Intel chiefs, POTUS diverge on threats; More troops to border; UAE hackers target US; Inside Stratcom’s new HQ; And a bit more.
The things that threaten the United States are not what President Trump says they are, the Director of National Intelligence said Tuesday. “The things that worry America’s intelligence community can’t be stopped by a wall,” Defense One’s Patrick Tucker reports off the spoken and written testimony of ODNI chief Dan Coats, CIA director Gina Haspel, and other intel chiefs to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“North Korea is still committed to developing nuclear missiles,” Tucker writes off the hearing. “ISIS, though weakened, still commands thousands of fighters. China’s reach into the global telecommunications industry presents an intelligence and security concern. Russia continues to sow disinformation to undermine the United States and its allies.”
On issue after issue, the intel chiefs laid out conclusions at odds with their boss. “North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival,” Coats wrote in his written testimony. The intelligence community “continues to assess that it is unlikely to give up all of its WMD stockpiles, delivery systems, and production capabilities.” This contradicts Trump’s much more optimistic proclamations, which have ranged from June 2018’s “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” to his Wednesday morning response: “...Decent chance of Denuclearization.”
Haspel: Iran is still complying with the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump pulled out of, though she said her analysts see some chance of that changing. POTUS, this morning: “The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!”
On ISIS: “Officials also warned that the Islamic State was capable of attacking the United States and painted a picture of a still-formidable organization. Trump has declared the group defeated and has said he wants to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria as a result,” as the Washington Post put it. Trump today: "Caliphate will soon be destroyed."
Russia: Coats and Haspel “reaffirmed their high-confidence assessment” that Russian agents had meddled in the 2016 presidential election. “They are now becoming more adept at using social media to alter how we think, behave, and decide” Coats testified, adding that “Russia’s social media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities, and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians.”
But Russia is spending considerably less on its military, that aforementioned U.S. intelligence assessment reads. Page 37: "After decades of increased spending to support modernization, Russia’s defense budget is decreasing to about 3.8 percent of GDP in 2019, from a peak of about 5.4 percent in 2016.”
China: “We are also concerned about the potential for Chinese intelligence and security services to use Chinese information technology firms as routine and systemic espionage platforms against the United States and allies,” Coats wrote. D1’s Tucker: “While that shouldn’t be controversial” — particularly in the wake of DOJ’s indictments of Huawei on Monday — “it has become so under Trump, who has come to the defense of Chinese telecom company ZTE.”
From Defense One
Intelligence Chiefs Diverge From Trump On Main Threats to US // Patrick Tucker: The things that worry America’s intelligence community can’t be stopped by a wall.
Will Space Force Boost Already-Rising Spending on Satellites? // Marcus Weisgerber: Defense execs see increased sales as Pentagon upgrades orbiting gear to fend off attacks.
How Seriously Should the World Take Trump’s Venezuela Threat? // David A. Graham, The Atlantic: This isn’t the first time the president has threatened military force against the country, but now he is surrounded by regime-change advocates.
Recruiting, Faster Tech Acquisition Are Vital to Maritime Superiority: CNO // Charles S. Clark, Government Executive: Delays in getting new technology to the fleet is the U.S. Navy’s Achilles heel, says its top officer.
Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief by Bradley Peniston, Ben Watson, and Katie Bo Williams. On this day in 1989, and two weeks before the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the U.S. closed its embassy in Kabul afraid the Afghan capital would descend into lawlessness. The embassy would not reopen until December 2001.
“A few thousand” more U.S. troops will deploy to the Mexico border, Acting defense secretary Shanahan said in his first formal press conference Tuesday at a Pentagon Briefing Room packed with reporters. We’d already been told some troops would stay through the end of September, and Shanahan confirmed that’s still the case.
The list of tasks these soldiers will be doing still centers around installing concertina wire. But the mission, which has essentially been an engineering one so far, is evolving into more of a “monitoring, surveilling and detection” one now, Shanahan said.
Currently deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border region: about 2,350 American troops, spread across Texas, Arizona and California. That’s in addition to another 2,270 National Guard troops nearby on a separate but complementary mission.
How much has this evolving mission cost the U.S.? About $235 million since October 2017, USA Today reports. That’s $132 million for active-duty, and $103 million for the National Guard.
Projected cost: More than $680 million — and expect that to rise, Stars and Stripes reports off the Tuesday House Armed Services Committee hearing on the border deployment.
So who’s deploying to America’s southern borderlands, and how many are headed there? Standby. The Pentagon sent out a note shortly after Shanahan’s remarks announcing, "We will provide more clarity on the numbers when we have it."
