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SitRep: U.S. Govt. Shuts Down; Defense Strategy Unveiled; Nuclear Torpedo

Senate negotiators fail to keep the government open.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21:  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) leaves the senate floor on Capitol Hill on January 21, 2018 in Washington, DC. The U.S. government is shut down after the Senate failed to pass a resolution to temporarily fund the government through February 16 on January 21, 2018 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) leaves the senate floor on Capitol Hill on January 21, 2018 in Washington, DC. The U.S. government is shut down after the Senate failed to pass a resolution to temporarily fund the government through February 16 on January 21, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

The Trump shutdown. It’s Monday morning, and the U.S. government has shut down. Senate negotiators failed to reach a spending deal late last night, though Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell has scheduled a noon vote that could put a temporary agreement in place.

With the government shuttered, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued guidance to the Pentagon over the weekend, instructing that operations will continue. “Steady as she goes — hold the line,” he wrote to the Defense Department. “Stay alert.”

Defense strategy. On Friday, Mattis made the case that the United States must prepare for the possibility of war with China and that Russia, marking a shift from the last 15 years’ focus on fighting transnational terrorist groups.

“Great-power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,” Mattis said in a speech unveiling the new National Defense Strategy.  

The 11-page unclassified summary of the document calls for sharpening U.S. focus on the challenge posed by “revisionist powers” trying to shape the world in the image of their own authoritarian politics. In recognizing China, Russia, and North Korea as threats to American power, Mattis called for a more agile force, capable of working with its alliance partners and capitalizing on the latest technological developments.

Proxy war blows open. Turkish forces launched a ground offensive against Syrian-Kurdish militia forces, putting Ankara into renewed fighting with U.S. backed rebel groups. Turkish jets struck rebel targets near Afrim as the country’s troops crossed into Syrian territory on Sunday.

Western powers are urging Ankara to show restraint, and France has called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, amid reports that fighters from the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are massing in preparation for a Turkish attack.

Welcome to this Monday morning, government-shutdown edition of SitRep! As always, send your tips, feedback, and thoughts to elias.groll@foreignpolicy.com.

Brain drain. American sanctions experts are fleeing the Trump administration amid a crisis of morale at the State Department and repeated attacks on the civil service by President Donald Trump, FP reports. The latest high-profile departure from the American diplomatic corps is Joshua Black, the top sanctions expert at the United Nations, who stepped down on Friday.

Rex on the move. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on a swing through Europe, and Iran is likely to dominate meetings in Davos, London, Paris, and Warsaw, as the Trump administration attempts to shore up support for a more aggressive approach toward Tehran.

Nuclear torpedo. A leaked copy of the Nuclear Posture Review appears to confirm that American officials are taking seriously Russian plans to develop an autonomous nuclear torpedo designed to destroy an adversary port and shower it in nuclear contamination.

Spy games. Former CIA officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee was charged last week with improperly retaining classified information, and his case only seems to grow more perplexing. Late Friday, NBC, citing anonymous current and former officials, reported that Lee may have compromised the identities of U.S. spies in Russia after China passed on information to Moscow that was supplied by Lee.

The New York Timesalso dug into his case and chronicled Lee’s strange history as an investigator on behalf of a Japanese tobacco company after he left the agency in 2007. During that time, the paper reports, he came into contacts with agents working on behalf of the Ministry of State Security, the Chinese spy agency. Lee is thought to have played a role in the dismantling of the CIA’s network of agents inside China beginning in 2010.

In the mood for talks. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the easing of tensions with North Korea ahead of the Olympics provides a “precious chance” to open talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. “No one can be optimistic about how long the current mood for dialogue will last,” Moon said.

Good time to get out of town. With the government shut down, Vice President Mike Pence is on a swing through the Middle East, telling Israeli lawmakers on Monday that the United States will move ahead with its plans to open an embassy in Jerusalem next year. “By finally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the United States has chosen fact over fiction — and fact is the only true foundation for a just and lasting peace,” Pence said.

Friday news dump. Nearly 700,000 American Twitter accounts followed Russian propaganda accounts or liked or favorited posts from the accounts, according to new data released by the social media platform on Friday. The new data significantly increase the latest estimate of the number of Americans who consumed content produced by Kremlin operatives during the Russian campaign to meddle in the 2016 election.

Fighter jocks for turboprops. U.S. Air Force officials are considering creating squadrons made up of light-attack aircraft in a bid to deploy cheap assets against poorly defended targets in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, according to the Wall Street Journal. The move would allow America’s advanced, expensive to operate air assets to carry out missions against China and Russia and use cheaper planes, possibly including turboprops, in the fight against insurgent groups.

Kabul attack. Security forces in Kabul ended a Taliban siege of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, a bloody attack that left a large number of dead. There are conflicting reports Monday about the total death toll, with authorities claiming 18 were killed and local outlets putting the total at 43.

