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Security Brief: Haspel Nomination Fight, Iran Deal Deadline Looms

Gina Haspel wanted to withdraw her nomination before the White House prevailed upon her.

By , an assistant editor and staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2013-2019.
CIA director nominee Gina Haspel attends the ceremonial swearing-in of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department on May 2, 2018 in Washington, DC. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
CIA director nominee Gina Haspel attends the ceremonial swearing-in of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department on May 2, 2018 in Washington, DC. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
CIA director nominee Gina Haspel attends the ceremonial swearing-in of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department on May 2, 2018 in Washington, DC. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Will Haspel go through? The Trump administration faces a major test on Capitol Hill this week as its embattled nominee to lead the CIA, Deputy Director Gina Haspel, goes before the Senate Intelligence Committee for her confirmation hearing.

Will Haspel go through? The Trump administration faces a major test on Capitol Hill this week as its embattled nominee to lead the CIA, Deputy Director Gina Haspel, goes before the Senate Intelligence Committee for her confirmation hearing.

Facing growing opposition on Capitol Hill, Haspel offered to withdraw her nomination late last week, the Washington Post reports. White House aides scrambled to convince Haspel to keep herself in the running, and she ultimately relented.

Haspel is facing intense scrutiny over her role in the CIA’s post-9/11 detention program and the destruction of video tapes documenting detainee interrogations. Haspel is likely to face intense questioning over whether she voiced concerns about interrogation techniques that amounted to torture — and which she oversaw at a secret CIA base in Thailand. Senators are expected to press Haspel over whether she believes the techniques were useful and whether she would ever use techniques such as waterboarding again, a position President Trump endorsed during the campaign trail.

On Monday morning, Trump came to Haspel’s defense. “My highly respected nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror. Win Gina!”

Haspel is set to appear before the Intelligence Committee on Wednesday morning, but whether she will win support in the Senate remains far from assured. The CIA has declassified some material on Haspel’s 33-year career, but critics of her nomination argue that the agency is stonewalling on key aspects of her career.

After the bruising fight to win confirmation for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House officials told reporters last week that they expect the vote to be close.

Good morning and welcome to this Monday morning edition of Security Brief. As always, send your tips, comments, and questions to

Kerry to the rescue. Ahead of the looming May 12 deadline for President Donald Trump to decide whether to maintain or abandon the Iran nuclear deal, former Secretary of State John Kerry has been carrying out a bit of shadow diplomacy to salvage the agreement, the Boston Globe reports. Kerry has met several times in recent weeks with the man who once sat across the negotiating table from him, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in a bid to explore ways to salvage the agreement they reached in 2015.  

Dirty tricks. In a bid to build political support for killing the Iran deal, aides to President Donald Trump hired an Israeli intelligence firm to dig up damaging information on Obama administration officials who worked on the agreement, according to the Observer. The underhanded effort reportedly targeted speechwriter Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl, the former national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden (and a contributor to FP). “The idea was that people acting for Trump would discredit those who were pivotal in selling the deal, making it easier to pull out of it,” a source familiar with the campaign told the paper.   

The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow reports that the firm in question was Black Cube, the same company hired by movie producer Harvey Weinstein in an attempt to silence victims of sexual assault. One source familiar with the deal told Farrow that it was not Trump aides who hired the firm and that work was “for a private-sector client pursuing commercial interests related to sanctions on Iran.”

Israeli strikes in Syria. U.S. officials offered new details last week on the latest round of Israeli air strikes inside Syria, revealing to NBC that an attack on a Syrian airbase left two dozen Iranian soldiers dead. “Three U.S. officials say Israeli F-15s hit Hama after Iran delivered weapons to a base that houses Iran’s 47th Brigade, including surface-to-air missiles,” NBC reported. “In addition to killing two dozen troops, including officers, the strike wounded three dozen others.”

Coming attractions. House lawmakers will mark up defense spending legislation this week, with the House Armed Services Committee set to meet Wednesday to consider a slew of military modernization issues. Defense News has the full rundown of what to expect on the Hill this week.

The 2nd fleet is back. The U.S. Navy is re-establishing the 2nd Fleet in a bid to better counter Russian operations near the U.S. coastline, USNI reports. “Our national defense strategy makes clear that we’re back in an era of great power competition as the security environment continues to grow more challenging and complex,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in announcing the change. “That’s why today, we’re standing up 2nd Fleet to address these changes, particularly in the North Atlantic.”

The move to resurrect the 2nd Fleet, which will be based in Norfolk, Va. comes as U.S. officials have warned of increasing Russian naval activity in the Atlantic, including submarine operations.

Summit site? South Korean media reports that the United States and North Korea have settled on Singapore as the site of a summit meeting between the two countries’ leaders. The date of the summit has reportedly been pushed back to June. President Donald Trump said Friday that a time and location for the summit would soon be announced.

