The Soufan Group Morning Brief


President Trump will unveil a new national security strategy in a speech Monday, presenting China and Russia as competitors that want to realign global power in their interests, and as potential threats to the United States. The new strategy puts an emphasis on confronting unfair trade practices and precluding rivals from stealing American technology, in an echo of Trump’s “America First” doctrine.

“China and Russia challenge American power, influence and interests,” states the 67-page strategy. “They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.” China is also described as a “revisionist power” that is seeking to undermine U.S. security and prosperity. But that doesn't mean that the United States shouldn’t cooperate with either country when our interests align, Trump will argue.

The strategy identifies four national interest "pillars": protecting the homeland, promoting American prosperity, peace through military, cyber and space strength, and advancing American influence. Climate change has been dropped from the list of priorities.

The president is required by law to submit a report on national security strategy to Congress every year. But previous presidents have treated the report with varying degrees of importance — President Barack Obama, for example, submitted the report only twice, in 2010 and 2015. By submitting the report his first year in office — and giving a speech to announce it — Trump is signalling that he's personally invested in the strategy, White House aides said. Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CBS News
Wall Street Journal: Breaking Down Trump’s First National Security Strategy
Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned U.S. President Donald Trump Sunday to thank him for a CIA tip that helped thwart a series of bombings in St. Petersburg, the Kremlin and the White House said.

During the call, the two leaders’ second in three days, Putin expressed gratitude for the CIA information. The Kremlin said it led Russia’s top domestic security agency to a group of suspects that planned to bomb St. Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral and other crowded sites this weekend.

Russian media had reported the takedown of a terrorist cell in St. Petersburg without noting the tip from the CIA. The Federal Security Service, also known as the F.S.B., detained seven suspects last week who planned a wave of bombings, the Interfax news agency reported.

The White House said in its readout of the conversation that “based on the information the United States provided, Russian authorities were able to capture the terrorists just prior to an attack that could have killed large numbers of people.” The White House added that Putin extended his thanks and congratulations to CIA Director Mike Pompeo and the entire agency. Trump then called Pompeo “to congratulate him, his very talented people, and the entire intelligence community on a job well done!” Associated Press, Bloomberg

President Trump on Sunday sought to douse speculation that he may fire special counsel Robert Mueller amid an intensifying campaign by Trump allies to attack the wide-ranging Russia investigation as improper and politically motivated. Returning to the White House from Camp David, Trump was asked Sunday whether he intended to fire Mueller. “No, I’m not,” he told journalists, insisting that there was “no collusion whatsoever” between his campaign and Russia.

The comments came a day after a lawyer for Trump’s transition team accused Mueller of wrongfully obtaining thousands of emails sent and received by Trump officials before the start of his administration — a legal and public relations maneuver seen as possibly laying the groundwork to oust the special counsel. In a letter sent to lawmakers, not the special counsel, the Trump transition team’s lawyer claimed that Mueller obtaining the emails raises potential violations of attorney-client privilege and the Fourth Amendment. The letter also complains that members of the Trump team were not notified that their emails had been seized and that their rights and privileges had not been protected.

Peter Carr, spokesman for the special counsel's office, dismissed the claims that Mueller had received the documents improperly.“When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process,” Carr told NBC News. NBC News, Washington Post, New York Times

Democrats say they see a plot to fire Mueller in the escalating rhetorical attacks in the conservative media and among rank-and-file Republican lawmakers. Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, a Trump ally, described the FBI on Saturday as a "crime family" and said some of the agents involved in the Russia probe should be jailed. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who joined her show, called her comments “perfect.” Fox News ran a banner that day questioning whether the probe amounted to “A Coup in America?” Politico

Trump’s harsh words for the FBI: President Trump said Friday there is tremendous anger over what he called the FBI’s “disgraceful” behavior, taking aim at the bureau just before he appeared at its training facility to praise the nation’s law enforcement agents. “It’s a shame what’s happened with the FBI,” the president told reporters as he prepared to depart the White House for a ceremony at the FBI’s National Academy in Quantico. “We’re going to rebuild the FBI,” Trump said. “It’ll be bigger and better than ever. But it is very sad when you look at those documents, and how they’ve done that is really, really disgraceful, and you have a lot of very angry people that are seeing it.” Washington Post, NPR

Former high-level officials submit ‘unusual’ brief against Trump and Roger Stone: Fourteen former national security, intelligence, and foreign policy officials who have served at senior levels in Republican and Democratic administrations recently wrote an amicus brief as part of a lawsuit brought against President Donald Trump's campaign and Roger Stone, his longtime confidant. The lawsuit was filed in July by three private citizens — Roy Cockrum, Scott Comer, and Eric Schoenberg — whose personal information was stolen in hacks of the Democratic National Committee and published by WikiLeaks. The plaintiffs have argued that the Trump campaign, Stone, “and those they conspired with arranged for the hacked information to be provided to WikiLeaks.”

