Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer. Look out for special editions of this newsletter Feb. 16-19 as SitRep heads to Germany to give you behind-the-scenes looks and breaking news from The Munich Security Conference, one of the most consequential gatherings of world leaders.

Security Brief: Beginning of the End for Mattis; Khashoggi Strains U.S.-Saudi Alliance; Brunson Comes Home

Everything you need to know about Trump’s ‘60 Minutes’ interview, Ankara’s sudden decision to release American pastor Andrew Brunson, Hurricane Michael’s trail of destruction at a major Florida air force base, and more.

U.S. President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Vice President Mike Pence walk into the Pentagon for a meeting January 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Vice President Mike Pence walk into the Pentagon for a meeting January 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Vice President Mike Pence walk into the Pentagon for a meeting January 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump signaled on Sunday that he may be making a few changes to his cabinet, and those changes may include replacing Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The outcry over disappeared Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle calling for answers and major U.S. firms pulling out of an upcoming investors conference in Riyadh. Meanwhile, dozens of ambassador posts and senior State Department positions still sit empty, Hurricane Michael wreaks havoc on a major U.S. Air Force base in Florida, the U.S. Navy’s top officer is cleared of wrongdoing after allegations that his staffer pawed several women during an office Christmas party, and more.

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

The beginning of the end. It has been rumored for months that Trump is tiring of Mattis and wants to replace him with someone more in line with his own hawkish views. But in an interview that aired on ‘60 Minutes’ on Sunday, Trump gave the clearest signal yet that the retired U.S. Marine Corps general and commander of U.S. Central Command under President Obama could be the next Cabinet member to get the axe.

President Donald Trump signaled on Sunday that he may be making a few changes to his cabinet, and those changes may include replacing Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The outcry over disappeared Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle calling for answers and major U.S. firms pulling out of an upcoming investors conference in Riyadh. Meanwhile, dozens of ambassador posts and senior State Department positions still sit empty, Hurricane Michael wreaks havoc on a major U.S. Air Force base in Florida, the U.S. Navy’s top officer is cleared of wrongdoing after allegations that his staffer pawed several women during an office Christmas party, and more.

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

The beginning of the end. It has been rumored for months that Trump is tiring of Mattis and wants to replace him with someone more in line with his own hawkish views. But in an interview that aired on ‘60 Minutes’ on Sunday, Trump gave the clearest signal yet that the retired U.S. Marine Corps general and commander of U.S. Central Command under President Obama could be the next Cabinet member to get the axe.

Asked by CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl if Mattis is going to be leaving, Trump at first demurred, saying “He hasn’t told me that. I have a very good relationship with him.” But then he threw a barb: “It could be that he is. I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth.”

This could be an indication of a dynamic the press has long suspected: that Mattis and his commander-in-chief don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues, from Iran to the cancellation of military exercises on the Korean peninsula. It also sets Mattis up for a graceful exit, rather than an embarrassing firing, which would sit better with the former Marine’s numerous supporters.

Although Trump dismissed reports of chaos in the White House as “fake news,” he hinted during the interview that he will make a number of changes in his administration after the midterms, beyond Mattis. There are “some people” that “he’s not thrilled with,” he told Stahl.

“I’m changing things around. And I’m entitled to. I have people now on standby that will be phenomenal. They’ll come into the administration, they’ll be phenomenal,” he said.

Watch the segment for yourself here.

Keeping busy. But Mattis is not taking a pause in his busy schedule. The SECDEF on Tuesday kicks off a rare second trip this year to Vietnam, signaling how intensively the Trump administration is trying to counter China’s military assertiveness by cozying up to smaller nations in the region.

Speaking of which. Members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance are stepping up their efforts to share intelligence on Chinese foreign influence activities, Reuters reports.

The boy princes. The reported assassination of the Saudi Arabian writer Jamal Khashoggi — and the subsequent outcry in Washington — threatens to place major strain on the U.S.-Saudi alliance.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are calling for answers in Khashoggi’s mysterious disappearance, and a who’s-who of American corporations have pulled out of an upcoming investors conference in Saudi Arabia. The heads of Uber and JP Morgan announced they will not attend, and only Fox Business Network remains among the conference’s media sponsors. At least one of the kingdom’s lobbying firms have cut ties with the country, and on Sunday the Saudi stock market slid 7 percent. A joint statement by the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and Great Britain called for “a credible investigation to establish the truth about what happened.”  

On Monday, Saudi King Salman ordered an investigation of Khashoggi’s disappearance and a search of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and Turkish officials claim that he was killed and dismembered inside the diplomatic facility. Turkish officials say they are in possession of video and audio recordings proving that sequence of events and that they have shared that material.

