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Security Brief: No, Trump is not about to order a strike on Iran; U.S. may return to North Korea to look for more war remains; Mattis vs the First Amendment

Catch up on everything you need to know about the false reports that Trump is about to order a strike against Iran, North Korea returning Korean War dead, and the Secretary of Defense’s response to reports the Pentagon is denying media access.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks to the media prior to hosting an Honor Cordon for His Excellency Yusuf bin Alawi, Oman's Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks to the media prior to hosting an Honor Cordon for His Excellency Yusuf bin Alawi, Oman's Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Defense Secretary James Mattis unequivocally shot down reports from an Australian news outlet that President Trump was getting ready to order a strike against Iran next month. Meanwhile, North Korea returned what may be the remains of 55 unidentified U.S. troops killed in the Korean War. Plus: rumblings among the Pentagon press corps about lack of access to information boiled over last week, prompting Mattis to stop by the press room for a gaggle (Q&A below), the Afghan Taliban made their first direct contact with a U.S. official in a preliminary discussion about future Afghanistan peace talks, and more.  

I’m filling in on Security Brief while Elias Groll is on vacation. Send tips, questions, and feedback to lara.seligman@foreignpolicy.com.

Last week senior figures in Australia’s Turnbull Government told ABC they believed the U.S. was preparing to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, perhaps as early as next month. But Mattis on Friday called the report “fiction at best.”

“I have no idea where the Australian news people got that information. I am confident it is not something that’s being considered right now,” Mattis told a small group of reporters.

Frankly more concerning to Mattis are the real reports of Iran-backed Houthi rebels attacking oil ships off the coast of Yemen. These attacks, which lead Saudi Arabia to halt oil shipments through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait (the narrows at the southern end of the Red Sea through which about 5 million barrels of oil pass every day) underscore the threat Tehran poses to global energy choke points at a time of growing tension between Iran and the United States, Keith Johnson reports for Foreign Policy.

Meanwhile, Iran’s currency has plunged to a record low as renewed U.S. sanctions, slated to go into effect Aug. 7, loom.

But it’s not all bad news North Korea handed over what are believed to be the remains of 55 U.S. troops killed during the Korean War last week. A U.S. Air Force plane carrying the remains arrived Friday morning at Osan Air Base in South Korea, CNN reports. Although the U.S. has not yet verified the remains, Mattis is optimistic that this is the first step on a path toward improved relations with the nation. Mattis told the press pool that he could foresee relations warming to the point where U.S. forces could return there to look for additional war remains.  

Afghanistan peace talks The Taliban held their first direct contact with a U.S. government official, Alice Wells, the top diplomat for South Asia, last week in a preliminary discussion about future peace talks on Afghanistan, the AP reports. Meanwhile, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Helene Cooper of the New York Times write that Trump’s approach to Afghanistan mirrors strategies  that both the Obama and Bush administrations embraced over the course of the 17-year war—tactics that all but ensure the Taliban will remain in control of vast stretches of the country.

Shutdown threat In one of his increasingly regular Sunday tweetstorms, Trump threatened to shut down the government over funding for the border wall. Last week, Republican leaders thought they had reached a deal with the president to delay a confrontation on funding for the wall until after the November midterm elections, the New York Times reports. But Trump’s threat has opened the door to a politically bruising spending fight as the fiscal year ends in September.

War on the press? Mattis’ Friday morning gaggle capped off a week of stinging press coverage of the White House  “war on the press.” Politico reported (and this Pentagon reporter can confirm) that Mattis has not briefed reporters on-camera in the building since April, while his chief spokesperson, Dana White, has not done so since May. “Mattis used to regularly pass through the Pentagon press area to conduct gaggles with reporters, but reporters say those have all but dried up in recent weeks,” Jason Schwartz writes. “Some briefings with other officials still happen, but people who used to chat or provide background information more informally are no longer engaging, reporters say. Some reporters told Politico that fewer of their colleagues are going to the Pentagon these days, finding it increasingly pointless.”

The Politico story broke the day after BuzzFeed News obtained a cache of emails appearing to show the Pentagon is constantly caught off guard by the White House on matters of national security (such as the Syria strike) and, worse, that White may have lied to a Breitbart reporter about Mattis’ knowledge about the event.

Relations got so tense that CNN’s Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr, a longtime national security reporter and a well-respected voice among both her fellow press members and in the Department of Defense, wrote a powerful op-ed, “The military does not belong to Donald Trump,” taking the president to task for his treatment of the fourth estate.

The discussion is not over During Friday’s gaggle, Mattis told reporters “We will continue to defend the constitution, uphold the constitution, and we continue to carry out our duties to protect the country, that’s our job.” But that didn’t satisfy everyone. One reporter followed up: “When you say ‘the Constitution,’ that includes the first amendment?” Mattis’ response? “Last time I checked. I’ll have to go back to my 7th grade civics—history book.”

Back to the real world… During the gaggle, Mattis covered a wide range of topics, from Russia to Syria.

On Putin-Trump relations:

I’m all for reopening communications at the top line.  It’s essential that leaders talk with one another. It’s most important that we talk with those countries that we have the largest disagreements with.  I mean that’s how you repair those disagreements. It’s not to say that it’s going to be easy, or it’s going to be short-term [but] I’ve always said diplomacy leads our foreign policy.  This is diplomacy in action.

On whether he will meet with his Russian counterpart:

I’m considering meeting with my counterpart, but there’s been no decision.

On the attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels on oil ships near Yemen:

Iran has simply got to find that it’s got a better path forward for its people by not being the one to export insecurity.  They’ve got to start living by the international rules. They are the exporter of instability across the region.

On the next steps in Syria:

Our job is to try to find a way in the midst of this chaos to help the innocent people who have carried by far the heaviest burden in this war.