The summit ahead of the summit. South Korean President Moon Jae-in will travel to Washington for a May 22 meeting with President Donald Trump ahead of Trump’s planned summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.   

A bargaining chip? President Donald Trump has demanded that the Pentagon draw up options for the United States to reduce the number of troops it has stationed in South Korea, the New York Times reports. American military officials insist that such a move would not be a bargaining chip in negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program. Nevertheless, in the run-up to a summit meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un the proposal is being interpreted as a possible feature of a rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang.  

…and the response. White House and Pentagon officials denied the Times report concerning U.S. troop reductions in South Korea, but as the Wall Street Journal reports, the suggestion of American troops eventually departing the peninsula is gaining steam.

On Friday, Trump said troop levels will not be a bargaining chip in his negotiations but added that reductions could be considered at “at some point in the future.” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has also suggested that troops levels could be a component of negotiations with North Korea.

In South Korea, the idea of reducing U.S. troop levels — once a key demand of the pacifist left — has now moved into mainstream debate, even if President Moon Jae-in has taken pains in recent days to emphasize the importance of the U.S. troop presence for the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

A recent essay by Moon Chung-in, an academic and adviser to the South Korean government, captures the debate: “What will happen to U.S. forces in South Korea if a peace treaty is signed? It will be difficult to justify their continuing presence in South Korea after its adoption.”

‘Misleading’ claims. North Korea criticized the Trump administration on Sunday for what it called “misleading” statements about how military pressure and sanctions had brought Pyongyang to the negotiating table. “The U.S. is deliberately provoking the DPRK at the time when the situation on the Korean Peninsula is moving toward peace and reconciliation,” KCNA quoted a foreign affairs spokesman as saying.

Green Berets on the Saudi border. Contrary to claims that U.S. assistance is limited to intelligence sharing and refueling, American Green Berets have deployed to the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border where they are helping Saudi forces locate Houthi ballistic missiles, the New York Times reports. The deployment appears to escalate the United States’ involvement in a civil war that has spawned a humanitarian catastrophe from which Washington has taken pains to distance itself.  

SpaceX and risk. In its bid to provide human space flight for NASA, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is pursuing a risky fueling approach meant to give its Falcon 9 rocket more power, a proposal that has exposed a rift between the risk-taking entrepreneur and a conservative NASA bureaucracy, the Washington Post reports. Musk wants to chill the rocket fuel to very low temperatures, which would make it more dense and allow a greater amount of propellant to be packed into the rocket. That fueling process would take place after astronauts have already boarded the rocket, a process that some experts consider unnecessarily dangerous.

China put missiles in the South China Sea. Despite Xi Jinping’s statement in 2015 that “there is no intention to militarize” the artificial islands that China has been constructing in the disputed South China Sea, Beijing has now installed anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on several of the islands. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson referred to them as “necessary national defense facilities.” They are the first such missiles deployed to the Spratly Islands, though China installed similar weaponry on the Paracels in 2016.

…and the U.S. pushed back. “There will be near-term and long-term consequences” to China’s deployment of missiles in the South China Sea, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a press briefing last week.

Chinese lasers injure two U.S. pilots. Personnel at China’s East African military base in Djibouti have been aiming lasers at American aircraft in the vicinity, and two pilots have suffered minor eye injuries as a result, according to a Pentagon spokesperson. The harassment comes as military and trade tensions between the two major powers have heightened in recent weeks. China has denied the accusation.

Meet the mercenaries. In its growing role in Yemen’s civil war, the United Arab Emirates is increasingly relying on contractors to run its military, tapping a former U.S. Army officer, Lt. Col. Stephen Toumajan, to run its corps of attack helicopters, according to a revealing profile in BuzzFeed. Helicopter attack units overseen by Toumajan may have been implicated in human rights abuses, and the former Army officer appears to be skirting American regulations by at times describing himself as an Emirati officer and at other times as a contractor seconded to Emirati forces.

No, not that Iron Dome. The cybersecurity start-up run by former NSA Director Keith Alexander pulled in a major round of funding, winning $78 million in commitments from investors, Reuters reports. IronNet Cybersecurity provides security products to critical infrastructure companies and has developed a threat-sharing tool it calls IronDome.   

PPD-20 under fire. The National Security Council is considering rewriting the legal rules for cyberwar, CyberScoop reports. The current authority, Presidential Policy Directive 20, requires presidential approval for significant cyber operations, and some aides want to streamline the process to give more authority to commanders to launch ops.

The end of domain fronting. The groundbreaking encrypted messaging application Signal has become a darling of activists around the world, in no small part because the app has taken innovative steps to circumvent attempts to block it in countries like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Its principal method of doing so is called “domain fronting,” but now Google and Amazon — which run the infrastructure used by Signal to get around censors — have blocked that technology.

