Security Brief

Security Brief: Pentagon Exodus Continues After Mattis’s Departure

Senior officials head for the exits at Defense Department, Trump walks back Syria withdrawal plans, American Islamic State fighters captured, North Korea turns toward coal.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis arrives for a closed intelligence briefing at the U.S. Capitol with members of the House of Representatives on December 13, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis arrives for a closed intelligence briefing at the U.S. Capitol with members of the House of Representatives on December 13, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has sent shockwaves through the Pentagon, with senior staff heading toward the exits. After announcing a plan to immediately withdraw from Syria, President Donald Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton are downplaying plans to pull out immediately. A major hack is rocking the German political scene. Vietnam may play host to the next U.S.-North Korea summit meeting. And American and Chinese trade negotiators reconvene.

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

The Twitterverse was abuzz on Saturday night after the Pentagon announced the resignation of retired Rear Adm. Kevin Sweeney, who had served as chief of staff to the secretary of Defense since 2017.

Multiple outlets reported that Sweeney, who was appointed to the position by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, was forced out by the White House, and observers decried the “unsettling” news about the loss of yet another “experienced” defense official.

The announcement was hardly a shock. Sweeney’s departure had been rumored for months, even before Mattis’ resignation. As Loren DeJonge Schulman of the Center for a New American Security pointed out on Twitter, Sweeney “was a Mattis guy with no serious bureaucratic ninja chops. This is fine and normal.”

Still, Sweeney is the fourth prominent administration official to announce his departure since President Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria in December. In the last week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, Dana White, have stepped down; Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State group submitted his resignation a day after Mattis did.

In his role at the Pentagon, Sweeney was a member of Mattis’ (very small) inner circle, advising and counseling the defense secretary. Like Mattis’ senior military assistant Vice Adm. Craig Faller, who last year was nominated to lead U.S. Southern Command, and Sally Donnelly, who left the Pentagon in early 2018, Sweeney worked with Mattis during the former Marine Corps general’s time leading U.S. Central Command.

“After two years in the Pentagon, I’ve decided the time is right to return to the private sector,” Sweeney said in a statement. “It has been an honor to serve again alongside the men and women of the Department of Defense.”

Middle East

In or out? Less than three weeks after Trump announced that the U.S. would begin pulling out of from Syria “immediately” — a decision that drove Mattis to resign — National Security Adviser John Bolton is now saying American troops will stay in the war-torn country until Turkey guarantees it won’t attack the Syrian Kurds, who have been critical allies in the US-led campaign against the Islamic State.

After saying American troops would quickly withdraw, Trump hedged those comments over the weekend: “I never said we’re doing it that quickly.”

Captured. An American-backed militia in Syria claims it has captured two Americans fighting on behalf of the Islamic State, the New York Times reports. One of the Americans, Warren Christopher Clark, is a former substitute teacher from Texas who once wrote a cover letter to the Islamic State inquiring about the possibility of coming to work as a language teacher for the group.

Strikes continue. The U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State in Syria announced last week that the U.S. and coalition forces conducted 469 strikes with either air or artillery in Syria between Dec. 16 and Dec. 29 – even as Trump announced the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from that country. The U.S. military regional command said Friday that these strikes would continue “indefinitely,” writes Military Times.

18 years later. American forces killed Jamal al-Badawi, the al Qaeda operative thought to have masterminded the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, in an airstrike.

Propaganda watch. Islamic State supporters are hijacking dormant Twitter accounts and using them to spread the militant group’s propaganda, TechCrunch reports.

Asia Pacific

Trade talks. Chinese and American negotiators will meet in Beijing on Monday for the first face-to-face talks since the declaration of a truce in the trade war between the United States and China. The talks are expected to focus on the protection of intellectual property and Chinese industrial policy,” the Financial Times reports.  

Unexpected guest. Chinese Vice Premier Liu He unexpectedly showed up to Monday’s trade talks in Beijing, which had been set to be attended by mostly mid-level aides, Bloomberg reports.

Freedom of navigation. A U.S. guided-missile destroyer, the USS McCampbell, patrolled near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on Monday, challenging Beijing’s maritime claims there, according to The Wall Street Journal. The warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of three islands.

