Security Brief

Security Brief: ‘Fighting Hate Is Everyone’s Job’; Bolton’s Whisper Campaign

A Q&A with the head of the humanitarian group suspected Tree of Life attacker Robert Bowers was obsessed with, John Bolton tries to ice out key members of Trump’s Cabinet, the Pentagon’s cyber campaign to protect the midterm elections, and more.

Police tape and memorial flowers are seen on October 28, 2018 outside the Tree of Life Synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Police tape and memorial flowers are seen on October 28, 2018 outside the Tree of Life Synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Robert Bowers, the suspect in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting on Saturday that left 11 people dead, seemed particularly obsessed with the Jewish humanitarian group HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). Mark Hetfield, its CEO, told FP during an interview Saturday that xenophobia is rising globally. Back in Washington, John Bolton and his deputy have their knives out for cabinet rivals. Meanwhile Brazil votes for its own Donald Trump, the Pentagon begins a cyber campaign against Russian disinformation, the debate over Iran sanctions, and more.

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

Words have consequences. Saturday’s massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue was the worst such attack on Jewish life in American history, and it comes on the heels of a series of dog-whistle comments from President Donald Trump, who has made an approaching caravan of Central American migrants a key issue ahead of next month’s midterm elections. FP’s Michael Hirsh and Robbie Gramer chronicle the recent history of racist remarks and politics that preceded Saturday’s massacre.

Robert Bowers, the suspect charged in Saturday’s massacre, was obsessed with the humanitarian group HIAS, which works on refugee resettlement. “Fighting hate is everyone’s job,” the group’s CEO, Mark Hetfield, told FP over the weekend.  

“Too often nice people don’t speak up when they hear hateful speech. They just decide to ignore it or write it off as it being one crazy person’s opinion,” Hetfield said. “But we can’t do that anymore. Every time we hear it, we have to speak out. We have to take action against it because, as I said, hateful speech almost always leads to hateful action.”

Whisper campaign. National Security Adviser John Bolton and Mira Ricardel, his deputy, are trying squeeze Mattis out of the Trump administration by not holding regular meetings and spreading rumors of his imminent departure, sources tell Foreign Policy.

But don’t hold your breath for Mattis’ exit. The defense secretary and his supporters are digging in their heels. If Trump wants him out—and many say that’s still a big “if,”—the president will have to fire him.

Mattis is not the only member of the Cabinet to get the Bolton treatment. In his push to seal the southern border against the migrant caravan, Bolton iced out Chief of Staff John Kelly, the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon, the Daily Beast reports.  

John Doe. An American man held for more than year and suspected of fighting on behalf of the Islamic State has been released to Bahrain, the New York Times reports.  Abdulrahman Ahmad Alsheikh is a dual Saudi and U.S. citizen. His name was previously withheld.

Alsheikh was captured by Kurdish forces in Syria and turned over to American troops, who imprisoned him at a base in Iraq. His legal case represented a major test for the government’s legal powers to detain enemy combatants. Alsheikh was never charged with a crime and joins his wife and child in Bahrain.

Meet Gab. Shortly before Robert Bowers entered a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday, he posted on the social media platform Gab about his intentions: “Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Saturday’s massacre has cast new attention on the platform, which bills itself as a free-speech haven lacking the content moderation recently embraced by major platforms, the Washington Post reports.

Gab has gained widespread popularity among the alt-right and has become a haven for white nationalists and anti-Semites such as Bowers, who posted extensively about his hate of Jews on the platform. The website is now facing pressure from companies hosting the service, with Gab officials saying over the weekend that the platform may have to go offline for a time.

Call it what it is. Saturday’s massacre is being described in some quarters as an act of terrorism, and the scholar Daniel Byman argues it is important to use the term to describe events in Pittsburgh. “Doing so could spur the United States to put more resources into fighting anti-Semites, white nationalists, and violent domestic extremists.”

Brazil elections. Brazilians elected the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro as its next president in a second round of voting over the weekend. Bolsonaro has strong ties to the Brazilian military and has vowed a brutal crackdown on crime and his political enemies.

Israel vs. Iran. Israel has been conducting an aggressive military campaign across Syria against Iran-backed militia groups, an effort the White House has applauded. But military officials say they fear it could backfire, the Wall Street Journal reports.

A thousand words. The New York Times published devastating photos of the humanitarian catastrophe underway in Yemen in an online feature and its print edition last week. The author writes that the economic war that risks tipping the country into a famine of disastrous proportions is even more insidious than the airstrikes that have killed thousands of civilians over the past three years.

Mattis on Khashoggi. Speaking to an international security conference in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis vowed the United States will hold accountable for those responsible for killing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and a Virginia resident.

Showdown. Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, says he won’t let Saudi Arabia get away with a slap on the wrist for the killing of Khashoggi. Paul is “intent on forcing another vote to block billions in arm sales to the autocratic Middle Eastern kingdom and won’t settle for targeted sanctions,” Politico reports.

Attribution. The cybersecurity firm FireEye found that an advanced malware that struck a Saudi petrochemical plant was developed by a Russian research lab. That malware raised alarms when it in 2017 nearly caused an explosion at a Saudi production facility.

Running interference. The Pentagon is launching a campaign against Russian hackers thought to be preparing to interfere in upcoming U.S. midterm elections, the New York Times reports. The operation is the first of its kind by U.S. Cyber Command, which recently received greater authority to carry out operations, and involves delivering messages to Russian hackers that American operatives have identified them and are tracking their work.

