Security Brief

Security Brief: Kelly Is Out but No Replacement in Sight; Milley Set to Replace Dunford

John Kelly’s departure as White House chief of staff marks the beginning of a turbulent new era for Trump.

Then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly testifies during a hearing before the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee May 24, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly testifies during a hearing before the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee May 24, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Chief of Staff John Kelly is out, as speculation swirls as to who will replace him; Army Gen. Mark Milley will become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Trump backs down on threats to cut “crazy” level of defense spending; Saudi Arabia comes in for additional scrutiny; an investigation of Houthi’s use of torture; Pompeo grows frustrated over pace of progress in North Korea talks; the arrest of a Huawei executive throws wrench into U.S.-China trade talks.

Please send your tips, comments, and questions to elias.groll@foreignpolicy.com.

The adults in the room? Chief of Staff John Kelly will step down at year’s end, but over the weekend Nick Ayers, a top aide to Vice President Mike Pence, announced unexpectedly that he would not take the job.

Ayers had been described as the odds-on favorite to take over for Kelly, but reportedly President Trump and Ayers—who has a young family—could not agree on how long he would stay in the job. Ayers will step down from the White House job at the end of the year and return to his home in Georgia.

Kelly’s departure represents the latest blow to the cadre of former military officials who served during the Trump administration’s first two years and had been seen as a moderating influence on the president. The so-called “adults in the room,” officials such as Kelly, former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were viewed as reassuring figures in the administration by American allies disparaged by Trump. Now, only Mattis remains.

Ayers had been in negotiations for the job for months, and his sudden withdrawal adds a measure of uncertainty to what is expected to be a challenging year for Trump. He faces a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives that is expected to launch a number of high profile investigations, as Special Counsel Robert Mueller shows no sign of slowing his investigation into Trump and his top lieutenants.

The candidates said to be in the running to replace Kelly include Rep. Mark Meadows, the North Carolina Republican who leads the House Freedom Caucus, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, and Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representatives. But, as Politico reports, the job has become singularly unappealing in the Trump era.

Kelly, a former Marine general is  credited with bringing a measure of order to a chaotic White House but he ultimately failed to win Trump’s confidence. The two men are reportedly no longer speaking to one another.

The new guy. Always the showman, President Trump chose the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia on Saturday to make a major leadership announcement months ahead of schedule: Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, a decorated Green Beret and commander of troops in Afghanistan, will replace Gen. Joseph Dunford as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The timing of the announcement surprised many in the Pentagon, as Dunford is not expected to retire until October.

Trump’s choice of Milley is not unexpected, as Trump was widely thought to prefer the Army chief of staff over other contenders for the job, but is reportedly at odds with Defense Secretary James Mattis’ preference.

According to the Washington Post, Mattis preferred Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. It’s not clear why Mattis leaned toward Goldfein, another widely respected, cerebral officer, the Post writes. But some sources told the Post that the president’s decision to go with Milley is yet another sign of the defense secretary’s diminished influence.

Defense spending. President Donald Trump has reportedly agreed to a proposed $750 billion defense budget for the coming year shortly after he wrote on Twitter that military spending had reached “crazy” levels.  

The long march. The Air Force’s next stealth bomber is quietly inching toward production, Defense News reports. The plane recently passed its critical design review, though the bomber jet’s development remains shrouded in mystery.

Princelings. In the months since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Jared Kushner has emerged as a powerful advocate for Saudi Arabia’s embattled crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and the two young men have been in frequent touch, the New York Times reports in a revealing portrait of their relationship.

The two men text regularly—principally over WhatsApp—and are now on a first-name basis. According to the Times, the Saudis quickly identified Kushner as an influential, neophyte adviser and have spent years cultivating President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, reaping significant benefits from the relationship.

The flies and the bees. Over the weekend, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote a deeply reported story on Saudi Arabia’s love affair with digital surveillance, tracing its history to an effort to better understand digital communications’ use during the Arab Spring.

