Russian cyber is our biggest threat, DNI says; Trump warns Comey; Close call in the Black Sea; ‘Goddamned steam’; and just a bit more...

The biggest threat facing America? Russian cyberactivity. That’s what Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told U.S. lawmakers Thursday. “The Russians have upped their game using social media and other opportunities in ways that we haven’t seen before,” Coats said. “So it’s a great threat to our democratic process, and our job here is to provide the best intelligence we can to the policy makers as they develop a strategy in terms of how to best reflect a response.”

However, reports the New York Times: “That strategic necessity has run headlong into Mr. Trump’s immediate tactical necessity: to make the long, complex tale of the Russian hacking of the election, and any possible ties to his associates, go away...That was evident in Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed on Thursday. An hour after he sent out an image of himself signing the executive order on cybersecurity, he wrote that ‘Russia must be laughing up their sleeves' watching the United States pursue the hacking investigation.” More here. And more on Coats’s efforts to streamline all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, below.

President Trump warns former FBI Director James Comey against leaking to the media. How the threat was conveyed: via Twitter.

The President of the United States: "James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"

Then half an hour later, he wrote, "When [former DNI] James Clapper himself, and virtually everyone else with knowledge of the witch hunt, says there is no collusion, when does it end?"

On top of this, the president may have interfered in the ongoing investigation into alleged ties between his campaign officials and Russian intelligence, AP reports this morning.

How so? By asking FBI Director James Comey “point-blank if he was under investigation and was assured three times he was not.”

POTUS: “I said, ‘If it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation?’ He said you are not under investigation,” Trump told NBC News’ Lester Holt.

Adds AP: “Trump showed no concern that the request might be viewed as interference in an active FBI probe into his 2016 campaign’s possible ties to Russia’s election meddling.”

NYTs reporting Thursday confirmed the exchange, adding, “The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him. Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, Mr. Comey has recounted to others, he told Mr. Trump that he would always be honest with him, but that he was not ‘reliable’ in the conventional political sense.”

That happens to be an account the White House is pushing back strongly against, the Times reports in one of two stories on the evolving White House narrative of Comey’s final weeks and eventual firing this week.

Said Trump to NBC: “Regardless of recommendation [by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, to fire Comey], I was going to fire Comey. In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”

From Defense One

Spy Chief Searching for Cuts Across Entire US Intelligence Community // Kevin Baron: Trump's new intelligence chief, Dan Coats, says he's already moving on GOP lawmakers' request to streamline all 17 agencies, including his own ODNI.

So Trump Is Arming Kurds...Then What? // Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Trump's latest decision orders more US military intervention than Obama wanted. The more Americans and allies fight this war, the more they deserve a plan for the peace.

Trump Releases Long-Delayed Cyber Order // Joseph Marks: The order was delayed so security and modernization programs can work in tandem, an official said.

Trump Wants 'Goddamned Steam,' Not Digital Catapults on Aircraft Carriers // Adrienne LaFrance: The president's criticism of the USS Ford's EMALS 'blindsided' Navy officials.

The Global Business Brief: May 11 // Marcus Weisgerber: Removing bureaucracy from acquisition; Boeing breaks Air Force One; Pentagon ups its intel request, and more.

Welcome to Friday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Got tips? Email us at (And if you’re reading this on our website, consider subscribing. It’s free.)

The view from the Baltics. Lithuania’s president wants U.S. troops in her country “on a permanent basis,” The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

(ICYMI: Here’s an April story on the NATO battalion at Rukla, Lithuania: “Just two years ago, it would have been nearly unthinkable for the Western alliance to set up a battalion here, some two hours' drive from Russia.” By the Atlantic Council’s Magnus Nordenman. Read on, here.)

Another close call in the Black Sea. "A Russian fighter jet came within 20 feet of a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft over the Black Sea earlier this week," U.S. Naval Forces Europe spokeswoman Capt. Pamela Kunze told NBC News on Thursday. “On May 9, 2017, a Russian SU-27 came within approximately 20 feet of a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon while the U.S. Navy aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace,” she explained.

Adds NBC: “Twenty feet is extremely close and other encounters at much greater distance have been deemed unsafe and unprofessional by the U.S. military in the past. Kunze said that distance is only one of many variables considered when defining what is safe and professional. She cited speed, altitude, rate of closure, visibility and other factors that impact whether an incident is characterized as safe or unsafe, professional or not professional.” More here.  

President Trump disses electromagnetism and curses about steam power on America’s most advanced aircraft carrier. U.S. Naval Institute News: “The unexpected comments from Trump came during a wide-ranging interview with Time magazine that were published on Thursday. Trump referred negatively to the 'digital catapult system' – a reference to the General Atomics Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) – and said it would take 'Albert Einstein to figure it out.' Trump stated his preference for the Ford-class carriers to use the older Mk 13 steam catapult system that is used on the Nimitz-class carriers and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle (R 91).”

