Security Brief

Security Brief: Shanahan Cleared by Pentagon IG

Acting defense secretary scores major victory on path to nomination.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan speaks with reporters at the Pentagon April 19, 2019, in Washington, DC. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan speaks with reporters at the Pentagon April 19, 2019, in Washington, DC. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

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Shanahan cleared. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan received a major boost in his campaign to secure his nomination to lead the Pentagon with the announcement last week from the Defense Department Inspector General clearing the former Boeing executive of violating his ethics agreement by allegedly favoring his former employer.

While most defense officials interviewed in the investigation offered a defense of Shanahan, there was one notable exception: Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who is set to depart the Pentagon for an academic post. Defense News has the full story on Wilson’s criticisms of Shanahan.

End of an era. Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who played a vital role in arms control treaties and counterproliferation efforts during his six terms in the Senate, died at the age of 87 on Sunday.

Indiana Sen. Todd Young, who was an aide to Lugar before joining the Senate himself, offered these thoughts in a statement: “He was a quiet, dignified statesman. He thought before he spoke. He emphasized substance over personality. In short, he set the bar for public leaders—and for leaders more generally. I’m not sure we will ever see another Richard Lugar, but I pray that we do.”

Asia

Summit politics. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un travelled to Vladivostok, Russia, for his first summit meeting with President Vladimir Putin last week, but appears to have walked away with few concrete victories.

Kim’s visit to Russia comes amid a breakdown in the diplomatic opening between Washington and Pyongyang, and the visit clearly aims to put pressure on the United States by floating the possibility that North Korea can secure a diplomatic victory with other partners.

The two men said they would strengthen ties between their countries, but there were no concrete promises of economic aid or sanctions relief on the table for Kim, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Stiffed. U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton admitted that the United States signed a document pledging to $2 million pay for the medical bills of American student Otto Warmbier, who was detained in North Korea and died as a result of his treatment. But Bolton said Washington never paid the bill.

Taiwan. Western countries are stepping up their freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan Strait, with both American and French warships steaming through the strait in recent days. Two U.S. Navy destroyers steamed through the strait on Sunday, following the transit of a French frigate through the body of water earlier this month.

Sri Lanka. Authorities in Sri Lanka identified the mastermind of the brutal bombings there this month as Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran. Reuters reports that Zahran grew up poor and gained prominence as a hardline, controversial preacher who released videos online. While many of the bombers grew up wealthy, Zahran did not and was described as a “a black sheep who broke free” by a Sri Lankan spiritual leader.

Islamic State. U.S. President Donald Trump has described the battlefield defeat of the Islamic State and its expulsion from Iraq and Syria as a signal achievement of his presidency. But as the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka demonstrate, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility, the terrorist group is achieving a menacing afterlife around the world—thanks perhaps in part to the return of its members to their homelands, FP reports.

Military affairs

Military spending. Global military spending rose to $1.8 trillion last year, marking the highest rate of military spending since 1988, according to new research from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Nan Tian, a researcher with SIPRI, said that’s mainly due to big spending boosts in Washington and Beijing. “In 2018 the USA and China accounted for half of the world’s military spending,” he said.

The U.S.-China angle. U.S. military spending reached $649 billion in 2018, and it spends more on the military than the next eight countries combined, SIPRI research shows. China, by comparison, spent $250 billion–the 24th consecutive year it has increased its military spending.

Polar Security Cutters. As climate change sets in and sea lanes in the Arctic open up, polar regions are increasingly going to be a theater of military operations. This week the Coast Guard finally issued its first contract for much-needed heavy icebreakers, commissioning three so-called Polar Security Cutters at a value of $746 million, the Drive reports.  

New kid on the block. Russia released the first photographs of its massive new submarine, the K-139 Belgorod, the world’s longest underwater vessel. The submarine is reportedly intended primarily as a platform for Russia’s highly touted nuclear powered torpedo, and the Drive has a fascinating analysis of what can be gleaned about the sub from the photos.

Lost F-35. American and Japanese forces are still searching for the wreckage of a Japanese F-35 that crashed offshore earlier this month but are growing increasingly confident they know where the plane is, CNN reports. Pentagon officials insist they will find the plane before China does.

Big bucks. Lockheed Martin executives expressed frustration this week at the rate at which the U.S. Air Force is buying F-35 jets, Defense News reports.

The Forever War

Peace talks. Aghan elders are set to convene for a traditional (and traditionally divided) Loya Jirga on Monday to discuss U.S.-led peace talks with the Taliban, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports.

Monday’s meeting in Kabul comes on the heels of a meeting last week in Moscow during which representatives of the United States, Russia, and China discussed how to get Afghans to talk to one another about a peace agreement to end their country’s civil war.

