Security Brief

Security Brief: Trump Cancels Military Parade; Erik Prince Reups Plan to Privatize Afghan War

Catch up on everything you need to know about Trump’s $92 million military parade, the Blackwater founder’s proposal to privatize the war in Afghanistan, North Korea’s demands for a declaration to end the Korean War, and more.

French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Donald Trump look at members of the Fifth Regiment de Cuirassiers ride by in tanks as they attend the annual Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on July 14, 2017. JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Donald Trump look at members of the Fifth Regiment de Cuirassiers ride by in tanks as they attend the annual Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on July 14, 2017. JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump cancelled plans for a massive military parade in Washington after a news report pegged the cost at $92 million—almost ten times more than initial estimates. Meanwhile, the president is reportedly showing renewed interest in a proposal by Blackwater founder Erik Prince to replace troops in Afghanistan with private contractors, Trump’s new rules for cyber warfare, Pompeo names a new Syria envoy, and a little bit more.

Good Monday morning, and welcome to Security Brief. Please send your tips, questions, and feedback to lara.seligman@foreignpolicy.com.

Windfall. Trump cancelled plans for a massive military parade in the nation’s capital in a Friday tweet, blaming local government officials for inflating the price of the extravaganza.

“The local politicians who run Washington, D.C. (poorly) know a windfall when they see it,” Trump tweeted. “When asked to give us a price for holding a great celebratory military parade, they wanted a number so ridiculously high that I cancelled it.”

The tweet came after CNBC reported the parade was shaping up to cost $80 million more than initially expected. The $92 million cost estimate included security, transportation of parade assets, aircraft, and the use of eight tanks and other armored vehicles, according to CNBC.

Defense Secretary James Mattis initially disputed the $92 million figure, suggesting whoever leaked that number was “probably smoking something.” But Pentagon spokesman Col. Robert Manning later said the secretary had not yet received the range of estimated costs for the parade.

The event was initially scheduled for Nov. 10, during Veterans’ Day weekend. Now, it will be delayed until at least 2019.

“Maybe we will do something next year in D.C. when the cost comes WAY DOWN,” Trump tweeted. “Now we can buy some more jet fighters!”

Blackwater resurfaces. One year after Trump announced a new southeast Asia strategy that increased U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, the president is growing frustrated with the 17-year-old war and showing renewed interest in a proposal by Blackwater founder Erik Prince to privatize the conflict, NBC reported. Prince’s controversial plan, which first emerged last year during Trump’s Afghanistan strategy review, envisions replacing troops with private military contractors, and has raised ethical and security concerns among senior military officials, key lawmakers and members of Trump’s national security team.

It looks like Prince himself is driving these rumors. The staunch Trump supporter, whose sister is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, told NBC News he plans to launch an aggressive media “air campaign” in the coming days to try to get Trump to embrace his plan.

“I know he’s frustrated,” Prince said. “He gave the Pentagon what they wanted. …And they haven’t delivered.”

Bolton in Israel. White House national security adviser John Bolton, one of the administration’s leading hawks on Iran, met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday in Israel for talks on Tehran’s nuclear program. During the trip, Bolton will meet Russian officials in Geneva later as a follow-up to the Helsinki summit, and will also visit Ukraine.

Spy scandal. In late 2010, Chinese state security began rolling up the CIA’s network of informants in the country, and now we know why: The agency apparently botched the communication system it used to interact with sources. Writing for FP, Zach Dorfman provides new details on what is perhaps the greatest debacle in the CIA’s recent history.

Release the Kraken! President Donald Trump is relaxing restrictions on offensive cyber operations, giving the military greater leeway in conducting operations online, the Washington Post reports. The revision to the authorities to carry out cyberattacks comes as NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone, who also heads U.S. Cyber Command, is recommending that the two organizations remain under the leadership of one person for at least the next two years.   

Glowing Symphony. Documents newly obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University provide new details about the U.S. government’s attempts to counter the Islamic State online and disrupt its propaganda operations. The documents provide the most detailed timeline to date on the operation—dubbed Glowing Symphony and run by U.S. Cyber Command—and indicate it was at least partially successful in disrupting the militant group’s online presence.  

Trench warfare. European law enforcement officials are fighting back against the Islamic State’s online propaganda operations and  are comparing the effort aimed at eliminating its news outlets from the internet to trench warfare, the Washington Post reports.

Fun reading. The Pentagon’s latest assessment of China’s military abilities dropped late last week and concludes that the People’s Liberation Army has improved its abilities to carry out strikes against Taiwan and the United States. The full report is available here.

Next shoe to drop. Former CIA Director John Brennan said on Sunday that he is willing to go to court to challenge President Donald Trump’s decision to revoke his top secret clearance and to prevent him from retaliating against other critics by stripping them of clearances. “I am going to do whatever I can personally to try to prevent these abuses in the future, and if it means going to court, I will do that,” Brennan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

New Syria envoy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has a new Syria envoy. James Jeffrey joins the State Department from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy after a long career as a foreign service officer. A blunt speaking diplomat, Jeffrey has not minced words in his criticism of the Trump administration’s Middle East policy. “Putin is out to undermine the entire US security system in the Middle East, and Trump keeps allowing him to do this,” Jeffrey said last month. “Trump thinks he can get everything without any cost, and that’s a great fallacy in diplomacy.”

