Iranian paramilitary forces seized a British-flagged tanker in the Hormuz Strait on Friday, triggering a tense standoff with the Royal Navy, whose frigate at the time was “too far away from the targeted tanker to keep it from being diverted into an Iranian port despite U.K. efforts to keep it from being boarded,” the Associated Press reports from London.
“If you obey, you will be safe,” Iranians told the crew of the tanker when they seized the ship via boats circling it from the waters as a helicopter delivered masked men.
The tanker, Stena Impero, had a crew of 23 people from at least four nations aboard. UK’s Sky News has Iran-released imagery of the crew — none of whom look particularly thrilled about becoming apparent hostages.
Bigger picture: “An environment has been created that is ripe for inadvertent conflict that could easily engulf the entire region and spiral out of control,” the Wall Street Journal warns. “The reality is that maximum pressure has rendered Tehran more, not less, reckless.”
“It isn’t possible simply to escort each and every single vessel,” Defense Minister Tobias Ellwood said on Sunday, according to the Journal.
What now? “British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is due to make a statement outlining the response on Monday afternoon, the Journal writes. “Asset freezes or further sanctions aimed at Iran are the most likely routes that will be taken.”
Meanwhile, UK officials caution their U.S. counterparts: Don’t make things worse with “inflammatory public statements” while we negotiate an end to this, The Telegraph reported Saturday.
Said SecState Mike Pompeo to Fox this weekend: “The responsibility in the first instance falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships... The United States has a responsibility to do our part, but the world’s got to take a big role in this, too, to keep these sea lanes open.”
On other matters with Iran, Pompeo said, "We are prepared to negotiate across a broad set of issues with no preconditions," before mentioning a huge precondition no one expects Iran to accept: "But today we have seen no indication that the Iranians are prepared to fundamentally change the direction of their nation."
However, “Iran has been publicizing this claim of breaking up a US spy ring for months,” Voice of America’s Jeff Seldin tweets this morning. “Back in April, Iran’s Mehr news agency quoted the intelligence minister as saying #Tehran had uncovered a US spy network which included hundreds of agents across several countries.”
President Trump’s reax to the spy allegations, via Twitter this morning: “The Report of Iran capturing CIA spies is totally false. Zero truth. Just more lies and propaganda (like their shot down drone) put out by a Religious Regime that is Badly Failing and has no idea what to do. Their Economy is dead, and will get much worse. Iran is a total mess!”
From Defense One
The US Is Unprepared to Mobilize for Great Power Conflict // Elsa B. Kania and Emma Moore: In an era of lightning wars and easy-to-reach civilian populations, U.S. planners are giving mobilization far less attention than it requires.
Robot Roadmap: US Army’s Newest Command Sketches Priorities // Patrick Tucker: There’s one mistake that the leader of Futures Command wants to avoid.
The Magpies and the Cuckoos: A Disinformation Fable // Jessica Malekos Smith: The magpies have a complex and vigorous society. What happens when two conniving cuckoos come to town?
‘Looking to Break Status Quo,’ Iran Seizes UK Tanker // Katie Bo Williams: Pentagon intel chief says Tehran wants to escape U.S. pressure, but not by going to war.
Don’t Expand the Covert Agents Secrecy Law // Gabe Rottman, Reporters Committee: A House measure would put not only the press but the intelligence community at risk.
After Trump Weighs In on JEDI, GOP Lawmakers Say Keep Out of It // Frank R. Konkel, Nextgov: Four members of the House Armed Services Committee asked Trump to let the Pentagon award its Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract without delay.
Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson. If you’re not a D Brief subscriber, sign up here. On this day in 1942, the Nazis began moving a quarter-million Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka concentration camp.
Moscow’s spies just suffered “the largest data leak in the history of Russian intelligence services,” according to the BBC’s Russian service, with additional reporting Zak Dorffman for Forbes. Involved: 7.5 terabytes of data, exposing secret FSB projects to de-anonymize Tor browsing, scrape social media, and more — as well as indications the work is tied to Russian "Military Unit 71330, part of FSB's 16th Directorate which handles signals intelligence, the same group accused of emailing spyware to Ukranian intelligence officers in 2015."
