Iran-messaging mess (cont.); Huawei ban expected; Moscow’s AI surveillance; China blocks Wikipedia; And a bit more.

By Ben Watson

May 15, 2019

The U.S. is not ramping up for war against Iran with 120,000 troops, President Trump said Tuesday (AP) from the South Lawn of the White House. The news of that plan from the Pentagon is fake, the president said, because if that was going to happen — as multiple analysts pointed out — “we’d send a hell of a lot more” troops, according to Trump.

But the U.S. just ordered all non-emergency personnel to leave its embassy in Baghdad and its consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil out of U.S. fears Iran-backed militias in Iraq may attack Americans in the area, according to a new State Department travel advisory just posted this morning.

The first sentence: “Do not travel to Iraq due to terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict,” the advisory warns. This is particularly problematic because “The U.S. government’s ability to provide routine and emergency services to U.S. citizens in Iraq is extremely limited.” Read on, here.

Messaging wires crossed? A top officer of the counter-ISIS war in Iraq told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon “There’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.” That official was U.K. Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, the coalition’s deputy commander for strategy and information.

The Pentagon’s U.S. Central Command rushed out a rebuttal shortly afterward, with spox Navy Capt. Bill Urban insisting in an afternoon statement:

Iran formally inched a tiny bit further away from the nuclear deal today, following up on threats from last week, AP reports from Dubai. How so? By continuing its threat “to resume higher [uranium] enrichment in 60 days if no new nuclear deal is in place, beyond the 3.67% permitted by the current deal,” AP writes.

Why this is notable: “Iranian officials have said that they could reach 20% enrichment within four days…scientists say the time needed to reach the 90% threshold for weapons-grade uranium is halved once uranium is enriched to around 20%.” More from Reuters, here.

Surprise, surprise: Iran’s military — like the Pentagon —  “has also made contingency war plans” in the past week,” the Wall Street Journal’s Farnaz Fassihi tweeted Tuesday, noting there have been “Plans drawn for several scenarios, from US targeted strikes on nuke plants to skirmishes in Persian Gulf & all out war.” Reuters echoed that message Tuesday with its brief report on Iranian military readiness, here.

Said Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Tuesday: “Neither we seek war, nor do they [that is, the U.S.]. They know it’s not in their interest.” More — including Iran’s continued denial that it was responsible for the alleged boat attacks off the UAE coast this weekend — via the Wall Street Journal, here.

Said U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo Tuesday in Sochi, Russia: “We fundamentally do not seek war with Iran.” However, the U.S. has “made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked, we will most certainly respond in an appropriate fashion.”

Adios, Americanos. Spain’s defense minister said the Spanish frigate (Méndez Núñez) that left the U.S. flotilla headed for the Persian Gulf changed course for mere “technical reasons,” and not specifically because Spain was afraid the U.S. was about to drag it into a war with Iran, the Associated Press reported from Madrid on Tuesday. “The United States government has embarked on a mission that wasn’t scheduled when the agreement was signed,” Defense Minister Margarita Robles said. So now “The ship and its 215 people on board have headed to Mumbai, India,” AP writes.

Is America strategically messaging with its present deployment of three aircraft carriers around the globe—including the one bound for waters near the Hormuz Strait? It is messaging, writes Rick Berger of AEI; but it’s not very strategic, he argues in a Defense News commentary.

His BLUF: "strategy cannot wall itself off from politics" when — as is the case presently and for the foreseeable future — "The U.S. military does not currently possess enough military forces to meet demand, even if the National Defense Strategy says the Pentagon should focus on China and Russia." More to the argument, here.

For the record: The Islamic State group appears to be enduring quite well in Iraq, harassing farmers around Makmour (in northern Iraq) and burning their crops for not paying ISIS 15% in taxes, Kurdish Rudaw news reported Tuesday. That news comes on top of the assassinations ISIS fighters are reportedly carrying out northwest of Mosul that AP wrote about from Badoush (also in northern Iraq) three days ago.  

Reminds us of the line by former SecDef Jim Mattis, on Afghanistan: “It's enormously easier to be the criminal in a town than it is to be the policeman.” Or perhaps more up ISIS’s alley is this similar line from Russian novelist Fyodor Doestoevsky: “There is nothing easier than lopping off heads and nothing harder than developing ideas.”

Take a brief look at how Mosul’s libraries are recovering now five years after ISIS came to town to turn back the clock 1,000 years or so in a 105-second video report from AFP this morning on location, here.


From Defense One

A Bewildering Briefing on the Iranian Threat Leaves More Questions Than Answers // Katie Bo Williams: A top official of the counter-ISIS coalition appeared to rebut White House claims about Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.

Moscow to Weave AI Face Recognition into Its Urban Surveillance Net // Samuel Bendett: City authorities say the planned system will have access to all 160,000 existing cameras.