Silver lining. Despite the collapse of earlier this month of planned talks in Doha between Taliban and Afghan officials, a group of Afghan emigrees, including some women, met with Taliban representatives in discussions described as unexpectedly positive, the Washington Post reports.  

Special operators. An investigation describing alleged murders carried out by Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher paints a horrifying picture of the culture within the Navy’s most elite special operations unit. Gallagher, a highly decorated Navy SEAL, is alleged to have carried out multiple murders on recent deployments to Iraq, including stabbing to death a detainee and shooting a young girl in a hijab with a sniper rifle, the New York Times reports.

Guantanamo. The U.S. military fired the commander of the American military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, citing a loss of confidence in his ability to lead the prison, the New York Times reports.

Overclassified. The top U.S. watchdog for the American occupation of Afghanistan warned on Wednesday that overseeing the conflict is becoming increasingly difficult due to mounting U.S. restrictions on information, Defense One reports. What we are finding is now almost every indicator, metric for success or failure is now classified or nonexistent. Over time it’s been classified or it’s no longer being collected,” John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told reporters.  

Hired guns. As the Trump administration tries to wind down the long war in Afghanistan, the number of private military contractors operating the country is booming, U.S. News and World Report’s Paul Shinkman reports. When Trump first became president in January 2017, there were 3,400 private military contractors in Afghanistan. Now, the number stands at over 5,800. There are about 17,000 NATO and partner country troops in Afghanistan, 8,500 of whom are Americans.

Collateral damage. A pair of new reports raise major questions about the U.S. military’s approach to avoiding civilian casualties. In Syria, researchers with Amnesty International documented more than 1,600 deaths in the four-month campaign to oust the Islamic State from Raqqa, and in Afghanistan fresh U.N. figures reveal that for the first time in the conflict’s history U.S. and Afghan forces are causing more civilian deaths than the Taliban.

Using a combination of open source data, satellite imagery, and on-the-ground interviews, Amnesty researchers have provided the most comprehensive picture to date of the civilian death toll caused by the grinding American campaign to expel the Islamic State from Raqqa, Foreign Policy reports.

“It was an operation that left a level of destruction that was unparalleled in modern times,” said Donatella Rovera, the researcher who led the Syria investigation.

In Afghanistan, civilian casualties reached their lowest level since 2013, but pro-government forces were responsible for a majority of civilian deaths, the New York Times reports.

Somalia. While human-rights investigators have access to a wealth of evidence to document civilian casualties in the Middle East, they face a far more difficult challenge in Somalia, where the United States is stepping up its air war, Amnesty researcher Brian Castner writes.

Middle East

Defection. A senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps official is reported to have defected to the United States. Brig. Gen. Ali Nasiri is reported to have defected earlier this month after falling out with Iran’s senior leadership. If the as-yet unconfirmed report by the Islamic State of Iran Crime Research Center is correct, it would mark a major victory in the American intelligence war against Iran.

Washington

Dress rehearsal. FBI Director Chris Wray said that the U.S. government’s efforts to protect the 2018 midterm elections was a “dress rehearsal” for 2020 during which he expects American adversaries to step up their campaigns to meddle in American politics, CyberScoop reports.

Espionage. Chinese intelligence officers are stepping up their attempts to recruit American intelligence officials, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Longread. The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins profiles National Security Adviser John Bolton and wonders whether the bellicose Trump aide can perhaps make an isolationist president a bit more fond of military action.

Coming attractions. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin heads to Beijing this week for trade talks with his Chinese counterparts. He told the New York Times that talks are entering the “final laps.”

FISA. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court struck down a record number of applications last year, the Wall Street Journal reports.  

Technology and cyber

Juicy target. The business messaging platform Slack, used widely by media organizations and civil society groups, warned in a filing that it is the target of sophisticated nation-state hackers, Motherboard reports.

Britain and Huawei. London decided to split the difference between its desire for cheap telecommunications equipment and security concerns about Chinese telecom company Huawei’s gear, with the United Kingdom announcing this week that it will allow the company to provide equipment for non-sensitive parts of its next-generation mobile networks.

Internet of sh**. A California woman realized that her Nest home security camera had been hacked when she walked into her daughter’s room to hear hackers playing pornography through the camera. The incident is the latest example of widespread poor security features in home connected technology, the Washington Post reports.

Wow. A hacker broke into thousands of GPS tracking apps used by cars and found that he could remotely turn off the engines in many of them, Motherboard reports.

Internet control. Russian legislators advanced a new law that will require internet traffic in the country to pass through a government agency by 2021, Defense One reports.

Satellite politics. China doesn’t have the ability to outright buy American satellite technology outright and is instead acquiring access to satellite bandwidth rights in an attempt to gain access to the key technology, a Wall Street Journal investigation finds.

Old-school. Pro-government forces in Yemen confused the GPS tracker on a vulture for a spy device and detained the bird, AFP reports.

Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.

 

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

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