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Security Brief: Trump, Russia Bombshells Shake Washington; Prepping for War with Iran
The FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation targeting the president, Trump seized notes from talks with Putin, and the White House requested military options on Iran.
Good Monday morning, and welcome to this edition of Security Brief. As always, please send your tips, questions, and comments to email@example.com.
The Russian connection. Two bombshell revelations in the examination of President Donald Trump’s ties with Russia have shaken Washington: First, that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation targeting Trump after he fired FBI Director James Comey; second, that Trump has gone to extreme lengths to hide his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to the Washington Post, Trump’s efforts at concealment went so far that he at one point seized his interpreter’s notes from a meeting with Putin and demanded that she not describe the conversation to other officials.
That revelation comes as the New York Times reports that in the days following Comey’s firing FBI officials grew “so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.”
Remarkably, Trump refused to answer a question from a friendly Fox News interviewer whether he was working or ever had worked on behalf of Russia, instead offering an extended attack on the media.
“I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked,” Trump told Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro. “I think it’s the most insulting article I’ve ever had written. And if you read the article, you’d see that they found absolutely nothing.”
Taken together, the two articles pose tough questions about Trump’s relationship with Russia and, as Ben Wittes writes for Lawfare, raise the intriguing possibility that the act of obstructing the FBI’s investigation of Russian meddling could very well amount to the act of collusion investigators are examining.
The interpreter. House Democrats are considering whether to subpoena the interpreters present for President Trump’s meetings with his Russian counterpart and sort out exactly what happened behind closed doors. But such a move would be deeply controversial.
Current and former diplomats—even those staunchly critical of Trump and unnerved by his relationship with Putin—are uneasy with the request. They say it undercuts the sanctity of private conversations that U.S. leaders need to have with foreign counterparts.
Interpreters have an important behind-the-scenes role in diplomacy, but it’s behind the scenes for a reason. If an interpreter is hauled before congress, foreign leaders and diplomats might think twice about being blunt and direct with Trump or his top officials in future sit-downs.
Furthermore, interpreters might not make good witnesses. Former interpreters say they sometimes struggle to remember the conversations they interpret, as their brain is so focused on getting the words and phrases correctly translated they don’t focus on absorbing the full conversation in their memory.
FP’s Robbie Gramer went deep on that debate following last year’s Helsinki summit.
Options. The Trump White House requested options from the Pentagon to carry out a military strike against Iran, a query that prompted alarm from national security officials, the Wall Street Journal reports. The request came after a mortar attack in September on the American embassy in Baghdad, which caused damage but no casualties.
National Security Adviser John Bolton and deputies were reportedly responsible for the request, with which the Pentagon complied. It is unclear whether the options for military reprisal reached President Donald Trump, but the request was perceived by national-security officials as consistent with the Trump administration’s increasingly confrontational attitude toward Iran.
“It definitely rattled people,” a former senior administration told the Journal. “People were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”
Fastboats. Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports a juicy tidbit from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s falling out with President Donald Trump: “Of all the disagreements that drove [Trump] and [Mattis] apart, one of the most perilous had to do with blowing up Iranian boats. ‘Why don’t we sink them?’ the president would ask.”
Shot. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used a major speech in Cairo to vow that the United States will “use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria.
Chaser. Iran’s top nuclear official said the country has begun “Preliminary activities for designing modern 20 percent (enriched uranium) fuel,” the Associated Press reports. Ali Akbar Salehi’s comments fall far short of a statement that Iran is restarting its nuclear weapons program, but appears to signal that Iran would be ready to do so if it chooses to withdraw from the Obama-era nuclear agreement with world powers.
Hostage diplomacy. The mother of Michael White, a Navy veteran detained in Iran, said her son has never been a spy and that he worked as a cook for the service, CNN reports. White is being held on unspecified charges. He was reportedly in Iran to visit his girlfriend.
Middle East wars
Withdrawal. The Pentagon officially confirmed over the weekend that the United States has begun withdrawing equipment, if not troops, from Syria, in what spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson called an “orderly” manner. In the meantime, U.S. troops will continue to provide support to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, including the Syrian Kurdish forces, which recently liberated the town of al-Kashmah.
“The mission has not changed. CJTF-OIR and their regional partners continue to pursue ISIS in the last remaining space they currently influence,” Robertson said. “We will continue to work with partners and allies to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS by sustaining military gains and promoting regional security and stability.”
POTUS wades in… again. Trump on Sunday waded into the fray again, prompting more confusion with a tweet that threatened to “devastate Turkey “economically” if it attacks the Syrian Kurdish forces fighting on the ground, and pushing for a “20-mile safe zone.” The president also said the U.S. military will attack the Islamic State from an existing nearby base if it reforms.
The tweet comes as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during a Middle East tour to reassure U.S. allies in the region, said Saturday he was confident Turkey and the United States can come to an agreement on a way to protect the Kurds.