Among the former officials who filed the amicus brief on December 8 are John Brennan, former CIA director; James Clapper, former director of national intelligence; and Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency; Avril Haines, former deputy national security adviser and deputy director of the CIA; Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia; and Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director.

The former officials emphasized in the brief that they could not disclose classified information. But their message was clear: The Kremlin uses local actors to help amplify the scope and impact of its influence operations, including the one targeting the US election in 2016. Business Insider

A Taliban attack on police checkpoints that killed 11 officers in Helmand Province and a suicide bombing of an NATO convoy that left a civilian dead in Kandahar capped a bloody day of violence in the restive south of Afghanistan, Afghan officials said on Sunday. New York Times, Toronto Star

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson let slip last week a few tantalizing details about one of the nation’s most secret military contingency plans: how the United States would try to race inside North Korea to seize its nuclear weapons if it ever saw evidence that Kim Jong-un’s government was collapsing.

In a talk to the Atlantic Council last week, Tillerson revealed that the Trump administration had already provided assurances to China’s leadership that if American forces landed in North Korea to search for and deactivate nuclear weapons, the troops would do their work and then retreat.

Speaking from note cards, Tillerson said that the United States and China “have had conversations about in the event that something happened — it could happen internal to North Korea; it might be nothing that we from the outside initiate — that if that unleashed some kind of instability, the most important thing to us would be securing those nuclear weapons they’ve already developed and ensuring that they — that nothing falls into the hands of people we would not want to have it.” He added, “We’ve had conversations with the Chinese about how might that be done.” New York Times

Iranian state television broadcast on Sunday what it described as the confessions of an Iranian academic with Swedish residency who it said had provided information to Israel to help it assassinate several senior nuclear scientists. His wife in Stockholm told Reuters that he had been forced by his interrogators to read the confession. Reuters, BBC News
Saudi Arabia’s dangerous gamble: “It would be a mistake to believe that Mohammed bin Salman is a reformer, as many US government officials and professional analysts apparently do,” said Thanassis Cambanis in the Boston Globe. “There’s only one thing he’s proven interested in reforming, and that’s his family’s undiluted and absolute grip on power — which is no small thing. The young prince might succeed in his effort to refashion the Saudi monarchy. But his wider plans for his country, the Middle East, and Islam have very little chance of success because of Saudi Arabia’s structural limitations and because the supposed reformer himself is an authoritarian.”

It wasn’t Trump but this general’s elite soldiers who defeated ISIS: “Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi is virtually unknown outside Iraq, but he is a hero in his own country,” writes Peter Bergen in “When the three-star general walks into the lobby of a guesthouse in Baghdad he is quickly surrounded by well-wishers who want to take selfies with him. Iraqis know that the taciturn general was key to the long, grinding campaign that defeated ISIS.”

An accounting for the unaccounted: The recent NYT story on civilians killed in the campaign against ISIS :is one of faulty intelligence driving wrong-headed assumptions that decimate innocent lives and embitter survivors,” write Robert Malley and Stephen Pomper in The Atlantic. “It is a story about how a legal and bureaucratic fog can make it almost impossible for tragic mistakes to come to light. And it is a story about a policy that warrants honest discussion, and change. We both worked with that policy up close. In the Obama White House, one of us was responsible for human rights, the other for coordinating the counter-ISIS campaign. In this respect, we were part of an administration that fell short.”

China’s intrusive, ubiquitous, scary surveillance technology: “Step by step, China has been rolling out surveillance technology that is remarkably intrusive, comprehensive and ubiquitous,” writes the Washington Post in an editorial. “Eager to exploit gains in technology, Beijing seems little concerned about human rights or privacy violations.”
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.

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