Today's D Brief: New Pentagon crew; New COVID steps; Explosions in Baghdad; Fractures among US extremists; And a bit more.

A new crew at the Pentagon. Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist is, at least for a time, America’s new Acting Secretary of Defense. In this role, “Norquist will maintain continuity and readiness of the Department until a defense secretary is confirmed,” White House officials announced just after noon Wednesday. (Norquist has been Deputy SecDef since July 2019.)

The U.S. military’s new acting service secretaries include:

  • John Whitley at the Army; 
  • Tom Harker for the Navy; 
  • And John Roth is the Air Force’s acting secretary. 

More than two dozen incoming defense officials were sworn in at the Pentagon Wednesday, the Defense Department announced in the evening. That includes returning Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby, as well as Susanna Blume, Melissa Dalton, Kelly Magsamen, Ely Ratner and more. 

Find a more complete list of incoming defense officials, via Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams reporting Tuesday, here

Here’s a list of other interim agency leaders the Biden administration installed Wednesday:  

  • Central Intelligence Agency: David Cohen
  • Department of Energy: David Huizenga
  • Department of Homeland Security: David Pekoske
  • Department of Justice: Monty Wilkinson
  • Department of State: Dan Smith
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Steve Jurczyk
  • U.S. Agency for International Development: Gloria Steele
  • And the U.S. Mission to the United Nations is temporarily led by Rich Mills.

America has a new Director of National Intelligence: Avril Haines became President Joe Biden’s first cabinet official to be confirmed into her new job by the Senate. Haines’s nomination was approved late Wednesday in a 84-10 vote, with 10 Republicans voting no. Review the 10 dissenting voices via NBC News’s Julie Tsirkin.

Reminder: It’s time to update those chain-of-command pictures in foyers, walls, and hallways at U.S. bases everywhere. (h/t to the Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Lt. Gen. Ted Martin)

The mood at NATO: “Today is the start of a new chapter for the transatlantic Alliance,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement Wednesday. “NATO Allies need to stand together to address the security consequences of the rise of China, the threat of terrorism, including in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a more assertive Russia. None of us can face these challenges alone, but together in NATO, we represent one billion people, and half of the world’s military and economic might.” More here

The mood in Kabul: Sober, but cautiously optimistic. Here’s President Ashraf Ghani tweeting to President Biden on Wednesday, “Congratulations, President @JoeBiden, for a new beginning on this historic day. In these trying times, Afghanistan stands alongside the United States—our foundational partner—as it starts anew to restore partnerships for peace and to tackle the multilayered problem of terrorism.”

The mood of the outgoing crew at the Pentagon? Reportedly quite bitter, according to Politico. “Senior White House appointees...blocked members of President Joe Biden’s incoming administration from gaining access to critical information about current operations, including the troop drawdown in Afghanistan, upcoming special operations missions in Africa and the Covid-19 vaccine distribution program,” Politico reported Wednesday afternoon following “conversations with 10 Pentagon and Biden officials involved in the transition.”

Worth noting: “While the military side of the house — the Joint Staff and the geographic combatant commanders — were more cooperative, the civilian side set up roadblocks at every turn.” Continue reading, here

From Defense One

Commander in Chief Joe Biden Swears In // Katie Bo Williams: The 46th president took the oath on a tense Washington day amid a lingering pandemic and massive security, but no public crowds or Donald Trump.

Trump Did Not Influence Military Contracts, Pentagon’s Top Arms Buyer Says  // Marcus Weisgerber: But he was interested in the new Air Force One’s paint job.

Trump Restricted Drone Imports In Final White House Days / Nextgov’s Mila Jasper: The executive order encourages federal agencies to divest from unmanned aerial systems manufactured by China, Russia and Iran.

A Tragic Beginning to a Presidency // Whet Moser, The Atlantic: On the eve of Biden’s inauguration, the pandemic’s toll reached nearly 24 million cases and 400,000 deaths.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and 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 1968, a nuclear-armed U.S. Air Force B-52 crashed into sea ice just near Thule Air Base in Greenland after a fire broke out in the cabin. Six of the seven crewmen survived after ejecting. However, one of the B-52’s four nuclear bombs was reportedly never recovered from the ice sheet at the surface, nor from the ocean floor beneath Baffin Bay, just a few miles west of Thule.  

