Security Brief

Security Brief: Khashoggi Report Hangs Over Talks at Reagan Defense Forum; Mattis Accuses Putin of Election Meddling

Dispatch from the Reagan National Defense Forum, UK Defense Minister on Russia’s arms treaty violation, remembering George H.W. Bush.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend the G20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires, on November 30, 2018. ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend the G20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires, on November 30, 2018. ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images

Foreign Policy Pentagon Correspondent Lara Seligman was at the Reagan Presidential Library this weekend, where top national security leaders from around the world rubbed elbows and had a chance to view the original Air Force One. A few intrepid attendees snapped a photo of the original Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on display at the library’s museum.

Meanwhile, CIA Director Gina Haspel is furious at the latest round of leaks revealing American intercepts of Saudi communications; support for Riyadh withers on Capitol Hill; Washington sanctions Iranian bitcoin accounts; Tokyo moves to upgrade its F-15s; and FP looks back on the legacy of President George H.W. Bush, who died over the weekend.  

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The who’s who of the national security community gathered in Simi Valley for the annual Reagan National Defense Forum on Saturday, with discussions ranging from countering Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific to how to better engage with Silicon Valley.

But a damning new report linking Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince to the brutal killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi hung over the talks, as officials strove to walk an increasingly fine line between condemning those responsible for the murder and reaffirming the importance of the Saudi alliance.

In a rare media interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier at the forum, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis stressed that there is still no “smoking gun” tying Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Khashoggi’s death—although he admitted that he had not seen the latest intelligence from “the last 24 hours.”

Mattis was responding to a Wall Street Journal story citing a highly classified CIA assessment alleging that the Saudi leader sent at least 11 messages to his closest adviser, who oversaw the team that killed Khashoggi, in the hours before and after the journalist’s death.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship, from arms sales to U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, has come under increased scrutiny in the wake of Khashoggi’s death.

But the administration shows no sign of backing down from its support of the Kingdom. During the day-long conference, Mattis and other top officials strove to separate the murder from the strategic importance of the Saudi relationship, particularly in countering the growing threat from Iran.

The defense secretary attempted a pivot to Iran’s “murderous mischief” in the region.

“When it comes to the Khashoggi murder, we have every expectation that whoever was involved in this, whether directly involved or directing the murder, is going to be held to account,” Mattis told Baier. “At the same time, we cannot deny the threat that Iran poses to all civilized nations.”

Mattis’ comments are the latest in the U.S. administration’s effort to deflect to Iran. Last week, the State Department unveiled what it said to be new evidence that Iran is shipping weapons to militants in Yemen and Afghanistan, a violation of U.N. resolutions. On Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo levelled fresh accusations against Iran that it is violating U.N. Security Council resolutions through its missile tests.

The international community seems to be following the United States’ lead in its reluctance to condemn MBS for Khashoggi’s death. In a roundtable with a handful of reporters at the forum, UK Defense Minister Gavin Williamson said the Turkish investigation needs to be allowed to run its course before any conclusions are drawn.

“A situation of such severity means that some people do need to be brought to justice,” but “it’s wrong to prejudge” the investigation, Williamson said.

Stop mucking around. MBS was not the only world leader in the crossfire during the event. Mattis made headlines when he confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin did indeed attempt to interfere with the U.S. midterm elections last month. “He tried again to muck around in our elections this last month, and we are seeing a continued effort on those lines,” Mattis said.

Mattis also took the opportunity to criticize Putin’s “duplicitous” violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and Russia, prohibiting the use of nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km (300 to 3,400 miles). President Donald Trump in an unexpected move last month proposed pulling out of the treaty altogether.

“A treaty that is respected by only one side cannot be effective and will not keep us safe,” he stressed.

If Trump decides to kill the treaty, a major question will be the response of European allies, who want to avoid a buildup of ground-based nuclear missiles in the region. While Gavinson said Europe does not want the treaty scrapped, he indicated his support of Trump’s position.

“I don’t think anyone would want to see the treaty end, but the treaty doesn’t exist when you have one nation ignoring its obligations,” Gavinson said. “The people that are in the wrong and the Russians, and that is why Russia needs to get back in line.”

