Security Brief

Progressives Target Biden Cabinet Picks

Left-wing groups want to ensure Biden doesn’t pick Michael Morrell, seen as linked to post-9/11 counterterrorism policies, as CIA director.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden gestures to the media as he leaves the Queen Theater after participating in a virtual roundtable with frontline health care workers on Nov. 18, in Wilmington, Delaware.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden gestures to the media as he leaves the Queen Theater after participating in a virtual roundtable with frontline health care workers on Nov. 18, in Wilmington, Delaware. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief.

What’s on tap today: Progressives weigh their strategy on U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet picks, President Donald Trump threatens to veto major defense legislation, and Democrats vote for a new House Foreign Affairs chairman.

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Progressives, Moderates Move Toward Truce on Biden Nominees

A big tent of progressive foreign-policy groups led by the Center for International Policy, Win Without War, Common Defense, and Matt Duss, a top advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, organized a phone call on Wednesday to map out their strategy to influence President-elect Joe Biden’s remaining cabinet picks.

The call, first reported by Politico, showed two clear trends, according to organizers and participants. Progressives are not opposing Michèle Flournoy, the leading contender to be Biden’s defense secretary—but they are dead set against Michael Morrell, who has been floated as a possible pick to lead the CIA.

Though a handful of far-left organizations oppose Flournoy, who turned down the top Pentagon job during the Obama administration due to family matters, other groups are not taking a position. Instead, progressive groups are reportedly trying to push Flournoy, who started the consulting firm WestExec Advisors with Antony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State pick, to reveal her client lists and to recuse herself from weapons programs with firms she has ties to.

But some participants in the call focused their attention on preventing Morrell, a staunch defender of drone warfare and a critic of the Senate’s findings on CIA torture, from becoming the nominee for CIA chief. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Biden was considering David Cohen, a former CIA deputy director and Treasury Department official seen as less connected to controversial post-9/11 programs.

“He was a quick study on complex issues when onboarding as [deputy director],” said Douglas London, a retired 34-year veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service who worked with Cohen at both CIA and Treasury. “I found him open-minded, inclusive, someone who asked smart questions and provided support when you made a good case. He struck me as wanting to do the right thing.”

Other names on the list of contenders for the job included Morrell, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson (also a contender for defense secretary), former Obama counterterrorism advisor Lisa Monaco, former top Pentagon intelligence official and CIA paramilitary officer Michael Vickers, former Defense Intelligence Agency director Ret. Gen. Vincent Stewart, and former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon.

Meanwhile, some progressives are setting their sights on sub-cabinet positions, with organizers of Wednesday’s call floating more than 120 names of potential progressive appointees for roles on the Biden administration’s national security team that will be vetted and circulated by left-wing groups.


What We’re Watching

Breaking the piggy bank. After months of painstaking negotiations in Congress, Trump is threatening to veto the $740 billion Department of Defense authorization bill unless it repeals a decades-old law—which would strip social media companies’ legal protections from perceived content violations, as FP’s Jack Detsch reports.

The official line White House is that it is concerned with Chinese and Russian disinformation on social media platforms. But the threat dovetails with complaints by Trump and other conservatives that their posts have been banned or flagged for spreading false or misleading information. Congress could overturn a potential presidential veto with a two-thirds vote in each chamber, though lawmakers have yet to overturn a Trump veto.

Going on the offensive. Taking a page out of the U.S. Cyber Command playbook, Britain is investing heavily in its offensive cyber capabilities under the auspices of its National Cyber Force, part of broader reforms to the country’s defensive capabilities, as the Economist reports. Debating how cyber capabilities will alter warfare is all the rage among Western security officials these days. But former senior British defense and intelligence officials still question whether offensive cyber capabilities have any deterrent effect.

They also have raised concerns that adversaries could identify and reverse engineer offensive cyber capabilities, as when North Korea may have reused U.S. National Security Agency hacking tools in ransomware attacks in 2017.

Cleaning the boards. In the latest example of the Trump administration taking parting shots at the foreign-policy establishment, Foreign Policy first reported that Defense Department’s White House liaison, Joshua Whitehouse, told employees last week that top figures on the Defense Policy Board, a top outside federal advisory panel to the Pentagon, had been ousted.

Those removed included former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. Hat tip to Zack Cooper at the American Enterprise Institute, who flagged the changes made to the Pentagon’s website for the board. One update from last week: Former Treasury official David McCormick, once a contender for Pentagon chief, will stay on the board.


Movers and Shakers

The post-election election. The Democratic caucus is expected to cast votes on Thursday for the new chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee. As we reported this week, an unusually competitive and public three-way race for the gavel reflects broader debates in the party over what it should stand for on foreign policy.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, a centrist, is heavily favored to win the gavel, but progressive challenger Rep. Joaquin Castro hasn’t given up the fight. If Meeks wins, he would be the first Black chairman in the committee’s nearly 200-year history.

And on the GOP side. Rep. Michael McCaul was selected as the Republican leader in the House Foreign Affairs Committee again. McCaul has been a vocal proponent of the Trump administration’s hawkish policies toward China.

Top contenders for Biden’s USAID chief. Experts in Biden’s foreign policy circles tell Foreign Policy that the president-elect is narrowing down a list of top candidates to head the U.S. Agency for International Development. The list of leading humanitarian experts and former senior officials includes Ertharin Cousin, the former U.N. World Food Program chief; Liz Schrayer, head of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition; former senior U.S. diplomat Frederick Barton; and former USAID official and Biden transition team member Jeremy Konyndyk.

Back again. A controversial Trump appointee at USAID, Pete Marocco, has quietly returned to a senior leadership post at the agency two months after he took a leave of absence following allegations of mismanagement and hostility toward his employees, as we reported on Tuesday.

Got a tip about recent Trump administration firings or the transition? Get in touch with Jack (jack.detsch@foreignpolicy.com) or Robbie (robbie.gramer@foreignpolicy.com). 


Quote of the Week

“We believe that now after 20 years—two decades—of consistent effort there, we’ve achieved a modicum of success.”

—Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley at a think tank event on Wednesday, on what the United States has achieved in Afghanistan, with nearly $1 trillion spent


Foreign Policy Recommends

 “A lie, a leak, and then a liability.” NBC’s Carol Lee has a richly detailed insider account of Michael Flynn’s brief, chaotic tenure as Trump’s national security advisor in the early days of the administration. Trump announced earlier this month he would pardon Flynn, who remains one of his most ardent supporters—this week backing calls for Trump to implement martial law to reverse the outcome of the Nov. 3 vote.

Flynn pleaded guilty twice to charges of lying to the FBI over conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States in 2016.


The Week Ahead

Trump’s executive order banning TikTok in the United States takes effect on Friday, Dec. 4.

Tuesday, Dec. 8, is the deadline for U.S. states to determine final results for the November elections.

The Nobel Prize ceremony takes place on Thursday, Dec. 10.


Odds and Ends

Wonksteros. David Cohen, the new reported favorite to be Joe Biden’s pick to lead the CIA, was once an extra in an episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Don’t believe us? See for yourself.


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.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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

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