What’s next in Iran; China using NSA cybertools; Wooing Venezuelan troops; ‘Operating blind’ in the Arctic; And a bit more.

We have a more clear understanding of the White House’s latest wave of anti-Iran messaging after a few administration and defense officials spoke to a four-person team of reporters from the New York Times Monday.

The gist: U.S. officials have reportedly seen new “intelligence showing a change in [Iranian] behavior that could be interpreted to foreshadow an attack on American forces or interests” in Iraq and Syria. As well, European diplomats think "Iran would most likely resume research on high-performance centrifuges used to produce nuclear fuel and put restrictions on nuclear inspections in Iran,” which "would be Iran’s most significant reaction to date as President Trump has steadily increased sanctions" on Iran's military and its ability to export petroleum abroad.

But so far, no WH officials will share particulars about the alleged foreshadowed attacks, the Times writes, or why this purportedly new threat is different from previous dynamics in Iraq and Syria — conflicts that have involved Iran-backed militias in support of both Baghdad and Damascus — since the start of the counter-ISIS war in August 2014.

For what it’s worth, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut tweeted Monday: “When I was in Baghdad last month, our diplomatic and military leaders were almost unanimously opposed to [naming the Iranian IRGC as a terrorist group] because of its practical impact on our objectives in Iraq.” Thread, here.  

Recall that National Security Advisor John Bolton announced Sunday evening that the U.S. Navy is sending a carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the region as a message to Iran amid this heightened threat atmosphere.

Scoop-hungry Axios reported Monday “Israel passed information on an alleged Iranian plot to attack U.S. interests in the Gulf to the U.S.” before Bolton’s Sunday messaging. Want specifics? Too bad, because Axios has none other than a note that the “unclear” information was delivered to the White House two weeks ago.

Expedited mission: A Pentagon official told the Times “the carrier group was headed to the Persian Gulf in the coming weeks as part of a routine tour,” but new CENTCOM commander, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie “hastened the deployment from its current location in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.” So now it will travel from the Eastern Med to the Persian Gulf.

According to Pentagon spox Charles Summers, the carrier deployment “ensures we have the forces” near Iran to protect U.S. forces. “We do not seek war with the Iranian regime,” he added.

The BLUF: “Memories of the Iraq war and Mr. Bolton’s own long history of harsh rhetoric on Iran have left administration officials under pressure to produce evidence of the imminent threat,” the Times writes. “By late Monday, no one in the Trump administration had stepped forward to make a specific case.” Read on, here.

Supporting #HotTakes:

  • This tweet-thread from former Pentagon Undersecretary Brian McKeon: “For the last 2 decades, the US has typically had a CSG in the Persian Gulf...The USS Abraham Lincoln left Norfolk on Apr. 1. The Navy wouldn't say where it was going but indicated it would circumnavigate the globe en route to its home port in San Diego.  Very likely the decision to have it spend time in the Gulf was made weeks or even months ago.”
  • Indeed, the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier deployment to the Middle East was planned “for some time now,” Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson said Monday at the Sea Air Space expo just outside Washington. (He was answering a question during a panel moderated by Defense One’s Brad Peniston; watch the video here).

From Defense One

Don’t Expect the US Military’s Next Fighter to Be Joint // Marcus Weisgerber: While the Navy’s and Air Force’s next tactical jet might share some capabilities, a Navy official says, they won’t share an airframe.

Admiral: The US Is ‘Operating Blind’ In the Arctic // Patrick Tucker: The Navy needs more weather data to better operate in the cold northern seas.

Trump’s Iran Policy Is Counterproductive // John Dale Grover: It makes no sense to punish allies in Europe while shoring up hardliners in Tehran.

Europe Should Do More for Regional Security — Starting with Libya // Daniel DePetris: Allied “burden-sharing” ought not be about financial benchmarks, but about U.S. partners’ investment in their own regions’ security.

A Boom Time for US Sanctions // Kathy Gilsinan, The Atlantic: The explosive growth in their use has prompted questions about how much is too much.

Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson with Katie Bo Williams. Thanks for reading! Subscribe here. On this day in 1718, the city of New Orleans was founded at the southern mouth of the Mississippi River. Eighty-five years later, Napoleon sold the city to the U.S. After his fall in 1814, a combined U.S. military force fought off the pivoting Brits, who tried to seize this historic port city after torching the White House just a few months prior.

Slated for this afternoon: VP Pence will “offer new incentives to Venezuela’s military to turn against President Nicolas Maduro, responding to an attempted uprising that fizzled out last week,” a White House official told Reuters Monday evening.
Location for this incentive pitch: the Americas Society at the State Department, and it’s scheduled for around 3:30 p.m. EDT.
What to expect: an offer of “assistance for refugees who have fled the country, and an economic aid package contingent on a political transition,” Reuters writes. More here.

