With help from Daniel Lippman
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The forced dismissal of a top Pentagon nuclear official could mean curtains for President JOE BIDEN’s nuclear agenda.
Biden installed national security officials intent on negotiating new arms control treaties and curtailing nuclear weapons spending. One of them was LEONOR TOMERO, a leading voice for nuclear restraint on Capitol Hill and in the think tank community, who was appointed to oversee the Nuclear Posture Review that will set the administration’s nuclear weapons policy and strategy.
But officials with more traditional views on nuclear weapons, who promote a more hawkish nuclear agenda to include modernizing the land, sea and airborne legs of America’s nuclear arsenal, did not take kindly to Tomero’s progressive ideology, 11 current and former defense officials, as well as others with insight into the debate, told our own LARA SELIGMAN and BRYAN BENDER (with an assist from your host).
“Her appointment was something that people were immediately resistant to,” JEFFREY LEWIS, a professor and nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies and host of the podcast Arms Control Wonk, told POLITICO. “People with very traditional views of nuclear weapons policy did not want someone in charge of the Nuclear Posture Review who might think differently about those issues.”
The Defense Department insists Tomero was nothing more than a casualty of a reorganization, leaving no space for her as her duties were moving to another office.
“It’s natural with any new administration, this one’s not excepted, that we would want to reevaluate the organizational structure and make changes where we think is appropriate to support the secretary’s priorities. And I think, again, without speaking to individuals, we’re certainly doing that,” chief Pentagon spokesperson JOHN KIRBY told reporters on Wednesday when asked about Tomero’s ouster. “We’re going to continue to consider and include a wide range of viewpoints in the Nuclear Posture Review, including those from administration officials, military leaders, academics and all others.”
And so does the National Security Council. “The Nuclear Posture Review isn’t reliant on one individual; to imply the review would somehow be skewed because of an individual’s departure is just incorrect. This was a reorganization decision to more appropriately align our organization with policy objectives,” a NSC spokesperson said.
Experts now worry that her removal signals the Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR, will not fully consider alternative options for maintaining the U.S. nuclear deterrent that might be less costly or evaluate new ways to carry out nuclear strategy.
“The decision to fire Leonor suggests to me that the first draft of NPR is going to be a continuation of the line of thinking we saw in the Trump administration’s NPR,” Lewis said. “They have put themselves on the course that is a first draft that is 180 degrees to what Biden said on the campaign trail.”
If that’s the case, one staffing change over at DoD might be the death knell for Biden’s hopes of changing U.S. nuclear policy for the foreseeable future.
The United States is currently planning to upgrade the nuclear force to the tune of $634 billion over the next decade, according to a recent analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
U.S. SAYS IRAN CAN’T CROSS “IRREVERSIBLE” THRESHOLD: A senior State Department official said the administration will consider the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action dead if Iran attains “irreversible” nuclear knowhow.
“When their progress will be irreversible in a way that it’s impossible to recapture fundamental nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA,” the person said. “It will be based on the pace and the quality and the quantity of steps that Iran chooses to take,” but added, “we don’t have a calendar in mind with a date.”
“They could acquire knowledge, technical knowledge, that would serve them if they were seeking to develop a bomb, and that knowledge could accelerate that ability, and could not be reversed,” the official told reporters. That’s what we and our partners have been most concerned about,” the official continued.
ERIC BREWER, deputy director of the project on nuclear issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., explained what some of that “technical knowledge” might include.
“Iran’s progress with the more advanced machines over the last several months has led to fears that Iran is or soon will be confident enough in the performance of those centrifuges that it would be willing to use them in a breakout. This confidence cannot be wiped away simply by removing the machines themselves,” he told NatSec Daily.
Last month, ROBERT MALLEY, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, told NatSec Daily the future of the nuclear deal was “one big question mark.” Other questions now include when Iran reaches that “irreversible” moment, and when the administration’s patience might wear out.
The U.S. and Israel secretly held “Plan B” talks last week, aligning themselves should the nuclear deal fall apart.
In his letter to Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN, first reported by PBS’ YAMICHE ALCINDOR, Foote said, “Our policy approach to Haiti remains deeply flawed, and my recommendations have been ignored and dismissed, when not edited to project a narrative different from my own.”
A State Department spokesperson responded to Foote’s letter: “It is unfortunate that, instead of participating in a solutions-oriented policy process, Special Envoy Foote has both resigned and mischaracterized the circumstances of his resignation.”
WENDY SHERMAN, the deputy secretary of State, told McClatchy’s MICHAEL WILNER and JACQUELINE CHARLES that Foote wanted to send U.S. troops into Haiti.
“Some of those proposals were harmful to our commitment to the promotion of democracy in Haiti and to free and fair elections in Haiti so the Haitian people can choose their own future. For him to say the proposals were ignored were, I’m sad to say, simply false,” she said. “You know, one of the ideas that Mr. Foote had was to send the U.S. military back to Haiti,” she continued. “I have followed Haiti since the Clinton administration, and I can tell you that sending the U.S. military into Haiti is not the answer that will solve the terrible situation that the Haitian people are currently facing. It just was a bad idea.”