For close observers of the Khashoggi tale, the story revealed that Saudi Arabia not only contracted with Israel’s NSO Group to purchase its Pegasus spy software, it also signed contracts with the Emirati firm DarkMatter, a company that was profiled by FP in 2017 and has close links to the CIA.

A bit of progress. Delegates at peace talks being held in Sweden aimed at ending Yemen’s civil war agreed to a prisoner swap deal, Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s special envoy, announced.

The Houthi’s Yemen. An Associated Press investigation has found evidence of widespread use of severe torture in prisons controlled by the Houthi rebel group in Yemen.

The victims interviewed by the AP are “are among thousands of people who have been imprisoned by the Houthi militia during the four years of Yemen’s grinding civil war. Many of them, an AP investigation has found, have suffered extreme torture—being smashed in their faces with batons, hung from chains by their wrists or genitals for weeks at a time, and scorched with acid.”

Infighting. Rival militias backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have in recent months clashed in the Yemeni city of Taiz, where a stalemate with Houthi rebels has given way to infighting among militant groups backed by foreign powers, the Washington Post reports.

Infighting among the groups risks further prolonging the war and worsening an already disastrous humanitarian crisis, the paper reports.     

Accounting errors. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates haven’t been paying the United States for the aerial refueling support it provided the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, the Atlantic reports.

The two countries were supposed to pick up the tab for American tankers, but due to a Pentagon accounting error, paid less than they were supposed to. As of now, the Pentagon doesn’t know how much money it is owed–but says it’s working to crunch the numbers.

The Trump administration halted aerial refueling operations in support of the Saudis in the aftermath of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death.

INF. American officials warned Russia that it must scrap a nuclear-capable cruise missile that is in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty or Washington will leave the arms-control pact, Reuters reports.

The 9M729 is a land-based cruise missile with a range between 500 and 5500 km and the capability to carry nuclear weapons.

This latest round of diplomacy contrasts with President Donald Trump’s threat in October to pull out of the INF. American officials gave Russia a 60-day deadline to come into compliance with the treaty after NATO leaders last week backed Washington’s accusation that Moscow is in violation of the INF.

Open skies. An American plane conducted an overflight of Ukraine under the authority of the Open Skies Treaty that U.S. officials described as a show of commitment to Ukraine amid an ongoing dispute with Russia over maritime access to the Sea of Azov, Defense News reports.

Art of the deal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continues to be outwardly optimistic regarding his diplomatic initiative with North Korea, but privately he has grown frustrated with the pace of progress, Bloomberg reports.

The report on Pompeo’s frustration comes as progress on the Washington-Pyongyang diplomatic track has all but stalled. Three months after getting the job, Pompeo’s special envoy to North Korea, Steve Biegun, still hasn’t had a face-to-face meeting with his counterpart.

Over the weekend, South Korean media reported that Washington and Seoul have decided to cancel their upcoming “Foal Eagle” exercise set for April 2019. According to Chosun Ilbo, “U.S. troops will not take part and South Korean troops will train alone but reduce the size of its own contingent.”

With the U.S. track deadlocked, Seoul is continuing to barrel ahead with its own diplomatic opening toward the North, as FP has reported. The lack of progress on the Washington track is opening a dangerous gap between the United States and South Korea—one North Korea plainly plans to exploit. As the two allies drift further apart and South Korea’s economic and political overtures toward the North bear fruit, Washington will have to confront what is a growing rift.

Art of evasion. While the Trump administration insists economic sanctions on North Korea are having a devastating impact, Pyongyang continues to sidestep the measures, including by providing cheap military training and equipment to African nations.

According to the Wall Street Journal, North Korean special forces troops are covertly training their Ugandan counterparts “in skills from martial arts to helicopter-gunnery operations.”

The North Korean operation in Uganda mirrors its presence elsewhere on the continent, including in Tanzania, Sudan, Zambia and Mozambique, where the country’s military operations have merely grown more covert has sanctions have tightened.

