The Soufan Group Morning Brief


A newly released Pentagon strategy document proposes a new vision of America’s national security priorities — one in which competition with China and Russia is more important to the United States than the fight against international terrorism.

The National Defense Strategy was unveiled Friday morning at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. Speaking to reporters, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis explained that the document, which calls for a sustained financial investment in the military to overcome “a period of strategic atrophy,” reflects the real priorities for the United States at this moment in time.

“We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists, but great power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,” Mattis said.

Beijing and Moscow are seen as the primary rivals. In its text, the National Defense Strategy states that “long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia” are the “principle priorities” for the Defense Department. The two U.S. rivals are actively seeking to “co-opt or replace the free and open order that has enabled global security and prosperity since World War II,” according to the report. To counter that effort, the U.S. will “thwart their use of coercion and intimidation to advance their goals and harm U.S. interests.” North Korea and Iran were listed as “rogue regimes” that the United States would work to deter.

The shift in priorities detailed in the National Defense Strategy reflect concerns in the national security community about China and Russia’s foreign policy ambitions. At the same time, it may also be a reflection of the idea that international terrorist groups like the Islamic State have had their capabilities seriously diminished over the past year and that they do not pose the same level of threat that they were once thought to. Washington Post, Bloomberg, NPR, Politico
Department of Homeland Security analysts did not contribute to a contested Trump administration report last week that alleged that 3 out of 4 “international terrorism” convicts were immigrants -- a conclusion used to bolster President Trump’s immigration positions, the Daily Beast reports. The report was attributed to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice when it was released.

But according to a government source familiar with the episode, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ office took charge of the report’s assemblage of statistics—which some terrorism analysts consider highly misleading—and sent it to DHS Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen for her imprimatur after it was all but finalized. Daily Beast

House spending bill changes rules for intel programs: The House spending bill released Wednesday would allow President Donald Trump, or people under him, to secretly shift money to fund intelligence programs, a break with 70 years of governing tradition. The Intercept

9/11 attorneys: Can’t defend clients without questioning CIA about torture: Attorneys for the men accused of setting up the Sept. 11 terror attacks say that their bedrock professional duty to their clients is being compromised by a prohibition against fully investigating the clandestine CIA prison network where the alleged terrorists were tortured. Miami Herald

Schadlow replaces Powell on NSC: National security adviser H.R. McMaster has reportedly chosen Nadia Schadlow, a current member of the National Security Council and the lead author of the administration’s National Security Strategy, to replace departing Dina Powell in the role of deputy national security adviser for strategy, according to Politico. Her new role has yet to be announced by the White House. Politico

No violation for destruction of CIA black site: The 9/11 trial judge has ruled that he and the prosecution did nothing wrong in authorizing the destruction of a former CIA “Black Site” prison without advance notice to defense attorneys. Miami Herald

NSA destroyed surveillance data it pledged to preserve: The National Security Agency destroyed surveillance data it pledged to preserve in connection with pending lawsuits and apparently never took some of the steps it told a federal court it had taken to make sure the information wasn’t destroyed, according to recent court filings. Politico

Alleged CIA mole may have compromised Russian assets: American officials suspect that former CIA case officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee, who was arrested and is suspected of sharing information with China that led to the murder of more than a dozen CIA informants in that country, may have compromised Russian assets as well. It is believed that China shared information from Lee with Russia, which employed it to expose, arrest and possibly even kill American spies in that country, according to NBC News.

FBI did not save officials’ texts: The FBI is missing five months of text messages between two senior officials who Republicans on Capitol Hill have accused of political bias, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) revealed in a letter to the bureau made public on Sunday. Republicans have been scrutinizing the text messages between senior counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page as part of their inquiry into whether bias infected the bureau’s investigations into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server as secretary of state and into President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. Politico, Washington Post

FBI hasn’t seen Nunes memo: Rep. Devin Nunes, the head of the House Intelligence Committee, hasn't shared with the FBI a classified memo allegedly detailing political bias around the federal probe into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, despite repeated requests by the bureau. The Hill

Turkish troops crossed the Syrian border into the Kurdish enclave of Afrin on Sunday morning, beginning a ground assault against American-allied militias there. The move raises tensions with the U.S. and opens a new front in the seven-year war. Ten people were reported killed in bombing raids, according to Kurdish militants, and three people died on the Turkish side of the border in retaliatory shelling. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has vowed to eliminate “terrorist nests” in the Kurdish enclave, but on Sunday he promised that the operation would be swift.

