Today's D Brief: SOLIC, elevated; CISA chief, fired; 1,560 more die of COVID; DoD’s rare-earths move; And a bit more.
In yet another surprise move from outgoing President Trump’s military leaders, his Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller just raised America’s top special operations civilian to the level of a service secretary. It’s another big shakeup for key leaders of the Pentagon and with just 63 days remaining before Trump officials must turn things over to the incoming Biden administration.
What this change means: Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who is Trump’s 34-year-old Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict, will “report directly to me,” Miller said today during a trip to Fort Bragg, N.C., which is home to the Army’s Special Operations Command. And that reporting change now puts Cohen-Watnick’s position “on par with the military services for the first time,” Miller said. (Previously, the ASD SO/LIC reported to the Defense Undersecretary for Policy.)
Worth noting: Miller is a former Green Beret, and today’s USASOC visit was one in a series of stops Miller’s staff planned for him today along the East Coast.
Why this matters: The ASD SO/LIC position, said Miller, was meant to be “commensurate” to a service secretary. And Defense One’s Executive Editor Kevin Baron tweeted that that very point by Miller was “as Congress intended” when it created the position thanks to the 1987 Nunn-Cohen Act and updated in the 2017 NDAA. (h/t Luis Martinez of ABC News)
Big picture take: “Trump cancelled the counterterrorism wars” with Miller’s Afghanistan and Iraq drawdown announcement Tuesday (more on that below), “yet he elevated the counterterrorism civilian boss all in the same week,” Baron writes.
Recall that Cohen-Watnick is a former aide to felon Michael Flynn, who was Trump’s first national security adviser. Cohen-Watnick led intelligence projects at the National Security Council, where he was such a Trump loyalist that incoming National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster couldn’t fire him. Cohen-Watnick was appointed to that ASD SO/LIC post three months ago, after Chris Miller shifted from it and to the National Counterintelligence Center.
Reax: “This worries me,” tweeted veteran military writer and reporter Tom Ricks. “They've been acting like a separate service for years. Now they get to do that even more, but without a structure for civilian oversight.”
It’s official: A/SecDef Miller said the U.S. will draw down its forces in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 troops in each country by Jan. 15, just days before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. The announcement ended several days of speculation and reporting that Trump would seek to accelerate drawdowns from the “endless wars” that he vowed to end as a presidential candidate in 2016, Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams reports.
Critical caveat: “Defense officials declined to say whether the situation met any of the conditions that administration officials had previously said would allow a safe withdrawal,” Williams writes. As Dan Lamothe of the Washington Post pointed out on Twitter, a defense official told reporters Tuesday Miller’s “decision was reached after ‘consultation’ with generals. That's different than [at] the recommendation of generals.”
The Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee praised the drawdown in a statement Tuesday. “After speaking with the Acting Secretary this morning,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, “I believe reducing our forward deployed footprint in Afghanistan down to 2,500 troops is the right policy decision,” said Smith. (McClatchy has a bit more on the combat deaths America has incurred and the dollars spent on these two conflicts since 9/11, here.)
Smith’s Republican counterpart called the drawdowns a “mistake.” Outgoing HASC ranking member, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, said in a statement Tuesday, “The Taliban has done nothing – met no condition – that would justify this cut. As long as there are threats to Americans and American national security in the world, the U.S. must be vigilant, strong, and engaged in order to safeguard our people and fulfill our duty under the Constitution.”
FWIW: A/SecDef Miller spoke with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani in a phone call Tuesday evening, Ghani’s office said in a tweet. “Both sides talked about the peace process, strengthening mutual relations, and continued meaningful U.S. military support to the Afghan Security and Defense Forces,” said Ghani’s spokesman, Sediq Sedqqi.
Take cover in Iraq: Shortly after Miller’s announcement at the Pentagon, someone fired rockets at the U.S embassy in Baghdad. Four landed “in the Green Zone, a sprawl of embassy buildings located in the center of the Iraqi capital,” the Washington Post’s Louisa Loveluck reported from the Iraqi capital. “Three more landed outside the area, killing a young child and wounding five Iraqi civilians.” Iran-backed militia Ashab al-Kahaf is believed to have been responsible for at least six of the rockets that were fired. More from Baghdad, here.
From Defense One
Trump Orders Hasty Afghanistan, Iraq Drawdowns to Beat Biden Inauguration // Katie Bo Williams: Majority Leader McConnell leads chorus of bipartisan, shocked opposition to the 11th hour order read by Acting Defense Secretary Miller.