Prison tour. Chinese officials invited a group of reporters to visit a Uighur internment camp in the Xinjiang region, where U.N. officials believe as many as 1 million ethnic Uighurs have been imprisoned under the guise of a re-education program. Reuters’ account of their reporter’s visit to the camp includes an astounding moment: “There was plenty of singing and dancing in other rooms reporters visited, including a lively rendition in English of “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands,” that seemed to have been put on especially for the visit.”

Chinese officials told Reuters that while the camps are here to stay, the influx of new prisoners to the camps is likely to slow.

Prisoner diplomacy. Chinese authorities have arrested 13 Canadians since the arrest of Huawei’s CFO last month, Canadian authorities said last week. At least 8 of the 13 have been released, and the arrests are believed to have come in retaliation to the detention of Meng Wanzhou, who is fighting extradition to the United States on charges that she defrauded American banks as part of a scheme to sell banned telecom equipment to Iran.  

The second summit. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may convene their second summit meeting in Vietnam, South Korean media reports. Talks between the two countries over North Korea’s nuclear program have largely stalled.

Make coal great again. Squeezed by sanctions, North Korea is putting a greater amount of its domestic coal supply to use generating electricity, Reuters reports. The move toward coal is improving electricity supplies in the North, but analysts are skeptical that the turn toward coal will deliver major economic dividends as Kim Jong Un aims to improve his country’s economy.

Phishing scheme. South Korean authorities are investigating a phishing scheme that distributed a document purported to be from the Ministry of Unification but laden with malware, NK News reports. No word yet on who was behind the scheme.

Defectors. A former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea in 2016 posted an open letter to a current North Korean diplomat who has gone missing in Italy and is thought to be considering defecting to the West. In his letter, Thae Yong Ho urges Jo Song Gil, North Korea’s charge d’affairs in Italy, to defect to Seoul, and not a Western country.

“For you and me who are members of the people and North Korean diplomats, coming to South Korea is not a choice but an obligation,” Thae wrote. “If you come to Seoul, more of our colleagues will follow after us and come to Seoul, and then the unification will happen on its own.”

Cyber

Big in Berlin. A major hack has rocked the German political scene after an anonymous hacker published a huge volume of personal data, including chat transcripts, belonging to German politicians. The hack has touched the highest levels of German politics, with Chancellor Angela Merkel affected by the breach. The leaked data belongs to politicians across the political spectrum, with a notable exception: No data has turned up so far belonging to the right-wing Alternative for Germany.

Who was behind the hack remains unclear, but the scope of the breach appears to indicate that the data was not assembled from a single source and was cobbled together from multiple breached databases. German authorities have reportedly asked the National Security Agency for help to pressure Twitter to scrub leaked information from the platform. The leaked data has been published to multiple locations online, with the data backed up and mirrored to multiple servers, making it unlikely that German officials will succeed in their effort to scrub the material.

German authorities questioned a teenager in connection with the hack over the weekend, but have not apprehended a suspect.

Ethics in hacking journalism. The disclosure of German politicians’ data has renewed a debate over how journalists ought to cover such breaches, Motherboard reports. Such hacks are clearly news and need to be covered, but as the 2016 election showed, journalists can play into the hands of hackers by digging through personal materials published online by politically motivated operatives.

Candiru. With Israel’s cybersecurity industry booming, Haaretz has identified an interesting entrant the field of offensive cybersecurity — selling the tools to hack and surveil a target computer. The firm Candiru, named for a parasitic fish in the Amazon that is thought to swim up the human urethra, recruits heavily from Israel’s elite intelligence units but its operations are shrouded in secrecy. It is thought to be more conservative in its choice of clients than its more freewheeling Israeli brethren and to take in $30 million in revenue annually.

The indictment strategy. American prosecutors have rolled out a number of indictments in recent months targeting Chinese cyberespionage, but two scholars aren’t convinced the legal campaign is providing any measure of deterrence. “On the basis of the public record in light of its publicly stated aims, the indictment strategy appears to be a magnificent failure,” Jack Goldsmith and Robert D. Williams write in Lawfare.

Shadow Brokers. Twitter messages authored by the former NSA contractor Hal Martin led federal investigators to believe that he could have been behind the leak of NSA hacking tools published by the group Shadow Brokers, court documents obtained by Politico reveal. Authorities have not been able to determine Martin’s role in the leak.

