Saudi prince visits DC; 5 myths of defense acquisition; Lasers that talk; Austin bomber blows self up; and just a bit more...

Saudis, Trump talk money and weapons in Washington. Seated across from the Saudi Crown Prince, President Donald Trump proudly showed large posters with pictures of tanks and helicopters to reporters (video of that here) in the White House on Tuesday. The pictures showed military equipment the U.S. has sold to Riyadh as the two leaders sat down to “confront obstacles to their efforts to strengthen ties and agree on new steps to counter Iran,” the Wall Street Journal reports this morning.  

At least one purpose for the meeting: President Trump wants to sell more weapons to the Saudis since more than $100 billion in arms sales were touted by Trump during his visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017.

According to the Washington Post, “The $12.5 billion the Saudis were paying for planes, tanks, ships and munitions shown in the posters was ‘peanuts’ for the oil-rich kingdom, Trump joked before cameras in the Oval Office. ‘You should have increased it,’ he told 32-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Before things got underway, President Trump said, “The [U.S.] relationship [with Saudi Arabia] now is probably as good as it’s really ever been, and I think will probably only get better... We understand each other. Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation and they’re going to give the United States some of that wealth, hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world. There’s nobody even close.”

Contrasting this scene was an entirely different one across town, where “senators debating a contentious proposal meant to curb American military support for Saudi Arabia were shown a sobering image of a Yemeni toddler injured by an airstrike, one victim of Riyadh’s protracted war against Iran-backed militants.” The Pentagon isn’t a fan of that legislation, and lucky for it, “After hours of debate, the Senate voted to shelve the measure on a procedural move,” the Journal reports.

One talking point to come out of the Tuesday chat: Trump’s Pentagon cut the Saudis a $3.5 billion discount on THAAD anti-missile radar systems, Bloomberg reported — extending the narrative on a story broke last May by the New York Times when Jared Kushner reportedly called up “Marillyn A. Hewson — the chief executive of Lockheed Martin, which makes the radar system — and asked her whether she could cut the price.”

The Times reported then that “Kushner’s personal intervention in the arms sale [was] further evidence of the Trump White House’s readiness to dispense with custom in favor of informal, hands-on deal making. It also offers a window into how the administration hopes to change America’s position in the Middle East, emphasizing hard power and haggling over traditional diplomacy.”

According to Bloomberg today, that discount “was approved after the Saudis claimed the sale could be lost without it. It came in the form of two waivers from a U.S. law requiring foreign purchasers of American weapons to pay part of the Defense Department’s costs in developing them.” Those waivers were also “the largest yet approved for any nation, based on a Government Accountability Office review published in January of the discounts from 2012 through 2017.” More to that story, here.


From Defense One

The US Military Is Making Lasers Create Voices out of Thin Air // Patrick Tucker: Within three years, the Pentagon's non-lethal weapons lab hopes to have a direct energy weapon that can produce an effect like a haunted walkie-talkie or the biblical burning bush.

Air Force Secretary: Boeing Is Giving Its Tanker Short Shrift // Marcus Weisgerber: Pointing to the KC-46 program's latest problems, Heather Wilson says the company is focusing too much on its civil aircraft.

Five Myths About Pentagon Weapons Programs // Frank Kendall: As the service secretaries converge on Capitol Hill to talk acquisition reform, it's important to sort fact from fiction.

The Iraq War and the Inevitability of Ignorance // James Fallows: The U.S. is destined to keep overlearning the lessons of the last conflict.

What Were We Doing In Iraq Anyway? // Andrew Exum: Reflections on a war gone wrong.

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. OTD1804: USS Syren captured a brig during operations off Tripoli and renames her Scourge.


Austin serial-bombing suspect blows himself up. A man identified only as a 24-year-old white male hit the detonator as police closed in on the car he was sitting in early Wednesday morning just north of Austin, Texas. New York Times: “The suspect is believed to be responsible for at least six bombs that killed at least two people and wounded five. Four bombs detonated in various locations in Austin where they had been left. One detonated at a FedEx distribution center in Schertz, Tex., near San Antonio, and another was found, unexploded, in a FedEx facility near Austin’s airport.”
Unknowns: The bomber had no known motive, no known accomplices, and there’s no way of knowing whether he left more bombs around.
So was it “terrorism”? Writes Kriston Capps in CityLab: “Austin residents have called in hundreds of reports of suspicious packages since March 12, the day the second and third explosions happened...There is ample evidence that the fear of terrorism in Austin is real, even if the label has not been formally applied to the bombing campaign that is now underway.” But read the rest of a good discussion, here.

Peek beyond the headlines to what may lie ahead for the data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica — in particular, you can review what legal actions may be facing the organization whose CEO was caught on film by UK’s Channel 4 news bragging about all manner of illicit and illegal activity to entrap politicians around the world. This legal primer comes via Lawfare’s Andrew Keane Woods, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law. He assesses not just Cambridge Analytica’s liability, but also Facebook’s.
If you’re just catching up to this story, The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer condenses it into three paragraphs.
For a fuller accounting, check out Channel 4’s reporting on these matters.
Some of the U.S. laws CA’s moves may have run afoul of:

  • Computer Fraud and Abuse Act
  • State-level Computer Crime Laws
  • U.S. Common Law Claims (Contract & Tort)
  • Federal Trade Commission Rules
  • U.S. Securities Law

What to expect in the meantime: If you’re Cambridge Analytica, “expect lawsuits, public hearings and general regulatory hell. Maybe, in the extreme, jail time. If you’re Facebook, expect lawsuits, public hearings, and general regulatory hell. Maybe, in the extreme, the end of the firm as we know it.” Read on, here.

