Security Brief

Security Brief: Shutdown, Rinse and Repeat; Acting SecDef Lands in Afghanistan

Washington prepares for a week of budget negotiations as another shutdown looms.

U.S. President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House after arriving on Marine One in Washington, D.C., February 8, 2019. Photo by Olivier Douliery/ Abaca Press
U.S. President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House after arriving on Marine One in Washington, D.C., February 8, 2019. Photo by Olivier Douliery/ Abaca Press

Good Monday morning, and welcome to Security Brief. Please send your tips, questions, and comments to lara.seligman@foreignpolicy.com.

Bipartisan talks to reach a border security agreement broke down Sunday, imperiling efforts to prevent another government shutdown days before the end-of-week deadline. The government is set to run out of funds at midnight on Friday, with workers still recovering from a 35-day partial shutdown—the nation’s longest in history. The shutdown cost the U.S. economy $11 billion, left hundreds of thousands of workers either furloughed or working without pay, and delayed the rollout of the Pentagon’s annual budget request to Congress.

This time, negotiations reportedly stalled over Democratic demands to limit the detention of undocumented immigrants, even as President Trump moved thousands more active-duty troops to the southwestern border and prepared to rally supporters in Texas on Monday, according to the New York Times. Other sticking points remain, including how much money to allocate for barriers at the border. Lawmakers were preparing to propose between $1.3 billion and $2 billion – far less than the $5.7 billion the president has demanded.

Administration and Pentagon officials are preparing for a repeat of the partial government shutdown, and for the possibility that Trump will make good on his threat to declare a national emergency and use military funding for the wall. In what one Defense Department official described to Times as a surreal scramble, Pentagon officials met on Friday and over the weekend to identify which Army Corps of Engineers construction projects would be tapped for the project.

The impending shutdown comes as the governors of California and New Mexico opt to withdraw the majority of their states’ National Guard troops from the border deployment, a sharp rebuke of Trump’s warnings that undocumented migrants present a national security risk to the United States.

Surprise visit. Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan landed in Afghanistan for an unannounced visit Monday amid increasing uncertainty about the future of the longest-running US war in history, CNN reports. Shanahan met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the country’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, and defense minister Asadullah Khalid during the first few hours of his trip.

As part of his first overseas trip, Shanahan is also heading to NATO to reassure allies that the U.S. path on several key security issues remains steady, writes Military Times. The visit comes a little over a week after Trump formally announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the INF treaty, a move NATO allies supported, in response to Russia’s non-compliance.

Middle East

Afghan peace talks. During a rare public interview at the U.S. Institute for Peace on Friday, the United States’ chief negotiator for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said he is hoping to strike a deal with the Taliban before the Afghan elections in July. But Khalilzad stressed that a substantive peace deal is far from finished and hinges on dialogue between the militant group and that country’s government.

Meanwhile… The Pentagon has stepped up airstrikes and special operations raids in the country to the highest levels since 2014 in what Defense Department officials described as a coordinated series of attacks on Taliban leaders and fighters.

The surge, which began during the fall, is intended to give American negotiators leverage in ongoing peace talks with the Taliban, The New York Times reports.

Syria withdrawal. The Pentagon is preparing to pull all U.S. forces out of Syria by the end of April, even though the Trump administration has yet to come up with a plan to protect its Kurdish partners from attack when they leave, current and former U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal. But still, the State Department maintains that there is no timetable for a withdrawal.

The news comes as Ilham Ahmed, leader of the political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces, wraps up a trip to Washington to lobby U.S. lawmakers and administration officials—including the president himself—for a coordinated withdrawal from the country that would secure the fate of the besieged Syrian Kurds. She sat down with FP’s Lara Seligman last week.

Last remnants. In the last two weeks, thousands of people have been streaming out of the village of Baghuz, the last speck of land under Islamic State control in Iraq and Syria, an area where the group once ruled a dominion the size of Britain. Read The New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi’s sobering account of the scene there.

Proceeds. The State Department’s top Iran official warned that the country’s oil customers should not expect waivers for further shipments of the material after expiration in May.

“Iran’s oil customers should not expect new waivers to U.S. sanctions in May”, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said while on a swing to Japan. “The November waivers were designed to prevent a spike in oil prices, and it appears that there will be enough oil supply to satisfy demand this year.”

Washington

The investigations. The Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee questioned on Sunday whether Special Counsel Robert Mueller is being sufficiently aggressive in investigating President Donald Trump’s ties to Deutsche Bank, which has an extensive history of Russian money laundering.

“If the special counsel hasn’t subpoenaed Deutsche Bank, he can’t be doing much of a money laundering investigation,” Rep. Adam Schiff told NBC’s “Meet the Press. “So, that’s what concerns me—that that red line has been enforced, whether by the deputy attorney general or by some other party at the Justice Department. But that leaves the country exposed.”

Killer robots? Two years ago, Beijing launched a mammoth effort to turn China into a global torchbearer for emerging technologies. On Monday, Trump is set to respond to that with a new executive order designed to strengthen the U.S.’s global position in AI competition. According to Defense One, the initiative is the result of much outreach to industry and tech players in Silicon Valley.

