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Security Brief: White House Sends Mixed Messages on North Korea Talks

The Trump administration can't get its message straight on talks with North Korea.

Demonstrators dressed as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump embrace during a peace rally in Seoul on November 5, 2017.  ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators dressed as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump embrace during a peace rally in Seoul on November 5, 2017. ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Mixed messages. On the heels of the shock announcement that President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will sit down for a summit meeting, the White House can’t seem to its message straight: Will there or won’t there be preconditions to talks?

On Friday, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pointed toward unspecified steps North Korea must take in order for the meeting to happen. “They’ve got to follow through on the promises that they’ve made, and we want to see concrete and verifiable actions,” Sanders said. “The president has accepted that invitation on the basis that we see concrete and verifiable steps.”

By Sunday, the White House press shop appeared to be walking that position back somewhat, limiting those conditions to the basic concessions offered by North Korea in making the invitation.

“This potential meeting has been agreed to, there are no additional conditions being stipulated, but, again they — they cannot engage in missile testing, they cannot engage in nuclear testing and they can’t publicly object to the U.S.-South Korea planned military exercises,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, for his part, appears mostly out of the loop. Speaking to reporters traveling with him on a trip to Oman, he referred all questions on North Korea to the State Department, citing the potential for a misunderstanding. “I want those who are actually engaging in the discussions to be actually the ones who answer all media questions,” Mattis said, according to the Washington Post.

An interesting nugget. Attentive readers may have noticed that Sunday’s New York Times contained an interesting bit of intelligence about when and how the Trump administration learned of the North Korean offer for a summit.

“Mr. Kim’s invitation to meet was not a complete surprise to Mr. Trump’s team. An American official said they had learned about it from intelligence agencies, so on Thursday morning, before the arrival of the South Koreans, Mr. Trump talked by phone with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, who was traveling in Africa, about the possibility. What he did not tell Mr. Tillerson was that he would accept,” Peter Baker and Choe Sang-Hun report.

Was that piece of intelligence courtesy of American snooping on North or South Korea? Either way, American spy agencies were probably none too pleased to spot that bit of news in print.

Not amused. FP’s Jeffrey Lewis has been a longtime advocate for talks between the United States and North Korea, but he is desperate for clarity on at least one major issue: “White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has said that the United States has not made any concessions, but let’s be clear: THE MEETING IS THE CONCESSION.” Read his full piece here.

Good Monday morning and welcome to this week’s edition of Security Brief. As always, send your tips, questions, and complaints to Start your Monday with these incredible photographs of the northern lights photographed from the cockpit of a U-2 spy plane at 70,000 feet.

Candidate Haley. During her time as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley has rejected the authority of her nominal boss, voraciously pursued the spotlight, and positioned herself well to pursue higher office. FP’s Colum Lynch profiles the always surprising ambassador, who appears to be using her prominent position to springboard her next political campaign.

China on campus. American intelligence officials have repeatedly warned of Chinese influence on American university campuses, and a new FP report from Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian provides the clearest picture to date of just how Beijing is using Chinese student associations to win influence in the United States: “The Chinese government’s direct support for, and control over, student groups appears to be unique. Beijing’s influence over these groups is also beginning to raise questions and concerns among students on American campuses, who fear they will be accused of being agents of espionage. The growing ties are also concerning U.S. government officials, who are wary of China’s political and economic reach in the United States.”

The week ahead. It’s a busy week on Capitol Hill for defense officials, with combatant commanders testifying before a slew of committees on their FY 2019 budget requests. Highlights include the heads of CENTCOM and AFRICOM before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday morning, top Air Force brass before the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday morning, and the head of PACOM before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. Also of interest: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson goes before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday to defend his department’s budget request — a hearing that may feature some fireworks given Senate resistance to the Trump administration’s gutting of the State Department. Defense News has the full run-down on hearings to come this week.

Dealmaker in chief. President Donald Trump told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he considers the changes proposed by European powers to the Iranian nuclear agreement to be insufficient, according to a report by the plugged in Israeli journalist Barak Ravid. Trump told his Israeli counterpart that he plans to drive a hard bargain with European states to come up with a revised agreement ahead of a May 12 deadline.

A pint and a nerve agent. British investigators found trace amounts of nerve agent in a pub and a restaurant in the British city of Salisbury, where the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal suddenly fell ill last week, Reuters reports. British officials have said Skripal was poisoned with a nerve agent. Patrons of the restaurant and pub were urged to wash their hands and clothing. Military personnel schooled in chemical warfare and decontamination have deployed to Salisbury to aide in the investigation and clean-up, according to the BBC.

POTUS gets his parade. The Pentagon is laying plans for a Veterans Day parade that appears to fulfill President Donald Trump’s wish for a full-scale military parade on the streets of Washington D.C, the New York Times reports. Initial planning envisions the use of period costumes, a heavy aerial presence, but no tanks. To protect the streets of the capital, the parade will most likely be limited to wheeled vehicles.

