Talk of ‘war’ with Iran; Secret promise drives whistleblower spat; Another KC-46 problem; US drone kills civilians; And a bit more.

“War” is suddenly a common word among U.S. and Iranian diplomats, five days after explosions at Saudi refineries halved the country’s oil output. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday called the Saturday morning attacks an “act of war” against the Saudi kingdom by Iran. And today his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, told CNN the same day that the consequence of a U.S. or Saudi strike on Iran would be “All-out war” with “a lot of casualties.”

Pompeo is in the UAE today to meet with the Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan after spending Wednesday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jiddah, the Associated Press reports from Dubai. 

Said Pompeo from Jiddah on Wednesday: “The Saudis were the nation that was attacked. It was on their soil. It was an act of war against them directly…We were blessed there were no Americans killed in this attack, but anytime you have an act of war of this nature, there’s always a risk that could happen.” And even if the Houthis carried out the attack, as they allege, Pompeo said, “it doesn't change the fingerprints of the Ayatollah as having put at risk the global energy supply.”

When Zarif was asked by CNN today for a bit more on his “all-out war” comment, he replied, “I make a very serious statement about defending our country. I am making a very serious statement that we don't want to engage in a military confrontation.”

Meantime, Dubai says it’s joining that U.S.-led naval mission in the Hormuz Strait, which would seem to raise the participant total to seven (U.S., UK, Israel, Australia, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia).

The UAE’s stated goal for joining: to help “ensure global energy security and the continued flow of energy supplies to the global economy.” (Decidedly not joining: Iraq, since Baghdad has a proximity issue that’s a little more immediate than KSA’s.) 

The Saudis carted out some alleged forensics from the weekend attack on Wednesday (AP has imagery from that display, here). That included “broken and burned drones and pieces of a cruise missile that military spokesman Col. Turki Al-Malki identified as Iranian weapons collected after the attack,” AP writes. “He also played surveillance video that he said showed a drone coming in from the north.”

In all, “Eighteen drones and seven cruise missiles were launched in the assault,” AP reported separately off Al-Malki’s briefing, “with three missiles failing to make their targets.” 

Working in the grey zone. About those forensics, a U.S. official told CBS News on Wednesday, “The recent attack on Saudi oil facilities was approved by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, but only on the condition that it be carried out in a way that made it possible to deny Iranian involvement.”

However, “more information is needed to make a definitive link” to Iran, according to missile experts AP spoke to from Dubai on Wednesday. One analyst — Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies — told AP he finds it remarkable that the drones used in Saturday’s attack “expertly flew through the gaps in Saudi air defenses.” 

Get to better understand Saudi air defenses via a Twitter thread on the dude who’s probably gonna lose his job for allowing Saturday’s attack to happen — courtesy of this imagery analysis from Michael Duitsman of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. A quick tease from that: “Even if the air defenses did respond, they were short-handed - the south-eastern and south-western gun emplacements were empty. And with old equipment defending a site well inside of Saudi Arabia, these probably weren't the RSADF's elite troops.”

What’s more, CBS reports, the Saudis on Wednesday “showed grainy surveillance video of the incoming Iranian drones,” but the footage cut out before any of the actual detonations. 

And wait: There’s still more that none of us have seen and might still see before long. Because U.S. officials claimed Wednesday that “the most damning evidence is still unreleased satellite photos showing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard making preparations for the attack at Ahvaz Air Base in southwestern Iran.”

For its part, the UN has sent forensics experts to Saudi Arabia to arrive at their own assessment. That follows the U.S. military’s own team deployed to KSA earlier this week. 

POTUS45’s reaction to all of this on Wednesday: “I have just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to substantially increase Sanctions on the country of Iran!” he tweeted without elaborating. And many wonder what elaborating on that point would look like since the U.S. has sanctioned so much of the Iranian regime already. 

One reply: "There are one or two remaining kebab shops on Qoms." 

A more serious reply: The WH "could start lashing out at other countries with secondary sanctions. But we’ve basically hit most sectors of the Iranian economy."

What we’re listening to today: The Arms Control Wonk podcast, which tackled this refinery attack in a Wednesday evening episode with Aaron Stein, Jeffrey Lewis and Jeffrey’s colleagues, Anne Pellegrino and Fabian Hinz. The episode clocks in at about 40 minutes, and the crew get serious at about the 3:25 mark, here

From Defense One

How Trump is Remaking Republican Foreign Policy // Katie Bo Williams: Out: neoconservatism and noninterventionism. In: a reactionary style that may outlast his administration.

USAF: Our New Tanker Should Be Ready for War in 3 or 4 Years // Marcus Weisgerber: A few big problems, and about 500 smaller ones, have put the Boeing-made plane about five years behind schedule.

Some Arms Exports Are Riskier Than Others. Here’s a Tool To Tell Which Ones // A. Trevor Thrall, Caroline Dorminey, and Jordan Cohen: The problems with selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and Turkey were hardly unpredictable.

Robert O’Brien Should Have to Face Senate Confirmation // John Gans: Requiring congressional approval would be good for Trump, good for his choice for national security adviser, and good for the country.

The Intel Community Wants to ID People from Hundreds of Yards Away // Jack Corrigan, Nextgov: Face recognition alone isn't good enough, so a new IARPA program is looking to combine multiple biometric indicators to get good matches.

Trump Names His 4th National Security Advisor // Katie Bo Williams: A lawyer by trade, Robert O’Brien has been serving as special envoy for hostage affairs.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not a D Brief subscriber, sign up here. On this day in 1777, Continental forces defeated a British army coming south through Saratoga, New York. The battle, wrote historian Edmund Morgan, “won for Americans the foreign assistance which was the last element needed for victory.”