Under Pressure, Pentagon Publishes a Contractor-Fraud Report // Charles S. Clark, Government Business Council: Released under FOIA, the 4-page document names firms barred from government work, but lacks the detail of a predecessor report.

Russia Has Americans’ Weaknesses All Figured Out // Jim Sciutto, The Atlantic: Election interference is one front in Moscow’s larger campaign to undermine the U.S. without prompting a military response.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson. Thanks for reading! Subscribe here. On this day in 1718, the world’s first “machine gun” was patented by English inventor James Puckle.


President Trump is expected to sign an order sometime this week that would eventually ban U.S. telecom companies from working with Chinese tech firm Huawei — whose equipment the U.S. believes can be used for spying, Reuters reported in an exclusive Tuesday evening.
The idea: “The executive order would invoke the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which gives the president the authority to regulate commerce in response to a national emergency that threatens the United States.”
Bigger picture: “The issue has taken on new urgency as U.S. wireless carriers look for partners as they rollout 5G networks,” Reuters writes. “While the big wireless companies have already cut ties with Huawei, small rural carriers continue to rely on both Huawei and ZTE switches and other equipment because they tend to be cheaper.”
The pushback from Beijing: “This is not honorable, nor is it just,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said this morning. Read on, here.

It’s been almost exactly 30 years since China’s Tiananmen Square protests gave the world the famous “Tank Man” photo of resistance against an oppressive state. And so to (un)mark the occasion, China has blocked all language versions of Wikipedia, Reuters reports today from Shanghai — though the block appears to have begun on April 23.

Worse than WannaCry? Microsoft says it just patched a monster computer bug that “could be used by a cyber weapon similar to the WannaCry worm, which spread across the globe two years ago,” the Wall Street Journal reported this morning.
Wide scope of vulnerability: “The flaw affects Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008,” WSJ writes. “It also affects Windows 2003 and Windows XP—older versions of Windows that Microsoft doesn’t typically patch. But, in a sign of the severity of the bug, Microsoft released XP and Windows 2003 patches as well.”
Not affected: Folks using Windows 10 and Windows 8.

ICYMI: Facebook also patched a huge flaw in WhatsApp this week. “The malicious code, developed by Israeli company NSO Group, was installed on both iPhones and Android phones through the app's phone call feature,” CNet reported Monday. What’s more, “The spyware could be transmitted even if the target victim didn't answer their phone, and the calls often disappeared from users' call logs.”
Advice: If you use WhatsApp, update the app. Read on, here.  

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Russian hackers gained access to voter databases in two Florida counties ahead of the 2016 election — but don’t ask which ones because he promised the FBI he wouldn’t reveal them, AP reported Tuesday from Tallahassee.

BTW: The directors of the CIA, FBI and National Intelligence are all working with Attorney General Bill Barr “to help him examine the origins of the Russia investigation,” the WSJ reported Tuesday evening.
What this would seem to suggest: That Barr’s “review of what he termed ‘spying’ on people affiliated with the Trump campaign is more expansive than previously known.”
Why it matters: "Mr. Trump has accused Obama-era intelligence chiefs of illegal spying on his campaign during the 2016 election, though he has never provided any evidence to support those claims," the Journal writes. "The Justice Department’s internal watchdog has nearly completed an investigation into the steps the FBI took in its probe of Trump campaign associates and Russia beginning in 2016." More behind the paywall, here.

San Francisco became the first major city to ban facial recognition technology for government use, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

¿Cómo se dice “what other schools are available”? About 700 of U.S. military foreign-language students were preparing for immersion courses when the Pentagon program’s money was abruptly cut this year as the department hunted down money for Trump’s border wall, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman reported Tuesday. We’d tell you more but the rest of the story is (somewhat ironically) behind a paywall, here.

And finally today: Unless you’re a spy, your kids have probably owned more burner phones than you, according to this Wall Street Journal report Tuesday. Where the story comes from: South Carolina parents who kept finding phones they never bought their daughter. “The burner phones kept showing up,” her dad said.
Why this matters: “Teens don’t only use burner phones when their regular phones are taken away,” the Journal writes. “They sometimes use them to post on social-media profiles their parents don’t know about—the so-called Finsta, or ‘fake Instagram,’ account,” according to one expert on cyber literacy.
Said one retired Illinois police detective: “In almost every high school across the country there is a kid who sells burner phones from their locker.”
Advice for parents: Watch their online behavior; Monitor your network; Have the “tech talk"; and Establish rules—and follow them. Read on, here.


By Ben Watson // Ben Watson is news editor for Defense One. He previously worked for NPR's “All Things Considered” and “Here and Now” in Washington, D.C. Watson served for five years in the U.S. Army, where he was an award-winning combat cameraman and media advisor for southern Afghanistan's special operations command during the 2010-11 surge.

May 15, 2019

https://www.defenseone.com/news/2019/05/the-d-brief-may-15-2019/157019/