With Quint Forgey and help from Daniel Lippman, Jonathan Custodio, Connor O’Brien, Nahal Toosi, and Eric Geller
Welcome to the third edition of National Security Daily, POLITICO’s newsletter on the global events roiling Washington and keeping the administration up at night. I’m Alex Ward, a national security reporter at POLITICO and your guide to who’s up, who’s down and what’s happening inside the Pentagon, the NSC and D.C.’s foreign policy machine. National Security Daily will arrive in your inbox Monday through Friday by 4 p.m.; please subscribe here.
President JOE BIDEN’s war in Somalia has begun, and he didn’t even launch it.
On Tuesday, U.S. Africa Command chief Gen. STEPHEN TOWNSEND authorized a single drone strike against al-Shabaab militants attacking an American-trained elite Somali force known as the Danab. While no U.S. troops accompanied the Somalis during the operation near Galkayo, Pentagon spokesperson CINDI KING told NatSec Daily that Townsend has the authority under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter “to conduct collective self-defense of partner forces.”
“There was an imminent threat,” King said, so Townsend ordered the hit with the Somali government’s approval — but without consulting with the White House.
Sen. TIM KAINE (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, expressed his reservations about the justification to NatSec Daily.
“I remain concerned with the justification of ‘collective self-defense’ to respond with U.S. military force to protect foreign groups when there is no direct threat to the U.S., its armed forces, or citizens,” the senator said. “I look forward to getting more information from the administration about this specific drone strike, especially as we continue to work together to rebalance the Article I and Article II powers on use of force issues and update the 2001 AUMF to reflect current threats against the United States.”
OONA HATHAWAY, a Yale Law School professor and former DOD lawyer, told NatSec Daily she found the administration’s argument “puzzling from a legal perspective.”
“Under international law, the U.S. doesn’t need a self-defense justification if it is acting with the consent of the Somali government. They likely phrased it this way, then, because they are concerned about domestic legal authority,” Hathaway said.
She continued: “The President is generally thought to have limited authority to act in the self defense of the country. … First, this would be a pretty significant reach for Article II authority. Second, in 2016, al-Shabaab was deemed to fall under the 2001 AUMF, so they would not need to resort to an Article II argument.”
Beyond the legalese, there are two main points to note about Tuesday’s airstrike. One, it was the first time since Jan. 19 — when DONALD TRUMP was president and just after he withdrew 700 troops from the country — that the U.S. struck inside Somalia. Two, Biden didn’t order the strike, even though he’s now the latest president to continue America’s fight there. (The White House declined to comment and kept referring us to the Pentagon.)
The strike comes as the Biden administration put a temporary hold on drone strikes outside of active war zones when it came into office on Jan. 20, but per DOD’s King this “collective self-defense” bombing didn’t require White House approval.
The short-term question is if the attack on the Danab will prompt the administration to consider reversing Trump’s troop withdrawal from Somalia. If that’s the case, it’d be the first time the president sent more American service members into a war zone to aid a fight.
The longer-term question is if Biden will continue to give his commanders the greenlight to strike. Trump famously gave the military “total authorization” to attack when deemed necessary, reversing the centralized strike-approval process of the Obama years. The White House already has refused some of AFRICOM’s requests to strike the terror group, the New York Times reported, and administration officials and Congressional staff reached out to NatSec Daily to ponder if that’s the new normal or if that will change.
WE HAVE A DEAL: The U.S. and Germany agreed to allow the completion of the controversial Russian gas pipeline known as Nord Stream 2. That deal makes Berlin happy, since it views the pipeline as central to its future energy needs. Washington faces some political headwinds here, but the administration realized long ago that stopping an almost completed project was folly: At least now, a staunch ally is appeased even if Nord Stream’s 2 construction helps the Kremlin. Kyiv is angry, however, since Ukraine’s status as a transit nation for Russian gas into Europe is now in doubt.
Rep. MIKE MCCAUL (R-Texas), citing yesterday’s edition of NatSec Daily, put out a statement declaring that “[w]hen President Biden treats our strategic partner Ukraine with such disdain, he is sending a dangerous message to our friends and adversaries alike. I urge my colleagues to join me in rejecting this deal and reaffirming our unwavering support for Ukraine.”
Here are the main terms of the deal, per senior administration officials: Berlin will appoint a special envoy to help Ukraine negotiate an extension of its gas transit deal with Russia beyond 2024, the expiration year. Germany will also create and administer a $1 billion green fund for Ukraine to support its energy transition beyond fossil fuels, with an initial $175 million commitment. Finally, Germany will enhance its engagement with the Three Seas Initiative, a key forum for Central and Eastern European nations to discuss regional matters.
