Iran-watchers are on high-alert today on news that sailors of the U.S. Navy’s USS Bainbridge rushed to assist in the Gulf of Oman after two oil tankers were hit in a new wave of suspected attacks, “forcing their crews to abandon ship and setting at least one vessel ablaze,” the New York Times writes.
Involved: the Front Altair, "carrying a cargo of petrochemical feedstock" from the UAE to Taiwan, according to Reuters, and the Kokuka Courageous, which was “transporting methanol from Saudi Arabia to Singapore” and Thailand.
The U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet is so far declining to “say how the ships were attacked or who was suspected of being behind the assault,” Stars and Stripes reports. More from that 5th Fleet statement: “U.S. Naval Forces in the region received two separate distress calls at 6:12 a.m. local (Bahrain) time and a second one at 7 a.m. U.S. Navy ships are in the area and are rendering assistance.” That includes a P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft conducting surveillance.
An unnamed U.S. defense official told CNN’s Barbara Starr: "The US at this hour has not ruled out [that] the ships may have hit a mine in the water, or were attacked by a projectile. They are trying to determine the cause."
What happened remains unclear, but Reuters writes “a magnetic mine” appears to be what hit the Courageous, “breach[ing] the hull above the water line.” The ship’s owner, Japan’s Kokuka Sangyo, told Reuters the Courageous was hit twice over a three-hour period. The Altair, on the other hand, is “suspected of being hit by a torpedo” on its starboard side.
See some clear damage to the Front Altair for yourself via flaming and smoking imagery collected from two Iran-based outlets and shared on Twitter by IISS’s Joseph Dempsey, here and here. A nearby vessel, Hyundai Dubai, picked up the 23 crew members of the Front Altair, according to AP. The NYTs reports the owner of the Courageous “said in a statement that all 21 crew members had abandoned ship after damage to the hull on the starboard side, and were quickly rescued from a lifeboat by a nearby vessel.” All 21 were then moved to the Bainbridge, according to CNN.
Iran’s reax: "Suspicious doesn't begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted today, without elaboration (so far).
“Benchmark Brent crude spiked at one point by as much 4% in trading following the suspected attack, to over $62 a barrel,” Stripes reports, “highlighting how crucial the area remains to global energy supplies. A third of all oil traded by sea passes through the strait, which is the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf.” See the spike in NASDAQ’s charts this morning, here.
A bit of context from Defense News’ Dave Larter, who reminds us that in the 1980s, “We became so concerned with threats to shipping in the Middle East that we reflagged Kuwaiti tankers to allow USN protection,” which led to several clashes between U.S. and Iranian forces, and ultimately a one-day battle in which two Iranian warships were sunk.
Other notable Wednesday events: (1) “Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi airport” in the southwestern city of Abha, somehow landing a missile on the airport’s “arrivals hall before dawn and wounding 26 people Wednesday.” The NYTs called that Wednesday attack “one of the worst Houthi attacks on Saudi soil yet.” The Houthis claimed the attack was with a cruise missile, and the Saudis alleged merely a "hostile projectile" from the Houthis was to blame, according to Dempsey’s read from both sides’ statements Wednesday.
Related recent Houthi attacks include "drones [that] targeted Saudi drone facilities at another airport on Sunday," the Times writes, and a "Houthi attack on a Saudi oil pipeline last month [that] forced the Saudis to shut the pipeline temporarily." And those, of course, followed "a mysterious sabotage attack damaged four oil tankers, two of them Saudi, outside the Emirati port of Fujairah" in early May.
And (2) Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Tehran Wednesday to speak with Iran’s senior leadership in an effort to broker some positive news amid U.S.-Iran tensions. Abe is scheduled to stay for that mission through today before departing sometime after midday.
From that Abe visit to Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Abe that Iran “will not and should not make, hold or use nuclear weapons, and that it has no such intentions,” according to what Abe told reporters afterward on Wednesday.
Even with that statement about intentions, Khamenei went on, "America could not do anything" to stop Iran if it did want to acquire nuclear weapons. Follow AP for the latest on these U.S.-Iran tensions in its developing story page, here.
From Defense One
These Are the US Military Bases Most Threatened by Climate Change // Patrick Tucker and Ben Watson: The belated lists arrived just ahead of a GAO report that says the Pentagon is failing to use climate projections in planning.
Russia’s Quest to Lead the World in AI Is Doomed // Aaron Bateman: Innovation in the former Soviet Union is still in shackles.
Top Intelligence Official: Moving to the Cloud ‘One of Best Decisions We Made’ // Frank R. Konkel, Nextgov: Cloud computing is changing the way U.S. spy agencies meet their missions.
The US Military Emits More Carbon than Sweden // Neta C. Crawford, Boston University: Even as it begins to grapple with climate change, the Defense Department remains the world’s single largest consumer of oil.
Buttigieg Splits From the Progressives on Foreign Policy // Thomas Wright, The Atlantic: He articulated a values-based liberal internationalism, even as he sometimes struggled to fill in the details.
Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Katie Bo Williams with Bradley Peniston. Thanks for reading! Subscribe here. On this day in 1900, the Boxer Rebellion took a violent turn in China with church-burning in Peking (Beijing) that killed 300.
Where is Patrick Shanahan’s actual nomination to lead the Pentagon? It’s coming, Shanahan and his allies say, Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams reports. They’re making the case that the only thing holding it up is run-of-the-mill paperwork.It was over a month ago that the White House announced Trump’s “intent to nominate” Shanahan as defense secretary.
