The Cable

SitRep: Senators Spar with Mattis, Tillerson About War Powers, Concern Turns to Trump and Nukes

New worries over Chinese military capabilities, Trump transgender ban blocked

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Defense Secretary James Mattis on Capitol Hill on October 30. (Keith Lane/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Defense Secretary James Mattis on Capitol Hill on October 30. (Keith Lane/Getty Images)


By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

A new war powers debate. There appears to be a growing, bipartisan consensus in Congress to take a new look at the authorization Congress gave the president in 2001 and 2002 to hunt down al Qaeda in retaliation for the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But the White House, Pentagon, and State Department don’t want any part of it.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Monday evening to answer questions about the current Authorization for the Use of Military Force, and got an earful from frustrated senators.

“Congress needs to weigh in, we need to make sure our adversaries and our allies and our troops know we speak with one voice,” said Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, who recently announced he would be leaving Congress. “We haven’t weighed in, we haven’t said our peace on this. We ought to aspire to be more than a feedback loop.”

A new AUMF? Chairman of the committee Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said his panel would mark up new legislation, possibly modeled on a proposal Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Flake introduced in May. Their version would require Congress to reauthorize the bill every five years, and require the administration to notify Congress if it sends troops to new countries not specifically named in the AUMF.

“The notion of a generations-long war without Congress weighing in is just untenable,” Kaine said following Monday’s hearing. Tillerson and Mattis both said they believe the current authorization works just fine, and rejected any proposal that would place time or geographic constraints on the president’s ability to fight terrorists.

Nukes. The hearing spent quite a bit of time on the issue of presidential authority to launch a nuclear strike, something Corker said the Senate hasn’t conducted a hearing on since the 1970s. (!!)

The Senators are concerned that an unpredictable president Trump could order a preemptive nuclear assault against North Korea, and demanded answers. But Mattis and Tillerson would only go so far as to say the president could only order a first strike in the case of an “imminent threat,” but refused to define what that threat might look like.  

The South China Sea. It’s baaaaaack. China may send its first deployments of fighter jets to the Spratly islands in the South China Sea in the coming months, Reuters reports, reigniting tensions with Washington and nervous regional powers. Speaking at an annual meeting of the Communist Party in Beijing earlier this month where he further consolidated his power, Chinese President Xi Jinping affirmed that “construction on islands and reefs in the South China Sea has seen steady progress.”

U.S. preparing for Chinese threat. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford, who recently swung through South Korea and met with regional allies, told reporters traveling with him that China “is very much the long-term challenge in the region,” and “when we look at the capabilities China is developing, we’ve got to make sure we maintain the ability to meet our alliance commitments in the Pacific.” Anonymous U.S. officials added that while North Korea is still viewed as “a fight we can win,” with China, they “worry about the way things are going.”

Benghazi militant headed for civilian court. In a Sunday night raid, U.S. Navy SEALs captured Mustafa al-Imam in Libya, nabbing one of the men accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which left four Americans dead.

But despite promises from president Trump on the campaign trail last year to send captured militants to the Guantanamo Bay detention center, Al-Imam will instead face a judge in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Justice Department officials said Monday. Earlier this month, another man accused in the Benghazi attack, Ahmed Abu Khattala, also went to trial in federal court in Washington. Khattala was captured during the Obama administration.

Down the memory hole we go. The Defense Department is classifying basic and formerly public information about the size of Afghan forces, the number of casualties they’ve suffered, and the state of their equipment in a move that some worry represents an effort to conceal bad news about the 16 year war. The U.S. military command in Afghanistan is defending the move by saying it was done at the request of the Afghan government.

Judge blocks Trump transgender rule. A federal court in Washington D.C. on Monday blocked President Trump’s ban on transgender service members, stopping the Pentagon from overturning policies initiated by the Obama administration to allow transgender troops to serve openly. In July, Trump tweeted out the announcement of the policy change, stunning the Pentagon, which had no inkling the order was coming. The ruling can be found here.

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

Mueller Monday. The big news on Monday was Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates on money laundering and tax fraud charges related to their work as political consultants for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.

But the real bombshell in Monday’s news was Mueller’s heretofore unreported arrest of former Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos on charges that he lied to the FBI about the extent of his contacts with Russian operatives. In unsealed court documents, Papadopoulos, now a cooperating witness for Mueller’s inquiry, revealed that a “professor” in London boasting of Russian government connections offered him access to “dirt” and “thousands of emails” from Hillary Clinton. The offer, made in April of 2016, predates the publication of Clinton’s emails and the public revelation that Russia had hacked the DNC in the summer of 2016.

Your tab, sir. $1.4 trillion — that’s how much the Pentagon estimates it’s spent on its post-9/11 wars, according to documents obtained by the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News.

And you say, ‘stay.’ American troops are staying in Iraq, even if the Iraqi government tells the U.S. to leave, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a Senate panel on Monday. Asked by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) what the U.S. would do if told to leave by the Iraqi government, Tillerson said flatly that “We will remain in Iraq until ISIS is defeated and we are confident that ISIS has been defeated” but insisted that Iraqi authorities have shown no inclination to ask the U.S. to depart.

Audience. Russian propaganda ads and astroturf political posts run on American social media during the 2016 presidential campaign reached millions of eyeballs, according to figures released by Twitter and Facebook. Facebook estimated that around 126 million Americans saw 80,000 different posts made by Russia’s propaganda troll farm during the campaign and Twitter is expected to tell Congress that Russian trolls opened 30,000 accounts and generated 1.4 million tweets.

Hostage video. Following the release of an American and Canadian hostage by Pakistani forces, the Taliban is showing off two more of its western captives in a new hostage video, American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks. A Taliban spokesman warned that the 60 year old King’s health was deteriorating, saying that he had “dangerous heart and kidney diseases” and that his captors “do not readily have access to health facilities therefore we are unable to deliver complete treatment.”

Pep rally. Hundreds of Taliban fighters rallied en masse and in public in a show of strength and defiance in Western Afghanistan in a newly-released video. The Long War Journal reports that the video, “From the Fronts of Farah,” showed large numbers of Taliban fighters massing with seemingly brand new Toyota trucks and American Humvees — all without apparent fear of being targeted by American airpower.

Iran nuclear deal. 90 prominent nuclear scientists have written a letter to Congress urging it not to abandon the Iran nuclear deal in the wake of President Trump’s decertification of Iranian compliance with the terms of the agreement. Among the signatories is Richard Garwin, a physicist whose research helped create the first hydrogen bomb.

China and South Korea are on speaking terms again. One week before Trump’s visit to Seoul and Beijing, the two East Asian capitals have decided to take steps to normalize relations. South Korea’s deployment of the U.S.-made anti-missile THAAD system earlier this year, but Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are expected to meet on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Vietnam in November.

Brazil looks to the skies… Brazil has placed an order for RBS 70 Very Short Range Air Defense systems from Saab Defense. The order includes man-portable launchers, training simulators, and camouflage systems. This is Brazil’s third such order from Saab.

…while Vietnam secures its waters. Vietnam’s third Russian-built Modified Gepard 3.9-class guided-missile frigate arrived on October 27. The frigate will improve the country’s anti-submarine capabilities as Vietnam seeks to protect its claims in the contested South China Sea from Chinese incursion.


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