Dems are annoyed by the deal but not incandescently furious. The pact is a “reminder that while we share many values with our NATO allies and EU partners, our interests are often not aligned,” Rep. ANTHONY BROWN (D-Md.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told NatSec Daily. “I’m concerned that European nations will invariably increase their dependence on Russian national gas, both from a security and climate perspective.”
The GOP, however, is white-hot. “This will be a generational geopolitical win for Putin and a catastrophe for the United States and our allies,” read a statement from Sen. TED CRUZ (R-Texas) — who put a hold on many Biden nominees for top State Department positions to force the White House to impose congressionally mandated sanctions on the pipeline. “We always knew Biden was in bed with Putin, now they’re spooning.”
MILLEY AND AUSTIN PUSH BACK ON TRUMP BOOKS: Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN backed up Gen. MARK MILLEY at a press briefing this afternoon, rejecting accusations from conservatives that the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had become too political.
“I’ve known the chairman for a long time. We’ve fought together. We’ve served a couple of times in the same units,” Austin told reporters. “I’m not guessing at his character. He doesn’t have a political bone in his body.”
The Pentagon chief was responding to incendiary recent reporting — featured in new books on the end of Trump’s presidency — that Milley had sought to prevent the then-commander in chief from perpetrating a coup in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
Milley, for his part, declined to comment directly on “all of these books that are out there quoting me.” But the general did say “with certainty” that he and the members of the Joint Chiefs had “maintained our oath of allegiance” to the Constitution.
“We also maintained the tradition of civilian control of the military,” Milley added. “We did that without fail. And we also maintained the tradition of an apolitical military. We did that then. We do that now. And we will do that forever. All the time.”
SECSTATE ON THE GO: From our own NAHAL TOOSI: “Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN is planning to visit India and Kuwait next week, a U.S. official familiar with the issue confirmed. The Indian press already have reported on the India leg of the trip. Could Blinken’s visit to Kuwait have anything to do with U.S. efforts to temporarily place Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants in the Middle Eastern country?”
Toosi adds: “The Covid-19 pandemic and relations with China are likely to top Blinken’s agenda in India, a country the Biden administration sees as a vital partner in Asia. Still, the two do have their differences, with Washington annoyed by India’s purchase of S400 missile systems from Russia.”
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FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY — HALIFAX IN TAIWAN: The Halifax Security Forum (HFX) will host its first major meeting in Asia, slated to take place from Jan. 21-23 in Taipei — right on the China’s doorstep and two weeks before the Olympics in Beijing.
HFX has recently been a gathering of tough-on-China democracies, and it’s expected that top officials from many of the world’s premier democracies will attend (though HFX wouldn’t confirm who’d be there just yet). Having all those heavy hitters in Taiwan, preaching from the gospel of democracy, is going to ruffle feathers in Beijing.
“China has a certain view on Taiwan, and I think it’s important for democracies to demonstrate what their view is on Taiwan,” PETER VAN PRAAGH, president of the Halifax Security Forum, told NatSec Daily. “This is going to be an opportunity” for many around the world “to let Taiwan and others know where they stand.”
POLITICO reported in May that HFX was planning to award Taiwanese President TSAI ING-WEN its John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service this year, over the objections of Canada’s military — which caused a minor political scandal for Prime Minister JUSTIN TRUDEAU’s government. Expect Beijing to fire off more than a few nastygrams at countries who choose to send their top officials to Taipei for the HFX summit.
“We expect this to be a big deal come January,” Van Praagh said.
U.S. NEWS OUTLETS SOUND ALARM FOR AFGHAN JOURNALISTS: Two dozen media organizations and press freedom advocates — including ABC News, Fox News and National Public Radio — have sent a letter to the Biden administration warning about the fate of Afghans who helped American news companies report on the two-decade war effort, per PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN of Stars and Stripes.
Those Afghan journalists should be able to apply for emergency U.S. visas, the letter argues. While a process already exists to provide visas to Afghans who supported the U.S. military and government, there’s no similar program for other members of society linked to American organizations.
Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, and the letter comes amid escalating concerns that the Taliban will target U.S.-linked media workers after the full withdrawal of American forces next month.
BIDEN HUDDLES WITH BUSINESS LEADERS: Biden and members of his national security team and other senior administration officials are scheduled to meet with private sector executives on Aug. 25 to strategize on ways to strengthen U.S. cybersecurity, Reuters reports.
A White House NSC spokesperson said that “both the federal government and the private sector play a critical role” in shoring up the nation’s defenses against cyberattacks. But no details were immediately available on which executives would attend.
NEW CYBER INCIDENT REPORTING PUSH: A bipartisan group of 15 senators rolled out legislation today that would require cybersecurity firms, federal contractors and operators of critical infrastructure to alert the government about attempted or successful breaches of their systems, per our own ERIC GELLER.
