It’s Mattis day on the Hill. Retired Gen. James Mattis will face questions on some of the most pressing issues in U.S. national security in his hearing to be President-elect Donald Trump’s defense secretary before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning. Russia, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, the F-35, women in combat—it’s all on the table, The Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold writes in a preview.
Mattis will hit all the rhetorical high points, according to prepared testimony acquired by Military Times’ Leo Shane III: “‘Civilian control of the military is a fundamental tenet of the American military tradition … (Our military’s) obedience to civilian leadership reduces the inclination and power of the military to criticize or oppose the policy it is ultimately ordered to implement.’ Mattis will also pledge to keep the military ‘the best led, best equipped, and most lethal force in the world” and to “be the strongest possible advocate for military and civilian personnel and their families.’ He’ll also discuss the importance of diplomacy and foreign partnerships, noting that military might is not enough to achieve sustainable security for the nation.”
Adds Reuters: “Mattis, 66, is believed to advocate a stronger line against Moscow than the one Trump outlined during his election campaign and has argued persuasively in private talks with Trump against the use of waterboarding, which simulates drowning, as an interrogation tactic. Those attributes, as well as his past remarks extolling the NATO alliance, which Trump also criticized in the campaign, are expected to help sway many Democrats and Republicans skeptical of some of Trump’s campaign positions.”
Possible flashpoints include “how [Mattis] would grapple with Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and beyond,” Reuters continues. “Officials who knew him before he retired in 2013 said Mattis clashed with top Obama administration officials when he headed Central Command over his desire to better prepare for potential threats from Tehran. His support for stiffer responses to Russia could endear him to Republicans. Senior Republicans on the committee are pushing for a harsher response to what U.S. spy agencies say was the Kremlin’s meddling in the U.S. presidential election.”
Also happening today: Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and former Army officer in Europe during the Cold War, heads before the Senate Intelligence Committee. On the docket: “Lawmakers are expected to ask about his support for the U.S. government’s now-defunct sweeping collection of Americans’ communications data and for the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation techniques on detainees in secret overseas prisons during the Bush administration.”
Pompeo’s opening statement includes a pledge “to shed the political role he had played as a three-term member of the House of Representatives and ‘stay clearly on the side of collecting intelligence and providing objective analysis to policymakers,’” Reuters reports. He also “pledged that under his leadership, the CIA would ‘aggressively pursue collection operations and ensure analysts have the time, political space, and resources to make objective and sound judgments.’”
Pompeo: “This is the most complicated threat environment the United States has faced in recent history.” More here.
Trump’s secretary of state pick, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, says Beijing should be barred from South China Sea islands—a position The New York Times reported “foreshadows a possible foreign policy crisis… should his comments become official American policy.”
Tillerson: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops. And second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed… building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea.”
The Times: “Mr. Tillerson’s comments, with the possible implication that the United States might use its armed forces to deny the Chinese access to the islands, garnered reactions including confusion, disbelief and warlike threats from analysts in China… [confused] by the testimony, because Mr. Tillerson did not explain how the United States could block China from the islands.”
What you need to know about Tillerson’s position on the South China Sea islands, according to The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda: “Under Tillerson’s proposal, the United States would likely be in violation of freedom of navigation requirements under UNCLOS (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), given that no part of the South China Sea is part of the United States’ own territorial sea or contiguous zone, where it could legally restrict the navigation of third parties… Not only would the move proposed by Tillerson erode U.S. support for rules and norms in the South China Sea, it would make a conflict with China in the area that much likelier.”
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has some ideas for Team Trump on the South China Sea, saying in mid-December “it is time for the U.S. and its close allies to clarify their goals in this theatre and develop a coherent strategy to counter China’s expansionist operations.” Their advice can be found in full, here.
Tillerson broke with Trump in some noteworthy ways, not least of which was that line about Crimea, the Associated Press reports. Other issues on which they parted, if slightly: campaign hacking (saying it’s a “fair assumption” Russian President Vladimir Putin knew about the operation), Trump’s Muslim ban (Tillerson didn’t support “a blanket type rejection of any particular group of people”); defending NATO allies (“The Article 5 commitment is inviolable, and the U.S. is going to stand behind that commitment”); and Saudi Arabia. More here.