Xi to North Korea. President Xi Jinping is set to visit North Korea next month amid a glaring absence of progress in implementing the vague pledges made at the Singapore summit in June. The announcement of the Chinese leader’s visit comes on the heels of news that South Korean President Moon Jae-in will also travel to Pyongyang for a summit meeting in September.  

The state of play. North Korea late last week reiterated its demand for a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War, as South Korean officials hinted that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is likely to soon return to North Korea. Speaking to reporters ahead of a cabinet meeting last week, Pompeo said he hoped that “we can make a big step here before too long.”

Runaway train. Despite a lack of breakthroughs on nuclear issues, South Korean President Moon Jae-in continues to press ahead with his ambitious agenda to link the North and South Korean economies more closely. Moon said last week that he hopes to break ground on a project to link North and South Korean railways, which could serve as a major building block for greater trade between the two countries. “The reconnection of railroads and roads is the beginning of mutual prosperity on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said.

The big picture. South Korean economic analysts are salivating at the prospect of a more open North Korean economy, as Foreign Policy reported in June. Analysts at Samsung Securities—a division of the industrial giant — argue that North Korea could turn into a regional manufacturing and logistics hub, an idea that sounds wildly unrealistic until you begin to consider the details.

New sanctions. The Trump administration slapped sanctions last week on a set of Chinese and Russian firms that are accused of facilitating illicit shipments to North Korea. The move comes as Washington continues to struggle to secure support in Beijing and Moscow for maintaining a stiff sanctions regime on North Korea.

Inspections, sort of. North Korea has reportedly agreed to allow inspectors from the International Civil Aviation Organization to carry out inspections of the country’s ballistic missile launchers.

This will raise some eyebrows. President Donald Trump said last week that he may ignore requirements in the defense budget law he signed last week that prohibit him from using funds to recognize Russia’s seizure of Crimea. In a signing statement, Trump argued the language in the bill undermines his ability to dictate U.S. foreign policy.

Sanctions bite. French energy giant Total has pulled out of Iran and walked away from a major gas development project, CNBC reports. The move comes on the heels of the Trump administration’s move to reimpose sanctions on Iran.

Meanwhile in Tehran. Iran’s defense minister said on Saturday that his country will reveal a new fighter jet this week and that his country will continue to develop its missile systems, Reuters reports.

Ceasefire. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced on Monday a ceasefire marking the Eid holiday, a move that comes on the heels of a period of intense fighting between government and insurgent forces.

Worth a read. Veteran New York Times correspondent Rod Nordland reflects on America’s longest-running war: “Two wars are convulsing Afghanistan, the war of blood and guts, and the war of truth and lies. Both have been amassing casualties at a remarkable rate recently.”

A new boogeyman. National Security Advisor John Bolton warned on Sunday that China, Iran, and North Korea may be trying to interfere in American politics. “I can say definitively that it’s a sufficient national security concern about Chinese meddling, Iranian meddling and North Korean meddling that we’re taking steps to try and prevent it,” Bolton said during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.”

The front line. The FBI is investigating attempts to penetrate the computer systems of a challenger to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the California Republican who is widely regarded as the most pro-Russian lawmaker in Washington, Rolling Stone reports. It is unclear who was behind the attacks.

Yemen. Following an airstrike in Yemen that left scores of children dead, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, asked American military commanders whether they are able to track the purpose of air-strikes carried out by members of the Saudi-led coalition there. The United States supports the coalition with logistics, munitions, and refueling capabilities. U.S. forces also provide intelligence support to the coalition, but the exact nature of that relationship is unclear.

Modernizing the Backfire. Russia is in the process of modernizing its fleet of Tu-22M supersonic bombers, and is nearing ground and flight trials for the revamped jets, FlightGlobal reports. The first of the updated planes rolled out of a UAC plant in mid-month.

Chinese espionage. Cybersecurity companies warn that Chinese hackers are stepping up campaigns linked to the Belt and Road Initiative, a giant infrastructure project. The operations are geared both toward generating commercial advantage and to quelling dissent.

Hypersonics. Defense giant Lockheed Martin is quickly setting itself up as a powerhouse in the manufacture of hypersonic weapons, Defense News reports. The company has won another contract for the development of a hypersonic weapon that the Air Force hopes to rapidly field. With Russia and China heavily investing in the technology, defense officials have identified major advances in hypersonic weapons as a key priority.

The scandal with no end. Prosecutors announced charges against three retired Navy sailors for their involvement in the bribery scheme masterminded by the defense contractor Leonard Glenn Francis, better known as “Fat Leonard.” The case was made public five years ago and has netted charges against 32 people.

Southern Command. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced that he will nominate his top military assistant to lead U.S. Southern Command. If confirmed by the Senate, Navy Vice Admiral Craig Faller would complete a rapid rise to four-star admiral, having had just two stars as of January last year.

The new refugee crisis. The United States is preparing to send the hospital ship USNS Comfort to Colombia to provide medical care for the huge number of refugees fleeing Venezuela, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said over the weekend. The timing of the ship’s deployment remains unclear but it is expected to sail in the fall.

Correction, Aug. 20, 2018: The United States is preparing to send a hospital ship to Colombia to provide medical care for refugees fleeing Venezuela. A previous version of this article misstated the refugees’ country of origin.

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

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

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