Trump’s new order appears to be the beginnings of an American response—but it’s light on details and carries no resources to back it up, writes Axios.

The propaganda beat. A Navy and intelligence veteran and former television news correspondent will take up a key position at the State Department to tackle foreign propaganda efforts as part of the U.S. government’s response to Russian disinformation, terrorist group messaging, and Chinese propaganda, Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer and Elias Groll report.

Lea Gabrielle served in the U.S. Navy as a fighter pilot and later as an intelligence officer, but she is best known for her work on Fox News. Her appointment marks the latest in a string of employees from the network to land senior positions in the Trump administration.

The media beat. CGTN, the American arm of China’s state broadcaster, finally registered as a foreign agent following sustained pressure from the U.S. Justice Department. The move comes amid heightened scrutiny of Chinese influence in the United States and may presage a broader crackdown on state-controlled media outlets operating in the U.S., Foreign Policy’s Elias Groll writes.

SOTU. After much drama, President Donald Trump’s State of the Union came and went in a flash last week, and FP has the foreign-policy takeaways: optimism on North Korea, a hard line on the U.S.-Mexico border, some optimism on NATO, among others.

Europe and Russia

NATO to get a new member. Greece’s parliament on Friday ended a decades-long dispute by approving a measure that would allow Macedonia, soon to be North Macedonia, to join NATO. In a 153-140 vote, Greek lawmakers backed the protocol that now must be approved by other members.

Branching out. Google has reportedly agreed to start censoring searches in Russia after years of refusing to cooperate with Russia. The California-based tech company will now comply with a Russian law passed in 2017, that requires any websites banned by the government to be omitted from search engine results.

The news comes eight months after Google opted not to renew its contract with the U.S. Department of Defense for work on its flagship artificial intelligence program, Project Maven.

Pipeline politics. An obscure EU rules change may make it harder for Russia to use its natural-gas resources as a political lever in Europe. “By ensuring that third countries have to play by EU rules in the energy business, Brussels appears to be taking square aim at one of Moscow’s favorite weapons: its use of energy exports to pressure smaller neighbors, especially in Central and Eastern Europe,” Foreign Policy’s Keith Johnson reports.

A real sanctions debate. With economic sanctions a primary tool of American statecraft, the debate over their efficacy and the strategy behind them is seriously lacking, Dan Drezner writes in the Washington Post in describing a growing intra-left debate over sanctions policy.

Export controls. French and German defense officials are determined to establish an export control regime for a next-generation fighter jet being developed by the two countries, a senior French defense official said. French defense officials are concerned that cooperating on the project with Germany may end up restricting the countries to which the fighter could be exported, Defense News reports.

Brexit blues. UK Defense Minister Gavin Williamson is expected to argue in a speech on Monday that the country’s departure from the European Union provides it with an opportunity to more aggressively confront China and Russia, the Guardian reports.

Asia

Let’s make a deal. South Korea and the United States struck a new deal Sunday on how much Seoul should pay for the U.S. military presence on its soil, after previous rounds of failed negotiations caused worries about their decades-long alliance.

The news comes ahead of a planned second summit between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un at the end of February in Hanoi.

North Korea. American negotiators demanded that North Korea provide a list of names of scientists and others who worked on the country’s intercontinental ballistic missile program, the Korea Times reports.

And the limo? U.S. officials like to argue that sanctions are having a biting effect on the North Korean economy, but Kim Jong Un’s new limousine raises question about whether curbs on luxury goods are having a serious effect, the Drive reports.

Designs on Greenland. The Pentagon raised the alarm last year over what it deemed a troubling development: China was looking to bankroll and build three airports that could give it a military foothold off Canada’s coast. WSJ has the story on how the U.S. military is countering these efforts.

A job for Space Force. Senior U.S. defense officials are growing increasingly concerned that the Chinese military can monitor and potentially target U.S. and allied satellites from a new deep space ground station in the Western Hemisphere, located in the deserts of Patagonia, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman reports.

U.S. Military

Must-read. A two-part ProPublica investigation reveals that the Navy has for years ignored warnings about the state of its 7th Fleet operating in the Pacific and that a high tempo of operations, a disregard for training, and ship maintenance contributed to a pair of deadly accidents that left 17 sailors dead and tarnished the Navy’s reputation.

Part one of that investigation reconstructs the collision between the USS Fitzgerald and a giant tanker ship in Tsushima Strait, recounting the series of errors and frightening state of disrepair and lack of manpower that led up to the accident. Part two reveals that senior Navy officials have for years raised alarms about the state of the Navy, only to be ignored by higher-ups focussed on acquiring new ships.  

Murder charge. Mathew L. Golsteyn, the former Army Green Beret accused of murdering a suspected Taliban bombmaker, whose case caught President Trump’s attention last year, has rarely discussed the case in public. But in a two-hour interview with The Washington Post, he defended his actions and lambasted Army investigators for how they characterized his actions in official reports.

The cryptologic technician. A fascinating obituary of the Navy cryptologic technician Shannon Kent, who was killed in Syria last month, reveals that she was a de facto member of U.S. Special Forces and a highly experienced operative fluent in several dialects of Arabic and skilled in human and signals intelligence. “Chief Kent illustrates an unspoken truth: that for many years women have been doing military jobs as dangerous, secretive and specialized as anything men do,” the New York Times reports.