That’ll do it. WikiLeaks distributed to reporters a long list of what it called “false and defamatory” statements about its founder, Julian Assange, and advised journalists not to report the claims. Among the 140 different alleged false statements: that Assange worked for a foreign intelligence agencies, that he bleaches his hair, and that he has poor hygiene.

Good news and bad news. Marriott International revealed that the number of customers affected by a massive breach of its computer systems was slightly lower than first announced — 383 million rather than 500 million. But the company also revealed that a greater number of passport numbers were stolen than believed — 5.25 million.

Europe and Russia

Independence. Orthodox Christianity’s foremost leader, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, officially recognized Ukraine’s new church, ignoring Russian claims that its church has sole authority there and handing Ukraine a victory in its attempts to diminish Russia’s influence.

Gun surge. Gun ownership is rising across Europe, a continent that until recently faced far less gun crime and violence than much of the globe, spurred in part by insecurity arising from recent terrorist attacks. Still, Europe is far from facing the gun prevalence and violence in Latin America or the United States, which lead the world.

From Russia with love. As Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine arrested on suspicion of spying by Russia, continues to be held in a Moscow prison, Russia announced on Saturday that the U.S. is holding a Russian national, Dmitry Makarenko. However, a top Russian official quickly dismissed any talk of a detainee exchange.

Africa

Around the horn. The United States plans to scale back its military operations in Somalia and reduce the number of airstrikes against al-Shabab insurgents it carries out there, NBC News reports. While the move reflects an assessment by the administration that the Shabab insurgency does not pose a direct threat to the U.S, former officials and counterterrorism experts tell NBC news that drawing down could create a dangerous opening for al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other extremists.

Coup attempt failed. Soldiers in the West African nation of Gabon took over state radio in an attempt to seize power in a coup on Monday, but the government said four of the plotters had been arrested and that normalcy would be restored in the Central African nation.

Election fallout. The U.S. military has deployed soldiers to Gabon amid fears of violent protests in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo after its long-delayed presidential election. President Trump told Congress on Friday that the first of about 80 troops had arrived in the country Wednesday.

Americas

The plot thickens. An analysis of a recording of the alleged “sonic weapon” used to inflict brain damage on American diplomats stationed in Cuba reveals that the audio is in fact that of a cricket, the New York Times reports.

Flawed election. Thirteen nations announced on Friday that they would not recognize the legitimacy of the new presidential term of Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, denouncing last year’s election as flawed and urging Maduro to hand power to to the opposition-controlled National Assembly until another election could be held.

Fighting crime. Brazil has deployed about 300 troops to the north-eastern city of Fortaleza to tackle a surge in violence, just days after the inauguration of President Jair Bolsonaro, who was campaigned on the promise to fight rampant crime in the country.

U.S. Military

Payday. With congressional negotiators deadlocked in their attempts to reopen the federal government, the Senate is likely to consider legislation to provide paychecks to members of the U.S. Coast Guard, Military Times reports.

Meditations in an emergency. White House, Department of Homeland Security, and Pentagon lawyers are meeting to consider whether President Donald Trump can declare a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border in order to use Defense Department funds to build a wall along the frontier.

Musical chairs. At 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, Defense Secretary James Mattis officially handed over authority to his deputy, Patrick Shanahan, with a phone call, setting off a chain reaction that is reshaping the leadership of President Trump’s Pentagon. Despite rumors that the White is considering other candidates for the job, Shanahan could be just the kind of man Trump wants at the helm of the Pentagon, Lara Seligman writes for Foreign Policy.

Fired. The command chief of U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command, which is responsible for the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles and bomber fleet, was fired Friday for having an “unprofessional relationship” during his previous assignment as command chief for both the Air Force District of Washington and the 320th Air Expeditionary Wing at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.

Guilty. A former 7th Special Forces Group soldier and a West Virginia National Guard Special Forces soldier pleaded guilty Dec. 21 and Dec. 17, respectively, to two federal charges each of conspiracy to traffic cocaine. Former Master Sgt. Daniel Gould, 36, and Sgt. 1st Class Henry Royer, 35, had planned to smuggle 90 pounds of cocaine ― about $1 million worth ― on a military transport plane from Colombia to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, Army Times reports.

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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