Trump declares national emergency; State of Defense 2019; CENTCOM, UK spy chief: ISIS not done yet; Deadly terror attack in India; And a bit more.

Trump says he’ll declare a national emergency. Having failed for two years to persuade lawmakers to provide several billion dollars to extend barriers along the U.S. southern border, President Trump said Friday that “I’m going to be signing a national emergency.” Catch footage of this morning's remarks here.

Next steps? A likely court challenge, The New York Times reported Thursday evening. “As a matter of political reality, such a declaration permits Mr. Trump to keep the government open without losing face with his core supporters by surrendering to congressional Democrats on his signature issue. As a matter of legal reality, the proposal is likely to be bogged down in a court challenge, leaving any actual construction work based on emergency powers spending an uncertain and, at best, distant prospect.” More, here.

Extending border barriers may be just the start. “The moment the president declares a ‘national emergency’—a decision that is entirely within his discretion—he is able to set aside many of the legal limits on his authority,” the Brennan Center’s Elizabeth Goitein wrote in Defense One back in December. There are lots of other extraordinary things POTUS can do in an emergency. “For instance, the president can, with the flick of his pen, activate laws allowing him to shut down many kinds of electronic communications inside the United States or freeze Americans’ bank accounts. Other powers are available even without a declaration of emergency, including laws that allow the president to deploy troops inside the country to subdue domestic unrest.”

New precedent in the works? Some legal scholars have argued that Trump’s declaration will offer a blueprint for later presidents to use whenever they want to circumvent the wishes of Congress. This morning, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney called that notion “completely false.” Speaking to reporters by conference call ahead of Trump’s remarks, Mulvaney said, “It actually creates zero precedent. This is authority given to the president in law already. It’s not as if he didn’t get what he wanted and now he’s waving a wand to get a bunch of money.”

Reminder: there’s little evidence of any crisis the wall could solve. Among other facts compiled by NYT: Illegal border crossings haven’t been this low since 1971; most illegal drugs are smuggled through ports of entry, not hauled across the open border; and there’s no evidence that undocumented immigrants commit more crime than native-born Americans. Meanwhile, the nation’s intelligence chiefs didn’t even mention border crossings among the major threats to national security in their January congressional testimony.

The funding: White House officials say Trump has access to about $8 billion to build the wall, Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber reports:

  • $1.375 billion from the budget deal agreed to by lawmakers this week.
  • $600 million from the Treasury Forfeiture Fund.
  • $2.5 billion in Pentagon counter-drug activities funds, including reprogramming money from other military accounts.
  • $3.6 billion in military construction funds.

About that milcon fund: Under the emergency authority, the White House can pull any funding from any unobligated military construction funds, Todd Harrison, a military budget analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an email this morning. Right now there is about $21 billion in unobligated military construction funds.

“We will be looking at lower-priority military construction projects,” a senior administration official said. “We will be looking at ones that are to fix or repair a particular facility that might be able to wait a couple of months into next year. We’re going through a filter to make sure that nothing impacts lethality [and] readiness on the part of our military construction budget, which is a budget that is substantially larger than $3.6 billion.”

Backfill plans: White House officials said the administration’s fiscal 2020 budget request, which is expected to go to Congress in March, will backfill the military construction accounts that are raided this year. Added another senior administration official: “This is not the entire military construction budget. This is just a small fraction of it.”

From Defense One

As ISIS Fight Winds Down in Syria, Detainee Numbers Are Rising // Katie Bo Williams, Defense One: Nearly 1,000 foreign fighters are in custody, U.S. Special Ops commander says — and in legal limbo.

State of Defense 2019: Special Report // Defense One Staff: Our annual service-by-service look at the U.S. military finds the shift to great-power competition dogged by some old problems and some very new ones.

Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: 5G’s rise prompts spectrum worries; DOD aims to dodge budget caps; What’s gone at IDEX 2019; and more.

Why Withdrawing from the INF Treaty Might Be Unconstitutional // Scott R. Anderson: No one really knows who gets to cancel treaties, but courts may defer to a Congress that prefers not to.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief by Bradley Peniston and Ben Watson. Thanks for reading! And if you’re not subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1950, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China signed a mutual defense and assistance treaty — a move that triggered deathly concern in Washington over the spread of Communism worldwide. The Sino-Soviet alliance wouldn’t stay rosy for long, however. “By the early-1960s, Mao Zedong was openly declaring that the Soviet Union was actually allying itself with the United States against the Chinese revolution,” the History Channel reminds us. A bit more from them on that, here. (And stay tuned this weekend for part two of our podcast special on the future of the U.S.-China relationship, Beyond South China Sea tensions.)

