Security Brief

Security Brief: Hanoi Summit Cleanup; Mattis vs. the Aircraft Carrier

White House aides insist the Vietnam summit was not a failure.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un plays Dan Bau, a traditional Vietnamese musical instrument, as Vietnam's President Nguyen Phu Trong  applauds during a banquet in Hanoi. (/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un plays Dan Bau, a traditional Vietnamese musical instrument, as Vietnam's President Nguyen Phu Trong applauds during a banquet in Hanoi. (/AFP/Getty Images)

Damage control. The Pentagon announced Sunday that it will suspend upcoming military exercises with South Korea and that it will move instead to smaller exercises in a bid to reduce tension on the peninsula.

The announcement comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s decision to walk away from negotiations with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un, in Vietnam, the failure of which sent presidential aides into damage control over the weekend.

National Security Adviser John Bolton made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows insisting that the summit was in fact not a failure. “He’s not desperate for a deal – not with North Korea, not with anybody if it’s contrary to American national interests,” Bolton told “Fox News Sunday.”

“I don’t view it as a failure at all when American national interests are protected,” Bolton added on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”  

At times, Bolton spoke with remarkable candor, admitting on CBS that his views on North Korea don’t matter particularly within the Trump administration. Pressed whether Trump is making excessive concessions to North Korea, Bolton repeatedly said that “the president’s view is he gave nothing away” but would not back that conclusion himself, adding “that’s what matters, not my view.”

Trump, meanwhile, dragged domestic politics into the mix, writing on Twitter that congressional testimony by his former fixer, Michael Cohen, may have contributed to his decision to walk away from negotiations.

The Pentagon vs. the aircraft carrier. Nothing projects American military power like an aircraft carrier. But last year a bruising debate took place inside the Pentagon over the most tangible symbol of U.S. military dominance, pitting die-hard carrier advocates—who believe the flattop and its tactical aircraft are key to projecting power—against those who, like then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis, believe that the days of the carrier are over as Russia and China develop long-range missiles and sophisticated overhead satellites.

The “mini civil war” ended in a backroom deal that allowed the Navy to buy two new carriers, which won’t be operational until the late 2020s, but at a heavy price—retiring the battle-tested USS Harry S. Truman decades early. Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman has the inside story.

Trade war. American and Chinese negotiators are closing in on a trade deal that would lift American tariffs on Chinese goods in exchange for greater access to Chinese markets for U.S. companies, the New York Times reports. The agreement would require major Chinese purchases of agricultural and energy goods, but does not appear to provide the major changes to Chinese industrial policy sought by Washington.

Asia

Meanwhile in Seoul. South Korean President Moon Jae-in tried to put a positive spin on the failure of the summit in Vietnam, telling a National Security Council meeting on Monday that the United States and North Korea will likely eventually reach a diplomatic accord, Yonhap reports.

Testy. In the wake of what many are calling a failed Hanoi summit, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attempted a round of damage control in an interview with USA Today. He quickly found himself in a harsh exchange:

“Pompeo reacted angrily when asked about the North Korean foreign minister’s statement, made hours after the talks dissolved, that the offer Kim made in Hanoi was final.

“That’s not what the North Koreans said,” Pompeo responded. “Don’t say things that aren’t true. … Show me the quote from the North Koreans that said this was their one and only offer. Where’d you get that?”

“After he was read a quote from Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho—in which he said “our proposal will never be changed”—Pompeo fell silent for about six seconds. Then he countered, “What they said is they’re prepared to continue conversations with us and that’s what we intend to do.”

The cyber beat. While American and North Korean officials were meeting in Vietnam last week, hackers tied to the North were attacking targets around the world. “The attacks, which include efforts to hack into banks, utilities and oil and gas companies, began in 2017, according to researchers at the cybersecurity company McAfee,” the New York Times reports.

The McAfee research is based on “a detailed analysis of code and data from a command-and-control server responsible for the management of the operations,” according to the company.

Straight to Pyongyang. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s train appears to have returned straight to North Korea following the summit in Vietnam, by passing Beijing after some analysts speculated he may visit the Chinese capital for consultations.

The beef. Agence France-Presse managed to get the details of Trump and Kim’s lunch order. Lunch consisted of sirloin and kimchi-stuffed pear. “Kim had medium-rare to rare, very rare,” the Metropole hotel chef told AFP. “And Trump had well done.”

