Security Brief

Security Brief: The Shutdown Showdown; Negotiating with the Taliban

Catch up on everything you need to know about the looming shutdown over President Trump’s border wall, a planned Monday meeting of U.S. and Taliban officials in the UAE, Amazon’s Russia connections, and more.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer listen while the presumptive House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and U.S. President Donald Trump argue while making statements to the press before a meeting at the White House December 11, 2018 in Washington, DC.  BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer listen while the presumptive House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and U.S. President Donald Trump argue while making statements to the press before a meeting at the White House December 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The government will partially shut down when the clock strikes midnight on Saturday, leaving 420,000 federal employees to work without pay, unless President Donald Trump and congressional leaders can reach an agreement on funding for the president’s promised border wall. Meet Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s soon-to-be third chief of staff after John Kelly leaves at the end of the year. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is demanding reimbursement from the Saudi and UAE for the cost of refueling their military planes over Yemen, Ukraine warns that Russia is amassing troops and equipment along their shared border, tensions mount between the U.S. and Turkey in Syria, and more.

Good Monday morning, and welcome to Security Brief. Please send your tips, questions, and feedback to lara.seligman@foreignpolicy.com. Security Brief will pause publishing during the upcoming holiday. We’ll be back on Jan. 7.

Impasse. With the clock ticking down toward a government shutdown, Democrats and Republicans appear no closer to striking a spending deal.

Trump continues to insist that an agreement include substantial funding for the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. And Democrats are equally adamant that the wall will not be built.

“All he’s going to get, with his temper tantrum, is a shutdown. He will not get a wall,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, told NBC Sunday.

At issue is a Trump White House demand that a spending deal include $5 billion in funding for the wall. Democrats have offered $1.3 billion on border security spending, that excludes funding for the wall.

Speaking to CBS on Sunday, White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller said the Trump administration would do “whatever is necessary to build the border wall,” including shut down the government.

Congressional negotiators have until week’s end. Here is Federal Times with a write-up of the impact a Christmas shutdown would have on the feds.

Icebreaker or border wall? Lawmakers are going to great lengths to find money for the border wall, including stripping $750 million in funds for a new Coast Guard icebreaker. But Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said Friday he is “guardedly optimistic” that he can get back the money.

Negotiations. Afghan Taliban representatives and U.S. officials were due to meet in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, the militants’ main spokesman said, amid diplomatic moves toward establishing the basis for talks to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan. Representatives from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE will also take part in the talks, which follow at least two meetings between Taliban officials and U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar.

There’s a chief of staff! Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney will take over as chief of staff when John Kelly departs in January. In a White House beset by infighting and mismanagement, Trump struggled to find a replacement before settling on Mulvaney. Shortly, before the 2016 election, Mulvaney called Trump “a terrible human being.”

Abuse. For years, the Army has struggled with how to handle allegations that retired Maj. Gen. James Grazioplene raped his daughter, Jennifer Elmore. Now Elmore is telling her story. In an interview with the Washington Post, Elmore describes the abuse: “If I stay silent and the next person opts for that, and the next person opts for that, and the next person opts for that, where are we?”

Rebuke. The U.S. Senate delivered a stinging rebuke of the Trump administration last week that signalled a shift in Washington toward Saudi Arabia. In two votes, the Senate first voted to end U.S. participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen and then voted unanimously to blame Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Yemen vote would have been unthinkable before Khashoggi’s killing, but the kingdom’s political clout in Washington has dropped dramatically, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle publicly questioning the wisdom of linking American policy in the Middle East to Saudi interests.

After the Senate vote, the Kingdom’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs hit back. The position expressed by the Senate is “based upon unsubstantiated claims and allegations, and contained blatant interferences in the Kingdom’s internal affairs,” the Saudi ministry said in the statement, posted on Twitter Sunday evening.

Canada weighs in. Speaking in an interview that aired Sunday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said for the first time that his Liberal government was looking for a way out of a multibillion-dollar arms deal with Saudi. The comments represented a notable hardening in tone from Trudeau, who previously said there would be huge penalties for scrapping the $13 billion agreement for armored vehicles made by the Canadian unit of General Dynamics Corp.

