Security Brief

Security Brief: Shanahan Under Fire; Islamic State Falls; Mueller Finds No Collusion

An inspector general investigation further tarnishes the former Boeing executive.

Special counsel Robert Mueller walks with his wife Ann Mueller on March 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Special counsel Robert Mueller walks with his wife Ann Mueller on March 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Boeing in the Pentagon. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan is unlikely to be nominated as the permanent defense secretary following an announcement that the Pentagon’s inspector general is investigating allegations that Shanahan boosted his former employer, Boeing, Politico reports.

Shanahan has come under fire for alleged comments favoring the defense contractor in contract deliberations. His candidacy to lead the defense contractor has been further tarnished by a pair of crashes involving Boeing’s flagship new civilian jetliner, the 737 Max.

Shanahan remains in the mix to lead the Pentagon, but he is unlikely to secure the nomination until the inspector general closes its investigation. “The IG investigation has slowed the process down and there are quite a few of us who want to see the report before moving forward, including President Trump,” a White House official told Politico. “He’s paying close attention, as he has always done with those he’s considering for top positions.”

The caliphate. American-backed forces in Syria liberated the last village under Islamic State control over the weekend, bringing to an end a four-year military campaign to oust the group from its self-proclaimed caliphate.

Analysts caution that while the fall of the caliphate marks a major turning point in the military campaign against the group, it hardly marks the group’s strategic defeat. Instead, the group may return to the guerrilla tactics of its early years, as the conditions that allowed for the Islamic State’s rise in the first place remain in place, as the Wall Street Journal reports.  

Even President Trump struck a cautious note, noting that the group remains a threat even as he hailed the victory. “To all of the young people on the internet believing in ISIS’s propaganda, you will be dead if you join. Think instead about having a great life,” Trump said. “While on occasion these cowards will resurface, they have lost all prestige and power. They are losers and will always be losers.”

Mueller time. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s highly anticipated report describing his investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election concluded that President Donald Trump and his lieutenants did not collude with that effort, according to a summary of the report released by Attorney General William Barr.

Mueller’s report did not reach a conclusion as to whether Trump obstructed justice, and Barr argued that the actions described in the report do not rise to the level of obstruction of justice.

The report marks a major setback for Democrats and will likely unleash a major backlash against the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia, as FP’s Michael Hirsh writes.

Washington

The political game. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s decision to not reach a conclusion on whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice throws what is perhaps the most volatile aspect of his investigation into the political arena, the Washington Post reports.

The investigations. Democrats vowed to press on with multiple lines of investigation targeting President Donald Trump despite the release of a summary of a report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller mostly exonerating the president, the Washington Post reports.

Boeing’s woes. The defense contractor Boeing has used its clout in Washington to secure increasing authority to conduct its own safety inspections, a provision of the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulatory regime that is coming under increasing scrutiny on the heels of two deadly crashes, the Washington Post reports.

Office politics. With the Trump administration increasingly relying on economic sanctions to project American power, the office within the Treasury Department responsible for such measures is beset by turmoil and staff departures, Bloomberg reports.  

Trade war. Trump administration negotiators are taking a harder line ahead of another round of negotiations with their Chinese counterparts in a bid to strike a wide-ranging agreement to ease trade tensions between China and the United States, the New York Times reports.   

U.S. Military

The wall. President Donald Trump’s move to use military construction funds to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and the deployment of American troops to the border poses an““unacceptable risk to Marine Corps combat readiness,” Gen. Robert Neller, the corps’ commandant, warned. In a pair of memos, Neller has informed his superiors at the Pentagon that Trump’s orders are undermining the Marine Corps, BuzzFeed reports.

Afghanistan. Two American service members were killed Friday in fighting in Afghanistan, the Associated Press reports.

Test shot. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency is set to conduct a test Monday of a new Raytheon warhead to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles, Bloomberg reports. Bloomberg describes the event as “the most challenging test yet of the U.S. military’s ability to shoot down an incoming missile from an adversary such as North Korea or Iran.”

Can’t be too sure. The U.S. military will review its training procedures for pilots and make sure they are familiar with automatic emergency measures following the crash of two Boeing jets, CNN reports.

Island hopping. With China growing increasingly assertive and modernizing its military, the U.S. Army is stepping up its presence in the Pacific, increasing its firepower and rotations of troops in the region, FP’s Lara Seligman reports.

Lasers! The U.S. Navy is aiming to deploy a 60-kilowatt laser aboard an Arleigh-Burke destroyer in the next two years, USNI News reports. The laser is aimed at countering small boats and UAVs.

Sexual assault. The U.S. military will set up a task force to examine sexual assault at the request of Senator Martha McSally, the Arizona Republican, the Hill reports. McSally recently revealed that she was raped by a superior while serving in the Air Force.

