Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Friday, April 14, 2017, 12:22 PM

Foreign Policy informs us that the sixth, and likely most powerful, test of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities in a decade is expected to occur as soon as this weekend, and the Trump administration is ratcheting up its rhetoric against the rogue state. The missile tests have pushed the North Korean threat to the top of White House’s priority list, prompting a rash of tweets, statements and even diplomatic bargaining from Trump and members of his Cabinet. 38 North notes that commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site shows continued activity around the base where the missile is to be tested. CBS News adds that North Korea’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs answered “of course,” when asked whether North Korea would use nuclear weapons if it felt it would be attacked.

China warned this morning that tensions on the Korean Peninsula could run out of control, the New York Times tells us. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “the United States and South Korea and North Korea are engaging in tit for tat, with swords drawn and bows bent, and there have been storm clouds gathering.” Wang urged all sides to “no longer engage in mutual provocation and threats,” and not to “push the situation to the point where it can’t be turned around and gets out of hand.” Wang’s comments were the bluntest yet from China, which has been trying to steer between the Trump administration’s demands and its longstanding reluctance to risk a rupture with North Korea. Channel News Asia notes that Air China has apparently stopped flights to Pyongyang.

Reuters writes that Vice President Mike Pence will travel to South Korea on Sunday as a sign of the U.S. commitment to its ally in the face of rising tensions over North Korea's nuclear program. Pence plans to celebrate Easter with U.S. and Korean troops on Sunday before talks on Monday with acting President Hwang Kyo-ahnm, and will land in Seoul the day after North Korea's celebration of the birth of its founder, Kim Il Sung.

Fox News reports that 36 ISIS militants were killed by the Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb, nicknamed the “Mother of All Bombs,” dropped by the United States in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar yesterday, according to Afghan officials. The bomb was apparently dropped due to intensified fighting between ISIS militants and U.S. Special Forces embedded with Afghan ground troops, with the U.S. and Afghan forces unable to advance because ISIS had mined the area with explosives; the U.S. used the bomb to clear the tunnels. President Donald Trump refused to say whether he had signed off on the strike, saying instead "Everybody knows exactly what happens. So, what I do is I authorize our military,” and that "we have given them total authorization and that's what they're doing." Foreign Policy adds that there are between 600 to 800 ISIS fighters operating in Afghanistan. Last month Afghan troops, backed up by American Special Forces advisors, launched a major offensive against the group in Nangarhar.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denounced last week's U.S. attack on Syria and warned that any further such action would entail “grave consequences not only for regional but global security, according to the AP.

The Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Ahmet Uzumcu, said during a meeting at the group’s headquarters in The Hague that OPCW experts assess Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s involvement behind the chemical weapons attack on April 4 as “credible,” the Washington Post tells us. Assad has claimed that the attack was “100 percent” fabrication. Ambassador Kenneth D. Ward, the American envoy to the OPCW, used the hastily convened meeting of the organization’s executive council to launch a withering verbal attack on Assad and his allies in Moscow.

The Guardian writes that the evacuation of four Syrian towns besieged by rebels and government forces began on Friday under a deal brokered by opposition backer Qatar and regime ally Iran. The initial phase of the operation, which involves a coordinated population swap of tens of thousands of people, involved at least 80 buses. Critics say the population movements are permanently changing the ethnic and religious map.

Stars and Stripes reports that around 40 soldiers have been dispatched to Somalia to assist local forces fighting the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab. The April 2 deployment, planned months ago, comes as the White House granted expanded authorities to AFRICOM to carry out strikes against al-Shabaab.

As Turkey prepares to vote on an April 16th constitutional referendum that may significantly expand the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, The Times examines Turkey’s path toward authoritarianism.

Defense One writes that NATO troops have arrived on the Lithuanian border to guard against potentially hostile Russian actions, forming the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence. The move is the first deployment of substantial combat forces in NATO’s east, and is one of the first real signs that NATO is shaking off its expeditionary and counter-insurgency mindset, forged over more than two decades of operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, and going back to defense and deterrence.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo called WikiLeaks a “hostile intelligence service” in his first public remarks since taking over the spy agency, according to Foreign Policy. Pompeo said “we at the CIA find the celebration of entities like WikiLeaks to be perplexing and deeply troubling,” citing the site’s “overwhelming” focus on the United States. Pompeo also seemed to threaten action against the Wikileaks, saying it can no longer hide behind “free speech” arguments. The Hill adds that Wikileaks responded by posting one of Pompeo's now-deleted tweets from 2016 praising the group's work publishing leaked documents from the Democratic National Committee.

Politico profiles how Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), the ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is telling Virginia voters that the probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election is “the most important thing” he’s ever done.

Techcrunch informs us that Microsoft’s newly released transparency report included a copy of a National Security Letter it received in 2014 that it has now been permitted to release. The reports showed that in the first half of 2016, Microsoft received more surveillance requests for user data for foreign intelligence purposes than it has since it began revealing those figures in 2011.

Defense News notes that Trump’s potential nominee to be Deputy Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, has no experience working at the Pentagon, raising questions over his ability to fill the shoes of current Acting Deputy Secretary Bob Work. However, Shanahan’s work

The Hill writes that Trump’s pick to be the secretary of the Army will face a tough confirmation fight as LGBTQ groups prepare to oppose his nomination. Mark Green has said that “transgender is a disease” and that “armed citizens” should fight against efforts to allow transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice. The remarks could make supporting Green tough for centrist Democrats and Republicans alike. Green would succeed Eric Fanning, the first openly gay service secretary.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ammar Abdulhamid provided Part II to his analysis of Trump’s Syria conundrum.

Benjamin Wittes posted the Rational Security podcast: The “Battle to the Death Watch” Edition.

Kenneth Anderson examined Justin Fox’s “Bathtub Fallacy” and the risks of terrorism.

Suzanne Maloney analyzed the implications of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's entrance into the Iranian 2017 presidential race.

Sven Herpig and Stefan Heumann discussed Germany’s crypto past and hacking future.

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