Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

Security Brief Plus: Trump Eyes Pompeo for Bolton’s Job

A new national security advisor could allow progress on a number of diplomatic fronts.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an Oval Office announcement September 11, 2019 at the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an Oval Office announcement September 11, 2019 at the White House in Washington, D.C. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

What’s on tap: Trump considers a replacement for Bolton, the CIA may have lost a highly placed Russian spy, and Israel was responsible for a high-tech spy operation around the White House.

What’s on tap: Trump considers a replacement for Bolton, the CIA may have lost a highly placed Russian spy, and Israel was responsible for a high-tech spy operation around the White House.

Who Will Replace Bolton?

The competition. With National Security Advisor John Bolton unceremoniously dismissed, President Donald Trump is on the lookout for a top foreign-policy aide–his fourth in just three years. While there are no breakout candidates so far, a diverse field is emerging, from the widely known Stephen Biegun, Trump’s envoy to North Korea, to dark horses such as Robert O’Brien, ambassador and special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. Lara Seligman, Elias Groll and Robbie Gramer have the comprehensive list of the names on Trump is considering.

Pompeo dual-hatted? While there is no shortage of outside contenders, Trump is reportedly weighing tapping one of his most loyal lieutenants, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for the post. In this scenario, Pompeo would absorb the national security advisor role and do both jobs, according to CNN. There is historical precedent for this–Henry Kissinger served in both positions from 1973 to 1975.

For now though, Pompeo is keeping a low profile. With Bolton out and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper still new in the job, Pompeo is Trump’s senior foreign policy adviser. And he has a backup plan if things don’t work out: he has reportedly considered a Kansas Senate campaign next year.

Does it really matter? Bolton’s replacement could pave the way for progress on several diplomatic fronts–denuclearization talks with North Korea, a potential meeting between Trump and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, for example– and return a sense of normality to the National Security Council process.

But when it comes to matters of policy, Trump’s next national security adviser may not have much real impact on the administration. As James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation writes for the New York Post, Trump was and will remain the “decider-in-chief.”

Don’t let the door hit you. Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office on Wednesday, Trump delivered a scathing rant against his former national security advisor: “John’s known as a tough guy. He’s so tough, he got us into Iraq. That’s tough.”

Exit the aides. Whoever gets the job will likely clean house in Bolton’s shop and bring in his or her own people. But the exodus is already beginning: Two of Bolton’s key aides on the National Security Council, Garrett Marquis and Sarah Tinsley, submitted their resignations on Wednesday following their boss’s firing. Both have worked for Bolton for years.

Exfiltrating a Spy

Moscow rules. Lost amid John Bolton’s firing this week is an arguably much bigger story: The CIA exfiltrated a highly placed Russian spy in 2017 amid fears that he was on the verge of being exposed. The news was first reported by CNN, who tied the exfiltration to fears that President Donald Trump may expose his identity. The New York Times and other outlets subsequently confirmed the news but questioned whether Trump’s profligate sharing of secrets was the reason for the spy’s exfiltration.

Media reports this week have identified the spy in question as Oleg Smolenkov. Property records indicate he purchased a tony house in the Virginia suburbs in 2018. He is a former diplomat that served in Washington and later joined President Vladimir Putin’s administration. While not in Putin’s inner circle, Smolenkov may have had access to Putin and presidential documents.

A drinker and a nobody. Russian officials immediately seized on this week’s reports to discredit Smolenkov, claiming he was a relative nobody within the Russian government and that he had something of a drinking problem.

Exposure. Reports about Smolenkov has former intelligence officials concerned about the difficulty of resettling spies in the digital era, Yahoo News reports.

World leaders convene in New York for the U.N. General Assembly later this month, and from Sept. 23 to 27, Foreign Policy will publish a one-week-only newsletter devoted to on-the-ground coverage and in-depth analysis of the goings-on at the 74th U.N. General Assembly. Sign up here for the U.N. Brief, written by FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer.