America’s spy chief, Dan Coats, appointed an official head of elections security on Friday, NPR reports. It’s Shelby Pierson, who served as “‘crisis manager’ for election security for the 2018 election within the office of the DNI and also has served in top roles in the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, according to one official biography.”
More moves could be coming. Coats is also “directing other agencies within the extended family of spy services to appoint their own executives responsible for election security efforts.” A bit more, here.
Ankara’s foreign minister is threatening a new offensive to forcibly remove U.S.-backed Kurdish troops from the Turkish-Syrian border region, including YPG forces in the city of Manbij, Reuters reports today.
U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey is in Turkey today, having jetted there after spending the weekend at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams was there to relay some of Jeffrey’s input during a Q&A on Friday, including:
- 10,000 to 15,000 ISIS fighters are believed to remain between Iraq and Syria, according to Jeffrey. They "float back and forth between Iraq and Syria" — they consider it one front and so does the U.S., he said.
- What is the U.S. interest in Syria? The "terror threat," the ambassador said. "It is the center of the Middle East," which impacts America's trading partners and the global market for oil, according to Jeffrey.
- More in Williams’s tweets from Aspen, here.
U.S. Southern Command released video this weekend alleging that a Venezuelan Su-30 Flanker “aggressively shadowed” a U.S. EP-3 surveillance aircraft at an unsafe distance on Friday in international airspace over the Caribbean Sea. According to Venezuela’s military, “the incursion of a U.S. reconnaissance and intelligence aircraft” occurred near the coastal capital city of Caracas.
Said SouthCom of the incident, in a second tweet on the matter: “This action demonstrates #Russia’s irresponsible military support to Maduro's illegitimate regime & underscores Maduro’s recklessness & irresponsible behavior, which undermines int’l rule of law & efforts to counter illicit trafficking.”
Worth noting, via Reuters: “The encounter between the two planes occurred on Friday, the same day that the Trump administration announced it was imposing sanctions on four top officials in Venezuela’s military counterintelligence agency.”
Reminder: “Trump’s administration has repeatedly used sanctions in an effort to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose 2018 re-election has been deemed illegitimate by the United States and most Western nations,” Reuters writes, while “Maduro has retained the backing of Venezuela’s military and other institutions, as well as China, Russia and Cuba.”
Find more imagery and video of the Friday incident, via DVIDS, here.
Don’t get it twisted: “Terrorism does increase with immigration — but only homegrown, right-wing terrorism,” writes researcher Richard J. McAlexander in the Washington Post on Friday. McAlexander studied the links in eight European countries and published the results in the Journal of Global Security Studies.
Why are Guatemalan migrants heading to the U.S.? “One reason is President Trump's border-wall promise,” the Wall Street Journal reported in an enormous feature this weekend from the south-central city of Joyabaj. After hearing about the promise to build the wall, “Many [Guatemalans] concluded they had to leave before it was too late.”
But there were two other contributing factors, as well, the Journal writes. "First, a 2015 U.S. federal court ruling made it easier for migrant families with children to apply for asylum and stay in the U.S. until their cases are decided by a judge." And that's something President Trump "wants Congress to pass a law eliminating what he sees as a loophole in the law." And the second of three big contributing factors is "a yearslong drought has shrunk corn and bean harvests."
Related: Want a primer on the history of American immigration policy? Historian Hidetaka Hirota of the City College of New York has a 26-tweet Twitter thread on the subject, here.
We’d like to know what you think are America’s “core values.” We ask since the Trump administration’s Stephen Miller appears to be concerned that America is becoming Venezuela, according to his remarks this weekend on Fox regarding the political and cultural stakes in America today. Said Miller, “Anybody who’s running for office, right, left, or center, always points out where they think America can do better — where they think America needs to go. But there is a fundamental distinction between people who think that we need to lean into, and strengthen America’s core values, whether it be our constitutional values, the rule of law, the principles of western civilization — or people who think that we basically need to turn America into Venezuela.”