After hitting up a few of the involved parties—the Navy, Huntington Ingalls, and General Atomics—USNI News found no one who wanted to touch the president’s remarks. “The Navy news desk declined to provide a comment on Trump’s interview...A spokesperson for Ford-class shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries referred questions on Trump’s comments to the Navy. A General Atomics spokeswoman who works with the EMALS program also referred questions on Trump’s comments to the Navy.”

The current BLUF: “The Mk 13 steam catapult used on Nimitz-class carriers is no longer in production, and if the service elected to return to steam launching it would likely have to design a new system, with the Navy incurring an unknown level of additional expense.” Read on, here.

How to intimidate Ukrainian forces and journalists. "Television journalist Julia Kirienko was sheltering with Ukrainian soldiers and medics two miles (three kilometers) from the front when their cellphones began buzzing over the noise of the shelling,” the Associated Press reports from Kiev. “Everyone got the same text message at the same time. 'Ukrainian soldiers,' it warned, 'they’ll find your bodies when the snow melts.'"

What’s going on? “The Associated Press has found that the messages are almost certainly being sent through cell site simulators, surveillance tools long used by U.S. law enforcement to track suspects’ cellphones. Photos, video, leaked documents and other clues gathered by Ukrainian journalists suggest the equipment may have been supplied by the Kremlin.” Story, here.

South Korea’s new president is sending a delegation to China to discuss the way ahead (or not) for the U.S. military’s THAAD anti-missile system in place on the peninsula, The New York Times reports from Seoul.

China’s soft-power weapon against THAAD? Rap music, NYTs reports. Some lyrics: “How many times do I hadda warn you, my lovely little neighbor boy? This time, kid, you going too far,” the rap continues in English, later switching to Chinese. “What’s Thaad — terminal what? It ain’t gonna terminate violence.”

Adds NYTs: “The video, which had roughly 50,000 views on YouTube by Friday afternoon, features the Sichuan-based group CD Rev, whose members say they are influenced by hip-hop stars like Eminem and Dr. Dre. The group has also produced music videos about China’s claims in the contested South China Sea and Mao’s legacy.” Find that oddly-relaxed, mid-tempo track over on YouTube, here; or read the rest of the Times report, here.

After months of relative silence, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to help “play a constructive role in resolving North Korea's nuclear threat,” Reuters reports this morning in a very short piece, here.

Guam exercises postponed after a French landing craft ran aground this morning, the Associated Press reports from Naval Base Guam. “The weeklong exercises involving the U.S., U.K., France and Japan were intended to show support for the free passage of vessels in international waters amid concerns China may restrict access to the South China Sea. The French landing craft ran aground just offshore and didn’t hit coral or spill any fuel, said Jeff Landis, a spokesman for Naval Base Guam. No one was injured. Friday’s landing was meant to be a rehearsal for a drill at Tinian island on Saturday, Landis said.” More here.

Germany is not interested in beefing up its troop presence in Afghanistan, Reuters reports from Berlin. “I don’t think we’re first in line to expand our capacities there. It’s more important to ensure that ... stability is guaranteed in the north,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said. That, here.

Who is considering a troop increase in Afghanistan? Australia. “We are certainly open to increasing our work there, but we’ve obviously got to look at the commitments of the Australian Defense Force in other parts of the region and indeed in other parts of the world,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told reporters this morning in Sydney. That one, here.

More U.S. troops to Somalia? Maybe, Defense Secretary James Mattis said during his European swing this week, Military Times reports.

What Mattis said: “That’s a decision we’ll take if it’s broached to us, and we’ll decide yes or no,” the defense secretary said after coming out of a conference on Shabab militants held in London.

Adds Military Times: “No such request has been made by the Somali government and it was not discussed in London, Mattis said. But his openness to entertaining such a possibility highlights the Pentagon’s evolving perspective on how aggressively it should support indigenous forces willing to fight mutual adversaries.” More here.

Lastly this week: The U.S. can’t afford to take its eyes off Libya in the fight against ISIS, Lisa Monaco, former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to President Barack Obama, wrote in an op-ed for NYTs. “Countries in North Africa account for some of the largest portions of the nearly 40,000 foreign fighters who have flocked to join [ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-] Baghdadi’s murderous cult, as well as the Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Recent worrying trends in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia should make the American government focus on countering the Islamic State’s global expansion and asking: What is the United States’ strategy for ensuring that the current progress in Iraq and Syria is not simply the opening act of a more far-reaching drama involving the Islamic State?”

Her prescription: “Tunisia can be a backstop against the Islamic State’s expansion, preventing the group from creating a North African safe haven – but only if the Trump administration expands on all these efforts, especially by beefing up Tunisia’s border security with the aid of drones.” That argument, here