Under the proposed Cyber Incident Notification Act, those companies — as well as federal agencies that discover hacks — would have 24 hours to report incidents to DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Companies would then have to submit updates about the incident within 72 hours of discovering any new information.
Meanwhile, in the House, top Democrats on the Homeland Security Committee are finishing up a narrower version of the Senate bill, Eric also reports. The House’s hack reporting legislation would give CISA 270 days to publish interim rules describing which companies must report incidents, what types of incidents they must report, how they must do so and what information they must share.
RANSOMWARE GANG’S WHEREABOUTS: A senior Biden administration official tells Toosi that they’re unsure why REvil — the group of cyber criminals thought to be based in Russia — has vanished from the dark web in recent days.
Those comments are the clearest indication yet that the U.S. didn’t play a direct role in taking down websites and other online infrastructure belonging to REvil, which is suspected of targeting meat processing giant JBS in May and information technology vendor Kaseya this month.
The White House has been pressuring Russia to take action against cyber criminals operating on the country’s soil, even if they’re not working under direct orders from the government. Asked if the Kremlin dismantled REvil or made the group shutter its sites, the administration official said: “It’s possible, I guess. Again, we don’t know exactly why they’ve stood down.”
MILITARY PROSECUTIONS COMPLICATE GITMO CLOSURE: The Biden administration transferred its first detainee from Guantanamo Bay this week. But even if the Pentagon moves all eligible prisoners from the military detention center in Cuba, legal experts say the president won’t be able to fully shutter the facility without reforming the military commissions system, according to Defense One’s JACQUELINE FELDSCHER.
Of the 39 detainees now remaining at Guantanamo Bay, 10 are eligible for transfer and 17 are eligible for a review board process to determine whether they can be relocated. But another 10 detainees are awaiting legal action by military commissions — a slow-moving process created by the Bush administration to prosecute prisoners for war crimes. Two detainees have been convicted.
“As long as military commissions are on their current track, I think that’s going to literally keep the detention facility open,” said MICHEL PARADIS, a senior attorney for the Defense Department. “No one has done any serious planning to prosecute them anywhere else.”
DROPPING THE NUCLEAR FOOTBALL: The Pentagon’s inspector general is reviewing the existing plans to alert top officials and take action in the event that the so-called nuclear football — the emergency satchel needed to launch nukes, and which accompanies the president everywhere — is lost, stolen or somehow compromised, according to ORIANA PAWLYK of Military.com.
“This evaluation will also determine the adequacy of the procedures the [Defense Department] has developed to respond to such an event,” read a letter from Randolph Stone, Assistant Inspector General for Evaluations for Space, Intelligence, Engineering and Oversight.
WARREN WANTS DEFENSE INDUSTRY OVERSIGHT: Sen. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-Mass.) is asking the chair of the Federal Trade Commission for its plan to protect competition in the defense sector, citing the “monopolistic behavior of firms in the defense industry,” our own PAUL MCLEARY reports.
Warren, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is concerned about Lockheed Martin’s proposed $4.4 billion acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne. If that deal wins regulatory approval, it would mean the last major independent domestic rocket engine supplier would become part of the largest defense contractor in the world.
NULAND TALKS TURKEY: VICTORIA NULAND, the State Department’s No. 3, faced down the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over U.S. policy toward Turkey, the perennially thorny NATO ally.
POLITICO’s JONATHAN CUSTODIO watched the whole thing and sent us these key, eye-popping moments.
Nuland’s warning over the S400. “We continue to object to Turkey’s purchase and deployment of the Russian S400 air defense system, and have made clear that any new major arms purchases from Russia will trigger additional CATSA sanctions … the sale and co-production of the F 35 will remain suspended,” she said.
Drone base in Cyprus. SFRC Chair ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-N.J.) said he had information that Turkey was establishing a drone base in occupied Cyprus. Nuland said she wasn’t aware of that, even though there are public articles about it.
Nuland rebukes POLITICO’s reporting. Under questioning from Cruz, Nuland disputed our report yesterday that the Biden administration was asking Ukraine not to speak out against the Nord Stream 2 deal with Germany. “That is categorically incorrect, Senator, none of us has been pressuring Ukraine and in fact, an invitation to President Zelensky is going to be issued publicly later today and we have been in deep consultations with the Ukrainians on every aspect of this arrangement,” she said.
DEFENSE BUDGET FIGHT: The Senate Armed Services Committee kicked off debate on its annual defense policy bill today behind closed doors, with Republicans expected to make a push to boost the Pentagon budget, our colleague CONNOR O’BRIEN, who’s following the action this week, tells us.
