FBI investigating Trump-Russia connections; SecState to skip NATO meeting; US ‘accelerating’ Iraq support; Future of War conference, live; and just a bit more…

Three takeaways from FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to a House committee on Monday: 1) Since last July, the FBI has been running a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia. 2) Comey rejected President Trump’s claim that Barack Obama wiretapped him. 3) Certain House members are very concerned that surveillance of Trump advisor Michael Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador became public knowledge. How concerned? Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., told Comey that unless such leaks were stopped, Congress might not reauthorize the law that allows wiretapping of U.S. citizens during investigations of foreigners. Read that last, from Patrick Tucker, here.

New, today: You can’t work on your laptop if you’re flying in from eight Muslim-majority countries. DHS and TSA have ordered airlines to force passengers to check any electronic device larger than a cellphone on flights coming into the U.S. from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Washington Post reports. Why? “A person familiar with the security warning said the government has long been concerned about the aspirations of a Syria-based terrorist group to build explosive devices hidden inside electronics in a way that would be hard to detect.” The initial order runs through Oct. 14, but officials said that might be extended. Read on, here.

From Defense One

Livestream, today: Future of War 2017, a conference presented by New America and Defense One. Find out how USAF Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein (interviewed by D1’s Kevin Baron) and many other defense leaders will tackle the looming problems of today and tomorrow. Agenda, here; and livestream, here.

GOP Lawmaker to FBI: Stop the Leaks in Russia Probe or Lose A Key Surveillance Tool // Patrick Tucker: After top cop confirms investigating the Trump campaign, a House member threatens to hold investigatory powers hostage.

Cybersecurity’s Human Side: How Can We Solve Our People Problem? // New American’s Peter W. Singer: First, stop undermining our own efforts to fill crucial jobs. Second, cast a wide net for useful lessons.

Get “Foreign Military Sales Under the Trump Administration,” a new ebook from Defense One. During the eight years of the Obama administration, the defense industry’s requests to export weapons were approved at a record clip. Now companies are waiting to see how Donald Trump will do business. Download the ebook, here.

Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. #OTD1919: Hungary gets a Communist government, the first outside the new Soviet Union. (Got a tip? Let us know by clicking this link to email us: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.)

Diplomatic optics. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to skip a NATO foreign ministerial next month. On his schedule in April instead; a meeting with China’s president in Washington, and a trip to Russia, Reuters reported Monday.

Angry Staff Officer’s reax: “I don’t get this whole aversion to NATO meetings. Do they not like going to Brussels? I’ll take one for the team and go. Hell yea, Belgium!”

However, Tillerson will “meet on Wednesday with foreign ministers from 26 of the 27 other NATO countries—all but Croatia—at a gathering of the coalition working to defeat the Islamic State militant group.” Then “in April, “he will travel to a meeting of the G7 (Group of Seven) in Italy and then on to meetings in Russia,” a State Department spox told Reuters.

Noting the obvious: “Any Russian visit by a senior Trump administration official may be carefully scrutinized,” Reuters writes, “after the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Monday publicly confirmed his agency was investigating any collusion between the Russian government and Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign.” More here.

Coming to Poland this April: a U.S.-led battalion of more than 900 U.S. soldiers, 150 British personnel and 120 Romanian troops, Reuters reports as NATO “sets up a new force in response to Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.”

The new battalion is “one of four multinational formations across the Baltic region that Russia has condemned as an aggressive strategy on its frontiers.”

The idea: “Seeking to avoid stationing troops permanently on Russia’s borders, the new NATO force across the Baltics and Poland can rely on a network of eight small NATO outposts in the region, regular training exercises and, in the case of attack, a much larger force of 40,000 alliance troops.”

The other battalions: Britain, Canada and Germany are leading those and they’re working out of “Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which are due to be operational by June,” writes Reuters. “They will have support from a series of NATO nations including France. In total, some 4,000 NATO troops—equipped with tanks, armored vehicles, air support and hi-tech mission information rooms—will monitor for and defend against any potential Russian incursions.”

Battlegroup commander U.S. Army Lt. Colonel Steven Gventer, looked to dash any ambiguity about the matter, saying at a news conference on Monday, “This is a mission, not a cycle of training events. The purpose is to deter aggression in the Baltics and in Poland … We are fully ready to be lethal.” Read the rest, here.

In case you were curious: Where are America’s nearly 200,000 deployed troops are positioned around the world? Business Insider has your answer, and a whole lot more in one large graphic you can find here.

Report: Increased military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing “could be used to thwart the U.S. and allies in policy disputes,” according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

“For example, following the ruling of an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidating China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the two sides conducted their annual naval exercise, Joint Sea-2016, in the South China Sea with a focus on ‘island-seizing’,” the U.S. Naval Institute News writes off the report’s findings. “Months before that exercise,” reports USNI News, “Moscow expressed its support for Beijing’s position in the South China Sea, and weeks prior to the start of the exercise, President Putin said Russia did not recognize the tribunal’s decision.” Read on, here.