POLL: AMERICANS DON’T TRUST BIDEN’S FORPOL DECISIONS: A new Pew Research Center poll released hours ago found a slight majority of Americans don’t have confidence in Biden’s ability to make good foreign policy decisions.
Per the survey conducted between Sept. 13-19, 20 percent of people said they were “not too confident” in Biden and 34 percent said they were “not at all confident.” By contrast, 29 percent said they were “somewhat confident” and only 17 percent said they were “very confident.”
That’s a drop from March of this year, when a combined 56 percent of respondents said they were somewhat or very confident in Biden’s foreign policy decisions. The drop in support was pretty equal by party: 87 percent to 75 percent among Democrats and 19 percent to 10 percent among Republicans.
CBP IMPROPERLY TARGETED AMERICANS: A new Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s report shows U.S. Customs and Border Protection improperly targeted American citizens suspected of involvement in the 2018-19 so-called migrant caravan.
The not-yet-public Sept. 20 report “documents one instance where CBP officials placed ‘lookouts”’ — electronic alerts that lead to more intrusive inspections when crossing the U.S. border — on 15 Americans who had previously crossed the border with or were connected via social media to someone who CBP suspected might be planning violence at the border,” our own DANIEL LIPPMAN reported. “But CBP didn’t have any information that those 15 Americans were involved in planning any of the violence or were present at an intrusion into the U.S.”
The CBP officials, who also shared sensitive information with the Mexican government, “were not forthcoming about the disclosures, did not follow CPB policies on sharing information with foreign entities and did not retain communication records,” according to the report.
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U.S. “OPEN” TO END OF WAR DECLARATION: Pentagon spokesperson Kirby said the U.S. is open to signing an end of war declaration with North Korea, shortly after South Korean President MOON JAE-IN mentioned the idea again at UNGA.
“We’re open to discussing the possibility of an end of war declaration. Our goal remains as always, the complete denuclearization of the peninsula,” Kirby said during a briefing with reporters.
Former President DONALD TRUMP promised North Korean leader KIM JONG UN back in 2018 that the U.S. would sign such a declaration, which would formally bring the Korean War to a close. But both countries, along with the other warring parties of South Korea and China, haven’t come close to putting pen to paper.
Doing so might open the door to more serious denuclearization talks between Washington, Pyongyang, Seoul and Tokyo. But getting there will require intense and tricky diplomacy between the five participants in the 1950s conflict.
HEZBOLLAH THREATENS JUDGE OVER BEIRUT BLAST PROBE: The Hezbollah terrorist group promised to “usurp” the authority of the Lebanese judge investigating last year’s Beirut port explosion.
“High-ranking Hezbollah official WAFIQ SAFA issued the threat to Judge TAREK BITAR through an unnamed intermediary, who relayed the contents of the message,” a person familiar told CNN’s TAMARA QIBLAWI. “The intermediary was someone the judge knew and trusted, the source said, and mentioned Safa by name.”
“We’ve had it up to our noses with you. We will stay with you until the end of this legal path, but if it doesn’t work out, we will usurp you,” Safa’s message to Bitar said, per the source. The concern is Bitar may be in physical danger now should he continue to look into the events surrounding the blast.
Members of Hezbollah’s political bloc in Parliament want Bitar gone to escape accountability, Qiblawi reported.
NAVALNY BLASTS BIG TECH: ALEXEI NAVALNY, the imprisoned Russian dissident, criticized major tech giants for curtailing access to his app designed to defeat members of President VLADIMIR PUTIN’s party.
Apple and Google “have complied with the Kremlin’s demands and removed our app from their stores,” he tweeted today as part of a 14-part thread. “My beloved YouTube has deleted our video, and the Telegram messenger has blocked our bot.”
“The media write that the Kremlin forced Big Tech to make concessions by showing them a list of their employees to be arrested. If so, then keeping silent about it is the worst crime. This is encouragement of a hostage-taking terrorist,” he added.
EXPERTS: CHINA’S LOW-LEVEL HACKING “SEVERE”: Western experts told the Guardian’s DAN SABBAGH that China’s lower-level cyberattacks are much more troubling today than in years past.
“JAMIE COLLIER, a consultant with Mandiant, a cybersecurity firm whose work is often cited by intelligence agencies, said the level of hacking emerging from China in 2021 was ‘a more kind of severe threat than we previously anticipated,’” Sabbagh reported. One such recent strike was on Microsoft’s Exchange company server, which the U.S. and allies blamed on Beijing.
China denies any involvement with these lower-level hacks. But last week, Gen. PATRICK SANDERS, Britain’s top cyber military official, accused China (and Russia) of accelerating “the expansion of warfare into the novel domains of space and cyber.”
AFGHAN EVAC FLEET ON BREAK: The Air Force C-17s that flew evacuees out of Afghanistan will be temporarily grounded for service, maintenance and cleaning, The Wall Street Journal’s NANCY A. YOUSSEF reported.