Taking down Amaq. European and American law enforcement managed to take down the Islamic State’s primary propaganda network recently, but within a matter of days the outlet was back up and running, CBS reports.  

Irregular drones. The civil war in Ukraine has provided yet another innovation in UAV technology: Pro-government forces are using commercial drones apparently manufactured by the Chinese company DJI to carry out bombing runs against their adversaries, C4ISRnet reports.  

Marines reorganize. Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller is reorganizing his combat units in response to technological changes in warfare. To avoid precision guided munitions and carry out what Neller calls distributed operations,” the corps is “adding technical experts — in drones, intelligence, supply, and other specialties — to small units so they can operate more independently of higher headquarters,” Breaking Defense reports. “The tradeoff comes in old-fashioned firepower: Infantry squads will shrink from 13 Marines to 12, and infantry battalions will have fewer heavy-duty support weapons such as 81 mm mortars and TOW anti-tank missile launchers.”

Coup de grace. India increased its defense spending by 5.5 percent to $63.9 billion to surpass France as the world’s fifth-largest military spender, Bloomberg reports.

New Kinzhal photos. Russian troops are preparing for this week’s Victory Day parades, and photos are beginning to trickle out of the military technology on display. The Pentagon will be closely examining these photos showing two MiG-31 carrying the highly touted Kinzhal hypersonic missile.  

Yet another crash. With military aviation crashes reaching record rates, yet another aircraft went down last week. Nine airmen died when a C-130 attached to the Puerto Rico Air National Guard crashed in Georgia, Stars and Stripes reports.

Bibi gets war powers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expanded his war powers last week after the Knesset approved a measure allowing him to declare war with only the defense minister’s approval in some situations, Haaretz reports.  

Su-30 goes down. A Russian Su-30 crashed off the coast of Syria last week, killing both aviators, the Drive reports. The crash may have been caused by a bird strike. “It is worth noting that the Russian Navy has forward deployed Su-30s to Syria recently in what seems by all indications as a push to provide more robust airborne anti-ship capabilities to the Eastern Mediterranean,” the Drive notes. “ISIS and anti-Assad rebel forces don’t have a Navy, so it’s impossible for Moscow to spin these capabilities to be related to the Syrian civil war.”

McCain wants to use cyberwar capabilities against Russia. The irascible chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, argues in a forthcoming book that the United States should retaliate with cyberattacks against Russia in response to its meddling in the 2016 election. “I’m of the opinion that unless [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is made to regret his decision he will return to the scene of the crime again and again,” McCain, who is receiving treatment for brain cancer, writes in excerpts obtained by Defense News. “We have cyber capabilities too. They should be used to expose the epic scale of his regime’s corruption or to embarrass [Putin] in other ways,”

Swedish ELINT in the Med. Plane spotters have detected a surprising deployment to the eastern Mediterranean: a Swedish eavesdropping plane. As the Aviationist reports, the plane typically flies in the Baltic monitoring Russian naval facilities and deployments, but it is now flying out of Cyprus, most likely to gather information on Russian forces deployed to Syria.

American combat death.  Army Spec. Gabriel D. Conde, 22, was killed east of Kabul last week after his unit came under enemy gunfire, the Washington Post reports.  

German defense budgeting. German defense officials are protesting what they regard as a meager defense budget that will see military spending as a percentage of GDP increase in 2019 but fall in subsequent years, Reuters reports.  

Dogfighting for drones. U.S. Air Force researchers want to teach dogfighting skills to drones in an effort to make them more effective against swarming adversaries, according to FlightGlobal. “The USAF Academy believes it can improve the combat effectiveness of UAVs by teaching the aircraft when to make certain air combat maneuvers, such as the Split S, Immelmann, Scissors, High and Low Yo-Yo, and Lag Displacement Roll, according to Christman’s presentation at the AUVSI Xponential conference in Denver, Colorado,” the outlet reports.

Army getting into drones. As the American military works to integrate UAVs into just about every aspect of its operations, the Army is experimenting with launching drones from helicopters Defense News reports.  

Hinds for the Marines. In one of the more intriguing recent RFPs, the Marine Corps wants to buy  a Mi-24 HIND attack helicopter or Mi-17 HIP helicopter to serve as an adversary in training exercises, Marine Corps Times reports.

SEALs misbehaving. The U.S. Navy will boot 10 SEALs from the elite unit after they tested positive for illicit drugs, the Marine Corps Times reports. A heavy deployment schedule and an increased reliance on special forces troops have caused widespread drug and alcohol use among American commandos.  

Pentagon deploys AI. The Pentagon’s flagship artificial intelligence initiative — Project Maven — has been deployed to the field in the Middle East and Africa, where its algorithms are being used to analyze the large amounts of video and image data being ingested by American drones, Breaking Defense reports

Elias Groll was an assistant editor and staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2013-2019.
Twitter: @eliasgroll

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