From the domestic extremism beat: Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters are fracturing and turning on Trump, the New York Times reports.
What’s going on: “In dozens of conversations on social media sites like Gab and Telegram, members of the group have begun calling Mr. Trump a ‘shill’ and ‘extraordinarily weak’,” the Times reports. “They have also urged supporters to stop attending rallies and protests held for Mr. Trump or the Republican Party.”
Why? At least in part because Trump was actually (eventually) willing to leave office on Wednesday. And on social media, Proud Boys “said his disavowal of the Capitol rampage was an act of betrayal.” More here.
Related: One of the Proud Boys’ key organizers was arrested on federal charges in Florida Wednesday. “Joseph Randall Biggs, 37 years old, was arrested on charges of entering the Capitol unlawfully, engaging in disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds and obstructing an official proceeding before Congress,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Mr. Biggs is among the more than 100 suspects arrested in a sweeping federal investigation of the Capitol riot, which left five people dead, including a U.S. Capitol Police officer.”
Another thing: All those promised militia and white supremacist protests at state capitols on Inauguration Day? They were “complete duds,” Vox reported Wednesday. For example, just one single guy showed up to protest in New York; likewise in California; however, New Hampshire was busier, by a factor of three. Read on, here.
However, black-clad people in Portland and Seattle reportedly “vandalized a Democratic Party office and other buildings and scuffled with police on Wednesday, protesting against President Joe Biden’s inauguration,” Reuters reported overnight — referring to the vandals collectively as “anti-government and anti-fascist protesters.”
BTW: Who will lead President Biden’s efforts to counter white supremacists? Russell Travers, according to The Daily Beast. Travers is a well-respected veteran of the U.S. intelligence community and the former acting head of the National Counterterrorism Center until he was fired last March. Biden named Travers last week as POTUS46’s deputy homeland security adviser. A bit more behind the Beast’s paywall, here

Several national-security items were among the first 17 executive orders signed by Biden during his first afternoon in his new job: 

  • Pandemic: Appointed Jeffrey D. Zients to coordinate the national response to COVID, which he vowed to “aggressively” increase. Restored the National Security Council’s directorate for global health security and biodefense, disbanded by Trump. Announced that social distancing and masks are required for federal employees and on federal property. Rejoined the World Health Organization and tapped to Dr. Anthony S. Fauci to lead the senior U.S. delegation to WHO.
  • Border wall: Halted construction on the barriers on the Mexico border. Ended the national emergency declaration under which Trump redirected billions of dollars to fund construction.
  • Climate crisis: Rejoined the Paris climate accords. Began to reverse the rollbacks to vehicle emissions standards; suspended oil and natural gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and re-established a working group on the social costs of greenhouse gasses. The New York Times condensed all 17 orders, here.

More pandemic-related steps will be rolled out in a set of orders expected on Thursday, including: mask requirements in airports and transportation hubs, FEMA reimbursement to states for some anti-COVID spending, helping states and local governments create vaccination stations in conference centers, stadiums and gymnasiums, and more. Reuters, here.

On hold: the seating of a Trump-appointed lawyer to be NSA general counsel. Washington Post: “Gen. Paul Nakasone, the NSA director, placed Michael Ellis, a former Trump White House official, on leave pending an inquiry by the Pentagon inspector general into the circumstances of his selection as NSA general counsel.”
Get the backstory from Defense One’s Patrick Tucker, here.

Two suicide bombs detonated in Baghdad today, killing at least 32 people and wounding more than 70 others. “The rare suicide bombing hit the Bab al-Sharqi commercial area in central Baghdad amid heightened political tensions over planned early elections and a severe economic crisis,” the Associated Press reports from the Iraqi capital. No one has yet claimed the attacks, but Iraqi officials suspect the Islamic State group is responsible.
How it happened: One bomber lured onlookers by faking an illness, according to Iraq's interior ministry. Then, "When shoppers came to help those wounded by the first blast...someone else detonated a second bomb," the Washington Post reports

UAE officials signed an agreement with the U.S. to purchase 50 F-35 jets and as many as 18 armed drones, Reuters reported Wednesday, noting the related documents were “signed about an hour before Biden was sworn into office.”
Critical caveat: “Although the UAE and the United States were working to ink a deal before President Joseph Biden took office on Wednesday, the new president has said he will re-examine the agreements.”

China sanctioned Pompeo and other Trump officials, and appealed to the Biden administration. WaPo: “Minutes after Biden became president, the foreign ministry announced sanctions against [Secretary of State] Pompeo, former national security aides Robert O'Brien and Matthew Pottinger and 25 other Americans and their families who would be prohibited from traveling to China — including Hong Kong and Macao — or conducting business with the country.”
U.S. response: “Imposing these sanctions on Inauguration Day is seemingly an attempt to play to partisan divides,” Biden’s National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said in a statement to Reuters. “Americans of both parties should criticize this unproductive and cynical move. President Biden looks forward to working with leaders in both parties to position America to out-compete China.”

Finally today, let’s be honest: Hypersonic weapons are pretty much snake oil right now. That is to say the claims and the available data simply do not align, the New York Times reported this past weekend. 
In case you’re curious, “Military officials called the paper insubstantial, saying it was based on outdated data. But they declined to disclose new findings.”
Here’s some expected reax, from DARPA: “Due to the classified nature of hypersonics technologies, we are not at liberty to publicly discuss current capabilities,” an official told the Times.
Decide for yourself. Read over the report the Times based its reporting on here.