If Saudi Arabia killed Khashoggi, Trump said his assassination would trigger “severe punishment,” but on Sunday Riyadh said it would not give in to “threats.” According to a widely circulated column by a journalist close to the royal court, Riyadh is considering a slate of more than 30 possible retaliatory acts if Saudi Arabia faces sanctions. Those measures include, improbably, a closer Saudi relationship with Iran.

The writer’s likely assassination poses a major crisis for the Trump administration and, especially, advisor Jared Kushner. Trump’s son-in-law played a key role in aligning the administration with MBS, both against his internal and regional rivals, in particular Iran. The crisis could endanger billions in Saudi arms purchases from the United States, though the president said those contracts are likely safe for now.

A “likely period of relative estrangement” between “the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is an important opportunity to reset some of the basic terms of the relationship,” the plugged-in analyst Hussein Ibish writes. “But it’s got to be done carefully and intelligently, and both sides are going to have to adjust their way of doing business.”

Deal or no deal? The crisis sparked by Khashoggi’s alleged killing has fueled calls for the United States to reconsider proposed $110 billion in arms sales to the kingdom that have been championed by Trump. The administration says nixing the deal would cost tens of thousands of U.S. jobs. Here’s a look at the details.

The view from Foggy Bottom. The Trump administration’s ability to weather the crisis in relations with Saudi Arabia is being tested at a time when the U.S. diplomatic corps remains under strain. The United States is without an ambassador in both Riyadh and Ankara, and the diplomatic spat has reignited a Washington blame-game over what the Trump administration argues is obstruction on Capitol Hill over diplomatic nominees, Foreign Policy reports.  

Brunson released. Trump welcomed home on Saturday the American pastor freed by Turkey after two years in detention, a development that will do much to diffuse recent tensions between Ankara and Washington. Brunson’s imprisonment has been a major roadblock in U.S.-Turkey relations over the past few years, particularly amongst U.S. lawmakers, and his release paves the way for improved cooperation, both in Syria and regarding several major arms sales.

In what could be a boon to U.S. defense giant Raytheon, Congress may now be more open to selling Turkey the Patriot surface-to-air missile system, in exchange for Ankara terminating a deal to buy Russia’s S-400 missile system. This in turn would allow Congress to lift restrictions on transferring the stealthy F-35 fighter jet to Turkish officials.

Brunson’s release came as the Turkish government was seeking help from Trump in its confrontation with Saudi Arabia over the disappearance and apparent murder of a Saudi journalist, but Trump denied that the two are related.

‘Probably.’ President Donald Trump downplayed the significance of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s alleged involvement in a spate of assassinations of Kremlin critics. Putin was “probably” involved in those assassinations, Trump said in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” but noted they did not take place “in our country.”

100 percent ‘uninhabitable.’ Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, and Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright touched down Sunday at Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle to survey the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael last week, Foreign Policy first reported over the weekend. Although about 600 military families face long waits to return to housing destroyed by the Category 4 storm, as “100 percent of the housing on that base in uninhabitable,” not one airman or family member was injured, the three senior leaders said in a Sunday night statement.

Still, the damage on the base was severe, particularly around the flightline. A number of costly stealth F-22 fighter jets were left behind for maintenance or safety reasons. Word is that as many of 17 of these aircraft, at roughly $150 million a pop, did not evacuate, and instead weathered the storm from inside “the highest storm-rated hangars,” according to one Air Force official.

The good news is that all of the F-22s were intact and looked “much better than expected considering the surrounding damage to some structures,” the senior leaders said. Although it’s too soon to say that the damaged aircraft can all be repaired and sent back to the skies, “preliminary indications are promising.”

Silver lining. Some of the U.S. military’s other stealth fighter jet, the F-35, are back in the skies after the entire fleet was temporarily grounded last week. Many of the foreign jets, including Israeli, Italian and British aircraft, are already flying. The investigation into a September crash of a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B, which prompted the stand-down, is still ongoing.

Bad Santa. A Pentagon Inspector General probe into how the Navy’s top officer, Adm. John Richardson, handled sexual misconduct allegations against his then-public affairs officer cleared him of official wrongdoing, but found he could have replaced the officer in a timelier manner. While Richardson said he decided to remove Cmdr. Chris Servello, who was accused of pawing at female coworkers while dressed as Santa Claus at an office Christmas party, in April of 2017, he failed to act on it until August 18, 2017, according to the report. Servello is now back in the Pentagon, working for the Defense Media Activity.

