Security Brief

U.S. Sends More Firepower to Counter Iran

National security experts warn the two countries may be headed toward a military confrontation.

MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopters assigned to the "Dusty Dogs" of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 7, attached to Carrier Strike Group 12 and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, are recalled to Naval Station Norfolk on September 15, 2018. (Jeff Sherman/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopters assigned to the "Dusty Dogs" of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 7, attached to Carrier Strike Group 12 and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, are recalled to Naval Station Norfolk on September 15, 2018. (Jeff Sherman/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

What’s on tap today: The United States and Iran may be moving toward military confrontation, satellite photos emerge of China’s new aircraft carrier, and Russia is hacking the European Parliament elections.

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Washington and Tehran Dig In

Firepower. The United States and Iran continued to trade warnings last week, with the Pentagon on Friday announcing its intent to move additional firepower into the Middle East in response to “credible” threats on U.S troops in the region. The USS Arlington, an amphibious ship that carries U.S. Marines, along with a Patriot missile battery, will join the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and a bomber task force in U.S. Central Command.

The Pentagon says it is tracking “anomalous naval activity” in the Persian Gulf, including loading small sailing vessels with missiles and other military hardware.

Over the weekend, Tehran issued an explicit threat to the Abraham Lincoln, which transited through the Suez Canal. In the past, a U.S. aircraft carrier would be a threat; now, it is a “target,” said Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the Revolutionary Guard’s air force.

Are we headed for a confrontation? So far, moves from both sides amount to little more than saber rattling. But national security experts are sounding the alarm over the increased risk of miscalculation, or an accident, that could spiral into a full-blown conflict.

“You can easily envision a scenario where some members of a few militias in Iraq fire on American troops, we then respond with some kind of military action, and Iran responds to that,” Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, told FP.

This was not the plan. The continued tension with Tehran could also mark a setback for the Pentagon’s strategic move to prioritize great power competition, rather than terrorism, writes Lara Seligman.


Digital caper. A Chinese state hacking group appears to have acquired NSA hacking tools that were infamously used in malware developed by Russia and North Korea. Wired’s Andy Greenberg traces the history of how one software vulnerability was being used simultaneously by at least three intelligence services and ended up causing untold damage.

What We’re Watching

China’s new aircraft carrier. Satellite photos of what will become Beijing’s third aircraft carrier emerged last week from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The new vessel represents the evolution of Chinese carrier aviation from an adapted Soviet model to a Western-style flattop, one that speaks to China’s ambition to be the leading strategic power in Asia, Sam Roggeveen writes for FP.

Transatlantic defense tensions. The United States, especially under Trump, has repeatedly badgered Europe to increase defense spending. But now that Europe is taking concrete steps to boost a pan-European defense industry, Washington is reportedly howling mad, according to Spanish daily El Pais.

The Pentagon sent an angry letter to officials in Brussels, the paper says, arguing that two new defense initiatives—the European Defence Fund and Permanent Structured Cooperation—could cut out U.S. defense firms and erode decades of close cooperation between the United States and other NATO allies.

Tanker trouble. Four ships, including two Saudi oil tankers, were reportedly “sabotaged” off the coast of the United Arab Emirates early Sunday, seriously damaging the two Saudi vessels. It wasn’t immediately clear who was behind the attacks, which came just a week after Iran threatened to close the Persian Gulf to oil traffic in response to a hardening of U.S. sanctions on its oil exports and days after the U.S. Maritime Administration warned of possible Iranian attacks on shipping in the region.

Trump backed Libyan warlord. For years, Washington has supported the United Nations-recognized government in Tripoli and worked with it in the war on Islamic State. But in recent weeks, Trump reached out to Gen. Khalifa Haftar, whose forces are seeking to capture the Libyan capital Tripoli amid a long-running battle for control of the oil-rich country. The move came at the urging of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Assange. Prosecutors in Sweden said they have reopened a 2010 rape investigation of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Leak wars. A former National Security Agency analyst, Daniel Hale, was arrested last week and charged under the Espionage Act for providing classified material to a reporter. The outlet in question appears to be the online news site the Intercept. Hale is the third source working with the outlet to be prosecuted.

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Movers & Shakers

Shanahan tapped. President Donald Trump finally signaled his intent to tap Patrick Shanahan, America’s longest-serving acting defense secretary, as his permanent Pentagon chief. But Shanahan must still be confirmed by the Senate, a process that is likely to reignite questions about ethics and experience that have dogged the former Boeing executive, according to Politico. Shanahan will likely face questions from lawmakers about his accommodation of a host of Trump policies, including the use of military funds to build a border wall.

Quote of the Week

“It’s akin to writing off a vehicular homicide because the driver happens to be a known alcoholic.” –The historian Andrew Bacevich reviews a new book arguing that the 2003 invasion of Iraq can be attributed to “the messianic tradition in American foreign policy.”

Foreign Influence

Election meddling, round two. Researchers have found Russian-linked online personas and far-right groups sowing discord and spreading disinformation ahead of European Parliament elections this month, the New York Times reports. But take the Times report with a pinch of salt: The claims it makes about attributing disinformation operations to Russia rest on fairly thin technical evidence.

Cyber Command fights back. In its effort to protect the 2018 American midterm elections against foreign meddling, U.S. Cyber Command deployed some of its operatives overseas in an effort to defend networks in Ukraine, North Macedonia, and Montenegro. Cyber Command has now redeployed some of its officers abroad in a bid to prepare for the 2020 elections, though it won’t specify exactly where, CyberScoop reports.

Cyber & Technology

The Agency on Tor. The Central Intelligence Agency launched a version of its website on the Tor network, in an apparent effort to improve the ways in which potential sources can get in touch with the agency. The launch of the website comes on the heels of a compromise of the agency’s communications systems that led to the rolling-up of agents abroad.

Busted, sort of. The FBI has been busy raiding and shutting down a slew of dark web marketplaces in recent weeks, but the markets, which primarily trade in illicit drugs and maintain user anonymity using the Tor network, are showing remarkable resilience, with replacements already popping up, Wired reports.

Highest bidder. A Russian and English speaking hacker collective claims to be selling the source code of three U.S. antivirus companies, in addition to network access to the firms, Ars Technica reports.

Who hacked Anthem? The breach of health insurance giant Anthem stands out as one of the most significant data breaches in recent history, and researchers have long believed that hackers with links to the Chinese government were behind the raid. An indictment last week of two men accused of perpetrating the attack surprisingly said nothing about who the men worked for, Elias Groll writes.

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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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