The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Security Brief: Korean War Remains ‘Believed to be American’; Cutting Deals with al Qaeda

Catch up on everything you need to know about the credibility of the Korean War remains turned over by North Korea, deal-making with al Qaeda in Yemen, Russia’s proposal to cooperate with the United States on rebuilding Syria, and more.

Flag draped transfer cases with the remains of American soldiers repatriated from North Korea are seen during a ceremony after arriving to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 1, 2018. RONEN ZILBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images
Flag draped transfer cases with the remains of American soldiers repatriated from North Korea are seen during a ceremony after arriving to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 1, 2018. RONEN ZILBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images

After taking a preliminary look at the 55 boxes North Korea turned over to U.S. officials last month, Pentagon experts believe they do indeed contain the remains of U.S. soldiers that died in the Korean War. Meanwhile, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States has been cutting secret deals with al Qaeda in Yemen, risking strengthening the militant group. Plus, Russia confirmed a report that Moscow is seeking U.S. help to rebuild Syria, a roundtable discussion with the U.S. Air Force’s air mobility chief, and more.

Good Monday morning, and welcome to Security Brief. Please send your tips, questions, and feedback to

A step in the right direction. The Pentagon has begun the comprehensive process of identifying the presumed remains of fallen Korean War service members handed over by North Korea, and is “guardedly optimistic” that they are in fact the remnants of American soldiers, according DoD’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency Director Kelly McKeague. This marks an important diplomatic step in U.S.-North Korean relations, even as U.S. spy agencies are seeing signs that North Korea is constructing new ballistic missiles.

John Byrd, DPAA chief scientist, told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday that he and his team conducted a preliminary review of the 55 boxes of remains North Korea turned over at its port city Wonsan. Byrd has confirmed the remains are indeed human (significant given that when in 2011 North Korea handed over the presumed remains of an RAF hero shot down in the Korean War, they turned out to be animal bones) and “believed to be American from the Korean War.”

How did Byrd’s team determine the remains are American? Based on the size and shapes of the bones, he explained. The boxes also included “material evidence” such as U.S. Army dog tags, boots, canteens, buttons and buckles. Now the work begins to compare the remains with DoD’s data bases of chest x-rays, DNA samples and dental records from the missing Korean War service members in order to find exact matches.

DoD officials are optimistic that the exchange could open the door for U.S. government personnel to return to North Korea to search for additional remains for the first time since 2005. McKeague believes North Korean leaders realize this is “an opportunity for them to, again, be a responsible partner in the international community.”

Sparring. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did a bit of damage control aboard his plane after leaving a regional summit that appeared to illustrate the gaping divide between the American and North Korean negotiating positions. Pompeo told reporters that he believes North Korea remains committed to denuclearization. “I probably don’t have his words exactly right, but it’s pretty close,” Pompeo told Reuters, referring to the North Korean foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho.

Following Pompeo’s departure Sunday from the ASEAN Regional Forum, Ri delivered a speech in which he criticized Washington’s unwillingness to ease sanctions on North Korea and argued in favor of a phased approach to talks—a frequent North Korean talking point that Washington has so far rejected.  

Art of the deal. A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States has cut secret deals with al-Qaeda fighters, paying some to leave key cities and towns the militants had seized across Yemen and letting others retreat with weapons, equipment and wads of looted cash, an investigation by The Associated Press has found. The compromises and alliances risk strengthening the most dangerous branch of the network that carried out the 9/11 attacks, according to the AP.

Russia-U.S. cooperation? Russia’s Defence Ministry confirmed a Reuters report on Saturday that it had proposed cooperating with the United States to rebuild Syria and repatriate refugees to the war-torn country. The proposal was sent through a closely guarded communications channel between Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, to U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

‘Sincere effort to disrupt.’ Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, has quietly been trying to do away with the U.N. relief agency that has provided food and essential services to millions of Palestinian refugees for decades, according to internal emails obtained by Foreign Policy. The initiative is part of a broader push by the Trump administration and its allies in Congress to strip these Palestinians of their refugee status in the region and take their issue off the table in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Invasion. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson helped scupper a plan by Saudi Arabia last year to invade Qatar, the Intercept reports. Citing a current intelligence official and two former State Department officials, the outlet reports that Tillerson intervened in the days and weeks after Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade on Qatar to stop a plan that would have aimed to “invade and essentially conquer” the diminutive Gulf state.

End game. A former U.S. Army colonel and a former State Department official have repeatedly met with Taliban representatives as part of a backchannel aimed at achieving a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan, the Daily Beast reports. Those talks have made significant progress and the Taliban have indicated they may be open to a continued U.S. troop presence in the country.

The war drags on. A suicide bombing outside Kabul left three NATO soldiers dead. The attack came on a day of heavy violence across the country, the New York Times reports.

Venezuela drone attack Six people have been arrested in Venezuela for involvement in an apparent assassination attempt on President Nicolás Maduro, according to the BBC. The incident happened when Mr Maduro was speaking at an event to mark the anniversary of the national guard. Two drones loaded with explosives went off near the president’s stand, injuring seven soldiers, according to Venezuelan authorities.

Active measures. Facebook revealed last week that it removed 32 accounts for engaging in political meddling on the platform and on Instagram. The company said it had observed links between the accounts and Russian propaganda outlets, but would not definitively attribute the campaign to Moscow.