Unimpressed. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo shrugged off the recent announcements by Russia that it has made significant advances in nuclear weapons technology, according to the Washington Post. Mattis over the weekend called President Vladimir Putin’s recent speech touting new weapons “disappointing but unsurprising,” and Pompeo said the CIA maintains a good ability to monitor Russian weapons programs.

Rex in Africa. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on swing through Africa, and the former oilman is running into the contradictions of Trump administration policy, the AP’s Josh Lederman reports. “On trade policy, HIV/AIDS and humanitarian aid, the United States at times seems at odds with itself, muddying efforts to show it wants the continent to flourish and is here to help,” Lederman writes.

Ring the alarm. The head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, warned the House Armed Services Committee that Chinese influence in Djibouti could jeopardize America’s own military present there. The Chinese opened their first foreign military base there last year, and Waldhauser said on last week that the Djibouti government could decide to deny the US access to port facilities, perhaps under Chinese pressure. The same day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criticized the Chinese development model in Africa, saying that it saddled African nations with debt and stymied democracy.

The new arms race. China has moved ahead of the United States by at least one measure in the race to build more intelligence machines, filing far more patents related to “deep learning,” according to a recent report from CB Insights.  

Google at the Pentagon. Internet giant Google has teamed up with the Pentagon on Project Maven, its artificial intelligence program to analyze huge reams of drone footage. Maven is trying to come up with a way to automatically spot objects in video footage, and the Pentagon has now tapped Google, a pioneer of artificial intelligence technology, to help in the project, Gizmodo reports.

Big money contract. Amid complaints that Amazon is dominating the contract competition to supply the Pentagon with a new cloud computing system, the Defense Department said it would scale back the scope of a contract awarded to an Amazon partner for cloud migration services. The Pentagon also said last week it will select just one supplier for its cloud contract, which will likely be worth several billion dollars. The technology industry is pushing the Pentagon to consider awarding the contract to a conglomerate.

New front in the troll wars. Tech giant Reddit is coming under increasing scrutiny — somewhat belatedly — for its role in providing a platform for Russian trolls promoting divisive messages during the 2016 election. According to Wired, Russian propaganda remains available on the platform, even as Reddit has promised to investigate the issue and has removed some content.

Tunnel warfare. An Israeli military officials told the Washington Post that significant advances in detecting underground tunnels has left Israeli forces better prepared to counter the threat posed by militants infiltrating Israel through such underground passages.

Meanwhile in the Balkans. NATO’s top commander in Europe warned that Russia is targeting Balkan states with disinformation campaigns and that Moscow is looking to act as a spoiler in the former Yugoslav states, USNI News reports. “Russia is at work in the Balkans, and we have kind of taken our eye off the area,” Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti told lawmakers.

Typhoons for Saudi Arabia. British and Saudi defense officials said they are moving closer to a deal to supply 48 Typhoon fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, a deal that would provide a valued boost to the UK defense industry as the country grapples with the fallout of Brexit.

Pew-pew. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said last week that the civil war in Yemen has become testing ground for laser weapons technology. Both offensive and defensive laser weapons technology has come into use there, Defense News reports. “What’s going on off the coast of Yemen is kind of a live-fire laboratory,” Neller said.

What’s a few more billion? Plans to modernize the F-35 multirole fighter through 2024 may cost nearly $16 billion, Reuters reports. The new modernization price tag comes amid an intensifying focus on the extraordinary cost of developing the stealth fighter.

Ambush in Afghanistan. A Taliban ambush in Farah Province in Afghanistan left at least 15 members of Afghan security personnel dead — eight of them special forces troops — according to Tolo News.

Embrace your fear. Michael Griffin, the Pentagon’s current undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, wants the U.S. military to embrace a riskier approach to military space launch and abandon the notion of “assured launch,” or the insistence on a zero failure rate for space launch, Defense News reports.

Raytheon cashes in. The State Department approved $467 million in military sales to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in separate deals, Reuters reports. The purchases, both of which are primarily from Raytheon, include material for Qatar to upgrade its air operations center and new air-to-air missiles for the UAE.

Palantir gets its win. The Army tapped Palantir and Raytheon to build its troubled Distributed Common Ground System-Army intelligence analysis system. Palantir had sued the Army for what it claimed was unfair procurement practices. The contract is valued at $876 million over 10 years.

Erdogan slams NATO. The Turkish president criticized NATO on Sunday for not supporting Turkey’s campaign against a Kurdish militia in the Afrin region of Syria, some his harshers remarks yet toward the military alliance.. The U.S. has supported the Kurdish group in its fight against the Islamic State in Syria, but Erdogan has sought to prevent Kurdish groups from gaining territory or power as Turkey faces occasional violence from Kurdish separatists. Turkey joined NATO in 1952.

Spy wars. A new report from the internet sleuths at Citizen Lab details how governments in Egypt and Turkey used network security hardware made by a Canadian firm to install spyware on computers belonging to targeted users.

The alien beat. As Christopher Mellon, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, sees it, the Pentagon is failing to adequately investigate reports of unidentified flying objects. Mellon might be written off as another cook in search of UFOs, if it weren’t for his credentials. The incidents he describes are not only fascinating, but also concerning in that the U.S. military seems remarkably blase about investigating them.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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