No respite. For villagers living near Kashmir’s dividing line, the fact that Pakistan and India have taken steps back from the brink is a temporary relief, writes The Washington Post. In this region that is at the heart of the conflict between India and Pakistan, residents have endured three decades of insurgency and cross-border firing with no end in sight.

The alarming state of India’s armed forces.  An Indian Air Force pilot found himself in a dogfight last week with a warplane from the Pakistani Air Force, and ended up a prisoner behind enemy lines for a brief time. The pilot made it home in one piece, however bruised and shaken, but the plane, an aging Soviet-era MiG-21, was less lucky.

The aerial clash, the first by the South Asian rivals in nearly five decades, sheds light on the alarming state of its “vintage” military, the New York Times reports.

Hostage diplomacy. The Chinese government levelled new espionage accusations against two detained Canadian citizens, Reuters reports.

Washington

Princeling. President Donald Trump ordered that his advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, be granted a top secret security clearance, overriding the concerns of national-security officials, the New York Times reports.

The report comes as Democrats on Capitol Hill are renewing their questions about the Trump administration’s approach to security clearances. House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings accused the White House on Friday of refusing to provide documents on the issue, and said he may subpoena for the material.

The interview. For close watchers of the Russia investigation, the New Yorker has an essential interview with Jason Leopold, one of the BuzzFeed reporters behind the disputed article claiming Special Counsel Robert Mueller is in possession of evidence that President Donald Trump directed his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. Leopold maintains that Cohen’s testimony last week confirms his story.

Document drop. The head of the House Judiciary Committee says he plans to seek documents from dozens of key figures close to President Donald Trump as part of an investigation into whether he obstructed justice. “It’s very clear that the president obstructed justice,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat whose committee controls the initiation of impeachment proceedings.

WikiLeaks. The whistleblower Chelsea Manning says she is fighting a subpoena to testify before a grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia in an investigation that is likely targeting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Manning isn’t the only WikiLeaks-linked figure to have been recently subpoenaed. The former WikiLeaks volunteer David House went before a grand jury last year and is cooperating with authorities in exchange for immunity, the Daily Beast reports.

Liftoff. A SpaceX capsule designed to carry astronauts for NASA took flight on an uncrewed test mission from Cape Canaveral, lifting with it the promise of NASA astronauts launching into space from American soil again, writes Quartz. The test, a key moment for proving out NASA’s strategy of hiring private companies to design and operate spacecraft rather than performing the task itself, will pave the way for the potential flight of astronauts as soon as July.

Briefing the president. American intelligence officials are filling the President’s Daily Brief with a greater focus on economics in an attempt to tailor the American intelligence community’s flagship product to President Donald Trump, the New York Times reports.

Nickname wars. During a rambling speech this weekend before the annual Conservative Political Action Conference meeting, President Trump took credit for the nickname “Mad Dog” Mattis. Military Times debunks the claim.

U.S. Military

Ready for war. The U.S. Navy declared its version of the new stealth fighter jet, the F-35, officially ready for combat right on schedule last week. As the last of the three U.S. services that fly the aircraft to declare its combat-ready status, the Navy has been working to make its expected February 2019 timeline, writes Oriana Pawlyk at Military.com.

Space Command delay. Pentagon leaders wanted U.S. Space Command, a new joint combatant command for space warfighting, up and running by the end of 2018. But two full months into 2019, Congress has yet to repeal a law that is preventing the command’s creation, according to defense and Trump administration officials. Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber explains the problem.

Wait, Space Force is different? Meanwhile, Defense Department officials on Friday detailed a five-year plan to establish a U.S. Space Force as a new branch of the military, after officially submitting the proposal to Congress. If lawmakers approves it, it would be the smallest of the armed services, with just 15,000 members, and its annual cost would be about $500 million, writes Sandra Irwin at Space News.

Yet another tanker delay. Boeing’s deliveries of its KC-46 tanker to the U.S. Air Force, already years behind schedule, have been suspended as the service investigates a series of problems with foreign object debris, its top acquisition official confirmed Friday. Background on the history of the troubled program.

