- By Jenna McLaughlinJenna McLaughlin is an intelligence reporter for Foreign Policy, focusing on the culture, dynamics, and events happening in the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the other 15 members of the intelligence community—plus the way the sensitive information they gather and analyze informs and directs the White House and policy makers on the Hill. Previously, McLaughlin was a national security reporter for the Intercept where she covered everything from the FBI’s secretive subpoena powers to cybersecurity companies in the Middle East. Before that, she covered similar topics including the rise of the Islamic State at Mother Jones Magazine. You can reach her with tips and responses securely through Signal or WhatsApp at 203-537-3949, or through her email, email@example.com.
By Jenna McLaughlin with Adam Rawnsley, Emily Tamkin, Kavitha Surana
Bob Mueller sure isn’t messing around. President Trump was on his way to rally campaign style last night, where the Governor publicly announced his new Republican status. Meanwhile, news broke on Thursday that the Department of Justice’s special counsel for the increasingly kooky Kremlin election meddling investigation has assembled a grand jury in Washington to review charges against the Trump team.
There isn’t a stone he isn’t interested in inspecting, from Trump’s Miss Universe pageant ties to his son’s summer meeting with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower. Apparently investigators are referring totally unrelated leads about Trump financials, for example, to Mueller to try and get witnesses to cooperate.
Trump might be saying he isn’t a witch, but Mueller is bound to find out if he floats. (If Monty Python taught us anything about witches.)
But the Trumpsters are still very, very confident the president himself is not a target of that investigation. And, Trump woke up at 5 in the morning yesterday to scapegoat Congress for the U.S. relationship with Russia hitting an “all time & very dangerous low” after signing a new, harsher sanctions bill that will limit his power to weaken sanctions in the future, without Congressional approval.
Trump Team Meets on Afghanistan: On Thursday, President Trump’s national security team assembled to talk about the elephant in the room: Afghanistan…again. Despite Trump handing the reins to his Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on the never-ending Middle Eastern conflict months ago, NBC reported on Wednesday that Trump yelled at “his Generals” for “losing” the war in Afghanistan. He’s yet to make any decision on what strategy he actually wants them to pursue, however.
And, Trump has surrounded himself with military leaders, but there are a still a lot of leadership positions in the Pentagon with no one to fill them. Per the Washington Examiner, four civilian nominees including one hoping to be the Navy’s top lawyer have survived committee consideration, but their confirmations will be delayed while Congress is away on summer vacation.
Faceless “Unmasking” Scandal Rears Its Head Again: Susan Rice, President Obama’s National Security Advisor, has been unable to escaped a trumped up scandal about supposedly illegally “unmasking” the names of Trump officials in intelligence reports, betraying their privacy and abusing her power. Rice has maintained she never did anything improper.
Circa, a reportedly Trump friendly publication, published a letter from Trump’s National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster on Thursday telling Rice she would be maintaining her security clearance, citing multiple senior White House and intelligence officials complaining. Alt-right figures were quick to gasp at the new development, but former national security officials argued the letter actually suggested McMaster had concluded Rice hadn’t actually messed up while exercising her duties as NSA. When it comes to unmasking, you keep saying that word, but I don’t think it means what you think it means.
Hacker “Hero” Lands in Jail: Not all heroes wear capes, or escape their past alleged crimes. The 22-year-old who accidentally became a hero when he prevented the spread of a particularly nasty strain of malware called “WannaCry” earlier this year, which had already infected thousands of computers as well as critical services in Ukraine before he registered the virus domain name and stopped it dead in its tracks, was arrested in Las Vegas after attending multiple annual hacker conferences. Marcus Hitchens, also known as “MalwareTech”, does security research for Kryptos Logic Security Firm—and when he was 20, the Department of Justice says he helped create a banking virus that allowed criminals to steal credentials from popular websites and rob people online. But, the dedicated online hacker community was quick to discover a tweet posted by Hutchins in July of 2014, asking his followers for a sample of the kronos malware, presumably for analysis. Hutchins wouldn’t be the first malware researcher targeted by the feds on thin evidence, if that turns out to be the case.
Motherboard first reported on his arrest.
Sanctions Scuffles: With new sanctions against Russia (as well as North Korea and Iran) now signed into law, America’s European allies — some of whom strongly objected to the bill, which could also punish European firms for enhancing certain Russian sectors. One European diplomat told FP the extraterritorial aspects of the sanctions are contrary to international law. But even as the world waits to see which individuals and businesses will be covered by the sanctions, some of those who objected most strongly to the legislation are holding their tongues. “The criticism from our side is not based on concerns about individual firms or people,” a spokesperson for the German Embassy said, adding, “The Bill signed by the President explicitly stipulates that consultations must be held with the United States’ European partners before further measures are taken,” and that there has been a good dialogue with the administration so far. The EU delegation’s spokesperson pointed to a statement by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who noted, “US Congress has now also committed that sanctions will only b applied after the country’s allies are consulted. And I do believe we are still allies of the U.S,” writes FP’s Emily Tamkin.