In deleting the accounts, Facebook also took down an event page created by one of the fake accounts. That event was for an Aug. 12 counterprotest in Washington, D.C. in response to a white nationalist rally to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the violence in Charlottesville. Washington activists argue that the decision to delete the event page for an event that is now being organized by a coalition of local groups risks tarring them as a Russian front.

Facebook’s decision to go public with the takedown was laudable in its promotion of transparency, but the revelation that a possibly Russian account also had a bit role in organizing a protest has also accomplished the likely goal of those who initiated campaign: throwing further doubt into American public discourse.  

Tradecraft insight. Leaked emails between a Russian intelligence operative and a malware researcher show the operative attempting to obtain hacking exploits, the Associated Press reports. The Russian intelligence operative in question worked under the alias Kate Milton, and an FBI indictment last month revealed the operative to be the GRU officer Ivan Yermakov.

Show of something. Five intelligence community and national security officials took to the White House briefing room last week to warn that Russia will continue its attempts to meddle in American politics. The position contrasts with the skepticism President Donald Trump has expressed regarding the idea that Moscow was behind the campaign that helped him win the Oval Office.

The influence game. Exiled Russian energy tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky has launched a new site dubbed the Dossier Center that aims to expose the secrets of Russian corruption, the Associated Press reports. The site has already served as a source for several major exposes.

Google in China… A plan to launch a censored version of Google’s search engine in China, code-named Dragonfly, was set in motion since last spring when the company’s CEO Sundar Pichai met with a senior Chinese official, The Intercept reports. The world’s most popular search engine—which pulled its services from mainland China in 2010 after refusing to filter politically sensitive topics like the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre—plans to comply with the authoritarian government by blacklisting terms like “human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest.”

…and the backlash. Management at Google is trying to contain the uproar from its employees after details about Project Dragonfly were leaked, The Intercept reports. Amid the backlash the company decided to cut off employees’ access to internal documents except on a case-by-case basis.

Military cargo delivery… from space? In an interview with FP, U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command Chief Gen. Carlton Everhart considers how to leverage advances in commercial rockets and perhaps even prepositioning cargo in space.

I just had a visit with SpaceX and Virgin Orbital and I’m hoping to get to Blue Origin, because they tell me that they can go around the globe in 30 minutes with a BFR [SpaceX’s next-generation, reusable Big Falcon Rocket]. Thirty minutes, 150 metric tons, less than the cost of a C-5 [cargo plane].

What happens if we preposition cargo in space? I don’t have to use terrestrial means, I don’t have to use water means. I can just position in space and have a re-supplying vehicle come up and come back down. I don’t have to have people there, I just have to have the cargo there. Automated loading systems, those types of things.

What cargo would USAF put up there?

Can be anything. Obviously, if it’s food supplies, they go up there, doesn’t stay fresh. Water, that’s got to be worked through. But if you’re looking at materials, I don’t want to say dunnage, but things like that can survive in space. Could be hardware, could be a Humvee. I’m willing to stick anything up there.”

How soon could this happen?

I would like to introduce that, or at least start getting the initial resources done in the next [budget] cycle. You know me, I’d like to get it in 2020. Honestly 2022 is too late.

But realistically?

Within the next five years I think we could be right in on concept phase. Concept up in five years, actually routine [flights] probably in the next ten.

Iran tensions heat up Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps held a naval exercise in the Strait of Hormuz last week amid tense U.S.-Iranian relationships. Iran-backed Houthi rebels recently attacked several oil ships off the coast of Yemen, underscoring the threat Tehran poses to global energy choke points. Meanwhile,Trump and Iran President Hassan Rouhani traded barbs last month.

$1 billion for what? The Government Accountability Office found that the effort to dismantle the USS Enterprise, the U.S. Navy’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier which served for more than 50 years, could cost more than $1 billion. The Navy is now considering two potential options to dispose of the ship: Doing the work at a naval shipyard with the help of contractors, or turning the ship over to a private company to break down at a separate facility.

Drawing down in Africa. The Pentagon is weighing a plan to scale back the number of troops and Special Operations missions in Africa, a response to the Trump administration’s strategy to increasingly focus on threats from China and Russia, the New York Times reports. The plan by Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the leader of United States Africa Command, follows an ambush in Niger last fall that killed four American soldiers and an attack in southwestern Somalia that killed another in June.

Armed drones to Niger. The American military confirmed that it has deployed armed drones to Niger, where they are expected to be used in strikes against Islamist militants groups, Reuters reports.

AI contracting. The Defense Department inked an $885 million contract with government consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton to provide the Pentagon with artificial intelligence technology, the Wall Street Journal reports.

This could’ve gone worse. A giant meteor exploded last week above Thule Air Base in Greenland, the Aviationist reports. The explosion registered 2.1 kilotons of force, and could probably have been misinterpreted as a nuclear first strike. Thule hosts a key missile early warning radar facility.

Patriotic Swedes. Sweden will sign a $1 billion contract to acquire the Patriot missile system, Reuters reports. Swedish defense officials argue the missile is a necessary addition to counter increasingly aggressive Russian military activity in the region.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

 Twitter: @EliasGroll
Amy Cheng is an editorial intern covering defense and security. Born and raised in Beijing, she spent the summer of 2017 interning for the New York Times on topics such as censorship regulations and Chinese investment overseas. She is a rising senior majoring in Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale University, where she currently serves as the online editor of the Yale Daily News. Twitter: @Amy_23_Cheng
Tag: War