The complex. Sales of U.S. fighter jets are booming, and American defense contractors have Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to thank, Defense One reports.

Space Force. Congressional aides are concerned that the size of President Donald Trump’s proposed Space Force keep growing and is unlikely to match defense officials promises of a “lean” new military branch, Defense One reports.

Middle East

Rocket fire. A rocket fired from the Gaza strip struck a house near Tel Aviv, wounding seven and prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cut short a trip to Washington. Netanyahu will still meet with President Donald Trump today, but will return to Israel immediately after.

Game of ports. The United States and Oman signed an agreement securing American access to the port of Duqm, a move aimed at reducing American dependence on sending ships through the Strait of Hormuz, Reuters reports. “We used to operate on the assumption that we could just steam into the Gulf,” a U.S. official told the news wire. “The quality and quantity of Iranian weapons raises concerns.”

Iraq. “Momentum is building among deputies in the Iraqi parliament to oust U.S. troops entirely from the country—an outcome that would leave Iraq’s political future in the hands of neighboring Iran and leave its citizens more vulnerable to the Islamic State,” Genevieve Abdo reports for FP.

Questions. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said his country still has not received answers to basic questions about the future of the American military presence in Syria, Reuters reports.

A gift. President Donald Trump reversed decades of American policy and said in a Twitter post that the United States should recognize Isreali sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights. The announcement comes just ahead of national elections in Israel next month, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to extend his time of office under a cloud of corruption allegations. Trump’s move has been widely praised in Israel, and widely condemned elsewhere.

In a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Policy, the veteran American diplomat Bill Burns describes the policy as a blow to efforts to achieve peace between Israel and Palestine and a likely political boon for Netanyahu.

Yemen. The Saudi-led military coalition said it carried out raids on a pair of caves used by Houthi rebels to store drones, Reuters reports. Elsewhere, Doctors Without Borders reports that heavy fighting in the city of Taiz left 49 people wounded and two dead.

Meanwhile, a senior Houthi official tells the Voice of America that his faction will not relinquish control of the port city of Hodeidah. The port is a critical entry point for aid to the country, and both Houthi forces and the Saudi-led coalition have agree to withdraw their forces from the city. The two sides have not agreed, however, who will run the city following the withdrawal.

A penny for your strategy? The Pentagon has missed a congressionally mandated deadline to describe its strategy and the cost of its involvement in the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, Al-Monitor reports.

Europe/Russia

Braggadocio. American intelligence officials say that a highly touted Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile has failed repeated tests, CNBC reports. “The U.S. assessed that the longest test flight lasted just more than two minutes, with the missile flying 22 miles before losing control and crashing. The shortest test lasted four seconds and flew for five miles. The tests showed that the nuclear-powered heart of the cruise missile failed to initiate and, therefore, the weapon was unable to achieve the indefinite flight [Russian President Vladimir Putin] had boasted about.,” according to the outlet.

Turkey. Washington is considering stepping up its effort to convince Turkey to halt its purchase of Russian anti-aircraft missiles. Reuters reports that U.S. officials are considering halting their preparations to deliver the F-35 jet to Turkey.

“The United States is nearing an inflection point in a years-long standoff with Turkey, a NATO ally, after so far failing to sway President Tayyip Erdogan that buying a Russian air defense system would compromise the security of F-35 aircraft,” the news wire reports.

Brexit. Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for the UK to exit the European Union remain in shambles. After securing a deadline extension from Brussels, her chances of ramming an exit deal through parliament dimmed on Sunday after a meeting with Tory dissidents ended without an agreement on a way forward, the Guardian reports. May now faces calls within her party to resign.

Vox pop. Hundreds of thousands of Britons marched in the streets of London over the weekend demanding a new referendum on the UK’s departure from the EU.

Silk road. Italy became the first G7 economy to sign on to China’s Belt and Road initiative, bucking please by its allies not to do so and marking the latest geopolitical shift toward Beijing, the New York Times reports.

Subtle messaging. The United States deployed a half-dozen B-52 bombers to Europe to participate in exercises and mark the five-year anniversary of the Russian annexation of Crimea, CNN reports.

Germany. Relations between Washington and Berlin are set to grow even chillier, with Germany on the verge of reneging on its promises to boost defense spending, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Asia

Taiwan. A U.S. Navy destroyer and a Coast Guard cutter conducted a freedom of navigation exercise in the Taiwan Strait over the weekend, the South China Morning Post reports.

SNAFU. President Donald Trump exposed the rift within his administration over its policy toward North Korea when he announced on Friday that he was cancelling sanctions that had in fact not yet been announced, as the Washington Post reports.

With National Security Adviser John Bolton pushing for a harder approach toward North Korea following the failure of the summit meeting in Hanoi last month, Trump attempted an end-run around his deputy by announcing on Friday that he would be cancelling sanctions announced “today.” In reality, no sanctions had been announced that day, and Trump appears to have been referring to an upcoming package of measures.

