The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Tuesday for a dialogue with North Korea and acknowledged that U.S. relations with Russia have worsened during the Trump administration. During wide-ranging and rare comments at the State Department marking six months since his confirmation, Tillerson told reporters that the United States does not aim to depose the government in Pyongyang or use military force. “We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel,” he said.

“We are trying to convey to the North Koreans: ‘We are not your enemy, we are not your threat. But you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond.’ ”

Tillerson also appeared to contradict President Trump over China’s role in reining in Pyongyang, saying the United States does not hold China responsible for the current situation. “We certainly don’t blame the Chinese for the situation in North Korea,” he said. “Only the North Koreans are to blame for this situation.

Tillerson also acknowledged that he and the president disagree over the Iran nuclear deal. “He and I have differences of views on things like JCPOA, and how we should use it,” Tillerson said, using the acronym for the deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Tillerson said that Washington could “tear it up and walk away” or stay in the deal and hold Iran accountable to its terms, which he said would require Iran to act as a “good neighbor.” Washington Post, The Hill, Reuters

Tillerson spurns funding to counter ISIS, Russian propaganda: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is resisting the pleas of State Department officials to spend nearly $80 million allocated by Congress for fighting terrorist propaganda and Russian disinformation. It is highly unusual for a Cabinet secretary to turn down money for his department. But nearly six month into his tenure, Tillerson has not issued a simple request for the money earmarked for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, $60 million of which is now parked at the Pentagon. Another $19.8 million sits untouched at the State Department. The $60 million will expire on Sept. 30 if not transferred to State by then. Politico
The Senate easily confirmed Christopher Wray to lead the FBI on Tuesday, approving President Trump’s nominee to succeed James B. Comey.

The vote, 92 to 5, was a reflection of the Senate’s confidence in Wray’s credentials as a Yale-educated former Justice Department official who vowed at his confirmation hearings to maintain the bureau’s independence, resisting interference even from the president. Los Angeles Times, USA Today

Long-held Guantanamo captive Ahmed al Darbi, 42, began to give his deposition this week inside the maximum-security war court for possible use in the death-penalty trial of accused USS Cole bomber Abd al Rahim al Nashiri. In a 2014 plea deal to turn government witness, Darbi admitted to getting supplies and helping al-Qaida militants plot suicide bombings of ships in the Arabian Sea. In exchange for the plea, he is due to return to his native Saudi Arabia next year to serve out the remainder of an at-most 15-year prison sentence. The Obama administration struck the testimony-for-release deal, and war court prosecutors say they are confident that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will honor it. Miami Herald

A cheaper Air Force One? After complaints from President Trump that he wanted a cheaper Air Force One, the U.S. Air Force has found a way to lower the cost of the planes: by buying a pair of Boeing 747 jetliners abandoned by a bankrupt Russian airline. Defense One

Mueller team expands: Greg Andres, a former U.S. Justice Department official who oversaw the fraud unit and managed the program that targeted illegal foreign bribery, has become the 16th lawyer on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team. Reuters
Politico: Wife of New Mueller Prosecutor Just Bailed as Judge in Two Trump Cases

Mike Bell to NSC: Retired Army Col. Michael Bell has been promoted to the top Middle East adviser on the National Security Council, two White House officials said. Bell, who was most recently the NSC director of Persian Gulf affairs, is now senior director for the Near East. He succeeds Derek Harvey, who was dismissed last week. Politico

Suicide bombers attacked a Shiite mosque in the western Afghan city of Herat on Tuesday, killing at least 29 people, officials said. Gen. Ayoub Ansari, the police chief of Herat, said two armed attackers had entered the mosque, spraying gunfire, and throwing grenades. At least one of the attackers reportedly detonated a suicide vest. New York Times, Washington Post, NPR

The U.S. Pentagon and State Department have devised plans to supply Ukraine with antitank missiles and other weaponry and are seeking White House approval, U.S. officials say. The plans come as fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists has increased in recent days, and the United States is taking steps to deter aggressive military actions by Moscow. The plan by the Pentagon and State Department has been presented to the White House, but no decision has been made. Wall Street Journal, The Hill
Bloomberg View: Sending ‘Defensive’ Arms to Ukraine Would Be Deadly

Iran said Tuesday that it has  lodged a complaint with the commission that polices possible violations of the Iranian nuclear agreement, accusing the United States of breaching the 2015 agreement with new sanctions aimed at Tehran. New York Times

Climate change is essentially tied with ISIS as the most-feared security threat across much of the world — except in the United States, where cyberattacks are considered a greater danger than global warming, according to a Pew Research Center report released on Tuesday.

Residents of 13 countries ranked climate change as the greatest threat to national security, while in 17 countries the Islamic State was considered a more immediate problem.

In the United States, however, a gaping partisan divide pushed climate change to third-most severe perceived threat, after ISIS and cyberwarfare. Just 56 percent of Americans surveyed identified global warming as the most serious threat to the country, compared to 71 percent for cyberwarfare and 74 percent for Islamic State attacks. New York Times

Terror suspect in Australia released: One of four men arrested over the weekend under suspicion of plotting an attack on a commercial airliner has been released. A lawyer for Abdul Merhi, 50, said his client was in “shock” over being questioned in connection with the plot and said his arrest was due to him being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sydney Morning Herald, Associated Press
Trump is pushing America’s Special Forces past the breaking point: “America has never had more counterterrorism raids,” writes Micah Zenko in Foreign Policy, “and less of a counterterrorism strategy.”

What Kushner’s leaked speech gets wrong about Middle East peace: “Jared Kushner, the president’s 36-year-old son-in-law, is in charge of the Middle East process, and he’s said almost nothing about his plans in public,” writes Aaron David Miller in Politico. “But Looking at some of the takeaways from a leaked transcript with congressional interns, Kushner’s thinking isn’t going to make his job any easier.”

Is Trump scheming to kill the Iran deal? “Trump seems determined to kill the Iran nuclear deal, against the near unanimous opinion of his closest foreign policy advisers,” writes Steve Andreasen and Steven Simon in the New York Times. “He has assigned a team of White House staff members to develop a case within the next three months for declaring that Iran had violated the agreement. With this new initiative on Iran, Mr. Trump puts the world, and his presidency, at great risk.”

A Gitmo mandamus case: “Today, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit will hold a rare August argument session to hear the latest petition for a writ of mandamus from the Guantánamo military commissions,” writes Steve Vladeck in Lawfare. “By asserting jurisdiction and purporting to express a view on the merits without actually deciding those merits, the Court of Appeals is embracing a form of the ‘passive-aggressive virtues’ that I’ve elsewhere suggested the Supreme Court has adopted in much of its post-September 11 jurisprudence in terrorism-related cases—and that’s not a good thing.”

For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.

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