A secret promise President Trump reportedly made to a foreign leader is the reason his administration is refusing to release a whistleblower’s concerns to Congress, the Washington Post reported Wednesday evening (and the Wall Street Journal later confirmed).
That promise was “so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community,” the Post writes, citing “two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.” 
To recap: the complaint went to the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, who “determined that the complaint was credible and troubling enough to be considered a matter of ‘urgent concern,’ a legal threshold that requires notification of congressional oversight committees.”
But: “acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire has refused to share details about Trump’s alleged transgression with lawmakers, touching off a legal and political dispute that has spilled into public view and prompted speculation that the spy chief is improperly protecting the president.”
And yet: Maguire has no legal right to refuse to release the complaint to lawmakers Constitutionally tasked with overseeing the executive branch, as Kel McClanahan explains at length at Just Security.
Writes the Post, in a sentence that might have been lifted from a half-dozen earlier stories: “It raises new questions about the president’s handling of sensitive information and may further strain his relationship with U.S. spy agencies.” Read on, here.
Atkinson is a Trump appointee, notes former FBI Special Agent Asha Rangappa, who “found this complaint to be ‘urgent,’ meaning that it is not merely a policy dispute, beyond the broad Art. II foreign affairs authority POTUS enjoys, and likely illegal — and which Congress must look at.”
And he has been summoned to the Hill today: Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told USA Today that the committee will summon Atkinson to testify in a closed-door hearing Thursday.

It’s Afghan peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s big day on the Hill. Or it was his big day on the Hill. The House Foreign Affairs Committee had subpoenaed Khalilzad a week ago on charges Congress is being kept “in the dark” about what the heck is going on with Taliban peace talks. Now that guest list for today’s hearing has been updated, and Khalilzad is not on the list. 
For what it’s worth, Khalilzad hasn’t shown up before Congress in more than a  year, and that’s also the case for Afghan war Gen. Scot Miller, the Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe tweeted Wednesday evening.
Find a livestream of the HFAC hearing on Afghanistan, here

And in eastern Afghanistan overnight, a U.S. drone strike reportedly killed 30 civilians and wounded another 40 who were “resting after a day’s labor in the fields,” Reuters writes from Jalalabad and Kabul. 
Location: Near a grove of pine nut trees in Wazir Tang, eastern Nangarhar province. According to the owner of the pine nut fields, “about 150 workers were there for harvesting, with some still missing as well as the confirmed dead and injured.”
The strike targeted alleged ISIS fighters in Nangarhar, a U.S. military spokesman told Reuters, adding the obligatory line, “We are aware of allegations of the death of non-combatants and are working with local officials to determine the facts.” Read on, here.

In south-central Afghanistan, a Taliban suicide bomber detonated his truck at a hospital in Zabul province’s city of Qalat, “killing 20 people and wounding 97 others, according to the province’s governor,” AP reports today from Kabul. The subsequent “massive explosion destroyed part of the hospital in Qalat, the capital of southern Zabul province, and left a fleet of ambulances broken and battered.” More here
ICYMI: The Taliban will merge with ISIS if the U.S. fails to produce some kind of reintegration plan for Afghanistan’s future, according to a report (PDF) by the Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
A couple telling data points from that report:

  • “If the Afghan government and Taliban reach a peace agreement, an estimated 60,000 full-time Taliban fighters and some 90,000 seasonal fighters may seek to return to civilian life.”
  • “In Afghanistan, it is reasonable to assume that millions of unemployed young men will remain at risk for recruitment by criminal groups and terrorist organizations such as IS-K. Investments in a reintegration program, therefore, should be appropriately balanced against other development programs to address the enormous needs across the country.”

Advice on how to move forward from SIGAR’s John Sopko: “We recommend that the U.S. should consider supporting a reintegration effort if first, the Afghan government and Taliban sign a peace agreement that provides a framework for reintegration of ex-combatants; secondly, if a significant reduction in overall violence occurs; and thirdly, if a strong monitoring and evaluation system is established for reintegration efforts.” Much more in SIGAR’s report, released Wednesday, here
Or you can hear Sopko talk over a lot of these findings at 11 a.m. EDT at the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C. Livestream link here

And finally today: We’re one day away from the “Storm Area 51” event expected to hit the Nevada towns of Rachel and Hiko and the surrounding areas. And those towns, AP reports today from Las Vegas, are preparing for an influx of people from all around the world — people who have responded to a Facebook event whose creator later called a “hoax.” The original Facebook post has been removed after some two million people said they would attend. Since then, another post has popped up, garnering about 1,800 people who say they’re attending. 
“We really didn’t ask for this,” said one county commissioner who is planning for as many as 40,000 people. Said one resident of Rachel: “We are preparing for the worst.” Said another store owner: “We just want people to be safe. As long as they don’t go on the desert floor and destroy the ecosystem, everyone will have a good time.”
And for the U.S. military’s part, it appears to have “added razor wire to barbed cattle fencing on the Area 51 boundary” near one man’s home, AP reports. It also “installed more cameras and battery-powered lighting, and erected an imposing spike barrier just inside a gate.” 
Another apparent new addition: a “sign telling trespassers they’ll be arrested and fined $1,000.”
Wonder how you’d perform storming Area 51? You can sort of find out by shelling out $15 for a videogame that was created after the “hoax” took off on social media. We found it on the website of video game provider Steam today. Check that out for yourself, here.