Security Brief

Navy Secretary Spencer Forced Out After Trump Meddled in War Crimes Case

Three conflicting narratives have emerged over what happened behind closed doors.

Richard Spencer testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing in Washington.
Richard Spencer testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing in Washington on July 11, 2017. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Happy Monday, and welcome to Security Brief. What’s on tap: Navy Secretary Richard Spencer is out over Navy SEAL war crimes case, trove of classified Chinese documents reveals extent of central planning for Uighur internment camps, and Pence visits Iraqi Kurdistan to reassure nervous U.S. partners. Get in touch: securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com. 

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Navy Secretary Fired

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia—It was U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer’s swan song, even if he didn’t know it yet. Spencer joined a group of 300 top diplomats, military officials, experts (and this Foreign Policy reporter) at the annual Halifax International Security Forum in Canada this weekend. Throughout the weekend, Spencer spoke on the U.S. Navy’s strategy to counter China and expand operations in the Arctic, all while batting away reports he was going to step down from his job over President Donald Trump’s decision to pardon a Navy SEAL. One day later, he was sacked. 

A tale of three tales. Spencer, Trump, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper all have different stories concerning Spencer’s firing, which centered on Trump’s decision to pardon Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was convicted in a military court in a case alleging war crimes. Esper said in a statement he fired Spencer for hiding from him conversations with the White House about Gallagher. But Spencer in his resignation letter said he resigned because he could not obey Trump’s order to restore Gallagher’s rank in the Navy after his pardon. And then Trump tweeted a third reason: He was unhappy with how Gallagher’s case was handled and Spencer’s inability to rein in cost overruns for pricey Navy contracts. Breaking Defense has all the details

New SecNav nominee. The president also announced via tweet his decision to nominate a new Navy secretary: Ambassador to Norway Kenneth Braithwaite, a former business executive and retired Navy Reserve rear admiral who served as a naval aviator and later a public affairs officer. Former defense officials expressed surprise at the choice, noting that Braithwaite is a relatively unknown entity in Navy circles. 

A new(ish) normal? In short, it’s another high-profile scandal with conflicting stories that has thrown the top ranks of the Pentagon in crisis yet again, and it leaves many wondering whom to believe about what really happened. Former Norwegian Defense Minister Espen Barth Eide, who spoke on a panel with Spencer at the Halifax Forum the day before he was fired, summed it up on Twitter: “That’s life in DC these days.”


What We’re Watching 

Document dump from China. A massive trove of classified Chinese government documents were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, painting a much more detailed picture of how China is carrying out the mass detention of Muslim Uighurs and other minorities in its northwest Xinjiang province. The documents add to the overwhelming pile of evidence that China is lying when it claims that it is sending the estimated million or more people to vocational training schools with the notional goal of combating terrorism. Among the more alarming findings, the documents reveal for the first time how Chinese embassies and consulates worldwide helped facilitate the mass detention, and how the Chinese government explicitly targeted foreign nationals to send to the camps. 

Pence visits Iraqi Kurdistan. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence flew to Iraqi Kurdistan on a surprise visit this weekend in an apparent effort to smooth over relations with Kurdish leaders and reassure them that the United States remains committed to their defense after Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria last month. The move is another walk-back after Trump ordered all U.S. troops out of northeastern Syria, then authorized hundreds of new troops and armored vehicles into the country to guard oil fields. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told FP reporter Lara Seligman that he now has no orders to leave the region. Notably, Pence’s trip did not include a stop in Baghdad, likely due to concerns over the Iraqi government’s violent response to ongoing protests against its rule.

North Korea on edge. On Friday, North Korea’s U.N. Mission issued a statement expressing “a sense of betrayal” toward the United States amid growing frustrations between the two countries since the last round of nuclear talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The statement, viewed in the context of Kim’s horse ride up Mount Paektu last month, which experts said signals a major forthcoming policy announcement, seems to hint that Pyongyang is preparing to place maximum pressure on the United States by testing another nuclear missile.

Franco-German tensions heat up. German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly lashed out at French President Emmanuel Macron over his recent comment that NATO was experiencing a slow “brain death,” which came in response to concerns that Europe could no longer rely on U.S. commitment to European defense. Merkel’s comments highlight a fault line that has opened between France and Germany. While Berlin has made some moves toward investing more money into its military capabilities, it’s not enough for Macron. The French leader has repeatedly suggested that the European Union should begin expanding its own defense capabilities to pull itself out from under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and prepare for a future in which the United States is no longer a reliable partner. All of this could make for a fiery meeting of NATO leaders, including Trump, Macron, and Merkel, in London next month.


Odds and Ends

Meanwhile, at the border. U.S. customs agents at the U.S.-Mexican border seized another massive cache of contraband goods. This time, it happened to be 154 pounds of bologna. They confiscated the haul of meat from a truck crossing into El Paso and destroyed all of it; regulations prevent bologna from entering the United States, lest it spread foreign diseases to American pork farms. 


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Quote of the Week

The Huawei Trojan horse is frightening, it’s terrifying … I find it amazing that our allies and friends in other liberal democracies would allow Huawei in … I’m surprised that there’s even a debate out there.”

Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security advisor, spoke at the Halifax Forum on U.S. allies considering allowing Chinese telecom giant Huawei to build their 5G infrastructure.


Foreign Policy’s Dan Haverty contributed to this report. 

That’s it for today. For more from FP, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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

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