Security Brief

Security Brief: The Mueller Scoop That Wasn’t; McGurk Speaks Out

Special Counsel Robert Mueller issued a rare statement disputing reporting on his investigation, and Trump's former envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition speaks out.

An employee works on a laptop at BuzzFeed headquarters, December 11, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
An employee works on a laptop at BuzzFeed headquarters, December 11, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

BuzzFeed is under scrutiny for reporting that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is in possession of evidence that could be used in a possible impeachment of President Donald Trump; Brett McGurk, the former American envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, is speaking out against Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria; the shutdown drags on; China’s economy slows; and the U.S. Navy retools for great power conflict.

Good Monday morning, and welcome to this edition of Security Brief. As always, please send your tips, questions, and comments to lara.seligman@foreignpolicy.com.

The story heard ‘round the swamp. When BuzzFeed reported last week that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office has received evidence that President Donald Trump had directed his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie in his testimony to Congress, the story sent shockwaves through Washington. Pundits immediately assessed the possibility of Trump’s impeachment, and Democratic politicians argued that the allegations, if true, constituted obstruction of justice and subornation of perjury.

But shortly after the publication of the BuzzFeed story, Mueller’s office issued a rare public statement denying, at least in part, the report, which was authored by journalists Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier. “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate,” spokesman Peter Carr said.

President Donald Trump immediately seized on the statement as his latest cudgel in his war on the media, but BuzzFeed continues to stand by its story. “Our reporting is going to be borne out to be accurate, and we’re 100% behind it,” Cormier told CNN on Sunday.

For now, the BuzzFeed report exists in the netherworld of explosive yet unconfirmed scoops related to the investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia. It joins, for example, McClatchy’s bombshell report that Cohen’s cell phone signals were picked up in Prague around the time of an alleged meeting with a Russian operative and the Guardian’s report that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort met with Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

But it bears remembering that Cormier and Leopold have a solid track record in reporting on Trump’s ties to Russia—even if Leopold has a somewhat “checkered past.” Their reporting on Trump’s real estate projects in Moscow stands out as far ahead of the competition.

Washington

Inside story. Brett McGurk, the former special presidential envoy to the coalition to defeat the Islamic State, stepped out of the shadows for the first time since he resigned over Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria with a scathing op-ed in The Washington Post last week. The disastrous move, which he says was undertaken without consulting allies or understanding the facts on the ground, is “already giving the Islamic State — and other American adversaries — new life,” McGurk writes.

Coast Guard shutdown. A U.S. Coast Guard cutter is headed out on a six-month deployment to the Western Pacific for the first time in years, amid a heightened focus on the region and ramped-up tensions with China. But the 170 Coast Guardsmen on board have no idea when they, and their families at home, will see their next paycheck.

Low blow. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused President Trump on Friday of putting her and fellow lawmakers in danger by publicizing their plans to travel to Afghanistan, forcing them to abandon the trip, a breathtaking allegation against the commander in chief.

One to watch. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is eyeing a run for Kansas’s vacant Senate seat in 2020, Politico reports. The diplomat met with a veteran GOP strategist over the weekend and is being courted by Republican Party leaders.

HASC. With the new Congress, a significant number of women and veterans of recent American wars are joining the House Armed Services Committee, Military Times reports.

The watchers. Sen. David Perdue, the Georgia Republican, will take over the Seapower Subcommittee on the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of a larger reshuffle of the committee for the new Congress. Perdue is a self-described “China Watcher,” Defense News reports.

U.S. military

‘Foreign nexus.’ The Pentagon is developing a measure to scrutinize recruits, including American citizens, with a “foreign nexus” in a bid to root out espionage and individuals with ties to terror groups, the Washington Post reports.

Missile defense bonanza. The United States is seeking potentially the most serious expansion of its missile defense capabilities since the Cold War, with President Donald Trump putting his weight behind an ambitious new plan that explicitly states America’s intent to defeat missiles fired from Russia or China. But the long-anticipated Missile Defense Review falls short of some expectation, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman reports.

Fancy crop dusters. The Air Force will delay the start of its competition to select a new light-attack aircraft for the service, Defense News reports. The reason for the delay is unclear, with Air Force officials making vague statements about broadening the competition beyond the two front-runners, the A-29 Super Tucano and the AT-6 Wolverine.

Robot boats. The U.S. Navy is moving toward using larger numbers of smaller, networked ships, including unmanned vessels, as part of its concept of operations for possible conflict with China, Defense News reports.

SEALs. The U.S. Navy is incorporating its SEALs special forces units into training exercises for major power conflicts as the service shifts its attention from counterterrorism operations to possible war with China and Russia, Defense News reports.

Afghanistan

Deadly attack. A Taliban attack in central Afghanistan on Monday killed scores of security personnel, officials said, with some estimates putting the death toll at more than 100, amid government silence about one of the most deadly insurgent attacks in months.