Wee nukes. A leaked draft of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review describes the need for two new, small nuclear weapons systems: a sea launched cruise missile and a lower-yield submarine launched ballistic missile, David Axe reports.

The slow death of the Warthog. According to a new Project on Government Oversight Report, the Air Force is letting its fleet of A-10 jets die a slow death by undermining a project to equip the jets with new wings.

Jakarta eyes Su-35. Indonesia’s air force chief said his service is close to finalizing an order for 11 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, a deal valued at $1.14 billion that reportedly includes some agricultural commodities.  

Bomber trio to Guam. Six B-52 bombers deployed to Guam last week, joining B-1 and B-2 bombers already stationed on the Pacific island. The bomber trio puts an array of firepower within easy striking distance of North Korea amid rising tensions.  

China vs. Taiwan. There’s a growing row over flight paths through the Strait of Taiwan. Earlier this month, mainland China opened four new flight paths without first getting Taiwan’s approval. So Taiwan lodged a protest, saying a 2016 agreement requires approval for new paths — and in response, has refused to grant licenses to certain mainland Chinese flights to Taiwan.

“If the Mainland clings obstinately to its own course,” Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement, “it must shoulder any serious consequences that might affect cross-Strait relations.”

Australia and Japan getting cozy. The two countries, both feeling squeezed by China’s increasing assertiveness, are considering a military cooperation pact. The possible “visiting forces” agreement would allow troops to train in each other’s country — and it would be the first time Japan has entered such a pact apart from its close ties to the U.S. military.

The best thing we read about the internet last week. In a fascinating essay for Wired, UNC Professor Zeynep Tufekci examines how the internet-enabled golden era for free speech has backfired: “The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself. As a result, they don’t look much like the old forms of censorship at all.”

“The feedback loop of disinformation.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is going around Washington flogging a memo describing alleged FBI surveillance abuses but which hasn’t been released. Given Nunes’s record providing political cover for the Trump administration, there is good reason to be skeptical of his claims. Quinta Jurecic over at Lawfare explains that “it is likely to be just one more string of spaghetti tossed onto the wall by the now-familiar alliance of Trump-supporting congressional Republicans and sympathetic conservative media desperate to discredit and distract from the investigations into Russian election interference.”

Bitcoin crash. The price of bitcoin saw a major correction last week, and the Verge reports that the cryptocurrency’s crash comes amid increasing scrutiny from regulators, which may be driving speculators away.  

This won’t backfire. As part of its efforts to overhaul the Facebook News Feed, the social media giant announced last week that it will poll its users to determine the credibility of news outlets. The polls will help determine which news outlets’ content is shown in users’ feeds as Facebook moves away from showing large amounts of news stories and greaterial material posted by family and friends.  

Facebook probes Brexit. Facebook told authorities in the UK that it will investigate whether Russia used the platform to encourage British voters to vote in favor of leaving the European Union in the 2016 referendum. The social media giant has previously said it has found little evidence of Russian attempts to use Facebook to push a pro-Brexit message, but UK authorities are skeptical of that finding.  

Cambodian fake news and Facebook. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is taking advantage of Facebook’s own rules to squelch dissident speech on the social media platform, and is rumored to be funding a top “fake news” site that gets premium treatment on Facebook — while established news sites have seen their content siloed.

Trisis details. Schneider Electric, the industrial control systems maker, released details about the malware used to target a safety system at a Saudi petrochemical facility. The bug used a zero day vulnerability to place a remote access tool on a safety system.  

Kaspersky injunction. Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab asked a federal judge for an injunction against the Department of Homeland Security’s ban on federal agencies using its products. The U.S. government banned the Russian firm from doing business with the federal government amid worries the Kremlin could use its software to carry out espionage. Kaspersky said in court papers that the ban has severely damaged its U.S. business, leading to a 50 percent drop in sales during the second half of 2017.

Dark Caracal. Hackers working on behalf of Lebanese intelligence amassed a huge trove of stolen data through a relatively simple espionage campaign, according to a new report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and security firm Lookout. The campaign goes back to 2012 and targeted government officials, contractors, and foreign militaries, among others.  

702 finally done. President Donald Trump signed into law on Friday a measure that extends the NSA’s ability to carry out warrantless surveillance, the renewal of which was described as the intelligence community’s main legislative priority for the year. Privacy advocates on the Hill tried to curtail the measure, but were ultimately defeated.

The scope of the forever war. The legal sleuths over at Lawfare have a new analysis examining the deployment of U.S. forces abroad under the Trump administration. It describes how President Trump has surged forces abroad and eased rules on airstrikes, intensifying a war that his predecessor had pledged to end.  

Bookmark this page. Politico has a useful new infographic documenting the myriad players enmeshed in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling. It’s a very useful resource for anyone trying to understand the rapidly widening investigation.

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

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