Afghanistan. President Trump isn’t getting the major pullout from Afghanistan that he wants. “The U.S. military is drafting plans to withdraw a few thousand troops from Afghanistan while continuing all major missions in the longest war in American history, U.S. officials said, three weeks after President Trump sought options for a more drastic pullout,” the Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe reports. “The planning is underway after Trump ordered the Pentagon to prepare the withdrawal of up to half of the roughly 14,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan.”
Getting off the ground. Eleven years after the United States began building an air force for Afghanistan at a cost now nearing $8 billion, it remains a frustrating work in progress, with no end in sight, writes the New York Times. With the goal of establishing an air force the Afghans could operate independently, America plans to hand over dozens of A-29 attack jets and more than 100 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. But experts say the Afghans will rely on American maintenance and other support for years, complicating Trump’s plan to extricate the United States from the 17-year-old war.
Lost in translation. Mohasif Motawakil, a former interpreter for U.S. troops in Afghanistan was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Friday after arriving at a Houston airport with his family and was threatened with deportation back to Kabul, a legal service advocacy group said, a move that could jeopardize his life.
Picking up the check. South Korea is resisting a Trump administration demand for sharply higher payments to defray the cost of basing U.S. forces on its territory, raising fears that President Trump might threaten a troop drawdown at a time of sensitive diplomacy on the Korean peninsula.
Sanctions eased. The U.S. State Department has decided to ease some of its most stringent restrictions on humanitarian assistance to North Korea, lifting travel restrictions on American aid workers and loosening its block on humanitarian supplies destined for the country, FP’s Colum Lynch reports.
Pay off. Chinese officials offered to bailout a Malaysian government fund at the center of a multibillion dollar corruption scandal in exchange for stakes in major rail and gas pipeline projects, the Wall Street Journal reports. As a bonus, Chinese security officials also offered to surveil Journal reporters writing about the fund.
Take-over. A former top Philippine naval official is sounding the alarm over reports that a Chinese firm may take over a major Philippine commercial port, the Inquirer reports.
Freedom of navigation. The U.S. Navy’s top official, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, travels to China this week for talks with senior Chinese military officials amid increasing fears of a clash in the South China Sea, one of the world’s most valuable waterways. The goal of the visit, Richardson’s second as head of operations, is to “continue a results-oriented, risk reduction focused dialogue” between the two militaries, the Navy said.
Japan’s defense buildup. Long pacifist, Japan has decided to accelerate its military spending and effectively begin to gear up in response to North Korea’s missiles and China’s aggressiveness in the Pacific, the National Interest writes. The nature of the buildup also responds to other pressures from its great ally, the United States, which wants Japan to buy more U.S. equipment.
Quite the twist. The Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab tipped off the NSA that it should investigate the contractor Hal Martin, who was subsequently indicted for storing large amounts of classified material at his Maryland home, Kim Zetter reports for Politico.
Martin messaged Kaspersky researchers on Twitter using an anonymous account, but the company quickly figured out his real identity and forwarded the material to an NSA contact.
Kaspersky has been banned from use by federal government agencies and intelligence officials have warned that the company may be used as a tool of espionage by Russian security services. So the revelation that Kaspersky tipped off the NSA to one of the worst leaks in the secretive agency’s history represents a profound irony.
The fact that it was Kaspersky—and not the NSA—that discovered Martin also raises questions about the agency’s efforts to crack down on leakers and internal security risks. Had Martin not made the ill-fated decision to contact Kaspersky researchers, he might still have been a free man.
Go big or go home. Russian criminal hackers are going after bigger targets, according to new research from cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike. “A criminal hacking group suspected of operating out of Russia has shifted tactics in recent months from wire fraud to targeting big organizations for ransomware payouts,” CyberScoop’s Sean Lyngaas reports.
Open door. The Wall Street Journal has traced how Russian hackers spent years infiltrating systems controlling American electrical systems, and the results are sobering. The hackers smartly targeted small contractors supplying material and services to larger companies and used breaches of the former to claw into computer systems of the latter. Meticulously, the hackers burrowed into energy systems and likely won the ability to disrupt electrical supplies.
Surveillance capitalism. American telecommunications companies are selling location-data tied to their cellular customers, and that information is ending up on a thriving black-market that includes bounty hunters, Vice reports.
The story gained immediate traction in Washington, where a group of influential Democratic senators called on the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the issue. One FCC commissioner also urged the body to take up the issue.
The German leak. Authorities in Germany say a 20-year-old man in custody confessed to being behind the massive leak of personal information belonging to German politicians and other prominent individuals, Deutsche-Welle reports.
CREAM. Zerodium, a leading vendor of hacking exploits, raised the prices it will offer for tools to break into computer systems such as Apple’s iOS and Android. The company will now pay up to $2 million for a working iOS exploit and up to $1 million for remote execution tools on WhatsApp and iMessage.
Europe and Russia
Brexit. Prime Minister Theresa May makes a last ditch effort on Monday to convince rebel lawmakers to back her Brexit divorce deal, warning them that Britain’s exit from the EU is now in peril from politicians seeking to thwart it. The fate of the United Kingdom’s March 29 exit from the EU is deeply uncertain as parliament is likely to vote down May’s deal on Tuesday evening, opening up outcomes ranging from a disorderly divorce to reversing Brexit altogether.
