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Security Brief

Trump’s New Acting Pentagon Chief Heads to NATO

Mark Esper, who takes over as acting defense secretary on Monday, won’t have time to catch his breath before his first major appearance in the job.

U.S. Army Secretary Mark Esper announces that Austin, Texas, will be the new headquarters for the Army Futures Command during a news conference at the Pentagon July 13, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. Army Secretary Mark Esper announces that Austin, Texas, will be the new headquarters for the Army Futures Command during a news conference at the Pentagon July 13, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

What’s on tap today: Mark Esper, the Pentagon’s third leader in six months, heads to NATO, conflicting accounts emerge of Iran’s downing of a U.S. military drone, and hackers working on behalf of Saudi Arabia may have attempted to break into journalists’ email accounts.

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Another Secretary Bites the Dust

Shanahan out. It’s been a whirlwind 36 hours at the Pentagon. On Tuesday at 1pm, President Donald Trump himself broke the news that his intended nominee for secretary of defense, Patrick Shanahan, had withdrawn his name from consideration after heartbreaking reports surfaced of domestic violence incidents in his family. The FBI’s investigation into the incidents, which involved Shanahan’s ex-wife, Kimberley, and son, William, as part of a background check on the nominee had delayed Shanahan’s nomination process.

Esper in. In his tweet revealing Shanahan’s withdrawal, Trump also announced that he would tap Mark Esper, the Army secretary, to take over as acting defense secretary—the Pentagon’s third leader in just six months. Esper has a diverse background: in addition to serving in the 101st Airborne in the Gulf War, he has degrees from Harvard’s John. F. Kennedy School of Government and George Washington University, extensive experience on Capitol Hill, stints in the Pentagon, and spent nearly a decade as the top lobbyist for defense company Raytheon. He was also classmates at West Point with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

In a December interview, Foreign Policy chatted with Esper about the Army’s recruitment challenges.

Off to NATO. Esper formally takes over the job on Monday. But he won’t get a chance to catch his breath: later in the week he will head to Brussels for the NATO Defense Ministerial in Shanahan’s place. There, he will focus on “reinforcing the U.S. commitment to strengthening the NATO Alliance, ensuring more equitable burden sharing, bolstering NATO readiness and addressing regional security issues,” according to the Pentagon.

Line of succession. It looks like the president could move quickly to send Esper’s nomination to the Senate. Trump told reporters on Tuesday he would “most likely” pick Esper for the permanent position—“and pretty soon.”

But doing so sets off another round of musical chairs for the Pentagon. Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, Esper must step aside as the acting secretary while his nomination is pending (Shanahan did not have the same problem, as the deputy secretary of defense is exempted). The next person in the line of succession is Navy Secretary Richard Spencer (who, by the way, the president may also be considering for the permanent job). During the confirmation process, Esper probably moves back to the Army, while Navy Under Secretary Thomas Modley moves up temporarily.

Time limit. Remember when Trump kept Shanahan in limbo for four months? He won’t be able to do the same for Esper. Again due to the Vacancies Act, Esper can’t serve in an acting capacity for longer than 210 days after the vacancy occurred, explained Arnold Punaro, a former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee—which was Jan. 1, 2019. So that clock takes us to the end of July.

Iran Shoots Down U.S. Drone

Conflicting accounts. Iranian forces shot down a U.S. military drone, officials from both nations confirmed Thursday, a move that appeared to escalate simmering tensions between Washington and Tehran in the Middle East after alleged attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf last week.

But accounts differ on where exactly the drone was when it was shot down. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said it shot down an “intruding American spy drone” after it entered Iranian territory, CNN reports. But a Centcom spokesperson told reporters in a statement that the drone was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile system while operating in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, a major shipping route.

After initial reports said the drone was an MQ-4 Triton, the Centcom spokesperson clarified that it was actually an RA-4 Global Hawk. Both are unmanned, unarmed aircraft built by Northrop Grumman for surveillance missions.

“Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false,” the spokesperson, Capt. Bill Urban, said. “This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset in international airspace.”

‘Clear message.’ Whichever account is correct, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard force said Thursday that the shootdown sends “a clear message” to the U.S. The Pentagon has spent the past month building up its forces in the region, including sending an aircraft carrier, bomber squadron, a Patriot missile system, and thousands of additional forces there.

