Security Brief

Security Brief: The Generals’ Pentagon; Dispatch from Halifax

DOD civilians feel they no longer have a seat at the table, lawmakers and officials let loose at Halifax, dueling price tags on Space Force, and more.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks during a press briefing at the Pentagon August 28, 2018 in Arlington, VA. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks during a press briefing at the Pentagon August 28, 2018 in Arlington, VA. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

The Pentagon’s civilian arm is struggling to maintain its influence as the military increasingly exerts its voice on key policy decisions. Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer reports from the Halifax International Security Forum, where the United States’ top military commander criticized Google for cooperating with China but not the Pentagon, the Turkish defense minister gave new details about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and NATO officials weighed in on the “EU army” concept. Meanwhile, top DOD leadership is still dueling with the Air Force over Space Force, Finland and Norway accuse Russia of signal-jamming during a big NATO exercise, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange may be getting indicted, and more.

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

Generals vs. policy wonks. Frustrated by lack of influence and disheartened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, Department of Defense civilians are heading for the door, leaving key positions unfilled in a Pentagon increasingly run by active-duty or retired military officers, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman writes.

Described in interviews with a dozen former and current DOD officials, the exodus has insiders and observers worried that civilian control of the military is being undercut.

“The Joint Staff and the [combatant commanders] are having a field day,” said one Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They don’t answer any requests, they feel emboldened, and Policy is really struggling.”

Oh, Canada. Some 300 lawmakers, national security experts and government officials convened in gray, drizzly Halifax this weekend for a marathon of panel discussions and closed door sessions at the 10th annual Halifax International Security Forum. FP’s Robbie Gramer was on hand and has the highlights:

Trump & Khashoggi. Sen. Tim Kaine, Democratic Senator from Virginia, unloaded on Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a small press conference alongside six other Republican and Democratic senators in Halifax. “His murder was a state sponsored murder. It’s completely unacceptable,” he said.

Following reports the CIA concluded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally directed the murder of Khashoggi last month at its consulate in Istanbul, Trump and the State Department issued non-denial denials: Trump said the U.S. wouldn’t issue its final conclusions on Khashoggi’s killing until Monday or Tuesday, and said he refused to listen to the tape of Khashoggi’s murder, shared by Turkey with the United States and several European countries.

The State Department on Saturday night tried to pour cold water on the revelation of the CIA’s conclusion, first reported by the Washington Post, issuing a statement saying: “Recent reports indicating that the U.S. government has made a final conclusion are inaccurate.”

Former and current U.S. officials point out to Foreign Policy that the final U.S. government’s conclusion and the CIA’s independent findings are two separate things.

The administration’s refusal to determine MBS’s involvement in the murder has given Saudi Arabia more breathing room, but Kaine’s remarks in Halifax reflect a growing anger in Congress at Riyadh, particularly after the Saudi government changed and backtracked its story on Khashoggi multiple times.

“The repeated sets of lies are infuriating,” Kaine said. Khashoggi was a resident of Virginia, and Kaine said Khashoggi’s children are U.S. citizens living in Virginia who have engaged with his office. “There has to be accountability for this, and I think it will involve some very fundamental re-evaluation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.”

Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, also addressed the issue, speaking at the conference on Saturday. He said it was an 18-person team sent to Turkey to kill Khashoggi, and speculated that the team carried Khashoggi’s dismembered body out of the country in parts through commercial airports in diplomatic pouches.

The intelligence angle. Recent stories in the New York Times and Washington Post have featured a remarkable amount of detail about the contents of phone calls intercepted by American intelligence agencies targeting Saudi officials.

Per the Post, U.S. agencies succeeded in tapping the phone of the Saudi ambassador to Washington and caught him using a phone call to lure Khashoggi to Istanbul. And per the Times, American spies succeeded in picking up calls between the Saudi ambassador and MBS (the two men are brothers).

Afghanistan. U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conceded that the war in Afghanistan has ground into a stalemate and that Kabul and Washington are a “long way” from reaching a point of reconciliation with the Taliban.

“They are not losing right now, I think that is fair to say,” Dunford said. “We used the term stalemate a year ago and, relatively speaking, it has not changed much.”

Even that outlook may be too optimistic: Recent analysis from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies shows half of Afghanistan’s population lives in districts outside the central government’s control.