According to the New York Times, the attack targeted a base belonging to Afghan intelligence. The attack occurred just before Taliban officials met with American negotiators in Qatar, restarting stalled peace talks.

Middle East

Chemical weapons. Iraqi scientist Suleiman al-Afari Fari, one of the few known participants in the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program to be captured alive, describes in matter-of-fact detail the terrorist group’s successful attempts to make sulfur mustard — a first-generation chemical weapon that inflicted tens of thousands of casualties during World War I.

Guerilla tactics. The attack last week by a suicide bomber outside a shawarma restaurant in the Syrian city of Manbij, which killed at least 15 people including four Americans, is one example of how the Islamic State still remains a serious, violent threat. The New York Times takes a look at how the “defeated” group is punching back.

Message to Tehran. Is­rael said Mon­day it struck sev­eral Iran­ian tar­gets in Syria in re­sponse to a mis­sile at­tack, send­ing what ap­peared to be an in­creas­ingly force­ful pub­lic mes­sage to Tehran to stay away from its bor­ders as U.S. troops pre­pare to leave Syria.

Hick-up. An Iranian satellite launch heavily criticized by American officials failed to put its payload into space, CNN reports.

Yemen. The U.S. military is far more involved in training United Arab Emirate troops for combat operations in Yemen than the Pentagon has previously admitted, according to government documents obtained by Yahoo News.

Another dead journalist. The freelance photographer Mohammed Ben Khalifa was killed while on patrol with a militia south of Tripoli in Libya.

Argo. Tony Mendez, the CIA officer whose operation smuggling a group of detained American diplomats out of Iran inspired the movie Argo, died at the age of 79.

Asia Pacific

China trade talks. As a critical round of talks with China kicks off next week, the Trump administration is increasingly pessimistic that Beijing will make the kind of deep structural changes to its economy that the United States wants as part of a comprehensive trade agreement, according to officials involved with the talks.

That pessimism comes as China’s economy notched its slowest growth rate since 1990, expanding by 6.6 percent last year.

North Korean missiles. With a second U.S.-North Korea nuclear summit looming in February, researchers have discovered a secret ballistic missile base in North Korea — one of as many as 20 undisclosed missile sites in the country, according to the researchers’ new report.

Meanwhile… The Wall Street Journal reveals that U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials have met with North Korean coun­ter­parts se­cretly for a decade, a covert chan­nel that al­lowed com­mu­ni­ca­tions dur­ing tense times, aided in the re­lease of de­tainees and helped pave the way for Pres­i­dent Trump’s his­toric sum­mit last year with North Ko­rean leader Kim Jong Un.

Spat. South Korean defense officials said they had “deep regrets” over Japan’s decision to end working-level talks and issue what was described as a final report over an episode in which a South Korean naval vessel locked its fire control radar on a Japanese aircraft.

A spy in Virginia. The BBC profiles Kevin Mallory, a former CIA officer, now convicted of espionage and awaiting sentences on charges he provided classified material to Chinese intelligence. Mallory maintains his innocence and says he was attempting to work as a double agent, but his conviction serves as a prime example of growing Chinese efforts to infiltrate the United States and step up its espionage.

Japan’s F-35. Japan has confirmed it will not use in-country final assembly facilities for its next lot of Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets. A spokesperson from the U.S. ally’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency, or ATLA, told Defense News it will instead acquire aircraft imported from overseas for its upcoming fiscal 2019 contract.

Exports. Defense officials in Singapore said they have identified the F-35 fighter jet as the best replacement for the country’s fleet of F-16s, Defense News reports.

Collision. Two Russian Sukhoi Su-34 collided over the Sea of Japan while on a training mission, the Aviationist reports, citing Russian media reports.

Europe and Russia

Election hacking. Three years after Russian disinformation campaigns disrupted the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possibly influenced the result of the Brexit vote, European officials are worried the European Parliament election in May is next.

EU trade talks. Six months after U.S. President Donald Trump proclaimed he’d already reached a trade deal with the European Union, Brussels has only now laid out its preliminary conditions for talks. And they don’t point to a quick or a comprehensive trade pact, or, more importantly, one that could ever pass muster with the U.S. Congress—adding to two years of Trump administration failures when it comes to trade, FP’s Keith Johnson writes.

Sanctions. EU foreign ministers on Monday signed off on travel bans and asset freezes against the head of Russian military intelligence and his deputy, as well as the two suspects allegedly responsible for what London claims was a Kremlin-backed nerve agent attack in the UK last year. The measures are the first imposed by the EU under a new chemical weapons sanctions regime set up after the alleged attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, with novichok poison in the city of Salisbury.  

The Deripaska beat. The U.S. Treasury’s claims that the recent decision to lift sanctions on Oleg Deripaska’s business empire may not be all that they seem, per a new New York Times report. According to a confidential document obtained by the paper, “Mr. Deripaska, his foundation, his ex-wife, her father and Orandy Capital would own nearly 57 percent” of the holding company EN+, which controls Deripaska’s aluminum business, among other companies.