‘Accounting error.’ Meanwhile, the U.S. military is seeking reimbursement to the tune of $331 million from Saudi and the United Arab Emirates after discovering it failed to properly charge the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen for aerial refueling services due to an “accounting error,” according to the Pentagon. The U.S. decided last month to halt the refueling support to coalition aircraft conducting strikes on Yemen, but the Pentagon still expects to be compensated for the outstanding costs accrued between March 2015 and November this year.

Fragile truce. U.N. diplomats are scrambling to assemble a monitoring mission to oversee a ceasefire in the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah agreed to as part of peace talks in Sweden, the Guardian reports.

Amazon’s Russia connection. Amazon Web Services is playing down reports of having connections to Russian billionaire oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, as it bids for a highly-contested $10 billion Pentagon contract to store top secret military data in a single cloud, Newsweek reports.

A new twist. President Trump announced on Twitter Sunday that he would examine the case of Maj. Matthew Golsteyn, a Green Beret charged by the Army in the killing of a man linked to the Taliban in 2011—and who, just minutes before the tweet, Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” lauded as a war hero.

The decision “resurrected questions about how the military treats detainees and how soldiers should conduct themselves in places where lethal danger is ever present,” writes The New York Times. “But perhaps most viscerally, it reinforced the power of a single conservative news program to push issues onto the desk of an impulsive president.”

Alarm bells. Ukrainian officials are warning that Russia is amassing troops and equipment along the country’s shared border as part of a possible invasion, the New York Times reports.

The claim of a Russian military build-up comes on the heels of a naval confrontation on the Sea of Azov and a period of heightened tensions between the two countries. Russia continues to hold a group of soldiers seized from Ukrainian naval vessels following the closure of the Kerch strait.

Russian moves in Ukraine are hard to disguise, but determining the Kremlin’s intent to cross yet another red line in the conflict has vexed intelligence services throughout the conflict.

A note from Pyongyang. North Korea on Sunday condemned recent U.S. sanctions levelled against the North, and said that the continued imposition of such punitive measures could endanger the budding rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang.

While failing to produce major advances since the June summit in Singapore, U.S. officials have continued to sanction North Korean officials as part of Washington’s attempt to maintain pressure on the North. Such measures “will block the path to denuclearization on the Korean peninsula forever—a result desired by no one,” North Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Since Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited North Korea in early October, there has been no major diplomatic activity from Washington’s side. Pompeo’s special representative to the Koreas, Steve Biegun, heads to Seoul this week. No word yet on whether Biegun will finally get his long-awaited first meeting with his North Korean counterpart.

Labor camps. China is funneling detainees in its crackdown on Muslims in the Xinjiang region into forced labor camps, according to satellite imagery, testimony from the region, and official documents, the New York Times reports.

Strasbourg. A fifth man died of wounds sustained when a man opened fire on a Christmas market in Strasbourg, France. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Budget win for DOD. In a reversal from his pledge to trim defense spending this year, President Trump has told Defense Secretary James Mattis to submit a $750 billion budget proposal for fiscal 2020, Politico’s Wes Moran reported early last week. The move reflects a stunning about-face for a president who has in recent weeks called the defense budget topline number “crazy” and proposed a 5 percent cut for this year.

Coming attractions. The Washington Post got a sneak peak of a report prepared for Senate investigators that provides the most comprehensive look at Russia’s disinformation operation during the 2016 election.

Prepared by by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and the network analysis firm Graphika, the report concludes that Russian operatives used every social media platform to advance Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and to support him once in office.

“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party—and specifically Donald Trump,” the report finds. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.”

That report and another by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity firm, are likely to create additional scrutiny on Silicon Valley’s response to the Russian campaign. New Knowledge has advised the intelligence committee that tech companies are doing the bare minimum to assist the committee’s investigation, CNN reports.

Both studies are expected to be released this week.

The cyber. U.S. Navy officials are sounding the alarm that Chinese hackers are attacking contractors in a bid to obtain a wide range of sensitive military data, the Wall Street Journal reports. A series of high-profile, damaging breaches has prompted Navy Secretary Richard Spencer to order a review of the branch’s cybersecurity posture.

