The Cable

SitRep: Tillerson Still in; The Pentagon’s Magic Numbers in Syria

U.S. looks to fly armed drones in Niger; privatizing covert ops; and lots more

US Marine Corps vehicles near Raqqa in northern Syria on March 27. (Delil Souleima/AFP/Getty Images)
US Marine Corps vehicles near Raqqa in northern Syria on March 27. (Delil Souleima/AFP/Getty Images)


By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Tillerson still at his desk. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to show up for work today after Thursday’s humiliating leaks that the White House is trying to shame him into resigning.

Word is that Tillerson would be replaced with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and replacing him at Langley with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a noted Iran hawk who has supported waterboarding prisoners. The New Yorker just ran a lengthy profile of Cotton’s rapid rise in national politics.

The ouster would bring to a close “one of the most tumultuous and shortest-lived tenures for a secretary of state in more than a century,” FP’s Robbie Gramer, Dan De Luce and Jenna McLaughlin write, “The move would put two vocal hawks at the helm of U.S. foreign policy and intelligence, while ousting an embattled secretary of state struggling with a fraying relationship with the White House and a growing chorus of criticism over his handling of the department.”

James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador told the Washington Post that he gives Tillerson credit for holding the line, and “U.S. foreign policy, a year after the president came into office, looks a helluva lot like the foreign policy of Barack Obama.”

New math. The Pentagon is good at a great many things, but they can do absolutely magical things with troop numbers. The U.S. Central Command announced this week that it was pulling 400 Marines out of Syria, where they had been providing artillery support for the Syrian Democratic Forces battling ISIS.

The number is remarkable given that the military continues to insist there are only 503 U.S. troops in Syria overall. And somehow, that 503 number has managed to remain exactly the same even after the Marines left. Recently, a general running U.S. special operations in Iraq and Syria said there were 4,000 U.S. troops in Syria. He quickly backtracked, saying the number was around 500 and holding steady, despite all actual physical evidence to the contrary.

Ramp up in Niger. The Nigerien government has given the U.S. the all clear to fly — and use — armed drones in the country, marking an escalation in American military commitment to the country following the death of four special operations soldiers in an Islamist militant ambush last month. The drones will target al Qaeda, Islamic State, and Boko Haram fighters and will be accompanied by a new large but as-yet unspecified deployment of new Americans troops to Niger.  

Trump meddles in Russia probe. President Donald Trump has pressed senior Senate Republicans to end the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, a group of lawmakers confirmed to the New York Times.

Another Republican senator said Trump asked him to begin an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s connection with the intelligence-gathering firm Fusion GPS, which produced a dossier of allegations about Mr. Trump’s Moscow ties. Some of the Republicans dismissed the president’s attempts to meddle in the investigation simply as evidence of the 71 year old businessman’s inexperience in government and bring new to the presidency.

Intel. After almost a year, U.S. President Donald Trump has failed to nominate a single member to work on an advisory board that reviews the intelligence community, and which has played a low-profile, but sometimes critical role in previous administrations, FP’s Jenna McLaughlin reports.

Privatizing covert operations. The Trump administration is considering whether to let private intelligence contractors kidnap terrorist suspects, collect intelligence, and carry out counter-propaganda operations, according to a scoop from Buzzfeed. One of the companies involved in the proposal is Amyntor, based out of Whitefish, Montana — the same small town where a six person company landed a $300 million contract to help Puerto Rico restore electric power.

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

More ops, less oversight. House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) says he’s concerned about the leeway and lack of oversight the White House has given the military, saying “U.S. Central Command can bomb who it wants to bomb, and President Trump will go play golf.”

Iran, meet Iraq. Paul Pillar, a former intelligence officer involved in the drafting of the 2002 Iraq National Intelligence Estimate, writes that he sees parallels between the George W. Bush administration approach to intelligence on Iraq and the Trump administration’s take on intelligence about Iran. In a National Interest column, Pillar points to Trump’s declassification of intelligence about al-Qaeda’s relationship with Iran and its arming of Houthi militants as an attempt to make a case for greater confrontation with Tehran.

From Tehran with love. A UN report obtained by Reuters shows that the ballistic missile fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia was apparently designed and made by Iran. The report says “design characteristics and dimensions of the components” are consistent with Iran’s Qiam-1 short range ballistic missile.

Prince before the Russia inquiry. Former Blackwater private security boss Erik Prince is the latest member of the Trump orbit to appear before the Congressional Russia inquiry, engaging in what was reportedly a combative back and forth on Thursday about his Seychelles meeting with the head of a Russian sovereign wealth fund. Prince said that the meeting — and he — had nothing to do with the Trump campaign and that it “probably lasted as long as one beer.”

Everyday carry. When North Korean agents allegedly assassinated Kim Jong-un’s estranged brother, Kim Jong-nam, their victim was carrying at least a dozen bottles of atropine — an antidote for the nerve agent used to kill him — according to the latest testimony of Kim’s accused killers on trial in Malaysia.

Cluster ban on hold. The U.S. will continue to keep cluster munitions in its arsenal despite  Bush-era policy to stop using the weapons by 2019 if bomb-maker’s can’t produce a more reliable weapon. The policy aimed at reducing the dud rate to less than one percent, owing to concerns that unexploded sub-munitions could pose a hazard to civilians in conflict zones. Defense officials say they’ve been unable to reach that goal.

Twitter fallout. President Trump’s retweet of a British right wing extremist hate group this week has forced American diplomats to cancel Trump’s planned working visit to the U.K. and a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May. Trump had planned on visiting sometime in December or January but the trip is indefinitely postponed following a broad public outcry and pressure on May to distance herself from Trump.

Erdogan implicated in Iran sanctions case. Reza Zarrab, a former Turkish gold trader, told a federal courtroom in New York on Thursday that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered him and his business partners to engage in business with Iran which violated U.S. sanctions. Turkey has strongly denied the allegations which surfaced in the trial of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, charged with violating U.S. sanctions law.


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