A familiar face is making his way back to the Pentagon, Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams reports. Jonathan Hoffman, the incoming public-affairs assistant to the defense secretary, ran for Congress in South Carolina’s 1st District in 2013. He was defeated in the primary, ending at least for the time his career in politics. But some of his rhetoric on immigration rings familiar chords in the Trump administration — at a moment when the Pentagon has becoming increasingly embroiled in the debate over the president’s policy on the southern border, Williams reports.
“One of the core responsibilities of a country is to protect your borders and identify the nation as a unit,” Hoffman said during a roundtable discussion on immigration policy at the Citadel back in 2013. “Yes, you need immigration. It helps diversify, it helps bring in new workers and skill sets that you don't have. But at some point, you've got to say, 'We need to maintain the identity of the nation.'”
Hoffman comes from the Department of Homeland Security to the Pentagon, where President Trump’s decision to use U.S. troops to assist DHS with border enforcement has generated massive controversy from critics who say that the military is being inappropriately pulled into domestic law enforcement.
Reminder: The Pentagon last week announced that 320 more troops would be sent to the border, adding to some 3,000 already there.
More border focus at the Pentagon? But current and former DHS officials say it’s unlikely Hoffman’s selection signals a broadening focus on the border mission at the Pentagon, according to Williams. Those officials say that it’s a reflection that the Trump White House trusts Hoffman.
“I suspect that it’s his White House connections that they were looking to put someone over at DOD,” said the former DHS official. “During our time together [in the Trump administration], I didn’t really see Jonathan as one of the immigration hardliners.”
The big question: Will he brief on camera? Hoffman is not a press affairs professional — he’s a major in the Air Force Reserve Judge Advocate General Corps — and sources who have worked with Hoffman think the prospect unlikely.
More from that Citadel roundtable from six years ago, via the Charleston City Paper’s Paul Bowers: “You have shared values, shared culture, shared language, shared respect for the Constitution, shared respect for our history. You need to maintain that identity. If you don't have that identity as a nation, that's problematic… You want to have national pride. You want to have people who love their country and respect it, and if you have that lack of commonality, then you'll see people who lose that.”
FWIW: Hoffman declined to comment to Defense One on his new posting.

Beijing reportedly got its hand on NSA cyber weapons after the agency attacked Chinese computers, essentially behaving “like a gunslinger who grabs an enemy’s rifle and starts blasting away,” the New York Times reported Monday after a new analysis from cybersecurity firm Symantec.
Symantec arrived at this conclusion “based on the timing of the attacks and clues in the computer code,” the Times writes. How exactly the tools were acquired is still a mystery. “But [Symantec analysts] know that Chinese intelligence contractors used the repurposed American tools to carry out cyberintrusions in at least five countries: Belgium, Luxembourg, Vietnam, the Philippines and Hong Kong.”
Why you won’t find the word “China” anywhere in Symantec’s report: “it identified the attackers as the Buckeye group, Symantec’s own term for hackers that the Department of Justice and several other cybersecurity firms have identified as a Chinese Ministry of State Security contractor operating out of Guangzhou.”
What now? U.S. officials should prepare for this outcome with all future cyberweapons, the Times writes. Read on, here.

Get to better know the U.S. Navy’s plans (such as they are) for unmanned machines in the years to come thanks to this report from Defense News’s David Larter. “The Navy wants to prepare for a future where off-board aerial, surface and subsurface drones with sophisticated sensors search for, detect and engage enemy combatants, submarines and aircraft with humans in the loop who are based on manned combatants that attempt to stay undetected.”
One kinda big problem: “the Navy doesn’t know how to do that or how it would introduce those technologies into a fleet that has for the most part fought the same way since the Cold War.” More here.

Trump used his eighth presidential pardon to grant clemency to a former Army LT convicted of murdering an Iraqi prisoner 11 years ago, the Washington Post reported Monday.
The former LT’s name: Michael Behenna, once an Army Ranger in the 101st Airborne Division. Behenna “was convicted of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone and sentenced to 25 years after killing Ali Mansur, a detainee and suspected al-Qaeda member,” the Post writes. “Behenna, who stripped Mansur naked, interrogated him without authorization and then shot him twice, has claimed repeatedly that he was acting in self-defense.”
For the record, he was released on parole since 2014. “Before Trump’s pardon, Behenna faced another five years of parole.” More here.

It’s been 126 days. Will Patrick Shanahan get to drop the “Acting” from his title? It’s a curious question since Pentagon officials told the Wall Street Journal on April 25 that a formal White House nomination for the defense secretary gig was coming “within days.” Granted that’s a very flexible way to put it; but Politico’s Connor O’Brien reminds us, citing Trump’s own words from last week, that it could happen this week…maybe.
Do you think it’s a bad thing that Shanahan has been an acting Pentagon chief for so long? (You can email us your feedback here.) He made history with the “acting” SecDef title way back on March 5, according to Steve Vladeck, national security law professor at the University of Texas.
“The previous record-holder was William H. Taft IV, who served as Acting Secretary for 60 days, from January 20 to March 21, 1989,” Vladeck tweeted in March. Shanahan has now more than doubled that previous record.

Food for thought: “The Democrats are rapidly becoming the party of the young—and the consequences could be profound,” Scottish-born Harvard historian Niall Ferguson (author of “Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire”) co-argues in the latest issue of The Atlantic.
Published one day before that essay: This data-driven voter analysis from the Center for American Progress, which aims to argue “How the U.S. Foreign Policy Debate Misses What Voters Really Want” across a series of focus groups in different states.
Among the findings:

  • “Asked to choose the three most important foreign policy priorities over the next five years from a specific list, ‘protecting against terrorist threats from groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda’ ranks at the top of the list, chosen by 40 percent of voters, followed closely by ‘protecting jobs for American workers’ at 36 percent and ‘reducing illegal immigration’ at 35 percent.” Dive into the rest, here.

And finally today: We want to take a moment to remind you, dear readers, that you can email us anytime over the next several months with your very own answer to this very important question: What do you want 2020 presidential candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? Your input will help guide our coverage in the months ahead. Email us at production@defenseone.com to help us better the news that’s useful to you.
The answers we’ve received so far have been helpful, so keep them coming! Some of the issues that are important to you include:

  • How to unify and move forward as a country
  • Climate change
  • Can gun violence in America be curtailed?
  • How to upgrade or improve national infrastructure
  • Elections cybersecurity
  • How to bolster counter-extremism efforts, both domestically and internationally
  • Improving the immigration system in the U.S.
  • Eliminating the budget deficit and lowering national debt

What are we missing? Drop us a line and let us know. And thanks!