The Cable

SitRep: FBI Steps In to Aid Niger Probe, Pompeo Breaks Ranks

CIA on Russia, Iran and al Qaeda and the weekly wrap.

A displaced woman fleeing from the Boko Haram attacks in Bosso stands in the front of her makeshift tent in a camp in the village of Kidjendi near Diffa, Niger, on June 19, 2016 (ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A displaced woman fleeing from the Boko Haram attacks in Bosso stands in the front of her makeshift tent in a camp in the village of Kidjendi near Diffa, Niger, on June 19, 2016 (ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley, Dan De Luce, Emily Tamkin, and Elias Groll

Niger investigation. There’s a new twist in the inquiry of the deaths of four American Special Forces soldiers killed during a firefight in Niger on Oct. 4. The FBI is jumping into the investigation into the soldier’s deaths. Military officials tell the Wall Street Journal that FBI agents will help in reconstructing the events that led to the death of the soldiers in an ambush while out on a patrol with Nigerien troops.

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), however, is still pushing for more information from the Pentagon about the incident, holding up the nomination of the Trump administration’s nominee of Raytheon lobbyist Mark Esper for a position as Army secretary.

“These four soldiers being killed and most people not knowing what they were up to is a game changer,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “I’m concerned that we’re not regularly briefed about operations.”

According to the Associated Press, the attackers arrived on motorcycles with rocket propelled grenades and carrying heavy machine guns. Villagers in the area of the attack describe the attackers as light-skinned and newcomers there.

On the cusp. CIA Director Mike Pompeo warned that Washington had to assume that North Korea is “on the cusp” of achieving their goal to be able to strike the United States with an ICBM, suggesting they could be months away from their objective. The regime’s advances meant that questions about precisely how close the regime was to an ICBM capability had almost become irrelevant, he said.

Speaking at a Foundation for Defense of Democracies event, Pompeo said the administration wanted to resolve the crisis without resorting to military action but he added that the president is ready to use force if necessary to ensure Kim “doesn’t have the capacity to hold America at risk,” FP’s Dan De Luce reports.

Meanwhile, Pompeo’s predecessor at the spy agency, John Brennan, said on Wednesday he was worried that the chances of a possible war with North Korea had increased due to the president’s undisciplined rhetoric. “I don’t think it’s likely or probable, but if it’s a 1-in-4 or 1-in-5 chance, that’s too high,” Brennan said at Fordham University.

For more on the risking risk of a conflagration on the Korean peninsula, read FP’s recent report here.

Iran-Qaeda talking point. At Thursday’s FDD event, Pompeo spoke mainly about Iran, and reinforced a talking point in Trump’s speech last week about alleged links between the Tehran regime and Al Qaeda. The CIA director said his agency within a “handful” of days would be releasing documents seized in the Abottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden which he said would shed more light on dealings between Iran and the terror network.

“At the very least they’ve cut deals so as not to come after each other, that is, they view the West as a greater threat than the fight between the two along their ideological lines,” Pompeo said. Expect more to come about this as the administration seeks to push Democrats in Congress to support tougher action against Iran with proposed legislation that would effectively revise the nuclear deal, De Luce reports.

Breaking ranks. Pompeo also broke ranks with his own intelligence community when he was asked about Russian meddling in the 2016 election. And then his own agency had to correct the record. Pompeo claimed that the intelligence community’s assessment of the Russian campaign concluded that it did not alter the outcome of the election. In fact, the report explicitly states:  “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.”

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Army assault. The Army is dealing with a resurgence of sexual assault and rape cases, the Washington Post reveals, with a slew of reports that troops responsible for preventing the crimes in the first place are accused of carrying out acts of assault. “Army officials confirmed to The Post that eight other soldiers and civilians trained to deter sex offenses or help victims have been investigated over the past year in connection with sexual assault,” reporter Craig Whitlock writes.

