SitRep: Trump Talks Nuke Carrier Locations; Former CIA Boss Lays Out Elex Worries; Nikki Haley’s Foreign Policy
Everyone Rips Trump’s Defense Budget; Pentagon Finally Gets Some Staffers; More on Manchester; Air Force Keeps Planes, Navy Gets No New Ships in Budget, And Lots More
With Adam Rawnsley
Nukes. President Donald Trump disclosed to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte last month that he recently sent “two nuclear submarines” to the area around the Korean peninsula to deal with the threat of North Korea, and the U.S. “a lot of firepower over there,” though “we don’t want to use it.”
A transcript of the April 29 call between the two leaders made by the Philippines government was obtained by the Washington Post on Tuesday. Duterte told Trump that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “might go crazy one moment,” leading Trump to point out that “we can’t let a madman with nuclear weapons let on the loose like that. We have a lot of firepower, more than he has, times 20.”
The disclosure to Duterte over the location of American submarines comes as the Philippines leader has pushed for closer relations with both China and Russia, and slammed American policies in the region. It also reflects the White House’s willingness to ignore Duterte’s angry comments about U.S. policy in an effort to keep up relations with a critical Asian ally.
Since taking office in June, Duterte has overseen a bloody campaign of murder against drug users and dealers that has been roundly criticized by the international community. The Trump administration has remained quiet over the campaign, but in the call Trump praised Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
Under your influence. On Tuesday, former CIA director John Brennan offered a more detailed picture of what Russian influence in the 2016 presidential race looked like to the U.S. government at the time, telling lawmakers, “I know what the Russians try to do. They try to suborn individuals and try to get individuals, including U.S. individuals, to act on their behalf, wittingly or unwittingly.”
When he was presented with intelligence suggesting Americans associated with the Trump campaign had been in touch with Russian officials, “it raised questions” about “whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals,” he said during an open hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday.
As FP’s Jenna McLaughlin explains, “the communications and contacts he saw between Americans and Russian officials mirrored the ‘classic’ counterintelligence playbook he’d seen play out many times over the years. Russian officials, either entirely disguised or hiding their connections to Kremlin intelligence operations, work to build relationships with ‘rising stars’ or ‘influential’ people in U.S. politics. Those officials then attempt to convince their new contacts to do their bidding. By the time the American officials realize what’s going on, it may be ‘too late,’ Brennan told lawmakers.”
Ever changing war in Syria. Over the weekend, American aircraft buzzed Iranian-backed militias in southern Syria for the second time in a week, signaling a dangerous new phase of the war in Syria.
“Until last week’s strike, the United States and Iran had managed to steer clear of a direct confrontation in Iraq and Syria, where each has hundreds of military advisors on the ground, embedded with local forces,” FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary write in a look at the evolving conflict. “In Iraq, they share a common enemy in the Islamic State. In Syria, the two sides are waging different wars: U.S. aircraft and special operations forces are pushing to roll back Islamic State militants, while Iran is backing the Syrian regime against opposition forces in a multi-sided civil war.”
Tell us how you really feel. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain slammed Trump’s defense budget plan on Tuesday, calling it “inadequate to the challenges we face, illegal under current law, and part of an overall budget proposal that is dead on arrival in Congress.” McCain said that after years of flat budgets under the Obama administration, “this budget request fails to provide the necessary resources to restore military readiness, rebuild military capacity, and renew our military advantage with investments in modern capabilities.”
Defense News notes that “the budget is largely in line with work that begun under the Obama administration, a result of both logistics – budget planning began more than a year ago for FY18 – and the fact the Pentagon is waiting on a series of major strategic reviews.”
Cuts shipbuilding. One of the most surprising elements of the $603 billion 2018 defense budget is that it actually cuts Navy buys of ships and aircraft below levels in Obama’s last budget, which Trump repeatedly slammed on the campaign trail. Despite his campaign pledge of a 350-ship fleet, that decades-long project will have to wait at least another year to get going.
The administration’s plan to cut the State Department’s budget by 31 percent could cause “a lot of Benghazi situations,” according to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C), chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on the State Department. He vowed that Congress would totally reject the cuts. “If we implemented this budget, we’d have to retreat from the world and put a lot of people at risk,” Graham said Tuesday.