Iron Dome. The U.S. Army is planning on buying a pair of Iron Dome batteries to protect units against indirect fire, Defense News reports.

Cyber

Real-life thriller. The Associated Press has identified additional targets of a campaign by a group of private security contractors to discredit the work of activists and researchers examining NSO Group, an Israeli cybersecurity firm whose products have been linked to clandestine surveillance of human-rights activists around the world.

After the AP first revealed that operatives posing as wealthy executives had approached the research group Citizen Lab, which has exposed surveillance operations by NSO Group and others, lawyers and activists suing the company stepped forward to say they have also been targeted.

Cloudhopper. Hackers believed to be working on behalf of Chinese intelligence penetrated the computer systems of Norwegian software maker Visma, the latest reported breach part of a widespread campaign attributed to the group known as Cloudhopper, Reuters reports. The breach is believed to be part of a larger campaign to target software companies and managed service providers to steal corporate secrets.

Department of Homeland security officials briefed industry representatives last week on the danger posed by the group, also known as APT 10.

Big brother. Documents obtained by Vice show that some 250 bounty hunters and other officials had access to detailed cell phone location data belonging to AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint customers.

“Telecom companies sold data intended to be used by 911 operators and first responders to data aggregators, who sold it to bounty hunters,” Vice reports. “The data was in some cases so accurate that a user could be tracked to specific spots inside a building.”

Big brother, part deux. New provisions to Chinese cybersecurity law gives the state wide-ranging powers to carry out penetration testing — offensive hacking to find vulnerabilities — against internet companies operating in the country “and even copy and later share any data government officials find on inspected systems,” ZDNet reports.

Big blue in China. Facebook may be banned in China but the company is pulling in major ad revenue — $5 billion in 2018 — from advertising resellers connecting local companies with the platform, the New York Times reports.

Nein! German authorities struck a blow to Facebook’s ambitions to integrate user data across its massive messaging platforms. ““In future, Facebook will no longer be allowed to force its users to agree to the practically unrestricted collection and assigning of non-Facebook data to their Facebook accounts,” Federal Cartel Office chief Andreas Mundt told Reuters.

Come at me. Swiss election authorities have invited hackers to attack the country’s online voting system in a bit to discover vulnerabilities in the infrastructure. Top prize, from $30,000 to $50,000, goes to anyone who manages to carry out the undetected manipulation of votes.

Crack down. American prosecutors busted a cybercrime ring operating out of Romania, indicting 20 people and extraditing a dozen. “The defendants are accused of being part of an online auction scheme that defrauded Americans of millions of dollars. The racket involved advertising nonexistent cars and other purportedly valuable items on Craigslist and eBay and tricking victims into paying for them, often using stolen identities. The fraudsters then allegedly laundered their ill-gotten gains via cryptocurrency,” CyberScoop reports.

Latin America

Q&A with new US SOUTHCOM Chief. Speaking exclusively in his first in-depth interview since taking command, Navy Admiral Craig Faller told VOA the United States should not rule out Russian military involvement in Venezuela. “I think with Russia, anything’s possible,” he said.

Chin scratcher. American scientists investigating the mysterious brain injuries sustained by American diplomats posted to Cuba have asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to investigate the matter, Yahoo News reports.

Aid blockade. Venezuelan leaders may be committing “genocide” by blocking food deliveries, the country’s opposition leader and self-declared interim president said Sunday. Juan Guaido’s comments were directed at Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has deployed soldiers to a bridge connecting Venezuela with Columbia, where they are ordered to prevent shipments of U.S. food, medicine and humanitarian aid from crossing the border.

Rival resolutions. The United States has presented a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council calling for international aid deliveries and presidential elections in Venezuela, triggering a Russian counterproposal.

Coming attractions. Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s special envoy to Venezuela, will go before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday to testify about the political crisis in that country.

Africa

Ebola crisis. Nearly 100 children have died since the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo started last year — and the crisis is gathering pace, with the number of new cases doubling last month, according to charity Save the Children.

Terror rises in West Africa. Terrorist attacks are on the rise in the Sahel region of Africa, particularly in Burkina Faso and Mali. Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has claimed responsibility for many strikes against the countries’ security forces, suggesting that the ISGS has found a foothold in both states and is growing stronger by the week.

The drone war. “Since Donald Trump took office, the U.S. military has approximately tripled the number of strikes that it conducts each year in Somalia, according to figures confirmed by the Pentagon, while such actions—and the reasons behind them—have become increasingly opaque,” the Nation reports.

An investigation by the magazine “identified strikes that went unreported until they were raised with AFRICOM, but also others that AFRICOM could not confirm—which suggests that another US agency may also be launching air attacks in the region. The investigation also tracked down evidence that AFRICOM’s claim of zero civilian casualties is almost certainly incorrect. And it found that the United States lacks a clear definition of “terrorist,” with neither AFRICOM, the Pentagon, nor the National Security Council willing to clarify the policies that underpin these strikes.”

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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