But the Senate still hasn’t received the paperwork that makes his nomination official — a background check and his financial disclosure — raising suspicions that Trump is having second thoughts.
Not true, a defense official said. The official pointed to the “significant difference” between a background check for a cabinet-level official and any other Senate-confirmed position. It extends back to the age of 18 — which sent Shanahan back to Seattle to dig around his proverbial garage for some of the records he needed. That takes time, the official said.
“We’ve never had someone doing the job of SecDef and being nominated for it at the same time. Normally being nominated for SecDef is a full-time job,” the official said. “We are… trying to balance one of the hardest jobs in the world and getting confirmed for one of the hardest jobs in the world.”
Shanahan has been up on the Hill this week meeting with lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But what took so long? Arnold Punaro, a former committee staff director who is helping Shanahan prep for his confirmation, said that when the Trump White House announces the president’s “intent to nominate,” it doesn’t actually start the background check process, or any of the other paperwork that needs to be done.
“The paperwork flow does not start until the president actually signs some papers and a nominee can then access the extensive electronic forms they have to complete,” Punaro said in an email. “So there was some downtime at the outset until the WH paperwork was accessible.”
Both Punaro and the defense official made the case that the length of Shanahan’s nomination hasn’t extended beyond the ordinary for a cabinet official tapped during the course of an administration. As for an NBC story suggesting that Trump was considering replacing Shanahan, “as far as I can tell, there’s no truth to it.”
So why did it take so long? “Their process did not get early as it could have and that slowed things down,” the defense official said.
Shanahan told CNN Thursday that he has “no concerns” about his background check. “I’m in contact with the White House,” he said. “We’re done with our paperwork, expect to have the process completed here shortly.”
More troops to Poland: As expected, the U.S. and Poland announced that about 1,000 more American troops would start rotating through Polish bases, bringing the total U.S. force to about 5,000.
Details, via Military Times: “Troops would include logistics, special operations and others, [Polish President Andrzej Sebastian Duda] said, as well as a division headquarters. It would most likely be an Army armored division staff element. An additional MQ-9 Reaper squadron would also be joining the troops, according to a Wednesday news release from Duda’s office.” Read the agreement, via McClatchy’s Tara Copp.
Also from that visit: F-35s flew — quite slowly — above the White House on Wednesday as Trump met with Poland’s Duda. The White House’s social media team was ready with promotions ahead of the flight, which was spotted by many, many reporters in Washington Wednesday around 2 p.m. local.
Also ready on social media: Former CIA-er and now local cop in South Carolina, Patrick Skinner. His hot take after seeing the WH’s enthusiasm for the most expensive weapons system in history: “LOOK UP from your rutted roads, your unaffordable health care, your dysfunctional governments, your failing schools, your warming planet, your lack of safe drinking water, your intentionally-created divisive/ignorant society...and take pride in what we decided to buy instead.”
The HASC wrapped its marathon overnight markup of the 2020 defense authorization bill just before 7 a.m. Thursday morning. MilTimes’ Leo Shane: “Final score on HASC #FY20NDAA: Bill passes 33-24, mostly along party lines. Official end time is 6:54 am, nearly 21 hours after work began.”
Rejected: several GOP amendments “aimed at preserving funds for the nuclear arsenal, including one to protect deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons on submarines.” Read on at Defense News, here. (Plenty of background, including arguments pro and con, here.)
Ahead of the 2020 election, the collusion/interference question returns now that President Trump told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos that he would accept dirt on a 2020 Democratic opponent from Russia or China — and he would maybe call the FBI about it.
Said Trump: "I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen. There’s nothing wrong with listening...It’s not an interference.”
Warns NYU’s Jay Rosen: “Two facts are in evidence here. One is he would not alert. Damning and important. The other: he’s declaring this out loud. That is a challenge to the entire system by which we try to hold the powerful accountable. Including the press, and the person who asked the question.”
Said 2020 Democratic candidate Kamala Harris: “China is listening. Russia is listening. North Korea is listening. Let’s speak the truth: this president is a national security threat.”
BTW: On Capitol Hill Wednesday, Arizona Republican Rep. Rick Crawford casually floated a conspiracy theory to his fellow lawmakers: “That Obama-era intel officials let Russia interfere because they thought it would help Clinton,” Politico’s Kyle Cheney tweeted from the House Intelligence Committee’s hearing on the Mueller report. “Then [Crawford] told the witnesses not to respond to this notion and yielded the rest of his time.”
Apropos of nothing, pt. 1: The next generation of armor could come from Mantis Shrimp. Cool science story, here.
Apropos of nothing, pt. 2: During his interview with Stephanopoulos, Trump took the opportunity to introduce his proposed new red-white-blue livery for Air Force One. But the decision may not be his to make. Why that might be the case, here.
And finally today: A cyber compromise you may not have seen coming. Spain’s La Liga pro football league was just fined 250,000 euros ($283,000 USD) for using its phone app to listen in on its fans.
Why would a pro sports league be doing this? To ferret out bars that are playing league games without a contract, according to Spanish newspaper, El Pais.
If you aren’t fluent en Español, Gizmodo fills in the blanks for us, reporting, La Liga’s “apps detected users were in bars the apps would record audio through phone microphones. The apps would then use the recording to determine if the user was watching a soccer game, using technology that’s similar to the Shazam app. If a game was playing in the vicinity, officials would then be able to determine if that bar location had a license to play the game.”
According to La Liga, “users had the option to opt-out of allowing the app to track phone location and access the microphone,” Gizmodo writes. Meantime, the league has until June 30 to take down the app, which has been downloaded more than 10 million times. Read on, here, o aquí.