American Treasury officials have claimed that the decision to delist EN+ and two other firms controlled by Deripaska came after a deal was reached that would have stripped the Russian oligarch of control of the companies. Deripaska was supposed to decrease his ownership of the companies to below 50 percent and his assets transferred to independent entities.

Congressional Democrats, along with some Republicans, have sharply criticized the move and have unsuccessfully attempted to block it.

Moscow. A lawyer for Paul Whelan, the American man being held in Moscow on charges of espionage, said his client was given a flash drive containing a state secret but that it was unclear how his client obtained it or whether he was aware of what it contained, the Washington Post reports.

Africa

Islamic State West Africa. Raids conducted by the Islamic State’s West Africa “province” (ISWA) have forced thousands of civilians to flee their temporary homes in northeastern Nigeria this week, FDD’s Long War Journal reports.

Crackdown. Authorities in Zimbabwe have killed at least eight people and shut down the internet following protests on fuel price hikes in the past week around the country, in the most severe bout of state-mediated violence since President Emmerson Mnangagwa came to power in 2017. Foreign Policy’s Jefcoate O’Donnell and Robbie Gramer do a deep dive.

Congo election. The African Union called for a suspension of the proclamation of Democratic Republic of Congo’s presidential-election results, saying there were “serious doubts” about their veracity. The continental body’s surprise request comes as Congo’s highest court considers opposition leader Martin Fayulu’s bid to overturn the outcome, which he says was rigged in rival candidate Felix Tshisekedi’s favor.

Latin America

Foiled military uprising. Venezuela’s government claims to have foiled what appeared to be an attempted military insurrection, blaming the mutiny on “shadowy interests of the extreme right”.The apparent uprising appeared to have been small-scale, but it is the latest sign of resistance to Venezuela’s embattled president, Nicolás Maduro, who took power after Hugo Chávez’s death in 2013 and has led his country into an economic slump and a humanitarian crisis.

Bogota attack. Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) is claiming to have carried out the car bomb attack at a police academy in Bogota last week that left at least 20 dead and injured at least 68 others. It was the worst terrorist attack to hit the country in 15 years.

Pipeline explosion. Thieves punctured a pipeline north of Mexico City on Friday, causing an explosion that killed at least 89 people and injuring scores more. The disaster has become a major early test of the policy and leadership of Mexico’s new President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1, The New York Times writes.

Cyber/technology

Oops. Hackers working on behalf of an unidentified nation-state intelligence organization exposed their text-chats to researchers examining spyware, CyberScoop reports. The hackers were testing Android malware, infected their own devices as a test, and ended up exposing their conversations on a server used to control the organization’s malware. Those conversations included significant new details on commercial spyware vendors marketing their services to the intelligence agency.

Cybersecurite. French Defense Minister Florence Parly said her country will develop and deploy offensive cyber weapons in a bid to protect its networks, Fifth Domain reports.

Disinfo. Facebook announced that it removed hundreds of pages that the company found was part of a disinformation operation targeting users in Central and Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, the AP reports. “One network of 364 pages and accounts was linked to employees of Sputnik,” according to the newswire.

Q&A. The computer security expert Jon Callas made headlines recently when he left a high-profile job at Apple for the American Civil Liberties Union. In an interview with FP, he explains why he left the company and why he thinks the solutions to today’s big technology problems are policy and not technology.  

Trade secrets. American prosecutors may be on the verge of further tightening the screws on Huawei. “Federal prosecutors are pursuing a criminal investigation of China’s Huawei Technologies Co. for allegedly stealing trade secrets from U.S. business partners,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

More Huawei. Chinese telecom giant Huawei is mounting a public-relations offensive, making its CEO and founder, Ren Zhengfei, available for a rare interview as the company battles persistent questions about its ties to the Chinese state.

Meanwhile, French lawmakers are considering a measure to give the country’s security service access to telecom operators equipment to carry out security checks, a measure apparently targeting Huawei. In Canada, the country’s former spy chief wrote in an op-ed that the country should ban Huawei equipment from its next-generation telecommunications network. And in Taiwan, a state-backed technology institute banned Huawei equipment from accessing its networks.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson warned that China will retaliate against the United States and Canada if the extradition of a senior Huawei executive, Meng Wanzhou, detained in Canada moves ahead.

PTSD. An experimental electrical treatment is showing promise in the treatment of veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder, Defense One reports. The new treatment uses electromagnetic fields to target regions of the brain.

Fake news. WhatsApp is cracking down on fake news on its platform by limiting the ability of users to forward messages, the Guardian reports.

The GDPR era. France slapped Google with a $57 million dollar fine for failing to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation, the first such penalty to be issued under the EU data privacy law. “The fine was issued because Google failed to provide enough information to users about its data consent policies and didn’t give them enough control over how their information is used,” the Verge reports.

Penalties. American regulators have met to discuss imposing a penalty on Facebook for violating a federal consent decree to protect user data, the Washington Post 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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