda, notes, summaries and recordings” of discussions between Trump and Comey. FP’s Elias Groll has more.
The wayback machine. Anyone remember Tuesday morning, when we were all talking about Trump having relayed classified information to Russian officials in the Oval Office, potentially burning an allied country who passed the intel to Washington? And despite his aides denying it happened, the president Tweeting confirmation that he did it? We know that was an entire scandal ago, but there’s more. The Times reports that the ally was Israel, an assertion also reported by the Wall Street Journal.
“The president’s decision to discuss sensitive intelligence with a U.S. adversary reignited concerns among lawmakers that Mr. Trump is either incapable or unwilling to handle discreetly the nation’s most guarded secrets,” the Journal notes. “He also fanned tensions with U.S. intelligence agencies that date back to before the start of his presidency.”
FP’s Jenna McLaughlin and Robbie Gramer add that “the bombshell revelations could damage key U.S. intelligence relationships with allies around the world. Foreign partners are watching the wheels fall off the cart, thinking “‘too many things are out of control, so I might hold back,’” a former senior intelligence official told them.
Help from Moscow. On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he’s willing to hand over records of the meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Trump to Congressional investigators.
McMaster. Still, national security advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster told reporters in the White House briefing room Tuesday that Trump’s disclosure to the Russians was “wholly appropriate,” and based on “open source reporting.” The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe has a good piece on the difficult spot McMaster finds himself in, particularly given that his book, “Dereliction of Duty,” criticizes the generals under president Lyndon Johnson for not standing up to a president who was peddling half-truths in order to keep the war in Vietnam going. “The president was lying, and he expected the Chiefs to lie as well or, at least, to withhold the whole truth,” McMaster wrote. “Although the president should not have placed the Chiefs in that position, the flag officers should not have tolerated it when they had.”
Area of active hostility. There’s some debate in the Pentagon over what the White House means when it declares a country an “area of active hostility,” as it recently did in Yemen and Somalia. U.S. News’ Paul Shinkman writes that “the phrase has no legal definition and offers no formal protections other than the generally understood compact that the American government will support the actions of its soldiers in foreign conflicts. And while many considered the concept overly cumbersome under Obama, multiple sources who spoke candidly to U.S. News say it has taken on a new and urgent relevance in the Pentagon after Trump gave military commanders greater authority so they could, for example, act faster when an unexpected opportunity to attack a high-value target presents itself.”
Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
Bigmouth strikes again. The New York Times has moved the ball further on Monday’s big story about Trump’s disclosure of sensitive classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during their meeting last week. The original Washington Post report only referred to Trump sharing sensitive intelligence about the Islamic State provided by an unspecified “U.S. partner.” The Times, however, cites Israel as the source of the information Trump disclosed, reporting that the intelligence concerned an Islamic State terrorist plot. ABC News also reports that the plot involves a plan to sneak explosives inside a laptop and that Israeli intelligence developed the information from a spy it has inside the the Islamic State.
Trump’s disclosure to Russia raised fears among many experts that American allies would be more hesitant about sharing sensitive information with their U.S. counterparts. Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer released a statement batting down some of the concerns, saying that Israel has “full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump. But that sentiment might not be shared at the working level. Buzzfeed reporter Sheera Frankel tweeted Tuesday that her morning was made difficult by “trying find the right translation for the expletives being used by Israeli officials.”
But wait, there’s more. Trump’s Russia faux pas isn’t the only issue surrounding the administration’s handling of classified information this week. The AP reports that Obama staffers forbade Trump’s transition team from taking classified documents to their transition offices after watching Trump staffers pack up classified material and carry it outside secure facilities, packing it up from the White House and bringing it to unsecure rooms in the Trump transition office down the street. Obama staffers had already been concerned about the Trump team after Trump transition staffer asked for a biographical sketch of Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak for national security advisor in waiting Michael Flynn, fearing he might not be aware of Kislyak’s relationship with Russian intelligence.
Juice. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is looking into cutting edge nutritional supplements and even performing enhancing drugs to give commandos an edge on the battlefield. Ben Chitty, a project manager at the command’s science and technology office, tells Defense News that SOCOM is looking into drugs and supplements that can help operators thrive in extreme environments, both at high altitude and deep underwater. Chitty emphasizes, however, that SOCOM intends to prioritize the health and safety of any substances given to special operators instead of pumping them full of risky pharmaceuticals.
Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in town for a meeting with President Trump on Tuesday in the wake of Trump’s decision to directly arm U.S.-backed Kurds to fight the Islamic State. Despite Turkey’s vocal opposition to the decision last week, both Erdogan and Trump were cordial. In a nod to Turkey’s anxiety over the rise of Kurdish nationalism in Syria, Trump emphasized that the U.S. will give groups like Kurdish PKK terrorist organization “no safe quarter.” Still, Erdogan said the U.S. partnership with the Kurdish YPG is “absolutely unacceptable” to Turkey, which considers the group a terrorist organization league with the PKK.
But all was not as calm outside the White House, especially not outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence where Erdogan backers broke through police lines and assaulted protesters. Video of the incident shows Erdogan supports charging protests and beating them bloody while Washington, D.C. police struggle to bring calm. CNN reports that a total of nine people were injured in the incident.
Fully armed and operational. The controversial U.S. anti-missile system deployed to South Korea is already up and running, detecting North Korean missiles. Reuters reports that the South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo said the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system’s radar had helped track North Korea’s launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile tested over the weekend. The U.S. and South Korea agreed to deploy the system on a golf course in South Korea, but the battery has garnered opposition, both from China and South Koreans.