CENTCOM’s Gen. Votel reminds us ISIS isn’t finished yet, CNN’s Barbara Starr reports traveling with the combatant commander through Oman this morning and during a week with a spate of reporting from the “last holdout of ISIS” in Syria.
What remains a threat about ISIS today, Votel explained to CNN, is that the group still “has leaders, still has fighters, it still has facilitators, it still has resources, so our continued military pressure is necessary to continue to go after that network.”
Votel’s chief metric for success vs. ISIS: "We want (ISIS) to be able to be controlled or addressed by the indigenous partners, whether that's the Iraqi security forces in Iraq, or the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria, that when they are capable of handing this threat on their own, without our assistance, that will be another key criteria indicating to me that we have accomplished our mission of defeat of ISIS.”
And of the regional security threat from Iran, since they were in Oman after all, Votel cited Tehran’s busy ballistic missile development program as well as “a proliferation of unmanned aerial systems ... that operate in different (ways), so this could challenge us.” More from CNN, here.
Another thing from Votel: U.S. may trim over 1,000 troops from Afghanistan in belt-tightening,” Reuters reports while also traveling with the four-star in Oman. (That’s a tenuous update from Reuters last reporting on the subject, which included U.S. officials saying they’re “planning for what a withdrawal of about half of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan would look like.”)

The UK’s spy chief says ISIS a threat. Here’s a few bits from the Munich Security Conference speech by Alex Younger, who runs the Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6), as reported by Charles Lister:

  • We must “penetrate” ISIS and Al-Qaeda, “and we do.”
  • ISIS is again becoming “an asymmetric transnational threat”
  • There is a “resurgence of Al-Qaeda. it’s a force that should be taken seriously.”

Notes Defense One’s Patrick Tucker: “These comments from Britain’s top intelligence professional echo the concerns of US military leaders and exist in stark contrast to White House assurances of ‘victory.’”

What’s next for Syria after the ISIS? Should things get worse, here’s how that could look. Source: a new analysis from a French think tank called Institut Montaigne, which lays out “Four Dreadful Scenarios” for Syria and its neighbors/allies.

  1. Syrian troops — backed by Russia and Iran — storm into Idlib province, currently home to thousands of displaced Syrians including probable former and current rebels;
  2. Turkey goes all-in on its war against regional Kurds;
  3. Instability in Syria’s southwest spikes further with Israeli Defense Forces and suspected Iran-backed units and drones trading fire around the Golan Heights; escalation into Damascus could be only a few quick blunders away at this stage of tensions;
  4. Or, the relationship between Russia and Iran collapses, triggering more violence across the region. Perhaps there’s a reason this one is ranked last; this one pretty much has the most to lose with the least to gain for those involved. For three ways forward, continue reading here.

For the record in East Africa: There have been about a dozen U.S. airstrikes on suspected al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia since we last checked in on all that. The Long War Journal is keeping tabs on the numbers. Tiny bit more on what’s going on there via Voice of America from about a week ago, here.

In South Asia, two nuclear-armed neighbors could stumble into… something very dangerous if leaders of India and Pakistan are not careful in the contested region of Kashmir, MIT’s Vipin Narang tweeted in warning this morning.
What’s going on: India’s military is looking for justice around Kashmir’s sensitive Line of Control after 40 of its soldiers were killed Thursday when a car filled with explosives rammed a troop transport bus traveling in Indian-administered Kashmir, the BBC reports. It was the deadliest attack in India since Mumbai 2008 and the worst attack in contested Kashmir in decades. (Read why it’s contested and a bit of history of Kashmir from Reuters, here.)
Culprit believed to be behind the attack: militants of Jaish-e-Mohammad, or JeM, a Pakistan-based group. They claimed responsibility for the attack hours afterward.
The risk: Indian military in its pursuit of justice crosses beyond the Line of Control and across the international border into Pakistan.
Said Prime Minister Narendra Modi: "Security forces have been given permission to take decisions about the timing, place and nature of their response... This is an India of new convention and policy."
Worth noting: General elections in India are coming up in April, so there is a risk of being too dramatic about the response, observers like Narang flagged. More from CNN here.

Pompeo praises North Korea’s international behavior, sort of. In a Feb. 13 interview with CBS News, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo compared Pyongyang favorably to Tehran. “Remember too, North Korea behaves very differently. They’re not destabilizing Yemen. They’re not destabilizing Syria. They’re not conducting enormous assassination campaigns. These countries’ behaviors are different, therefore, the way America is approaching resolving this.”
And yet, as Pompeo himself noted: North Korea has in recent years completed development of ICBMs and nuclear warheads, then threatened to use them to attack the United States and its own regional neighbors.
Contrarian analysis from Brookings’ Tom Wright: “Shocking statement from Pompeo, claiming that North Korea is a relatively responsible actor internationally so it should be treated differently to Iran. What about torturing an American student to death, the proliferation of weapons, cyber attacks, etc?”

And finally today, no big deal but a Belgium intelligence officer has been accused of spying for Russia, the EU Observer reported after Belgian newspaper De Morgen initially broke the news.
It doesn’t appear to end there, either, since “A more senior ADIV officer, Clement Vandenborre, the head of its counter-intelligence department, has also been barred from his office after being accused of illegally shredding sensitive documents and of broader mismanagement.” Read on, here.

Coming soon to Defense One: A podcast special episode on the future of Russia’s relations with the U.S., NATO, the rest of Europe, China and a lot more. What questions do you have about Russia’s future? Send us your thoughts to

Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!