Rex on the town. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was quite the man about town this week. On Wednesday evening, after delivering a rare public address (on U.S.-India relations at the Center of Strategic and International Studies), the secretary and his wife dined at Café Milano, the (or at least a) place to see and be seen in Washington, FP heard. The famously low profile Cabinet member was chatting with others around the restaurant, perhaps making a statement by stepping out on the town before flying out of the country for his South Asia trip.  

Hostages. CIA Director Mike Pompeo revealed that recently-freed American and Canadian hostages Joshua Boyle and Caitlan Coleman were held in Pakistan for five years on Thursday during his appearance at a Foundation for the Defense of Democracies event. The comments cut against claims by the Pakistani government, which has alleged that the Taliban held the hostages on the Afghan side of the border throughout their captivity.

Chess moves. It’s getting crowded in the areas that the Islamic State used to hold in eastern Syria as Iranian and Russian forces come into closer proximity to the U.S. and its allies and block further advances into Syria. The advances by forces fighting on behalf of the Assad regime mark what seems to be a violation of the deconfliction zones agreed to by the U.S. and Russia, with the additional territory giving the regime additional leverage in negotiations over Syria’s political future.

Dear Australia. The Foreign Affairs Committee of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly sent a letter to the Australian parliament threatening the country if it “follow[s] the US in imposing military, economic and diplomatic pressure upon the DPRK.” The letter, similar versions of which the North has sent to other countries, appears to be an attempt to push back against Washington’s attempts to isolate the North by trying to peel off American allies with threats.

Totally not a personality cult. A hot new mobile game in China allows you display your appreciation for Chinese President Xi Jinping by clapping for him during a speech. Users of the Tencent game can operate a pair of hands, trying to get as much fervent applause for Xi in a 19 second window.

Nobody puts baby in a corner. Russian President Vladimir Putin told the U.S. to take a softer approach to North Korea and not isolate it, saying “problems should be solved in dialogue, and North Korea should not be backed into a corner.”

Putin seemed extra cranky during his appearance at the Valdai Discussion Club, unloading on the subject of Russian relations with Washington in perhaps his harshest tone since the election of President Trump. Putin complained about what he says was America’s exploitation of Russia’s weakness after the fall of the Soviet Union and said that U.S. sanctions are “openly designed to push Russia out of European energy markets and to force Europe to switch to more expensive liquefied natural gas from the United States.”

Detainees. The U.S.-backed anti-Islamic State coalition is sitting on detained foreign emirs from the terrorist group from around the world. Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman Talal Silo says the coalition captured the senior Islamic State leaders on special operations raids and through surrenders of the Islamic State commanders themselves.  

Bad optics. Syrian Democratic Forces celebrating the liberation of Raqqa from the Islamic State raised a flag bearing the image of Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish leader and founder of the U.S. and Turkish-designated PKK terrorists group. The incident adds to existing tensions between the U.S., which has tried to downplay links between the SDF and PKK, and Turkey, which has argued that Kurdish groups fighting under the SDF umbrella are no different than the PKK.

Foreign fighters. Germany’s domestic intelligence agency says the Islamic State threat isn’t over, warning against “the threat of children, socialized by Islamists, and thus accordingly indoctrinated, returning to Germany from a war zone.” The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution estimates that roughly 950 Germans left the country to join militant groups in Iraq and Syria, a fifth of them women and five percent of them children.

Referendum fallout. The trouble after Iraq’s Kurdish independence referendum isn’t over. After Shia militias took control of the disputed city of Kirkuk, issued an arrest warrant for Kosrat Rasul, the vice president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, for “insulting” Iraqi forces. The arrest warrant, however, is not enforceable in under Kurdistan’s laws.  

Mystery shopping. Air Force Under Secretary Matt Donovan says it’ll be “some time” before the Air Force coughs up any more information about the cost of the next generation stealth bomber. Some in Congress have pushed the service to release the full cost of the B-21 Raider’s development but Air Force officials have demurred, claiming that transparency about costs could reveal sensitive information about the capabilities of the aircraft.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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