The cyber. An eye-opening new Government Accountability Office report finds that U.S. weapons systems are widely vulnerable to hackers and that the Pentagon is only beginning to grapple with the scale of American weapons systems cyber vulnerabilities, Foreign Policy reports.

The report paints a dire picture of the cybersecurity features of American weapons systems and concludes that an entire generation of weapons are likely vulnerable to being hacked. Weapons testers managed in some systems to manipulate what the soldiers operating the weapon were seeing on their computer screens. In another case described in the report, weapons testers “caused a pop-up message to appear on users’ terminals instructing them to insert two quarters to continue operating.”

Hacked. Hackers accessed travel records and credit information belonging to up to 30,000 Pentagon workers after breaking into a Pentagon travel system, according to the Associated Press.

Fancy Bear. Researchers with the cybersecurity firm ESET discovered links between the malware used to twice cut power in Ukraine and the NotPetya ransomware. Intelligence officials have previously said they believe the same Russian hacking group, and ESET’s report provides some of the first independent analysis to back that conclusion. NotPetya, which infected millions of computers around the globe, is believed to be the costliest malware in history in terms of the damage it inflicted.

Runaway train. North and South Korea agreed on Monday to break ground in November or early December on a project to connect and modernize the two countries’ railroad systems, Yonhap reports. Connecting railways represents a highly touted initiative to open the North’s economy and link it more closely to the South. The railway link could spur trade between the two countries and create a cheap way to transport goods made in the South to global markets by shipping them through North Korea and then onwards on Russian trains.

While Washington has insisted that sanctions on North Korea will not be lifted until the country gives up its nuclear weapons, Seoul continues to pursue an economic opening with the North. Monday’s announcement is the latest evidence of the growing gap between Seoul and Washington on the issue. Treasury Department officials are explicitly warning South Korean banks against doing business with the North.

If there was any doubt about North Korea’s interest in outside investment, the country has launched a new website dedicated to external trade.

Washington, meanwhile, continues to look for any points of leverage it can find with the North and has banned American aid workers from traveling to North Korea.

Abductees. Japanese officials have “sounded out North Korea” about a plan to establish a liaison office in Pyongyang focused on resolving the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea, Japan Times reports.

Another turn of the screw. The Trump administration continued to step up pressure on China last week by extraditing a Chinese intelligence officer from Belgium to stand trial in the United States on charges of corporate espionage. The White House has in recent weeks stepped up its rhetoric against China, and the extradition, the first of its kind, represents the latest move by the government to counter what it describes as stepped up Chinese intelligence activities against the United States.

Iran. Western intelligence officials believe an Iranian diplomat may have been plotting a terrorist attack in France as part of a plot to retaliate against U.S. pressure on the country. “The foiled plot has sparked growing anxiety in France, Germany, and several other countries, including the United States and Israel, that Iran is planning audacious terrorist attacks and has stepped up its intelligence operations around the world,” the Washington Post reports.

Turmoil in the Baghdad bureau. Former New York Times Baghdad bureau chief Margaret Coker appears to have been fired by the paper because of her apparent role in blocking fellow Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi’s entry into the country.

At least the gun works. A maintenance worker at Florennes Air Force Base in Belgium destroyed an F-16 fighter jet after he accidentally opened fire on the plane with another F-16’s Vulcan cannon, Task and Purpose reports.

Aegis. South Korean defense officials revealed they plan to purchase the ship-based Standard Missile-3 as part of a bid to improve its ballistic missile defense system, Defense News reports. The country is also examining developing an indigenous system to counter North Korean artillery capabilities that would be modeled on Israel’s Iron Dome.

Watch this space. Chinese state media confirmed that the country’s new stealth bomber will be designated the “H-20.” The report claimed that designing and manufacturing the plane is making “great progress.” A separate report claimed the plane is likely to soon make its first test flight.

Merger. What started as a social relationship between L3 Technologies CEO Chris Kubasik and Harris CEO Bill Brown led to Sunday’s announcement that the two firms intend to merge, creating a new $16 billion aerospace company that would be one of the largest defense contractors in America, Marcus Weisgerber reports for Defense One. Based on 2017 revenue, L3 Harris would be the world’s seventh-largest defense firm, and the sixth-largest U.S. defense firm.

Band-aid. A dozen Venezuelan doctors who live in the United States volunteered to join the USNS Comfort as the U.S. Navy ship visits three South American countries that are struggling to cope with a flood of migrants from crisis-wracked Venezuela. The doctors can provide only temporary relief, but “it’s the right thing to do for our country,” said one.

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

Twitter: @EliasGroll

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.