Rumint. Repeated sightings of the F-117 stealth jet flying training missions has the Aviationist wondering why the officially retired jet is still being piloted by the Air Force. One report out of the Netherlands claims the stealth jet may have flown combat missions in recent years over Syria.

Combat Camera. The Marine Corps has ended its legal effort to block the release of a combat documentary that provides an unvarnished look at the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Task and Purpose reports. Combat Obscura was filmed by a Corps videographer who retained his footage and cut an unauthorized documentary that serves up an intimate, troubling view of the war.

Middle East

Kushner’s trip. White House advisor Jared Kushner spent last week on a swing through the Middle East, where he met with a range of officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in what was Kushner’s first meeting with the Saudi ruler following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Kushner’s trip was part of an effort to drum up support for his Middle East peace efforts, and in a rare interview with Sky News Arabia, President Trump’s son-in-law discussed that plan, saying he aimed for a unified Gaza and West Bank.

With Israeli politics heating up ahead of next month’s election, political leaders are increasingly demanding that Kushner release his as yet secret plan.

Netanyahu’s woes. The fate of Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing likely indictments amid a tough re-election fight, and the still-secret U.S.-crafted peace plan are in many ways intertwined, writes the Los Angeles Times. How Israel’s embattled Prime Minister fares in the final weeks of the election campaign, whether his party continues to hold on to its lead or slips substantially, is likely to influence whether he welcomes a peace plan or turns his back on any such effort to appeal to his hard-line, ultra-hawkish base.

Behind Taliban lines. As peace talks in Qatar with the US gather momentum, the Taliban believes that victory is within its grasp and, perhaps as a result, there are signs the group is showing greater pragmatism. CNN spent 36 hours with the Taliban, a world that has been shrouded in secrecy and largely inaccessible to outsiders — until now.

Last speck of ISIS. The Syrian Democratic Forces engaged in heavy clashes with Islamic State militants as they advanced Saturday into Baghouz, a small Euphrates River village where the terror group is cornered near the Iraq border. SDF commanders have said they expect a tough battle against several hundred fighters who have refused to surrender and have dug tunnels.

The campaign marked what the U.S. and the SDF have billed as the last phase of a yearslong effort to dislodge the extremist group from the vast area of Syria and Iraq it once controlled, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Africa

West Africa drawdown. President Trump’s decision to withdraw hundreds of U.S. commandos and other forces from West Africa, despite an onslaught of attacks from an increasingly deadly matrix of Islamist fighters, has unnerved African commanders in Burkina Faso and neighboring nations. More

“What is emerging, critics said, is a glimpse of what happens when American troops, especially Special Operations forces, pull back before insurgents are effectively subdued, leaving local or allied forces to fend off the Islamic State, Al Qaeda or their offshoots,” writes Eric Schmidt at the New York Times.

‘We are not winning.’  The United States and its allies are not winning the counterterrorism war for the Sahel, the head of U.S. special operations forces in Africa told VOA last week on the sidelines of Flintlock, a major U.S.-led military exercise in the region. The exercise involves about 2,000 commandos from more than 30 African and Western countries.

Tunisia’s secret war. American Marines have fought and died alongside Tunisian soldiers during the country’s bloody battle against violent extremism. Yet many details of the clashes remain murky, largely because of the Tunisian government’s political sensitivities over the presence of American forces in its territory.

Gun battle in Mogadishu. A gun battle that raged for nearly 20 hours in the capital of Somalia as soldiers battled to dislodge Islamist militants holed up in a building next to a hotel they had bombed ended on Friday with all of the attackers killed, the police said.

Latin America.

Mexico’s new National Guard. Mexico’s Congress on Thursday approved the creation of a 60,000-member National Guard to tackle the nation’s public security crisis, a force that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made a cornerstone of his plan to confront organized crime and curb soaring violence.

Guaido’s return. In Venezuela, anticipation is growing as opposition leader Juan Guaido prepares to return to his crisis-stricken country after he defied a travel ban to cross the border into Colombia. To coincide with his planned return, Guaido called for nationwide demonstrations on Monday, a challenge expected to escalate his power struggle with President Nicolas Maduro.

Policing MS-13. Members of the embattled Salvadoran police have been killed by the dozens in each of the past three years, most in attacks that investigators and experts blame on MS-13, an international street gang. Now, a number of El Salvador’s police officers are fleeing the gang they were tasked with eliminating.