We are going to continue to work, as we have, to get stability in northeast Syria.  That starts with destroying ISIS. They are not destroyed yet. It’s going to be a lot longer, tougher fight.

But what you don’t do is simply walk away and leave the place as devastated as it is, based on this war.  You don’t just leave it, and then ISIS comes back.

On the administration’s reported policy of regime change in Iran:

Nothing has changed for us. There’s [no regime collapse or regime change policy] that’s been instituted.

On the Korean War remains:

This is obviously a gesture of carrying forward what they agreed to in Singapore, and we take it as such.  We also look at it as a first step of a restarted process, so we do want to explore additional efforts to bring others home, perhaps to have our own teams go in.  

On the state of the U.S. alliance with Turkey, given Congress’ move to prevent the transfer of Ankara’s F-35s:

We’ve had no problem, military to military, with Turkey and we continue to work together with the NATO allies.

On joint U.S.-Turkey patrols in Syria:

The equipment has landed in Incirlik. All the conditions are being set for it to go forward.  I can’t give you a hard and fast timeline [but] I think that we’re talking about weeks. I don’t know how many. Two, four, six, but I don’t think we’re talking months.

Making moves The Air Force announced last week that Gen. Ellen Pawlikowsk, commander of Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the third female Air Force general officer to reach four-star rank, will retire in September. Pawlikowski has served in a number of technical management, leadership and staff positions, including program director of the Airborne Laser Program and commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory.  More recently she led Air Force space systems acquisition as commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, and served at the Pentagon as Military Deputy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition. Her successor has not yet been named, but Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the current military deputy for acquisition, might be looking to pin on a fourth star.

Not the contract you were looking for The Pentagon on Thursday kicked off a competition for its highly-anticipated Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud contract. JEDI, which will be worth up to $10 billion over ten years, will be awarded to a single cloud provider, a decision many companies rallied against—especially competitors with Amazon, now a cloud computing giant. The contract itself will put a commercial company in charge of hosting and distributing mission-critical workloads and classified military secrets to war fighters around the globe in a single war cloud, according to NextGov.

‘Do not buy’ The Pentagon has begun circulating a “Do Not Buy” list of software companies that does not meet “national security standards”—in other words, which may have Russian and Chinese connections, Ellen Lord, defense under secretary for acquisition and sustainment, told reporters Friday. “We had specific issues … that caused us to focus on this,” said Lord, a former CEO of U.S. defense contractor Textron Systems. “What we are doing is making sure that we do not buy software that’s Russian or Chinese provenance… Quite often that’s difficult to tell at at first glance because of holding companies.”

Fiery hearing One week after Trump’s jaw-dropping press conference with Putin in Helsinki, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was summoned before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he traded biting remarks with lawmakers on the administration’s foreign policy, FP’s Robbie Gramer reports. Both Democratic and Republican senators took turns grilling Pompeo, zeroing in on issues like the content of Trump’s one-on-one meeting with Putin, the lack of diplomatic progress with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Chinese influence in the United States.

Elections in Pakistan Allegations of vote rigging dominated political discussion in Pakistan as the country cast the ballots for a new prime minister last week. The Tehreek-i-Insaf Party (PTI), led by former-cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan, declared victory despite fierce opposition from rival parties. Khan’s party, which has never held office,  has so far taken 115 of the 272 contested seats in the National Assembly, 22 seats shy of an outright majority but still leading the count by far. Smaller parties are falling in line with the self-proclaimed new prime minister, whereas establishment parties such the former governing Pakistan Muslim League are prepared to join the opposition.  

Boeing tanker The world’s largest plane manufacturer took a $426-million blow before delivering the first of its delayed batch of aerial tankers — eight out of three dozens of KC-46 tankers had to be retrofitted in various stages of production, Bloomberg reports. Boeing investors frowned upon the financial turbulence in an otherwise steadily profitable enterprise; the company has been performing relatively well even with the impact of recent tariffs.

F-35 at the White House In an effort to quash criticism that U.S. tariffs are harming the economy, the White House hosted a “Made in America” show-and-tell last Monday to showcase products manufactured across the country. Among the items displayed were Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet from Maryland as well as a Ford pick-up truck from Michigan.

Annual defense bill For the first time since fiscal year 1997, the House approved the annual National Defense Authorization Act, sending it on track to become law before the beginning of the next fiscal year. The $717-billion budget passed the House with a 359–54 vote, and the Senate is expected to vote on the bill as early as this week. The 2019 NDAA included a 2.6 percent pay increase for troops, among other measures to expand the size and capability of the military, as requested by the Trump administration.

ZTE resurrected In compliance with the White House, Congress passed the annual defense spending bill without the provision that would reimpose a seven-year ban on ZTE, the Chinese telecommunications giant that violated U.S. sanctions on Iran and North Korea, FP’s Lara Seligman reports. The ban, which would have prohibited ZTE from buying U.S.-made chips, would certainly have sealed the fate of the Chinese company, which heavily depends on key imported components.

Record breaker According to Lockheed Martin, the company’s most advanced version of the Patriot missile, PAC-3 MSE, broke its distance record in intercepting a target during a test last Friday, Defense News reports. PAC-3 MSE took down a target similar to a fixed-wing aircraft or a cruise missile. With the new accomplishment under its belt, Lockheed Martin may double its Patriot missiles production in the next few years.

Stronger military presence The Qatari state media reported that Washington and Doha have reached an agreement on how to expand the Al-Udeid air base, America’s biggest military facility in the Gulf states. Around 10,000 American soldiers are currently deployed to Al-Udeid, which has coordinated U.S. military action against ISIS in the region. Other than building more barracks and service buildings to support personnel from both countries, the two sides have also talked about designating Al-Udeid as a permanent military base.

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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