Trump called to congratulate Putin on his election, over the objections of aides who typed “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” on briefing notes, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.
McCain condemns this: “An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a Wednesday statement.
Context, from The Atlantic’s David Graham: “In the past, it has been a staple of U.S. practice to label unfair elections as such. [White House spox Sarah] Sanders’s refusal to even acknowledge the ability to do so is important.”
Also ignored: Aides’ suggestion that Trump criticize Putin for poisoning a former double agent and others in England, an attack that both the U.S. and UK intelligence services blame on Russia. Nor did the U.S. president bring up Russia’s meddling in his own 2016 election. More discussion, here.

The U.S. military is reportedly on the verge of signing a status-of-forces agreement with Ghana, just south of Mali, a story whose profile was raised Tuesday on Twitter when WaPo’s Craig Whitlock shared this story from local Ghana news.
France’s AFP took note of the story, summarizing that someone "leaked documents from a recent cabinet meeting” where parliamentary “ministers reportedly backed a proposal to allow the US military access to and the use of facilities in Ghana."
But Ghana’s military chief pushed back on the basing allegation, reportedly saying “it was ‘not true’ Washington wanted a more permanent presence in the country.”
And the U.S. Embassy in Accra said Washington had "not requested, nor does it plan to establish a military base or bases in Ghana," noting that, "This year, the United States of America is investing over $20m in training and equipment for the Ghanaian armed forces. Ghana is once again preparing to train US forces, as it did in 2017." Tiny bit more, here.

Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky blew the lid on a counter ISIS operation, Cyberscoop’s Chris Bing and Patrick Howell O'Neill reported Tuesday.
The operation’s name: “Slingshot,” a six-year-long "highly intrusive malware" campaign "that could siphon large amounts of data from infected devices." The breached routers in this operation were located “in various African and Middle Eastern countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Turkey and Yemen.”
And the U.S. link? “Kaspersky did not attribute Slingshot to any single country or government in its public report, describing it only as an advanced persistent threat (APT). But current and former U.S. intelligence officials tell CyberScoop that Slingshot represents a U.S. military program run out of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a component of Special Operations Command (SOCOM).” Read on at Cyberscoop, here — or check out the initial report from 11 days ago wherein Kaspersky raised concerns about what they’d seen, over at Wired, here.

Xi’s rising nationalism. On Tuesday, China’s President Xi Jinping delivered “a fervently nationalistic speech to close China’s annual parliamentary session” wherein he promised “to fight the bloody battle against our enemies” to regain “our due place in the world,” The Australian reports.
Short read: “The address marked a new move for a President who does not usually address the parliament in such a way. The speech underlined his enhanced role as the most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong.” More here (paywall alert), or from CNN, here.
Not long after Xi spoke — warning at one point “any ­actions or tricks to split China are doomed to failure” — China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier sailed through the Taiwan Strait, Newsweek reports this morning. Taipai’s response: no big deal. That, here. Or read Reuters’ take, here.

Japan wants its own aircraft carrier, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday. It also wants more F-35Bs to stave off threats from China. “Japan already has four flat-top destroyers of the Izumo and Hyuga classes, which can accommodate helicopters. The panel didn’t specify the type of aircraft carrier it is recommending, but a ruling-party official said lawmakers are looking at whether to adapt those destroyers, built at a cost of $1 billion or more, to handle fighter jets.”
FWIW: “Under Mr. Abe, the defense budget has been growing since 2013. Japan, one of the U.S.’s most important allies, has trained a new amphibious troop unit and bought F-35A fighters, which take off conventionally. In the coming fiscal year, it plans to spend more than $800 million to buy six of the jets, completing the 28-jet purchase laid out in the current five-year defense plan.” More here.
From the region: Australia unveiled plans for what it calls the "ASEAN-Australia Infrastructure Co-operation Initiative," whose purpose is "to counter the rising influence of China's multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative," the Australian Financial Review reported this weekend. “It is the first concrete Australian action to tackle China's dominance of infrastructure funding and the influence this has given Beijing across the region. It follows earlier initiatives by Japan, India and the US, which along with Canberra are members of a loose regional grouping known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad.” More here.

Finally on this snowy HumpDay in Washington, we are fast approaching government shutdown territory once again, the Washington Post reminds us. "Standing in the way of the $1.3 trillion spending agreement to fund all government agencies and programs through Sept. 30 are disputes over immigration, a giant tunnel under the Hudson River and various other issues."
Forecast: “House Republicans left a morning conference meeting Tuesday expecting to vote on the bill no sooner than Thursday. That would leave the Senate scant time to act by Friday at midnight to stave off a third government shutdown this year and empower any one senator to take advantage of the chamber’s rules to extend debate beyond the deadline.” Find out what elected officials are fighting over this time (mostly immigration), here.

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