War Drums

The al Qaeda link. Trump administration officials have been briefing congressional officials about links between Iran and al Qaeda, raising questions about whether the White House plans to use the 2001 war authorization against the group as a legal rationale for military action against Tehran, the New York Times reports.

AUMF update. In an appearance on Capitol Hill Wednesday, the State Department’s top Iran official, Brian Hook, would not say that the Trump administration would not use the 2001 AUMF to justify military action against Tehran.

Pompeo’s message to Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has delivered private warnings to Iran that the death of any Americans in attacks by its forces or proxies will provoke an American military response, the Washington Post reports.

Limpet mines. The U.S. Navy showed reporters debris and a magnet said to have been used in the attack on the Japanese tanker Kokuka Courageous last week. American officials have blamed Iran for the attack on the Courageous and another tanker, and a U.S. explosives expert told reporters that the mines used were highly similar to ones in use by Iran, the Associated Press reports.

D.C. Diplomacy

Arms sales. The U.S. Senate will vote on a raft of measures today considering whether to block U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the Associated Press reports. Meanwhile, a British court has ordered the British government to reassess its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, because of the possibility those weapons are responsible for humanitarian suffering in Yemen.

North Korea update. A year after U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inked a historic nuclear agreement in Singapore, the two sides have still not arrived at a shared definition of the key term in the accord, “denuclearization,” Stephen Biegun, the lead U.S. negotiator, admitted in an address at a Washington think tank, Elias Groll reports.

First-class shuttle diplomacy. Kelly Knight Craft may just be the first U.S. ambassador to the U.N. with her own private jet. Craft, wife of a billionaire coal magnate and Republican donor, weathered a testy Senate nomination hearing on Wednesday where Democrats pressed her on all her travel by private jet, Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer report.

What We’re Watching

Trump frustrated on Venezuela. President Donald Trump has grown frustrated with his aides’ handling of the crisis in Venezuela and believes they got “played” by the opposition and government in a country that Trump hoped would supply him an easy foreign-policy victory, the Washington Post reports.

New sanctions on Turkey. The Trump administration is weighing three sanctions packages to punish Turkey over its purchases of the Russian S-400 missile-defense system, Bloomberg reports. The most severe package under discussion would all but cripple the already troubled Turkish economy.

Bribery confession. The former head of Interpol Meng Hongwei confessed to a Chinese court that he had accepted more than $2 million in bribes. Meng disappeared, apparently into the Chinese legal system, in September while serving as the chief of the international policing body.

Paris air show. This year’s Paris show is beginning to look like the latest example of great power competition, the foreign-policy chess match predicted by the U.S.National Defense Strategy that’s expected to play out in the coming decades, writes Marcus Weisgerber in Defense One. Here are a few more stories from the show for our #avgeeks out there.

Cyber & Technology.

False flags. A new report from cybersecurity firm Symantec found that a Russian hacking group took over the infrastructure of an Iranian hacking group in carrying out an attack on the computer systems of a Middle Eastern government.

Firefox vulnerability. Mozilla issued an emergency patch for its popular Firefox browser after a vulnerability in the program was used by hackers to target employees at the cryptocurrency firm Coinbase.

Targeting journalists. Hackers working on behalf of Saudi Arabia may have attempted to break into the email accounts of Guardian journalists writing about the kingdom.

Crime pays. A Florida city coughed up $600,000 in ransom to pay a group of hackers in order to recover access to the contents of a computer that had been encrypted and held hostage.

Quote of the Week

“Joints will be separated … It will not be a problem.” —A Saudi autopsy specialist describes how the body of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s will be disposed of, according to a new U.N. report that lays the blame for his killing on Saudi Arabia.


Hypersonics. Writing in the New York Times Magazine, R. Jeffrey Smith goes deep on hypersonic weapons. “The rush to possess weapons of incredible speed and maneuverability has pushed the United States into a new arms race with Russia and China—one that could, some experts worry, upend existing norms of deterrence and renew Cold War-era tensions,” Smith reports.

That’s it for today. To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here or sign-up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to

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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