About NATO, Montenegro is now one step closer to becoming a member of the alliance, Reuters reported Wednesday after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee “approved a resolution… supporting Montenegro’s membership… [which would be the] first expansion since Albania and Croatia joined in 2009.”
Meantime in Ukraine, the ceasefire monitors of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe released a video this morning showing Russian howitzers firing on Donbass, Ukraine, in late December.
For what it’s worth: Here is another picture of those U.S. tanks moving into Poland.
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Welcome to the Jan. 12 edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1962, Operation Chopper marked the first helicopter-borne assault — and the first U.S. combat mission in Vietnam. (Enjoy the D Brief? Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
A joint counter-intelligence task force has been investigating alleged Russian help to Trump. Allegations about “money from the Kremlin going into the US presidential campaign” led the FBI, DOJ, Treasury, ODNI, CIA, and NSA to launch an investigation last summer, reports the BBC’s Paul Wood, who cites “several sources” and corroboration by “a senior member of the US intelligence community.” Beyond that new detail, Wood’s report offers perhaps the clearest walkthrough yet of the various allegations that may open up the president-elect to blackmail by Moscow. Read it, here.
Rudy Giuliani says he’s going to advise Trump on cybersecurity. The former New York Mayor and longtime Trump partisan said as early as November that he was seeking such a job. He said on Fox & Friends that he’ll form a team “comprised of various private tech companies. The team’s precise role in the new administration is still unclear, but the move will reportedly be formally announced later this morning,” reported Gizmodo. Giuliani: “The President-elect decided that he wanted to bring in, on a regular basis, the people in the private sector, the corporate leaders in particular, the thought leaders, who were working on security for cyber.”
Giuliani has long spoken of his desire to be “the person that comes up with a solution to cybersecurity,” a sentiment that security experts say suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem.
Bogged down in al-Bab, Syria. The Turkish military’s Euphrates Shield incursion into northern Syria has stalled, AP reports. “Nearly 50 Turkish soldiers have been killed in its Syria operation, most of them since the al-Bab assault began in mid-November — including 14 killed in a single day. The militants have dug in, surrounding the town with trenches, lining streets with land mines and carrying out painful ambushes and car bombings against the besieging forces. Each time Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters have thrust into the city, they’ve been driven out. More than 200 civilians are believed to have been killed since the attack began Nov. 13. Mud and cold rain have only made it more of a slog.”
The Turkish forces are believed to number 4,000 troops—up from the initial number of 600 for the operation in August—as well as another 2,000 or so rebels. More here.
To the east a couple dozen kilometers, an airstrike from Russian or Syrian regime jets killed six civilians in northern Aleppo. The UN says otherwise, the Russian and Turkey-brokered ceasefire is still largely holding.
Found in Iraq: an ISIS-made sand table for planning operations. Behold the contraption, here.
The U.S. is sending a high-tech radar to monitor the North Korean AO. Amid escalating rhetoric from Pyongyang, the U.S. military is sending its sea-based X-band radar (SBX) system “about 2,000 miles (3,218 km) northwest of Hawaii, towards the end of January,” Reuters reported. “The radar is able to track ICBMs and differentiate between hostile missiles and those that are not a threat.”
Lastly today: Need a honeypot? There’s an app for that, and the IDF found out the hard way. Hamas hacked the cell phones and Facebook accounts of Israeli soldiers, Tel Aviv officials said this week. The group reportedly “used a series of fake Facebook accounts” to initially link up with the soldiers, luring them “into chatting with people they believed were young, attractive women in Israel and abroad… those running the fake accounts encouraged the soldiers to download a ‘chat’ application to their cellphones. The app, for both Android and iPhone, was used by Hamas to access vital data on the phones — contacts, personal text messages and photographs. The app also allowed Hamas operatives to listen to conversations and take covert photos.” More here.