It’s Nauert. State Department spokesperson and former “Fox & Friends” host Heather Nauert will take over in Turtle Bay as the next American ambassador to the U.N. If confirmed, she will be the least experienced person to ever hold the job, as FP’s Michael Hirsh writes.

Shutdown watch. U.S. legislators gave themselves a two-week extension to reach a spending agreement and resolve an impasse over funding for President Trump’s border wall. Lawmakers must pass a spending bill by Dec. 21.

As Congress has already passed a spending bill for the Defense Department, the Pentagon would not be significantly affected by a shutdown.

Extradition. Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou will be back in a Vancouver courtroom on Monday for a bail hearing as she fights her extradition to the United States on charges that she helped violate sanctions on Iran, Bloomberg reports.

The closely watched case has roiled markets and may threaten trade talks with China after American prosecutors requested Meng be arrested and extradited, as FP reported last week. On Friday, Canadian prosecutors alleged that Meng committed fraud by misrepresenting the relationship between Huawei and a Hong Kong subsidiary, Skycom Tech, in order to facilitate transactions with Iran between 2008 and 2009 that were banned by U.S. sanctions.

The daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, Meng’s attorneys said in court last week that she would post her two homes in the Vancouver area as part of her bail and that she needs to be freed to receive treatment for high blood pressure and sleep apnea. Canadian prosecutors are arguing that she is a flight risk and are asking that she remain in jail while the court considers the extradition request.

Chinese state media is warning Canada will face “serious consequences” if Meng’s “legitimate rights and interests” aren’t protected.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. American forces in Afghanistan are stepping up raids and dropping greater amounts of ordinance on enemy positions in an attempt to put military pressure on the Taliban as U.S. officials explore peace talks with the group, the Wall Street Journal reports.

During the first half of 2018, American planes have dropped more bombs on Afghanistan than in any full year since 2011. Across the country, American forces are carrying out raids targeting Taliban leaders and operatives.

“You turn the dial up,” said Gen. Scott Miller, the top American commander in Afghanistan told the Journal. “The purpose is not just to kill,” he added. “It’s to shape the political environment.”

KIA. The death last week of Sgt. Jason M. McClary raised the death-toll from an attack on U.S. forces in Ghazni to four, Stars and Stripes reports. The attack was the deadliest this year on American troops in Afghanistan.

Crypto wars. Tech companies and civil liberties groups are up in arms over a newly passed Australian law that hands the government sweeping powers to force companies to install backdoors in secure communication products, ThreatPost reports.

The law represents the latest flashpoint over government access to encrypted messaging and storage services. The increasing availability and sophistication of such technology poses a significant obstacle to law enforcement investigations, but tech companies argue that requirements to undermine encryption poses a threat to user security and privacy.  

The pitch. The U.S. Army is getting into e-sports as a way to step up its recruitment efforts, Kotaku reports. The initiative includes teams for top gaming leagues, sending soldiers to tournaments, and live-streaming. It’s the latest attempt by the Army to step up its lackluster recruitment efforts and reach younger potential recruits.

Mega breach. Hackers that broke into hotel giant Marriott International’s computer systems “left clues suggesting they were working for a Chinese government intelligence gathering operation,” Reuters reports.

SNAFU. Five years after the CIA identified weaknesses in an internet-based communications system that led to networks of agents in China and Iran being rolled up, the agency still hasn’t fixed the problem, Yahoo News reports.

Gun violence. The Air Force failed on six occasions to submit records to the FBI that would have blocked a former airman from purchasing the weapons he used to kill 26 people at a Texas church in 2017, the Washington Post reports, citing the conclusions of a Pentagon inspector general report.

Milestone. Russia surpassed Britain to become the world’s second-largest arms exporter, according to fresh research from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The United States continues to dominate the international arms market, accounting for more than half of all arms exports. The figures exclude China for lack of reliable data.

Pay cut. Jon Callas, a legendary computer security expert, is leaving Apple for a position with the American Civil Liberties Union, Reuters reports.

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

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