The Firing of Chris Krebs Is What an Attack On Democracy Looks Like // Patrick Tucker: After helping to keep the election secure from hackers, the CISA director turned to refuting the baseless claims of the president.
In First, Navy Ships Shoots Down ICBM with SM-3 Interceptor // Marcus Weisgerber: The test could set the stage for a new framework of missile interceptors in the Pacific.
Joe Biden Has a Barack Obama Problem // Tom McTague, The Atlantic: Many leaders in Asia, in particular, remain unhappy with the former president’s foreign policy.
US Army-Funded Algorithm Decodes Brain Signals // Mila Jasper, Nextgov: The algorithm is part of an effort to eventually establish a machine-brain interface.
Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1872, Susan B. Anthony and 14 other women were arrested in New York for voting illegally in the presidential election two weeks prior. At the end of her trial, a judge ordered her to pay a fine of $100, but she never did. Anthony’s wit, public relations instincts, and sheer determination energized supporters and eventually helped pave the way for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote on August 18, 1920.
Christopher Krebs was fired Tuesday as director of the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA. President Trump fired Krebs on Twitter nearly two years after Trump signed the legislation that created CISA under the Homeland Security Department.
Why this matters: Krebs had run afoul of Trump by refusing to let the president’s lies and baseless assertions about the election go unchallenged, Defense One’s Patrick Tucker reports.
Not alone: Krebs’s deputy, Matt Travis, also resigned, reportedly upon learning that he would not take Krebs’s place at the agency’s helm. The acting director will likely be Brandon Wales, CISA's senior career executive and executive director.
In one of his final tweets as CISA director, Krebs wrote, “ICYMI: On allegations that election systems were manipulated, 59 election security experts all agree, ‘in every case of which we are aware, these claims either have been unsubstantiated or are technically incoherent.’”
Trump’s new guy at Fort Meade is already under the microscope. Two Senate Democrats want the Pentagon’s IG to investigate Trump’s decision to install loyalist Michael Ellis as the NSA’s new senior attorney, The Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman reported Tuesday. The Democrats essentially fear Trump is attempting to create his own “deep state” with officials “burrowed in” the U.S. security bureaucracy. More behind the paywall, here.
ICYMI: Nearly 160 world leaders have congratulated President-elect Joe Biden on his November election victory. Axios has a five-day-old map to review who’s who here.
Still not on the list: North Korea, Russia, Brazil and Mexico.
On Tuesday, the U.S. reported the most single-day coronavirus deaths since May 14: 1,560 Americans died from COVID-19 complications yesterday, the Washington Post reports.
More than 248,000 Americans have died from the pandemic so far, according to Johns Hopkins University. And deaths per capita continue to rise across 29 states and territories, led by Montana, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Illinois.
Trump’s Justice Department wants to drop charges against Mexico’s former defense secretary, who is accused of helping a major drug cartel during his time in office, which spanned 2012 to 2018.
In short, “Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, New York, had charged [Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda], 72, with accepting bribes from the H-2 cartel, based in Nayarit and Sinaloa, Mexico, in exchange for his services while he was defense secretary,” NBC News reported. “He faced life in prison if convicted on all counts.”
But U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr stepped in Tuesday and released a joint statement with his Mexican counterpart, saying the U.S. will drop its charges so that the former general “may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, under Mexican law.”
To be continued: NBC News reports “The judge overseeing the case has yet to rule on the motion to dismiss.” A bit more, here.
Not just America: Right-wing extremism is now the UK's fastest growing threat, the country’s top counterterrorism official said today. Additionally concerning, “We are seeing more young people being drawn towards terrorist activity," said Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu. And that’s in part why “Authorities launched a new website on Tuesday aimed at encouraging family and friends to report loved ones if they suspect they are being radicalised,” Sky News reports.
Lastly today: The U.S. military is hoping to boost domestic rare earth production with about $12 million in recent contracts for companies operating in California, Texas and Nebraska.
The companies include MP Materials, which "owns the largest rare earth element mining operation outside of China," the Pentagon said in a statement Tuesday; it also includes TDA Magnetics of Rancho Dominguez, Calif.; Urban Mining Company from San Marcos, Texas; and Rare Earth Salts out of Beatrice, Neb. More here.
Wanna review the importance of rare earths to the U.S. defense industry? Revisit our podcast with rare earths researchers at the University of Kentucky from 2018, here.