Spotted at the forum. Former national security advisor H.R. McMaster; Congressmen Mac Thornberry of Texas and Adam Smith of Washington; Senators Angus King of Maine and Joni Ernst of Iowa; His Excellency Jonatan Vseviov, ambassador to the US from Estonia; former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta; Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood; Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson; Michael Brown, head of the Defense Innovation Unit; His Excellency Kare Aas, ambassador to the US from Norway; Michele Flournoy, Obama’s undersecretary of defense for policy; Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, now of Anduril Industries; U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller; Boeing Defense chief Leanne Caret; U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson; U.S. Army Secretary Mark Esper; and journalists Barbara Starr of CNN and Jennifer Griffin of Fox News.

Remembering Poppy. Former President George H.W. Bush is dead at the age of 94. FP’s Michael Hirsh looks back on the legacy of this underappreciated American president, whose reputation for prudence earned him a reputation as a wimp — a temperament that with the benefit of hindsight has aged quite well.

Writing in FP, Mark Kennedy provides five vital lessons from Bush’s life; John Hannah reminisces about a time when U.S. foreign policy actually worked; and Derek Chollet describes how the center-left resisted Bush’s foreign policy and eventually adopted it as its own.

Leaks. Highly classified American intelligence intercepts keep finding their way into the major papers.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent at least 11 messages to senior adviser Saud al-Qahtani—who was allegedly involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi—around the time of the killing.

CIA Director Gina Haspel was furious that the report describing the CIA’s assessment of MBS’s involvement in Khashoggi’s killing was leaked, the New York Times reports.  

If the source providing the intercepts wasn’t already burned, it certainly will be now, and observers of the intelligence community were quick to criticize the fact that technical signals intelligence is being leaked.

Those leaks continue to challenge the official Trump administration narrative that MBS wasn’t involved in Khashoggi’s killing—and that’s probably reason that highly classified material continues to be shared with reporters.

Capitol Hill fallout. With Washington struggling to craft a coherent response to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Senate is heading toward a floor fight over a resolution to end U.S. military support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen, the Hill reports.

Last week, the body voted to advance the resolution by a vote of 63-37 vote, setting up what may become an unprecedented clash between the White House and Congress over war powers.

On the House side, Riyadh faces a serious new problem. Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the incoming top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, said over the weekend that she was open to halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of Khashoggi’s murder.

The other war. While coverage of Yemen’s civil war has focused on the devastating physical destruction—tens of thousands dead and a looming famine—another conflict has been playing out in the background: a war for control of the country’s internet, FP’s Elias Groll reports.

Spy wars. Omar Abdulaziz, the Saudi activist close to Jamal Khashoggi, who was targeted for surveillance by spyware made by the Israeli firm NSO Group, is suing the company.  

Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad, the American envoy to Afghanistan, is moving quickly to contact a wide-range of Taliban officials as he scrambles to build momentum behind peace talks, NBC reports.

Khalilzad has ventured beyond official Taliban channels in Qatar and has reportedly met with an associate of Mullah Yaqub, the son of Mullah Omar and a deputy to the current Taliban leadership.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said over the weekend that the Pentagon is “going to do our level best to drive to a political resolution” but that there are no plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

“If we leave, with 20-odd of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world centered in that region, we know what will happen,” Mattis said. “Our intelligence is very specific. We will be under attack.”

Google in China. Google executives overseeing an initiative to build a search engine compliant with Chinese censorship laws sidelined the company’s security and privacy teams, the Intercept reports.

This latest revelation about Google’s attempts to re-enter the Chinese market comes amid a growing outcry from the company’s engineers that the search giant is risking to compromise its fundamental values. As of Friday, an open letter opposing the project had gained 600 employee signatures.

The Intercept’s article last week includes the first on-the-record comments from a former engineer on the project, Yonatan Zunger. “The project, as it was then specified, was not something I could sign off on in good conscience,” Zunger told the Intercept.

Sanctioning Bitcoin. For the first time, American sanctions officials targeted two bitcoin accounts, placing sanctions on two wallets associated with a ransomware scheme.