The U.S. will “accelerate” its support to Iraq as it looks to flush ISIS out of its stronghold in Mosul and beyond, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Monday after his trip to Washington to meet President Trump. Also in the meeting: “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, senior presidential adviser Jared Kushner and national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

But “accelerate” how? Trump has liked to portray his military plans as secret, kept away from the eyes of the public and enemies like ISIS. And in this fashion, the White House said little beyond “the United States and Iraq will pursue a long-term partnership to decisively root out terrorism from Iraq and strengthen the Iraqi military and other key institutions,” in what it described as a joint statement with Iraq concerning Monday’s meeting.

According to the Journal, Abadi “said Mr. Trump and his team told him they want to be ‘more engaged in fighting terrorism’ compared with the administration of former President Barack Obama. ‘I can sense a difference in terms of being head-to-head with terrorism. I think they are prepared to do more to fight terrorism,’ Mr. Abadi said, adding that he didn’t interpret that to mean ‘military confrontation.’ He didn’t elaborate.”

Quote of the day: “We will figure something out. I mean we have to get rid of ISIS. We’re going to get rid of ISIS,” Mr. Trump said at the start of his meeting with Mr. Abadi, the Journal reported.

Added Abadi: “I know there’s a plan. We have our own plan.”

Abadi also had jokes: “We have nothing to do with the wiretap,” said the prime minister upon departing.  

ICYMI: Coalition airstrikes have ramped up as the Mosul and Raqqa offensives “heat up,” Air Force Times reports. “According to statistics posted online last week by U.S. Air Forces Central Command, the coalition released 3,600 weapons against ISIS in January and another 3,440 in February. Before this year began, the busiest month for the Air Force against ISIS was November 2015, when 3,242 weapons were released.” More here.

Elsewhere in the ISIS fight, the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia says it has struck a deal with Russia to build “a military base in northwestern Syria under a bilateral agreement and will help train its fighters - a step that would anger Turkey as it tries to block Kurdish gains near its borders,” Reuters reported Monday.

Russia’s defense ministry responded with a denial, saying “a branch of its ‘reconciliation center,’ that negotiates local truces between the warring sides in Syria, had been located in Aleppo province near Afrin.”

But “YPG spokesman Redur Xelil told Reuters the agreement had been concluded on Sunday and that Russian troops had already arrived at the position in the northwestern region of Afrin with troop carriers and armored vehicles,” calling it the “first (agreement) of its kind.”

Oh, by the way: “The YPG also said on Monday it planned to expand its force by about two thirds to more than 100,000 fighters this year with the aim of turning it into a more organized force that resembles a traditional army.” More here.

Also in Syria: al-Qaida “is stepping up violence against President Bashar Assad’s strongholds with precise, high-profile attacks,” AP reports after Sunday’s surprise attack in Damascus. “The uptick in attacks comes at a time when the al-Qaida-linked group is trying to distance itself publicly from the international terrorist network and imposing unity on other insurgent factions. So far, those efforts have largely failed, instead sparking tensions with other rebel factions.” More here.

North Korea has increased its uranium-enrichment facilities possibly beyond the point of negotiation, the UN’s top nuclear inspector says. “In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Monday, Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, described North Korea as rapidly advancing its capacity to produce nuclear weapons on two fronts: the production of plutonium at its Yongbyon nuclear facility and the enrichment of uranium.”

Amano: “The situation is very bad … [the nuclear program] has gone into a new phase. All of the indications point to the fact that North Korea is making progress, as they declared.” Read the rest, here.

Taiwan is looking to “fresh arms sales by the U.S.” as its president vowed Monday to help the country build its own submarines. Writes Reuters from the scene: “[T]he rare appearance of two of Taiwan’s four submarines at the event also spotlighted the island’s slow, sometimes stalled efforts, to upgrade key defense equipment.”

The background: “Two submarines in Taiwan’s fleet date from the era of World War Two, were bought from the United States, and are used mainly for training, while the other two, bought from the Netherlands in the 1980s, first saw service in the 1970s. Although the United States agreed to sell Taiwan eight diesel electric submarines in 2001, the purchase never went through, beset by hurdles ranging from budget issues and lack of consensus in Taiwan to changing U.S. policy priorities. Washington has begun considering a big, new arms package for Taiwan, a move sure to anger China.” More here.

Lastly today: It’s been a while, Yangon. The U.S. Navy’s warship, USNS Fall River, stopped by Malaysia for the first time since World War II just this morning, Stars and Stripes reports. “Marines, sailors, soldiers and civilian crewmembers arrived from Sri Lanka and will be in Myanmar nearly a week before heading to Malaysia, where they will resume the annual Pacific Partnership humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief planning mission…The Fall River’s crew will tour Yangon, home to 7 million people, and engage with the Myanmar navy. The 7th Fleet band will also perform at the U.S. Embassy. The ship is carrying roughly 200 troops and civilians, including personnel from the U.S., Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom for the mission.” More here.

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