Are “the principles of western civilization” something you think about? What do they mean to you? “Constitutional values” and “the rule of law” are clear enough. But “the principles of western civilization” would seem to be something else altogether. Let us know.
China’s next overseas base: First, Djibouti; now, Cambodia. A “secret deal” for a new Chinese naval outpost near Sihanoukville has U.S. officials worried about China’s ambitions abroad, the Wall Street Journal’s Jeremy Page, Gordon Lubold and Rob Taylor reported this weekend.
Quick read: “The pact—signed this spring but not disclosed by either side—gives China exclusive rights to part of a Cambodian naval installation on the Gulf of Thailand, not far from a large airport now being constructed by a Chinese company… An early draft, seen by U.S. officials, would allow China to use the base for 30 years, with automatic renewals every 10 years after that. China would be able to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships.”
For the record: “Chinese and Cambodian officials have denied there are any plans for a Chinese military base in the country,” the Journal writes.
One reason the U.S. is suddenly paying attention: There are “U.S.-funded facilities” at the Ream Naval Base, and those “are to be relocated to allow ‘further infrastructure development and security enhancement,’ according to a July letter from Cambodia’s defense ministry to the U.S.” That’s part of what American officials hope to change about these plans. Read on behind the paywall, here.
Raise your hand if you’re surprised by this: “Leaked documents reveal Huawei’s secret operations to build North Korea’s wireless network,” the Washington Post reports this morning.
The gist: "Huawei partnered with a Chinese state-owned firm, Panda International Information Technology Co. Ltd., on a variety of projects there spanning at least eight years, according to past work orders, contracts and detailed spreadsheets taken from a database that charts the company’s telecom operations worldwide," three Post reporters write. "The spreadsheets were provided to The Post by a former Huawei employee who considered the information to be of public interest."
What’s the big deal? “The revelations raise questions about whether Huawei, which has used American technology in its components, violated U.S. export controls to furnish equipment to North Korea.” The revelations are also “likely to fuel even deeper suspicion among Western nations contemplating whether to ban [Huawei], in full or in part, from their next-generation 5G wireless networks. It comes, too, at a particularly vulnerable moment for the Trump administration, which remains at odds with Beijing over trade, and as the president seeks to restart nuclear negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.” Story, here.
BTW: We'll have more on Huawei equipment vulnerabilities in our latest Defense One Radio podcast, which is set for release later today.
Russia has little green men. China appears to have armed, white-shirted men as Hong Kong’s political crisis took a sinister turn this weekend.
Here’s additional video purporting to show a pro-Beijing lawmaker thanking the white shirts for their work.
Background: “Hong Kong’s Long, Hot Summer of China Discord,” via Bloomberg.
If you’re South Korea, how do you try to practice for war without pissing off North Korea? With “computer simulations and not troops in the field,” Reuters reports.
And lastly today: Who’s Maverick going up against next? Not China, Defense One’s Brad Peniston writes. The trailer for “Top Gun: Maverick” — coming summer 2020, dropped on Thursday. It was filled with callbacks to 1986’s recruiting turbocharger: a motorcycle racing a jet down a runway, a sportsball twirled in slow motion before an oiled-up torso, Maverick’s well-patched leather jacket.
But something’s changed: The complicated WestPac memento between Mav’s shoulder blades no longer sports the Japanese and Taiwanese flags.
Why? Eagle-eyed reporter Mark McKinnon notes that the film is co-produced by Tencent, the Chinese conglomerate whose market cap is somewhere north of $50 billion. The change looks like the latest example of China’s efforts to shape the world’s movies to portray the world as Beijing likes.
Remember how China forced MGM to digitally alter its 2012 remake of “Red Dawn” so that the invading forces bore North Korean rather than PLA insignia? The New York Times wrote about it in November, here.