What We’re Watching 

Spy games. Israel was responsible for placing cell phone snooping devices near the White House, U.S. officials have concluded, Politico reports. The operation was likely geared toward spying on President Donald Trump, whose use of a cell phone to conduct sensitive business is well-documented. The U.S. government has done nothing to respond to the espionage operation, the success of which remains unclear.

Sanctions relief. President Donald Trump appears to be considering a French plan to extend a $15 billion line of credit that would allow Tehran to carry out oil sales, the Daily Beast reports. That initiative is designed to circumvent American sanctions and pave the way for talks with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal from which the United States withdrew.

Russian assassination. U.S. officials have concluded that that the killing in Germany last month of a former Chechen rebel was orchestrated by Russia, the Wall Street Journal reports. Western governments heavily sanctioned Moscow following the attempted assassination earlier this year of a former Russian spy, but the killing in Germany indicates the Kremlin may be undeterred.

Court drama. A Chinese woman charged with attempting to get past security at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago was convicted by a Florida jury. Yujing Zhang’s ties to the Chinese government remained unclear. Zhang was arrested carrying a large amount of computer gear.

Iran stonewalls. Officials in Tehran are blocking an International Atomic Energy Association investigation that is attempting to determine the origin of trace nuclear material discovered at a site revealed by the Israeli government, the Wall Street Journal reports. Following the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran has broadly cooperated with IAEA investigators, but as that deal has dissolved Tehran has begun to breach the agreement. This move is the first time it has blocked an IAEA investigation.

Doh! American sanctions intended to split Russian oligarchs from the Kremlin have instead pushed them closer to the government as their companies have been forced to rely on state banks for financing because of greater scrutiny and restrictions on deals with Russian firms, the Wall Street Journal reports.

For more news and analysis from Foreign Policy and around the world, subscribe to Morning Brief, delivered weekday mornings.

The Fighter Pilot Who Sued the Pentagon

A legal win. The U.S. Defense Department on Wednesday approved a manuscript written by former Defense Secretary James Mattis’s onetime speechwriter with “minor redactions,” Lara Seligman reports. The decision will allow the retired Navy commander and former fighter pilot, Guy Snodgrass, to finally publish a controversial memoir of his time in the Trump administration, which promises a “sometimes shocking” insider’s account of the complex relationship between Mattis and the commander-in-chief.

What’s the deal? The manuscript is at the center of a bizarre dispute between Snodgrass, the Pentagon, and the former defense secretary, who just published his own book, Call Sign Chaos. Snodgrass last week filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department, alleging that the Pentagon has unlawfully dragged out a review of the manuscript, which his lawyer, Mark Zaid, said contains no classified information.

Technology & Cyber 

5G for sale? Ren Zhengfei, the founder of Chinese tech giant Huawei, said he is considering selling the company’s coveted 5G technology to a Western firm in a bid to create a Western competitor and ease pressure on his firm.

IP theft. As part of its effort to protect U.S. defense supply chains, the Pentagon is putting together a list of companies with links to the Chinese military, the Financial Times reports.

IP theft, part deux. U.S. prosecutors are accusing a Chinese academic of stealing computer technology from a U.S. startup and supplying it to Chinese technology giant Huawei, Ars Technica reports.

Sanctions busting. The cybersecurity firm Cloudflare revealed that it may have violated U.S. sanctions by providing its services to terrorist groups and drug traffickers, CyberScoop reports.

Quote of the Week 

Me too. “Everyone was so sure the problem was a women’s issue.” –Nathan W. Galbreath, the deputy director of the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, on the finding that roughly 10,000 men serving in the military are victims of sexual assault each year. 

FP Recommends 

You’re fired! Former FP editor-in-chief Susan Glasser reflects on John Bolton’s firing and her conclusions are sobering. “The spectacle of the Trump Presidency often overwhelms our ability to process the stakes of any individual episode,” Glasser writes. “But the firing of John Bolton was not just another Washington farce” but “a reminder that the intensive national-security decision-making process” that served previous presidents “has been abandoned by Trump, subverted to the Presidential ego, and will not return for the duration of his tenure.”

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

 Twitter: @EliasGroll

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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