P-Diddy: The top spy in town has a new deputy, officially. Susan Gordon, the former deputy director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and CIA official, was officially confirmed as the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, more fondly known in the intelligence world as “P-Diddy.” She was confirmed by a voice vote on Thursday. Gordon is well respected as a straight-shooting, sharp talker; I can say from first hand experience playing simulated cyber war games with her, that’s true. The job is very important, and will hopefully lighten Director Dan Coats’ load, as he currently spends the majority of his time preparing for and attending meetings and briefings on national security issues at the White House.
How to please a dictator: As Rwandans line up to vote in elections almost sure to keep President Paul Kagame in office, read FP’s Kavitha Surana on how community journalism serves to strengthen Kagame’s hold on power. Aggressive reporting might sound like a death wish in an authoritarian regime, but for every problem highlighted at the local level, Kagame can burnish his savior image by presenting himself as the solution.
Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter: @JennaMC_Laugh and @arawnsley. Your brilliant host Paul McLeary is on vacation, so you’ll have to put up with Jenna’s bad movie puns for today.
Near miss. An Air France flight had a close encounter with North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile in late July after parts of the missile landed within 602 miles of the aircraft following a test of the Hwasong-14. Airline officials insist the flight wasn’t in danger but they’re expanding a no-fly zone for their aircraft off the coast of North Korea just in case.
Firewall drill. China ordered internet service providers and other companies to participate in an all-hands “emergency response” drill to practice shutting down websites “illegally disseminating harmful information.”
Afghanistan. One Georgian NATO soldier was killed and six others injured in an attack against a convoy in Qarabagh district in Afghanistan’s Kabul Province. The attack, carried out by a Taliban suicide bomber, took place near Bagram Airfield. Coalition officials have yet to release the name of the soldier who died.
In a separate incident, the Defense Department announced the death of two American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division when a suicide vehicle attacked their convoy in Kandahar, Afghanistan on Wednesday. The Pentagon identified the deceased as Sgt. Jonathon Michael Hunter of Columbus, Indiana and Spc. Christopher Michael Harris of Jackson Springs, North Carolina.
Nuke ’em. Americans are surprisingly okay with the idea of nuking other countries according to a new study in MIT’s journal, International Security. Scott Sagan and Benjamin Valentino write that the “nuclear taboo” which arose after the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki no longer appears to exist. Sagan and Valentino presented poll respondents with a scenario similar to that faced by the Truman administration at the end of World War II, substituting Iran for Imperial Japan. According to the survey, 56 percent of Americans would prefer a nuclear strike against Iran that would kill 100,000 civilians if it meant avoiding a potentially costly ground war.
Hey, big spender. Qatar just dropped $6 billion on new vessels for its navy, buying Italian corvettes, patrol boats, and an amphibious vessel. The purchase, coming amidst an attempt by Qatar’s Gulf neighbors to isolate Doha over its foreign policy, is widely viewed as a means of sustaining Western support amidst the boycott campaign from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt.
Free agents. Russia is trying to peel off U.S.-backed rebels based in At-Tanf, pitching them on ditching the U.S.-led coalition in an attempt to evict American forces from the base in southeastern Syria. CNN reports that the thus far mostly unsuccessful campaign has been aimed at mid-level commanders. Russia reportedly recruited one rebel to pitch his colleagues on defection, promising them good jobs in the Assad regime’s military.
Balkans. Russia’s foreign ministry took a swing at Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday over his comments suggesting that Moscow was looking to destabilize and undermine Balkan democracies. In a statement responding to Pence’s comments, the foreign ministry accused the U.S. of “sliding ever deeper into the primitive ideology of the Cold War era.”
Ghost radio. The BBC takes a deeper look at MDZhB, a mysterious radio station based in Russia that broadcasts only a monotone and a random-seeming collection of words in Russian. Some believe the station is run by the Russian military and used as a kind of numbers station, broadcasting coded messages to operatives abroad.
Israel. Israeli police confirmed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a suspect on bribery charges, according to a gag order request filed with an Israeli court. Authorities have been investigating Netanyahu in two cases, one involving allegedly illegal gifts from a Hollywood producer and another case involving an alleged deal to crack down on a competitor to the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in exchange for positive coverage of Netanyahu’s government.
Drone exports. The Trump administration is reviewing the Obama administration’s drone export policy and the defense industry is hoping that the new look could make it easier for American contractors to sell drones to U.S. allies. Sources Defense News that the review was initially expected to be completed by the fall and could include changes to how the U.S. interprets the presumption of denial mandated by the Missile Technology Control Regime.
Light attack. The State Department has cleared the sale of A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria, despite human rights concerns with the Nigerian military’s campaign against the Islamic State-aligned Boko Haram terrorist group. The Obama administration had originally put the the sale on hold in 2015 but appeared to be on the verge of approval towards the end of 2016. The sale is worth an estimated $593 million.
Tragedy. Mohammad Asif Qaderyan, the father of one of the Afghan girls who came to the U.S. as part of a robotics competition, was killed by the Islamic State in a bombing at a mosque in Herat. The U.S. initially denied a visa to Fatemah Qaderyan and her schoolmates when they tried to participate in the International Robot Olympics for High School Students in Washington, D.C., later allowing the team into the country after intervention from President Trump.