The move to sanction cryptocurrency accounts illustrates Washington’s realization that such technologies are being used in a wide range of illicit schemes—from sanctions evasion to cybercrime—but poses novel challenges for American power, FP’s Elias Groll reports.

North Korea. Despite a punishing sanctions regime on the country, North Korea is continuing to import large volumes of petroleum and coal products and is using an array of tactics to get around international trade restrictions, the Wall Street Journal reports.

“From January to mid-August, two dozen tankers made at least 148 deliveries of refined petroleum products to North Korean ports,” the paper reports. “They do so through a shifting array of tactics obscuring the ships’ links to Pyongyang. Crews use fake customs manifests and paint over hulls with false names. At sea, they turn off tracking devices to make it harder to follow the vessels or manipulate signals to convey fictitious identification. Some have succeeded in making cargo ships appear to be other countries’ boats on tracking monitors.”

Summit redux. President Trump said he expects to conduct a second summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in early 2019, likely January or February, CNN reports.

Meanwhile… North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited a shoe store in Wonsan over the weekend, where he stressed the need for “diverse patterns” and “decent colors” to address the “aesthetic tastes of our people.”

Eagle upgrade. Japan is planning to spend $89 million on prototype upgrades of its F-15 fighter jet in a bid to improve the plane’s missile and electronic warfare capabilities, Defense News reports.

Milestone. The Italian Air Force declared it has achieved initial operational capability for its squadron of F-35 fighter jets, the first unit in Europe to achieve the certification.

Suicide. Admiral Scott Stearney, the commander of the Navy’s 5th fleet, was found dead in his residence in Bahrain. His death is being investigated as a suicide.

Trade war. The United States and China agreed to pause a further escalation of tariffs and set a 90 deadline to reach a new trade agreement. Meeting in Buenos Aires for the G20 summit, President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed that the United States would not raise tariffs in exchange for greater Chinese purchases of U.S. goods.

With the two sides still far apart on major issues, the agreement over the weekend delays but appears unlikely to avert a looming confrontation between the United States and China over trade, FP’s Keith Johnson reports.

Fear. Amid fears that China is using university students as tools of espionage, the Trump administration is considering tighter restrictions and closer scrutiny of Chinese students looking to study in the United States, Reuters reports.

“The ideas under consideration, previously unreported, include checks of student phone records and scouring of personal accounts on Chinese and U.S. social media platforms for anything that might raise concerns about students’ intentions in the United States, including affiliations with government organizations,” according to Reuters.

Getting ready for 2020. Likely Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren laid out her foreign-policy vision in a speech last week, calling for policies that work “for all Americans” and not just the wealthy elite, Politico reports.

Warren describes her views at length in a new Foreign Affairs essay.

On the move. The former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Christian Brose, is joining up with Palmer Luckey, Defense News reports.

Brose will serve as the head of strategy for Anduril Industries, the national-security start-up founded by Luckey.

Luckey became extraordinarily wealthy after he sold his virtual reality start-up Oculus to Facebook for $3 billion, and he is now turning his attention to national-security products. Anduril is developing video and picture-recognition technology that could be used on the Trump administration’s border wall with Mexico.

Disinformation. Reuters identified a network of more than 70 sites that deliver Iranian propaganda to more than 15 countries. “The sites underline how political actors worldwide are increasingly circulating distorted or false information online to influence public opinion,” the outlet reports.

Do your homework. Russian hackers are continuing to probe the U.S. electric grid, Wired reports. “There’s still a concentrated Russian cyber espionage campaign targeting the bulk of the US electrical grid,” FireEye analyst Alex Orleans said at CyberwarCon in Washington last week. “The grid is still getting hit.”

‘The big hack.’ Bloomberg continues to put reporting resources into verifying its heavily criticized report claiming that Chinese intelligence managed to penetrate American firms by surreptitiously planting malicious chips on motherboards manufactured in China. That report has been heavily criticized by technical experts and questioned by American intelligence officials.

According to the Washington Post, the outlet now has at least one new reporter working on standing up—or perhaps knocking down—the claims of the story.

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

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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