Huawei. Chinese telecom giant fired an employee in Poland accused of espionage, attempting to quickly distance itself from a scandal that threatens its business in Europe. Several European countries are considering whether to exclude the company from development of next-generation 5G telecommunications networks.
Go in peace. The Kremlin blessed an operation by the political operative Maria Butina to infiltrate the National Rifle Organization, according to an American intelligence report reviewed by the Daily Beast. Butina pleaded guilty last month on charges of conspiring to act as a foreign agent.
European army. Germany’s defense minister has revealed a controversial European joint army is “already taking shape”- thanks to her French allies. Germany and France are now the “driving forces” in European defense and they would stand together in the face of any land assault, said Ursula von der Leyen, according to multiple news outlets.
Nice try. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu last week dashed hopes that Ankara would drop plans to purchase Russia’s S-400 missile system in exchange for the U.S. Patriot, saying Turkey will not accept the United States imposing conditions regarding the deal with Moscow. Some background on the debate, from FP’s Lara Seligman.
The odd couple. Moving nuclear material out of Nigeria has been a long-sought goal for the United States and nonproliferation advocates. But the goal has taken on increased importance in recent years with the rise of militant groups in the region, particularly Boko Haram, a group the Pentagon calls a major terrorist concern in the region, writes Aaron Mehta for Defense News.
Underscoring the importance of the operation: the key role China played in transporting and storing the plutonium, with the operation happening just hours after U.S. President Donald Trump made an explicit threat to China about growing America’s nuclear arsenal.
Medical leave. Gabon’s President Ali Bongo, who has been out of the country for two months recovering from a stroke, named a new prime minister on Saturday in an apparent effort to shore up his political base days after a failed coup attempt. The plotters of Monday’s coup attempt were arrested or killed within hours of seizing the national radio station, but the move reflected growing frustration with a government weakened by Bongo’s secretive medical leave in Morocco.
Congo election fallout. A second African bloc has called for a recount of Democratic Republic of Congo’s contested presidential election, raising pressure on Kinshasa to fix a dispute that could fan unrest.
Dictator. White House National Security Advisor John Bolton on Friday ramped up the administration’s attacks on the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, calling him a “dictator” who is holding an “illegitimate claim to power.” Maduro began his new term on Thursday after declaring himself the winner of a widely-criticized election held last May.
First week. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new president, used his first week in office to issue a flurry of new policies and proposals that undermined the rights of indigenous people and the LGBTQ community, and offered a preview of his future far-right policies, writes Vox.
Trial of the century. In a sane news cycle, the trial of Joaquin Guzman Loera—the drug lord better known as “El Chapo”—would be front-page news, but in Trump’s America the narco is getting short shrift. This week, prosecutors brought his IT specialist to the stand, where he detailed how he turned Chapo’s encrypted communications system against him and turned over usernames and passwords for spyware the drug lord had used to surveil his lovers and lieutenants, FP’s Elias Groll writes.
Mistaken identity. A teenager captured in Syria by an American-backed Kurdish militia hails from Triniad, and is not an American citizen as the group has claimed, the New York Times reports. The 16-year-old boy, Su-lay Su, came to Syria in 2014 along with his mother, who had married a man named Anthony Hamlet, who brought a block of women and children with him to Syria. Hamlet would later appear in Islamic State propaganda.
“Once they got to Syria,” Su’s older sister said, “they told me that this guy took their documents and destroyed them, and said, ‘You are now going to stay here and die.’”
Border Patrol shutdown. Even as President Donald Trump threatens to declare a “national emergency” over what he calls a “humanitarian and security crisis” on the southern border, close to 100,000 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) law enforcement employees missed their first paycheck on Friday due to the 21-day partial government shutdown, FP’s Lara Seligman writes.
Private care. The Department of Veterans Affairs is preparing to shift billions of dollars from government-run veterans’ hospitals to private health care providers, setting the stage for the biggest transformation of the veterans’ medical system in a generation, writes The New York Times.
Goodbye terrorism, hello Trump. Eliot Engel, the newly minted chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will scrap that body’s subcommittee devoted to terrorism in favor of one investigating President Donald Trump’s foreign-policy moves, including whether his private business interests have impacted his policies. The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser has the details.
Schema. The tech wizards at DARPA have dreamed up a new artificial intelligence initiative that aims to understand the news. “A new program at the research agency is aimed at creating a machine learning system that can sift through the innumerable events and pieces of media generated every day and identify any threads of connection or narrative in them,” TechCrunch reports.
Influencer. Is Airman Kelly Davis the Air Force’s most cost-effective marketing tool? The Aviationist wants to know. In a profile of Davis, the blog examines whether the Instagram account with more followers than the Air Force’s F-35 demo team is doing a better job of promoting the force than its big-ticket marketing schemes.
–Staff writer Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll