White House aides lose top-secret access; CENTCOM calls Russia ‘incredibly destabilizing’; UN says N. Korea sent chem weapons supplies to Syria; Air Force One deal may not save much; and just a bit more...
Uncleared White House staff lose access to top-secret intelligence. The headliner is Jared Kushner — Trump’s son-in-law, multi-role senior advisor, and a man with large debts. Politico: “All White House aides working on the highest-level interim clearances — at the Top Secret/SCI-level — were informed in a memo sent Friday that their clearances would be downgraded to the Secret level, according to three people with knowledge of the situation.”
So what? Among other things, Trump’s point man on Middle East peace can no longer see the President’s Daily Brief. “Not a chance,” said Bradley Moss, a lawyer who specializes in national security law and clearances. “He no longer has access to a range of intelligence information that ordinarily someone in his position and somebody with his responsibilities would normally be privy to in order to perform their functions.”
Why now? The move follows a memo by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and a statement by intelligence community chief Dan Coats to the effect that people with temporary security clearances should get only limited access to sensitive classified information.
Did any harm come of this episode? Unclear, but the Washington Post reports that officials in at least four countries — the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico — “have privately discussed ways they can manipulate” Kushner “by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter.”
From Defense One
Russia 'Incredibly Destabilizing' as Syrian Conflict Threatens Region, Top US General Warns // Kevin Baron and Caroline Houck: Weeks after Tillerson said the U.S. and Russia share a postwar vision, Votel says Moscow is playing both "arsonist and firefighter."
The Air Force One Deal May Be Less Rosy Than Claimed // Marcus Weisgerber: The White House’s “fixed-price deal” may still leave the taxpayer on the hook. And a spokesman seems to have inflated the projected savings.
Russia Is a Great Power Once Again // Alina Polyakova: Putin's Syria intervention saved Assad. But is he ready for what comes next?
The US Will Spend $500M on Syrian Kurds This Year. For What? // Robert Ford: The Trump administration is embarking on a state-building project with no clear strategy, benchmarks, or goals.
It's Time for a National Security Cooperation Strategy // Remy Nathan: The current way the U.S. government approves what weapons get exported and where is fragmented and slow. That undermines American leadership and interests.
Policy and Will, Not Cyber Weapons, Are Missing in Action Against Russian Information Attacks // Patrick Tucker: The outgoing head of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command says fending off Russian hackers requires more than operators hurling ones and zeros at the Kremlin.
America and Russia Aren't Morally Equivalent // Thomas O. Melia: There is no comparison between Russian efforts to undermine elections and American efforts to strengthen them, a former Obama official writes.
Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Email us. And if you find this useful, consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague. They can subscribe here for free. On this day in 2013, Bradley Manning pleaded guilty to 10 counts (out of 22) of leaking classified material in the WikiLeaks case.
The UN says North Korea has shipped chemical weapons supplies to Syria, The New York Times reported Tuesday. “The report, which is more than 200 pages long, includes copies of contracts between North Korean and Syrian companies as well as bills of lading indicating the types of materials shipped.”
Involved: “acid-resistant tiles, valves and thermometers,” as well as “North Korean missile technicians...spotted working at known chemical weapons and missile facilities inside Syria.”
The report this is all based on may never even come out, Stéphane Dujarric, a United Nations spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday.
The worry at this stage: “The military-related cooperation, if confirmed, indicates major shortcomings in the international effort to isolate both countries. The shipments would have eluded detection even though both nations are subject to highly restrictive sanctions, and are under the intense scrutiny of American and other spy services.” Read on, here.
Counterpropaganda money gets green light from Trump admin. The Defense and State Departments agreed this week “to spending at least $40 million to fight foreign government-sponsored propaganda, in part with help from the private sector,” Politico reported Monday — writing the move happened “After months of delays that angered lawmakers.”
The skinny read: “The two departments have signed a memorandum of understanding on transferring the money from the Pentagon to the State-based Global Engagement Center. The center was established in 2016 to tackle Islamist propaganda, but its mandate was later broadened to include countering state-sponsored disinformation.”
About that delay: “Last year, Politico detailed how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had held off for months on requesting that the Pentagon transfer up to $60 million available for the center this fiscal year... According to a former State official, a top Tillerson aide had expressed hesitation about using the money in part because it could damage the secretary's efforts to patch up relations with Moscow.”
Pointing fingers: WH PressSec Sarah Sanders said Tuesday the purpose of the funds is “to begin providing immediate support to private and public partners that expose and counter Russian and Chinese propaganda and disinformation.”
China’s new top spy? “A vice minister of public security, a close confidant of President Xi Jinping, is tipped to take over as China’s spy master,” Reuters reports this morning from Beijing, citing five sources for their story.
The man: “Wang Xiaohong, 60, a vice minister of public security, will replace Chen Wenqing as minister of state security [whose responsibilities include counter-intelligence, foreign intelligence and national security] during the session of parliament which begins on March 5.” Story, here.
Intense fighting continues for a 12th day in Syria, Reuters reports. “Wednesday’s ground assault targeted the Hawsh al-Dawahra area at the eastern edge of the rebel-held area... Damascus appears to be applying tried and tested military means, combining air strikes and bombardment with ground assaults, as it did to win back eastern Aleppo in 2016.” That, here.
Get to better know Iran’s “network of Shiite militias” via a new project by the Washington-based think tank, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. FDD rounded up 10 groups that operate “primarily in Syria and Iraq,” but also in Yemen and Bahrain — with alleged connections or links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Each of the 10 “cards” breaks down the groups’ sizes, weapons used, areas of operation, key leaders and more. Dive in, here.
Later today, FDD is hosting an event to explain a bit more about these groups, beginning at noon on Capitol Hill.
Involved: Former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker; Melissa Dalton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Mouaz Moustafa of the Syrian Emergency Task Force; and FDD's Director of Research, Dr. David Adesnik. The discussion will be moderated by Josh Rogin of the Washington Post. Details here.
ICYMI: Hezbollah launched a new video game called “the Sacred Defense,” which simulates the group's participation in the Syrian Civil War, Middle East analyst David Daoud noticed this week on Twitter. He shared a nearly 90-second video clip of the game — which resembles early entries in the “Rainbox Six” series — here.
Related: “Bitter Rivals,” part 2. Catch the second half of PBS Frontline’s two-part documentary series on Saudi-Iran relationship, which comes in at just under an hour and just aired last night. Part one, nearly double in size, can be seen here.
From the perspective of the government of Somalia, the U.S. military has significantly weakened al-Shabab, PBS Newshour reported Monday evening. Their tease: “After years of civil war and upheaval, Somalia is struggling to its feet, and the U.S. is back in with boots on the ground and drones in the skies. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson and videographer Alessandro Pavone report on the ways the U.S. and other African partner nations are helping Somali forces fight al-Shabab militants on a very complex battlefield.” The 10-minute report begins here.
The more you know: Link between term limits and stability in Africa. During a week in which China removed term limits for its president, we have a new report (actually published Friday) from the U.S. Defense Department’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, which investigates “the norm of presidential term limits in Africa.”
What you’ll learn: “Countries lacking term limits tend to be more unstable. A third of these 18 countries [lacking term limits] are facing armed conflict. In contrast, just two of the 21 countries with term limits are in conflict.” Much more, here.
Taliban call for direct talks with the U.S. According to Qatar-based al-Jazeera, “A senior Taliban official based in Doha” told AJ that it has invited “US officials to its political office in Qatar to discuss a ‘peaceful solution’ to end the bloodshed in Afghanistan.”
This follows “local news media reports in Kabul on Friday, claiming that the Afghan government has been discussing with Qatari authorities the closure of the Taliban's Doha office.” The Taliban say shutting down that office will erase their offer of talks.
As if this helps, “The Taliban official also said that departure of American troops from Afghanistan remains a precondition for the group's talks offer.” Good luck with that. More here.
A new first for the U.S. military: The first openly transgender recruit signed up for service, the Pentagon announced Monday. This person has signed a contract but has not yet begun basic training, NBC News reported Tuesday.
It’s still unclear when formal guidance on the matter will be sent by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to President Trump. As NBC writes, “Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis provided his recommendations to the White House on transgender people serving in the military.”
And FWIW: “Advocates have said they believe dozens, if not hundreds, of transgender people will seek to join an estimated 4,000 already serving.” A tiny bit more, here.
For your eyes only: Dazzle camouflage. Be transfixed by the moving text and tilted vintage photos assembled by Vox producers to tell the story of confusion and trickery on the high seas nearly 100 years ago.
It’s an approach that “More recently... has been used on people’s faces to thwart facial recognition and on Cristiano Ronaldo’s football cleats to confuse opponents as which way he’s moving his feet.” Five minutes of history and strategy begin, here.
Finally today: “Russia has weaponized copying machines,” for a short time, anyway.
Here’s what happened: District of Columbia city officials confirmed on Tuesday that Russian embassy workers this week made photocopies to steal parking spaces in Washington, open source sleuth Aric Toler noticed. Less than two hours after it was flagged, the District’s Department of Transportation replied, yes, indeed — “These were illegally placed. The DDOT inspector has removed the illegally posted signs.”