Haley’s take. As President Donald Trump moved through the gilded halls of Riyadh and met heads of state in Israel this week, his U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley, charted a different course,visiting Syrian children in refugee camps in Jordan. “The dueling images of America’s president being decorated with a golden necklace by an Arab king and Haley high-fiving displaced Syrian schoolchildren couldn’t have drawn a sharper contrast. And for Haley, that may be the point,” reports FP’s Colum Lynch.
Nod. Top Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee wrote a letter to President Donald Trump on Tuesday referencing Foreign Policy’s story about Trump officials considering their options to strike back on charges that the President shared classified information with Russian officials in the White House. One option under consideration was portraying the Obama administration’s cybersecurity information sharing programs as recklessly sharing classified information with non-allies, without evidence that’s the case.
““We are deeply concerned by reports of plots within the White House to make false statements about a critical cybersecurity information sharing program in an effort to draw attention away from the President’s reckless decision to share classified information with Russian officials,” wrote Rep. Bennie Thompson, (D-Miss.) and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.).
Kim in the machine. When the WannaCry ransomware exploded across the world on May 12, it shut down car factories, forced hospitals to turn away patients, and knocked out thousands of computers at the Russian Interior Ministry. “Nearly two weeks later,” FP’s Elias Groll writes, “computer security firms say a growing body of evidence points toward North Korean hackers as the authors of the worm.”
Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to email@example.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
Say my name. It looks like the Pentagon is finally filling some critical slots. The Senate Armed Services Committee moved on several nominations Tuesday, confirming Lt. Gen. James C. McConville, as Vice Chief of Staff of the Army. In addition, the Committee approved the following civilian nominations:
David Norquist for Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller); Robert Daigle for Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation; Elaine McCusker for Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller); Kari Bingen for Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence; Robert Karem for Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs; and Kenneth Rapuano for Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security.
Manchester. British police have identified the suicide bomber who attacked an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England as Salman Abedi. Abedi, 22 year old British citizen whose parents emigrated to the U.K. from Libya, killed 22 people in the attack on Sunday. British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that authorities were raising the national threat level to “critical,” citing the possibility of another imminent attack. The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency released a state claiming responsibility for the attack, saying that Abedi was “one of the soldiers of the caliphate” but provided no proof of Abedi’s association with the group. In the past, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for attacks where the perpetrators have no discernable operational link to the group.
Loose lips. Much of what the public has learned about the Manchester attack has come from anonymous sources in the U.S. government and that’s not sitting well with European officials. One Belgian intelligence officer tells Buzzfeed that his counterparts in Europe and the U.K. are feeling uneasy that the U.S. government leaked the name of the bomber and the fact that he carried out a suicide attack before British authorities could. At least one American official concurred, telling the outlet that colleagues leaking about their close ally’s crisis in “unprofessional.”
UFOs. Something flew over the heavily-armed border between North and South Korea on Tuesday, raising alarm bells in South Korea. Initial reports cited a suspected North Korean drone crossing over the demilitarized zone, with South Korean forces opening fire after the object appeared on radar. Reuters has since followed up with a report indicating that the object was, in all likelihood, a North Korean balloon laden with propaganda leaflets. As Reuters journo James Pearson quipped on Twitter, “The balloon joins a long list of things including delicious wild boar and deer both sides have accidentally blown up or shot at in the DMZ.”
North Korean capitalism. A Malaysian company co-founded by a former North Korean diplomat is getting into the private security contracting business, raising questions about sanctions enforcement. Over at Arms Control Wonk, Andrea Berger takes a look at Malaysia-Korea Partners (MKP), a company founded by Han Hun-Il, who used to work for North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a Malaysian businessman. MKP has done business with North Korea’s state-run Mansudae Overseas Projects firm, but it’s the company’s activities in South Africa that are most interesting. MKP partnered with the South African private security firm Omega Risk Solutions, which appears to be providing security services for the UN.
Graybeards. The icy hand of the Grim Reaper has been stayed once again for two of the Air Force’s most venerable aircraft. Defense News reports that the latest Defense Department budget proposal leaves the U-2 spy plane and the A-10 Warthog the two aircraft unscathed. Air Force officials have periodically tried to retire both aircraft, arguing that newer platforms like the RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone and the F-35 stealth fighter jet could perform their roles more capably. Maj. Gen. James Martin, the Air Force’s top budget official, says the service will be flying the U-2 “well into the future” and a spokesperson tells the news outlet that the A-10’s retirement has been postponed indefinitely.
It’s happening. Top Gun 2.
Photo Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Adam K. Thomas/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
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