“The aircraft and their crews were ordered to undergo a reset that could last as long as 90 days and will affect a large portion of the U.S. Air Force fleet of C-17 cargo planes. Many crew members and maintainers volunteered to work long periods without rest as the jets took off and landed in rapid succession for the 16 days between the Aug. 15 Taliban takeover and the final U.S. departure deadline,” she wrote.
It’s unclear what, if any, long-term operational impact the pause will have. In the short-term, though, the pause is likely to limit the military’s ability to transport cargo.
There are still private efforts to evacuate people stuck in Afghanistan via charter flights.
AFGHANISTAN IMPERILS 2001 AUMF REPEAL: America’s withdrawal from the 20-year war in Afghanistan has complicated the politics of repealing the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force.
“Biden’s plans for a new phase of the war on terror, lawmakers in both parties say, only underscores the importance of revising the 2001 [AUMF] that gave then-President GEORGE W. BUSH broad power to attack those who orchestrated the Sept. 11 terror attacks,” reports our own ANDREW DESIDERIO. “Yet it could be months before they can agree with the White House on a new framework, especially as the Senate and House undertake sweeping investigations into what went wrong in Afghanistan.”
“I think there’s going to be a real near-term focus on making sure that Congress re-asserts its control over the time and the manner in which we make war, but I think folks will be apprehensive about revisiting the 2001 AUMF,” Sen. TODD YOUNG, the GOP’s leading voice on AUMF reform, told Desiderio. “There have to be legal authorities like those under the 2001 AUMF that allow this and future administrations to carry out a war on terror.”
But there are still efforts underway, including a bipartisan push from Reps. GREGORY MEEKS (D-N.Y.) and MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-Texas), to repeal the AUMF even after the Afghanistan pullout.
BACKLASH TO TREATMENT OF HAITIAN MIGRANTS: The scenes of border agents on horseback chasing down Haitian migrants has led to widespread condemnations from the pro-immigrant community.
“This is cruel, un-American and inarticulable,” MARLEINE BASTIEN, executive director of the Miami-based Family Action Network Movement and a Haitian immigrant, told The Washington Post’s TIM CRAIG, SEAN SULLIVAN, and SILVIA FOSTER-FRAU. “I am getting so many calls from people asking why? What have Haitians ever done to America? All we have done is try to help America, and we are treated like this?”
“Black migrants are disproportionately being criminalized just as African Americans are because of their Blackness,” NANA GYAMFI, executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration, told the Post. “Our Blackness leads us to be racially profiled and puts us in the police-to-deportation pipeline.”
The anger keeps pouring in. “The cruelty rooted in hate, white supremacy, and xenophobia that shaped US immigration policies for years continue to brutally harm and oppress millions of people today,” said DENISE BELL, researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA, in a statement.
— FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY: POOJA JHUNJHUNWALA is now spokesperson and press secretary at the Development Finance Corporation. She most recently was acting spokesperson at USAID.
— JOE FOLTZ has returned to USAID, where he is now a director of legislative affairs. He most recently was a director on the National Security Council.
— YASMEEN SERHAN, The Atlantic: “What Germany’s Far Right Has Taught Us”
— JOSEPH SEIGLE and DANIEL EIZENGA, AllAfrica: “Russia’s Wagner Play Undermines the Transition in Mali”
— MAX FISHER, The New York Times: “France, Striving for Global Power, Still Struggles to Get It”
— The Istituto Affari Internazionali, 6 a.m.: “Italy-Europe: The Unknown Factor of the German Vote”
— The Atlantic Council, 9 a.m.: “Ireland’s Foreign Policy Priorities: A Discussion with Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence SIMON COVENEY — with MARY JORDAN and FREDERICK KEMPE”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 9:30 a.m.: “A Conversation with Amb. ROMÁN MACAYA HAYES on Costa Rica’s Experience Delivering Primary Care During Covid-19 — with KATHERINE E. BLISS”
— The Brookings Institution, 10 a.m.: “Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order — with SUSAN B. GLASSER, REBECCA KATZ, SUZANNE MALONEY, DAVID MILIBAND and THOMAS WRIGHT”
— The Atlantic Council, 11 a.m.: “How Can Europe Escape Gazprom’s Gas Grip? — with MARGARITA ASSENOVA, DEBRA CAGAN, AGNIA GRIGAS, SERGIY MAKOGON and ALAN RILEY”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1:30 p.m.: “Reflections on UNGA and the Global Covid-19 Summit — with JULIE GERBERDING, NIKOLAJ GILBERT, J. STEPHEN MORRISON and CAROLYN REYNOLDS”
— The Atlantic Council, 2 p.m.: “Future of UN Sanctions — with SUE ECKERT, GEORGE A. LOPEZ, KIMBERLY PROST, JACQUELINE SHIRE and HOWARD WACHTEL”
— The European Council on Foreign Relations, 2 p.m.: “The Post-Merkel Era: Towards More or Less European Solidarity? — with LAURENS BOVEN, MARCIA LUTYEN, LUUK VAN MIDDELAAR and JANA PUGLIERIN”
Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.
And thanks to our editor Ben Pauker, who we’d never push out over our policy differences.