Out of options. Mattis’ talks with European allies so far have not resulted in any suggestions for addressing Russia’s violation of a Cold War-era arms control pact other than for the United States to withdraw, according to the defense secretary. Countering rumors that Europe was kept in the dark about Trump’s decision to pull out of the INF Treaty, Mattis also said he asked European allies for ideas at a NATO meeting in Belgium earlier this month.

This’ll be fun. While in Moscow, National Security Adviser John Bolton extended an invitation on behalf of President Trump for Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Washington next year. No word yet on whether Putin has accepted the invitation. But the Kremlin said Monday that Putin wants to discuss U.S. plans to exit the INF treaty when the two meet in Paris on Nov. 11.

The AI wars. Microsoft announced that it will continue to provide artificial intelligence technology to the U.S. defense and intelligence agencies, a move that comes as major companies such as Google are questioning the ethics of providing tools that could be used for surveillance or violence.

The announcement marks a major milestone in the ongoing culture war between Washington and Silicon Valley. With Washington eager to obtain advanced AI technology that China is making heavy investments in, Google made major headlines earlier this year when it dropped out of a federal cloud computing contract. Microsoft’s announcement that it will supply the Defense Department with artificial intelligence and cloud computing products marks a major victory for the Pentagon.

Rigged. Speaking of DOD and technology, two members of Congress are seeking a formal investigation into claims that the bidding process for a contentious $10 billion Pentagon contract was rigged in favor of Amazon. The contract in question would give one company full reign over the Defense Department’s Joint Enterprise Defense Initiative, or JEDI Cloud—a program that the Pentagon has described as “truly about increasing the lethality of our department.”

Snagged. A French and German initiative to jointly develop a next-generation fighter jet has reportedly stalled over intense disagreements over export restrictions on the planned plane. French officials are demanding that the plane face no export restrictions as a condition of moving ahead with the project, a demand that German officials are rejecting.

More violence in Syria. The Islamic State group killed at least 40 U.S.-backed Syrian fighters, captured several alive and regained areas they lost earlier this month in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border in some of the most intense fighting in weeks, according to a war monitor and an agency linked to ISIS. Meanwhile, the Turkish army shelled on Sunday positions held by the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria, east of the Euphrates River, in a new spike in tension along the borders.

‘2010 called.’ Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford insists that the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan is showing results, but one reporter said Dunford’s remarks don’t pass the smell test.

Iran sanctions. The Trump administration is in the midst of an intense debate over how hard to push European allies to cut off business with Iran and whether to levy sanctions on the international banking network Swift, the Wall Street Journal reports. The debate comes ahead of a Nov. 4 deadline, when American sanctions on Iran go back into place.

A call for transparency. Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee who is expected to take the helm if the Democrats win back the House, criticizes Trump’s DOD for rolling back the kind of basic transparency that prevents waste and fraud, enables Congressional oversight, and promotes public trust.

Another one! Facebook announced that it scrubbed an Iranian disinformation campaign from the platform, deleting 82 pages, accounts, and groups from the platform for spreading divisive messages targeting the upcoming American midterm election.

Afghan-related sanctions. The Trump administration imposed sanctions on Iranians alleged to provide support to the Taliban insurgency and a set of Afghan militants, Reuters reports.

Deal in doubt. Lockheed Martin’s potential $15 billion sale to Saudi Arabia of its Thaad air-defense system may be the unfinished deal most vulnerable to growing demand to stop arms sales to the kingdom after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Bloomberg reports. It’s not just about the money: If the sale is denied or delayed, the Saudis will likely seek alternative suppliers, most likely Russia’s advanced air defense system the controversial S-400.

China’s defense minister to Washington. Defense Secretary James Mattis said his Chinese counterpart would be visiting Washington this week to continue talks on military relations between the two countries. “Strategic competition does not imply hostility,” Mattis said during a speech in Bahrain.

Making friends. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrapped up a three-day visit to China Saturday, marking a major effort to improve ties between the two countries amid a trade war between Washington and Beijing and a diplomatic offensive on the Korean peninsula. Xi and Chinese President Xi Jinping inked business deals worth $2.6 billion.

Come on in. In the wake of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty, Poland has said US medium-range missiles are welcome on its soil. President Andrzej Duda blames Russia for the end of the treaty.

The tapes. CIA director Gina Haspel has briefed President Donald Trump on her visit to Turkey this week over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. During her trip, Haspel reportedly heard audio recordings that Ankara claims capture the murder. No details of the briefing have been released.

Ballots and bullets. Despite the Taliban’s attacks on polling stations across the country, Afghans showed up in large numbers to vote in last Saturday’s parliamentary elections. Their commitment once again debunked the myths and caricatures so readily put forth by Western commentators that Afghans do not want democracy, writes Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution.

So it begins. The Pentagon’s assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, Robert Karem, is leaving his Senate-confirmed post to work for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of the first changes in personnel expected from now until after the midterm elections. Karem departs just 18 months after the Senate confirmed him.

The Russian connection. A Facebook account that appears to belong to Cesar Sayoc, the man accused of mailing pipe bombs to slew of Trump critics, made posts that echo Kremlin propaganda lines, the Washington Post reports.

Success. An American Standard Missile-3 Block IIA successfully shot down a test ballistic missile, Defense News reports. Set to be deployed as part of the Aegis ballistic missile defense system, the weapon is a joint project between the United States and Japan. The previous two ballistic missile defense tests of the missile failed.

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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