Bad vibes. North Korean propaganda outlets are criticizing South Korea for not moving faster on North-South economic projects that are being stymied by international sanctions on the North, Yonhap reports. Late last week, North Korea pulled its staff from a cooperation facility in Kaesong, with economic initiative apparently making no progress following the failure of the Hanoi summit.

Alliance politics. The failure of the Hanoi summit has resulted in North Korea stepping up its efforts to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea, the New York Times reports.

Off to Moscow. Take this with a grain of salt for now, but parliamentary sources in Moscow say North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be planning a trip to Russia. A trip to Moscow could provide Kim with a measure of sanctions relief he so far hasn’t secured from Washington.

Thailand. Preliminary results in Thailand’s first election since a 2014 coup show pro-democracy parties with a narrow lead, the Guardian reports.

Gun control. Following a deadly attack on two mosques in New Zealand, authorities there banned semiautomatic and assault rifles, the Washington Post reports.

Americas

Connecting from Moscow. A senior Russian defense official and nearly 100 Russian troops arrived in Venezuela over the weekend, Moscow’s latest demonstration of support for the beleaguered government in Caracas, Reuters reports.

Crack down. Venezuelan authorities arrested opposition leader Juan Guaido’s chief of staffa nd accused him of running a “terrorist cell,” the Guardian reports.  

Unintended consequences. Residents of Tijuana are stealing concertina wire installed on the fence separating the U.S.-Mexico border as part of President Donald Trump’s border security initiative. Residents there are using the material to help secure their homes amid a crime wave, the San Diego Union Tribune reports.

Africa

Storm deaths. The death toll from Cyclone Idai continues to rise, with more than 750 people now thought to have died in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, the Associated Press reports. More than 100,000 are displaced and living in camps.

Inland oceans. Satellite imagery analyzed by FP shows the massive cyclone resulted in massive flooding akin to inland oceans.

Somalia. At least 15 people are dead after al-Shabab gunmen stormed a government building in Mogadishu over the weekend, the Associated Press reports.

Mali. Amid escalating violence in Mali, at least 110 Fulani herders are dead after they were attacked by gunmen, Reuters reports.

Algeria. Hundreds of thousands of Algerians took to the streets on Friday to demand that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resign.

Ebola. The ongoing Ebola outbreak is now the second-largest in history, with more than 1,000 cases recorded, the BBC reports.

Tech/cyber

Love letter to the valley. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said he plans to speak with executives at Google about the companies artificial intelligence research efforts in China, Defense News reports. Dunford has sharply criticized the company’s partnerships there, saying they are likely to benefit the country’s authoritarian government.

“In my judgment, us assisting the Chinese military in advancing technologically is not in U.S. national interests, so it’s a debate we have to have,” Dunford said last week.

Ransomware. A ransomware struck the operations facilities of the aluminum manufacturing giant NorskHydro, SecurityWeek reports.

Huawei. The European Commission is set to ignore American pleas to ban Chinese telecom giant Huawei from next-generation telecommunications networks and will encourage member states to share increased amounts of cybersecurity data, Reuters reports.

Wow. Facebook stored hundreds of millions of passwords in unencrypted plaintext going back as early as 2012, Krebs on Security reports. The report is the latest massive security headache for the company, which subsequently confirmed the report in a blog post.

A bad one. Reporters at Motherboard discovered a publicly available server hosting a huge trove of private photographs and audio recordings apparently uploaded by spy software. But the owners of the software and the company hosting the server haven’t responded to any of the outlet’s inquiries, so Motherboard isn’t naming the company for now.

Promotion. President Trump will nominate Michael Kratsios as the next U.S. Chief Technology Officer. Kratsios has served as a top technology advisor to Trump and played a key role in formulating administration policy on artificial intelligence and 5G. He previously served as an executive at an investment management firm founded by Peter Thiel.

The NSO beat. A major New York Times investigation delves into the world of private companies selling advanced surveillance software to authoritarian government around the world.

Regret. The founder of 8chan, the website on which the Christchurch shooter advertised his upcoming attack, said that the violent attack in New Zealand is making him reconsider the site’s no-holds-barred commitment to extreme freedom of speech, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Field trip. Department of Homeland Security officials are planning to travel to Europe where they will brief counterparts on lessons learned from efforts to keep the 2018 midterm election free of foreign meddling, CyberScoop reports.

Innovation by hacking. A hacking group tied to the Vietnamese government has been targeting the global auto industry in an apparent attempt to support the country’s car industry, CyberScoop reports.

Correction, March 26, 2019: The Pentagon missed a congressionally mandated deadline to describe its involvement in the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to the intervention as in Syria.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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