Silver lining? But prospects for peace might be looking up. The Taliban held three days of talks with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in the Gulf state of Qatar, where the Afghan insurgent group has a political office, a Taliban official and another person close to the group said Sunday.

Google’s Double Standard? Dunford also vented about Silicon Valley tech giants’ refusal to work with the Pentagon given how engaged the company is in China. “I have a hard time with companies that are working very hard to engage in the market inside China … then don’t want to work with the U.S. military,” he said. “I just have a simple expression: “We are the good guys.”

He didn’t explicitly mention Google but it was easy to read between the lines. Earlier this year, Google scuttled an artificial intelligence project with the Pentagon, Project Maven, after thousands of employees signed a petition protesting the initiative, which uses AI to analyze large quantities of video intelligence. The technology has potential applications in, among other things, drone targeting and explosive detection.

In an odd coincidence, Diane Green, the head of Google’s cloud computing business and the person who made the decision to pull out of Project Maven, stepped down on Friday three years after taking on the role.  

EU and what Army? European leaders are bristling at yet another Twitter offensive from the American president centering around a “European army”–an initiative both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed but Trump slammed in a social media rant.

Stuart Peach, chairman of the NATO Military Committee and U.K air marshall, called a new EU force “duplicative” and “unwise” in an interview with Defense News at Halifax.

Proponents say the EU army concept shows Europe is finally stepping up on defense and could give the continent more autonomy from U.S. military power–something Trump himself and past U.S. presidents past have called for. Critics say it would duplicate and undercut NATO. It’s a longstanding debate that became a political red herring full of myths and misperceptions over the years.

Wall of SAM’s. The top American commander in the Pacific used the gathering at Halifax to float a new catchphrase to reiterate warnings of China beefing up its military footprint on artificial islands in the contested South China Sea. “What was a great wall of sand just three years ago,” will be “a great wall of SAMs,” said Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, referring to Chinese air defense systems.

For years, China has been inching its way into the South China Sea, a strategic waterway vital for maritime trade, piling sand into artificial islands to extend its claim over seas that other countries claim as their own, and then fortifying the islands with military hardware and anti-air systems that can stop the U.S. military from getting close.

Davidson also reiterated calls for additional funds to keep up with the growing Chinese fleet. “The Navy’s made a point that we need a bigger Navy, and I fully support that issue going forward,” he said.

“We retain the capabilities to counter such threats,” he said. “We think those advantages are eroding over time … unless we continue to have sustainable, predictable resources that allow us to stay ahead of the threat.”

Latest Trump drama. In a testy, wide-ranging interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace, President Donald Trump delivered a surprising attack on the former head of U.S. Special Operations Command, Adm. William McRaven. Trump called McRaven a “Hillary Clinton fan” and an “Obama backer.” McRaven has previously criticized the president for his attacks on the news media.

Back stateside… Assange drama. U.S. prosecutors have secretly assembled an indictment against Julian Assange after American spy agencies stepped up intelligence operations against WikiLeaks, the New York Times reports.

The possible indictment of Assange represents a major escalation against the whistleblowing operation, which played a key role in the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 election. The charges against him remain unknown, but Assange’s prosecution raises broad questions for press freedoms. American prosecutors have a number of different routes they could pursue, FP’s Elias Groll writes.

Disinfo watch. Last week the New York Times shed light on one of the major unanswered questions regarding the Russian campaign to meddle in the 2016 election: What exactly happened inside Facebook as Kremlin operatives seeded the platform with disinformation?

The answer to that question isn’t pretty for the company. Top executives—principally, Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg—failed to grasp the severity of the problem, concealed the extent of the Russian operation, and even hired a firm, Definers Public Affairs, that attacked the company’s critics by invoking their ties to financier George Soros, according to the Times.

Facebook issued an angry denial and has ended its relationship with Definers.

Facebook’s former top security official, Alex Stamos, offered a response that is well-worth reading. He acknowledges the premise of the Times story, but identifies others who ought to come in for criticism as well, in particular the media and the U.S. intelligence community.

Hacking watch. Hackers thought to be working on behalf of the Russian government impersonated State Department employees in an attempt to break into government and private sector computer systems, Reuters reports.  

Arms test. North Korean state media said leader Kim Jong Un oversaw a test of an “ultramodern tactical weapon,” the first apparent weapons test Kim participated in since halting missile flights as part of a diplomatic opening with Washington. The nature of the weapon remains unclear.

