Security Brief

Security Brief Plus: Trading Missiles for Favors

Trump’s exchange with Zelensky over an advanced missile purchase raises more questions about his interactions with foreign leaders.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speak on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speak on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

What’s on tap: Trump appears to suggest he could use as political leverage Ukraine’s request for advanced Javelin missiles, three suicides in less than a week on an aircraft carrier highlight the rising rate of Navy suicides, doubts emerge about an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria in 2017, and lawmakers move to vote on U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten’s nomination to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


A Lethal Trade

‘Do us a favor.’ In a memo of the July phone call between President Donald Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart released by the White House on Wednesday, one line in particular caught our eye. After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky mentions he is interested in purchasing additional Javelin missiles, an advanced anti-tank weapon, Trump responds: “I would like you to do us a favor though.”

What’s the deal with the Javelins? The exchange is the closest the two men get to an explicit quid pro quo. At issue is the heat-seeking Javelin missile, a shoulder-fired precision weapon designed to destroy tanks and other armored vehicles. Experts say the missile has been a “gamechanger” for Ukraine’s fight to keep Russian separatists from moving further into the country.

The Russia connection. The July call may not have been the first time the Javelins were caught up in a political storm. In April 2018, just weeks after the U.S. State Department approved the first-ever sale of the missiles to Ukraine, Kiev halted investigations by an anti-corruption prosecutor into Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, related to his consulting work for Russian-leaning former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

No smoking gun. There is so far no evidence that Trump threatened to delay the 2018 missile sale in exchange for political favors–though he allegedly asked his staff to freeze a $391 million package of military aid days before asking Zelensky to investigate the son of his potential political rival, Joseph Biden. But the exchange over the Javelins raises new questions about future sales and Trump’s interactions with foreign leaders, write Lara Seligman and Amy Mackinnon.


Intelligence Community in the Cross Hairs 

The dispute over whether to release a whistleblower report claiming Trump conditioned American aid to Ukraine on the provision of political dirt on his chief political rival finds the U.S. president once again at war with his own intelligence community.

Resignation threat. Later this morning, the acting director of intelligence, Joseph Maguire, is set to testify before Congress, in both closed and open sessions after he reportedly threatened to resign if asked by the White House to withhold information from Capitol Hill. Maguire has denied the report.

Maguire, a former vice admiral and Navy SEAL finds himself caught between a White House eager to prevent the release of the report and a Congress howling for access to the document.

Who is Maguire? A Yahoo News profile of Maguire describes the former special operations officer as a politically astute extrovert with ambitions to one day become mayor of New York. On Thursday, he faces his greatest political test yet.


What We’re Watching 

State secrets. The U.S. government successfully invoked the state secrets privilege to dismiss a lawsuit brought by freelance journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem that sought to determine whether he was placed on a U.S. kill list after he was nearly struck by American airstrikes five times while working in Syria, the Washington Post reports. Abdul Kareem maintains that he was mistaken for a militant because of his frequent contact with groups linked to al-Qaeda.

Spotlight on Navy suicides. Three suicides in less than a week among the crew of the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush highlights rising suicide rates in the U.S. Navy, which have more than doubled since 2006, the New York Times reports. Current and former crew members described the ship as a “high-pressure environment” where sailors are often sidelined for seeking help for mental health issues.

Missing: CIA mole. Russia officially declared missing a former Kremlin official believed to have been a high-level spy on behalf of the United States (meanwhile, reports emerged that a CIA informant in the Russian government was extracted in 2017). The official may have been a man called Oleg Smolenkov, who disappeared with his wife, Antonina, and three children in June 2017, according to reports by the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant.

Doubts cast on Syria chemical weapons attack. A new paper questioning whether the Syrian government was responsible for a 2017 chemical weapons attack–which killed more than 80 people in the town of Khan Shaykhun and led Trump to fire 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base–has caused a dispute among U.S. scientists, Science reports. Publication of the paper was suspended amid fierce criticism and warnings that it would help Syrian President Bashar al Assad and the Russian government.

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Movers & Shakers

Hyten’s nomination to move. Senate leadership will move forward this week with a vote on U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten’s nomination to become the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, potentially ending months of controversy over allegations of sexual harassment and assault of a former aide, Military Times reports.

Lawmakers and Air Force officials have backed Hyten after an internal investigation turned up insufficient evidence for criminal charges, and cast doubt on the credibility of his accuser, U.S. Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser. But attorneys for Spletstoser have pushed back, this weekend distributing a 14-page memo on her allegations. In a statement, Spletstoser says she received a military protective order–the equivalent of a civilian restraining order–against Hyten in May “after he exhibited threatening behavior, including stalking.”


Technology & Cyber 

TikTok. Uyghur human rights activists are using the Chinese video-sharing app TikTok to document life in the Xinjiang region and the Chinese government’s campaign of repression against the region’s Muslim minority, Coda Story reports.

With more than a billion users on TikTok, the Chinese government is increasingly aware of the app’s potential as a tool of influence. The Guardian has obtained TikTok’s censorship guidelines, which require “moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong.

Surveillance. Fresh research from the Citizen Lab research group found that a Chinese-linked operation to target the Uyghur minority for surveillance also targeted exiled Tibetans. The new research indicates that China may be deploying some of its most sophisticated surveillance technologies against its repressed minority groups.

Deepfakes. Google has made available a large dataset of deepfake videos–fake videos generated with the help of artificial intelligence technology–in order to aid in the detection of such content.

Zero day. Motherboard profiles the hackers at Google’s Project Zero, which houses a collection of hackers dedicated toward exposing bugs in computer software and hardware in an effort to improve computer security for everyday internet users.

State-backed hacking. Russian-linked hackers launched a fresh campaign to break into the foreign ministries and embassies of Central Asian and Eastern European countries, CyberScoop reports. New research on Russian hacking groups finds that they rarely share code among one another, an indication of the way such groups are likely separated by the various intelligence services for which they work.


Quote of the Week 

“I’m tired of being a rarity. I don’t want to be the only woman in the room running a war game.”–Becca Wasser, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and one of a small cohort of female war gamers who call themselves the “dames of war games,” in an op-ed for the New York Times.


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 securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

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

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

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