Republicans have made no secret that they see Biden’s $715 billion Pentagon budget as insufficient to outfit the military with new technology, grow the Navy or challenge China’s military buildup. Sen. DAN SULLIVAN (R-Alaska) forecast Tuesday that the committee would take “a big vote” on the budget topline of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and intimated that even some centrist Democrats could join the effort.
Defense hawks on Capitol Hill have called for a boost of three to five percent above inflation, which would mean tens of billions more in military spending. Republicans have considerable leverage in the 50-50 Senate — a defense bill can’t pass without their support..
A brawl’s a-brewin’. There’s a bipartisan tussle over how to stem the tide of sexual assault in the military. Sen. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D-N.Y.) managed to tack her legislation that would remove the chain of command from decisions to prosecute all serious crimes.
The move puts Gillibrand at odds with SASC Chair JACK REED (D-R.I.), who has aligned with Pentagon brass and endorsed a limited approach that only changes how the military handles sexual assault cases. The bipartisan reform still must survive the full committee, where opponents such as Reed are likely to try and strip it from the NDAA.
Reed, meanwhile, will no doubt stir up a tough debate over women in the military with an amendment to require women to register for a draft. (BURGESS EVERETT and Connor scooped the details ahead of the markup.) SASC has voted in favor of the sweeping change to the Selective Service System in the past, albeit with vocal opposition from conservative Republicans.
NS2 DEAL FUELS CONSERVATIVE FURY: Yes, experts on the right aren’t Biden fans, and they usually won’t support his big foreign policy moves. But the Nord Stream 2 decision really has conservatives angry and questioning the president’s entire worldview.
“Closing Keystone Pipeline, choosing to not hold the Russians accountable for the Colonial Pipeline attack, and then green-lighting Russia’s Nord Stream pipeline is not what I describe as supporting democracy over autocracy,” REBECCAH HEINRICHS of the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., tweeted last night. “You know what would be best for beating back bullies- Russia and China? Strengthening the US military, strengthening the US industrial base and economy generally, and siding w/ smaller sovereign nations who choose the West, all the while weakening Russia and China.”
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY — NSC ARRIVAL LOUNGE: FLORENCIO “FLO” YUZON has begun work at the NSC as deputy legal advisor, our own DANIEL LIPPMAN tells us. Yuzon most recently was senior military assistant to the Department of Defense General Counsel. He has served in Iraq and Bahrain, and was the deputy legal counsel for the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among other military legal roles.
NEW FIRST CAVALRY DIVISION CHIEF: From the Army — “Maj. Gen. JOHN B. RICHARDSON will assume command of the 1st Cavalry Division July 21, 2021 and Maj. Gen. JEFFREY BROADWATER will be reassigned as the deputy commanding general, V Corps at Fort Knox.”
The Army’s statement continued: “The Secretary of the Army suspended Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater from his duties as commander, 1st Cavalry Division on Dec. 8, 2020, as a result of the findings of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee’s investigation of the climate and culture at Fort Hood. General MICHAEL X. GARRETT, Army Forces Command commanding general, recently approved a follow-on Army Regulation 15-6 investigation into 1st Cavalry Division’s climate and culture.”
19FortyFive: “Don’t Let China Get A Middle East Military Base”
RealClearDefense: “Deception Is the Biggest Threat to American Security”
War on the Rocks: “Belarus and the Ukraine Trap”
— First lady JILL BIDEN’s first full day in Tokyo, leading the U.S. delegation to the 2020 Summer Olympic Games: She’ll participate in a bilateral event with MARIKO SUGA, the wife of Japanese Prime Minister YOSHIHIDE SUGA; meet virtually with members of Team USA; have an audience with EMPEROR NARUHITO; and attend the Olympics opening ceremony.
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 9:30 a.m.: “Korea Chair ‘The Capital Cable’ #31 with Christine Fox”
— The Brookings Institution, 10 a.m.: “The quagmire in Myanmar: How should the international community respond?”
— The Heritage Foundation, 10:30 a.m.: “Policy Pulse: Enhancing Deterrence in the Indo-Pacific”
— The Institute for Defense and Government Advancement, 12 p.m.: “Laser Weapons today and tomorrow”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 4 p.m.: “Exit Interview with Carl Gershman, Founding President of the National Endowment for Democracy”
— The George Washington University’s East Asia National Resource Center, 8 p.m.: “Unbalanced Triangular Relations? Assessing U.S.-China-Taiwan Ties after the CCP 100th Anniversary”
Correction: Yesterday’s NatSec Daily said Cruz lifted his hold on Amb. Bonnie Jenkins’ nomination to be the State Department’s top arms control official. Instead, what happened is Sen. Chuck Schumer filed cloture, forcing a vote on her nomination despite Cruz’s hold. We regret the error.