The other diplomatic front. Andrew Kim, the head of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center, was in Seoul for four days of secret talks, Yonhap reports. Kim is one of the key, fairly unknown players in Washington’s diplomatic opening toward the North.

Yemen. Amid the widespread violence of Yemen’s civil war, the American use of drone strikes in the country has recently gone mostly unexamined. But the AP has attempted to tally the civilian death toll from such strikes and has documented at least 30 people killed in drone strikes this year who did not belong to al Qaeda.

Syria. The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State militant group in Syria denied reports that airstrikes it carried out in ISIS-held territory killed dozens of civilians, while opposition activists reported clashes Sunday between government forces and ISIS in nearby districts.

Space Force. Senior defense officials remain far apart in their estimates of how much it would to create the Space Force military branch championed by President Trump, Defense One reports. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Thursday told reporters at the Pentagon that it would cost “single digit, not a double-digit” billions of dollars. “It might be lower than $5” billion, he said.

But about two hours later, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson defended her service’s far higher estimate. In September, she estimated that standing up a Space Force and a new combatant command for space warfare would cost about $13 billion over five years. (Shanahan did not specify the timeframe for his $5 billion estimate on Thursday.)

Commander-in-chief? Rhetorically, Trump has embraced America’s 1.3 million active-duty troops as “my military” and “my generals.” But top Defense Department officials tell the New York Times that the president has not fully grasped the role of the troops he commands, nor the responsibility that he has to lead them and protect them from politics.

Expelled. North Korea said it had expelled an American citizen after he attempted to enter the country through the northern border with China. A man with the same name—Lawrence Bruce Byron—was arrested in South Korea last year trying to cross into the North, according to the AFP.

Xinjiang. A group of 15 Western ambassadors to Beijing are demanding a meeting with the top Communist official in Xinjiang, the site of widespread abuses against China’s Uighur minority, Reuters reports. The unusual, coordinated diplomatic response is the latest, most significant pushback against Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang.

Talks stalled. Meanwhile, Asia-Pacific leaders failed to agree on a communique at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea on Sunday for the first time in their history as deep divisions between the United States and China over trade and investment stymied cooperation.

ZTE in Venezuela. A new initiative in Venezuela to provide citizens with a national ID card relied on key help from Chinese telecom giant ZTE, and human rights groups are sounding the alarm that the card, which is linked to food and social programs, may become a tool for the Maduro regime to control the population, Reuters reports.

More F-35s for Britain. The UK is set to double its number of F-35 stealth jets after ordering 17 more aircraft, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced last week. The 17 new F-35B aircraft will be delivered between 2020 and 2022 and will complement the 16 British aircraft currently based at RAF Marham and in the US, as well as two additional aircraft which are already on order.

‘Force optimization.’ The U.S. military will withdraw hundreds of troops focused on counterterrorism operations in Africa over the next several years to support the Pentagon’s increased focus on countering threats from China and Russia, officials said on Thursday. Confirming the news first reported by Reuters, DOD labeled the realignment “force optimization.”

Not the caravan you’re looking for. As migration-related news coverage continues to center around U.S. troops deploying to the U.S.-Mexico border in anticipation of the migrant caravan’s arrival, one service member has reportedly gone against the security grain by smuggling Mexican migrants into the United States. Military Times has the story.

Russian jamming. Finland and Norway intend to launch diplomatic talks with Moscow over suspected GPS signal-jamming by Russia’s military in recent weeks that impacted areas in northern Norway during a massive NATO military exercise. Norway’s defense intelligence agency said it tracked the source of the signal-jamming to a Russian military base on the nearby, heavily fortified Kola Peninsula.

Donbass. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said Russia is continuing to place new military hardware in eastern Ukraine, especially electronic warfare tools, and said the United States and Ukraine are in close talks for another delivery of American weapons systems, Defense News reports.

Shocker. The Pentagon failed its first-ever audit, but that’s not a surprise to defense officials, Defense News reports. The effort discovered major flaws in how the Pentagon handles IT processes and challenges with its internal tracking databases, but did not discover any major cases of fraud or abuse. The audit, long sought by Congress and good-government groups, was unveiled Thursday evening and covered $2.7 trillion in DOD assets.

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

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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