Erdogan’s comments came during growing international dismay over Turkey’s intervention, and reports of Syrian fighters gathering to join the fight on both sides. Members of the Free Syrian Army have been joining to fight alongside Turkish troops. Many of them are refugees from Arab villages and towns in the region. At the same time, hundreds of Kurdish fighters from the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which has been leading the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, were assembling in towns to the east and south of Afrin. New York Times, Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal

A bloody, 14-hour siege on a major hotel in Kabul ended on Sunday, after six assailants terrorized much of the city with explosions and gunfire. At least 18 people, including 14 foreigners, were killed during the siege, and 10 were injured. The militants were wearing suicide vests and exchanged gunfire with security forces, and witnesses said they went up and down the hallways of the luxury Intercontinental hotel, targeting foreigners and government officials. New York Times, The Week

Iraqi court sentences German woman to death: An Iraqi court on Sunday sentenced to death a German woman of Arab descent for joining Islamic State. The woman was caught by Iraqi forces during the battle of Mosul last year. She is believed to be the first foreign woman to be sentenced to death in Iraq for joining the militant group. Reuters, BBC News

Tunisia says it killed AQIM leader: Tunisian security forces have reportedly killed Bilel Kobi, the top aide to AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, in an ambush near the Algerian border when he was on a mission to reorganize AQIM’s Tunisian branch following Tunisian air strikes. Reuters

Vice President Mike Pence met with King Abdullah II of Jordan on Sunday, telling reporters afterward that they had “agreed to disagree” on the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. New York Times

The U.S. military has launched a new counterterrorism mission in the Philippines, making operations there eligible for the same funding used to finance the long-running wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The decision by the Trump administration to elevate the U.S. mission to an Overseas Contingency Operation, or OCO, was made last September in response to a Philippines government request for more support to fight extremist groups. Between 200 and 300 American personnel are currently serving in advisory roles in the country and officials said that number is likely to remain unchanged for now. In addition to advisory troops, technical support and equipment, the mission is providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance by drone. Wall Street Journal

Thailand market bomb: A motorcycle bomb exploded in a market in Thailand's southern Yala province on Monday, killing three people and wounding 22. Police said they believed Muslim insurgents were to blame and that the bomb had targeted a stall selling pork, which is strictly forbidden for Muslims under Islamic law. Yala and other southern provinces are home to a home to a long-running insurgency by ethnic Malay Muslims. Independent
Justice delayed at Guantanamo: “The 9/11 trial, now projected to take place in 2019, will no doubt be followed by many appeals. By the time it’s over, justice will have been delayed by decades,” writes Nicholas Gallagher in the Wall Street Journal. “In the courtroom, it wasn’t hard to see why. Start with the rules, which Congress, the Supreme Court and two administrations each had a hand in shaping. The Guantanamo trial procedures are, with a few exceptions, supposed to be as close as possible to those in courts-martial. As a result, every procedural niggle is litigated from the ground up, with no controlling precedents.”

Trump’s Pentagon tries to move on from the war on terror: “China and Russia are now America’s ‘principal priorities,’” according to the Pentagon’s latest National Defense Strategy, writes Nicholas Schmidle in the New Yorker. “Some Defense officials see the continued focus on post-9/11 foreign interventions as problematic over the long term. While hundreds of thousands of Americans were fighting religious zealots in the desert, the Chinese and Russians were building new rockets and satellites.”

Don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone: “One year into Donald Trump’s presidency, U.S. foreign policy stands as wobbly and diminished as his critics had predicted,” writes Fred Kaplan in “And yet, by his very abrogation of leadership, Trump has shown just how important the United States remains—more so than many theorists of an “America in decline” have assumed in recent years. For rather than shrug, adjust, and move along, most of the world’s leaders—at least those aligned with the global order that the United States helped create—have reacted to Trump’s hostile insularity with dismay and alarm.”
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.

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