Intelligence cooperation. In recent weeks Five Eye intelligence officials have made a series of rare public pronouncements regarding the threat posed by the Chinese telecom giant Huawei. That burst of public diplomacy began with a July 17 dinner in Canada during which intelligence chiefs from Five Eye nations agreed to step up their efforts against Beijing, the Australian Financial Review reports.

The foreign influence game. Germany officials are stepping up scrutiny of Chinese investments in the country and will require that the acquisition by a non-European firm of 10 percent or more of a German company involved in defense, technology, or media will be probed by regulators.

Shamoon. A variant of the Shamoon computer virus struck the computer systems of the Italian oil services company Saipem, Reuters reports. Shamoon was first developed by Iranian hackers, and its discovery in the attack on Saipem may indicate Tehran was responsible.

‘The big hack.’ Executives at Super Micro Computer said an outside investigation into claims Chinese operatives surreptitiously inserted backdoors into company products found no evidence of such a breach. Super Micro has been under intense scrutiny after Bloomberg reported the company was at the center of a Chinese scheme to infiltrate major American technology companies. No outlets have corroborated that story, which has been heavily criticized, denied by executives at the companies it describes, and questioned by American intelligence officials.

Slovenia’s Trump card. The foreign minister of Slovenia, a small Balkan country that many Americans associate with native daughter Melania Trump, came to Washington last week in the first such visit to the U.S. capital since 2010. During meetings with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, Miro Cerar warned that the United States must make its leadership more visible in Europe or risk being eclipsed by China and Russia.

Statesmen. Speaking at the Doha Forum in Qatar, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat described his final meeting with White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, who is charged with brokering peace between Israel and Palestine. Kushner revealed the Trump administration’s plan to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, resulting in a disastrous exchange with Erekat. “This White House needs giant statesmen, not real estate agents,” Erekat concluded.

Syria tensions mount. Turkish President Recap Tayyip Erdogan is threatening to mount a new incursion into northern Syria, as tensions continue to simmer over U.S. backing of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. In a phone call with President Trump on Friday, Erdogan expressed concerns over the actions and presence of the Kurdish militia in northeastern Syria, which Turkey considers a security threat.

ISIS retreat. A day after U.S.-backed Syrian fighters captured the town of Hajin, the last urban area controlled by the Islamic State group in eastern Syria, a U.S. military official said the fighting “is going very well” and that the “end days” for ISIS are near. But spokesman Col. Sean Ryan cautioned that “the fight is not over” – the militant group still poses a threat and the fighters are regrouping.

Another loyalist. Elizabeth Erin Walsh is expected to join the National Security Council and will oversee the Trump administration’s approach toward multilateral organizations at the U.N., FP’s Colum Lynch reports. Walsh is a Trump administration stalwart and is expected to continue National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s skeptical stance toward the world body and similar institutions as director of multilateral affairs at the NSC.

Somalia scrambles. Mukhtar Robow, the former spokesman and deputy leader of the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab, has successfully shed his association with the militant group and is hoping to run for the highest office in his native Somalia. The government is scrambling to block him, postponing the election three times and, on Thursday – less than a week before the newest election date.

Trump’s Africa strategy. The US will withdraw more than 700 American service members assigned to Africa, roughly 10 percent of the personnel there now, as part of a realignment of forces around the world, the Pentagon announced last week. The change will be most pronounced in West Africa, where the U.S. has been assisting French forces and local militaries countering militant groups in places like Chad, Mali and Niger, writes The Wall Street Journal.

Makin’ moves. Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, who oversaw the Pentagon’s controversial Project Maven artificial intelligence project, will lead its new Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, or JAIC, Defense One reports, citing background sources.

If you thought the F-35 was expensive… just wait till you see the price tag for the U.S. Air Force’s newest project. The Congressional Budget Office estimates in a new study that the next-generation air superiority jet, known by the services as Penetrating Counter air, could cost about $300 million — more than three times that of the average F-35A.

Stock options. Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who now leads the Senate Armed Services Committee, purchased stock in defense contractor Raytheon days after winning White House support for a major increase in defense spending, the Daily Beast reports.

Renovations. Japan is expected to convert the helicopter carrier JS Izumo into an aircraft carrier capable of carrying the vertical-takeoff version of the F-35, the Diplomat reports.

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

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

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