Europe and Russia

Europe’s nukes. With the Trump administration’s decision last month to ditch the treaty that ended an era-defining standoff—and with Russia following suit—the prospect of a nuclear arms race is back. And so is the debate over whether Europe should host more American weapons of mass destruction, writes the Washington Post.

He’s back. Gen. Vladimir Gerasimov has delivered a fresh address on the need for Russian troops to engage concepts of hybrid warfare as part of their deployments abroad, the New York Times reports. But when reading about this Russian boogeyman, do keep in mind that there is no such thing as the “Gerasimov Doctrine.”

A wild one. Spanish police are no closer to figuring out who broke into the North Korean embassy in Madrid, where intruders made off with computers, documents, and office equipment before escaping in vehicles with diplomatic plates, the Local reports.

Turkey’s Russian missile purchase. In an interview with Bloomberg, Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan said he’s still working to persuade Turkey to drop plans to buy a Russian missile defense system, the S-400, stressing that would imperil prospects to sell the NATO ally the next-generation F-35 jet it’s helping to build.

Meet me in Vienna. The US and Russian military chiefs are to meet Monday in Vienna to discuss operations in Syria, where the US has decided to leave a residual force to protect its Kurdish allies. “The two military leaders will discuss the deconfliction of coalition and Russian operations in Syria, plus exchange views on the state of US-Russia military relations and the current international security situation in Europe and other key topics,” said a spokesman for U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford.

Tech/cyber

Troll farm. U.S. Cyber Command disrupted internet access at an infamous Russian troll farm as part of its effort to protect the U.S. midterm election from Russian meddling, the Washington Post reports.

Huawei in Barcelona. American diplomats ventured to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the telecommunications industry’s flagship annual gathering, to make their case against Chinese telecom giant Huawei, but mostly failed to sign up allies to take harsh measures against the company. Huawei was a huge presence at the conference, where it batted back American accusations regarding the security risk posed by the company, Politico Europe reports.

Huawei officials are stepping up their rhetoric in response to American accusations. “Prism, prism on the wall, who is the most trustworthy of them all?” Huawei rotating chairman Guo Ping said during a speech, referencing one of the American intelligence programs exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. “If you don’t answer that, you can go ask Edward Snowden.”

Counter programming. Experts surveyed by the Associated Press argue that the security risk posed by Huawei is likely overblown. American officials have described the company as an intelligence threat and a way for Chinese intelligence to infiltrate global communications systems, but have not provided little evidence to back up their claims.  

Big government. The Trump re-election campaign is embracing a controversial proposal to give the government a major role in next-generation wireless networks, Politico reports. “The idea is also being pushed by a politically connected wireless company backed by venture capitalist Peter Thiel that could stand to benefit,” according to the outlet.

IDEX. Security firms exhibiting at the IDEX defense expo are increasingly advertising surveillance and intelligence products to Middle Eastern countries eager to crack down on dissent, Yahoo News reports.

One to watch. Facebook and Telegram are planning to roll out cryptocurrencies to their billions of users, moves that would radically expand access to the payment system and raise major money-laundering concerns.

The anti-drone wars. As armed forces and commercial airports deal with a rising threat from drones, arms makers are rushing to develop new missile systems, radar jammers and laser cannons to counter them, The Wall Street Journal reports. The anti-drone market should exceed $1.2 billion in annual sales next year and top $1.5 billion in 2021, Frost & Sullivan estimated. While that is a fraction of the spending each year on combat aircraft, the fast-growing category could become a lucrative new revenue stream for weapons makers.

Crypto wars. The FBI is closely watching a pair of new laws mandating technology companies provide assistance to law enforcement seeking access to encrypted communications, the Wall Street Journal reports. The new laws in Australia in the United Kingdom are being strongly criticized by industry and civil rights groups, but the FBI, which has backed off its legal efforts to compel tech companies to decrypt communications, may be looking at the measures as possible models. The bureau is ““very curious to see how the Australian law, now that it is passed, will be implemented and what will be the impact,” Amy Hess, the FBI’s executive assistant director, told the Journal.

Big blue. Facebook is allowing phone numbers shared to the platform for security purposes to be looked up in searches, and the company isn’t letting users opt out, TechCrunch 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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