BTW: The U.S. military is not going to intervene in Venezuela, Acting Shanahan also told reporters Tuesday. The acting SecDef was asked several times about the mysterious note on John Bolton's notepad from Monday — "5,000 troops to Colombia" — but would say nothing more than that he had not spoken to the national security advisor about it.
"I didn't bring a notepad today," Shanahan replied. "I haven’t discussed that with Secretary Bolton." So you're not ruling it out? reporters asked. "I'm not commenting on it," Shanahan said.
The NSC has been similarly tight-lipped on Bolton’s notepad signaling. In response to questions, a White House spokesperson would say nothing beyond senior officials' repeated claim that "all options are on the table" in Venezuela. A defense official later told Defense One that Bolton's pad referred to standard contingency planning of the type DOD days every day, but that the Pentagon has not been specifically tasked with planning a military intervention in Venezuela.
The UAE has a “secret hacking team of American mercenaries” and they’re going after other Americans, among many across the globe, Reuters’ Christopher Bing and Joel Schectman report today in a special investigation.
Part one centers around the account of “a young American woman who worked as a hacker on the team [who] reveals the existence and activities” of the hacking effort called Project Raven. “The operative left when she discovered Raven was also targeting Americans,” Reuters writes.
Part two “focuses on the project’s use of a powerful, previously unreported iPhone hack, known as Karma, to access data on the mobile phones of the project’s targets.”
Some suggestions why this has happened: U.S. pressure to crack down on terrorism among its Middle Eastern allies like the UAE. Others suggest a cyber arms race is sweeping across the Middle East.
The latest: “The FBI is now investigating whether Raven’s American staff leaked classified U.S. surveillance techniques and if they illegally targeted American computer networks, according to former Raven employees interviewed by federal law enforcement agents.” Read on, here.
The Pentagon’s IG is investigating whether the U.S. undercharged for air support in Africa and the Middle East, Defense News reports since there were reports this happened for the U.S. and Saudis in the Yemen war.
Speaking of Yemen, a ceasefire there appears to be holding, the UN’s Yemen envoy said after making his first stop in the tense port city of Hodeidah this week. There are lots of big plans for Yemen, but few clear ways to accomplish them at this point. The Guardian explains more about those complications and expectations, here.
Russia’s once-secret offer to North Korea: A nuclear power plant for dismantling your nuclear weapons and missiles. The offer was reportedly made last fall, the Washington Post reports citing U.S. officials.
Known-knowns: “As part of the deal, the Russian government would operate the plant and transfer all byproducts and waste back to Russia, reducing the risk that North Korea would use the power plant to build nuclear weapons, while providing the impoverished country a new energy source.”
Reminder: North Korea is “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities,” read the latest public assessment from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Open question: How will the White House react? Notes the Post: “The intelligence community has long had a more pessimistic outlook than the White House and the State Department on the nuclear talks.”
Last point: The plan has a precedent, including at least one from the Clinton administration. Read on, here.
The U.S. State Department wants to sell Japan $2 billion in Aegis ballistic missile defense gear, citing Japan as “a force for political stability and economic progress in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Involved: two AEGIS Weapon Systems, two Multi-Mission Signal Processors, and two Command and Control Processor Refreshes and related equipment at an estimated cost of $2.150 billion.
The benefit: “enhanced capability against increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile threats and create an expanded, layered defense of its homeland.” Adds the State Department in its notice, “Japan, which already has the AEGIS in its inventory, will have no difficulty absorbing this system into its armed forces.”
Read a bit more about the Aegis system in our ballistic missile defense explainer from 2018, here.
Finally today: Take “a first look inside StratCom's new $1.3 billion headquarters,” thanks to Steve Liewer of the Omaha Morning-Herald. Says Steve up near the top of this feature, “The contrast couldn’t be starker with the current StratCom headquarters a block to the east at Offutt Air Force Base.”
Worth noting: “StratCom’s new headquarters is among the costliest and most expensive building projects ever undertaken by the Defense Department,” Liewer writes. “Its price tag is just slightly less than the bill for the Pentagon itself, which cost $83 million when it was built in 1941, equal to $1.4 billion in current dollars.”
What’s happening now: “StratCom is engaged in Phase 2 of the project,” which “means outfitting it with the electronics and communications gear it needs to carry out its missions, including oversight of the nation’s space forces, missile defense, electronic warfare, and, of course, its nuclear arsenal.” Much more to the story, here.